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

Monday, August 29, 2011

American Journal of Public Health special issue on peak oil

I posted the following today at an online discussion forum for public health students at the University of New Mexico. I wanted to alert them that the premier academic journal in the public health field just published an issue examining the impact of peak oil. Because I know several of the public health students (having worked until recently in their building) and I like hanging out with them, and I can't resist proselytizing to people I like.

This time, though, I kept to a more restrained tone than the one I'm apt to use in this here little blog venue, wherein I occasionally dispense brimstone and rivers of apocalyptic flame.

Still, it's nice to see at least one professional academic journal hasn't written off peak oil as a Malthusian-oid delusion.

* * * * *

"Peak oil?" What's that?

Check out the latest issue of the American Journal of Public Health; you can find a brief capsule summary with links to the issue itself at a very cool website (for us wonks of energy and environmental policy) called Energy Bulletin.

The AJPH issue has eight articles exploring various aspects of peak oil, which has garnered relatively little attention among public health practitioners and researchers to date. But it's becoming quite an issue in some segments of the public policy and business communities around the world, most especially (perhaps ominously) in the military leadership of the United States and allied nations.

"Peak oil" refers to the geologically inevitable point at which global oil production reaches its maximum possible rate and then enters permanent, terminal decline. Until recently, geologists and economists thought the peak was decades or centuries away. Now, a growing body of evidence suggests it's happening today. If it is, that might help account for the economic turmoil engulfing the world over the last few years.

Why does this matter? Because, simply put, oil is the lifeblood of modern economies, and everything that happens in them. It is critical not only for transportation fuel but for food production and for a variety of materials and chemicals used in a huge range of manufactured goods, from electronic devices to pharmaceuticals. If global oil production declines, even slightly, the result will be gigantic price spikes in virtually every service and product in human societies -- because all of them depend on cheap oil for manufacturing and delivery systems.

The potential impacts of peak oil on health are dramatic. Hospitals, for example, will be hard pressed, in a permanent oil shortage, to resupply themselves. Food prices will surge along with production and transportation costs. Meaning nutritional needs for multitudes of people will be much harder to meet. Meanwhile, the economic growth that provides tax revenue for public health services will be crippled (more so than it is already).

Ultimately, that's the biggest potential health impact of peak oil. Unless alternative materials and energy systems are available to replace oil (as of today they are not), economic resources for vital public services will simply go away. Those services have been based for over a century on the assumption of permanent economic growth, but our societies now face the prospect of a permanent end to that growth and a new era of long-term economic contraction. Consequently, the advances in medicine and public health of the industrial age will be cut off from their supply lines when and if the global oil production decline begins.

Right now, our health systems aren't prepared for that at all.There is no replacement on the horizon, or conceivable set of replacements, for the energy and materials made possible by cheap oil. Alternative energy and conservation measures have been tried on a small scale, but they aren't ready -- yet -- for global deployment.

One important dimension of public health practice in the coming decades will entail doing something to change that.

For more on peak oil, you can check out this useful primer. Or, if video is more your style, check out this documentary, "The End of Suburbia." It was made a few years ago, but it played a key role in getting the concept of peak oil into the political and cultural discourse.

And, finally, because topics like this can induce paralyzing despair, I highly recommend the Transition Network for an optimistic look at peak oil as an opportunity for far-reaching social transformation.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Renewable Bullshit

I've been largely incognito around here the last couple of months, and a large part of that has been preparing for the 96th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. It's a big conference, and I was presenting some of my work, so, stress.

But now I'm just back from Austin, TX, where it's more than a hundred degrees outside and, despite Governor Rick Perry's best efforts less than five miles from the world's largest gathering of ecologists, it hasn't rained since late last year.

There is, of course, no scientific explanation for this. Weather's just WEIRD, right?

Anywho. I followed the contributed sections on Sustainability and Climate Change with keen interest this year. I have enough stuff to unpack, I suspect, into several columns. To begin, I encountered a fine example of the myth of miraculous tenchology in the Sustainability section, an incredible example of scientific optimism slamming headlong into impossible realities. I hate to pile on to the speaker, a graduate student at Stanford and thus someone facing the same sort of institutional beating I receive on a daily basis, but the truth is she was laying an impossible line of bullshit on us, and from her prevarication and damn near flinching at some of the worse factoids, she knew it.

The topic was biofuels. Well, "renewable" fuels, but until the figure out how to turn electricity directly into sweet, sweet petrol, we're talking biofuels. Specifically, the talk was touted in the abstract handout as discussing the prospects for biofuels development in the southwestern desert of the United States. I shit you not.

First, consider that at present, 24% of the United States' annual corn crop is converted into bioethanol, around 13.5 billion gallons, or around 8% of fuel requirements.* That, right there, should be enough to indicate that conservation and decreases in consumption, not biofuel, is the necessary response to peak oil; we could convert all of the corn in the country into ethanol and not come close to meeting fuel demand. Alas, the only kind of austerity federal authorities are willing to discuss is the kind that fucks poor people, so I give you the EPA's Renewable Fuel Standard. It's pretty dense, but back in 2005 the EPA passed a regulation requiring that just under 13 billion gallons of bioethanol be produced in 2010. They met this benchmark, though a combination of gigantic subsidies and tax giveaways to producers, and in the process caused convulsive food price fluctuations on the world market that helped spark some minor unpleasantness in the Middle East earlier this year. So the EPA is doubling down, requiring 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel per annum by 2022. An increase of nearly 300% in ten years. Hoo boy.

The speaker acknowledged at this point that there was no way that we could meet this benchmark using current feedstocks and technologies; that we could starve the world and not have enough to fuel our cars. She also quickly glossed over the fact that most feedstocks are not as greenhouse-gas neutral as the EPA likes to pretend, as they ignore the agricultural gas fluxes entirely in their calculations (natch). At this point a reasonable scientist would point out that our current fuel consumption is unsustainable and must be reduced, but instead she gamely suggested that maybe we could make the southwestern U.S., which is not at present what one would call a breakbasket, into a biofuels geyser.

Things got awfully hand-wavey at this point. The speaker conceded that the only thing stopping the southwest from producing great heaping gobs of biofuels feedstocks, with its abundant space and sunlight, is lack of water. I literally had to restrain myself from shouting that that was also why they don't grow much FOOD down there either, incidentally. Even so, something like 75% of water use in the southwest goes to agriculture, and 50% of that goes to grow hay for the cattle industry (you're eating part of the Colorado River that never made it to the ocean whenever you cruise through the drive-through). The speaker also admitted that the aquifers and surface waters of the region are, to avoid putting too fine a point on it, fucked, which I thought would be an excellent point to realize that establishing a brand-new, water-intensive industry in the region would be a Bad Idea(tm). She then outlined a very ambitious plan to build gigantic algae farms in the area, utilizing CO2 produced by coal-fired power plants as a carbon source (clever, actually), and diverting water from the already unsustainable production of hay.

So, let's build a few billion dollars worth of entirely new infrastructure, cut the region's production of cattle by about 7.5 million head per year* (I thought the point was NOT to fuck with food prices?), and continue destroying a regional water table, and she reckons we can ALMOST reach half of the EPA's required benchmark, just in time for kids born today to start middle school.

Sure. Why not.

This talk was a perfect example of what is afflicting mainstream environmental science today. The speaker was not unaware of any of the major issues regarding biofuels production: competition with food production, net positive greenhouse gas fluxes from production, insufficient water supplies, unproven technologies, etc. etc. etc. From her manner, she knew just how unrealistic the EPA's mandate seems, doubling down on a policy that has already destabilized the market for one of the country's key agricultural products. The true solution, reducing consumption, was sitting there like an elephant in the room. But instead of counseling this course of action, she spun a bizarrely optimistic tale of miracle technology, blithely talking about obliterating America's beef production on one hand, while creating and fusing at least a half-a-dozen different industrial technologies on the other, in less time than it takes to age a middle-shelf scotch.

As long as scientists in this country refuse to abandon the fallacy that technology, divorced from the near unlimited energy of the petroleum age, can save us from anything, we have no chance of convincing policy makers and the public that energy austerity is out only choice. It's incredibly ironic to me that we have had such a huge national debate over the debt ceiling recently, when the world's energy budget is the one budget that really CANNOT allow deficit spending.

More from the world's premier gathering of ecologists later. I need a drink.

*figures quoted from Amelia Wolf's talk, "Biofuel Production Potential in the Southwestern U.S."

Friday, August 12, 2011

Mentat's book corner

Okay, my first blogpost in many many thousands of moons. This brief post started life as a message over facebook between Ed, Micaiah (Ilorien) and myself. I was just asking Micaiah what he's been reading and gave the following recommendations. Ed said I should post it to the blog. Since these are simply pithy comments and not in depth reviews, that hadn't occurred to me. But...let's face it, I don't know how often I'll make myself write lengthy reviews. But I can see myself giving capsule summaries, and maybe from time to time more expanded capsule summaries. So, as an ice-breaker, here's the stuff on books in the message I sent. I'll do another post later today or over the weekend doing the same sort of thing for some more fiction I've read recently, and the recent non-fiction books too.

On other fronts, are you reading anything cool recently? Things I've read in the last couple of months I think you might be interested in are:

The Takeshi Kovacs trilogy by Richard K. Morgan (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies) -- Noir SF. Think Philip K. Dick meets Raymond Chandler and they spawn a post-human infomorph love child.

First three novels of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novick (His Majesty's Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War). The Napoleonic wars with talking dragons thrown in. Sounds goofy. But it works.

Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. I'm rereading the first 4 before reading the 5th which just came out this summer. Fantasy set in a medieval-type world. But the theme is not good vs. evil, but power--what people do to get it and keep it. No young boy on a quest to get/save/destroy a McGuffin. No dark lord. The HBO series Game of Thrones is the first book in the trilogy brought to the screen.

For more lit'ree and less genre type fiction I recently read a play by Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited about an existential conversation between a nihilist suicidal professor and a devout ex con black man who intervenes when the professor tries to throw himself in front of a train. Also, Emma Donaghue's novel, Room, about a woman kept in a shed for years where she gives birth to and raises a son.

I read more non-fiction than fiction, but you said you preferred to read novels, so I thought I'd pass those recommendations along. Oh, two last interesting tidbits: two memoirs written in graphic novel form. Very different: the first, Blankets by Craig Thompson, about his harsh fundamentalist upbringing and how he grows up to escape its horrid influence and find love. The second, Paying For It, by Chester Brown about Brown's experiences over a decade regularly paying prostitutes for sex in Toronto, where I gather it's legal if certain forms are observed.

I've read other things, but those are the things that struck me as things you might like.

Now you!


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The fires spread.

London is in flames.

The latest spasm of civil collapse was precipitated by police violence; while the details remain confused, as they usually are when police kill people and then stuggle to control the PR nightmare, there is no doubt that Mark Duggan, a resident of the Tottenham neighborhood in London, was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop last Thursday. A community vigil and request for information the next evening was met with yawning indifference by police officials, who suddenly began to pay attention when a pair of police vehicles were torched.

Widespread portions of London proceeded to become warzones over the weekend.

While this particular clash in the world class war was precipitated by the death of a single individual (they frequently are), the violence in London, like the financial collapse in Greece or the Arab Spring, is a symptom of the global systemic collapse this blog devotes so much energy to noting and discussing. Like a violent weather event, we can debate the proximal causes of each of these convulsions, but the underlying pattern is clear: when people are desparate, hungry, and disenfranchised, they storm the fucking bastille. Imperial governments everywhere are being squeezed by the double-whammy of out-of-control financial manipulations and increasing shortages of energy and raw materials. I heard on NPR two days ago that Israel was recently racked by street protests motivated, not by anger over relocation of settlers from the West Bank, nor Iran's hopelessly wandering nuclear program, but by the outrageously high cost of living. Common folks everywhere are feeling the pressure.

Given the the US government just gutted pretty much any chance of aid for the millions of people struggling in this country when they passed the draconian debt ceiling bill, I don't think it will be long before those of us who are voiceless here will find a way to be heard.

"'You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?'"

Saturday, August 6, 2011

What collapse looks like: the experience of Greece

From The Nation, we have an article describing conditions on the streets in Greece during that country's financial crisis.

The article was published on June 28, prior to the Greek government reaching a deal with international organizations on a debt bailout plan. So the article is dated in that respect. But it's useful for giving a vivid, concrete description of what everyday urban life looks like in a developed country undergoing rapid social and economic collapse.

A sample:

Athens is living through a double nightmare. Unemployment in Greece is officially at 16 percent, up by 40 percent in a year—42 percent among the young. Those with jobs face wage cuts of up to 30 percent, tax and price increases, public services in chaos. The social fabric is tearing. Father Andreas, the young priest running the soup kitchen, calls the situation “desperate,” as more and more families find they can’t support their own. At the same time, there is an uncontainable migration crisis. Tens of thousands of Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Somalis and North Africans are packed into crumbling buildings owned by slumlords, mostly Greek, who double as traffickers. Around Omonia Square, migrants search in rubbish for bottles, cables, clothing, anything to sell. The charity M├ędecins du Monde has declared a humanitarian emergency; in the lobby of its small clinic young men wait for hours, three deep against the wall.

And also this, about conditions in Athens as government services break down:

As the authorities abdicate from policing parts of the city, the task of “keeping order” is assumed by vigilantes affiliated with the neofascist party Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, which last year won its first seat on the City Council. Chrysi Avgi patrols large areas of Athens, with the explicit or tacit support of many Greek residents and often of the police, staging pogroms against migrants and pitched battles with bands of anarchists who oppose them; on May 19 more than 200 people rampaged through the center, smashing shop windows and kicking or beating every dark-skinned man they saw while the police stood by. A young sympathizer described the group’s activities to me, proudly lifting his shirt to show a scar on his back inflicted, he said, by an Afghan with a knife. “We go into the basements where they have illegal mosques to check their papers, clear them out. They could be Al Qaeda; they could be anything. It’s not chance that they’re Muslims; they’re coming on purpose to undermine the country. There’s a plan, a secret funding mechanism, and there’s no state to protect us. The police are on the side of the migrants. We had to liberate Attica Square with our fists. The migrants were washing their clothes, their children, in the fountain; they were sleeping and praying in the square. It offends me to see them praying in the square.” This spring a 21-year-old Bengali was stabbed to death in “revenge” for the murder of a Greek expectant father knifed on the street for his camera. Two Afghans have been charged with the killing of the Greek; no one has been arrested for the Bengali’s murder.

Every country is different, but the conditions in Greece might offer a glimpse of the sort of future American cities will enter as peak oil forces global economic contraction in the 2010s and 2020s. We too, will face soaring unemployment, refugee influx, and the unraveling of government services. More so than we do already, that is.