Category Archives: Environment

Different roads to trashing the environment

Does this LOOK sustainable?

A gentleman I met here in the Costa Rican countryside told me he was 1 of 14 children in his family. He isn’t the first I’ve met; this isn’t uncommon in rural areas. Obviously it wasn’t his choice to be in a family of 14 kids, however it starkly points out one of the inherent challenges in the preservation of nature, if not for tourists then at least for the locals themselves. It leads to me to wonder about human beings as consumptive machines, no different from any animal, ready to procreate as much as possible, and consume as much of the environment as possible.

An interesting counter argument can be made, to point out that if the average rural Costa Rican consumes 1/7th of the resources of the average American (which is in the ballpark based on these statistics), then having 14 kids in Costa Rica is like having 2 kids in the United States.

The thing is that neither of these scenarios is sustainable now. Furthermore the growth curves look completely different. For the resource hog American case, those 2 children would have another 2 children, and give or take would roughly sustain their numbers. Energy hogs, yes, but with less growth.

In the 14 children scenario, carried out to another 14 children for each of the 14, would result in 196 grandchildren, and 2,744 great grandchildren. Try to picture that for a moment, 2,744 great grandchildren! Ah but you’re saying “This isn’t realistic! They won’t all have that many kids!”

OK so let’s look at this with each couple having “only” 6 children. That results in 36 grandchildren and 216 great grandchildren. So the land that was originally going to support two people is now somehow supposed to support 258 people, after the parents pass away. (Yes I know this isn’t apples to apples math; if someone can suggest an easy way to look at the math over time, I’m all ears.)

So what ends up happening? Obviously the children, the grandchildren will need to set out in search of lands and jobs. When you are hungry, wild forest looks really attractive as a place to cut down trees and start growing. Failing that, animals, endangered or not, look like a good option when you’re hungry.

If you’re really hungry, this looks like food

While walking along a coastal trail to a remote beach, I met a guy who has a turtle hatchery, and is doing his best to help as many turtle eggs as possible hatch, so that the turtle population can get reestablished.

However one of the challenges he’s up against, frankly, is hungry people who go out and take hundreds of turtle eggs at a time in order to eat. I get it, “why should a local go hungry so that I as a tourist, coming from my resource hogging country, can feel good that the local population of cute endangered turtles is recovering?” Frankly if it were me, and I couldn’t find other ways to eat, I’d probably be eating turtle eggs too.

But what I *would* do differently is that I wouldn’t go and have 14 kids, or 6 kids, or even 3 kids, frankly. I think 1 is about right, and 2 is possible, but it seems clear to me that the sustainable carrying capacity of the earth was overshot a few decades ago. Right now we’re using up the richness of fossil fuels, and the leeway of the environment, to make up the difference. But it’s not going to last. Having less kids and using less resources is critical.

This topic gets me really curious as to why the largest religions in the worlds are so heavily against birth control, and so heavily in favor of big families. I’ll do some digging and let you know what I find.

Peak Oil Could Be Good News for Conservationists

Can we set aside enough wild area for the future?

I just got back from visiting Corcovado, a famous national park in Costa Rica. One could call this “the last great park” in Costa Rica—the rest are getting divided up or chewed around the edges, going so far as to threaten genetic diversity of the animals. Most of Corcovado is off limits to tourists, in order to allow the plants and animals to thrive. However there is constant pressure, especially from foreign-owned businesses operating here, to expand access, to build more, to make more money. It is an ongoing battle.

But it occurred to me, as we were bouncing through the surf on the one hour boat ride to the park entrance, after a 100 minute river boat ride, from a town which is a 20 minute taxi from the main road, how much energy it takes to get here. If we were coming here on foot, bike, or horse, it would have been quite a journey. And so it’s really because of oil that we can hop on a plane in San Francisco, fly to Atlanta (for mysterious airlines reasons) and then catch a flight to San José Costa Rica, followed by another flight to Osa province, followed by a series of taxi and boat rides.

As oil becomes more precious, it’s going to become more and more expensive to get over here. Now arguably that might mean that people who’d otherwise go to African safaris will instead come to Costa Rica, when today’s Safari dollar would only buy tomorrow’s Rainforest tour. So we could see an ongoing readjustment, whereby the travel to the most remote areas falls off first, as transportation fuels continue to go up in price, and as well as the pool of middle class jobs—and the dollars that come with them—shrink.

Down the line, this would mean that the market of people who can afford a trip to Costa Rica to the rainforest would shrink, and eventually be limited to the super rich. In one scenario, less traffic would mean less investment in development, and thus less environmental impact. In another scenario, though, it could mean further strain on this area as ever higher end facilities are created to win over the business of the few who can afford it.

Hang in there big guy

Thus far, the Drake Bay area appears to be well protected from development, in part because of the lack of a reliable road to get here, and also because there appears to be recognition from the local powers that be that conservation is good policy for tourist dollars. But these things can change, and if they do then habitats and nature can be hurt in a way that takes a long time to bounce back from.

In the long run, this area will likely revert back to the farming and fishing that was here previously. What I don’t know is how much environmental damage a local population could do; in part this depends on how many people are trying to live off of the land, and what tools they have at their disposal to speed up cultivation of the land. There is a certain carrying capacity here, as everywhere, and population growth is a critical input to it.

As things stand now, it takes a lot of fossil fuels to get people like me from the rich countries over here to more remote corners of Costa Rica to see nature. As the fossil fuels become less available, one pressure on the land here may reduce; whether that slack is taken up by local populations.

Beware the coal powered electric car–or worse

electric_power_industry_net_generation_fuel-largeWas taking in an article titled Electric Cars are NOT Coal Powered Cars which features a huge pie chart showing that in 2009, 45% of US electricity was generated from coal. Not an auspicious start to an argument!

But it gets way better. He then goes on to “make a case” for why natural gas and nuclear are such “clean” forms of energy.

I had a chance to watch a documentary called Gasland which shows how people who live in communities being fracked are getting very sick, and the water is being poisoned.

Nuclear is even scarier. When I was in Japan I discovered that agriculture for *all of Northern Honshu* has been trashed, not just the areas that show elevated levels of radiation. Basically the buying public won’t trust the government that it’s safe (wonder why) and so they just won’t buy from that region. The farmers are devastated, leading to farmer suicides. Suddenly coal isn’t sounding so bad, is it?

Reality is that as a country, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. Can’t imagine living without a car? The car and oil companies are at “mission accomplished” having killed commuter rail lines in the 1940’s (yes they were convicted, no nothing happened as a result) and given rise to suburbs and the need to have a car.

The only way around driving a “dirty fuel” car might be if you live somewhere very sunny, and have a lot of solar panels, then you might be able to come out net even with the grid, so you can feed the grid during the day, and then charge your car during the night. Of course then you have to factor in the power that went into making the solar panels (which is significant) but it’s probably the best thing around, besides not needing to drive.

More and more, I think the smart move is to “live local” where you can do your essential shopping by bike, your friends and entertainment are likewise nearby, and you can use public transit to get to work. Sure the public transit ends up using dirty fuel somewhere down the line, but it’s got to be much less per person than an individual car, be it electric or otherwise.

I’m looking hard at “going local.”

How would a Fukushima-type nuclear accident in San Luis Obispo impact the California produce industry?

Fukushima Reactors BurningI was recently in Japan, and in the course of going about my usual visits with friends, I realized how broadly the nuclear accident has impacted Japan domestically, even outside of the accident area.

First of all, when it comes to farming, much of Northern Honshu is now on an unofficial “blacklist” among the typical Japanese consumer. Even though radiation measurements, official and unofficial, are only showing elevated radiation levels in very specific areas near the accident, the reputational impact has hit a much, much broader area.

This impact became clear when I suggested to friends that we go to a certain tofu restaurant. They politely demurred because they have a young daughter, and the soy beans for tofu that that restaurant uses are grown in Northern Honshu. It is notable that they were readily aware of where that restaurant sources it’s soy. So I went online and checked that area of Japan, but didn’t see any elevated readings anywhere nearby. Nonetheless the reputational damage has been done, for that farmland and that restaurant. We went elsewhere.

The impact became even more clear when my wife and I were visiting the resort (and farming!) town of Inawashiro. Although it’s in Fukushima province, Inawashiro is well away from the nuclear impact area, and shows no evidence of heightened radiation levels. My wife loves soba, so we went to a well-established local soba restaurant in town, where they make everything by hand. I like to eat local foods, and so I enthusiastically asked where the soba was from. The lady smiled and said that they found the best soba these days is from Hokkaido, and so that’s what they use. I pressed her a bit, and she said even that yes, the local soba was actually fine.

I’m guessing that they used to use soba grown closer to home, but had to stop doing that after the nuclear accident, in order to retain tourist business. Consider how painful that reality must be for them. But also consider that even though this area doesn’t show any signs of heightened radiation, it is gravely impacted through “guilt by association,” basically killing the domestic market for their produce. And in a way, it makes sense.

I bet that many Japanese consumers are thinking “Why take a chance?” along with “Can we really trust the government to tell us what is and isn’t safe, when they’ve lied to us so many times about what was really going on?” Thus when the accident is scary enough, and enough people are in active avoidance of all food products grown in a very broad area, then a cycle is in place where the retailers and restaurants avoid it as well, because develop a reputation of selling food that is potentially unsafe.

The end result is that for these farmers, their domestic markets are gone. They can try to sell at much lower prices on the international market, but given the costs of doing business in Japan, this might not be feasible. Understand that the produce they are selling is measured for radiation and is safe in that respect—we’re not talking about dumping radioactive food on other countries. But in Japan a premium is paid for high quality, domestic produce, and that market is wiped out for the conceivable future for a large swath of Honshu.

So that brings me back to California which, like Japan, is earthquake country, and which has two nuclear power plants on the coast, one near San Luis Obispo and another near San Diego. Both of these plants, being near the cost–like Fukushima is–are also very close to major earthquake faults.

In the case of a major earthquake that caused a Fukushima-type nuclear accident, one would think that the damage would be limited to the  farmland directly impacted by such an accident, based on radiation readings. That’d make logical sense, right?

But if we take the example of Japan, the emotional backlash against California product would be severe, regardless of what the experts with their Geiger counters say. People would get scared, and stay scared, for a long time about eating California produce.

Here’s the greatest  irony of it all: there is a safe, straightforward, cost-effective way for California to get rid of the need for nuclear energy. No I’m not talking about solar energy, although that has a lot going for it. I simply mean good old energy conservation. 

If more households took on home energy retrofits, especially for heating and cooling, and generally got smartly about how they heated and cooled, then the energy savings could be used to close down those nuclear plants.

Consider this: if you think the impact of coal fired plants is grave and long lasting, the impact of a nuclear accident is on another timescale altogether. To me it’s just not worth the risks, which based on Fukushima, we know are very real.

The United States can learn from Japanese energy habits

by Dick Johnson

I’m currently visiting Japan, which I get a chance to do roughly every year, and I’ve got sustainability on my mind. One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to go far way, somewhere very different, and be able to compare habits and common practices that I otherwise wouldn’t think about. Since we are still in an age where traveling long distances is very convenient, and frankly costs relatively little money, I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Since the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and related nuclear problems, energy policy has been a major discussion in Japan. Even before the earthquake, Japan did a number of things relatively well, at least compared to many other rich countries, in terms of energy. Here’s some of what I’ve noticed:

  • Energy is expensive here, so individuals are relatively careful it. Electricity, gasoline cost a lot.
  • In much of the country, driving is a relative luxury. Buses and trains are convenient, plentiful, affordable, and used widely.
  • Many people ride bikes, for instance to and frame the train station, or just around their neighborhood. It’s a normal thing to do, as opposed to just something that young people or poor people do.
  • Rooms are selectively heated.
  • It’s normal practice for plumbing intrusions in kitchens and bathrooms to be properly gasketed, to prevent heated air from escaping.

Since the earthquake, there’s been a big public company about 節電 or saving energy. I’ve noticed very politely worded signs in retail spaces explaining that even during business hours, all of the lights aren’t necessarily going to be turned on, because of the need to save energy. Apparently people are fine to go along with this, so it makes me wonder if it’ll become a permanent way of doing retail lighting.

A raging debate in Japan since the earthquakes has been about whether to restart the nuclear plants or not. The dilemma as I understand it is that in spite of the ways that Japan saves energy, it is a rich country that nonetheless is used to consuming a lot of energy, and so without nuclear, the difference needs to be made up in other ways.

I’ve heard people talk endlessly about the wonders of renewable energy, but I have to question just how sustainable most “renewable energy” is. A positive side of renewable energy, to me, is that it pushes people to be more away of where their energy is coming from. Frankly the bonanza that the fossil fuel age has become so normalized that pretty much everyone has forgotten the huge impact it’s had on the comfort of our lives.

A negative side of renewable energy is that it’s generally a misnomer. For instance it takes serious amounts of energy, particularly high temperatures, to make a solar PV panel. I’ve heard in fact that the energy you put into making solar panel is roughly equal to what you eventually get out of it. So a solar PV panel is like a battery–put in fossil fuels, get out electricity via solar power. Not a bad idea, but not exactly renewable, either.

So what am I saying? An extreme form of conservation, to the point of re-engineering how pretty much everything is done, to the point where non-renewables are (practically?) never used is getting to be the only workable basis for a renewable society. I see a particular potential in Japan to be a leader in pioneering, or perhaps rediscovering, what this would look like.

For now, I see a handful of critical policies that Japan is following, that are on the right track:

  • Everything to do with individual driving is expensive. Gasoline, licensing, parking, toll roads, and on and on. $7/gallon gas anyone?
  • Massive investment in public transportation. If you want a mind blowing experience, go to Shinjuku station during the morning rush hour and watch train after train after train packed full of people go by. Wow there are so many people. Now imagine all of those people driving to work instead! All of that metal, that gasoline, the asphalt for the roads which would wear down, the increased air pollution.
  • Although the population of Japan is declining, I have yet to hear of a panicked government plan to somehow increase the population. It’s been pointed out that the Japanese society of the Edo period sustainably supported 30M people, without fossil fuels of course.
  • There are real actions being taken, real discussions happening, about saving energy. It’s not just a “nice to have” but people are really looking hard at it.
  • Japan has for many years looked at alternatives, including nuclear. Granted, it’s become apparent that nuclear is much more dangerous than previously thought, but in any case Japan appears less delusional about energy than the United States. Let’s just hope nobody finds shale oil under Japan’s agricultural land.

At the same time, Japan is no utopia of energy usage! Many visitors here notice:

  • Retail packaging is overdone. Yes the slice of cake you just bought is   wrapped, and then wrapped again, and then put in a box, and then wrapped, and then put in a bag, and looks amazing. But what for, and at what cost?
  • Gadget overload–there really is a gadget for everything here. Yes the US has been a big market for a lot of these gadgets. And Japan has more of them, and they are niftier. It is alluring.
  • Consumerism to the hilt. The advertising here is very, very well done, in your face, and relentless. It’s even easier here to buy things you don’t really need. I wonder how private debt is here? I do note lots of ads on the train for pay-day loan type products, at very high interest rates.
  • A throw-away culture. I don’t know if it still happens, but I know it used to be common for people to put their perfectly functional, relatively new, electronics out on the curb, to give away so they could make room for the newest and greatest.

Now having said all of this, my gut tells me that the “island nation” mentality of Japan is going to be an important asset as times change in the coming decades. The ability to pull together, to change direction as a nation relatively quickly, along with the current trend of declining population, could really make a difference for Japan getting to a sustainable state, much more quickly than other countries.

When product repairability makes a comeback

The “modern wisdom” around most things that break is that it’s cheaper to throw it away than it is to try to fix them. Right? But this has never quite felt right to me. And now that we’re seeing a new floor on oil prices, I suspect that the pendulum will start to swing back to product durability and repair.

I may be romanticizing, but I imagine that once upon a time, products were built to last a long time, and were built to be repairable. If that’s true, then at some point things went off the tracks:

  • I’ve been flipping through the book The Look of the Century which mentions in the 50’s “the decision to build in physical obsolescence, so that through a lack of actual durability the product only had a limited lifespan. The debatable defense..was increased employment.”
  • I wonder if the increasing use of plastics led to more breakage as well.
  • And then of course the wholesale transfer of manufacturing overseas, to places where people work for very little money and live in poverty, which drives down production costs and sticker prices, but then also makes repair uneconomical.
So we’ve come to the point where customers aren’t shocked to find that their 1 year old $19.99 clothes iron is leaking water everywhere. Based on customer reviews on websites like Amazon, there is a lot of frustration from consumers on the poor durability of today’s products. So there may be an opening.
I can see a few potential forces for change towards durability:
  • raw economics: as shipping and material costs go higher, the “cheap” goods may cost a lot more anyhow
  • product availability: I see a real opportunity for smart product makers step up the durability and repairability challenge and build brands around products that last
  • consumer attitudes: as people get more in tune with the waste and futility in the throw-away culture, there will be demand for durability
I also see some challenges to a durability movement:
  • we need to have local repair shops that are able to make a living, and that have the skills needed to fix things. Fortunately there are still a few of these shops around, and hopefully there will continue to be.
  • the products themselves need to have *less* electronics in them. Consumers can help drive this by being smart about avoiding the products with needless electronics and opting for the simpler version.
  • I’d be willing to bet that more solidly built products will cost more. Are people willing to pay?
So the next time something stops working on you, before you reflexively toss it in the trash, ask yourself if it might be repairable, and if not, consider replacing it with something that is.

The view is great but the air is thin: reflections on the first “Age of Limits” conference

I just returned from the first Age of Limits: Conversations on the Collapse of the Global Industrial Model conference. It was a thoughtful, well organized gathering in a beautiful setting in rural Pennsylvania, Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary.

The conference gave me a lot to think about, which I’ll be writing on going forward, but I today I wanted to reflect on what I see as one of the core conundrums of peak oil folks as a group. It basically boils down to this: get a group of smart white guys in a room, and you’ll find that they like to look at charts, debate, and theorize. But it’s less popular to put on the work gloves, get out a shovel, and get to work. Let me explain.

On the one hand, such gatherings give a great opportunity to think about what’s going on in the “bigger, bigger” picture around us, and fine tune one’s sense for what’s going on and how things might play out. It is quite interesting to hear about the history of other societies, how they grew and shrunk, and the pace at which it all happened. And there is a practical angle to considering the “Is our society any different?” angle, both in terms of the bad news (if anything our society is different on the bad side) and the good news (these changes play out over years and decades, not days and weeks). But I found myself getting itchy to get beyond yet another Hubbert’s Peak chart and into the “OK, now what.”

So the beauty of a gathering like “The Age of Limits” is that there is a real diversity there, and so I found like-minded individuals to talk about the “OK, now what.” Here are some highlights:

  • One of my favorite authors, John Michael Greer, gave a session  on Green Wizardry, aka mastering the a practical set of life skills to live in a more sustainable way: organic intensive gardening, weather proofing of houses, passive (yes I said passive for a reason) solar heating, and so on. And yes, he’s actually doing these things himself.
  • In addition, in informal discussions outside of the seasons, JMG told us about the role that fraternal organizations such as the Grange and the Free Masons used to play in local society, certainly before the time of the 401k’s and medical insurance, and in an age of much greater civic involvement than now. That got me thinking that such organizations could play a crucial leadership role in years ahead, as decision making necessarily gets more local, and with higher stakes.
  • Luanne Todd told me all about her years of experience in raising grass fed cattle (and sheep, and goats) using a careful system of fences, timing, and ingenuity. It took me a while to realize that this system probably goes way back, to the days before tractors, machines, artificial fertilizer, and so on, where it was necessary to get the cows to do a lot of the work for you. Also it was so interesting to hear Lu refer to herself as a “grass farmer.”
  • And Orren Whiddon, founder of Four Quarters, gave us a very enthusiastic tour of his machine shop. As an engineer I definitely shared his excitement in his tools, and noted that many of them are rebuilt 1950’s era machining tools which he and his crew have refurbished. There is something very exciting about being able to machine your own replacement parts, in order to repair your machines, if you follow. And yes, he can run the machine shop off of alternative energy sources if (when?) needed.

It was great to be at a gathering where practically anyone I went up to had an active vegetable garden, and many were raising chickens as well. So clearly many people there are in various stages of taking action, but interestingly there wasn’t a lot of focus on the action itself.

I think that John Michael Greer put it really well when he said several times about the importance of taking personal to prepare for the changing times ahead, as opposed to focusing on trying to get other people to change. In fact this is good general advice for anyone, at any time, wouldn’t you say?