Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Message Decoded, Part 3: Descending the Peak

This week's reflection is part of an extended commentary on a short story I posted a few weeks back. Read on or catch up, if you're curious- it's your choice.

Last week’s exploration of what peak oil is and what it means leaves a lot more to be said. While I’d like to cover a wide variety of topics in my writing, I think it’s only fair to be open to those of you who take the time to read these writings about where I'm coming from. My studies of peak oil inform everything I write about, and figure strongly in my thinking about nature and our place in it.

Those of you who are learning about peak oil here for the first time, be warned: if you start thinking these thoughts seriously, they are going to change your life. My life certainly changed when I realized that it was caught up in currents vaster and wilder than any of us have the power to alter, and that I would have to look sharp and act on my own initiative if I wanted to steer a safe course through the rapids. These are hard thoughts at first, but we're all going to have to think them sooner or later, and the sooner we start thinking them together, the easier it will be. Hence this blog.

After initially turning my world upside down, peak oil has become the bedrock of assumptions on which I base my life. I’m no less anchored in my particular worldview now than the other folks I meet strolling through the park are in theirs; it’s just that I’m viewing a world tilting toward a rocky transition into a low-energy future. It’s humorous now to think back to a conversation I had on this subject a year and a half ago with a stranger I met strolling through the park. (That kind of thing just seems to happen to me). He was a concerned environmentalist type too, and was telling me all kinds of things about the electric train that used to run from our city down to Paris, Ontario, the oil pipeline that now runs through North Dumfries Township and under the Grand River south of Cambridge, and the fact that peak oil isn’t real because of fracking.

This last fact rocked me more than I would have expected. You’d think I would have been overjoyed to learn that my future won’t involve long, ragged societal decline punctuated by energy crises, but instead I walked home churning with a renewed sense of existential angst. It just goes to show how powerfully our assumptions and expectations are shaped by our particular worldview- or, to use the more popular jargon, by our particular idio-logy. In my own way I’m as logical an idiot as everyone else; I just happen to think I'm right.

Since that conversation in the park I've done some research into the phenomenon of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It's a technologically sophisticated method of extracting natural gas and 'tight oil' that begins by drilling downward about a mile, then sideways, to tap into horizontal layers of shale. The actual fracking procedure consists of injecting water, sand, and secret chemical cocktails into the horizontal well, then detonating charges to fracture the shale and release the tiny bubbles of gas or oil it contains. Certain concerns have been raised about the rationality of drilling into the water table and there blowing up chemical solutions whose formulae are protected by patent law, but let us pass these by for now, because the relevance of the technique to the bigger picture of peak oil is huge.

Richard Heinberg, one of the foremost researchers and commentators in this field, has published a wonderful little book on the fracking boom called Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future. I found it at my local library. The book explores the way that fracking developments in the last decade in North Dakota, East Texas, and Pennsylvania, among other places in the continental US, have been promoted as the end of peak oil and America's ticket to once again becoming a net energy exporter. Heinberg and his colleagues delve into the numbers and flatly refute the claims that the US suddenly has a 100-year supply of natural gas- in all probability we'll witness the implosion of the fracking boom in less than 10.

How that misinformation came about is definitely worth a post of its own, but for the purposes of fitting fracking into the larger story, it's worth pointing out that the boom doesn't contradict the predictions of peak oil. It confirms them. Shale gas and tight oil are not easy to extract; if they were, we would have started the age of petroleum by using them instead of conventional crude, which was pretty much oozing out of the ground in the 1860's. Fracking technology got its start in 1866, when throwing explosives into oil wells was patented, and advanced to commercial application stage in 1949, when two companies independently decided to fill wells with water to pack a better shock wave punch. Shale extraction just needed the right economic conditions (a fourfold increase in the price of oil since 2002) to make it take off. So the current uproar about technology saving the day simply isn't true... it's just another distraction.

What's made fracking a viable enterprise in the last ten years has more to do with the depletion of easier sources of oil, and even more to do with Wall Street's need to pile funds into new, heavily hyped investment vehicles in the wake of the 2008 housing crash. Fracking wells are indeed producing fuel, but the industry as a whole is not turning a profit. Capital investments in the natural gas side of the shale boom alone add up to an impressive $42 billion a year, but in 2012 (the most recent data available as of Snake Oil's publishing in 2013) that gas sold for only $33 billion. This isn't a sign of a superpower reclaiming energy independence. It's a sign of a desperate society burning its roof to heat its home.

The story of fracking helps to illustrate an important aspect of peak oil that's often misunderstood. The 'moment' of the peak isn't when we suddenly run out of oil; it's the moment when the bell curve of oil extraction turns the corner from continually increasing production, to flat production, and later to declining production of ever more difficult-to-extract resources. In other words, the peak comes when we've burned through about half the world's recoverable oil, and it's a period of time rather than a moment. The most widely cited estimate is that we entered that period in 2005, and have since been fumbling into the realization that the way of life we've adjusted to over the last century and a half can only be maintained a little while longer by increasingly costly and desperate measures.

Dramatic moments do happen, though, when nations decide to act on the shifting balance of power caused by depletion. In the fall of 1973 the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, seized its moment to trump US power by playing the oil card; in the spring of 2014 the Russian Federation saw its chance to trump EU power with a hand involving the vast quantities of natural gas that flow west through Ukraine. That trick is still on the table, and it's anyone's guess which way it will go. But it's a fairly safe guess that gas is going to play a huge role, and that Russia is getting good and ready to call the US' fracking bluff.

That's why I think the American shale boom is the most important thing in the world just now. Its end will likely mark the beginning of major changes in our world, though what those changes will be only a wizard adept can say. These are the vast and wild currents I mentioned earlier, and while it's useful to have a sense of what lies downstream from here, it isn't worth even a moment's worry. All we can do is help those in our canoe fasten their life jackets and choose our course through the rapids well.

As an apprentice wizard of earth, I've chosen my course, and in the coming weeks I plan on sharing some of the projects I'm undertaking to that end. If Laura Erb is able to complete her mission downriver two hundred years hence, with far fewer resources at her disposal than we have today, I'm not afraid to throw my weight into my paddling and hope for the best. Of course, it might help to throw some of the unnecessary cargo overboard- but rather than overextending a good metaphor, I'll leave that discussion for next week.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Message Decoded, Part 2: The View from the Peak

This week's reflection is part of an extended commentary on a short story I posted a few weeks back. Read on or catch up, if you're curious- it's your choice.

You meet a lot of wonderful people on the train. As I rolled through the big woods of Northern Ontario a couple of weeks ago on my way out west, I had a long conversation with a young man who was doing some very interesting work documenting the stories of First Nations people living downstream from the tar sands in northern Alberta. I asked him at one point if he could summarize any themes from those stories into a message for the rest of the world, and he replied that he couldn't. His awareness of his status as a bridge between two cultures prevented him from attempting to speak for the people whose voices he was trying to amplify. My respect for him grew.

I asked him instead about the tar sands themselves, and our conversation turned toward the future of energy. I suggested that the quickest way to reduce the harmful effects of tar sands developments would be to reduce the demand for tar sands products; i.e., use less energy. His response surprised me. He pointed out that the trajectory of human history has been to use steadily more energy over time, and stated matter-of-factly that no society would ever voluntarily reduce its energy use, damn the consequences. What about an involuntary reduction in energy use, I asked? He grinned, shook his head emphatically, and began telling me about recent developments in the nuclear energy scene involving thorium. At this point I grinned, shook my head emphatically, and decided that being friends with this guy was probably more worthwhile than arguing with him about the fate of civilization. I changed the subject.

I figure it's about time I laid my cards on the table. I adhere to the heresy that we live on a finite planet, composed of a finite amount of physical matter and a finite amount of energy. The laws of conservation of matter and energy are founding principles of the science that built the modern world, so I'm suspicious, to say the least, when I watch youtube videos about the 'limitless' potential of things like thorium breeder reactors. The nature of nature is that it establishes and works within limits, and nothing humans have ever made or thought or done has transcended nature's laws as presently understood.

Likewise with energy. Last week I tried to show just how colossal the scale of human achievement has been in regards to energy over the last three hundred years. Achievement, or perhaps dumb luck. Yes, it took a certain amount of genius to invent and perfect the steam and combustion engines, which have driven industrial civilization to its present scale and intensity, but that was mainly a consequence of stumbling upon a free gift from nature in the form of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas.

Did I say free? I meant, apparently free. Fossil fuels represent millions of years of solar energy stored in the cells of prehistoric plants, then compressed into super-concentrated forms under millions of years of tectonic pressure, and finally converted into greenhouse gases during the course of a Sunday afternoon drive. This is the wonder of our times, ladies and gentlemen, a time that will never come again as long as our species lasts. Because a finite earth, no matter how massive, could only have laid down a certain amount of fossilized algae in its four billion years, and we've burned through a sizable portion of it in a few hundred.

That's the premise of a body of thought known as 'peak oil', one which is presently expanding as more and more evidence accumulates to confirm its forecasts, and which has the potential to completely transform our understanding of who we are and what our purpose in the world is. This mental transformation is rather akin to having one's entire world turned upside down and then shaken roughly, which is why I've not approached it directly in my writings thus far. It takes some time to appreciate the scope of human endeavour, and it takes more than time to appreciate the scope of human folly: it requires humility, and perhaps a sense of humour.

Allow me to slide sideways into the realm of analogy in order to illustrate what I'm talking about. If you want to bake a cake, you need certain amounts of flour, sugar, milk, butter, eggs, baking powder, salt, and whatever else your specific recipe calls for. If you don't have enough sugar, it doesn't matter how much of every other ingredient you happen to have on hand; your end result will be bread. Likewise with baking powder, of which you need much less, but without which you'll end up with something like marzipan. Or maybe sugar pita. (I've never tried it myself. Any kitchen chemists out there with more research experience than me?)

Orthodox macroeconomic theory says that when one resource (or ingredient, in this case) becomes scarce, its price will rise and induce innovators to find a substitute resource (or ingredient). Baking soda can thus be substituted for baking powder at a pinch, or whole milk and white vinegar for buttermilk. In the larger picture, aluminum can be substituted for copper once widespread use of copper to make telephone and electrical wiring has rendered copper scarce and valuable enough to be a target for professional metal thieves.

But there's one ingredient you can't easily substitute if you want to have your cake and eat it too, and that's energy. Without power of some kind to heat the oven, all you've got is a bowl of sweet, sticky slop that's likely laced with salmonella. Have you ever tried to bake a cake using the sun's energy? How about a wind turbine? Or a homescale nuclear reactor? Each of these technologies has passionate advocates, and each has its own reasons for being nowhere near as convenient as burning coal or gas to heat steam and generate electric current, which is then channeled into our homes through thousands of miles of aluminum and copper wire.

The reason I grinned and shook my head when my friend mentioned nuclear power is that most people, when they first become aware of peak oil, initially respond by rationalizing about which alternative energy sources will take the place of fossil fuels in our inevitably shinier future. But not even nuclear power holds out promise of providing as much energy for as little investment as our current diet of fossil fuels, even leaving aside the very serious matters of uranium depletion and radioactive waste. Additionally, (and curiously), the logical implication of substituting less convenient resources when the cheap ones become scarce is that a truly efficient economy will tend toward reaching the limits of all resources simultaneously. In theory, at least.

The fact is, every society that follows ours will have to make do with less energy than we have. The hard lesson of peak oil is that a shinier future is not inevitable. In fact, at the moment we're doing our best to evade a future that could be modestly better than the frenzied, destructive world we inhabit now.

What does that modestly better future look like, in my humble opinion? To return to the realm of analogy, the easiest way to resolve the cake crisis is not to bake the cake. We don't actually need the extra calories and enriched sugars it would give us; raw vegetables would satisfy our hunger and provide far better nourishment, without the headache of having to procure fuel and then heat the kitchen to intolerable levels as we burn that fuel. The number one thing we can do to make the world a better place, and to prepare for the world bearing down on us, is to use less energy.

Not that my ideal future involves universal raw veganism- far from it. But I do think that the people of Laura and Jonathan Erb's world, two hundred years hence, will be much more interested in very small-scale, practical applications of energy technologies, like refrigeration, than they will in planes, trains, and automobiles. They simply won't have the massive energy budget available to them that we do. They might even look back on our time, if they happen to pause in the midst of their work to reflect on the scope of human endeavour, as an Age of Destruction, when the fuel that could have been used to heat their homes in winter and preserve their food in summer was burned away by a generation that couldn't imagine them in the slightest.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Message Decoded, Part 1: Climbing the Peak

This week's reflection is part of an extended commentary on a short story I posted a few weeks back. Read on or catch up, if you're curious- it's your choice.

If I walk out the front door of my building and stroll southwest along Queen Street, away from the lively downtown of Kitchener, Ontario, in less than five minutes I come to a beautiful white clapboard house with soft grey shingles and a spacious verandah. A white picket fence surrounds an immaculate lawn, and a beautiful hand-painted sign informs me that this is the Joseph Schneider Haus, a National Historic Site.

As I turn down the shaded footpath that runs alongside the house and yard toward Victoria Park, a cluster of smaller buildings comes into view behind the main residence, their weathered timber, brick, and field stone walls a testament to the labour that set them here so long ago: the spring house, the bakehouse, the woodshed, the latrine. Two plaques indicate that the family of Joseph Schneider arrived here in 1807 from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, then as now one of the largest Mennonite settlements on the continent.

After journeying some four hundred miles to get here, the Schneiders cleared the land and cut a track through the bush toward the surveyors' road that ran up from the village of Preston. War erupted during their first decade in Upper Canada between Britain and the newly formed United States, but as Mennonites they would have refused to bear arms, a stance which then as now did not endear one to one's enlisted neighbours.

By 1816 Joseph had built a sawmill on nearby Schneider's Creek, and by 1820 the family house had been erected. The Schneider family were the first in a wave of German-speaking settlers who created the village of Berlin, Ontario, at the corner of the surveyors' road and Joseph's bush track. Those two thoroughfares are now King and Queen Streets, respectively, and their intersection marks the heart of the present-day city of Kitchener, population 220 000. The name was changed during the First World War to avoid anti-German sentiment; then as now where you came from is less important than who your friends are, and Field Marshall Horatio Herbert Kitchener of the British Army, recently killed in action, became this city's namesake in 1916.

There is so much that is marvelous in my hometown, and the contrast I witness when I stand next to Joseph Schneider's spring house and watch cars passing along Queen Street is one of the greatest. We marvel at the incredible energies of pioneer families who felled mighty trees, squared logs, and raised farmsteads out of the forest, but we think nothing of sending a ton of steel hurtling down the street at our merest whim. The true marvel of our time is that we don't understand how marvelous it truly is.

A lot of people will tell you that the chief difference between the early twenty-first century and the early nineteenth is all the technology kicking around these days, but I disagree. Technology is a distraction, in more than one sense of the word. What has really transformed the way people live, breathe, move, and think in the last two hundred years is the amount of energy available to us.

When the Schneider family wanted to move a rock or a stump from one place to another in order to plant crops on their new homestead, they had to move it using muscle- either their own or that of a well-fed horse. The latter was of course the preferred option, since a horse can sustain an energy output of about 746 watts, while a healthy human labourer can do about 75. In other words, a horse can work approximately ten times as hard as a man.

These days, few people on this continent move rocks and stumps using human or animal muscle; instead we use tractors. A tractor is a really marvelous thing, a fact I didn't appreciate until I spent some time on a small hobby farm in rural Georgia, USA. During my months there I drove the farm truck into impossible mud pits more often than I'd care to admit, and when you need to yank something powerfully stuck, a tractor's diesel-burning, low-torque engine is what you want. The very tiniest of tractors packs a punch worth ten horses, or one hundred men; the most powerful John Deere model listed at tractordata.com comes in at upwards of five hundred horsepower, or roughly five thousand men.

At the time the Schneiders rolled into Upper Canada, the Industrial Revolution, as it's been called, had been at work on Western society for about a century. It consisted of a number of profound social changes, exemplified by the rather odd notion that you could stick a horse in a treadmill, force it to pump water or coal out of a mine shaft for hours on end, and then quantify its exhaustion and use it as a measuring stick for units of work. That's what James Watt did in the latter half of the eighteenth century, although he's more famous for his work developing the steam engine, an interesting little device, if ultimately a distraction.

The Romans, in their day, knew how to quantify labour too. They had large-scale mining, metallurgy, and manufacturing operations, and they left us some very precise directions on how much grain a slave needs to be fed in order to perform at optimum capacity. The later emperor Diocletian, who strong-armed a chaotic Empire into a newer, stricter order during his twenty-year reign at the close of the third century, sent out surveyors to evaluate every acre of land he ruled, grade its productivity, and determine the quantity of grain or gold that could be taxed from it.

It's interesting to speculate as to whether a Roman Industrial Revolution could have taken off if enterprising men like Diocletian had been put in touch with steam power during the years of Rome's decline, or if Augustus' economic strategy during the years of Rome's ascendancy had involved intensification rather than expansion. I doubt it, though. The Romans were aware of the little device described by Hero of Alexandria in the first century which used steam to make a little bronze doohickey rotate on an axle, but they had their own ideas about what life was for and what work meant in relation to it. They made their choices and went their way.

The British Empire, on the other hand, met with some lucky coincidences as it clawed its way upward to world dominance. For one thing, the British Isles themselves were well-endowed with coal, which everyone at the time was using to smelt iron things to hurl at one another. For another, their coal mines kept filling with water beyond a certain depth, and it began to be economically viable to set up treadmill-powered pumps over mine shafts just to keep the mines dry. From there conditions developed to a point such that a coal-fueled pumping machine began to seem like a worthwhile investment, and by 1781 James Watt had figured that he could spin off this little trick in a number of interesting directions. In that year he patented the device that is supposed to have changed history.

Watt's steam engine, which according to his calculations had the power of ten sweating horses, eventually sired the internal combustion engine, which can easily do the work of a hundred. The increases in capacity for work that I've outlined here are what we call orders of magnitude: from a labouring human's 0.1 horsepower to 1 to 10 to 100 horsepower; these achievements are not to be sniffed at. In fact, they mark the milestones on a trend that's been unfolding for the past three hundred years, and which is the truly interesting narrative behind the sideshow of human technological tinkering. For three hundred years, every generation of Western society has had access to more energy than their parents, and the fact that today we can harness the energy of a thousand men simply by turning an ignition and pumping a pedal is one that consistently blows my mind.

But I digress... perhaps it's because I'm unconvinced by the straightforward story of progress. Why did I choose to set my science fiction story of 2213 in this beautiful nineteenth-century pioneer house? It's because, then as now, what's going on in our heads is not as important as what's going on beneath our feet, and right now some very interesting trends are unfolding in the earth itself that are shaping the landscape of the future. And certain aspects of that landscape, if we're paying attention, will look very familiar.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Departures and Arrivals

There's nothing like a voyage by rail for giving a little perspective. In the last two weeks, between poring over museums of M├ętis history in St. Boniface, Manitoba, glimpsing red-tailed hawks soaring below the train as we crossed a Saskatchewan river, and climbing the forested mountains above Vancouver with my relatives, I've had chances to reflect on this business of wizardly writing. What exactly am I doing here, and why?

The past three months have been great fun, but if truth be told I remain unconvinced. In one sense of the word I'm not completely convinced by my own analysis of the thermodynamics of civilizations- there are important elements left out of the story I've told thus far, elements that the historian in me is itching to go back and account for.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that people come to internet weblogs in order to be convinced of things. As much as I'd enjoy spending another three months hammering out the mechanics of this or that theory of collapse, better minds with better funding have done so elsewhere to better effect. My role as an apprentice wizard, I think, is not to provide more analysis but rather to connect analysis to experience, and thereby turn hard information into stories we can use to navigate the confusing times we live in. A kind of alchemy, if you wish.

Thus far I've been dealing lightly with the heaviest of matters, and that was intentional. There's so much writing out there encouraging us to fling ourselves into orgies of despair over this issue or that (one of my favourite old wizards used the term 'apocalyptic randiness') and I'm tired of it. It's not that I think despair is irrational; it's just that I have no time for it.

I spoke briefly in my last post about my own experience of mental illness, and at the risk of turning this blog into a private confessional (no, that's not what I'm doing here) I think it's worth touching on again. Why? Because I know that I am not alone in that experience. When I look around at the people of my generation I see many of us either partying ourselves into oblivion or struggling with a form of depression that current mental health professionals have limited means to treat. In my experience, doctors, psychologists, and counsellors simply aren't equipped to address the very rational anxieties that come with understanding the state of the world we inhabit. As specialists in a field focused on personal rather than global issues, why would they be?

On the other hand, current mental health professionals do have some very good ideas about how to address anxiety and depression on a personal scale, and thus I'd still strongly encourage seeking out professional support if it's available to you and if you feel the kind of dread weighing you down that I struggled with alone for far too long.

One of the key insights of modern mental health research is that depression and anxiety basically consist of thinking too much about things that get you down, while recovery consists of acting to change your situation incrementally, as well as your reflexive responses to that situation. For me, acting to improve my own state of mind involved physical exercise, keeping good nutrition and sleep habits, and some assistance from medication, but most importantly it involved sharing what I was wrestling with and finding a way to turn thoughts into actions. Hence this blog.

Like other things I've written about here, that explanation of anxiety and depression is simplistic, but it gets at the bones of the issue I mentioned in my last post: knowledge without action is disempowerment, while knowledge with action leads to empowerment and greater capacity for informed action.

I'm not saying that we can change our situation simply by concentrating on the positives and blocking out the negatives- anyone who tells you that is trying to either sell you something or buy your vote. It's more a matter of looking at a situation, acknowledging that it contains more darkness than light, and then deciding how best to fight for that light, knowing that darkness and light move in cycles like everything else in this amazing world we inhabit. That, in a nutshell, is my view of humanity's next two hundred years.

Writing is a limited form of action, but it's certainly helped me. My larger purpose is to encourage conversations about the future that are built around constructive hope rather than anxiety, and to do that it's important that we assess honestly what parameters that hope will operate under. After all, the future is already within us, in the words of Laura Erb of Neuberlin; it's a living, breathing reality shaped by the choices we've made and are making. I think it's well worth our time to get acquainted with times to come, at least as well as we can considering the paradoxes involved in time travel. (Thank goodness for science fiction.) So without further ado ladies and gentlemen, all aboard, because our next stop is the year 2213.