Age of Anxiety – Part 1 – Critique of Collapse

by transitionalism@gmail.com on July 7, 2014

Hands-Globe-ThumbThe video “There’s No Tomorrow” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOMWzjrRiBg&index=113&list=WL), is a 35 minute video production based on Richard Heinburg’s book “The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies”. It describes the pending peak oil crisis, its driver, and ultimate consequences for a society dependent on cheap and abundant energy supplied by fossil fuels. I really do like the film for its production values, a well thought out and presented central argument, and subtle and clever use of the music tract to evoke the desired emotional response of the viewer, which together really is quite effective in forcing us to stop and think.

Age of Anxiety: Critique of Collapse
The video presented its argument in three parts starting with a survey of current and future reserves, how using a combination of conservation and new technologies might be a response to the crisis of declining fossil fuel reserves, and how human behavior – expressed in the current economic and political systems – would contribute to the growing crisis. In this first installment of the series, we will focus on the question of supply and the range of possible practical responses that could be employed to avert social collapse.

While on the surface the argument seems persuasive, the problem of assessing if we are at the point of peak oil is based on the combination of three factors. First, do we have an accurate accounting of current oil reserves? Oil producing states, such as Saudi Arabia, maintain records of their oil reserves as closely held state secrets. The 1980’s experienced a marked improvement in technology related to the discovery of oil reserves as well as to the extraction process itself, in having developed the technical capability to drill into findings that were not accessible before. Advances were also made in being able to more effectively extract product from wells previously considered to be at the end of their production life. It is for these and other reasons we cannot be definitive when or even if a peak oil disaster will strike.

In the end, it does not matter. Assuming for the moment, that peak oil could be stayed through to the early years of the 22nd century, global climate change would present itself as a primary constraint on the continued dependence on fossil fuels, creating the conditions for a serious one-two punch if humanity does not respond with a sufficient and appropriate commitment and in time.

Where I am critical of the video’s argument is our incapacity to respond by its contention that any technical solution will be inadequate or too late. The argument falters by assuming we will continue consuming resources with the same sense of abandon as we exhibit today. While it correctly points out that we depend on fossil fuels to produce alternative sources of power, it does not account for the ability to make the decision to invest the remaining fossil-based energy reserves to constructing a new energy infrastructure.

Any social program or technical innovation employed to respond to the crisis can only occur when some kind of consensus has been reached. How people behave when presented with challenges will be the focus of the next installment of this series, for the moment, suffice it to say if a crisis were to present itself, people will attempt to escape their predicament. As the danger of the situation becomes more clear public opinion will shift putting more pressure on government and the private sector to act. This will permit those within government and the private sector who have been attempting to deal with these issues earlier and had their efforts blocked, will now find their path clear to put into place the necessary laws, regulations, and organizational policies. A case in point, throughout the 1930’s governments and the general populations in the western democracies resisted any suggestion of intervention against the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain and against Japanese expansionism in China until the threat was upon them and could not be avoided. More recently, there was the vigorous, concerted, and successful response to the threat to the global electronic infrastructure due to the Y2K flaw.

A similar ‘war footing’ could be established once the general population gives their governments and international authorities like the United Nations and the IMF, a mandate to meet the crisis. As had occurred in Britain and the United States during the war years 1942-1945, governments could set up bureaucracies that take control of their economies to regulate energy and resource consumption. Such measures would not necessarily be required long term, but only for the duration of the crisis. During that time, personal consumption was also controlled by a rationing system that could be instituted once again. This time there will already be installed a comprehensive network of sensors (the Internet of Things) that could be used to monitor consumption to a fairly granular level in order to identify and correct points where resources are most needed and where they could be wasted or pilfered.

Based on a general political consensus, two general practical approaches could be employed to face this challenge. The first would be elevating conservation efforts from any voluntary status to an enforceable rationing system. Once the consequences of peak oil and climate change become serious in about 15-20 years, products and services will be presented before review boards for approval based on its end function and use of resources. Already being examined is the restructuring of water utilities from open-loop systems, which are dependent on the location’s climate to replenish the water supply, into closed loop systems where wastewater is reprocessed and stored in aquifers. Changes for the general population could be the introduction of ‘dry’ bathing, which would further contribute to reducing water consumption. Another measure that could benefit us now would be to require solid waste disposal companies, who also own their own landfills, to split their collection and landfill services into two separate companies in order to encourage more recycling by making it more costly not to. Agriculture will be required to become efficient particularly in its use of water. Vertical farms would also be an additional avenue. The downside of vertical farming is the amount of energy they consume to function. In balance however, it could create a significant net gain in reducing pollution by dramatically reducing the use of fertilizers and insecticides, water, and energy used to distribute product, while creating an increased crop yield, particularly when employing genetically engineered crops. In addition, there needs to be developed a comprehensive national urban policy to urbanize suburbs in order to reduce their intrinsic resource inefficiencies, where one such measure would be the phasing out of the private ownership of cars to be replaced by a comprehensive personalized robotic public transit system.

The focus of the second approach would be on innovation through the encouragement of development and deployment of new technologies. The primary area of concern would be energy generation. Fuel cell technology would be given high priority to replace the use of fossil fuels to power cars, homes, offices, and factories. Energy could be had by the creative development of small, local generators that take advantage of anything that can move, such as wind-driven kinetic sculptures or pathways harvesting the movement of people and vehicular traffic. Strong interest exists for solar power due to its potential. Solar panels would likely be replaced by the application of energy generating solar surface treatments that could be applied across large surfaces, as well as the construction of solar generation plants. Of much greater potential would be the construction of a network of near-earth orbital solar collectors that could transmit power to the earth’s surface via low-energy microwave or laser at high enough efficiency levels to provide all of the planet’s energy needs.

Then there is fusion. The video referred derisively to this technology by associating it with Star Trek’s starship USS Enterprise, joining the many who have come to see fusion power as a philosopher’s stone, a magical idea if it could be made to work. It is true a practical sustained reaction creating more power than it consumes has yet to be attained. Yet because a problem is difficult does not mean it will not happen. Significant advances have been and will continue to be made. In principle, fusion is simply an engineering problem that we do not now possess the understanding to make it work, but one day in the not too distant future, we will. Once fusion power for energy generation is made technically feasible, if conditions demand it, those involved could then work to design one kind of reactor unit to which is attached a standard yet through set of safety and environmental assessment documentation allowing power generation plants to be rolled out as expeditiously as possible.

Space could also provide a stopgap to slow down the progression of climate change. Instead of highly problematic terraforming projects, involving the injection of reflective substances into the atmosphere there could instead be installed a solar shade in a stationary point between the sun and the earth. The shade would take the form of a spooked wheel composed of wires that would be very thin on its ends and thicker on the sides allowing for a fine adjustment of the amount of sunlight to reach the earth’s surface. The technical challenges of the sunshade aside, if executed, a greater challenge would be preventing people from continuing to act recklessly in the belief that climate change is no longer an issue or that the shade provides us an increased capacity to further pollute the atmosphere. As such, this effort can only be successful if the continued production of greenhouse gases is being curtailed, and there exists a program to remove this class of pollutants already present in the atmosphere.

In the second installment of this series, we will examine more closely the presumption in the video’s narrative that how we think and behave has set us on an unavoidable path to disaster. I hope you join me then and, as always, I am very much looking forward to hearing your comments.

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