Monday, June 24, 2013

Post Carbon Economy pt.2

The role of the petroleum industry.

As I have pointed out petroleum products have permeated our lives. They are essential for; almost all modern medical procedures, the harvesting, transportation and packaging of many agricultural products, the manufacturing processes for goods that keep our very society running. I know for a fact that anyone reading this (because it is only published on the internet and thus requires a computer) owes a debt of thanks to the petroleum industry for the computer and probably many other products in their lives.

Petroleum from refined crude oil or otherwise extracted from the ground, is sequestered carbon that is the result of more than 50 million years worth of biological and geological activity. If a process takes that kind of time to form, how do you harvest it in a sustainable way? The truth is you can't. So It is time for humanity to start prioritizing how we consume this incredibly valuable resource. Is it more important for you to drive five blocks to the store today or for a child to have access to the materials necessary for kidney dialysis in a hundred years?

The petroleum industry is not going to embrace the kind of austerity of consumption necessary to ensure this resource is managed intelligently. Asking an industry that is used to immense profits to self regulate for the betterment of long term goals is like asking a junkie in the throws of a binge to refrain from their drug of choice. We also cannot depend on the government to hand down regulation that will curtail excess consumption because of the mess that lobbying and the campaign finance economy has made of our democratic process.

From the standpoint of a petroleum producer, the faster the last barrel of oil is extracted the better, because that last barrel will be worth a fortune. They are not planning ways to make this resource last for the next ten generations. Maybe they assume some technocratic solution will alleviate the suffering of future generations when the systems that many depend on for their very lives can no longer be sustained. Like a run away freight train, even if people inside of these corporations want to change the rate at which oil is extracted, they are powerless to do so because of laws protecting shareholders.

So it is up to consumers. We must become aware of how and why we consume petroleum products and strive to limit our consumption. There is no one looking out for our best interests. Governmental entities have to weigh out many competing interests, economic, social, and environmental. In many cases the compromises they are forced to make, render inadequate results. Many small changes in peoples lives in aggregate could substantially prolong access to petroleum products for future generations.

Changes like ditching plastic bags and avoiding over packaged products. Changing commuting habits to include alternative forms of transportation. Reducing energy consumption both at home and at work. Simply being aware of personal consumption and placing efficiency higher on the criteria used when making new purchases can have a dramatic influence. One step further would be to eliminate unnecessary travel and purchases all together. Ask if a four day work week of ten hours shifts is possible, eliminating fifty or more round trip commutes a year. There are many different ways to take responsibility for personal petroleum consumption. It is not in the hands of the producer or the government, it truly is in the hands of the people.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Post-Carbon Economy pt.1

How does one explain climate change or the ecosystem services it threatens to the average person, or more importantly to political heavy hitters?

It has taken thousands of scientists dedicating decades of their lives to fully understand their respective fields. The IPCC only really looked at a small sliver of the available evidence forecasting problems for future generations. Furthermore, the time lag between cause and effect makes it impossible for those responsible for the damage to be held accountable.

It sounds like hyperbole to the layman. Sea level rise, crop failure, exacerbated weather events, droughts, ocean acidification and other potential risks don’t mean much to someone who lives in a climate controlled world never setting foot off a paved surface. Yet the most isolated in our society from nature seem to be the ones who carry the most clout.

Another problem with a generally scientifically illiterate body politic is they are subject to clouded judgment. To the layman it is hard to tell the difference between fossil fuel industry propaganda and journalism based on genuine peer reviewed science. How do you convince someone with a financial interest in the status quo that they must change to protect generations they will never live to meet.

The concept of the natural world as “immutable” or protected by a creator has been thoroughly discredited, yet it still persists. There is evidence of anthropogenic effects to ecosystems on every continent. It seems to be widely assumed that we will still reap the benefits these ecosystems provide us; like fresh water and air, regardless of our stewardship.

Yet the ecosystem that provides the majority of our oxygen is directly threatened by carbon emissions. Ocean acidification the result of rapidly increased carbon dioxide leads to fishery collapse and other problems as well. But again it is not the current cohort’s problem. They just have to live out their lives before the lag catches up and effects the lives of their grandchildren. 

The private sector has a pathetic record of environmental stewardship. The extractive industry, including coal, petroleum and natural gas, have left a trail of Superfund sites in their wake for centuries while going through great lengths to avoid being financially responsible. The private sector also lacks the attention span to see the economic benefits of transitioning away from fossil fuels or embrace austerity until we know for sure what the consequences are likely to be.

The self preservation instinct that keeps a person from lighting their house on fire or driving off a cliff is the same drive that the majority in the scientific community feel when they urge change to protect our natural resources. Economic arguments against change in this light seem like nothing more than base avarice and greed. From that starting point, where does one find common ground to build upon?

There is no argument against the concept that no one on earth would survive a day without the air or food that is provided to us through complex interactions of hundreds, if not thousands, of organisms. Yet those who have the most political clout today are completely disinterested in proper stewardship of these resources. Just one meal probably includes the efforts of hundreds of different species.

If someone were to say to you that their greatest fear in life is heights, how do you convince them that sky diving will change their life for the better. Confronting ones fears is one of the hardest parts of life. The only thing preventing our society from transitioning away from fossil fuels is fear. It is fear on the part of those invested in the oil industry of losing profits. That fear has permeated through our society via propaganda and political influence. That fear of loss has over ridden logic en mass.

For too long we have allowed that fear to control our political system. We fear terrorists from countries that didn’t even exist until after world war two and were created at the behest of oil interests in the first place. Oil is a central power in the cycle of political and social discourse. The only way to break this hegemony of control is to transition away from fossil fuels.

There is a logical reason for entrenched industry interests to fear transition to a post carbon economy, supply and demand. Solar, wind and hydro-electric are nearly infinite sources of power. All are driven by the sun, so as long as the sun burns in the sky, these power sources will continue to produce. Oil on the other hand is sun light that was sequestered long ago, between 400 and 60 million years ago. The rate at which we are extracting and consuming this resource is faster than the rate of replenishment by more than factors of hundreds.

In laymen’s terms it is the limited nature of oil that makes it valuable. The oil industry wants nothing more than to see the last barrel of oil come out of the ground because that last barrel will be worth a fortune. Furthermore it is prohibitively expensive to extract and refine, so home grown solutions or democratization is intrinsically prevented. Solar for example, once installed will continue to produce energy for more than a lifetime. How do you continue to exploit consumers if they already bought the product and it will last for the foreseeable future?

Designed obsolesce is the automakers answer to fossil fuels. Most modern cars are not built to last. They looked at the business model of petroleum extraction and figured a way to match it. But designed obsolesce might actually play into the transition. Hybrid cars are already makeup a significant percentage of market share. The next step is full electric transportation. As oil companies slit their own throats by hiking prices at the pump, the price per kilowatt hour continues to drop for renewable energy sources.

Consumer markets will become more comfortable with electric models through the transition of hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Soon enough the specter of fossil fuels will be relegated to a small backup generator in the car for when the battery is completely dead. This trend can be clearly seen in the market of today, further evidenced by state governments considering or passing extra taxes on HEVs to compensate for the loss in petroleum taxes at the pump.

The enemy or the choice.

Now if so far you agree with me, this is probably going to be the point where I piss you off. We absolutely fucking need petroleum and the extraction industry if we are going to survive the next few decades.

Part of the problem with the current mode of thinking on the other side of the fence is demonization of what is essentially an animal. Being the “Owner” of a company that has more than fifty employees is more like having a work animal than being some omnipotent evil. The more people that are involved in an organization, the more human error accrues. “All things created by man are subject to man’s own short comings”.

When managing the efforts of a dozen people, those efforts carry momentum, and that momentum can drive a company up or into bankruptcy. Sometimes something works, and it works so well that it becomes the dominate force (economically and in intellectual capital) in many people’s lives. The intersection of many large economies stabilize America, most of which were formed via these processes, are the very bed rock of the current standard of living for most Americans.

Today, the vast majority of Americans rely directly on fossil fuels for their food, and some even rely on it for their municipal water supply. We cannot completely blame and ostracize a fucking huge segment of the American economy. The efforts of a great many people for generations have gone into building our world to what it is today. We zip around the planet at hundreds of miles per hour. We take trips that a hundred years ago would have meant weeks at sail in less than twenty four hours on a plane.

Petroleum products are ubiquitous in daily life. I have never gone anywhere or lived in anything in my entire life without some petroleum product playing an important role in it. I doubt many other people can say any different.

It is time to start making intelligent choices in how we consume this important resource, because we will continue to consume it until better options are available. The transition over to less petroleum consumptive renewable energy as well as the absolutely necessary medical/chemical, food packaging and processing, existing infrastructure support, and the all important conventional agriculture petroleum consumption.

By controlling what is subsidized by the federal government within a private company that has become “Too big to fail”, targeting safer options to protect our nations security is easier. In the next few posts, I will make an argument for giving the government more control over how it subsidizes the petroleum. I want to strongly encourage comments on this, from all sides. My goal is genuine pragmatism. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Mother Frackers

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing is a big issue in California. Outside of California, people across the country rely in vegetables that compete directly for water resources with the extraction industry. Many in the political spectrum see it as the path away from middle eastern oil and the issues associated. But politicians are being offered a false choice. We do not need to continue exploiting this resource. We need to transition our economy away from fossil fuels entirely.

Once an aquifer is tainted it may never be a viable source for drinking or agricultural water ever again. The historical attitude of extractive industry towards environmental stewardship does nothing to inspire confidence that this vital resource will be properly protected. Considering the failure rate of well casings it is a very real possibility that "America's salad bowl" will end up as another Superfund site.

Generational shift plays an important part of the equation. I can understand the perspective of someone over fifty not being able to wrap their head around a post carbon economy. History is bursting at the seams with similar stories of resistance to change; denial of the heliocentric solar system, or the resistance to accepting evolution, but there is a difference between not accepting science for social reasons and the situation we are in now.

It is a dangerous combination of willful ignorance with industry propaganda that is currently preventing the changes necessary to transition our nation away from fossil fuels and a sustainable economic model. Fossil fuel consumption has created a sharply stratified society with many of the symbols of wealth inextricably tied to it. From private jets to fresh vegetables in the desert, the carbon economy has permeated all walks of life like a disease. Industry propagandists would have you believe the cure will kill the patient.

The resistance to accepting theory in science has acted to slow the march of progress. Here in America, the insistence of the religious right has regressed our public education standards back to the 1800's. While problematic, those who sought higher education could still work to rise above. Sadly, climate change does not parallel this pattern. There is no safe haven to strive for to attenuate the inevitable consequences.

As much as we would like to believe we are the masters of nature, anyone who has lived through severe weather or survived a natural disaster can tell you otherwise. Fossil fuels have profoundly influenced the zeitgeist. We can travel for our entire lives without ever stepping off a paved path or being more than five minutes away from a climate controlled bubble. In reality, we are much more dependent on the ecosystems we are destroying by consuming resources wantonly.

We cannot afford to wait for generational shift to allow us to make the changes. The economic arguments against transition steeply discount the reclamation efforts we face. There is no aspect of life that will not be changed dramatically, we can either get in front of it and make smart decisions now, or let entrenched interests and antiquated paradigm force much harder choices later. Waiting for previous generations who lack the impetus without "skin in the game" to bring about meaningful change is insufficient.

Maintaining the momentum of the status quo will only drive us father past the tipping point towards environmental collapse after they are gone.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


I am starting to dislike the term potential. When ever I hear someone refer to my "potential" as some sort of tangible future that I've purposefully waylaid, it makes me cringe. Like the economic system we have is some great Ponzi scheme, and my potential is to join the next tier being created at the bottom so lift those who already have time invested.

In a nut shell, "live up to your potential" sounds to me like "willingly disenfranchise yourself to support our corrupt system". I have found my self questioning many of the bed rock assumptions of modern society. Assumptions like the necessity of a phone, or the consumption of goods besides food and water, and the stressful pace of life in the modern age.

I can remember a time when one household would share a phone. Maybe it had an answering machine. Before my time, a letter could take weeks or months to travel from the writer to the recipient, yet progress marched on just fine to introduce humanity to the industrial age. I challenge the assumption that we are more productive in the era of instant communication. I feel as though we talk more than we accomplish tasks. Having instant communication lends its self to a lack of accountability because we can always pass the buck off on some distant consultant, instead of facing the consequences of our errors when we failed to figure something out for our selves.

Recently someone said to me "I knew we were screwed as nation when they started referring to us as consumers instead of as citizens". In political terms, the most powerful demographic the vast majority of us fit into is the 'consumer base'. Yet we cheat on boycotts, or consume regardless of the environmental costs, in essence we condone vile business practices every day by consuming needlessly. Other than food and water, all other "needs" are manufactured artificially by social norms or homogenized influence from media. There is not a single person who will actually die from not having a new TV, laptop computer, phone, car, etc. But there are creatures that will have to die in order for these products to be manufactured.

All this manufactured need and the debt encumbered slavery that is intrinsically tied to it has another effect. Stress kills. When you are stressed out at work, you body doesn't not know that the stress you are experiencing is different from the stress of being chased by a tiger through the woods. Your boss may be dangling your next raise on the completion of a paperwork cycle, but the chemicals that are flooding your blood stream are geared not for grinding hours at a desk, but to help you run faster and fight harder. Without actually getting out and making use of these chemicals, they just linger causing damage to your heart muscles and other systems.

Your standard of living will increase with your budget. The mirage of "enough" is only realized by a select few, and even they rarely see it and will continue racing break neck for their grave seeking more. We are much better off learning to be happy with what we have. Limiting personal consumption has a great many benefits. Maybe my potential is to live a streamlined life, free of the stresses of ownership and responsibility for the environmental costs tied to my consumption.