Tag: Kyoto Protocol

Unintended Consequences

That pesky ‘law’ regarding the power of unintended consequences.

As many of you are aware, last week was an unusual format for Learning from Dogs in that the whole of the week was dedicated to republishing Dr. Samuel Alexander’s essay The Sufficiency Economy – Envisioning a Prosperous Way Down.  If you missed that, the first chapter was a week ago today under the title of Where less is so much more.

Moving on. Many living in Northern California and South-West Oregon will have had a timely reminder that nature is tapping mankind on the shoulder in new and challenging ways.  I’m referring to the massive storm that was featured in a recent Climate Crocks article that delivered over a foot of rainfall in recent days.  Here in Southern Oregon we received over 10 inches!  Hence the growing awareness that we have to do something!

So with those musings in mind, read the following essay written by Gail Tverberg of the website Our Finite World.  Gail describes herself, thus:

I am an actuary interested in finite world issues – oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. The financial system is also likely to be affected.

I’m very grateful to Gail for so promptly giving me written permission to republish her work.  It is very relevant to all of us.

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Climate Change: The Standard Fixes Don’t Work

World leaders seem to have their minds made up regarding what will fix world CO2 emissions problems. Their list includes taxes on gasoline consumption, more general carbon taxes, cap and trade programs, increased efficiency in automobiles, greater focus on renewables, and more natural gas usage.

Unfortunately, we live in a world economy with constrained oil supply. Because of this, the chosen approaches have a tendency to backfire if some countries adopt them, and others do not. But even if everyone adopts them, it is not at all clear that they will provide the promised benefits.

Figure 1. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.
Figure 1. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. If emissions had risen at the average rate that they did during the 1987 to 1997 period (about 1% per year), emissions in 2011 would be 18% lower than they actually were. While there were many other things going on at the same time, the much higher rise in emissions in recent years is not an encouraging sign.

The standard fixes don’t work for several reasons:

1. In an oil-supply constrained world, if a few countries reduce their oil consumption, the big impact is to leave more oil for the countries that don’t. Oil price may drop a tiny amount, but on a world-wide basis, pretty much the same amount of oil will be extracted, and nearly all of it will be consumed.

2. Unless there is a high tax on imported products made with fossil fuels, the big impact of a carbon tax is to send manufacturing to countries without a carbon tax, such as China and India. These countries are likely to use a far higher proportion of coal in their manufacturing than OECD countries would, and this change will tend to increase world CO2 emissions. Such a change will also tend to raise the standard of living of citizens in the countries adding manufacturing, further raising emissions. This change will also tend to reduce the number of jobs available in OECD countries.

3. The only time when increasing natural gas usage will actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions is if it replaces coal consumption. Otherwise it adds to carbon emissions, but at a lower rate than other fossil fuels, relative to the energy provided.

4. Substitutes for oil, including renewable fuels, are ways of increasing consumption of coal and natural gas over what they would be in the absence of renewable fuels, because they act as  add-ons to world oil supply, rather than as true substitutes for oil. Even in cases where they are theoretically more efficient, they still tend to raise carbon emissions in absolute terms, by raising the production of coal and natural gas needed to produce them.

5. Even using more biomass as fuel does not appear to be a solution. Recent work by noted scientists suggests that ramping up the use of biomass runs the risk of pushing the world past a climate change tipping point.

It is really unfortunate that the standard fixes work the way they do, because many of the proposed fixes do have good points. For example, if oil supply is limited, available oil can be shared far more equitably if people drive small fuel-efficient vehicles. The balance sheet of an oil importing nation looks better if citizens of that nation conserve oil. But we are kidding ourselves if we think these fixes will actually do much to solve the world’s CO2 emissions problem.

If we really want to reduce world CO2 emissions, we need to look at reducing world population, reducing world trade, and making more “essential” goods and services locally.  It is doubtful that many countries will volunteer to use these approaches, however.  It seems likely that Nature will ultimately provide its own solution, perhaps working through high oil prices and weaknesses in the world financial system.

Elastic Versus Inelastic Supply

It seems to me that many bad decisions have been made because many economists have missed the point that crude oil supply tends to be very inelastic, while other fuels are fairly elastic. Let me explain.

Elastic supply is the usual situation for most goods. Plenty of the product is available, if the price is high enough. If there is a shortage, prices rise, and in not too long a time, the market is well-supplied again. If supply is elastic, if you or I use less of it, ultimately less of the product is produced.

Coal and natural gas usually are considered to be elastic in their supply. To some extent, they are still “extract it as you need it” products. Supply of natural gas liquids (often grouped with crude oil, but acting more like a gas, so it is less suitable as a transportation fuel) is also fairly elastic.

Crude oil is the one product that is in quite short supply, on a world-wide basis. Its supply doesn’t seem to increase by more than a tiny percentage, no matter how high the price rises. This is a situation of inelastic supply.

Figure 2. World crude oil production (including condensate) based primarily on US Energy Information Administration data, with trend lines fitted by the author.
Figure 2. World crude oil production (including condensate) based primarily on US Energy Information Administration data, with trend lines fitted by the author.

Even though oil prices have been very high since 2005  (shown in Figure 3, below), the amount of crude oil has increased by only 0.1%  per year (Figure 2, above).

Figure 3. Historical average annual oil prices, (“Brent” or equivalent) in 2011$, from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.
Figure 3. Historical average annual oil prices, (“Brent” or equivalent) in 2011$, from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

In the case of oil, both supply and demand are quite inelastic. No matter how high the price, demand for oil doesn’t drop back by much. No matter how high the price of oil, world supply doesn’t rise very much, either.1

In a situation of inelastic supply, the usual actions a person might take appear to work when viewed on a local basis, but backfire on a world basis, if not everyone participates. When one country tries to conserve crude oil (whether through a carbon tax, gasoline tax, or higher automobile mileage requirement), it may reduce its own consumption, but there are still plenty of other buyers in the market for the oil that was saved. So the oil gets used by someone else, perhaps at a slightly lower price.  World oil production remains virtually unchanged. Thus, a reduction in oil usage by an OECD country can translate to more oil consumption by China or India, and ultimately more development of all types by those countries.

Adding Substitutes Adds to Carbon Emissions

If we don’t have enough crude oil, one approach is to create substitutes. Because crude oil supply is inelastic, though, these substitutes aren’t really substitutes, though. They are “add ons” to world oil supply, and this is one source of our problem with increasing world emissions.

What do we use to make the substitutes? Basically, natural gas and coal, and to a limited extent oil (because we can’t avoid using oil). The catch is, that to make the substitutes, we need to burn natural gas and coal more quickly than we would, if we didn’t make the oil substitutes. Since the supply of coal and natural gas is elastic, it is possible to pull them out of the ground more quickly. Thus, making the substitutes tends to increase carbon dioxide emissions over what they would have been, if we had never come up with the idea of substitutes.

The increased use of coal and natural gas is pretty clear, if a person thinks about coal-to-liquids or gas-to-liquids. Here, we need to first build the plants used in production, and then with each barrel of substitute made, we need to use more natural gas or coal. So it is very clear that we are extracting a lot of additional coal and natural gas, to make a relatively smaller amount of oil substitute. There is often a substantial need for water to make the process work as well, adding another stress on the system.

But the same issue comes up with biofuels, and with other renewables. These too, are add-ons to the world oil supply, not substitutes. While theoretically they might produce energy with less CO2 per unit than fossil fuel systems, in absolute terms they lead to natural gas and coal being pulled out of the ground more quickly to be used in making fertilizer, electricity, concrete, and other inputs to renewables.2

Carbon Taxes and Competitiveness

Each country competes with others in the world market place. Adding a carbon tax makes products made by the local company less competitive in the world marketplace.  It also signals to potential coal users that the countries adopting the carbon taxes are willing to a leave a greater proportion of world coal exports to those who are not adopting the tax, thus helping to keep the cost of imported coal down.

Asian countries already have a competitive edge over OECD countries in terms of lower wages and lower fuel costs (because of their heavy coal mix), when it comes to manufacturing. Adding a carbon tax tends to add to the Asian competitive edge. This tends to shift production offshore, and with it, jobs.

Figure 4. China’s energy consumption by source, based on BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy data.
Figure 4. China’s energy consumption by source, based on BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy data.

China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Figure 4 shows clearly that its fuel consumption ramped up rapidly thereafter. It seems likely that the number of Chinese manufacturing jobs and spending on Chinese infrastructure increased at the same time.

Economists seem to have missed the serious worldwide deterioration in CO2 emissions in recent years by looking primarily at individual country indications, including CO2 emissions per unit of GDP. Unfortunately, this narrow view misses the big picture–that total CO2 emissions are rising, and that CO2 emissions relative to world GDP have stopped falling. (See my posts Is it really possible to decouple GDP growth from energy growth and Thoughts on why energy use and CO2 emissions are rising as fast as GDP. See also Figure 1 at the top of the post.)

The Employment Connection

I have shown that in the US there is a close correlation between energy consumption and number of jobs. (For more information, including a look at older periods, see my post, The close tie between energy consumption, employment, and recession.)

Figure 5. Employment is the total number employed at non-farm labor as reported by the US Census Bureau. Energy consumption is the total amount of energy of all types consumed (oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, etc.), in British Thermal Units (Btu), as reported by the US Energy Information Administration.
Figure 5. Employment is the total number employed at non-farm labor as reported by the US Census Bureau. Energy consumption is the total amount of energy of all types consumed (oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, etc.), in British Thermal Units (Btu), as reported by the US Energy Information Administration.

There are several reasons why a connection between energy consumption and the number of jobs is to be expected:

(1) The job itself in almost every situation requires energy, even if it is only electricity to operate computers, and fuel to heat and light buildings.

(2) Equally importantly, the salaries that employees earn allow them to buy goods that require the use of energy, such as a car or house. (“Energy demand” is what people canafford; jobs allow “demand” to rise.)

(3) The lowest salaried people can be expected to spend the highest proportion of their salaries on energy-related services (such as food and gasoline for commuting). The wealthy spend their money on high priced goods and services, such as financial planning services and designer clothing that require much less energy per dollar of expenditure.

The thing I find concerning is the close timing between the ramp-up of Asian coal use and thus jobs using coal, and the drop-off of US employment as a percentage of US population, as illustrated in Figure 6 below. Arguably, the ramp up in world trade is just as important, but some aspects of programs that are intended to save CO2 emissions also seem to encourage world trade.

Figure 6. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non_Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census. 2012 is partial year estimate.
Figure 6. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non_Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census. 2012 is partial year estimate.

Of course, the US did not sign the Kyoto Protocol or enact a carbon tax, and it is its jobs that I show falling as a percentage of population. It is more that the CO2 solutions act as yet another way to encourage more international trade, and with it more “growth”, and  more CO2.

Using More Biomass is Not a Fix Either

Burning more wood for fuel and creating “second generation” biofuels from biomass seems like a fix, until a person realizes that we are reaching limits there, as well.

In June 2012, twenty noted scientist published a paper in the journal Nature called Approaching a State Shift in the Earth’s Biosphere. This report indicates that humans have already converted as much as 43% of Earth’s land to urban or agricultural uses. In total, 20% to 40% of Earth’s primary productivity has been taken over by humans. The authors are concerned that we may now be reaching a tipping point leading to a state shift, because of loss of ecosystem services as use of biological products increases. With this state change would come a change in climate. Simulations indicate that this tipping point may occur when as little as 50% of land use is disturbed. This tipping point may be even lower, if world-wide synergies take place.

On Our Current Path – Lacking Good Solutions

While this list of problems relating to current proposed solutions is not complete, it gives a hint of the problems with reducing CO2 emissions using approaches suggested to date. There are many issues I have not covered.

One issue of note is the fact the cost of integrating intermittent renewables (such as wind and solar PV) increases rapidly, as we add increasing amounts to the grid. This occurs because there is more need to transport the electricity long distances and to mitigate its variability through electricity storage or fossil fuel balancing. (See for example, Low Carbon Projects Demand a New Transmission and Distribution ModelGrid Instability Has Industry Scrambling for Solutions, and Hawaii’s Solar Power Flare-Up.)

While the problems noted in these articles are probably solvable, the cost of these solutions has not been built into energy balance analyses. Energy balances (or EROEI estimates) as currently reported do not vary with the proportion of intermittent renewables added to the grid. If energy balance analyses were adjusted to reflect the high cost of adding an increasing proportion of wind or solar PV to the grid, they would likely show a rapidly declining energy balance, above a certain threshold. This would indicate that while adding a little intermittent renewables (as we have done to date) can be a partial solution, adding a lot is likely to have serious cost and energy balance issues.

Another issue that is difficult to deal with is the fact that we are not dealing with a temporary problem with CO2 emissions. The idea is not to slow down the burning of fossil fuels, and burn more later; what we really need to do is to leave unburned fossil fuels in the ground for all time. This is a problem, because there is no way that we can impose our will on people living 10 or 50 years from now. The Maximum Power Principle of H. T. Odum would seem to indicate that any species will make use of whatever energy sources are available to it, to the extent that it can. Even if we temporarily defeat this tendency with respect to humans’ use of fossil fuels, I don’t see any way that we can defeat this tendency for the long term.

Considering all of these issues, it does not appear that most of the “standard” solutions will really work.3 What other options do we have?

Nature’s Solution  

The Earth has been handling the problem of shifting conditions for over 4 billion years. The earth is a finite system. Nature provides that finite systems, such as the Earth, will cycle to new states of equilibrium over time, as conditions change. While we would like to defeat Earth’s tendency in this regard, it is not at all clear that we can. Part of this cycling to a new state is likely to be a change in climate.

A state change is a cause for concern to humans, but not necessarily to the Earth itself.  The Earth has moved from state to state many times in its existence, and will continue to do so in the future. The changes will bring the Earth back into a new equilibrium. For example, if CO2 levels are high, species that can make use of higher CO2 levels (such as plants) are likely to become dominant, rather than humans.

Exactly how this state change might occur is subject to different views. One view is that changing CO2 levels will be a primary driver. The Nature article referenced previously suggested that increased disturbance of natural ecosystems (as with greater use of biomass) might force a state change. My personal view is that a financial collapse related to high oil price may be part of Nature’s approach to moving to a new state. It could bring about a reduction in world trade, a scale back in CO2 emissions, and a general contraction of human systems.4

However the change takes place, it could be abrupt. It will not be to many people’s liking, since most will not be prepared for it.

Steps That Might Work to Slow CO2 Emissions

It would be convenient if we could slow CO2 emissions by working to produce energy with less CO2. This option does not seem to be working well though, so I would argue that we need to work in a different direction: toward reducing humans’ need for external energy. In order to do this, I would suggest two major steps:

(1) Reduce the world’s population, through one-child policies and universal access to family planning services. This step is necessary because rising population adds to demand. If we are to reduce demand, lower population needs to play a role.

(2) Change our emphasis to producing essential goods locally, rather than outsourcing them to parts of the world that are likely use coal to produce them. I would suggest starting with food, water, and clothing, and the supply chains necessary to produce these items.

Changing our emphasis to producing essential goods locally will have a multiple benefits. It will (a) add local jobs, and (b) lead to less worldwide growth in coal usage, (c) save on transport fuel, and (d) add protection against the adverse impact of declining world oil supply, if this should happen in the not too distant future. It should also help reduce CO2 emissions. The costs of goods will likely be higher using this approach, leading to less “stuff” per person, but this, too, is part of reaching reduced CO2 emissions.

It is hard to see that the steps outlined above would be acceptable to world leaders or to the majority of world population. Thus, I am afraid we will end up falling back on Nature’s plan, discussed above.

Notes:

[1] Michael Kumhof and Dirk Muir recently prepared a model of oil supply and demand (IMF working paper: Oil and the World Economy: Some Possible Futures). In it, they assume a long run price-elasticity of oil supply of 0.03, and remark that a paper by Benes and others indicates a range of 0.005 to 0.02 for this variable. The long term price elasticity of oil demand is  assumed to be .08 in the Kumhof and Muir analysis.

[2] I would argue that standard EROEI measurements are defined too narrowly to give a true measure of the amount of energy used in making a particular substitute. For example, EROEI measures do not consider the energy costs associated with labor (even though workers spend their salaries on clothing, and commuting costs, and many other good and services that use fossil fuels), or with financing costs, or of indirect impacts like wear and tear on the roads by transporting corn for biofuel.

Other types of analysis have ways of dealing with this known shortfall. For example, when the number of jobs that a new employer can be expected to add to a community is evaluated, the usual approach seems to be to take the number of jobs that can be directly counted and multiply by three, to estimate the full impact. I would argue that with substitutes, some similar adjustment is needed. This adjustment which would act to increase the energy use associated with renewables, and reduce the EROEI. For example, the adjustment might divide directly calculated EROEI by three.

A calculation of the true net benefit of renewables also needs to recognize that nearly the full energy cost is paid up front, and only over time is recovered in energy production. When renewable production is growing rapidly, society tends to be in a long-term deficit position. Typically, it is only as growth slows that society reaches as net-positive energy position.

[3] I obviously have not covered all potential solutions. Nuclear power is sometimes mentioned, as is space solar power. There are new solutions being proposed regularly. Even if these solutions would work, ramping them up would take time and require use of fossil fuels, so it is wise to consider other options as well.

[4] The way that limited oil supply could interfere with world trade is as follows: High oil prices cause consumers to cut back on discretionary goods. This leads to layoffs in discretionary sectors of the economy, such as vacation travel. It also leads to secondary effects, such as debt defaults and lower housing prices. The financial effects “concentrate up” to governments of oil importing nations, because they receive less tax revenue from laid-off workers at the same time that they pay out more in unemployment benefits, stimulus, and bank bailouts. (We are already at this point.)

Eventually, countries will find that deficit spending is spiraling out of control. If countries raise taxes and cut benefits, this is likely to lead to more lay offs and debt defaults. One possible outcome is that citizens will become increasingly unhappy, and replace governments with new governments that repudiate old debt. The new governments may have difficulty establishing financial relationships with other governments, given that most are major debt defaulters. Such issues could reduce world trade substantially. With the drop of world trade would come much more limited ability to maintain our current systems, such as electricity and long distance transport.

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Reminds me of that old saying, “The best laid plans of mice and men …” Or as Robbie Burns wrote in 1785,

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Doing nothing is not an option

Part Three of The Sufficiency Economy

A recent item on Naked Capitalism under their links section, deserves being highlighted.  It was a reference to a recent report on OilPrice under the heading of Why Current Methods to Combat Climate Change Don’t Work  Let me offer a taster:

World leaders seem to have their minds made up regarding what will fix world CO2 emissions problems. Their list includes taxes on gasoline consumption, more general carbon taxes, cap and trade programs, increased efficiency in automobiles, greater focus on renewables, and more natural gas usage.

Unfortunately, we live in a world economy with constrained oil supply. Because of this, the chosen approaches have a tendency to backfire if some countries fail to adopt them. But even if everyone adopted them, it is not at all clear that they would provide the promised benefits.

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. If emissions had risen at the average rate that they did during the 1987 to 1997 period (about 1% per year), emissions in 2011 would be 18% lower than they actually were. While there were many other things going on at the same time, the much higher rise in emissions in recent years is not an encouraging sign.

The standard fixes don’t work for several reasons ….

Not going any further because the author, Gail Tverberg has given me permission to reproduce her article and I shall be doing that next Monday.  If you can’t wait until then the article may be read on Gail’s website.

So yesterday, Dr. Alexander set out a series of aspects that showed just how challenging is the present global predicament.  The fundamental argument being that growth is now utterly inappropriate for where mankind now is at the end of 2012.  Part three of the essay examines how, whether we like it or not, change is on its way.

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THE SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY
ENVISIONING A PROSPEROUS WAY DOWN
Samuel Alexander
Simplicity Institute Report 12s, 2012

Dr Samuel Alexander is co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne.

3. Embracing Life After Growth (Before it Embraces Us)

Earlier I mentioned that eventually we are likely to have a sufficiency economy whether we choose it or not. It should now be clearer why this is so. The growth paradigm has reached, more or less, the ‘limits to growth,’ and this means that we must move away from growth-based economies if we are to avoid exacerbating existing ecological crises to the point of catastrophe. Billions of lives are at stake, as are the biodiversity and climatic balance of our planet. But even if we do not choose to give up on growth, energy and resource constraints are in the process of bringing growth to an end all the same, and no amount of ‘quantitative easing’ or technological advances are going to provide an escape from this biophysical reality. When, in the foreseeable future, the world reaches the ‘end of growth,’ we will have a form of ‘sufficiency economy’ imposed upon us, in the sense at least that we will have to make do, as best we can, without further growth. This may well imply radically reduced consumption, compared to levels prevalent in consumer societies today, because when growth-based economies do not grow, debts cannot be repaid, and economic contraction, not merely stagnation, tends to ensue. If this situation is not well managed – for example, if we persist blindly with expectations of limitless growth and continue to structure our economies accordingly – then this phase in history is probably going to mark the beginning of civilisational collapse, although it is impossible to be sure whether this would be a rapid breakdown of the existing order (Korowics, 2012) or a slow deterioration over many decades (Greer, 2008).

Nevertheless, the fact that there are biophysical limits to growth from which we cannot escape sometimes obscures the fact that living within those limits is something that we should want to do, simply to be good stewards of Earth. It is obviously in our self-interest to preserve the life-support systems upon which all life depends, a point that is too often overlooked. Furthermore, the social and psychological evidence noted immediately above implies that ‘the good life’ does not actually consist in the consumption of material things, contrary to the promises of advertisements, and this means that denying ourselves consumer lifestyles need not be considered a hardship, as the ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement, for example, already understands (Alexander and Ussher, 2012). Certainly, consumer culture must not be accepted as the peak of civilisation. We must explore alternative ways to flourish without relying on material abundance, and I will argue that embracing a sufficiency economy is one means of doing so, and probably a necessary means. I will now briefly elaborate on some of the values underlying the sufficiency economy then proceed to unpack their practical implications in some detail.

3.1. The Principle of Sufficiency – ‘Enough, for Everyone, Forever’

The fundamental aim of a sufficiency economy, as I define it, is to create an economy that provides ‘enough, for everyone, forever.’ In other words, economies should seek to universalise a material standard of living that is sufficient for a good life but which is ecologically sustainable into the deep future. Once that is achieved, further growth in material wealth would not be an economic priority. As noted above, for individuals and economies that are already overconsuming, the attainment of sufficiency implies not merely resisting further growth, but first entering a phase of planned economic contraction. Once sustainable sufficiency has been attained, prosperity should be sought in various low-impact, non-materialistic forms of well being, such as enjoying social relationships, experiencing connection with nature, engaging in meaningful work or spiritual practice, or exploring various forms of peaceful, creative activity. There are no limits to the scale or diversity of qualitative improvement of life in a sufficiency economy, but to achieve sustainability in a world of seven billion people (and counting), material standards of living must not aim for consumer affluence but only for what is minimally sufficient for a good life. The basic economic reasoning here is that once basic material needs are met, human beings are not so strictly bound by materialistic concerns and are thus free to dedicate more of their energy and attention to things other than increasing material living standards. ‘As wealth increases,’ John Hicks (1959: xiii) once wrote, ‘wealth itself becomes (or should become) less important,’ a dynamic that Hicks mischievously called ‘the diminishing marginal significance of economics.’

These broad comments obviously require (and will receive below) more concrete expression, but they nevertheless provide a normative starting point that contrasts sharply with the materialistic ‘more is better’ ethos underpinning existing growth economies. The sufficiency economy is based on an alternative economic perspective that accepts that ‘just enough is plenty,’ and this alternative perspective implies that producing more than is sufficient is not required for an individual or society to flourish. In the words of Henry Thoreau (1982: 568): ‘Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.’ Furthermore, we have already seen that the growth paradigm has produced high-impact economic systems that are grossly unsustainable and certainly not universalisable, so the sufficiency economy treats consumer lifestyles, and the growth economies that are required to support them, as neither desirable nor sustainable.

Determining exactly what level of material provision is ‘sufficient’ cannot be defined with any analytical precision, and will always be context and culturally specific (Sen, 1998). But material sufficiency can be broadly understood to include meeting basic biophysical needs for food and water, shelter, and clothing, as well as having access to basic medical services and some minimal level of social education. Access to extra energy supplies for heating will also be required in certain climates, and since energy is required to sustain any level of social complexity, some indeterminate level of energy supply, beyond food, fire, and labour, should also be considered a basic requirement for a full, human life. (Only those anarcho-primitivists, I presume, who think hunter-gathering is the only acceptable form of social organisation, would object to there being a basic need for energy beyond food, fire, and labour.) Sustainability may not necessarily mean living like the Amish – I am sure people will creatively salvage the wastes of industrial civilisation to live in ways that lie beyond the Amish lifestyles for some time. But using the Amish as a rough touchstone or benchmark may not be so far from the truth. At least this evokes a serious image of what low-consumption ‘simple living’ could look like in an energy descent context, a scenario that is entirely absent from mainstream sustainability discourse (perhaps because such simplicity of life is politically unpalatable). The most important point to understand is that nothing much resembling consumer lifestyles today are sustainable or universalisable.

Although these comments on sufficiency remain highly indeterminate – especially with respect to the amount of energy required – my position is that the concept of sufficiency is so important to sustainability discourse that its indeterminacy must not be a reason to reject it. I contend that universal sufficiency, like justice, is a fuzzy goal towards which humanity should be moving, and the most important thing is that there is a debate over the meaning of sufficiency and an attempt to practice our theory as best we can (Princen, 2005). Currently, in the developed nations, at least, sufficiency does not enter our economic or political vocabulary, which is why so few are asking the question, ‘How much is enough?’, and why fewer still are trying to answer it.

In an age that has done so much to link ‘the good life’ with material abundance, some will think the pursuit of sufficiency means giving up happy and fulfilling lives, but such an objection is based on a particular conception of human beings that the sufficiency perspective I am outlining rejects (Alexander, 2012d). If it were true that happiness and fulfilment consisted in the consumption and accumulation of ever more material things, then, admittedly, a sufficiency economy would seem to be inconsistent with ‘the good life.’ But that is far too narrow a conception of the good life and it is based on a misunderstanding of human beings. It may be that affluence can produce well being, but that does not prove that well being depends on affluence. Indeed, the conception of human beings upon which the sufficiency economy is based is one in which there are an infinite variety of fulfilling lives that can be lived while consuming no more than an equitable share of nature. Put more directly, the sufficiency economy is based on the premise that ‘a simple life’ can be ‘a good life,’ a truth that is obscured only to those who have not sufficiently explored their imaginations. Since consumerist conceptions of ‘the good life’ are causing devastating social and ecological problems, it follows that our economies should promote conceptions of the good life based on far lower resource and energy consumption, and that is the defining characteristic of the sufficiency economy.

3.2. The Macro-Economic and Lifestyle Implications of Energy Descent

The necessity of highly reduced energy consumption is perhaps the critical issue (Odum and Odum, 2001). Such a reduction will arise whether it is enforced by declining oil supplies or voluntarily embraced as a response to climate change. However, even the most progressive ecological economists who argue for decarbonising the economy do not seem to realise quite how revolutionary this proposal is – which is not to say the proposal is misconceived (Hansen et al, 2008), only that its economic implications may be misunderstood. If the global economy managed to wean itself off fossil fuels over the next few decades in response to climate change, then a ‘steady state’ economy would be impossible, if a steady state is meant to imply maintaining anything like existing levels of affluence. It would be impossible because fossil fuels currently make up around 80% of global energy supply (IEA, 2010b: 6), and given the close relationship between energy and economics, nothing like existing production or distribution could be maintained when we are talking about that level of energy reduction. Without fossil fuels, the world just would not have the energy supply to maintain a steady state of economic output; the economy would have to contract significantly. This is not a consequence many people seem to understand or dare to acknowledge, but it is a reality that we must not shy away from if a post-carbon world is indeed what we seek.

The implications of drastically reduced energy consumption primarily means two things for economies. First, it means significantly reduced production and consumption, commensurate with the available energy supply. In order to meet basic needs for all, this will require much more efficient use of energy and a radical reassessment of how best to use what limited energy is available (Alexander 2012b). Secondly, energy descent will mean an inevitable transition to highly localised forms of economic activity, for the reason that trade over large distances would be simply too energy-intensive and costly to afford, especially in an era of stagnating or declining oil supplies and rising prices (Rubin, 2009).

In short, a sufficiency economy is an economy that has low energy and resource requirements (relative to developed economies) but which sufficiently provides for mostly local needs using mostly local resources. These defining features of a sufficiency economy may receive some vague support in certain areas of the ‘deep green’ literature on sustainability, but to date almost no attention has been given to describing in any detail what economic life would be like if such an economy were ever to arise (but see Morris, 2004; Trainer, 2010; Burch, 2012a). Accordingly, the remainder of this essay is dedicated to providing some of those details, in the hope of advancing the debate on what real sustainability actually means for daily life. Until we have some clearer vision of the alternative society, it is very difficult to work effectively and prosperously toward its realisation.

(The full set of references will be included in the concluding Part Five to be published on Friday.)

Part Four – Envisioning a Prosperous Way Down will be published on Learning from Dogs tomorrow.

The Long Emergency, part two.

The concluding extract from James Kunstler’s powerful book.

Last Friday, I published the first part of the extract that so powerfully articulated the madness of present global policies (especially US policies) with regard to oil.  Let me continue.

The first part finished thus, “Yet, I was not soothed by these thoughts, nor by the free eats, and even the liquor failed to lift me up because I couldn’t shake the recognition that in the short term we are in pretty serious trouble, too.”

There is near unanimity among the scientific community that global warming is happening.  There is also a definite consensus emerging that the term “climate change” may be more accurate than “global warming” to describe what we are in for.  The mean temperature of the planet is going up.  The trend is unmistakable.  Average global land temperature was 46.90 degrees Fahrenheit [Ed. 8.278 °C.] when modern measurements began and had reached 49.20 degrees F [Ed. 9.556 °C.] in 2003.  The rate of change has also increased steadily.  The total increase of 2.30 degrees might seem trivial, but has tremendous implications.  And the rise in temperature happens to correlate exactly with the upward scale of fossil fuel use since the mid-nineteenth century.

It may not matter anymore whether global warming is or is not a by-product of human activity, or if it just represents the dynamic disequilibrium of what we call “nature.”  But it happens to coincide with our imminent descent down the slippery slope of oil and gas depletion, so that all the potential discontinuities of that epochal circumstance will be amplified, ramified, reinforced, and torqued by climate change.  If global warming is a result of human activity, fossil fuel-based industrialism in particular, then it seems to me the prospects are poor that the human race will be able to do anything about it, because the journey down the oil depletion arc will be much more disorderly than the journey up was.  The disruptions and hardships of decelerating industrialism will destabilize governments and societies to the degree that concerted international action – such as the Kyoto protocols or anything like it – will never be carried out.  In the chaotic world of diminishing and contested energy resources, there will simply be a mad scramble to use up whatever fossil fuels people can manage to lay their hands on.  The very idea idea that we possess any control over the process seems to me further evidence of the delusion gripping our late-industrial culture – the fatuous certainty that technology will save us from the diminishing returns of technology.

So for the purposes of this book, the relevant question concerning global warming and climate change is not whether human beings caused  it or whether we will come up with some snazzy means to arrest it, but simply what the effects are likely to be and what they signify about the way we will live later on this century.

This extract from the book was published in 2005, although there is an Afterword included that was published in 2009.  So to bring things more up to date, here’s a video of James Kunstler speaking about peak oil just about a year ago.

In this fourth video in the series “Peak Oil and a Changing Climate” from The Nation magazine and On The Earth Productions, James Howard Kunstler discusses how finance and energy are running neck and neck to fuel the end of advanced industrial civilization.

For more videos in the series, visit The Nation.

Plus for those that are interested in the data of global land-surface temperatures, here’s a two-minute video showing the temperature change over the last 200 years.

For more information about this study visit http://berkeleyearth.org. Berkeley Earth video representation of the land surface temperature anomaly, 1800 to the present. The map of the world shows the temperature anomaly by location over time. The chart at the bottom, shows the global land-surface temperature anomaly. The Berkeley Earth analysis shows 0.911 degrees Centigrade of land warming (+/- 0.042 C) since the 1950s.

William deBuys, The Parching of the West

Once again, a powerful essay from the TomDispatch blog.

Quick introduction.  Tom Engelhardt, of TomDispatch, has given me a blanket permission to reproduce his essays.  As always, I am indebted to his generosity.  This particular essay is extremely timely coming after my Post yesterday about extreme weather.

Tomgram: William deBuys, The Parching of the West

Posted by William deBuys at 6:02pm, December 4, 2011.

The good news? While 2010 tied for the warmest year on record, 2011 — according to the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) — is likely to come in 10th once November and December temperatures are tallied. In part, this is evidently due to an especially strong La Niña cooling event in the Pacific.  On the other hand, with 2011 in the top ten despite La Niña, 13 of the warmest years since such record-keeping began have occurred in the last 15 years.  Think of that as an uncomfortably hot cluster.

And other climate news is no better.  A recent study indicates that Arctic ice is now melting at rates unprecedented in the last 1,450 years (as far back, that is, as reasonably accurate reconstructions of such an environment can be modeled).  As the Arctic warms and temperatures rise in surrounding northern lands — someday, Finland may have to construct artificial ski trails and ice rinks for its future winter tourists — a report on yet another study is bringing more lousy news.  Appearing in the prestigious science journal Nature, it indicates that the melting permafrost of the tundra may soon begin releasing global-warming gases into the atmosphere in massive quantities.  We’re talking the equivalent of 300 billion metric tons of carbon over the next nine decades.

Recently, Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency, suggested that, by century’s end, the planet’s temperature could rise by a staggering 6º Celsius (almost 11º Fahrenheit).  International climate-change negotiators had been trying to keep that rise to a “mere” 2º C.  “Everybody, even the schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us,” was the way Birol summed the situation up.  If only it were so, but here in the U.S., none of the above news was even considered front-page worthy.  Nor was the news that, in 2010, humans had pumped more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than at any time since the industrial revolution began: 564 million more tons than in 2009 to be exact.  We’re living today with just less than a degree of those six degrees to come, and the results in extreme weather this year should have made us all stop and think.

If you want to focus in on damage here in the U.S., consider Rick Perry’s Texas, where, according to scientists, “daily temperatures averaged 86.7° in June through August — a staggering 5.4°F above normal.”  According to the WMO, that’s the highest such average “ever recorded for any American state.”  And still global politicians yammer on and do little; still, the U.S. shuffles its political feet, while Canada’s government has announced that it will make no new commitments and may even be preparing to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol, and countries with booming developing economies like China, India, and Brazil hedge their bets when it comes to action.

In the meantime, nature doesn’t care whether or not we do anything.  It’s on its own schedule.  And when it comes to the American Southwest, that schedule looks daunting indeed as William deBuys makes clear.  His new book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, is the definitive work on the subject of water and the West (and, as with all of his work, a pleasure to read). So get yourself a glass of water while you still can and settle in for a dose of the Age of Thirst. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses the water politics of the American West, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

The Age of Thirst in the American West
Coming to a Theater Near You: The Greatest Water Crisis in the History of Civilization 

By William deBuys

Consider it a taste of the future: the fire, smoke, drought, dust, and heat that have made life unpleasant, if not dangerous, from Louisiana to Los Angeles. New records tell the tale: biggest wildfire ever recorded in Arizona (538,049 acres),biggest fire ever in New Mexico (156,600 acres), all-time worst fire year in Texas history (3,697,000 acres).

The fires were a function of drought.  As of summer’s end, 2011 was the driest year in 117 years of record keeping for New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, and the second driest for Oklahoma. Those fires also resulted from record heat.  It was the hottest summer ever recorded for New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, as well as the hottest August ever for those states, plus Arizona and Colorado.

Virtually every city in the region experienced unprecedented temperatures, with Phoenix, as usual, leading the march toward unlivability. This past summer, the so-called Valley of the Sun set a new record of 33 days when the mercury reached a shoe-melting 110º F or higher. (The previous record of 32 days was set in 2007.)

And here’s the bad news in a nutshell: if you live in the Southwest or just about anywhere in the American West, you or your children and grandchildren could soon enough be facing the Age of Thirst, which may also prove to be the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.  No kidding.

If that gets you down, here’s a little cheer-up note: the end is not yet nigh.

In fact, this year the weather elsewhere rode to the rescue, and the news for the Southwest was good where it really mattered.  Since January, the biggest reservoir in the United States, Lake Mead, backed up by the Hoover Dam and just 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas, has risen almost 40 feet. That lake is crucial when it comes to watering lawns or taking showers from Arizona to California.  And the near 40-foot surge of extra water offered a significant upward nudge to the Southwest’s water reserves.

The Colorado River, which the reservoir impounds, supplies all or part of the water on which nearly 30 million people depend, most of them living downstream of Lake Mead in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Tijuana, and scores of smaller communities in the United States and Mexico.

Back in 1999, the lake was full. Patricia Mulroy, who heads the water utility serving Las Vegas, rues the optimism of those bygone days.  “We had a fifty-year, reliable water supply,” she says. “By 2002, we had no water supply. We were out. We were done. I swore to myself we’d never do that again.”

In 2000, the lake began to fall — like a boulder off a cliff, bouncing a couple of times on the way down. Its water level dropped a staggering 130 feet, stopping less than seven feet above the stage that would have triggered reductions in downstream deliveries. Then — and here’s the good news, just in case you were wondering — last winter, it snowed prodigiously up north in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

The spring and summer run-off from those snowpacks brought enormous relief. It renewed what we in the Southwest like to call the Hydro-Illogic cycle: when drought comes, everybody wrings their hands and promises to institute needed reform, if only it would rain a little. Then the drought breaks or eases and we all return to business as usual, until the cycle comes around to drought again.

So don’t be fooled.  One day, perhaps soon, Lake Mead will renew its downward plunge.  That’s a certainty, the experts tell us.  And here’s the thing: the next time, a sudden rescue by heavy snows in the northern Rockies might not come. If the snowpacks of the future are merely ordinary, let alone puny, then you’ll know that we really are entering a new age.

And climate change will be a major reason, but we’ll have done a good job of aiding and abetting it. The states of the so-called Lower Basin of the Colorado River — California, Arizona, and Nevada — have been living beyond their water means for years. Any departure from recent decades of hydrological abundance, even a return to long-term average flows in the Colorado River, would produce a painful reckoning for the Lower Basin states.  And even worse is surely on the way.

Just think of the coming Age of Thirst in the American Southwest and West as a three-act tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions.

The Age of Thirst: Act I

The curtain in this play would surely rise on the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which divided the river’s water equally between the Upper and Lower Basins, allocating to each annually 7.5 million acre-feet, also known by its acronym “maf.” (An acre-foot suffices to support three or four families for a year.) Unfortunately, the architects of the compact, drawing on data from an anomalously wet historical period, assumed the river’s average annual flow to be about 17 maf per year.  Based on reconstructions that now stretch back more than 1,000 years, the river’s long-term average is closer to 14.7 maf.  Factor in evaporation from reservoirs (1.5 maf per year) and our treaty obligation to Mexico (another 1.5 maf), and the math doesn’t favor a water-guzzling society.

Nonetheless, the states of the Lower Basin have been taking their allotment as if nothing were wrong and consequently overdrafting their account by up to 1.3 maf annually.  At this rate, even under unrealistically favorable scenarios, the Lower Basin will eventually drain Lake Mead and cutbacks will begin, possibly as soon as in the next few years.  And then things will get dicier because California, the water behemoth of the West, won’t have to absorb any of those cutbacks.

Here’s one of the screwiest quirks in western water law: to win Congressional approval for the building of a monumental aqueduct, the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which would bring Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona agreed to subordinate its Colorado River water rights to California’s.  In that way, the $4 billion, 336-mile-long CAP was born, and for it Arizona paid a heavy price. The state obliged itself to absorb not just its own losses in a cutback situation, but California’s as well.

Worst case scenario: the CAP aqueduct, now a lifeline for millions, could become as dry as the desert it runs through, while California continues to bathe. Imagine Phoenix curling and cracking around the edges, while lawn sprinklers hiss in Malibu. The contrast will upset a lot of Arizonans.

Worse yet, the prospective schedule of cutbacks now in place for the coming bad times is too puny to save Lake Mead.

The Age of Thirst: Act II

While that Arizona-California relationship guarantees full employment for battalions of water lawyers, a far bigger problem looms: climate change. Models for the Southwest have been predicting a 4ºC (7.2ºF) increase in mean temperature by century’s end, and events seem to be outpacing the predictions.

We have already experienced close to 1º C of that increase, which accounts, at least in part, for last summer’s colossal fires and record-setting temperatures — and it’s now clear that we’re just getting started.

The simple rule of thumb for climate change is that wet places will get wetter and dry places drier. One reason the dry places will dry is that higher temperatures mean more evaporation. In other words, there will be ever less water in the rivers that keep the region’s cities (and much else) alive. Modeling already suggests that by mid-century surface stream-flow will decline by 10% to 30%.

Independent studies at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in California and the University of Colorado evaluated the viability of Lake Mead and eventually arrived at similar conclusions: after about 2026, the risk of “failure” at Lake Mead, according to a member of the Colorado group, “just skyrockets.” Failure in this context would mean water levels lower than the dam’s lowest intake, no water heading downstream, and the lake becoming a “dead pool.”

If — perhaps “when” is the more appropriate word — that happens, California’s Colorado River Aqueduct, which supplies water to Los Angeles, San Diego, and the All-American Canal, which sustains the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, will go just as dry as the Central Arizona Project aqueduct. Meanwhile, if climate change is affecting the Colorado River’s watershed that harshly, it will undoubtedly also be hitting the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

The aptly named Lester Snow, a recent director of California’s Department of Water Resources, understood this. His future water planning assumed a 40% decline in runoff from the Sierras, which feeds the California Aqueduct. None of his contemplated scenarios were happy ones. The Colorado River Aqueduct and the California Aqueduct make the urban conglomerations of southern California possible. If both fail at once, the result will be, as promised, the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.

Only Patricia Mulroy has an endgame strategy for the demise of Lake Mead. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is, even now, tunneling under the lake to install the equivalent of a bathtub drain at close to its lowest point. At a cost of more than $800 million, it will drain the dregs of Lake Mead for Las Vegas.

Admittedly, water quality will be a problem, as the dead pool will concentrate pollutants. The good news, according to the standard joke among those who chronicle Sin City’s improbable history, is that the hard-partying residents and over-stimulated tourists who sip from Lake Mead’s last waters will no longer need to purchase anti-depressants. They’ll get all the Zoloft and Xanax they need from their tap water.

And only now do we arrive at the third act of this expanding tragedy.

The Age of Thirst: Act III

Those who believe in American exceptionalism hold that the historical patterns shaping the fate of other empires and nations don’t apply to the United States. Be that as it may, we are certainly on track to test whether the U.S. is similarly inoculated against the patterns of environmental history.

Because tree rings record growing conditions year by year, the people who study them have been able to reconstruct climate over very long spans of time. One of their biggest discoveries is that droughts more severe and far longer than anything known in recent centuries have occurred repeatedly in the American Southwest. The droughts of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, of the 1950s, and of the period from 1998 to 2004 are remembered in the region, yet none lasted a full decade.

By contrast, the drought that brought the civilization of the ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, centered at Chaco Canyon, to its knees in the twelfth century, by contrast,lasted more than 30 years. The one that finished off Mesa Verdean culture in the thirteenth century was similarly a “megadrought.”

Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona who played a major role in the Nobel-Prize-winning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, tells me that the prospect of 130° F days in Phoenix worries him far less than the prospect of decades of acute dryness. “If anything is scary, the scariest is that we could trip across a transition into a megadrought.” He adds, “You can probably bet your house that, unless we do something about these greenhouse gas emissions, the megadroughts of the future are going to be a lot hotter than the ones of the past.”

Other scientists believe that the Southwest is already making the transition to a“new climatology,” a new normal that will at least bring to mind the aridity of theDust Bowl years. Richard Seager of Columbia University, for instance, suggests that “the cycle of natural dry periods and wet periods will continue, but… around a mean that gets drier. So the depths — the dry parts of the naturally occurring droughts — will be drier than we’re used to, and the wet parts won’t be as wet.”

Drought affects people differently from other disasters. After something terrible happens — tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes — people regularly come together in memorable ways, rising above the things that divide them. In a drought, however, what is terrible is that nothing happens. By the time you know you’re in one, you’ve already had an extended opportunity to meditate on the shortcomings of your neighbors. You wait for what does not arrive. You thirst. You never experience the rush of compassion that helps you behave well. Drought brings out the worst in us.

After the Chacoan drought, corn-farming ancestral Puebloans still remained in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. They hung on, even if at lower population densities. After the Mesa Verdean drought, everybody left.

By the number of smashed crania and other broken bones in the ruins of the region’s beautiful stone villages, archaeologists judge that the aridifying world of the Mesa Verdeans was fatally afflicted by violence. Warfare and societal breakdown, evidently driven by the changing climate, helped end that culture.

So it matters what we do. Within the limits imposed by the environment, the history we make is contingent, not fated. But we are not exactly off to a good start in dealing with the challenges ahead. The problem of water consumption in the Southwest is remarkably similar to the problem of greenhouse gas pollution. First, people haggle to exhaustion over the need to take action; then, they haggle over inadequate and largely symbolic reductions. For a host of well-considered, eminently understandable, and ultimately erroneous reasons, inaction becomes the main achievement. For this drama, think Hamlet. Or if the lobbyists who argue for business as usual out west and in Congress spring to mind first, think Iago.

We know at least one big thing about how this particular tragedy will turn out: the so-called civilization of the Southwest will not survive the present century, not at its present scale anyway. The question yet to be answered is how much it will have to shrink, and at what cost. Stay tuned. It will be one of the greatest, if grimmest, shows on Earth.

William deBuys is the author of seven books, including the just published A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), and The Walk (an excerpt of which won a Pushcart Prize). He has long been involved in environmental affairs in the Southwest, including service as founding chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the 87,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses the water politics of the American West click here, or download it to your iPod here

Copyright 2011 William deBuys