Tag Archives: Global Warming

A Storyline of Global Collapse

In referring in my title here to “A Failed System” I do not of course mean that capitalism as a system is in any sense at an end. Rather I mean by “failed system” a global economic and social order that increasingly exhibits a fatal contradiction between reality and reason—to the point, in our time, where it threatens not only human welfare but also the continuation of most sentient forms of life on the planet. Three critical contradictions make up the contemporary world crisis emanating from capitalist development: (1) the current Great Financial Crisis and stagnation/depression; (2) the growing threat of planetary ecological collapse; and (3) the emergence of global imperial instability associated with shifting world hegemony and the struggle for resources

If you’re looking for the deep underlying narratives that can help bring clarity to the current unsettled state of our world, then this essay by John Foster is an excellent starting point.  Be forewarned that this is not an easy read and somewhat technical in it’s historical summary of economic theory, however if deeper understanding is your goal, reading this essay is well worth the effort.

Three Letters to Obama

The Obama administration has recently received three letters or petitions regarding energy policy.  As with any policy position they are shaped by the world views of the men and women who authored them.

Dr. James Hansen is head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading global climate change researcher.  It is not surprising that his proposal revolves around a tax policy aimed at decarbonizing the American economy and reducing greenhouse gases.

Edward Mazria is an architect and creator of the 2030 Challenge, a voluntary pledge that all new buildings and major building renovation be constructed to a carbon-neutral (using no fossil fuel GHG emitting energy to operate) standard by 2030. Mazria’s proposal is centered on achieving building energy efficiency goals rewarded with lower mortgage rates in the case of residential construction and by accelerated depreciation in the case of commercial construction.  If enacted, it claims to both create millions of jobs and reduce carbon emissions.

Richard Heinberg is senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of The Party’s Over – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies,  Powerdown – Options and Actions for a Post – Carbon World, and the Oil Depletion Protocol.   Heinberg and the other authors of Post Carbon Institute’s “Real New Deal” marry the imperatives of climate change and the peaking and ultimate depletion of our fossil fuel resources into a comprehensive plan to transition the U.S. to a new energy economy.

All three proposals are valid and merit serious review, but only the Post Carbon Institute’s proposal offers a comprehensive view of the challenges we must face.  As such, the Hansen and Mazria proposals are important subsets of what needs to be a much larger solution.

Hansen sent an open letter to Barack and Michelle Obama.  Here are some relevant excerpts from the letter:

A rising carbon price is essential to “decarbonize” the economy, i.e., to move the nation toward the era beyond fossil fuels. The most effective way to achieve this is a carbon tax (on oil, gas, and coal) at the well-head or port of entry.  The tax will then appropriately affect all products and activities that use fossil fuels.

The public will support the tax if it is returned to them, equal shares on a per capita basis (half shares for children up to a maximum of two child-shares per family), deposited monthly in bank accounts.  No large bureaucracy is needed.  A person reducing his carbon footprint more than average makes money.   A person with large cars and a big house will pay a tax much higher than the dividend.  Not one cent goes to Washington.  No lobbyists will be supported.  Unlike cap-and-trade, no millionaires would be made at the expense of the public.

A carbon tax is honest, clear and effective.  It will increase energy prices, but low and middle income people, especially, will find ways to reduce carbon emissions so as to come out ahead.  The rate of infrastructure replacement, thus economic activity, can be modulated by how fast the carbon tax rate increases.  Effects will permeate society.  Food requiring lots of carbon emissions to produce and transport will become more expensive and vice versa, encouraging support of nearby farms as opposed to imports from half way around the world.

A Two-Year, Nine-Million-Job Investment Proposal

The road to energy independence, economic recovery and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions runs through the Building Sector.” – Edward Mazria

The 2030 Challenge Stimulus plan is a two year investment commitment to create 9 million jobs overall and 4-million jobs in the construction sector.  It is a jobs growth and carbon reduction plan rolled into one.  In the residential sector it trades low interest rate loans off against investments to increase building energy efficiency.  For an existing home, the interest rate provided would be a function of renovating that home to some level below the existing energy code requirements in exchange for a lower mortgage rate.

Mortgage Interest Rate (subject to market conditions)  2030 Challenge Energy Reduction

4.0%    30% below code
3.5%    50% below code
2.5%    75% below code
2.0%    Carbon neutral

For example, a homeowner with a    current $272,300    mortgage with equity of $12,000, would have a mortgage balance of $260,300. At an interest rate of 6%, the current monthly mortgage payment would be $1633. If this homeowner wants to qualify for the 2.5% interest rate, they will need to renovate their home to use 75% less energy than that required by code, immediately creating jobs and putting construction teams back to work.

The cost of renovation would be approximately $51,250, which includes a solar system, which would qualify for a $7000 tax credit. The cost of the renovation, minus the tax credit, would be added to the mortgage balance, so that the new mortgage is now $304,550.    However, because of the significantly lower 2.5%    interest rate, the new mortgage payment is just $1203, a savings of $430 per month. With the additional monthly savings on energy bills of approximately $145, this homeowner would save a total of $575 per month.

Because building construction historically represents about 10% of GDP, Mazria thinks that the private building sector may be the key to reviving the U.S. economy.  He proposes that $96-billion be invested annually for the next two years in mortgage interest rate buy-downs and accelerated depreciation for commercial buildings.  As a result, Mazria claims that with a participation of only 5.8% of homes and 3.1% of commercial buildings the program would generate 9-million jobs and $1-trillion in private sector spending, and pay for itself in the form of increased tax revenue.

In addition to the economic claims, Mazria calculates that over the five year period, the proposal would reduce CO2 emissions by 504 million metric tons and energy consumption by 6.47 Quadrillion Btu.

Even at a participation of only 5.8% (over 4-million) of homes, Mazria’s proposal may have a scaling problem, as the country finds itself lacking the architectural, engineering, and code verification talent to transform that many homes in the proposed time-frame.  Conceptually however, this is a beautifully conceived plan and deserves serious attention.

The Real New Deal
Energy Scarcity and the Path to Energy, Economic, and  Environmental Recovery

The energy transition cannot be accomplished in four years or eight…  What can and must be accomplished in a single administration is the essential change of direction.

The Post Carbon Institute [PCI] argues that the current economic crisis provides the opportunity and potentially the political will to make a significant down payment on the transition to a renewable energy economy that would otherwise be inconceivable.  In fact if we don’t act now, the current crisis may just merge with “peak oil” and the effects of climate change to create a decades long global state of emergency.

PCI outlines a comprehensive program comprising five different solution sets.

  1. A massive and immediate shift to renewable energy (Hansen’s proposal fits here)
  2. The electrification of our transportation system
  3. The transformation to a “smart” electrical grid
  4. The de-carbonization and localization of our food production and delivery system
  5. The retrofit of our building stock for energy efficiency and distributed power generation. (Mazria’s proposal fits here)

Since the cost of such a transition spread over 20 years would be in the order of $4.5-trillion the authors admit that given the current financial meltdown, private capital will not be forthcoming and deficit spending by the government along with significant policy changes will be required to launch the transition.  To direct policy, the authors recommend creating “an Energy Transition Office, tied to no existing agency, specifically tasked with tracking and managing the transition and with helping existing agencies work together toward the common goal”.

The authors do not underestimate the enormous and unprecedented scope of their proposal.  Aside from avoiding or mitigating the devastating impacts of peak oil and climate change the potential  benefits are enormous and would include:

  • eliminating the need to police oil exporting areas of the world, saving billions of dollars a year in military expenditures
  • saving billions per year by creating a food system that substantially reduces obesity, cancer, and asthma
  • helping to create and foster skilled, self-reliant and resilient communities

Although the plan as presented merely serves to outline the possible solutions and the scope of the problems we face, what sets it apart is it all-embracing view of the resource depletion and environmental  perils we must resolve to survive.

Thoughts About a New Energy Economy
Calls for the transition to a new energy economy typically come from three main quarters.  All three are valid, but only one sees the forest for trees.

The national security quarter recognizes that we depend too much on imports from countries and regions that are either unstable and/or hostile to our national interests.  This argument for action plays well with the right, but does not recognize the environmental threat of global warming or greater economic peril of peak oil.  Although it forms the basis of an argument for an energy transition, it can equally be used to justify a more robust military policy.

The climate change quarter is currently dominant in the minds of the public and with policy makers.  It sees great peril and human suffering in the coming decades but doesn’t recognize that the peak oil is imminent and will soon take center stage.  The economic devastation of peak oil will likely be additive to the current debt crisis and put global warming on the back burner.  Ironically, the advent of peak oil will greatly reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of global warming but the decline in oil supply alone will not be sufficient to drive atmospheric CO2 levels back to 350 PPM.

Peak oil is lesser known.  There is a peak oil caucus in congress, but there is little political will to take action in a county where nearly half the population believes in the battle cry of “drill baby drill”.  Unlike the effects of global warming which will be slow and indirect in coming, the effects of peak oil will be as sudden as the collapse of the World Trade Center and Lehman Brothers.  More shock and awe than a slow rising of the tides.  It will touch every corner of our economy with a combination of price shocks and shortages.  It will leave us with one chance and one chance only to transform our energy infrastructure to solar, wind, and geothermal using what remains of our rapidly depleting fossil fuel resources.

As I look to the future, I see three possible courses of action:

Option one is that we recognize the problem of resource depletion and take action well in advance of  the anticipated world wide peak in oil production.  Since peaking is imminent and the transition will take approximately two decades, unfortunately the ship has already sailed on option one. Looking back we will someday wish we had paid much more attention to Jimmy Carter.

With the election of Obama, option two is already in play, and we have begin to take some action based on fears of climate change and for reasons of national security.  However, our current actions are no where near sufficient to avoid extreme hardship.  The ship of state is on a collision course with the iceberg and we have only just given the order to reduce speed.  Our collision with destiny is now unavoidable and the question now is whether there will be a sufficient number of life boats.  In addition, just as we need it the most, we lack sufficient capital to make the transition in the face of the global financial meltdown.  This is not just another severe business cycle, this is the beginning of the  realignment of the the post WWII global financial system and the end of American economic dominance.  It is likely that peak oil will become evident just as the dollar loses its status as the world’s reserve currency and as a nation we may then be unable to fund the energy transition with either public or private funds.  Essentially bankrupt and losing our grip on global influence and power the country may lurch to the right in a desperate attempt to reclaim global dominance.

Option three is to maintain a posture of “drill baby drill denial” in spite of reality.  At this point the country may resort to engaging in “resource wars” to claim the world’s remaining oil reserves and to protect the American “way of life”.   This would be a policy doomed to failure and assured of increasing human misery.  It would also be a policy that will put us at risk of missing our only window to transition away from fossil fuels.  Call this the Mad Max policy.

My hope is that we’ll stick with option two and muddle through to a new and sustainable energy economy.  It promises to be extremely painful and disruptive decade or two of transition, but in the end we will find ourselves in a much healthier relationship with our environment and possibly with each other.

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Obama and Global Warming – Cap & Trade or a Carbon Tax?

Taxes aren’t just too high, they’re too dumb. Whenever we put a tax on something, we get less of it. Yet, incomprehensibly, we continue to tax the things we want more of: income, jobs, and savings. Economists used to like that — they thought taxing good things was “neutral.” But it’s not. In a resource-constrained world, it’s much smarter to cut taxes on what we want — like jobs — and make up the difference by raising taxes on things we want less of: carbon, pollution, and waste. – Bill Shireman, President and CEO of the Future 500

The invisible hand of the market is blind to the effects of inputs and outputs that don’t provide any immediate price signals.  No where is that more true than in the fossil fuel derived energy markets, where the price signals for resource depletion, air and water pollution, and climate change are either non-existent, understated, or so delayed as to render any “natural” free market correction an economic and humanitarian crisis.

In the case of anthropogenic global warming [AGW], market forces may react to new shipping lanes in the Arctic or improved crop yields in certain parts of the world, but they will not react to species loss or rising sea levels until we are well past the tipping point of no return.  So the only way to drive the market to “decarbonize” our atmosphere is for the government to impose a price signal on fossil fuel generated carbon.

We can do this with either a system of Cap & Trade or with a Carbon Tax.  Either method would impose a cost on the release of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and adjust the price upward to reflect the environmental costs that the “market” fails to “see”.

In a recent letter to president elect Obama, Jim Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies proposes a carbon tax.  Here are some excerpts from the letter:

A rising carbon price is essential to “decarbonize” the economy, i.e., to move the nation toward the era beyond fossil fuels. The most effective way to achieve this is a carbon tax (on oil, gas, and coal) at the well-head or port of entry.  The tax will then appropriately affect all products and activities that use fossil fuels.

The public will support the tax if it is returned to them, equal shares on a per capita basis (half shares for children up to a maximum of two child-shares per family), deposited monthly in bank accounts.  No large bureaucracy is needed.  A person reducing his carbon footprint more than average makes money.   A person with large cars and a big house will pay a tax much higher than the dividend.  Not one cent goes to Washington.  No lobbyists will be supported.  Unlike cap-and-trade, no millionaires would be made at the expense of the public.

A carbon tax is honest, clear and effective.  It will increase energy prices, but low and middle income people, especially, will find ways to reduce carbon emissions so as to come out ahead.  The rate of infrastructure replacement, thus economic activity, can be modulated by how fast the carbon tax rate increases.  Effects will permeate society.  Food requiring lots of carbon emissions to produce and transport will become more expensive and vice versa, encouraging support of nearby farms as opposed to imports from half way around the world.

As a candidate, Obama supported a Cap & Trade policy that would require all pollution credits to be auctioned.  These credits would then be “traded” creating a new source of commission revenue for the financial markets.  A 100 percent auction policy would ensure that all industries pay for every ton of emissions they release, rather than politically giving emission rights  and credits away to companies on the basis of their past pollution.  Obama proposed that a small portion of the auction receipts (~$15 billion/year) be invested in the development of clean energy sources and that the balance be used for rebates to individuals, families, and communities to off-set the increased cost of fuel, natural gas, and electricity.

Personally, I like the administrative simplicity of Hansen’s plan and it’s relative immunity to political and financial gaming.   Obama has proven he is open to any good idea — let’s hope he is open to Hansen’s proposal.

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Human Carrying Capacity and the 2008 Financial Meltdown

In 1972, a group of researchers funded by the Volkswagon Foundation published a book titled, The Limits to Growth.  Based on a MIT computer model using system dynamics, the book predicted that unless the current trajectory of population and industrial growth was altered, the world would exceed it’s human carrying capacity resulting in a sudden and uncontrollable decline in population and industrial capacity.

By challenging our beliefs in the inevitable rightness and goodness of technical, industrial, and economic growth, the book evoked great controversy and would eventually sell over 30 million copies in more than 30 languages.  Contrary to much of the criticism that the book received, it was neither anti-growth nor did it predict the running out of any specific resource by a date certain.  Noting that it’s research was “preliminary”, the book offered three simple conclusions.

  1. If current growth trends continue we will exceed the earth’s human carrying capacity within 100 years.  This overshoot of carrying capacity will result in a sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.
  2. These growth trends can be altered to achieve a sustainable, “ecological stability” capable of supporting a given human population far into the future.
  3. The longer we wait to begin altering growth trends, the lower the probability of successfully achieving a sustainable future.

The 1972 authors gave us some markers to watch for as warning signs or indicators of our possible overshoot of human carrying capacity.

  • Deterioration in renewable resources – surface and ground water, forests, fisheries, agricultural land.
  • Rising levels of pollution.
  • Growing demands for capital, resources, and labor by military and industry to secure, process, and defend resources.
  • Investment in human resources (education, shelter, health care) postponed in order to provide immediate consumption and security demands.
  • Rising debt; eroding goals for health and environment.
  • Growing instability in natural ecosystems.
  • Growing gap between rich and poor – between the powerful and the weak.

I’ll return to these warning signs, but first I think it would be useful to define a few key concepts.

Human Carrying Capacity
In the simplest of terms, human carrying capacity in a closed eco-system like earth is a function of population plus the average rate of consumption of that population.  At a given limit, you have the trade off of a high population and low levels of consumption, or low population and higher levels of consumption.

Human carrying capacity is the maximum rates of resource harvesting and waste generation (the maximum load) that can be sustained indefinitely without progressively impairing the productivity and functional integrity of relevant ecosystems wherever the latter may be located. The size of the corresponding population would be a function of technological sophistication and mean per capita material standards. This definition reminds us that regardless of the state of technology, humankind depends on a variety of ecological goods and services provided by nature and that for sustainability, these must be available in increasing quantities from somewhere on the planet as population and mean per capita resource consumption increase. – William E. Rees

Carrying Capacity Overshoot
To overshoot means to grow rapidly beyond the limits of carrying capacity. When this overshoot occurs, it’s due to a limit or barrier exceeded within the system, and the system (natural and/or economic) corrects and begins to slow, stop, or reverse growth.  In addition, as the limits of our natural systems are exceeded they are degraded, which results in the overall carrying capacity being diminished.   Overshoot leads to a sudden and catastrophe collapse.

As the environment is degraded, carrying capacity actually shrinks, leaving the environment no longer able to support even the number of people who could formerly have lived in the area on a sustainable basis. No population can live beyond the environment’s carrying capacity for very long. – William E. Rees

Humans are hard wired to discount the future, so in the context of carrying capacity, I have often wondered what environmental disaster or resource limit would be the tripwire that would launch us into the kind of collective action required to avoid or mitigate overshoot and catastrophic collapse.  Would our tendency to only react when faced with a crisis, doom us to a fate of too little, too late?  Will we miss our window to achieve a sustainable “ecological stability”?

Perhaps the tripwire won’t be a natural limit like global warming, or peak oil, or fisheries collapse, or soils loss.  Perhaps the tripwire will be a systemic economic collapse.  And if it is, will we see it for what it is, or will we clamor in panic for a return to business as usual?

In the 1992 followup publication, Beyond the Limits, the authors clarified their position relative to growth:

A sustainable society would be interested in qualitative development, not physical expansion. It would use material growth as a considered tool, not a perpetual mandate. It would be neither be for nor against growth. Before this society would decide on any specific growth proposal, it would ask what the growth was for, and who would benefit, and what it would cost, and how long it would last, and whether it would be accommodated by the [natural] sources and sinks of the planet.

In other words, they meant that qualitative growth was still possible, and only quantitative growth was limited….more quality of life, less stuff.  The 1992 authors also remained hopeful and stated that:

The decline [overshoot and collapse] is not inevitable. To avoid it two changes are necessary. The first is a comprehensive revision of policies and practices that perpetuate growth in material consumption and in population. The second is a rapid, drastic increase in the efficiency with which materials and energy are used.

The 2004 follow up publication, Limits to Growth: The Thirty Year Update, would not be so optimistic. Based on thirty years of additional data and refinements in their computer modeling, the authors would be forced to conclude that the world was in a dangerous state of overshoot.  Consider again the list of warning signs from the original 1972 publication.

Rising debt; eroding goals for health and environment.

  • In the last eight years the U.S. National Debt has grown from $5.7-trillion to over ten trillion dollars. However, that only begins to tell the story.  If we use generally accepted accounting procedures (GAAP) to determine the nations financial obligations and include the net present value of the unfunded liabilities in social insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare, then the total federal obligation exceeds $59-trillion dollars.
  • According to David Greenlaw, Morgan Stanley’s chief economist, the 2009 budget deficit could be close to $2 trillion, or 12.5 percent of gross domestic product, more than twice the record of 6 percent set in 1983.
  • U.S. household debt as a percentage of GDP has risen from a low of 12% at the beginning of WWII to over 90% in the year 2006.
  • U.S. credit card currently exceeds $950-billion, 30% of which is carried by “high risk” borrowers.  Innovest estimates that banks will write off $41- billion in credit card debt in 2008, and $96-billion in 2009.  The American consumer is “tapped out”.
  • In 1970, the world’s poorest countries (roughly 60 countries classified as low-income by the World Bank), owed $25 billion in debt.  By 2002, this debt had grown to $523 billion.  Basically, the more the developing countries stay in debt, the more they will feel that they need to milk the earth’s resources for the hard cash they can bring in, and also cut back on social, health, environmental conservation, employment and other important programs.

“Pushing debt has become the easiest and the most profitable business in the U.S. over the past few years. Who wants to take the risks of a producer when financing has become so lucrative? Look at the largest “industrial” corporations in the U.S. over the past decade, or two, and what you see is that they are lot more into financing business than in production business.” – Jas Jain, December 2006

Growing gap between rich and poor – between the powerful and the weak.

  • In 1998 more than 45 percent of the globe’s people had to live on incomes averaging $2 a day or less. Meanwhile, the richest one- fifth of the world’s population has 85 percent of the global GNP.  And the gap between rich and poor is widening.
  • At the beginning of the 19th century, average incomes in the richest nations were about 4 times greater than those in the poorest nations.  100 years later at the turn of the 20th century, average incomes in the richest nations are 30 times larger.
  • An analysis by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez found that despite several periods of healthy growth between 1973 and 2005, the average income of all but the top 10 percent of the income ladder — nine out of ten American families — fell by 11 percent when adjusted for inflation.
  • Americans have the highest income inequality in the rich world and over the past 20–30 years Americans have also experienced the greatest increase in income inequality among rich nations.
  • The share of income held by the top 1% in America was as large in 2005 as it was in 1928.
  • In the U.S., between 1979 and 2005, the mean after-tax income for the top 1% increased by 176%, compared to an increase of 69% for the top quintile overall, 20% for the fourth quintile, 21% for the middle quintile, 17% for the second quintile and 6% for the bottom quintile.

“…income variance is a long-term (multi-year) indicator of economic activity. The more extreme it gets, the worse the economy and the financial markets eventually will become. Looking at two simplified markets with one man making $100,000,000 per year or 1,000 men making $100,000 per year, there will tend to be more speculative financial markets in the first case, but more automobiles will be sold in the second case. The system tends to be self-adjusting when income variance reaches an extreme, with the speculative market bubble eventually bursting and income and economic activity tending to get redistributed.” – John Williams, Shadow Government Statistics

Investment in human resources (education, shelter, health care) postponed in order to provide immediate consumption and security demands.

  • More than half a million people, mostly children, died from measles in 2003 even though effective immunization costs just 30¢, and has been available for over 40 years.
  • Since 2003, discretionary spending in the U.S. has declined by 9% for education and 17% for health.

Growing demands for capital, resources, and labor by military and industry to secure, process, and defend resources.

  • World military expenditures have increased 45% since 1998 to $1.34-trillion in 2007.
  • The USA’s military spending accounted for 45 per cent of the world total in 2007, followed by the UK, China, France and Japan, with 4–5 per cent each.
  • Defense accounts for over 50% of the U.S. discretionary budget.  This does NOT include the costs of the Afghan and Iraqi wars.

“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes … known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” - James Madison, 1795

Growing instability in natural ecosystems.

  • Sea level has risen 10–20 cm since 1900. Most non-polar glaciers are retreating, and the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice is decreasing in summer.
  • Vertebrate species populations have declined by about one-third in the 33 years from 1970 to 2003
  • Global extinction of species occurred in the 20th century at a rate that was a thousand times higher than the average rate during the preceding 65 million years. This is likely to destabilize various ecosystems including agricultural systems.  This will threaten food supplies for hundreds of millions of people.

Deterioration in renewable resources – surface and ground water, forests, fisheries, agricultural land.

  • The first global assessment of soil loss, based on studies of hundreds of experts, found that 38 percent, or nearly 1.4 billion acres, of currently used agricultural land has been degraded.
  • In 2002, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated that 75 percent of the world’s oceanic fisheries were fished at or beyond capacity. The North Atlantic cod fishery, fished sustainably for hundreds of years, has collapsed, and the species may have been pushed to biological extinction.
  • The Science journal has warned that commercial fish and seafood species may all crash by 2048.
  • Global water consumption rose six-fold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth – and goes on growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase.

Rising levels of pollution.

  • 40% of America’s rivers and 46% it’s lakes are too polluted for fishing, swimming, or aquatic life.
  • The Mississippi River carries 1.5 million ton of nitrogen (fertilizer) pollution into the Gulf of Mexico each year creating a marine dead zone the size of Massachusetts.
  • Pollution of freshwater (drinking water) is a problem for about half of the world’s population. Each year there are about 250 million cases of water-related diseases, with roughly 5 to 10 million deaths.
  • China already uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years in the broadest industrialization ever. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.
  • We can measure CO2 levels in the atmosphere going back over 450,000 years by analyzing polar ice cores.   Prior to the industrial revolution they had never been higher than 300ppm.  They are now in excess of 380ppm.

We were in the beginning of an unprecedented global financial meltdown and when I started writing this post, and I was curious as to whether the current financial crisis is just another economic cycle, or is somehow associated with the overshoot and collapse predicted by the authors.  I cannot say it is or is not with any certainty, but there are too many other warning signs (many more than I have listed) to not be very alarmed.  Just as this financial crisis was sudden and severe, so will be the consequences of overshoot.

I think the greatest contribution of Limits to Growth and the follow-on publications was to bring the concepts of human carrying capacity and overshoot into the public discourse.  The consequences of overshoot are many times more troubling than either global warming or peak oil.  Unfortunately, overshoot, like peak oil, may only be evident to policy makers and the general public by looking back from the context of fear, chaos, and crisis, much like we are doing today with the current financial meltdown.

A  year ago I would have bet that peak oil would be the key triggering event of overshoot.  As I watch the daily spectacle of the financial world imploding, I am no longer so sure.  I’ll leave you with a “some day” vision from one of the original authors of Limits to Growth.

It seems to me a powerful message, worth repeating and repeating, that people want peace, simplicity, beauty, nature, respect, the ability to contribute and create. These things are much cheaper and easier to achieve than war, luxury, ugliness, waste, hate, oppression, manipulation. Some day, when everyone understands that nearly all of us truly want the same kind of world, it will take surprisingly little time or effort to have it. – Donnella Meadows

More about human carrying capacity.

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.” – Thomas Friedman, March 7, 2009

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The LEED Narrative – Going Beyond

I received an email this morning from Scot Horst , who chairs the LEED Steering Committee. He describes the behind the scenes narrative that has been going on since work began on LEED 2009.

Person A: “Global warming doesn’t give us much time.”
Person B: “But we can’t address much of anything, let alone global warming, if we’re only dealing with a small fraction of the entire built environment. We need to get everyone involved.”

Person A: “Yes, but why get them involved in a system that doesn’t take them far enough to save us from ourselves? We need our buildings to be restorative.”
Person B: “LEED can’t save us from ourselves. LEED, as a tool, can engage the market in transformation. That transformation is about people. It is not about LEED credits.”

Person A: “You’re missing the point. We have to be tougher. We have to go beyond.”
Person B: “No, you’re missing the point. We have to find ways to engage a market that has never thought about these issues before.”

Persons A and B: “Let’s find a way to do both.

”This is an engaging and very important narrative and perhaps the most important point for me is that LEED is a “tool” that helps to raise consciousness and “engage the market in transformation.” My personal view is that we must “go beyond” and that much of what we currently do in the green building movement, however well intentioned, is nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic. The global warming mentioned in Horst’s narrative has provided the catalyst for both LEED and Architecture 2030, but focusing solely on warming misses the point. Warming is a symptom and not a cause. It has prompted us to take some action, but not to “go beyond”. As a premise for action it has been useful, but is easily attacked on it’s “scientific validity”. It is one of the canaries in the coal mine, but there has been is very little discussion of the coal mine. We need to expand the narrative and take a broader view.

Taking a page out of ecological economics, once you picture the built environment as a mere subset of our closed ecosystem, then your conceptual framework regarding sustainable building is forever changed. It means you have to accept that there are limits, and that we are not going to be able to grow forever. It implies the built environment must have some optimal size and level of consumption relative to the larger ecosystem. It means you cannot grow beyond that optimum without threatening man’s survival within that ecosystem. Out of this stream of thought flows a list of very troubling questions?

  • How do we stop growing?
  • What are the limits? What is optimal?
  • Does climate change tell us they have already been exceeded?
  • Do we face a kind of built environment armageddon when fossil fuel production peaks and begins to decline?
  • Is a zero energy standard imperative now?
  • What do we do? How do we do it?

Our very survival depends on how and when these questions are answered. LEED does not provide the answers, but it does help us to prepare.

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Fantasy Economics and the Sustainable Society Revolution

“Macroeconomic theory in our text books conveniently behaves as if the ecosystem does not exist all the while consuming products and services from the ecosystem which fuels economic growth.”
Mark Anielski

“Despite evidence that the ecology does in fact exhibit constraints in accordance with the laws of physics, we continue down a ruinous path too afraid, paralysed, or unable to acknowledge the truth since such a revelation would put in question all we have pursued since the Industrial
Revolution. This would mean that the pursuit of increased wealth and prosperity by current generations will impose a high price on future generations.”

Mark Anielski

In a perfect Adam Smith world, markets are supposed to efficiently set prices based on relative supply and demand. In the real world, a host of other factors can effect price. Federal and local governments add sales and other taxes. Governments impose tariffs and import duties. Cartels increase and decrease supply to achieve political or financial objectives. Central banks increase the money supply, improving “liquidity” while fostering monetary and price inflation

However, prices for many goods also reflect a fantasy economics that assumes an infinite supply of non-renewable raw materials and zero costs associated with the consumption and disposal of goods. For example, the economic activity associated with an asbestos plant and economic activity to clean up the resulting super-fund site are both counted as positive contributions to our GNP

Crude oil is another great example. Non renewable resources like oil follow a bell shaped supply curve. During the easy to find and extract “up” side of bell curve, supply out-strips demand and prices are low. In most minds supply and reserves are thought to infinite and no thought is given to conservation. Think of Hummers, NASCAR, and SUV’s as the symbols for this side of bell curve. Indirect costs like pollution, suburban sprawl, energy insecurity, and climate change are NOT factored into the price, but are paid none the less through higher healthcare costs, lower productivity, taxes, military adventures, and “natural” disasters

As we reach the top of the bell curve as in the case of oil today, demand is approaching the limits of supply and prices have increased rapidly. According to the IEA, supply reached an all time production in May of 2006 of 86.11-million barrels per day in July 2006 and in 2007 the price of crude oil has increased by about 70% to over $95 per barrel as we draw down the developed world’s stockpiles. And yet even these prices do not reflect the true costs of depleting this non-renewable resource

As we roll over the top of the oil production bell curve sometime around 2010, supply will decline and at some point after conservation and replacement technologies fail to close the gap, a painful path of “demand destruction” will become our only option to balance the supply-demand equation. The economic recession caused by this demand destruction will be just another hidden cost of the economic fantasy of “unlimited” non-renewable resources

What does all this have to do with “The Sustainable Home Blog”? Is this just a self-indulgent rant, rambling for the sake rambling? The reason I keep returning to the topics of economic theory and peak oil is that they have everything to do with limits and reason for sustainable building

The green building movement is already big business and we may have reached a tipping point in 2007, where more than 50% of the key decision makers in the business world of building have reached the conclusion that the movement has legs and that a decades long bull market for all things green is an opportunity worth pursuing. What is the source of this apparent demand for these new green products and buildings? Is it global warming, rising energy costs, insurance claims from sick building syndrome, or the urge to “do good”? I think it’s all of these reasons and more, but “going green” is still more fashion than necessity, and collectively, it has not entered our consciousness that there are limits to growth in a closed ecosystem and that our current path of “development” threatens our very survival

That’s all about to change. The ecosystem has been sending us warning signals (the effects of air and water pollution, species loss, climate change, fisheries collapse, etc.) for decades, but because these signals didn’t have a direct individual impact on the majority of world’s inhabitants, we have continued on a path of unsustainable global development modeled after the American standard of living and consumption. As we push up against the geological limits of peak oil(~2010), peak natural gas(~2015), peak coal(~2025), and peak uranium(~2025), the cheap energy that’s been driving development since the beginning of the industrial revolution will will no longer be either cheap or abundant and we will come face to face with our own unsustainable reality. No combination of known technologies will even come close to filling the gap left by these declining non-renewable energy sources and it will take decades for us to recognize the natural limits to growth of our ecosystem and transition to a steady-state and sustainable economy.

As we enter this period of sustained crisis, it will quickly become evident that the only reasonable standard for building design will be a standard of net zero energy consumption. Because we lack information, initially this will be part science and part intuition based on on passive heating and cooling lessons from the past. Eventually we will come to know the embodied energy of every building material and make many decisions based on the EROIE (energy return on investment of the energy embodied) of building products like insulation, low-e glazing, PV panels, and wind turbines. Houses will become smaller and change shape as energy trumps fashion and becomes the primary design factor. A whole new industry will emerge to help homeowners convert over 100-million thinly insulated, poorly constructed homes into some semblance of energy efficiency. Pattern’s of development and zoning laws will change as the age of automobile comes to a close. Populations will shift and migrate as the end of cheap air-conditioning makes living in many parts of the country less desirable. Home landscaping will change from ornamental to edible, and gray water irrigation will become commonplace as the energy costs to move and purify water change our attitudes about this precious natural resource. Local materials will dominate construction and the age of imported Italian granite countertops will come to an end.

We might look back and call this the sustainable society revolution. A revolution where in we deconstruct, modify, and replace much of what we thought and built during the industrial revolution. In a very real sense, its already started and we’re just seeing the first signs.

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Definitions of Sustainability and a Steady State World

”…the world’s richest 20 per cent of the population consume 86 per cent of its goods and services, over half its energy and nearly half its meat and fish.”

Given how few buildings architects actually design in this country compared with the EU for example, I’m not sure how relevant the profession is to the topic of sustainability. However, I was curious enough to see what might be the official AIA word on the subject. I found this posting on the internet from the AIA Committee on the Environment.

“The linked domains of sustainability are environmental (natural patterns and flows), economic (financial patterns and equity), and social (human, cultural, and spiritual). Sustainable design is a collaborative process that involves thinking ecologically—studying systems, relationships, and interactions—in order to design in ways that remove rather than contribute stress from systems. The sustainable design process holistically and creatively connects land use and design at the regional level and addresses community design and mobility; site ecology and water use; place-based energy generation, performance, and security; materials and construction; light and air; bioclimatic design; and issues of long life and loose fit. True sustainable design is beautiful, humane, socially appropriate, and restorative.”

My first reaction to this lengthy, rambling definition was huh???!!! what the %$#@ does that mean? No wonder I hear quotes like “If it’s not beautiful, it’s not sustainable” from celebrity architects. Definitions like that, however well meaning are a license to do just about anything. So I thought maybe one of the leading schools of architecture would be more helpful and provide a definition with some substance. I found this posting on the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture’s site.

“Sustainable design is a collective process whereby the built environment achieves new levels of ecological balance through new and retrofit construction, towards the long term viability and humanization of architecture. Focusing on environmental context, sustainable design merges the natural, minimum resource conditioning solutions of the past (daylight, solar heat and natural ventilation) with the innovative technologies of the present, into an integrated “intelligent” system that supports individual control with expert negotiation for resource consciousness. Sustainable design rediscovers the social, environmental and technical values of pedestrian, mixed use communities, fully using existing infrastructures, including “main streets” and small town planning principles, and recapturing indoor-outdoor relationships. Sustainable design avoids the further thinning out of land use, the dislocated placement of buildings and functions. Sustainable design introduces benign, non-polluting materials and assemblies with lower embodied and operating energy requirements, and higher durability and recyclability. Finally, sustainable design offers architecture of long term value through ‘forgiving’ and modifiable building systems, life-cycle instead of least-cost investments, and timeless delight and craftsmanship.”

Again, a long, rambling definition full of academic architectural jargon like “timeless delight”. Is this representative of the sustainable mind candy being fed to the future building designers of america? What about limits? What about carrying capacity? What about the huge energy drain, climate impact, and unsustainable ecological footprint of our existing building stock? Where is the call to action?

Looking for answers, I found the following on the Presidio School of Management’s “Sustainability Dictionary” website. Apparently in the academic world there are three different flavors or “criteria” of sustainability.

Social Criteria:

  • Socially desirable
  • Culturally acceptable
  • Psychologically nurturing

Financial Criteria:

  • Economically sustainable
  • Technologically feasible
  • Operationally viable

Environmental Criteria:

  • Environmentally Robust
  • Generationally Sensitive
  • Capable of continuous learning

Although I can sympathize with architectural profession’s emphasis on social criteria such as beauty and “timeless delight”, I don’t think it serves a world facing climate change and a looming carrying capacity crisis brought on by the “peak” production and supply of oil, gas, and coal. The AIA and Carnegie Mellon definitions allude to “environmental criteria”, but only in vague terms. What is needed is a sustainable building standard that addresses the very real limits to carrying capacity and our obligations to future generations. Unfortunately, LEEDS, Energy Star, or any other “green” standard falls far short of meeting such a standard.

In 1987 the U.N. World Commission on the Environment and Development [commonly known as the Brundtland Commission] set the table for the what has been a 20 year debate on the meaning of sustainability. The classic and oft quoted definition from the commission is:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This definition is not far removed from the “seventh generation” philosophy of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy, a philosophy that put forth that chiefs should consider the effects of their actions and decisions seven generations into the future. However, as often as I’ve seen the commission’s definition quoted, I rarely see anyone expound on what the commission meant by their simple, elegant definition.

Digging into the actual report I found that even 20 years ago the commission was deeply concerned about the impact development and population growth was having on the world’s carrying capacity with respect to several important environmental criteria.

  • Global Warming
  • Ozone Depletion
  • Species Loss
  • Desertification
  • Deforestation
  • Air, water, and soil pollution

In making it’s case for sustainable development, the commission’s report would define carrying capacity as:

“The population that can be supported indefinitely by an ecosystem
without destroying that ecosystem”

Although not generally part of our awareness, it is no secret that various regions and country’s of the world compete for carrying capacity and the so called developed world imports a large portion of it’s own carry capacity at the expense of other country’s and peoples. The commissions report states that:

“The Earth is one but the world is not.
We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives.
Yet each community, each country, strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others.
Some consume the Earth’s resources at a rate that would leave little for future generations. Others, many more in number, consume far too little and live with the prospect of hunger, squalor, disease, and early death.”

Carrying capacity is not just a function of population. The actual population that can be supported by the earth’s ecosystem is also a function of the average standard of living or level of consumption of that population. Lower consumption levels allow the support of a larger population, and conversely higher consumption levels will support proportionally less population

Today we find ourselves in a world of 6.6 billion people in which the world’s richest 20 per cent of the population consume 86 per cent of its goods and services, over half its energy and nearly half its meat and fish. Another 1.4 billion people in China and India (nearly 5 times the population of the U.S) are rapidly growing their economies and as they begin to approach the developed world’s level of consumption and energy density, their rising demands on the earth’s carrying capacity is driving up energy, commodity, and food costs around the world. As the world’s collective economic growth rapidly depletes non-renewable resources such as oil, gas, and coal we will soon be faced with a carrying capacity crisis in a post peak world in which countries desperately complete for resources in a limited ecosystem. The commission’s report predicted this condition twenty years ago when it stated that:

“The ultimate limits to global development are perhaps determined by the availability of energy resources and by the biosphere’s capacity to absorb the by-products of energy use. These energy limits may be approached far sooner than the limits imposed by other material resources. First, there are the supply problems: the depletion of oil reserves, the high cost and environmental impact of coal mining, and the hazards of nuclear technology. Second, there are emission problems, most notably acid pollution and carbon dioxide build up leading to global warming.”

Many informed people in and out of government are painfully aware of this impending carrying capacity train wreck. Unfortunately, it is the nature of governments to only respond to an immediate crisis. Another problem, one that the Brundtland Commission omitted from their report, is our almost religious belief in economic growth. Even modest rates of growth mathematically become exponential, so that in the context of a closed ecological system, “sustainable growth” and “sustainable development” are eventually rendered oxymorons. In order to survive, at some point in time we will have to respect our planet’s limits in terms of carrying capacity. This will mean the acceptance of limits to our population size and to our levels of consumption and waste, and the transition to a steady-state economy.

The following definition of steady-state economics is from the Encyclopedia of Earth

The phrase “steady state economy” originated from ecological economics, most notably the work of Herman Daly, but its roots are in classical economics, most notably the “stationary state” by economist John Stuart Mill. The steady-state economy is often discussed in the context of economic growth and the impacts of economic growth on ecological integrity, environmental protection, and economic sustainability. Therefore, use of the phrase “steady-state economy” requires a clear definition of economic growth.

Economic growth is an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. For distinct economic or political units, economic growth is generally indicated by increasing gross domestic product (GDP). Economic growth entails increasing population times per capita consumption, higher throughput of materials and energy, and a growing ecological footprint.

Theoretically and temporarily, a steady state economy may have a growing population with declining per capita consumption, or vice versa, but neither of these scenarios are sustainable in the long run. Therefore, “steady state economy” connotes constant populations of people (and, therefore, “stocks” of labor) and constant stocks of capital. It also has a constant rate of throughput; i.e., energy and materials used to produce goods and services.

The “growing ecological footprint” of economic growth only becomes problematic as we begin to push up against the limits to carrying capacity. This can occur locally in an “island” economy or globally as we are beginning to experience today. Getting back to architecture and the massive ecological footprint of our building stock, our homes are but a subset of years of unsustainable development that are pushing the limits of carrying capacity. This is especially true when we consider the energy consumption and climate impact of both residential and commercial buildings. My personal definition of sustainable building design is:

Sustainable building design meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs for shelter. In order for our built environment to be supported indefinitely by the earth’s ecosystem without destroying that ecosystem, sustainable building design must be based on a net zero energy standard. A net zero energy standard, in no way constrains designers from creating buildings that are socially desirable, culturally acceptable, and psychologically nurturing.

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More Musings on Sustainable Building – The Case for a Zero Energy Building Standard

“. . . to be considered sustainable by any rigorous definition, buildings must become energy neutral and either be built or converted to a “zero energy” building standard”

If we accept that “sustainable” takes its meaning from “sustainable agriculture“, or “the ability … to produce food indefinitely, without causing irreversible damage to ecosystem health”, then the definition of sustainable building must take on a more precise meaning. A more rigorous meaning that is quite different than what typically passes for a “green” building. (See Difference between Green and Sustainable)

What exactly might that mean? To answer that question it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of “carrying capacity”. Generally speaking, “carrying capacity” is the supportable population (animals, plants, trees, people, etc.) in a closed system, given the resources (food, water, energy, etc.) available within that system.

To simplify, for our built or human environment, the Carrying Capacity (human population) of earth can be described as a function of

  • Standard of Living or Rate and Efficiency of Consumption
  • Renewable Resources
  • Non-Renewable Resources
  • The Rate of Technical Innovation
  • Timeframe considered

All of these factors are interrelated. If our timeframe is limited to a hundred years or so, then rapid depletion of non-renewable resources like oil is not a factor because the carrying capacity contributed by the oil’s energy content will not collapse within that timeframe. However, if we want to create a sustainable environment lasting many thousands or even hundreds of years, then that environment cannot be based on non-renewable resources.

In truth, due to the vast array of interactions between innumerable inputs and outputs the carrying capacity of earth in absolute terms in unknowable, but it doesn’t take much imagination to accept that there must be limits. For example, the U.S. represents about 5% of the earth’s population of over 6 billion people and consumes 25% of the worlds non-renewable oil resources. So it’s a fair assumption that it would far exceed the earth’s carrying capacity if the balance of world’s population were to attempt to achieve our “Rate and Efficiency of Consumption” (Standard of Living). However, that’s exactly what is happening today in China and India.

Within any closed system like planet earth, there are critical constraints to carrying capacity. For most of human history food, water, and biomass energy sources like wood where the primary constraints, however technical innovation and an apparently “endless” supply of fossil fuel (coal, oil, gas) energy greatly expanded the world’s food supply. In fact, since the discovery and exploitation of oil’s energy dense chemistry a little over a hundred years ago, the world’s population has increased from about 1.3 billion to 6.6 billion. Of the current population, about half live in poverty, one fifth are severely undernourished, and the balance of us live in comparative comfort and health.

Even those of us living in comparative comfort and health are now facing two serious constraints to the apparent safety of our carrying capacity. Both of these constraints are related to our use of fossils fuels.

Global warming threatens both the world food supply with rising temperatures and our coastal built environment with rising sea levels. Declining crude oil production after we reach “peak oil” will essentially collapse the contribution to carrying capacity provided by cheap oil over the last 100 hundred years. Without rapid and sustained technical innovation, the end result will be either a drop in population or standard of living or both.

What does this have to do with sustainable building? Since buildings are both a major consumer of energy and responsible for approximately 50% of the world’s green house gas emissions, to be considered sustainable by any rigorous definition, buildings must become energy neutral and either be built or converted to a “zero energy” building standard. Anything less may be marketed as “green” but cannot be considered sustainable.

Energy, Carrying Capacity, and Sustainable Building

“By their own follies they perished, the fools.” – Homer, The Odyssey

The growth of civilization has been intimately linked to our ability to harness energy since man’s discovery of fire. Our reliance on biomass (wood) and eventually, the wind and hydro power of mills would limit our growth until the use of coal and the invention of the steam engine would launch the industrial revolution. However, it was the discovery of energy dense, crude oil in 1859 that would catapult us into a whole new age of growth, mobility, and abundance.

What is “sustainable” is based on carrying capacity, and every human advance in the use and amount of available energy would serve to increase both the population and economic carrying capacity of the earth. The shear abundance of cheap oil over the last 150 years would change the face of architecture and our built environment. Architects and building designers no longer had to consider local climate conditions, they could let their imaginations and ego’s run wild (or lazy) and rely on brute force heating and cooling to save the day. Architects like Phillip Johnson would build their design fame and fortune with glass homes in Connecticut and glass skyscrapers in Houston. Buildings that reply for their very existence on cheap and abundant energy.

Phillip Johnson Glass House

Phillip Johnson – Glass House Connecticut

Phillip Johnson Houston Skyscraper

Phillip Johnson – Houston Skyscraper

Mass housing in the U.S. would follow a similar path. Not only would the buildings themselves be inefficient statements of style over substance and function, but the sprawling pattern of development based on cheap oil and the automobile, would create a formula for maximum energy consumption.

The OPEC engineered “oil shock” of the 1970’s would bring about some much needed building energy standards, but vested interests continue to play the “politics of energy codes” and keep us far from anything remotely sustainable. The recent Green movement is a positive step, but new standards such as Energy Star and LEED for Homes do nothing more than tweak the status quo in the direction of sustainability.

If we assume cheap and abundant energy will be with us forever, then the critical constraints to the carrying capacity of our current way of living and building are environmental degradation, water, and global warming. Observing the behavior of many our politicians and policy makers this would seem to be case. Unfortunately, because these issues are hard to economically quantify and the consequences can be conveniently be passed on to future generations, actions tend to come in tepid half measures like raising the CAFE standards to 35 miles/gallon over several years.

But what if cheap and abundant energy will NOT be with us forever? What if the critical constraint to the carrying capacity of our current way of living and building where the peaking and eventual depletion of fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal? What if this constraint was not off in some nebulous, non-renewable resource future, but was now or very close to now? What if this where the eleventh hour? How would this change the way we build?

Based on data published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) the worldwide production of conventional crude oil peaked in May of 2005 and is currently in an undulating plateau. If we add unconventional sources (deep water, oil sands, etc.) worldwide production peaked in February of 2006 and is also stuck in an undulating plateau. Matthew Simmons, advisor to the Bush administration, author of “Twilight in the Desert”, and investment banker to the energy sector, says that “Serious peak oil analysts all agree that peak oil is 0 to 10 years away.“

ASPO Peak Oil Projection

The U.S. production of conventional easy-to-get natural gas peaked in the early 70’s and we have only just been able to keep our supply versus demand heads above water with imports from Canada and Mexico and the aggressive exploration of unconventional, hard to get sources like shale and coal methane gas.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that we will be facing a supply crunch sometime in 2010. Big oil executives, speaking in “peak oil code”, are now stating publicly that the “era of cheap oil in over”. There have been more than a half dozen Peak Oil related documentaries released since 2003 and Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour documentary debuts this month.

Peak oil changes everything. It is a hard limit to carrying capacity to both population and economic growth. As consumption and depletion widens the gap between supply and demand, we will become supply constrained and as supply declines economic growth must follow. Building design will be climate driven and zero energy buildings will soon become a matter of necessity, not choice. Not in some nebulous green future, but by the end of this decade. This is the eleventh hour.

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Facing a Painful Future Reality of Sustainability

“People cannot stand too much reality” – Carl Jung

I’ve been musing lately about exactly what it means to be sustainable in the context of residential building. Since words are the symbols blogger’s use to communicate, I checked my American Heritage dictionary and found that “sustainable” in today’s lexicon means “capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment” as in “sustainable agriculture”. That didn’t quite do it for me. It’s the kind of feel good definition that allows people to build 10,000 SF homes with bamboo floors, dual flush toilets, and a HERS index of 85 and call themselves “green”. So I continued looking and found that one of the definitions for “sustain” is “to support from below; keep from falling or sinking; or to prop.” Since our built environment has been “propped” up and shaped by cheap oil for about a 100 years, I found that definition more on the mark.

Getting back to our friend Dr. Jung, our not so sustainable residential lives are about to be turned upside down by three major reality checks. At the risk of being labeled as a “crazed and raving doomsdayer”, let’s just say, it is going to be painful.

Reality Check #1 – Global Warming

“When applied to material things, the term “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron.” – A.A. Bartlett

Thanks in part to an “Inconvenient Truth” global warming has already penetrated our collective consciousness, and for the 20% of the population that’s in denial it is already “too much reality”. American is responsible for about 25% of the green house gases [GHG] that contribute to global warming. Buildings in America account for about 42% of that total and our homes contribute about half of that total or 21% of this country’s GHG emissions. But that’s just part of the story, because of the sprawling suburban pattern of WHERE we build our homes, our automobile lifestyle compounds the problem. According to the Energy Information Agency, in 2001 107.4 million households logged 2.3 trillion miles commuting, shopping, and schlepping the kids to school, consuming 113.1 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel in the process.

Fortunately for our Jungian psyche’s, global warming is a slow moving water torture kind of crisis that we can safely ignore until Disney World Orlando is an underwater attraction.

Reality Check #2 – Peak Oil

“The time when we could count on cheap oil… is clearly ending.” – David O’Reilly, Chairman, Chevron, 2005

Peak Oil has yet to enter our collective consciousness, in fact most people don’t even know what it means. Peak Oil is the date when the peak of the world’s (crude oil) production rate is reached. After this date the rate of production will enter a long, painful and terminal decline. Peak oil in the U.S. was reached in 1970 and in N. America sometime in the early 1980’s. There is a growing consensus that global Peak Oil either already occurred (as early as 2005) or will happen sometime between now and 2010. Does that mean that production will fall off a cliff and there won’t be any oil? No, but it does mean that demand will very shortly exceed supply and that there will be shortages, rationing, and major economic upheaval and other changes to our “cheap and plentiful oil” lifestyles.

Oil Discovery Gap

Source: peakoil.ie

“It’s no secret anymore that for every nine barrels of oil we consume, we are only discovering one.” – British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy

“…we don’t have to run out of oil to start having severe problems with industrial civilization and its dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time production peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady depletion.” – Howard Kunster The Long Emergency (2005)

“Such a peak would require sharp reductions in oil consumption, and the competition for increasingly scarce energy would drive up prices, possibly to unprecedented levels, causing severe economic damage. While these consequences would be felt globally, the United States, as the largest consumer of oil and one of the nations most heavily dependent on oil for transportation, may be especially vulnerable .” - 2007 GAO (U.S. Government Accountability Office) Peak Oil Report

“The U.S. food system consumes ten times more energy than it produces in food energy. This disparity is made possible by nonrenewable fossil fuel stocks.” – Dale Allen Pfeiffer, Eating Fossil Fuels, 2003

ASPO Peak Oil Projection

Source: Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas

Since only 9% of our housing stock is heated directly by oil, the most painful impact of Peak Oil on our residential lifestyles will be on our one car, one person commutes.

  • Expect a major increase in walking, bicycling, carpooling, telecommuting, the use of public transportation and an end to suburban sprawl and strip malls.
  • Expect globalization to take a backseat to localization.
  • Expect some people and governments to behave badly.
  • Expect “victory gardens” in the front and back yards of suburbia.
  • Expect 10 to 20 years of unrest while we make the painful transition to a new world order

Unlike Global Warming, Peak Oil will be an “in your face” crisis, impossible to ignore or deny.

Reality Check #3 – Peak Natural Gas

“It seems obvious to most viewers the [U.S.] future production will decline in a cliff in the near future…” – Jean Laherrere, ASPO Berlin, 2004

As if Peak Oil were not enough “reality”, we also have to get our Jungian heads around Peak Natural Gas. According to Energyfiles Ltd., natural gas will peak in N. America about 2010 and globally between 2030 and 2035.

Unfortunately, natural gas is different animal from oil. Oil is a nice viscous, not very volatile liquid that can be easily shipped around the world and processed locally into to gas, diesel, fertilizer and other products. Natural gas however, must be refrigerated to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit to convert it to Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) and shipped in very expensive container ships that amount to small nuclear bombs. Because the global LNG infrastructure (ships and docking facilities) is relatively undeveloped, the impact of Peak Natural Gas is basically confined and defined locally by a geographical network of pipelines. For us that network includes Mexico and Canada, and our “reality” is that we may be facing shortages by the end of this decade or sooner.

So how bad is this new energy reality? How does energy flow into our homes, and how will shortages affect our lives? Let’s first take a look at electrical generation in the U.S. Unfortunately, just about every power plant built after 1980 was designed to run on natural gas, so we’ve spent the past 25 years adding to the problem.

Electrical Generation by Energy Source

Source: U.S. Energy Information Agency 2005

The good news is that thanks to venerable coal, Peak Oil & Natural Gas only impact about 22% of our current electrical generating capacity. The bad news is that is more than enough to cause brownouts, blackouts, and rationing, especially during the summer when air conditioning loads peak.

As we painfully replace a 20% plus shortfall over the coming two decades, expect phenomenal growth in nuclear, coal, solar, wind, and geothermal power plants.

The next chart shows the relative residential energy consumption by energy source. Since over 55% of our homes and some 70% of new homes are heated by natural gas, shortages caused by Peak Natural Gas are going to be a major problem!

Residential Energy Consumption

Source: U.S. Energy Information Agency 2005

Given this new energy reality, homes built to our current energy code or even to an Energy Star or LEED standard amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The energy train wreck we face demands that we only build and retrofit homes to a Net Zero Energy Standard. Homes that can be completely served on-site by wind, solar, hydro or geothermal power sources. This will require a new energy standard based on a HERS index of better than 25%, well below the current Energy Star/LEED minimum standard of 85%.

“We’ve invented the system that has given us this rise in life; now we begin the descent. We’ll either have to invent our way out of it, or go back to the way it was before.” – Byron King, Agora Financial Symposium, 2007

”We don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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