Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Not The End Of The World

You know that things are beginning to heat up when both sides of a controversy declare victory at the same time. Over the last week or so, that’s happened in the peak oil scene. On the one hand, quite a number of cornucopians – those enthusiastic souls who believe that we can get ourselves out of the hole we’re in by digging faster and paying less attention to where the dirt lands – have trumpeted the discovery of a few new oil fields as proof that peak oil is a myth.

The Bakken shale, a geological formation down in the basement of the northern Great Plains, has attracted the bulk of this cheerleading. Mind you, the Bakken’s a significant discovery; there’s apparently a fair amount of oil down there, though the technical challenges involved in extracting more than a tiny fraction of it are immense, and nobody’s yet sure if the energy that can be extracted from it will be more or less than the energy cost needed to extract it. Even if it turns out to be the oil find of the decade, though, and North Dakota oil millionaires start showing up as a recognized type in American popular culture, the most the Bakken can do is make up some of the production losses from older oil fields and slow, for a time, our descent from Hubbert’s peak.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, the number of voices proclaiming the imminence of total collapse has skyrocketed. Typical is a recent post in Sharon Astyk’s useful peak oil blog. Astyk claims that recent events have decisively settled the debate between the fast-crash and slow-grind models of post-peak oil reality, in favor of the fast crash – and we’re already in it. Her argument is basically that the drastic spikes in food and energy costs over the last few months have outrun the limits of the slow-grind scenario; ergo, the fast crash is here.

I’ve commented several times in these essays about the way that linear thinking distorts our view of the future, and Astyk’s prediction makes a good example. The drastic price spikes in many commodities over the last few months offer a warning that shouldn’t be ignored, but treating them as evidence that industrial society is about to implode imposes a linear model onto the complex realities of socioeconomic change. The fact that change is happening quickly right now does not mean that it will continue to happen at the same pace, or even in the same direction.

Human societies are complex homeostatic systems that respond to changes in their environments by trying to maintain their equilibrium. Both the cornucopians and the fast-collapse theorists too often lose track of this basic rule of human ecology, but it’s interesting to note that they do so in different ways. In the face of faltering oil production, industrial societies intensify the search for new oil fields and exploit fields that would have been considered uneconomical in the halcyon days of cheap oil; that’s how they try to maintain equilibrium. These are responses to crisis, however, not evidence that the crisis is over. When an oil reservoir as geologically challenging as the Bakken looks like a good place to drill, that in itself provides a good measure of how serious the drawdown of existing reserves has become.

At the same time, soaring costs of energy and food are among the ways that a market-based society attempts to maintain equilibrium when supply fails to keep up with potential demand. Rationing by price is a profoundly inequitable way to sort out who gets food and energy in a time of shortages, and who does not, but unless the industrial world goes through drastic political changes in the very near future, it’s the way we’re stuck with, and it does have at least one pragmatic advantage: the ration coupons (we call them “money”) and the entire system of rationing are already in place, ready to use, without massive social engineering.

As prices go up, a great many of the poor and disenfranchised worldwide are sliding closer to the edge where destitution turns into starvation. That’s a tragedy, and a moral crisis of no small magnitude. Still, those who think that it announces the imminent collapse of industrial society need to revisit the history of the nineteenth century, when famines racked the Third World with appalling frequency and a good half of the population in many industrial nations lived in desperate poverty. Most people in the industrial world nowadays, I suspect, have forgotten just how much routine deprivation was a part of ordinary life before the brief twentieth-century heyday of cheap abundant energy.

At the same time, rising prices in a market society also help drive responses to crisis. Here in Oregon, much of the farmland in the long and fertile Willamette valley has been used for years to grow grass seed for the lawn-improvement market. This year, though, a good many of the grass-seed farmers are planting wheat instead – the grass seed market is weak, while the price they can expect for wheat is higher than it’s been in generations. Similar responses are beginning to show up in other agricultural and economic sectors; that’s the sort of response that can be expected, after all, from a complex homeostatic system.

That’s also why the collapse of previous civilizations follows a stairstep process that combines periods of severe crisis with periods of partial recovery. Knocked out of one state of equilibrium by the pressures driving it toward collapse, a society in decline finds a new balance lower down the scale of socioeconomic complexity; when that balance becomes unsustainable, another transition follows, and then another point of equilibrium lower still; that’s the underlying logic of the theory of catabolic collapse, the basis for most of what appears on this blog. It’s hard to argue against the suggestion that we’re entering such a period of crisis just now, and if this is the case, we can expect hard choices and troubled times in the years immediately ahead.

In the case of today’s soaring food prices, likely results include increased starvation in the world’s poorest countries, and a sharp increase in the world’s roster of failed states. Meanwhile, drastic economic, political, and cultural readjustments will hit the industrial world as income redistributes itself from urban centers to farm country. Further down the road, expect prices of many agricultural commodities to come crashing back to earth as steep increases in production intersect with the boom-and-bust cycle of commodities speculation. They’ll head back up thereafter – many centuries will likely pass before food is ever again as cheap compared to incomes as it was in the second half of the twentieth century – but the wild swings in commodity prices will place added pressure on economic systems already creaking under existing strains.

Perhaps the most likely result of the current wave of crises, however, is the twilight of the much-ballyhooed global market of the twentieth century’s last decades. That was never the wave of the future its cheerleaders labeled it; it was a temporary artifact of a world in which energy costs had been forced so low, and economic disparities between nations raised so high, that distance apparently didn’t matter and arbitraging labor costs across continents seemed to make economic sense. As energy costs have risen in recent years, nations with energy resources have done the sensible thing and recognized the political dimensions of economic exchange. Free-market fundamentalists who denounce this “resource nationalism” seem to have forgotten that the government of Russia, for example, was not elected by the citizens of America, and gains no conceivable benefit by embracing policies that benefit American consumers or politicians while disadvantaging their Russian equivalents.

The food crisis has pushed this same transformation into overdrive. Governments around the world that once made their nations’ ability to feed their own people a sacrosanct element of national policy, and were talked out of this sensible strategy during the heyday of cheap energy, have suddenly realized that the lukewarm gratitude of foreign politicians and the plaudits of economists snugly sheltered in their ivory towers don’t count for much when a hungry mob heads for the presidential palace. Most of the Asian countries that produce rice, the grain that has soared most in price, have accordingly limited rice exports to ensure that their own people get enough to eat. Where fossil fuels and food crops go, other resources will follow; my guess is that potash for fertilizer, an essential resource for industrial agriculture, will be next in line.

The “free market,” for that matter, was never that free in the first place; a slanted playing board designed to maximize the flow of wealth to the world’s industrial nations and minimize flows in the other direction, it replaced more straightforward forms of colonialism while maintaining unequal patterns of exchange that allow the 5% of the world’s population who live in the United States to dispose of about 30% of the world’s natural resources. It’s not surprising that countries assigned the short end of the stick by these arrangements would throw them off as soon as they could get away with it, and the resource crunch now underway offers them a perfect opportunity to do so.

The end of the global economy may make life a good deal harder for those of us in the United States and those other industrial nations, such as Canada and Australia, that have become used to the absurdly lavish energy and resource expenditures of the recent past. It bears remembering, though, that people in Europe maintain a standard of living in many ways higher ours on roughly one-third the energy per capita Americans seem to think is necessary for civilized life. We can get by, and get by tolerably well, on much less energy and many fewer resources than we think.

This is likely to be a crucial point to keep in mind as the present crisis unfolds. It’s not the end of the world, or even the end of industrial civilization, but if history is anything to go by, we could be in for a couple of very rough decades. A crisis phase in the downward arc of catabolic collapse is not a pleasant thing to live through, and we can expect it to have social, economic, political, and (unless we’re extraordinarily lucky) military dimensions that will transform most people’s lives for the worse, temporarily or forever. That need not stop us from facing the emerging crisis with as much grace and humanity as we can muster, while doing our part to lay the foundations for the ecotechnic societies of the future – unless, that is, we allow premature proclamations of triumph or catastrophe to distract us from the work that must be done.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Business As Usual

Those of us who are watching the crisis of industrial society arrive on schedule take our omens where we find them, and one appeared yesterday morning in the unlikely form of an internet ad riding shotgun on a peak oil blog. The header was striking enough – “Oil Will Hit $100!” – or it would have been, except that one of the main benchmark grades of crude oil closed not far below $120 a barrel that evening. When the ads on your computer screen have already been left in the dust by the headlines, it’s fair to say, yesterday’s assumptions are in serious need of revision.

Meanwhile, rolling blackouts and food shortages are making life more difficult for people in many of the world’s poorer nations. Even in the United States, where instant availability of consumer products is generally considered an inalienable right, the first spot shortages of grain products have made ripples in the media. I won’t even get into the plunging real estate prices and financial implosions along the route of the slow-motion train wreck the global economy resembles so much these days. One way or another, it’s turning into a bad week for believers in an imminent return to what most people nowadays consider business as usual.

Yet there’s an irony, a rich one, in the chorus of reassurances still rising from the mainstream media across the industrial world. Like the frogs in Aesop’s fable, they praised the replacement of the boring King Log of New Deal economic regulations and Seventies energy-efficiency standards by the far more exciting King Stork of the unfettered market, only to find that too much excitement in the economic sphere has its downside; their attempt to return to a free market succeeded mostly in kickstarting a recurrence of the cycle of disastrous depressions that reached its crescendo in 1929 and bringing about a recurrence of the energy crises of the 1970s, but on a larger scale. Before you decide to return to business as usual, in other words, it’s useful to have some sense of what business as usual actually is.

We are arguably facing a much more threatening example of the same phenomenon right now, as the fuel gauge on the world’s oil, coal, and natural gas supplies moves visibly in the direction of that unwelcome letter E. For the last three centuries or so, a steadily increasing flow of cheap abundant fossil fuel energy has driven the growth of industrial societies across much of the world. For the last century, since petroleum replaced coal as industrial civilization’s prime mover, and widespread electrification made it possible to apply fossil fuels at second hand to most business and domestic energy needs, most of the work done in the industrial world has been done by machines powered directly or indirectly by fossil fuels.

This seems perfectly normal to most of us who have grown up in the industrial world. Up until very recently, essentially all the talk about the disparity between the world’s industrial societies and the rest of the planet focused on how to bring the Third World “into the twenty-first century.” The phrase itself betrays the huge burden of ideology that shaped that discussion – the belief, as potent and devoutly held as any other religion, that history progresses straight to us, that any different social arrangement is simply some version of our own outmoded past, and that our peculiar and extravagant way of managing human communities is thus as inevitable as it is inevitably beneficent.

Yet the whole debate was also an exercise in futility. We are seeing right now what happens when an appreciable number of people in the world’s nonindustrial societies do exactly what so many decades of rhetoric insisted they ought to, and claim a share of the world’s fossil fuels and industrial output. The limits to growth were always there; it was merely the political arrangements that restricted the benefits of industrialism to a small portion of the human species that made it look as though unlimited growth was even an option.

What we most need to realize at this juncture is that the way things have been in the world’s industrial societies over the last century or so is in no way normal. It’s precisely equivalent to the new lifestyle adopted by winners of a lottery whose very modest income has suddenly leapt upward by $1 million a year or so. After a few years, the lottery winners might well become accustomed to the privileges and possessions that influx of wealth made possible, and children growing up in such a family might never realize that life could be any other way. The hard fact remains, though, that when the lottery money runs out, it runs out, and if no provision has been made for the future, the transition from a million dollars a year to the much more modest income available from an ordinary job can be very, very rough.

The huge distortions imposed on the modern industrial nations by the flood of cheap abundant energy that washed over them in the 20th century can be measured readily enough by a simple statistic. In America today, our current energy use works out to around 1000 megajoules per capita, or the rough equivalent of 100 human laborers working 24-hour days for each man, woman, and child in the country. The total direct cost for all this energy came to around $500 billion a year in 2005, the last year for which I was able to find statistics, or about $1667 per person per year.

Now consider how much it would cost to hire human laborers to perform the same amount of work. At the current federal minimum wage of $5.75 an hour, hiring 100 workers in three shifts to provide the equivalent amount of energy would cost each American $512,811 a year, or about 308 times as much as the energy costs – and this doesn’t count payroll taxes, health insurance, paid vacations and the like. Mind you, it would also require the US to find food, housing, and basic services for an additional workforce of 30 billion people, but we can let the metaphor go before tackling issues on that scale.

What makes this huge disparity relevant is that as recently as a hundred years ago, the majority of work done even in the most advanced industrial societies was done by human beings using hand tools. Kitchens had servants instead of appliances; factories and shops had workbenches instead of industrial robots; the functions now carried out by computers were performed instead by legions of clerks wielding pen and ink. Go back a little further in history, to the time when fossil fuels hadn’t yet become a significant energy source, and human muscles and minds did the vast majority of work of all kinds, with modest supplements from animal muscle, biomass, wind, and water power.

The familiarity of our current arrangements, and the rhetoric of progress we use to justify those arrangements, make it easy to dismiss such a human-powered economy as some sort of primitive oddity that existed only because people didn’t yet know any better. Look at the disparity in economic terms and a different picture emerges. In a society without access to cheap abundant energy resources, it makes much more economic sense to train and employ a human worker than to develop a machine to fill the same niche; except in special circumstances, the additional cost of building, powering, maintaining, and operating the machine more than outweighs the additional benefits of mechanical speed and regularity.

This was why ancient Rome and imperial China, both of which had a solid understanding of mechanical principles and sophisticated technical traditions, never had industrial revolutions of their own. Lacking massive energy supplies of the sort that made modern industrial society possible, it simply made more economic sense to invest the available resources into the labor force. The Romans did this the cheap, crude, and ultimately ineffective way, by expanding a slave economy to the breaking point; the Chinese did it far more sustainably and effectively by evolving an extraordinarily robust system of small-scale capitalism, on the one hand, and equally durable traditions of specialized craftsmanship on the other.

All this has a pressing relevance to the present situation, because we’re running out of the energy resources that make it possible for every man, woman and child in America to dispose of the equivalent of $512,811 in labor every year. It’s as though the 30 billion invisible guest workers whose sweat powers the American economy are quitting their jobs one by one, and moving back home to the Paleozoic. When the process completes itself, and the long curve of depletion finally sinks low enough that it’s no longer economically worthwhile to extract the remaining dregs of fossil fuel from the ground, the amount of labor each of us will have at our disposal will be much, much less than it is today.

With any luck, it’ll be more than 1/308th as much – we know more about collecting and using energy than the Romans or the Chinese did, and may well be able to get enough renewable energy sources up and running in time to matter. Still, it’s mere wishful thinking to assume that the universe is obliged to give us another vast windfall of cheap abundant energy to replace the one we’ve wasted so enthusiastically over the last few centuries, and none of the proposed replacements for fossil fuels seem likely to live up to their billing. On a finite planet subject to the laws of thermodynamics, claims that the trajectory of industrialism must inevitably continue into the future are statements of faith, not of fact.

Far more likely is the reemergence of an economy in which the work of human hands and minds is once again the main source of economic value – and with luck and hard work, it may be a good deal closer to the Chinese than the Roman model. In a low-energy economy, after all, human beings have huge economic advantages over machines. Machines do not develop their own energy sources and find their own raw materials, much less manufacture their own replacements, and the products of a given machine do not improve over time all by themselves, as the products of a farmer or a craftsperson so often do.

The farmers of the future may well use intensive organic methods rather than the field agriculture of an earlier day, just as the craftspeople of the future may well spend some of their time crafting solar hot water heaters and shortwave radios. Still, this sort of handicraft economy is a mature and effective social technology, and far and away the most common way societies provide for the needs of their members. It is, one might say, business as usual.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Specialization Trap

Few ideas are quite as unpopular nowadays as the suggestion that the fate of past civilizations has something to teach us about the likely destiny of our own. This lack of enthusiasm for the lessons of history pervades contemporary culture; what makes this interesting is that it is also among the most fruitful sources of disaster in the modern world. The ongoing implosion of real estate prices around the industrial world is simply one example out of many.

Long before the phrase “condo flipper” entered common usage, one thing should have been obvious: anybody who claims that an asset class can keep on increasing in value forever is shoveling smoke. From the 17th century Dutch tulip mania to the internet bubble of the late 1990s, financial history is littered with the blackened ruins of speculative booms that crashed and burned while in hot pursuit of the fantasy of endless appreciation. None of this kept investors in the last few years from betting the future on the belief that this time was different, and real estate prices would keep rising forever – or from lambasting those few spoilsports who suggested that what went up would inevitably, in due time, come down.

Those of us who insist on reading today’s headlines about peak oil in the light of history risk a similar reaction. Still, it’s a risk worth taking. The logic that insists that while all other civilizations have risen and fallen, ours will just keep rising forever, differs not a whit from the logic underlying the late real estate bubble; the only difference is one of scale. It’s for this reason among others that I try to keep up with scholarship on the decline and fall of past civilizations, and that was what brought me to Bryan Ward-Perkins’ valuable book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford UP, 2005).

Those of my readers who don’t keep track of current fashions in historiography may not know that for several decades now, such phrases as “the Dark Ages” and “the fall of Rome” have been nomina non grata in scholarly circles. The transition that turned western Europe from the crowded, cosmopolitan Roman world into the depopulated, impoverished patchwork of barbarian chiefdoms that succeeded it has been recast by several influential writers as a process of positive cultural evolution that just happened to feature such awkward incidents as, say, the sack of Rome by the Visigoths.

Now it’s only fair to say that, like most revisionist histories, this one made a necessary point. An older generation of historians had gone so far in the other direction – demonizing the barbarians, ignoring the real cultural achievements of the centuries following Rome’s fall, and paying too little attention to the survival of the eastern Roman Empire during the years when its western twin imploded – that a reaction was overdue. Like most revisionist histories, however, the reaction pushed itself to the point of absurdity, and Ward-Perkins’ book is a useful corrective.

One of the tools he uses to document the real scale and impact of the western empire’s collapse is the humble but eloquent voice of pottery. The Roman pottery industry was huge, capable, and highly centralized, churning out fine tableware, storage vessels, roof tiles, and many other goods in such vast quantities that archeologists across Roman Europe struggle to cope with the fragments today. The pottery works at La Graufesenque in what is now southern France and was then the province of Gallia Narbonense, for instance, shipped exquisite products throughout the western empire, and beyond it – goods bearing the La Graufesenque stamp have been found in Denmark and eastern Germany. Good pottery was so cheap and widely available that even rural farm families could afford elegant tableware, sturdy cooking pots, and watertight roof tiles.

Rome’s fall changed all this. When archeologists uncovered the grave of a sixth-century Saxon king at Sutton Hoo in eastern Britain, for example, the pottery found among the grave goods told an astonishing tale of technical collapse. Had it been made in fourth century Britain, the Sutton Hoo pottery would have been unusually crude for a peasant farmhouse; two centuries later, it sat on the table of a king. What’s more, much of it had to be imported, because so simple a tool as a potter’s wheel dropped entirely out of use in post-Roman Britain, as part of a cascading collapse that took Britain down to levels of economic and social complexity not seen there since the subsistence crises of the middle Bronze Age more than a thousand years before.

Ward-Perkins’ book contains many other illustrations of the human cost of the Roman collapse – the demographic traces of massive depopulation, the way that trends in graffiti track the end of widespread literacy, the decline in the size of post-Roman cattle as a marker of agricultural contraction, and much more – but I want to focus on the pottery here, because it tells a tale with more than a little relevance to our own time. Cooking vessels, food containers, and roofing that keeps the rain out, after all, are basic to any form of settled life. An agricultural society that cannot produce them is impoverished by any definition; an agricultural society that had the ability to produce them, and loses it, has clearly undergone an appalling decline.

What happened to put such obviously useful items out of the reach of the survivors of Rome’s collapse? As Ward-Perkins shows, the post-Roman economic collapse had its roots in the very sophistication and specialization that made the Roman economy so efficient. Pottery, again, makes an excellent example of the wider process. Huge pottery factories like the one at La Graufesenque, which used specialist labor to turn out quality goods in immense volume, could make a profit only by marketing their wares on a nearly continental scale, using sophisticated networks of transport and exchange to reach consumers all over the western empire who wanted pottery and had denarii to spend on it. The Roman world was rich, complex, and stable enough to support such networks – but the post-Roman world was not.

The implosion of the western empire thus turned what had been a massive economic advantage into a fatal vulnerability. As the networks of transport and exchange came apart, the Roman economy went down with it, and that economy had relied on centralized production and specialized labor for so long that there was nothing in place to take up the slack. During the Roman Empire’s heyday, people in the towns and villas near Sutton Hoo could buy their pottery from local merchants, who shipped them in from southern Britain, Gaul, and points further off. They didn’t need local pottery factories, and so didn’t have them, and that meant their descendants very nearly ended up with no pottery at all.

Even where Roman pottery factories existed, they were geared toward mass production of specialized types, not to small-scale manufacture of the whole range of pottery products needed by local communities. Worse, as population levels declined and the economy contracted, the pottery on hand would have been more than adequate for immediate needs, removing any market for new production. A single generation of social chaos and demographic contraction thus could easily have been enough to break the transmission of the complex craft traditions of Roman pottery-making, leaving the survivors with only the dimmest idea of how to make good pottery.

Trace any other economic specialty through the trajectory of the post-Roman world and the same pattern appears. Economic specialization and centralized production, the core strategies of Roman economic success, left Rome’s successor states with few choices and fewer resources in a world where local needs had to be met by local production. Caught in the trap of their own specialization, most parts of the western empire came out the other end of the process of decline far more impoverished and fragmented than they had been before the centralized Roman economy evolved in the first place.

Map this same process onto the most likely future of industrial society, in turn, and the parallels have daunting implications. In modern industrial nations, the production and distribution of goods are far more centralized than anything Rome ever achieved. Nearly all workers at every level of the economy perform highly specialized niche jobs, most of which only function within the structure of a highly centralized, mechanized, and energy-intensive global economy, and many of which have no meaning or value at all outside that structure. If the structure falters, access to even the most basic goods and services could become a challenge very quickly.

Food is the obvious example – a very small number of people in any industrial nation have the skills necessary to grow their own food, and even fewer could count on access to the land, tools, and seed stock to give it a try – but the same principle holds for every other necessity of life, not to mention countless other things that would be good to have in the deindustrial dark age that looms up ahead of us in most of our possible futures. Consider the suite of skills needed, for example, to locate and process suitable fibers, spin and weave them into cloth, and make the cloth into clothing. Not many people these days have any of those skills, much less all of them; the tools needed to do most of them are not exactly household items in most homes these days, and the ability to build and repair those tools are even more specialized.

Our situation is thus far more precarious than Rome’s was. On the other hand, we have an advantage that the Roman world apparently lacked – if we choose to use it. The possibility of a future dark age apparently never entered the cultural dialogue in Roman times, but it has been raised repeatedly in ours. Preventive action – the deliberate revival of nonindustrial ways of providing necessary goods and services – is well within the reach of individuals and local communities, and indeed some of this work has already been done by hobbyists and people involved in historical reenactment societies of various kinds.

A great deal more of the same thing will be needed, though, to keep the decline of industrial society from leaving the same sort of economic vacuum in its wake that Rome’s fall left behind. I am coming to think that one of the most useful things anyone concerned about the future can do is to adopt some practical craft that produces goods or services useful in a deindustrializing world, and get skilled at it. If we are to get much of anything out from between the jaws of the specialization trap, projects such as this are a crucial step.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Master Conservers

For those of us who have been watching the energy scene for the last few decades, there’s a certain wry amusement to be gained from the daily fare on the peak oil newsblogs. Once the conservation and appropriate tech movements of the 1970s collapsed beneath the weight of the falling oil prices of the 1980s, it became highly unfashionable to question the theory that the market economy could extract infinite resources from a finite planet.

During the quarter century of extravagant waste that followed, conventional wisdom across the industrial world’s political and cultural spectrum insisted that turning sows' ears into silk purses was not merely possible, but a great investment opportunity that would drive a bigger and shinier global economy than the one we already had. A very short time ago, it bears remembering, the suggestion that crude oil might cost more than $60 a barrel within this decade was roundly dismissed as preposterous alarmism, while the grim prospects of economic decline and global famine raised by concerned voices in the Seventies were so far off the radar screens that nobody even bothered to denounce them.

A glance down the leading stories on Energy Bulletin or The Oil Drum makes a tolerably good indicator of how far we’ve come from that comfortable consensus. Today a widely used measure of crude oil prices broke $111, after recovering from a sharp selloff a few weeks back that took it down all the way to the upper $90s. Meanwhile the energy sources and technological breakthroughs that were supposed to come on line once oil hit $30, or $40, or $50 a barrel are still nowhere to be seen.

The wider picture is no more encouraging. Crippling electricity shortages outside the industrial world are starting to play hob with a global economy that depends on Third World factories to produce First World amenities. Likewise, the blowback from US energy policies that poured a fifth of the American corn harvest into ethanol is sending grain prices soaring worldwide, raising the unwelcome prospect that millions of the poor around the planet may not be able to buy enough food to survive the coming months. Barring some improbable deus ex machina that comes along in time to bail us out of the mess we’ve made for ourselves, it’s fair to say, the limits to growth are back.

Up to this point the political leaders of the world’s industrial nations have had very little to offer in response to all this. Most seem to think that the advice allegedly given to Victorian brides on their wedding nights – “Close your eyes and think of England” – counts as a proactive energy policy. Eventually they will have to think of a better response, if only because political survival does have its appeal. Food riots in Haiti and Egypt are one thing, but when the price of food and gasoline starts putting serious pressure on the American and European middle classes, expect politicians to trip over one another in the rush to respond to the crisis.

Many of the resulting policies and programs will be counterproductive, and even more of them will be useless. In most of the nations of the industrial world, politics has long since devolved into a spoils system whereby different factions of the political class buy the loyalty of pressure groups among the electorate by a combination of ideological handwaving and unearned largesse. As long as that remains in place – and it has proven enormously durable, surviving wars, revolutions, and massive economic changes – a very large fraction of the responses proposed to this or any other crisis will be aimed at pushing ideological agendas or rewarding voting blocs rather than actually doing anything about the crisis.

Still, it’s by no means impossible that some constructive changes might come out of the approaching mess. We have, after all, a resource at hand that, while rarely recognized, has a great deal to offer: we have been here before, during the energy crises and resource shortages of the Seventies. Some of the projects launched in those days turned out to be expensive flops, but others have more to offer. I’d like to talk a bit about one of these.

I have no idea how common this is outside the West Coast, but out here state and county agricultural extension services launched Master Gardener programs some years ago. Staffed by volunteers, many of them retirees with a lifetime of gardening experience, and run on a shoestring budget, these programs train and certify people to field gardening questions that would otherwise clutter up the ag extension phone lines. In the small Oregon town where I live, you can find a Master Gardener’s booth at the local farmers market every Tuesday, staffed by a brace of volunteers who will happily help you figure out what’s chewing on your cabbages or what soil amendments your blueberries need.

Soaring garbage disposal costs a while back led to the birth of a second project on the same lines, the Master Composter program. Less visible than the Master Gardeners, the Master Composters have mostly concentrated on teaching people how to set up backyard compost bins and take their yard waste and kitchen scraps out of the waste stream. When I lived in Seattle in the years right around the turn of the millennium, the city government helped the Master Composters out to the extent of giving away free compost bins to anybody who attended their classes; the reduction in garbage disposal costs was substantial enough that this made economic sense.

The late Seventies and early Eighties, though, saw the birth and abandonment of another project of the same sort: the Master Conserver program. I was one of some hundreds of people, ranging from teenagers to retirees, who attended weekly classes in the auditorium of the old downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library. We studied everything from basic thermodynamics to the fine details of storm window installation. Those who completed the curriculum took an exam, then put in at least a minimum number of hours of volunteer work helping schools, churches, nonprofits, and elderly and poor homeowners retrofit for energy conservation, to receive their Master Conserver certificate. I still have mine, tucked away in a drawer, much the way old soldiers I’ve known kept medals from the wars of their youth.

Could such a program be put back to work by local governments in the face of the approaching energy crisis? You bet. A quarter century of further experience with the Master Gardener and Master Composter programs on county and state levels would make it child’s play to organize; the information isn’t hard to find, and the dismal level of energy efficiency common in recently built houses and the like could make a Master Conserver program a very useful asset as energy prices climb and the human cost rises accordingly.

For that matter, I can’t be the only Master Conserver from those days who still has all the class handouts from the program in a battered three-ring binder, or who keeps part of a bookshelf weighed down with classic conservation books – The Integral Urban House, The Book of the New Alchemists, Rainbook, and the like. I don’t quite remember anybody in the last days of the program saying “Keep your Whole Earth catalogs, boys, the price of oil will rise again!” Still, the sentiment was there.

More generally, of course, the experiences of any of the 20th century’s more difficult periods can be put to work constructively as we move deeper into the 21st century’s first major crisis. The victory gardens and ingenious substitutions that kept the home front functioning during the Second World War are another potential source of ideas and inspiration well worth a sustained look. Still, the experiences of the Seventies offer a particularly rich resource in this regard. Close enough to the present to be part of living memory for many people, and faced with the same basic challenge of too little energy, too few resources, and too much economic instability for an overheated and overextended industrial world, it parallels our present predicament too closely to be neglected.

One crucial lesson from that decade may be particularly worth keeping in mind. In the depths of the Seventies energy crisis, the conventional wisdom had it that energy would just keep on getting more costly as a lasting Age of Scarcity dawned over the industrial world. That didn’t happen, of course. I’ve suggested elsewhere, based on the way other civilizations have fallen in the past, that the end of the industrial age will trace out a stairstep decline, with periods of crisis and breakdown punctuated by periods of partial recovery.

This has its drawbacks, but it also offers the hope of breathing spaces in which the lessons of each time of crisis can be assessed and put to use in dealing with the next. By the time we start on the downward arc following the one we’re approaching just now, with any luck, the Master Conservers of that time will have the accumulated knowledge of a second round of crises to draw on, and may be able to make the transition to lower energy use a little less rough than the one that looms before us today.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Net Energy and Jevons' Paradox

As last week’s Archdruid Report post suggested, a difficult paradox lies in wait for attempts to bail industrial society out of its peak oil predicament by bringing new energy sources online. To build the infrastructure to produce a new energy source in meaningful quantities, a great deal of energy will be needed. If the new source can’t be shipped via existing distribution networks, or used in existing end-use technology, more energy will have to be invested to provide these as well.

Until much of the new infrastructure is in place, though, the energy needed to develop it will have to come from existing sources. This is where the jaws of the trap open wide, because in a world already on the far side of Hubbert’s peak, existing energy resources are fully committed. Thus the immediate effect of launching a project to make energy more available will be to make energy less available, driving up prices even faster than they would rise under the pressure of resource depletion.

One conclusion worth drawing from what I’ve called the “paradox of production” is that some recent debates over net energy may need reassessment. Net energy or EROEI (energy return on energy invested), for those who haven’t been following these debates, is the energy that can be obtained from a given resource, minus the energy that has to go into providing that resource to users. Just as net receipts, rather than gross receipts, determine whether a business prospers or goes bankrupt, it’s the net energy available to our society, rather than the total amount of energy it consumes, that determines whether something like today’s industrial civilization can survive.

At the same time, as the paradox of production points out, the energy costs that have to be factored into net energy are not limited to those needed to produce energy from a given source in the first place. The energy cost to get it to the end user and to convert it into useful work at that point also have to be taken into account. Thus it’s important to distinguish production costs – the direct and indirect energy inputs needed to turn a natural resource into useful energy ready for distribution – from system costs – the direct and indirect energy inputs needed to apply that energy to its end use, whatever that happens to be. Both have to be accounted for, but each has its own distinctive features.

In particular, the production costs of a given energy resource depend almost entirely on the nature of the energy resource itself. The system costs of a given resource, on the other hand, depend partly on the resource and partly on the nature of the end use, and the same energy source can have dramatically different system costs depending on the form in which it’s distributed and the use to which it’s put.

Compare the net energy of photovoltaic cells used to power computers, for example, with the net energy of photovoltaic cells used to power automobiles. The production costs are the same in either case, but the system costs are totally different. The data center makes use of an existing distribution network (the electric power grid) and a mature technology (electronic computers), so its system costs are identical to those involved in powering any other computer. Putting the same energy to work powering automobiles requires the manufacture of millions of new cars (if the electricity is used directly in electric cars), or a network of fuel plants, pipelines, and filling stations, in addition to millions of new cars (if the electricity is used indirectly, in a form such as hydrogen).

Discussions of net energy in the peak oil community have generally tended to focus on production costs, to the neglect of system costs. There’s an interesting irony here, because market forces and political pressures in the real world tend to focus on system costs, to the neglect of production costs. The recent ethanol boom in America is the poster child for this oddity of contemporary economics.

In terms of production costs, ethanol made from American corn is a losing proposition. It takes more energy to provide the fertilizers, pesticides, tractor fuel, and other energy inputs to grow the corn, and to ferment and distill it into fuel ethanol, than you get back from burning the ethanol. The system costs of ethanol, on the other hand, are negligible: the US already has an extensive transportation system for getting bulk grains from farms to factories, and existing liquid fuel distribution networks are perfectly capable of handling fuel ethanol. All that has to be added to the mix are factories to turn corn into fuel, and misguided government grants and tax writeoffs seem to be taking care of that nicely.

This same effect shapes less embarrassingly self-defeating choices as well. Look at the suite of alternative energy sources that are getting significant funding these days – windpower comes to mind – and you’ll find that all of them use existing infrastructure to distribute and use the resulting energy. Meanwhile, those alternatives that pose high system costs – the much-ballyhooed hydrogen economy is the classic example – wither on the vine.

This is part of the blowback from the paradox of production, because system costs have another feature that sets them apart from production costs: if an energy resource requires new distribution networks or end-use technologies, all the new items have to be in place before the energy resource can be used at all. If you don’t have every piece of a hydrogen transport economy in place, for example – the electric power plants, the hydrogen factories, the pipelines, the filling stations, the hydrogen-powered cars, and everything else associated with them – you can’t use any of it.

The more existing infrastructure you can use, by contrast, the more flexibility you have. Since windpower can use the existing electric grid to power existing electric appliances, for example, you can add windpower capacity one windmill at a time, and upgrade as you go. In a world of depleted energy reserves and rising prices, this is a viable option; sinking huge sums into new infrastructure for distributing and using a new energy resource probably won’t be.

There’s another dimension to system costs, though, that opens up an unexpected window of opportunity. Since total net energy includes system costs as well as production costs, cutting system costs boosts net energy. One of the largest components of system costs for any energy resource is inefficiency, and in many cases this can be reduced significantly without impacting the flow of energy through the system. When this is done, the effective net energy of the resource goes up.

This is the logic behind Jevons’ paradox, first propounded by British economist William Stanley Jevons in his 1866 book The Coal Question. Jevons pointed out that when improvements in technology make it possible to use an energy resource more efficiently, getting more output from less input, the use of the resource tends to go up, not down. His argument is impeccable: as the use of the resource becomes more efficient, the cost per unit of the end result tends to go down, and so people can afford to use more of it; as efficiency goes up, it also becomes economically feasible to apply the energy resource to new uses, and so people have reason to use more of it.

Jevons’ paradox has been used more than once to argue against conservation, on the grounds that using energy more efficiently will simply lower the cost of energy and encourage people to use more of it. The problem with this logic is that it assumes that the only thing constraining energy supply is price – and in a world already starting to skid down the far side of Hubbert’s peak, this is no longer true. Now that geological realities rather than market forces are placing hard limits on the upper end of petroleum production, Jevons’ paradox becomes a counterweight to rising energy prices.

Now it’s sometimes been suggested that all the easy gains from conservation were made in the 1970s, and that further gains will come at much higher cost. This would be true if the achievements of the Seventies had been kept in place, as they should have been – but were not. Compare the poorly insulated McMansions and gas-guzzling SUVs that define the recent American lifestyle with the snug homes and efficient compacts so common in 1979, and it takes an effort of will to avoid seeing the ground that has been lost.

This offers a bitter commentary on the missed opportunities of the last quarter century. From another perspective, though, this provides a certain amount of qualified hope, because it allows lifestyle changes and simple upgrades perfected decades ago to be dusted off and put back to work. Those of my readers who recall the Seventies will remember just how simple and cost-effective many of these changes were. They played a crucial part in dropping petroleum consumption worldwide by 15% between 1972 and 1985. That decrease could have been used to free up resources for the transition to sustainability, instead of being blown off in a final 25-year orgy of conspicuous overconsumption. That didn’t happen, and the arrival of petroleum production declines means that it won’t happen again, but the same effect could be used now to help cushion the otherwise rocky descent into the deindustrial age ahead of us.

The same insight can be put in another way. One crucial measure of our predicament is the steady decline in net energy available to industrial society, from the 200-to-1 surplus of light sweet crude flowing under natural pressure to the single digits available from those renewable sources that manage to rise above the breakeven point at all. As we’ve seen, though, the whole picture of net energy includes systems costs as well as production costs, and rising production costs can be countered to some extent by conservation and efficiency improvements that lower system costs. This won’t bring back the age of cheap abundant energy, but it could make things easier for many people in the near future

If governments in the industrial world want to launch a crash program to do something about soaring energy prices and spiralling energy shortages, then, the obvious choice is the one that worked in the 1970s – conservation. Just now, given the ideologies that dominate the political classes of the major industrial nations, this seems about as likely as a resumption of the Punic Wars, but attitudes and political climates can change abruptly. In the meantime, the more people who learn, practice and prepare to teach the homely but valuable conservation skills that were part of everyday life in the Seventies, the easier the transition will be when it arrives. Where the people lead, at least in this case, the leaders will eventually be obliged to follow.