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August 31 2012

21:20

Video Friday: No Worries, Keep Driving – Post Carbon Institute on Fossil Fools and Fracking


A dose of energy reality from the Post Carbon Institute

This video from the Post Carbon Institute discusses the reality of our current energy economy and why leaders from both parties have bought into the recent hype that reliance on natural gas fracking and unconventional sources of oil – “tight” oil and tar sands – can stabilize our economy without destabilizing the climate. Narrated and written by PCI fellow Richard Heinberg.

August 23 2012

19:09

Daily Kos Climate Change SOS Blogathon Features Wide Range of Climate Hawk Voices

Our friends over at Daily Kos are running an amazing Climate Change SOS Blogathon this week, featuring dozens of voices from the climate hawk community. Bill McKibben, Michael Mann, John Abraham, Rep. Ed Markey, A Siegel, Richard Heinberg, Heather Libby, Brad Johnson, Kelly Rigg and DeSmog's IT director Evan Leeson are just some of the many friends of DeSmog that are contributing posts throughout the week-long blogathon.

I jumped into the action as well, contributing a piece on Tuesday titled Breaking Up With Polluters To Save The Climate.

Greg Laden just posted a scary piece about the implications of sea level rise for future generations.

There is a lot of great content. I highly recommend heading over to Daily Kos to check it out. Here is a full run-down of the posts so far. Stay tuned to the Climate Change SOS Blogathon box at the bottom of most posts to keep up with the newer entries.

 

April 25 2012

21:11

The Fallacy of Growth: Redefining Prospority


Blogger prize submission: Redefining Prosperity: The Fallacy of Growth“We confabulate; we make stories up about how it is that. ‘Oh, everything is just fine, and our consumer-driven society is just OK; and of course the fact that we are emptying the seas, the fact that we are causing wide-spread climate change, you know the fact that we do have global hunger is just an anomaly, and we will be able to correct it if only we get back on track.’”

-Raj Patel
Fellow, Institute for Food and Development Policy

It’s not comfortable to consider that the path we are on is unsustainable, but until we come to grips with our current situation, of our overconsumption of natural resources, over-dependence on fossil energy, and the loss of biodiversity and habitat, we cannot make effective change. We must become growthbusters.

I am a finalist in the TckTckTck Rio+20 Earth Summit blogger contest. My submission for the final phase of the contest focuses on the issues of unsustainable growth and the need for population stabilization. Please check out the article, share, and join the conversation on the TckTckTck website.

Redefining Prosperity and the Fallacy of Growth

(reprinted here from TckTckTck)

Victims of our own success

We owe the comfort and abundance of our lives to fossil fuel. Most people, at least in the developed world, enjoy “prosperity” through access to material goods and resources not possible without access to this vast store of “cheap” energy.

Our carbon-based energy economy has been so successful that we are now held in its grip, mesmerized into thinking it will go on forever. It has distorted our definition of prosperity by placing “growth” central on the altar of human intent and interaction with the natural world. To challenge the efficacy of infinite economic growth is suspect, even heretical.  But we arrive at the 21st century at a crossroads and challenge it we must if we are to choose a path toward sustainability.

Exponential growth – the Achilles heel of a finite world

As Physicist Professor Al Bartlet warns, failing to understand the exponential function is humanity’s Achilles Heal. The exponential growth in our numbers combined with our ability to extract energy and resources with ever greater effectiveness is at once unsustainable and the accepted foundation of economic theory.

More people mean more consumers equals growing markets and jobs to pay for consumption to support growing markets – plenty for all, and then even more, in an accelerating, unending cycle.

Human ingenuity and innovation notwithstanding, we live within a finite system. Be it climate change, energy, biodiversity loss, sustainable agriculture, mineral depletion or collapsing fisheries, we cannot continually “grow” our way out from the challenges we now face.  At the core of any solution for creating a sustainable society is choosing a path based on a new definition of prosperity.

The growth fallacy – speaking the unspeakable

Limits to Growth” first brought the idea into public discussion in the early ’70’s, and it was squarely rebukedby the “experts” of the day. Forty years later those limits are only more manifest.

“Economic growth as we have known it is over and done with,” says Richard Heinberg in his book The End of Growth. Accepting the fallacy of growth is a disquieting notion because it threatens all we have ever known.

“The prevailing vision of prosperity as a continually expanding economic paradise has come unraveled,” writes Tim Jackson in his book Prosperity Without Growth. “Perhaps it worked better when economics were smaller and the world was less populated. But if it was ever fully fit for purpose, it certainly isn’t now.”

“Climate change, ecological degradation and the spectre of resource scarcity compound the problems of failing financial markets and economic recession. Short-term fixes to prop up a bankrupt system aren’t good enough,” Jackson continues. “Something more is needed. An essential starting point is to set out a coherent notion of prosperity that doesn’t rely on default assumptions about consumption growth.”

Heinberg and Jackson are among a host of thought leaders challenging our devotion to the fallacy of growth and pointing us toward a new path. Documentary filmmaker David Gardner is another such voice, as well as a self-described “growthbuster.”

Becoming a GrowthBuster

In the film GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth Gardner exposes the fallacy of growth for a general audience likely uncomfortable with the idea, but also with a growing sense that business as usual is a dead-end street for themselves, their families, and their communities. Increasingly ill-at-ease with a consumer society that demands of them to be just that – consumers; when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, or so it seems.

GrowthBusters examines the beliefs and behaviors that may have worked in an earlier age, but are now pernicious barriers to a sustainable civilization; cultural norms enshrined by the “Great Acceleration” of the last half of the 20th century.

Gardner combines his own experience as a citizen of a growth-obsessed American town with the observations and insight from an array of experts, scientists, and economists.

“We’re faced with a gigantic challenge that we haven’t been prepared for.” Says Stanford professor and biologist Paul Ehrlich in the film, “either in our genetic evolution, or more importantly, in our cultural evolution.”

Instead of focusing on what we must “give up” as we move away from an infinite growth-based society, it clarifies what we’ve given up in our tenacious embrace of it, and the choices we have going forward.

Life after growth

“Beyond the provision of nutrition and shelter, prosperity consists in our ability to participate in the life of society,” writes Jackson Prosperity Without Growth, “in our sense of shared meaning and purpose and in our capacity to dream. We’ve become accustomed to pursuing these goals through material means. Freeing ourselves from that constraint is the basis for change.”

Surely, for those with a full pantry, the latest iPhone, and a big-screen TV, it can be morally suspect to suggest to others to abandon the pursuit of material wealth. Positive change will not come through exhortation. Yet many feel trapped within their own material abundance. Beyond a certain point it no longer serves human prosperity and fulfillment.

“We are not purely greedy selfish individuals, that’s what free marketeers assume that we are,” says Institute for Food and Development Policy fellow Raj Patel in GrowthBusters. “That’s what we are encouraged to be in consumer society. But we are not, we are much, much more beautiful, we are much bigger, we are much … we are much more capable of sharing…

The tools with which we have been raised to help us understand looking at the way the world works and how our future might be delivered to us, well those tools are broken. But it’s OK, because there are loads of solutions around us in which we, we might manage the world differently and more sustainably…”

Among these tools are three principal ideas to help us get started:

  1. Adapt to a steady-state economic model:
    A global transition movement is growing and connecting individuals and communities in learning and adapting to a post-growth, post-carbon world. Networks like these help chart a path toward greater resilience and adaptation to a reworked economy aligned within material limits and focused on human flourishing beyond a consumer-based society.
  1. Stabilize human population:

Scientific estimates population the Earth can sustainably support range from under 1 billion to 5 billion, depending on how we much we curb our consumer lifestyles in the developed world. We must stabilize and then slowly reduce human population within Earth’s carrying capacity and provide women, especially in developing countries, education and access to health care and birth control.

  1. End our dependence on fossil fuel:

Climate change is unavoidable. Climate change is here and now. But to avert the worst consequences of climate disruption we must quickly reduce our dependence on fossil fuel. Accomplishing the task requiresredesign of our citiesagriculture, transportation, and energy generation.

It’s okay to be a Growthbuster

“It’s not an easy thing to change the inertia of a civilization, but it has to be done…”

What drives our endeavors and sustains our economies will not be tomorrow what they are today. But we have a choice. As Gardner says in his film, we can either turn away from the cliff or keep the pedal to the metal and “go down fighting.”

It is possible to live happy, healthy, prosperous lives within a bountiful – if limited – world. It will not be easy; in fact, it is likely that greatest challenge humanity has yet faced. And there is a price to pay for the damage we’ve already exacted on the Earth. But it can be done, if we accept the challenge for what it is.

“There’s a shift going on, and this is a shift from believing that we have a resources problem to really understanding that we have a cultural problem and that we need to evolve our culture.”

Twenty years after the first global Earth Summit we stand squarely at a crossroads. We cannot be blamed for the road that got us here, but we are responsible for each future step we take.  Many, like Gardner and his film Growthbusters, are pointing the way down a path to a sustainable future, helping us see that it’s okay to be a growthbuster.

January 14 2011

18:16

The Sticky Truth about Oil Spills and Tar Sands


The Alberta Tar sands - a BP scale oil spill in slow motionThe Weekly Mulch from the Media Consortium
by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger
(reposted with permission)

The National Oil Spill Commission released its report on last year’s BP oil spill this week. The report laid out the blame for the spill, tagging each of the three companies working on the Deepwater Horizon at the time, Halliburton, Transocean and BP, and also offered prescriptions for avoiding similar disasters in the future.

As Mother Jones‘ Kate Sheppard notes, it’s unlikely the recommendations will impact policy going forward.

“I think the recommendations are pretty tepid given the severity of the crisis,” Jackie Savitz, director of pollution campaigns at the advocacy group Oceana, told Sheppard. “Even the small things they’re suggesting, I think it’s going to be hard to convince Congress to make those changes.”

No transparency for you!

Last summer, after the spill, the Obama administration tried hard to look like it was pushing back against the oil industry, even though just weeks before the spill, the president had promised to open new areas of the East Coast to offshore drilling.

This week brought new evidence that, despite some posturing to the contrary, the administration is not exactly unfriendly to the energy industry. One of the key decisions the administration faces about the country’s energy future is whether to support the Keystone XL, a pipeline that would pump oil from tar sands in Canada down to Texas refineries. And one of the key lobbyists for TransCanada, the company intending to build the pipeline, is a former staffer for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, filed a Freedom of Information requesting correspondence between the lobbyist, Paul Elliott, and his former boss, but the State Department denied the request.

“We do not believe that the State Department has legitimate legal grounds to deny our FOIA request, and assert that the agency is ignoring its own written guidance regarding FOIA requests and the release of public information,” said Marcie Keever, the group’s legal director, The Michigan Messenger’s Ed Brayton reports. “This is the type of delay tactic we would have expected from the Bush administration, not the Obama administration, which has touted its efforts to usher in a new era of transparency in government, including elevated standards in dealing with lobbyists.”

Tar sands’ black mark

What are the consequences if the government approves the pipeline? As Care2′s Beth Buczynski writes, “Communities along the Keystone XL pipeline’s proposed path would face increased risk of spills, and, at the pipeline’s end, the health of those living near Texas refineries would suffer, as tar sands oil spews higher levels of dangerous pollutants into the air when processed.”

What’s more, the tar sands extraction process has already brought environmental devastation to the areas like Alberta, Canada, where tar sands mining occurs. Earth Island Journal‘s Jason Mark recently visited the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, which he calls “impressively forthright” in its discussion of the environmental issues brought on by oil sands. (The museum is run by Alberta’s provincial government.) Mark reports:

The section on habitat fragmentation was especially good. As one panel put it, “Increasingly, Alberta’s remaining forested areas resemble islands of trees in a larger network of cut lines, well sites, mine, pipeline corridors, plant sites, and human settlements. … Forest disturbances can also encourage increased predation and put some plants and animals at risk.”

Not renewable, just new

The museum that Mark visited also made clear that extracting and refining oil from tar sands is a labor-intensive practice. He writes:

Mining, we learn, is just the start. Then the tar has to be “upgraded” into synthetic petroleum via a process that involves “conditioning,” “separation” into a bitumen froth, then “deaeration” to take out gases, and finally injection into a dual-system centrifuge that removes the last of the solids. Next comes distillation, thermal conversion, catalytic conversion, and hydrotreating. At that point the recombined petroleum is ready to be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. It all felt like a flashback to high school chemistry.

Why bother with this at all? In short, because with easily accessible sources of oil largely tapped out, techniques like tar sands mining and deepwater drilling are the only fonts of oil available. This problem is going to get worse, as The Nation is explaining over the next few weeks in its video series on peak oil.

Energy and the economy

Traditional ideas about energy dictate that even as the world uses up limited resources like oil, technology will create access to new sources, find ways to use limited resources more efficiently, or find ways to consume new sources of energy. These advances will head off any problems with consumption rates. The peak oil theory, on the contrary, argues that it is possible to use up a resource like oil, that there’s a peak in supply.

Once the peak has been passed, the consequences, particularly the economic consequences, become dire, as Richard Heinberg, senior fellow with the Post Carbon Institute explains. “If the amount of energy we can use is declining, we may be seeing the end of economic growth as we define it right now,” he told The Nation. Watch more below:

Light green

Part of the problem is that the energy resources that could replace fossil fuels like oil—wind and solar energy, for instance—likely won’t be in place before the oil wells run dry. And as Monica Potts reports at The American Prospect, our new green economy is getting off to a slow start.

Although the administration has talked incessantly about supporting green jobs, Potts writes that the federal government hasn’t even finalized what count as a “green job” yet. The working definition, which is currently under review, asserts that green jobs are in industries that “benefit the environment or conserve national resources” or entails work to green a company’s “production process.” But what does that actually mean?

“That definition was rightly criticized as overly broad,” Potts writes. She continues:

While nearly everyone would include installing solar panels as a green job, what about an architect who designs a green house? (Under the proposed definition, both would count.) … Another problem comes in weighing green purposes against green execution: We could count, for example, public-transit train operators as green workers. But how do we break down transportation as an industry more broadly? Most would probably agree that truckers who drive tractor-trailers running on diesel fuel wouldn’t count as green workers even if they’re transporting wind-turbine parts. And many of the jobs we would count as green already exist.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the country is moving swiftly toward a bright green future.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

February 04 2010

19:11

An Open Letter to President Obama from the Post Carbon Institute


February 1, 2010

Dear President Obama,

Your State of the Union speech last week laudably referenced clean tech and renewable energy several times. We ask that you follow your words with action, by leading the transition to a post-carbon economy and a healthier world.

You also spoke of our need to face hard truths.

Hard truth: Our continued, willful reliance on fossil fuels is making our planet uninhabitable. We are evicting ourselves from the only paradise we’ve ever known.

Hard truth: No combination of current and anticipated renewable sources can maintain our profligate energy usage as the global supply of fossil fuels heads for terminal decline.
For the recently releasd Searching for a Miracle, Post Carbon Institute Senior Fellow Richard Heinberg conducted a “net energy” analysis of 18 different energy sources (including nuclear and “clean coal”). He concluded that the amount of energy available after accounting for the energy used in extraction and production of those sources is—at our current and anticipated rates of consumption—insufficient to get us “over the hump” to a post-carbon world.

Our 29 Post Carbon Institute Fellows—experts in the leading economic, energy, and environmental issues of the day—all agree that this "net energy" deficit is just one of many interrelated crises shaping the 21st century. Each crisis alone creates formidable challenges; in combination, their complexity admits no simple solution. But given their direness, inaction risks tragedy.

Mr. President, we respect you and your advisors and appreciate the enormity of the dilemmas you and all of us confront. When a great leader frames a great challenge, a resilient will people rise to meet the opportunity. And so we ask, Mr. President, that you tell the American people that we must:

  1. Face reality. In a carbon-constrained world, true prosperity comes not from heedless growth, but from shared security, community, and liberty.
  2. Prepare for the future. Conservation, with an emphasis on building a green economy and revitalizing struggling communities, offers cost-effective “found” energy, and the most immediate and long-term return on investment.
  3. Lead the way. A substantial investment in renewable energy, with an emphasis on distributed solar and wind, offers the best hope for moving to a sustainable economy and environment.

Mr. President, lead us in creating a future worth inheriting. Post Carbon Institute and our Fellows will support you and your team in whatever capacity we can. We believe that the American people, and the world’s people, will support you as well.
With hope,

Asher Miller
Executive Director
Post Carbon Institute
————

The Post Carbon Institute
The Post Carbon Institute was founded in 2003 with the mission of "leading the transition to a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable world." As this open letter states, the challenges facing our civilization in a new century do not stem from single isolated issues. It isn't climate, or biodiversity, or dependence on fossil fuels, or water and food, or over-consumption. It's about all these issues – and more – that integrate into how we choose to live our lives and provide future generations with a habitable and sustainable planet.

Post Carbon Institute provides all sectors of society, from individuals to business and government, with the resources needed to understand and respond to these interrelated challenges of economy, energy, and environment.

The vision of PCI is a world of sustainable, resilient communities based on "re-localized" economies thriving within ecological limits.

The Post Carbon Institute has gathered 28 world-renowned fellows to help light this path to a livable future led by Senior Fellow Richard Heinberg and including such figures as Bill McKibben, Wes Jackson, David Orr, and Tom Whipple.

"Like it or not we are here." We live in challenging, exciting, often frightening times. The issues we face are almost too much to fully digest and too easy to brush under the carpet and ignore – for now. PCI hopes to help lead the way out of comfortable complacency into a new world based an equality and sustainability.

The PCI Manifesto (pdf)

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