Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Ethical Descent

A friend of mine recently asked me if I hate civilization. My unequivocal answer was “no,” but I would now add frankly that I don’t think our present incarnation of it has much of a future.

I would like nothing better than to wake up and discover that what I’ve learned about the trends shaping the world is wrong; that the basic assumptions behind my lifestyle and those of people around me are actually correct (if needing a little tweaking to deal with a corrupt, incompetent government and international threats to peace); and that I can have a materially more fulfilled life (with just a lot of hard work and good financial planning). Unfortunately I’m both smarter than that and not so ethically challenged as to be able to ignore responsibility for the effects of my actions.

Our species is certainly headed toward much lower consumption of energy and ecological resources, which will likely be accompanied by a significant decline in our population; the only open questions are when, and how fast. The best answers I can find are verified by my own calculations: that consumption and population will peak by the middle of this century, and the fall will be over by the middle of the next century.

If we are truly an ethical species, we will reduce our consumption much faster than we are currently inclined to do, and lay the groundwork for a less painful descent. If recent research on mass extinctions is correct, unchecked global warming may increase the extinction rate far beyond what we have already caused, which adds to the urgency of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and the fossil fuel consumption responsible for them. Adopting sustainable practices, such as those embodied in the principles of permaculture, can help us move into a mindset of creating a better world rather than destroying the only one worth having.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Last Chance

At the 2008 EarthWorks Expo in Denver, keynote speaker Peter Barnes shared some disturbing news: Recent measurements of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may now exceed the upper limit for avoiding accelerated, self-sustaining global warming (350 ppm). This means that to avoid catastrophic climate change the world must stop emitting carbon dioxide altogether and work to remove the excess amount (37 ppm) already in the atmosphere, and do so as soon as possible.

Summarizing his latest book Climate Solutions: A Citizen’s Guide, Barnes argued that the world only has one chance to avert a climate catastrophe, and there is no room for error. No later than 2009 (when the obstructionist Bush Administration will finally be out of office), the United States must make sweeping changes to the way it does business and convince the rest of the world to follow suit.

Barnes reviewed the options currently being considered – taxes, trading systems, regulations – in terms of how they address key failures in economics and politics and their practical viability, arguing that none have a chance of making enough of a difference fast enough. He then described his preferred solution, a “cap and dividend” system which would involve having an organization modeled on the Federal Reserve set declining limits (caps) for suppliers of fossil fuels to the economy, auctioning permits for selling the fuel and paying dividends from payments (received for the permits) to households that would offset the inevitable rise in prices. The net result of Barnes’s solution would be a strong economic incentive for people to invest in alternatives to carbon, which of course is what we need to deal with the particular problem of carbon dioxide pollution.

There is no obvious downside to this solution within the context of stopping carbon dioxide emissions, given its fairness and high chance of effectiveness due largely to its targeting of caps toward the relatively small number of suppliers rather than users. The solution would even help with the oil depletion problem, since it would reduce the consumption of this limited resource. As for the problem of excess carbon dioxide, Barnes suggested planting trees and improving agriculture methods to include building soil (his book was written before this was a problem, so he apparently hadn’t thought much about it).

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, global warming is the most obvious manifestation of the larger problem of reducing biodiversity, and I’m not totally convinced that solving this one problem will necessarily improve the overall situation. I am specifically concerned with how people would spend the dividends from a cap and dividend system: Will they choose alternatives that are just as harmful to the biosphere (or more so)? Perhaps putting a price on biodiversity loss using the natural capital model would be a better solution, since this is the net effect of destructive human activity such as pollution; however, implementing such a solution would possibly be much harder than one that deals with something as tangible as carbon fuels.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Domestic Oil Limits

In an apparently knee-jerk reaction to the rising price of oil, politicians and others are pushing for all-out development of domestic (U.S.) resources, including deep sea drilling off the coast and mining the huge Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves. The Bush Administration is also moving to relax environmental regulations, ostensibly to enable this development, which in the case of oil shale has the potential to threaten air, water, and wildlife habitat.

Using historical numbers for oil consumption, domestic production, and reserves, I’ve calculated depletion if the United States relied entirely on its domestic supply of oil if multiples of it became available in the future (assuming new supplies were as economical as existing ones). I estimate that without any additions, the domestic supply would last three years; and with the oil shale reserves, equivalent in size to more than 1.6 times the world’s current proven reserves, our oil supply would be exhausted (again, if we were the only country consuming it) in only144 years.

Of course, reality is likely to be much different. The U.S. will almost certainly put any new oil on the world market if a profit can be made (the oil can be extracted efficiently). If extracting and using the oil could be done without adverse effects on the environment (pollution of water and air, especially with the latter’s impact on global warming), the new supply would last less time with more people using it; but since it will inevitably contribute to population loss, it may actually last much longer (fewer people will be able to use it).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Current Oil

I updated my world oil projections, improving the estimate of maximum available oil and finding out what would happen if world population followed the trajectory that my consumption model projects based on ecological resource depletion. In the process, I was able to find a correlation between maximum available oil and the price of oil which enabled me to project what would happen to the price for each of the scenarios I studied.

The ecologically based population estimates have little effect on the projections. Using data from BP, oil still runs out in 2010; while data from the EIA shows oil running out by 2033. The price of oil is projected to be $96-$101 (2008 dollars) by the end of this year using the BP data, and $29-$37 using the EIA data. Notably, the projected BP prices are increasing while the EIA prices are decreasing (since 2006).

No one seems to know what is causing the current rise in the price of oil, which is now approaching $140 per barrel. If low supply is responsible for the projected amount of the price then my population-modified BP projections indicate that about a third is due to other factors. If the other factors are offset, then for the price to return to what it was at the end of last year, we will need to increase production about eight million barrels per day for the last six months of this year (over its current projected value, with no change in the consumption trend). If we are lucky and the population-modified EIA numbers are right, then about three-fourths of the current price is due to factors other than supply and we can properly focus on manipulating those factors while working on increasing supply (or better, substitution).

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dangerous Immaturity

In his book Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, psychiatrist and professor Justin Frank paints a frightening picture of an emotionally immature man so overwhelmed by anxiety that he is willing to do anything to keep it at bay. The president’s coping mechanisms include maintaining an oversimplified view of the world, sadistically harming others, self-medication (first with alcohol, then religion), and dishonesty. The causes are many, beginning with inadequate nurturing from his mother as an infant, a family tradition of avoiding (rather than dealing with and growing from) emotional pain, and ADHD. Our president’s unresolved issues go a long way toward explaining his irrational and destructive behavior, the consequences of which have harmed our country and the world in a multitude of ways.

Frank’s discussion suggests that emotional immaturity may be responsible for much of the objectifying of people behind acts of evil. This involves externalizing one’s own capacity for harm; labeling others as “bad” while the self remains “good” without acknowledging that good and bad resides in all of us, with the bad needing to be managed internally. If you don’t know and respect yourself, you are incapable of knowing and respecting others.

The people who continue to support the president’s destructive policies and false ideas about the world may share one or more of his problems. If so, it may be next to impossible to reason with them until their emotional issues are addressed; otherwise, the added information could simply overload their limited tolerance of complexity.

It seems clear, given our recent experience, that psychological screening should be involved in selecting someone who has power of many others (especially the power to make or enforce laws). Someone whose emotional state enables them to act above the law, instead of respecting it and the people it applies to, should never be elected into any office of responsibility.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Running Out of Oil

I refined my analysis of BP’s oil numbers and performed the same analysis of data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) for comparison. The results suggest that the world will run out of available oil within 30 years, and perhaps as early as the end of this decade.

If the BP scenario is correct (my analysis of their data, not their projections), then the Peak Oil adherents are probably right that it is too late to keep civilization from toppling; oil prices will climb rapidly, with no time to compensate with substitutes. By the end of this year, the price of gas in the U.S. could exceed $5.30; by the end of next year it might be nearly $13.50; and the crash will occur in 2010.

If the EIA scenario is correct then we have a little more time, since it implies a net surplus of oil for at least another eight years (currently one-eighth of what we annually consume) and we will run out by 2035. The correlation between U.S. gas prices and the ratio of supply and demand is very low (unlike the BP scenario), which makes it virtually useless for projection (the projected price at the end of 2007 is about half its actual value).

Both of these scenarios depend on the world having stockpiles of oil. According to the EIA’s May 2008 International Petroleum Monthly, the world had stocks of about 5.4 billion barrels at the end of 2007, which is two-thirds of the cumulative deficit since 1965 for the BP scenario and about a third more than the cumulative surplus since 1970 for the EIA scenario.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Oil Wall

I applied my consumption model to the world oil data in latest energy statistics from BP for the period 1965 to 2007, and got a much different set of projections than the ones I got using just the energy component from the Energy Information Administration for 1980 to 2004. Both consumption and production projections imply that the total amount of oil in the world is more than 90 times the amount of known reserves, and that our use of it will not peak for more than 250 years.

There is a problem however: Consumption has exceeded production since 1980. By 1999, we had used up the extra oil accumulated since 1965 (produced oil that wasn’t consumed). At the end of last year we had a net deficit of 9.5 billion barrels; presumably drawing from oil produced before 1965 (I estimate we would have had to start saving oil in 1952; by 2010, the required start year will be 1945).

This analysis suggests that the increasing oil prices we are experiencing may be due to economic players such as speculators waking up to the possibility that we are running out of available oil. Whatever the cause of the inadequate production (greed, limited technology, or limited accessibility of reserves), it is clear that increased production is the only near-term solution that makes sense.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Peak Oil

Recent increases in oil prices have sparked renewed interest in the subject of “peak oil,” the idea that the world has consumed half of the total supply of petroleum, a resource that underlies most of modern civilization which will from now on become progressively more expensive as demand exceeds our ability to produce (extract and process) it. Because we have been lax in developing substitutes, controlling population growth, and curbing our appetites for more energy, many advocates of the theory believe that civilization will crash and most of our population will die in the process.

Applying my consumption model to oil with starting reserves calculated from reported values, the number of people using oil (“population”) peaks at the same time that I’ve projected for world energy, about 40 years from now. Production (“consumption”) of oil peaks about a decade earlier.

If the peak oil theory is right, then the original world reserve of oil was twice the amount at the production peak, or about 5.2 trillion barrels used for energy. I estimate that we currently have about 3.5 trillion barrels remaining that would be used for energy. Assuming that 21 percent is and was used for asphalt and product feedstock, then the total amount of oil remaining is 4.4 trillion barrels, and the original world reserve was 6.6 trillion barrels.

My model assumes that the number of people using a resource will drop in proportion to the change in the fraction of the resource that’s available (adjusted for preferred growth in population and per capita consumption). Those who do not use the resource will use something else or use nothing (either literally or because they are not being added to the population). Using less is an option only until a full per capita unit is reached, after which the savings counts as a loss of population (especially in a closed system where everyone is forced to use the resource).

In the case of oil, my model projects a slowing of per capita production, which suggests that per capita demand is also slowing (at least historically). Other energy sources are the logical beneficiaries of this trend; but as the peak oil adherents are quick to point out their growth may not be enough to pick up the difference, thus leading to the common behavior of population over time.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Rules and Goals

Both competition and cooperation are strategies for achieving goals, with differing definitions of “who” is achieving the goals. If most of us are consciously or unconsciously working toward the goal of maximizing the happiness of ourselves and people related to us, regardless of the toll on the rest of Nature (and “other” members of our own population who we do not value), the negative consequences of our behavior are as much due to our goal as the effectiveness of our efforts.

The negative consequences, as I’ve described ad nauseam, include the destruction of ecosystems that support us and other species (as well as the direct extermination of those other species), which will likely result in our own demise. Enabling these consequences is the fact that there is a limited number of ecosystems, other species, easily accessible energy, and economic resources (mainly labor). We are depleting these things at an exponential rate through consumption and degradation, faster than they are being replaced.

I can think of three possible strategies for dealing with this problem: We can change our goal; we can change the way we are attaining the goal; or we can simply stop what we are doing. The last strategy is what mathematicians commonly refer to as a “trivial solution” and is least likely to be implemented (unless of course we all die). Changing the goal may be almost as unlikely since it appears to be hardwired into us; but we may be able to append at least one other goal, namely maximizing the population to the far future (my second condition for an ideal world). Changing the way we attain the goal is akin to changing the rules of a game, which in this case would involve demanding that we not decrease the amount or quality of resources, whether they be ecological, energy, or human.

If changing rules and goals are the best way to channel our behavior to avoid disaster and gain the most for our species, the changes must either be accepted by everyone or enforced by the majority (risking the limitation of happiness for the people who disagree). Those who don’t value the common good or the other species that provide part of the infrastructure for that good are most likely to favor competition over cooperation, and could be expected to resist any mechanism for change such as government or education. The probable inevitability of a fraction of every population denying the value of others now and in the future may make it impossible to ever achieve an ideal world, but how the rest of the population chooses to deal with this fraction will most directly determine how close we can get.