The Most Important Graph in the World

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A real "No Child Left Behind" curriculum

SAN FRANCISCO - MAY 22:  US Education Secretar...Secretary of Ed. Prevention Arne Duncan. Job: ensure maximum student- years wasted on standardized tests so students can be blamed for their inability to cope in the world they inherit, rather than the schools that failed to prepare them. Image by Getty Images via Daylife

This is the kind of material that should be in Salem-Keizer Schools and not just on the web. We need to be replacing the idiotic standardized test mania with a REAL "No Child Left Behind" mindset, which would mean that no child coming up is left behind without real, practical skills that will be needed in an energy constrained world.

Our local school district, showing perfect obliviousness to our predicament, is considering expansion even as the resource base to support the existing school facilities is collapsing. Prediction: Any new schools in SK will be award-winning, architect wet-dream designs . . . and be totally useless in a low-energy future. This guy's students are extremely lucky to have a teacher such as him.

WHAT LOWER CONSUMPTION MEANS

by Dr. R. Daniel Allen

Most of the kids have a good laugh with the before/after comparison chart, and I laugh along with them. The contrasts between the present and (likely) future presented in the chart are striking to the point of unbelievability to them, and their reactions are honest and humorous: “So, Dr. Allen, where can I buy this mule I’ll need?”

But I also laugh with some sadness and a touch of fear; sadness that prudent suggestions to prepare for a difficult future are still regarded as a joke; and fear for a possibly much darker future I don’t think they yet comprehend -- a fear that we might not be able to pull this off.

Note that this is directed at high school kids as part of my ongoing series of “important side notes” to the regular Chemistry curriculum. Even though topics such as EROEI and the “net energy curve” are very relevant to this discussion, I have not introduced them yet in this essay for the sake of simplicity. For these topics, I highly recommend many related posts on www.theoildrum.com by Ugo Bardi, Charles Hall, and David Murphy, as well as the references contained therein.

Executive Summary: The fevered frenzy of Industrial Civilization’s resource consumption appears to have finally reached its apex and begun its decline in this, the first decade of the twenty-first century. A closer look at the physical realities of resource extraction reveals that the resource situation is, in fact, terminal for our high-consumin’ civilization. Resource depletion is a predicament requiring adaptation to an entirely new low-consumption paradigm, rather than a problem to be solved with technological or social solutions. As a country, we need to start the conversation about what a lower-consumption, resource-poor society would look like, and begin the appropriate preparations.

The Insatiable Hunger of Industrial Civilization

Over the past 150 years, the relentless combination of exponentially-increasing population and exponentially-increasing per-capita (i.e. per-person) consumption has significantly depleted a wide-range of resources necessary for the continuation of our modern Industrial Civilization. These include both non-renewable resources (ex: fossil fuels, metal ores, phosphate fertilizers, etc.) and theoretically-renewable resources that are being abused to such an extent that they are becoming essentially non-renewable on useful timescales (ex: fisheries, topsoil, freshwater, etc.).

Pick any of these key resources and the annual extraction rate data will likely show an exponential increase from the mid-1800’s to the present. Ask scientists about the resource and they will tell you the bad news: the annual extraction rate curve is near, at, or past the point of collapse. Ask conventional economists or politicians and they will tell you the good news: “Everything’s going to be OK; the market will take care of it; It always has.”

So who do we believe? Taking a quick look past the rhetoric, the situation becomes clear -- alarmingly so for those who wish the industrial party to continue, as well as for those who fear we are not properly prepared for what follows.

The Easy Stuff’s Gone

As modern Industrial Civilization built momentum, the easiest resources, the “lowest hanging fruit,” were logically picked first: the high purity coal, metal ores, and phosphate-bearing minerals at or near the surface; the light, sweet crude oil and gas that burst at great pressure from shallow wells; the huge, dense schools of protein-rich fish that practically jumped into the boats; the deep-rich top-soils that required minimal inputs to produce bountiful crop yields.

While the ease of extraction and high quality of these resources gave us a great confidence as a civilization, ever-increasing consumption rates actually became ingrained as a necessity for the continuation of our industrial economies. As this consumptive frenzy gained momentum, however, these once-easy resources became “high graded;” meaning that as the easiest stuff was skimmed off every year, the resources that remained were of increasingly lower quality.

What remains now, of course, at our currently-advanced stage of depletion, are resources that are much more expensive, of much lower quality, and much more difficult to extract. These are the low-purity metal ores thousands of feet underground; heavy crude oil and gas laced with toxins that must be coaxed with great effort from beneath thousands of feet of ocean, rock, and salt; sparse schools of lower-quality fish requiring monstrous nets and huge ships for their economical extraction; and the nutrient-depleted, thinned-out top-soil requiring significant inputs to obtain reasonable yields.

The Difficult Stuff’s Too Difficult

Let’s assume to a very rough (but not entirely unreasonable) approximation that half of all theoretically-extractable resources have been depleted as we begin the 21st century – fossil fuels, metal ores, phosphate fertilizer, fisheries, etc. The industrial consumers say, “Wow, that still leaves half remaining to be extracted. We still have another 150 years of fun. Party on!” There are, however, two key problems that will undermine their (understandable) exuberance.

First, due to much-increased population and per-capita consumption rates, we are burning through these resources at a significantly faster rate than at the start of the first 150 years. Even if the second half of the resources were easily obtained, they would be likely be gone in a matter of a few decades. Secondly, the first half of the resources was the cheap, easy half. What remains is so increasingly difficult to access that it would require actual extra-terrestrial energy inputs for their complete extraction – i.e. it’s not gonna happen. Not even close.

Here’s the dark irony of our resource predicament: The low-quality, difficult half of the resources that remain require an infrastructure for their extraction that can only exist in the presence of the high-quality, easy half of the resources -- the ones that no longer exist. Please read that again.

In other words, a relatively large percentage of the low-quality, difficult resources that remain will likely never be extracted. The age of cheap, easy, high-quality resources to power the current version of Industrial Civilization is over, and the age of expensive, difficult, low-quality resources to power a future version of Industrial Civilization will simply never occur.

Our beloved Industrial Civilization, this pinnacle of human ingenuity, this shining beacon of light in an otherwise backward Universe, (this destructive monster killing the biosphere) is just about out of fuel. It’s time to get out and start walking.

Lower Consumption Is the New Higher Consumption

So what does all this “bad” news mean for our everyday lives?

The short answer is that we can expect a rather drastic involuntary reduction in resource use in the not-too-distant future, gradually worsening, and extending into the distant future. This coming resource supply-reduction may well proceed in a stair-step fashion -- unexpected drop, period of stability, unexpected drop, period of stability…etc, giving repeated temporary illusions of “the bottom.” The steady erosion of the resource pipeline will not only utterly cripple our growth-requiring Industrial economy, it will send ripple effects through every facet of our formerly-industrial lives, changing them almost beyond belief.

We will not only have less and less of the “primary” extractable resources available to us every year -- less oil, less coal, natural gas, less phosphate fertilizer, less metals, etc; but we will also have less and less of the “secondary” resources that the primary resources make possible: less electricity, less nitrogen fertilizer, less water treatment, less transportation, less computers and electronic communication, etc.

Again, it’s important to state here that not only will this decline be involuntary, it will not be preventable by any combination of political, social, or technological solutions. It will simply occur, and we must simply respond to it.

How we respond, of course, will make a great deal of difference as to whether our predicament becomes disastrous or just very difficult. Moral guidance will be greatly needed throughout. The varied fields of Ecology, Biophysical Economics, Permaculture, and Natural Systems Agriculture (among others) have much to teach us about adapting to our changing resource situation, and we certainly should listen to them. (Note to Obama: Please contact the Post Carbon Institute. Invite Wendell Berry over for a beer. Heck, Derrick Jensen too.)

Also realize that there are many important facets of our lives which need not decline in the upcoming future – indeed, they may even increase: personal connections with our families, communities, and the natural world; block parties and potlucks; tag-football and pickup-basketball; joking around and shooting the breeze; love in our hearts, etc. In other words, it’s quite possible we just may find a lot more important and fulfilling things than we’re losing.

Much is still up to us.

What Lower Consumption Means

The following chart is meant to give a brief flavor of our coming lower-resource future. A quick read down the left column gives a pretty good overview of our current Industrial society, in all its fast-paced, consumptive glory.

I’ve been told by my students that the right column reads seems suspiciously Amish-like. That’s really not an accident -- the Amish generally lead a much less consumptive lives. Whatever you happen to think of their social structures, the physical lifestyles of the Amish will probably gradually become the lifestyles of a majority of the population.

Another accusation I get is that I’m predicting the 21st century will increasingly resemble the 18th century. I respond with this: if that’s what the Laws of Thermodynamics and the finite material limits of the Earth dictate, I don’t see how we have a choice.

Let’s try to make the best of it.

NONE/LESS OF…

REPLACED WITH…

Cars & trucks

Bicycles, walking, electric scooters, horses, & mules

Airplane travel (domestic & international)

Infrequent long journeys by trains and boat

Power boats, barges, ocean liners, cargo ships, & super tankers

Sailboats, row-boats, canoes

Supermarket food shopping

Home gardens & local farmers markets

Vacations (domestic & international)

“Stay-cations” to local beaches, rivers, lakes, forests; Sunday’s at the creek

Restaurant & fast food meals

Cooking at home & family meals

Electronic gadgetry (TVs, computers, ipods, cell phones, DVDs, etc.)

Entertaining friends at home, block parties, visiting among neighbors,

Hollywood movies & CDs/downloads of your favorite bands

Community theater & neighborhood concerts by local artists & musicians

Power tools

Hand tools

Electricity on demand

Partial/multi-day electrical blackouts & limited-use electricity restrictions

Electric light bulbs

Candles & early bedtimes

Universities & colleges

Community colleges & trade apprenticing

Large grade-schools & high-schools

Small community schools & home-schooling

Huge farms in California & Mid-west supplying our food

Small farms everywhere (even in suburbs & cities) supplying our food

Oil/gas/electric home-heating

Wood stoves, passive solar, insulation, sweaters, blankets, & long underwear

Air conditioning

Shade trees, swimming holes, cool drinks, & sleeping on your porch

Hot showers

Cold showers, luke-warm baths & solar water heaters

Running water

Cisterns & hand pumps

Swimming pools

Swimming holes; local rivers, lakes, & oceans; dipping your head in a bucket

Parking lots

Bike racks & hitching posts

Skyscrapers & huge office buildings

Bat habitat & salvage projects

Refrigerators & freezers

Root cellars, smoke-houses, drying racks, ice-houses, & salt barrels

Credit card, loans, & debt in general

Cash, bartering of goods, trading work

Skiing & snowboarding

Sledding, snowball fights, ice-skating

Budweiser, fine wines, & mixed drinks

Home-made wine, beer, hard cider, & moonshine

One-family households

Extended-family or multi-family households (i.e. Grandma’s comin’ home…and so is Uncle Bob)

Divorce & re-marriage

Gritting it out (& hopefully working it out) with support of extended family

Clothes shopping

Hand-me-downs, mending, making

Not knowing (or barely knowing) your neighbors & little interaction with them

Intimately knowing your neighbors & relying on them for your survival

Terrorist threats (i.e. trying to grow commerce in an increasingly hostile global political climate)

Climate threats (i.e. trying to grow your food in an increasingly unpredictable physical climate)

Overweight & obese people

Malnutrition & “just enough”; lean & skinny people

High-fructose corn syrup & table sugar

Honey & fruit

Putting out recycling & garbage

Re-using everything & fixing stuff

Police protection

Neighborhood-watch groups



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The early victims of climate disruption are rising up

Top: Increasing atmospheric  CO 2             ...Image via Wikipedia

The nations that have done the least to cause it and will pay the most because of it have had enough of rich countries' callous failures to act responsibly:

African countries have said they are prepared to provoke a major UN crisis if the US and other rich countries do not start to urgently commit themselves to deeper and faster greenhouse gas emission cuts.

In a dramatic day in Barcelona, UN officials were forced to step in after 55 African countries, in an unprecedented show of unity, called for a suspension of all further negotiations on the Kyoto protocol until substantial progress was made by rich countries on emission cuts.

Earlier, the UN chair had been forced to abandon two working groups after the Africa group refused to take part.

The African countries were supported by all other developing country blocks at the talks. In a series of statements, the G77 plus China group of 130 nations, the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis), the Least Developed Countries (LDC) group, as well as Bolivia and several Latin America countries, all broadly backed the African action.

The move by developing countries reflects their deep and growing frustration over the slow progress that industrialised countries are making towards agreeing cuts. With less than three days full negotiating time left between now and the opening of the final talks at Copenhagen, the split between rich and poor countries threatens to blow the talks fatally off course.

Bruno Sekoli, chair of the LDC group, said: "Africa and Africans are dying now while those who are historically responsible are not taking actions." . . . .

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Fighting cancer with aromatherapy and astrology

Allowing coal burning in Oregon while trying to figure out a way to address climate disruption from runaway greenhouse gas emissions is like trying to combat advanced lung cancer by having the victims breathe in the scent of baking cookies while consulting their star charts.

We have no choice if we want to have any hope of not condemning ourselves to a risky climate crapshoot. We must replace Boardman's coal burners with a natural gas turbine or two and a concentrating solar power generator. Or we can keep sniffing those brownies and hope for lucky stars.

Just as Boardman was a first for Oregon, it can be part of another first, a state putting the long-range good of its people ahead of the profits of its utility investors.
Will Oregon Close the State's Only Coal-Fired Power Plant?

The Boardman coal-fired plant is the single largest and most polluting site in Oregon, and citizens here have affixed their bull's-eye smack dab on its soaring smoke stacks.

While outsiders may think of Oregon as a green utopia, with its environmentally friendly urban populace and New Age ambiance, it's undoubtedly not that groovy when it comes to the issue of coal.

Over 40 percent of the state's energy comes from the burning of this precious black rock, half of which is pumped out of the Boardman Power Plant each year. No coal-mining operations exist in the state, so all of the coal set ablaze in Boardman is dug up and transported from places like the majestic Powder River Basin, which straddles the high-plains border of northern Wyoming and southeastern Montana.

In recent years, studies have shown that the Boardman plant contributes to regional haze and visibility impairment in the Columbia River Gorge, a national scenic area, as well as 14 national parks and wilderness areas in Washington and Oregon.

The U.S. Forest Service has even demonstrated that Boardman contributes to acid fog and rain in the Columbia Gorge. . . .

"Shutting down coal plants saves lives -- immediately. This is not about our grandchildren. It's about the here and now," says Ted Nace, director of CoalSwarm, an environmental project of the Earth Island Institute that seeks to shut down coal plants in the U.S. "For example, particulates from power plants alone are killing 24,000 people each year in the United States -- that's 240,000 lives lost per decade due to this moribund industry."

While debris from coal-fired power plants may be killing tens of thousands of people every year, the smoke that billows from these structures are also the primary source of that great global warming menace, CO2.

James Hansen, who serves as the director of NASA's Institute for Space Studies, argues that the U.S. should phase out all coal-fired power plants by 2030. Indeed, the coal plant fleet in our country is old, with over half being built before 1965 . . . .

PGE's proposed energy plan is controversial to say the least. It includes two new gas-fired power plants and over $500 million worth of pollution-reduction upgrades for the Boardman facility. Environmentalists say this money would be better spent if it was invested in renewable-energy sources. In late September, concerned citizens stormed a public hearing on PGE's plan, and they voiced numerous objections.

"It would normally be very difficult to justify shutting down a coal plant," Steve Weiss, a policy analyst with the NW Energy Coalition, told the Oregonian after the meeting. "But when you're talking about having to put a half-billion into it, it changes the equation. If they go forward and put all this money into the plant, they'll never close it down, and if they're forced to, it will cause a huge economic hardship."

. . . "To allow PGE to make an ongoing investment in fossil-fuel generating resources begs the question of what happens if we continue to confront the tipping points of climate change that are lining up in its path?" Lloyd Marbet, executive director of the Oregon Conservancy Foundation, writes in a letter to PGE. "Will PGE be allowed to make this investment and then expect to be publicly bailed out, with taxpayer dollars, if the future it paints fails to unfold and the requirement is imposed in a crisis to shut these generating plants down or severely curtail their operation?" . . .

"This is a historic turning point for our country, and Oregon can lead the way," adds Cesia Kerns of the Oregon Sierra Club. "[We] should be proud and inspired by the notion that our state could lead the country in freeing ourselves from coal and building a new, clean energy economy -- but it will require citizens to raise their voices in favor of alternatives to Boardman, and pressure Portland General Electric to do the right thing by phasing out Boardman by 2014."

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