Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Collapse or Descent?

I am writing this from the comfort of Chestnut Hill Café, on the corner of Chestnut and Pine Streets in Lancaster. Not the most vegan-friendly establishment, in terms of food offerings, but they brew a mean coffee and graciously let me abuse their internet for hours on end. Good people.

The purpose of this post is two-fold. First, to share some critically important information. Second, to reflect on how that information can inform our actions here in Lancaster.

The Ecological Footprint, or I = PAT

World ecological footprint, 1960-2005, and beyond.
On the left is a graphic representation of the global ecological footprint from 1960 to 2005, with a "projection" to 2050. I put "projection" in quotation marks because this sort of thing shows as clearly as possible the perils of projecting that E.F. Schumacher talked about in Small is Beautiful. But I'll get to that in a moment. First, what is an "ecological [or eco-] footprint"? The basic equation is relatively famous: I = PAT, where I is Impact, P is Population, A is Affluence, and T is Technology. So, Impact equals Population (world pop is closing in on 7 billion as I write this) times Affluence times Technology.

You can estimate your personal eco-footprint at a website like this one*. And then, for the sake of simplicity, you can imagine the global eco-footprint to be the sum of all our individual footprints. Feel free to share the results from your personal calculations in the comments section below. When I calculated mine, using the above site, I got around three Earths. That means that, if every human lived like I did, we would need three Earths to sustainably support our population. Yeah, that sucks. I used to be at 1.5. You'd think being a vegan bus & bike commuter who almost never buys anything new would get you some eco cred, but not enough, it seems.

*Different sites produce different results. Feel free to use another if you don't like this one.

The human population now has an eco-footprint of around 1.4 Earths. The average eco-footprint for an American citizen, in 2006, was 5.3 Earths. We are, in other words, in deep shit, and digging deeper every day.

Carrying Capacity and Overshoot

In systems theory and ecology, the technical term is carrying capacity. The definition is fairly straightforward, and if you don't already know it, you can probably intuit it. Basically, every ecosystem (defined as a biological community and its physical context) has a carrying capacity. In the context of humanity, a typical measure is the amount of arable land available for cultivation (i.e., how much food can we grow?), but also includes measures of capacity to absorb pollutants, stability of the climate, availability of potable water, etc. Notice no mention of money or other economic indicators. This is a strictly physical measure. Money and economic well-being come later, after we have secured the basic necessities of survival and physical well-being. One might also be inclined to include indicators of spiritual well-being, but that's a discussion for another time.

This concept of carrying capacity, like the ecological footprint, can be expanded from an individual or ecosystem basis all the way up to the whole planet.

Once one has estimated a region's carrying capacity, one simply compares that to the analogous estimate for its inhabitants' eco-footprints, and asks the question: are we living within our means, or are we in overshoot? I've made the case that we are in overshoot, and I don't think you'll find a serious thinker anywhere who would disagree with that assessment. Most people, either unaware of this concept or unaware of its implications, assume things can continue as they have (for the past few generations) indefinitely.

Well, I'm here to tell you the implications, if you don't already know. There is really just one response a natural system has when it has gone into overshoot, and that is collapse. To be more specific, population collapse. Where once there were thousands, or millions, now there are not.

As intelligent, reflective beings, you might be inclined to say that we have other options. To the extent those options involve shiny new technologies that solve all our problems without creating new ones, I'd say you're wrong. The reasons why could and do occupy voluminous libraries and sites easily accessible online, and I encourage the intrepid reader to check some of them out (check links on right-hand side).

To the extent you believe we have other options because of our capacity to adapt intelligently, rather than our capacity to live in self-denial, I think you're right.

Collapse or Managed Descent?

Back to that graphic. It depicts our current state of overshoot at around 1.4 Earths. It then projects two possible future trends. One has overshoot expanding ruthlessly above 2.0 Earths. This line I've labeled "Pure Fantasy" because it is. That trajectory is absolutely catastrophic, as anyone with a pulse can attest to today, in the summer of 2010. The world's economies are collapsing, the climate is boiling, species are being driven to extinction at a rapidly accelerating rate, clean water is running out everywhere, the ocean is turning toxic, acidic, and anoxic and, frankly, we are simply running out of the resources we need to keep pushing that destructive envelope.

The other projection takes us back below the thin red line of our carrying capacity. There are two points I want to make about that before continuing. The first is that I may have misled you somewhat earlier, in that I didn't state that "carrying capacity" isn't some well-defined number, but rather one that fluctuates according to circumstances. In fact, it is possible for that number to rise (if, for example, we began to rebuild topsoil, that might improve our ability to raise crops). However, it is much more likely, and has in reality been the case, that the global carrying capacity has been declining for decades. For example, in the US, as measured in hectares per capita, our biocapacity has declined from around 8 in 1961 to just over 4 in 2006. This is possible because of the increasing productivity of agricultural lands, thanks to massive use of fossil fuels, and also because of importation from abroad (eroding other nation's carrying capacities in the process).

The second point is that the graphic above assumes that humans have harnessed the entire Earth (or Eaarth) to their needs and desires, leaving nothing for other species, except insofar as they are useful to us; that seems like a pretty bleak future. I would, however, argue that taking the road of "managed descent" makes that ethos impossible. The two (living within our means and yet exploiting the entire Eaarth for our own desires) seem to me mutually incompatible futures. I think managed descent absolutely requires a change of mind that makes that level of exploitation inconceivable.

So those are our choices: collapse or managed descent.

Managed Descent?

Managed descent is a deliberate, intelligent, scaling back. If we return to our equation I = PAT, we can see clearly that, if the elements of environmental impact are Population, Affluence, and Technology, then we have three clear areas of intervention. We need to reduce population. And I'm not talking about over in Africa. I mean right here, in the US, in Pennsylvania, in Lancaster. Over 20 years, the situation in the Chesapeake Bay has gotten worse and worse, and this despite improved regulations and improved agricultural practices and improved storm and wastewater management. When your "per capitas" go down, but your "capitas" are always going up, your impact still goes up. So, we need to reduce population.

We need to reduce affluence. It is simply a fact that more affluent individuals have more negative impacts. Those big homes take big energies to heat and cool and power. Those flashy flatscreen TVs take a whole lot of energy. That big lawn takes lots of gas to mow (not to mention the natural gas-based fertilizer it takes to make green, and the oil-based chemicals it takes to keep the weeds down). Before anyone freaks out, think seriously about your level of happiness in the current state. Do you need the big bills, the big taxes for those massive highways, the big headaches from working too many hours to enjoy a shrunken-down life? I love what Thoreau wrote in Walden: that it would take him more time to earn the money to pay for a carriage ride somewhere than it would take to simply walk there. In that simple idea lies real wisdom.

Finally, we need to change our technologies. I'll give a small-scale example and a large-scale one. In your life, chances are you can bike -- or even walk -- more than you do. Let's say you typically drive to a grocery store two miles away. At 12mph, you can bike there in just about 10 minutes. Driving it would take you about 6 minutes (assuming you don't have a superhighway directly connecting your driveway to the store). So, for the cost of 4 minutes, you've gotten some exercise, you've learned your neighborhood better, you've breathed some fresh air, you haven't wasted any gasoline, you've kept wear-and-tear down on your car, and you've avoided putting any pollution into the atmosphere. Good job!

Now, imagine you own a factory. You could take out a loan for a million dollars and buy the latest robotic machinery to churn our your widgets, or you could pay a couple of guys a living wage ($10 or so an hour in Lancaster, or so I hear) to do the same thing. With real unemployment over 18%, doesn't it sound ridiculous to buy "labor-saving devices"? The labor's right there, idle, worried about losing his or her home, going hungry, and living in a tent city.

This Island Lancaster

I encourage my readers (all three of them) to think about Lancaster (or wherever you live). What is its carrying capacity? Is that capacity declining or improving with time? If it's not improving, how can you help it improve?

Now think about your personal eco-footprint. What is it? If it's over 1.0, and it almost certainly is, what can you do to shrink it? Is it time you became a locavore? Do you commute far to work? Can you move closer to where you work, or work closer to where you live? Can you bike or walk or take the bus there instead of driving? Can you downsize your home? Shrink your heating and electric bills? Toss the TV, because it wastes energy and feeds you misinformation anyway? My wife and I have no TV and consistently have an electric bill under $20.

You can't downsize your family, but maybe you can adopt instead of having more children. If you want a large family, consider joining a community group (like Transition Lancaster!) and making them your adopted family.

Do you believe these things will actually improve your quality of life? I do.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Support Lancaster's Library System


If there's one thing we'll need in the turbulent times ahead -- and there are many -- a robust library system has to be near the top of the list.

And yet, according to the Lancaster Intel/New Era, Governor Rendell and the Pennsylvania legislature have proposed cuts of 9.1% ($193,515) next year, after cuts around 20% ($500,000) this year. I've been told by a director of one of the region's library's that the long-term trend is for zero state funding. Do you think your local library can survive without state support?

Just one more perversity of this Second Great Depression that libraries, which are needed most in down times, appear to be one of the politically easiest line items to chop. It's always easy to cut services that are primarily used by the less well-off. Oh well.

My recommendation? Use the library. The more it's used, the more we show we need it, and the harder it will be to cut if off entirely. Write a letter to the editor. Call your local municipality, whether it's the City of Lancaster, or your local Borough or Township office: tell them you support the library, and expect them to pick up the state's slack; and after you've called, take the time to go to a Council/Supervisors/Commissioners meeting and tell them what you think, too. Make it hard for them to cut their support of the local library. Tell them it's shameful to have a library, like Elizabethtown's, be forced to shut for a week just to save the budget; or, like Lancaster City's, to be constantly shortening hours and cutting staff.

Support your library! You're going to need it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Visions of the Future

A vision is an important thing to have. If you don't know what you're working for, you'll often find you don't like what you've built with all your labor. And even if you do know what you're working for, you may find the product not to your liking, which shows that it's not just a vision, but the right vision, that is important.

Another important point about visions is that, just because you have one, doesn't mean it's guaranteed to come about. This is a really important point, so I'm going to emphasize it: just because you want something, doesn't mean you're going to get it. I find this kind of semi-magical thinking at all levels of society, from individuals who believe a change of consciousness is imminent -- or immanent, if you will -- and that *poof* just like that, next Tuesday we'll all be sipping organic chai wondering what all the fuss was about last Monday.

As an example of that level of thinking at the highest levels of government, I present the following chart (let us call it "Figure 1"):

Figure 1. Magical Thinking at Upper Levels of Government. (source)

In 2009, the US Energy Information Agency (EIA), a department of the US Department of Energy (DoE), projected world demand for petroleum at around 105 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2030 (up from below 90mbd in 2008). They also projected all known and expected petroleum extraction projects to decline to around 40mbd -- a disjunction of over 60mbd, or the output of six Saudi Arabias. Now, any sane person would look at that information and say "oh, that's interesting. Maybe it's time to transition off petroleum before it transitions off us?" However, the EIA, a very clever agency, simply filled in the gap with "Unidentified Projects." You see, it is simply impossible for some people to imagine a world in which growth in oil production did not match growth in (nominal) oil demand. They matched their internal reality to their "vision for the future." That's magical thinking in the worst way (trying to influence physical reality with positive thinking and only positive thinking), and it's a mistake.

Similarly, if I presented to you a vision for a transitioned Lancaster, in which we were not dependent on oil, where the air was clean, where noise and light pollution were gone (and I could see the night sky again!), with full employment and a (mostly) localized economy that was insulated against violent hiccups from abroad, and then simply asserted that because I have this vision, and maybe you do, too, it's simply bound to happen, you would see that for the lunacy it was. However, that does not negate the value of the vision. It simply says the vision isn't enough.

My purpose in this post is two-fold. First, to present the beginnings of a vision for a better, relocalized Lancaster economy; and second, to sketch out some of the steps and preconditions that might help in realizing that better future.

A Vision for 2020

First, it's just "a" vision, not "the" vision. I'm just one guy, thinking aloud. Feel free to chime in with some comments.

I'd like to see a carless, or mostly carless future. I admit to a strong bias against cars: I think they're obnoxious and dangerous, in many ways; I think they are inimical to urban life and demeaning to life generally. Now, I'd like this transition to a carless future to be a matter of choice rather than necessity, but I suspect it will be the latter. Peak oil -- barring even more massive government intrusion into, and subsidies of, the oil markets (imagine that) -- will make gasoline and diesel ever more expensive. As Figure 1 above shows, we're already falling off the oil cliff into the relatively uncharted waters of terminally declining net energy per capita. This will necessitate radical changes in how we live our lives; most immediately and obviously, this will mean transportation, of ourselves and our food, will become ever more expensive. A nice side-effect will be cleaner air than any of us have breathed in Lancaster for a long time, if ever. I think the quiet will prove an unexpected boon, as well.

I mentioned the increasing expense of transporting food. It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which buying Chinese garlic from Giant (e.g.) doesn't become impossible; it's already insane: making it economically impossible would be a nice way to put a stop to the practice. To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, read this article, published by the Daily Mail in the UK, titled "Nine Meals from Anarchy." It does an excellent job of relaying the extent to which our globalized food system is dependent on (dwindling and dangerous) supplies of petroleum. And then read these articles about the 2008 trucker strike in Spain and this one about the very recent trucker strike in Greece, each of which seriously threatened those two nations' economies, not to mention bringing real hardship to the people those economies nominally serve. Since we clearly can't rely on state or national action to avert this looming catastrophe, my vision for Lancaster's future has us producing all the staple food we eat here in the county. Before you interject: "but don't you know Lancaster has the best soil in the world and is a national breadbasket -- no problem!", let's look at some of the facts. According to the 2007 US Agricultural Census, produced by the US Department of Agriculture, out of 303,222 acres of harvested cropland in Lancaster County, only 6,019 acres (less than 2%) produced vegetables for human consumption. The vast majority (over 90%) of the rest are fed to animals, the vast majority of which are then trucked out of here on a plume of diesel smoke. Also according to the Ag Census, less than 1.25% (or about 6,250) of the county's population (around 500,000 people) self-identified as a farmer.

These statistics point to two major issues: (1) our farming is largely devoted to commodity crops and animal production; and (2) our farmers absolutely require vast inputs of petroleum and petroleum by-products to produce those crops and animals.* This latter point is made more clear when one considers that, in 1840, the first year of the Ag Census, around 69% of the nation's population was in farming. Those massive productivity gains made over the past 170 years are the direct result of industrialization, which is directly the result of massive inputs of fossil fuels.

*even if you imagined we could maintain that ratio of animal production to vegetable production, do you really think a healthy diet would consist of 98% meat and 2% veggies?

So, back to my vision for Lancaster's food supply. I envision us producing enough food to supply our population with adequate nutrition and calories, with modest imports of luxury, non-staple foodstuffs. I envision that this food is produced by a vastly increased population of farmers, both rural and urban. Another of the pleasant and unexpected spin-off effects of peak oil, therefore, is that farmers, no longer able to rely on imported, terrorism-supporting (and watershed and climate-destroying) fossil fuels, will be forced to "re-labor", if you will, food production. There, just solved the employment problem.

In addition to labor, the new (old) farm will need a new (actually, quite old) source of fertilizer. It just so happens that Lancaster County, and Lancaster City in particular, has a HUGE supply of potential fertilizer, but one which we currently foolishly flush away into the Conestoga River, and from there to the Chesapeake Bay, where it is presents a seemingly intractable nutrient pollution problem. You ever wonder how we could have something so ridiculous-sounding as "nutrient pollution"? That's your ancient Earthly self speaking up. It's only modern (wo)man that has such a farcical problem. Let me sketch out to you our current system:

Step 1: Pour petroleum and natural gas on farm fields, which have been degraded by centuries of mining them of all their valuable nutrients; and raising food thereby.
Step 2: Eat that food.
Step 3: Urinate and defecate into drinking water, whose potability has taken a tremendous amount of human toil and (yet more) fossil energy to produce.
Step 4: Flush that fouled water into the nearest body of flowing water, fouling it as well.
Step 5: Waive as it bobs merrily out to sea.
Step 6: Repeat until every ocean is full of anoxic (oxygen-depleted) dead zones and every formerly-productive agricultural field is only able to be kept so by the exponentially increasing application of artificial (petro- and natural gas-based) fertilizer.

Is it just me, or is that asinine?

So, here's another part of my vision, which will simultaneously solve the problem of where to get fertilizer once oil and natural gas are out of the question, the problem of the dying Chesapeake Bay (not to mention the unswimmable and drinkinkable Conestoga), and save a whole lot of energy and money to boot! One word: humanure. Well, maybe two words: composted humanure. I'll just let that mentally digest for a while as I move on....

So, we've looked at transportation (which includes a vision for a clean and quiet atmosphere), food, employment, wastewater, and natural fertilizer. That may be a good stopping point for today.

Oh, and I promised one other thing in this post: a discussion of steps and preconditions that might be necessary to see this vision come to fruition. That's actually rather simple. Another two words: accept reality. To elaborate (just a little), we need, as citizens of this county, to give up our personal visions of a future of endless material abundance, forget about what we always thought we were promised as 20th- and 21st-century Americans, and get down to Eaarth. I believe that a better world is possible, but I don't believe it is inevitable. The odds are rather stacked against it, frankly. But if we can shed our illusions and embrace the new Eaarth, we may yet achieve the grandly simply goals outlined by the Founders in our Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and happiness are still possible. But a right that is ignored, or passed up for a flatscreen television, is hardly worthy of the name, is it?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Why (almost) totally ignoring national politics is the only sane course

I pay just enough attention to the national scene to know why not to pay any more than that. Here's a case in point, as reported by the LA Times:
Driven by increasing anger at Democratic policies and by recent Supreme Court decisions unshackling corporate contributions, business and conservative groups are preparing a flood of campaign money to try to wrest control of Congress from the Democrats. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest collection point for corporate contributions, has increased its spending for the congressional election in November from $35 million in 2008 to a projected $75 million this year. Officials say it may go even higher.

The chamber has been joined by new conservative fundraising organizations — such as American Crossroads, affiliated with Republican strategist Karl Rove — that have committed to raising tens of millions of dollars. One report circulating among Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill last week estimated that more than $300 million has been budgeted for the campaign by a group of 15 conservative tax-exempt organizations.

"A commitment of $300 million from just 15 organizations is a huge amount, putting them in record territory for groups on the right or left," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions. "With control of Congress hanging in the balance, this kind of spending could have a major impact." The money's power is magnified because it will be concentrated in a relatively small number of swing states and districts. Of the 435 House and 37 Senate seats at issue in November, about 100 House seats and 18 in the Senate are considered competitive.[..]

Two recent Supreme Court decisions have encouraged corporate and union participation in political advertising campaigns. This year, the court decided in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that corporations and unions could spend directly on elections, overturning a century of laws limiting such spending.

Chamber of Commerce officials say a more significant ruling was the 2007 decision in Federal Election Commission vs. Wisconsin Right to Life that lifted the ban on political issue advertising close to an election, allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on these ads at the last minute. The rulings have given all sides powerful tools to influence the outcome of elections.

Business leaders see high stakes in the midterm election. They were concerned about the sweeping healthcare overhaul passed this year and a far-reaching bill passed last month to establish greater federal monitoring and regulation of the financial system. Energy firms are particularly concerned about how Democratic-dominated Washington will regulate their businesses after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scott Talbott of the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade group for major financial firms, said banks and investment houses were participating in fundraising and lobbying at an unprecedented pace, partly because of concern over thousands of pages of new regulations that will be written to implement the laws, as well as who will be picked to head new government entities, such as the consumer protection agency for banking and securities.

President Obama's sagging approval ratings, which have dropped to 44% in some polls, have created an opportunity that could allow Republicans to gain control of the House and cut into the Democrats' majority in the Senate.
What's clear from the above, if it wasn't already blindingly obvious, is that we've got the best democracy™ money can buy, where it's one dollar, one vote. For those of us with any political sentiments whatsoever, we are basically left with two choices: try to raise more funny-money than our political competitors (and that amount is apparently doubling or more ever two years, which is the definition of exponential growth), or give up on national politics altogether and spend our time more productively. E.g., building skills and knowledge (and relationships with those who have complimentary skills and knowledge) that are useful on planet Eaarth. And doing it all locally.

The politicians, corporatists, and talking heads, having had no education in the physical sciences, are locked into a paradigm wherein it is believed that the global economy, located as it is in three physical dimensions of space and one of time, can grow infinitely -- into apparently non-physical dimensions. They're so sick in the head that they refer to the entirely expected condition of GDP contraction as "negative growth." I prefer to think of it as reality asserting itself. We've got just one planet, and acting like we have more than that is what's turned the Earth into the Eaarth. If we keep on this track much longer, we may as well begin calling it Mars Junior.