Segregation, block by block

Also published on Resilience

Is the purpose of zoning to ensure that towns and cities develop according to a rational plan? Does zoning protect the natural environment? Does zoning help promote affordable housing? Does zoning protect residents from the air pollution, noise pollution  and dangers from industrial complexes or busy highways?

To begin to answer these questions, consider this example from M. Nolan Gray’s new book Arbitrary Lines:

“It remains zoning ‘best practice’ that single-family residential districts should be ‘buffered’ from bothersome industrial and commercial districts by multifamily residential districts. This reflects zoning’s modus operandi of protecting single-family houses at all costs, but it makes no sense from a land-use compatibility perspective. While a handful of generally more affluent homeowners may be better off, it comes at the cost of many hundreds more less affluent residents suffering a lower quality of life.” (M. Nolan Gray, page 138)

Arbitrary Lines by M. Nolan Gray is published by Island Press, June 2022.

The intensification of inequality, Gray argues, is not an inadvertent side-effect of zoning, but its central purpose.

If you are interested in affordable housing, housing equity,  environmental justice, reduction of carbon emissions, adequate public transit, or streets that are safe for walking and cycling, Arbitrary Lines is an excellent resource in understanding how American cities got the way they are and how they might be changed for the better. (The book doesn’t discuss Canada, but much of Gray’s argument seems readily applicable to Canadian cities and suburbs.)

In part one and part two of this series, we looked at the complex matrix of causes that explain why “accidents”, far from being randomly distributed, happen disproportionately to disadvantaged people. In There Are No Accidents Jessie Singer writes, “Accidents are the predictable result of unequal power in every form – physical and systemic. Across the United States, all the places where a person is most likely to die by accident are poor. America’s safest corners are all wealthy.” (Singer, page 13)

Gray does not deal directly with traffic accidents, or mortality due in whole or part to contaminants from pollution sources close to poor neighbourhoods. His lucid explanation of zoning, however, helps us understand one key mechanism by which disadvantaged people are confined to unhealthy, dangerous, unpleasant places to live.

‘Technocratic apartheid’

Zoning codes in the US today make no mention of race, but Gray traces the history of zoning back to explicitly racist goals. In the early 20th century, he says, zoning laws were adopted most commonly in southern cities for the express purposes of enforcing racial segregation. As courts became less tolerant of open racism, they nonetheless put a stamp of approval on economic segregation. Given the skewed distribution of wealth, economic segregation usually resulted in or preserved de facto racial segregation as well.

The central feature and overriding purpose of zoning was to restrict the best housing districts to affluent people. Zoning accomplishes this in two ways. First, in large areas of cities and especially of suburbs the only housing allowed is single-family housing, one house per lot. Second, minimum lot sizes and minimum floor space sizes ensure that homes are larger and more expensive than they would be if left to the “free market”.

The result, across vast swaths of urban America, is that low-density residential areas have been mandated to remain low-density. People who can’t afford to buy a house, but have the means to rent an apartment, are unsubtly told to look in other parts of town.

Gray terms this segregation “a kind of technocratic apartheid,” and notes that “Combined with other planning initiatives, zoning largely succeeded in preserving segregation where it existed and instituting segregation where it didn’t.” (Gray, page 81) He cites one study that found “over 80 percent of all large metropolitan areas in the US were more racially segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990. Today, racial segregation is most acute not in the South but in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions.” (Gray, page 169)

Public transit? The numbers don’t add up.

From an environmental and transportation equity point of view, a major effect of zoning is that it makes good public transit unfeasible in most urban areas. Gray explains:

“There is a reasonable consensus among transportation planners that a city needs densities of at least seven dwelling units per acre to support the absolute baseline of transit: a bus that stops every thirty minutes. To get more reliable service, like bus rapid transit or light-rail service, a city needs … approximately fifteen units per acre. The standard detached single-family residential district—which forms the basis of zoning and remains mapped in the vast majority of most cities—supports a maximum density of approximately five dwelling units per acre. That is to say, zoning makes efficient transit effectively illegal in large swaths of our cities, to say nothing of our suburbs.” (Gray, page 101)

Coupled with the nearly ubiquitous adoption of rules mandating more parking space than would otherwise be built, the single-family housing and minimum lot size provisions of zoning are a disaster both for affordable housing and for environmentally-friendly housing. Typical American zoning, Gray says, “assumes universal car ownership and prohibits efficient apartment living. But it also just plain wastes space: if you didn’t know any better, you might be forgiven for thinking that your local zoning ordinance was carefully calibrated to use up as much land as possible.” (Gray, page 96)

Zoning regimes came into wide use in the mid-twentieth century and became notably stricter in the 1970s. In Gray’s view the current housing affordability crisis is the result of cities spending “the past fifty years using zoning to prevent new housing supply from meeting demand.” This succeeded in boosting values of properties owned by the already affluent, but eventually housing affordability became a problem not only for those at the bottom of the housing market but for most Americans. That is one impetus, Gray explains, for a recent movement to curb the worst features of zoning. While this movement is a welcome development, Gray argues zoning should be abolished, not merely reformed. Near the end of Arbitrary Lines, he explains many other planning and regulatory frameworks that can do much more good and much less harm than zoning.

There is one part of his argument that I found shaky. He believes that the abolition of zoning will restore economic growth by promoting movement to the “most productive” cities, and that “there is no reason to believe that there is an upper bound to the potential innovation that could come from growing cities.” (Gray, page 72) At root the argument is based on his acceptance that income is “a useful proxy for productivity” – a dubious proposition in my view. That issue aside, Arbitrary Lines is well researched, well illustrated, well reasoned and well written.

The book is detailed and wide-ranging, but unlike a typical big-city zoning document it is never boring or obscure. For environmentalists and urban justice activists Arbitrary Lines is highly recommended.


Image at top of page: detail from Winnipeg zoning map, 1947, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Around the world in a shopping cart

Also posted on Resilience.

Christopher Mims had just embarked on his study of the global retail supply chain when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Quickly, he found, affluent consumers redoubled their efforts at the very activity Mims was investigating:

“Confronted by the stark reality of their powerlessness to do anything else and primed by a lifetime of consumerism into thinking the answer to the existential dread at the core of their being is to buy more stuff, Americans, along with everyone else on Earth with the means to do so, will go shopping.” (page 6-7; all quotes here are from Arriving Today)

Arriving Today is published by Harper Collins, September 2021.

More than ever, shopping during the pandemic meant shopping online. That added complications to the global logistics systems Mims was studying, and added another strand to the story he weaves in Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door – Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy. (Harper Collins, 2021)

The book traces the movements of a single, typical online purchase – a USB charger – from the time it leaves a factory in Vietnam until it’s delivered to a buyer in the US. Sounds simple enough – but it’s an immensely complicated story, which Sims tells very well.

In the process he dives into the history and present of containerized shipping; working conditions for sailors, longshoremen, truckers, and warehouse employees; why items are scattered around a “fulfillment center” in the same way data files are scattered around on a computer drive; the great difficulty in teaching a robot to pick up soft packages wrapped in plastic film; and why no supercomputer can calculate the single best route for a UPS driver to take in making a hundred or more deliveries in the course of an average day.

How long can this system continue to swallow more resources, more small businesses, more lives? If there is a major weakness to Sims’ treatment, it is in suggesting that the online retail juggernaut must, inevitably, continue to grow indefinitely.

A key issue that is absent from the book is the energy cost of the global supply chain. Sims devotes a great deal of attention, however, to the brutal working conditions and relentless exploitation of working people in many segments of the delivery system. At the very least, this evidence should lead one to wonder when a tipping point will be reached. When, for example, might workers or voters be driven to organize an effective counterforce to insatiably acquisitive billionaires like Jeff Bezos? When, more grimly, might the portion of the population with discretionary income become so small they can no longer prop up the consumer economy?

“Taylorism – the dominant ideology of the modern world”

The unifying thread in Sims’ presentation is this: “Taylorism” – the early 20th-century management practice of breaking down factory work into discrete movements that can be “rationalized” for greater company profits – has now turned many more sectors into assembly lines. Today, Sims writes, “the walls of the factory have dissolved. Every day, more and more of what we do, how we consume, even how we think, has become part of the factory system.”

The factory system, in Sims’ telling, now stretches across oceans and across continents. It finds clear expression in facilities that are owned or controlled by the management practices of Amazon. In Amazon’s sorting, packing and shipping facilities, what makes the company “particularly Darwinian” is the floating rate that constantly and coldly passes judgment on employees.

With warehouse work divided into discrete, measurable and countable tasks, management algorithms constantly track the number of operations completed by each worker. Those who perform in the bottom 25% are routinely fired and replaced. As a result, Sims writes, “most workers in an Amazon warehouse are constantly in danger of losing their jobs, and they know it.”

There is no paid sick leave, so cash-strapped employees often have no choice but to work even when injured or sick. (Free coffee and free Ibuprofen are made available to help them work through fatigue or pain.) But if ill health causes a drop in performance they won’t “make the rate” and they will be fired. Those who are exceptionally physically fit, and who seldom get sick, are still likely to be worn down by the relentless pace eventually.

To replace workers, Sims says, “the company has all but abandoned interviewing new hires.” Screening and training new employees can be expensive processes, but they are processes in which Amazon invests little. A constant cohort of new employees are dropped into the stream and they simply sink or swim:

“Everyone I talked to about their first months at Amazon said that the attrition rate they witnessed was greater than 50 percent in the first two months.” (page 209)

Some companies might regard high employee turnover as a huge liability. For Amazon, Sims explains, high turnover is not a bug, it’s a feature. The turnover allows the company “to grab only the most able-bodied members of America’s workforce” (page 235) and to constantly replace them with new employees who haven’t yet gotten sick or injured.

If that weren’t enough, the high turnover benefits Amazon in another important way: “it makes it almost impossible for workers to unionize.” (page 210) 

UPS trucks in Manhattan, 2010. Photo by Jeremy Vandel, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial license.

The last mile

“[Amazon’s] relentless measurement, drive for efficiency, loose hiring standards, and moving targets for hourly rates are the perfect system for ingesting as many people as possible and discarding all but the most physically fit.” (page 235-236)

As Amazon’s share of retail shopping grows and it Taylorizes its warehousing, there is another big link in the supply chain in which the company sees opportunity to slash worker compensation and boost corporate profits.

Until recently transportation of packages between sorting centers, and along the “last mile” to customers’ doorsteps, has been controlled by a wide array of trucking companies. One of the biggest of these companies, UPS, is a throwback to a day when most truck drivers were unionized, well paid, and received benefits like paid sick days, company health insurance, and pensions.

A driver for UPS is well trained, often very experienced, and learns to “go from stopping their truck to getting a package out of it in nine seconds.” (page 271) But a full-time driver for UPS also makes more than $30/hour plus benefits. Jeff Bezos, who increased his wealth by $65 billion in the first year of the pandemic, covets the paycheque of that UPS driver, along with the paycheque of anyone else in the supply chain whose job, if it can’t be robotized, could be turned over to a minimum-wage gig worker, aka “independent contractor”.

UPS and FedEx, Sims writes, together have 80 per cent of the US package delivery business. FedEx, along with nearly all other parcel-delivery companies, pay roughly minimum wage, with minimal benefits. Care to guess which company Amazon would like to emulate?

Indeed, as of 2018 Amazon itself has roared into the delivery business. “By the middle of 2020s,” Sims writes, “Amazon Logistics … is projected to take the number one spot from UPS.” (page 252)

Citing the research of Brandeis University professor David Weil, Sims concludes:

“Everything about Amazon’s decision to hire delivery companies that hire drivers, rather than hiring those drivers directly, is about pushing down wages, eliminating workplace protections, evading liability in the event of accidents, avoiding workplace litigation, eliminating the expense of benefits, and eliminating the possibility of drivers ever unionizing ….” (page 278)

In the last sentence of his book, Sims cites the 100 billion packages per year now shipped through the online retail supply chain, and he exhorts us to “imagine a future in which that number has doubled or tripled; imagine a future in which it is the way virtually every finished object gets anywhere.” (page 288)

Let’s imagine: Factory jobs in every sector will have moved to the lowest-wage countries with adequate industrial capabilities. Formerly well-paid factory workers in Rust Belt towns will compete for Amazon warehouse jobs that offer them minimum wage, for as many months as their bodies can sustain the constantly accelerating pace of simple repetitive tasks. Robots will have replaced human wage-earners wherever possible. And last mile delivery drivers will take orders from Amazon but receive their meager paycheques from other companies whose names most of us will never see.

In that paradise of capitalist productivity, who besides Jeff Bezos will still have enough income to fill their shopping carts?


Image at top: Your Cart is Full, composed by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain graphics.

‘This is a key conversation to have.’

This afternoon Post Carbon Institute announced the release of the new book Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency. That brings to fruition a project more than two-and-a-half years in the making.

Cover of Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency

In May 2019, I received an email from Clifford Cobb, editor of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology. He asked if I would consider serving as Guest Editor for an issue of the Journal, addressing “problems of transition to a world of climate instability and rising energy prices.” I said “yes” – and then, month by month, learned how difficult it can be to assemble a book-length collection of essays. In July, 2020, this was published by Wiley and made accessible to academic readers around the world.

It had always been a goal, however, to also release this collection as a printed volume, for the general public, at an accessible price. With the help of the Post Carbon Institute that plan is now realized. On their website you can download the book’s Introduction –which sets the context and gives an overview of each chapter – at no cost; download the entire book in pdf format for only $9.99US; or find online retailers around the world to buy the print edition of the book.

Advance praise for Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency:

“Energy descent is crucial to stopping climate and ecological breakdown. This is a key conversation to have.” – Peter Kalmus, climate scientist, author of Being The Change

“This lively and insightful collection is highly significant for identifying key trends in transitioning to low-energy futures.” – Anitra Nelson, author of Small is Necessary

“The contributors to this volume have done us a tremendous service.” – Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow, Post Carbon Institute, author of Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival

“For those already applying permaculture in their lives and livelihoods, this collection of essays is affirmation that we are on the right track for creative adaption to a world of less. This book helps fill the conceptual black hole that still prevails in academia, media, business and politics.” – David Holmgren, co-originator of Permaculture, author of RetroSuburbia

“The contributors explain why it is time to stop thinking so much about efficiency and start thinking about sufficiency: how much do we really need? What’s the best tool to do the job? What is enough? They describe a future that is not just sustainable but is regenerative, and where there is enough for everyone living in a low-carbon world.” – Lloyd Alter, Design Editor at treehugger.com and author of Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle: Why Individual Climate Action Matters More Than Ever


Some sources for the print edition:

In North America, Barnes & Noble

In Britain, Blackwell’s  and Waterstones

In Australia, Booktopia

Worldwide, from Amazon

Colonialism, climate crisis, and the forever wars

Also published on Resilience.

Two rounds of negotiation take centre stage, about halfway through Amitav Ghosh’s new masterwork The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis.

In one, US State Department and Pentagon officials win agreement that carbon emissions connected with the military are to be kept out of the Kyoto Protocol – an omission that has been preserved in international climate agreements to this day.

At the opposite end of the global power hierarchy, Khokon, a refugee from the Kishoreganj district of Bangladesh, has engaged in desperate negotiations simply to stay alive. His family’s low-lying land had been flooded for six months, followed by long droughts, hailstorms, and unseasonal downpours. The environmental degradation was followed by political depredations, as well-connected people seized increasingly scarce arable land including part of Khokon’s family’s farm. Eventually there was no better option than to sell some land and send Khokon to France – but he was quickly deported back to Bangladesh. There was no paid employment for him so after seven months of hopelessness, 

“his family sold the rest of their land and paid another agent to send him abroad again. Dubai was Khokon’s chosen destination, and he paid accordingly; but the agent cheated him and he ended up in Libya instead. For the next several years he had to endure enslavement, beatings, extortion, and torture. But somehow he managed to save up enough money to pay traffickers to send him from Libya to Sicily in a ramshackle boat.” (all quoted material in this article is from The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh, published by University of Chicago Press, October 2021)

Khokon was penniless, traumatized – but unlike many others he survived the voyage. Assisted by support groups for refugees and by relatives, he was able to stay in Italy and get a job at a warehouse in Parma.

How are these two sets of negotiations related? In Ghosh’s telling, the well-connected lobbyists meeting in posh board rooms, and the refugees simply trying to stay alive, each understand in their own ways how the climate crisis is intertwined with the global power structure.

The strategists at the Pentagon are fully aware that the climate crisis is a serious challenge. Yet their own ability to consume fossil fuels must not be called into question, even though the US military consumes more fossil fuel than any other organization in the world. Their own carbon emissions are not negotiable, because fossil fuel dominance is both the enabling force and the purpose of the vast web of military bases, aircraft carriers, bombers, missiles and drones through which the US exerts influence over global trade. In Ghosh’s words,

“The job of the world’s dominant military establishments is precisely to defend the most important drivers of climate change—the carbon economy and the systems of extraction, production, and consumption that it supports. Nor can these establishments be expected to address the unseen drivers of the planetary crisis, such as inequities of class, race, and geopolitical power: their very mission is to preserve the hierarchies that favor the status quo.”

Likewise, Ghosh explains, the refugees he meets in the camps around the Mediterranean are keenly aware of the realities of climate change – but they don’t think of themselves as climate refugees. If unstable weather conditions were the only challenge they faced, after all, they could simply buy a first-class ticket and fly to a comfortable new home in another country.

“What migrants like Khokon know, on the other hand, is that every aspect of their plight is rooted in unyielding, intractable, and historically rooted forms of class and racial injustice. …They know that the processes that have displaced them are embedded in very old and deeply entrenched social relationships of power, national and international.”

The exclusion of military emissions, at the very outset of international climate talks, has contributed to a tendency to see the climate crisis as techno-economic problem. Ghosh’s purpose in The Nutmeg’s Curse is to show that the climate crisis has roots as deep and as old as settler colonialism.

The conquest of Jacatra by the VOC in 1619. J.P. Coen decided in 1619 that Jakatra, later Batavia, would be a suitable base for the VOC on Java. (VOC = Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie, aka Dutch East Indies Company). After the conquest the whole city was razed to the ground, built anew and renamed Batavia. (File accessed via Wikimedia Commons.)

Terms of trade

“Selamon is a village in the Banda archipelago, a tiny cluster of islands at the far southeastern end of the Indian Ocean,” Ghosh writes in the book’s opening paragraphs. This village and this cluster of islands played an important role in global history due to the presence of an unusual tree – the tree that produces nutmeg and mace.

Nutmeg had been traded in many countries for many centuries, and was one of the substances most sought after and valued in Renaissance Europe. The search for nutmeg’s origins was a key driver of the wave of European explorations which eventually chanced upon the Americas.

When traders from the Dutch East India Company arrived in the Banda Islands, they quickly understood that they could multiply their profits. Trading in nutmeg was a good business, to be sure, but it would be much better if the Dutch had a tight monopoly. There was just one problem: the Bandas were already inhabited by skilled growers and traders, who had no desire to limit their business opportunities by selling only to one buyer.

The solution to the problem was simple and brutal, but was not unusual in the annals of colonialism: the Bandanese people had to be exterminated, so the Dutch could bring in slaves to harvest nutmegs, take sole control of the world-wide nutmeg trade, and sell the product for whatever the market would bear. This transfer of power took place in the early 17th century, and the profits fueled a burst of commercial and artistic development in The Netherlands which is known as The Golden Age.

“There are innumerable books on the art of the Dutch Golden Age,” Ghosh writes, but “few indeed are those that mention the Banda genocide.” He finds the story in obscure archives, told in the words of the very people who carried out the massacres. Even at the distance of four centuries, the events in Banda in April 1621 make for nightmare-inducing reading. And the events in Banda were not unique – they were part of a widespread pattern.

About the same time as the Banda massacres, Sir Francis Bacon wrote that there are  “nations that are outlawed and proscribed by the law of nature and nations, or by the immediate commandment of God.” It is only right, Bacon continued, that “godly and civilized nations”, when encountering such outlawed nations, should “cut them off from the face of the earth” (quoted by Ghosh from Bacon’s An Advertisement Touching An Holy War). This call to genocide, Ghosh says, was echoed by other European “Enlightenment” figures – and enacted all too frequently through the centuries of colonial conquest and domination.

European elites also began to tell themselves that the meaning, the very reason for existence, of all the world was to become resources for human industry. Those who believed the contrary – that the land and seas, plants and animals, had their own stories and their own spirits – were clearly unfit for survival:

“To believe that the Earth was anything more than an inanimate resource was to declare oneself a superstitious savage—and that, in turn, was tantamount to placing oneself on the waiting list for extinction or extermination. Vitalism, savagery, and extinction were a series in which each term implied the next.” 

Several centuries of frenzied extractivism have followed, with increasingly severe costs to earth’s ecosystems, deadly results to the indigenous peoples who were colonized, but exponential growth in wealth for the colonizers. By the time European industries learned how to exploit fossil fuels, the pattern of insatiable consumption was well established.

Today the spice trade is a minuscule part of international trade. The most valuable commodities in our era have been hydrocarbons. But these resources, too, are heavily concentrated in certain parts of the globe, and when exported must pass through a handful of maritime choke points including the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca, and the southern tip and the Horn of Africa – “the exact locations,” Ghosh writes, “that European colonial powers fought over when the Indian Ocean’s most important commodities were cloves, nutmeg, and pepper.”

Today it is not the Dutch, nor the English, nor the Spanish, who rule the seas and set the terms of trade. But the basic order of colonialism remains, for now, intact:

“This empire may be under American control today, but it is the product of centuries of combined Western effort, going back to the 1500s.”

As in centuries past, preserving the dominant position of the empire results in immense loss of life outside the empire. In the cascading ecological catastrophes through the Middle East and South Asia, coupled with the vast numbers of civilian casualties categorized as “collateral damage”, Ghosh hears many echoes from centuries past. The “forever wars” in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and many other countries have their analogues through the long centuries of European conquest in Africa, the Americas and Asia.

The “surly bonds of earth” – or “all our relations”

The Nutmeg’s Curse is a very big book considering it weighs in at a relatively modest 336 pages. In exploring his theme Ghosh dives into Greek mythology, contemporary geopolitics, classic Dutch literature, American popular culture, the history of botanical science, all in addition to his primary focus, the colonization of several continents over several centuries. His gift for both narrative and exposition make The Nutmeg’s Curse compulsively readable.

One area in which his explanations fall short, in my view, is Ghosh’s discussion of socio-technical ramifications of energy transition. He accepts and repeats, with little apparent critique, two viewpoints that have been influential in US media in recent years: one, that since the onset of fracking the US has become energy sufficient, with no need for hydrocarbon imports; and two, that the technologies for a seamless transition from hydrocarbons to renewable energies are already available. But these arguments play a relatively minor role in the great sweep of The Nutmeg’s Curse.

 The story Ghosh tells is often appalling, sickening in its portrayal of human cruelty, and frightening in what it says about the daunting challenges we face to achieve a just world through coming decades. It is also enlightening and, in the end, hopeful.

Consider these lines from a poem by Canadian-American pilot John Gillespie Magee, written shortly before his death in World War II:

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”

Magee “was almost instantly canonized as the American poet of World War II,” Ghosh writes, and these lines soon appeared on headstones throughout the United States, they were used in the midnight sign-off for many television stations, a copy of the poem was deposited on the moon in 1971, and Ronald Reagan recited the lines to dramatic effect after the space shuttle Challenger disaster. But Ghosh asks us to consider:

“What exactly is ‘surly’ about the Earth’s bonds? [W]hy should the planet be thought of as a home from which humans would be fortunate to escape?”

The deep-seated disdain for the earth was not a mere mid-twentieth-century fad. Ghosh finds the same sentiment expressed in stark terms, for example, in the work of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “perhaps the most celebrated English poet of the late nineteenth century.” But it is an unfortunately logical outcome of a perspective that sees all the Earth, that sees Nature – soil, minerals, plants, animals, and even people – as resources to be consumed for the profit of those clever enough to dominate.

Today, Ghosh says, this earth-disdaining ethos of domination has expanded well beyond traditional colonial powers. With the global hegemony of neo-liberal economics, ruling parties in Brazil, India and China are eagerly joining the extractivist project; that is one key reason why rain forests are shrinking so rapidly, and why half of all carbon emissions from the entire industrial age have happened in just the past thirty years.

In the face of all this destruction, where can one find hope? Perhaps here, Ghosh writes: a revival of vitalist beliefs, with deep love for the sacredness of earthly spaces, is spreading in many countries. In many cases led by indigenous peoples, this vitalist revival is at the forefront of environmental struggles. He notes the legal victories, from New Zealand to South America, “that Indigenous peoples around the world have won in recent years, precisely on vitalist grounds, by underscoring the sacredness of mountains, rivers, and forests, and by highlighting the ties of kinship by which they are bound to humans.” He is inspired by Native American resistance movements which honour “the familial instinct to protect ‘all our relatives’—that is to say, the entire spectrum of nonhuman kin, including rivers, mountains, animals, and the spirits of the land.”

Is it naïve, wishful thinking, or even anti-scientific, to find hope in loving “all our relatives”? Ghosh asks that question too, and we’ll close with his answer:

“Is this magical thinking? Perhaps—but no more so than the idea of colonizing Mars; or the belief, now enshrined in the Paris Agreement, that a new technology for removing vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere will magically appear in the not-too-distant future.

“The difference is that a vitalist mass movement, because it depends not on billionaires or technology, but on the proven resources of the human spirit, may actually be magical enough to change hearts and minds across the world.”


Photo at top of page: A Dutch men-of-war and small vessels in a breeze, by Dutch Golden Age painter Lieve Verschuier (1627–1686). Now in National Museum of Warsaw. Accessed at Wikimedia Commons.

Your gas tank is not an oil well. Your battery will not be a power plant.

Also published on Resilience.

My car comes with an amazing energy-storage, demand-management-and-supply system; perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called the “gas tank”.

Thanks to this revolutionary feature, if I get home and the electric grid is down, I can siphon gas out of the tank and power up a generator. In a more urgent energy crunch, I can siphon out some gas, throw it on a woodpile, and get a really hot fire going in seconds. If a friend across town has no power, I can even drive over there, siphon out some fuel, and run a generator to provide power in an alternate location. It’s beautiful! I can shift energy provision and consumption both temporally and spatially.

There is one minor drawback, to be sure. If I siphon the fuel out of the tank then I can’t actually drive the car, at least not more than a few kilometers to the nearest fuel station. But let’s not let that limitation cast a shadow over this revolutionary technology. If this flexible load-management system were widely adopted, and there were cars everywhere, think how smoothly our society could run!

These thoughts come to mind when I hear someone rhapsodize about the second coming of the electric car. Recently, for example, a Grist headline proclaimed that “Your Electric Vehicle Could Become a Mini Power Plant. And that could make the electrical grid work better for everyone.” (June 21, 2021)

Stephen Peake, in Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons (review here) wrote that “new fleets of electric vehicles parked overnight could become another mass source of electricity storage and supply.” (emphasis mine)

One more example: an Oct 2020 article at World Economic Forum says that “When electric vehicles are integrated into a city’s energy system, the battery can provide power to the grid when the sun is down or the wind isn’t blowing.”

The key to this supply-and-demand magic is “bidirectional charging” – the electric vehicles of the near future will have the equivalent of a gas tank with a built-in siphon. Thus their capacious batteries will not only be able to quickly suck power out of the grid, but also to empty themselves out again to provide juice for other purposes.

But allow me this skeptical observation: electric car batteries do not have huge batteries because the drivers want to offer aid to the “smart grid”. Electric car batteries are huge because cars are huge consumers of energy.

(True, electric cars don’t consume quite as much energy as internal-combustion cars of similar class and weight – but they consume a whole lot more energy per passenger/kilometer than intelligently routed electric buses, trains, or especially, electric-assisted bicycles.)

And let’s be clear: neither an electric car vehicle nor its battery provide any “energy supply”. The car itself is a pure energy suck. The battery is just an energy storage device – it can store a finite capacity of energy from another source, and output that energy as required, but it does not produce energy.

As with internal-combustion powered cars, when the tank/battery is drained for a purpose other than driving, then the car ceases to be a functional car until refueled.

That will leave some niche scenarios where vehicle batteries really might offer a significant advantage to grid supply management. The Grist article begins with one such scenario: three yellow school buses which run on battery power through the school year, and serve as a battery bank while parked for the summer months. If all 8,000 school buses in the local utility service area were EVs, the article notes, their fully-charged batteries “could collectively supply more than 100 megawatts of power to the grid for short periods — or nearly 1 percent of Con Ed’s peak summer power demand.”

When parked for the summer, electric school buses would not need to be charged and ready to drive first thing every weekday morning. So they could indeed be used simply as (terribly expensive) battery cases for two or three months each year.

OK, but … let’s be careful about singing the praises of school buses. This might be a slippery slope. If big buses catch on, soon Americans might start taking their kids to school in giant pick-up trucks!

Of course I jest – that horse has already left the barn. The top three selling vehicles in the US, it may surprise people from elsewhere to learn, are pick-up trucks that dwarf the pick-ups used by farmers and some tradespeople in previous generations. (It will not surprise Canadians, who play second fiddle to no-one in car culture madness. Canadians tend to buy even larger, heavier, more powerful, and more expensive trucks than Americans do.)

The boom in overgrown pick-ups has not come about because North Americans are farming and logging in record numbers, nor even, as one wag put it, that a 4X8 sheet of plywood has gotten so much bigger in recent years. Yet urban streets, parking lots, and suburban driveways are now crowded with hulking four-door, four-wheel-drive, spotlessly clean limousine-trucks. Those vehicles, regardless of their freight-carrying or freight-pulling capacity, are used most to carry one or two people around urbanized areas.

If we are foolish enough to attempt electrification of this fleet, it will take an awesome amount of battery power. And as you might expect, car culture celebrants are already proclaiming what a boon this will be for energy transition.

A pre-production promo video for Ford’s F-150 Lightning electric pick-up truck gets to the critical issue first: the Lightning will accelerate from 0 – 60 mph (0 – 97 km/hr) “in the mid-4-second range”. But wait, there’s more, the ad promises: the battery can “off-board” enough power to run a home “for about three days”.

Keep that in mind when you start seeing big electric pick-up trucks on the road: each one, in just a few hours of highway driving, will use as much power as a typical American home uses in three days.

Keep it in mind, too, when you see a new bank of solar panels going up in a field or on a warehouse roof: the installation might output enough electricity each day to power 100 pickup trucks for a few hours each – or 300 homes for the whole day.

Given that we won’t have enough renewably produced electricity to power existing homes, schools, stores and industries for decades, is it really a good idea to devote a big share of it, right at the outset, to building and charging limousine-trucks? Are the huge batteries required by these vehicles actually features, or are they bugs?

Granted, an electric car battery can provide a modest degree of grid load-levelling capability in some situations. It can be drained back into the grid during some peak-power-demand periods such as early evening in the heat of summer – as long as it can be recharged in time for the morning commute. That’s not nothing. And if we’re determined to keep our society moving by using big cars and trucks, that means we’ll have a huge aggregated battery capacity sitting in parking spots for most of each day. In that scenario, sure, there will be a modest degree of load-levelling capacity in those parked vehicles.

But perhaps there is a better way to add load-levelling capacity to the grid. A better way than producing huge, heavy vehicles, each containing one battery, which suck up that power fast whenever they’re being driven, while also spreading brake dust and worn tire particles through the environment, and which significantly increase the danger to vulnerable road users besides. Not to mention, which result in huge upfront emissions of carbon dioxide during their manufacture.

If it’s really load-levelling we’re after, for the same money and resources we could build a far greater number of batteries, and skip building expensive casings in the form of cars and pick-ups.

Other factors being equal, an electric car is modestly more environmentally friendly than internal-combustion car. (How’s that for damning with faint praise?)  But if we’re ready for a serious response to the climate emergency, we should be rapidly curtailing both the manufacture and use of cars, and making the remaining vehicles only as big and heavy as they actually need to be. The remaining small cars won’t collectively contain such a huge battery capacity, to be sure, but we can then address the difficult problems of grid load management in a more intelligent, efficient and direct fashion.


Illustration at top of post: Energy Utopia, composite by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain images.

Sunshine, wind, tides and worldwatts

A review of Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons

Also published on Resilience

Fun physics fact: water carries so much more kinetic energy than air that “A tidal current of 3 knots has the same energy density as a steady wind stream at 29 knots (a fair old blow).”

And consider this: “Ninety-nine per cent of planet Earth is hotter than 1,000 °C (1,832 °F). The earth is, in fact, a giant leaky heat battery.”

Stephen Peake uses these bits of information and many more to lucidly outline the physical bases of renewable energy sources, including solar and wind energy, geothermal energy, wave energy and tidal current energy. But the book also touches on the complex relationship between the physics of renewable energy, and the role energy plays in human society – and the results aren’t always enlightening.

Peake takes on a formidable task in Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons. The book is part of the “Pocket Einstein” series from Johns Hopkins University Press (or from Michael O’Mara Books in Britain). He has less than 200 small-format pages in which to cover both the need for and the prospects for a transition to 100% renewable energy.

Key to his method is the concept of a “worldwatt” – “the rate at which the world uses all forms of primary energy.” Peake estimates the rate of energy flow around the world from various potential renewable energy sources. Not surprisingly, he finds that the theoretically available renewable energy sources are far greater than all energy currently harnessed – primarily from fossil fuels – by the global economy.

But how do we get from estimates of theoretically available energy, to estimates of how much of that energy is practically and economically available? Here Peake’s book isn’t much help. He asks us to accept this summation:

“Taking a conservative mid-estimate of the numbers in the literature, we see that the global technical potential of different renewable sources adds up to 46 worldwatts. There is a definite and reasonable prospect of humans harnessing 1 worldwatt from 100 per cent renewable energy in the future.” (page 31)

But he offers no evidence or rationale for the conclusion that getting 1 worldwatt from renewable sources is a “reasonable prospect”, nor how near or far “in the future” that might occur.

A skeptic might well dismiss the book as renewable energy boosterism, noting a cheery optimism from the opening pages: “There is an exciting, renewable, electric, peaceful, prosperous, safer future just up ahead.” Others might say such optimism is the most helpful position one can take, given that we have no choice but to switch to a renewable energy way of life, ASAP, if we want human presence on earth to last much longer.

Yet a cheerfully pro-renewable energy position can easily shade into a cheerful pro-consumptionist stance – the belief that renewable energies can quickly become the driving force of our current industrial economies, with little change in living standards and no end to economic growth.

Peake briefly introduces a key concept for assessing which renewable energy sources will be economically viable, and in what quantities: Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI). He explains that as we exploit more difficult energy sources, the EROEI goes down:

“As wind turbines have become larger and moved offshore, the EROEI ratio for wind over a twenty-year lifetime has declined from around 20:1 in the early 2000s to as low as 15:1 in recent years for some offshore wind farms.” (page 84)

Affordable renewable energy, in other words, doesn’t always “scale up”. The greater the total energy demanded by society, the more we will be impelled to site wind turbines and solar panels in areas beyond the “sweet spots” for Energy Return On Energy Invested. Peake’s book would be stronger if he used this recognition to give better context to statements such as “Renewable electricity is now cheaper than fossil electricity …” (in the book’s opening paragraph), and “solar is now the cheapest electricity in history” (page 70).

While Peake expresses confidence that a prosperous renewable energy world is just ahead, he doesn’t directly engage with the issue of how, or how much, affluent lifestyles may need to change. The closest he comes to grappling with this contentious issue is in his discussion of energy waste:

“We need to stop wasting all forms of energy, including clean renewable sources of heat and electricity. The sooner we shrink our total overall demand for energy, the sooner renewables will be able to provide 100 per cent of the energy we need to power our zero-carbon economies.” (page 141)

Near the end of the book, in brief remarks about electric cars, Peake makes some curious statements about EVs:

“Millions of [electric vehicles] will need charging from the network. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity in terms of managing the network load.” (page 130, emphasis mine)

And a few pages later:

“In the future, new fleets of electric vehicles parked overnight could become another mass source of electricity storage and supply.” (page 134 emphasis mine)

In my next post I’ll take up this concept of the electric vehicle as energy storage, supply and load management resource.

In conclusion, Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons is a valuable primer on the physics of renewable energy, but isn’t a lot of help in establishing whether or not the existing world economy can be successfully transitioned to zero-carbon energy.


Photo at top of page: Wind Turbines near Grevelingenmeer, province of Zeeland, Netherlands

 

Reclaiming hope from the dismal science

Also published on Resilience

Post Growth is published by Polity Press, 2021.

“Empowering and elegiac” might seem a strange description of a book on economics. Yet the prominent author and former economics minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, chooses that phrase of praise for the new book Post Growth, by Tim Jackson.

In many respects the book lives up to that billing, and in the process Post Growth offers a hopeful vision of its subtitle: Life After Capitalism.

My dictionary defines an elegy as “a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead.” In writing an obituary for capitalism, paradoxically, Jackson also gives us a glimpse of a far richer way of life than anything capitalism could afford us.

Along the way he takes us through the origins and later distortion of John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism; the demonstration by biologist Lynn Margulis that cooperation is just as important an evolutionary driver as is competition; the psychology of ‘flow’ popularized by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi; and the landscape-transforming campaigns of Kenyan environmental justice activist Wangari Maathai.

Jackson accomplishes all this and more, elegantly and with clarity, in less than 200 pages.

The dismal science and its fairytales

Since the mid-19th century, under the influence of the ideals of competition and survival of the fittest, economics has earned the sobriquet “the dismal science”. At the same time, contemporary economics grew in significant part from the theories of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, in which the goal of economics would be the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. During our lifetimes, mainstream economics has proclaimed a gospel of unending economic growth. What gives?

In Mill’s day, Jackson writes, the word ‘utility’ was “a kind of direct proxy for happiness.” But meanings change:

“Economists today use ‘utility’ to refer to the worth or value of something. They tend to measure utility in monetary terms. The argument that we are driven to maximize our expected utility then assumes a very different meaning. But perhaps it’s easier to see now why the pursuit of GDP growth is seen as an irreducible good by economists and policymakers alike.” (Post Growth, page 52)

Speaking to the UN Conference on Climate Change in September 2019, Greta Thunberg famously dismissed economic orthodoxy as “fairytales of eternal economic growth.” Jackson devotes much of Post Growth to demonstrating, first, that this fairytale contradicts fundamental laws of physics, and second, that capitalism does not deliver ever-greater happiness, even for the minority in the upper half of the income scale, even during the brief and anomalous burst of growth following World War II. He explains,

“An infinite economy (the ultimate end of eternal growth) means infinite depreciation. Infinite maintenance costs. An infinite need for available energy to turn back the tide of entropy. At the end of the day, the myth of growth is a thermodynamic impossibility.” (Post Growth, page 79)

Jackson’s elegant discussion of thermodynamic limits notwithstanding, I found his discussion of the end of economic growth less than fully satisfying. He notes that labour productivity grew greatly up to about 1960, that this growth in productivity was the major enabler of rapid economic growth, and that as labour productivity growth stalled over the past several decades, so too has economic growth. He mentions – without clearly endorsing – the idea that this labour productivity was directly tied to the most easily accessible fuel sources:

“A fascinating – if worrying – contention is that the peak growth rates of the 1960s were only possible at all on the back of a huge and deeply destructive exploitation of dirty fossil fuels ….” (Post Growth, page 31)

But his primary focus is to outline why we not only must, but how we can, lead prosperous lives that give freedom to limitless human potential while still respecting the unyielding limits that thermodynamics set for our economy.

Growth when necessary, but not necessarily growth

Is money – and therefore, also GDP – a good proxy for happiness? In an important but limited sense, yes. Jackson cites what is now an extensive body of evidence showing that

“more income does a lot to increase happiness when incomes are very low to start with. Looking across countries, for instance, there’s a rapid increase in measured happiness as the average income of the nation rises from next-to-nothing to around $20,000 per person.” (Post Growth, page 52)

Beyond that modest income, however, the measured increase in happiness that goes with increased income dwindles rapidly. At the same time, research shows that “Society as a whole is less happy when things are unequal ….” From a utilitarian viewpoint, then, trying to constantly provide more for those who already have more than enough is pointless. But by closing the inequality gap – “levelling up our societies” – we can greatly increase the happiness of society as a whole.

Jackson doesn’t stop, however, with merely making that assertion. He dives deeply into discussions of the true value of care work, human creativity, the psychology of flow, and love. In the process, he goes a long way toward fulfilling a major goal of his book: presenting a realistic vision of a future “in which plenty isn’t measured in dollars and fulfillment isn’t driven by the relentless accumulation of material wealth.”

Late-stage capitalism, in fact, goes to great lengths to ensure that people are not happy.

Merchants of discontent

In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, Jackson says, the industrialized economies were able to produce material goods beyond the needs of citizens. The response of capitalism was to develop ways of ensuring that consumers constantly feel they “need” more. The burgeoning advertising industry “drew on another metaphor, borrowed from an emerging ‘evolutionary psychology’: the insatiability of human desire.”

This development “turned Mill’s utilitarianism completely on its head”, trading not in happiness but in discontent:

“Anxiety must tip over into outright dissatisfaction if capitalism is to survive. Discontentment is the motivation for our restless desire to spend. Consumer products must promise paradise. But they must systematically fail to deliver it. … The success of consumer society lies not in meeting our needs but in its spectacular ability consistently to disappoint us.” (Post Growth, page 91)

Fortunately there are ways to pursue fulfillment and satisfaction which do not depend on ever-increasing consumption. In this respect Jackson draws extensively on the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi and his classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990).

In Jackson’s description, 

“People ‘in flow’ report an unusual clarity of mind and precision of movement. They experience a sense of confidence and control over the task. But there is also a sense of being lost in the moment, sometimes even being carried along by a momentum that is entirely outside of oneself. People describe a sense of wonder, a connectedness to the world, a feeling of satisfaction that goes beyond happiness or the gratification of pleasure.” (Post Growth, page 101)

Fleeting pleasure can be bought and consumed. By contrast enjoyment, in Jackson’s use of the terms, typically takes work – the enjoyment from playing a sport well or playing music well may involve an investment of hundreds of hours of focussed attention. This work need not and often does not have adverse environmental impacts.

Clearly one needs a basis of material prosperity – beginning with adequate nutrition and housing – in order to pursue what Jackson describes as high-flow activities. But in a relatively egalitarian society which provides basic needs for all, people can achieve lasting satisfaction in activities which, Jackson and colleagues have found, tend to be both high-flow and low-impact.

“Flow exemplifies with extraordinary clarity the kinds of dividends that remain available to us in a postgrowth world,” Jackson writes. “Flow offers us better and more durable satisfactions that consumerism ever does.” (Post Growth, page 102)

While celebrating human creativity, it is equally important to restore the dignity of “the labour of care.” Some activities are fundamental to maintaining human societies: providing the food we need every day, taking care of children, providing comfort and care to those stricken with illness or in the fragility of end-of-life. Jackson notes that many people suddenly realized during the pandemic how fundamental the labour of care is. But we have done precious little to afford workers in these sectors the respect and security they deserve.

When we honour and reward all those who perform the labour of care, and we promote the lasting enjoyment that comes from flow activities rather than the resource-sucking drain of consumerism – then, Jackson says, we will have the foundation for a resilient, sustainable, postgrowth society.

Can we get there from here?

Jackson cites an oft-told joke in which a tourist on a road-less-travelled asks an Irish farmer about the best way to Dublin. The farmer replies, “Well, sir, I wouldn’t start from here.” The point being, of course, that no matter how inauspicious our present location may be, we can only start from exactly where we are.

Unfortunately I found Jackson’s road map to a post growth society unconvincing, though he makes an honest effort. In successive chapters he relates the work of Kenyan environmental justice activist Wangari Maathai, and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich That Hanh. Their examples are moving and inspiring and Jackson draws important lessons from their achievements and from the obstacles they faced.

But Jackson’s book is likely to reach primarily an audience in wealthy countries, and primarily readers who have at least a basis of material prosperity if not far more than they need. If we are to reach a post growth society soon enough to avoid both environmental conflagration and social collapse, a large number of relatively wealthy people need to realize they can be much happier by escaping the treadmill of constantly greater wealth accumulation and constantly greater consumption. I think Jackson is right on the mark in his discussion of flow, and I’d like to believe that his vision will catch on and become a civilization-defining vision – but Post Growth doesn’t convince me that that appealing future is likely.

In the concluding chapter Jackson writes, “In the ruins of capitalism, as I hope to have shown in this book, lie the seeds for a fundamental renewal.” I believe he has identified the seeds we need, and I dearly hope they will grow.


Illustration at top of page, from clockwise from top left: Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, in photograph from Wikipedia; author Tim Jackson, photo copyright by Fernando Manoso-Borgas, courtesy of press kit at timjackson.org.uk; philosopher John Stuart Mill circa 1870, photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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

 

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