Governmental Predictions

When arguing the potentials of things like peak oil, over-population, and global warming I often have official government projections thrown at me. I have problems with most of these projections. Sometimes because I do not think they are making reasonable assumptions, like with UN population projections. Other times because I am not sure their data is adequate, like with social issues. Occasionally I just distrust the agency’s motives, like when the US government keeps claiming the US economy is “doin’ fine.” This is a new favorite of mine. They are pretty much telling everyone to go along with their business, ignore the lack of a manufacturing base, high unemployment and inadequate employment, and utterly astronomical public and private debts.

Just to offer an example as to the inadequacy of many of these projections below you can check on the progress of the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) oil price projections from 2006. The EIA is a part of the US Department of Energy and below offers a low, reference (or likely), and high projections for the future of oil prices until 2030. Enjoy!

eia-energy.jpg

– Benjamin Shender

Peak Oil – Reading OPEC

This past few months oil prices have continued to increase to the point of regularly closing above 100 US dollars per barrel. The United States is entering a recession, which will likely affect the whole world. And earlier this week OPEC has once again refused to increase their production of oil.

Most legal analysts are decrying this as a bad choice on OPEC’s part that will likely cause an economic backlash. After all, OPEC nations are a part of the world and a global economic recession would necessarily effect them. Especially when you consider the reduced oil sales caused by just such a recession.

Historically, OPEC has agreed with these analysts. Whenever the world economy has seemed to be flagging, OPEC has increased production, thereby reducing oil prices, allowing cheaper energy to reinvigorate the global economy. But not this time, which has caused surprise and condemnation.

What is missing from this discourse is a basic understanding of geology. OPEC nations have peaked. They can’t increase their production. By refusing to try, rather than trying and failing, they are successfully obfuscating the issue. And as long as there is any doubt about the future of oil we will continue to rely on it, base our economy on it, and most fundamentally, we will continue to eat it.

Once the oil geologists have proof clenching enough that the economists and politicians can no longer invent reasons to continue in the oil economy, it will be time to make some tough choices. We will be called upon as a global society to examine ourselves and discover who and what we really are. Tough questions and difficult choices, and no political or economic leader has any interest in presiding over such an intensive change as would be required. After all, change will upset the current balance of power, and unless we are already in a crisis “rocking the boat” is frowned upon.

Ultimately, by not attempting to increase oil production, OPEC might be improving our economic condition by allowing us to remain blissfully ignorant of the extent of our problem, at least for now. Once the problem is fully realized, we will have no choice but to make tough decisions, unpopular choices, and ultimately change the foundation of our society. History will judge, but for now we wait.

– Benjamin Shender

The New High: Oil

I’m writing this article in congratulations to all of those hard working folks who managed to achieve what market experts have been calling impossible for over a decade: the $100 barrel of oil. That was sarcasm, the rest of this article is not.

This so-called threshold really isn’t, of course. The idea that the number “100” is somehow meaningful is solely based on the fact we use a base-ten numbering system. If we used base-twelve (which actually has a lot to say for it) we would either have panicked back at $72 a barrel or not until we reached $144 a barrel. But the very fact oil prices are so high means people who refuse the accept the reality of our situation will have an increasingly difficult time finding facts to back them up.

At $100 a barrel we have either surpassed our all-time inflation-adjusted high, or are really close to it. The question of whether we have reached it or not is because there really is not one single accepted method to adjust for inflation, and the differences between methods can be quite large. So all of these comparisons people keep quoting are really just economists justifying their salaries. But they do all agree that we are now at either the highest or one of the highest prices in the history of oil. And what makes this exceptional is that we cannot simply dismiss this as oil companies or OPEC messing with the prices. Or, at least we cannot do so and have the evidence back us up.

The last time oil was in this inflation-adjusted price range it was because OPEC severely cut supply in order to drive up prices and punish the United States and the western world. This time it is different. OPEC has not been reducing supply, OPEC countries have actually been struggling to meet demand. Last time the prices increased dramatically and quickly. This time they have increased with demand over the course of a decade. No, this time it is not people playing with the market. This time it is geometrically increasing demand and geometrically decreasing supply.

Ever increasing energy demand can never be met with oil, or with any known energy source. In fact, it cannot be met with any theoretical energy source either. Ultimately, by the laws of physics, it cannot be met period. No, we are in trouble. The important thing to remember is that this is not “period, end of story.” Or rather, it does not have to be. While we cannot scale up any of our solutions to meet the size of our problem, it is certainly possible, and desirable, to scale down our problem to meet the size of our solution. Over the next few weeks Aftermath will be unveiling our plan of how to accomplish the creation of a sustainable, self-sufficient, and luxurious society.

No, this article is not sarcasm. It is not defeatist. Its not the ravings of a borderline personality. Nor is it the talk of the perpetual optimist. It is the first sounding of a battle cry of a man who will not allow everything he holds dear to be destroyed by people who cannot see the forest for the trees, the masses for the people, reality for itself, or the future for its promise.

-Benjamin Shender

Rising Ocean Levels and Mass Denial

I have had my stance on the rising of the ocean level challenged recently. My stance is relatively simple: yes, yes it is. However, this is not an altogether popular stance. Not because the ocean level is not rising, but rather for the general reason of it being inconvenient. This is a common problem people have with many of the current trends in our economy, climate, and energy sources. Call it media-induced ignorance; call it political maneuvering; call it mass denial; call it sticking your fingers in your ears and humming loudly. But whatever you call it, ultimately it boils down to a simple fact. While people are in fact grasping the realty of our situation, they simply deny the problem’s severity, immediacy, or existence. Its not that they do not understand how bad we are saying it is. They just do not see what they can do about it, and so find it easier to ignore it. That is one of the things this site is for: showing people what we can do. Another thing we can do is help provide the data scientists have been using for years to draw their, generally ignored, conclusions.

To start with, this is a graph of the change in average ocean level from 1992 to 2005. The scientists taking the measurements arbitrarily assigned a “zero” point in 1996. Basically, this means the scientists picked an ocean level and decided that it was typical. This does not really mean anything, just that all ocean levels are now being compared to this point. As odd as this may sound it is not an unusual practice. An easy example is Fahrenheit temperature. Zero degrees Fahrenheit does not actually mean anything. It is an arbitrary zero point someone picked centuries ago, but it has no meaning. But any temperature can now be measured compared to that zero point. Or you could pick another zero point, say the freezing point of water, and call it something really weird like Celsius. But then no one would know what you were talking about.
Ocean Level

– Benjamin Shender

Cannibalism

Food – everyone’s favorite topic. And the one thing that we all dread is not having any. Especially us Americans who are used to having three meals a day, each larger than the total daily intake of most of the world’s population. And food shortages are a certain post-crash condition, at least at first, and will largely characterize the crash itself. We have seen situations in which food has been unavailable for extended periods of time before, and in such situations most people starve to death. However, a sizable minority will turn to the only remaining convenient food supply: the disoriented, wandering masses of former civilization.

The best way to prepare for a predicted food shortage is to learn how to obtain food on your own. In other words, make sure you know a dozen or so common wild edibles you know you can identify. Learn dandelions, clover, wood sorrel, burdock, pine, spice root, sassafras, stinging nettle, figs, apples, blue berries, mint, and any others you can. You certainly won’t starve to death, and wild edibles are in fact very tasty and far more flavorful than what most people are used to. In the mean time, it will help keep your strength up so you can avoid the roving gangs of cannibals.

Cannibalism itself is a very dangerous practice. You, as a human, are susceptible to any disease your human prey has. On the other hand, eating other species is far safer because most of their illnesses will not affect a human being. There is also a general tendency for cannibalism to make you more sickly. Cannibalism is not a long term solution for various reasons, including the lack of new input and the inherent distrust it will engender internal to the cannibal-gang. In the short term, it is inefficient and will leave you sick and lacking in several major nutrients. Not to mention the probable nausea the first time you try it. Besides, you are what you eat, and I would rather be an overweight house cat than a starving accountant who hasn’t bathed in a week.

It would be far better for you to develop a working knowledge of wild edibles, a round dozen should do it. For instance, raspberries, cattails, onion, garlic mustard, poke weed, walnuts, cherries, pears, almonds, grapes, sugar maple, and plantain are all excellent examples of commonly available wild edibles. Although some wild edibles require a little preparation and a knowledge of when and how to eat them.

However, if you must eat humans, any recipe good for a pig should work wonderfully.

-Benjamin Shender

Update on Climate Change

This article is intended to give all of our readers an update on the current state of climate change and the more relevant future developments. This article is not intended to fear-monger but to warn. If it does frighten you, my recommendation is to do something other than complain about it being scary. The first part deals specifically with the contents of the new IPCC assessment, which will be released soon. The other data is from a variety of sources that are considered reliable including meteorologists, climatologists, and several world governments.

The International Panel on Climate Change is an international organization sponsored by the United Nation Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Council. They have been producing reports on what is known about Climate Change and the is believed to be an excellent representation of general scientific consensus for better than twenty years. These reported do not include the more outlying beliefs of some scientists, few if any of which are climatologists. Some of these more outlandish ideas include “nothing is happening” and “the Earth will end up like Venus.”

Their fourth assessment report will be coming out soon. It will include four scenarios for the consideration of government bodies, policy makers, and others, as well as detailing what information is known about our changing climate. Two of the most obvious points to be included are that the world as already experienced a temperature increase of about three quarters of a degree Celsius on average (enough to play with the weather) and a mean sea level rise of over half a foot.

Also, the it would seem now that most of the temperature increase is being experienced in the oceans. The significance of this is hard to overstate. Directly it will mean a lot of marine life will have trouble surviving, although it seems jelly fish may actually do very well, a fact sure to amuse fans of Daniel Quinn’s parables. Also it will increase the evaporation of water into the atmosphere. This does not mean the oceans will disappear. It means that there will be an increase of water vapor in the atmosphere which may lead to an increase number of storm systems and an increase in the severity of storm systems.

Also, the increasing temperature of the world’s oceans will tend to increase the rate at which the global temperature is increasing due to accelerating the melting of glacial ice.

Another point of concern is the Siberian Permafrost. Human action as approximately doubled the amount of carbon in the atmosphere of the course of the past one hundred years, causing a temperature increase over the arctic that is already enough to melt the permafrost. This is a problem for a number of reasons. For one, it is making many roads around the Arctic Circle impassable and damaging permanent structures such as homes and pipelines. But perhaps even worse, the Siberian Permafrost in particular holds sufficient carbon to once again double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. This is what climatologists call as run-away effect. Essentially, once the permafrost melts sufficiently, human input will no long be the driving force, but a subsidiary force.

The melting of the arctic glaciers, especially Greenland’s icecap, is likely to shut down the Atlantic Conveyor, which is one of the most important mechanisms for moving heat from the tropics to the arctic. If this was to happen Europe would likely see a dramatic decrease in average temperatures while the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding territories will see an increase in heat. This increase will further encourage evaporation increasing the severity of hurricanes and nor’easters. There will be other effects as well, but the further our predictions go from the root-cause the more unsure they are.

A frightening possibility from the perspective of education and prevention is that if human-caused global warming has not yet reached a definitive level, which can be hard to determine, we are about to enter into a cooler cycle in the general climate cycles. If our impact and the general cycle cancels, or if the cycle turns out to be stronger, people will tend to believe climate change is a joke. And then when both the human caused global warming and the general climate cycles both increase together the effect will be even more devastating.

Perhaps the very scariest possibility is the speed at which the most dramatic changes could happen. If the permafrost melts, precipitating a run away effect, the predictions dated for fifty or one hundred years away could happen much sooner. The effects could accumulate in a new climatic system in as little as three to five years from the tipping point, which maybe reached at any time due to the difficulty in determining exactly what would constitute such a point.

-Benjamin Shender

The Economist’s Solution

The typical economist’s solution to the problems facing us is to do nothing. At first this seems to be an awfully silly response to such a serious problem. We are about to run out of the natural resources we rely on for our basic needs and our luxuries. And the considered response to this problem is “do nothing”? But they are quite serious, and by standard economic theory they are even correct in offering this solution.

Their answer is based on the idea of supply and demand. The theory is more complicated than is commonly believed, but the general understanding is essentially correct. Assuming a competitive market free of artificial obstructions (i.e. taxes, tariffs, etc.) supply and demand will equal each other. If either one changes for any reason, the other will shift to meet it as quickly as possible.

This may seem like magic or wishful thinking. Economist Adam Smith even went so far to refer to it as an “invisible hand,” because it almost seemed like the economy was being controlled by some outside force. But it actually has very physical reasons behind it. Specifically, no one wants to waste their money. So, if you have an excess of supply you want to get rid of it as soon as possible, otherwise its just sitting there draining your money. So, you reduce the price of your commodity in order to encourage demand to increase, until it meets your supply. Once they equal each other you increase the price back to a stable level. This is why companies have after Christmas sales.

Economists say we should rely on this mechanism to fix our unsustainable consumption of energy and other natural resources. The theory is that as the supply of these natural resources reduces, the economy will require we reduce our demand on them. There is a problem here though. We are facing an energy peak, not an excess supply of chairs. We use energy in everything, most particularly chemical energy in the form of food. Unfortunately, there are only so many ways to reduce the demand for food.

-Benjamin Shender

Culture of Consumption

One of the biggest obstacles facing us is that our culture, as a society, is driven by consumption. This is why we are running out of natural resources. This is why we are damaging our ecosystem. This is why we are in trouble, and this is why we cannot fathom a way out of it.

We judge people’s success on their consumption level. The more people can consume the more successful they are. One person has a small apartment and occasionally skips meals due to a lack of funds, but he has a wonderful relationship with his family. He has friends that would do anything for him, and he for them, and he has a healthy relationship with a girl three blocks over. This person is considered to be less successful than a loner who is estranged from his family, but has five cars and two houses.

This is a big problem. And there are numerous examples of this from all different kinds of places and people. But there is a small example of our consumption-base life style that probably best emphasises the situation: the garnish.

What could more thoroughly demonstrate our consumption driven life-style than serving food that is not meant to be eaten. The fancier the restaurant the more garnish and the more expensive the garnish. Inexpensive and family restaurants generally do not serve garnish at all. And certainly the idea of a garnish at a fast-food restaurant is amusing. Expensive restaurants, or restaurants that want to seem expensive, often provide an extra piece of lettuce with dinner. And restaurants that cater to the ‘prosperous’ often add specially cut fruit and vegetables to that otherwise lone piece of lettuce.

In Western Civilization this tendency is common. Many restaurants serve their patrons food that they are not expected to eat, and usually do not. And when these little bits of odds and ends of lettuce, and oranges, and lemons, and radishes are all added together, entire villages in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia could be fed.

Its such a small element of our waste. Why should we care? We should care because it is such a small part of our waste. When such a small part amounts to so much, how can we not address something so small? And, by the same token, how can we then not address our larger excesses.

Its a small thing. We are often served food we are never meant to eat. Next time, do what I do: eat it.

-Benjamin Shender

Why Sustainability Costs Money

An economy is a system by which humans turn resources into goods and services. We want these goods and services because we believe they increase our quality of life. Whether they actually do this or not, we only make goods and services because we think we want them. The reason we don’t have a neon yellow nosehair trimmer and webcam is only because an insufficent segment of our population believes having one would make their lives better.

But the basis of all economies is the extraction of resources. In fact, it is the only basis possible, because all goods are made from resources and could not be made without them. Because of this, the extraction of resources becomes the key factor in how many goods an economy can produce. So, obviously, the more resources you extract the more goods you can produce and the stronger your economy is.

The only problem with this view is that it is only correct over the short-term. Any economy based on extracting resources at an unsustainable rate is a failing economy. Unsustainable resource extraction occurs when resources are removed from an environment faster than they are reproduced in that environment. The ultimate conclusion of such a scenario can only be that eventually there would no longer be sufficient resources to maintain the economy.

Any economy extracting resources unsustainably must eventually fail, and so is a failing economy. No matter how strong it may appear in the mean time. This is a simple enough idea, but the problem is that economies are subject to Prisoner’s Dilemma. If one economy extracts resources sustainably, they could theoretically survive forever. If another economy extracts resources unsustainably, then they must fail.  But, such an economy would, in the short-term, out-compete a sustainable economy. Which is why most business leaders, politicians, and economists conclude that sustainability would cost them money and power. What they cannot or will not see is that unsustainability is very expensive as well, it costs security.

-Benjamin Shender

The Inevitability of Deflation

When I read through the last article I realized a skipped a stage. Why a shift, collapse, or crash is inevitable. The reason is fairly simple, but it is not one we like to look at because the implications are ones we would rather not deal with. But the issue will be dealt with, and if it isn’t dealt with by us, it will be dealt with by the cold, uncaring laws of nature.

Currently, simply maintaining the current status quo is unsustainable, and we are in fact increasing our size. The reason our current status is unsustainable, even if we did not increase any further, is at our current levels we are running out of vital resources, causing damage to the environment that we rely on to sustain us, and are in fact demolishing our food base by funding what is becoming one of the largest mass extinctions in history. Any of these by themselves would be enough, that we are doing them all at once is, quite frankly, excessive.

As we use our resources to maintain our society we need to grow because as we use these resources we also use them up. So we are in constant need of new sources of energy, plastics, metals, fertilizer, etc. Natural law prohibits the indefinite continuation of anything unsustainable. “No system based on perpetual growth can survive indefinitely in a finite universe.”

The laws of thermodynamics require unsustainable systems to fail. Specifically, the first two laws, those that deal with entropy and conservation. The law of conservation is often summarized as “nothing can be created or destroyed.” This proposition has been confirmed and verified repeatedly by hundreds of scientists over the course of more than a century. What this means is that whatever matter and energy we start with is the maximum amount we will ever have. All we can do is shift things around. So, if we reach a point where we need more than there is available, the system fails.

Entropy comes into play in an interesting fashion: it makes the problem worse. The law of entropy states that in a closed system the total entropy, or disorder, of the system increases to a maximum value. If the system is open, outside sources of energy can be used to increase the total order of the system. The trade off is that the source of that energy has suffered a loss of order, or an increase in entropy. From a general standpoint, this tells us that the more resources we use the more energy we need to get more out of them. This is further strengthened by the fact that conservation states no energy can be created, only obtained from some source. When that energy is used it is either invested in the creation of something (i.e. decreasing its entropy level), or it radiates away. And that energy has to come from somewhere. Currently, we are getting the majority of it from fossil fuels. When we burn fossil fuels we release a huge amount of energy that we can use. The cost is that the fossil fuels quickly reach a much higher level of entropy, making them useless as any further source of power.

So, our system cannot stay stable because we have reached the point where we need huge influxes of energy and resources to maintain ourselves. And we do not have the technology to obtain new sources of energy and resources off-world. This last is a typical solution proposed. Essentially the proposed solution is for the entire human race to become the aliens from Independence Day. There are four main problems I have with this as a solution. First, I have moral qualms that I think you’ll share if you really consider all of the implications of this. Second, it still isn’t an ultimate solution, because the laws of entropy and conservation do not live on Earth, they are inherent to the Universe. Three, we do not have the technology to do this, and will not before we need to have solved the problem. And four, I cannot condone an action that will end with the human race being destroyed by one of the most pathetic excuses for a plot-twist in all of cinema history.

Ultimately, this means we have to shrink. We basically have two choices. We can choose to do it, and thereby keep a lot of the advantages that we have gained. Or we can let nature take its course, and nature won’t let us keep our toys. We can attempt to shift to a sustainable system. And doing so might allow us to keep some of our toys if we can figure out how to make and use them in a sustainable fashion, as well as mitigating some of the less pleasant consequences of an uncontrolled collapse. While some of our technology may be unsustainable by nature and impossible to maintain. But, if it is possible, our best chance for figuring out how will be at the peak of our industrial might. Alternatively, we can ignore the problem, or assume it cannot be helped. Then the system will collapse or crash around our ears. Even if you do not personally plan on being alive then, believe me when I say your children will not think as highly of the “ignore it and maybe it will go away” plan as you do.

-Benjamin Shender

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