“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Breakdown Dead Ahead

Image credit: Texas A&M University-Galveston
Dr. Patrick Louchouarn
Last week, I was in Washington, DC (well, actually at National Harbor, a very cool place) for the TechConnect World Innovation Conference and Expo. One component of that conference is Cleantech Energy and Efficiency, the portion I attended. In particular, there have been papers presented on research in energy efficient and low carbon construction materials, something in which my firm is very interested. But, while those topics may be grist for future posts, they aren't the topic for this one.

There are two mutually complementary reasons to be extremely concerned about our (and by "our" I mean inhabitants of planet Earth, not only US residents) energy future. One is the unfolding crisis of the availability of cheap and easy fossil fuel resources (for a brief summary see this primer). The other is the strong likelihood (not certainty) of major disruption in our planetary climate system due to the combustion products and byproducts of producing energy from fossil fuels.

Two weeks ago, while in Houston, TX, I met my college friend, Dr. Michael Tobis for dinner. Dr. Tobis, as I've mentioned previously, is the editor-in-chief of the site Planet3.0. He has a strong background in modeling, climate science, and system dynamics as well as a keen interest in the interface between science, journalism, and public discourse.

Michael and I see many things very differently. But we were discussing the potential societal train wreck dead ahead and what might be done to avert its worst consequences. Michael said "carbon tax" believing, I think (judging by his surprise at my response) that I'd strenuously disagree. In fact, I agree absolutely and, were I King,  I would make such a decree immediately.

Such a tax has many things favoring it. It attacks both problems  directly, i.e. declining availability of "cheap" (both in terms of financial cost and energetic cost) fossil fuel energy and climate disruption due to combustion products and byproducts of fossil fuels. It is Pigovian in nature (in brief, it attaches a price to externalities, that is, negative consequences not paid for by the producer, that the market fails to capture without it) and thus achieves a "societal good" by directly increasing the price of fossil fuels, thereby reducing demand for them and creating a resource for dealing with the consequences of their use and for investment in alternatives. The diagram at the top of this post will look generally familiar to those who've taken Econ 101 and 102. See this page (from which I shamelessly lifted the diagram) for an in-depth explanation.

Clearly, such a tax is regressive (in the colloquial sense of "affects lower income people proportionally more than those of higher income" rather than in the strict sense of the rate decreasing as consumption increases) and this would certainly have to be accounted for in the deployment of the government income generated. I'll post in the future as to what level I believe would represent the best combination of most effective and least economically damaging. Hopefully, further thoughts and research can lead to an idea of how it would be implemented and how the resulting funds would be distributed.

Of course, the pitfalls are many. Anyone in the business of selling fossil fuel based products and services will fight such a tax tooth and nail. The number of groups with differing opinions on what to do with the funds would be huge and all would be strident in their objection to whatever final determination was made. Every group would think that they got the short end of the stick. And Republicans (of which I used to be one) can't be elected unless they claim that a new era of US energy independence is upon us if only the Washington DC bureaucrats, tree-huggers, and alarmists would get out of the way and that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax/conspiracy/get rich scheme for elitist academics.

So, until the engine of the train is already over the cliff and the passengers in the first few cars are screaming, I think that the prospects for such a tax being implemented are bleak at best. Thus, I think that there's a Breakdown Dead Ahead.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Que sera sera?

Image credit: James Kuhn
For years now, I've been aware of a couple of things (more than a couple of course, but a couple that are germane to this blog and this post): the peak fossil fuel phenomenon and its implications for the current profligate use of energy; and the climate change/climate disruption/self-poisoning consequences of our current ransacking of planetary resources of all types.

I've come to realize that I'm (that is, I personally) iconic in several ways. I'm aware of these things and yet, as mentioned in quite a few of my posts which I'm not feeling like hunting down to link, my family and I are profligate users of energy, profligate producers of refuse of all kinds, and profligate consumers of "stuff." And I work in an industry whose purpose is increasing the extent of the built environment. What explains this?

I think there are several components to this behavioral dissonance. It seems to me that evolution has equipped our species to be tribal, acquisitive, and sexual (I know that I read that particular formulation somewhere so I don't claim to have originated it, but I can't find the source of the original quote). These are among the key characteristics that enabled our ancestors to survive and procreate with little in the way of physical advantage (speed, claws, size, teeth, etc.) in hostile environments. Planning for the long term was not immediately helpful, and providing for oneself and one's family in old age was irrelevant. Making lots of babies so that at least a couple would survive, getting as much stuff (food) as possible, and banding with others against the "world out there" would make for the best chances for the "selfish gene" (note that I carry no water for Richard Dawkins) to carry on.

There's also a related characteristic I've seen in myself and many others. I refer to it as the (don't know if the phrase is mine or it's been around) "hamburgers and fries may kill me but this hamburger and fries won't" rationalization. I can always be more Earth-friendly and energy conscious after I build my self-sufficient, off-grid home in Agua Dulce. And anyway, what difference can poor little me make?

And, dipping into sociology, I think that these same characteristics tie in very well to the capitalist system in which quarterly results, short term benefits, steep discounting of future returns, I win if you lose zero sum activities, etc. reign supreme. The capitalist system models, in a very direct way, the tribal and acquisitive components of our individual makeup.

It's no great surprise, then, that many of us as individuals and many modern societies find ourselves and themselves helpless in assessing and actively taking effective steps to mitigate the current situation of declining ability to extract cheap and easy resources of all kinds and the continuing degradation of our planetary life support system by the detritus of our lifestyle.

There are many who have endeavored to paint a realistic picture of the way things may unfold and to provide some manner of guidance as to what individuals and societies might do to avoid rushing headlong over the cliff and into personal or societal oblivion. I've linked and posted on a couple of them, including John Michael Greer, the Archdruid and James Howard Kunstler (the former in more complimentary terms than the latter). Another site that attempts to take on this complex of issues is Planet 3.0, a site whose editor-in-chief, Dr. Michael Tobis, is a friend I've known since my first attempt at college in 1971.

And there are the techno-utopians such as Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute who, while not claiming that the transition to a society with dramatically less access to cheap and easy fossil fuel energy will be a piece of cake, nevertheless posit that our trajectory can be monotonically upward if only we follow their prescription.

Finally, there are the complete doomers, such as Dr. Guy McPherson of the blog "Nature Bats Last" who say all is lost, our species will be extinct within a generation or two, and that attempting to do anything about it is, at best, a distraction. After that, the world may start to heal the wounds we've inflicted without us. Dr. McPherson sarcastically and preciously refers to any suggestion of ways to avoid total annihilation as "hopium."
Image credit: Darrel Rader via IBM Developer Works

So yes, I've done a lot of reading on these topics and continue to do so. Yet my previous post was on noodling with some calculations while on a 33 hour construction related business round trip to Thailand on a Boeing 747-400. Well, THIS airline trip won't doom the world...

I want to take some time in future posts to compare and contrast the positions and approaches of such as the Archdruid with those of the position of Mr. Lovins. Like so many other issues, there's a whole lot that needs to be known in order to decide where to place my bet. But, in the meantime, I'll go to work tomorrow trying to decide how to accomplish the needed inspection and testing of welding being done in Thailand for a Courthouse being built in San Diego.

What do I personally think will happen? At this point, I'd predict a descent of initially slow but increasing speed into a world of isolated, relatively self-sufficient communities living in, at best, an environment of tolerable comfort. And I predict lots of mayhem on the way there. Hopefully, it won't be as fast and as brutal as is predicted by Dmitry Orlov.

Update: I thought long and hard about whether to tweet a link to this post from my work-related Twitter account. The post doesn't fit the construction industry narrative very well. But, in the end, I decided that if I'm too chickenshit to do that, I should just shut up.