Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Speaking of Limits to Growth

A LOVESalem foreign correspondent (from Bellingham, WA) writes:
With one minor exception, this well-written article is my public presentation in a nutshell. We cannot burn carbon we don't have, and carbon we cannot burn cannot contribute to global climate change. Furthermore, stimulus to make tons of green widgets at a time of declining energy supplies cannot succeed unless we deliberately reduce energy use (and economic activity) elsewhere in the 'economy.' Bad things are already happening in the world because of human-induced climate change, and I don't doubt we will burn as much of the remaining carbon as we're able, thereby causing even worse effects as we continue our grand climate experiment. However, some of the wilder climate possibilities constantly referred to in Copenhagen would require continued exponential growth (hence energy use) for the remainder of this century - and that is impossible. As Chris points out, creating a totally new energy infrastructure has always taken 2-3 decades - and that was in times of economic growth. The infamous 2005 Hirsch report emphasized that unfortunate constraint and warned of impending economic disaster because of the (then) upcoming oil peak; five years have now passed and we've basically made zero progress in creating any new energy sources and had one large economic hiccup. We've also bumped up against one of the limits to growth (oil supply), and it was unpleasant; soon our 'recovery' will bump into it again (if that recovery is actually real).

The one minor exception occurs in the very last part of the article, where Chris implies a need to reduce population. If he had read Catton's books "Overshoot" and "Bottleneck" he'd be able to complete the argument - that peak everything includes food and people (but apparently not fantasy). In the end, nature has always had her way, and always will. What we can do is guide as many toward that bottleneck as we're able to influence, and try to re-learn the ways of quasi-sustainable production of food and other stuff so that some humans actually pass through Catton's bottleneck.

Coincidentally, in a few hours I'll be attending a presentation continuing a topic from 2 months ago put on by a group calling itself "Great Decisions" - on the subject of the world food crisis. Fred Berman, a local "small" farmer and eatery owner, is presenting. - tooj
I'm not as optimistic as he is about economic collapse preventing us from the worst scenarios of runaway climate change --- recall that, because coal is so filthy, the UK is still the nation responsible for the largest share of the carbon emissions that are destabilizing our climate, even though the size of the UK was never large relative to the size of the US economy, much less the global economy of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.

In other words, there are those who say economic collapse will save us from the worst because of reduced carbon emissions. I think it more likely that the dominant paradigm (that it's possible to have this thing called an "economy" that can exist and be healthy in a world of collapsing ecosystems) will continue long enough to burn enough coal that we'll see emissions go up even as economic activity goes down. If that's the case ... I'm reminded of Khrushchev's warning that, in the wake of atomic warfare, "the living will envy the dead."

UPDATE: I skipped a step -- remember, essentially all the IPCC projections IGNORE feedbacks from melting tundra and offshore methane clathrates, both of which are huge, huge, huge stockpiles of a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 is. We're already seeing arctic melting in Alaska, Siberia etc., and we're finding more and more methane bubbles all the time. As the atmosphere warms, the tundra will be releasing ever-greater volumes of methane into the atmosphere, accelerating the process. Once we warm the shallow oceans off the continental shelves, where the methane trapped in ice crystals is stored, then it's all bets are off for climate, as we have no solid way to know how many other feedback loops we'll trigger, including (in addition to those above), forest fires -- huge carbon reservoirs "drained to the atmosphere" in days, and droughts destroying tropical forests -- releasing all the trapped carbon in the soils.

Don't forget tonight, 1/19, at Salem Public Library at 6:30 p.m.

A talk by Greg Craven, creator of "The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See" and the author of the excellent book "What's The Worst That Could Happen: A rational response to the climate change debate."

What higher ed will look like in a post-carbon world: The Communiversity

The "education bubble" -- characterized by the sprawling mismatch between the costs and benefits of higher education -- is going to pop because the only way the bubble can stay inflated is by piggybacking on other bubbles, the kind that have been popping left and right lately, and that seem highly unlikely to be able to reinflate now that we are comprehensively broke and without the cheap energy bonanza that, for the last two centuries, made "growth" nearly effortless.

UPDATE: Moody's doesn't like the prospects for higher ed either.

To a great extent, an abundance of wealth--the kind that supports institutions of higher ed--is nothing but a marker for the presence of an abundance of cheap energy. In fact, one would not be far wrong to state that money is little more than an accounting trick for tracking society's total throughput of energy. Only problem is that money, the accounting trick, appears to remain even after the energy has been converted from a useful, high-quality, low-entropy form into waste heat or waste materials. Thus, as we've ridden up the peak energy mountain, we've created a bigger and bigger mountain of money to account for all that energy. Now that the net energy available for use is declining faster and faster, the money is becoming, shall we say, dubious. Sure we'd all like some to use right away, but the days of intelligent people telling kids to assume tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for "an education" are rapidly drawing to a close.

It's interesting to reflect on how we'll recover from our fling with mass higher education -- here's one prospect for the future of higher education for a post-carbon world.

An intriguing experiment in community-oriented higher education is coming to Sandpoint, Idaho: it’s called the Communiversity. It’s not a college. It’s a cross-generational, interdisciplinary learning center.

From the Bonner County Daily Bee:

SANDPOINT — No one is using qualifying phrases like “instead of” or “apart from.” To the contrary, members of the local business, education and government communities are careful to note that they believe a proposed new plan for higher education will complement, not compete with, the Wild Rose Foundation’s pledge to build a University of Idaho campus here.

But with that plan on the back burner for more than two years now, excitement has shifted to a wholly different kind of university concept.

“It’s called a ‘Communiversity,’” said Connie Kimble, who oversees the individualized occupational training for the work-based learning program at Sandpoint High School. “It’s the same idea we’ve been talking about for years.

“The Wild Rose Foundation wanted to build a campus, but got stopped because of economic reasons,” she added. “In that case, a single entity would have driven things, but under this model, the community drives it.”

Kimble first heard about the Communiversity concept while attending an education seminar in Atlanta. The first such institution, she learned, got underway in 2005 when a Georgia firm called the Warren Featherbone Company donated 127,000 square feet of unused manufacturing space on seven acres of land to create a community learning center in Gainesville, Geo.

By the following year, the City of Gainesville had partnered with surrounding communities, as well as nearby Brenau University, the Lanier Technical College and the Georgia Power Company, to bring multiple financial and educational resources together under the single umbrella of the Featherbone Communiversity. Along with degree-oriented classes, the campus offered myriad continuing education and special interest courses, coupled with a business incubator that helped carry entrepreneurial dreams forward and an interactive children’s “Imaginarium” designed to spark a lifelong passion for learning.

Kimble returned from Atlanta convinced that she had seen the direction for higher education in her own community.

Quick, easy, humane mousetrap

A vicious killing was recently reported close to LOVESalem HQ -- of an errant mouse who found its way into the house of a person who very strongly preferred otherwise.

Well, timely this then. Click the illustration to go to the writeup.