Sunday, May 7, 2017

Places to B

"Landing men on the moon once seemed impossible, too. We did it with the help of computers less intelligent than the Calculator App in your smart phone."





In our story thus far we find our little party of bipedal vertebrates adrift on a planet whose climate is experiencing hyperthermia — quickly approaching heat stroke. This world is already running on the inner edge of the zone for habitability as it orbits its nearby star. An orbital shift just slightly closer to Venus or sightly farther from Mars would render it as inhospitable to life as either of those two neighbor worlds.

That unfortunate ending could also be achieved by a subtle shift of its atmospheric chemistry — a mere one tenth of one percent change in a single component (carbon dioxide, for instance) could be enough to irreversibly doom all higher life forms, beginning with high-maintenance mammals such as our little party. A comparable shift in the opposite direction would return the comfortable conditions of the late Holocene in which we evolved.

There are no lifeboats, and no nearby world to colonize. We have to either repair the thermostat on this vessel or perish.


If we listen to the best minds among us, we know that it is no longer adequate to curtail air pollution, even if we ended fossil fuels by 2020. We have to net sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and draw out at least a third of what is already up there — the legacy emissions of our predecessors. We need to do it fast — within decades. Given the tipping points already crossed, we may need to take down even more, even faster. We’ll find that out soon enough. The important thing is to just get started.

Dr. Glen Peters, Senior researcher, CICERO:

We often point to the faster-than-expected deployment of renewables, but rarely point to the slower-than-expected deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS is a key technology in scenarios, both with bioenergy and fossil fuels. CCS is a tougher nut to crack than thought due to technical, political and social constraints. According to most emission scenarios, if we don’t have large-scale CCS, then we can’t keep below 1.5/2C.

Hannah Mowat, forests and climate campaigner for Fern:

The level of ambition shown by countries in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) puts us on a pathway upwards of 3.6C. So, at the moment, much greater levels of ambition are needed from countries to put us on a path of emissions reductions that are steep enough to minimize any reliance on negative emissions (possibly to zero for 2C), to give us the greatest possible chance of staying below the 2 and 1.5C limits. Nothing should distract us from the need to shift to a fossil free world in the next decades.

Of the drawdown options, some work better than others. Some are easier to scale, some more difficult, or expensive. Some are downright dangerous. Some are snake oil. In the snake oil category is the current darling of technocornucopians: BECCS — Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage. In little more than a decade, BECCS had gone from being a highly theoretical, money-changers’ proposal for Sweden’s paper mills to earn double carbon credits to becoming a “key negative emissions technology” promoted by the IPCC to avoid dangerous climate change.

Dr Joeri Rogelj, Energy research scholar, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis:

Any technology deployed at large scale comes with pros and cons, and negative emissions technologies are no exception. Currently, no negative emissions technology [NET] entirely avoids potential detrimental societal side effects in a worst case scenario, but neither is there a single (low-carbon) energy technology that exclusively provides benefits. Nevertheless, our society will continue to produce energy in the future, and emissions have to be reduced to meet the Paris Agreement’s objectives. Technology preferences, thus, have to be considered against this backdrop: policies ensuring that detrimental side effects are limited are essential.

Considering these limitations, the most promising negative emissions technology appears to be the combination of centralized bioenergy power plants with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). In contrast to other negative emissions technologies, this technology provides the additional benefit of producing energy instead of merely consuming it. There surely are issues for its up-scaling. In general, negative emissions technologies’ only benefit is the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. Without CO2 emissions being penalized or strongly discouraged in some way, a large-scale deployment does never seem realistic. Then, there are further issues related to land and water competition for biomass production – this is a more general problem, not just for negative emissions – and related to safe ways to transport and store CO2. There is no silver bullet solution to climate change mitigation.

At first blush this sounds realistic. We can deal with  criticism that “in general, negative emissions technologies’ only benefit is the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere” by adding other benefits. In fact we could add enough benefits that NET pays for itself and even increases wealth, growing all 8 forms of capital in the process. We could make terra preta soils this way — making electricity from biomass crops or ag wastes, making biochar in the process and converting that to biofertilizer and probiotic feeds.

Sadly, that is not what the BECCS people have in mind. They are more into “sky mining;”  replacing fossil coal with plantation monocropped charcoal briquettes, shipped on railcars and burned in gigawatt steam plants to keep the lights on in distant skyscrapers and running subterranean, 135-mph Tesla autobahns, perhaps in the process sending a portion of the flue gas from the briquette burn down a pipe to the bottom of the ocean. That last stage would come at many times greater cost than the entirety of the other parts of the process, including the Tesla autobahns.

BECCS was studied last month by CarbonBrief. It appeared at first, in the early 2000s, as a backstop technology in case we got bad news from the climate system. Today it has become the savior-in-chief for technological civilization.

The acronym BECCS first appeared in 2001 in a paper in Science that suggested that switching from fossil to biomass energy and then storing the carbon emissions underground could sequester 500 gigatons of carbon over the course of the 21st century, which represents some 35% of projected emissions. The paper’s authors said:

“The long-run potential of such a permanent sink technology is large enough to neutralize historical fossil fuel emissions and satisfy a significant part of global energy and raw material demand.”

This is a big claim. It begs scrutiny. As CarbonBrief discovered, BECCS fails on several grounds. 

Rob Bailey, Director of energy, environment and resources, Chatham House:

Before 2050, speculative technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), direct air capture and ocean geoengineering offer little promise, due to a variety of economic and technological hurdles. For now, less exotic land-use practices, such as soil carbon management, biochar, forestation and wetlands restoration, offer more promise. These are proven, and negative emissions can be achieved with immediate effect.
***
Speculative negative emissions technologies may be worse than chimeras if they result in the false comfort that continued fossil fuel emissions can simply be offset, thereby diverting financial and policy resources from conventional mitigation. This would be reckless. It is clearly less risky not to emit a ton of CO2 in the first place, than to emit one in expectation of being able to sequester it for an unknown period of time, at unknown cost, with unknown consequences, at an unknown date and place in the future.

Prof Ottmar Edenhofer, Co-chair of AR5 Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Chief economist, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research:

It is clear that the infrastructure needed for BECCS, in particular, is massive in many of the current low-stabilization pathways and that we are late in ramping this up. On average, these pathways require investments into BECCS of $138bn and $123bn per year for electricity and biofuel respectively in 2050.

The industry is not without its cheerleaders, however. Prof David Keith, Gordon McKay professor of applied physics at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School; Executive chairman of Carbon Engineering:

All else equal, a ton of carbon removed by injecting it into a deep geological reservoir, or by adding alkalinity to the ocean, buys us more environmental protection than a ton of carbon captured in a forest or in biochar mixed into soils. Both both deserve more attention and research, but it’s dumb policy to treat them equally.

John Lanchbery, Head of climate change policy, RSPB:

We have reservations about the practical feasibility and costs of deploying NETs [Negative Emissions Technologies] on a large scale and, so far, none have been. As the IPCC AR5 points out for BECCS: “The potential, costs and risks of BECCS are subject to considerable scientific uncertainty.”  Even large scale monoculture plantations (afforestation), which are probably the most practical NET, would require vast amounts of water, hundreds of cubic kilometres per year, and would undermine efforts to increase food security, alleviate poverty and conserve biodiversity.

Yet reaching 1.5C will undoubtedly limit climatic impacts on biodiversity and food security, but will probably require negative emissions in the range of 450-1000 GtCO2 until 2100, even with aggressive emission reductions.  A large proportion, if not all of this, could probably be achieved by the conservation and enhancement of natural forests, peatlands and other natural sinks and reservoirs – without recourse to NETs.

Prof Pete Smith, Professor of soils and global change, University of Aberdeen:

One advantage of BECCS relative to other NETs is that it produces rather than requires energy. Similar land and water constraints face afforestation/reforestation. For enhanced weathering of rocks that naturally absorb CO2, whilst the land areas required are vast, crushed rock could be spread on land without changing the land use, perhaps also providing benefits in terms of soil fertility (by raising the pH of acidic soils). The process is, however, currently costly and the mining and grinding of the rock is energy intensive. Direct air capture using chemicals is currently extremely costly and requires extremely high energy inputs, but it has a low land and water footprint.

Soil carbon sequestration can be applied on land without changing land use, and provides a range of co-benefits. It is inexpensive, but the sinks created are finite in duration and reversible. Biochar can produce some energy, but the more biochar that is produced, the less energy is generated. The land and water footprint for spreading biochar are negligible, but the land and water footprint of the biomass used as a feedstock for biochar can be large, as for BECCS.

Implications of transporting feedstocks for BECCS or biochar over large distances also need to be better understood. For any technology involving CCS, more large-scale demonstration projects are required to demonstrate efficacy of carbon storage and to learn by doing – to allow costs to be reduced and efficiencies improved ahead of larger scale roll-out.

Is BECCS even possible? Many have their doubts. Prof Sir David MacKay, Former chief scientific advisor, Department of Energy and Climate Change:

A concern about the IPCC-WG3 modelling of BECCS, incidentally, is that I expect it assumes perfectly rational and well-informed behavior. So, in the model, no-one would deforest an area to make a quick buck, because they would be aware of the loss of carbon stocks. Whereas, in reality, it is very difficult to measure carbon stocks in the landscape and, if there are subsidies for biomass without correct carbon stock measurement, it is quite possible that the subsidies would lead to biomass activities that have bad carbon effects in the landscape.

Well, I would say that [the scale of negative emissions technologies to meet the aims of the Paris Agreement] is technically deliverable, just about, but the way I always put it is this… The required scale of burial of CO2 by 2100 (measured as a mass buried per year) is, according to both back-of-envelope calculations and the IPCC WG3, about five times as great as today’s oil industry (measured in the same units as a mass extracted per year).

Is this technically deliverable? Yes, in principle, but only if many governments make clear that this is their intention, and agree a mechanism, for example, an agreement on a global carbon price, to get it delivered. Do I think it is a realistic view of what the world will do? No, not at the moment, because I think the Paris discussions completely ducked this issue, which is one of the most important issues out there.

Dr Oliver Geden, Head of EU division, German Institute for International and Security Affairs:

When accounting for all dimensions of feasibility, including social and political, it’s hard to imagine that carbon removal on the order of 600-800 GtCO2 – equaling 15-20 years of current annual emissions – can be realized during the 21st century. Based on terrestrial CDR only (like in today’s integrated assessment models) one would need approximately 500+ million hectares of additional land, that’s 1.5 times the size of India. That’s obviously a political no-go, and the main reason why negative emissions haven’t been part of high-level climate negotiations so far, despite the fact that carbon removal has been seriously discussed in the IPCC since 2007 and is an integral part of RCP2.6, the IPCC scenario consistent with 2C. Until now, the introduction of CDR has mainly had the effect of covering political inaction. A strategic debate about how to use CDR within a broader portfolio of climate policy measures is clearly lacking. Most policymakers don’t even know the difference between net and gross negative emissions. For 2C, the world should cross the line into net zero around 2070, but the phase-in of carbon removal technologies will have to happen way before 2050.

Glen Peters adds:

Most carbon dioxide removal technologies require land. Reduced deforestation and increased afforestation will reduce the available land. Without rapid, perhaps infeasible, yield improvements, food production may take more land.

But Peters is missing an important point. He is thinking that any NET scenario requires land that will come out of the reforestation or food requirements, when in fact it gives land to those. When the agroforestry potential is considered, and the concept of carbon cascades introduced — forest then food then energy then biochar then more forest — these elements do not exist in opposition to one another. They are a team. Putting rotational food forests on an area 1.5 times the size of India is not a loss, it’s a gain.

Hannah Mowat sums it up:

The only promising approach to achieving negative emissions is the restoration of terrestrial ecosystems, including accelerating the recovery of degraded forests. Such restoration has the potential to achieve a maximum estimated amount of 330 GtCO2 of removals by the end of the century.

Restoration of degraded natural ecosystems is not only possible today, but is an urgent intervention to meet multiple other environmental objectives, such as maintaining and enhancing biodiversity and halting desertification. These actions are also likely to be socially acceptable and effective if done with full consent and by rural communities and forest peoples. Evidence suggests that local people are the best guardians of forests and other ecosystems.

There are currently no technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere that can be employed at scale. It is very doubtful any will be available at scale within the timescale required. Furthermore, many of the proposed technologies are likely to have a dire social and environmental impact on food security, community land rights and biodiversity.

Dr. Stephan Singer, Director of global energy policy, WWF International:

This is not economical in the “classical” sense and truly inconvenient for some incumbents, but beneficial for the planet as a whole. Socially, developmentally and environmentally, this is superior for the billions of the poor and fragile ecosystems rather than relying on large scale BECCS, for instance, with unknown effects on food security. An effective phasing out of fossil fuels, besides other benefits, would also avoid the premature death of four million people annually from air pollution.

Yet, a certain part of negative emissions plays a key role now. Fostering natural carbon sinks in forests, grasslands and soils, if done properly, contribute tremendously to sustainable agriculture and forestry, as well as enhanced biodiversity.

Once this is all done, we might not need any of the other contentious technologies of negative emissions, such as BECCS and relying on unproven and leaky geological layers for CO2 storage for thousands of years. But actions have to be taken now!

The reality is that staying under the 1.5C threshold is now nigh-on impossible. Dr. Andrew King, a researcher in climate extremes at the University of Melbourne concedes that meeting the 1.5C target now means overshooting and coming back down. He told CarbonBrief, “This isn’t possible with current technologies.”

The thing is, we are going about this all wrong. The way forward is not trying to sustain the unsustainable — growing bigger megacities powered by gigawatt power monsters and hyperlooping them together while we send Space X missions to Mars to pave the way for waves of Virgin Galaxy tourists.

We need to face the facts. If we suddenly came up with a low cost fusion reactor that runs on seawater it would only hasten our demise.

The only way for our small party to survive is to step away from the captain’s chair and let Mother Nature retake the helm of this little blue spaceship in this great big galaxy. We can help, but we need to follow her orders.

In its new study of all available options, Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown mixes emission reducing technologies and methodologies with actual drawdown counterparts. Eliminating all Project Drawdown’s portfolio of renewable energy and conservation options, less than a quarter of the chosen 100 strategies selected for comparison can actually remove and sequester atmospheric carbon year-on-year:

  • Afforestation
  • Alternative cement
  • Bamboo
  • Biochar
  • Biomass (if holistically managed to optimize drawdown)
  • Bioplastic
  • Coastal wetlands
  • Farmland restoration
  • Green roofs
  • Managed grazing
  • Multistrata agroforestry
  • Nutrient Management
  • Peatlands (expanding)
  • Perennial Biomass
  • Regen Ag
  • Silvopasture
  • Temperate Forests
  • Tree intercropping
  • Tropical Forests
  • Tropical staple trees
  • Waste-to-energy (with CCS)

Both Project Drawdown and the BECCS crowd have one thing right. The problem is not technological. We know how to do this, even if is almost impossible. Landing men on the moon once seemed impossible, too. We did it with the help of computers less intelligent than your phone.

The problem is entirely one of social consensus. Right now we are in discord because those with the most to lose have muddied the waters to obscure their obscene profits from the destruction of Earth. The way forward is not to jail them (although it’s not a bad idea). The way forward through these recurrent economic obstacles is by bending the profit motive the way an aikido master receives an onrushing opponent. We need to bend the adversary’s momentum to switch the advantage. We need to tame capitalism from unconscionable excess to noble purpose. It is the only way to power our transition to warp speed..

Human ingenuity is already bending the curve with Mondragon-style cooperatives, Smart Money investment klatches, and Public Benefit (“B”) corporations or limited liability companies. Profit is not synonymous with greed. Any plant or animal that produces excess seed in order to assure a surplus to “lend” to start the next generation is engaged in capitalism.

A new class of Cool Bonds and these other strategies provide the seeds of a viral wave to carry the shift from annihilation highway to garden planet. While governments waffle and bicker, the alternative money people are who will step in to invest in afforestation, cool labs, bamboo, and biochar. They will do it at the trillion-dollar level, with or without Deutchebank, Goldman Sachs or a government dole.

As we write this it may seem as if the tide is drawing out, but what comes next will hit the business world like a tsunami. That tide will sweep along the politicians with it.

If you have money to invest, this is where you should invest it: carbon cascades; Cool Lab biorefineries;  fishermens’ cooperatives; girls’ education; permaculture for hedge fund managers, not necessarily in that order. Find places to B. Not places to BECCS.


This post is part of an ongoing series we’re calling The Power Zone Manifesto. It is a series of building blocks that describe our existential climate dilemma and the only possible way to escape it. We post to The Great Change and Medium on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page. Albert Bates offers ecovillage apprenticeships, including Cool Lab trainings, this year at The Farm in Tennessee April through July. He is teaching a full permaculture course in Ireland in August and will be on speaking tours in Brazil, Germany, India and China in late 2017.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Change Agents


"As overwhelming as this may all seem, our situation will compel us to make the leap. If we fall short of our mark this will be our final attempt."

tree-of-life_2000.jpg

  For at least the past 45 years, (from publication of the Club of Rome’s Limits To Growth), we have been watching a debate rage over the concept of sustainability. That word gets overused and misused so we need to be clear what we mean — the ability to maintain for an indefinite period of time without degrading resources required for support.


limits-plus-climate-forecast.pngClearly any culture that depends upon nonrenewable energy and one-time use of finite resources is unsustainable. Merely switching to renewable energy doesn’t make you sustainable. Nor, for that matter, does simultaneously switching to renewable consumer goods. To be sustainable, it needs something going much deeper than that. One needs a pervasive credo of regenerative circulation.

Ever since we can remember there has been a political divide between those who believe such a credo is antithetical to avaricious human nature and those who believe it not only possible, but the only way forward for a species in mortal danger of outrunning its supplies.

darwinsketch.jpg
Charles Darwin, Notebook, 1837


What we have been doing with this Power Zone Manifesto that we began here in this space some months ago, is to lay the groundwork for a design science of intentional social change. We are putting it out there. Clarifying. Accepting feedback. Revising. Advancing the design by naming its parts.

With any hyperwicked, cross-cutting problem, a viable response needs to cut the sides off the box. We have to get holistic. This is going to involve a deeper understanding of planetary system dynamics, relationships of government and finance, the underlying fabric of market economies and herd behavior, the ways we get our information and pass it to others. Ultimately, we are proposing a wholesale redesign of civilization. Call it Civilization 2.0.
I just watched this excellent talk by Paul Hawken about the combination of 100 interventions necessary to reverse the worst consequences of global warming. It is truly inspiring. Yet, the how of cultural change is completely absent. There is nothing said about the narratives and social norms that need to change, how to go about guiding the cultural evolution for implementing every one of these solutions, what is needed from the cognitive, behavioral, and social sciences to make this plan "actionable" in the real world.


Elsewhere Brewer added:
humadescenttree.jpgThis problem that has not been named is The Great Transition Beyond Empires. We now have to choose between two metaphors for our planetary civilization — we can be a cancer that kills its host or a butterfly that arises transformed from the mindlessly consuming caterpillar. But it is incumbent upon us now to collectively choose before the choice is made for us by the cumulation of decisions made in the past. There are consequences for inaction in times like these.



More than a century ago V.I. Lenin instructed his readers that there are some preconditions for any revolution to take place:

    1. An elite incapable of governing in the old way and beginning to split into different wings, each seeking a different solution to the crisis. 

    2. A middle class in ferment. 

    3. A poverty class desperate for a way out, not on the basis of the old society, but of a new order. 

    4. Clear leadership, with the necessary strategy, tactics, and organization to assure victory.

MOD phylogenetic tree.png
We have the first two of those conditions in much of the world today. Witness Venezuela, or the uprisings in recent years across Spain, Greece, Turkey, Mexico, and many other places. The tinder for revolution has been laid across Lenin’s first three steps. What about the fourth?


Foundation Stones’ Robert Gilman suggests that to be aligned and competent, change agents need to develop these capabilities:


  • be adept with complexity
  • treat diversity as an asset
  • be skilled at collaboration
  • be at home with high levels of interconnection
  • foster sustainability in their personal habits


lastonepercentgenome.jpg
The last 1% of the human genome
Besides a more profound systems thinking, change agents — the next generation of revolutionaries — need to learn to inhabit an Optimal Zone so they are less likely to get triggered into fight, flight or freeze and are skillful at getting themselves and others back from such triggering.  They will need to go beyond the polarizing limitations of linear and categorical thinking and becoming adept at such things as proportional thinking, continuum thinking, layered thinking, visual thinking and kinesthetic thinking….


Borrowing from Brewer inspired groups, the Evolution Institute, TheRules.org, and Smart Ecologies, our next generation of change agents also have to understand tipping points, feedback loops, rules of local interaction, emergent behaviors, dynamic attraction, neural processing of language, how emotions shape reasoning, the making of meaning, idea propagation, applied memetics, viral media, and social analytics.

What is needed is to get the relationships right among:


  • lifestyle, built environment, community, and the planet’s life support dynamics;
  • economic activities between different communities, i.e. the rules of trade and social equity, and not just limited to human communities;
  • fair and just governance at various scales to sustain the new paradigm.


Rxr1MNs.pngAs overwhelming as this may all seem, our situation will compel us to make the leap. If we fall short of our mark this will be our final attempt.


And on this moment of choice, whether it is named and made conscious or remains merely a societal drift based on bankrupt information pools, mistaken identities and erroneous assumptions, hangs the fate of this tip on this hair of our evolutionary sequence.


Aho Mitakuye Oyasin.


 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Greater Fool

"The overdeveloped countries are raising generations of gamblers."

  All ecosystems, including the human variety, move through stages of succession from very simple to very complex until there is a disturbance that causes a shakeout or a reset.

A system that has grown in complexity to the point where it is “supermediated” by tiny organisms (or organizations) trying to squeak in the spaces between older groupings and exploit exchanges to draw off their own existence becomes brittle at some point. Fluctuating diversity is more robust for the whole ecosystem but more fragile for the individual members. Just as an evolutionary innovation may dislodge long-residing stalwarts, a small disturbance may disintermediate recent interlopers.  

Global technoculture — we almost said “western culture” but a quick glance at India, China, or Japan would show that concept to be outdated — has been fostering lots of intermediation. The tech boom — rapid evolutionary innovation — is partly responsible. ‘Higher’ education vacillates between the stalwart model of molding students into consumerist cubicle rats, learning to push the correct buttons to get fed, and the disruptive counterpart — the next-gen, wired, tech-savvy entrepreneur class attempting to pay back outsized student loans by developing a killer app or discovering a hitherto unexplored niche for intermediation. By and large, the overdeveloped countries are raising generations of gamblers while the underdeveloping countries are herding masses of enslaved vassals deeper into debt.

This makes a lot of sense if you have to grapple with an explosion of 15- to 25-year-olds entering the workforce. In 2016 there were 963,981,944 males and 898,974,458 females in that category, the greatest portion entering from China, India, USA, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia and Japan (in that order).

Boom and bust is an emergent property of social organization at civilization scale. Some would blame capitalism, but in our view that is mere scapegoating. True, by lending with interest one places the onus on the borrower to produce enough surplus to pay the interest, and in many ways that can resemble a game of musical chairs, but the principle of being able to borrow to establish and then repay from the new production of that establishment is not unsound. That is how many life forms regenerate themselves — “lending” seed that they produce in overabundance in order to endow next season’s replacement for themselves.

We have been in an expansion phase of human society since the end of the last glacial maximum. Since the discovery of first coal and then oil and natural gas, and the means to industrialize their extraction and use, we have been expanding at some multiple of our natural fecundity rate because fossil fuels have allowed a post-natural expansion of food supply and global trade.

If we want a way forward that can seriously address the real challenges, it would have to begin with deescalation. Beyond getting population under control, we need to find an economic model involving satisfaction of needs, including productive and internally-rewarding employment, without continuing to feast on the seed corn as if that did not matter. To gain adherents, any proposed change has to offer a lifestyle that is no less attractive than the old ways, although we also have within us hero genes that can be stimulated to get us to make sacrifices and feel good about it.

Since the 1980s, that expansion has been on steroids. Each year we add another 30 million humans worldwide. We double our population every 30 to 40 years. If we were to continue with business as usual until, say, 2050, we should expect to have 14 billion people sharing Earth. Of course we can’t do that, for several good reasons, not the least being the food supply. Right now food security for most depends on securing 2000 calories of oil to produce 1 calorie of grain. Each year fewer and fewer of us will be able to do that and will have to find other means, or perish.

In the early stages of our expansion we borrowed from our savings to start productive enterprises that produced more than enough to repay the loans and expand further. That is self-liquidating debt as we climb a ladder of constant growth. In the later stages, marked by contraction, with declining resources and unfulfilled demand, we have been substituting sophisticated debt instruments — fiat currencies, fractional reserve banking, adjustable rate mortgages, credit default swaps, the list goes on….

Those imaginary assets are not backed by anything but the expectation of speculative profits, but as long as everyone agrees to overlook the emperor having no clothes, the parade goes on. There is no actual income being produced to repay the debts, just proxy poker chips.

In any speculative bubble, we lose the connection between price and value. It is short sighted — based on assuming that speculative value will always trump real value. This sets the stage for the inevitable bust, as we saw in the debasement of metals in coins in Ancient Rome, Tulip Mania in Holland in the 1630s, and the Stock Market Crash of 1929. As Nicole Foss explains (at 32:17):

They think that the supply of greater fools will be limitless. Unfortunately it isn’t. Eventually you’ve found the greatest possible fool and no one will pay more than this person did. At that point everything just dries up and the price just absolutely collapses.


The simple living movement in its various names and forms has been trying to grapple with that idea for a long time. The computer design aesthetic of Steve Jobs was a form of simplification — merging music players and hand calculators with mobile phones in ways that kept the device user friendly and ergonomic. You didn’t have to carry both a boom box and a brick phone. 

Another strain of voluntary simplicity is individuals, in the style of Tolstoy and Gandhi, who are satisfied with what they have rather than want.  These experiments — extending back to Epicurus and up through Thoreau, to Daniel Suelo and Freeskilling Mark Boyle who renounce money entirely — shows that happiness comes from carefully considered choices, not by acquisition of stuff or brute force.

We are not condemned to Consumerist Armageddon. There are alternatives. Consider the 100 Thing Challenge — to whittle down personal possessions to one hundred items. Consider co-housing, tiny houses or the natural building movement. Living more simply in communities of like minded people produces a much higher quality of life than most people have now in both the underdeveloping and the overdeveloped world.


“How would you like to live very, very comfortably working only one day a week for money? Most people are trapped into a worried, 30-year period of trying to pay off the mortgage, fearful that if they lose their job they’ll lose their house, and having to work too long hours, causing stress, depression and anxiety — our biggest health problems now — in a fiendish rat race….

“I know people who live in alternative communities who live very nicely in ways I envy with one or two days work a week. Firstly they cut their expenses by not having a big house, not having a lavish wardrobe, and having alternative sources of leisure… and secondly and probably more importantly, living in a community that is highly supportive, with lots of musicians and weekend concerts and stuff, and sources of local food and shelter — build your own little mud brick house with the help of the community. And so you are living in an economy that doesn’t require much money … a non-monetary economy.”

Given these kinds of choices, we have to ask, why still seek the greater fool?


This post is part of an ongoing series we’re calling The Power Zone Manifesto. It is a series of building blocks that describe our existential climate dilemma and the only possible way to escape it. We post to The Great Change and Medium on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page. Albert Bates offers ecovillage apprenticeships, including Cool Lab trainings, this year at The Farm in Tennessee April through July. He is teaching a full permaculture course in Ireland in August and will be on speaking tours in Brazil, Germany and India in late 2017.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Confounding Collapse

"As brilliant as your conceptual breakthrough may be, there is no escaping your cultural milieu."


The Paris Agreement calls for deep decarbonization by 2050 (net neutrality) and drawdown of all the legacy carbon thereafter, returning humans to the comfortable Holocene from which we evolved.

A recent study by Energy Innovation Reform Project (a pro-nuclear, pro-coal think tank), reviewing the now extensive literature on the renewable energy transition, concluded that a 100% renewables goal, while technically feasible, still faces many challenges:

To achieve Paris policy goals — by no means an assurance that climate catastrophe will be averted — power sector CO2 emissions must fall to zero by 2050. The pressure of this timeline is itself disruptive. Decarbonization is significantly — exponentially —  more difficult than mere emissions reductions, even if it loses the baggage of that Dogberry neologism ("decarbonization").
  • Renewables are primarily delivered by electricity, and to a lesser extent by liquid or pelletized biofuels. To abate carbon, there needs to be a shift to electricity for transportation, heating, and industrial energy. 
  • Power generation systems involving renewables such as wind and solar are physically larger, requiring more land area.
  • Wind and solar require much greater total installed capacity — 3 to 6 times peak demand — to offset their intermittency.
  • Stable electric grids require a mix of “dispatchable” energy (variable generation on demand) and long-duration (seasonal) energy.
  • Battery storage is infeasible for long duration storage. In the USA, for instance, you would need 37.8 billion Tesla Power Wall 2.0 home energy storage systems—or 320 Power Walls per household to sustain present power consumption.
  • Biofuel backup, the most practical form of seasonal storage, would entail converting some fraction of Earth’s photosynthetic capacity to supplying electricity while somehow maintaining the other essential functions that natural ecosystems supply. You can’t rob Peter (Rabbit) to PayPal.
When one considers that the so-called industrial revolution was fueled by a switch from energy-light whale oil and firewood to energy-dense petroleum and coal — enabling expansion of human population from 1 billion to 7 billion — reversion to some sort of status quo ante is a daunting prospect. To start with, where will you find the whales?

Even if new generations of solar cells can take the place of whales in lighting homes, it is questionable whether those can provide the kinds of surplus energy that enabled construction of the world’s megacities, airborne armies, or space programs capable of landing men on the Moon or operating satellite-based Cloud technologies.

Humans now propose to switch from dependency on Earth’s 650-million-year-old savings account of fossil sunlight to a much more modest daily ration of photons arriving from the Sun. To do so, they must first gather and store those photons or their effects (e.g.: wind, tides, radiant heat, growing things) and then dispense them in some fashion similar to their previously accustomed habits for using oil or coal. They must finance all that while under the pressure of economic decline and mounting climate catastrophes. And they must overcome the problems of intermittentcy, diffusion and storage.

Consumer optimism is at a 17 year high — no worries, invest!
These are not small challenges. To suggest that we can supply a consumerist economy elevated to the scale of 7 billion — soon-to-be 12 billion as the pent-up demographic time bomb explodes — from silicon wafers, neodymium turbines, or terrestrial and marine vegetation, seems deluded.

Nonetheless, most governments, and all the major international development banks, now have the scare in them. Typical is the InterAmerican Development Bank, whose 2017 portfolio is 80% mitigation ($2.127 billion) and 20% adaptation (562 million). Mitigation refers to efforts to reduce or limit fossil emissions, or to a lesser extent, to drawdown and sequester greenhouse gases. Adaptation refers to efforts to reduce or limit vulnerability by restructuring shelter, food and water security around the new normal. 

IDB’s 2016 report warned its client countries that 60 to 80 percent of publicly listed fossil fuel reserves “are unburnable if the world is to avoid disastrous climate change.” Worse, they broke it to them that their agriculture systems, tourist industries, and most of the jobs they have created to productively employ their workforce over the past century of industrialization are all stranded too. IDB would now seem to agree with James Howard Kunstler that Robert Moses' utopian vision of America as happy-motoring affluent suburbia was the worst misallocation of resources in human history.

As brilliant as your conceptual breakthrough may be, there is no escaping your cultural milieu.

What we might call civilization, historian Joseph Tainter recast as something more nuanced: complexity. In his 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Tainter did not attribute the rise of the Greek, Mayan or the Roman Empires to military conquest, slavery or some new form of energy. He said that complexity creates resources just as resources create complexity. The binding energy is social organization.

A corollary of that is that depletion of resources does not necessary doom a civilization, even one that has been sawing off the tree limb it is perched upon. Rather, Tainter said, what is experienced in the periodic arrival of collapse is the normal and routine feedback of complexity.

Endlessly iterating intermediation as a society complexifies places greater demands on resources while yielding diminishing returns, both energetically and in terms of social benefit. Think of the store in the mall that only sells baseball caps. It is highly specialized. The store’s owner, who probably pays a franchise fee, requires a trained sales force, working probably at minimum wage but with health and unemployment insurance; rent to the mall owner; store liability, fire and theft insurance; advertising; payroll accountant; tax accountant; inventory depreciation; and more. The store management has a long list of complex regulations it has to abide by.

At the same time, its business model is very fragile. Success depends on people having discretionary income to buy new baseball caps. It is predicated on a demand adequate to meet the overhead of the store and avoid insolvency. It assumes people will continue to drive from some distance away to shop at the mall. It assumes that the costs to light, heat, cool and secure the mall will not become so prohibitive that the mall closes.

Today it is not just that business model that is too fragile. Its the entire global consumer economy. The signs are all around us. The collapse phase of the civilizational cycle is here. Two distinguishing features of this one are that it is global in scope for the first time and that it is capable of being watched in real time by nearly everyone.

In a recent interview with Steve Keen, Michael Hudson described the plight of the average US city dweller in 2017:
Hudson: Let’s say that debt is equal to 100% of GDP, which it is, at least in almost every country. Now, if countries are only growing at 1%, then if you pay interest at usually 5%, a country would have to grow 5% per year — the GDP — just to pay the interest. And if countries are growing at 1%, and the interest rate for average that everybody pays, about 5% or 6%, then you’re going to have the actual economy shrinking every year as there’s this siphoning off of interest. That’s what debt deflation is.

And that’s the situation that England is in. That is turning Eurozone into a dead zone. And it’s the situation of the US economy. That all of the surplus is paid for interest — not to mention financial returns, capital gains, and economic rent to the landlord class and to the monopolies.
So no wonder the economy is shrinking. Nobody has enough money to buy what they produce anymore. So that’s why there are so many vacancies in storefronts in New York. Why stores are going out of business. Restaurants are going out of business. There’s a squeeze on.
Keen: Yeah. Can you - is that palpable in the States? Because in England it’s not quite so palpable.

Hudson: Well, just imagine the average paycheck. I don’t know if it’s similar. In the United States, the big chunk off the top of every paycheck is for housing. Now in America almost all mortgages — 85% of mortgages are guaranteed by the government and banks will write a mortgage up to the limit of 43% of your total income.

So imagine, here’s a family that in order to have a home is either paying 43% of its income on a mortgage, or it’s paying that in rent. The average rent in New York City is $4,500 a month. Well, you can imagine if the average salary is about $80,000, do the math for yourself. [$54000 or 67.5%]

Now in addition to that, people have to pay maybe 10% more of their income to the banks for credit card debt, student loans, auto debt. And then also taken off the front of every paycheck is 15% of a forced saving of social security and medical care. So that’s taken off. And there’s about another 15% recombination of state and local and federal income taxes. And then you have the value-added taxes. So you add all that up. To the 43%, to 10% to the banks, maybe the 25% for taxes, you have only about 25% of the average paycheck that’s available to be spent on goods and services.

Now think of the circular flow. The whole of economics was founded by a doctor, Francois Quesnay in France, that looked at a national income like the circulation of blood in the body. But you have this blood being drained — 75% of the circular flow now is drained for what we call the FIRE sector - finance, insurance, and real estate.
It is when progressively increasing complexity goes past the point of net energetic loss and starts to drain blood that hooded figures bearing scythes appear.

Buoyed by low energy prices and buyer confidence the markets keep climbing
Exceeding biophysical limits may not be the proximate cause of collapse, assuming Tainter is correct, but the societal response to the encounter is critical. The Collapse of Complex Civilizations does not ask why a society would be utterly unable to change course, even in the face of imminent disaster, but it begs that question. Is our social inertia so hard wired? Are homo that un-sapien?

In her inside look at the Federal Reserve, Fed Up: An Insider’s Take on Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America, Danielle DiMartino Booth depicts the bank presidents who make up that board as nervous engineers, clinging to unproductive Keynesian stimuli in a desperate effort to re-track the train after it has derailed.

Since the 2008 crisis the Fed, along with the European, Chinese, Japanese and every other central bank, have racked up mountainous debt, with inflationary effects hidden only by the much-derided income gap whereby the super-rich take money out of circulation nearly as quickly as it is created. To the cabal of economists who haunt the halls of the central banks, the modern tools of money manipulation have gotten so good that economic growth is forever assured. DiMartino Booth, David Stockman, Nicole Foss, Max Keiser and many others believe a reckoning is long overdue.



The shape of the descent will not resemble the shape of the ascent — a smooth bell curve — because of the Seneca trap. The more you employ artifice to extend the peak, the steeper the downslide that comes when you can no longer pretend to extend. 

With the crash of fossil fuel production, already well along and scraping the barrel for the dirty, tarry scraps, greenhouse gas emissions may decline much faster than they grew up, which is good news. Of course, so will world GDP, and with it, food supply, consumer goods and, inexorably, population. This is not going to be pretty.

The economic earthquake that pundits warn is coming might keep us within a hospitable climate a while longer, but it will only slow the exit from that normalcy, not return it.

Eventually, and with absolute certainty now, we will arrive at both the collapse of the global economy and runaway climate change, the two of them feeding off each other the way crumbling empires eat their seed corn.

In a number of those historic collapse events, rapid-onset climate change was the triggering event. The gun — mass psychosis — was cocked and loaded.

Since the problem is overcomplexity, what we really need is reversion to simpler ways to live. We need degrowth and depopulation; relocalization and transition; antifragility and mutually assured security.

When we described our cool lab concept we gave the example of a rural village in Haiti. While cities pose more of a challenge, we showed in the example of Los Angeles Eco-Village that it is possible to accomplish the required change anywhere and everywhere.

What we most need next are the vehicles — the change agencies, accellerants, and transformation catalysts. For those we will need to open the tool chest of social inventions.


This post is part of an ongoing series we're calling The Power Zone Manifesto. We post to The Great Change and Medium on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page. Albert Bates offers ecovillage apprenticeships, including Cool Lab trainings, this year at The Farm in Tennessee April through July.

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