Monday, August 10, 2015

Wile E Coyote

Same as it ever was
    -Talking Heads

The song remains the same
      -Led Zeppelin


    Here's a nice crystallization of our current conundrum from NPR (h/t Mark H) .  A California farmer runs out of surface water so digs a well.  So do his neighbors.  The water level drops , he needs to go deeper.  But can only afford to go deeper if he grows a high value crop like pistachios.  High value crops, like pistachios take a lot of water.  And so on.      Meanwhile, the neighbors who grow low water crops, like fava beans can't afford to chase the water.   Over pumping causes ground to sink 1/2 in a month in the Central Valley

      Here's another strange one.  As we reached peak conventional oil, the price rose.  The rising price made fracking economically worthwhile.   The frackers create a glut and the price drops.  The vehicle customers respond to the price signal, and buy trucks and SUV's, instead of hybrids and EV's.  Andf trucks and SUV's last a long time
        .We all make certain assumptions about the future.  It appears that Americans are assuming that gas price will remain low.  It reminds me of my rough and reday weather forecasting technique, I call "same as it ever was".  If I am trying to decide weather to wear a coat, I assume that today's weather will be the same as yesterday..    It works more often than it does't.     But if, I were to extend that logic, and assume that in six month the weather would be same?   Not so good.  

        The UN recently updated its projections about population.  see here

  "Over all, the report said, the world’s current population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, slightly more than the 9.6 billion forecast two years ago. The number could reach 11.2 billion by the end of the century."

I found this a bit puzzling.   What assumptions went into this projection?   That things will remain basically as they are now?   According to the Footprint folks
"Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year.
"Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we only have one.
"Turning resources into waste faster than waste can be turned back into resources puts us in global ecological overshoot, depleting the very resources on which human life and biodiversity depend.
So, if  at 7 billion, we are already in overshoot by 50%, then the carrying capacity is about 4-5 billion.  And every day, the carrying capacity grows smaller,  as we deplete soils  (soil, (soil lost a 10 to 40 times rate of creation. water, (see unsustainable use may threaten food security  fisheries (UNEP -commercial fishery gone by 2050),    Add to that peak oil, (2015?)   and peak natural gas in 10 years? - David Hughes .  What will the carrying capacity be in 2050?    

     Of course, it's only natural that we would yearn for things to remain "same as it ever was", and as a result grasp for future visions that might supports such a view.    This could explain the current  view of Elon Musk as a cultural hero, a Savior, one whose inventiveness will allow us to continue on our high energy path.   Thus, we have this type of reflexive sigh of relief :

"S]uddenly a post-carbon future that does not require a diminution of our standard of living seems within reach. While being able to maintain a relatively upscale lifestyle in the absence of fossil fuels may sound frivolous, it performs the psychological trick that has so far eluded environmentalists, that of making a fossil-free world sound appealing and familiar and not reflexively scary.from here

      Is this likely?  Or just wishful thinking?   I recently found a useful blog called "Beyond the Brief Anomaly",  which is an attempt to look at the energy situation , objectively, using a number of lenses and tools - financial, energetic, cultural, EROI, and systems thinking,   see Energy Descent Transition and Alternatives to 2050

       With respect to a cultural baggage. the author notes the prevalence of the "myth of progress", and the assumptions that go with it can blind us to the nature of our situation:

"Within this myth, our present high energy civilisation is seen as an inevitable consequence of the forward march of human ingenuity. An entailment of this way of understanding the pathways by which we arrived in our current situation is that further progress is primarily a matter of further growth in ingenuity. If we’re faced with the limits of our current energy sources, the default assumption becomes one in which those limits will inevitably be transcended by innovations in energy conversion systems. Living within this myth, it is essentially unthinkable that our present era of energy abundance might be an historical anomaly and that the energy available to us—along with the industrial civilisation that it makes possible—might be headed towards decline. We see this reflected in much conventional economic thinking, in which technological innovation driven by price signals is often regarded as the primary determinant of resource limits: if a resource becomes scarce, the price goes up, and this drives innovation leading to the expansion of the economic reserves associate with the particular resource. " from here

Of course progress isn't really a myth.  Human culture has gone through various changes -"revolutions"  The agricultural revolution,  industrial revolution, the green revolution, and so on.  As Ronald Wright points out in his "Short History of Progress", (highly recommended)  each change has contained its own "progress trap" , where the solution to one problem creates a bigger problem later on 

"In a progress trap, those in positions of authority are unwilling to make changes necessary for future survival. To do so they would need to sacrifice their current status and political power at the top of a hierarchy. They may also be unable to raise public support and the necessary economic resources, even if they try."

Thus we reach our current Wile E. Coyote moment.  It seems that we are standing in the air looking down.  Our unwillingness to see our situation objectively seems to make us unable to take useful actions - like drilling ever deeper for water, or buying low mpg vehicles. : Interestingly Rule #3 for Wile  E Coyote is as follows    
The Coyote could stop anytime if he were not a fanatic. (A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim."- George Santayana) 

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