« Zombie Total Information Awareness | Main | The Stone that the Builder Refused »

July 30, 2010

Comments

"Sorry about that, kids, but fixing it would have cost 2% of GDP and we decided you'd rather have that give that to big banks than have an ocean."

Fixed.

I've said this before: By the end of the century, there will be no more than half the current population (if we are lucky) and we'll have half the standard of living (again if we are lucky). Quite frankly I seriously doubt we will be even half that lucky.

"King of the Hill" by Chad Oliver
Again, Dangerous Visions
Harlan Ellison, ed.

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Diamond makes a very convincing case: any society that grows over-dependent on one non-renewable resource (or a resource made non-renewable, such as trees over-forested, etc) will collapse. It will collapse at what appears to be the height of its power. Mass deaths ensue.

We will be lucky - the survivors, our descendents - if the total collapse of the oil-based civilisation that is inevitable occurs before irreversible climate change takes place that forces a mass extinction.

And it may be too late. Maybe when five Republican judges on the US Supreme Court decided they'd rather put the king's son into power than accept the results of a democratic election, that ended the chance of the survival of human life on Earth.

If so, I damn well hope someone spends their last hours on Earth carving those names into stainless steel with a lasting curse on them.

Not that it'll make any difference. Just that it would nice for the three-eyed beady-finned palaeozoologists examining the strange wrecks of the past civilisation to have something to decode while they wonder how such a populous, widespread, and apparently intelligent species could have died out.

I agree that things will get bad, but I also think that, once things start getting bad, we'll throw some geoengineering Manhattan Projects at it and keep it from becoming cataclysmic. The geoengineering may have huge side effects as well- possibly even requiring secondary mediations. And Im by no means arguing this as a good result- we will lose some things and some people. The smart thing would be for us to take some leadership on this issue, but as TJ said, this would involve some folks taking a hit in the pocketbook, so it's going to take an additional mountain of evidence alongside the current one before we can even get started.

The difference between us and the societies Diamond talks about is that we've achieved a very high level of technology and have a great deal more social flexibility.

At least, I hope so.

Beady ... finned?

I watched a TED talk where the speaker speculated that future archaeologists will think that we binged on aphrodisiacs, because all the thrown-out coffee cups will say "caution: hot."

so it's going to take an additional mountain of evidence alongside the current one before we can even get started.

Yeah, the evidence that the denialists demand is the type that, when it comes, will be too late. Too late to escape massive upheaval and suffering at least.

The difference between us and the societies Diamond talks about is that we've achieved a very high level of technology and have a great deal more social flexibility.

Diamond points out that the societies that staved off collapse did not do so by high technology: they did so by recognition of the problem and willingness/ability to take collective action to make a solution.

He points out the example of Australasian island nations that were wiped out by the introduction of pigs - and one nation that recognized the problem and collectively agreed and enforced a ruling to get rid of all the pigs, thus saving their culture from collapse.

We could - and the sooner the better - in principle begin right away - or any time in the past twenty years - to institute major technological change to move away from oil dependence and try to avert climate change.

And when I say "we", I mean, the corporations and governments that own our civilisation. Solar panels. Wind farms. Tidal and wave-generated energy. Reforming transport systems. Reforming food production.

All of these things are doable.

But supermarkets don't want to be dependent on locally-grown food: their preferred system is to transport all their food to central warehouses by road and transport from the central warehouses to each supermarket by road. That's their business model. They don't want to change it. As an individual, I can try to fight this by buying as little as possible from supermarkets - but my government could do a lot more by making the supermarket business model too expensive to be sustainable. They don't, they won't, because supermarkets are too wealthy and too powerful. Same for the US.

The government of my country could make it unsustainably expensive to run a private car, and supply mass public transport. So could yours. Doesn't, though. Hasn't. Isn't.

The governments of my country and yours and every other government round the world could strive to do away with mass air transit, by taxation and redirection. Doesn't, though. Hasn't. Isn't.

We're not socially flexible. We're used to supermarkets and private cars and cheap flights. We haven't achieved any useful high level of technology with regard to doing without oil, and the whole oil industry is geared against such new techology being developed.

Julian: Beady ... finned?

The whole thing just panics me so much when I try to think about it seriously, that in all honesty, I do my best not to think about it seriously.

It's not like there's anything I can usefully do about it beyond panic. I support individual green initiatives, I don't own a car, I try not to shop at supermarkets, I try not to take cheap flights, etc... but what's needed is a massive government program of reform, and in the UK, the Green Party has exactly one MP. She's not in a position to say, "Okay, no more Ryanair, no more private cars, tax the supermarkets into oblivion, support local farmers..."

So, yeah, let's speculate about those paleozoologists of the future and their little beady fins.

Some helpful suggestions to the insane people running the show:

A. Have phytoplankton, like corporations, declared to be "people" by the Supreme Court, enabling phytoplankton to exercise their First Amendment Rights and provide unlimited campaign funds to James Inhofe. (as a companion ruling, rescind the "people are soylent green" precedent that seems to have overtaken our laws in recent decades).

B. Extend Second Amendment Rights to phytoplankton, in case Inhofe proves unconvinced.

C. Release footage of Osama Bin Laden threatening to establish the Caliphate in the world's oceans via highjacked submarines and suicide bombers diving off the Rock of Gibralter. The national security state will absorb the EPA, NOAA, and the Fish and Wildlife Service into its maw and provide unlimited funding to combat the menace.

D. Show that phytoplankton worked alongside firefighters and rescue crews at Ground Zero on 9/11 and deserve further help in combatting the deadly effects of the catastrophe. O.K., screw that. Fall back position: arm phytoplankton, etc.

E. Cut or eliminate high marginal tax rates at the top of the food chain, which will stimulate the usual suspects to order more anchovies with their Caesar Salads and Pizzas and hire more sardines. These smaller fishes will pass the benefits along to the phytoplankton. The invisible fin and all of that. (Diagram on napkin available)

F. Lengthen the deer hunting season in the American heartland, thus reducing deer herds, who will eat fewer jack-in-the-pulpits in the shady parts of the woods, where poison ivy is then provided room to spread and crowd out other fauna. Phytoplankton will learn by example.

G. Refudiate pernicious phytoplankton relief programs which serve only to make phytoplankton dependent on the rest of the food chain.

H. Repeal Obamacare, which instructs government to counsel phytoplankton regarding their choices as they near the end of their lives. Secret Death Palins, consisting of unelected herring (probably red) are dispatching phytoplankton, as we blog.

I. Cancel the reservations at Sushi Den.

The number of positive feedback loops in climate change is really really disturbing. Once we move far enough away from equilibrium, it'll be impossible to go back within even a few millennia.

What's doubly frustrating is that we are avoiding dealing with the problem just to get a few more years out of our petrol. Its going to run out at some point anyway, probably within my lifetime. So these changes are required regardless of if global warming is true or not.

I have the dubious honor of being a moderator for a pretty large message board for writers (26,000 registered members, a couple thousand of whom are active). There’s a politics subforum that has a gang of reasonably intelligent regulars who seem to come from a broad spectrum of the population. I’ve been astonished at the pervasiveness of denialists there.

There are several components to their standard postures. One is to cast themselves as the reasonable ones, the ones simply asking for more evidence. Who could argue with that? Of course the level of certainty they want in the evidence would make the actual practice of science impossible. So they’re happy to accept the small level of uncertainly that accompanies, for example, a neurosurgeon going deep inside their mother’s brain or an airplane taking off with them on board, but want an entirely different set of certainty standards regarding climate change.

Finally, when you press these people against the wall such that some of them will finally accept that something is really happening to the climate, they have a standard fallback position: first, humans have nothing to do with it; and second, even if we do, there’s nothing we can do about it that would have any meaningful effect. Plus, those useless efforts will cost a lot of wasted money.

So, climate change doesn’t exist. But if it does, we didn’t do it, so we should just wait and see what happens. And the rapture is coming soon anyway.

It all makes me very pessimistic about even slowing down the train before it actually hits the brick wall at 80 mph.

Yeah, the evidence that the denialists demand is the type that, when it comes, will be too late. Too late to escape massive upheaval and suffering at least.

Well, I suspect that the folks at AEI will be bitching ad infinitum; the tipping point will be laypeople. If we get enough obvious effects, particularly stuff that has public resonance (eg if polar bears go to endangered status), we won't need to convince the writers of op-eds for the WSJ.


Diamond points out that the societies that staved off collapse did not do so by high technology: they did so by recognition of the problem and willingness/ability to take collective action to make a solution.

I agree- but we are talking about pre-Industrial Revolution societies- ones where technological change was relatively glacial compared to modern society. We're capable of developing and deploying new technologies to control GCC on the timescale of a decade or so, esp since many of the underlying technology already exists (eg carbon sequestration is not a total unknown).
So I think this a significant difference from Diamond's cases. Whether it will have an effect on the outcome isn't clear, but my suspicion is that it will. We've been at the point of poisoning the crap out of our waterways etc, and then recovered bc the public decided it didn't want that anymore.

We're not socially flexible. We're used to supermarkets and private cars and cheap flights. We haven't achieved any useful high level of technology with regard to doing without oil, and the whole oil industry is geared against such new techology being developed.

Today, I half-agree; we do see a lot of research into eg better batteries for electric vehicles and solar power generation. If the next few years saw a rapid acceleration in Greenland and Antarctic ice melting, enough to really get peoples' attention, then I think we could easily see a wholesale shift into widespread deployment of those technologies and the development of better ones (plus carbon sequestration and other mediation strategies).

Socially, I mean that we're not a rigid, authoritarian or theocratic society like, say, the Inca or Mayans etc. It's easy for popular opinion to go against something quickly and produce a mandate for aggressive change for our governments. A society ruled by a dictator and held together by immutable socioeconomic classes, roles, and activities is threatened by eg a change in basic economic activities. For example, a lord-serf sociopolitical relationship is threatened by a shift in the agriculturally productive zone, whereas our society could handle this relatively easily.

malraux: What's doubly frustrating is that we are avoiding dealing with the problem just to get a few more years out of our petrol

Oil corporations have to look to next quarter's profits, not to the sustainability of their industry in the long term.

Nothing about modern capitalism is geared to thinking in terms of quitting an industry while you're still making profits just because (a) it's unsustainable in the long term (b) it's destroying the planet.

(a) doesn't matter in modern capitalism, so long as you're not actually running the company/owning the shares when the crash happens

(b) doesn't matter at all, because global warming/ecological destruction is not on the balance sheet and so does not affect quarterly profits.

you can start by turning off all your lights and your air conditioner and not having a fridge and only travelling by walking or on a bicycle- see that was easy

Oh and shut down the space program and all air travel

Socially, I mean that we're not a rigid, authoritarian or theocratic society like, say, the Inca or Mayans etc.

If we were, and if the person in charge at the top could be made to understand global warming is real and real social changes have to happen, now, for us to survive, then we'd stand a chance.

But in order to survive the collapse, we need to go against basic tenets of modern capitalism to a degree literally unheard of. Corporations more powerful and wealthier than many UN member nations must be made to accept a complete collapse of their business model, because their business model is killing our civilisation.

It's easy for popular opinion to go against something quickly and produce a mandate for aggressive change for our governments.

Sort of. Sometimes. But we're talking about actions that popular opinion is in fact going to hate. No more supermarkets? No more private cars? No more cheap foreign holidays? No more air conditioning?

The only example I can personally remember of this happening was a very specific instance: after the Dunblane Massacre, and not very long afterwards, well-connected and powerful supporters of the right to gun ownership started writing op-eds about how merely because Thomas Hamilton had done his killings with licensed guns, this was no reason to make any changes to the right to private gun ownership. The Tories were in power, the pro-gun lobby were well-connected, that should have been the end of it ... But then over seven hundred thousand Scots stood up and said No. And the Tories, looking at the numbers - a few thousand pro-gun nuts, nearly three-quarters of a million opposed - changed their minds about which group to support.

But I marched to stop the Iraq war with two million other Brits in the UK in 2003: and Blair ignored the popular will and took us to war anyway.

A society ruled by a dictator and held together by immutable socioeconomic classes, roles, and activities is threatened by eg a change in basic economic activities.

The corporations which own our civilisation are dictators. They are absolutely threatened by the changes which would let our civilisation survive. And it would take a swing against them more massive than against the Iraq war, to achieve change.

Oh, fish schmish. Megan McArdle says it's no big deal, and she's smarter than you guys.

I agree that things will get bad, but I also think that, once things start getting bad, we'll throw some geoengineering Manhattan Projects at it and keep it from becoming cataclysmic.

This would be kind of reassuring if I had any kind of confidence it was so, and that it would work.

The number of really acute environmental problems that face us now, today, and that get little or no attention makes me wonder if, when things get really bad, the response will simply be for folks who can carve out some safe little niche for themselves to do so, and everybody else can go screw.

And when you're talking about trying to engineer something on the scale of the environment of the planet, I'm very, very skeptical that we can muster the technology or the insight to do an adequate job of it.

For one thing, if there's any money to be made out of it, it's pretty much guaranteed to be a clusterf**k.

What will make a difference is changing the way we live, in ways that are perhaps inconvenient, but which are extremely doable.

Certainly no harder to pull off than lifestyle changes that I've already seen happen in my own lifetime.

If we're too stupid and lazy to do those things, I can't see geoengineering saving the day.

And it may be too late now, anyway.

It could be that we've screwed the pooch. We better be making plans to deal with whatever might be coming.

Regarding McArdle, she's found herself a nice sinecure writing away about political economy, a topic she has no visible qualifications to discuss. Now she wants to weigh in on the science of global warming?

She should quit while she's ahead.

Well, our lifestles will change one way or the other right?

It's just a question of how we want to go about that inevitable process.

You know, the thing is, whatever the hell we do, life will go on.

There are whole ecosystems that live deep in the ocean, subsisting on a food chain based on methane and hydrogen sulfide.

There are varieties of plants that look at increased CO2 levels as manna from heaven.

The world doesn't need us. Life will adapt to whatever the hell we throw at it. If we make the world unliveable for ourselves, some other collection of critters will happily take over.

This stuff is all an own goal. Nobody made us do it, nobody makes us keep doing it.

If we're too stupid to live, we'll die, and it will be nobody's fault but our own.

Yeah.

As I said, the bitterest "I told you so" in the history of humanity.

Reading all this I had an off-the-wall thought.

Granted there are people who deny the evidence because they don't want to believe something that might require them to change the comfortable way things are today. But might it possibly be the case that there are those who believe the evidence that we are heading for catastrophic climate change -- but fight vigorously against doing anything about it, because they think it will speed the arrive of the End Times? Just wondering....

But in order to survive the collapse, we need to go against basic tenets of modern capitalism to a degree literally unheard of. Corporations more powerful and wealthier than many UN member nations must be made to accept a complete collapse of their business model, because their business model is killing our civilisation.

Again, I think we more agree than disagree; this is not going to be easy. But we have done similar things on a smaller scale in the US with eg the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, etc.
Some corporations will adapt- automakers will go into all-electric vehicles. Power generators will go into solar, wind, etc.
Other corps, devoted exlusively to eg oil extraction, will have to take a huge hit. But if the mass of public opinion comes down on them, they may fight tooth and nail, but they will lose I think.

The question in my mind isn't whether they'd lose that fight, it's whether we'll get to it soon enough. Will the denialists manage to keep a cap on public opinion long enough that we don't have enough time to react?

And, what worries me more about this is the political instability it will engender in resource-extraction economies.

Sort of. Sometimes. But we're talking about actions that popular opinion is in fact going to hate. No more supermarkets? No more private cars? No more cheap foreign holidays? No more air conditioning?

Im not sure that we need that level of radical change. I'm thinking of more locally-sourced produce in the existing markets, a relatively quick (decade or so) changeover to changable hybrid and all-electric cars, more solar panels on roofs (I understand that people are getting mortgages for these now, and that in some areas the mortgage payment is comperable to the savings on the electrical bill), more energy-efficient appliances, lightbulbs, etc. And yeah, people won't be really happy about those changes, but they'll just be modifications of lifestyle rather than an abandoning of it for something completely different.

The corporations which own our civilisation are dictators.

They're really not. They have no direct control- they have a lot of money, and can use that for influencing public opinion or getting public officials to put a thumb on the scale. But they can't call out the army to stop Congress from passing a carbon tax or anything. So if the body politic decides that it wants that, it will get it.

But I marched to stop the Iraq war with two million other Brits in the UK in 2003: and Blair ignored the popular will and took us to war anyway.

Sure. But he stayed in power for some time after that, apparently because the people weren't willing to throw him out over it- at least, they weren't by 2005, when they had a chance to do so.

The number of really acute environmental problems that face us now, today, and that get little or no attention makes me wonder if, when things get really bad, the response will simply be for folks who can carve out some safe little niche for themselves to do so, and everybody else can go screw.

If that were an option I think Id be more worried. But I think it isn't, and that this will be obvious- facing a full-scale crisis, what can one hope for? Eking out an existence in some survivalist enclave for a few decades, while machines gradually break down etc, and leave your descendants at best a neolithic existence on a &$%&ed-up planet?
Some might opt for that, but even among the most selfish I think there will be enough recognition that isolation can't produce a good result.

And when you're talking about trying to engineer something on the scale of the environment of the planet, I'm very, very skeptical that we can muster the technology or the insight to do an adequate job of it.

Don't have a good answer here. I do have a lot of faith in human ingenuity and resourcefulness. We will loft particulates into the upper atmosphere. We will repurpose old auto factories to build carbon-sequestration units into old shipping containers by the hundreds of thousands. We will find ways to increase plankton productivity in the open ocean. Our best and brightest will think of other strategies- because many of our best and brightest will be focused on this problem once it becomes clear what a threat it poses.

Some of those things will work. Some will not work, and will get fixed or abandoned for more effective methods. Some of them will work but have side effects. And we won't end up with the planet that we started on. But I don't think we'll end up back in the stone age or extinct, either.

Well, even if we painted all the roofs white it would help immensely . I really think that if we were to take some very crucial "small" steps like this, steps that require very little in the way of lifestyle change, we could buy ourselves some time (so that we could still take foreign vacations, which have their own perspective-changing benefits). So many things we could do really aren't that hard.

wj: Probably.

Now, the problem with massive geoengineering projects is twofold. First, the side effects of them. Spraying stuff into the stratosphere to create clouds and reflect sunlight will definitely have side effects. Carbon capture and sequestration once it's escaped and diluted into the rest of the atmosphere is difficult and slower. I don't recall if the "artificial trees" they've created to do it can do it any faster than regular trees so far. Giant solar shades would have side effects too.

The other problem is inertia. Even if we dropped C02 to no more than the carbon cycle can absorb now, there's still positive feedback loops engaged, such as ocean acidification, desertification, etc. Plus we are far above the previous CO2 equilibrium, so the equilibrium temperature is still going to be higher, and the delta is still going to be higher, for a while.

But the other thing, that pisses me off the most in some ways, besides the risk to civilization, and the massive death toll, and the disruption and war that could easily come from this... Most of the things we need to do to fight global warming are good things to do on their own. They would make us healthier, richer, and happier in the long run, even if you discount global warming. "Oh no! We spent all this money making our electrical networks more efficient and redundant and distributed so they're not so easy to knock out! Oh no, we rebuilt our cities around people, instead of cars, so we're not stuck spending two hours a day in the car to and from work! Oh no, we switched away from coal power plants that were pumping mercury into our air and water and destroying our mountains! Oh no, we made our cities cooler and our stormwater infrastructure cheaper by building better! Oh no, we get our food from local sources instead of California! Oh no, we built awesome freight and passenger rail systems, so we can get from city to city in comfort, with the Internet available, without having to take off our shoes! Oh no, our buildings use half the electricity they would have otherwise!"

All of these things are at LEAST neutral, if not MUCH better than the status quo, REGARDLESS of global warming. But instead, we'll keep doing things dumb ways, 'cause somebody's making an extra ten buck per car that way or whatever. BAH.

I can't completely be cynical about this, because this is why I went back to school. This is why I picked civil & environmental engineering. To be only slightly over-dramatic, to save the world, or at least civilization. So yeah, I think we can do it. Hopefully before things get too bad.

So many things we could do really aren't that hard.

Sapient, also a very good way to stimulate the economy and beat back unemployment, even if only temporarily.

Well, even if we painted all the roofs white it would help immensely.

I hate to even mention this, but that "immensely" is a few orders of magnitude below a level that would have any effect at all, by itself or grouped with a dozen other similarly effective measures.

Well, even if we painted all the roofs white it would help immensely

I really don't have the science or engineering chops to say what would work or not work on a technical level.

Based on what I know and understand of human nature and large, complex systems (human and otherwise), my *guess* is that we will make more progress pursuing simple, low-tech stuff like this than by pursuing stuff like tweaking the stratosphere.

The more "Buck Rogers" kind of stuff is very interesting, I just doubt we have the prescience and insight to not make things worse, even if in a different direction.

Frankly, and I mean no disrespect to Carleton or his comments here when I say this, talking about stuff like "darkening the stratosphere" scares the living hell out of me.

Maybe I'm just a Luddite, but I just don't think we have the understanding of all of the possible downstream effects to even think about doing stuff like this.

I mean, yikes.

Maybe we could start with something as simple as (a) offer huge tax incentives to improve home heating and cooling efficiency and (b) offer free training to all of the laid-off constrution workers to do the implementation.

Just recovering the energy that gets p*ssed away in this country would probably be a giant step.

I really wish there was a way to turn people's minds around on this stuff.

Not that it's not worth doing. I've been looking at it; AC costs are unbelievably high in the South. Probably even more effective at cost reduction is concrete-tile roofing, but those have quite a substantial up-front cost. Metal roofs are a decent compromise, but also are expensive. Part of the problem, I believe, is amount of time it takes to recover the cost of installation of such roofs.

White coatings, on the other hand, you can put on existing, fiberglass-shingled roofs. That's a possibility, and that's what I'm looking at. A tile roof would take re-raftering the entire house, which in turn would require an entirely different (and likely shallower-pitch) roof design. As I said: expensive.

I mean, yikes.

See also: Corps of Engineers, Army.

Carleton Wu: But he stayed in power for some time after that, apparently because the people weren't willing to throw him out over it- at least, they weren't by 2005, when they had a chance to do so.

...um, not so much "not willing to throw him out" as "There isn't a viable alternative to Labour". The Conservatives would have gone to war with Iraq just as fast - indeed, Blair's lies to the Commons were, it looks like, targetted primarily at Labour backbenchers to save him from the embarrassment of winning the war vote only because Conservative MPs were voting with him.

(2005 is the year the Conservatives did sort of pick up and start going "okay, we need to be more electable and stop looking like the Nasty Party"... and even so, the 2010 election was pretty much a "We can't stand ANY of you" result.)

We have the same problem with instituting environmental reforms: the only two parties in a First Past The Post system which are sufficiently widespread to form a government, are Labour and the Conservatives. Labour aren't exactly a shiny example with regard to environmentalism... but the Tories are worse.

What we need is voting reform. Since that will mean the Tories will never be able to form a government again, they're against it: since it means Labour will only be able to govern by coalition, they're against it. Because Nick Clegg is happy to fag for David Cameron, it looks like we're not going to get it even though it's the LibDem's one chance at real power...

...sorry. Let's get back to those beady-finned paleozoologists and what they'll be able to discover about our lost civilisation, given the intact plastic bags with supermarket logos and the coffee cups marked "Caution: hot".

I'm with Eric. This topic is the closest to my heart, the most important thing we face, and something I can barely stand to think about because it seems so hopeless. Still, I just bought a great clothesline.

russell: I really wish there was a way to turn people's minds around on this stuff.

I honestly think that a solid majority of Americans support real action on energy, not just for climate but for energy independence and pollution-control. I think that was expressed pretty well in the 08 election, just not followed through on.

One big problem is that people are so insecure in their own lives - in housing & employment primarily - that they can't face the idea of any more costs, and they worry that the costs would be a lot greater than promised. So the polling sucks on this because people are afraid. The polling sucked on health reform because people were afraid too.

I don't think that kind of abstract fear translates into electoral effects. From what I can tell. People might worry, but what it really comes down to is results. If the costs of a climate bill were as moderate as predicted, it would not translate into short-term political losses, and because of the positive long-term effects of reductions in pollution, energy imports, and the jobs it would create, I think people would quite quickly come to appreciate it even with strong propaganda deployed against it. I think that's already happening with the healthcare bill - does anyone actually think it will be a significant factor in the November elections? - and would happen with a climate/energy bill too.

But that brings us to the other big problem, which is the institutionalized bribery that means that the entirety of one party and a significant minority of the members of the second party are literally bought-and-paid-for. They work for the corporations that pay them, and openly represent them rather than the people in the media and Congress. Coming from the UK, where even a hint that a question asked on the floor of the House of Commons might have been motivated by outside payment is enough to end your career, the open acceptance of bribery in US politics was very shocking. I think most Americans are so inured to it that they don't understand how far they have deviated from democratic practices in other countries on this front.

(And I should say that in general UK politics are just as stupid and petty as US politics. And there is still huge corporate influence on politics, and the Tory Party is just as stridently corporatist as the Republican Party. And the biggest British corporations - British Airways, BP, BAe - are catered for as carefully as Boeing and Exxon in the US. But it doesn't take the form of bribes to individual MPs in the way that corporate corruption in the US does, and that does make a difference.)

"But that brings us to the other big problem, which is the institutionalized bribery that means that the entirety of one party and a significant minority of the members of the second party are literally bought-and-paid-for"

This is a stretch. A large "minority"?

If you think there is any significant difference in the number of bought and owned members of the Congress by party then you are sadly blinded by hoping "your" side is really better.

This Congress and President should have proven that to the unbiased observer.

Marty,

I'll say this: the House passed some pretty good legislation that pissed a lot of wealthy groups off - the opposite of bought off. That legislation was watered down by a Senate that requires 60 votes, now, to pass ANYTHING.

This being a new innovation in the Senate since the GOP lost that house in 2007.

It would have been better had the House's bill gone through, but it's hard to blame this "Congress" for that.

So, yeah, the House Dems can at least shrug off the pull of big pharma and big energy to pass good, solid, citizen-first health and climate legislation. Getting over the 60 vote hurdle in the Senate...not so much. But even then, you have 40-50 good Dem Senators willing to pass such legislation, with 0 Republicans and a handful of bought off Dems like Nelson, Lieberman, Dodd (at times), Schumer (at times), Landrieu, Lincoln and a few others.

It's not that one party is owned by corporate interests and the other one isn't, or isn't entirely; it's that they're owned by different corporate interests. Broadly speaking, the Democrats are owned by entertainment, telecom/high tech and financial services, while the Republicans are owned by energy extraction, big agriculture (including tobacco), and financial services. (Not surprisingly, the financial services sector has the most advanced understanding of the hedge bet.)

But for this discussion, ownership by the extraction industries is materially more harmful to our collective interest.

I know I wasn't imputed, but I continue to (less and less enthusiastically) support the Democratic Party because I fear their donors least.

The largest corporate interests definitely fund both parties, but I'm not sure what's more patriotic: demanding a large bribe or a small one?

As Jon Stewart said, the Democrats are all in the pocket of Big Poverty, anyway.

Waiting for absolute, irrefutable proof of GCC is like waiting for absolute, irrefutable proof that you have cancer; i.e., too late.

I don't have any hope, really, that anything will be done until the damage is so severe it can't be ignored or dismissed by people whose interests are served by denialism. (If anything there's less will to act now than there was 20 years ago, when the subject first got mainstream attention.)

I'm not a denier, but I am a skeptic and I do have a well-established confidence in the potential for modern technology to mitigate many of these effects, and I hope timely.

I do have a question and I don't know if there is a well-developed scenario that could be used as a response.

If we were to move to an energy consumption environment extensively regulated by government in a way to satisfy the strongest adherents of the climate change threat, what does this mean for agricultural production (in a macro or universal sense)?

I'm thinking that many, if not most, of those who view this issue as I do, will be positioned favorably to rely on local food production, to cite just one human need that will undoubtedly be significantly affected by energy generation and use restrictions. My guess is that production will decrease and prices will increase. What will the effect be for those in large metropolitan areas who are not able to compensate with local production.

Seems as if there might be some very unpredictable economic dislocations and maybe other unintended consequences.

How come Cheney could sell the 1% doctrine in the run up to the Iraq war based on a tissue of lies while that same argument used with regard to global warming and backed by the considerable weight of scientific evidence falls flat?

It's the positive feedbacks that we have yet to recognize that worry me the most. And while I certainly hope that there is a feasible technological fix (biochar anyone?) the risk of unintended consequences could loom large. Given our present state of knowledge how can we possibly justify our actions or lack thereof?

As for the reassuring thought that 'life goes on', try telling that to the microbes on Venus. Now I know that no respectable scientist thinks there is a possibility of our collective waste turning this planet into a Venus-like cauldron but what if there is even the slightest chance that it could happen, now that would be a hell of a legacy.

GOB: My guess is that production will decrease and prices will increase. What will the effect be for those in large metropolitan areas who are not able to compensate with local production.

There are far more fuel-efficient ways of transporting food long distances than the supermarket business model. The problem with the supermarket business model is that it entails a customer being able to walk into the store anywhere in the business's domain and find the same stuff - no local or regional or seasonal changes allowed. Mass shipping ensues.

In the US and to a lesser extent in many other countries, there is the problem that the government subsidises the production of food in the exact reverse of what people ought to be eating for a healthy diet, because the bigger the food industry the easier it is to get the money, and growing fresh fruit and vegetables for local sale is exactly the aspect of food production which receives least government support and deserves most.

Seems as if there might be some very unpredictable economic dislocations and maybe other unintended consequences.

Not unpredictable, I don't think, though I don't doubt the corporate victims would claim them as such. But a side-effect of rationalizing the food industry away from massive corporate welfare to meat, grains, and dairy, and subsidizing locally-grown small-scale fruits and vegetables producers and small local businesses to sell their products, would straightforwardly be to improve the diet of people on a low income.

During WWII, when the UK was pretty much food-sufficient and there was strict rationing, one of the unintended, unexpected side-effects was a whole generation growing up on rationing who were healthier and better fed than any other generation in the UK's history. It turned out that restricting our diet largely to what food could be produced on the island, and making sure everyone got a fair share (which in turn meant no one got to over-eat) meant everyone ate well.

No one wants to go back to rationing, obviously. But people have been pointing out ever since rickets started coming back after rationing ended, that there are worse things to do with your resources than make sure that everyone gets enough to eat of the right sort of things.

I'm not a denier, but I am a skeptic

Just out of curiosity, are you skeptical that there is warming going on, or that it is man made?

Eric,

I am sure you recognize that everything doesn't come down to being bought and sold. Many of those House bills you so fondly speak of needed to be watered down, IMO. So I am really happy that there are two sides to the discussion, not upset that there are so called "bought" Senators.

However, the Democrats started the HCR debate by cutting a deal with big pharma and the AMA and then went to the AARP. The Republicans didn't cut those deals. So even your most hopeful analysis misses the point.

However, the Democrats started the HCR debate by cutting a deal with big pharma and the AMA and then went to the AARP. The Republicans didn't cut those deals. So even your most hopeful analysis misses the point.

Um, certain Dems cut deals in order to get big Pharma to back off - which big Pharma didn't really. But those Dems were in the White House and Senate, and if in the House, in the minority in the Dem caucus.

The House version, with the public option, was not a gift to big Pharama or the AMA or the AARP. It was opposed by big Pharma strenuously

But the GOP fought the bills on behalf of big Pharma, regardless, as is their wont. Boehner had many a meeting with big Pharma lobbyists to coordinate strategy, as he has with big finance.

So, yeah.

'Just out of curiosity, are you skeptical that there is warming going on, or that it is man made?'

Not so much that there is warming going on, but more on whether it is man made or just a small segment in a larger natural cycle.

I have even greater skepticism regarding the potential success of this effort to get society worldwide to shut down use of petroleum based fuel for energy. Unless and until alternatives can stand on their on in the marketplace, this will be a top-down state-based effort and doomed to failed for that very reason.

Is there other support here for the notion that the world can dispense with the supermarket business model for meeting much of society's daily needs and , instead, rely on mostly local production? What effect will such an approach have on general economic activity and will all those people in the large metro areas who earn their living providing services switch to growing food locally?

Those in Great Britain who lived with rationing during WWII were kept very busy providing support for the war effort. What will our newly unemployed do?

Oops, I meant ' stand on their own in the marketplace'.

I would rebut the "until the alternatives can stand on their own" argument by pointing out the massive subsidies for the coal and oil extraction industries, which they have gotten, and have continued to get, and the massive investments and subsidies they have used to get into the positions they're currently at. Also, to include the massive externialities they have inflicted on the rest of us, for decades, when they have dumped their pollution into the air without any costs. Even if you leave aside CO2, those are massive costs there. Also, the way our markets, cities, zoning, housing choices, transportation choices, etc, have been massively distorted by these companies, their wealth, subsidies, and yes, regulatory capture. Especially in the smaller local areas, where people don't pay as much attention and often the only people who show up at zoning board meetings and the like are the developers, or others representing the status quo.

Now, if we include the indirect subsidies for the oil industry, in the form of highways, low car efficiency standards, transportation planning and design, etc, then we have even more gigantic subsidies for these Titans of Industry, who "stand on their own in the marketplace" like an infant in one of those scooty chairs does.

Lots of what would make renewable sources competitive is simply a matter of opening up monopolies and allowing competition. Power transfer infrastructure is a natural monopoly, in that there's no point to have two lines coming into your house for electricity. But unfortunately, the transfer infrastructure is often bundled in with the supply infrastructure, which ISN'T a natural monopoly. If the power transmission companies were separate from the power generation companies, and allowed anyone to sell them electricity to meet their demands, we would probably have a lot more smaller, decentralized power generation, like rooftop solar, for the most obvious example. In Germany, where they require the power companies to buy excess electricity from solar panels on people's homes, they've become one of the top countries for PV panels. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_in_Germany) Germany's cloudy and colder, imagine if we did that in the US south and southwest, where there's much more solar energy available. And that's exactly the sort of competitive, bottom-up thing you would think Libertarians would like. Not to mention the costs of the military that we spend on keeping our access to oil safe.

We have had decades of "top-down state-based effort" to keep these companies powerful and well connected and it's been very successful.

There's much more I could go on with, but pretending we have a functioning marketplace in anything related to power generation, or other energy sources is fairly far from the mark.

One last note, since the "what about the costs?" canard keeps coming up, I'll point to my first post here, in that most of these are good, cost-effective things to do even if global warming wasn't happening (which it is), and second, the question is "the costs compared to what?" What are the costs of another crop failure and dust bowl in the midwest? What are the costs of changing weather patterns and increasing desertification causing wars in various parts of the world? What are the costs of deaths and brownouts from heat waves? What are the costs of much greater temperature extremes? What are the costs of the loss of coastal real estate? What are the costs of losses to our invested agricultural and water infrastructure when patterns change? What are the costs of armies of refugees from wars and famine and death? What are the costs of trying to do drastic geonengieering, versus making changes that have other positive benefits as well, now?

Unless and until alternatives can stand on their on in the marketplace, this will be a top-down state-based effort and doomed to failed for that very reason.

The thing is, there is already lots of "top-down state-based effort" to support the use of fossil fuels.

IOW, what Nate said.

Is there other support here for the notion that the world can dispense with the supermarket business model for meeting much of society's daily needs and , instead, rely on mostly local production?

IMO local production would be great.

Yes, things would probably cost more. Things that are out of season and/or don't grow in your area would *definitely* cost more.

Yes, it would result in changes to the "economy", by which I mean the current infrastructure used to grow food and deliver it to you.

The upside would be better, fresher food. It would also make farming much more of a viable career for people, which seems like a fine thing to me, personally. And, it would provide financial and social incentives to preserve open land in areas that now turn into suburbs.

So, net/net, IMO not a bad thing.

I think The Roads Must Roll, it has everything.

Mass transit, no cars, complete access, union dominance, full employment and a huge build out to jumpstart the economy.

But I always liked Heinlein's futures.

What will the effect be for those in large metropolitan areas who are not able to compensate with local production.

I'd question this premise. Certainly, there isn't always readily available ground-level land that could be used for food production (although there is parkland), but there are lots and lots of empty rooftops.

GOB: I have even greater skepticism regarding the potential success of this effort to get society worldwide to shut down use of petroleum based fuel for energy. Unless and until alternatives can stand on their on in the marketplace, this will be a top-down state-based effort and doomed to failed for that very reason.

So you figure we're all doomed when the oil runs out, no point trying to do anything about it? Well, that's actually despair, not skepticism. If you're convinced that we're all going to to die because of market forces making it impossible to move away from an oil-based economy, I don't say you're not right - that's my feeling too. Big Oil is too powerful, and corporations do regard next quarter's profits as more important than any human life. I think that is the commonsense, It Stands To Reason, reaction to the situation we're in: the commonsense thing to do is to despair and resign ourselves to catastrophe and mass death, as you have done, as (honestly) I mostly do.

I think the people who question this commonsense counsel to give in, despair, and accept that we will die when the oil runs out, are the skeptics: and I think that the skeptics are who will save us if we can be saved...

'So you figure we're all doomed when the oil runs out'

I didn't say this. I said the effort to get society worldwide to shut down use of petroleum based fuel for energy is doomed to fail.

I don't despair at all. On the contrary, I am also a skeptic of peak oil theory and believe the world has no short term prospect for oil supply shortages, except those generated by the top-down state based effort noted previously.

So, what do you think, instead of Peak Oil, GOB? Is the Earth's core made of oil, or do you figure we'll find out how to synthesize oil from something else, or do you figure there's large, easy to get to untapped areas of oil out there?

Because Peak Oil isn't like your car's gas tank running out. It's a matter of all the easy to get to, easy to refine oil being used up, so then we have to go to harder to get to or lower quality oil, which means that oil will be more expensive. Much more expensive, and probably very quickly. It's like when you pull all the nice red, low-hanging apples off a tree, if you want more apples, then you have to climb the tree, and take the ones that aren't quite ripe, or that have a worm in one part, or whatever. That's why it's usually referred to as "low-hanging-fruit".

We probably never will completely run out of oil, but the oil left will be in hostile, inaccessible places, lower quality, and need a lot more work to extract it.

Also, you didn't address any of the orders of magnitude more subsidies for fossil fuel extraction, plus the way our society has been built around the assumption of cheap oil, both of which were quite sucessfully done through "top-down state based efforts".

Or any of the multitude of other objections to your position as noted earlier in the thread.

What will the effect be for those in large metropolitan areas who are not able to compensate with local production.

Most large cities in the US have lots of arable land within a couple hours drive or train ride. Market farming for local urban markets was what agriculture *was* for lots of this nation's history.

I said the effort to get society worldwide to shut down use of petroleum based fuel for energy is doomed to fail.

OK, here's a cute story.

When I was an infant, I apparently was not too interested in learning to use the toilet.

My mother was concerned about this, and consulted my pediatrician.

He explained to my mother that when I was tired of sitting in and smelling my own crap, that I would figure the toilet out.

My mother was not amused, but my old man thought it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard.

When we get tired of smelling our own crap, we'll figure out the alternative fuel thing.

I'm thinking that time may arrive sooner rather than later. Think: Gulf of Mexico. Or, people being able to set their tap water on fire. Stuff like that.

But it might not be sooner. The power of denial is strong with us.

But one way or another, one day we will wake up with the aroma of our own crap filling our nostrils and we'll decide it's time to make some changes.

That, or we'll drown in our own crap.

Either way, the job will get done.

GOB: I didn't say this. I said the effort to get society worldwide to shut down use of petroleum based fuel for energy is doomed to fail.

Which is to say, unless you're vaguely under the impression that oil is a renewable resource, we're all doomed when it runs out.

GOB I am also a skeptic of peak oil theory

...no, no. The word "skeptic" does not mean "foolishly ignorant of".

Not so much that there is warming going on, but more on whether it is man made or just a small segment in a larger natural cycle.

It's always possible that the warming is part of a natural cycle. I've seen the argument made that the Earth goes through warming a cooling cycles over tens of thousands of years and that the data we're looking at aren't long-term enough to show a true long-term change or trend. This argument turns on itself, as I see it.

Leaving aside ice-core records and other "natural records" that can be examined, people will say we've only been collecting climate data for the last century or so. Those data show clear warming over those years. Almost no one disputes that, as far as I know. They just attempt to debunk it with the short-term versus long-term argument.

The problem is that, if warming a cooling trends occur over such long periods of time, why is it that we're seeing such a rise over the short term that just happens to coincide with the rise of industry? It seems awfully improbable that such an unusual century would just happen to occur within a tens-of-millennia cycle at the very same time that humans started pumping massive amounts of carbon and other materials into the atmosphere.

When someone tries to tell me we need thousands of years to establish that human industry is significantly contributing to climate change, may answer is that the Industrial Revolution just didn't start that long ago, so they're out of luck.

It's always possible that the warming is part of a natural cycle.

There are lots of possible reasons for warming or cooling trends. I know a very, very reputable meteorologist who believes quite firmly that current warming trends are due to solar activity.

I don't begin to have the scientific chops to evaluate the argument.

The evidence appears to indicate, in fact, that global temperatures have been higher than they are now during the early years of settled human civilization on the planet.

See the Holocene Climactic Optimum.

So, humans have thrived on the planet with higher temperatures than we see now. Not six billion of us, of course, but we've lived on a warmer planet nonetheless.

What solar activity, or pretty much any phenomena other than human activity, do *not* explain is the increase in levels of atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

Check it out.

The significance of recent warming trends is not so much that they are alarming in and of themselves (although they may be), but that they confirm predictions made decades ago by folks who were modeling out the possible effects of greenhouse gas increases.

Warming is only one of many potentially harmful changes that may come from the increase of greenhouse gases. Others include, frex, increased acidification of the oceans, which could result in serious disruption of global food chains.

Warming is just the tip of the iceberg.

We can all argue from now until the end of time about whether global temperature is really rising (although that seems fairly uncontroversial at this point), what the causes are, which of them are anthropogenic, whether the anthropogenic causes are statistically significant or not, blah blah blah.

We'll never have a definitive answer, because a system at the scale and complexity of the *entire freaking atmospheric and ecologic system of the planet* is bigger than we can get our heads completely around.

The best we can do is say that it seems likely that some things we do may be harmful, and that the costs and risks of continuing those behaviors are potentially very, very expensive indeed.

We can say those things with a pretty high level of confidence, today.

And when I say "pretty high level of confidence", I mean a level of confidence that would prompt you to take action, immediately, if a similar warning came from your doctor, or auto mechanic, or home inspector.

There's a difference between "being skeptical" and sticking your fingers in your ears, saying "na na I can't hear you", and doing nothing at all.

Can't speak for GOB, I would say I am "a skeptic of Peak Oil theory" in the sense that I am not convinced that we are imminently approaching that peak, and I am especially not convinced by the agrarian fantasies of those, like Kunstler, who believe that a post-peak world will be desperately short of energy and revert to some kind of Norman Rockwell small-town locavore paradise where everyone has rewarding physical work to do and makes their own clothes by hand.

That idea is a load of crap. Energy is easy to extract from numerous non-fossil sources and we're not going to give up on modern life just because we can't dig dead dinosaurs* out of the ground and set them on fire any more. And the idea that we would give up on modern life in that event is profoundly damaging to attempts to get us to switch to non-dinosaur energy sources.

* I know, I know, it's not dead dinosaurs, it's mostly vegetation. Although it turns out that some of it might be from dinosaur poop. Less romantic, I know.

Energy is easy to extract from numerous non-fossil sources

Such as...?

There is an appealing qualitative difference between these comments...

'There's a difference between "being skeptical" and sticking your fingers in your ears, saying "na na I can't hear you", and doing nothing at all.'

'So, what do you think, instead of Peak Oil, GOB? Is the Earth's core made of oil, or do you figure we'll find out how to synthesize oil from something else, or do you figure there's large, easy to get to untapped areas of oil out there?'

and this one...

'...no, no. The word "skeptic" does not mean "foolishly ignorant of".'

Without doing the research right now, my recollection is that prominent 'peak oil' advocates, (those who have specified dates or time periods when the world supply of proven reserves would diminish to a crisis point) have been repeatedly wrong. For example, some charts showing proven reserves in the last decade of the last century don't even have Brazil on the chart, and it seems much has been going on there lately.

Of course, the 'global warming' problem would be much easier to address in the short term if enough people in the right places could be convinced of the truth of the 'peak oil' arguments, particularly those that suggest a serious oil supply shortage will be faced in the short term. In the absence of this, it seems that alternative energy sources will need to compete with existing sources in order to succeed in a relatively free market environment or governments must take actions that will accomplish this in a highly regulated market.

I'm not in disagreement with the propositions that the current energy producers have been aided by government actions, but I have some questions in my mind if this happened because government was intentionally favoring some industries over others (picking winners and losers) or if the subsidies were to help generate economic growth generally, thereby producing employment opportunities and an improved standard of living.

Thanks to Nate and Russell for thoughtful comments.

Me: Energy is easy to extract from numerous non-fossil sources

Russell: Such as...?

Well, there's earth, air and fire; geothermal, wind, solar. There's nukes, maybe some biofuels. And there's a floating fusion reactor with a 5 billion year fuel source nearby that puts out vastly more energy in every second than humans have used in all of history. If we can't figure out how to tap a little more of that maybe we deserve to go back to living in caves.

Jacob: To finish off the classical Greek elements, there's also water, in various forms of tidal and wave power, and some funky things like trying to get energy from the turbulence around bridge piers and the like (one of my professors was working on something on those lines a couple of years ago)

I also think industrial civilization can survive Peak Oil, though it'll probably change fairly radically. Not into some kind of idealized Norman Rockwell/Jeffersonian Agrarian society. We'll even probably still be using oil, just not as fuel. Petroleum is a wonderful source of complicated long chain hydrocarbons, with lots of uses. We probably won't have quite so cheap plastic, either, but our kids/grandkids/great grandkids (depending how old "we" are) will probably look at us funny when we tell them we used to just burn oil. Also, agriculture will have to cut back on artificial fertilizers, 'cause they won't be so cheap either.

GOB: The line about "earth's core made of oil" probably came out slightly snarkier than I intended, except I have heard people saying almost that, that oil will just keep seeping up from somewhere undefined under the Earth's crust.

As for oil reserves, the exact date of Peak Oil depends on the estimates of new reserves, new technologies, etc, yes. But for example, in the continental US, we hit our own Peak Oil years ago, and oil production has declined in the US since 1970. Wikipedia reference. There's more estimates here on Wikipedia too.

Our exact position on the graph is possible to argue, but on the larger scale, does it matter that much if the peak production is going to happen 20 years from now, 10 years from now, or even five years ago? Unless there's an extraordinary amount of un-found oil, or we radically change the upward trajectory of oil use, we are going to hit a limiting point. It could even be a processing and delivery bottleneck, where we want to use more oil than we are physically capable of digging up and processing in the same amount of time. The net result of that, or the other possibilities is the same, more expensive oil, and prices not likely to go down.

Then there's another argument, which might have more resonance with real fiscal conservatives. Fossil fuels are like a savings account, that you use to start up a business. At some point, you have to get income from somewhere else (other energy sources) to balance out your spending (use), otherwise your savings are going to run out eventually, and you won't have a cushion in case of bad times, or if you need to make a big investment. And unlike money, there's not really anywhere we can go to "borrow" energy. We're limited by how much solar energy hits the Earth per day. Fossil fuels made from ancient vegetation is, literally, saved solar energy.

And I repeat again, power generation is in no way, shape, or form, a free market. Here in Georgia, Georgia Power is building an expansion of the Plant Vogtle nuclear reactor, and raising rates now, when there's years before it's going to be completed, not to mention the inevitable budget overruns on nuclear plant projects. (Vogtle was estimated at $2.66 Billion in 1977, when it was started, ended up costing $9 billion)
$14 billion is the latest estimate I can find, and 80% of that is loans backed by the federal government, and they'll make about 2400 MW, combined. For comparison, methane collection power systems at landfills run in the $100-300K range, and can produce 2.7MW per million tons of trash. (These numbers are from quick Googling, and there may be better ones.) So the nuclear looks like it'd cost more per watt to me. The landfill systems are more distributed investment, keeps methane, a much stronger greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere, and will last anywhere from 10-40 years before the landfill is exhausted. The systems can still run off natural gas then, or be reclaimed for use elsewhere.

Landfill systems aren't the only kind of renewable system available, though they are just about the only one Georgia Power uses at the moment, despite being in the sunny South.

Jacob: Can't speak for GOB, I would say I am "a skeptic of Peak Oil theory" in the sense that I am not convinced that we are imminently approaching that peak

But you are aware that oil/any fossil fuel is not a renewable resource - once we burn it, it's gone?

Well, there's earth, air and fire; geothermal, wind, solar. There's nukes, maybe some biofuels. And there's a floating fusion reactor with a 5 billion year fuel source nearby that puts out vastly more energy in every second than humans have used in all of history.

Oh yeah. But, you know, we need to actually be developing widespread technologies to make use of alternative sources of energy to a degree that can replace oil.

And we're not. And I don't think that, such is the power of the oil industry, that we're likely to.

GOB: Without doing the research right now, my recollection is that prominent 'peak oil' advocates, (those who have specified dates or time periods when the world supply of proven reserves would diminish to a crisis point) have been repeatedly wrong.

They were right according to the technology/information available to them at the time: new methods were developed - the success of which, we have been seeing in the Gulf just recently - to extract oil from areas previously regarded as inaccessible, or to locate untapped reservoirs of oil.

And I said: I agree with you that I don't think we will ever succeed in replacing oil in time to save civilisation. Which, as oil is non-renewable, means that when it's gone, civilisation collapses, and most of us die.

Well, there's earth, air and fire; geothermal, wind, solar. There's nukes, maybe some biofuels. And there's a floating fusion reactor with a 5 billion year fuel source nearby that puts out vastly more energy in every second than humans have used in all of history.

Those are all great things. What they don't have is the combination of energy density and portability and general ease of use and handling that fossil fuels provide.

There is at least a generation's worth, probably two, of hard, concerted effort to get from where are now to a place where, frex, I can get to work without consuming any form of fossil fuel.

And none of that hard, concerted effort has even begun to be contemplated in a serious way, let alone carried out.

I don't have the chops to evaluate whether Peak Oil is upon us, already past, or hundreds of years in the future. To a pretty large degree, it doesn't matter much to me anyway, there are about 1,000 reasons other than available supply for getting out of the petroleum economy business.

But we are currently in that business up to our hips, and the fact that other forms of energy are available will do nothing for us without a quite thorough reorganization of the economy and industrial infrastructure as a whole.

So, yeah, other forms of energy are available, but we are not, remotely, in a position to make good use of them.

small-town locavore paradise where everyone has rewarding physical work to do and makes their own clothes by hand.

As an aside, there's nothing particularly wrong with the culture you describe here. It is certainly not a paradise, but neither is how we live now. There are no paradises, there are only choices.

Folks lived the way you describe here -- or, at least, the real vs the cartoon version of what you describe here -- until fairly recently, and it was OK.

To state this in stupidly simplistic terms: if the tradeoff is make my own clothes vs kill all of the fish, I'm voting for make my own clothes.

That's not the actual tradeoff we're likely to have to make, but I think you get my drift.

More on local farming....

In MA, where I live, farms are typically small, and many of them make at least some of their income from sales in local markets, and to local businesses like restaurants and co-ops.

The number of small farmers in MA is increasing, and lots of the new folks are getting in on an entrepreneurial basis. It's a part time or second job, they lease the land, and hope to build up to a point where they can own their land and bring in paid help.

A great deal of this is funded by CSAs, which allow small scale farmers to have a reliable and predictable cash flow.

There are, in fact, lots of people who like to farm and/or do "satisfying physical work" for local market, and there is absolutely no good reason not to encourage them to do so.

Some people like to get their backs into it. Nothing wrong with that, on the contrary.

Jes: But you are aware that oil/any fossil fuel is not a renewable resource - once we burn it, it's gone?

Er, yes, since I am not barkingly insane. I think. But predicting the peak is a fool's game. There are people who find an imminent peak oil scenario very appealing because of anti-modern/anti-sprawl sensibilities, but I wouldn't count on it.

russell: What they don't have is the combination of energy density and portability and general ease of use and handling that fossil fuels provide. There is at least a generation's worth, probably two, of hard, concerted effort to get from where are now to a place where, frex, I can get to work without consuming any form of fossil fuel. And none of that hard, concerted effort has even begun to be contemplated in a serious way, let alone carried out.

Yes to most of this. I am not a glibertarian who believes technology will magically fall from the sky to save us. I think it can save us, but that it requires a tremendous amount of work, investment, and a certain amount of sacrifice. The right time to start a Manhattan/Apollo-level effort to get off fossil fuels was 40 or 50 years ago, but oh well.

What I don't buy is the idea that there will be a major energy interregnum in which the sudden unavailability of oil (or sudden carbon taxes) blow up modern civilization. The effort to get off fossil fuels has mobilized in the last decade to an unprecedented degree, and when peak oil happens - if it happens before renewables make it as obsolete as whale oil - oil will gradually decline in production and increase in price, not suddenly stop being available. And the transition period will almost certainly not see a major change in lifestyle patterns.

Natural gas can likely stand in for gasoline for a few decades and also make a serious dent in coal, and with price pressure from gasoline, electric vehicles will look more attractive. The cost of cars and car travel will probably rise, but it won't become so unaffordable as to radically change the way we live. Bear in mind that in Europe with gasoline 2-3x the price it is here, most households still own cars and live in a pretty suburban pattern.

And I basically agree that locavore/hand-made is quite appealing, it's just that I don't think it's some kind of automatic consequence of peak oil. I'm not impressed by deus ex machina utopianism. [That is some ugly greek/latin there.] You have to figure out the concrete steps involved in making that an appealing and practical world, not just assume it'll materialize when oil gets expensive.

You have to figure out the concrete steps involved in making that an appealing and practical world, not just assume it'll materialize when oil gets expensive.

My personal thought on all of this is that it's impossible to plan out all of the steps involved. To some degree, things just play out and land where they land. And, there is an important role for the market in all of that.

To me it makes sense to take specific steps at the policy level to discourage the use of fossil fuels as we now use them. We've been a net importer of oil since the mid-70's, it involves us in a world of headaches and horsesh*t, and it actually does contribute to visible environmental harms of all kinds.

I'd like to see a carbon tax and then let folks' natural ingenuity and resourcefulness rise to the occasion to find the best alternatives. I'd support public investment to help fund and build out infrastructure where needed to support whatever looks like it will work.

But whatever happens it's highly likely that our way of life will change. And it should. Even other industrial nations don't have the per-capita level of fossil fuel use that we do.

Basically, we are profligate wasters of energy. We seem to consider that to be some kind of entitlement -- the "American lifestyle" -- but it's stupid and harmful.

The attraction for the localvore thing to me is that it makes it possible for small landholders to make a viable go of farming, which means (a) people in my state can be farmers (average farm plot in MA is less than 70 acres, biggest in my county is 1,000 acres), and (b) all of the open land won't automatically turn into condo subdivisions.

And that is not hypothetical.

Some local towns in my area have either purchased farms outright, or worked with non-profit organizations to purchase land, which they have then leased to farmers to keep them in production.

Short of that, the sheer value of land in my area would inexorably turn them into yet more suburban housing.

So, to me, the "localvore" thing means that the centuries-old landscape and patterns of land use won't just turn into, literally, McMansions.

Most large American cities have arable land quite nearby, and there really are lots of people who enjoy farming and raising stock. It's a model that would work well in lots of places.

Most large cities are built near good quality land because that was where the food to supply the city used to come from. Which is part of why turning all those farms, and their quality soil, into crappy strip malls and subdivisions and then importing food from irrigated deserts in California is pretty dumb, and unnecessary.

Jacob: There are people who find an imminent peak oil scenario very appealing because of anti-modern/anti-sprawl sensibilities, but I wouldn't count on it.

There are even more people who find the idea that peak oil is a safe long way in the future vastly appealling - because it means there's no real need to worry about making the most of the oil resources now available.

There is an ancient and useful aphorism: It's impossible for a pessimist to be unpleasantly surprised.

It's possible that the sunny optimists who want to believe that Peak Oil is a long, long way in the future, are right. But if their optimistic beliefs control policy, and they are wrong, we are all doomed when the oil runs out.

It's also possible that the pessimists who believe Peak Oil is close at hand if not already behind us, are right. And if our pessimistic beliefs are allowed to control policy, even if we're wrong, our being wrong and there being more oil than we counted on doesn't actually doom anyone: we just have more resources than we counted on.

You may like to dismiss this as "anti-modern/anti-sprawl sensibilities", but that's because you're a sunny optimist.

I think it can save us, but that it requires a tremendous amount of work, investment, and a certain amount of sacrifice. The right time to start a Manhattan/Apollo-level effort to get off fossil fuels was 40 or 50 years ago, but oh well.

And why would anyone start this kind of Manhattan/Apollo-level effort, while sunny optimists keep right on believing that the oil isn't going to run out Any Time Soon?

What I don't buy is the idea that there will be a major energy interregnum in which the sudden unavailability of oil (or sudden carbon taxes) blow up modern civilization.

Then you haven't considered how much of modern civilisation is utterly dependent on oil.

You have to figure out the concrete steps involved in making that an appealing and practical world

Yes, that would be great. But sunny optimism translated into policy means no such concrete steps are being developed.

not just assume it'll materialize when oil gets expensive.

I don't. I assume that about 95% of us are going to die.

Which is why, of course, I actually prefer to read XKCD and not think about our inevitable doom too much. Sunny optimists depress me.

Is it optimistic or pessimistic to believe that we are at (or almost at, or just past) Peak Oil? I suppose it depends on whether we live in The Economy or in The Environment. Opinions differ.

Peak Oil (Hubbert's Peak) is based on the simple notion that the rate of discovery of new reserves is a function of what fraction of the Earth's oil we haven't discovered yet. Hubbert made his name by accurately predicting that US oil production would peak in about 1970. His model is dead simple. Maybe it's TOO simple. Maybe we had not, as of 2005, used up 50% of the total oil there is in the Earth. But no serious person I know of argues that we've used 20% or 80%.

We're about halfway through all the oil there ever was, plus or minus a few percent. That is, we've taken about half the fossil carbon atoms locked up in petroleum out of the geologic strata where they were safely buried and converted them to CO2 molecules in the biosphere. Can the biosphere accomodate the other half?

If you're an optimist about oil (we've only used a quarter of it, say) then we still have 75% of our cumulative C02 emissions to go. Hmmm.

--TP

Jes: why would anyone start this kind of Manhattan/Apollo-level effort

Well, there is that whole "global warming" thing.

Then you haven't considered how much of modern civilisation is utterly dependent on oil.

Or, possibly, I understand that pretty well but come to different conclusions about what it means. We are dependent mostly on the things that oil powers - trucks, power plants, cars, & planes. Other than planes, all of those can be powered by other energy sources that are at this point reasonably well-proven technology at a price point not ridiculously higher than oil. As long as cheap oil is around, it's going to be hard for them to compete. I'd like a carbon tax, but then I'd like a pony too. Well, not really. But I would like a carbon tax.

I assume that about 95% of us are going to die.

I assume that too but it's mostly because I am hoping for the imminent arrival of the zombie apocalypse. It's gonna be awesome for the 5% of us that won't be eaten alive and turned into the living dead to prey on our own families.

I assume that about 95% of us are going to die.

I think you need to be specific about the "us" that makes up 100% of this number.

For a huge number of people in the world, shortfalls in the supply of oil, coal, or natural gas are going to be kind of non-event.

And IIUC it's really just oil that we are at anything like a peak for. Don't know about natural gas, but I think there's plenty of coal.

For better or worse.

If you really want to worry, look up peak phosphorous.

I assume that about 95% of us are going to die.

I assume that 100% of us are going to die. Plus zero, minus some tiny fraction of a percent representing the quietly&secretly immortal.

For a huge number of people in the world, shortfalls in the supply of oil, coal, or natural gas are going to be kind of non-event.

I tend toward the pessimistic side myself. But to the extent that I fear huge numbers of people dying, it's not because of shortfalls in fossil fuels, it's because of the potential effects of global warming on food production.

the quietly&secretly immortal.

Not so quietly aspiring to immortality: Ray Kurzweil.

I worked for him when I was in college and he was just developing his first reading machine for the blind. What followed is not entirely surprising...in all directions.

But just think what I missed out on by not sticking around when there was just the ground floor. ;)

I hadn't realized that Kurzweil was the same Kurzweil whose name I saw on keyboard instruments. The guy is into many things.

I tend toward the pessimistic side myself.

I guess my point there was that a lot of the world is poor enough that they don't use fossil fuels to any particularly large extent. If fossil fuels become scarce, they'll still basically just be really poor people, same as the day before.

But yeah, I agree about food production, and perhaps more so about water.

Not to mention the wars that can come from fights over fuel, food, and water.

Not to mention the wars that can come from fights over fuel, food, and water.

This.

The first of which, I believ, is the conflict of Darfur, spurred on by both the presence of oil, and the sudden loss of arable land due to climate change.

I believe Jared Diamond says Rwanda was at least partly this as well.

I will add to the concerns voiced here that I think we should work hard to separate the generation and delivery of power. The worst offenses are the delivery of power to a mass of people in environmentally unfriendly ways.

I believe that we should pick an environmentally friendly and proven delivery mechanism (electricity) for cars, trucks,heating, cooling, cooking, etc. and focus the transformation of the various energy sources into electricity.

The ability to manage environmental hazards at the production centers, regardless of energy source, would be much improved over mass delivery of whatever form.

Energy companies (translate oil and natural gas) could continue to participate in the energy economy while they are still cost effective and alternative energy sources could be brought online separate from the mass delivery complexities.

As a caveat, we should invest heavily in understanding how to reuse, recycle and dispose of the battery explosion that would occur in an environmentally friendly way. Before we have a problem. We also would have to rebuild the electrical grid, but we should do that anyway.

Manhattan/Apollo type projects can work because they have simple concrete goals: make a bomb that blows things up using a fission reaction; get people to the moon in such a way that we can bring them back. Reducing our use of fossil fuels isn't that kind of goal, and we don't have consensus even on the need for such a project, let alone what the actual end state should be (e.g., Marty's proposal). Research on energy alternatives is necessarily going to be more diffuse and less amenable to central planning than that. It's a public good and something we should all be paying for, but that's not the same as saying we can crash our way to success with one big push.

"let alone what the actual end state should be"

I believe that is one of the challenges we have to overcome. Describing an end state that people can understand and translate to how it would effect "me" would give us the possibility of creating a common purpose.

Pieces of it could be amenable to being big projects with distinct end states, like "rebuild our electricity grid so it doesn't lose a quarter of the power on the way to your house, and can let more kinds of supplies in", but that's not quite as sexy or simple a statement.

My shorthand I've used for an overall end state is "Star Trek Future", not because of the specifics of Star Trek, but it's the most recognizable generally post-scarcity future that people will recognize. Also, it's optimistic, in a way that's not really in vogue now.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad