Tags: collapse*

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  1. The 'death of peak oil' has been much exaggerated, writes Paul Mobbs. Take out high-cost 'unconventional' oil and production peaked ten years ago, and even North America's fracking and tar sands boom has failed to open up new resources both big enough to make good the shortfall, and cheap enough to reward investors. We really do need to be thinking 'beyond petroleum'.

    It wasn't simply the economic failure of fracking (covered in The Ecologist last December) and the subsequent collapse in drilling (covered in January). The news from the USEIA was far more grim for those who understood its deeper meaning. Their press release was very matter-of-fact:

    "EIA's most recent Drilling Productivity Report (DPR) indicates a change in the crude oil production growth patterns in three key oil producing regions... The DPR estimates include the first projected declines in crude oil production in these regions since publication of the DPR began in October 2013."

    In the shale oil producing areas of Eagle Ford, Niobrara, and the Bakken, production had reached a peak and was beginning to decline. What the USEIA is not clear about is whether this is the result of recent economics, or some longer-term trend.

    This message was echoed a few weeks later in the Post Carbon Institutes's new analysis of Marcellus shale production, along with a warning about the future prospects:

    "Industry invariably drills its best prospects first, hence the cheapest gas is being exploited now. Infinite faith in technology cannot make up for the realities of geology. These realities are showing up now in the most productive counties."


    'Peak oil' - or the peaks of other resources such as copper or rare metals - is not equivalent to 'running out'. The 'peak' is the point in time when half the available non-renewable reserve has been extracted - somewhere between a half and two-fifths through the lifetime of the resource.

    From that point on it gets progressively harder to maintain production. Supply begins to fall, and both the energy and resources expended to produce a given quantity of the resource begins to increase exponentially over time.

    This effect is the result of the interaction of geology and economics:

    Geology gives a natural distribution of resources - with a few large high-quality deposits, a slightly larger number of middling-quality deposits, and a lot of very small low-quality deposits.
    Economics dictates we use the easiest to exploit and cheapest first, which means we use the biggest, easiest to access ones. Over time what's left gets progressively harder and more expensive to produce as we work through the 'stock' of the resource.

    The difficulty is that when we're talking about essential industrial minerals and energy resources, tight supply and rising prices - like the trends operating across the decade of the 2000s - can destabilise the economy.

    That's very bad for business and our resource-consuming lifestyles.

    In 2008 the crash came. What was worse, the warning signs related to the problems of finite energy supplies, ecological limits and debt were ignored; their message smothered beneath billions of pounds and trillions of dollars of quantitative easing.

    As billions poured into the banks, all the bankers could do in the midst of a recession was to lend to the few large industrial investment projects which were under-way - such as 'fracking' in the USA, or the housing market in Britain.

    The quiet reality of North American oil

    Canada produces a lot of conventional and unconventional oil - a large proportion of which gets sent to the USA. This fact is used as a positive message by the tar sands lobby to promote their industry.

    What that message misses is that the whole of the continent of North American acts as a single market - in part due to NAFTA.

    Mexico used to supply a lot of oil to the USA too, but production in the Cantarell field peaked in 2003 and is now in decline. For the last few years all that those increases in Canadian production have done is to roughly keep pace with the decline of Mexico's production.

    In the USA, yes they've produced a lot of new oil and gas from shale. What's equally significant is that, as a result of the economic downturn, they're also consuming 10% less oil than they were before the crash.

    Within the North American energy system, the impacts of the US economic recession on consumption is every bit as important as all those fracking rigs. In the global context too, the recent Chinese economic slowdown is a major factor in OPEC having the ability to floor the price of oil, thereby curtailing unconventional sources of oil.

    The figures are clear - we've peaked!

    If we take the data from the BP Annual Statistical Review for 2014, global oil supply was higher than in any other previous year. Peak oil averted? - arguably not.

    BP's figures include fracked shale oil, Canadian tar sands, and natural gas liquids from unconventional gas production. As outlined recently by the USEIA and Post Carbon Institute, shale oil is beginning to hit the limits of production. In Canada too, production is being constrained by a lack of new investment due to currently low prices.

    The other major factor is that, even amongst conventional producers, all is not rosy. Six nations produce half the worlds oil, three of which have peaked conventional production; 14 produce 75%, six of which are arguably past their conventional oil peak.

    For the last decade fracking and tar sands have produced enough oil to influence the global figure - but only by a few percent. Strip out that few percent of unconventional oil (let's ignore the gas liquids for now) and that small buffer evaporates.

    Once shale production falls significantly, or Mexico or another key producer begins to hit the steeper part of their depletion curve, or just a few more oil producers reach their peak, production will fall more steeply - portending yet another global energy, then economic crisis.

    The data on this and other ecological issues indicates that the core of neoliberal theory - of continual growth, technological progress and monetary wealth creation - is fatally flawed.
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  2. Gilding’s view is that we’ve reached a relationship between global population and available natural resources that makes it inevitable that the economy -- a converter of natural resources into goods -- will sharply slow down, if it has not started to slow down already.

    Gilding looks at trailing historical growth rates -- again, the rate at which natural resources are converted to industrial and population growth -- and concludes that the future size of the economy at these growth rates would create a machine that the earth simply cannot sustain. Again, I agree.

    Diamandis' talk isnstead, Abundance is Our Future, lists fast-moving technological innovations that have transformed poverty rates historically and promise to transform quality of life in the years ahead.

    Diamandis believes that the 3 billion people who have not yet come online to the Internet and telecom networks represent a vast and underutilized supply of human thinking. As a previous educator myself, I find this argument to be powerful.

    My quibble with Diamandis and his talk is that the magnitude of the world’s present challenges cannot wait for the array of potential solutions that may start to work at the margins of humanity, even despite his core belief that innovation and its impacts will actually start to speed up.
    Tags: , , by M. Fioretti (2012-05-21)
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  3. Millennials are threatening dozens of industries.

    They don't buy napkins. They won't play golf. They aren't buying homes or cars. And they're not even eating at Buffalo Wild Wings.

    Millennials' financial decisions have been heavily covered by media organizations — something that has infuriated many of the generation, as news that "millennials are killing" another industry has become a common headline.

    "This is just some more millennial-blaming B.S.," one reader wrote in response to a recent Business Insider article with the headline "Millennials are killing chains like Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebee's."
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  4. SWAT team raids in the US have gone up 25-fold since 1980. Time's recent article about the militarization of the police reports that "the federal government has funneled $4.3 billion of military property to law enforcement agencies since the late 1990s."

    End of the American Dream has assembled 10 facts about SWAT teams:

    In 1980, there were approximately 3,000 SWAT raids in the United States. Now, there are more than 80,000 SWAT raids per year in this country.
    79 percent of the time, SWAT teams are deployed to private homes.
    50 percent of the victims of SWAT raids are either black or Latino.
    In 65 percent of SWAT deployments, “a battering ram, boot, or some sort of explosive device” is used to gain forced entry to a home.
    62 percent of all SWAT raids involve a search for drugs.
    In at least 36 percent of all SWAT raids, “no contraband of any kind” is found by the police.
    In cases where it is suspected that there is a weapon in the home, police only find a weapon 35 percent of the time.
    More than 100 American families have their homes raided by SWAT teams every single day.
    Only 7 percent of all SWAT deployments are for “hostage, barricade or active-shooter scenarios”.
    Even small towns are getting SWAT teams now. 30 years ago, only 25.6 percent of communities with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 people had a SWAT team. Now, that number has increased to 80 percent.
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  5. March 2013 Increasingly a palpable sense of anxiety can be felt concerning the present and future availability of energy products in Egypt. Consistent supplies of oil, gas, butane, and particularly diesel, are becoming difficult to obtain. Diesel shortages have created an ominous and potentially dangerous situation greatly exacerbated by the interference of the black market.

    While most peak oil researchers are transfixed on calculating the global peak, they forget to look at the peaking in populous, strategically located countries like Egypt and its geo-political impacts. Neither US shale oil nor syncrude from Canadian tar sands will help the situation in these countries. What is happening there also tells us something about the world 20 years after the global peak.
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  6. one man vented his frustration that despite all of his efforts to live sustainably over the years it has not made 'one iota of difference' to the status quo. Massive corporations with giant PR budgets were riding roughshod over the planet in an orgy of destruction, he said, and there was nothing - nothing! - that we mere individuals could do that would have the slightest effect.

    Activism has its place
    I had to disagree. Not because I'm a naive clicktivist or placard waver who thinks that we can 'make politicians listen' while retaining our own comfy life styles - I'm not. Instead I believe that we will never know the direct result of our actions, most of which are too miniscule to be noticed on the micro level, but which can add up at the macro level and induce tipping points.

    But just because they are minuscule doesn't mean they don't add up. After all, if Rosa Parks had chosen to stand up on that bus in 1955, black people in America might not enjoy the same civil liberties (or lack thereof) that everyone else enjoys in the United States. She could not have foreseen the outcome of this, moments before she parked her stubborn backside on that seat, but the subsequent furore was the spark that ignited a civil rights movement.

    Corporations don't rule the world, physics does
    But in terms of the whole 'corporations rule the world so why bother' meme, I couldn't disagree more. Yes, corporations are too big and out of control - that's what happens when you let Big Capital grow too large. That does not mean they are omnipotent. They are still subject to the physicals laws of the universe, and they are very vulnerable to collapse. What's more, they are also very vulnerable to politics - let's not forget that politicians will always save their own necks before someone else's - even if that 'person' is a corporation. Just this year we have seen Tesco halted in its seemingly world-conquering expansion. It has abandoned stores in the USA, its profits are down and many of its customers have left to find something even cheaper and nastier (by the way, my first ever job was as a Tesco shelf-stacker at its first ever megastore, built on an irreplaceable SSI at a wildflower meadow just outside of Solihull).

    Industrial civilisation is also an empire. But it's not an empire built on ideology (are any?) but on the sheer logic and dynamics of the flows of cheap and abundant fossil fuels. And peak oil means that big, increasingly, does not mean better. Big has become too big as in too big to fail. And if something is too big to fail there's a problem with the system because it means it will take down the whole edifice when it inevitably does fail.

    sustainable communities, to me, means keeping out of the way of things that are too big to fail. A falling dinosaur can crush a lot of small furry rodents when it topples.
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  7. we are experiencing slowly descending net energy. Put simply, this means that in the good old days you could simply drill a hole in the ground and high quality cruse oil would gush upwards. This low hanging fruit had a rate of return of about 300 - that is, you got 300 units of oil back for every 1 you put into it. This ratio is known as EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested).

    Those days of extremely high net energy have gone, but we have configured our modern world as if they would stay forever. These days, oil is in increasingly more difficult places to get at, and the stuff that is there is comparatively low quality stuff with a low EROEI. Basically put, the low hanging fruit has been well and truly picked.

    Other stores of energy have varying EROEIs ranging from coal with about 80, nuclear with about 10 and corn ethanol of about 1 (i.e. you get as much energy back as you put into growing, transporting and refining it, meaning it is not worth the bother). Renewables have a range of EROEIs that are open to debate but tend to be of the order of 10 or less. This means they are technically viable as an energy source (all other things being equal) but would need to be scaled up on a truly humongous scale to get anywhere near what fossil fuels give us today.
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  8. This is a big year for anyone interested in, or caught in the teeth of, poverty and extreme inequity. It’s the year of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be agreed on by heads of state in New York in September. Right now, tens of thousands of people—from NGOs, to governments, to corporations—are busy negotiating them. They are trying to get your attention, too. Their story is basically this: We’ve halved global poverty in the last 15 years and can eradicate it by 2030, if you support us and accept our story.

    There is a hole in the story, though; a mission-critical omission in the logic underpinning it that, unless acknowledged and corrected, will keep all efforts in a tepid "business as usual" box that cannot possibly deliver on its grand promises.

    The missing acknowledgement is this: Mass poverty, at the level we see globally today (i.e., about 4.3 billion people live on less that $5 a day; the minimum amount necessary, according to UN body UNCTAD, for health and well-being) is created by people. In other words, it isn’t simply a natural occurrence, a common enemy that exists, as if by magic, outside and separate from all the good stuff. Just as humans have created enormous amounts of wealth, so we have created its corollary, widespread poverty. One cannot be separated from the other. Until this truth is embraced, we will be locked into a partial and deeply limited response.

    Here are just three ways mass poverty has been created.
    1: Closing Off The Commons

    Before the Industrial Revolution took off in England, most of Europe’s population lived as peasant farmers. We tend to imagine that this must have been a pretty miserable existence; after all, it’s hard to get any poorer than a peasant, right?

    Well, it’s true that European peasants didn’t have the consumer lifestyles that we take for granted today. But they did have the most important thing they needed to determine their own futures: secure access to land for growing their food. They also had access to "common" land, which was managed collectively for overlapping uses: grazing for livestock, timber for homes, and firewood for heating and cooking. Peasants may not have been rich, but they enjoyed basic rights of "habitation" that were protected by longstanding tradition.

    But this security system came under attack in the 17th and 18th centuries. Wealthy merchants and aristocrats began a systematic campaign to privatize the commons and kick the peasants off their land, which they turned into sheep runs for the highly profitable wool industry. This became known as the "enclosure" movement, and historians regard it as the birth of capitalism as we know it today.

    Millions of people were forcibly displaced, creating a monumental humanitarian crisis.

    2: Outsourcing The Problem

    Okay, maybe early capitalism did produce poverty in England as an initial condition, but surely after this rocky beginning it began to make everyone richer, right?

    There is no doubt that ordinary people in England—and in the rest of Europe—have become richer over the past hundred years, and quality of life has improved dramatically. But the humanitarian crisis didn’t just disappear into thin air—it was exported abroad.

    Dispossessed by enclosures and suffering miserable conditions in the factories, England’s working class began to riot, and by the 19th century the country was on the brink of outright class war. England’s industrialists realized that, unless they wanted to sacrifice some of their own newfound power, the only way to solve these social tensions was to find new sources of wealth abroad, and new lands and opportunities for the country’s now "surplus" population.

    This is what came to be known as colonialism. Land and resources were grabbed across America, India, and Africa at an astonishing pace, and the wealth was funneled back to Europe, where, beginning in the 1940s, it was used to build hospitals and schools and generally improve the lives of the "lower" class. This strategy succeeded in solving many of the social problems at home, but the colonized populations didn’t fare so well.

    3: The "Free Trade" Paradox

    We all agree that colonialism was a terrible system, but thankfully it was mostly over by the 1950s. Since then we have all been focused on development and poverty reduction in poor countries. Right?

    Well, after the ravages of colonialism were over there was a time when things started getting better for poor countries. During the 1960s and 1970s, poor countries made careful use of trade tariffs and subsidies to build their economies with great effect. Incomes grew quickly and the gap between rich countries and poor countries began to narrow. In fact, some poor countries became almost as wealthy as their Western counterparts.

    But these two decades of hope were brought to a crashing end in the 1980s. The World Bank and the IMF began to impose "structural adjustment programs" on developing countries as a basic condition for receiving international finance. These programs forced poor countries to abandon their tariffs and subsidies, and required them to sell off most of their public services and assets to foreign companies.

    According to the "free market" theory popular at the time, this was supposed to improve economic growth. But it turned out that exactly the opposite happened. Per capita income growth was slashed from 3.2% per year to 0.7%. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the average GNP shrank by around 10%, and the number of people living in absolute poverty doubled. It’s difficult to overstate the degree of human suffering that these numbers represent.

    Similarly, in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement forced Mexico to cut barriers to imports from the U.S. As cheap American corn flooded into Mexico, some 2 million farmers were forced to leave their land. Many had no choice but to seek work in the sweatshops that sprang up along the border.

    By 2004, there were 19 million more Mexicans living in poverty than before NAFTA.
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  9. 3D printing is a rising threat for world trade. According to a new ING report, world trade will be 23% lower in 2060 if the growth of investments in 3D printers continues at the current pace. If investments accelerate domestically printed goods could already wipe out 40% of world imports in 2040.
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  10. Myth 4: The world can decouple economic growth from the use of fossil fuels.

    As ideal as decoupling would be, this is unattainable without radical new technology or nuclear energy (which is usually off the table). How are we supposed to provide electricity for the billions of people who still lack access to reliable energy -- a basic right -- without using carbon? The International Energy Agency predicts that over 75 percent of the world's energy in 2040 will still be provided by fossil fuels. A radical shift to renewables is not feasible in the short-term, given that the rate of renewable energy production per unit of area is significantly smaller than with fossil fuels.

    The one sure way to realistically "decarbonize" the economy is to set policies that directly reduce emissions and take carbon out of the atmosphere. These will impinge on the types of economic growth we take for granted, and also lead to hard policy questions: What should governments support in spite of their use of carbon, and what consumption must be restricted to help "pay" for that? Is it more important to produce electricity for millions of poor, or to allow private car ownership with cheap gasoline?

    So long as we understand economic growth as our only indicator of prosperity, the world will never have a specific plan to reduce emissions. Creating a different indicator -- one that is not reliant on a free ride on carbon -- is the challenge that the developing world must meet. The answer is not in promised but often under-delivered handouts from richer countries.
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