Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Sacrificing a ToE to Save the Foot

To avoid a population crash, an annual reduction in per capita personal expense over 50 years of at least 29 percent (42 percent to avoid casualties) is required. In effect, an investment of an entire year’s expense over 10 to 16 years could mean the difference between a healthy planet and mass death. The amount of this reduction should be invested in creating a renewable economy, one which reuses everything. The alternative to this reduction is a rise in disposable income and expense of at least 10 percent per year, with debt approaching today’s disposable income right before the world population crashes.

If a world “ToE” (Tax on Everything) of 42 percent was levied with the proceeds directed at making the required changes, we might save the “foot” – world ecological footprint – and the future. Priority would be given to basic survival, for example providing food and water, and we would become a scavenger society, using whatever we could for as long as possible. By the end of the 50 years, we would each be responsible for wasting no more than 40 pounds per day.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Gore's Dilemma

I project that if we reduce world annual consumption by 18 percent per year from the end of 2007 until 2050, halving it every 3.5 years and then leveling off, we will avoid any losses in population. This corresponds to a cut in daily waste per capita from the current 500 thousand pounds to a mere 100 pounds, and a leveling off of Gross World Product at about $70 trillion. If the world merely cuts 90 percent of current annual carbon dioxide emissions during that time period (an extrapolation of Al Gore’s proposal for the U.S.), the populations of other species will crash in 2026; followed by our own in 2042. If we continue on our present course for at least the next five years, there will be nothing we can do to avoid some population loss.

Various elements of the model I have been able to check are consistent with reality, or at least other people’s projections. Price elasticity of energy, timing and behavior of consumption based on peaking oil production, and past prediction of the basic variables (population, energy consumption, living planet index) all seem to track pretty well. Even the recently discovered per capita consumption values for avoiding catastrophe seem reasonable.

My own personal situation mirrors the dilemma facing others, like Gore, that at various levels comprehend the threat facing us. The socioeconomic system we’re part of demands a certain amount and type of consumption in order to command the respect and exposure necessary to spread any message to a large number of people. Such expenditures are in excess of those for the average U.S. citizen, which is far higher than the average world citizen; and in the wrong direction for exercising personal responsibility (more, not less, consumption). Gore, for example, has been criticized for consuming more energy in his home and personal jet while trying to convince world leaders to deal with global warming, but without doing so he would likely never get their attention. As I consider launching my writing and research into the realm of public discourse, I must maintain computer equipment, try to get books published (consider the paper), possibly travel, and maintain a professional business presence so those whose help I need won’t ignore me out-of-hand.

One undeniably imperfect way to cope with this dilemma is to do what Gore does: “offset” the additional waste by supporting technologies and organizations that can make a difference elsewhere. Offsets are justifiable at the beginning of the process, if accompanied by the intended effect (building momentum for the reduction of consumption). But if the intended effect is not forthcoming, personal consumption should be cut drastically to compensate.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Toxic Environments

This week former vice president Al Gore testified to Congress regarding global warming, and among other things proposed a 90 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

Gore was ridiculed as being alarmist, but in my estimation he’s not alarmist enough. Global warming is only half the problem, since carbon dioxide footprint is only half of all consumption: our other pollution and destruction of habitats is easily as damaging. By my calculations, Gore’s recommendation would be a nearly two percent reduction in annual consumption, and if applied to the whole world would result in a delay of seven years for the crash of other species and a delay of 18 years in the crash of our population.

If a two percent reduction in consumption is “politically impossible” then our politics, like our present economy, is fundamentally unsustainable.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


I modified my consumption model to project price elasticity of consumption, using U.S. consumer expenditures as a function of ecological footprint (representing annual consumption or demand). The result, the ratio of change in footprint to the change in expenditures, closely matches published estimates of price elasticity of carbon used in projecting the magnitude of carbon taxes required to fight global warming. In addition to agreeing that elasticity will increase as the time interval increases (from one to ten years into the future), the model predicts that the elasticity will increase as the rate of change of annual consumption becomes more negative (by about 2.6 percent for each percent decrease in rate).

I added another major variable to my model: the year that reductions in annual consumption (by mass) would stop and consumption would stay constant, rather than continuing indefinitely. This change plus a correction to the calculation of when population would drop (using a population of zero instead of what it was in 1989) yielded unexpected results. No matter what rate or interval (years of reduction) that I used, the final footprint per capita required to stop population loss was much less than one acre. For example, if we reduced consumption for 50 years starting some time in the next year or so, we could need to halve annual consumption every six years, ending with an average of about 50 people using each acre of bio-productive land. If we waited until 2015, we would need to halve annual consumption every three years, ending up with over 7,200 people per acre. The projected population loss would also increase over time, starting with about 500 million if we start soon, and over a billion if we wait until 2015.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Sky is Falling

Several years ago, I became fascinated with the threat of asteroid and comet impacts on the Earth. As a result of months of research, I gave a set of talks on the subject to various organizations I belonged to, including the Northern Colorado Astronomical Society, and the Mars Society. Some friends thought I was becoming obsessed with the end of the world (and some argue that my latest research into Peak Oil and human-induced species extinction is just another variant of this). My true motivation was a heightened responsibility for the long-term effects of my actions, coming from a spiritual and philosophical awakening that followed my father’s death.

Most of my closest friends came to subscribe to my views about low frequency, high consequence events such as asteroid impacts, and the responsibility to mitigate them (one even generalized it to support the Iraq war, without considering the possibility of worse, unintended consequences, which have since presented themselves). Another friend had a radically different response: If we knew an asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, we should use our resources to live as well as possible until the end, rather than use them to divert the asteroid.

I was horrified that anyone would even consider such an idea, yet I have come to believe that there are an uncomfortably large number of people who do; perhaps even some of our business and government leaders. Suppose, for example, that the president and his closest advisors are not in denial about global warming or Peak Oil, as they appear to be, and likewise are not as incompetent and ignorant as they seem. If so, they have considered the three basic responses to a threat: fight it, retreat from it, or accommodate it. Trained in business as they are, they’ve done a cost-benefit analysis, and perhaps concluded that the problems are too large for any practical and timely response; also, retreat is not an option. The only alternative is accommodation, which in this case means stocking up resources so at least the (few) people you care about live as well as possible until the end. There’s no point in protecting the national treasury if there won’t be a nation to use it, so you plunder it as quickly as possible. In this purely hypothetical scenario, our leaders could be acting quite rationally, while being totally, criminally, irresponsible.

My attitude is that we should recognize what’s facing us, and do everything humanly possible to achieve the best outcome for the most number of people. Fighting a threat, in my view, is the best option, and helping everyone else prepare for the consequences of failure must be done as a backup.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Carbon Taxes

One of the best ways to immediately reduce consumption and deal with global warming is to tax products based on how much carbon is emitted into the atmosphere during their production, use, and disposal. This is in contrast to the voluntary “cap and trade” system, which sets a mandatory maximum for emissions and then allows organizations to buy and sell “allowances” representing tons of carbon they can emit.

According to the Carbon Tax Center, the price elasticity of carbon-based energy is about 40 percent over ten years. This means that if prices increased 100 percent (doubled) over ten years (the time required for required infrastructure changes) total consumption would drop 40 percent below the amount of fuel that could have been bought before the price increase. If carbon emissions must drop 80 percent over ten years, then we must increase the price by 200 percent (adding that much tax).

A major issue involving carbon taxes, as with any taxes, is what to do with the money collected. The Carbon Tax Center recommends either tax shifting (offsetting the tax increase with a decrease in other taxes) or distributing the proceeds equally to everyone who paid the taxes. Another option, spending the money on developing alternative energy, has been generally dismissed because it creates too much of a financial burden on people. I have concerns with the first two choices. Other taxes, which encourage or discourage various activities, could be sabotaged by tax shifting (changes to those taxes should be decided on their own merits). Giving the money back would encourage consumption of other kinds, continuing (albeit at a lower rate) the destruction of the biosphere. The last choice is, in my opinion, the best: it discourages further consumption and accelerates the development of alternatives.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Killing the Future

I recently saw the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which provided a case study of how corruption, greed, and short-sightedness can sabotage the future. In the mid-1990s, General Motors leased prototypes of a car which ran on batteries that could be charged in the home or in special charging stations. Although they had a somewhat limited range, their performance matched that of cars running on gas. The cars were built in response to emissions regulations passed in California, which the automobile industry then helped to successfully repeal. When the regulations were defeated, the cars were scrapped. Meanwhile, more expensive and immature technologies started to be promoted, primary among them: hydrogen fuel cells.

When cheap oil starts to run out, electricity (hopefully using renewable sources such as wind and solar) may have to be used for transportation, and electric cars may be required. From this perspective, shelving the technology is a very bad idea. But car companies (like the oil companies) expect to make much more money as oil gets expensive, which makes them inclined to promote the current technologies and squelch any replacements that could come on line before oil costs too much even for them.

Government is supposed to promote the common good, but especially in the last six years it has been co-opted by industry. In the Bush administration’s rush to privatize everything, meeting the financial bottom line has trumped responsibility for people’s future. If the optimization of financial wealth reliably translated into good for the majority of people, this might not be a bad thing; but the evidence is overwhelming that this is not the case. In fact, the objectifying of people that business does all the time often leads to great harm. If we are going to give business the power of government, it must act with the conscience of government: serving people first, and being held accountable to them.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Misplaced Priorities

Last week, NASA announced that due to lack of funds it would not be able to track asteroids smaller than 3,300 feet wide that could potentially hit Earth. To find and track all of the estimated 22,000 objects greater than 460 feet wide, which could cause major damage if they hit us or exploded in the atmosphere, it would cost the space agency about one billion dollars per year, or roughly what the U.S. spends in half a week in Iraq.

Of all the natural disasters we know about, killer asteroids are among the most devastating, and the one threat we can eliminate. They make the world’s nuclear arsenals look like a bunch of peashooters by comparison, yet we have spent hundreds of times the amount of money needed to counter them by (officially) going after one small country’s imaginary cache of WMD.

The greatest threat to humanity, global warming, is already affecting us, and a new report by world scientists (to be issued in April) spells out just how much worse it can get (a LOT worse). Like with asteroids, NASA’s capabilities will be severely hampered by lack of funds. The president’s budget for the Earth observation program, which uses satellites to provide critical data about climate and weather, is a half-billion dollars short of what is needed to maintain coverage and accuracy over the next ten years.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Costs of Reduction

The 60 to 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels required to deal with global warming corresponds to a global ecological footprint of 92 percent and 79 percent of the total amount available. If in 2004 we had ten years to achieve these reductions, then starting at the end of 2007 we would need to reduce total annual consumption by between 5.9 and 7.8 percent per year.

These rates would carry a human cost of 1.3 billion and 0.4 billion people, respectively; as population peaked and then dropped (compare this to the loss of at least 5.7 billion people if we do nothing). The Gross World Product (GWP) would level off at 88.8 and 81.8 trillion dollars, respectively, if we continued reducing consumption and the economy was tied to consumption as it has been for the last 40 years or so.

As I’ve suggested before, a more aggressive reduction in annual consumption of 17 percent per year (again, starting at the end of 2007) would remove the human cost altogether, with a peak GWP of 70.1 trillion dollars.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Crisis of Debt: Legacy

When someone goes too far into debt, creditors typically refuse to loan more money and enforce payment of the outstanding balance. The biosphere has little left to give humanity, and is in the process of demanding payment because it has no option. Like a cancer, we are killing the source of our growth; and now we are beginning to feel the effects of the illness we caused. But unlike a cancer, we can recognize and stop, slow down, and possibly reverse the damage we are causing. The alternative, continued growth at the rates we have recently achieved is impossible to sustain even if we somehow survive the demise of our planet.

In my opinion, the best of all responses to our present situation would be the development of an economy based on reuse. Daily living would be driven by so-called “clean” energy (from solar collectors and wind for electricity, and a renewable super fuel for transportation and materials). To improve our chances of surviving into the distant future, we could responsibly (minimizing natural impact) utilize more exotic sources of energy and materials as necessary to settle space and prepare for or mitigate natural disasters.

What will humanity’s legacy be: a vibrant living planet possibly spreading the seeds of life to other planets, a terminally ill biosphere, or a grotesque field of artificial waste cluttering a limited sphere of interstellar space? The decisions all of us make today are determining that legacy.

[For more information, see my Web site.]

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Crisis of Debt: Mandatory Action

Climate scientists and oil experts warn that the time for debate is over. We must act now, and act fast, to avoid the worst effects of global warming and the unavailability of cheap energy. Education of the world’s leaders and citizens is continuing; but like children who could hurt themselves and others out of ignorance, most of us may need stronger guidance.

One of the least painful forms of coercion is the imposition of taxes. Simply put, people pay more for products based on how much waste is generated in their production, use, and disposal. This extra cost both makes wasteful products less likely to be purchased, and provides both an incentive and a source of money for the creation of less wasteful alternatives. Carbon taxes, for example, are taxes on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the production of everything from energy to homes.

A more vigorous approach is the enactment of laws prohibiting wasteful behavior and carrying stiff penalties for breaking those laws. Pollution laws, based on the “polluter pays” principle, operate this way. Such laws (or taxes) would need to be enforced worldwide to be effective.

The huge change required in the way people must learn to live will undoubtedly require both involuntary and voluntary responses. An excellent case study of adaptation to sustainable living is the nation of Cuba, which artificially experienced peak oil in the mid-1990s. The government and people worked together to implement energy conservation along with the use of renewable sources, adopted a more natural (and less resource-intensive) diet, and restructured their living and work arrangements to live within their limited means.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Crisis of Debt: Reducing Carbon Dioxide

Carbon dioxide emissions from human activities have been implicated in global warming, and (according to the WWF) emissions from fossil fuel use account for nearly half of humanity's global ecological footprint (which, I argue, corresponds to our consumption of resources). Since our current footprint is probably over one and a third times what natural systems can handle, and the emissions footprint tracks closely with the total footprint, cutting emissions in half could alone remove our ecological debt. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions has the added benefit of postponing the depletion of cheap oil, which we will need until alternatives can come on line (at least for use in making materials). In his 2004 book Global Warming: a Very Short Introduction, Mark Maslin reports that scientists favor a range of between 60 and 80 percent reductions to counter the worst of global warming. This can be done by cutting back on activities that cause the emissions (such as driving and consuming electricity from coal-fired power plants), or finding ways to keep the carbon dioxide from building up in the atmosphere (for example, by being consumed by trees or storing it underground). Recent research indicates that global warming may already be self-sustaining, and we have no more than ten years to keep it from getting much worse.

Ten years is not a lot of time to expect the world to permanently reduce its total consumption by one-third or substitute that amount with less damaging alternatives; and with a per capita carbon dioxide footprint that is over five times the world average, we in the United States should responsibly make deeper cuts than others. To many people I know, to suggest such a thing is crazy talk. Indeed, roughly a third still do not see the link between global warming and human activity as established, and believe that those proposing even the most modest responses are either delusional or have ulterior motives ranging from the political to the financial. More “practical” acquaintances, whose views are often mirrored by political and industrial leaders, respond that our economic and political structures are simply incapable of handling such drastic change, and propose more gradual approaches. Unfortunately, “gradual” is not an option.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Crisis of Debt: Breaking the Bank

Even with a super fuel, continued consumption of resources will cause our ecological debt to grow until we can no longer afford to pay it off. We will then have truly “broken the bank,” and need to be able to process raw material entirely by ourselves to form everything that we need and want. This would require a much more hefty energy source (such as nuclear fusion) along with technologies that could process mass at the atomic level (such as nanotechnology). For our consumption (and civilization) to continue uninterrupted these new sources of energy and means of processing materials would need to be available and operational when the biosphere crashed.

Suppose we were successful at living with a biosphere effectively reduced to microbes (or bioengineered life forms that are able to thrive). The net result of breaking the biological bank would be an expanding sphere of entirely artificial environments. Our growth of consumption would be limited by how fast we could reach and process raw materials, with the speed of expansion ultimately bounded by physics to the speed of light. Even under the most ideal circumstances, the rate of growth of consumption would likely peak no later than about 300 years from now, after which it would drop rapidly. We would be forced by the laws of Nature into a practically zero-growth condition.

The present geopolitical situation, relevant to the monetary debt faced by Americans, mirrors this same situation. Like countries at war, the main difference between what we started with in Nature, and what we will end with, is a vast amount of death and waste created in the conflict. In what is shaping up as a battle for influence in the Middle East, where much of the remaining (easily accessed) oil exists, the U.S. is attempting to do the equivalent of breaking the bank instead of reducing our spending, with potentially the same results. We will at best gain a few years of continued consumption, at a human cost already in excess of hundreds of thousands of lives. When the U.S. ceases to be a useful debtor, and the countries who hold our debt decide to either stop extending more or calling in what we owe, leaders like those currently in power may decide it's time to break the banks of those other countries, with even more tragic consequences.

Is getting more stuff really worth the harm so many of us are willing to do for it?

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Preventative Medicine

I recently spent two days in the hospital, trying to find out if my 47 year-old heart was breaking down. It caused me to question the tug of war between the well-being of one person and that of others.

Early one morning I woke up with a growing ache in my chest, which continued after a few hours of sleep. I initially attributed it to an allergic reaction to something in my house, but it grew in strength, becoming painful even after I got to work. I became concerned enough to seek medical advice. A nurse working for my health care provider, after hearing my symptoms and learning of my father’s death from a heart attack, insisted that I call 911 and get checked out for a potential heart attack. The advice made perfect sense, though I briefly thought about bucking it and heading home. Better to be safe than fatally sorry.

After my first ride in an ambulance, I spent several hours in a local hospital’s emergency room where my heart was monitored, I was put on pain medications, and my blood was extensively studied. When they were unable to find an explanation for my symptoms, the doctors had my lungs scanned for a blood clot using radioactivity-laced oxygen as a tracer (the hospital’s only CT scanner had been broken; when it was fixed, I got the higher resolution scan of my heart). There were still no problems detected, so with more detailed tests available the next day, I was checked into the hospital’s cardiac unit. In the morning I learned that no one had communicated that I had to wait at least 36 hours for radioactive air to clear from my lungs before the scheduled heart scan, also using radioactivity (in my blood), could be done. So instead I took a stress test, which revealed no unusual heart activity or pain; but my symptoms, now shifted from variable chest pain to chest pain only when I breathed, made the test’s conclusions equivocal. Early the next morning, I woke up with my chest feeling totally congested, and after a few more hours of sleep I felt almost totally fine. The heart scan, chemical-aided stress test, and follow-up heart scan showed no problems, so I was released in the afternoon. The doctors guessed that my symptoms were caused by either a combination of stress and acid reflux, or (my favorite) a highly aggressive virus like a chest cold.

The hospital’s ER had been totally full when I arrived, and both beds and rooms were at a premium. While I was enjoying the experience of periodic injections and random status checks, forced food and water deprivation, and uncomfortable sleeping arrangements for me and my wife, all so I could learn that I had a cold mimicking a heart condition, at least I had privacy and room service; others were far less fortunate. In the ER, you were lucky if you had a curtain and a bed.

I shuddered to think of how many resources were being used to support me during my stay at the hospital; but like so many people, it was hard to keep from using them when my personal survival was at stake. My wife and everyone I shared my concerns with constantly reminded me that I had made the right decision to call 911. My best friend had experienced almost identical symptoms when he discovered that he was actually having a heart attack. The EMTs, doctors, and nurses all agreed that someone my age (and even much younger) with my family history could not afford to ignore the warning signs.

The medical profession and its infrastructure exist, in theory, to keep people from dying. By every standard in our society and universal personal values, I was using them appropriately: to prevent my own death. But how much is a single life worth relative to those of others, who are either competing for the use of the medical system or the resources that support it? How much pain and suffering, greater than my own, might I have alleviated by following my brief impulse to head home and ride out my own pain, without cluttering the ER or monopolizing a hospital room? I may never know, but I can’t help but ask the question.

Crisis of Debt: Energy Constraints

Oil, natural gas, and coal have provided abundant energy for our industrial economy, which has driven unprecedented population growth and set the stage for our expansion into space. Settling other planets has the potential of further increasing not only our population, but the populations of other species, far into the future. As I've mentioned, this is one way we can increase our ecological income and “pay” for what we've taken from the biosphere.

There is strong evidence that we have already found and exploited half of the Earth's supply of accessible oil and natural gas. The rest will be progressively more expensive to get, while demand continues to rise. Thus, involuntary reductions in consumption of energy will occur, resulting in a parallel reduction in consumption of other resources. These reductions will paradoxically, and tragically, decrease our ability to generate the income that space travel promises.

To offset the use of oil, an increased role for coal is often proposed, along with nuclear energy and biofuel. Burning coal is a net loss to the biosphere because it adds more pollution, especially in the form of climate changing greenhouse gases; it is also not very useful to the economy because it is not very portable. Nuclear energy also suffers from the portability problem: it is currently only useful for generating electricity. There are other problems with nuclear energy, including its potential use for weapons, difficulty with the safe disposal of waste, and its dependence on the current fossil fuel economy for materials and support. Indeed, this latter problem plagues all of these options, including coal (for building and maintaining power plants). Even the most promising biofuel technologies, while portable, require fossil fuel and material inputs.

The ideal replacement for oil could be used for fueling transportation, generating electricity, providing heat, and of course serving as feedstock for materials. It would need to be much less polluting and easily adaptable to the technologies that currently use oil. The chances of such a super fuel being discovered before usable oil becomes too scarce to sustain our civilization are pretty small right now.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Crisis of Debt: Voluntary Reductions

There are several reasons to doubt that most people will voluntarily decrease their consumption, in spite of the fact that decreasing consumption is typically simpler, if not necessarily easier, than increasing income (unless they are already consuming the bare minimum needed for survival). Perhaps the best of these reasons is the simple fact that consumption continues to rise. No one is forcing people to buy new things (though it could be argue that corporations have become very good at psychological manipulation to that end).

Decreasing consumption tends to go against one of our most basic drives, to mold our environment for maximum comfort and pleasure. People are attracted to artificial environments such as cities and suburbs, which require a high level of consumption (waste) to be maintained, effectively driving up the cost of survival for their residents. As a result, they are more likely to seek ways to increase their income than (voluntarily) cut back on what they use up.

For those who consume a considerable amount of information and crave understanding, the educational prerequisite for voluntary reduction in consumption may be acquired by accident. They may, however, be confident enough in their ability to innovate (increase the ease of consumption) that they will not accept any limitations. On the other hand, people who are more interested in things than ideas are more inclined to learn mostly by experience, and may take too long to become convinced of the need to reduce consumption.

Then there is research showing that consumption has many of the characteristics of addiction. The more we have, the more we want, and we become progressively less conscious of why. The addiction interferes with our functioning (taking over our lives, not to mention destroying the environment), and each day it is more difficult to stop.

Despite these reasons, there is a growing number of people at least attempting to cut back, embracing the so-called “lifestyles of health and sustainability.” Their motivations range from spiritual to physical, including: love and respect for Nature (held by many environmentalists); a reaction to the stress of “keeping up with the Joneses”; and (in my case) fear of being responsible for mass pain and death, as well as the elimination of a decent future for everyone and everything else.