Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sleeper agents in the (somewhat) enchanted biosphere

When I was a young boy, I was afraid of creatures I called "hoppers" who I believed lurked under my bed. They were patterned after leaping animated cartoon figures appearing in the closing credits of "Fractured Fairytales," a segment of the popular children's television program "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." My bedroom had to be checked each night for these creatures before I could enter and go to sleep.

Of course, over time, the hoppers disappeared from under my bed. But, the world never quite lost its enchanted if sometimes menacing quality. Though only vaguely aware of it, I continued to react to animals, plants and just plain objects of all kinds as if they had unusual potency in the affairs of humans--potency with malevolent possibilities.

As a young man in my 20s this peculiar version of reality became conscious to me when I read Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's essay entitled "General Description of Types." Since that day I have learned to sift carefully through my experience and thoughts for the undue influence of this psychological disposition and rigorously question any overly positive or negative conclusions that might have been influenced by it.

Still, the enchanted world of the introverted sensation type (which is clearly my personality type) has never been fully extinguished from my awareness. Jung explains the psychology of the purest form of this type:

[The pure type] lives in a mythological world, where men, animals, locomotives, houses, rivers and mountains appear either as benevolent deities or as malevolent demons. That they appear thus to him never enters his head, though that is just the effect they have on his judgments and actions. He judges and acts as though he had such powers to deal with.

Now every modern, up-to-date, educated person will scoff at such a way of encountering the world. To the extent that any of us remain unconscious of the effects of this kind of archaic psychology in our own thinking, we are slaves to forces that can cloud clear thinking. But, my question is this: Do such psychological forces always cloud clear thinking or can they, when properly understood, be a gateway into a deeper understanding of the world around us?

A modern, up-to-date, educated person has usually been convinced that humans are the only agents in the world. Humans consciously manipulate the world to their benefit. Only humans can actually "manage" planet Earth. Everything else acts by dumb instinct or physical laws. The question becomes: Are those instincts and physical laws "dumb"? That is, are they merely mechanical repetitions of innate patterns or do they display an intelligence all their own?

Perhaps the purest modern manifestation of the idea that the Earth's systems as a whole display intelligence comes not from a poet, but from a renown scientist, James Lovelock. Lovelock posited a superorganism called "Gaia" (after the Greek goddess of Earth) which maintains habitable conditions on Earth for all its living organisms through the interaction of both living and nonliving systems. Lovelock's idea was popularized by his 1979 book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.

The respected scientist was widely criticized for being nonscientific. But his theory spawned subsequent research that unlocked the broad interactions of the living and nonliving worlds and their relationship to the creation of a stable living environment for Earth's organisms.

Now, it stands to reason that every living organism is attempting to ensure its own survival and the continuation of its kind. While the evolution and everyday life of organisms are chiefly determined by their environment, each organism also ACTS UPON the environment in attempting to achieve its goals. In other words, it competes (and sometimes cooperates) with other organisms to obtain food, water, space, heat and light. And, in doing so it interacts with the nonliving world of minerals, air and water.

That means that all organisms on Earth are active agents within Earth's natural systems, both living and nonliving. Humans and every other living organism on the globe are co-evolving in an endlessly complex web of interactions.

This is the web of interactions which we modern humans believe we can "manage" to our benefit without catastrophic effects.

Lovelock disagrees. He wrote a second book entitled The Revenge of Gaia. His thesis: The living world system has been provoked by overuse of fossil fuels, land clearing and other human activities and now has a fever which we call climate change. But, we humans have done other things also touched on in one way or another in the book that threaten their own future: overharvesting of fisheries and forests, soil degradation from industrial farming and the poisoning of air, water and soil with novel toxic chemicals, just to name a few.

Now, we are seeing the world's natural systems "fight back." It is as if sleeper agents in the biosphere have been activated for the battle and created conditions increasingly dangerous to humans (and unfortunately, many other organisms). How can I justify using such words? Because it is conceivable that these trends, if uninterrupted, will lead to dramatic reductions in human population.

The biosphere would thus be destroying the main cause of the problems listed above. I'm not assigning consciousness to the biosphere, but I am assigning agency and intelligence. Before you criticize, remember Friedrich Nietzsche's dictum: "What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent."

The biosphere is vastly more complex than our limited human intelligence can comprehend. To those who believe we can simply manage our way out of our current set of predicaments, I respond (with apologies to Dr. Phil): "How's that workin' for ya?"

It is a conceit that we can manage planet Earth in a way that will allow us to continue business as usual. Our management to date has brought us to this point of peril. Wasn't it Einstein who said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity? Managers and would-be managers of planet Earth, take note.

It turns out that my childhood perception of the world as a place full of organisms and objects with agency and intelligence and the potential for malevolence was not entirely incorrect. But we moderns believe we need to divorce ourselves from such perceptions in order to become rational, right-thinking, scientifically bounded adults. In doing so, we divorce ourselves from the world of agents all around us who act and strive in ways surprisingly similar to our own.

Our task then is not to suppress such perceptions, but to transcend our childish interpretations of them--putting these perceptions into the proper framework for acting and living in a world that is very much more alive, intelligent and full of agency than we have been led to believe.

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, June 22, 2014

Monday, June 16, 2014

We will never run out of oil (which is entirely beside the point)

Harvard economist Morris Adelman, famous for saying that we will never run out of oil, died last month. What followed the announcement of his death was a predictable set of encomiums like this one from defenders of the oil industry extolling Adelman's infinite wisdom.

Some (including my father, it seems) were so caught up in the odd celebratory mood--one that resurfaces every time people contemplate just how much stuff there is in the universe--that Adelman's rather narrow and almost meaningless dictum was being offered as the basis for a complete energy policy. (And, never mind that that energy policy makes absolutely no mention of climate change.)

All of this makes sense only if you keep yourself from thinking about it. But a simple illustration will show just how meaningless the notion that we will never run out of oil is. Imagine for a moment that starting tomorrow one-half of the oil that human society normally consumes each day is no longer available and that this goes on for several months.

This certainly would not mean that we have run out. We'd simply be getting significantly less oil than our current global system is designed to run on. The result would surely be a global economic depression. That's how dependent we are on the current RATE of oil production. That's how important the continuous input of high-quality energy from oil is to our collective well-being. This explains the concern of those who believe a decline in the worldwide rate of oil production may be coming within the next decade.

And, no one in this group has ever said that we will run out of oil. That's a canard used to confuse people about the real issue which is the RATE of production.

But, that's not reflected in Adelman's often truncated observation. Furthermore, what he actually said was that oil would never run out so long as technology advanced and prices were high enough to justify its extraction. Within the very narrow confines of this rather wishy-washy and almost tautological statement Adelman is right. The key word in this statement, however, is "enough."

What if technology does advance, but not enough, and what if the price of oil is high, but not high enough to justify bringing it out of the ground at the RATE required for the smooth functioning of global society? What then?

The irony is that while those allied with the oil industry are praising the honored dead, the oil industry itself is pulling back on investment in oil exploration and development even in the face of near record average daily prices for world crude. The reason: a five-fold increase in so-called upstream capital expenditures for exploration and development by the major oil companies since 2000 resulted in only a tiny increase in oil production at those companies. Even with oil prices above $100, the cost of and paltry return on exploration and development is forcing majors to cut back on their previous lavish expenditures.

All this can only mean one thing: less oil delivered in the future. And, all this runs contrary to Adelman's observation. Technological advances continue to be deployed by the industry including so-called high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling used to extract oil from deep shale deposits that were previously inaccessible. And, while these techniques have lifted production significantly in the United States, growth in overall world production in the seven years from 2005 to 2012 has actually slowed dramatically to about one-quarter of the pace of the previous seven years. And, this is in an era of new technologies, record high average daily prices, and, until now, record exploration and development expenditures by oil companies.

Yes, Adelman's conditions--high prices and advancing technology--have prevented us from running out. But that's hardly the point. These conditions should have produced a glut and low prices. They have failed to do so for one simple reason. In the race between the ever more challenging geology and locations of the world's remaining oil resources and the ever advancing technology of the oil industry, geology and locations are winning. And, they've actually been winning for quite a while as discoveries badly lag consumption. That means we are living on borrowed time using up easy-to-get reserves discovered long ago--and hoping against hope that somehow, new technologies will get the upper hand before actual declines in production set in.

This makes for very poor energy policy. Harvard economists would like to think that the world obeys a few simple principles that apply always and everywhere. But actually the world is far more complex than anything these economists imagine. Since we as humans are only privy to a very small portion of that complexity, humility and caution ought to be our watchwords when addressing momentous issues such as energy policy.

Major forecasts in the year 2000 from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the International Energy Agency, and the National Intelligence Council (which serves the U.S. intelligence agencies) confidently proclaimed that oil production would soar in the next decade to meet rising demand and that prices would stay low. Bewitched by the simple but flawed logic of Adelman and others, they missed badly on production numbers--they were all far too optimistic--and even more so on prices predicting an average price of about $28 per barrel in 2010 when daily prices averaged close to $80.

Psychologists have learned from studies that even when people know that overly confident forecasters have been mostly wrong in the past, they will choose to believe them because of their confident presentation. And, people, in general, won't believe tentative presenters even if those people know that the tentative presenters have been more accurate in the past.

Adelman and his acolytes have delivered simple but misleading ideas confidently--and ones that are in line with what many people want to believe. Such ideologues will never be seen retracting their ideas when the facts prove them wrong. They'll just ignore the facts. And, they'll hope that you ignore the facts, too.

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, June 08, 2014

Talkin' trash: Are we literally throwing away energy?

Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann wakes up every day thinking about trash. What got him thinking about it in the first place is how much of it is simply dumped into landfills across America when most of what is not recyclable could instead be turned into energy for homes and businesses everywhere.

Schmidt-Pathmann has seen a better approach in his native Germany where only about 1 percent of all municipal waste goes into landfills. This compares with about 68 percent in the United States of the 400 million tons discarded annually, he explains. (Exact numbers are hard to come by, but he prefers figures collected by Biocycle Magazine.) Germans recycle almost 70 percent of their municipal waste and burn almost all the rest to turn it into energy.

Schmidt-Pathmann is founder and executive director of the Zero Landfill Initiative based in Seattle. He says that the United States could add 12 gigawatts (billions of watts) of electricity generation by expanding waste-to-energy facilities even if the country upped its percentage of recycling to that of Germany's. The United States currently recycles about 25 percent of its waste. Burning all the landfill waste currently available would provide an extra 33 gigawatts. That would be the equivalent of 33 large electricity generating plants.

But, Schmidt-Pathmann thinks he knows why there is so much resistance to the German model in the United States.

First, Americans still believe that burning waste is a dirty business, giving off toxic fumes and plumes of smoke. But modern waste-to-energy facilities produce little in the way of air pollution using up-to-date technology to reduce emissions to a minimum. High-temperature burning breaks apart the bonds of toxic chemicals.

Schmidt-Pathmann says that we should think about the advances in waste-to-energy plants over the last thirty years in the same way we think about advances in computers from the first floppy disk operated ones in the early 1980s to the supercomputers of today.

Second, landfills used to be controlled mostly by municipalities. Now the vast majority of them in the United States are owned by private waste haulers who in turn haul 80 percent of the municipal waste in the country. It's currently cheaper for those haulers to dump the waste remaining after recycling into their landfills than to burn or recycle more carefully what's left.

In Germany it became government policy to reduce landfill disposal and therefore the government made it very expensive to use landfills. There is so far no such policy in America. In addition, there is far more land in America for creating landfills than in Germany making it cheaper to build them.

Third, Americans somehow believe that waste-to-energy facilities will result in less recycling. But a recent survey demonstrated that communities with waste-to-energy facilities actually recycle slightly MORE material than those without. This may be due to the fact that such communities tend to be leaders in waste handling and so have well-established recycling programs.

Moreover, waste-to-energy facilities recycle large amounts of metal that remain after the waste is burned. One company, Covanta, operating across the United States recovers the equivalent of five to six Golden Gate bridges of metals each year from the ash that remains after combustion.

Still, what's so bad about putting trash in a landfill? Here's what's bad about it according to Schmidt-Pathmann. Even though landfills produce methane that can be gathered and used to power generating plants, a portion of that methane--a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide--still leaks into the atmosphere. Beside this, much more energy with fewer greenhouse gas emissions could be produced from the buried trash if it were instead burned.

Also, it turns out that private landfill operators are only responsible for their landfills for 30 years after closing. After that, society at large becomes responsible for the care and monitoring of those landfills which will remain hazardous for thousands of years. When these costs are added to the costs of landfilling, it becomes obvious why burning what can't be recycled makes economic as well as environmental health sense. And, it makes all the more clear why Pathmann believes that zero landfill should be our goal.

How could waste-to-energy and near zero landfill become the norm in America? It will only happen when landfilling becomes more expensive than the alternatives or when government forces it to happen.

Currently, Schmidt-Pathmann explains, the private waste haulers in the United States are politically powerful and quite understandably don't want their huge investment in landfills and the surrounding waste transportation infrastructure to become worthless. One way change could occur is if waste haulers were somehow reimbursed over time for what would become their stranded landfill assets in a manner similar to the way utilities are reimbursed through rate hikes for the mothballing of generating plants that become useless for regulatory or economic reasons.

Higher waste disposal rates would certainly be unpopular, but they could lead to a much safer future with cleaner energy and more recycling. Despite the higher cost, this might turn out to be a better course than containing and cleaning up ever expanding landfills indefinitely or hoping in vain that private waste haulers will voluntarily abandon their costly landfill infrastructure without compensation in favor of what's best for society.

There is one other possibility. Municipalities typically have waste hauling franchise agreements with private haulers that allow them access to residents. Those contracts often permit municipalities to divert waste to better uses such as recycling and energy production so long as at least some waste continues to go to landfills according the Schmidt-Pathmann. Whether municipalities have the will to go down this road--essentially starving the haulers of trash for their landfills--seems doubtful. The politically connected haulers will be unlikely to stand still as their businesses shrink for lack of trash.

Right now the United States produces 1 million football fields of trash 6 feet deep each year. We'd like to think that once we throw something away, we don't have to think about it anymore. But, unless we start doing things differently in the United States, we'll actually end up having to think about our trash for a very, very long time to come.

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, June 01, 2014

What climate activists should learn from the Monterey Shale downgrade

There is an important hidden lesson for climate activists in the vast downgrade of recoverable oil resources now thought to be available from California's Monterey Shale. Almost all climate activists have rejected any talk that the world's oil, natural gas and even coal supplies are nearing plateaus and possibly peaks in their production. That's because they fear that such talk will make the public and policymakers believe that climate change will be less of a problem as a result or no problem at all.

Any yet, for obvious reasons climate activists rejoiced when the Monterey downgrade was announced. But this only served to highlight the fact that climate activists have lost control of the public narrative on energy and can only steal it back by including constraints on fossil fuel supply as part of their story.

In fact, climate activists have been content to accept fossil fuel industry claims--the two parties agree on little else--that we have vast resources of economically recoverable fossil fuels, the rate of production of which will continue to grow for decades--unless, of course, climate activists stop this trend. This stance makes for an heroic narrative, but misses what is actually happening in the minds of the public and policymakers, minds which must be won over in order to address climate change effectively.

Let me explain.

The hype surrounding the now vastly downgraded treasure trove of oil once thought to be recoverable from California's Monterey Shale acted as a siren song on a state long devoted to energy innovation and a gradual transition away from fossil fuels. After all, California is the only state that has a climate change policy that will force businesses, localities and households to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions drastically and thus reduce their fossil fuel use drastically.

Sirens, mythological beings who are part woman and part bird, are said to send sailors to their demise through irresistible singing that lures them to crash on rocks they would normally attempt to avoid. It turns out that the thought of large amounts of readily available hydrocarbons under California has had a similar effect on the state's sustainability-minded population.

Of course, large deposits of readily available oil would have spelled large amounts of money, both as income to individual Californians and as tax revenues to various California governments. And, such oil deposits would have also spelled large contributions to California politicians in whose hands the fate of drilling and production regulations lie.

But the siren song of oil in California ended abruptly when the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced that, based on new information, the Monterey Shale actually contained 96 percent less recoverable oil than previously thought. Climate and anti-fracking activists were overjoyed. This vast resource in all likelihood will not be heavily exploited, and most of the oil in it left unburned. (Yes, the oil is still down there. The EIA just doesn't think anyone will be able to recover it profitably using known technology.)

Since the 2008 spike in oil prices, the oil industry had been looking for a way to convince the public and policymakers not to abandon fossil fuels in favor of renewable, sustainable alternatives. When the so-called "revolution" in hydraulic fracking provided a temporary bump in U.S. oil and natural gas production, the industry found its message. With rising production America would now become a new oil and gas superpower, ending its fossil fuel imports and even exporting some of its largesse to the rest of the world. (This claim is proving to be a wild exaggeration, but that doesn't keep it from being effective.)

The other purpose of this narrative--which has been heavily touted in the media--is to change the conversation from climate change to rising fossil fuel supplies and the benefits that such supplies will bestow on America and ultimately the world.

So far, the oil industry's strategy has worked famously. The media and the public are abuzz with the message of renewed American strength and prosperity resulting from fracked oil and natural gas. Yes, there are stories about the environmental and health hazards of this process. But, the vast majority of Americans remain far away from and therefore unaffected by these hazards.

As long as the news is about the success of fracking and even about its hazards, the public will fixate on the question of how to obtain the country's supposed newfound abundance safely rather than on the unfolding horror of climate change.

But, there are, in fact, two justifiable reasons for us to move away from burning fossil fuels: climate change and supply constraints. We need to transition to other energy sources because fossil fuels are accelerating climate change AND because we simply do not know when these fuels will decline in their production rates. Current evidence suggests that the risks of such a decline are mounting.

Unless climate activists embrace this dual message, they will be ceding the argument to the fossil fuel industry. With its huge financial resources the industry will continue largely unopposed to spout the abundance narrative which experience now tells us trumps discussion of climate change.

Read for yourself any glowing account of America's new oil and gas abundance and you will ALMOST NEVER see any mention of climate change.

But, the Monterey Shale downgrade is not an isolated incident. It's part of a pattern of downgrades that are making expectations about the trajectory of oil and natural gas production in the United States more realistic.

Moreover, world prices for oil when measured using the average daily price have hovered at or near record levels for the past three years despite the shale boom in America. Worldwide oil supplies have barely grown since 2005, even as China, India and the rest of Asia have increased their demand. (That demand has been in large part accommodated by declines in U.S. and European oil use resulting from sluggish economies and changes in driving habits due to declining incomes.)

U.S. natural gas production has been stagnant since the beginning of 2012 even as prices have more than doubled. The shale gas miracle is gradually unravelling and we may even be headed for a natural gas supply crisis in the United States.

The evidence is compelling that the risks to fossil fuel supplies are rising and that the world's and the nation's reliance on them is a dangerous dependency. That combined with the national security implications suggests that the United States (which remains a huge importer of oil) and all other energy importing nations are far better off moving toward energy supplies that are entirely homegrown and can be relied upon indefinitely.

This is a forceful argument when combined with concerns about climate change. And it is a necessary addition to the arsenal of climate change activists if they expect to refocus America and the world on the imperative of addressing climate change effectively.

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