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. 

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