Sonntag, 25. Januar 2009
It features the "Crash Course", a set of 20 short videos, just over three hours in total, that cover a range of topics centered around the "three Es" economy, environment and energy. If you think three hours is a lot, think again. This stuff should be important enough to sit down for an evening or two, maybe with some friends, and give it a look.
I'm admittedly stepping on somewhat thin ice here in the sense that a large portion of the crash course is dedicated to criticizing aspects of the (American, first and foremost) economy, and economy is certainly not my main domain of expertise. I have been asking myself some questions recently - questions like: How stable can a currency be that's not backed by any "real value" (e.g. gold standard)? Is the total amount of money that exists fixed, or can it be created and destroyed at will? Can it work in the long term to run a country with continually rising national debt? Do we "have" to have inflation and economic growth all the time, or have we just gotten so used to living with them that we have forgotten that things could also work otherwise?
The crash course gives some answers to these questions - answers that challenge many aspects of mainstream economics and of principles at work in the economy and politics of our nations. I guess it would be fair to contrast Chris Martenson's answers with those that a "conventional" economist would give. I have had someone who has studied economics tell me that he begs to differ with Martenson's views. Unfortunately, I am at no level of economic education to discuss this at eye level with them. In fact, I am hoping to find the time at some point this year to grab a basic economics textbook and try to understand the fundamentals of the theories myself. For the time being, I can just say: I found the crash course interesting. I recognize that people more knowledgeable in economics than me find it misleading. I still think that more people should see it - obviously so in case Chris Martenson is right; and in case he isn't, then because someone with the necessary expertise and authority should credibly explain where Martenson's reasoning goes wrong, and why. For you, once again, my suggestion would be: have a critical look, and decide for yourself what you do or do not believe.
At this point, the Sustainability Blog is bound to take a break: I'll be on vacation for a couple of weeks, and afterwards deadlines at work and plans for the weekends will make their demands on my time. So I don't expect any major updates here until we're, probably, way into March at least. For you, this should be an opportunity to follow the links I have posted so far, if you haven't already done so, and maybe starting some research of your own, or starting to act. We're certainly living in exciting times where unexpected things can happen more quickly than anyone would have deemed possible, so I'm curious what the developments will be until the time we meet again here.
Until then, I thank you for reading and wish you all the best.
However, that is not to say that numbers aren't important. On the contrary, they are essential. If you want to understand the scope of the problem and evaluate possible solutions, you have to quantify them. Therefore, I'd like to bring numbers into the game at this point by presenting you a link to the website of David MacKay, a Cambridge physics professor who has done some calculations concerning energy supply and demand: www.withouthotair.com . The choice is more or less random - it might not be the ultimate source of information, it's just one that I happen to be aware of. You can download an entire book there for free; if your time is limited, you can start with a 10-page synopsis that's easily readable within less than an hour. That's what I have done. (A cautionary remark: As I haven't had the time to follow his calculations in detail or cross-check with other sources of information, for the time being I'll just trust David MacKay to have gotten the maths right.) The book is focused on Great Britain, but I'd expect the situation in most industrialized nations to be comparable.
Rather than just repeating everything he's writing, I suggest you follow the link and have a look at the material yourself. Let me just extract some key takeaways here as a "teaser":
- We get around 80% of our energy from fossil fuels, which is unsustainable because fossils are limited and may change the climate.
- For any renewable facility to make an appreciable contribution it has to be country-sized.
- We require either a radical reduction in consumption, or significant additional sources of energy – or, of course, both.
- In particular, besides renewables, we probably won't be able to do without one several of the following sources of energy: “clean coal” (i.e. coal power plants equipped with carbon capture and storage technology), nuclear power, and/or renewable energy from other countries (e.g. solar power from the Sahara).
Two points that I personally take out of the synopsis are:
Firstly - anti-dogmatism: nobody really likes the problems that come with nuclear power (radioactive waste, limited supply of uranium, safety of power plants...) and coal (CO2 emissions unless you invest in expensive CCS technology, limited supply of coal). But it may well be that we need to be pragmatic about the use of these sources of energy, simply because we might not be able to do without them in the mid-term future.
Secondly - "If everyone does a little, we'll achieve only a little": If everyone unplugs their mobile phone chargers and turns the TV off rather than leaving it on standby, but continues to drive a Jeep, heat out of his house's single-glass windows, and fly to New York for a shopping weekend every other month, we're not going to get very far in terms of sustainability.
So much for now. This is just a little starting point, and I hope to be able to bring some more quantitative points into this blog in the future, time permitting. For now, I suggest you follow the link above, and hope that you agree with me on the basic message:
Sonntag, 18. Januar 2009
I see two basic possible approaches which I'd like to label "bottom-up" and "top-down". Bottom-up would mean individual people getting informed, stepping up, taking action, and leading with a good example. Top-down would mean national governments or even supranational bodies like the European Union or the United Nations laying down rules which are binding for everybody.
Which way, now, is the right one? I, personally, think that we need both. The charm of bottom-up is the preservation of personal liberty, and the fact that individuals are free to think ahead and act more swiftly and radically than a government that needs to find a democratic consensus first. A growing group of frontrunners can influence opinions, create trends, and, by the choice of which products they demand for, increase supply of sustainable goods and services, and initiate a positive self-reinforcing process. The downside is that people have their desires and irrationalities that may limit the extent to which voluntary measures can go. For instance, I don't have a car, and that works pretty well for me - usually I can get to where I want to be by bike or public transportation, and in the few cases when I can't, I usually find someone who gives me a ride. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoy travelling, and if that involves taking a plane, so be it. I know that flights aren't particularly eco-friendly (even if I compensate my CO2 emissions with a donation at www.atmosfair.de, the fuel is still gone for good afterwards). But I decided at a young age, long before ever hearing of Peak Oil and the like, that one thing I want to get out of this life is seeing the world, and I don't think I'll completely give up travelling while I can afford it.
And that's where top-down comes into play. If a measure makes sense and is necessary (admittetly it's not always easy to figure out whether or not this is the case), but not everybody will do it voluntarily, politics can make the rules and "force people to their own good". If, say, kerosene taxes went up, I wouldn't be thrilled to be paying more for my plane ticket, but I would accept it, knowing that it's for a good reason and that the restriction applies to everybody (well, at least everybody living in the same jurisdiction as me, assuming that not all nations will pass the same law at the same time). The downside is that in a democratic pluralistic society, governments continuously have to try and find a consensus - which is good in the sense that everybody gets a chance to have their interests considered, but bad if it means that necessary actions don't get taken because some powerful interest group manages to prevent that. (Let me concede again that I acknowledge the problem that there is no infallible authority that can tell us for sure what is "right" and "necessary".)
So, what can be your role in this? On the bottom-up side, think about your lifestyle, and which changes you might make to it in order to save energy and lower your negative impact on the environment. If you're German, the book "Welt retten für Einsteiger" and its associated website may provide a starting point for you. (A hint - try thinking quantitatively about how much good the various suggestions in there would do, and give "sustainability" the preference over "lifestyle". That is, if you're wondering whether you should devote your time to better thermally insulating your house, or to picking the most eco-friendly wine, go for the first option.) Also, spread the word, and become a multiplier by talking to friends, family and colleagues, and help reaching a critical mass of people who are aware of the problems at hand. Finally, if you happen to be endowed with a good dose of entrepreneurial spirit and starting capital, why not kick off a company that specializes in eco-friendly goods and services? Companies are important actors in our world and have possibilities that private individuals and even governments don't have. So, why not do some good with them? (The restriction here being, of course, that with a company you have to be profitable, and what's ecologically sensible doesn't necessarily have to be profitable [yet]).
On the top-down side, unless you happen to be in a position of power, your influence will necessarily be more indirect. The point I want to make is that if you think politicians aren't doing enough, you don't have to sit in silence and complain that "they up there do what they want anyway", but that democracy gives you the right to participate. You can write to your Member of Parliament / House of Representatives / Bundestag /whatever. If he doesn't read your letter personally, someone of his staff will, and, if your point is good, hopefully pass your concern on. (By the way, a neat way to ask questions to members of Bundestag in public is offered by the website www.abgeordnetenwatch.de ). You can join a political party, if you find one that accomodates your views and beliefs. You can participate in the public discussion by writing a letter to your favourite newspaper. And, last but not least, in an election year like 2009 is for Germany, you can cast your vote. Find out the political parties' positions on the topics that concern you, and make sustainability a key factor in your voting decision.
Most importantly, however: get started. I've tried to indicate a few possibilities; whatever you end up doing, the most important thing is to do the first step. Even if you're starting small, it'll be better than nothing. If you have made it reading up to here, then now is the time to make the first step of you own.
If you do, then there's hope.
Sonntag, 11. Januar 2009
Next week, the German government wants to spend another 50 billion € for measures to boost the economy. The main question is: on what? Unfortunately, the best idea most politicians seem to have at the moment are small tax cuts, shuffling around some percentage points or fractions thereof here and there. Now it's questionable in the first place if people will really spend the additional money or just save it - and if they do spend it, if it will be on anything sensible (in the context we're looking at here). Wouldn't it make much more sense to invest in renewable energies and efficient electricity networks, public transportation and better thermal insulation and heating for buildings? Unfortunately, few people seem to be thinking in that direction. A few, such as former minister for the environment Klaus Töpfer, or the green party's Cem Özdemir, are finally beginning to voice such opinions in public. But their voices aren't nearly loud enough yet.
Why is that? Maybe because such investments wouldn't benefit the classical "big players" like car makers or banks, but rather newer industry sectors like renewable energies. The point is that this effect is actually desirable. We need to make a transition towards a "greener" economy, and what better time can there be than now? Maybe part of the issue is that solving the energy problem is extremely important, but not equally urgent. We can keep going for a couple of years in more or less the same way without anything really bad happening. The real trouble is still a number of decades away. The current problems of the "classical" industries, on the other hand, dwindle in comparison to our future energy problems, but they are more urgent, and a louder lobby is shouting for remedies to them. And politics seems to be listening mostly to the urgent shouters, not those with the gravest problems.
What is getting lost is the notion that by the time the important energy problems have gotten urgent, too, it may be too late. In fact, the oil age is a unique chance for the human race - with the energy contained in oil and the like, major progress and growth has been possible (hey, we even sent people to the moon - try doing that with wind energy!). But we need to take care that we have moved on to a sustainable lifestyle once fossils run out if we want to maintain that wealth. If the government billions are now being spent without considering this, the money is, in that sense, wasted.
Before we move on to see if anything can be done about this, for the German readers here's the link to an article by Ralf Fücks of the Heinrich Böll Foundation that expresses these points pretty well. And in case that link gets broken at some point, here comes the most important part of it:
"Wenn es richtig ist, dass drei zentrale Herausforderungen unserer Zeit darin bestehen, den Klimawandel in tolerierbaren Grenzen zu halten, die Ressourcenbasis für eine rasch wachsende Weltbevölkerung zu sichern und zugleich den gegenläufigen demographischen Trend in Europa zu bewältigen, dann müssen die Milliardenprogramme, die jetzt aufgelegt werden, diesen Aufgaben gerecht werden. Kredite zur Erhaltung des status quo sind herausgeworfenes Geld.
Worum es geht, ist die Finanzierung des allfälligen Umbaus von Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Wir müssen die Krise nutzen, um [...] die Fundamente für eine "grüne industrielle Revolution" zu legen. Investitionen in Bildung und Wissenschaft sowie in Ressourceneffizienz, erneuerbare Energien und umweltfreundliche Technologien sind das Gebot der Stunde. Wenn die Europäische Union jetzt unter dem Druck der Wirtschaftskrise ihre klimapolitischen Ziele verwässert, verfehlt sie die zentrale Herausforderung: die Hunderte von Milliarden Euro, die gegenwärtig in Europa für Konjunkturprogramme mobilisiert werden, für strukturelle Innovationen zu nutzen.
Am Beispiel der Autoindustrie heißt das: keine bloßen Erhaltungssubventionen, mit denen Produktionslinien am Leben gehalten werden, die weder ökologisch noch ökonomisch zukunftsfähig sind. Wenn Firmen wie Opel mit Staatsgeldern über Wasser gehalten werden sollen, dann müssen damit Auflagen verbunden werden, die auf eine Konversion der Autoindustrie zielen: leichtere Fahrzeuge und umweltverträgliche Antriebstechniken mit drastisch verringerten Schadstoffemissionen.
Die Gelegenheiten für einen großen Sprung nach vorn liegen auf der Straße:
- Ein großangelegtes Förderprogramm für die Wärmedämmung von Altbauten und den Einbau energieeffizienter Heizungen
- Verbesserte Abschreibungsmöglichkeiten für Investitionen in umweltfreundliche Prozesse und Technologien
- Bereitstellung von Wagniskapital und staatlichen Bürgschaften für innovative Unternehmensgründungen
- Aufstockung der Forschungs- und Entwicklungsprogramme von Bund und Ländern
- Ausbau eines leistungsfähigen europäischen Stromnetzes, das es erlaubt, Windenergie von den Küsten mit Solarstrom aus dem Süden und Biomasse-Strom aus den weiten landwirtschaftlichen Flächen in Mittel-Osteuropa zu verknüpfen
- Höhere Bundeszuschüsse für die Modernisierung des öffentlichen Nah- und Regionalverkehrs
- Befreiung des schienengebundenen Verkehrs von der Mehrwertsteuer
- Ausbau des gesamteuropäischen Bahnnetzes zur Verlagerung des Gütertransports von der Straße auf die Schiene
Es ist vielfach gesagt worden, dass die aktuelle Krise eine Dimension angenommen hat, die nur einmal in jeder Generation vorkommt. Das mag zutreffen. Zugleich eröffnen die außerordentlichen finanziellen Anstrengungen, die jetzt unternommen werden, eine einmalige Gelegenheit, um die Weichen Richtung Zukunft zu stellen. Wenn wir sie nutzen, kann aus der Krise etwas Gutes entstehen.
Dienstag, 6. Januar 2009
This post is the first step: re-iterate what the issue is, and why it is an issue. At the heart of the problem is energy. We need it for everything we do - mobility, heating our houses, growing our food, producing and transporting whatever you can buy in the supermarket, you name it. This energy can come from different sources. Some of them are "renewable" - most of them in the end stemming from the fact that the sun is sending us energy in the form of photons, and will continue doing so for a few billion years (before it eventually blows up and destroys the Earth, but that's a different story). Others are not "renewable" - namely, burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas, or coal. Why they are not renewable is clear: it took millions of years to produce them, and we're using them up in a matter of, maybe, two centuries. When you burn something, it's gone. The problem now is: the biggest part by far of our energy consumption currently comes from non-renewable sources (we'll be quantifying that a bit in a later post). And they're bound to run out.
Surprisingly (at least to someone my age), none of these insights are really new. Here's some basic vocabulary: The Club of Rome is a think tank that published a report called "The Limits to Growth" which contains all those ideas. That was in 1972. In fact, it's pretty natural to assume that populations and economies on a finite planet with finite resources (oil, metal ores, clean environment) can't keep growing unlimitedly. With that in mind, it's odd to observe what a "holy grail" economic growth has become in our political debate. (I'll admit that I know little about economic theories which deal with that, and I'm hoping to learn more here. But at least I find incessant growth hard to imagine.)
Another idea, that of Peak Oil - that oil production from an individual source, but also the Earth as a whole, will peak and eventually decline again, goes back to work that M.King Hubbert started in the 1950s. Interestingly, when oil prices soared in 2008, my personal perception was that hardly anyone bothered mentioning this, while the public debate in Germany was full of speculation about the role of the financial markets, calls for tax cuts, and demands to increase production...
Now the question is when we're going to run out of the resources we're still so dependent on, and as always, predictions vary. But it looks like like the question is how many decades, certainly not centuries, it will be until (as it is sometimes so aptly described) "the shit hits the fan". Chances are that I'll live to see it happen. (And even if you're not worried for your own sake, you should be for your children's - if you have any.) I'm not so optimistic about human nature that I'm convinced everything will happen peacefully at that point. If you need something, and there's not enough for everyone, people tend to fight over it. If it's children in a sandbox quarreling over a shovel, that's one thing. When it comes to nations and resources, it's another - we all know what the most powerful/horrible weapons invented by mankind are capable of.
All this should be enough to state that we have a problem. But if it's not enough for you yet, here's another piece of the puzzle that I haven't even mentioned yet: climate change. I'm consciously saying "climate change" rather than "global warming": as always, there's scientific controversy. When you walk out of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth", you're pretty convinced that it's happening. But then at some point people throw statements by sceptical scientists at you until you, not being an expert yourself, are not really sure any more what is genuine controversy and what is targeted disinformation by one lobby group or another. So if you don't have the time to do a Ph.D. in climatology yourself, all you're left with is once again your common sense, and mine tells me this: It's plausible that we're changing the chemical composition of our atmosphere by burning fossils and thus creating more CO2. And it's plausible that a changed composition of the atmosphere can change the climate, be it in the form of global warming or whatever else may happen in such a complex system. At any rate, I'd rather not enjoy the optimistic interpretation that there is no problem, only to find out in 50 years that Gore was right.
So here's my cloud of thoughts around the issues I think we need to face. Stay tuned for articles on why I don't currently see that happening to a satisfactory extent, and whan can possibly be done about it.
Sonntag, 4. Januar 2009
Now, I wanted to know moure about the source of that claim - in particular, where that number of 1 billion comes from. Hanson links to this page for reference: http://www.paulchefurka.ca/Population.html (By the way, the whole website http://www.paulchefurka.ca/ seems interesting - but that's a different story, I haven't had the time yet myself to take a closer look at it). Now when you go through that text, you'll find that it just observes a correlation between the population "explosion" on Earth and the onset of the "Oil Age" around the year 1900, and concludes that the number of people the Earth can support without oil is the number of people back then, somewhat more than 1 billion. Now, we know that correlation doesn't mean causality - just because more and more people started populating this planet around the time the wide-spread use of oil began, it doesn't necessarily mean that the latter development caused the former. (For example, there is no mention of the role of advances in medicine like the use of antibiotics.) And even if that were the case, it wouldn't mean that world population was already at it's possible maximum before the advent of oil. So, the good news is that the number of 1 billion is questionable, to say the least. It's not much more than an assumption.
What do we learn from this? Firstly, stay critical. Don't just believe things you read, try to get to the source of statements and see if they're plausible. Secondly, however, even if the concrete number doesn't turn out to be true, the underlying concepts of "carrying capacity" and "overshoot" that are explained on Paul Chefurka's page are worth keeping in mind. It is plausible that our finite planet can only feed a limited number of people. It is possible that the use of non-sustainable resources and techniques can increase the planet's carrying capacity for a limited amount of time. (Regardless of the question if our food industry is sustainable or not, people who have seen the movie "We feed the world" - I haven't, yet - tell me that you don't really want your food to be produced that way.) And it is thus possible that an "overshoot" occurs, which might end badly once the point comes when that "artificial" increase of carrying capacity can't be sustained any more. The question is if there are more scientific studies of these issues out there, which might give a more unbiased picture of where we stand, and if, given the current and projected world population, we already have a problem or not. If anyone reading this is knowledgeable with regard to that question, I'd be interested to learn more.
(As a small aside, ironically in Germany we have problems with a declining population that brings our old-age pension system into trouble because fewer young people have to pay for more old people's pensions. Which is why the younger people - me included - now have to save some money for their own retirement, and are looking for profitable ways to invest that money. If you want to see some strange effects that come from loads of money looking for ways to be invested profitably, go see the movie "Let's make money". If you're thinking about adding some alternative investments to your portfolio, maybe giving microcredits to people in developing countries or investing in companies listed in a "green" index such as the German NAI may be worth taking into consideration.)
Alright, now I admit this stuff isn't easy to digest, so let me promise that this is as pessimistic as we're going to get; in posts to come we'll be having a look at more matter-of-factual sources of information, and at possible ways to try and prevent the dark picture of the future that Hanson paints from coming true. Consider these pages as a starting point to broaden the horizon on possible views of the world and our future, as a potential worst-case scenario that explains why it's important to think about questions of sustainability.
Samstag, 3. Januar 2009
welcome to my brand-new blog on sustainability-related issues! Thank you for the patience to have a look at my humble thoughts on our economy and lifestyle, the scarcity of natural resources and energy, the climate, and the like.
This is my first attempt at blogging. Most blogs are about people's private lives, and I've never felt the need to share mine with the world in this way. Therefore, it's worth taking a minute to note what got me started on this little project in the end.
It all began during my Christmas vacation in 2008 when I had some idle time for thinking and reading. The backdrop: two major crises on a global scale, namely climate change (or at least the debate about it), and the recession caused by the financial crisis that came after the bursting of the American real estate bubble. The German government and media were debating about measures such as dishing out "consumption vouchers" to the population or investing in highway construction in order to boost the economy.
In that situation, I read some comments on the internet about whether there aren't more sensible ways to spend public money, ways that would address the actual major problems that we're bound to face in the future. One comment had a link to a pretty pessimistic website that got me thinking. I may talk a bit more about it at a later point; for now just a very brief synopsis of the main theses presented on that site. The general idea goes like this:
"Our society and economy are heavily dependent on natural resources, most notably oil, which we're going to run out of in the not-too-distant future. When that happens, our planet won't be able to support its population any more, there'll be wars about the last remaining resources, and many people will die. 'Renewable' energies won't be enough to fix the problem. Human nature and psychology are constructed in such a way that it'll be very hard to change this development."
Now of course there's a lot more variables to the equation than that, and, as a wise man once said, "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future". Nevertheless, even the possibility that these predictions might come true is serious enough to be frightening and to command one's attention.
So, as I was wondering how worried I should be, and if there was anything I could do about it, I talked to a friend who asked me, "why don't you start a blog about it?". And here it is. So if you're asking, "why this blog?", its purpose is twofold: firstly, for my self, to try and order my thoughts a bit, and doing at least a little something by thinking out loud rather than to myself. And secondly, to act as a multiplier: If I manage to get some relevant thoughts or bits of information out to people that weren't previously aware of them, that already goes a long way. I think these issues are important enough to debate them in public, and important enough to get me started with blogging in the end.
As I am German, and some of the information in this blog may be relevant only for Germany, you may ask yourself why I'm writing in English. The reason is simply that the problems we're talking about are global, thus most of what I'm writing should be relevant beyond national boundaries, and I don't want to exclude anyone who might be interested by writing in a language that significantly fewer people understand than English.
If you know me personally, you'll know that I'm no eco-fundamentalist - I'm a regular guy who takes the plane to go on vacation and heats his apartment like anyone else. But I'm worried whether we can go on living the way we do without eventually destroying our own basis of living. So I think it's necessary to think these thoughts, even if they may be inconvenient.
An important disclaimer for now and the rest of this blog: I am no expert on most of the issues at hand. I have a university degree in physics, so when we're talking about energy, I have an understanding of what's possible and what isn't, but I'm no expert on economics, the climate, and the like. What I can offer is my common sense - it's up to you to critically reflect on what I'm writing and make up your own mind.
Finally, I'm hoping for some feedback from you. If you're interested in something I'm writing about (or should be writing about, in your opinion), let me know. If you have additional information, comments, or thoughts of your own, contribute them. If you find factual or reasoning errors, make me aware of them. With this blog being started during vacation, chances are that it'll lose momentum once work life with its demands on my time kicks back in. But with your contribution, I'm hoping to sustain it for some time.
All the best,