Living in the City vs. Living in the Country: A Discussion of GDP and Sustainability

A rural run to the super

I talked with a young man who is a native of Drake Bay, Costa Rica, about his experiences living in the big city, in San José. One of his remarks got me thinking. He pointed out that although he made more money in San José, he also spent more money. In fact he said that after working for a few years, all he had to show for it where his clothes and a computer.

Furthermore, he said that the common activities in San José all cost money. Fashion is a big deal, so if you want to fit in then you need to earn money to shop, to buy the clothing and shoes that everyone else has. And as for typical leisure activities, these included going out to watch a movie, and going out to eat with friends. Everything not only costs money, but is also counted as “economic activity” which contributes to “GDP” which is a key measure of a country’s “level of development.”

But then we got to talking about his life here, in a small, remote town on the coast of Costa Rica that’s accessible via 4×4 on one road that tends to wash out during the rainy season. There’s no mall here, there’s no movie theater, and the fashion trends here, such as going shirtless and shoeless, look little changed from when I was on the coast in Sámara, Costa Rica eight years ago studying Spanish. The local general stores mostly sell staples, and of the goods they are selling, what they have tends to be generic, or used, and in any case not that desirable. And so although this young man may make less money here, he’s actually putting more money away, while enjoying a higher quality of life. He likes to hike, and there’s an endless variety of amazing, free hikes to be had around here.

But also consider that all his activities here, and the lack of them, generate no measurable economic activity or GDP. From a sustainability perspective, it’s great, but economically it looks like backwards movement. There is a weird rich world perversion with “progress.” A lady on the same snorkeling tour I was on remarked that a large school of fish we’d just seen “seemed lost; they were just going in circles; they didn’t know where to go.” I replied “maybe they were just hanging out.” Coming back to economics, just hanging out can easily be a free activity, and thus one that creates no GDP and pays no salaries. Does that make it useless, or perhaps very useful?

Before tourism really arrived in Drake Bay about 12 years ago, people here grew their own food. Apparently kids who are 17 and older all know how to grow food, but the kids younger than that have no idea at all. Again—growing your own food—no GDP, but buying food that’s come from somewhere else, probably produced on a large farm by machines—that’s GDP, that’s “progress.”

I have this sense that as a society, we are that school of fish that’s going in circles, but unfortunately we’re not just hanging out. Rather we’re eating ourselves, little by little, in a vicious cycle away from living in harmony with nature, and further towards consuming nature, of which we are an undividable part.

What I ask myself is if I’m willing to part with the creature comforts, to work towards living in a profoundly more sustainable way, or if I’m bound to continue being yet one more set of jaws in the gnawing school of fish that is humanity.

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.

Chinese rural farmers are a worry for centralized government control

The New York Times is running an interesting series of articles on how the Chinese government is working to accelerate urbanization, by moving rural farmers off of their land and into apartment blocks in new cities. The first one is titled Pitfalls Abound in China’s Push from From to City.

On the right we have a rural small plot farmer. A little rough and the edges, but independent. On the left we have a city-dwelling family, fully under government control.

On the right we have a rural small plot farmer. A little rough around the edges, but independent. On the left we have a polished-looking city family, fully under government control.

The stated intent of this move is to drive the Chinese economy and to improve the standard of living for rural Chinese. There are so many problems with this in terms of sustainability that I don’t even know where to start, although I’ll try anyhow.

The New York Times article points out several of the challenges that the residents themselves are facing, such as no jobs in these new cities, and no money to pay for the electricity in their fancy new apartments. And of course there’s a the very valid perspective that these are not really optional relocations, but rather something that the government is pushing people into. It’s enough to make me want to reread the US Constitution, especially the Fifth Amendment and the Second Amendment, especially now that we know that the US government outright lies to us, supposedly for our own protection. Thanks.

I see some serious problems with China’s plan:

This is about government gaining unhealthy power over people.

  • A city dweller needs the government badly, or they’ll starve.
  • A rural farmer who can feed themselves doesn’t need the government.

City people are rough on the environment.

  • A city dweller lives high on resources from “elsewhere” and is disconnected from the impact they’re having on the world.
  • A small plot rural farmer uses few resources to live (because they don’t have money to throw around) and takes care of their land so it keeps producing over the long haul.

City people survive on the whims of international trade.

  • A city dweller–and indeed a nation of city dwellers–is intimately tied to the fortunes of mass market farming operations that are often very far away.
  • A rural farmer doesn’t care about the whims of other countries, international spats, farming policy in far off continents. They just grow food locally, and set aside for lean years.

City living requires huge inputs of energy, that are already waning.

  • City dwellers live based on the flow of oil, gas, coal that fuels their unsustainable lifestyles. They are living in a way that will not be possible in a matter of decades.
  • Rural farmers know how to live based on what they have available, without needing these inputs. Having said that, recent years and creature comforts have likely made them somewhat reliant on fossil fuels however they are miles closer to knowing how to live with the land than a city person is.

Bottom line: the rural farmer, in spite of being less comfortable, controls their destiny, as long as the government stays the heck out of the way. The city dweller is a cog in a larger machine, in which they have very little say. No wonder the Chinese government wants a country of city people.

I can see why China would have a motivation to do away with small plot rural farmers. Looks to me like “Cultural Revolution Light, run in reverse.” I bet this road is also paved up and down with good intentions–too bad it’s a fully unsustainable path.

Unlimited optimism, limited energy

WEB_Still_Galaxy_02

This is so cool looking!! Are you convinced now that it’s a bonafide free energy machine? Just a sec, two “official looking men dressed in black” are knocking on my front door…

I recently came across the documentary Thrive. Among other things, it claims that free energy devices–machines that generate more energy out than they have coming in–exist and work, however they have been completely and successfully suppressed by powerful people who profit from fossil fuels.

I suppose to some people this is a very satisfying idea, that lines up with a certain world view. However I see many serious problems with the “free energy device” train of thought:

* Physics: the ideas they are proposing don’t work with our current understanding of physics. Granted, they could have found something new, but then they’d have to show it. I met a gentleman last year, a social entrepreneur, who had seen dozens of these machines over the years, and never found one that was actually creating energy. He said that the inventors were looking at the wrong numbers–possibly because they didn’t understand power readings–and so there was in fact no energy gain.

* Control of information in the internet era: so the most powerful government in the world seems helpless to stop very low level people, like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, from sharing extremely embarrassing government information. But somehow they are able to keep down this true “game changer” of a technology? Really?

* Power: Basically the empire that controls the most energy rules the world. If these energy creating machines existed, every government would be chasing after them with gusto. And energy supplies are a growing problem for the military around the world.

The US military and the German military have both released reports that show series concerns about energy supplies. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2010-10-01/military-reports-leading-charge-peak-oil-debate In fact it’s so bad, that the US military has been funding biofuels research! (Unfortunately biofuels are a net negative return on energy.) I’ve also heard of pretty amazing military solar technology. If these military folks could get energy producing machines, they’d do it in a heartbeat.

* Money: Think about the Sandhill Road VC types that you’ve met. Do they strike you as cooperative people who are willing to forgo profit? Heck no! They’re driving hard to make every dollar they can. I’d be shocked if any government could keep these rabid capitalists from making monster profits from an energy producing machine. They would step all over each other to be the first to get the machine, patent it, and make huge money. What happens instead is that they employ people, such as the gentleman I mentioned above, who check out these “free energy machines,” with their own measuring equipment, shake their heads, and say “I’ve seen this before, you’re confusing X with Y.”

* Academics: So you mean to tell me that there are a whole generation of physics researchers lusting after Nobel prizes, or heck even just tenure, who are purposely ignoring this “promising” field of free energy machines? Or that they have been “warned away” by the government, and it just doesn’t get talked about? Look, science has progressed far enough that now researchers are building machines to leverage the momentum of light. Which closet are the free energy machines going to be hidden in?!

Human nature: Let’s face it: when the stakes are really high, people often don’t play nicely. And the higher the stakes, the more nasty things get. There are lots of stories of rivalries among the rich that tell me it’s far from one big happy group of co-conspirators. There’s always someone who believes that they are better off going it on their own, be it in academia, venture capital, government, military, or owners of professional sports teams . You’re telling me they’re going to agree to keep the free energy machine a secret–for decades–and have nobody break ranks? I honestly think the existence of a free energy machine is more likely than those “big people” being able to cooperatively keep it a secret. 🙂

So look–if free energy machines existed, I think we’d all find out about in a big hurry. Especially in the age of wanton profit seeking and unlimited information sharing, it seems very unlikely that a secret like this could be kept. And if it does exist, it’s not that hard to prove–think about it.

My favorite resources for post-fossil fuel living

I was recently at an inspiring “unconference” in the Bay Area on the topic of sustainability, and I met many fascinating people with good questions. From those conversations, I decided to put together a list of the resources that I’ve found the most relevant when thinking about what living in a world with dramatically less fossil fuel use.

My top 3 recommended resources

1. Here’s the book that “changed everything” for me around sustainability. It is well written, makes a lot of sense, and doesn’t preach. Greer pretty much lays out what he sees, and lets you decide what you think. A provoking concept here is “if technology doesn’t bail us out yet again, THEN what happens?” http://www.amazon.com/The-Long-Descent-Users-Industrial/dp/0865716099/

2. This is a fascinating book on the Soviet Union’s collapse experience. Since it happened relatively recently, it’s a great way to consider “what might it look like here.” I couldn’t put this down once I started reading it, because it’s not speculation, it’s a recording of what happened. He does a wonderful job of showing how the USSR had several structural things going for it that softened the cushion of collapse. These include most housing being state owned (so nobody got evicted or foreclosed on) and all housing being mass transit accessible (so people could get around without cars). I highly recommend this book.
http://www.amazon.com/Reinventing-Collapse-Experience-Prospects-ebook/dp/B004XOZ89M

3. Here’s a collection of post-peak short stories that Greer edited. There’s a great variety of future visions in here, and all are well thought-out:
http://www.amazon.com/After-Oil-Visions-Post-Petroleum-ebook/dp/B00A323CPU

Fiction, albeit well thought-through and grounded

More resources

 

Charts show signs of peak employment?

I came across this chart the other day.

Wallace April Employment 2013-05-23

 

It’s showing that the current “recovery” still hasn’t gotten the number of jobs up to where it was before the recession. And that this is historically unusual, at least looking as far back as 1947. It reminds me of the 16 year chart of the S&P index, which appears to show a ceiling at a certain level. It makes me wonder if we’re seeing peaks left and right–oil supply, stock market, employment?

16 year SPY

I shared the top chart with a colleague who wondered aloud about how the employment numbers look when compared to the overall population of working people. General unemployment statistics are hard to interpret since people who don’t find work within 18 months are dropped from being counted as unemployed (clever trick!), which leads me to look at the number of overall jobs as a potentially more meaningful statistic.

I visited FRED, the free online statistics website, and got data to create the following chart:

employment gap

 

Although FRED currently only has the US population of working age stats out to 2011, it paints an interesting story in terms of the gap between the number of people and the number of jobs.

On the one hand, there will always be a gap because of factors like people who work but aren’t counted as employed, people who are too disabled to work, people who don’t have to work for a living, and so on. But in any case the trend of the gap is valuable to look at.

The US working age population seems to be continuing up on a smooth line, while the number of jobs seems to have plateaued. If that’s the case, then we should expect to see the ride line above, % gap, continue to grow in the coming years.

Beware of folks using peak oil as a tool to scare you into buying financial advice

I’ve had a few friends forward me links to articles with a note that says “this sounds just like what you’ve been talking about!” And I keep hoping that they are going to send me a link to a legitimate website such as The Archdruid Report or Post Peak Living but instead I get to a page (which I’m purposely not linking to) that says something like this:

A team of economists, scientists and geopolitical experts has uncovered a startling pattern that has mysteriously appeared and threatens your financial security and way of life!

Unfortunately this just smells badly of a new form of crass consumerism, to save you from the old form of crass consumerism. Same process, different content. Got a problem? We’ll sell you a solution. Rinse, lather, repeat.

It reminds me of a conversation I had once with a guy whose job is to do marketing emails for investment managers. As he put it, it’s all about finding just the right angle to get people to click, the “made you look!” effect, as he called it. If these folks want to do that using other angles, fine, but I’m going to get territorial about peak oil as a way to shill.

I’m super clear that these investment websites that use Peak Oil scare tactics to sell are a pox on the real movement to bring awareness and useful action to learning deeply sustainable ways of living.  If someone has a genuine product to sell, or a reality tested skill to teach, fine. But it’s not what these folks are up to. We need to get these issues right.