Can nuclear power extend the economic expansion?

Also published at and BiophysEco.

Richard Rhodes’ new book Energy: A Human History does an excellent job of describing the scientific and technological hurdles that had to be cleared in the development of, for example, an internal combustion engine which can convert refined petroleum into forward motion.

But he gives short shrift to the social and political forces that have been equally important in determining how technological advances shape our world. That internal combustion engine might be a wonder of ingenuity, but was there any scientific reason we should make multi-tonne vehicles the primary mode of transportation for single passengers in cities, drastically reconfiguring urban landscapes in the process? When assiduous research resulted in more efficient engines, did science also dictate that we should use those engines to drive bigger and heavier SUV’s, and then four-wheel-drive, four-door pick-up trucks, to our suburban grocery superstores?

Unfortunately, Rhodes presents the benefits of modern science as if they are all inextricably wrapped up in our current high-energy-consumption economy, implying that human prosperity must end unless we find ways to maintain this high-energy system.

In this second part of a look at Energy (first installment here), we’ll delve into these questions as they relate to Rhodes’ strident defense of nuclear power.

To set the context, Rhodes argues that the only realistic – and the most ethical – way forward is a gradual progression on the path we are already taking, and that means an “all energy sources except coal and oil” strategy:

“Every energy system has its advantages and disadvantages …. And given the scale of global warming and human development, we will need them all if we are to finish the centuries-long process of decarbonizing our energy supply – wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, natural gas.”1

Three key points here: First, Rhodes recognizes the severity and urgency of the climate problem.

Second, he believes we have been “decarbonizing our energy supply” for centuries. That is true with respect to intensity: we now release fewer units of carbon for each unit of energy than we did in the 19th century.2 But in an overall sense, we emit vastly more carbon cumulatively (and vastly more carbon per capita) than we used to. It is the overall carbon emissions, not the carbon/energy intensity ratio, that matters to the climate.

Third, while energy production via natural gas has relatively low carbon emissions at the point of combustion, there is wide recognition that methane leaks throughout the production/transmission chain are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which may counteract the benefits of switching from coal to gas. Rhodes makes only an oblique reference to this critical problem in current natural gas usage.

It’s the issue of nuclear power, though, that really brings out Rhodes’ rhetorical heat. Consider this ad hominem attack:

“Antinuclear activists, whose agendas originated in a misinformed neo-Malthusian foreboding of overpopulation (and a willingness at the margin to condemn millions of their fellow human beings to death from disease and starvation), may fairly be accused of disingenuousness in their successive arguments against the safest, least polluting, least warming, and most reliable energy source humanity has yet devised.3

If someone warns that a social or technological development is likely to result in mass death, does that logically mean they want mass death, or that they are indifferent to it? Obviously not. They may well be sincerely motivated by a desire to save lives – just as those who promote the same social or technological development might sincerely believe that is the best way to save lives and promote prosperity.

So I think it is Rhodes who is being disingenuous with his ad hominem argument – even though I happen to agree with some of his substantive points on the relative safety of nuclear power.

What could go wrong?

As one who has lived for fifteen years just downwind of major nuclear facilities – first a uranium processing plant, more recently a nuclear power generator – I’ve had lots of incentive to study the potential safety hazards of the nuclear power industry. And on the issue of the relative operating safety of nuclear power generation, my conclusions have been much the same as those Rhodes puts forth.

I frequently take a short bike ride along the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail through the buffer zone around the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station. Is this a significant hazard to my health? Yes it is, but only because this route also requires me to share the road with trucks and cars for a few kilometers, and to ride right beside a stream of pollution-emitting traffic on Ontario’s busiest expressway.

As a close neighbour of nuclear facilities, my risk of death due to sudden catastrophic nuclear power accident is several orders of magnitude lower than my risk of death due to sudden catastrophic traffic accident. (Worldwide, well over a million people are killed in traffic accidents per year.4)

As for the health risk due to chronic exposure to the amounts of radiation that are emitted by a current Canadian nuclear generating plant, I fully concur with Rhodes’ more general conclusion: “Low doses of radiation are not only low risk; they’re also lost in the noise of other sources of environmental insult.”5

Likewise, I share Rhodes’ conclusion that shutting down our existing nuclear power plants for environmental reasons, while continuing to rely on coal for a significant part of electricity generation, is daft6 – we should replace carbon-emitting generating systems first.

In my region, I would be sorry to see Darlington Nuclear Station shut down if Ontario were still significantly reliant on gas-powered peaker plants, as it is now. And given that we have a very long way to go in electrifying personal transportation and home heating, our electricity demand may increase significantly, making the transition to a fully renewable electricity generation system that much farther down the road. In that context, I think our existing nuclear power plants are a better option environmentally than continued or increasing use of any fossil fuel, natural gas included, for generation of electricity.

But should we commission and build new nuclear power plants? That is a very different question. Rhodes recognizes that the economic viability of the nuclear power industry is very much in question, but he makes no significant attempt in Energy to resolve the economic question.

To adequately answer the economic viability question, we would need a much wider conception of science than the one that comes through in Rhodes’ book.7

Beyond physics and chemistry

The science Rhodes celebrates in Energy: A Human History falls almost entirely within very basic physics and chemistry. The discoveries and developments Rhodes discusses are highly significant, and they will always remain foundational – but they are not sufficient for a clear understanding of technological systems, which are also social phenomena.

A more recent scientific advance is essential in coming to grips with our current energy challenges. This is the concept of Energy Return on Investment (EROI). Over his long and distinguished career, ecologist Charles A.S. Hall posited that organisms, ecological communities, and human societies must derive more usable energy from their activities than the energy they invest in those activities. With this simple insight8, Hall gave economics a foundation in the very principles of thermodynamics that Rhodes reveres.

The resulting field of biophysical economics provides a deeper understanding of the socio-technological revolutions that Rhodes simply ascribes to “science”. After studying the Energy Return on Investment of major energy sources over the past 200 years, we can understand how the rapid exploitation of fossil fuels provided a huge boost in the the energy available to society, while simultaneously freeing the great majority of people from energy-procuring activities so that they could work instead at a wide variety of new activities and industries. We can understand that if any society is to use a high quantity of energy per person, while employing only a small number of people in its energy sector, then its energy sector needs a high rate of Energy Return on Investment.

With readily accessible supplies of coal, oil and natural gas, industrial civilization in the past 200 years has benefitted from a very high Energy Return on Investment. But with “sweet spots” exhausted or in depletion phases, the EROI of the fossil fuel economy has been in marked decline for the past few decades.

Thus one of the key questions about a supposed nuclear renaissance is, can the nuclear power industry achieve an EROI comparable to that of the fossil fuel economy we have known to date? Most published analyses say no9 – from an Energy Return On Investment standpoint, nuclear power generation is (at worst) not worth doing at all, or (at best) worth doing even though it will produce much more expensive energy than the energy we came to depend on during the twentieth century.

If nuclear power generation has a low EROI, in sum, it cannot and will not fuel a continued economic expansion.

Rhodes argues that nuclear power is vitally important because we really need it to extend our current model of prosperity to billions more people now and in coming generations, and he claims the mantle of science for this position. But a broader and deeper application of scientific analysis can deal with the economic viability questions about nuclear power that he simply sidesteps.

Illustration at top: high-voltage transmission lines on grounds of Darlington Nuclear Station, on north shore of Lake Ontario east of Toronto



1Energy: A Human History, page 337 (return to text)

2This is a point explained in more detail by Vaclav Smil, who also gives a perspective on the relative degree of decarbonization. From 1900 to 2000, he says, “the average carbon intensity of the world’s fossil fuel supply kept on declining: when expressed in terms of carbon per unit of the global total primary energy supply, it fell from nearly 28 kg C/GJ [GigaJoule] in 1900 to just below 25 in 1950 and to just over 19 in 2010, roughly a 30% decrease; subsequently, as a result of China’s rapidly rising coal output, it rose a bit during the first decade of the twenty-first century.” Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History, page 270. (return to text)

3Energy: A Human History, page 336 (return to text)

4World Health Organization says there were 1.25 million traffic deaths in 2013. (return to text)

5Energy: A Human History, page 324 (return to text)

6This general statement must be qualified, of course, by noting that some particular nuclear plants should be shut down because their designs were inherently flawed to begin with, or because they have aged beyond the point where they can be maintained and operated safely. (return to text)

7Even if one accepts that the operating safety record of nuclear power stations is exemplary, there are the major issues of nuclear weapons proliferation, and the long-term storage of highly radioactive wastes. Rhodes doesn’t mention weapons proliferation, and he cavalierly dismisses the long-term disposal issue: “The notion that such waste must be successfully protected from exposure for hundreds of thousands of years is counter to how humans handle every other kind of toxic material we produce. We usually bury it, but we also discount its future risk, on the reasonable grounds that we owe concern to one or, at best, two generations beyond our own …” (Energy: A Human History, page 337, emphasis mine). Yes, that’s what we usually do, but in what sense is that “reasonable”? (return to text)

8Though the basic insight is simple, measuring and calculating EROI can be anything but simple. A key issue is deciding how far out to draw the boundaries of an analysis. As Hall, Lambert and Balogh noted in “EROI of different fuels and the implications for society” in 2014, “Societal EROI is the overall EROI that might be derived for all of a nation’s or society’s fuels by summing all gains from fuels and all costs of obtaining them. To our knowledge this calculation has yet to be undertaken because it is difficult, if not impossible, to include all the variables necessary to generate an all-encompassing societal EROI value”. (return to text)

9In Scientific American (April 2013) Mason Inman cited an EROI of 5 for nuclear electricity generation – lower than photovoltaic or wind generators, and only a small fraction of the EROI of 69 that Inman cited for global conventional oil production in 2011. In 2014 a meta-review of studies, EROI of different fuels and the implications for society, gave a mean EROI of 14 for nuclear power. A paper by the World Nuclear Association cites outliers among the published studies, highlighting a conclusion that nuclear generation of electricity has a higher average EROI than hydro or fossil fuel generating systems, and is “one order of magnitude more effective than photovoltaics and wind power”. (return to text)

Energy: A Human History – a slim slice of history and science

Also published at and BiophysEco.

“The population of the earth has increased more than sevenfold since 1850 – from one billion to seven and a half billion – primarily because of science and technology,” Richard Rhodes concludes at the end of his new book Energy: A Human History. “Far from threatening civilization, science, technology, and the prosperity they create will sustain us as well in the centuries to come.”1

Rhodes tells an engaging tale of energy transitions over some 500 years. Yet the limitations in his field of view become critical in the book’s concluding chapter, when he reveals which particular axe he is especially eager to grind.

Both the title of the book and its timing invite comparison with Vaclav Smil’s 2017 work Energy and Civilization: A History (reviewed here). There is a significant overlap, most notably in both author’s views that major energy transitions – from wood to coal, from coal to petroleum – have been multi-generational processes.

But Rhodes’ scope is far narrower, both in time and in geography.

Rhodes begins his story in sixteenth-century England. His cast of characters is overwhelmingly Anglo-American and male, with a sprinkling of western Europeans, and only a brief excursion outside of “western civilization” to discuss oil exploration in Saudi Arabia.

Smil, by contrast, starts his book in pre-history, with an erudite discussion of the energy implications of human evolution. He follows with more than 200 pages on developments in energy usage from ancient times to the Middle Ages, in Africa, India, China, Europe, and Mesoamerica.

Smil’s readers, then, arrive at his discussion of the industrial revolution and the fossil fuel era with an understanding that millennia of progressive developments, around the world, had gone into the technologies and social organizations available to sixteenth-century Englishmen.

The unspoken implication in Rhodes’ tale is that the men of the Royal Society of London started with a blank slate, and all our current technological marvels are due wholly to the magnificence of their particular current in science.

One question that never arises in Rhodes’ book is, how did it happen that a class of educated men had the time and resources to ponder theories, conduct long series of experiments, and write and discuss their essays? There is no mention that during these same centuries, the countries of western Europe were drawing vast quantities of basic resources from Africa and the Americas, at the cost of millions of lives.

In short, this is a woefully incomplete history of energy. But within those limitations, Rhodes writes engagingly and with admirable clarity.

A thermodynamic page-turner

For anyone interested in basic issues of physics and technology, the progression from scattered awareness of curious phenomena, to testable theories, to technologies that were applied on a mass scale and changed everyday life, makes a fascinating story. For example, observations of static electricity from a cat’s hair, frightening strikes of lightning, and the effects of magnets eventually grew into a comprehensive theory of electromagnetism. Rhodes ably outlines how this led through development of crude batteries, then to simple generators, and eventually to the construction of a massive generator harnessing some of the power of Niagara Falls for a new phase of the Industrial Revolution.

Likewise, his discussion of the long gestation of the coal-fired steam engine – which depended on an understanding of basic issues of thermodynamics as well as refinements in metal-working needed for the construction of high-quality boilers – illuminates important factors in the birth of the fossil-fuel era.

An excellent section on early oil drilling and refining processes leads to a fascinating aside: the profitable introduction of lead as a performance-enhancing additive to gasoline, notwithstanding severe health effects which were noticed and decried at the earliest stages of the leaded gas era.

Credit where credit is due

The social effects of these developments in basic and applied science have been sweeping and many of them have been salutary. It would be foolish to deny that science has played a major role in increasing life expectancy and making rapid population growth possible.

Yet many historians would argue that social and political factors such as labour rights and the push for universal education have been equally important.

Of most direct importance to Rhodes’ subject, it is clear that science was critical in helping us understand principles of thermodynamics and helping us harness the power in both fossil fuels and and renewable resources. But science has not decreed that, once having learned to extract and consume fossil fuels, we should use up these resources as fast as humanly possible. That trend, rather, is due to an economic system that requires profits to increase continuously and exponentially.

Likewise, science taught us how to use the fossil fuel resources which have helped boost our population seven-fold in the past 170 years. But science did not create those resources, which were cooking in the earth’s cavities for millions of years before the first protohuman scientist conducted the first experiment.

If, following Rhodes’ thinking, we give science the whole credit for making a population explosion possible, we should also credit science with blowing through millions of years of accumulated energy resources in just a few hundred years. We should give science credit for the fact that billions of people live in areas already being severely impacted by climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions (even though those people typically have used minimal quantities of fossil fuel themselves.) And we should ask, why can’t science come up with a cost- and time-effective way of replacing all those fossil fuels, so that all 7 billion of us plus our more numerous descendants can keep on living the high-energy lifestyle to which (some of) us are accustomed?

Ah, but science has already found a big part of the next answer, Rhodes might answer: nuclear power.

The questions raised by Rhodes’ concluding sections on nuclear power are complex, and we’ll dive into those issues in the next installment.

Illustration at top: “Bridge over the Mongahela River, Pittsburg, Penn.” from the Feb 21, 1857 edition of Ballou’s Pictorial, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

1Energy: A Human History, page 343

Kings of the Yukon: a travel story as deep and wide as the great river

Also published at

It’s a simple truth: the slower you travel the more you see.

Kings of the Yukon, by Adam Weymouth, published by Penguin in the UK, Little, Brown in the US and Random House in Canada

This was impressed on me in the summer of 1988, as I traveled through the Yukon Territory at the frenetic pace of a bicycle tourist. Where the highway occasionally crossed the Yukon River, I sometimes shared campsites with a more patient breed of traveler, the drifters.

Arriving at the riverbank with little more than a sleeping roll and an axe, they had fashioned crude rafts and set themselves afloat in the current for weeks at a time. The stories they told – of rounding a bend and surprising a moose cow and calf swimming through an eddy, or waking up in the strange light of the subarctic midnight and not knowing where they were or what century they might be in – have held my imagination ever since.

British writer Adam Weymouth is a even better story teller than anyone I met that summer. His new book Kings of the Yukon recounts a 2000-mile canoe trip, from the upstream end of the river’s tributaries to its sprawling delta on Alaska’s Bering Sea coast.

As a travel tale the book is first-rate. But Weymouth’s keen interest in the Chinook – aka King – Salmon, and his listening skills when he meets dozens of river-dwellers whose cultures have been shaped by the migrations of this fish, combine to fascinating, awe-inspiring, and often heart-breaking effect.

When he begins his river journey at McNeil Lake he is just three days removed from his home in London. After a few weeks paddling downstream, however, his senses have changed to suit the new setting:


“I am able to focus in on a fleck of white from half a mile away, and spot a bald eagle sitting motionless, scarcely aware how I have done it. I find that I can tell a species of a tree by how it is moving in the wind, how the aspen leaves twinkle but the birch’s quiver. … I had always thought that learning birdsong was beyond my capabilities, but out here the songs are starting to stick: the dark-eyed junco, which sounds like a telephone ringing; the white-crowned sparrow; the raucous kingfisher. Despite my many years of city living, I think perhaps I might not be a lost cause after all.”

It’s not as easy to get to know the fish, which mostly slip by his canoe cloaked in impenetrably silty river water. Fortunately he can learn from people who have spent generations understanding the comings and goings of salmon.

There was a time when many great rivers in Europe and North America teemed with salmon. Gifted with the rare ability to live in both fresh water and salt water, many salmonids are born in shallow stream beds, travel far downstream and into the open oceans, and then return against the currents several years later to spawn in the same spots where they were born. But today deforestation, over-fishing, and the construction of dams have decimated salmon populations.

In the untamed rivers where salmon remain strong they are a prized food source. Their dependable migrations, plus the nutritious oils between their skins and flesh, make them a superb source of energy for people who must make it through long cold winters.


A steep decline

The Yukon River system is one of the richest remaining salmon habitats – but there too populations of some species have seen a steep decline. The Chinook Salmon, the largest and most prized salmon species in North America, has dropped both in numbers and in average size.

When I camped at an informal squatter’s village outside Dawson City in 1988, river rafters tipped me off to a great bargain – fresh whole Chinook salmon, sold for $2 a pound from coolers on the back streets of town. The resulting campfire feast was so memorable I wanted to share the experience with my son on our bike trip through the Yukon twenty years later. Alas, I was told the fish had become scarce, quotas were severely restricted, and sales were now banned.

A disappointment for a tourist – but a tragedy for the many native communities along the river. The most moving passages in Kings of the Yukon come when people share their feelings about the deep changes being forced on their cultures. For generations people have marked the seasons by the passage of the salmon, and the rituals of setting nets, stocking smoke-houses, cutting and slicing and drying the red-orange fillets into stores of dried fish which will last through the winter. Now they struggle to decide if they can catch just enough fish each year to pass on their culture to the next generation – or if even that minimal harvest will prevent salmon populations from rebuilding.

There are many viewpoints on why Chinook Salmon numbers have dwindled, and Weymouth is clear-eyed and even-handed in his treatment. He makes clear, too, why the salmon are important not just to people, but to the earth’s largest ecosystem, the boreal forest. The vast river systems ceaselessly carry silt and minerals – soil fertility – out to the oceans. But uncounted millions of salmon carry this nutrition back upstream to their spawning grounds where they reproduce and then die.

Besides humans, bears are the famously photogenic beneficiaries of the salmon runs. But the bears typically eat just the choicest parts of the salmon they toss from the rivers; most of the fish will decompose on the forest floor, and the very trees are dependent on a cycle of nutrition that spans many years and many thousands of miles.

Weymouth braids many strands into his story – the distinctive native cultures that spread out from coastal delta to arctic tundra, from rain forests to distant mountain lakes; the devastating epidemics introduced by whalers, traders and missionaries; the ongoing social catastrophe set in motion by a residential school system consciously designed to put an end to native ways of life; the rhythms of seasonal subsistence fishing camps and massive industrial processing plants; even the distribution centre that eventually sends plastic-wrapped slices of salmon to supermarkets throughout Britain.

By the time he paddles out the seven-mile wide mouth of the Yukon into salt water waves, four months have passed, darkness has begun its takeover of the subarctic nights – and his readers have absorbed as good an introduction to northern life as they could hope to find in a single volume.

Illustration at top: “Chinook Salmon, Adult Male”, from plates in Evermann, Barton Warren; Goldsborough, Edmund Lee (1907) The Fishes of Alaska, via Wikimedia.

First principles for sustainable and equitable transportation

A review of Beyond Mobility

Also published at

Beyond Mobility, Island Press, December 2017

Subway systems, trams, Bus-Rapid-Transit, high-speed trains, cars – these can all play useful roles in well-designed transportation systems. But we must not forget what still is and what should remain the world’s most important transportation method: walking.

That is one of the key messages of Beyond Mobility: Planning Cities for People and Places, a survey of urban planning successes and failures around the world.

Authors Robert Cervero, Erick Guerra and Stefan Al set out a general framework for transportation planning, in which the metric of “number of cars moved per hour” is replaced by an emphasis on place-making, with intergenerational sustainability, social equity, safety, and decarbonization as essential goals. The introduction to “urban recalibration” is followed by brief case studies from dozens of cities throughout the world.

First, do no harm to pedestrians

“For all the emphasis on cars and transit, walking remains the most globally important mode of transportation,” the authors write. “Globally, almost 40 percent of all trips are made by foot, and the figure is close to 90 percent in many smaller and poorer cities.”

In the Global South as in western Europe and North America, official transportation planning is dominated by the motoring classes, to the detriment of those who want to or have no choice but to walk. But Beyond Mobility cites many reasons why building safe cities for walkers is a global issue:

“Because walking produces almost no local or global pollution, creates no traffic fatalities, costs residents only the food needed to power their legs, has proven health benefits, and requires low infrastructure investments relative to highways or transit, maintaining high walking rates is critically important in the Global South.” (Beyond Mobility, page 173)

The public health consequences of a planning preference for automobiles are especially severe in the Global South, with deaths from air pollution and traffic accidents highest among the very people who cannot themselves afford cars. Therefore a shift in transportation policy is an obvious social equity issue.

In North America, after generations in which urban residents moved away from city cores to widely spaced suburbs, the trend is now reversing. The downtown areas of many major cities are once again highly sought after by residents and would-be residents, leading to huge price premiums for central-city residential properties.

A key reason for this preference is walkability. While time spent commuting by car tends to be stressful and unsatisfying1, a new generation has discovered the physical, emotional and social benefits of routine walking to work, school, shopping and entertainment.

This urban renaissance comes with obvious problems due to gentrification. A big part of the problem is scarcity: particularly in North America, desirably walkable neighbourhoods are now rare, while most urban residents must settle for neighbourhoods where basic services are distant and transportation options are expensive in terms of money, time, and/or personal safety.

Mobility when necessary, but not necessarily mobility

Real estate ads for suburban residences frequently highlight a key selling point – “close to the expressway”. By design, employment zones and residential districts are generally far apart in the post-war North American suburb. That has led to a situation where an important attribute for a residential neighbourhood is how easy it is to get far away from that neighbourhood each morning.

It’s a daunting task to reverse that trend, to change suburban settlement patterns to the point where many residents can work, shop, go to school, visit friends or go out to eat without getting into a car or boarding a train. Yet efforts at “sprawl repair” have begun in many places. Many of these efforts are guided by the concept of “place-making”, a central idea in Beyond Mobility. The authors quote urban designer Jan Gehl: “Place-making is turning a neighborhood, town or city from a place you can’t wait to get through to one you never want to leave.”2

Suburban shopping malls and suburban office parks come in for particular scrutiny. Both facilities are typically surrounded by hectares of parking lots. In theory it should be possible to redevelop these facilities (especially the many shopping centres which already stand vacant), creating more intensive mixes of residential, employment, commercial, educational and entertainment uses. The authors note that “One of the saving graces of huge surface parking lots is they can be easily torn up and rebuilt upon.” More generally, they state that

“Fortunately, suburban landscapes are malleable and for the most part can be easily adapted, modified, and reused. … In many ways, suburbs are the low-hanging fruit in the quest to create sustainable, highly livable, and more accessible places.” (Beyond Mobility, page 89–90)

This optimism notwithstanding, examples of successful suburban reconfigurations are rare in this book. In many cases, the authors note, redevelopment of a particular shopping mall or office complex produces an attractive mini-mix of services in a compact area, but is still too distant from most services to be “the kind of neighbourhood you never want to leave”.

One redevelopment option which is conspicuous by its absence in the pages of Beyond Mobility is what we might call the Detroit option. Instead of replacing empty suburban pavement with more intensive building patterns, perhaps there are some suburban districts which should become less intensive, returning to agricultural uses which would boost the sustainability of an urban area in other important ways.

Cycling receives very little attention in the book, even though two-wheeled, human-powered vehicles are already meeting the need for medium-distance transportation in many cities, with minimal infrastructure costs, many public health benefits, and almost no disruption of the primary transportation method, walking. The chapter on autonomous vehicles is also a bit of a puzzle. Though the authors are “cautiously optimistic” that driverless cars will enable a better “balance between mobility and place”, their discussion highlights several reasons to believe this technology may result in more Vehicle Miles Traveled and a greater disconnection from the social environment.

When it comes to transformational changes to the cores of major cities, however, the book is full of inspiring examples. In cities from San Francisco to Seoul, Bogotá to Barcelona, freeways have been replaced with boulevards, intersections have been reconfigured to make passage safer and more pleasant for pedestrians, single-use office complexes have incorporated retail and affordable housing, “park-and-ride” train stations have moved closer to an ideal of “walk-and-ride” as surrounding blocks are redeveloped.

Many of these urban recalibration efforts have their own flaws and limitations, but the value of Beyond Mobility is an even-handed recognition of both successes and failures. Above all, the authors emphasize, equitable, sustainable and convivial cities can’t be created all at once:

“urban recalibration calls for a series of calculated steps aimed at a strategic longer-range vision of a city’s future, advancing principles of people-oriented development and place-making every bit as much as private car mobility, if not more. … It entails a series of 1 to 2 percent recalibration ‘victories’ – intersection by intersection, neighborhood by neighborhood — that cumulatively move beyond the historically almost singular focus on mobility, making for better communities, better environments, and better economies.” (Beyond Mobility, page 211)


Top photo: Streets of Hong Kong, China, East Asia, photo by Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikimedia Commons


1“Behavioral research shows that out of a number of daily activities, commuting has the most negative effect on peoples’ moods.” Beyond Mobility, page 51, citing a Science article by Daniel Kahneman, “A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience”, 2004.

2Beyond Mobility, page 13, citing Jan Gehl, Cities for People, Island Press, 2010.

3 cheers for A2Bism: a review of ‘Copenhagenize’

Also published at

How do we get beyond the dependency-inducing trap of car culture? After 100 years in which auto-oriented infrastructure has dominated public works spending and reshaped civic life, how can we make our streets safe and healthy spaces?

The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism
(200 colour illustrations, 296 pages), March 2018, Island Press

These questions were suggested in discussion with a reader following my last post, Speeding Down a Dead End Road. There are many ways to approach this subject – and one of the best is to read Copenhagenize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism, a just-released book by Mikael Colville-Andersen which fortuitously landed in my inbox last week.

Colville-Andersen is a Canadian-Danish designer who started photographing people on bicycles in Copenhagen in 2006. This pastime quickly became the popular Cycle Chic blog, and then grew into Copenhagenize Design Co., which has now helped scores of cities improve their urban transportation mix. Copenhagenize, the book, is a great summary not only of the lessons learned by Copenhagen over the past forty years, but also the lessons learned by Colville-Andersen and his associates in many cities over the past 10 years.

First a brief word about what is both the book’s major limitation and its great strength: this is a guide to “bicycle urbanism” – it doesn’t pretend to cover cycling in rural or small-town areas.

In a move away from car culture, urban cycling is definitely the low-hanging fruit. Short trips under about 7 km make up a large proportion of trips within cities. Furthermore, the many costs of car culture – especially air pollution, and crashes that kill and maim – are readily evident in cities, while much-touted benefits such as speed and convenience are typically negated by gridlock. So it should be easy to persuade many average citizens to get out of cars and take to the streets on bicycle – if those streets can be made convenient and safe for human-powered transportation.

Let’s start with “convenient”.

A simple motivation

Extensive surveys have found that most Copenhagen cyclists are not motivated primarily by health concerns, or a concern for the environment, or a desire to save money – they ride bike because it’s the most convenient way to get around their city. This leads Colville-Andersen to stress a basic principle:

“I know exactly what you want. It’s the same thing that I want. Indeed, it’s what every homo sapien who has ever lived wants: a direct line from A to B when we’re transporting ourselves. … This is the most basic principle in transport planning. I call it A2Bism.” (Copenhagenize, pg 146)

Taking the most direct line is especially important when we’re getting around under our own steam. Yet for seventy-five years traffic planners concentrated on giving the best routes to cars, while introducing detours for foot-powered residents. Colville-Andersen sums up both this history of mistakes, and the simple solution, in these simple “traffic planning guide” graphics.

The two graphics on the left summarize the rupture of an ancient pattern of city life  by car culture – including, he emphasizes, in cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

On the right is the guide used by bicycle-friendly cities in recent decades. While cities in Denmark and the Netherlands have seen tremendous growth in cycling since they adopted this approach in the 1970s, a significant uptick in active transportation has also begun in many other cities, including a few in North America.

All too often in North America, however, new bike routes are added in out-of-the-way locations where they, predictably, serve few riders going about daily tasks like getting to and from work.1 If we were serious about encouraging rather than discouraging cyclists, we would allocate safe space for them on the most direct routes.

The Copenhagenize approach is illustrated at the right side of the graphic above: safe and healthy modes of active transportation are given direct routing, while polluting and dangerous cars and trucks get the frequent jogs and detours.

Safe space

Cycle-friendly planning isn’t quite as simple as drawing lines on a map or on the streets. While Colville-Andersen emphasizes that good urban cycling infrastructure is far cheaper than what we routinely spend on car infrastructure, we do need to budget for something besides a little paint:

“Hastily painted pictograms in the middle of car lanes are not infrastructure. They are the awkward watermark of lazy politicians and lazier transport professionals.” (Copenhagenize, pg 77)

Where streets must be shared by pedestrians, cyclists, and cars, trucks and buses, and motorized traffic will move more than 40 km/h, mere painted bike lanes will not provide an adequate measure of safety – some sort of physical separation is required. Having a row of parked cars between the cycle lane and the moving traffic is one good strategy. (In North America, however, the order is often reversed, with cycle lanes between the parked cars and moving traffic, precisely in the “door zone” where a driver opening the door of a parked car might knock a cyclist directly into the passing traffic.)

If Copenhagen now illustrates everything in Colville-Andersen’s chapter “Best Practice Design and Infrastructure”, it’s not because the Danes have always got it right. In fact, he says, all the cycle-planning mistakes frequently being made in other jurisdictions have also been made in Copenhagen. Other cities can save a lot of time and money if they don’t try to “reinvent the wheel”.

Waiting at a signalized intersection on a bike lane in Almetyevsk, Republic of Tatarstan

Colville-Andersen gives advice on many specifics: what is the minimum width for separated bike lanes, and when is it time to widen them further; what kind of intersection spacing works to keep cyclists safe from right-turning cars; under what circumstances is a bi-directional cycle lane a good option; how can cycle lanes be safely routed past bus stops. Yet the basic typology for bike lanes is based on just two data points: how many cars does a road carry, and what is the speed. Based on these two issues, he says, there are a grand total of four basic designs:

“Four. There are only four basic designs in Danish bicycle planning. One of these four fits every street in the Danish Kingdom and, indeed, every street in every city in the world.” (Copenhagenize, page 176)

In North America, in spite of a resurgence in urban cycling over the past ten years, no major city yet enjoys a bicycle “mode-share” of 10%. In Copenhagen and in Dutch cities such as Groningen, meanwhile that mode-share is now more than 40% – with the remainder split between buses, trains, cars, and walking.

Colville-Andersen emphasises, however, that “Copenhagen wasn’t always Copenhagen …. This city was as car-clogged as anywhere else on the planet through the 1950s and 1960s.” (Copenhagenize, page 64)

The growth of cycling culture there required massive public demonstrations in the 1970s, decades of work, and leadership by municipal officials with real vision. A key barrier is to get beyond the idea that we shouldn’t invest in cycling, because only a few people are willing to ride bike in our current urban environments:

“That misconception that a city has to build infrastructure for the people cycling now, as opposed to the 20-25 percent of the population that could be cycling, still reigns supreme.” (Copenhagenize, page 199)


Perfect synergy

Copenhagenize is a superb manual on all the important details of bike infrastructure design and operation. It’s a great ‘how-to’ guide for making cities safe and convenient for active transportation. Indeed, it’s a great book on the factors that, in the millennia before the destructive onset of car culture, made cities very attractive places to live:

“We have been living together in cities for more than 7,000 years. By and large, we used those seven millennia to hammer out some serious best-practices about cohabitation in the urban theater and the importance of social fabric. We threw most of that knowledge under the wheels of the automobile shortly after we invented it ….” (Copenhagenize, page 13)

In the struggle to redemocratize our streets, he says, the bicycle will play a key role: “This most human form of transport represents the perfect synergy between technology and the human desire to move. It is the most perfect vehicle for urban living ever invented.”

photos and illustrations by Mikael Colville-Andersen courtesy of Island Press

1A recent example in my area is the stalled plan to shrink car lanes and add bicycle lanes on a section of Toronto’s main through street, Yonge Street. The mayor and many councillors want instead to send local cyclists on a detour to the west, while preserving the direct route for motorists.

An enthusiastic embrace of a mysterious planet

Also published at

Let’s face it, most of us don’t love the environment most of the time. More often than not, the environment is too cold, too hot, too buggy, too dry or too wet, and we try to keep it safely on the far side of a window or a TV screen.

Bicycle travel has a way of breaking us out of that narrow band of comfort. When we ride for more than a few days in one direction, it’s almost certain to rain or to snow, the wind will blow in the wrong direction, or perhaps it will get still and sultry and we’ll complain that there’s no wind at all. We either give up cycle touring, or we expand our appreciation beyond “nice” weather.

Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road, by Kate Harris, 2018, Knopf Canada, 300 pages

Yet few travelling cyclists will embrace the environment, in all its moods, with the eagerness shown by Kate Harris. That enthusiasm is just one of the qualities that makes Lands of Lost Borders so inspirational. Her book is one of the finest bike-trip travelogues ever written – but the wide-ranging reflections spurred by long hours on the road make her memoir a great read even for people with no interest in cycling.

Ironically, Harris’ deep dive in this earthly environment – via a months-long ride on the Silk Road and through Tibet – resulted from her growing disenchantment with an extra-terrestrial itinerary. A childhood dream of becoming a Mars-bound astronaut led to a stellar academic career, with a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and admission to a PhD program at MIT.

It wasn’t the difficulty or the danger of a Mars mission that put her off. Rather, a summer-long Mars simulation exercise in the Utah desert brought an unbearable sense of separation:

As four crewmates and I trundled around Utah in canvas spacesuits, I found myself disconcerted by the fact that when I gazed at a mountain, I saw a veneer of Plexiglas. When I reached out to touch canyon walls the colour of embers, I felt the synthetic fabric of my glove instead of the smooth, sun-warmed sandstone. As all kinds of weather howled outside my spacesuit, I heard either radio static or my percussive panting amplified in the plastic helmet, like I was breathing down my own neck.”

Giving up the dream of going to Mars wasn’t easy. “The first sign of doubt is a renewed fanaticism,” she observes, and she threw herself into preparatory work doing a master’s degree at Oxford followed by graduate work in windowless labs at MIT. Eventually, though, she could not resist the urge to clear her head by going for a bike ride with her long-time friend Melissa – a 10,000 km ride, from Turkey to Tibet, through snowstorms, days of winter rains, against fierce winds on plateaus higher than any mountain peak in North America, across baking deserts and into teeming cities.

Her book would be superb if it merely catalogued the adventures of the road, or if it merely described her gradual coming to terms with the flaws and limitations of childhood heroes such as Marco Polo and Charles Darwin. But she also allows readers to share her sense of wonder at the lands she is visiting:

Deserts have long been landscapes of revelation, as though the clean-bitten clarity of so much space heightens receptivity to frequencies otherwise missed in the white noise of normal life. This was especially true just before dawn on the Ustyurt Plateau, when the horizon glowed and shimmered like something about to happen. As the sun rose it tugged gold out of the ground and tossed it everywhere, letting the land’s innate wealth loose from a disguise of dust. The air smelled of baked dirt spiced with dew and sage. Our bicycles cast long cool shadows that grew and shrank with the desert’s rise and fall, its contours so subtle we needed those shadows to see them. The severity of the land, the softness of the light – where opposites meet is magic.”

Blizzards, sandstorms, endless mud, these are challenges to be relished – but borders are insufferable. In spite of her success in sneaking across border checkpoints for unauthorized rides across Tibet – not once but twice – some of the borders are non-negotiable, causing long delays and major changes in route. With enough time for reflection, however, even these borders help her to deeper understandings:

Whether buttressed with dirt roads or red tape, barbed wire or bribes, the various walls of the world have one aspect in common: they all posture as righteous and necessary parts of the landscape. That we live on a planet drawn and quartered is a fact most Canadians have the luxury of ignoring, for our passports open doors everywhere – with the notable exception of Central Asia, where North Americans face the kind of suspicion and resistance would-be tourists from Uzbekistan get from Canada ….”

Is there a recipe for a successful bike trip across a remote continent? Kate Harris would likely say that’s the wrong question. It doesn’t matter how far away, how exotic, how difficult or how long your journey is, it only matters that you throw yourself into the experience:

Departure is simple: you step out the door, onto your bike, into the wind of your life. What’s hard is not looking back, not measuring gain or loss by lapsed time, or aching legs, or the leering kilometre markers of ambition. You are on your way when you decipher the pounding of rain as Morse code for making progress. You are getting closer when you recognize doubt as the heaviest burden on your bike and toss it aside, for when it comes to exploring, any direction will do. You have finally arrived when you realize that persistent creak you’ve been hearing all this time is not your wheels, not your mind, but the sound of the planet turning.”


Illustration at top adapted from “Lands of Lost Borders Highlights Reel” video, viewed via

A fascinating, flawed look at limits

A review of The Wizard and The Prophet

Also published at

Charles C. Mann has written consecutive bestsellers of popular history writ large. His 1491 surveyed the civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas, while 1493 looked at how post-Columbian America has affected the whole world.

The Wizard and the Prophet, by Charles C. Mann, 2018, 616 pages

The Wizard and the Prophet at first glance shows Mann at work on a smaller canvas, comparing the life’s work of two American scientists in the mid-20th century.

Though Norman Borlaug and William Vogt both studied agricultural resources their career trajectories could hardly have been more different. Mann uses the contrast as a framework for a sweeping discussion of the biggest environmental questions facing our generations.

In the process he transforms Borlaug into “The Wizard” and Vogt into “The Prophet’’, superheroes who have, in Mann’s telling, guided the two major currents in environmental thinking ever since. Thus “The Wizard” and “The Prophet” are tapped for analyses of subjects which, for all we know, neither Borlaug nor Vogt actually thought about.

Always lurking in the background are the questions with which Mann opens the book: is it possible to feed, clothe, and shelter 10 billion people on this planet, or are we moving towards inevitable environmental collapse?

The real Norman Borlaug was born to a poor Iowa farm family and he yearned to escape the backbreaking work in the fields. After earning a degree in plant pathology he found himself immersed in even more tedious manual labour in a dusty, eroded, wind-blown patch of dirt outside Mexico City. His goal was to find a variety of wheat that would resist the blight known as rust.

Borlaug planted eight thousand wheat varieties the first season and came up with exactly four rust-resistant varieties. But he eventually developed strains of “dwarf” wheat that not only resisted rust, but which did not blow over in the wind and which responded well to artificial fertilizers. This development became known as the “Green Revolution”, and earned Borlaug a Nobel Peace Prize. He continued to work nearly up to his death in 2009 at the age of ninety-five, with advocacy for genetic engineering a theme of his later writings.

William Vogt was publicly lionized long before Borlaug came to fame, yet he too did his key research in an unglamorous setting: the guano-caked islands off Peru’s coast. For half a century the nitrogen-rich excrement of Guanay cormorants had been a key resource for world agriculture. Peru’s government wanted to know: why did the population of cormorants sometimes crash, and could they safeguard the marvellous output of fertilizer?

While Borlaug’s work rewarded a rigorous focus on detail, Vogt approached his task with the wide-angle lens of ecology. He tied cormorant populations to the ups and downs of the anchovetas which fed the birds; the plankton which fed the anchovetas; and the alternately warm or cold ocean currents of El Niño or La Niña which fed or starved the plankton. The maximum numbers of cormorants as well as their periodic crashes, Vogt reported, were set by nature’s own limits, and it would be foolhardy to push against those limits.

Vogt extended this message of limits in his 1948 book Road to Survival. He believed too much consumption is ecologically disastrous, and this consumption is based on both population growth and the quest for continuing economic growth. Road to Survival was a runaway best-seller.

Trending to infinity

Mann’s story-telling skills shine when he’s narrating the life and times of Borlaug, Vogt and the colourful characters they worked with. When The Wizard and the Prophet embarks on a 200-page tour of today’s many global ecology challenges, Mann’s discursions are fascinating but the quality is uneven.

An overview of world agriculture contrasts the Green Revolution with small-scale “organic” approaches. Yet Mann winds up that chapter without posing an obvious question. The artificial fertilizers required by Green Revolution crops are based on an energy-intensive process with natural gas as a feedstock, but can we be confident we have affordable resources to maintain, let alone double, current fertilizer production?

Through most of the book Mann recognizes the value in Vogt’s arguments for limits as well as Borlaug’s success in at least temporarily pushing those limits. That even-handedness is gone in his chapter on energy supply. Responding to the fear that fossil fuel resources might soon run short, Mann espouses Cornucopianism with an enthusiasm that would make a tar-sands tycoon blush.

In Mann’s reading of history the mere thought of “peak oil” has produced such infelicities as 75 years of war and tyranny in the Middle East. Though in some mere physical sense fossil fuel reserves must be limited, Mann argues, they are economically infinite – and economics trumps physics. That may be “counterintuitive”, he admits, “but more than a century of experience has shown it to be true.” If a trend lasts 100 years, apparently, we should feel confident it will be sustained for all time.

His chapter on climate change has more grounding in science and reason, but is badly dated. He relies on the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a necessarily conservative consensus review of thousands of reports published in prior years, which gave a likely range of global temperature increases from 1.5° to 4.5° Celsius.

Mann uses the IPCC’s temperature range and probability estimates to conclude “Very roughly speaking, this translates into a one-out-of-six chance that nothing much will happen – and a one-out-of-six chance of complete disaster.” When Stewart Brand used a similar one-in-six analogy in his 2009 book Whole Earth Discipline it was somewhat plausible. But since that time, measured global warming has been consistently outrunning the IPCCs cautious projections, many climatologists warn that we’ve already passed any chance of keeping global warming to less than 2°C, and the possible outcomes now run along a spectrum of biospheric  and civilizational catastrophes.

Vogt’s 1948 Road to Survival was a bestseller, but by the mid-1960s he found it hard to get a hearing in major media. Borlaug’s 1970 Nobel Prize was the first of a series of accolades that continued for the next 40 years. (Photo of statue in US Capitol building by Architect of the Capitol)

While Borlaug was influential to the end of his long life Vogt’s career flamed out early. In the 1950s he turned to population control as the single overriding issue, leading to a stormy tenure  at the helm of Planned Parenthood. Publishers and book buyers lost interest in his writings and he slid into despair. In 1968 – two years before Borlaug won his Nobel Prize – Vogt was gone, dead by his own hand.

Had he lived another fifty years to see 7 billion people trying to secure a subsistence on a planet already suffering from climate change, it’s hard to imagine that he would have regained hope.


Photos at top: Norman Borlaug in Mexico, 1964, photo from Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo. William Vogt, 1940, promotional photo from Compañia Administradora del Guano

The climate revolution: a manual for head, hands and heart

Also published at

How many people in North America and Europe have known for at least 15 years that climate change is dangerous, that it is caused mostly by our burning of fossil fuels, and that we must drastically reduce our fossil fuel consumption?

That would be most of us.

And how many of us have drastically reduced our fossil fuel consumption?

Not so many of us.

Mostly, our actions proclaim “We’ll cut back our fossil fuel use when everybody else does … or when the government forces us … or when hell freezes over – whichever comes last!”

Physicist and climatologist Peter Kalmus found the gulf between his beliefs and his lifestyle to be deeply unsatisfying, and he set out to heal that rift.

The result, he says, has been a dramatically richer life for him and his family.

His book Being The Change (New Society Publishers, 2017) outlines the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of his family’s reduction of their fossil fuel consumption by 90% in just a few years. His discussion ranges from climate science to economics, from bicycling to beekeeping, from community networks to meditation, in a deeply inspiring narrative.

Waves of gravity

Kalmus didn’t begin his scientific career in climatology. With a PhD in astrophysics, his speciality was gravitational waves and his day job was working through the data that would, in 2016, confirm Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves.

But he was also learning about the onrushing catastrophe of climate change, and as a young parent he was deeply worried for the world his children would inherit. Motivated by a desire to work on problems closer to home, he switched his professional focus, taking a new job at NASA studying the role of clouds in global warming.

Kalmus describes Being the Change as a book for the head, the hands and the heart. Wearing his scientist hat, he lucidly lays out the science of climate change. These chapters don’t require more than a high-school science background to understand, but even those who have read many books and articles on the subject are likely to learn something. For those who have read little or nothing on this subject, a good beginning would be to read Kalmus’ chapters on climate science three or four times over – he packs a lot of information into 50 pages.

His sobering conclusion is that we have already stalled too long to have any reasonable chance of keeping global warming below 2°C. Within two or three decades, the mean global temperature will be higher than in any record-warmth year in human experience so far. That new climate era will last centuries, challenging the resiliency of not only human civilization but global biodiversity.

The key uncertainty, he says, is the temperature at which global warming will peak. None of us alive today will be here to experience that peak, but our actions this generation will have a major influence on that peak. A higher peak will cause a spike in the rate of species extinctions, and if and when global warming slows or stops, it will take far longer for biodiversity to recover.

“A good overarching goal for today’s civilization would be to minimize global warming and its concomitant biodiversity loss for the sake of the next few hundred thousand human generations.” (Being the Change, page 69)

Fear of not flying

Climate science gives us clear warning of the disaster we are bequeathing our descendants if we don’t change our way of life, fast. Kalmus concludes, “it’s critical we begin saying that burning fossil fuels is causing real harm and needs to stop. It’s even more important to begin living this message.” (Being the Change, page 120 – italics mine)

A second major focus of the book is “hands-on” – the many ways people can change their own lives to join the movement away from fossil fuels. Kalmus relates his personal experiences here, but he also provides valuable suggestions to help others estimate their consumption of fossil fuels and reduce that consumption in meaningful ways.

Kalmus found that one category of fossil fuel consumption outweighed all others in his life: long-distance travel by air. Much of this consumption happened in traveling to distant conferences where delegates would warn of the dangers of climate change. Kalmus’ decision to stop taking these flights led to a more satisfying life, he says – though this was a rejection of one of the signature privileges of a global elite.

“The act of flying is an exercise of privilege. Globally, only about 5% of humans have ever flown.” (Being the Change, page 151)

Even the average American spends relatively little time in the air. Kalmus writes that “The average American emits about 1,000 kg CO2 per year from flying, which is roughly equivalent to one 4,000-mile round-trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.” But in 2010, Kalmus’ carbon emissions due to flying were 16 times that average – and so it was obvious where he had to make the first change to align his lifestyle with his knowledge.

Kalmus’ graph of his greenhouse gas emissions for 2010 – 2014. Source: Being the Change, page 144. (click graph for larger view)

For the average American, Kalmus says, the “largest climate impact is from driving.” He largely eliminated those CO2 emissions from his life too, through routine bicycling, driving a car that he converted to run on used vegetable oil, and taking a bus or trains for occasional long-distance trips.

Each person’s CO2 emission profile, and therefore their opportunities for emission reductions, will be different.

But Kalmus hopes others will share his experience in one key respect – a greater peace with their own lives and their own surroundings.

“I think most people are afraid of a low-energy lifestyle because we equate quality of life with quantity of energy use,” he says. “My experience has been the opposite: low-energy living is more fun and satisfying.”

Reading about his new-found love of gardening and beekeeping, and the strength of the local community bonds he and his family have developed, it’s easy to understand the richness of this low-energy lifestyle.

He also makes clear that he doesn’t believe that purely individual actions are sufficient to halt the fossil-fuel juggernaut. In the realm of public policy, he pens an excellent advocacy for his preferred fiscal approach to reducing national and international CO2 emissions – Carbon Fee And Dividend (CFAD). He also discusses his work with one group working on the CFAD option, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Finding a lifestyle that matches his principles brings joy and a significant measure of peace of mind. At the same time, finding peace of mind is key in giving him the energy to embark on all those personal changes. That brings us to a third major focus of Being the Change: meditation.

“As part of my daily work, I look directly at the truth of global warming, and what it’s doing to the inhabitants of the Earth. Meditation gives me the strength and the courage to keep interacting with this truth, as it is – not only to cope, but to be happy and as effective as possible in enacting positive change.” (Being the Change, page 203)

As one who has never been attracted to the practice of meditation, Kalmus’ story here left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, his discussions of dissolving the ego and escaping all wants were, for this reader, just about the only parts of the book that weren’t wholly convincing. On the other hand his life story so far is truly moving, and if he says meditation has been central to that journey then I can only celebrate the strength and peace that meditation gives him. More than that, his book has made me ask whether I want to introduce meditation into my own life in a concerted way; better late, perhaps, than never.

Science and love

Peter Kalmus has written a profound book about the science of global warming, and a profound book about love:

“These two seemingly disparate things – reducing my own fossil fuel use and increasing my ability to love – are actually intimately interconnected.”

In the process he grapples with three of the most troublesome questions facing the environmental movement. Can we convince people it’s essential to eliminate fossil fuel use, when our own lifestyles say that fossil fuel use is no problem? Can we convince people that a high-energy lifestyle is unnecessary and destructive, when we act as if our lives depend on that lifestyle? Can we be happily productive agents of change, while we are caught up in the high-energy whirl of consumptive capitalism? It’s hard to answer those questions except with “No, no and no.” And yet Kalmus’ personal message is deeply positive and deeply hopeful:

“On my own path, as I continue to reduce, I’m actually experiencing increasing abundance. It’s a good path.”


Photo at top: Peter Kalmus, photo by Alice Goldsmith, courtesy of New Society Publishers

The unbearable cheapness of capitalism

Also published at

René Descartes, Christopher Columbus and Jeff Bezos walk into a bar and the bartender asks, “What can I get for you thirsty gentlemen?”

“We’ll take everything you’ve got,” they answer, “just make it cheap!”

That’s a somewhat shorter version of the story served up by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. Their new book, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, illuminates many aspects of our present moment. While Jeff Bezos doesn’t make it into the index, René Descartes and Christopher Columbus both play prominent roles.

In just over 200 pages plus notes, the book promises “A Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet.”

Patel and Moore present a provocative and highly readable guide to the early centuries of capitalism, showing how its then radically new way of relating to Nature remains at the root of world political economy today. As for a guide to the future, however, the authors do little beyond posing a few big questions.

The long shadow of the Enlightenment

Philosopher René Descartes, known in Western intellectual history as one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, helped codify a key idea for capitalism: separation between Society and Nature. In 1641,

“Descartes distinguished between mind and body, using the Latin res cogitans and res extensa to refer to them. Reality, in this view, is composed of discrete “thinking things” and “extended things.” Humans (but not all humans) were thinking things, Nature was full of extended things. The era’s ruling classes saw most human beings – women, peoples of color, Indigenous Peoples – as extended, not thinking, beings. This means that Descartes’s philosophical abstractions were practical instruments of domination ….”

From the time that Portuguese proto-capitalists were converting the inhabitants of Madeira into slaves on sugar plantations, and Spanish colonialists first turned New World natives into cogs in their brutal silver mines, there had been pushback against the idea of some humans owning and using others. But one current in Western thought was particularly attractive to the profit-takers.

In this view, Nature was there for the use and profit of thinking beings, which meant white male property owners. Patel and Moore quote English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon, who expressed the new ethos with ugly simplicity: “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her,” and the “empire of man” should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.”

The patriarchal character of capitalism, then, is centuries old:

“The invention of Nature and Society was gendered at every turn. The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup. … Through this radically new mode of organizing life and thought, Nature became not a thing but a strategy that allowed for the ethical and economic cheapening of life.”

Armored with this convenient set of blinders, a colonialist could gaze at a new (to him) landscape filled with wondrous plants, animals, and complex societies, and without being hindered by awe, respect or humility he could see mere Resources. Commodities. Labour Power. A Work Force. In short, he could see Cheap Things which could be taken, used, and sold for a profit.

Patel and Moore’s framework is most convincing in their chapters on Cheap Nature, Cheap Work, and Cheap Care. Their narrative begins with the enclosure movement, in which land previously respected as Commons for the use of – and care by – all, was turned into private property which could be exploited for short-term gain.

Enclosure in turn led to proletarianization, resulting in landless populations whose only method of fending off starvation was to sell their labour for a pittance. The gendered nature of capitalism, meanwhile, meant that the essential role of bringing new generations of workers into life, and caring for them until they could be marched into the fields or factories, was typically not entered into the economic ledger at all. The worldwide legacy remains to this day, with care work most often done by women either egregiously under-paid or not paid at all.

Yet as the book goes on, the notion of “cheap” grows ever fuzzier. First of all, what’s cheap to one party in a transaction might be very dear to the other. While a capitalist gains cheap labour, others lose their cultures, their dignity, often their very lives.

Other essential components in the system often don’t come cheap even for capitalists. In their chapter on Cheap Money, Patel and Moore note that the European powers sunk tremendous resources into the military budgets needed to extend colonial domination around the world. The chapter “Cheap Lives” notes that “Keeping things cheap is expensive. The forces of law and order, domestic and international, are a costly part of the management of capitalism’s ecology.” The vaunted Free Market, in other words, has never come free.

A strategic definition

How can the single word “cheap” be made a meaningful characterization of Nature, Money, Work, Care, Food, Energy and Lives? The authors promise at the outset to tell us “precisely” what they mean by “cheap.” When the definition arrives, it is this:

“We come, then, to what we mean by cheapness: it’s a set of strategies to manage relations between capitalism and the web of life by  temporarily fixing capitalism’s crises. Cheap is not the same as low cost – though that’s part of it. Cheap is a strategy, a practice, a violence that mobilizes all kinds of work – human and animal, botanical and geological – with as little compensation as possible. … Cheapening marks the transition from uncounted relations of life making to the lowest possible dollar value. It’s always a short-term strategy.”

Circular reasoning, perhaps. Capitalism means the Strategies of getting things Cheap. And Cheap means those Strategies used by Capitalism. Yet Moore and Patel use this rhetorical flexibility, for the most part, to great effect.

Their historical narrative sticks mostly to the early centuries of capitalism, but their portrayals of sugar plantations, peasant evictions and the pre-petroleum frenzies of charcoal-making in England and peat extraction in the Netherlands are vivid and closely linked.

Particularly helpful is their concept of frontiers, which extends beyond the merely geographic to include any new sphere of exploitation – and capitalism is an incessant search for such new frontiers. As a result, it’s easy to see the strategies of “cheapening” in the latest business stories.

Jeff Bezos, for example, has become the world’s richest man through a new model of industrial organization – thousands of minimum-wage workers frantically running through massive windowless warehouses to package orders, with the latest electronic monitoring equipment used to speed up the treadmill at regular intervals. Life-destroying stress for employees, but Cheap Work for Bezos. Or take the frontier of the “sharing economy”, in which clever capitalists find a way to profit from legions of drivers and hotel-keepers, without the expense of investment in taxis or real estate.

Patel and Moore note that periods of financialization have occurred before, when there was a temporary surplus of capital looking for returns and a temporary shortage of frontiers. But

“there’s something very different about the era of financialization that began in the 1980s. Previous financial expansions could all count on imperialism to extend profit-making opportunities into significant new frontiers of cheap nature. … Today, those frontiers are smaller than ever before, and the volume of capital looking for new investment is greater than ever before.”

Thus the latest episode of financialization is just one of many indicators of a turbulent future. And that leads us to perhaps the most glaring weakness of Seven Cheap Things.

The subtitle makes a promise of a guide to “the future of the planet”. (In fairness, it’s possible that the subtitle was chosen not by the authors but the publishers.) The Conclusion offers suggestions of “a way to think beyond a world of cheap things ….” But in spite of the potentially intriguing headings Recognition, Reparation, Redistribution, Reimagination, and Recreation, their suggestions are so sketchy that they end a solid story on a very thin note.

Top photo: “The boiling house”, from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, 1823, by William Clark, illustrates a step in the production of sugar. Image from the British Library via Wikimedia Commons.

Super-size that commodity

Also published at

A review of ‘A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism’

Don’t expect a whole lot of taste when you sit down to a plateful of commodities.

That might be a fitting but unintended lesson for foodies who work through the new book by Eric Holt-Giménez. A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism will reward a careful reader with lots of insights – but it won’t do much for the taste buds.

While A Foodie’s Guide is lacking in recipes or menu ideas, it shines in helping us to understand the struggles of the men and women who work in the farms and packing plants. Likewise, it explains why major capitalists have typically shown little interest in direct involvement in agriculture – preferring to make their money selling farm inputs, trading farm commodities, or turning farm products into the thousands of refined products that fill supermarket shelves.

Fictitious commodities

Karl Polanyi famously described land, labour and money as “fictitious commodities”. Land and labour in particular come in for lengthy discussion in A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism. In the process, Holt-Giménez also effectively unmasks the myth of the free market.

“Markets have been around a long time,” he writes, “but before the nineteenth century did not organize society as they do today.” He shows how capitalism in England arose concurrently with vigorous state intervention which drove people off their small farms and into the industrial labour pool. Meanwhile overseas both the slave trade and settler colonialism were opening critical parts of global markets, which were anything but “free”.

Nevertheless the takeover of food production by capitalism has been far from complete.

“Today, despite centuries of capitalism, large-scale capitalist agriculture produces less than a third of the world’s food supply, made possible in large part by multibillion-dollar subsidies and insurance programs. Peasants and smallholders still feed most people in the world, though they cultivate less than a quarter of the arable land.” (Holt-Giménez, A Foodie’s Guide To Capitalism, Monthly Review Press and FoodFirst Books, citing a report in GRAIN, May 2014)

There are a lot of reasons for this incomplete transition, but many are related to two of the “fictitious commodities”. Let’s start with land.

While land is the most important “means of production” in agriculture, land is of course much more than that. For people throughout history, land has been home, land has been the base of culture, land has been sacred. Even today, people go to great lengths to avoid having their lands swallowed up by capitalist agriculture – especially since this transition typically results in widespread consolidation of farms, leaving most former farmers to try to earn a living as landless labourers.

Autumn colours in the Northumberland Hills north of Lake Ontario, Canada

Likewise labour is much more than a commodity. An hour of labour is a handy abstraction that can be fed into an economist’s formula, but the labourer is a flesh-and-blood human being with complex motivations and aspirations. Holt-Giménez offers a good primer in Marxist theory here, showing why it has always been difficult for capitalists to extract surplus value directly from the labour of farmers. He also builds on the concept of the “cost of reproduction” in explaining why, in those sectors of farming that do depend on wage labour, most of the wage labourers are immigrants.

Before people can be hired at wages, they need to be born, cared for as infants, fed through childhood, provided with some level of education. These “costs of reproduction” are substantial and unavoidable. A capitalist cannot draw surplus value from labour unless some segment of society pays those “costs of reproduction”, but it is in the narrow economic self-interest of capitalists to ensure that someone else pays. Consider, for example, the many Walmart employees who rely on food stamps to feed their families. Since Walmart doesn’t want to pay a high enough wage to cover the “cost of reproduction” for the next generation of workers, a big chunk of that bill goes to taxpayers.

In industrialized countries, the farm workers who pick fruit and vegetables or work in packing plants tend to be immigrants on temporary work permits. This allows the capitalist food system to pass off the costs of reproduction, not to domestic taxpayers, but to the immigrants’ countries of origin:

“the cost of what it takes to feed, raise, care for and educate a worker from birth to working age (the costs of reproduction) are assumed by the immigrants’ countries of origin and is free to their employers in the rich nations, such as the United States and the nations of Western Europe. The low cost of immigrant labor works like a tremendous subsidy, imparting value to crops and agricultural land. This value is captured by capitalists across the food chain, but not by the worker.” (Holt-Giménez, A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism)

Farmstead in the Black Hills, South Dakota, USA

The persistence of the family farm

In the US a large majority of farms, including massive farms which raise monoculture crops using huge machinery, are run by individual families rather than corporations. Although they own much of their land, these farmers typically work long hours at what amounts to less than minimum wage, and many depend on at least some non-farm salary or wage income to pay the bills. Again, there are clear limitations in a capitalist food system’s ability to extract surplus value directly from these hours of labour.

But in addition to selling “upstream” inputs like hybrid and GMO seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and machinery, the capitalist food system dominates the “downstream” process of trading commodities, processing foods, and distributing them via supermarket shelves. An important recent development in this regard is contract farming, which Holt-Giménez refers to as “a modern version of sharecropping and tenant farming”.

A large corporation contracts to buy, for example, a chicken farmer’s entire output of chickens, at a fixed price:

“Through a market-specification contract, the firm guarantees the producer a buyer, based on agreements regarding price and quality, and with a resource-providing contract the firm also provides production inputs (like fertilizer, hatchlings, or technical assistance). If the firm provides all the inputs and buys all of the product, it essentially controls the production process while the farmer basically provides land and labor ….”

The corporation buying the chickens gets the chance to dominate the chicken market, without the heavy investment of buying land and buildings and hiring the workforce. Meanwhile farmers with purchase contracts in hand can go to the bank for operating loans, but they lose control over most decisions about production on their own land. And they bear the risk of losing their entire investment – which often means losing their home as well – if the corporation decides the next year to cancel the contract, drop the price paid for chicken, or raise the price of chicken feed.

Contract farming dominates the poultry industry in the US and the pork market is now rapidly undergoing “chickenization”. Holt–Giménez adds that “The World Bank considers contract farming to be the primary means for linking peasant farmers to the global market and promotes it widely in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.”

Farm field in springtime, western North Dakota, USA

Feeding a hungry world

In North America the conventional wisdom holds that only industrial capitalist agriculture has the ability to provide food for the billions of people in today’s world. Yet on a per hectare basis, monoculture agribusiness has been far less productive than many traditional intensive agricultures.

“Because peasant-style farming usually takes place on smaller farms, the total output is less than capitalist or entrepreneurial farms. However, their total output per unit of land (tons/hectare; bushels/acre) tends to be higher. This is why, as capitalist agriculture converts peasant-style farms to entrepreneurial and capitalist farms, there is often a drop in productivity ….”

Marxist political-economic theory provides a useful basis for Holt-Giménez’ explorations of many aspects of global food systems. Among the topics he covers are the great benefits of the Green Revolution to companies marketing seeds and fertilizers, along with the great costs to peasants who were driven off their lands, and potentially catastrophic damages to the ecological web.

But an over-reliance on this theory, in my opinion, leads to an oversimplification of some of our current challenges. This is most significant in Holt-Giménez’s discussions of the overlapping issues of food waste and the failure to distribute farm outputs fairly.

In recent decades there has been a constant surplus of food available on world markets, while hundreds of millions of people have suffered serious malnutrition. At the same time we are often told that approximately 40% of the world’s food goes to waste. Surely there should be an easy way to distribute food more justly, avoid waste, and solve chronic hunger, no?

Yet it is not clear what proportion of food waste is unavoidable, given the vagaries of weather that may cause a bumper crop one year in one area, or rapid increases in harvest-destroying pests in response to ecological changes. It is easy to think that 40% waste is far too high – but could we reasonably expect to cut food waste to 5%, 10% or 20%? That’s a question that Holt-Giménez doesn’t delve into.

On the other hand he does pin food waste very directly on capitalist modes of production. “The defining characteristic of capitalism is its tendency to overproduce. The food system is no exception.” He adds, “The key to ending food waste is to end overproduction.”

Yet if food waste is cut back through a lowering of production, that in itself is of no help to those who are going hungry.

Holt-Giménez writes “Farmers are nutrient-deficient because they don’t have enough land to grow a balanced diet. These are political, not technical problems.” Yes, access to land is a critical political issue – but can we be sure that the answers are only political, and not in part technical as well? After all, famines predated capitalism, and have occurred in widely varying economic contexts even in the past century.

Particularly for the coming generations, climatic shifts may create enormous food insecurities even for those with access to (formerly sufficient) land. As George Monbiot notes in The Guardian this week, rapid loss of topsoil on a world scale, combined with water scarcity and rising temperatures, is likely to have serious impacts on agricultural production. Facing these challenges, farming knowledge and techniques that used to work very well may require serious adaptation. So the answers are not likely to be political or technical, but political and technical.

These critiques aside, Holt-Giménez has produced an excellent guidebook for the loose collection of interests often called “the food movement”. With a good grasp of the way capitalism distorts food production, plus an understanding of the class struggles that permeate the global food business, foodies stand a chance of turning the food movement into an effective force for change.