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Peak everything

by Jerome a Paris Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 02:05:29 PM EST

Remember the great big hope to solve the twin problems of peak oil and global warming? THE miracle solution to power our cars with limitless energy - hydrogen fuel cells, literally using water to fuel our movements?

Well, besides the small issue that hydrogen is but an energy carrier which requires energy (in principle in the form of electricity) to be produced, the car makers are flagging another issue:

Carmakers gear up for the next shortage - platinum

The car industry is preparing for the day when oil wells run dry by investing billions of dollars to develop clean and efficient hydrogen-powered vehicles.

But the new fuel comes with its own built-in commodity crisis. Today's experimental hydrogen fuel cells use so much platinum that there is not enough of the precious metal to replace all the world's petrol engines.

At the current 60g or so of platinum in each fuel cell, the world's 780m cars and trucks would use 46,800 tons of the metal - just below the 47,570 tons estimated to be still in the ground. And this assumes each vehicle has only 100 horsepower

Of course, in all likelihood, carmakers will find ways to eventually reduce the quantity of platinum needed per car, and a lot of it will be recycled.

But we will keep on bumping on similar problems, foressen and unforeseen. The problems is not so much the availability of any given resource, it's the fact that we have built an economy where these resources are essentially free, beyond their pure extraction cost and some amounts of taxes, instead of being treated as rare and valuable. What is free is wasted and used without care, until it runs out, but in the meantime we have built "wealth" and "growth" and "civilisation" on it.

It's time we realised that "growth" is not a goal, but only a means to a better life for each of us (however we define it). As a means, and not a goal, it needs to be sustainable, but that's not how our world is built. We need to think about this seriously, because our current growth-driven model is now bumping against physical limits on this planet. Will we manage that transition? Will we even get past the denial stage?

That's something that never occured to me.

Thanks for this - I'm going to send this diary to some of my energy nerd friends.

by Plutonium Page (page dot vlinders at gmail dot com) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 05:30:07 AM EST
I've got not much to add, except thanks for a good post.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 05:37:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll put it up on dKos later today. Gotta give the ET some exclusivity time!

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 05:38:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Makes a person wonder...what else are we running out of???

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 05:53:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This could be as troublesome as Peak Oil

There are two things to be said for nuclear power. It is based on an energy process which does not produce carbon dioxide. And it is a way of generating energy which is not directly at risk from the looming scarcities affecting oil and gas. These two killer arguments tend to be conflated into one persuasive and rhetorical question: "What's the alternative?"

There are arguments against it too, and most of them are well known. It is expensive and, without hefty government subsidy, offers little potential for profit. It leaks low-level carcinogenic wastes into the air and water. It produces high-level radioactive waste, requiring standards of treatment and storage which are seldom met. It produces the materials for nuclear proliferation. Its accidents can potentially devastate continents.

But there are two other arguments against nuclear power that are not so well recognised. The first is that nuclear power actually produces quite a lot of carbon dioxide: every stage in the process uses fossil fuels (oil and gas)--with the exception of fission itself. Uranium ore has to be mined and then milled to extract the uranium oxide from the surrounding rock; it has to be enriched; the wastes have to be processed and buried, safely; nuclear power stations have to be constructed, maintained and then eventually chopped into bits and stored away.

But it is the second argument which shocks: nuclear power depends on a supply of uranium ores from scarce, rich deposits, which face a depletion problem every bit as serious as that of oil and gas. That rich ore will soon no longer be available. The poorer grades of ore which would then have to be used take more energy to process than they yield.

Easier to click link to the Prospect article

Money is a sign of Poverty - Culture Saying
by RogueTrooper on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 08:28:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That article is pretty biased. Breeder reactor technology is certainly not perfected, but that's mostly because development work stalled due to anti-nuke protests. France's Superphénix worked pretty well, although it did suffer from some problems.
by asdf on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 11:01:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know. There were several scandals with Sellafield (the last one just weeks ago), and I seem to recall similar ones with Superhelix. Some of the French with details?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 08:17:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Until someone does, some stuff I found: (1) it was not at all economic - in Euros, the total cost was something like 10 billion, but only a few months of orderly running; (2) a sodium explosion killed workers, (3) there were serious contamination problems.

Here is a list of major accidents:

  • Critical state reached first time even before grid connection, September 1985
  • Massive sodium leak puts the fuel loading device out of operation, two years needed for repairs (March 1987)
  • Failure of air purification systems (buildup of certain gases would lead to Chernobyl-type explosion) (July 1990)
  • Critical stage reached shortly after another restart after another multi-year shutdown for repairs (August 1994)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 08:42:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
One can't expect a complicated technology to work perfectly at first.

As fossil fuel gradually becomes more expensive over the next couple of decades, the tradeoff will be between three options:

  • Minimal changes to our western lifestyle. Acceptance of nuclear power and the associated accidents and waste storage problems, in order to make natural gas and other transportation-system-friendly fossil fuels available for our cars.
  • Moderate changes to our western lifestyle, while continuing to burn prodigious amounts of coal to generate electricity. Electric cars, more use of trains, etc.
  • Massive change to our western lifestyle. Move to a universal global standard of living, i.e. that of the typical rural family in China.

I suspect that the first option will be chosen. France is already a heavy user of nuclear energy as a way to offset the costs of fossil fuel. If France can do it, why can't the rest of the west? The cost of developing breeder reactors and fusion reactors is offset by the low fundamental cost of the fuel.
by asdf on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 09:22:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
One can't expect a complicated technology to work perfectly at first.

Perhaps I should have gone explicit, but I do it now.

(1) Superphénix didn't achieve little because of protests, but because of massive technological and safety problems - which made protests strong enough to shut it down, but after 15 years of running.

(2) If the development of a technology poses a grave danger to the public, then it shouldn't be developed. That it might work one day is no reason to recklessly risk people's lives.

(3) Superphénix was NOT a research plant. It started out as a full-blown, electricity producing 1.2 GW power plant. It was given a lease of life in 1994 by renaming it a research plant. What this means is that these disasters and problems happened with a technology that was presented as commercial-ready.

(4) The Sellafield reprocessing plant in the UK isn't a research plant either. It runs for quite a long time now, and they not only haven't sorted out the problems, but are repeatedly caught in covering up accidents.

As for your options, for the first: it is unrealistic not just because of global warming, the lack of reliability of breeder and reprocessing plants (and their limited productivity which I didn't mention), and the fossil fuel used up to build and run fission plants, but also because a global switch to nuclear would mean an increase of nuclear energy (and thus uranium use) by magnitudes (especially if transport is to be served with electricity, too).

Your other two I let stand, but here are two more you left out:

  • Global resource wars. A few maintain their lifestyle with the power of arms, possibly fighting even against each other, while the rest sink way below the standard of living of a rural family in China. (Sadly the most likely, IMO.)

  • Massive expansion of the use of alternative energies, coupled with changes in transport (more use of trains mainly). This would actually be realistic (both from a technological and a price rise viewpoint) even with present technology - that is mainly wind power. For example, the USA could be supplied with three times its current electricity production if all regions suitable for current rotors are exploited. (Indeed in the last few years, more wind power capacity was installed world-wide than all others.) But, for this to happen, a political will would be needed that doesn't heed traditional energy lobbies (see the nuclear lobby's bankrolling of anti-wind lobbyists, or the coal lobby in Germany).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 12:20:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you are demonstrating my point. It is certainly true that the Superphénix breeder reactor had lots of development problems and lots of political opposition--you probably know a lot more about it that I do. And after running for a few years and suffering big technical failures it was shut down as the result of a lawsuit based on arguments about safety.

But all this took place in an environment of cheap oil. As the value of oil increases, the value of safety decreases.

The tradeoff will, as you say, most likely involve resource wars. But this is nothing new, as historians of the Middle East (First World War) and Southeast Asia (Second World War, Viet Nam War) and Iraq (latest war) will point out. We're already in the middle of resouce wars, and have been for a long time.

In any case, I disagree with you on the "massive expansion of alternative energies" idea, though. It's actually not realistic, because the amount of energy you can produce is not enough to keep our western lifestyle going.

Part of the problem is the various factions of the environmentalist movement not agreeing on a solution. For example, wind power in the Australia and the U.S. is under considerable pressure from environmentalists who don't like seeing thousands of birds killed--more than 5000 in one installation in California.
http://www.journalnow.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=WSJ%2FMGArticle%2FWSJ_BasicArticle&c=MGArti cle&cid=1031783693604&path=!nationworld&s=1037645509161

by asdf on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 12:58:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you are demonstrating my point. It is certainly true that the Superphénix breeder reactor had lots of development problems and lots of political opposition--you probably know a lot more about it that I do. And after running for a few years and suffering big technical failures it was shut down as the result of a lawsuit based on arguments about safety.

But all this took place in an environment of cheap oil. As the value of oil increases, the value of safety decreases.

No, that is exactly not my point, rather the contrary, and at this point I feel a bit helpless about how to communicate that. Maybe word-for-word:

It was running for 15 years, not a few. Or, actually, it was running at full power only for a few months, it had problems for the rest of those long years. The arguments for shutdown included both arguments for safety and the lack of commercial viability (dissing the change to 'research reactor'). The political opposition gained upper hand only at the very end, even two years after the shutdown decision: when the French government finally decided to not pursue restarting, like its predecessors invariably did during previous multi-year shutdowns.

Furthermore, while you have an argument about the change in the value of safety, I don't think it is that straightforward. For, a lower vaule for safety would eventually lead to a Chernobyl-level disaster, which I think would have a rather stronger effect than oil prices.

What would be new about the predicted resource wars would be that it would be over depleting resources, not resources for which merely demand grows faster than production, as most of your examples. (BTW, what resource was Vietnam - I suppose you mean the US war, not the French - about?)

the amount of energy you can produce is not enough to keep our western lifestyle going.

As you could have gleaned from the what I wrote about just the wind power potential in the USA, the above is simply wrong. Here the coal and nuclear lobbies are either using decades-old data (what was achievable then) or spin.

I know about bird-killing at Altamont Pass. What they don't tell you is that Altamont Pass is the exception,  not the rule: old, small, steel grid towered rotors placed into a bird route, on a pass where birds already have to fly upwards to get through. The bird kill ratio at other, newer sites is magnitudes lower, especially if bird research was done prior to installation to eliminate danger zones - as in your first link. For an extreme example: after Swedish zoologists didn't believe the low numbers reported by Denmark, they started a two-year study at a Swedish off-shore park, with radar monitoring and such - and found an even lowernumber of birds killed. (And, as it happens, much of the noise about birdkills is not created by environmentalists with genuine concerns, but by the lobbies I mentioned.) Meanwhile, magnitudes more birds are killed by the towers for the high-voltage electricity grid, and road traffic too.

BTW, I have a fond memory of impressing an American with whom I have discussed wind power on-line, by telling where he lives from his claim that many birds are killed at a wind farm nearby - it was indeed Altamont Pass.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 02:52:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhaps the best thing to do is put this discussion on the back burner for a while, perhaps a couple of decades. In my view, Americans are enthusiastic supporters of "technology" based solutions, thus our hybrid SUVs and your small diesel cars. I think that when the cost of oil, either in dollars or lives, gets high enough, the masses will want nuclear energy even if there are a few Chernobyls along the way...

Personally I support wind power, but I'd be interested to see the calculation that allows it to replace coal fired electric plants...

by asdf on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 11:50:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree with you on fusion reactors. Where, as I wrote in the ITER thread, I think development as scheduled takes too long - it'd be better to do development in one stage for more money.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 12:27:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't remember where specifically the link came from, but I remember seeing on dKos that we're gonna run out of silver before we run out of oil.  As silver is needed for a large number of industries, this is a Very Bad Thing.  

Hold on to your silver and platinum jewelry, it's gonna be worth stupid amounts of money in a few years.

I'm using my college degree to make bagels.

by daveonabike (DaveInACar<at>yahoo<dot>com) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 03:33:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I would like to see what you think about growth and by the same token, progress. I feel some sort of taboo about the goal of our economical system, maybe because there are doubts whether we run towards a better future.

Rien n'est gratuit en ce bas monde. Tout s'expie, le bien comme le mal, se paie tot ou tard. Le bien c'est beaucoup plus cher, forcement. Celine
by UnEstranAvecVueSurMer (holopherne ahem gmail) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 06:53:14 AM EST
Progress towards what?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 08:36:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
  I too am interested in some discussion of growth and progress. Overall, using GDP as a measure of a countrys' well-being strikes me as terribly imprecise. A single board has more GDP value than a centuries old redwood even though thousands come from all around the world to see Californias' redwood forests, this sort of thing is ridiculous.
  In my own life, my mother quit working as a registered nurse after having her third child so that she could stay home with us. Prior to that decision we had a maid, nicer cars, a boat, and lots of debt. My parents then decided to minimize expenses and live a simpler life. No boat, no maid, no new cars, and over time no debt. This definitely cut down on our contribution to the national GDP; but we were more relaxed, spent more time together as a family, and still lived a comfortable life.
  The way my parents lived initially is the basis for growth; their decision to change strikes me as being "progress". Yet, the more common definition of progress seems to be three car garages, a television in every room, and a sixty-hour work week.
by toad on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 11:52:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For the development of solar cells, it's a nightmare out there. Most of the silicon goes to the production of semi-conductors. It jacks up the costs and makes solar cells (more) unattractive.

It's not exactly a "Peak Silicon" yet, but it's definitely a problem for the development of alternative energy/solar energy.

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 10:10:00 AM EST
?Silicon shortage?

About 25% of the earth's crust is Silicon. That's something you're not going to run out of any time soon... Maybe you're speaking about something related to how chips are made? The starting material is sand...

by asdf on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 11:03:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
True. In fact, the bulk of the earth is made of silicon, so it's a bit of conundrum at first glance.

The trick is that the silicon needs to be very, very pure. Similarly to uranium, and platinum. And Columbite-tantalite (which also kills gorillas). And so forth.

There's a decreasing stock of pure silicon, and Silicon Valley is running "dry". No one has uttered the words yet for Peak Silicon, but it is just a matter of time. In the meantime, it's whipping up prices.

Some links here:


Columbite-tantalite killing gorillas:

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 11:28:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I found a neat new link

Computer chips have a high environmental impact relative to their weight. For every gram of a microchip, 630 grams of fossil fuels are used, whereas for every gram of an automobile, only 2 grams of fossil fuels are used. This is due to the fact that making very pure, organized and hence low entropy structures from high entropy materials require large energy inputs. Automobiles, while made with heavy materials, do not require the level of purity and sophistication of materials as a microchip. The energy used in producing nine or ten computers is enough to produce an automobile.

Here is an account of various purification procedures

At last, an energy accounting for silicon solar panels

it appears that the popular Siemens mfrg method is actually less energy efficient than some newer method called UCC (and what I know about this industrial inorganic chem stuff you could write on a standard-size matchbook cover)...  

just a snack for y'all...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 03:41:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hey Jerome, thanks for very interesting diary..I had no idea but then I know almost nil about hydrogen fuel cells, the platinum connection nor that it can cause much environmental damage in the process.

It would seem that the simple and logical solution to the energy crisis would not to fall into the same trap as with oil-by that I mean relying solely on one solution for the whole problem.  Seems only reasonable that a diversified approach involving various industries would be the way to go.  That to me would also mean that no one industry would have a monopoly nor the public over a barrel(no pun intended) with having to rely on one industry for all it's needs.

Here's a great Native American saying:  "We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."

"People never do evil so throughly and happily as when they do it from moral conviction."-Blaise Pascal

by chocolate ink on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 11:14:47 AM EST
Relevant article: If the GDP is Up, Why is America Down?

I hadn't read this article at the time when I wrote this op/ed on "why feminists need to read economics".  I tentatively attribute the "economic hero" quote to Paul Hawken, but Hawken may possibly have been quoting Cobb et al, above.  Here is a "New Economics Manifesto" and here is a cluster of info on a small rebellion in the academy:  the Truecost Manifesto.

This gets us back to the fundamental question of "what is an economy," or what is the purpose of having a polity and a semi-managed or directed economy -- and please let us not indulge in the fantasy that "capitalist" economies are not managed and directed.  There's a man called Greenspan who can tell us all about that, and a 400-year-plus history of government subsidy, monopoly, regulation and all the rest which shapes the face of commerce in every "advanced" (i.e. high-consumption) nation.  Modern economies are engineered, whether the ideology of the governing elite permits us to admit this or not.  They have purpose, they are directed.

But directed to what end?  Growth for its own sake, said Abbey, is the ideology of the cancer cell.

If "growth" is not just for its own sake -- the mindless behaviour of yeast in a petri dish, doomed to choke on its own wastes or exhaust its nutrients, whichever happens first -- then what is it for?  Well, obviously "growth" produces "profit".  If I make a profit of $10 per widget that I make and sell, and I can sell 50 widgets rather than 25, then I make more money.  Hooray for me, especially if all related costs -- opportunity costs and damages -- are "externalised" and conveniently not accounted for.  Growth expands opportunities:  if I sell hot chestnuts at a street stand and the population in my village increases, the number of potential customers increases.  Hooray!  Growth looks good.

"Growth" also offers the illusion of, if not egalitarianism, at least abundance.  That is, if some people are very poor and suffer, and others are very rich and wallow in excess and luxury, one obvious solution is to redistribute wealth.  But equally obviously the rich people will not like this idea -- sometimes the more toys a child has, the less willing he is to share any of them.  So a convenient moral and ideological escape from the necessity of sharing (lifeboat ethics) is to pretend that infinite growth is possible and therefore new resources will magically appear and relieve the poverty of those who suffer, while those who already have can hang on to everything they've got -- without guilt.  This is known as "Reaganomics" or "trickle-down economics" or "a rising tide floats all boats" or (by me) as an insane Cornucopian cargo cult.  

It's a finite planet -- big, I grant you, but functionally no different from a lifeboat or a sailing ship.  There is only so much potable water, arable land, surface area for living on.  If some people hog 30 or 50 or 100 times their share then other people will have to go without.  Pretending that infinite growth is possible merely offers us an excuse for not confronting the fundamental problems of inequity, poverty, and misuse of resources;  it offers us an escape from the conflict between profit and fundamental moral values like community, charity, democracy.  In this sense I think it is very hard to challenge the Growth Cult, because not only does it always look good from the viewpoint of the individual merchant or artisan, it is also such an emotionally comforting belief, a shelter from our consciences.  Opportunity will go on expanding and everyone will get their slice of the infinitely-growing pie.  Even a tiny crumb will look good after it expands by a factor of 3 or 4.

[A Digression:  I seem to recall in a recent article I cited on climate change, that the author noted Africa as a continent where "most people depend on agriculture."  I have to laugh -- or cry -- when I read statements like this.  Hello?  Every single human being on earth depends on agriculture.  If agriculture stops, or productivity declines sharply, the result is hunger.  It may not be hunger immediately for the wealthy, who can go on stealing food from the poor as long as armed force or superior wealth allows;  but there is not one of us who does not depend every day on dirt, sunlight, pollinators and photosynthesis for our very breath and life.  The idea that only "backwards" continents are "dependent" on something as old-fashioned as agriculture is a very dangerous idea, part of the pernicious illusion that we in the "advanced" nations are somehow divorced entirely from earthly reality.  We live only thanks to plants, fungi, soil bacteria, invertebrates and bugs.  Any other notion is mere hubristic fantasy.  Moreover, plants, soil bacteria, bugs and all the rest would be quite happy without humans.  We need the lower orders -- they do not need us.]

The next question is whether "growth" (the accelerating conversion from low-entropy to high-entropy state of our energy resources, consumption of raw materials for fabrication, generation of waste) actually produces anything recognisable as happiness.  We might logically assume that the object of our human endeavour is happiness, and if we are democratically minded then we would like to achieve "the greatest happiness for the greatest number."  But our attempts at "growth" in the last 30 or 40 years are producing increased poverty for billions, and bloated wealth for a tiny few -- not what any good Utilitarian would approve of.  We might also wonder why even the privileged -- say those who live at the heart of the American Empire and are still prosperous, not yet immiserated by its internal policies -- are the world's largest consumers of antidepressant drugs.  If a glut of material goods makes us so happy, why are so many of us dependent on SSRIs?  Aren't we happy yet?  And if McMansions and SUVs and a TV in every room are not enough to make us happy, then what the hell will be?  Is there really any connection between material glut and happiness, or is this a classic diminishing returns problem?  The Paradox of Choice suggests that in fact, a bewildering array of consumer choice makes us less happy, not more so.  In this context, is growth really good?  Or is our object not to make people happy?

If the goal of our economy is not to make people happy, then what is it?  It's hard for me to avoid the conclusion that the present goal, as usual when resources get tight, is the replication of feudalism.  In Finley's Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology the author notes that as the rate of conquest and annexation of new territories slowed down, the Roman aristocracy increasingly concentrated its efforts on consolidating land ownership within the core, dispossessing yeoman farmers, merging smaller estates into larger ones, etc.  When the greedy appetite for More was no longer easily sated by fresh wealth from the periphery (i.e. Growth), the predators began to pick off the smaller and weaker amongst themselves.  I think that this is what we see in our contemporary economies as resource shortages either make themselves directly felt or loom on the horizon:  the wealthy are starting to strip the core of its assets, as the peripheries no longer return enough "growth" to sate their material demands.

If our ideas about democracy and open societies are based -- as many of them are -- on the myth of perpetual growth and ever-increasing prosperity, i.e. if our ideas of social justice are based on "opportunities opening up in expanding markets" rather than on correcting maldistributions of resources (whether by taxation or Jubilee years or nationalisation or other strategies) then I believe we are in for a collision between democratic ideals founded on a bogus "frontier mythology" of growth, and the reality of a resource-limited planet.  The best possible outcome would be universal demand limitation, wealth redistribution, land reform, carbon taxes and other 'safe and sane' methods of adjusting to a sustainable economic model.  The more likely outcome is a revival of feudalism or banana republic lifestyle, where the elite defend their luxuries by armed force, dominating and exploiting (or exterminating) an immiserated mass of plebes.

One way or another, we are going to have to come to terms with the notion of limits.  The discomfort that this dawning reality causes seems to be manifesting in several ways.  The crackpot Cornucopianism of Lomborg, Simon, et al (a quick rebuttal here at the controversial dieoff.org site) is one response:  simply deny that limits exist and maintain staunchly that infinite growth is not only possible but desirable.  Another response is increasing belligerence, tribalism, and nationalism:  resources are limited, so let's kill all the Other People and have enough for Us.  Another is the lunatic millenarism of the wingnut Christian community in the US:  resources are limited, but it doesn't matter because the world is ending anyway and the Saved are going to Heaven where material resources are not an issue (milk and honey for all).  I see all these -- and the smash-and-grab capitalism of recent years -- as responses to the creeping consciousness of resource limits: the flailings of a culture in crisis because one of its fundamental beliefs is in danger.  Any takers?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 01:25:35 PM EST
great comment as usual, thanks.
by Fran on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 02:00:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Would you please save me some trouble and turn that comment to a front-page article yourself? Jeez.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 02:36:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What, you mean you're agreeing with me again Colman?  I'm starting to get worried :-)

what I don't get is how my cmt ended up at the top of
the list as presently viewed, when it is timestamped later than those below.  this hasn't happened before -- is it Jerome's invisible hand at work here?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 03:11:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It does that sometimes. I haven't worked out why. Maybe the software can just spot good writing when it sees it.

I'm not necessarily agreeing with you: I'll come and pick holes when I'm not draining my second glass of red wine.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 03:20:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think this happens when someone gets 4's. The one with the most goes to the top.
by Fran on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 03:28:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Weird. Why does it do that? I guess I should know that.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 03:32:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think it's the default setting. You have to change your settings to "ignore ratings" or something like that (look around).

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 05:38:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
OK, Moth-ra (terrifying picker of holes), when yer sober, come and shoot down my trial balloons.  I think it needs a bit of polish before going frontpage...  will see if I can get around to it later.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 03:53:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, the world is actually already coping with resource limits. If everybody in the world lived like we westerners, we'd be way over the limit on a lot of things, including energy and water and food and you name it. But we aren't over the limits, because we have allocated those resources unfairly.

That, my friends, is the central point we must confront: We westerners argue on the margin about hybrid cars and solar hot water, when MOST of the people in the world have no hope of car ownership and are lucky to have reliable clean water of any temperature. The test is whether one is prepared to live at the global average standard of living. Since you're sitting at a computer this very minute, the answer is: Almost certainly not.

My strong suspician is that we will continue to ration resources as we have alwasy done in the past: Some people get lots of wasteful luxuries, and others starve to death, for no reason other than the happenstance of birthplace...

by asdf on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 04:43:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
my, I seem to have stumbled across a small coterie of like-minded doomsters :-)  where's DarkSyde I wonder.

but let us think a bit deeper:  I personally have medium-term plans to live rather closer to the global average standard of living, voluntarily:  in a much smaller space than I presently do, with much lower energy inputs, fewer possessions, a simpler diet, etc.  ... and such a decision really doesn't have to be a Hair Shirt -- there may be compensations, or equivalences, or even new satisfactions.

when I replaced my last gas car with a light electric pickup truck (hobby project) I didn't feel much pain, as I was using the car fairly little anyway and most things I was interested in were within the e-truck's range, and there was a certain amount of fun in driving a home-built vehicle -- a tatty old Datsun 1600 that sounded like a giant sewing machine.  when I got rid of the e-truck six years later -- having got fed up with the false promise of EVs -- and converted to strictly bike and foot and public transport (for all local travel) I still  didn't feel much pain.  

I've lived carfree for about another 6 years now, and my standard of living feels very luxurious to me still  (even though the car is considered a sine qua non of American prosperity).  amenities are fairly localised in my town and everything I need or want is within a reasonable bike ride or city bus ride.  no prob.  dentist, doctor, garden centre, credit union, organic food market, vet, excellent restaurants, first-run theatre, art theatre, used bookshops, thirft store, hardware store, beach, state parks, harbour, city hall... all within a 5 mile radius.

so one thing I think we can count on is that -- though unwilling conversion to a lower-energy lifestyle will always cause kicking and screaming -- in fact one can  live at a far lower energy consumption level than is considered normal in the West without  living in hardship, boredom, hunger, misery, etc.  in fact a carfree life, or a vegetarian or low-meat life, or a localised life, can be just as happy and fulfilling as a SUV-and-steak and six-air-trips-a-year life, provided the basic hierarchy of human needs is met.  this may mean reorganising urban form, reforming zoning laws, etc. -- but one can have a life rich in amenity without being as wasteful of energy as we are at present.  we have deliberately engineered entire habitats to maximise energy squandering (carburbs, centralised megaschools, centralised megamalls) but this social engineering could be undone.

once over the threshold of basic material deprivation, it's all in what you're used to.  we humans recalibrate our expectations quickly and easily upward, but we whine and throw tantrums in the other direction.  a very wealthy person may feel "poor" if they have to give up their second or third vacation home, or move to a 4000 sf home instead of an 8000 sf home, or sell their antique car collection.  but a rural peasant may feel all the satisfaction in the world -- happier than a king, rich as Croesus -- if his flock of chickens doubles over a year or two from 6 to a dozen.  it seems that once we exceed the threshold of brutal necessity, all surplus "feels" pretty much like all other surplus.  

the shirtless man gets a huge thrill out of his first clean, warm shirt;  the wealthy executive with a closet full of handmade dess shirts gets very little thrill out of the 21st shirt as opposed to the 20th.  the law of diminishing returns applies.  today's middle class children may feel disappointed if at xmas or birthdays they don't get a huge stack of industrially-made gifts;  in my mother's working class childhood in the UK, the huge thrill of xmas was imported citrus -- oranges!  a single orange was a memorable treat for her in her youth -- a delight to be remembered and anticipated.  who can quantify or calibrate the relative thrill factor, the genuine happiness experienced by the child with a pile of game cartridges and Barbie accessories, vs that of my Mum and her sibs with their delicious, exotic oranges?

I suggest that while a generation accustomed to obscene luxury and hyperconsumption will whine and complain no end about its curtailment, those who successfully adapt to more austere conditions may find that smaller things produce equal satisfactions;  that a post-peak-oil world may also have its pleasures, its fun, its adventures.  as they say in the sailing world, "the smaller the boat, the bigger the adventure."

not saying that I expect the Jubilee Year any time soon or anticipate Peace and Justice on Earth;  only that trimming our lifestyle closer to a humane global average might not be such a dreadful thing;  it might not destroy the most fundamental enjoyments, at all.  there is a lot of wiggle room between the average middle class western lifeway and freezing, starving, being homeless or unclad or ill-nourished.  whether there is enough wiggle room for true equity, heaven only knows;  but indisputably we could do hella better along those lines than we are now.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 06:35:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
here are some UU thoughts on voluntary simplicity -- it's not a bad article, it addresses the haunting paradox that mostly it's well-off people who decide to adopt voluntary simplicity.  but that makes perfect sense to me:  those who have never had material abundance think that it will produce happiness.  those who have had it for long enough, learn that it doesn't automatically produce happiness -- and that too much of it can produce hassles, waste, buyer's remorse.  maybe the analogy is the "kid in the candy store"?  the child confronted with a candy store initially wants to eat everything in sight, but if allowed to do so -- and get royally sick as a result -- this enthusiasm for gobbling is diminished in future.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 07:13:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wow, respect!

I have a similar philosophy, but it doesn't involve giving up much, more it's not acquiring stiff - I never had a car, for example -, and I do it in Europe where, to stay with the example, there's reasonably good public transport.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 08:13:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, if gloomy isn't to your taste, how about the promise of technology? Here's a car that gets over 12,000 mpg. Invented, of course, by those ingenious Swiss...
by asdf on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 10:15:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Any takers?

Yep. Overall, the most persuasive piece of writing on this most vital of subjects that I have read.

I'd underline in particular your reference to the "frontier mythology". There are no more frontiers. The yeast cells are reaching the edge of the petri dish.

Thanks. Front page, please.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 04:25:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhaps we are going overboard with the gloominess? There are platinum mines in other places, and probably platinum deposits that haven't been found yet. And besides, there is more than one way to skin a cat:
by asdf on Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 10:53:26 PM EST
Platinum occurs only in very rare geologic formations, so I doubt there is much more out there waiting to be found. Currently about 75% of the world's platinum comes from the Bushveld Complex in South Africa; there's nothing like it in the world, though I think Australia has a formation with some platinum producing potential somewhere.

In addition to being environmentally damaging, mining in most places is associated with human rights violations and terrible economic and working conditions.

As the prices of heavy metals, silicon, and oil rise, mining and refining the lower-quality ores becomes feasible. For example, the Rocky Mountain swath of North America has some very large oil shale deposits, with a large amount of oil in them. But for the drilling and squeezing out of the oil to be profitable enough to be done, oil will have to be nigh on $300 a barrel. But, at some point it likely will be that expensive, unless we come up with a cheaper alternative energy. Most resources -- with the possible exception of water, which is absolutely necessary for life -- are unlikely to "hit the wall" and suddenly become unavailable; demand will drive the extraction of the resource from less and less pure sources, and will also encourage the recycling of every bit of the resource we can get our hands on. (Though recycling works for metals, but not for radioactives.)

As for alternative energy, geothermal and tidal or ocean-current are the way to go. They don't take heavy metals, silicon, mining, petroleum, or remove water from systems. Hydroelectric is not bad either, but operation of hydroelectric projects (at least out here) is extremely contentious because of fish/wildlife effects, recreation, water quality, etc. And don't even bother trying to build a new dam in the American west.

As with just about all the alternative energy options, we need to put funding into their development, but that takes a bit of foresight that is currently sorely lacking (at least in the States). It also takes a bit of altruism that runs exactly counter to the drive for corporate control of resources. For example, conventional wisdom says that geothermal only works in a few "hot spots", but this is the geologic equivalent of saying that crops only grow in prime farmland. But Monsanto doesn't profit if you start a Victory Garden. Similarly, geothermal energy can be used almost anywhere on the globe, but my friend's geothermal system at home that will last for at least 50 years doesn't contribute much to the GDP after it has been installed. Profits are made primarily in the sourcing, refinement and distribution/dispersal of resources from one central location, at low labour costs.

If it's just us, it seems like an awful waste of space. -Carl Sagan, Contact

by kaleefornian on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 02:13:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Info on Stillwater, Montana mine...
by asdf on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 08:12:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
this thread is turning into a classic!  very educational indeed, thanks to everyone.  many chewy nuggets here... and I'd like to see more even though it has fallen off the mainpage (I wish Scoop would offer an alternate priority listing option -- by activity level).  hope to put together a diary on energy transition scenarios soon.  have any of y'all read deviltower's rather wide-ranging synopsis of the options, from some months back?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Jul 7th, 2005 at 08:48:12 PM EST

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