Monday, December 29, 2008

Of Cats, Climate Change and the Human Condition: understanding the lens through which we view the world.

(Published June 18, 2008 Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC)

Nowadays, it seems you can’t swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting some bad information regarding this fine planet we live on, or the state of mankind’s dependence on fossil fuels. It is in the media, and it’s in public discourse.

As an exemplary case, in the recent March 10th issue of Forbes, the editor-in-chief, Steve Forbes, writes two interesting articles under his “Fact and Comment” column. The first article is entitled “Brrr,” showing a picture of an igloo and the caption “Florida in 2100?”

The article discusses how it is the natural rhythms and cycles of the planet to which any measured warming can be attributed. In fact, he posits that we should be worried about the ice age in which we would be headed based on historical cycles. If not for anthropogenic (man made) warming gases, the mercury probably would be headed down.

Of course, there are natural cycles. We are marooned here on this dumb rock. It is spinning and orbiting a medium sized star, in an elliptical orbit. At the same time, the solar system is flying through space at ninety thousand miles per hour. There is going to be some variation. The universe is not some big Rolex watch.

But to attribute recent warming to natural causes, when close to seven billion people are changing the composition of the atmosphere by adding back carbon dioxide which was deposited hundreds of millions of years ago - is not consistent with modern non-financially-biased science. As a side note, we should all be very thankful there is at least some CO2 in the air – the average temperature would be a rather frigid 0 degrees Fahrenheit were it not so, so powerful is carbon dioxide.

According to Drew Shindell, at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the radiation change in the solar cycle, an increase of two to three tenths of one percent over the 20th century, does not have the ability to cause the large global temperature increases experienced. Shindell concludes that greenhouse gases are indeed playing the dominant role. As a society, who do we listen to - captains of industry, or our scientists?

The other article, entitled “Hurting Us for Nothing,” illuminates how passing a cap and trade system to regulate and limit carbon dioxide emissions will damage the economy. The bill was put down in the Senate recently. At some point, we will need to decide which is more important – the Bentley, or the biosphere? It’s a hard one. We cannot have both, and if we make the wrong choice, we won’t have either. An economy depends extracting resources on a planet which can support (human) life.

Regarding resources, has anyone noticed the price of gas these days? What’s with that?
Any rig worth more than its weight as scrap is pumping around the clock. Responding to the “price signal” of high oil prices, the market has more rigs running than any time in the last twenty years. Yet production remains flat. Despite the urban myth that oil reserves are 100 or 200 years, the world may now be peaking in terms of oil flow per day.

All of this was predicted and predictable. A Shell oil company geologist, M. King Hubbert predicted in 1956 that the US would peak between 1965 and 1970. At the time, his prediction was not taken seriously. He was a respected geologist, but as this was a time of increasing production and record oil discovery, the observation drew little attention.

As 1970 came, naysayers said – “See, we are at record levels of production - Hubbert was wrong.” By around ’73 though, it was apparent rate of oil production had already peaked. By definition, the peak is the time of maximum oil production, which for the US was around 11 million barrels per day. And the peak can only be seen in hindsight. We are now down to about half that - and dropping.

More ominously, he predicted that the world would peak in 1995. The geopolitical oil crises of ’73 and ’79 dropped production and hence delayed the peak.

It is now widely believed, even privately among some oil executives, that production cannot be sustained past 2012 - 2015. The largest fields, such as Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, are mature, past peak and dropping. New fields being brought online are much smaller, and will not equal the giants in terms of quantity or oil flow.

Hubbert will wind up being off by a couple decades, but no off by centuries as some would have you think.

There is still at least 1 trillion barrels left, not including non-conventional sources, which correlates to 30 years worth at the current burn rate. But since demand is increasing and supply is close to dropping, it portends of further increasing oil prices and market disruption.

It is hard to understate the degree to which the market and mankind is dependant on oil. Most people here now are alive because the resource allowed exponential population growth. Population growth previous to oil, as seen on a chart, is almost flat. By comparison, growth now is almost straight up. Between the forces of exponential population growth, and depleted resources, something is going to have to give.

While it has been widely assumed that this problem, this poison apple, can simply be bequeathed to the next generation, it is now plain and clear that this will play out over the next few decades.

If we can recognize a problem, we can respond. At this point, continuing denial in light of the current evidence is plain foolish. Even market analysts are stating that the market is sending a “signal,” that it is time to find alternatives to oil.

However, we are overlooking one simple fact. The Earth is a closed system. There is only so much in the way of resources. And the by-product of those resources, i.e. green house gases, stay in the air due to something called gravity. (Also, the earth’s magnetic field keeps the atmosphere from being eroded away by the solar wind.)

Now comes the bad news part. There is no adequate alternative to oil, because of that pesky closed system - thing.

Alternatives do exist. But all of the alternatives together, i.e. tar sands (recently changed to oil sands), electric cars, etc. do not add up to a fraction of the resource that oil was. It is beyond the scope of this article to de-mystify this widespread myth. Nevertheless, some alternatives will have a role to play.

A number of cities and communities have already recognized the problem and started to respond. One of the most prominent aspects of these plans involves local food production. The 3500 mile Caesar salad, as noted by author James Howard Kunstler, will be a thing of the past, referring to the oil resources required to make and transport all the components that go into it.

Local and regional meetings to plan and adapt in these changing times will be important. The recent planning done in the Mountain Landscapes Initiative meetings seemed to reflect an auto-centric mindset, focusing on issues such as traffic congestion, walking paths and such. A decade or two from now, everyone will not be incessantly driving around all the time. However, in one regard, the main charrette at WCU in Cullowhee was revealing, in that they blocked out a time for farmland preservation and local food systems.

Where is the plan for local food production for Cashiers? For a community to survive in an energy-scarce era, it will need to be as productive and independent as it can be, and inter-dependant as it has to be - to remain viable. Produce from the fertile fields and flat lands around the Tuckasegee and Cullowhee area will not really be local in a post-oil economy, as incomprehensible as it may seem. Such is the divide between general public awareness and actual severity of the problem.

It’s somewhat baffling how this could be so. It may have something to do with inertia; the mass of humanity moving along, with so many distractions along the way. It may have something to do with keeping the apple cart rolling along for just a little while longer, at least until the wheels come off.

It has been said the myriad difficulties facing humanity are not so much a problem, but a function of the human condition.

Upton Sinclair, who wrote The Jungle in 1906 and Oil! in 1926, upon which the movie There Will Be Blood was based, may have said it best. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Incidentally, in case the humane society or PETA is reading this, no cats were harmed during the writing of this article. Hell hath no fury…

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