Going to extremes

It only took us a century to use up the best of the planet’s finite reserves of fossil fuels. The dawning century will be a lot different.

Also published on Resilience

In the autumn of 1987 I often sipped my morning coffee while watching a slow parade roll through the hazy dawn.

I had given up my apartment for a few months, so I could spend the rent money on quality bike-camping equipment for a planned trip to the Canadian arctic. My substitute lodgings were what is now referred to as “wild camping”, though most nights I slept in the heart of downtown Toronto. One of my favourite sites afforded a panoramic view of the scenic Don Valley Parkway, which was and remains a key automobile route from the suburbs into the city.

Even thirty-five years ago, the bumper-to-bumper traffic at “rush hour” had earned this route the nickname “Don Valley Parking Lot”. On weekday mornings, the endless procession of cars, most of them carrying a single passenger but powered by heat-throwing engines of a hundred or two hundred horsepower, lumbered downtown at speeds that could have been matched by your average cyclist.

Sometimes I would try to calculate how much heavy work could have been done by all that power … let’s see, 1000 cars/lane/hour X 3 lanes = 3000 cars/hour, X 200 horsepower each = the power of 600,000 horses! Think of all the pyramids, or Stonehenges, or wagon-loads of grain, that could be moved every hour by those 600,000 horses, if they weren’t busy hauling 3000 humans to the office.

This car culture is making someone a lot of money, I thought, but it isn’t making a lot of sense.

One early autumn afternoon a year later, in the arctic coastal town of Tuktoyaktuk, I dressed in a survival suit for a short helicopter trip out over the Beaufort Sea. The occasion was perhaps the most elaborate book launch party on record, to celebrate the publication of Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and The North Pole. The publisher had arranged for a launch party on an off-shore oil-drilling platform in said Northwest Passage. As a part-time writer for the local newspaper, I had prevailed upon the publisher to let me join the author and the Toronto media on this excursion.

The flight was a lark, the dinner was great – but I couldn’t shake the unsettling impression made by the strange setting, beyond the ends of the earth. I thought back, of course, to those thousands of cars on the Don Valley Parkway alternately revving and idling their powerful engines. We must be burning up our petroleum stocks awfully fast, I thought, if after only a few generations we had to be looking for more oil out in the arctic sea, thousands of kilometers from any major population centre.

This post is the conclusion of a four-part series about my personal quest to make some sense of economics. I didn’t realize, in the fall of 1988, that my one-afternoon visit to an off-shore drilling rig provided a big clue to the puzzle. But I would eventually learn that dedicated scholars had been writing a new chapter in economic thought, and the quest for energy was the focus of their study.

Before I stopped my formal study of economics, I sought some sort of foundation for economics in various schools of thought. I devoted a good bit of attention to the Chicago School, and much more to the Frankfurt School. It would not have occurred to me, back then, to understand economics by paying attention to the fish school.

Schooled by fish

Well into the 21st century, I started hearing about biophysical economics and the concept of Energy Return On Investment (EROI). I can’t pinpoint which article or podcast first alerted me to this illuminating idea. But one of the first from which I took careful notes was an April 2013 article in Scientific American, along with an online Q & A, by Mason Inman and featuring the work of Charles A.S. Hall.

The interview ran with the headline “Will Fossil Fuels Be Able to Maintain Economic Growth?” Hall approached that topic by recalling his long-ago doctoral research under ecologist H.T. Odum. In this research he asked the question “Do freshwater fish migrate, and if so, why?” His fieldwork revealed this important correlation:

“The study found that fish populations that migrated would return at least four calories for every calorie they invested in the process of migration by being able to exploit different ecosystems of different productivity at different stages of their life cycles.”

The fish invested energy in migrating but that investment returned four times as much energy as they invested, and the fish thrived. The fish migrated, in other words, because the Energy Return On Investment was very good.

This simple insight allowed Hall and other researchers to develop a new theory and methodology for economics. By the time I learned about bio-physical economics, there was a great wealth of literature examining the Energy Return On Investment of industries around the world, and further examining the implications of Energy Return ratios for economic growth or decline.1

The two-page spread in Scientific American in 2013 summarized some key findings of this research. For the U.S. as a whole, the EROI of gasoline from conventional oil dropped by 50% during the period 1950 – 2000, from 18:1 down to 9:1. The EROI of gasoline from California heavy oil dropped by about 67% in that period, from 12:1 down to 4:1. And these Energy Return ratios were still dropping. Newer unconventional sources of oil had particularly poor Energy Return ratios, with bitumen from the Canadian tar sands industry in 2011 providing only about a 5:1 energy return on investment.2 In Hall’s summary,

“Is there a lot of oil left in the ground? Absolutely. The question is, how much oil can we get out of the ground, at a significantly high EROI? And the answer to that is, hmmm, not nearly as much. So that’s what we’re struggling with as we go further and further offshore and have to do this fracking and horizontal drilling and all of this kind of stuff, especially when you get away from the sweet spots of shale formations. It gets tougher and tougher to get the next barrel of oil, so the EROI goes down, down, down.”3

With an economics founded on something real and physical – energy – both the past and the immediate future made a lot more sense to me. Biophysical economists explained that through most of history, Energy Return ratios grew slowly – a new method of tilling the fields might bring a modestly larger harvest for the same amount of work – and so economic growth was also slow. But in the last two centuries, energy returns spiked due to the development of ways to extract and use fossil fuels. This allowed rapid and unprecedented economic growth – but that growth can only continue as long as steady supplies of similarly favourable energy sources are available.

When energy return ratios drop significantly, economic growth will slow or stop, though the energy crunch might be disguised for a while by subsidies or an explosion of credit. So far this century we have seen all of these trends: much slower economic growth, in spite of increased subsidies to energy producers and/or consumers, and in spite of the financial smoke-and-mirrors game known as quantitative easing.

The completed Hebron Oil Platform, before it was towed out to the edge of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland Canada. Photo by Shhewitt, from Wikimedia Commons.

The power of the green frog-skins

John (Fire) Lame Deer understood that though green frog-skins – dollars – seemed all-important to American colonizers, this power was at the same time an illusion. Forty years after I read Lame Deer’s book Seeker of Visions, the concepts of biophysical economics gave me a way to understand the true source of the American economy’s strength and influence, and to understand why that strength and influence was on a swift road to its own destruction.

For the past few centuries, the country that became the American empire has appropriated the world’s richest energy sources – at first, vast numbers of energy-rich marine mammals, then the captive lives of millions of slaves, and then all the life-giving bounty of tens of millions of hectares of the world’s richest soils. And with that head start, the American economy moved into high gear after discovering large reserves of readily accessible fossil fuels.

The best of the US fossil energy reserves, measured through Energy Return On Investment, were burned through in less than a century. But by then the American empire had gone global, securing preferred access to high-EROI fossil fuels in places as distant as Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Iran. That was about the time I was growing to adulthood, and Lame Deer was looking back on the lessons of his long life during which the green frog-skin world calculated the price of everything – the blades of grass, the springs of water, even the air.

The forces of the American economy could buy just about anything, it seemed. But dollars, in themselves, had no power at all. Rather, biophysical economists explained, the American economy had command of great energy resources, which returned a huge energy surplus for each investment of energy used in extraction. As Charles Hall explained in the Scientific American interview in 2013,

“economics isn’t really about money. It’s about stuff. We’ve been toilet trained to think of economics as being about money, and to some degree it is. But fundamentally it’s about stuff. And if it’s about stuff, why are we studying it as a social science? Why are we not, at least equally, studying it as a biophysical science?”4

The first book-length exposition of these ideas that I read was Life After Growth, by Tim Morgan. Morgan popularized some of the key concepts first worked out by Charles Hall.5 He wrote,

“Money … commands value only to the extent that it can be exchanged for the goods and services produced by the real economy. The best way to think of money is as a ‘claim’ on the real economy and, since the real economy is itself an energy dynamic, money is really a claim on energy. Debt, meanwhile, as a claim on future money, is therefore a claim on future energy.”6

The economic system that even today, though to a diminishing extent, revolves around the American dollar, was built on access to huge energy surpluses, obtained by exploiting energy sources that provided a large Energy Return On Investment. That energy surplus gave money its value, because during each year of the long economic boom there was more stuff available to buy with the money. The energy surplus also made debt a good bet, because when the debt came due, a growing economy could ensure that, in aggregate, most debts would be paid.

Those conditions are rapidly changing, Morgan argued. Money will lose its value – gradually, or perhaps swiftly – when it becomes clear that there is simply less of real, life-giving or life-sustaining value that can be bought with that money. At that point, it will also become clear that huge sums of debts will never and can never be repaid.

Ironically, since Morgan wrote The End of Growth, the dollar value of outstanding debt has grown at an almost incomprehensible pace, while Energy Return On Investment and economic growth have continued their slides. Is the financial bubble set for a big bang, or a long slow hiss?

Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, 2010. Photo by US Coast Guard, via Wikimedia Commons.

The economy becomes a thing

When I was introduced to the concepts of biophysical economics, two competing thoughts ran through my head. The first was, “This explains so much! Of course, the value of money must be based on something biophysical, because we are and always have been biophysical creatures, in biophysical societies, dependent on a biophysical world.”

And the second thought was, “This is so obvious, why isn’t it taught in every Economics 101 course? Why do economists talk endlessly about GDP, fiscal policy and aggregate money supply … but only a tiny percentage of them ever talk about Energy Return On Investment?”

Another then-new book popped up right about then. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy, published by Verso in 2013, is a detailed, dry work of history, bristling with footnotes – and it was one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read. (That’s why I’ve quoted it so many times since I started writing this blog.)7

As Mitchell explained, the whole body of economic orthodoxy that had taken over university economics departments in the middle of the twentieth century, and which remains the conventional wisdom of policy-makers today, was a radical departure from previous thinking about economics. Current economic orthodoxy, in fact, could only have arisen in an era when surplus energy seemed both plentiful and cheap:

“The conception of the economy depended upon abundant and low-cost energy supplies, making postwar Keynesian economics a form of ‘petroknowledge’.” (Carbon Democracy, page 139)

Up until the early 20th century, Mitchell wrote, mainstream economists based their studies on awareness of physical resources. That changed when the exploding availability of fossil fuels created an illusion, for some, that surplus energy was practically unlimited. In response,

“a battle developed among economists, especially in the United States …. One side wanted economics to start from natural resources and flows of energy, the other to organise the discipline around the study of prices and flows of money. The battle was won by the second group, who created out of the measurement of money and prices a new object: the economy.” (page 131)

Stated another way, “the supply of carbon energy was no longer a practical limit to economic possibility. What mattered was the proper circulation of banknotes.” (page 124)

By the time I went to university in the 1970s, this “science of money” was orthodoxy. My studies in economics left me with an uneasy feeling that the green frog-skin world was, truly, a powerful illusion. But decades passed before I heard about people like H.T. Odum, Charles Hall, and others who were developing a new foundation for economics. A foundation, I now believe, that not only explains our economic history, but is vastly more helpful in making sense of our future challenges.

* * *

Lame Deer’s vision of the end of the green frog-skin world was vividly apocalyptic. He understood back in the 1970s that we are all endangered species, and that the green frog-skin world must and will come to an end. In his vision, the bad dream world of war and pollution will be rolled up, and the real world of the good green earth will be restored. But he had no confidence that the change would be easy. “I hope to see this,” he said, “but then I’m also afraid.”

Today we can study many visions expressed in scientific journals. Some of these visions outline new worlds of sharing and harmony, but many visions foretell the worsening of the climate crisis, economic system collapse, ecosystem collapse, crashes of biodiversity, forced global migrations. These visions are frightening and dramatic. Are we caught up, today, in an apocalyptic fever, or is it cold hard realism?

We have much to hope for, and we also have much to fear.


Image at top of post: Offshore oil rigs in the Santa Barbara channel, by Anita Ritenour, CC 2.0, flickr.com


Footnotes

 

The fat-takers cross the oceans

Also published on Resilience

Ecological overshoot is a global crisis today, but the problem did not begin with the fossil fuel age. From its beginnings more than five centuries ago, European colonization has been based on an unsustainable exploitation of resources.

In Seeker of Visions, John (Fire) Lame Deer says “The Sioux have a name for white men. They call them wasicun – fat-takers. It is a good name, because you have taken the fat of the land.”

The term, often also written as “wasi’chu”, has engendered discussion as to what the words originally meant in the Lakota language.1 In any case, the phrase “fat-takers” seemed fitting to Lame Deer, it caught on quite widely – and it took literal meaning to me as I learned more about the history of European colonization.

When I wrote a newspaper review of a then-new book by Farley Mowat in the 1980s, I couldn’t help but recall Lame Deer’s words. Nearly thirty years later, I’ve come to regard Mowat’s book, Sea of Slaughter, as a foundational study in biophysical economic history.

Here, Canadians may ask incredulously, “Since when was Farley Mowat a biophysical economist?” And readers from everywhere else are likely to ask “Farley who?” A brief bit of biography is in order.

Farley Mowat (1921 – 2014)  was one of the most successful Canadian writers of all time, author of dozens of best-selling books beginning in 1952 and continuing into the twenty-first century. He wrote in a popular style about his own experiences in Canada’s far north, the maritime provinces, travels in Siberia, and his life-long love of the natural world. Never shying from controversy, Mowat became a hero to many Canadians when he was banned from entering the US, and he was vilified by many for his support of the direct-action Sea Shepherd Conservation Society which named two of its ships in his honour. His books also received withering criticism from some writers who questioned Mowat’s right to use the label “non-fiction” for any of his books.2

Later in this post I will touch on Mowat’s shortcomings as a historian. First, though, a personal note in the interest of full disclosure. For ten years I lived just a few blocks from Mowat’s winter home in Port Hope, Ontario. Although we crossed paths and occasionally shared a few words while walking the Lake Ontario shoreline, I was formally introduced to him only once, near the end of his life. He had decided to sell off much of his collection of his own books. Though he was famously computer-averse, he recognized that the new-fangled “world wide web” could help sell his library. I was part of the team that built him a website, and at the launch party he honoured me with the title “the big spider”.

Of more lasting significance for me, though, was a brief correspondence with Mowat in 1985. After reviewing Sea of Slaughter, I wrote to Mowat that the systematic exploitation of animal resources, over several centuries starting in the 16th, likely played an important role in the dramatic economic advance of western European societies. Mowat sent back a courteous note agreeing with this observation and encouraging me to carry this line of thinking further. Decades later, I’m following up on Mowat’s suggestion. 

A 1985 trade paperback edition of Sea of Slaughter

While many of his books were written and received as light reading, Sea of Slaughter was anything but cheerful. He often said it was the most difficult of all of his books for him to complete, because the content is almost unrelentingly brutal.

In the opening pages Mowat writes, “This is not a book about animal extinctions. It is about a massive diminution of the entire body corporate of animate creation.” (page 13)3 With a primary focus on the North Atlantic coasts of North America, but moving across the continent and to far-away oceans, Sea of Slaughter spotlights the price paid by many species – in the sea, on land and in the air – wherever colonizers determined that slaughter was profitable. Some of the species he discusses were hunted to extinction, but far more were reduced to such small remnant populations that the killing machines simply moved on.

A key reason for the slaughter, Mowat explains, is that so many animals of the North Atlantic necessarily carry a generous layer of fat to protect them from cold water. And animal fat, he took care to remind readers of the current era, has throughout history been a key nutrient and a key energy source, especially for people in cold climates. This was no less true in Europe during the Little Ice Age of the 14th to the 19th centuries, but Europeans had a problem – they had already taken unsustainable numbers of the fattest marine species from the eastern North Atlantic.

The Basque people of what is now northwest Spain and southwest France had become the unquestioned leaders in hunting whales on the open seas, and it was due to this prowess that they feature so prominently in Sea of Slaughter.4 Discussing the intertwined histories of the Basque culture and marine mammals, Mowat writes:

“By 1450, a fleet of more than sixty Basque deep-sea whalers was seeking and killing sardas [black right whales] from the Azores all the way north to Iceland. They wrought such havoc that, before the new century began, the sarda, too, were verging on extinction in European waters. At this crucial juncture for the future of their whaling industry, the Basques became aware of a vast and previously untapped reservoir of “merchantable” whales in the far western reaches of the North Atlantic.”

The same was true, Mowat argued, of many other fat-rich species that lived in cold northern waters. Several types of whales, walrus, water bears (known today as polar bears), and other species had become scarce or non-existent in European waters – but were found in great abundance at the other side of the Atlantic.  

Fishermen spearing whales from the safety of their boats. This image also depicts other fat-rich species which were intensively exploited by Europeans in North American waters, including the narwhal, a “morse” – the Old English term for walrus – and plump waterbirds. Coloured etching. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Before the fur trade

Though Canadians learn that the fur trade was the essential economic development in our early history, Mowat says that fur trading was a relatively late development. The first economic resource, in chronology and in priority, was the oil known as “train” (from the Dutch traan, meaning “tear” or “drop”) rendered from fatty marine animals. This was followed by fish, then hides for durable leather, and finally by furs.

“Late fifteenth-century Europe found itself increasingly short of oil,” Mowat wrote. “In those days, it came mostly from rendering the fat of terrestrial animals or from vegetative sources. These were no longer equal to the demand …. As the sixteenth century began train became ever more valuable and in demand ….” (page 206)

Only the Basques had the ship-building, provisioning, ocean-going and hunting expertise to find new sources of train across the ocean, and they did so at the dawn of European colonizing of the “New World”, Mowat writes. He notes that “the municipal archives of Biarritz contain letters patent issued in 1511 authorizing French Basques to whale in the New World ….” (page 213) Within a few decades, Basque whaling stations dotted the coast of Newfoundland, Labrador, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There were dozens of rendering factories, where the whales were cut into pieces so the blubber could be dropped into cauldrons and rendered into high-quality oil that was shipped in barrels to European markets.

The major whale species near shore could not long withstand such intensive depredations, but the heyday of the Basque whale “fishery” was not destined to last much longer in any case. Most of the Basque fleet was dragooned into the ill-fated Spanish Armada and destroyed in 1588, and by then plenty of foreign competitors were moving into the train trade.

By the late 16th century, fleets from several other nations were taking fish, seabirds, and marine mammals in great numbers. Though there was specialization, even ships outfitted primarily for fishing or whaling would capture and consume seabirds by the thousands.

The cod fishery, Mowat explains, rapidly became an industry of huge importance to the European diet. But cod is lean, and “if eaten as a steady diet in cold latitudes can result in chronic malnutrition because of a low fat content.” (page 28) The crew of a sailing venture were not going to earn a profit unless they had high-energy provisions. Fat-insulated seabirds, found by the tens of thousands in coastal rookeries, met the need:

“The importance of seabird rookeries to transatlantic seamen was enormous. These men were expected to survive and work like dogs on a diet consisting principally of salt meat and hard bread. … Some Basque ships sailing those waters displaced as much as 600 tons and could have comfortably stowed away several thousand spearbill [great auk] carcasses – sufficient to last the summer season through and probably enough to feed the sailors on the homeward voyage.” (page 28 – 29)

The great auk, a flightless bird which stood nearly a meter tall and weighed 5 kg, originally numbered in the millions. Not a single live great auk has been seen since the mid-nineteenth century.

Ships which specialized in bringing back oil could and did switch species when their primary quarry got scarce. They learned that “as much as twelve gallons of good train could be rendered from the carcass of a big water bear” – with the result that in North America as well as in Europe, the ursus maritimus was soon confined to arctic seas that were hard to access by ship. The same pressures applied to walruses, which were highly valued not only for oil but also for ivory and for hides which were tanned into the toughest grades of leather.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence was home to huge numbers of walrus. In 1765, a Lieutenant Haldiman was asked to report on the prospects for walrus hunting at the Magdalen Islands. “The Magdalens seem to be superior to any place in North America for the taking of the Sea Cow,” he wrote. “Their numbers are incredible, amounting, upon as true a computation as can be made, to 100,000 or upwards.” (page 318)

Just 33 years later, the British Royal Navy asked for another report on the walrus population of the Magdalens. Captain Crofton’s report was terse: “I am extremely sorry to acquaint you that the Sea Cow fishery on these islands is totally annihilated.” (page 319)

The various species of seal were more numerous and geographically dispersed. Yet the colonial exploitation system showed itself capable of taking seals at a far faster rate than could be sustained. Mowat writes,

“The period between 1830 and 1860 is still nostalgically referred to in Newfoundland as the Great Days of Sealing. During those three decades, some 13 million seals were landed – out of perhaps twice that number killed.” (page 361)

By the end of the 19th century, seals, too, were in steep decline. Whales and walruses, meanwhile, were being slaughtered in the most distant seas, with steep drops in their populations occurring within decades. Once Yankee whalers had reached the far northern reaches of the Pacific in about 1850, “It took the Americans just fifty years to effectively exterminate the Pacific bowhead.” (page 240) It was difficult for ships to get around the coast of Alaska into the Beaufort Sea, but high prices for train and baleen made the trip worth the trouble – for a couple of decades: “By 1910 the Bering-Beaufort-Chukchi Sea tribe of bowheads was commercially and almost literally extinct.” (page 241) 

Arctic Oil Works, in San Francisco, about 1885. Courtesy UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library. John R. Bockstoce writes that this facility was capitalized at $1,000,000, and adds: “the Arctic Oil Works had the advantage of allowing the Pacific Steam Whaling Company’s ships (upper left) to unload directly at the refinery. Oil could be pumped into the 2,000-gallon tanks …. Refining was done in the three-story structure at the right.” (In Whales, Ice, & Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic, University of Washington Press, 1986).

Facts or fictions

Several of Mowat’s books were criticized as being more fiction than fact. His angry responses did not, in my eyes, enhance his credibility. Professing to work in service of fundamental truths, Mowat said “I will take any liberty I want with the facts so long as I don’t trespass on the truth.”5 In that attitude, he sounds like a pioneer of “truthiness”, “telling my truth”, and “alternative facts”.

Rereading Sea of Slaughter twenty-five years after its publication, I find it frustrating that the wealth of statistics is accompanied by very few footnotes or references. But I have not seen the same type of criticism of Sea of Slaughter that some of his other books attracted, and much of the story he tells has been corroborated in other books I have read in the ensuing years.

As I was working on this essay, I was particularly glad to see an excellent new article by editor and writer Ian Angus. Entitled “Plundering a New Found Land”, published on the site Climate & Capitalism, the article not only confirms the picture Mowat paints of the Newfoundland cod fishery, but also provides important context and scale about this venture. Angus writes,

“While Spanish ships carried silver and gold, a parallel trade involving far more ships developed far to the north. Historians of capitalism, including Marxists, have paid too little attention to what Francis Bacon called ‘the Gold Mines of the Newfoundland Fishery, of which there is none so rich.’”

Mowat had quoted Charlevoix, writing in the 1720s about the cod fishery in similar terms: “These are true mines, which are more valuable, and require much less expense than those of Peru and Mexico.” (page 169)

While Mowat described the drastic reduction, over a few short centuries, of the once abundant North Atlantic cod, Angus tells us what this fishery meant to the recipients of the bounty:

“The Newfoundland fishery drove ‘a 15-fold increase in cod supplies … [and] tripled overall supplies of fish (herring and cod) protein to the European market.’ Cod, formerly a distant second to herring, comprised 60% of all fish eaten in Europe by the late sixteenth century.”

Back in 1985, when I wrote to Farley Mowat in response to Sea of Slaughter, I suggested that the resources taken from the oceans were likely far more important to European economic advancement than were the gold and silver taken from mines. Years later, viewing the world through a biophysical economic lens, it seems clear that the gold and silver would have been of little or no value unless the populations of Europe had been adequately fed, with adequate energy for their work, plus adequate fuels for heat and light in their homes and workplaces.

Angus’ research confirms that the North American cod fishery was of huge dietary importance to Europe. And I think Mowat was correct in saying that meals of lean cod also needed to be supplemented with edible oils, and that a hard-working labour force in cold northern Europe must have benefited greatly from the thousands of shiploads of fat taken from the animals of the northern seas.6

Angus also tells us about the important work of Canadian researcher Selma Huxley Barkham, whom he credits with having “radically changed our understanding of the 16th century fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador.” It was Huxley Barkham, Angus writes, who unearthed in the 1970s the evidence that the Basques pioneered the large-scale exploitation of both cod and whales off the coasts of Newfoundland, starting at the very beginning of the 16th century.

The name Selma Huxley Barkham does not appear in Sea of Slaughter. Yet I was to learn that her work was essential to the next chapter of this story.

The sheltered harbour at Pasaia, on the Basque coast near San Sebastian, was home port for  many of the whalers who ventured across the Atlantic in the early 16th century.

Epilogue

In November of 1565, a storm blew up along the coast of Labrador, striking the Basque whaling station at Red Bay. Farley Mowat tells us how one ship ended far beneath the waves:

“The 500-ton San Juan has begun to drag. … Having torn her anchors free of the bottom, the ponderous, high-sided carrack, laden to her marks with a cargo of barrelled oil and baled baleen, swings broadside to the gale and begins to pick up way ….

“Nothing can stop her now. With a rending of oak on rock, she strikes. Then the storm takes her for its own …. She lurches, and rolls still farther, until she is lying on her beam  ends and is flooding fore and aft. Slowly she begins to settle back and slips to her final resting place five fathoms down.

“She lies there yet.”

She lies there yet, and was all but forgotten for centuries. But due in no small part to the archival research of Selma Huxley Barkham, the San Juan was located in the mid-1970s. The wreck had been exceptionally well preserved by the nearly freezing waters, and divers gathered a wealth of documentation about its design, Basque construction techniques, and its contents of crew, cargo and provisions.

I have not been to Red Bay, but in October of 2018 I paid a visit to the Basque port from which the San Juan and so many other ships were launched. In this port today, a dedicated team at the Albaola heritage centre is partway through a difficult and lengthy process: they are building an exact replica of the San Juan, using only materials and tools that would have been available in the sixteenth century.

Visitors can see the shipbuilding in progress, along with extensive exhibits about Basque shipbuilding history, the sources of materials for the ships, and the provisions the ships carried for their trans-oceanic voyages. They have also published a beautiful and informative book, The Maritime Basque Country: Seen Through The Whaleship San Juan. (Editions in French and Basque are also available.)

The Albaola centre’s research paints a picture of a sophisticated, highly organized industrial enterprise that reached far beyond the shipbuilding yards. Because the Basques of the 16th century built so many ships, which each needed lots of strong timber in a variety of configurations, some areas of the Basque region specialized in growing oak trees in particular ways: some trees were kept very straight, while others were bent while still supple, so the wood was already shaped, and at maximum strength, for use many years later in parts of the ship that needed angular timbers. Clearly, this industry could only have developed through the accumulated experience of many generations.

A worker at the Albaola centre shaping a timber piece for the San Juan replica, in October 2018. For this project, the builders were able to search area forests for oak trees with sections naturally shaped to approximately the dimensions needed. Centuries ago, when many such ships were built every year, foresters through the region carefully trained growing trees for these purposes, producing “grown-to-order” pieces that had maximum strength but required minimal carving.

Similarly, the barrels used for holding cider – safer to drink on long voyages than water, and consumed by sailors on an everyday basis – and for packaging the whale oil, required vast numbers of barrel staves, all made to standard sizes, with the ships’ holds designed to carry specific numbers of these barrels. Even the production of ship’s biscuit or hardtack – the dry bread which kept for months and which was the monotonous basis for sailors’ diet – was a big business. The Maritime Basque Country says that before the whaling fleet left port each spring, 250 tons of hardtack had to be baked by bakers throughout the region.

Seeing the replica of the San Juan under construction, it was impossible not to marvel at the ingenuity of the sixteenth century society which built the original San Juan and so many ships like it. Centuries ahead of what we term the Industrial Revolution, there were highly sophisticated and complex technologies and forms of social organization at work, making possible what we refer to today as “economic development”.

At the same time, it is clear from Sea of Slaughter that European societies were already practicing ecological overshoot, centuries before the Industrial Revolution and centuries before the fossil fuel phase. Europeans had already taken the fat from many of the nearby ecosystems, and though they found apparently abundant sources of fat across the oceans, within a few short centuries those resources too would be drawn down.

In biophysical economic terms, Europeans (and colonizers with roots in Europe) boosted their economies through rapid and unsustainable exploitation of resources, including, in particular, energy resources, and they did so long before fossil fuels came into use. The challenging implication is that in the coming decades, faced simultaneously with a climate crisis, a social equity crisis, dwindling accessible supplies of the energies we have taken for granted, and a biodiversity crisis, we must do far more than return to pre-fossil-fuel practices. We must learn to live within the earth’s means. We must un-learn patterns that have shaped European civilizations for more than five centuries.


Next in this series: The reality behind the illusion. Lame Deer understood that the green frog-skin world, in which everything is measured in dollars, is a bad dream – but in the mid-20th century that dream seemed to have immense real power. To conclude this series, I will examine the ideas that helped me to make sense of this riddle, and to make sense of economics. (Previous posts: Part I and Part II)


Image at top of page: A whale being speared with harpoons by fishermen in the arctic sea. Engraving by A. M. Fournier after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


Footnotes

 

spring forward

PHOTO POST

We all have fond memories of that most welcome season, when instead of going out to play on ice, we sneak out and slop around in mud for the first time.

But how many of us have had the thrill of sliding into the muck wearing a pristine white suit?

Clean White Suit

A pair of Mute Swans were the first to try out this puddle in the Bowmanville Marsh, on an afternoon when most of the marsh was still covered in ice.

First Flowers

Just a few days later, Snowdrops were poking through mud and leaves without sullying their white coats in the slightest.

Whiskers on Blue

With their jet-black attire, what fun would it be for a squirrel to play in the mud? So they stick to the high road, except when it’s time to drop down to ground level to check a food cache.

Still Life with Circles

It’s not a bad idea to study the forest from a mouse-eye view, because visual treats abound on this lively backdrop of mosses.

Shelter and Shadow

Along the waterfront, a remnant of shore ice had one more opportunity to soak up sunrise before joining the waves.

The Shape of the Shore at This Moment

Shape of Shore II – Echo

Shape of Shore III – Lifeform in Sand

Shape of Shore IV – Drop of Blue

Some of our less common spring visitors are fishing the mouth of the creek. From left, female and male Hooded Merganser, female and male Greater Scaup.

Mergansers, meet the Scaups

The Long-Tailed Ducks are feeding too – but also keeping their wings in shape for their long flight to the arctic coast.

Water off a duck’s back

In a small hole in the breakwater, icicles catch the afternoon sun once more – but the colours of algae and water-soaked wood are coming into season.

A Window on Water


Photo at top of page: detail from Leading Edge (full-screen image here)

 

The marginal uselessness of muscle-cars

Also published on Resilience

Waiting at a stop-light, sitting on my bicycle while leaning against a telephone pole, ready to step down hard on the pedals, it was only natural to think about the economic concept of “marginal utility”.

I enjoyed my little game of beating fast cars through intersections after stopping for lights. Having taken up biking in downtown Toronto in the early 1980s, I quickly realized that for all the power in their absurdly oversized engines, many, perhaps most, cars could not accelerate their great bulk through an intersection any faster than an ordinarily fit cyclist could accelerate a bicycle. As long as we both started from a dead stop, and as long as I had already downshifted to a torque-maximizing low gear, and as long as I sprinted away the second the light changed, and I shifted gears smoothly at least twice while getting through the intersection, I could make it to the other side before a single car had gotten up enough speed to overtake me.

And when an aggressive driver in an expensive Camaro or BMW did beat me through the intersection, the advantage was fleeting: I would catch up and pass that car, in the typically congested city traffic, before we reached the next stoplight.

In the city traffic game, the marginal utility of each additional horsepower in a car’s engine was awfully close to zero.

All the cars on the road, whether their engines produced 70 horsepower or 370, could move far faster than a bicycle on an open road, and all of them could easily surpass the speed limits on highways. Yet they were all hard-pressed to accelerate from 1 – 20 km/h faster than a bicycle, with its human engine of less than 1/2 hp, could do.1

The marginal utility of the first 10, 20, or 50 horsepower, in pushing a car and its human passenger down the road, was significant. But the next 50 or 100 or 200 hp in a car engine accomplished very little, even on an open road – much less on the crowded city streets where these cars burned so much of their gas.

Following the magazine version in 1973 Energy and Equity was expanded into a small book, which is now available as a free download from various sources including Internet Archive, here. Quotes and page numbers cited in this article are from the Internet Archive edition, as originally published in 1974 by Harper & Row.

These musings on the intersection between physics and economics spurred me to have another look at a curious little book I’d come across a few years earlier – Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity.

Illich was a controversial Catholic priest who eventually settled in Mexico. He published a flurry of books in the early 1970s questioning many of the most cherished practices of “first world” countries. His work was particularly popular in France, where Energy and Equity was first published by Le Monde in 1973.

I briefly attended the school Illich founded in Cuernavaca, Mexico, an experience which enriched my life and challenged my thinking in many ways. Yet Energy and Equity struck me as engagingly odd but hyperbolic on first reading, and it had little immediate impact. That changed when I started to experience city traffic from behind the handlebars instead of behind the steering wheel. Today, more than forty years later, I’m amazed at how clearly Illich summed up both the comedy and the tragedy of industrial society’s infatuation with high-powered travel.

Once I had taken up cycling, and I realized I could accomplish my daily travel routines in the big city as fast on bike as I could do in a car, Illich’s trenchant critique of car culture was no longer threatening – it was a broad beam of illumination.

Illich didn’t fall for the idea that North Americans moved around at 100 km/hr, therefore getting around 10 times as fast as our ancestors had. Instead, he looked at the immense amount of time Americans devoted to building cars, building roads, paying for cars, paying for insurance, washing cars, fixing cars, trying to find parking for cars. To find the true average speed of travel, he said, one needs to tally all the time society puts into the effort, and divide that time into the total amount travelled. Or, you could do the same on an individual basis:

“The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. … The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour.” (page 19)

Car ads, of course, encourage us to think only of that rush of acceleration when we’re able to step on the gas – never of the time spent waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, never of the time we spend earning the wages that go to monthly car payments. But once I’d absorbed Illich’s way of thinking, I could understand how much time I saved by not having a car. In the mid-1980s I calculated that owning and operating a car instead of a bicycle would have cost about six weeks of my wages each year. Getting around by bike, then, meant I could take six extra weeks of annual vacations. Some hardship, eh?

A class structure of speed capitalists

My initial reactions to Energy and Equity, you may have noticed, were rather self-absorbed. They were shaped by Illich’s observations, but equally by my varying degrees of privilege. Male privilege meant I could ride the city streets at all hours without fear of sexual harassment. White privilege meant I could move around the streets openly, for years, and only once be stopped by a police officer (who gave me just a polite scolding). I took for granted the blessings of good health and the ability to find a reasonably well-paid job. Perhaps most significant, bicycling for me was a choice, and I could, if and when I chose, also rent a car, get on a train, or buy a plane ticket to fly across most of the world’s national borders.

Thus I wasn’t as quick to catch on to Illich’s more fundamental critique of car culture and the traffic-industrial complex: that the reorganization of life which affords some people the privilege of high-powered, high-speed mobility, inevitably results in many other people having less effective mobility and less free time. In Illich’s summary, “Energy and equity can grow concurrently only to a point. … Above this threshold, energy grows at the expense of equity.” (page 5)

To explain his viewpoint, Illich gave his particular definitions to three key terms: “By traffic I mean any movement of people from one place to another when they are outside of their homes. By transit I mean those movements that put human metabolic energy to use, and by transport that mode of movement which relies on other sources of energy.” (page 15)

For most of history, traffic and transit were pretty much the same. Most people got around on their own two feet using their own power. As a result people were generally capable of mobility at roughly the same speed. Ideally, Illich said, improvements in traffic should not impair the pre-existing ability of anyone to engage in transit under their own power.

Unfortunately, motorized transport has played out much differently so far. Soon after passenger trains came into use, and particularly following the introduction of motorcars, impediments to the non-passenger class began to be built into daily life. Streets became deathly dangerous to pedestrians, crossings became highly regulated, soon vast areas of cities had to be devoted to parking for the car-owning class, neighbourhoods were razed and new controlled-access highways created wide barriers between districts for those unfortunate enough to depend on foot-power. Distances became greater for everyone in cities, but the problem was worst for pedestrians, who now had to detour to find relatively “safe” road crossings.

This Google satellite view of downtown Chicago shows how infrastructure built to support high-speed travel pushes cities apart, increasing the distances that pedestrians must walk even within their own neighbourhoods. Of course, in Chicago as in all other industrialized cities, the “high-speed” infrastructure still fails to provide high-speeds when these speeds would matter most – during rush hour.

Illich was fond of a quote from José Antonio Viera-Gallo, an aide to Chilean president Salvador Allende: “Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.” By contrast, he wrote, “Past a certain threshold of energy consumption for the fastest passenger, a worldwide class structure of speed capitalists is created. … High speed capitalizes a few people’s time at an enormous rate but, paradoxically, it does this at a high cost in time for all.” (page 29)

It was possible to estimate the total time a society devoted to the construction, maintenance, and operation of traffic. In doing so, Illich found that “high-speed” societies suck up much more time than “underdeveloped” societies: “In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people … allocate only three to eight percent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent.” (page 19)

On average, of course, the people in high-speed societies both need to and do travel much farther every day – but the averages conceal as much as they reveal. The well-to-do travel much greater distances than the average, but due to all the infrastructural barriers and regulations necessitated by high-speed travel, even impoverished pedestrians devote much extra time to their daily rounds. (And, just one small step up the ladder, those who need to ride buses in congested cities are held up daily while their buses crawl along behind private cars.)

The traffic-industrial complex not only restructures our cities, Illich said, but it also restructures our perceptions and our imaginations:

“The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. … Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. The passenger has come to identify territory with the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed.” (page 25)

Unfortunately, “All those who plan other people’s housing, transportation or education belong to the passenger class. Their claim to power is derived from the value their employers place on acceleration.” (page 53) The impetus for positive change, then, will need to come from those who still get around by the power of their own feet. In that respect, Illich argued, the bicycle is one of civilization’s greatest advances, on a par with just a few other developments:2 “Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. … The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion.” (page 60) 

Final bike-raising at the April 22, 2006 Critical Mass rally in Budapest, Hungary. From Wikimedia Commons.

Illich, it is important to note, was not a human-power absolutist. In his view, motored transport could be a very useful complement to foot-powered transit. The key, he said, was that when motorized transport remains relatively low-powered and low-speed, its advantages, for society as a whole, can outweigh the disadvantages:

“If beyond a certain threshold transport obstructs traffic, the inverse is also true: below some level of speed, motorized vehicles can complement or improve traffic by permitting people to do things they could not do on foot or on bicycle.” (page 68)

Where is that “certain threshold”? Regarding speed, Illich said that historically, the threshold was crossed when motorized speeds topped “±15 mph” (about 25 km/h). Regarding power, Illich summed it up this way:

“The per capita wattage that is critical for social well-being lies within an order of magnitude which is far above the horsepower known to four-fifths of humanity and far below the power commanded by any Volkswagen driver.” (page 8)3

For personal transportation, that “reasonable limit” on power use struck me as sensible in the 1980s, and even more so today. The VW Beetle engines of that time produced roughly 50 horsepower. Today, of course, automotive engineers know how to get far more efficient use out of engines, even though they mostly use that increased motive efficiency simply to push around a much bigger and much heavier car (increased efficiency, directed to the cause of decreased efficiency). Using lighter materials, with an electric drive-train, and more aerodynamic shaping, a car with less than half the horsepower of a 1980s VW Beetle would be entirely adequate for occasional personal transportation at speeds surpassing bicycle speed. Of critical importance, a limited number of cars powered by, for example, 10–20 hp engines, might be integrated in an equitable society without sucking up absurd quantities of materials or energies.4

Almost 50 years after the first edition of Energy and Equity, some of Illich’s ideas on traffic planning have moved beyond the fringe and almost into the mainstream. Fifty years of hard work in the Netherlands, and in cities such as Copenhagen, have proven that densely populated places function more smoothly, and populations are healthier, when people of every age can walk and cycle through their cities in safety – as long as people-powered transit, not motor-powered transport, is given priority. Even jurisdictions throughout North America are now making formal commitments to “Complete Streets” with safe access for walkers and bikers, though the follow-through is usually far behind the noble ideals.

But as to the amount of energy that average people should harness, and the desirability of “time-saving high-speed travel”, the spell that Illich tried to break has scarcely loosened its grip. Mainstream environmentalism, while advocating a swift and thorough transition to zero-carbon technologies, clings to the belief that we can, will, indeed, we absolutely must retain our high-speed cars and trains, along with the airliners which whisk us around the world at nearly the speed of sound. Nobody knows how we’ll manage some of the major parts of this transition, but nearly everyone “knows” that we’ll need to (and so we will) convert our entire traffic-industrial complex to green, clean, renewable energy.

Illich has been gone for nearly 20 years, but I think he’d say “Wake up from your high-speed dream – it’s a killer!”

* * *


At the outset of this series, I discussed my personal, winding journey to an appreciation of biophysical economics. Ivan Illich is not considered a biophysical economist, or an economist of any stripe, but he played an important role for me in focusing my attention on very simple facts of physics – simple facts that have profound implications for our social organization. In the next installment, we’ll look at energy issues in a different light by examining the way European colonizers embarked on a systematic, centuries-long extraction of rich energy sources from around the world – well before the fossil fuel age kicked energy use into hyperdrive.

Epilogue

If in 2021 I were to replay the cyclist’s game of racing cars from a standing start through intersections, I’d have a lot more difficulty. Age is one factor: I’m a good bit closer to being a centenarian than a teenager. But it’s not only that: the average horsepower ratings of car engines have more than doubled since 19805, though speed limits have not changed substantially and city streets are generally just as congested. A big selling-point of these twice-as-powerful cars, however, is their increased ability to accelerate. Whereas the average car in 1980 took 13 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph (96.6 km/hr), by 2010 the average car could do it in just under 9 seconds – a savings of over 4 seconds! Think of the time saved on your daily commute! Or, in busy city traffic, think of the joy of having extra seconds to wait behind the line of traffic at every stop-light. Think, in other words, of the marginal utility you’ve gained by doubling the horsepower in your car. But is your life twice as fast, twice as rich, do you have twice as much free time, as a result?

As a part-owner of a car today, I can readily see that the joke of the marginal utility of big-horsepower engines is on car buyers, and the car-makers are laughing all the way to the bank.

But as Illich saw so clearly, back in 1973, the joke of high power consumption is also a tragedy. The hyper-powered cars of today (mostly in the shape of SUVs or four-door, five-passenger “trucks”) are even more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists than were the sedans of the 1960s.6 Energy use goes up – and equity goes down.


Photo at top of page: Mansory at Geneva International Motor Show 2019, Le Grand-Saconnex, photo by Matti Blume, from Wikimedia Commons.


Footnotes

Beyond the green frog-skin world

Also published on Resilience

Sometimes you ask a question and the answer doesn’t come for many years. That’s the way it worked for me when I first tried to make sense of economics.

The time was the mid-1970s, I was an undergraduate student, and I was keenly interested in economics because it seemed key to so many social justice issues.

But I couldn’t get past the feeling that the cleverly constructed economic models I studied were floating in air, lacking a solid foundation in the physical world.

Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions was published in 1972 and has been reprinted in various formats. A mass market paperback edition issued in 1994 is available from Simon & Schuster.

A slim paperback called Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions put the problem into simple language, leaving me pondering a riddle, through several decades in which I seldom thought about economics as a formal discipline.

John (Fire) Lame Deer (original name Tȟáȟča Hušté) was a Lakota holy man, and I read his book during a summer when I was working on the edge of the South Dakota Badlands and spending many weekends in the Black Hills. Lame Deer was born in this area in 1903, only thirteen years after the US Army had massacred hundreds of Lakota at Wounded Knee, marking an end of the military phase of the long campaign to seize the US heartland for white settlers. (I am a fourth-generation descendant of immigrants who received title to some of that land.)

Lame Deer had seen the highways built through his people’s sacred territories, he had seen lands turned into bombing ranges for US military tests, he had travelled to big cities on the US east coast, he lived long enough for radios, TVs, and the threat of nuclear war to become part of everyday life.

He was not impressed.

“The green frog skin – that’s what I call a dollar bill,” he said. “In our attitude toward it lies the biggest difference between Indians and whites.” He added that “For the white man each blade of grass or spring of water has a price tag on it.” In fact, in the green frog-skin world everything has a price tag – but this world will not last.

Visions were of vital to importance to Lame Deer, and he compared visions to art and to imagination:

“The world in which you paint a picture in your mind, a picture which shows things different from what your eyes see, that is the real world from which I get my visions. I tell you this is the real world, not the Green Frog Skin World. That’s only a bad dream, a streamlined, smog-filled nightmare.”

I felt that Lame Deer was right, that the green frog-skin world cannot last. How can a civilization last, when its governing force is something so fleeting and artificial as money? And yet … this bad-dream-world has power – power to rip open the earth, build huge cities out of concrete and steel, power to cut down whole forests in weeks or months, power to fly squadrons of planes to the far side of the world and drop deluges of bombs?

How can a society, which stupidly believes its price tags are the essential measure of value, still have the power to dance in both awesome and awesomely destructive ways?

In one form or another that question flickered through my mind for decades after I had abandoned the struggle to make sense of economics. Gradually, though, some pieces of a puzzle fell into place. My winding path led me, some 40 years later, back to a focus on economics – this time with the help of bio-physical economics and degrowth theory. With these ideas I was able to understand the nature of power in the green frog-skin world, and to understand further why the frog-skin world can not and will not last.

In recent months I have re-read some of the books that made a great impression on me over the decades, and which, eventually, made my second study of economics so much more fulfilling than the first. This post is the first in a short series looking back at these books. The series will trace just one of the many routes to economic understanding, illustrating, I hope, how economics is connected to every aspect of daily life.

Nearly fifty years ago, Lame Deer could see clearly that the human race was in trouble. His life had begun shortly after the era of the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dancers, from many indigenous groups across the prairies, danced in the hope of a sudden transformation:

“The earth would roll up like a carpet with all the white man’s ugly things – the stinking new animals, sheep and pigs, the fences, the telegraph poles, the mines and factories. Underneath would be the wonderful old-new world as it had been before the white fat-takers came.”

This rolling-up of the world didn’t happen in the 1890s, and the memory of the Ghost Dance was nearly snuffed out by the massacre at Wounded Knee. In Lame Deer’s vision, though, it was still vital to hang on to the hope kindled by this dance:

“I am trying to bring the ghost dance back, but interpret it in a new way. I think it has been misunderstood, but after eighty years I believe that more and more people are sensing what we meant when we prayed for a new earth and that now not only Indians but everybody has become an ‘endangered species.’ So let the Indians help you bring on a new earth without pollution or war. Let’s roll up the world. It needs it.”

In 2020 it’s just as true and even more urgent: we need a new earth without pollution or war. The green frog-skin world, ruled by the price tag on each blade of grass and each spring of water, threatens the survival of thousands of species, us included. We need to bring a new dream into being, beyond the bad dream of the green frog-skin world.


Photo at top of page – Sunset in the Badlands, June 2014 (full-screen version here)