Carbon

What is Driving Climate Change?

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on January 31, 2016

WHAT IS DRIVING CLIMATE CHANGE?

coal-pollution1   OR IS IT   heat-earth 

OR IS IT BOTH?

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A few weeks ago I got taken to task by a long time Diner (JD) for my position on the underlying cause for Climate Change, which resurfaced again with the launch of our new series on Diner YouTube, Weather Gone Wild .  The dispute is over what the primary driver for Climate Change is, whether it comes from Anthropogenic Causation driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions, or whether there are Geotectonic Forces at work that are driving the climate change?

denialThat Climate Change is not in fact underway is only denied by the most recalcitrant of Denialists, although there are still a significant number of them.  However, currently most Amerikans do accept that climate change is underway.

According to a Study by Yale University:

  • There has been an increase in the proportion of Americans who believe global warming is not happening (23%, up 7 percentage points since April 2013).
  • But about two in three Americans (63%) believe global warming is happening, a number that has been consistent since spring 2013.
  • The proportion of Americans who say they “don’t know” whether or not global warming is happening has dropped 6 points – from 20% to 14% – since spring of 2013.
  • About half of Americans (51%) say they are “somewhat” (38%) or “very worried” (15%) about global warming.
  • Fewer than half of Americans (38%) believe they personally will be harmed a “moderate amount” or a “great deal” by global warming.
  • By contrast, majorities believe that global warming will harm future generations of people (65%) and plant and animal species (65%).
  • About four in 10 say they feel “helpless” (43%), “disgusted” (42%), or “sad” (40%) when thinking about global warming.
  • By contrast, four in ten (42%), say they feel “hopeful” about the subject.

Miami-floodJust about everyone everywhere thse days is experiencing some kind of "Wacky Weather", Floods, Droughts, Snowstorms etc that don't fit the profile of what "normal" was 20 years ago.  They don't necessarily accept that their lifestyles are the cause of this though, and even if they do they are generally unwilling or unable to stop burning fossil fuels.  If you spent the last 20 years paying on your mortgage on a McMansion 20 miles from where you work (assuming you still have a job), HTF do you stop burning fossil fuels?  No other practical way to heat the McMansion, there are not enough trees on your 1/4 acre plot of land to do that, for more than a year anyhow.  No other practical way to get to work, since there is generally no Public Transportation from the typical subdivision into the typical work centers.  At best, you still need the car to do the Last Mile to the local Light Rail station, but this assumes that your job at the other end is ALSO within a mile of another Light Rail station.  Often not the case since many jobs are in Biz Parks that are themselves set up far from the central metro area a light rail system might serve.

pack_of_harvestersAlso close to impossible is to stop buying the products of industrialization, from the clothes you wear to the food you eat.  To provide these items to a population of 7.2B people with the current infrastructure requires burning tons of fossil fuels, not to mention their use as fertilizers and in fibers like Nylon, Polyester and Rayon.  Just about no piece of woven clothing nowadays does not have these fibers in the mix.  "All Wool" or "All Cotton' is pretty hard to come by, and quite pricy if you can find it.  So it's quite difficult to step off the fossil fuel economy no matter what you think is the primary driver for Climate Change.

Once you grasp this fact of life, precisely what is the Primary Driver here is not really that important, because in either case we can expect that Climate Change will continue unabated, and in fact probably accelerate moving forward here.  The issue JD brought up is that by presenting another possible driver for climate change, this will make it less possible to encourage people to "change their ways", burn less fossil fuels and stop pitching so much CO2 up into the atmosphere.  That may or may not be true, but it's not a reason to stop investigating the problem and trying to ferret out what is really occurring here.

By pitching out the Geotectonic Ocean Heat Transfer theory, I am calling into question "received wisdom" from the Climate Science community, which is firmly entrenched in the idea that Climate Change is entirely anthropogenic in nature.  WTF am I to offer up alternate hypothesis here?  I'm no James Hansen of course.  I'm just a curious guy with a decent science education looking at the problem from my own perspective.  Anyone is free to debate my conclusions here on the Diner, but as of yet nobody has taken up the challenge.  Not Jim Hansen, not Guy McPherson, nobody.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f0/Tin_foil_hat_2.pngThe other problem of course with flying in the face of conventional wisdom is that you get labelled as a "Tin Foiler".  Particularly if you start to speculate on causation, which is pretty much entirely unprovable.  I figure though that Copernicus was probably considered "Tin Foil" in his time, and Giordano Bruno was DEFINITELY considered Tin Foil, in fact he got Burned at the Stake for hs beliefs.

http://www.quotesdata.com/Giordano_Bruno_quotes.jpgSo, I soldier on here, hopefully not to get Burned at the Stake (even just metaphorically) because I present an alternative hypothesis for the primary driver for Climate Change.

At this point though, I do want to REINFORCE that although I believe there are Geotectonic forces at work here, the burning of fossil fuels and ejecting gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere also has a significant effect, and if we expect to keep this from completely spinning out of control, it is imperative to put a LID on carbon emissions.  This is not so easy to do of course, considering our entire industrial culture is based on burning as much as we can, as fast as we can.

In both the cases of Geotectonic Causation and Anthropogenic Causation, we are faced with Wicked Problems.  In the case of Geotectonics, there is no technology available whatsoever to keep Earthquakes from going off or Volcanoes from blowing, despite what some HAARP conspiracy theorists might argue.  In the case of Anthropogenic Causation, there is simply no way to get 1 Billion cars off the road and 1000s of coal fired electric plants offline globally on a voluntary basis.  Too much of the infrastructure we have already built to support 7.2 Billion people depend on the transportation and the electric power to run the lights, sewage treatment plants, water pumping stations etc.  there is no single Planetary Goobermint that can dictate this by fiat, and even if there was it would probably be deposed if they tried.

On the Upside here as far as Anthropogenic causation is concerned, we WILL stop burning copious quantities of fossil fuels, but not because of a voluntary choice to do so.  We'll stop because it is no longer economically feasible to continue to run the system on ever increasing levels of debt.  We already see the slowdown occurring here as places like Europe drop precipitously in oil consumption

https://www.ethz.ch/en/news-and-events/eth-news/news/2014/09/oil-energy-realities-for-western-europe-part-3-outlook-2030/_jcr_content/news_content/fullwidthimage_0/image.imageformat.lightbox.129094543.png

and considering the implosion of the Chinese markets over the last week, they won't be far behind here either.  Already their Steel and Concrete plants are shutting down and their credit fueled Bubble is going the way of the dinosaur.  So we can look forward to a day when fossil fuel burning is a fraction of what it is today, and probably in the not too distant future also.

There is however a lag time, and even with a rapid shutdown of the fossil fuel industry and reduced burning of FFs, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and AGT will continue to rise for the next 40 years, just on this effect alone.  If it is true that there is a Geotectonic component to the rise in AGT, then that is baked in the cake for so long as there continue to be elevated frequency and amplitude of global earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

So under jst about any plausible scenario for the next 50 years, we will see elevating AGT, unless there is some Negative Feedback Loop that we are as yet unaware of that slows, stops or reverses it.  In terms of doing something about this, beyond cutting back as much as possible on burning fossil fuels there really is not much else that can be done.  I certainly am not in favor of Geoengineering solutions, given the track record of Homo Sap in terms of applying technological solutions, you're bound to get Blowback that's even worse than the original problem.  Creating ever more complex solutions tends to require still more complex solutions later in a never ending upward spiral, all requiring more and more energy to implement.  Energy is precisely what we don't have to continue such a process any longer.

What we should be doing is two-fold:

1- Attemp to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels in a controlled descent from a high per capita energy consumption society.  An immediate cessation of burning fossil fuels would kill off more people faster and be worse for the environment than a controlled descent.  The wars which would result and the disease that would spread will be more catastrophic sooner than the oceans can rise to inundate all the coastal cities.

2- Begin preparing for life in a world with a higher AGT regime.  Other mammals have survived during global thermal maxima periods much warmer than 2C above current baseline.  I see no reason in principle Homo Sap cannot survive this also, although clearly not in the numbers currently walking the Earth.

For those of you who wish to take me to task for this article, please first review the accompanying vid which should answer many questions and I won't have to repeat myself.  There is a comprehensive slide show presentation and explanation of the Geotectonic problems we are faced with acompanying the explanation, which I render in Academuc Style worthy of a lecture at Cambridge or Harvard. OK, maybe not.  lol. In any event, it should answer many of the questions that have been put to me over the years since publishing the original Geotectonic Ocean Heat Transfer article.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paris: Le Overture

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Publishes on the Peak Surfer on November 29, 2015

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"The ‘guard rail’ concept, which implies a warming limit that guarantees full protection from dangerous anthropogenic interference, no longer works. What is called for is a consideration of societally acceptable risk."
 

Today we are in Paris, site of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of Parties (COP21). We have been reporting from these conferences for this blog since early 2008, with the run-up to COP19 in Copenhagen. Each time there has been much ado about the potential for transformative action and each time, by the end of the two weeks, it turns into just adieu and see you next year.

The past three conferences in particular (Doha 2012, Warsaw 2013, Lima 2014) were really just treading water, trying to iron out differences enough to proceed to a formal, legally binding document to be adopted here in Paris this year, in 14 days time.

In 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, the UN member countries negotiated an international treaty to cooperatively consider what they could do to limit average global temperature increases and to cope with whatever other impacts of reckless fossil fuel use were, by then, inevitable. These annual conferences at the beginning of every December were intended to reach those decisions.

It took only three years for the COPs to recognize that the minor emission reductions they had imagined at first glance in the giddy Summit at Rio would be totally inadequate. So, they launched negotiations to strengthen the international response and, two years later, in 1997, adopted the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol legally bound overdeveloped countries to emission reduction targets while giving the underdeveloping countries a pass. This eventually caused a lot of friction, because many of the countries who got passes, China and India for instance, took that opportunity to build hundreds of coal-fired power plants and become the world's leading greenhouse gas polluters.

The US Head Negotiator, Todd Stern, told the Guardian:

“We have a situation where 60-65% of emissions come from developing countries. That’s a good thing. It means that developing countries are developing. But you cannot solve climate change on the back of the 35%.

A watershed moment for the negotiating process occurred in Copenhagen when the world was on the verge of enacting a binding treaty to replace Kyoto, with everyone included and sanctions for scoff-laws. At the last moment Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama swooped in and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, substituting a voluntary pledge system (Independent Nationally Determined Contributions, all non-binding) that only 5 countries were willing to sign, but it was enough to torpedo the treaty. In a recent Presidential campaign debate Ms. Clinton called it one of her great moments of leadership on the climate issue, which rescued the Copenhagen talks.

It is true there were differences of opinion about how close Copenhagen was to actually sealing the deal. “By the time [Obama arrived in Copenhagen] things had already unravelled and then had to be put back together,” according to Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications at the White House. Rhodes said that in Paris Obama's tactics would be different. “The goal here is to give a push with heads of state at the beginning of the process and then allow [Secretary of State John] Kerry and others to finalize the details.”

The old protocol’s first commitment period started in 2008 and ended in 2012. Despite the debacle in Copenhagen, most of the European countries hit their targets. Total emissions for all other overdeveloped countries rose by about 10 percent. China's rose about 10 percent per year and it is now the world's largest emitter. Canada was committed to cutting its greenhouse emissions to 6% below 1990 levels by 2012, but in 2009 emissions were 17% higher than in 1990 and the Harper government prioritized tar sand development in Alberta. Canada's emissions are now up 34% from baseline and Australia is in similar territory. In Doha at COP18, 36 UN member states agreed to extend Kyoto for another round, beginning in 2013 and running to 2020 but without the major polluters on board it is a feeble effort.

Kyoto is generally viewed as a limited success. Among the overdeveloped, France, the UK and Germany achieved reductions of 7, 15 and 19 percent. In any event, these reductions pale when compared to the impact of peat fires in Indonesia, deforestation in Brazil or methane releases in Siberia.

At COP16 in 2010, the rest of the world, recognizing that the United States had been allowed to hijack the Copenhagen meeting, put the UN multiparty process back on track with the Cancun Agreements. Fast start finance (a.k.a. dollar diplomacy) brought pledges from the US and Europe to mobilize through international institutions, approaching 30 billion dollars for the period 2010-2012. Funding for adaptation was allocated to the most vulnerable underdeveloping countries, such as small island States and equatorial Africa, but nobody really knows whether or when that money will show up.

At Paris the various governments are “invited” to provide information on their efforts to reduce emissions (calculated, for the underdeveloping, as reductions on theoretical maximum development burn – Business As Usual, or “BAU” – to more modest, “responsible,” but nonetheless increased burns) and to please let everyone know how soon and by what means the promised great wealth transfer will take place.

Nonetheless, by slow increments, the noose is gradually tightening around the neck of fossil fuel companies and their government backers. All governments re-committed in Durban to a comprehensive plan that would come closer over time to delivering the ultimate objective of the Convention: to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would “prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system” and at the same time preserve the rights of the 5 billion world poor to “sustainable development.” Let us set aside for a moment the incompatibility of those two goals as their terms are presently defined.

Durban made two very important adjustments to the Cancun Agreements. First, that COP said that science will trump politics and that if it should be proven, for instance, that 2 degrees is not a sufficient guard rail to prevent human civilization from veering over the cliff into dangerous climate change, the goal can adjusted. A scientific review process was established to monitor the goal and “to ensure that collective action is adequate to prevent the average global temperature rising beyond the agreed limit.”

Secondly, the Durban COP said very firmly that the 2015 COP in Paris would deliver “a new and universal greenhouse gas reduction protocol, legal instrument or other outcome with legal force that would set requirements for the period beyond 2020.” This specification of a “legal instrument” or “legal force” was agreed to by the United States, China and the other key players right there in Durban with the whole world watching.

The likelihood Paris will produce a binding treaty was cast into doubt when the Financial Times interviewed US Secretary of State John Kerry a few weeks ago. Kerry told FT there were "not going to be legally binding reduction targets like Kyoto.”

French President Hollande immediately replied in the press that "if the agreement is not legally binding, there will be no agreement. We must give the Paris agreement, if there is one, a binding character in the sense that the commitments that are made must be kept and respected."

“This is not hot air. This is a real agreement, with real terms,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

Backpeddling under fire, a spokesperson for the US state department told The New York Times that while the FT article "may have been read to suggest that the US supports a completely nonbinding approach … that is not the case, and is not Secretary Kerry's position".
 

Holocene (blue) – Anthroocene (red)

COP18 in Doha was, as we said, the start of the Paris prelude. One significant bump was release of The World Bank's "Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided", showing that the world is on track towards a 4 degrees Celsius temperature rise, should the currently inadequate level of ambition remain. Doha responded to that challenge by triggering the Durban process to review the long-term temperature goal. They set up a Structured Expert Dialog – 70 wise men – that was to start in 2013 and conclude by 2015.

COP19 in Warsaw moved us a little closer. The rulebook for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) was agreed, together with measures to bolster forest preservation and a results-based payment system to promote forest protection. Overdeveloped countries met the target capitalization of $100 million for the Adaptation Fund, which can now fund priority projects. Governments established the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage to address losses and damages associated with long-term climate change impacts in countries that are especially vulnerable to such impacts.

COP20 in Lima was more of the same, more agenda-setting for the run-up to Paris and the signing of a formal treaty. It came close to faltering over the issue of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” (the distinction between the expected pledges from overdeveloped and underdeveloping Parties). At COP 17 in Durban in 2011, countries agreed that the post-2020 actions to be negotiated in Paris would be “applicable to all.” Alton Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists observed:

The differentiation issue nearly blocked the final decision in Lima, where the stakes were actually quite small. In Paris next year, the stakes will be quite high: nothing less than the shape of the climate regime for the next several decades. It will not be possible to paper over sharp differences on this issue with artful language that different groupings can interpret in a way favorable to their position, as happened in the last hours of Lima.


The anticipated report of the meeting of the 70 wise men, the Structured Expert Dialog or “SED,” was issued in February 2015 and reviewed by government delegates at the pre-COP meeting in Bonn in June. This is a very important 180-page document and bears spending some time to read.

The document divides the dialog into three parts: Theme 1 – the adequacy of the long-term global goal
 in the light of the ultimate objective; Theme 2 – overall progress made towards achieving the long-term global goal; Theme 3 — consideration of strengthening the long-term global goal.

It starts off addressing whether temperature is an adequate warning gauge for climate change:

Message 1: A long term global goal defined by a temperature limit serves its purpose well… Adding other limits to the long-term global goal, such as sea level rise or ocean acidification, only reinforces the basic finding emerging from the analysis of the temperature limit, namely that we need to take urgent and strong action to reduce GHG emissions.


That is followed by this rather disturbing chart:

On the Y axis or axis of ordinates is temperature change in degrees C. To the left of the vertical axis line is a set of brightly colored bar graphs representing corresponding risks of each degree of warming.

Things to note:

  1.  Two degrees is far from safe. It represents “dangerous interference with climate systems” to quote the Framework Convention.
  2.  At 1.5 degrees there is a high degree of likelihood we will lose unique and threatened systems and experience extreme weather events. (Note, the risk of extreme weather at today's 1-degree elevation is considered moderate). At 2 degrees these move into the deep red and the distribution of impacts becomes high, meaning almost no-one escapes.

On the X axis or axis of abscissas, are the cumulative total emissions of CO2 since 1870. Right now we have taken about 2500 GtCO2 out of the ground, resulting in a net atmospheric concentration of 400 ppm. The chart reports that we could probably go to 4000 GtCO2 and 580 ppm before we exceed the 2 degree limit. This is dangerous nonsense and one is left scratching one's head at how this could have been decided. It guarantees resumption of that food fight between India, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil and others about how many “parking spaces” in that big parking lot in the sky remain for “sustainable development” (read: still to be constructed coal plants).

Here is a short run-down of the other messages of the Structured Expert Dialog:

On Theme One:

  • Limiting global warming to below 2 °C necessitates a radical transition (deep decarbonization now and going forward), not merely a fine tuning of current trends.
  • Risks will be increasingly unevenly distributed; responses need to be made by each location.
  • The ‘guard rail’ concept, which implies a warming limit that guarantees full protection from dangerous anthropogenic interference, no longer works. What is called for is a consideration of societally acceptable risk.
  • At 4 degrees effects are non-linear; more than double 2 degrees. The catch potential of fisheries would be greatly reduced and crop production would be beyond adaptation in many areas. Sea level rise would far exceed 1 m.


On Theme Two:

  • We know how to measure progress on mitigation but not on adaptation.
  • The world is not on track to achieve the long-term global goal, but successful mitigation policies are known and must be scaled up urgently.
  • Under present economic regimes, spending on ‘brown’ technologies will continue to grow faster than spending on green technologies. 
  • Scaling up means putting a price on carbon and promoting low-carbon technologies, so that their share becomes dominant.


On Theme Three:

  • The ‘guard rail’ concept, in which up to 2 °C of warming is considered safe, is inadequate and would therefore be better seen as an upper limit, a defense line that needs to be stringently defended, while less warming would be preferable. 
  • Limiting global warming to below 2 °C is still feasible and will bring about many co-benefits, but poses substantial technological, economic and institutional challenges.
  • Parties may wish to take a precautionary route by aiming for limiting global warming as far below 2 °C as possible, discarding the notion of a guardrail but thinking more of a defense line or even a buffer zone.

We shall return to these themes in our next post. Tomorrow is the Summit's opening day. Those interested can follow us in real time on Twitter: @peaksurfer.

What killed the Dinosaurs?

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on July 8, 2015

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(hint: probably not what you used to think)

 
In Walt Disney's movie "Fantasia" (1940), dinosaurs were shown as dying in a hot and dry world, full of active volcanoes. Recent discoveries show that something like that might really have happened and that the idea that the dinosaurs were killed by an asteroidal impact appears to be incompatible with the available data. Rather, it seems that the dinosaurs died out because of the global warming resulting from the emission of large amounts of greenhouse gases from volcanoes. In several respects, it is not unlike what's happening today to us.

Discuss this article at the Geological & Cosmological Events Table inside the Diner


I know what you are thinking: these silly scientists; first they tell us that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs, now they tell us that it is not true. So, how can we believe them when they tell us that humans are causing global warming? 

On this, I have to tell you something: science is a mighty truth-seeking juggernaut. Yes, individual scientists are not immune from mistakes, political biases, and human failures, but, on the whole, science manages to filter away bad ideas and keep the good ones. The case of the extinction of the dinosaurs is a beautiful example of how well the mechanism works.

As you will read in the article below, the non avian dinosaurs, it seems, went away not with an asteroidal bang, but with a volcanic whisper. They were killed over several tens of thousands of years by the global warming created by the emission of gases from the giant basaltic eruption known as the "Deccan Traps", today located on the Indian subcontinent. To be sure, the discussion is far from being settled and many scientists still favor the impact theory (e.g. Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink in their recent book "A new history of life"). Personally, I am no specialist in these matters but, if I did my homework well (and I think I did), my impression is that the data overwhelmingly favor the volcanic hypothesis over the asteroidal one.

So, no asteroid killer? If that's the case, how could science make such a mistake? The answer is that there was no "mistake". There was just the gradual build-up of data and models that led to a better and better understanding of the mechanisms of mass extinctions in the earth's past and of the specific events that led to the so-called "K/T" mass extinction that involved the demise of the non-avian dinosaurs. So, it is true that there was a large asteroidal impact occurring approximately at the K/T boundary. But whether this was the actual cause of the mass extinction always remained a hypothesis. It was only the spectacular character of this hypothesis that led it to become so popular with the general public. But popularity in the media is not the same as scientific certainty and, after decades of work, science is gradually arriving at a consensus on this matter, just as it has arrived to a consensus on climate change. Science, unlike politics and fashion, doesn't go in cycles, it moves forward.

 

The real causes of the extinction of the dinosaurs

by Aldo Piombino

Aldo Piombino is an independent researcher collaborating with the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of Florence. 

It is widely accepted by the public opinion and by many scientists that the Dinosaurs went extinct because of a meteorite impact that occurred along the Southern Mexico coasts, along the coast of the Yucatan peninsula.

Well, this is not true. The “Impactists,” those who propose the impact theory, have been successful for a while in having a stronger voice than their opponents. But, in March 2013 a meeting at the Natural History Museum in London, (acts are published in the Geological Society of America Special publication n. 505) left no doubts: the killer of the dinosaurs was not the Yucatan impact, but the gases and other volatiles that came from the Deccan Traps activity, in which some hundreds of thousands of cubic kilometers of magma were produced in a few tens of thousands of years.

There is multiple proof that the Earth system has seen similar conditions causing mass extinctions well before the dramatic K/T event that killed the non-avian dinosaurs. A similar volcanic activity occurred (and it is blamed for) the mass extinction events of the late Devonian, the end Permian, end Triassic, end Cenomanian, end Paleocene, and others. From the end of the Devonian period, all the main boundaries of the Earth chronology correspond to similar volcanic activities, termed "large igneous provinces" (LIPs).

The first scientific ideas about the dinosaur extinction in the '30s were that they were wiped out because of a sudden warming of the Earth. This is well exposed in “Fantasia”, one of the masterpieces in the Walt Disney's production, in which we see great reptiles dying in a dry word, surrounded by a warm haze. In the 50's someone blamed a meteorite for the extinction: the cosmic fall would have triggered a sudden and violent atmospheric warming.

Global warming remained the best explanation since 1980, when the Berkeley team of Louis Alvarez found that all the K/T section known at that time (Gubbio in Italy, Stevns Klimt in Denmark and Woodside Creek in New Zealand, showed an anomalous spike in the Iridium content (5). So they proposed that a chondritic meteorite crashed on the Earth, triggering a long winter, a sort of “nuclear winter”. The Iridium, contained in the celestial body, had been released in the air and deposited on the ground and on the sea surface. This idea became immediately popular and scientists that didn't agree with the idea of the extraterrestrial origin of K/T event had troubles in having their voices being heard.

The 80's saw many scientists searching of the impact crater which was finally found in 1991, along the Yucatan coasts. The dimensions of the crater coincided with the hypothesis declared by the Berkeley team of a body with a 10 km diameter and the age of the collision was Late Cretaceous. But a few years later, Upper Maastrichtian sediments were found on top of the impact ejecta, thus refuting a precise K/T age of the event.

At the same time, scientists found that all the main extinction events, such as the End Permian and End Triassic extinctions, were simultaneous with the emplacement of huge basaltic series: the flood basalts, Large Igneous Provinces, and that the same activity occurred also at the K/T boudary (the large igneous province known as the Deccan Traps). Today, there are no doubts that the K/T extinction has been triggered by the gas emissions from the Deccan Traps. Recent studies of the palaeomagnetic declination registered in the lavas demonstrate that the emplacement of the second, and larger, phase of the activity lasted few tens of thousand years and not hundreds of thousands as it was supposed earlier on (1). The main elements that favor volcanic emissions as the cause of the mass extinction are the following

1. The Maastrichtian climatic evolution is clearly in tune with the pulses of the volcanic activity: the biotic crisis begun well before K/T and the impact occurred well after the beginning of the crisis.

2. According to the impact hypothesis, the K/T event has been a cold, dark moment because of the powders derived from the impact and of the fires ignited worldwide by hot ejecta. This cannot be true, because, instead, there exists compelling evidence that the last 50.000 years of the Cretaceous saw a sudden warming, triggered by the enormous CO2 emissions from Deccan traps; thus, it was not a cooling phase. It is true that, after the impact (between 150.000 and 100.000 years before the Mesozoic Era end) there was been a cooler stage, but this is an ordinary event in mass extinction dynamics, when they are triggered by huge volcanism, since they are always accompanied by strong sea level variation. In particular, the final stage is normally a marine transgression following a cooler period characterized by a huge sea level drop. These sea level drops are mainly triggered by the arrival of volcanic volatiles of the Large Igneous Province  in the stratosphere, thus enveloping the entire Earth and preventing much of the solar rays to arrive in the lower atmosphere. So, the K/T was mainly characterized by a warm climate because of the high levels of atmospheric greenhouse gas.

3. The sudden extinction in microfossils such as Planktonic Foraminifera is reported where an upper Maastrichtian hiatus is not seen: the low sea level in the upper Maastrichtian before the latest 50.000 years of the stage in many areas (and above all in the Caribbean) resulted in a temporary stop of the sedimentation. Stratigraphic sections where marine sedimentation continued without a hiatus show a very gradual extinction pattern. This scenario fits very well with the volcanic trigger, like the other mass extinctions do, and does not fit with a punctual event like a meteorite impact.

4. The sea water acidity clearly originated by the high CO2 amount coming from the Deccan traps and the acidification began well before the impact. After the K/T acidity crisis, the system saw a partial recovery, but it was interrupted in early Danian, synchronous with a new, later, spike of volcanic activity in India. It is impossible that the asteroidal impact, alone, could have generated such a high amount of this gas; simply because it broke up rocks of the carbonate platform of Yucatan and, above all, the CO2 increase begun well before the impact

5. No one can say whether the dinosaurs were wiped off in a long or in a short time (3), but we must note that the youngest dinosaur fossils or footprints are almost 450.000 years older than K/T and now it is not known if this is due to a lack of fossils or if they became extinct well before the K/T.

6. The Iridium anomaly is probably best explained as the result of the Deccan volcanoes, generated by aerosol diffusion: similar anomalies occur in the volatiles of Kilauea and in Antarctica (2). These forms of volcanism are typical of intraplate volcanism. And, also, volatiles coming from the intraplate Piton de la Fournaise volcano, located over the mantle plume that originated Deccan Traps long ago, show the anomaly (4). Moreover the anomaly found by the Berkeley team in Gubbio begun well before the K/T boundary and vanishes for a long time interval before the final increase (5). How can Iridium came from the impact if his anomaly begins well before the event?

7. The microspherules that were found in the K/T sediments, for example in Denmark and in New Zealand, are of sedimentary origin and they are not the alteration of tektites coming from the impact. Moreover, also the occurrence of fullerenes doesn't necessarily imply fires triggered by the impact worldwide: charcoals are widespread in all upper Cretaceous sediments because of the occurrence of wildfires triggered by high levels of atmospheric Oxygen. The diffusion of the wildfires is one of the causes of the decline of Conifers and of the Angiosperm diffusion. During the latest Cretaceous period, wildfires increased at the highest level because of the worldwide warm and dry climate; these changes were triggered by volcanic emissions

8. Those who propose the impact theory say that a 3 meters thick level along the coast of the gulf of Mexico was deposited by the Tsunami triggered by the meteorite crash. This cannot be true: the level shows many hiatuses (demonstrated also by the occurrence of paleosoils showing bioturbation structures) and it has sedimented for a long time, some tens of hundreds years: it is the result of sedimentation during the low standing sea level before the earliest Maastrichtian transgression

9. Smectites are very common at the K/T boundary. They do not represent the alteration of the impact tektites, they show a huge volcanic signature and they have originated from Deccan traps. It's interesting that the smectite amount increases, replacing illite deposits, in 3 time intervals that are coeval with the 3 main phases of Deccan activity

10. It is evident that the epicenter of the geochemical and biotic crisis is placed in the indian region, as we can see in the Krishna – Godavari basin and in the Meghalaya area.

 

11. For the International Commission on Stratigraphy the K/T limit is defined if there is one of these characteristics: the Iridium spike, the extinction of all tipically Cretaceous planktonic foraminifera except the  Guembelitria Cretacea (a high acidity and low Oxygen resistant form), the occurrence of the first Danian foraminifera and a particular excursion of δ13C. The ejeta from the Yucatan crated are not considered as a diagnostic character for the K/T boundary, because the impact occurred some time before.

12. The δ13C excursion demonstrates a huge perturbation in the carbon cycle; it is diagnostic for a large igneous province and occurred in a similar way at the end of Permian and at the end of Triassic.

13. The 1783 eruption of the Laki volcano can be seen as a small scale simulation of what can happen during the emplacement of a many thousands cubic kilometers lava flow like the ones of a Large Igneous Province. With the Laki eruption, only 17 cubic kilometers of lavas were produced, but the eruption saw the highest registered mortality level in a century and a dry fog enveloped all Europe with widespread damage to agriculture.

In conclusion, the Deccan Traps fit better than meteorites as the trigger of the K/T event for all the geochemical, sedimentary and micropaleontological characteristics.

References

(1) Chenet et al., (2009) Determination of rapid Deccan eruptions across the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary using paleomagnetic secular variation: 2. Constraints from analysis of eight new sections and synthesis for a 3500-m-thick composite section. Journal of Geophysical Research, vol 114, no. B6, B06103, pp. 1-38., 0.1029/2008JB005644
(2) Archibald J.D., (2014), What the dinosaur record says about extinction scenarios. Geological Society of America Special Papers 505, 213–224
(3) Olmez et al., (1986), Iridium emissions from Kilauea Volcano. Journal of Geophysical Research – Solid Earth 91/B1, 653–663
(4) Toutain & Meyer (1989) Iridium‐bearing sublimates at a hot‐spot volcano (Piton De La Fournaise, Indian Ocean), Geophys. Res. Lett.16(12), 1391-1394
(5) Alvarez et al., 1980, Extraterrestrial causes for the Cretaceous – Tertiary extinction K/T Experimental results and theoretical interpretation. Science 268, 1095–1108

Detailing the Causes of Overshoot

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Limits on June 26, 2015

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The causes of overshoot finally explained in detail

– The more I cut, the more the GdP goes up.

– I say: jobs, not branches!!

 – I can't stop cutting, but I can capture sawdust and sequester it into the tree hollow.

 – Do you really believe in this story of 'gravity'? I am not convinced at all.

 – Such a small cut in this big branch, why should I be worried?

– I am not a woodsman, but I can say that, if this branch was supposed to fall, why do we see so many branches, up there?

– I have been cutting this branch for quite a while and nothing has happened. Why should anything happen?

– Branches fall all the time; it is a natural phenomenon.

– It is just an engineering problem. They'll find something to keep the branch up.

– If we stop cutting. it will cost us more than the hospital bill for the fractures caused by the fall.

Can a Seneca Collapse Save us from Climate Change?

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on April 20, 2015

The “Seneca Cliff” (or “Seneca Collapse“). The ancient Roman philosopher said “The path of increase is slow, but the road to ruin is rapid.” A “Seneca Collapse” of the world’s economy would surely reduce the chances of a climate disaster, but it would be a major disaster in itself and it might not even be enough.  
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Nothing we do (or try to do) seems to be able to stop carbon dioxide from accumulating in the atmosphere. And, as a consequence, nothing seems to be able to stop climate change. With the situation getting worse and worse (see here for an example), we are hoping that some kind of international agreement can be reached to limit emissions. But, after many attempts and many failures, can we really expect that next time – miraculously – we could succeed?

Another line of thought, instead, has that depletion will save us. After all, if we run out of oil (and of fossil fuels in general) then we’ll have to stop emitting greenhouse gases. Won’t that solve the problem? In principle, yes, but is it going to happen?

The gist of the debate on fossil fuel depletion is that, despite the theoretically abundant resources, the production rate is strongly affected by economic factors. These factors force the production curve to follow a “bell shaped”, or “Hubbert,” curve that peaks and starts declining much before the resource runs out physically. In practice, most studies that take into account the “peaking” phenomenon arrive to the conclusion that the IPCC scenarios are often overestimating the amount of fossil carbon that can be burned (see a recent review by Hook et al.). From this, some have arrived to the optimistic conclusion that peak oil will save us from climate change (see this post of mine). But that’s way too simplistic.

The problem with climate change is not that temperatures will keep smoothly growing from now until the end of the century. The problem is that we will run into big troubles much earlier if we let temperatures rise over a certain limit. Sea level rise, oceanic acidification, and land desertification are just some of the problems, but a worse one could be the “climate tipping point.” That is, over a certain point, the rise in temperatures would start to be driven by a series of feedback effects within the ecosystem and climate change would become unstoppable.

We don’t know where the climate tipping point could be situated, but there exists a general agreement that we should keep temperatures from rising above 2 deg. C to avoid a catastrophe. From the 2009 paper by Meinshausen et al. we can estimate that, from now on, we should not release more than about 1×10+12 t of CO2 in the atmosphere. Considering that we have released so far some 1.3×10+12 t of CO2 (source: global carbon project), the total should not be more than about 2.3×10+12 t of CO2.

So, what can we expect in terms of total emissions considering a “peaking” scenario? Let me show you some data from Jean Laherrere, who has been among the first to propose the concept of “peak oil.”

In this figure, made in 2012, Laherrere lists the quantities of fuels burned, with a “U” (“ultimate”) measured in Tboe (Terabarrels of oil equivalent, see below for the conversion factors used). As a first approximation, if all the emissions were from crude oil, we would emit some 4.5×10+12 t of CO2. Things change little if we separate the contributions of the three fossil fuels. Crude oil, alone, would produce 1.3×10+12 t of CO2.  Coal would produce 2.810+12 t, and natural gas 0.95×10+12 t. The final result is nearly exactly 5×10+12 t of CO2.

In short, even if we follow a “peaking” trajectory in the production of fossil fuels, we are going to emit around twice as much carbon dioxide as what is considered at present to be the”safe” limit.

Of course, there are plenty of uncertainties in these calculations and the tipping point may be farther away than estimated. But it could also be closer. And we should take into account the problem of the increasing CO2 emissions per unit of energy as we progressively move toward dirtier and less efficient fuels. So, we are really toying with disaster, with a good chance to run straight into a climate catastrophe.

Nevertheless, it may also be that Laherrere was optimistic in his estimate. Indeed, the nearly symmetric “bell shaped” or (“Hubbert”) curve is the result of the assumption that extraction is performed in a fully  functioning economy. But, once the economic system starts unraveling, a series of destructive feedbacks accelerates the decline. This is the “Seneca collapse” that generates an asymmetric production curve (the “Seneca cliff”).

Could the Seneca cliff save us? At least, it would considerably reduce the amount of fossil carbon burned. Tentatively, if the collapse were to start within the next 10 years and it were to cut off more than half of the potential coal production, then, we could remain within the safe limit. Whereas Hubbert can’t save the ecosystem, Seneca could (maybe).

But, even if that came to pass, a Seneca collapse is a major disaster in itself for humankind, so there is little to rejoice at the thought that it could save us from runaway climate change. In practice, the only hope to avoid disaster lies in taking a more active role in substituting fossils with renewables. In this way, we can force the production of fossil fuels to go down faster, but without losing the energy supply we need. It is possible – it is a big effort, but we can do it if we are willing to try (see this paper by Sgouridis, Bardi and Csala for a quantitative estimate of the effort needed)
____________________________________

Unit conversion

One Boe of crude oil = 0.43 t CO2 (http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-resources/refs.html)

One Boe of coal = 0.53 t CO2 (calculation from https://www.unitjuggler.com/convert-energy-from-Btu-to-boe.html?val=1000000 and from http://www.epa.gov/cpd/pdf/brochure.pdf

One Boe of natural gas: 0.31 t CO2 (calculation from https://www.unitjuggler.com/convert-energy-from-Btu-to-boe.html?val=1000000 and from http://www.epa.gov/cpd/pdf/brochure.pdf

The ultimate limits to carbon burning: an order of magnitude calculation

Off the keybard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on April 14, 2015

limits-to-growth

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Total amount of fossil carbon on the Earth, from Vanderbroucke and Largeau (1)

During the past few years, the development of “shale gas” and “shale oil” in the US, generated a wave of optimism that spread widely in the mediasphere. It was common to hear of “a century of abundance” or even of “centuries” provided by these new sources. However, with the recent collapse of the oil market, these claims seem to have gone the same way as those of the sightings of the Loch Ness monster. But there remains a point to be made: what is exactly the limit to what we can burn? Could we really keep burning for centuries? Or, maybe, even for millennia or more?

Let’s see if we can make a calculation, at least in terms of order of magnitudes. The first question is how much fossil carbon do we have on this planet. The total is reported to be about 1.5×10+16 t (metric tons), mainly in the form of kerogen, a product of the decomposition of organic matter which is a precursor to the formation of fossil fuels (gas, oil, and coal) (2) .

It looks like a lot of carbon, especially if we compare this number with the amount we are burning nowadays. The data reported by CDIAC (Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center) report 9.2×10+9 t of carbon transformed into CO2 as the result of fossil fuel burning (gas+oil+coal) in 2013. As an order of magnitude estimate, at this rate, we could go on burning for more than a million years before truly running out of fossil carbon.

But, obviously, that’s not possible. Simply, there is not enough oxygen in the atmosphere to burn all the existing fossil carbon. The total amount of free oxygen is estimated to be about 1.2×10+15 t or 3.7×10+19 mol O2⁠ (a “mole” is a unit used in chemistry to compare the amount of reactants in chemical reactions). One mole of molecular oxygen will react with exactly one mole of carbon to form carbon dioxide and, since 1.5×10+16 t of carbon correspond 1.25×10 +21 mol, there follows that we cannot possibly burn more than about 1% of the existing fossil carbon. Instead of a million years, we are down to about 10,000 years.

Of course, then, burning that 1% of carbon would mean to use up all the oxygen of the atmosphere and that would be bad for us, no matter how much we need fossil fuels. In practice, we can’t use up more than a few percent of the atmospheric oxygen; otherwise the effect on human health and on the whole ecosphere would be likely disastrous. Let’s say that we are willing to bet that a 5% loss is still safe, even though nobody could be sure about that. It means that we only have 500 years or so to keep on burning before we start feeling symptoms of suffocation. But the story doesn’t end here.

So far, we have been reasoning in terms of the total amount of fossil carbon as if it were all burnable, but is it? Kerogen, the main component of this carbon, can be combined with oxygen producing a certain amount of heat (3) but it can hardly be considered as a fuel, because it would be very expensive to extract and the net energy yield would be modest or even negative. In 1997, Rogner (4) carried out an extensive survey of the carbon resources potentially usable as fuel. At page 149 of this link, we can find an aggregate estimate of 9.8×10+11 t of carbon as “reserves” and up to 5.5×10+12 t of “resources”, the latter defined as not economically exploitable at the current prices. “Additional occurrences” are reported to a possible amount of 1.5×10+13 t of carbon, but that is a rather wild estimation. If we limit ourselves to proven reserves, we see that at the present rate of about 1×10+10 t/year we would have about a century of carbon to go.

We are not finished, yet. We now need to consider how much carbon we can combine with oxygen before the increased greenhouse effect caused by the resulting carbon dioxide generates irreversible changes in the Earth’s climate. The “tipping point” of the climate catastrophe is often estimated as that corresponding to a temperature increase of 2 deg C and, in order not to exceed it, we should not release more than about 10+12 t of CO2 in the atmosphere. That corresponds to 3.7×10+11 t of carbon (5). This is about one third of Rogner’s global reserve estimate. So, at this point, we don’t have a century any more, but only about three-four decades (and note that the estimation of what we can burn and still avoid catastrophe may have been optimistic. See also here for a more detailed estimate that takes into account different kinds of fuels).

You see how misleading it can be to list carbon resources as if they were soldiers lined up for battle. Not everything that exists inside the Earth’s crust can be extracted and burned and we can’t afford to extract and burn everything that could be extracted without wrecking the atmosphere. Taking into account the various factors involved, we went down from more than a million years of supply to just a few decades.

But, of course, calculating the number of remaining years at constant production rates is also misleading. In practice, fuel production rates have never been constant over history; rather, the production tends to follow a “bell shaped” curve that peaks and then declines. Today, we may be close to the peak (See e.g. here). Will the impending decline save us from catastrophic climate change? At present, we cannot say; too many are the uncertainties involved in these estimates. What we can say is that we are not facing centuries of abundance, but a decline which might even very rapid, considering the possibility of a “Seneca collapse.”

In short, the age of fossil fuels is ending. It is time to take note of that and move to something else.

____________________

(1) M. Vandenbroucke, C.     Largeau, Kerogen origin, evolution and structure, Organic Geochemistry, Volume 38, Issue 5, May 2007, Pages 719-833, ISSN , http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.orggeochem.2007.01.001.

2. Falkowski, P., R.J. Scholes, E. Boyle, J. Canadell, D. Canfield, J. Elser, N. Gruber, et al. 2000. “The Global Carbon Cycle: A Test of Our Knowledge of Earth as a System.” Science 290 (5490) (October 13): 291–296. doi:10.1126/science.290.5490.291. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/290/5490/291.abstract.

(3) Muehlbauer, Michael J., and Alan K. Burnham. 1984. “Heat of Combustion of Green River Oil Shale.” Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Process Design and Development 23 (2) (April): 234–236. doi:10.1021/i200025a007. http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/i200025a007.

(4) Rogner, H-H. 1997. “AN ASSESSMENT OF WORLD HYDROCARBON RESOURCES.”
Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 22 (1) (November 28): 217–262. doi:10.1146/annurev.energy.22.1.217. http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.energy.22.1.217?journalCode=energy.2.

(5) IPCC. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Degrowth

Off the keyboard of Brian Davey

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Published on December 18, 2014 on FEASTA

Degrowth_Panel

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Degrowth – A Vocabulary for a New Era: Review

Degrowth. A Vocabulary for a New Era, just published by Routledge, is quite a slim volume of 220 pages and 51 short chapters.

Before anything else it seems important to say that there are lots of chapters in this book that I think are quite excellent as short pithy descriptions of the key concepts of degrowth. If in this review I have not mentioned many of these chapters it is usually because I have no quarrel with the choice of the word or phrase, the way that is elucidated, the way that it is related to the other words and combined with a short reading list. An attempt has been made by the editors and by the individual authors to relate the words in the vocabulary together so that they are not isolated chapters about stand alone ideas. This puts the idea of “Degrowth” on the intellectual map as a wide ranging discourse, a movement of thinkers about the future of society that needs to be taken seriously…and yet….

…because it is supposed to be a “vocabulary” of degrowth my inclination has been to try to get an idea of which words and concepts relating to degrowth the authors consider to be important enough to be given explanatory chapters, and then to compare this choice of concepts with the vocabularies used by other analysts. Do the words that have been chosen for inclusion cover the constellation of concepts which match the range and types of degrowth ideas that there are and the degrowth idea as I have understood it?

In fact there is only a partial overlap with my own ideas. In this review I will try to explain some of the differences.

No chapter on climate change

http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/01/140122_FT_Degrowth.png.CROP.original-original.pngOn this first point the most striking absence is that there is no specific chapter for climate change. Although climate change is mentioned throughout there is no chapter for the topic as such.

In their introduction to the book the editors write that one of the “foundational degrowth claims” is “the inevitability of disastrous climate change if growth is to continue”. One would think that, if this is such a central issue, it requires proper elucidation. Perhaps the editors thought people would already know about climate change and there was no need to cover it. However this is not really what I am getting at. I am not stating a case for a thumbnail sketch of elementary climate science; I am arguing for an exploration of how the climate crisis contextualises the way one perceives degrowth. For example, given the policy failure of the growth enthusiasts to mitigate climate change at the rate and scale required is “degrowth” now, in any case, too late? If degrowth ideas are not too late, then how much time is left to implement them? Exactly how desperate is the situation that the degrowth agenda is supposed to address? A related question is “how quickly must degrowth proceed, how deep must it be and how could it possibly be delivered?”

It is now widely recognised by people involved in climate politics that only with a level of CO2 in the atmosphere of under 350 parts per million, perhaps much less, will the planet be safe from runaway climate change. Since the actual level of CO2 in the atmosphere is nearly 396 parts per million we are already well on the way to a catastrophe in the absence of emergency action. I have always assumed that a core rationale for degrowth was to be found here.

Degrowth could be driven by climate policy

http://blogs.worldwatch.org/sustainableprosperity/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/degrowthVsGrowth-Desazkundea.jpgNot only that – in my own vision for degrowth, and I guess for others associated with Feasta, degrowth would actually be ‘driven’ by an adequate climate policy. Many chapters in this book draw attention to the role of energy as central to the metabolism of the economy. Most of that energy is currently derived from fossil fuels so if there is a mechanism to screw down the available fossil energy entering the economy it should be possible to force an amount of degrowth on the economy appropriate to averting catastrophe.

To use an metaphor – we need a climate policy regime that is akin to the process of turning down the tap through which carbon fuels enter the economy until no more carbon energy is available to be burned. Were the political will there, and the general political support for degrowth, this would be easy to administer. One would simply require all companies that extract fossil fuel to have permits for the tonnage of carbon in the fuel that they extract before they are allowed to sell this tonnage. Some agency would limit the tonnage of carbon permitted out of the ground each year and would only make available for sale a rapidly reducing number of permits. The money that the fossil fuel companies paid to buy the permits would be distributed on an equitable basis to the general population. That’s called “cap and share” and if I had edited a book on degrowth then ‘cap and share’ and/or similar climate policies would have a chapter as the driver of any voluntary degrowth process.

Voluntary and involuntary degrowth

I write “voluntary degrowth process” because there is an argument that I think ought to have been explored in this book that degrowth will mainly be an involuntary process. Let me try and explain what I see as being the difference.

http://clubfordegrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/450px-Degrowth_strategies.jpgBy “voluntary degrowth” I mean a vision for the future that is promoted because it is regarded as preferable to a growth economy. It is preferable, for example, because it encompasses a number of proposals for change that get no attention in the growth economy where more output is seen as the solution for all problems. An example would be Ivan Illiich’s tools for conviviality – creating the kind of tools that would make possible “space for relationships, recognition, pleasure and generally living well, and thereby, reducing the dependence on an industrial and consumerist system” as Marco Deriu explains in his chapter. Thus what I might term “voluntary degrowth” is a mainly French idea that is sometimes termed “décroissance conviviale”, a cultural and social critique of society – an alternative “imaginary” of how society might be.

By “involuntary degrowth” I mean a view of the future that the production economy will contract anyway, whether we like it or not, perhaps in a chaotic fashion, perhaps through collapse, so that the task of the degrowth movement is to prepare for, and ameliorate, that contraction as best as we can. It is not so much communities and societies making a choice against growth – but communities finding means to cope with difficulties that they will inevitably face when the economy contracts anyway. For example the Transition Movement (that is barely mentioned in this book) has had an idea that “energy descent” is going to happen in the near future and that it is an urgent task to prepare communities so that they will be able to cope.

Now in trying to cope with this process that people like me think will happen anyway the Transition Movement have had a strong idea of making the most of the situation. They have wanted to “make a virtue out of necessity” and to look for the silver linings around the storm clouds. There is the suggestion that people might be surprised to find that the quality of life might actually be better. The Transition Movement thus works towards the revival of community, relationships and different kinds of creativity too. The kinds of projects advocated for – like urban gardening – are the same as for décroissance conviviale. However, the starting point is not a choice for a different kind of society compared with the growth economy – so much as making the best of what will happen in the difficult conditions associated with future contraction.

To my mind it is a weakness of this book that it does not draw out and emphasise these distinctions enough. In fact different kinds of future are possible. Thus we can consider the possibility that involuntary degrowth happens (in the sense of a contraction of material production) but not quickly enough to reduce carbon emissions at an adequate pace. In this situation cap and share to drive a faster pace of emissions reduction – and a process of voluntary degrowth of material production would still be needed to speed up the involuntary contraction.

Reducing the allowable extraction of fossil fuels in order to leave most fuels in the ground would degrow the economy. However, on its own this is unlikely to be enough to avert runaway climate change. That’s because CO2 is already over the limit and any more will add to the danger. So a lot of CO2 will have to be taken out of the atmosphere. This is another urgent future task. However, any draw-down of CO2 will probably only be possible, if at all, by extensive land reclamation and re-vegetation, locking up the CO2 in biomass – using ecological design methods (like permaculture). In my view draw-down or sequestration ought to be another idea with a chapter. It isn’t. There is no consideration of enhancing carbon sinks.

http://www.barcelona.degrowth.org/uploads/media/maclurcan.jpg

Overshoot and collapse – some more missing words

https://panosz.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/degrowth.jpgOf course academics at the University of Barcelona, who have played a leading role bringing this book together cannot be expected to know everything but the failure to address these urgent practical issues is serious. Or that is my point of view anyway. We need to remind ourselves that the original authors of the 1972 Club of Rome sponsored study “Limits to Growth” worked with a model in which growth could continue for some time beyond the carrying capacity of the planet in a phase that they termed “overshoot”. Overshoot was analogous to living beyond ones personal means by running down the family savings or running up debts. It can be thought of as a delay in adaptation to ecological realities which would mean that eventual adjustment, when it comes, will be that much more of a shock. An overshoot that goes on too long eventually leads to collapse – a chaotic reduction in complexity likely to involve a great deal of insecurity. You can think of collapse as involuntary degrowth and it is much more serious than stagnation, recession or even depression. That’s because it is a much longer and irreversible process of transformation in humanity’s relationship with the planet likely to be associated with rising death rates and falling populations. Unfortunately words like “overshoot”, “collapse” or “involuntary degrowth” are not part of the vocabulary either. To my perception this “vocabulary” lacks a continuity with the “Limits to Growth” thinkers of 1972. It is a southern European and French choice of words even though the book is written in English.

Many of the actions and policies that are proposed under the heading of “degrowth” might conceivably help in a collapse – but one feels that most of the authors in this book do not conceive their proposals for action as emergency measures. They are not being proposed as survival arrangements; they are still being proposed in an alternative paradigm in a future which is rather like the present. They are being framed on the assumption that “developed economies” are entering “a period of systemic stagnation” in which “an abandonment of growth will revive politics and nourish democracy, rather than animate catastrophic passions” as it says in the introduction. I find this framing to be rather too complacent.

Not all of the contributors share the same ideas. Christian Kerschner has written the chapter on peak oil (and other resource peaks). He thinks “Economic degrowth is no longer an option but a reality”. For him it is starting to happen involuntarily.

Another author not on the editors’ wavelength is Alevguel Sorman who has written the chapter on ‘Societal Metabolism’. Sorman concludes “ The biophysical view of social metabolism warns about the limitations of degrowth strategies based on voluntarily consuming fewer resources, less energy or less capital. These will not suffice on their own”. In particular Sorman warns against the assumptions of many thinkers that worksharing will enable a trade of income in exchange for more free time because “In a future scarce in energy we will have to work more, not less”.

There is also an indirect and partial consideration of collapse in a chapter by Serge Latouche titled the “Pedagogy of Disaster”. This is a discussion about whether future disasters will allow a sociopathic elite to exploit the vulnerability of shocked, disorientated and frightened people ( ‘disaster capitalism’) or whether the coming shocks will shake people free of their complacency so that they wake up in time to forestall an even worse future. Latouche concludes that both are possible, depending on context.

An version of degrowth flawed by optimism bias?

http://theoverthinker.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/lemmings.jpgOne way of summarising these points is to say that the editors have drawn together a mainly optimistic version of degrowth. It is not a view that I share. I find it is interesting to contrast the approach of the editors with the attitude of Dennis Meadows, a surviving member of the ‘Limits to Growth’ study of 1972. Meadows stopped believing that humanity would be able to adequately respond to the limits to growth crisis in the 1990s and feels that a collapse is now inevitable.

“In 1972 there were two possible options provided for going forward — overshoot or sustainable development. Despite myriad conferences and commissions on sustainable development since then, the world opted for overshoot. The two-leggeds hairless apes did what they always have done. They dominated and subdued Earth. Faced with unequivocable evidence of an approaching existential threat, they equivocated and then attempted to muddle through.

Global civilization will only be the first of many casualties of the climate the Mother Nature now has coming our way at a rate of change exceeding any comparable shift in the past 3 million years, save perhaps the meteors or super volcanoes that scattered our ancestors into barely enough breeding pairs to be able to revive. This change will be longer lived and more profound than many of those phenomena. We have fundamentally altered the nitrogen, carbon and potassium cycles of the planet. It may never go back to an ecosystem in which bipedal mammals with bicameral brains were possible. Or, not for millions of years”.

Graham Turner, an Australian academic has now done 30 and a 40 year follow-ups to see how the business as usual predictions of the 1972 ‘Limits to Growth’ computer model compare with what actually happened. He concludes that they are pretty much on target – and that the turning point will occur in 2015.

“With significant capital subsequently going into resource extraction, there is insufficient available to fully replace degrading capital within the industrial sector itself. Consequently, despite heightened industrial activity attempting to satisfy multiple demands from all sectors and the population, actual industrial output per capita begins to fall precipitously, from about 2015, while pollution from the industrial activity continues to grow. The reduction of inputs to agriculture from industry, combined with pollution impacts on agricultural land, leads to a fall in agricultural yields and food produced per capita. Similarly, services (e.g., health and education) are not maintained due to insufficient capital and inputs.

“Diminishing per capita supply of services and food cause a rise in the death rate from about 2020 (and somewhat lower rise in the birth rate, due to reduced birth control options). The global population therefore falls, at about half a billion per decade, starting at about 2030. Following the collapse, the output of the World3 model for the standard run shows that average living standards for the aggregate population (material wealth, food and services per capita) resemble those of the early 20th century.[1]

The distinction between voluntary and involuntary transitions matters. Without a transition that is at least partly involuntary it is highly unlikely that sufficient people will voluntarily adjust their lifestyles in the directions that degrowthers see as vital. At the same time what we are describing an unpleasant historical epoch in which death rates will be rising.

Risk aversion, prospect theory and the collapse of lifestyle packages

http://thetyee.cachefly.net/Life/2010/05/04/Degrowth.jpgIn order to understand the inertia in current systems and peoples reluctance to change their lives towards degrowth the work of Daniel Kahnemann is helpful.

Kahnemann’s “prospect theory” is another idea absent from this book. It shows that people organise their lives around ‘reference points’ and are very “risk averse” when it comes to retreating away from those reference points. A reference point might be something like the income level to which one has grown accustomed and therefore the amount that one spends in day to day life, the expenditure associated with a lifestyle that is more or less adjusted to the income. My interpretation of this is that a fall in income is not welcome not only because one has less but because the organisation, the management of life’s details, must be adjusted so as to create an adjusted expenditure pattern and this requires thought and attention. One spends less money but spends more time thinking about what one spends money on. This is unwelcome extra mental effort. For a significant change one must adjust a whole pattern of hourly, daily and weekly purchases with possible consequences for habitat, relationships, routine transport arrangements etc.

It is all very well to write, as the editors do in their epilogue, that scarcity is social, and that society can produce more than enough for our basic needs – but that does not address the main issue that people worry about when they manage their day to day lives. This is how to maintain their “lifestyle package” in sufficient balance so that their lives are not at risk of descending into chaos. Most individuals whose lives are in balance will be living in a set of circumstances where their income is more or less appropriate to match their habitat needs, which must match their relationships (accommodation suitable to living with their partner and dependents). These must match their job with its income – and with its time and travel commitments. These must match their job skills and domestic commitments. There is mental and emotional work involved in balancing one’s life and it is scary if it seems like unravelling.

The biggest fear is of a generalised life crisis in which all of these things unravel together. For example because they lose their job a person might find that they cannot service their debts (mortgage) or pay the rent and thus lose their accommodation. During the stress and practical chaos of this their relationships might break apart. During the last crash many ended up homeless living in tents or cars on their own. Many people also lost their minds – i.e. became totally disorientated, extremely emotional and unable to function.[2]

The practical projects as “lifeboat arrangements”

https://jaqastan.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/adeptes-de-la-decroissance1.jpgThe point about a generalised crisis is that large numbers of people could find themselves in situations like these – and thus need the urban farms, the food co-ops, the repair and maintenance workshops, the back to the land projects, the alternative currencies as “lifeboat” arrangements to keep them afloat. They will need these kind of projecsts to give them new social relationships and enable them to begin again, to regain confidence, to “recycle their lives”. It seems implausible to me that most people will join these projects and organise their lives around them as a choice of rejection of the growth economy – although some will. It is however not implausible that if and when the growth economy is breaking down that people will join these projects. (I have seen how valuable a community garden can be for people who have mental health problems.)

Until a generalised breakdown occurs most people will remain too tightly tied into the economic mainstream. When a breakdown does occur however the times will be very dangerous and the projects must be there ready to include and support people. This is because it is when all their options seem bad that people lose their risk aversion and are prepared to take gambles – like for example betting what little they have left or, in a more fundamental sense, gambling with their life by joining a criminal gang or an extremist movement.

Resilience – another missing word

The word to describe this set of issues is “resilience”. Unfortunately resilience is another missing concept in this book. Resilience is about how much stress an individual’s ‘lifestyle package’ or a community or a society can take and still function before it breaks down catastrophically. It is about the tipping points or thresholds within systems that reflect their levels of complexity and interdependence.

This ought to have been clear from the chapter by Sergio Ulgiati on “Entropy” which is about what role low entropy energy has in the maintenance of systems. The availability of low entropy energy in economic and social systems is not just in order to be able to produce enough “stuff”. The conversion of energy in “hub interdependencies” – in transport systems, transactions and financial systems, computer controlled production systems and global supply networks is used to maintain the continued functionality of an immensely complex set of organisational structures. If the energy is not there then the complexity degrades – systems cease to function – the organisation falls to bits.

The crucial issue here is how resilient are these interrelated structures to disruptions in hub interdependencies brought about by energy and resource supply shocks? Systems can cope with reductions in inputs of energy and other resources up to a point but beyond that point they may break down completely. When organisational arrangements break down altogether nothing at all may get produced because workers are unemployed, production systems stand idle, banks are bust, nothing moves. There would not be stone age levels of production but no production at all. Gar nicht. Rien du tout. Res en absolute.

Here’s a quote from a colleague in Feasta, David Korowicz, which reveals the issue at stake:

“In September 2000 truckers in the United Kingdom, angry at rising diesel duties, blockaded refineries and fuel distribution outlets. The petrol stations reliance on Just-In-Time re-supply meant the impact was rapid. Within 2 days of the blockade starting approximately half of the UK’s petrol stations had run out of fuel and supplies to industry and utilities had begun to be severely affected. The initial impact was on transport – people couldn’t get to work and businesses could not be re-supplied. This then began to have a systemic impact.

The protest finished after 5 days at which point: supermarkets had begun to empty of stock, large parts of the manufacturing sector were about to shut down, hospitals had begun to offer emergency only’ care; automatic cash machines could not be re-supplied and the postal service was severely affected. There was panic buying at supermarkets and petrol stations. It was estimated that after the first day an average 10% of national output was lost. Surprisingly, at the height of the disruption, commercial truck traffic on the UK road network was only 10-12% below average values.”[3]

It will be noted here that 10 to 12 % less commercial truck traffic and British society was about to fall to bits. It is easy to imagine particular kinds of emergency where the “life style package” of a lot of people would disintegrate.
Climate change, climate policy, overshoot, involuntary degrowth, collapse, risk aversion, inertia, resilience…here are a whole series of concepts and words that in my view ought to have appeared in the vocabulary but did not. As I said at the beginning of this review the constellation of concepts or the words in this vocabulary do not cover the issues to my point of view.

http://www.sustainabilitysc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/EconomicGrowthCartoon.jpg

A French book written in English?

The Degrowth book is a collection of 51 very short essays, almost all of which are by academic authors – 16 of whom are at the University of Barcelona. Although it is claimed to be the first comprehensive collection about degrowth in English it is very much a southern European academic view of what degrowth means. This is reflected in the choice of topics by the editors who have clearly been very influenced by thinkers on the French left. Thus, to my mind, many chapters sit uneasily alongside the chapters by some of the English and American authors some of whom have started from a different pre-analytical framework. I have no problem with a book whose authors start from different points but it places a particular responsibility on the editors to give the reader some orientation to the differences. It makes me wonder what the English and American authors have made of the parts of the book that they had no hand in writing.

In a footnote early in the book the editors explain why some words have not been translated into English:

“In this entry we leave the original titles in French, not only for reasons of language pluralism or practicality but also because many of the words involved sound more inspiring in French!”.[4]

My response to this is that it is not always practical not to translate. It is not practical for readers when it makes it more difficult for them to understand the meaning. Indeed if one does not understand what a word is supposed to mean then I for one don’t find that word inspiring. This is particularly the case with words that do not translate easily because they come out of a different intellectual tradition, background and patterns of thought.

An adjective used as a noun – “the imaginary”

http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/wp-content/uploads/polyp-org-uk-No-Economic-Growth-cartoon-e1298661998815.jpgThroughout the book many authors write out of a left wing French intellectual tradition about the “social imaginary”. The use of the adjective “imaginary” as a noun, as “the imaginary”, I have now learned has a long intellectual tradition in France. Novelists like Gide, philosophers like Sartre and Castoriadis and psychoanalysts like Lacan all used “L’Imaginaire” in different contexts. The idea seems to be that the words and symbols used in human communication, as well as in our thinking, do not necessarily match or correspond to actually existing realities.

The words and symbols that we use may have an invented component that corresponds to nothing ‘out there’ in the world. In fact the imagination is necessary to thought. Our ability to shape patterns of words, images and symbols in creative writing or painting is not merely an ability we have to create fictitious realities. The mind has to have this capacity to imagine if it is to be able to think at all. How else can a scientist theorise except by imagining what might be the explanatory causes for some phenomena? The imagination can later be tested and found to be true or false but the initial act of making a hypothesis is an ability to construct what might be, to imagine.

Furthermore it is through our ability to imagine the way in things might be otherwise arranged that our freedom to act in the world lies. Our imagination can create visions of how future social, economic and political realities might be constructed differently. We can use our imagination to invent things. This is why, according to Cornelius Castoriadis, history cannot be analysed in a determinist way. A significant role in the historical process originates from the creative imagination of people in societies. Thus, once we surrender to the idea that “there is no alternative” (e.g. to neo-liberal economics) we have not only got a failure of the imagination but have allowed our freedom to disappear. We are, to use the concept of one of the other chapters, relinquishing our autonomy – our ability to set rules and laws for ourselves in co-operative and hopefully convivial arrangements with other people. Hence the case made by Serge Latouche in this book for the need to “decolonise” our “imaginaries” from the ideas of market economics.

Unfortunately one meaning of “imaginary” in the English language is “existing only in the imagination”. (Oxford English Dictionary) That’s why I don’t personally like the adoption of “the imaginary” as a noun. It is too ambiguous. In the context it also reads like a word that has suddenly become fashionable among intellectuals.

I can imagine that I can raise a bag of ten apples one metre into the air with one joule of energy but that is “an imaginary” that only exists in my imagination. (An apple of an average weight takes one joule to raise one metre). While some imaginaries have some connection to reality, some imaginaries, on closer inspection, appear to be too-off-the wall and rather more in the nature of fantasies. Some imaginaries are nice to look at in a surrealist painting but non functional and some imaginaries are not only crazy but criminally insane and plain dangerous. As a matter of fact “economic growth” is a mainstream “social imaginary” that is collectively suicidal. Imaginaries have to have some connection to practical possibilities and actual developments in material reality and it’s important to note that current mainstream ‘economic imaginaries’ are delusionary.

Ecological economists have given a lot of thought to this issue by seeking to ground economics in energetics and physics. Cultural critique has to check its groundings otherwise it is waffle.

La depense sociale – what is it actually?

This brings me to one of the words that do appear in this book and one in particular that the editors seem particularly keen on – that word is “dépense”. This concept is discussed more than any other by the editors particularly in their epilogue where the authors break into French slogans in their last two sentences:

“Vive la décroissance conviviale. Pour la sobriete individuelle et la dépense sociale.”

With social dépense so clearly highlighted it is obviously important to understand it. If the idea is to be ‘operationalised’ we need to know how to recognise “dépense” when we see it. In fact I’ve been left feeling that I am unclear what it means.

Part of the problem for me with understanding ‘dépense’ is that it is another word coming out of the French tradition with which I have not been familiar. When the word “dépense” is left in French and not simply translated as “expenditure” then the reader is left assuming that it has a more complex meaning which I need to make some more effort into getting a grip on. My assumption is that I have no choice but to do extra work digging back into the history of that concept to try to capture all its connotations in the intellectual background in which it was created. In this book ideas are introduced in very small chapters that are no longer than 4 pages and that is not long enough to pick up all the nuances and assumptions of the tradition. For that reason I felt compelled to do additional google searches in order to try to understand “dépense”. I also searched around to find some more about George Bataille who originated the idea. It was on my bookshelf that I found the most useful succinct description of Bataille’s ideas in an old edition of the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy:

“For Bataille, much modern thought and many social and economic structures are modes of denial of the fundamental nature of being as a Dionysian process without stable identity or meaningful direction, an expenditure and squandering of force that is no more than its own end – compare the second law of thermodynamics….”

So this is a crucial idea for degrowth? Digging in other texts to try to understand what kind of idea this is, and what its author was about, I discovered not just an economic theory but a writer of surrealist texts, a particular angle on psychoanalysis and Marxism and a deeply disturbed and traumatised man. I write this at this point not to disqualify the dépense idea but only to point out that I am reluctant to embrace any concept with this amount of baggage before I have carefully examined it because there isn’t enough in the Degrowth book to get a grasp of the idea.

Unfortunately after a lot of work I am still not completely sure that I have understood what the word means. Nor am I sure that I have understood how the dépense chapter author, Onofrio Romano, and the editors want the word to be understood in the context of degrowth – because this is not necessarily identical to the way Bataille understood it. What follows is my attempt to convert the idea into a terminology that would make some sort of sense to me but I am not completely sure that I have got it right.

Underlying the motivational foundations for the ideology of growth is the mainstream economics idea of scarcity. If there can never be enough goods and services to meet human needs it seems to follow that the more we produce the better. Here is the simple case for growth. It would therefore be understandable if advocates of degrowth were drawn to Bataille who turned the scarcity idea on its head – the problem for the economy in his way of thinking is not how to deal with scarcity but how to deal with “excess”.

According Bataille that there is a “superabundance of energy” and more than enough to meet the basic material needs for organisms/humans. That part of work using energy to meet these basic needs which enable us to survive can be regarded as ‘servile’ serving and merely re-creating our animal existence. It is when we are deciding what to do with the surplus which is more than we need for very basic needs that we enter a realm of freedom where we are truly exercising our freedom in “forms of energy beyond the servile”.

For Romano, and for the editors here is a key concept that they want to put at the heart of “degrowth”. Scarcity, the editors assure us, “is social. Since the stone age we have had more than we need for a basic standard of living.”

The problem is that, instead of staying with our basic individual standards of living and democratically organising how we are going to “waste” the surplus together, for non servile purposes that develop our humanity, we have accumulated and invested the surplus in new technologies that expand production even more. We have thereby grown the capacity of “the economy” to produce ever more until it is threatening the eco-system. At the same time we have privatised and individualised the process of waste making of the surplus. “Given the individualisation of society, single individuals take on the burden of waste through small trade offs: from perverse sexuality to alcoholism, gambling and flashy consumption”. [5]

The alternative then is guaranteeing a modest living for all individuals and socialising “dépense”, the non productive use of society’s surplus.

This is a superficially attractive idea could perhaps alternatively be expressed like this. If we want to stop growing we must stop accumulating productive capital. (Creating more technical devices and infrastructures that convert energy while turning more throughputs into what eventually become larger waste streams). With a modest income most individuals would not have enough to save and any surplus would go to democratic institutions to dispense – though not on anything productive that would grow the economy. According to the editors:

“Our message to the frugal ecologists is that it is better to waste resources in gold decorations in a public building or drink them in a big feast, than put them to good use, accelerating even more the extraction of new resources and the degradation of the environment. It is the only way to escape Jevon’s Paradox. Accumulation drives growth, not waste. Even in a society of frugal subjects with a downscaled metabolism, there will still be a surplus that would have to be dispensed, if growth is not to be reactivated.”

I think that I get the main drift of the argument here but I am not absolutely sure I have understood it fully. This is partly because I am not sure that is meant by the word “energy” – is it the same energy that is actually becoming scarce because of peak oil or is there a looser use of the word? I am also not sure that I have understood partly because there is an implicit psychology under the analysis that I don’t get either. For example, Romano argues that “individualised dépense” does not happen on an adequate scale.

“A large amount of energy remains unused, it continues to circulate and to stress human beings. Lacking tools of deliberate and symbolic catastrophe (i.e. the ritual collective dépense) the inhabitants of growth societies begin to dream them and to desire a ‘real’ catastrophe.”

What is this supposed to mean? Is it supposed to be the same idea as “catharsis”? I don’t understand what this ‘energy’ is that is stressing people and how it is stressing them. However I have tried to guess at what the author means in a conceptual framework that makes sense to me so, once again, here goes with my attempted ‘translation’:

Is this trying to describe a situation where, while people have time on their hands and a wish to do things, they are stressed and frustrated because they don’t actually know what to do with their time and ‘energy’? Is this because they don’t have purposes to give structure and meaning to their lives and to use their personal ‘energy’ on (like the sacred)? Is this what frustrates them? Does it mean that they are frustrated because they have spare time on their hands and they are bored because they don’t have a meaningful “game” to play with their lives? Is this what it is supposed to mean? Does it mean that people need to be able to collectively express the negative feelings that arise out of their bored purposeless – feelings like anger and destructiveness? Does it mean that without collective rituals of destructiveness to which resources must be devoted that they will end up wishing for real catastrophes? Is this, for example, about angry young men (and women) needing rituals like football matches with punch-ups thrown in – because otherwise they will sign up to go and fight for causes and go to war?

What seems to be being said here is not only that dépense is a means to dissipate resources so that they are not accumulated economically but also that dépense has a function in the management of mass emotion. If I have got that right then what is being described here is what therapists call “catharsis” – the release, and therefore relief from, strong emotions which would otherwise be channelled into real destruction.

How do you administer the dépense idea? How do you operationalise it?

If I have understood these ideas correctly then what opens up for me is a huge number of questions. For example how is the social depense to be organised/administered? How is it to be decided, and by whom, what is an acceptable level of basic provision and what is to be destroyed as “excess”? How is “excess” to be identified and then “socialised” prior to its “waste” in a useless fashion? I suppose that by guaranteeing a basic income and a maximum income and then taxing all the rest away that one could say that that rest was “excess” but would the authors really want to spend this excess without any investment whatsoever? For example all buildings as well as other forms of public infrastructure would be depreciating as they always do – should provision be set aside to maintain their upkeep and replacement? “Growth” can happen because when equipment needs replacing and the replacements are “upgrades”. Where does that fit into dépense?

Further to that, what exactly is “dépense sociale”? On the last page the editors give a list of examples – collective feasts, Olympic Games, idle ecosystems, military expenditures and voyages to space and they refer to pressure on democratic and deliberative institutions choosing between these.

I will put aside at this point the question of what an “idle ecosystem” is and raise some other points instead. The implicit faith in the ability of “democratic and deliberative institutions” to be able to stand up to the military industrial complex and prevent it claiming the surplus surprises me. Given the pre-existing power structures it would be very surprising if the idea of individual sobriety and social depense did not to turn into the latest version of bread and circuses. The masses would have, at best, a very basic standard of living while the political elite would organise banquets in honour of the latest head of state, rope everyone into large scale theatrical events with everyone wearing a uniform and carrying torches while they listen to rants from their betters. Alternatively resources could be “wasted” in jolly festivals in which ‘civil people’ (who are obedient) are entertained while those who are disobedient and uncivil, and thus ‘obviously’ the cause of all the problems in society, are put in the centre of ampitheatres and torn apart by lions. This would be wonderfully effective in channelling and managing mass emotions and getting rid of the surplus too. Wouldn’t these qualify as social dépense? They appear to have done in the thinking of George Bataille for whom socialised dépense also included human sacrifices organised by the state in the Aztec empire.

http://image.slidesharecdn.com/happydegrowth1-140122071546-phpapp02/95/happy-degrowth-1-14-638.jpg?cb=1390396617

In conclusion

In conclusion, it seems important to me to know whether Degrowth is a voluntary or an involuntary process and to build that distinction into the vocabulary about it. If it is a voluntary process then certain things follow – like the need to know how it is going to be driven/motivated and administered, at what pace and in what manner, in order to respond to the climate crisis. It is also possible here that even if degrowth is involuntary, because of energy descent, that if it is not fast enough then, once again certain things follow from that about climate policy. As I have argued degrowth could be driven by climate policy by reducing the amount of fossil fuels allowed out of the ground.

To the extent that degrowth is an involuntary process then another set of issues arise – will the society and economy withstand the process without catastrophic breakdowns and what can the many kinds of projects and policies described in this book do to make energy descent a survivable process for the population? A great many people will be finding that their lifestyle packages are severely stressed and breaking apart and this will generate a great deal of fear and ‘negative’ emotions.

Notions like “dépense” are useful for drawing attention to fact that “surplus resources” can be ‘invested’ in things that have consequences for mass emotions and therefore for social stability or conflict. However, one must ask how much “surplus” or excess there will be on the way down given that energy descent is likely to take society through a variety of thresholds and tipping points and be an exceedingly bumpy ride. It is true that to “invest” resources in “capital accumulation” might in theory start the economy growing again – but only if new energy sources were found.

Growth is unlikely in a society where energy inputs are rapidly shrinking. Instead what is needed for the resources that are there is investment in the community level projects and activities which help people cope – an investment directly in the lifeboat projects as I have called them. There is a danger that the rather vague call for “socialised dépense” can be interpreted as a support for state centralisation of the remaining surplus – for the maintenance of remaining resources in the hands of the military, the state bureaucracy and privileged insiders whose claim to maintain “order” in difficult times is also buttressed by the use of resources to display their power and add theatrical embellishment to their authority. I don’t think this would be a very good idea…..

Read the response to this review by Giorgos Kallis, one of the book’s editors

Endnotes

[1] Turner, G. M. (2012). On the Cusp of Collapse. Updated Comparison of the Limits of Growth with historical data. GAIA 21/2 , 116-124.
[2] See my paper produced for Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, Paris, 18/19th April 2008 at http://events.it-sudparis.eu/degrowthconference/en/themes/ I did not attend this conference because, not being an academic, I could not afford to.
[3] http://www.feasta.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Catastrophic-shock-pandemic2.pdf
[4] footnote on page 5
[5] Onofrio Romano p 88

Featured image: community garden in Denver, Colorado. Author: emerson12. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2007_community_garden_DenverCO_787214962.jpg

Twelve Reasons Why Globalism is a Huge Problem

Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg

Published on Our Finite World on February 22, 2013

Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner

Globalization seems to be looked on as an unmitigated “good” by economists. Unfortunately, economists seem to be guided by their badly flawed models; they miss real-world problems. In particular, they miss the point that the world is finite. We don’t have infinite resources, or unlimited ability to handle excess pollution. So we are setting up a “solution” that is at best temporary.

Economists also tend to look at results too narrowly–from the point of view of a business that can expand, or a worker who has plenty of money, even though these users are not typical. In real life, the business are facing increased competition, and the worker may be laid off because of greater competition.

The following is a list of reasons why globalization is not living up to what was promised, and is, in fact, a very major problem.

1. Globalization uses up finite resources more quickly. As an example, China joined the world trade organization in December 2001. In 2002, its coal use began rising rapidly (Figure 1, below).

Figure 1. China's energy consumption by source, based on BP's Statistical Review of World Energy data. Figure 1. China’s energy consumption by source, based on BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy data.

In fact, there is also a huge increase in world coal consumption (Figure 2, below). India’s consumption is increasing as well, but from a smaller base.

Figure 2. World coal consumption based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World EnergyFigure 2. World coal consumption based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy

2. Globalization increases world carbon dioxide emissions. If the world burns its coal more quickly, and does not cut back on other fossil fuel use, carbon dioxide emissions increase. Figure 3 shows how carbon dioxide emissions have increased, relative to what might have been expected, based on the trend line for the years prior to when the Kyoto protocol was adopted in 1997.

Figure 3. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.Figure 3. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.

3. Globalization makes it virtually impossible for regulators in one country to foresee the worldwide implications of their actions. Actions which would seem to reduce emissions for an individual country may indirectly encourage world trade, ramp up manufacturing in coal-producing areas, and increase emissions over all. See my post Climate Change: Why Standard Fixes Don’t Work.

4. Globalization acts to increase world oil prices.

Figure 4. World oil supply and price, both based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Updates to 2012$ added based on EIA price and supply data and BLS CPI urban.Figure 4. World oil supply and price, both based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Updates to 2012$ added based on EIA price and supply data and BLS CPI urban.

The world has undergone two sets of oil price spikes. The first one, in the 1973 to 1983 period, occurred after US oil supply began to decline in 1970 (Figure 4, above and Figure 5 below).

Figure 5. US crude oil production, based on EIA data. 2012 data estimated based on partial year data. Tight oil split is author's estimate based on state distribution of oil supply increases.Figure 5. US crude oil production, based on EIA data. 2012 data estimated based on partial year data. Tight oil split is author’s estimate based on state distribution of oil supply increases.

After 1983, it was possible to bring oil prices back to the $30 to $40 barrel range (in 2012$), compared to the $20 barrel price (in 2012$) available prior to 1970. This was partly done partly by ramping up oil production in the North Sea, Alaska and Mexico (sources which were already known), and partly by reducing consumption. The reduction in consumption was accomplished by cutting back oil use for electricity, and by encouraging the use of more fuel-efficient cars.

Now, since 2005, we have high oil prices back, but we have a much worse problem. The reason the problem is worse now is partly because oil supply is not growing very much, due to limits we are reaching, and partly because demand is exploding due to globalization.

If we look at world oil supply, it is virtually flat. The United States and Canada together provide the slight increase in world oil supply that has occurred since 2005. Otherwise, supply has been flat since 2005 (Figure 6, below). What looks like a huge increase in US oil production in 2012 in Figure 5 looks much less impressive, when viewed in the context of world oil production in Figure 6.

Figure 6. World crude oil production based on EIA data. *2012 estimated based on data through October.Figure 6. World crude oil production based on EIA data. *2012 estimated based on data through October.

Part of our problem now is that with globalization, world oil demand is rising very rapidly. Chinese buyers purchased more cars in 2012 than did European buyers. Rapidly rising world demand, together with oil supply which is barely rising, pushes world prices upward. This time, there also is no possibility of a dip in world oil demand of the type that occurred in the early 1980s. Even if the West drops its oil consumption greatly, the East has sufficient pent-up demand that it will make use of any oil that is made available to the market.

Adding to our problem is the fact that we have already extracted most of the inexpensive to extract oil because the “easy” (and cheap) to extract oil was extracted first. Because of this, oil prices cannot decrease very much, without world supply dropping off. Instead, because of diminishing returns, needed price keeps ratcheting upward. The new “tight” oil that is acting to increase US supply is an example of expensive to produce oil–it can’t bring needed price relief.

5. Globalization transfers consumption of limited oil supply from developed countries to developing countries. If world oil supply isn’t growing by very much, and demand is growing rapidly in developing countries, oil to meet this rising demand must come from somewhere. The way this transfer takes place is through the mechanism of high oil prices. High oil prices are particularly a problem for major oil importing countries, such as the United States, many European countries, and Japan. Because oil is used in growing food and for commuting, a rise in oil price tends to lead to a cutback in discretionary spending, recession, and lower oil use in these countries. See my academic article, “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis,” available here or here.

Figure 7. World oil consumption in million metric tons, divided among three areas of the world.Figure 7. World oil consumption in million metric tons, divided among three areas of the world. (FSU is Former Soviet Union.)

Developing countries are better able to use higher-priced oil than developed countries. In some cases (particularly in oil-producing countries) subsidies play a role. In addition, the shift of manufacturing to less developed countries increases the number of workers who can afford a motorcycle or car. Job loss plays a role in the loss of oil consumption from developed countries–see my post, Why is US Oil Consumption Lower? Better Gasoline Mileage? The real issue isn’t better mileage; one major issue is loss of jobs.

6. Globalization transfers jobs from developed countries to less developed countries. Globalization levels the playing field, in a way that makes it hard for developed countries to compete. A country with a lower cost structure (lower wages and benefits for workers, more inexpensive coal in its energy mix, and more lenient rules on pollution) is able to out-compete a typical OECD country. In the United States, the percentage of US citizen with jobs started dropping about the time China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Figure 8. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non_Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census.  2012 is partial year estimate.Figure 8. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non_Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census. 2012 is partial year estimate.

7. Globalization transfers investment spending from developed countries to less developed countries. If an investor has a chance to choose between a country with a competitive advantage and a country with a competitive disadvantage, which will the investor choose? A shift in investment shouldn’t be too surprising.

In the US, domestic investment was fairly steady as a percentage of National Income until the mid-1980s (Figure 9). In recent years, it has dropped off and is now close to consumption of assets (similar to depreciation, but includes other removal from service). The assets in question include all types of capital assets, including government-owned assets (schools, roads), business owned assets (factories, stores), and individual homes. A similar pattern applies to business investment viewed separately.

Figure 9. United States domestic investment compared to consumption of assets, as percentage of National Income. Based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis data.Figure 9. United States domestic investment compared to consumption of assets, as percentage of National Income. Based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis data from Table 5.1, Savings and Investment by Sector.

Part of the shift in the balance between investment and consumption of assets is rising consumption of assets. This would include early retirement of factories, among other things.

Even very low interest rates in recent years have not brought US investment back to earlier levels.

8. With the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, globalization leads to huge US balance of trade deficits and other imbalances.

Figure 10. US Balance on Current Account, based on data of US Bureau of Economic Analysis. Amounts in 2012$ calculated based on US CPI-Urban of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.Figure 10. US Balance on Current Account, based on data of US Bureau of Economic Analysis. Amounts in 2012$ calculated based on US CPI-Urban of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With increased globalization and the rising price of oil since 2002, the US trade deficit has soared (Figure 10). Adding together amounts from Figure 10, the cumulative US deficit for the period 1980 through 2011 is $8.6 trillion. By the end of 2012, the cumulative deficit since 1980 is probably a little over 9 trillion.

A major reason for the large US trade deficit is the fact that the US dollar is the world’s “reserve currency.” While the mechanism is too complicated to explain here, the result is that the US can run deficits year after year, and the rest of the world will take their surpluses, and use it to buy US debt. With this arrangement, the rest of the world funds the United States’ continued overspending. It is fairly clear the system was not put together with the thought that it would work in a fully globalized world–it simply leads to too great an advantage for the United States relative to other countries. Erik Townsend recently wrote an article called Why Peak Oil Threatens the International Monetary System, in which he talks about the possibility of high oil prices bringing an end to the current arrangement.

At this point, high oil prices together with globalization have led to huge US deficit spending since 2008. This has occurred partly because a smaller portion of the population is working (and thus paying taxes), and partly because US spending for unemployment benefits and stimulus has risen. The result is a mismatch between government income and spending (Figure 11, below).

Figure 11. Receipts and Expenditures for all US government entities combined (including state and local) based on BEA data. 2012 estimated based on partial year data.Figure 11. Receipts and Expenditures for all US government entities combined (including state and local) based on BEA data. 2012 estimated based on partial year data.

Thanks to the mismatch described in the last paragraph, the federal deficit in recent years has been far greater than the balance of payment deficit. As a result, some other source of funding for the additional US debt has been needed, in addition to what is provided by the reserve currency arrangement. The Federal Reserve has been using Quantitative Easing to buy up federal debt since late 2008. This has provided a buyer for additional debt and also keeps US interest rates low (hoping to attract some investment back to the US, and keeping US debt payments affordable). The current situation is unsustainable, however. Continued overspending and printing money to pay debt is not a long-term solution to huge imbalances among countries and lack of cheap oil–situations that do not “go away” by themselves.

9. Globalization tends to move taxation away from corporations, and onto individual citizens. Corporations have the ability to move to locations where the tax rate is lowest. Individual citizens have much less ability to make such a change. Also, with today’s lack of jobs, each community competes with other communities with respect to how many tax breaks it can give to prospective employers. When we look at the breakdown of US tax receipts (federal, state, and local combined) this is what we find:

Figure 12. Source of US Government revenue, by year, based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis Data.Figure 12. Source of US Government revenue, by year, based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis Data.

The only portion that is entirely from corporations is corporate income taxes, shown in red. This has clearly shrunk by more than half. Part of the green layer (excise, sales, and property tax) is also from corporations, since truckers also pay excise tax on fuel they purchase, and businesses usually pay property taxes. It is clear, though, that the portion of revenue coming from personal income taxes and Social Security and Medicare funding (blue) has been rising.

I showed that high oil prices seem to lead to depressed US wages in my post, The Connection of Depressed Wages to High Oil Prices and Limits to Growth. If wages are low at the same time that wage-earners are being asked to shoulder an increasing share of rising government costs, this creates a mismatch that wage-earners are not really able to handle.

10. Globalization sets up a currency “race to the bottom,” with each country trying to get an export advantage by dropping the value of its currency.

Because of the competitive nature of the world economy, each country needs to sell its goods and services at as low a price as possible. This can be done in various ways–pay its workers lower wages; allow more pollution; use cheaper more polluting fuels; or debase the currency by Quantitative Easing (also known as “printing money,”) in the hope that this will produce inflation and lower the value of the currency relative to other currencies.

There is no way this race to the bottom can end well. Prices of imports become very high in a debased currency–this becomes a problem. In addition, the supply of money is increasingly out of balance with real goods and services. This produces asset bubbles, such as artificially high stock market prices, and artificially high bond prices (because the interest rates on bonds are so low). These assets bubbles lead to investment crashes. Also, if the printing ever stops (and perhaps even if it doesn’t), interest rates will rise, greatly raising cost to governments, corporations, and individual citizens.

11. Globalization encourages dependence on other countries for essential goods and services. With globalization, goods can often be obtained cheaply from elsewhere. A country may come to believe that there is no point in producing its own food or clothing. It becomes easy to depend on imports and specialize in something like financial services or high-priced medical care–services that are not as oil-dependent.

As long as the system stays together, this arrangement works, more or less. However, if the built-in instabilities in the system become too great, and the system stops working, there is suddenly a very large problem. Even if the dependence is not on food, but is instead on computers and replacement parts for machinery, there can still be a big problem if imports are interrupted.

12. Globalization ties countries together, so that if one country collapses, the collapse is likely to ripple through the system, pulling many other countries with it.

History includes many examples of civilizations that started from a small base, gradually grew to over-utilize their resource base, and then collapsed. We are now dealing with a world situation which is not too different. The big difference this time is that a large number of countries is involved, and these countries are increasingly interdependent. In my post 2013: Beginning of Long-Term Recession, I showed that there are significant parallels between financial dislocations now happening in the United States and the types of changes which happened in other societies, prior to collapse. My analysis was based on the model of collapse developed in the book Secular Cycles by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov.

It is not just the United States that is in perilous financial condition. Many European countries and Japan are in similarly poor condition. The failure of one country has the potential to pull many others down, and with it much of the system. The only countries that remain safe are the ones that have not grown to depend on globalization–which is probably not many today–perhaps landlocked countries of Africa.

In the past, when one area collapsed, there was less interdependence. When one area collapsed, it was possible to let cropland “rest” and deforested areas regrow. With regeneration, and perhaps new technology, it was possible for a new civilization to grow in the same area later. If we are dealing with a world-wide collapse, it will be much more difficult to follow this model.

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