Saturday, August 25, 2007

In case you were in too good of a mood...

Here's something we got in our recent issue of The Land Report that'll wipe that smile off your face, like it did mine. :}

The Next 49 Years
By Wes Jackson

Expanded from the commencement address at Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland, May 20.

I was born in the midst of what was called the Great Depression. Nevertheless, it was a time of great hope. There had been depressions before in America, and knowing that, adults could imagine that the depression would end. And it did. World War II came and afterward the use of material goods and energy accelerated without interruption, to a level never seen. Unfortunately, this great success by "children of the depression" has made you "children of the depletion." Now reduced options, more than your initiative, could set the agenda.

I want to provide a perspective, not widely appreciated or acknowledged, that makes our time different than the 1930s. Back then we still had an abundance of five pools of energy-rich carbon. Let me go through that history to help us appreciate how unusual our time is. Civilization began 10,000-12,000 years ago with the tapping of soil carbon for agriculture. Then there was the forest carbon, which made possible the bronze and iron ages, and countless buildings. In 1750, coal burning started the industrial revolution. In 1859, Col. Drake drilled the first oil well, in western Pennsylvania. Natural gas extraction soon followed.

Also often overlooked is a discovery of 1909. Two Germans, Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch, developed a process we now use around the globe to turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. Natural gas, the last of the five pools, serves as the main feedstock for this essential fertilizer. Without this process, according to Vaclav Smil, 40 percent of humanity would not be here now.

That reality needs to be tied to one other. Anyone who died by 1930 never saw a doubling of the human population.

And now, as a forecast: Anyone born after 2050 likely won't live with another doubling.

The human population that has tripled in one lifetime depends on these five carbon pools. But the world's leading petroleum geologists say humans have burned through half of the global supply of oil and natural gas, and the other half may be gone in as few as 30 years. There is a lot of coal in the world, but China is building a new coal-fired electric power plant a week. The state of the world does not look good: We have rapid climate change. Human population growth continues to follow an exponential curve, with 6.6 billion of us now. There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world, more than at any other time in history.

Even considering only these things, we live in challenging times. But depletion comes in many forms:
- One billion people lack access to fresh water.
- The current rate of species extinction is being compared to the five known mass extinction waves. This sixth wave is caused by humans, not an asteroid, and according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report, agriculture is the largest threat to biodiversity.
- Soil destruction now claims 24 million acres a year worldwide, about half the size of Kansas, a quarter the size of California, or 3.5 Marylands.

If this isn't bad enough to contemplate, the world has never been less secure:
- Eight nations have nuclear weapons, and two more are known to be working to get them.
- In January 2007, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its doomsday clock two minutes closer to midnight, "reflecting global failures to solve the problems posed by nuclear weapons and the climate crisis."

Thinking that most of you are close to 22 years old, here's one more item for perspective: A 22-year-old has lived through 54 percent of all the oil ever burned. In my first 22 years, which ended 49 years ago, I had lived through 16 percent as much as you have.

So here you are, not only "children of the depletion," but also "children of the momentum," which makes you "children of the rapid depletion."

It is natural, around the age of 22 at graduation, to look out on the world with great expectation. So you will ask, "What do we do?"

"We are a clever species," you may think. "Look at the technological array around us. Surely we'll come up with something."

Your future will feature many discussions between optimists and pessimists. Let me provide a couple of examples from the energy problem.

The optimist may say, "We'll build nuclear power plants."

The pessimist asks, "What about the danger?"

The optimist says, "The estimated probability of an accident like Chernobyl, where people have to leave, is as low as only 1 in 10,000."

The pessimist says, "Yes, but what if we have a thousand reactors worldwide? That means on average an accident every 10 years. We currently have about 450 reactors worldwide, which means an accident every 22 years. We're on schedule. Will we be able to repeal Murphy's Law? And now we have terrorists who would love to get their hands on the fuel. Some of them are smart too. And we still have a problem of where to bury the wastes."

The optimist says, "The Faustian bargain is worth it."

Another discussion:

The optimist says, "We can make ethanol and biodiesel from our farm crops."

The pessimist replies, "Twenty-six gallons of gasoline has the same number of calories that the average American eats in a year. Let's say that we don't eat for a year, and turn all that food into ethanol for our cars, trucks and airplanes, for the postal workers, the street crew, bulldozers, whatever. We'd each get about two gallons a month."

"Well," the optimist says, "we will harvest all the agricultural waste-cornstalks, wheat straw, peanut shells, grass clippings."

The pessimist says, "It is not waste, but OK, now we have an additional two gallons per month, for a total of four."

"Let's stop all exports."

"Now we're up to six. But we haven't eaten, we've robbed the soil of countless nutrients for next year's growth, and we have no money from food exports to help offset the balance of payment deficit for foreign oil"

The optimist says, "But we now have a global economy. We'll get our liquid fuel from other countries just like we get oil."

The pessimist does more figuring: "OK, let's assume we use the entire world's wheat, com, rice and soybean crops, currently over two-thirds of human food calories. We will use that to make ethanol and biodiesel. How much of the U.S. gasoline and diesel demand will be met? Thirteen percent. No one in the world eats food from that acreage, just American vehicles."

These discussions are going on in thousands of places.

My worry is that we live in a world of technological fundamentalism more serious than any religious fundamentalism. During this era of unprecedented exploitation of energy-rich carbon, discussion almost invariably drifts to technology becoming more efficient, rather than consider that old, dull word, conservation. There is nothing wrong with being efficient, but it is worth remembering that in 1865, William Stanley Jevons published the results of an extensive study in a book called The Coal Question. His conclusion: As industrial England became more efficient, it used more resources, particularly coal and iron. This is called Jevons' Paradox.

The majority never thinks of itself as fanatic. And this fervent belief that technology will save us resides in high places. Hear what Thomas Friedman said in the April 15 New York Times Magazine, under the headline "The Power of Green." It was the cover story, mind you, and millions likely read it. I mention it as an exhibit:

Presidential candidates need to help Americans understand that green is not about cutting back. It's about creating a new cornucopia of abundance for the next generation by inventing a whole new industry. It's about getting our best brains out of hedge funds and into innovations that will not only give us the clean-power industrial assets to preserve our American dream but also give us the technologies that billions of others need to realize their own dreams without destroying the planet.

Well, we're not going to destroy the planet. Even large asteroids could not do that. But to say that "green is not about cutting back" and that there will be a "new cornucopia of abundance" is to not acknowledge the destruction imposed on the ecosphere by our excessive energy use to date. Climate change will be serious for Homo sapiens. Moreover, Friedman shows no recognition of the importance of the Haber-Bosch process and the nitrogen fertilizer necessary to feed us, no acknowledgement of Jevons' Paradox, no understanding of soils. It would be too complimentary to say that this is liberal, neoclassical economic establishment fundamentalism spoken by a well-placed representative to silence anyone who does not so worship at the altar of technology. Friedman's statement lacks even that low level of sophistication. It is Main Street boosterism, glandular optimism, green cornucopianism. It strikes me as a statement typical of a man late to this issue but now transfixed by happy talk.

In painting you this bleak picture, I hope you understand that I am honoring you as adults. By the current so-called standard of living, you will be the most unlucky generation in the history of humanity to date. You were born on the up slope of energy and economic growth, but much of your life is likely to be on the down slope in the use of nonrenewable energy.

But now, I'm the optimist. In a large sense, you have the potential to be the most fortunate generation. In this era of transformation you will have the opportunity to help shape a graceful down-powering.

The negative consequences of the industrial mind are all around us. Highways have cut through beautiful farms. Small towns have been bypassed. People who worked the land go to town to flip hamburgers or build tires at the local tire plant. Even though all the small towns cannot hold all the city people, the potential of family and community gardens, family and community canning, family and community butchering of chickens, turkeys, rabbits, even beef and hogs, is huge. We can begin to eat locally and live in community rather than spend so much time on the freeway.

Down-powering won't be easy. It will require sacrifice. You will hear, again and again, that transformative sacrifices aren't necessary. Those are the voices who care not a whit about reduced consumption. Bubbly optimists will be everywhere. Steel yourself with understanding of the numbers and remember that the entropy law, the second law of thermodynamics, will not be repealed. If you do, you'll see why more clever technology will have miniscule effect compared with conservation. Realize the Thomas Friedmans of the world won't be around to experience the consequences of reduced energy and climate change. Most will be dead, you won't. You will be going through the greatest and most important transition in human history.

One of our great modern poets, Gary Snyder, has a poem in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Turtle Island. It is the last one in his collection and was written probably in the 1960s or early 70s. It is titled For the Children.

The rising hills, the slopes, of statistics
lie before us.
The steep climb
of everything, going up, up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that, they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace if we make it.

To climb these coming crests one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

"To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge." ~ Benjamin Disraeli (1804 - 1881)