Sunday, September 17, 2017

The high cost of an easy-care, low-maintenance world

I may be a member of an endangered species. I prefer a perfect crease in a pair of pants resulting from the use of an actual iron rather than a crease maintained by a toxic brew of chemicals that can make cotton-fiber pants not only "wrinkle-free," but also "stain resistant."

Once you finally get such chemically-enhanced britches dirty, you can put them through a wash augmented by artificial perfumes and other noxious chemicals found in liquid softeners and dryer sheets.

The maintenance of clothing isn't thereby eliminated. It is simply transferred to chemical companies, clothing manufacturers, and purveyors of household products who concoct and apply formulas which require considerable energy to manufacture and deploy. One can adduce many other examples of our obsession with a low-maintenance life. (I will include a few below.) But, I write to contest the whole idea that a low-maintenance existence is in itself a good thing.

In general, entropy obliges us to maintain those objects which serve us. In doing so we must give them attention; we must give them a sort of love. We must become involved with their needs and not only our own.

By abandoning the duty of maintenance we owe to the objects in our lives, we are distancing ourselves from the physical world and essentially sending the entropy elsewhere for someone else to deal with, whether human or non-human.

I used to have an electric razor, the cutting block of which could be sharpened. A jeweler in the building where I worked had the equipment to do it. Later, it was cheaper just to replace the cutting block, and so, equipment that would sharpen it was scarce. Now, a new shaver that I just purchased—after many good years of service from my previous one ended with the motor shutting down—this new one is clearly designed simply as a throwaway.

Yes, there is nothing particularly new about planned obsolescence. But once again the maintenance task has simply been transferred to the landfill operator who must care for the objects we discard. This also shows that we should not conflate low-maintenance with durable.

I am not opposed to durable objects which require little maintenance. But we have created a world of low-maintenance objects which are low-maintenance merely because they are disposable. Sneakers that aren't resoleable are low-maintenance, but not long-lived. On the other hand, well-made wool clothing can last a lifetime with only an occasional cleaning.

In our gardens and on our farms we have transferred the care and maintenance associated with weeding to the world's chemical industry. The consequences of that are not only embedded in our soil, but also in our health care system—and in the degraded ecosystems upon which are lives depend.

Easy care and low maintenance are merely local phenomena. Once we pull back and see the bigger picture, the entropy produced by them creates a maintenance burden on others, on society and on other living organisms and natural systems.

As it turns out, maintenance has gotten a bad wrap. Maintenance is really a form of caring. Modern philosophers bemoan our love of material things. But I believe that we modern, industrialized people do not actually love material things. We wouldn't treat material things the way we do if we truly loved and cared for them.

Instead, the material world has become merely a substrate for our dreams of mastery. We do not want involvement with the material world and all the limitations which that implies. Rather, we want liberation—liberation from its constraints.

We think easy care and low maintenance are steps toward that liberation. But as we have seen, those characteristics only impose maintenance tasks on others and sometimes even rebound to sicken our bodies. More important, they separate us from a material world that should naturally summon our powers of care and concern.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The storms are only going to get worse

We are now used to hearing about once-in-a-1,000-year floods. The fact that we are used to hearing about them tells us that they will no longer be rare. In fact, since climate change is at the heart of these events and continues unabated, we can expect that storms practically everywhere will get worse.

That's because as average atmospheric temperatures continue to rise, the atmosphere will hold more and more water vapor. And, as more and more heat gets stored in the oceans, they will provide more and more energy to the storms which pass over them.

Of course, "once in a 1,000 years" only means that the chances are one in a thousand that such a storm will occur this year or the next. In fact, this phrase doesn't actually reflect weather records. As Vox points out, we don't have reliable records going back that far. We have only about 100 years of such records for the United States, and then not for every locale. Beyond 100 years we are guessing about flood severity based on indirect evidence.

Instead of planning based on such long intervals, we will be faced with a moving target—actually a moving target of probabilities—probabilities which are rising in unknown ways at unknown speeds. Even with all of our instruments, models and scientists we cannot keep up with the changing dynamics of an atmosphere continually perturbed by climate change.

But we know the general direction; and what should terrify us is that we cannot really calculate just how bad things will get.

There is a notion afoot that we will simply adapt to climate change. How does one "adapt" to hurricanes such as Harvey and Irma if they become frequent events? If large parts of the industrial plant are shut down for weeks at a time after such a storm—as refineries producing ethylene, the basis for most plastics will likely be after Harvey—how well will the industrial infrastructure function?

We could harden our industrial, commercial and public infrastructure against such storms, but a move like this would be tricky to execute: What exactly should each installation do? And, such a move would be tremendously costly. Besides, as climate change continues to worsen, to what set of conditions are we supposed to adapt our infrastructure assuming we would be willing to spend the money?

Even if we were to decide to spend the money, if the homes of those working in the industrial, commercial and public infrastructure are destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, who is going to show up to work to run those installations after destructive storms?

Adaptation is going to be much harder than simply using more air-conditioning during the increasingly hot weather. (And, of course, in most locations using more air-conditioning will simply lead to more fossil-fuel use at electric generating plants; that will only exacerbate the problem.)

What Harvey and Irma are making clear is that the infrastructure we have built was built for a different climate and is surprisingly fragile in the face of climate change. When some scientists say that our civilization is at risk, this is what they mean. The things we expect to work and work reliably won't. This will include agriculture as climate change turns increasingly negative for food production worldwide.

Without a coherent plan to address climate change, the world will simply lurch from one climate-induced crisis to another. A focus on the immediate disaster will only make things worse as we do little or nothing to adapt to or to mitigate the warming of the globe.

That's the trajectory that the do-nothing crowd has now put us on. Are we so politically hamstrung and propagandized that we will simply allow this? The aftermath of two of the worst hurricanes ever will provide some clues.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

In media res: Houston, Harvey and the catastrophe of climate change

"In media res" is Latin for "in the middle of things." Frequently, it refers to the literary device of plunging readers into some central action of a story (often an epic) and then filling in the details and background later.

The residents of Houston must have felt that they were plunged into the middle of some epic story as Hurricane Harvey dumped up to 50 inches of rain on them and flooded much of the city. Early estimates suggest that this hurricane could end up being the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Hurricane Harvey is almost certainly an epic story unfolding before our eyes. That means the significance of events and outcomes surrounding the hurricane will only be filled in later--creating analysis, folklore and perhaps even a cultural output on par with that which followed Hurricane Katrina (think: the television series "Tremé").

There will be stories about the failure or success of the emergency response effort. There will be denunciations of those officials who recommended staying put and recriminations of those doing the denouncing. There will be riveting accounts of suffering and also of heroic rescues and exceptional kindness. And, there will be stories of lawlessness and cruelty.

Harvey will almost certainly be styled as a tragedy. The storm is undoubtedly a colossal misfortune, and we should have compassion for those affected. But from a literary standpoint, it is not a tragedy at all. A genuine tragedy requires that the main players be unaware of how their own flawed character is leading them to self-destruction. A genuine tragedy depicts an ineluctable course of events. Nothing and no one could have prevented them. Greek tragedians relied on Ananke, the goddess of fate, to drive the action of their plays.

But humans do know that their actions are leading to climate change--which many climate scientists foretold would result in increasingly destructive storms. Denial of such a link is not the same as ignorance. Denial means the message has been received and recorded, just not accepted.

It is, of course, an irony that the city most associated with the oil and natural gas industry should be struck so fiercely by a climate-change enhanced hurricane. But this should NOT be read as some kind of divine retribution either in the literary or the religious sense. The discovery and use of fossil fuels has long been hailed as the basis for modern prosperity and advances in human well-being the world over. Those involved in such discoveries and the refining and distribution of the output have until relatively recently often been cast as heroes in history, in literature and in film.

More energy--to those who have access to its benefits--has meant longer, healthier lives and rapid development of wondrous technologies which rely on abundant energy supplies for their deployment and operation. The modern technical civilization in which we live relies on continuous high-grade energy inputs in order to function. Without those inputs our society would quickly collapse. If we rail against those who have extracted and refined those fuels for us, we are only railing against ourselves for using them. (On the other hand, if we rail against those who have systematically lied about the climate effects of burning fossil fuels to the public and policymakers, that is another matter.)

It is true that the ravages of climate change have to date fallen disproportionately on those least responsible and least capable of protecting themselves such as island nations now being inundated by rising sea levels and the poor in drought-stricken areas of the world. What Hurricane Harvey is showing us is that climate change will spare no one.

The sadness and destruction inflicted on residents of the Gulf Coast will flicker on television and computer screens for weeks to come. Their misfortune is truly our misfortune--even if we are only capable of feeling it in the price and availability of gasoline.

But we should not mistake misfortune for tragedy--which many of our leaders will almost surely want us to do. They will want to paint Hurricane Harvey as a tragedy. They will use that word again and again, wittingly or unwittingly making Harvey out to be an unforeseen and unforeseeable event for which we humans have no culpability (or at most only a little and therefore hardly worth mentioning).

That takes them and us off the hook for neglecting the causes behind the great misfortune which this storm has become. And, it would encourage us and them to do little to try to mitigate future misfortunes as the catastrophe of climate change descends upon us.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Arctic riches: A most insane discussion

As climate change rips away the icy armor of the Arctic, nations surrounding the North Pole and companies eager to exploit the area's mineral wealth--particularly oil and natural gas--are growing giddy with anticipation.

So reports the Associated Press, though the AP is by no means the first to report this story. The slow-motion battle over the increasingly accessible resources of the Arctic is certainly a story. But the prevailing version of that story lacks the proper context, one that is hard to provide since the implications of global climate change are vast and difficult to grasp.

First and foremost, burning additional oil and natural gas made available by receding Arctic ice is nothing short of insane. But in a world that believes that adapting to climate change is merely an engineering problem, this type of talk persists.

Readers of the AP piece are told that those wishing to exploit the Arctic will have to build the necessary infrastructure to service the mining, fishing and tourism interests that want a piece of these boreal riches. (Yes, you read that right: tourism!)

But if development of the Arctic proceeds, it will be a sign that we are doing far too little to abate the very causes of warming that make such development thinkable. That would imply increasingly rapid climate change, something that will almost surely destabilize a world which wants to exploit the Arctic.

In a world plagued with agricultural areas devastated by flood and drought, coastal cities drenched by rising seas, mass migrations from newly uninhabitable areas, spreading tropical diseases, water shortages, and unimaginably long periods of intense summer heat, it is hard to imagine that nations and private companies will be able to provide the systematic focus on Arctic development needed to extract its wealth.

In short, the exploitation of the Arctic implies stability elsewhere; but a continuous rise in Arctic temperatures which will make such exploitation increasingly feasible implies the opposite.

We as a global society cannot seem to see the world in any other frame than that of imperial expansion with the Arctic as the next land to conquer--no matter what. (Outer space also continues to occupy our fantasies as a "next land to conquer.")

The unfreezing of the Arctic may itself be one of the most dangerous drivers of climate change. The ice--which has prevented those currently salivating over Arctic riches from getting at them--not only keeps the Earth cool by reflecting light back into space; it also keeps untold gigatons of methane sequestered in the tundra and deep ocean. Once in the atmosphere methane traps far more heat than carbon dioxide.

Geologic history suggests that it is possible that a methane release from a melting Arctic would be non-linear (read: sudden and big). Such an event is often referred to as a methane burp. In the geologic past methane burps have been broadly fatal to all things living and may have led to one of the world's six great extinction events. (The sixth extinction is currently in progress without so far the benefit of a methane burp.)

It turns out that what development of the Arctic implies is so catastrophic that it is hard to understand why we are even discussing it. I am reminded of an old New Yorker magazine cartoon depicting a speaker at a business conference concluding his talk as follows: "And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit."

Most people don't really understand that a melted Arctic will almost certainly accompany the end of the world as we know it, both in nature and in society. Any profits gained as a result will be as monstrous as those mentioned in the New Yorker cartoon.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Moving to Washington, DC -- Taking a five-week hiatus

I am now in the process of moving to Washington, DC. Making that move while staying on top of my ongoing consulting and commercial freelance writing obligations and attending to various other duties will demand all my attention. I expect to return to regular posting on Sunday, August 27.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Pi's tiger and the Anthropocene

Science studies scholar Bruno Latour is fond of the film "Life of Pi" for the metaphor it provides for our current predicament. The main character of the film, Pi, ends up in a lifeboat with a tiger, and not a friendly one. Though Pi builds a raft to give himself distance from the tiger, he must still tie the raft to the lifeboat which holds all the supplies--food, fresh water, and, as we see later, flares. Ultimately, the destruction of his raft forces him to return to the lifeboat and find a way to live with the tiger.

In "Life of Pi" there is no peaceable kingdom like the one depicted by painter and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in the 62 surviving versions of his composition of that name. In "The Peaceable Kingdom" predator lies down with prey and no harm results--a reference to verses in Isaiah depicting an age in which "[t]he wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them."

In "Life of Pi" viewers are constantly in a state of anxiety about Pi's fate. The tiger cannot be tamed. And so it is with the biosphere as we enter the Anthropocene, a geological era defined by the large impacts of humans on the Earth and its cycles. As a post-Enlightenment culture, we have long believed that we are now free of the tyranny of nature. We can learn its ways and master it through our knowledge and ingenuity.

But it turns out that mastery over the Earth is an illusion fostered by its huge resources relative to human populations (until now) and the discovery of fossil fuels that have allowed humans to harness tens of millions of years of stored solar energy in just a couple of centuries.

As the dean of the steady-state economists Herman Daly has explained in his essay "Economics in a Full World":

As the world becomes full of us and our stuff, it becomes empty of what was here before. To deal with this new pattern of scarcity, scientists need to develop a “full world” economics to replace our traditional “empty world” economics.

In the full world we now live in, we are sitting cheek by jowl with Pi's tiger. The tiger, of course, is the natural world which we have sought to put at a distance. We imagined that we could disentangle ourselves from its fate. But we cannot. Because as much as we might wish that humans and nature could be in separate categories, they aren't.

The tiger coming at us now is simply the full world pressing down upon us. The effects of the vast stream of entropy that human civilization produces cannot be placed "out there" any more; nor can we simply run away to a new place to avoid it. The effects we humans are having are so great and ubiquitous that we are close to naming a new geologic era of the Earth after ourselves as mentioned above.

Although Pi eventually finds his way back to civilization and the tiger parts with him and enters the forest, we have no such possibility. We must now dance with the tiger, give him some territory (as Pi does), and limit ourselves in our exploitation of the biosphere's (and lithosphere's) resources.

Nature, it turns out, is not a passive object, but an active agent. It reacts mightily to our provocations. Pi's father tells him early in the film that a tiger can never be regarded as a friend, that any feelings Pi thinks he sees in the tiger's eyes are just projections of Pi's own.

At the end of the film, Pi tells us that he believes he has seen a glimmer of the tiger's own feelings and that these feelings are not always geared to hunting and eating, but at times akin to accommodation if not mutual respect. In this he may have something of value for our comparison. For the biosphere itself is made to sustain us and we are made to thrive in it. But if we fail to understand its rhythms and its limits, it will snarl at us and even injure us for our injuries to it.

Our fear should be that the biosphere's response will end up being all out of proportion to our provocations. In this regard, it is Pi's father who is right about the tiger and by extension the biosphere. The biosphere will not develop sympathy for our current predicament. It can only remorselessly react. That notion should guide our actions as we move about in the only lifeboat we have, the thin membrane encircling the Earth that makes our existence possible.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Syfy's 'The Expanse': The imperial project unhinged

Syfy channel's political/military thriller "The Expanse," set hundreds of years in the future, seems eerily resonant with our own era. The two major powers of the solar system, Earth and Mars, have been locked in a cold war for decades. Exploited populations working and living in the asteroid belt--an area that supplies crucial raw materials to both empires--become the flashpoint for what could turn out to be a civilization-destroying hot war between the two imperial powers.

As it turns out, projecting the centuries-old imperial expansion project here on contemporary Earth into outer space is really no stretch at all. There is frequent coverage in the media today of schemes for landing humans on Mars and establishing colonies. And, there is also talk of extracting resources from asteroids. Empires need raw materials and when they run low, those empires, whether they are political or merely economic, seek new sources of supply.

But here is where "The Expanse" comes unhinged. Engaging in regular interplanetary flights requires a lot of energy. Rather than using elongated journeys powered by the gravity of planets to sling one's ship toward its destination (in an effort to save fuel), the ship captains of "The Expanse" burn a lot of fuel to take more direct routes. (The fuel seems like conventional rocket fuel, but we'll assume that's not the case.)

We find out in the first season that the source of this energy is fusion. All well and good. The attainment of fusion energy and its refinement over possibly centuries could power such a civilization. (We will leave aside for now the question of the effects of constant exposure to low gravity and cosmic radiation on the human body and brain.)

But if such copious and cheap fusion power were to become available, there would be no need to exploit the asteroid belt for rich ores. Instead that power could be used to get all the raw materials an advanced human civilization needs from sources available practically anywhere on Earth (or probably Mars). Granite--hardly something in short supply--contains almost all of the minerals we need albeit in very small concentrations. Mining granite in the required quantities and extracting trace elements from it would produce a lot of waste, but we'd have a lot of energy available to do it and deal with the waste.

Seawater is filled with minerals as well. And, we currently get many minerals from it. With enough cheap energy seawater could be mined even for minerals in very tiny concentrations. The air contains inert gases such as helium, neon, argon and krypton that are already available to us through existing methods. These would become cheaper to extract. And, of course, with huge amounts of cheap energy, seawater could easily be desalinated to provide drinking and irrigation water to any population within a few hundred miles of a coast.

The structure of society could and probably would be highly decentralized as most of the necessary resources would be locally available. Every community would have its own fusion and resource extraction complex. And thus empires--which are built on new resources taken from newly subdued lands (or, in this case, planets and asteroids)--would become irrelevant. Why go halfway across the solar system when everything you need is right at your doorstep because you now have the energy to extract it and mitigate the resulting waste?

In writing all this, I am not prophesying a space-faring human culture. Nor am I convinced that fusion power will be easily and quickly harnessed. The technical challenges may turn out to be so great that our current civilization will dissolve before we can succeed at taming fusion.

Rather, I am trying to show how our contemporary misconceptions about energy and the complex resource flows in our society lead to narratives that mislead us about the challenges we actually face.

"The Expanse" is fun to watch, and its subject matter maps well with our current political and military dramas. You can certainly enjoy it on that level. But take its assumptions about energy and resource flows and their effects on our political and social lives with a grain of salt. Those assumptions don't map well onto our material lives, even for an advanced civilization presumed to exist many hundreds of years in the future.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.