Cornucopian catechism: Notes from Pittsburgh
. . . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, it fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch for.
- Douglas Adams.
In early March I visited the West Coast to discuss forming a nationwide coalition on how health care will be challenged and changed by global warming and peak oil. Unsurprisingly, the city governments of San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, as well as several smaller cities and counties in those states, are addressing these issues.
Once back home in Pittsburgh I pondered the incongruity of traveling 2,000 miles to meet with people who needed no prologue on the urgency of these problems. Sitting at my desk everything looked unfamiliar; I felt like I had just fallen through an antediluvian wormhole. This is a typical grass-is-greener reaction; but the feeling persisted and I decided to engage my hometown’s leaders.
I began by sending emails to local and state politicians. I described the activities taking place out west and asked them to ponder the Portland Peak Oil Task Force Report. I have received not one reply, probably because to acknowledge a problem implies some level of responsibility/culpability when the blame game begins. I also suspect some or all of them found my communication “anthropologically strange,” because most health care professionals I have talked with in Pittsburgh are both naïve about the role of energy in medicine and simply cannot believe we are entering an era of energy scarcity.
Simultaneously I contacted several foundations and “Green” organizations; specifically asking them to look at Portland’s Peak Oil Task Force Report and --if they would not mind- get back to me on what relevance it had for our city. One foundation president forwarded my email to his economic development director –an interesting choice over his environmental area. This director replied, “We [have] … a sensible agenda around alternative energy … using market-based mechanisms as one way to achieve progress toward environmental sustainability.” She would not comment of the Portland Task Force Report; and “sensible” is code for don’t mess with economic growth as well as, I conjecture, for dismissing peak oil as “non-sensible.”
Sensible = "Don’t mess with economic growth"
As for the two “Green” organizations, peak oil is of no relevance to their work; indeed to acknowledge peak oil would isolate them from community leaders --and from funding. In email exchanges with the executive director of one of them, a “sustainability” group that promotes “Smart Growth,” I could not get a straight answer on the Portland report. After several attempts he reverted to sloganeering:
Pittsburgh … has undertaken … to reduce greenhouse gas emissions... [which] presents the city with great opportunities for improving the global climate, the local environment, the local economy, and will enhance Pittsburgh’s reputation as an environmentally progressive city.
I then met with an official of the other “Green” group, a state-wide public action organization focused on energy policy. Its motto is --I’m not kidding-- “Every environmental victory grows the economy.” She has heard of peak oil but knows little about it. She told me, “I’m afraid leaders in Pittsburgh don’t want to discuss scarcity. They’re about how to create jobs and grow the economy. So how do you do that with peak oil?” Her organization also had no comment on the Portland report.
A few weeks later these “Green” organizations co-sponsored an afternoon seminar on “Business Strategies in a Carbon Constrained World” at Carnegie-Mellon University. From the event flyer we learn, “Pittsburgh … is emerging as a leader in the policy, practice, and business of sustainable development, [and] addressing climate change presents an economic opportunity and necessity.” I translate this as: business can no longer ignore global warming, so let’s earn profits from it.
The president of the university gave opening remarks in which he revealed that “I live a half mile from the campus but still drive to work everyday –I hope to change that in the future.” This confirmed my suspicion that the biggest peak oil and climate change “mitigation wedges,” conservation and altering our highly consumptive lifestyles, were not on the agenda. In fact, they were never mentioned during this panel discussion. However, one panelist did let some anxiety slip in, “We might have to look at how we live,” and, realizing this heresy, sought to soothe the audience and his co-panelists with, “Of course business is about growth and economic progress, not stagnation.”
The president concluded with what I took to be a veiled reference to Vinod Khosla, “In Silicon Valley, they see global warming as the next big thing.” He felt this view a bit flippant but said it underscores the larger truth that “corporations are the levers … that determine what’s going to happen…”
To his credit, the president succinctly laid out the corporate worldview, which is integrated into the culture of Carnegie-Mellon University. In my estimation, however, as peak oil and climate change unfold corporations will no longer be “drivers,” they will be in danger of decline and perhaps collapse.
Finessing peak oil
The panel had six members, two corporate representatives, one from a sustainability institute, a business writer, a professor from the university (who also served as moderator), and a research fellow/“real estate developer” at the university. Rather than summarizing each presentation, I will focus on how the peak oil challenge was, in my opinion, finessed but not addressed by the panel. This requires speculation on my part since the phrase was never uttered.
Although the speaker from the sustainability institute warned, “We have a long way to go” … and “I’m not sure we grasp the magnitude of the challenge,” of creating “a completely different energy system” he nonetheless –and perhaps contradictorily—said we could continue to use fossil fuels by sequestering greenhouse gasses. Another panel member said, “we know one day oil will be gone, so we’ve got to admit that coal, which we have in abundance in America, got a bad rap. We’ve got to give coal –clean coal—a chance. After all, we’ve got 300 years of it left.”
The panel moderator agreed. (Parenthetically, in a discussion on peak oil with him a year ago he had told me “there’s nothing to worry about regarding oil in your lifetime.” To which I replied, “Well, let’s discuss the Hirsch Report as a point of reference.” He responded, “I’m not familiar with it.” One really should not be surprised by this; academics often work on the same topic but in different paradigms that take little notice of the literature supporting competing paradigms. He had no knowledge of The Oil Drum or Energy Bulletin, preferring to secure his information on oil reserves from CERA and other “optimistic” estimations.)
The panel agreed that “clean coal” was a viable mitigation option for global warming –that is the reason they gave for turning to it as a major source of energy.
I found it interesting that one panelist addressed peak natural gas without ever uttering the word “peak.” His project is described in the panel brochure as “a [coal] gasification initiative co-sponsored by Carnegie-Mellon … and Harvard.” He presented a graph showing that domestic natural gas production has reached –not a peak, tut, tut-- our old acquaintance the “undulating plateau,” which, according to the graph, undulates off the page into the next century. He said “The supply of natural gas is going to remain constant, so we need to come up with a substitute to meet demand growth.” He allowed as how there “were a few issues to be ironed out” before gasified “clean coal” would work, but they all were well on their way to being solved.
Lots of coal left ... next question?
During the short Q & A period I asked the panel, “Are you aware of a study recently done in Germany reporting that world coal estimates are vastly overstated, perhaps by as much as 80 to 90%? If this is so --and holding in abeyance all the other objections to it-- what sense does it make to invest in coal?” This got a swift reply, “There’s lots of coal left,” said the moderator. “Yes, there’s lots of coal left,” agreed the gasification advocate, “however” ---here it comes—“it will get a little harder to extract in a few years.” I murmured to myself: “Well, at least it’s not going to peak.”
Then I noted to myself that there is no academic warrant for rejecting a study one has not examined; but there is if one is defending a way of life and worldview.
What will happen to Pittsburgh after oil? In an email exchange with a well-known author he noted that Pittsburgh is geographically well situated to survive because of the three rivers that meet here. That is something I had not appreciated and, though correct, I would add in contrast that our collective spiritual, social and psychological frame of mind sadden me because we are thoroughly ensconced in the belief system that makes warming an economic development opportunity and peak oil nonexistent.
Nature R Us
Let me end with a quotation that sums up my differences with the Pittsburgher’s I describe above.
There is a long history of the discussion of the ideas of man vs. nature, or man outside of nature, or man in nature. The first and second views … are breathtakingly ignorant (the more polite label is “cornucopian”).
In the mid-19th century it was common for a doctor to move directly from one patient to the next without washing his hands, or to move from performing an autopsy on a diseased body to examining a living person. Semmelweis hypothesized that "particles" introduced into the women caused puerperal fever, and that these particles were spread on the hands of the doctors and students. Semmelweis ordered that hands be washed in a chlorine solution before each examination. Mortality rates among women attended by doctors and medical students quickly dropped from 18.27 to 1.27 percent. ...His observations went against the current scientific opinion of the time, which blamed diseases (among other quite odd causes) on an imbalance of the basic "four humours" in the body, a theory known as dyscrasia. ...The Semmelweis Reflex is the dismissing or rejecting out of hand any information, automatically, without thought, inspection, or experiment. From Wikipedia-BA