Saturday, April 15, 2017

They Can't Go Home Again

Andrew Nikiforuk believes that Donald Trump is a symptom, not a cause. Drawing on the work of Nafeez Ahmed, he writes:

The world faces not a “clash of civilizations” with radical Islam (although the dust-up remains a significant challenge), but a crisis of civilization that includes riotous climates, poisoned oceans, failing forests and collapsing economies.

Ahmed is a British investigative journalist who has been connecting the dots on energy, climate change and globalization for years. The title of his latest book sums up our current predicament: Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence.

The challenges we face today are all interconnected; and the whole mess begins with energy declines:

As the world runs out of cheap fossil fuels, industry has switched to earthquake-making shale gas fracking, messy bitumen oil sands projects and deep offshore oil.

But these extreme fuels, which require complex technologies to extract, are poor substitutes for cheap oil. They not only return less energy but also require more capital, water and energy to extract.

Our economy, largely shaped by the high-energy returns of cheap fossil fuels, doesn’t know how to metabolize costly fuels that deliver minimal returns.

Meanwhile hydrocarbon emissions are also destabilizing the climate, melting ice, fostering extreme weather and acidifying oceans.

Cheap energy used to be the Golden Goose. But things have changed:

As Ahmed notes, global oil and gas production once offered God-like energy returns of 100 to one. For every barrel spent finding and extracting oil, society secured a hefty surplus or what the ecologist Charles Hall famously described as “EROI”: energy return on investment. Unprecedented net returns fuelled the unnatural scale of economic growth for 100 years.

But those bountiful energy returns are now falling off a cliff. Today, net energy returns average around 15 to one. Once returns drops below 10 per barrel of energy expended, fossil fuels can’t generate enough surpluses to pay for the arts, government and society as we know it, let alone a transition to renewable energy.

As the quality of fuels decline, the global economy, a highly engineered tree fertilized by cheap oil, has registered the change as “economic stagnation” and stopped growing.

In financial papers, the words stagnation and inequality have become the economy’s dominant vocabulary.

Donald Trump promises to return to the good old days. That's why his Secretary of State is the former CEO of Exxon. But Trump and Rex Tillerson can't go home again. And -- slowly -- it's beginning to dawn on ordinary folks that they can't go home again, either.


the salamander said...

.. only fools could trust a fraudulent thug like Donald Trump
and the Trump's family, surrogates, financial & political jackasses he enlists
for his Brand of Jackassery..

The frightening aspect is civil war within the USA
as fraudulent financial entities run wild and or collapse
as insane foreign military 'involvement' expands.

This is an era of historic and hysterical madness
as Trump et al attack environment, fact & humanity
Responsible Republican Governance is a fable

Owen Gray said...

Responsible Republican governance has been a fable for a long time, salamander.

Toby said...

Back in 1956 M. King Hubbert predicted the crunch that would happen when oil peaked. Countless scientists predicted what would happen as pollutants entered our ground, water and air and the world warmed up. In one word: chaos. It's happening. This will not end well.

Owen Gray said...

And we -- or at least some of us -- continue to deny it's happening, Toby.

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm left with this sense, Owen, that we're watching a house fire, room by room, without ever seeing the entire structure being consumed. Nikiforuk and Ahmed focus on unconventional oil and its impact on the "economy" if anyone can even make sense of that term any longer. Your post from Thursday reviewed Monbiot's comments on how we must rid ourselves of that same economy.

Yes, we're in the grip of chaos. Every room in the house is afire, each room contributing to the blaze in all the others. We observe it, measure it, record it and analyze it. We do everything save for dealing with it if only we could agree what "it" is.

Nikiforuk's thing is energy, fossil fuels, and so its understandable that he sees it as the root of modern chaos. I wish it was that simple. We could transition to clean and affordable alternative energy and all our problems would abate. Do you believe that?

I've been watching Oliver Stone's documentary series on America. Last night I caught a recording of Lyndon Johnson, in the late 60s, ranting about how the global population had passed the 3 billion mark. That reminded me that we were just 2.5 billion strong when I was born. Today our numbers have grown threefold, 7.5 billion, and we're heading for 9 billion, possibly even more. How does that stack up as a fuel for chaos compared to unconventional oil?

And, as the Global Footprint Network chronicles, we're now using and polluting the Earth's resources such as water, biomass and the atmosphere at 1.7 times the planet's replenishment rate. We're utterly dependent on that level of consumption. We can see that other locomotive barrelling toward us down the track but we can't even stop our own. Again, how does that compare to unconventional oil as a driver of chaos?

I have high regard for Nikiforuk. I have a couple of his books. That said, I find his focus on unconventional oil less than helpful, perhaps even a tad myopic.

Steve said...

Donald Trump is total evidence of the Men in Black
he has flipped on everthing
and now the US military
is going to reshape the world
through force
something Obama
and Hillary
was paid to do
We have clear evidence
elections mean
nothing really

Owen Gray said...

I agree that Nikiforuk's concentration on a single cause is simplistic, Mound. On the other hand, he does focus on the interconnection between our problems -- something which I don't think a lot of people see. In the end, that's what is driving the geometric progression -- or regression -- toward disaster which we're facing.

Owen Gray said...

Certainly, they don't always result in solutions, Steve.

Hugh said...

Government is desperate for economic growth, while at the same time fossil fuels, which currently provide most of the energy to the economy, are becoming more expensive, difficult and problematic.

Owen Gray said...

Precisely, Hugh.