Apr 22 2010

Is collapse inevitable?

Kal @ 10:39

John Michael Greer has another of his well thought out posts up again at The Archdruid Report titled Economic Superstitions.

Economics is our modern superstition – well, one of them, at any rate, and one of the most popular among the political class of today’s industrial societies. Like any other superstition, it has a core of pragmatic wisdom to it, but that core has been overlaid with a great deal of somewhat questionable logic. My wife’s Welsh ancestors believed that the bowl of milk on the back stoop pleased the fairies, and that’s why the rats stayed away from the kitchen garden; the economists of the twentieth century believed that expanding the money supply pleased – well, the prosperity fairies, or something not too dissimilar – and that’s why depressions stayed away from the United States.

In both cases it’s arguable that something very different was going on. The gargantuan economic boom that made America the world’s largest economy had plenty of causes; the accident of political geography that kept its industrial hinterlands from becoming war zones, while most other industrial nations got the stuffing pounded out of them, had more than a little to do with the matter; but the crucial point, one too often neglected in studies of twentieth century history, was the simple fact that the United States at midcentury produced more petroleum than all the other countries on Earth put together. The oceans of black gold on which the US floated to victory in two world wars defined the economic reality of an epoch. As a result, most of what passed for economic policy in the last sixty years or so amounted to attempts to figure out how to make use of unparalleled abundance.

That’s still what today’s economists are trying to do, using pretty much the same habits they adopted during the zenith of the age of oil. The problem is that this is no longer what economists need to be doing. With the coming of peak oil and the first slow slippages in worldwide conventional petroleum production, the challenge facing today’s industrial societies is managing the end of abundance. The age of cheap abundant energy now ending was a dramatic anomaly in historical terms, though not quite unprecedented; every so often, but rarely, it happens that a human society finds itself free from natural limits to prosperity and expansion – for a time. That time always ends, and the society has to relearn the lessons of more normal and less genial times. This is what we need to do now.

This is exactly what today’s economics is unprepared to do, however. Like the Mayan elite at the beginning of what archeologists call the Terminal Classic period, our political classes are trying to meet unfamiliar problems with overfamiliar solutions. The results have not been good. Repeated attempts to overcome economic stagnation by expanding access to credit have produced a series of destructive speculative bubbles and crashes, and efforts to maintain an inflated standard of living in the face of a slowly contracting real economy have heaped up gargantuan debts. These measures haven’t worked; the one significant attempt to do something different, the neoconservative project to invade Iraq and put its oil reserves in American hands, was even less successful; and at this point fingerpointing and frantic pedaling in place seems to have replaced any more constructive response to a situation that is becoming more dangerous by the day.

Are there constructive things that could be done? Of course, but every one of them flies in the face of the currently accepted economic superstitions, and most of them also involve requiring the people who benefit disproportionately from the current state of things to give up some of their perquisites – not exactly a winning bet at a time when political power has become so diffuse in most industrial nations that some pressure group or other can be counted on to veto any attempt at systemic change. I’ve already suggested several possible steps in this blog – replacing income and sales taxes with resource and interest taxes; making corporations subject to nonfinancial penalties for criminal acts; reinventing urban and suburban agriculture; tilting tax policy to encourage single-income families; rebuilding the household economy, and more – but I’ve done so in the full awareness that none of these things are going to be discussed in the corridors of government any time soon. Those that will happen at all, will happen because they can be set in motion by individuals, families, and local communities; those that can’t be pursued on that level – well, let’s just say I’m not holding my breath.

The act of faith that leads policy makers today to think that policies that failed last year will succeed next year is only part of the problem, of course. The superstitions that lead so many intelligent people to think that our problems can be solved by pursuing a flotilla of new and expensive technological projects are another part. There are technologies that can help us right now, granted, but they’re on the other end of the spectrum from the fusion reactors and solar satellites and plans to turn all of Nevada into one big algae farm that get so much attention today. Local, resilient, sustainable, and cheap: those should be our keywords just now; there are plenty of technological solutions that answer to that description, but again, our superstitions stand in the way.

JMG is convinced of two things:
1)  advanced technology has no chance of solving the energy problem, and,
2)  “none of these [potentially problem solving] things are going to be discussed in the corridors of government any time soon”.

He is clearly right-on with the concern I have labeled number two. It is not so clear that he is right about number one.

Writing in The Oil Drum today, Ugo Bardi has a piece titled Renewals out of the bottle.

Now, if you look at Charles Hall's balloon graph with a list of EROEIs for various sources, you'll probably think that there is not much hope for renewables. In the graph, the EROEI of PV is given as under 10 and that of wind as under 20. The graph is dominated by the blue balloon of "Oil, domestic, 1930") which is rated as having EROEI= 100. If our economy has been built on oil and if oil's EROEI is so large (or, at least it was at that time) then we can't expect that renewables could substitute oil and fossil fuels. Renewables, it seems, are a marginal source at best and surely can't give us back the good times of old.

But things move on. Charlie Hall's graph is already outdated in some points. The EROEI of renewables is increasing, it is actually shooting up. Realizing how fast that is happening was a little satori for me, not more than a few months ago. It came when I found a 2007 paper by Raugei, Bargigli and Ulgiati that evaluated the LCA of various photovoltaic technologies (See the references at the end). Then, the same authors published another paper in 2009 and in a few years the change has been remarkable. They don't report the EROEIs directly, but these can be approximately calculated from the values of the EPBT (energy payback time). I discussed the results with one of the authors, Marco Raugei (incidentally, a former student of mine), and we arrived to the conclusion that, in favorable conditions of illumination (1700 kWh/(m2*year) and assuming a lifetime of 30 years, polycrystalline silicon has an EROEI of 15, while CdTe thin film cells have an EROEI of 40.

Now, tell me if this is not enough for a good satori. An EROEI of 40? And that with a "state of the art" system? Yes, with CdTe cells that you can buy on the market! I can almost hear the objections - that I am too optimistic, that the EROEI depends on the initial assumptions, and how about intermittency, and don't you know that we passed peak tellurium? And so on. But let me discuss these objections in a note at the end of this post. For the time being, let's take this large value of the EROEI as a working hypothesis and let's see how we got there and what are the perspectives.

Read both articles, they both make good points. But just maybe JMG and the other folks who can see collapse as the only possible result are just as deluded as those who think the earth can support perpetual motion in the form of unlimited economic growth.

Changing the trajectory of society to a more sustainable path is the most difficult task I can imagine. But it is the one we need the most and it may not be too late or too difficult.  Time to get back to work.


Category: Climate Change | Economics | Peak Oil | Politics | Resource Depletion | Solar | Sustainability
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