Category Archives: Energy

Study is First to Measure Global Population-Energy Relationship

If you’ve lived between the year 1560 and the present day, more power to you. Literally.

That’s one of several conclusions reached by University of Nebraska-Lincoln ecologist John DeLong, who has co-authored the first study to quantify the relationship between human population growth and energy use on an international scale.

The study compiled several centuries’ worth of data from Great Britain, the United States and Sweden to profile the dynamics between a skyrocketing population and its consumption of energy from fossil fuels and renewable sources.

The data showed that energy use has generally outpaced population growth over the last few hundred years.

The data showed that energy use has generally outpaced population growth over the last few hundred years.

 

The data showed that energy use has generally outpaced population growth over the last few hundred years. Each generation has thus produced and used more energy per person than its predecessor even as world population has climbed from about 500 million to more than 7 billion in the 450 years analyzed by the authors.

This increasing per capita energy supply has also hiked up Earth’s carrying capacity — the number of people it can sustain  — and allowed the population to grow at an ever-faster, or exponential, rate.

“Broadly speaking, no one’s really quantified this,” said DeLong, assistant professor of biological sciences. “But it was important, because there are studies going back decades that assume this kind of positive feedback loop: We grow, we expand our capacity to extract energy, and then we grow some more.”

However, DeLong and colleague Oskar Burger also found that this dynamic has shifted in the decades following 1963, when the world’s population was growing faster than ever before or since. During the subsequent half-century, the ratio between energy increases and population growth has narrowed, with the former now aligning more closely to the latter. A 1:1 ratio would theoretically limit the planet’s population to a linear rather than exponential growth rate.

“I do think this should challenge our assumptions about future population growth,” DeLong said. “The study supports conventional wisdom to a degree, but it also reminds us that (abundant energy) is maybe not something that we can count on.

”Our study sort of plays into a deep cultural philosophy that we have the creativity and ability to solve whatever problem comes our way. The evidence shows that, from an energy point of view, we’ve done that a lot. But maybe that’s not a guarantee.”

DeLong said the study’s insights might also help inform and refine population projections. The United Nations currently projects that Earth’s population in the year 2100 will sit between 9 billion and 13 billion people. Past projections have been notoriously inaccurate, usually underestimating the growth rates and numbers.

“In the back of our minds, it definitely is a goal to make better, more mechanistic forecasts,” said DeLong. “What we’re saying is: Every other population on the planet depends on energy to fuel their activities and maintain their bodies. Ours must, too.”

Source: http://news.unl.edu/newsrooms/unltoday/article/study-is-first-to-measure-global-population-energy-relationship/DeLong and Burger, a biological anthropologist at the England-based Kent University, published their study in June. The paper appeared in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

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Who says a better world is impossible? By David Suzuki

This glass house eco home was designed at Stuttgart University so that it produces more energy than it uses, thus feeding into the national grid.

This glass house eco home was designed at Stuttgart University so that it produces more energy than it uses, thus feeding into the national grid. High tech sustainable solutions aren’t far off in the future–they’re available now.

Cars, air travel, space exploration, television, nuclear power, high-speed computers, telephones, organ transplants, prosthetic body parts… At various times these were all deemed impossible. I’ve been around long enough to have witnessed many technological feats that were once unimaginable. Even 10 or 20 years ago, I would never have guessed people would carry supercomputers in their pockets — your smart phone is more powerful than all the computers NASA used to put astronauts on the moon in 1969 combined!

Despite a long history of the impossible becoming possible, often very quickly, we hear the “can’t be done” refrain repeated over and over — especially in the only debate over global warming that matters: What can we do about it? Climate change deniers and fossil fuel industry apologists often argue that replacing oil, coal and gas with clean energy is beyond our reach. The claim is both facile and false.

Facile because the issue is complicated. It’s not simply a matter of substituting one for the other. To begin, conservation and efficiency are key. We must find ways to reduce the amount of energy we use — not a huge challenge considering how much people waste, especially in the developed world. False because rapid advances in clean energy and grid technologies continue to get us closer to necessary reductions in our use of polluting fossil fuels.

It’s ironic that anti-environmentalists and renewable energy opponents often accuse those of us seeking solutions of wanting to go back to the past, to living in caves, scrounging for roots and berries. They’re the ones intent on continuing to burn stuff to keep warm — to the detriment of the natural world and all it provides.

People have used wind and solar power for thousands of years. But recent rapid advances in generation, storage and transmission technologies have led to a fast-developing industry that’s outpacing fossil fuels in growth and job creation. Costs are coming down to the point where renewable energy is competitive with the heavily subsidized fossil fuel industry. According to the International Energy Agency, renewable energy for worldwide electricity generation grew to 22 per cent in 2013, a five per cent increase from 2012.

The problem is that much of the world still burns non-renewable resources for electricity and fuels, causing pollution and climate change and, subsequently, more human health problems, extreme weather events, water shortages and environmental devastation. In many cities in China, the air has become almost unbreathable, as seen in the shocking Chinese documentary film Under the Dome. In California, a prolonged drought is affecting food production. Extreme weather events are costing billions of dollars worldwide.

We simply must do more to shift away from fossil fuels and, despite what the naysayers claim, we can. We can even get partway there under our current systems. Market forces often lead to innovation in clean energy development. But in addressing the very serious long-term problems we’ve created, we may have to challenge another “impossibility”: changing our outmoded global economic system. As economist and Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs wrote in a recent Guardian article, “At this advanced stage of environmental threats to the planet, and in an era of unprecedented inequality of income and power, it’s no longer good enough to chase GDP. We need to keep our eye on three goals — prosperity, inclusion, and sustainability — not just on the money.”

Relying on market capitalism encourages hyper-consumption, planned obsolescence, wasteful production and endless growth. Cutting pollution and greenhouse gas emissions requires conserving energy as well as developing new energy technologies. Along with reducing our reliance on private automobiles and making buildings and homes more energy-efficient, that also means making goods that last longer and producing fewer disposable or useless items so less energy is consumed in production.

People have changed economic systems many times before, when they no longer suited shifting conditions or when they were found to be inhumane, as with slavery. And people continue to develop tools and technologies that were once thought impossible. Things are only impossible until they’re not. We can’t let those who are stuck in the past, unable to imagine a better future, hold us back from creating a safer, cleaner and more just world.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington. Go to DavidSuzuki.org

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Must Growth Trump Climate Action? by Asher Miller and Rob Hopkins 

Climate stability is now a thing of the past.

Climate stability is now a thing of the past.

Why We Must Embrace Post-Growth Economics and Community Resilience NOW

The nearly ubiquitous belief of our elected officials is that addressing the climate crisis must come second to ensuring economic growth. This is wrongheaded—both because it underestimates the severity of the climate crisis, and because it presupposes that the old economic “normal” of robust growth can be revived. It can’t. In fact, we have entered an era of “new normals”—not only in our economy, but in our energy and climate systems, as well. The implications are profound.

The New Energy Normal

The era of cheap and easy fossil fuels is over, leading the industry to resort to extreme fossil fuel resources (tar sands, mountaintop removal coal mining, shale gas, tight oil, and deepwater oil) and fracking to meet demand. Unfortunately, these resources come with enormous environmental and economic costs, and in most instances provide far less net energy to the rest of society. They also require much higher prices to make production worthwhile, creating a drag effect on the economy. As a result, high energy prices and economic contraction are likely to continue a back-and-forth dance in the coming years.

The New Climate Normal

Climate stability is now a thing of the past. As extreme weather events grow in severity, communities are increasingly adopting strategies that build resilience against the effect of these and other climate shocks. At the same time, we must take dramatic steps if we hope to avoid raising global temperatures more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. According to Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, this would require a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions per year, starting now—a rate so significant that it can only be achieved through dramatic reductions in energy use.

The New Economic Normal

We’ve reached the end of economic growth as we’ve known it in the U.S. Despite unprecedented interventions on the part of central banks and governments, the so-called economic recovery in the U.S. and Europe has failed to benefit the majority of citizens. The debate between stimulus and austerity is a distraction, as neither can fully address the factors that spell the end of economic growth—the end of the age of cheap oil, the vast mountains of debt that we have incurred, the diminishing economic impacts of new technologies, and the snowballing costs of climate change impacts.

About the Authors: Asher Miller is the Executive Director of Post Carbon Institute. Post Carbon Institute leads the transition to a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable world by providing individuals and communities with the resources needed to understand and respond to the interrelated economic, energy, and ecological crises of the 21st century. Its thirty Fellows are among the most well-respected sustainability experts in the world. Rob Hopkins is one of the UK’s most influential environmentalists. He is co-founder of Transition Network and a founder of the Transition movement, described by the BBC as “the biggest urban brainwave of the century.” Transition Network was set up in 2007 to promote and respond to the rapid spread of Transition initiatives around the world, which number more than 1,400 in 44 countries.

To access the full report go to: http://www.scribd.com/doc/171718124/Climate-After-Growth

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One Less Car on the Road by Jim Tull

Drivers—and their passengers—drive because the flow of our systems (a torrent really) compels us to drive.

Drivers—and their passengers—drive because the flow of our systems (a torrent really) compels us to drive.

She knew it would fit. And she knew me as well as anyone did. In big letters on the back, the T-shirt read ‘ONE LESS CAR ON THE ROAD’. A crusading environmentalist biking alone past hundreds of motor vehicles stuck in traffic, a moving billboard: ‘ONE LESS CAR ON THE ROAD’. With politeness and gratitude for the thought, I declined the gift.

I passed on the prospect of being hollered and honked at, or worse. Just adds to the peril. Deeper, though, the shirt and message presents a distorted picture of both the problem and the solution in the too-many-cars department. The underlying assumption is that individual behaviors are the problem, and that individual behavioral change is the solution. This assumption is okay, on one level, but of very limited use. Clearly and more specifically, the message implies that the environmental crisis is reducible to:
(a) the ignorance and/or insensitivity of car drivers (the problem); and
(b) “why don’t you park your SUV and get on a bike like me, nooneyhead?” (the solution).

I bike for many reasons. It supports good health, I’m out in the open, freer to experience the environment (sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful) and wave to friends, who can see me. Parking is convenient. Biking is very energy efficient and very clean. It is also less expensive—or quicker—than car driving, depending on the unit of measurement: time or money. This rationale needs elaboration. I average around 12 miles per hour in the city. On average, a typical, single car owner travels somewhere between 4 and 9 mph on average when all the purchase and maintenance expenses associated with the car are converted to the owner’s time working a job to get the money. Then actually driving the car takes more time (and money and then more time). Pretty slow, all totaled.

And then there’s huge pollution and resource depletion costs, collectively incurred. Car driving isolates people. Roads divide communities, plaster the Earth, allow toxic water to run right into rivers. Over 30,000 Americans die each year from car accidents. Even wars and military preparedness expenses should be factored in (to protect precious oil). Very hazardous. If all car owners had to absorb all the collective costs as well as their personal car expenses, they’d find themselves driving in reverse most of the time. Though a good bicycle is expensive, the cost in money, converted to hours, to support my bike habit doesn’t even slow me down to 11 mph.

Despite all the good reasons to bike rather than drive, it’s wholly inadequate and dangerously beside the point to blame or lecture the drivers (especially since many cyclists like me drive plenty as well!). Our culture relentlessly conditions us to notice and prioritize individuals and institutions and to assume that the isolated behavior of these agents can explain our problems in full. Systems thinking, in contrast, looks between and around individuals, institutions and events for patterns of systemic behavior. Seeing and understanding systems and the power they have to shape and drive what we do can make individual behavior much more understandable and predictable. And also forgivable, if and when forgiveness is necessary or appropriate.

Drivers—and their passengers—drive because the flow of our systems (a torrent really) compels us to drive. Our economic system, structures and patterns require car driving in all but a few places. The shortage of reliable mass transit is part of this pressure, but the incentives to drive run much deeper: government subsidies to oil, infrastructure, and car companies; where we (have to) work; the work we do; the location of houses (especially suburbs) and the location of stores, especially food stores. The forces of globalization, though permitting many to work from home, also lure many to move unbikable distances. In the U.S. in particular, self-contained communities, walkable and bikable, are relics of a slower past.

By all powers, go ahead and bike. It’s better, on balance. The personal and collective benefits of one more cyclist on the road accrue with each convert. Good. But campaigning to get individuals to buck the systemic flow is an insufficient solution to our environmental or social crises. Changing the flow is a more promising alternative. We start with the reality that the vast, vast, vast majority of us more or less do what the other people around us are doing. Nearly every one of us are good at adding our bodies neatly to the end of a line of other lined-up people, even when it just seems to be heading in the direction we want. We herd well, go with the flow. Humans are often chided for our sheepishness. “If only we can break people out of the driving habit (and bike seventeen miles down a highway to work everyday), we’re so lazy!” OK, on one level, we are lazy and, it appears, becoming lazier. But there’s no changing people in this regard in any direct or immediate fashion. Maybe one or two, usually for short time periods. It’s not the laziness we have to account for as much as the conformity.

The brighter side of the conformity coin is that we are all just as likely to adopt positive habits as long as the systemic flow is with us and enough people have adopted. Create systems and structures that make walking and biking (or mass transit) the paths of least resistance for getting round, and ordinary people with the usual mix of virtues and vices will stop driving. Something close to this describes cities like Boston and New York, still choked with car traffic, but also filled with residents who don’t drive, for reasons of convenience more than holiness.

It’s difficult to overstate how disposed the people of our culture are to pick out individuals and institutions to blame for social problems—and also to solve them. The CEO of one of the biggest banks reportedly confessed in the wake of the ’08 crash that he was well aware that his bank’s reckless investment frenzy was pushing the economy to the brink, but that he couldn’t help participating in and thereby reinforcing the frenzy. His competitors were in it full tilt, his bank was raking in the green and anyway he would quickly be replaced if he applied the brakes. No excuse? Yes, on a personal level, no excuse. There is a box within which personal accountability is very real and very meaningful. But outside the box of personal ethics, the CEO—and the rest of us—were pawns of a systemic tragedy. Clearly, our economic system selects for greed, so acquisitive types are rewarded and rise to positions of power and wealth. Our economic system also must grow simply to maintain itself. Put these systemic features together and bubbles such as we experience (bigger these days, and more frequent) are highly predictable. The exponential growth of our money supply begged for all the accumulated dough to get busy somewhere, somehow, anywhere, anyhow. This systemic necessity compelled the invention of impenetrably complex and risky investment tools, lending money to anyone in any manner.

The “too much greed” chorus doesn’t cut very deeply into the crisis, looked at this way. Only slightly more systemic-minded are those who blame lax oversight and regulation. But given the pressure to grow and invest, the laxity itself was predictable. In a system, the parts self-organize, or dance with each other, to serve the aim of the system (like growth), and generally the parts choreograph themselves with remarkably little awareness of the total effect. Certainly, tighter oversight of investment practices and regulating policies would manage the frenzy some. But the fact is, as of this writing, the Federal Reserve is lending 2.8 billion each day of fresh new dollars into the economy to keep a recession from dropping down into depression. This suggests that solving the crisis will require more than policy change and firmer oversight.

****

The world is deeply indebted to Mahatma Gandhi for demonstrating the power of nonviolent resistance in overthrowing British rule in India. But his greater contribution to the social and ecological crises of both his day and ours is arguably his “Constructive Program”—his insistence on creating sustainable, local, very small scale economies. Many thinkers and doers since Gandhi (and before him) have developed theoretical frameworks and practical tools for redirecting the systemic flow that has been flushing us all into greater inequality, insecurity, and ecological ruin on a global level.

Clearly, failure to adequately redirect the current flow could spell the end of humanity in the near term, but the promise of the global ‘relocalization’ movement lies primarily in its systemic orientation. More precisely, this movement is more radical than prior liberation and libertarian movements because of how it contextualizes the essential roles large scale political and economic institutions play in sustaining the global industrial growth system. Yet relocalization is not ideological in any traditional sense. Old-fashioned, ancient, and indigenous wisdom and life skills are being worked into a variety of new experiments in community economics: small groups of people, bound to each other as equals and to their local geography, supporting each other to meet basic needs before selling their ‘comparative advantage’ surplus to the wider community or a network of communities.

For obvious reasons, relocalization is anything but a global, centralized movement. There is, for example, no unified rejection of large institutions or political regimes that might continue in some capacity to serve small communities and networks of communities. But the primary unit is the community, not the state or corporation. It does translate into a dramatic systemic shift in how we structure our lives. It will mean travelling less in general, and travelling shorter distances. And less driving.

Systems scientist Donella Meadows emphasized that the prime mover in systemic change is not the action itself of creating change, but the mindset, or paradigm, that powers and informs it. There is no way around changing minds to change systems. Public policy mandates forcing top down behavioral change that lasts can be effective mostly to the extent to which the coerced behavior becomes habit-forming and changes thinking over time. Upon seizing power in 1949, the communist regime in China outlawed the foot binding of women, among many other cultural practices deemed abusively archaic. Indeed, foot binding has stopped. States in the U.S. mandated recycling. Recycling is now considered de rigueur. Political revolutions and policy reforms change thinking through changing behavior, relying on coercion and good citizenship. Propaganda campaigns that accompany coercion, such as the DUI initiative in the U.S., reflect the need to change thinking to change behavior. It can work, but effective policy can never get too far ahead of popular culture, as the pathetic results of so many legal mandates such as alcohol and drug use prohibition demonstrate (In these instances, a culture of addiction pushes addictive behavior, the reality of personal decision-making and responsibility notwithstanding).

More deeply, the massive shift to relocalize is simply not likely to unfold in this way. And so far it hasn’t. Local government initiatives (notably in cities such as Copenhagen, San Francisco, Curitiba, Brazil, and Ogawamachi, Japan) have shown that government can play a vital role in re-empowering local, sustainable economies. Otherwise, thousands of conversations, starting with two people, have spawned thousands of promising alternatives to globalization worldwide that center on creating local, community-based economies. In my state of Rhode Island, there is a rapidly growing local food production and distribution system. Internationally, small groups of people have created over a thousand ‘Transition Initiatives’ to reclaim their own labor and local resources. In Auroville, India; Faoune, Senegal and many other communities around the world, communitarian eco-villages have experimented with localized alternatives to the global economy.

Relocalizing our personal and economic lives is an example of a systems thinking departure from the tendency to rely on comparatively unrealistic aspirations for either individual betterment at one end and government policy solutions at the other. Learning to see, understand and respect the power of systemic behavioral patterns and traps (once established, systems tend to generate their own behavior) amounts itself to a mindset change that enables structural innovations, including relocalization efforts. Additionally, relocalization recognizes that the global, industrial growth economy now with us is unreliable and unsustainable and must be displaced. Viable alternatives must answer to our deep human need to belong in community and connect to our land base. Our culture’s individualism is a bloated caricature of authentic individuality. Through relocalization we are connected to, not separate from or above, each other and the Earth.

As author Daniel Quinn insists, a change in cultural vision this deep has the power and know-how to transform systems, structures and behavior without programs, as we’ve come to know and rely on them. Still, most adopters of this change can and may grow into the evolving cultural vision as they settle into new living patterns carved out by others. Activists leading change need to recognize and appreciate that there is no shortcut around this deep complexity in building a just and sustainable world, but also that this ‘long haul’ approach may produce surprisingly quick results. In a world addicted to solitary motoring to get around, converting drivers one by one into cyclists will take much more time than we have.

Jim Tull is a teacher and social activist with 37 years of experience in confronting local, national and international social problems. For 15 years, including 12 as co-director, he worked at Amos House, a Catholic Worker-inspired hospitality house offering meals, shelter and social services to the poor and homeless in Providence. Since leaving Amos House in 1995, he has taught courses in Community Service and Social Change, Peace, Environmental and Global Studies and Philosophy at Providence College and the Community College of Rhode Island. He facilitates workshops and retreats on community building, cultural transformation and deep ecology.

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Overpopulation and Climate Change, from the Center for Biological Diversity

The largest single threat to the ecology and biodiversity of the planet in the decades to come will be global climate disruption due to the buildup of human-generated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. People around the world are beginning to address the problem by reducing their carbon footprint through less consumption and better technology. But unsustainable human population growth can overwhelm those efforts, leading us to conclude that we not only need smaller footprints, but fewer feet.

Portland, Oregon, for example, decreased its combined per-capita residential energy and car driving carbon footprint by 5 percent between 2000 and 2005. During this same period, however, its population grew by 8 percent.

A 2009 study of the relationship between population growth and global warming determined that the “carbon legacy” of just one child can produce 20 times more greenhouse gas than a person will save by driving a high-mileage car, recycling, using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, etc. Each child born in the United States will add about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average parent. The study concludes, “Clearly, the potential savings from reduced reproduction are huge compared to the savings that can be achieved by changes in lifestyle.”

One of the study’s authors, Paul Murtaugh, warned that: “In discussions about climate change, we tend to focus on the carbon emissions of an individual over his or her lifetime. Those are important issues and it’s essential that they should be considered. But an added challenge facing us is continuing population growth and increasing global consumption of resources. . . . Future growth amplifies the consequences of people’s reproductive choices today, the same way that compound interest amplifies a bank balance.”

The size of the carbon legacy is closely tied to consumption patterns. Under current conditions, a child born in the United States will be responsible for almost seven times the carbon emissions of a child born in China and 168 times the impact of a child born in Bangladesh.

The globalization of the world economy, moreover, can mask the true carbon footprint of individual nations. China, for example, recently surpassed the United States to become the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter. But a large portion of those gases is emitted in the production of consumer goods for the United States and Europe. Thus a large share of “China’s” greenhouse gas footprint is actually the displaced footprint of high-consumption western nations.

WorldCarbonEmiss

The United States has the largest population in the developed world, and is the only developed nation experiencing significant population growth: Its population may double before the end of the century. Its 300 million inhabitants produce greenhouse gases at a per-capita rate that is more than double that of Europe, five times the global average, and more than 10 times the average of developing nations. The U.S. greenhouse gas contribution is driven by a disastrous combination of high population, significant growth, and massive (and rising) consumption levels, and thus far, lack of political will to end our fossil-fuel addiction.

More than half of the U.S. population now lives in car-dependent suburbs. Cumulatively, we drive 3 trillion miles each year. The average miles traveled per capita is increasing rapidly, and the transportation sector now accounts for one-third of all U.S. carbon emissions.

Another one-fifth of U.S. carbon emissions comes from the residential sector. Average home sizes have increased dramatically in recent decades, as has the accompanying footprint of each home. Suburban sprawl contributes significantly to deforestation, reducing the capacity of the planet to absorb the increased CO2 we emit. Due to a dramatic decrease in household size, from 3.1 persons per home in 1970 to 2.6 in 2000, homebuilding is outpacing the population growth that is driving it. More Americans are driving farther to reach bigger homes with higher heating and cooling demands and fewer people per household than ever before. All of these trends exacerbate the carbon footprint inherent in the basic energy needs of a burgeoning U.S. population.

Globally, recent research indicates that assumptions regarding declining fertility rates used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to develop future emissions scenarios may be overly optimistic. While fertility rates have generally declined over the past few decades, progress has slowed in recent years, especially in developing nations, largely due to cutbacks in family planning assistance and political interference from the United States. And even if fertility rates are reduced to below replacement levels, population levels will continue to climb steeply for some time as people live longer and billions of young people mature and proceed through their reproductive years. Per-capita greenhouse gas emissions may drop, but the population bulge will continue to contribute to a dangerous increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Time is short, but it not too late to stop runaway global warming. Economy-wide reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to a level that brings atmospheric CO2 back from 386 parts per million to 350 or less, scaling back first-world consumption patterns, and long-term population reduction to ecologically sustainable levels will solve the global warming crisis and move us to toward a healthier, more stable, post-fossil fuel, post-growth addicted society.

Source: The Center for Biological Diversity, http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/overpopulation/climate/index.html

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.

We want those who come after us to inherit a world where the wild is still alive.

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Don’t Worry–Be Resilient by Charles Hugh Smith

Family fun. Photo by Keith Brofsky/Artville

Family fun. Photo by Keith Brofsky/Artville

At some point, absorbing more information about the unsustainability of modern society yields diminishing returns. It becomes emotionally draining and thus counterproductive. Part of this exhaustion results from recognizing our powerlessness within the Status Quo, where independent thinking and structural innovation are intentionally winnowed out as threats to existing institutions and industries. Another part arises from the burden of knowing that the supposedly permanent Status Quo is far more vulnerable than generally believed.

A related factor that is never publicly discussed is the negative impact on our mental health of all the propaganda that we are force-fed by the Mainstream Media.  When truth is incrementally undermined by massaged data and behind-the-façade manipulation, we lose faith in key State and media institutions and suffer from a propaganda-induced disconnect between what we see and what is reported as fact.

These “burdens of knowing” can diminish the small but real joys of the present: work we like, a home-cooked meal, and time spent with our friends and family. As a result, many smart, well-informed people consciously refuse to dwell on our systemic problems because doing so “is a downer.” These folks hold the perspective that anxiety about the future should not get in the way of the simple pleasures of living.

This attitude can be described as “don’t worry ~ be happy.” And it certainly makes sense when life is still comfortable and enjoyable.

But the philosophy of “thinking about the future is a downer, so I live in the present” ultimately rests on a false confidence that the future will take care of itself, regardless of what happens to the large-scale systems of State, finance, and resources. It overlooks the reality that not all responses to instability or devolution are equally successful. Those who are totally dependent on the Central State and speculation-based markets will have a much more difficult time maintaining their “happy” view if the systems they depend on erode or fail.

Perhaps the wiser response is “don’t worry ~ be resilient.”  The resilient household can be happy not only in the present surplus of energy, entitlements, goods, and services, but can also thrive in a future where the current surplus of cash, credit, and speculative gains has dried up.

Life will out. Photo by RayinLA/Flickr/cc

Life will out. Photo by RayinLA/Flickr/cc

What is Resilience?

What is resilience?  A dictionary definition is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” In other words, it is on the other end of the response spectrum from fragility, brittleness, and vulnerability.

In terms of individual psychology, resilience can be characterized as being able to roll with the punches, maintaining a positive attitude through difficult times, and focusing on developing successful responses to misfortunes and challenges. American culture extols individual resilience, and we are taught to think that the individual can overcome anything and everything with the right attitude. But if the Status Quo is vulnerable to disruption on a systemic level, then it is prudent to think of resilience in a systemic way as well.

One way to describe the difference between systemic vulnerability and resilience is to conduct a thought experiment:

  • What if it didn’t matter to you and your household if the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA on the NY Stock Exchange) was 14,000 or 4,000? Or if gasoline cost $3.50 or $7.50 per gallon?
  • What if it didn’t matter to you and your household if Central State [government] entitlements were slashed by half, or vanished altogether?
  • What if it didn’t matter to you and your household if your land and house were worth $1 million or $100,000?

In other words, what if the machinations of Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, the Central State and, indeed, all of Central Planning’s promises and speculation-boosting had little effect on your life or well-being? Would this make your household more resilient or more vulnerable? Clearly, the less we are dependent on systemically brittle Central Planning systems, the fewer adjustments we will have to make should these large-scale systems devolve or fail.

The important point being made here about resilience is that it does not require a sacrifice of present happiness. Nor does it profit from the devolution or failure of Central Planning. The resilient household is able to enjoy the present surplus of energy, credit, State entitlements, and consumerist abundance, but it doesn’t rely on it.

If the Status Quo is indeed as permanent as it is presented, the resilient household has the same measure of happiness as the household that is totally dependent on Central Planning promises and boundless credit. The difference between fragility and resilience is how much security and happiness will be available to the two households should the Status Quo credit-based consumption and speculative wealth turn out to be decidedly impermanent.

Debt, Fragility and Vulnerability

The easiest way to increase resilience is to reduce fragility and vulnerability. We can understand the dynamics of what we might call anti-resilience—debt, fragility, and vulnerability—with another thought experiment:

Household A’s gross income is $5,000 a month and their net income (less Federal, state and local payroll and income taxes) is $4,200 a month.  The mortgage is $2,000 per month, both wage earners have substantial monthly payments on student loans, and the household also has an auto loan. The household’s healthcare insurance is partly paid by payroll deductions, and the household remains responsible for a percentage of any major medical costs.  Basic living expenses eat up the rest of the net income; the household saves nothing and has minimal savings.

Household A hopes housing valuations keep rising, as they plan to borrow money off this resurgent home equity to fund a vacation, something they haven’t had for four years.

This household’s financial situation is precarious because its expenses equal its income, and most of these expenses are debt-related and cannot be trimmed. This greatly increases their fragility to financial misfortune; any reduction in take-home pay or any increase in expenses will push this household into default.  To increase consumption, they plan to borrow more money once their only collateral—their home equity—increases enough to support more debt.

Household A has a high and inflexible cost-basis. Any significant reduction in income cannot be offset with equivalent cuts in spending.

Household B owns their land and home free and clear; the only housing-related payments are property taxes and property insurance.  (Recall that 30% of all homes are owned free and clear in the U.S., so this is not as unusual as you might imagine.)

One wage-earner paid off her modest student loans within a few years; the other never took on student loans in the first place. They own two older vehicles free and clear. They are debt-free. Their gross income is $4,000 and their net income is $3,200. Since they have no mortgage interest deduction, their income taxes are higher as a percentage of income than Household A. Their living expenses total $1,500 per month, so they save 50% of their net income.  If one of the wage earners loses their job, the household can maintain its current budget without sacrifice. Their substantial savings protect them from unforeseen medical expenses not covered by healthcare insurance, and they can pay for vacations with cash, not credit.

Let’s say that one wage earner in each household loses their job and must take a job that pays 20% less. Household A cannot cover its expenses and must default on one of their debts. Household B’s monthly savings decline, but they are still saving a substantial portion of their income.

Which household is vulnerable to even modest financial misfortune?  Clearly Household A. Will a positive attitude be enough to save the family from insolvency?  It will help it transition into and hopefully through bankruptcy, but a positive attitude alone is no substitute for financial resilience.

Though Keynesian economists argue that nations are not like households, in truth debt/financial fragility is scale-invariant, meaning that rising debt, a high cost basis, and zero savings/investment lead to fragility in households, enterprises, communities, and nations alike.

Conclusion

The United States of America shares a lot in common with Household A: It has a high and inflexible cost-basis, and it is dependent on borrowing to fund future consumption and on speculation to create collateral. It is also tied into spending a significant share of its income-servicing debt. History offers few examples of major nations that prospered by borrowing vast sums for consumption.

Charles Hugh Smith writes the ‘Of Two Minds’ blog <www.oftwominds.com/blog.html> which covers an eclectic range of timely topics: finance, housing, Asia, energy, long term trends, social issues, health/diet/fitness and sustainability. Smith’s books include “Weblogs and New Media: Marketing in Crisis” (2008) and “Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation” (2009). He is currently completing “An Unconventional Guide to Investing in Troubled Times” (June 2011). Published on ‘Peak Prosperity’  <http://www.peakprosperity.com, February 12, 2013. Reprinted with permission.

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What Kind of Economy Says OK to Tar Sands Oil? by Brent Blackwelder

On Sunday, February 17, I marched in the largest climate change protest in U.S. history. About 35,000 people gathered on the Washington Monument grounds for a rally and then marched past the White House, calling on President Obama to deny permission for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport oil from Canada’s tar sands through the heart of the U.S. to the Gulf Coast.

Native Americans protest tar sands mining that destroyed their land.

Native Americans protest tar sands mining that destroyed their land.

Two of the victims of tar sands development in Alberta, Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation and Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, spoke of the contamination of their lands and people. Even without the pipeline, the gigantic oil extraction operation is already causing plenty of harm.

If carried to completion during the next several decades, over the objections of the indigenous people who have been stewards of this land, tar sands mining will have transformed an area the size of Florida or Wisconsin. A land teeming with fish and wildlife will have been turned into a grotesque zone of toxicity where the lakes will act as predators as they entice unsuspecting waterfowl to land in their polluted waters.

What kind of economy would find such an activity acceptable? At the very least, the economy must be making some perverse calculations to justify such devastation.

As if the direct devastation of the land and water were not enough, the utilization of tar sands oil by the U.S. and other countries means “game over” for the global climate, according to NASA scientist James Hansen. In other words, the energy-intensive extraction followed by the burning of tar sands oil will put so much carbon pollution into the atmosphere that we will enter an era of radical climate destabilization.

The exploitation is proceeding on Cree lands against their consent and in violation of the Canadian Constitution. It represents a blatant refusal to abide by Article 32 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that says: “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples… in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

President Obama appears poised to give permission to build the pipeline and contribute to this industrial nightmare. So what can we do in the aftermath of the big protest?

The time has come to reject the premises of today’s economy, because it is not a true-cost economy, and it undermines good governance. It is an economy set up for cheaters and gamblers. It is also an economy that exploits those lacking political clout and that disrespects international law, except when it comes to trade agreements that enable polluters to enter special secret courts (see the Chevron trade case against Ecuador for one recent example).

A true-cost, sustainable economy would not countenance commercial activities like tar sands mining that are tantamount to an all-out war against the natural environment and a form of industrial genocide. The genocide is underway not because of racial hatred, but because tribal people have stood in the way of a major money-making venture. Furthermore, the indigenous people lacked political power to stop the transnational corporations from ruining their lands.

Protests of the Keystone XL pipeline should blossom into protests of our unsustainable economy.

A true-cost economy would exemplify resilience. It would be less susceptible to disruptions from speculation, violent weather events, and terrorism. Such an economy would not pursue activities that generate or are likely to generate irreversible pollution. No one has to worry about a “solar spill” or a “wind spill” ruining their drinking water.

Today’s economy, on the other hand, is permitting all sorts of damaging activities that violate the criterion of reversibility and bequeath a legacy of poison. Consider the contrast between renewable energy projects and coal mining.

If a wind farm or solar rooftop array is causing problems, it can easily be removed without leaving centuries of pollution behind. The roof or the land can be returned to other uses. In fact, wind farms are fully compatible with agricultural production around the wind turbines. One wind farm I visited near Dodge City, Kansas, consisted of 150 turbines in a 20-square-mile area, and the land requirements were just seven acres.

In contrast, coal mining in West Virginia through mountain-top removal is converting biologically diverse, forested mountains into a Martian landscape. In the words of former Congressman Ken Heckler, reclamation amounts to “putting lipstick on a corpse.” Such mining projects violate the principle of reversibility, just like tar sands oil extraction. What will be available to people in the future who want to live in and explore places like West Virginia’s formerly bountiful mountains and valleys?

Whenever concerns are raised over the destructive impacts of big extractive projects, the predicament of joblessness always comes up. But joblessness cannot be solved with the current economic strategy that allows temporary construction jobs to destroy permanent jobs and livelihoods. Big extraction projects cannot create the volume of jobs that can be had by pursuing renewable energy. In fact, the oil industry generates the fewest jobs of almost any industry in the federal government’s database.

It is time to start demanding a true-cost economy that will create diverse jobs without creating no-go zones of carcinogenic and mutagenic wastes.

Brent Blackwelder is the emeritus president of Friends of the Earth. Brent was a founder and first chairman of the board of American Rivers, our nation’s leading river conservation organization. He was also one of the founders of the Environmental Policy Institute, which merged with Friends of the Earth in 1989. He has testified in front of Congress on pressing environmental issues more than 100 times. As a leader in the effort to save rivers, Brent helped expand the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System from eight rivers in 1973 to over 250 today. He also worked to eliminate over 200 dams and other water projects that would have destroyed rivers, wetlands, wildlife and areas of special scientific value. Brent initiated campaigns to reform the World Bank and succeeded in getting Congress to enact a series of significant reforms directing the Bank and other multilateral lending institutions to pay more attention to the environment. He graduated summa cum laude from Duke University and received an M.A. in mathematics from Yale, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Maryland.

Source: Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy  <http://steadystate.org > Posted: 25 Feb 2013. Reprinted with permission.

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