Saturday, August 27, 2011

Feeding the World

As I wait for IRENE to come, with sump pump and tarp at the ready, I’m reviewing some old-but-not-yet-read digests from Peak Oil News. Here are some disturbing thought from the May 31 2001 issue, from Farmer’s Weekly, written by Tyson Cattle (no kidding).  In essence, the writer is reporting on a visit by Tyson Cribb, noted science journalist, who was in Washington, Australia giving a presentation on Peak Oil and Agriculture: “Where is Agriculture Heading in the next 20 years?"

Cribb is peak-oil savvy, and is wondering how farmers will feed the world, given that our whole agriculture system (like every other modern system) presumes endless supplies of cheap fossil-based energy. 

Some excerpts from Cribb’s talk follow.

"Today the world faces looming scarcities of just about everything required to produce high yields of food, that is, water, land, nutrients, oil, technology, skills, fish and stable climates.
"This isn't a simple problem which can be treated with techno fixes or national policy changes."

"To put it another way, between 1990 and 2005, world demand for food has grown 15 times faster than the area of land being farmed."

"If, due to an oil crisis or local war, the endless river of trucks carrying food failed to arrive even for a week or two, what would their citizens eat?

  • "In developed countries we trash from a third to half of all food produced," he said.
  • "In developing countries we lose similar amounts post-harvest.
  • "Half the achievements of the world's farmers are going to landfill.
  • "While a billion starve, we waste food enough for three billion.

"Our grandparents would say we are idiots and they would be right."

Cribb suggested that Australia begin devoting a larger percentage of its funds for agricultural research.  He notes that the world spends $1.5 trillion each year on weapons, but only $40 billion on agriculture research.

Rather than wait for the research, I suggest this is a good time to start planting annual gardens – if you have sunlight, you can supply the rest—to see just how difficult but satisfying gardening can be.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Powering down before we need to

Which two disasters in this year and last inspired the most fear or anger? For me, the two events were the BP Oil spill and Japan's post-tsunami disaster at its four nuclear plants. Both threaten to poison our oceans and us who depend on it for some of our food supply. What do these disasters have in common? Both are related to:

  • our ever-increasing consumption of energy in whatever form works for us, and
  • the difficulty of maintaining (never mind increasing) our energy supplies.

With two in a row, it is likely that next year there will be another disaster, and the year after, etc. All the while, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) are increasing their energy use. Saudi Arabia is itself consuming more of its fossil fuels each year. And why shouldn't they all do this, since they can now afford it and deserve it as much as we do. How do we avoid the oncoming energy disasters and ever-increasing price spirals? Live with less, and learn to live entirely without the one that is increasingly being swamped both by demand while its supply diminishes, inexorably. That one would be petroleum. That process of increasing energy frugality is what others, especially Richard Heinberg, call "powering down."


We in the US generate 20% of our total electric energy from nuclear, and –in spite of the 3 Mile Island disaster—nobody has been hurt and the possible environmental disaster was averted. Still, we continue to store spent fuel, with a half-life of thousands of years, in containers at each nuclear site. These sites were not designed to house the spent fuel. In fact, we spent upwards of $15 billion on studies to select a storage site, then in setting it up. It was only until Barack Obama shut the Yucca Mountain facility down –in deference to Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader from Nevada—that we lost the possibility of storing this in a controlled manner. (to be continued.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What’s Next? Locusts?

Think of my new gazebo as "screen house version 2."

I've always thought that we were facing a serious set of 3 problems, a trifecta of "peak oil", debt (national, state, personal), and terrorism. Each of these is bad enough, but they feed on each other and are interrelated. If we can no longer afford to fund police and our national defense, we are more exposed to terrorism (which will likely increase). Peak oil issues cause everything from higher prices and shortages, trauma to our practice of stocking supermarket shelves via a long distance just-in-time inventory practices, which themselves can lead to shortages, anger or panic, and perhaps more extremism. The relationships are many.

Now I have to admit that there is an obvious 4th problem: global climate change. This winter we had snowfall totals of over 40 inches in DC. There has been intense record-breaking heat this summer in the metro DC area, with alternating wild rainstorms and more tornado watches than I have ever seen. 2010 is likely to be the hottest year on record, world-wide. There is unusual cold in South America, wildfires in Moscow, floods in Pakistan (and Iowa too). My screen house was a haven in 3 seasons protecting us from flying insects, and I lost it this winter when the winter storms came too fast and furiously. To take its place, I had a new, solid, gazebo built that should withstand the snow (screen house version 2.0, above), but now I worry about falling branches from all these storms.

Global climate change has obvious damaging effects, but it also has lots of subtle ones, even in your back yard. If you are a gardener, you are dealing with more than the usual problems: tomatoes cracking due to alternating dry and wet, cold and hot conditions. Power outages are followed by power surges; I've got a damaged DVR and outside security motion-detecting light that doesn't work any longer, both caused by surges when the power came back on.

Gardens are also yielding less, in part because there are fewer bees (bees are stressed by the weather too). New invasive species of weeds are growing like crazy. Some, like purslane, are rich sources of Omega 3 oils (so all is not bad.) And now there are the damned chiggers. I finally figured out that raised bumps at my beltline and below are not caused by fleas, ticks, or bedbugs, but chiggers. These nearly invisible beasts cause button-size welts and intense itching. Almost nothing gives relief.

In a recent editorial for the Wall Street Journal, "America is at Risk of Boiling Over," Peggy Noonan said she's worried that our nation is becoming simultaneously pessimistic and feeling helpless. She suggests this will lead to deep societal unrest. I agree with her. And wait until the four big problems become more active and begin feeding on each other. So what are the mitigation strategies? You can build a 10 double fence to keep out the deer and deer ticks (I did), but that won't protect against the chiggers.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Public Transportation in DC and Larger Symbols

Today was the first time in a long time that I rode the DC metro during the workweek, since I had jury duty. I am an enthusiastic advocate for public transportation, especially in DC where
  1. parking is non-existent
  2. ozone triggers my astham
Today's subway ride was very disappointing and, I believe emblematic of two things: Society as a whole, and government in the US. What did I find and what do I mean?

First, you never expect all the escalators to work, and indeed you wouldn't have been surprised to find broken ones at almost every stop. There were also ever-present postings of elevator outages. AC was almost non-existent, and that was especially troublesome because on the ride back, one 8 car train had only 6 cars available (the dark cars were locked as they should be). So everybody piled into the remaining cars, cheek by jowl, and -once again, there was no AC. I felt like I was riding in a third-world country.

When I got off at Tenleytown, I hurried to the waiting bus only to have to navigate a maze of bent and falling over  chain link fencing. All this in the US capitol.

What did I mean about this being emblematic of our society and government? First, nobody gets an award for maintenance; we get bonuses for cost-cutting. And that's what happened for 30-40 years in the metro system, which is now literally falling apart. They've recently raised the fares (and another fare increase is coming soon), but this nickle-dime stuff will take a long time to pay for new cars, fix the escalators, etc.  We love low costs, but we get what we pay for. It costs much more to fix a car engine than it does to perform routine oil changes and maintenance, but we are often short-sighted and just keep our fingers crossed that big bad things won't happen.

Some problems also have been reported about operators texting while driving, and there have been fears of drugs (which seem to be everywhere). Yet the terrible crash that killed the driver and several others last year was not due to any of those things. It was due to bad brake warning systems on the tracks. 

And where is governmnet in all this?  There was of course the after-crash NTSB investigation, but that saved nobody's lives and surprised nobody with the result. Nobody in government wants to be proactive to fix the metro infrastructure before parts of it break or kill people. It doesn't help that the Metro DC system is paid by three jurisdictions --DC, Maryland, and Virginia, and even then there is no ongoing source of funding. It's "pass the cup" among these three groups each year to run the system for another year. Everybody knows this is no way to run a railroad or a metro system, but nobody stands up to say so.

If you think we can somehow fix the metro system, going green with propane-powered buses etc., any time soon, then you're crazy. We all know this will take a very long time, if it ever gets fixed correctly.

In the meantime, as peak oil and climate change problems loom larger and we depend even more on public transportation, the system will become even more stressed.

"Thank you for riding Metro."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

JOE and Peak Oil Concerns (who’s JOE? See below.)

The US Department of Defense recently published a 2010 study by the US Joint Forces (Joint Operating Environment or "JOE"). The point of this study was to answer three main questions:

  • What future trends and disruptions are likely to affect the Joint Force over the next quarter century?
  • How are these trends and disruptions likely to define the future contexts for joint operations?
  • What are the implications of these trends and contexts for the Joint Force?
The 76 page free study makes interesting reading (as in the mythical Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times) -- cover to cover. However, my interest focuses on the impact of diminishing fossil fuel productions, or what is commonly called "Peak Oil." The authors are no sandwich-board "the end is near" loonies; they are the United States Joint Forces Command. 

It is no secret that the Armed Forces run on petroleum products, and therefore are vulnerable to any production shortfalls (as indeed are we all). Here are a couple of selective quotes from the study.

"To meet even the conservative growth rates posited in the economics section, global energy

production would need to rise by 1.3% per year. By the 2030s, demand is estimated to be nearly 50% greater than today. To meet that demand, even assuming more effective conservation measures, the world would need to add roughly the equivalent of Saudi Arabia's current energy production every seven years.

And here is the International Energy Agency's (optimistic) projection about future production (click on the photo to see a larger version):

Notice the red section starting at 2010. Do you think we'll discover a new Saudi Arabia-class discovery every 7 years? I don't, but even if we do, you can be certain that it won't be cheap – Brazil may have come close to being one such "7 year" discovery, but that is prior to 2010. The Brazilian oil find is miles beneath the ocean, and beneath salt basins at the bottom of the ocean. To get it out (none, I believe, has been pumped yet) will require floating oil platforms costing well over $1 billion each to get the stuff to the surface.

One last quote:

"By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 MBD.
Scary? The whole report is scary. But we shouldn't bury our heads in the sand on this, especially the sands of Saudi Arabia.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Peak Oil, e-Readers, and Electronic Documents

This is a cross-post of a similar posting in my Content Curmudgeon blog, since the post fits equally well in both blogs.

Peak Oil and e-Readers or Electronic Documents… Huh? Isn't this kind of like mixing oil and water? Not really.

For related reasons, having to do in part with resource constraints, the cost of print subscriptions continue to rise, even sometimes becoming prohibitive. After 40 years as a continuous Wall Street Journal print subscriber, I canceled my print subscription. It cost nearly $400/year, and I already have an online subscription that costs around $100. The WSJ is great, but not $400/year great, especially in this economy, when I also have the online edition. So I cut the cord and went completely on-line. With online access I can of course search, save articles, print them to Acrobat PDF, the way I used to clip print articles. My paper press archive goes back 30 years, but PDF lasts forever, right? Another advantage of online news: the news is always fresh. Besides I'm helping save the environment, or at least I hope so. I reduce the number of plastic bags (that you can't recycle); I eliminate the need to recycle the paper itself. There is even a potential business advantage to the right e-Reader: It can preserve into the indefinite future the opportunity to view important documents. What could be nicer?

Well, there are advantages to print. Print never crashes. You can read print even when broadband is down or out of reach. You can fall asleep in a chair, drop the newspaper, and not have to buy a new one. Can't do that with a laptop. Print is very easy to read, indoors or out in bright sunlight. And print graphically rich, uses color, and is still more familiar and comfortable. Spouse says "I miss the WSJ print edition." Oh Oh.

I tell her to wait, I'll find an e-Reader that is nearly as good or even better than print. It will meet my kind of Turing test for print: doesn't crash, very portable etc. but also preserves the benefits of online: Searching, always current. iPad is here; Plastic Logic's Que reader is coming. We'll find something (but haven't bought anything yet). Now the limitations begin to appear, both from others' reviews and my own discussions with vendors.

iPad is ever so cool, has Apple's trademark usability, color… what could be better? For one thing, it tries to be everything a netbook can be, way more than just an e-Reader. I don't care if it can run my iPhone apps because I don't have an iPhone. In fact, I don't want to be nickled and dimed (more like dollared) to buy lots of little apps to fill in iPad's gaps (like being able to print or use a USB). And iPad doesn't run Flash, which is commonly used on many web sites, including the online WSJ. This feels a little like the "microsofting" of Apple. You can run anything, but not without add-ons that may not play well together. So I can buy another iPad-custom WSJ subscription, right? And do I do that for every subscription? Oh well, at least iPad has a (downsized) browser, so I can get to the WSJ in some fashion if I decide to spring for an iPad. But what about the other constraints? Early reviews say that that beautiful 1 and one half pound product begins to feel very heavy after a while, even can make your wrists hurt. And what kind of netbook wannabe is only single-threaded?

So I've now talked with a marketing rep from Plastic Logic about Que, and expect to get an evaluation device as soon as they become available. Yes, I know it will not display color (hey, the WSJ didn't start using color until it became common in other print editions). And it is very light and also cool in its own way – even has a screen that is more book-like, roughly 8 ½ y 11 inches. It reads virtually every document format known to humankind, and has huge amounts of space for all my books. But wait: It doesn't do flash either, and apparently has no browser, not even a limited one.

Maybe I misunderstood. And maybe when I finally get my hands on Que, I'll discover other advantages that cancel out the negatives.

Or quite possibly there is no perfect e-Reader. I'm guessing that's the case, since this is the real world. And if that's the case, I have to figure out exactly what a document is, and what attributes are optional (like Flash). That is no easy decision, since it requires peering into the future and guessing exactly what I'll be willing to do without.

And that's where the similarity with Peak Oil comes in. Liquid fossil fuels provide 95% or so of the world's transportation fuel needs. Yet liquid fuels will eventually run out, and before they do, they will become erratically less available and more expensive. So we'll also have to figure out which transportation options are critical, which optional. I'm guessing SUVs are optional, and public transit is critical.

And this may even have some bearing on e-Readers: they depend on electricity and broadband. Those are critical resources too, right?

What's your guess, about which transportation choices are critical and which are optional?

What's your guess about what constitutes the essence of a document, so it can be preserved and read generations hence?