Friday, May 18, 2007

Facing the Music

Previously I wrote about broad issues that must be tackled to mitigate the oncoming crises. No mitigation effort that serious has ever taken place in the history of mankind nor do I expect it to happen this time. Instead, we are about to face the music for our collective foolishness and these trials may begin as soon as this summer.

GliderGuider over at TOD Canada has authored a new piece called Peak Oil, Carrying Capacity and Overshoot: Population, the Elephant in the Room. This is one of those rare pieces outside the Dieoff website that dares to try to grapple with the elephant in the room. Unfortunately, as the responses demonstrate, there are still people who believe this problem can be solved and proceed to act in that manner. This was followed by Ecological Footprint, Energy Consumption, and the Looming Collapse by Professor Francois Cellier. Both posts were attacked with absolutely no useful quantitative rebuttals and only emotional rhetoric hinged upon faith-based solutions.

Today we are seeing the crisis a bit closer to home. According to a televised NBC report, barges carrying finished gasoline or gasoline components have been diverted from the east coast to the south to avert spot shortages. And Memorial Day driving has not even begun yet. A government report states that the Minimum Operating Level (MOL) for the gasoline system in the US is 185 million barrels. To understand the MOL, imagine a pipeline 1000 feet long. If you put a gallon of gasoline in one end, it's not going to come out the other end. It will just sit in the pipeline. Instead, the pipeline must be pressurized and filled with gasoline. The pipe might contain 1000 gallons of gasoline, so that when you push one gallon in one end, one gallon can come out the other end. But there is still 1000 gallons in between. That 1000 gallons is the MOL for that pipeline.

Now jump from this hypothetical example to the real world where we have thousands of miles of pipelines crisscrossing the entire country. We need 185 million barrels of gasoline as MOL to keep the national pipeline system pressurized and working. But the MOL gets counted as part of national inventories even though you cannot directly use it without shutting down the pipeline and draining it by hand. This is why the current inventory number of 195 million barrels is worrisome - 185 million of that is MOL, and that leaves just 10 million barrels as real cushion in the system. And how much do we use daily? Well, according to the EIA, for the week ending May 11, 2007, we used 9.4 million barrels per day of gasoline. This means that after we take out MOL, that the US has barely one day's worth of spare supply on hand just as we enter the main driving season. And most people have no clue about what is going on, so consequently they think this will pass shortly and will go off on their annual vacations. This summer may get interesting. All it will take is one single hurricane approaching US landfall to spur a massive auto-based evacuation and then people will find they don't have the fuel to evacuate. The oil companies are in for a gigantic nightmare if motorists are stranded on the highway as a Cat 4 or Cat 5 storm zeroes in on them. And if people die because of this, the public anger is going to be amazing to behold, even if it is misplaced.

Finally, we see another poor nation begin to slide out of the modern age, out of the petroleum age, and into some form of the past. Senegal is experiencing severe shortages of diesel and may have to impose "unprecedented power cuts" (i.e. blackouts). Note that Senegal already has 10 hours of blackout time per day anyway so what could be worse than this? Try maybe no power at all.

As Jeffrey Brown is fond of noting, forced energy conservation is moving up the wealth chain. It started with the poorest nations but it is coming to a neighborhood near you, and perhaps sooner than you think. Or, as Matt Savinar is fond of saying, "The future is here now. It's just not widespread yet."

We're about out of time, people. If you haven't made some preparations by now, things could get very ugly very fast. And even if we muddle through this summer, there is no guarantee that things are going to get better next fall or next year.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Mitigating the Crisis

Aniya over at TOD has frequently prodded me to write about what a society might look like that successfully mitigates the oncoming horsemen of the apocalypse. I've given this a great deal of thought and I actually can see several such societies. None of them are like our current society though and that is the key differentiator. So as I thought about this, I thought I would first point out what must be done in order to mitigate successfully.

The core problem driving everything else is overpopulation. Those that argue that population is a side effect are missing the point entirely. So the first successful mitigation strategy must be controlling the birth rate. More importantly, the birth rate must fall low enough to produce a contracting population. I can see lots of ways to do this, from police state tactics to more market oriented type solutions. The police state tactics are obvious - look at China. But how about market oriented solutions? One thing the market has always had trouble with is defining the costs to the commons that any activity generates. These are "hidden" costs and economists constantly attempt to debate them. So one solution might be to allow couples to have one child at zero cost. The next child would impose a commons cost tax of 1 x the commons cost of one human life (value - TBD). The third child would impose a commons cost tax of 10 x the commons cost of one human life. Simply keep raising the cost of each subsequent child by one order of magnitude and very shortly people will opt to not have more than one child generally or maybe two. The exact tax numbers here are open to debate. The exact number of children is open to debate. One child? Two? Maybe the second child only invokes a fraction of the commons tax such that most people will have 2 children, a large subset have one and another large subset have zero? The exact values would depend on the rate of decline in population that you would want to achieve.

Further, you can allow couples to trade their zero cost child allowance. Say a couple decides to not have children at all. They could trade that allowance for some fair market value. How much? It depends on the family having the children. For a second or third child, they might pay very dearly for that license. But this still brings us back to what do you do about people who violate the law? Most people focus on the fetus alone but that's not the problem - it's the irresponsible parents. If a couple violates the law, they could be forcibly sterilized and still fined the tax plus punitive amounts on top of that. Further, their existing children might be taken from them as they are not adequate role models.

This all sounds rather horrific to some people and it is but this is the cost of successfully mitigating overpopulation. The population growth must be halted and it must be reversed. Now the exact rate of reversal and towards what target are open to some debate but let's assume that we have a century of time left and a target of 2 billion. This is a roughly 1.2% decline rate per year.

Then there is the general topic of sustainability. Either what we produce must be biodegradable and there must be few enough of us that it properly can biodegrade or it must be completely recycled. There is no in between. Take the Pacific Ocean's subtropical gyre, a region of ocean lacking nutrients to support much ocean life but because of currents has accumulated a surface trash layer of plastic roughly the size of Texas. That area is an example of the ecological impact problem of large numbers of homo sapiens. So the problem is not just our carbon footprint. It's larger than that and we must live within the boundaries of the existing global environment without damaging it.

Again, this could be accomplished via multiple means, including a police state and enforced living at primitive poverty agricultural levels but that's not very attractive, is it? And again there are alternatives on how to motivate people to make sustainable decisions over non-sustainable ones.

But this leads to a discussion of economics and that leads to discussions like sustainable economics, which is a new way of looking at economics that tries to account for the physical world. Gilman is by no means the only writer in the sustainable economics field but it is growing rapidly. And interestingly, it is attempting to tackle those issues that traditional economics has failed to embrace. Sustainable economics is a rather new field, sort of the quantum mechanics of economics compared to classical economics being Newtonian physics.

However, the key point I would make to Aniya and others is that the scope of the chance required is staggering. We cannot piecemeal this. We cannot pretend that infinite growth is an allowable option anymore. Whatever form a civilization takes that successfully mitigates the problems of overpopulation and general resource depletion, it most definitely will bear no resemblance to what we have now. And that's the rub, isn't it? That's precisely why I have a view that civilization will collapse, because civilizations are problem solving entities that arise to address specific problems and which have a notoriously poor track record at adapting to different problems than those which gave them birth.