Sunday, September 21, 2014

Taking a short break--No post this week or next

I'm taking a short break this week and next and expect to post again on Sunday, October 5.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Are we on the path of 'Limits to Growth'?

Probably the most important thing you need to know about the 1972 book entitled Limits to Growth is that it makes no predictions. Rather, the much maligned study provides scenarios for thinking about the future of resource use, pollution, population, food, and industrial production.

Limits to Growth detailed three scenarios originally, one of them called business-as-usual or BAU. Since then, countless scenarios have been run using the same model--called World3--and some of them are discussed in updates to the book, the most recent published in 2004. Many of the scenarios including BAU result in a collapse of industrial production and population some time this century.

What has surprised those reviewing the model used by Limits to Growth researchers is how closely reality has tracked the original BAU scenario. A recent review suggests that the signs of societal collapse may be around the corner based on the observed trends. But the components of that model have yet to turn in deleterious directions which would suggest trouble.

The review says that if those indicators follow the path suggested by the BAU scenario, we should begin to see the signs of decline by next year with per capita industrial production falling (but not necessarily total production). The knock-on effects in agriculture and services would result in a rise in the death rate from 2020 onward and a decline in world population starting in 2030.

No one can know whether such a scenario will unfold. There are many reasons to believe it will be delayed, perhaps considerably. One of the Limits to Growth authors believes that a collapse will occur only after 2050.

According to the review referenced above entitled "Is Global Collapse Imminent?" the thing to watch is the amount of capital we must spend to get resources:

Until the non-renewable resource base is reduced to about 50 per cent of the original or ultimate level,
the World3 model assumed only a small fraction (5 per cent) of capital is allocated to the resource sector, simulating access to easily obtained or high quality resources, as well as improvements in discovery and extraction technology. However, as resources drop below the 50 per cent level in the early part of the simulated 21st century and become harder to extract and process, the capital needed begins to increase.

As the authors point out, that's just what we've seen with oil. Bernstein Research has noted that major oil companies now say it is costing them $92 a barrel to produce new oil from the highest cost fields. That's way up from 10 years ago and indicates a rise of 14 percent PER YEAR from 2001. Oil is priced based on the marginal barrel of supply. The Saudis can produce oil from their fields for far cheaper, but you won't find them offering it at lower prices!

As capital costs mount for extracting other resources, we'll find that society doesn't have as much wealth left over for everything else including maintenance of the current infrastructure and industrial plant. And, that's what the authors of Limits to Growth are talking about. The economy doesn't grow because the infrastructure and industrial plant that growth depends on cannot be properly maintained.

As the review explains, the Limits to Growth authors also understand one very important thing that their critics don't. The review uses oil and natural gas to explain:

But the protagonists of oil and gas gluts have not understood a crucial point. They have essentially confused a stock with a flow. The key, as the LTG [Limits to Growth] modelling highlights, is the rate at which the resource can be supplied, i.e. the flow, and the associated requirements of machinery, energy and other inputs required to achieve that flow.

So, here is a key conclusion:

Oil and gas optimists note that extracting unconventional fuels is only economic above an oil price somewhere in the vicinity of US$70 per barrel. They readily acknowledge that the age of cheap oil is over, without apparently realising that expensive fuels are a sign of constraints on extraction rates and inputs needed. It is these constraints which lead to the collapse in the LTG modelling of the BAU scenario.

What's important about the Limits to Growth model is not any precise dates which we might get from running a scenario. What's important are the markers described by the researchers as harbingers of limits. Those harbingers have begun to appear.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The more uncertain we are, the more careful we should be

It is a staple of apologists for the chemical and fossil fuel industries to say, "We have no proof that what you are talking about is dangerous." Let me restate that in probabilistic terms: "We are highly uncertain about the harm of what you are talking about."

When stated in probabilistic terms, uncertainty about harm becomes much more alarming. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has added to a working paper which I discussed last week entitled "The Precautionary Principle: Fragility and Black Swans from Policy Actions." As I suggested in last week's piece, climate change is an obvious candidate for the precautionary principle because climate change involves the risk of systemic ruin.

In his addendum Taleb explains that climate change deniers who criticize climate models for their uncertainty don't have the slightest clue what that implies. Rather than suggesting that we should ignore such models, the uncertainty suggests that we should be even more diligent about mitigating climate change since the high uncertainty means, probabilisticly speaking, that we have larger exposure to catastrophic outcomes.

Statistically, this is explained as an increase in the scale of the distribution which leads to an increase in the size of the tails associated with the probability curve. It means that the system we are dealing with is MORE fragile and thus more subject to catastrophic outcomes. Tails represent rare, but highly impactful events and in this case, a ruinous result. If rare becomes a lot less rare (fat tails), then the risk of ruin is greatly increased.

Let's look at other cases where the risks are likely to be greater than widely assumed. U.S. Department of Energy forecasts for energy supplies, particularly oil and natural gas, are treated as gospel by companies and governments across the globe. But the caveats that the Energy Department includes show that such forecasts are highly fragile, indeed, the entire oil and natural gas supply system is fragile in that it may not deliver what we want it to deliver. Here is a sample from an Energy Department discussion of forecast model uncertainty in reference to the presumed renaissance in U.S. oil and natural gas resulting from the exploitation of deep shale resources:

Estimates of technically recoverable tight/shale crude oil and natural gas resources are particularly uncertain and change over time as new information is gained through drilling, production, and technology experimentation. Over the last decade, as more tight/shale formations have gone into production, the estimate of technically recoverable tight oil and shale gas resources has increased. However, these increases in technically recoverable resources embody many assumptions that might not prove to be true over the long term and over the entire tight/shale formation. For example, these resource estimates assume that crude oil and natural gas production rates achieved in a limited portion of the formation are representative of the entire formation, even though neighboring well production rates can vary by as much as a factor of three within the same play. Moreover, the tight/shale formation can vary significantly across the petroleum basin with respect to depth, thickness, porosity, carbon content, pore pressure, clay content, thermal maturity, and water content. Additionally, technological improvements and innovations may allow development of crude oil and natural gas resources that have not been identified yet, and thus are not included in the Reference case.

It turns out that a forecast that many people assume is all-but-certain is admittedly quite shaky according to its creators. The forecast is fragile and subject to catastrophic failure with the possibility that actual production will be significantly below the forecast in the next few decades. A similar failure in current optimistic worldwide oil and natural gas forecasts would carry grave consequences if we were to make no preparations for a surprise on the downside.

But precisely because so many people believe these optimistic oil and natural gas forecasts to be facts rather than speculation, THEY MAKE NO PREPARATIONS FOR AN ALTERNATE AND POSSIBLY DISASTROUS OUTCOME! And, that is the problem with forecasts that are widely accepted and used for planning and policy purposes.

Keep in mind that a forecast is nothing but a model of something over time in the future. It isn't and cannot be based on actual knowledge of the future. Most models, particularly financial and resource models, really only extrapolate the past into the future which is actually a naive approach.

As for genetically modified crops, we are told that there is no evidence of harm from ingesting these crops. Long-term animal feeding studies have been made all-but-impossible by the companies that own the patents to the seeds. So, the lack of evidence is partly intentional. But LACK OF EVIDENCE IS NOT THE SAME AS LACK OF RISK. We did not have any evidence that the drug thalidomide, used to treat morning sickness in pregnant women, would cause deformities in human fetuses. But that didn't mean there was no risk. Wikipedia notes: "At the time of the drug's development, scientists did not believe any drug taken by a pregnant woman could pass across the placental barrier and harm the developing foetus." Why investigate risks to the fetus when you already believe there are none! Likewise, if you've already decided that genetically modified foods pose no greater risk than traditional foods (as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has), you will not investigate the risks.

Finally, we see a don't-worry-be-happy attitude about the worldwide electrical grid. We have known for many years about the threat of an electromagnetic pulse or EMP. Such a pulse, if widespread enough, could bring down the electrical grid worldwide. Because so many processes in the modern world, especially information technology, must have continuous inputs of electricity, the result would indeed be a wipeout for modern civilization since there is currently no capability to repair such widespread damage. (For more on this, see my piece "Solar storms, EMP and the future of the grid.")

An EMP can be produced by a high-altitude explosion of a nuclear weapon. This is why much military hardware has been shielded from EMP. But it is the natural source of EMPs, the Sun, that should concern us more. If a solar storm similar to the Carrington Event, which hit Earth in 1859, were to occur today, we would very likely face ruin.

What we don't know is the frequency of such high-intensity storms hitting the Earth. And, it is our very ignorance which subjects us to heightened risk. Not knowing whether we might have thousands of years or just a few to prepare for such an event creates that risk. Once again, lack of evidence is not the same as lack of risk.

Our assumptions may be wrong. Our observations or data faulty. Our information woefully incomplete. Knowing this we would be wise to put large margins of safety into the systems we build and the practices we initiate. We would be wise to forego new practices that clearly run the risk of widespread and systemic ruin. Instead, we all too often close our eyes to risk; and, all too often the reason is immediate profit for a few. Meanwhile, the rest of us suffer the consequences.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ruin is forever: When the precautionary principle is justified

If you are dead, you cannot mount a comeback. If all life on Earth were destroyed by, say, a large comet impact, there would be no revival. Ruin is forever.

The destruction of all life on Earth is not 10 times worse than the destruction of one-tenth of all life on Earth. It is infinitely worse. A fall of 1 foot is not one-tenth as damaging to the human body as a fall of 10 feet, nor is it one-hundredth as damaging as a fall of 100 feet (which is very likely to be lethal). Walking down a stairway with one-foot-high steps, we are typically immune to any damage at all. Thus, we can say in both instances above that the harm rises dramatically (nonlinearly) as we move toward any 100 percent lethal limit.

It is just these properties--scope and severity--that most humans seem blind to when introducing innovations into society and the environment according to a recent paper entitled "The Precautionary Principle: Fragility and Black Swans from Policy Actions." The paper comes from the Extreme Risk Initiative at the New York University School of Engineering and one of its authors, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is well-known to my readers.

The concepts in the paper are applicable to systemic problems such as climate change. But the paper addresses only two specific issues, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nuclear power, to illustrate its main points.

The precautionary principle refers to a policy that demands proof that an innovation in not broadly harmful to humans or the environment before it is deployed. We are referring here to public policy issues, not decisions by individuals. The question the paper tries to answer is: When should this principle be invoked in public policy?

The answer the authors give is surprisingly simple: when the risk of ruin is systemic. That doesn't mean that they suggest no steps to mitigate risk when ruin might only be local, say, the explosion of a fireworks factory. But, they feel that such an event falls within the realm of risk management. An explosion at one fireworks factory cannot set off a chain reaction around the world. Individuals in and around the plant might be ruined. But all of humanity would not ruined.

In the two examples covered in the paper, GMOs and nuclear power, the authors come to the surprising conclusion that nuclear power on a small scale does not warrant invoking the precautionary principle. Small-scale nuclear power does warrant careful risk management and cost/benefit analysis. Whether the damaged reactors at Fukushima would fall into the category of small-scale nuclear power isn't clear. Their effects were worldwide, even if small in most places.

GMOs, however, offer a classic case of unforeseeable systemic ruin. We will know we are ruined by this untried technology after the ruin happens (perhaps in the form of famine or widespread human health and/or environmental effects). The authors categorically reject the notion that modern genetic engineering of plants is no more dangerous than traditional selective breeding.

This is because traditional methods are tried on a small scale and only achieve large scale acceptance and use over time if they are successful, that is, demonstrate no drastic side-effects or failures. This mimics nature's bottom-up approach to evolution; the changes affected this way are gradual, not drastic--and, of course, they don't involve transferring genetic material from completely different species, say, from a fish into a tomato.

Proponents will say that cross-species transfer of genetic material takes place in nature as well. But its scope is limited and its survivability and evolutionary fitness are tested over long periods during which these changes either thrive or disappear.

The top-down approach of the GMO industry introduces GMO crops everywhere across the world in a short period and combines one risk--untested genetic combinations--with another grave risk--monoculture. The long-term product of these two risks is unknown. But it is rightly categorized as systemic. GMO crops are now deployed worldwide and they can and do also contaminate non-GMO crops and wild plants through pollination.

Crops created through selective breeding have long histories of success and toxicities that are well understood and unlikely to change suddenly. As each new GMO crop is deployed, we cannot know ahead of time whether it will lead to systemic health and/or environment problems because there is little testing and, in any case, the amount of experience we have with GMO crops is far, far shorter than for the products of traditional selective breeding.

With each step we take in the production and deployment of new GMO seeds, we are playing a game of Russian roulette. The first few times we've pulled the trigger, we did not get catastrophic systemic effects--not yet, at least. But, since there is a nonzero risk of such effects, the probability of creating catastrophic outcomes becomes certain over time. The risk is virtually 100 percent that we will ultimately reach the chamber in the Russian roulette gene gun that causes catastrophic and widespread damage to humans and/or the environment.

Saying that there is no evidence so far that this will happen is a failure to understand that hidden systemic risk can often only show up on very long time scales. And, of course, when that risk does show up, it's too late to do anything. Remember: when we manipulate a gene or genes inside a plant, we are not doing just one thing. Without knowing it, we are affecting multiple systems in the plant and in the environment the plant lives in. We are creating multiple possible pathways to ruin.

This is just a short preview of the article cited above. The article is quite accessible to a lay reader and, in places, even entertaining. I encourage you to read the whole thing. It is the most rigorous statement to date concerning the precautionary principle and risk in that it outlines clear criteria for judging when that principle should be invoked and when it should not be.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why does anyone even care about the future?

The human community spans not only space but time. Naturally, we include in our community those closest to us--family and friends--and then in concentric circles of affiliation our co-workers; our fellow churchgoers (if we do that kind of thing); members of a civic group, a book club or a sports team to which we belong; the inhabitants of our town or city, of course; and our country. Some people even count themselves as citizens of the world.

And, while we tend to reserve our deepest feelings for those closest to us, worldwide telecommunications makes it possible for nearly everyone around the globe to feel something for those very far away who lead very different lives. Recently, for example, our sympathies have been directed toward those suffering and dying from the Ebola virus.

But, the human community also spans time. We include not only those alive today, but those who've lived before us. They might be departed parents and grandparents. They might have disappeared generations ago and exist now only on a family tree and as an association with an heirloom. We might also remember a whole culture (say, ancient Greece or Rome) now gone and which we know only through its artifacts and writings. We look for guidance from the ancients, from founders of our respective countries and from those considered wisest in our history both through written accounts and now increasingly through audio and video captured while they were alive.

All of this makes perfect sense. What makes less sense is for us humans to include in our community those who are expected to come after us. I am not referring to our children or grandchildren. I mean those who will not even have been born yet when we die, those whom we will never know.

Humans have an exceptional talent for being able to imagine events which have not happened, to run scenarios in their minds and to plan based on those scenarios. The events we imagine are placed in a time zone we call the future. The future is full of potential, but little else. It does not actually exist except as a construct in our minds. And, yet every politician, every businessperson, every human almost without exception is terribly concerned about the future, or at least, says so.

Some say we humans deeply discount the future--which is just a way of claiming that we care less and less about the effect our actions have on the future, the more distant that future is. But I would say that we don't discount the future so much as we continuously reimagine it to suit our purposes (and to soothe our consciences, when necessary). We actually care deeply about the future as we imagine it!

The future of the country is at stake, the politician says. The future of the industry is at stake, says the businessperson. The future of humanity is at stake, says the activist and the moralist.

But what does this mean since the future is really a concept and not a reality? It seems natural for evolutionary reasons that humans are concerned about the survival of their genes. This is instinctual among all living organisms. But there is something more to our human concern about the future.

Humans are not interested merely in the survival of the species, but also with its so-called "advancement." Modern-day humans--unlike, say, ancient Greeks or Romans--typically imagine the future as a place in which humans become more powerful, more creative and more content. Human culture advances. The idea that it might stagnate or worse, decline, brings shreaks of horror from the champions of enlightenment and progress.

So, our concern about the future is in part a worry that it might not be better than today--better usually being defined as bigger (more stuff from the biosphere appropriated for human use); more luxurious with extra features and more fun; and above all, more automated--the world as one big push button.

We are concerned both with continuity and trajectory. And, this is where our thinking gets foggy. The continuity of the human race might require a different trajectory. The current argument over sustainability comes down to this. Those defending the status quo contend that the continuity of humans is assured by our continuous (imagined) upward trajectory. We've lived this long and succeeded against all challenges for 4 million years. And, with the technology at our disposal today, we should be secure for 4 million more. (Those making this argument, of course, are not thinking that our technology threatens our continuity.)

The apologists for our current trajectory by and large do not, as some suggest, care nothing at all about those who come after us. Typically, these apologists are not cynical; they do not secretly believe we face grave risks to the existence of humanity while publicly pretending those risks don't exist. Instead, they imagine a triumphant future that proceeds from a triumphant past.

Those decrying the status quo suggest that the really important trends, the key indices of the health of the biosphere that sustains us, are actually going down: the decline of soil fertility, the destruction of species, the deforestation of vast tracts of wilderness, the overfishing of the oceans, and perhaps most dangerous of all, the changing climate, a change sponsored chiefly by humans. In the end, the biosphere will still be here, but humans may be absent.

It seems our concern with the future comes down to what we imagine in our minds about how these views of the present play out.

The extreme pessimists may imagine all the fruits of civilization vanishing: art, literature, philosophy, science and the technology it spawns, the memory of thousands of years of struggle and inquiry lost in a few decades through a carelessness that leads to a kind of genocide of the greater part of the human race and the destruction of modern civilization.

That is a sad and frightening prospect, and it's easy to see why some people feel so deeply about this imagined future. Most, but not all, pessimists think we should try to prevent this kind of death and destruction or, at least, try to mitigate it.

The optimists dismiss such a dour outcome as more or less impossible and wonder what all the fretting is about given the great things we humans have accomplished so far. Since the future is imagined to offer both continuity AND more of what we call "progress," there's no need for alarm.

And so, to the four cardinal points on the compass, we add the axis of time, both backward and forward. Our human story and our identity would be incomplete without this axis. There is no glory in a culture that is about to vanish. Only the most misanthropic pessimist would take satisfaction in that.

Instead, most optimists and pessimists imagine themselves as part of a culture with a story that continues. What they disagree on is whether that continuity will happen with the current leadership in charge presiding over business-as-usual--or only with drastic changes to make a scaled-down version of our civilization possible before our violation of the limits of nature turns fatal.

Even though all we actually have is the current moment and our memories of the past, it seems that unless we can fill in that blank called "the future," a time that will always be a product of our imaginations, we cannot know who we are because we will not know where we are going. And these days, that seems to be the paramount question for the human community.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I'd be happier if I didn't write this stuff!

Thus happiness depends, as Nature shows,
Less on exterior things than most suppose.

                  --William Cowper

For years my father--who is a really great guy--has been telling me that I'd be a happier person if I didn't write about all the converging threats bearing down on the human race. Turns out he's right!

Here's what a new study said on the matter:

Recent evidence suggests that a state of good mental health is associated with biased processing of information that supports a positively skewed view of the future. Depression, on the other hand, is associated with unbiased processing of such information.

Let me translate: If you fool yourself about what you are really seeing in the world and convince yourself that it will lead to a good future for you and whomever else you care about, you'll maintain good mental health. If, on the other hand, you look reality squarely in the eye, you are more likely to get depressed. Life, as it turns out, isn't a bed of roses.

Now, I would put the "positively skewed" person in the same category as turkeys. You may be familiar with philosopher Bertrand Russell's story of the turkey. A farmer feeds this turkey every morning. Using inductive reasoning, the turkey becomes more and more convinced each day that the morning feedings will extend indefinitely. One day the farmer appears with an ax, demonstrating the weakness of inductive reasoning.

It's easy to see that the turkey is happier up to the point of slaughter NOT knowing what is coming. (I'm assuming the turkey, in this case, would be powerless even with foreknowledge to prevent his own demise.) Not knowing, he is better adjusted to his surroundings, and he's not busily writing columns about the impending turkey slaughter that all turkeys should be aware of. This lack of knowledge certainly prevents stress and stress-related diseases, both mental and physical. One has to admit that the turkey has a good life (for a turkey) up to a certain point.

We should also note that there is no way that examining his past--i.e., previous feedings--would allow the turkey to understand the danger. The slaughter of turkeys is nowhere to be found in the time series of his feedings or his life in general. (The analogy for the human race would be the last 150 years or so in which the notion of perpetual progress has become entrenched in the human psyche.)

We can learn two things from the turkey's story. First, if you are a turkey, it is better to be ignorant of your own demise if you are be unable to do anything about it (even with foreknowledge). Second, information about the nature and timing of your demise may not be available through an examination of your past--though an examination of the past of many turkeys might shed light on the situation.

Let's expand on this. Since I am, in fact, not a turkey, or more particularly the turkey in the story above, it is possible that I might be able to do something to avoid my premature demise if I have information about it. But, of course, anyone who writes about our converging environmental and resource-related threats, isn't really writing about individuals, but about humans as a species.

So, it is possible that one path to relative happiness is to remain ignorant of such challenges so as not to suffer anxiety about them. Then, if society cannot head off these catastrophes, at least you wouldn't suffer anxiety about them prior to their arrival at your doorstep. And, it's possible they may never reach your doorstep during your lifetime. This, however, sounds more like a dereliction of one's civic duty than a path to enlightenment.

That's because if my efforts and the efforts of millions of others around the globe are able to move the needle of society toward sustainability, those uninvolved and untroubled by our problems would be getting a free ride. We sustainability types do all the work and then have to share the benefits.

But, the more people who join in the work of moving society toward sustainability, the more likely it is that this work will succeed. The failure to achieve a sustainable society might be the direct result of too few participants trying to achieve it. The free ride problem just got a lot more deadly.

There is also the problem of the definition of "good mental health" or more speculatively, the meaning of "happiness," and whether these ought to be one's goals in life. Human life, no matter how materially advantaged, is bound to be filled with pain, disappointment and loss. The unpredictability of our lives makes it certain that you cannot plan to have a happy life. You may get what you believe to be a happy existence. But it is likely to be the result of luck more than choice and planning.

And, if the definition of happiness includes all kinds of unhappiness experienced in the pursuit of one's goals--even if those goals are achieved--I would say that such a definition is drained of all intelligibility. It may have some mystical significance that I don't understand. The everyday meaning of happiness, so far as I know, does not include excessive suffering, pain and loss.

But back to my father. He also contends that he is very good at dealing with "reality." And, he is. He's one of those rare people who, when he looks at what he has to do each day, realizes that the task which seems most disagreeable is probably the most important.

I take this as a clue that he has not pursued happiness as his main goal in life. Rather, he saw his highest calling as his duty to others, to his family, to his friends, to his community, to his country, to the people who worked for him while he was running several companies. There is a certain satisfaction in living this way, some might even say a certain joy in the commitment itself. But it is not a path that leads to a persistent state of happiness.

It really should be no surprise to him that "being happy" is not my highest priority, and that his wish for all his children to "be happy" could easily turn into a curse of ignorance. Admittedly, trying to understand the world around us can end up being burdensome, especially if one concentrates on the human prospect in the face of the emerging multiple threats to the stability of our civilization.

But trying to understand our place in the universe and on the Earth can also be exciting and stimulating. And, trying to move society in a more sustainable direction in concert with others can be both rewarding and fun. It turns out that even people who don't put their personal happiness first on their list of priorities can have a good time in this world. And, sometimes they can even be happy!

P.S. Doing something which gives our lives a broader meaning can give us a kind of satisfaction that the "pursuit of happiness" can never provide. I am reminded of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's story about a meeting with the religious leader of the Taos pueblo. The leader related the following:

"The Americans should stop meddling with our religion, for when it dies and we can no longer help the sun our Father cross the sky, the Americans and the whole world will learn something in ten years' time, for then the sun won't rise any more."*

The leader and his people were not just doing their ceremonies to the sun for themselves. They were doing them for the whole world.

P.P.S. This excellent cartoon nicely summarizes one of the main points of this piece.

*From The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Volume 9,I of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. p. 22.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ebola and the weak link of public health

It has long been my contention that one of the chief symptoms of the age of constraints we have now entered would be the decline of public health systems globally. This comes at a time when our vulnerability to a worldwide epidemic is increasing because of widespread international travel, the proliferation of densely populated megacities and the general trend toward urban living. Of course, urban environments are ideal for spreading disease because of the proximity of the residents.

The sudden re-emergence of the deadly Ebola virus is testing whether public health systems are adequate to the job of containing such threats. While we know that there is a link between the general health of a population and public health expenditures, it is difficult to find statistics on expenditures worldwide by country to assess the direction of public health spending. We do have evidence that declining health spending in Greece in the aftermath of the financial crisis there was followed by demonstrably worse outcomes. And, the medical community thinks the United States is spending too little on public health, just $251 per person (in 2012). Keep in mind that this is distinct from spending on medical care which totaled $8,086 per person.

So let's be clear; public health refers to the following according the American Heritage Dictionary:

The science and practice of protecting and improving the health of a community, as by preventive medicine, health education, control of communicable diseases, application of sanitary measures, and monitoring of environmental hazards.

Public health measures are at the heart of increased longevity and health outcomes for most societies. It is disease that is prevented--AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases; diseases associated with improper disposal of human wastes such as cholera and typhoid that are reduced and even eliminated through proper treatment of sewage; diseases for which there are now effective inoculations such as tuberculosis--that makes the most difference in our overall health. Accident prevention is also key: safer automobiles and workplaces are major reasons we are leading longer and healthier lives.

For all its benefits, public health has been shortchanged recently in many countries and localities because the sluggish world economy of the last several years has meant less revenue for the governments financing such expenditures. This slow economy is a puzzle only to those who do not understand that the economy runs on energy and energy, particularly oil, has been much more expensive than in the past. This makes the Greek economic blowup, for example, more of an energy crisis than a financial one. The Greek government and society were fine with all that debt until energy prices vaulted skyward and made it difficult both to service the debt and pay for the energy needed to run the country's homes, factories, commercial establishments and vehicles.

And, Greece wasn't the only country burdened by the double burden of debt and high energy costs. All of Europe has been hit by it to one degree or another. Much of Africa suffers from one or both burdens. And Africa also suffers from a higher degree of social and political chaos that results from weak central governments, governments less able for financial and administrative reasons to deliver adequate public health services to their populations.

This means that public health is consistently underfunded given its huge benefits and given the true threats. This is partly because the most obvious and dangerous threat--a fast-moving and deadly worldwide epidemic--tends to appear episodically at long intervals. The last truly major worldwide epidemic began in 1918 and ended in 1920. It was dubbed the Spanish Flu and killed an estimated 3 to 5 percent of the population. The equivalent death toll today would be 210 to 350 million people based on a world population of 7 billion.

The economic stagnation of Europe has made it difficult for countries such as Greece to maintain public health expenditures. The stress on health systems in the states of the former Soviet Union--the breakup of which still reverberates in many ways through the health systems there--has only been increased by the AIDs epidemic which is partly responsible for a population decline in Russia from the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union to today. But perhaps the most vulnerable areas are many countries of sub-Saharan Africa where governments are weak, economic vitality is low (which limits government revenues) and health infrastructure is limited.

It's not just our poor prevention efforts, however, that are increasing our vulnerability. It turns out that our energy and resource policies are adding to our risk. Climate change, mining and deforestation appear to be playing a role in the latest Ebola outbreak. The very energy system that drives our economic engine using primarily fossil fuels leads to climate change which leads to increased stress on and fragmentation of forests where Ebola hides. Animals, particularly bats which can carry the virus, are seeking places to live among humans when habitat is lost. And, the need for human residents to make a living through exploitation of forest resources including mining drives people further into the African forest where they risk exposure to the virus.

And, of course, war is a perfect activity to engage in if you want to spread disease. In World War I, 44 percent of all active-duty deaths among American service personnel in 1918 were due to influenza. This was, of course, during the time of the Spanish Flu epidemic mentioned above. And, we now have plenty of war in the Middle East, in Libya, in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and in The Ukraine.

Finally, there is the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Two years ago the head of the World Health Organization warned that overuse of antibiotics in people and in animals is setting us up for a world in which "[t]hings as common as strep throat or a child's scratched knee could once again kill."

The article linked above also stated that "many drug companies see no point in investing to develop better antimicrobial drugs because they will just be rendered ineffective in a few years because of overuse." Our carelessness is moving us back into a pre-antibiotic world.

If the current outbreak of Ebola is not contained, few people will understand it is because of the way our global system is structured and the vulnerabilities it creates: forcing people to seek livelihoods and food ever deeper in the remaining forests; logging those forests relentlessly; the burning of fossil fuels to power almost all our activities and the climate change it creates with its dangerous consequences for the spread of epidemic diseases; easy international travel which has already helped to spread the Ebola virus; densely populated, ever growing cities; and for bacterial diseases (not Ebola) pushing the use of existing antibiotic drugs because it is good for drug company profits (while ignoring the longer-term issue of antibiotic-resistant microbes).

Most people, however, will look at the Ebola outbreak as merely an external force of nature that we humans somehow had the misfortune to encounter. That kind of thinking will prevent us from learning the deeper causes of our public health vulnerabilities and therefore prevent us from addressing them as part of a larger project to create a healthier, more sustainable way of life.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at