Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Friday, November 19, 2010

From the science journal Nature: prepare for Peak Coal

Whatever their other differences, both eco-activists and mega-energy corporations have long agreed that the Earth's vast underground reserves of coal would fuel human industry for centuries into the future. But, according to an opinion piece in the world's leading scientific journal, Nature, those vast reserves may be depleting much more quickly than conventional opinion would have it.

The article, written by peak oil activists Richard Heinberg and David Fridley, argues that projections of virtually limitless coal reserves are based on extremely dubious, often antiquated survey data. The optimistic coal projections, according to the authors, also make implausible assumptions about future demand for coal around the world. And the projections also neglect the costs of coal-related infrastructure. The authors' conclusion: the world could face a peak in global coal production as soon as 2020.

The article is by subscription only, but here's the link

Heinberg and Fridley include an interesting little factoid in their piece. While coal production in the United States, "the Saudi Arabia of coal," continues to increase, the authors contend that actual U.S. energy output from coal peaked in 1998. This is because the production of high-quality, high-energy U.S. coal has started to decline; the increase in overall production since 1998 has been accomplished by increased output of low-energy, harder-to-reach deposits. The citations in the Nature article don't cite a source for this data (it's an essay, not a peer reviewed research article), but a 2007 article by Heinberg does.

Heinberg and Fridley concede all the usual academic caveats about uncertainty in data and methods, caution when forecasting, and so on. Their 2020 guess for the onset of peak coal is, they would acknowledge, just a guess. But they argue that the uncertainty in coal deposit data are reason for more concern, not less. Rosy production forecasts may be rooted in nothingness. It's plausible, Heinberg and Fridley suggest, that peak coal is coming in our lifetime, sooner rather than later, instead of centuries from now.

If that's true, then the energy crunch facing industrial society will be even greater than peak oil activists have imagined. Oil and coal will begin to run short at the same time, thereby further taxing already inadequate alternative energy sources. The resulting economic shock waves will be even more cataclysmic for those of us alive in the age of decline.

The good news is that greenhouse gas emissions will fall drastically at some point, thanks to peak oil and coal -- although positive feedback loops from Arctic methane emissions, carbon sink destruction, and so on may well continue to drive global warming anyway.

The only unadulterated good news is that at some point, a collapsed economy will forever destroy the mind-numbing horror that is the holiday shopping season. No lump of coal in your stocking for you, little children of 2090. No electricity for your house, either. All the trees have been cut down, so no more firewood. No gasoline for the rotting ancient hulk of a car sitting in the driveway amidst the decaying slum of Exerbutopia. And the temperature outside your crumbling old McMansion in the American Midwest is 75 degrees Fahrenheit on the December birthday of our Lord and Savior. Who never came, but dispatched his followers, around about 2016 or so, to run the Dominion in the sweltering poverty ridden hell hole that is the former United States.

I do hope I'm wrong about all of that.

Back to killing Nazi zombies for JFK. I love my country. God help me, I do love it so.

Zombie killers of the Cold War: JFK and company in Call of Duty: Black Ops

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

From the great ocean of forever, looking home

Photo by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, taken aboard the International Space Station. Click for a larger image.

A day in the life, September 2010.  More photos from that particular expedition to Earth orbit here.

In the time our civilization had, we did some things right.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mega-drought in the 2030s: some geopolitical implications

From a recent study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a map of expected drought conditions across the planet, 2030-2039. The map assumes a moderate level of greenhouse gas emissions, per climate models used in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Click on the image below for full resolution.

A drought index of -4 is considered extreme. More on the study from Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress.

Some notes:

1) Much of the U.S. is under extreme drought conditions.

2) Much of Canada is not.

I expect that the United States will annex all of Canada by 2050. I'm not joking. We will need Canada's farm land, and its food, as well as the more temperate conditions.

Given the level of economic distress implied by the above map, and by peak oil, importing Canadian food will not be enough. The U.S. government and a desperate U.S. population will want direct control over Canada's food supply. Millions of impoverished, heat-stricken Americans will also want free access to temperate Canadian lands. Canadian immigration restrictions won't allow that, so the U.S. government will undoubtedly remove those restrictions, by removing Canada's existence as an independent nation-state. The only question is whether Canadian territory will be incorporated directly into the Union as new states or instead be administered as a conquered area under emergency rule.

The U.S. military of the 2020s and 30s won't be the same global colossus we see today, given the decline in energy supplies. But I expect it will continue to exist, with numbers and cohesion sufficient to take Canada. And also strength enough to lock out millions of refugees fleeing the extreme drought zones of Mexico and Central America. The people of those countries will be forcibly confined in their uninhabitable homelands, I expect, by the military forces of the United States. U.S. military power will serve the same function as Stalin's armies in the 1930s, which enforced deliberate, genocidal starvation in the Ukraine.

Looking at the map above, it's easy enough to project the same grim events in other parts of the world. In the age of energy decline and climate disintegration, politics and international relations will depend crucially on the ability to wield effective military force. I don't like that conclusion, but I don't really see any way to escape from it.

If I'm wrong about this, though, then somebody would have to come up with a different, more persuasive scenario covering, for example, U.S.-Canadian relations in the 2030s. Given that the levels of drought on the above map are a near certainty, how might the geopolitics of North America evolve in a relatively benign way? Hundreds of millions of Americans suddenly deciding to live with a lot less water doesn't seem likely. Nor does a drought-stricken United States seem likely to open its borders to the virtually inevitable waves of refugees from the south. Nor does a United States suffering from drought unprecedented in modern history seem likely to settle for some clunky, European Union style of peaceful integration with its bountiful, temperate neighbor to the north.

No. The age of climate and energy collapse will be the age of war. And government of the warlords, by the warlords, and for the warlords.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The awful grace of undead God: AMC's "The Walking Dead"

I've never been a fan of zombie apocalypse cinema. Ever since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968, Hollywood has manufactured a coffin-load of films in which zombies take over the world and a few desperate humans have to hold the undead hordes away. Most often by blowing their heads to pulp. That's the kryptonite of zombies. It always seemed to me that there's not a lot of room in such motifs for interesting end of the world storytelling.

Turns out, as so often happens, I was wrong. Last week marked the premiere of the limited run television series The Walking Dead, on AMC. It tells the story of a sheriff's deputy in central Georgia, shot in the line of duty. He wakes up from his coma in an empty hospital, trashed by some unknown catastrophe. In one hallway he finds an eviscerated corpse. After that, things do not go well.

I never liked zombie cinema and now The Walking Dead won't go away from my head. One friend of mine who is, in fact, a devotee of le filme de unmorte didn't like this new zombie epic. Too many "last man on Earth" cliches, he said. Maybe. I guess I've let my critical faculties succumb to rigor mortis. I thought the story and the images were haunting -- in the sense that they evoked fear, and also beauty. It's a rare mix for any story to pull off.

An example, to illustrate. My expectation, based on admittedly limited experience, is for a zombie film to take place in the fearful blackness of night. Almost all of The Walking Dead unfolds in the light of day. And yet it still manages to terrify. Not just from grisly scenes of mutilation and death, which it has in abundance. The terror comes no less from the spectral imagery of our familiar world now empty of life, filled with the palpable menace of unseen, unholy atrocities lurking in the silent houses, the abandoned tanks and helicopters of an annihilated army, the dead skyscrapers. Sometimes the scenery of the aftermath is idyllic. Trees swaying to the wind on a summer day, farmhouses watching over the fields. But you know something terrible has happened, and the worst is coming. Haunting. Yes, any end-of-the-world movie will have such imagery. I didn't care.

To me, horror is a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy. The best of those tales give us a sense of the transcendent. Of connection to the larger forces, unknowable, that breathe animating fire into the heart of creation, into the souls of beings who walk within it. I found this link to the ineffable in a strange little story of a sheriff's deputy in the deep, dead South.

One scene, perhaps, can illustrate why. A survivor of the plague that turned dead human beings into devouring predators mourns the loss of his wife, who fell to the plague. The body that used to be her comes walking, sometimes, past the house where he hides with his son. He knows that "the walkers," as they are called, can only be put down by a sufficiently violent trauma to the head. So the mourning father decides, once more, to try to put down the walking parody of his wife.

Meanwhile, in an empty city park at that same moment, the sheriff's deputy goes in search of a walker he encountered earlier but left alone. This walker had been chopped in half. When last he saw it, the disembodied torso was crawling slowly across the ground, gurgling and moaning, looking for its food. Living flesh. The deputy follows the thing's trail of muck across the green grass. In the light of the sun.

This is the scene that results. It isn't for the squeamish. While not as grotesque as some scenes in the show, it contains grisly images and moments of brutally intense violence. It's also beautiful. Life is like that. 

As a friend put it today: even at the fall of a civilization, there will be stories. And moments of beauty, hints of something more, passing in tears and sunlight and blood.