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Review: Escape From Suburbia

Christopher Hume, The Star (Canada)
The future – if there is one – won’t be kind to us.

Here we are, fully aware that the civilization we have created is wildly unsustainable, and yet we refuse to adapt. Though the appetite for change is growing, governments and business would have us believe we simply can’t afford to be smart.

But as Gregory Greene’s new movie, Escape From Suburbia, makes clear, we can’t afford not to change.

The 90-minute documentary, which will have its world premiere at 7 p.m. tonight at the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W.), follows on his controversial 2004 TV special, The End of Suburbia.

This time around, Greene and producer Dara Rowland concentrate more on what can be done than on what’s wrong.

…Greene has also included several couples who have decided to opt out of the North American Dream, so-called, to live more responsible, meaningful lives.

Rowland, who calls herself “totally optimistic,” insists that despite what’s happening, “we don’t realize how many of us want to do the right thing.”

We are paralyzed, she says, because, “we don’t know how to expect the unexpected any more. One thing we discovered about the psychology of change is that as long as today looks like yesterday, people assume tomorrow will also be the same as today. It isn’t until some crisis happens – something like a blackout – that people realize how vulnerable we are.”

But blackouts are child’s play compared to the upcoming oil shortage. …Though it’s hard to be precise, most agree this moment is no more than 15 or 20 years away.

But still tomorrow looks so much like today. Perhaps that’s why we keep voting for the Stephen Harpers and George Bushes, men who tell us what we want to believe, namely that everything’s okay.

Some of the most interesting episodes are those showing “leaders” such as Richard Nixon talking in the early 1970s about the need for “energy independence.” Poor old Jimmy Carter even had solar panels installed on the White House roof. As soon as Ronald Reagan succeeded him, he had them dismantled. And so it goes.
(28 June 2007)

Life after oil is coming… but will [Alberta] be ready?

Murray Sinclair, VUE Weekly
The coming ‘post-carbon’ economy doesn’t have to be the end of Alberta’s prosperity

The year is 2040. Symbolic of Edmonton’s rust-belt economy, electric cars whiz by an abandoned, derelict Refinery Row, although there are plans to turn part of the old complex into a petroleum heritage site. In a nearby run-down café, Chad and John talk about the boom years of their youth. They recall the time before Alberta got left behind, as governments and consumers worldwide turned away from dwindling oil and coal energy sources in a mass response to global warming and other environmental concerns. They discuss the time before downtown Calgary became an abandoned shell of empty buildings, before Fort McMurray turned into a ghost town, before so many of Alberta’s youth moved to Atlantic Canada to take plentiful jobs in the red-hot tidal-power industry. “We never thought Alberta’s boom would end,” says John. “Yeah,” replies Chad, looking philosophical. “But the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.”

This future shock scenario may sound far-fetched, especially with all the hype about Alberta’s current petroleum-driven boom and seemingly unending supply promised by the province’s oil sands.

But environmentalists are predicting a post-carbon or “carbon-constrained” future, when the world will use significantly less fossil fuels to the point where they will no longer be a main source of energy.

“We’re at the very beginning of the end of the oil age,” said Lindsay Telfer, director of the Sierra Club of Canada’s prairie chapter. “Our own government’s trying to struggle with it.”

After hearing the fictional dystopia described above, an analyst with the Pembina Institute replied “I don’t know if things would happen that dramatically.”

Jaisel Vadgama said the more likely conversation would be “if we had started planning, we could still have a vibrant economy, or a boom based on something else.

“We are certainly at risk of being left behind on new technologies,” Vadgama admitted. “Alberta could shoot itself in the foot.”…Another sign pointing to a post-carbon economy is “peak oil,” referring to the time when all the world’s available oil will be discovered, leading to a gradual fall in petro-production.

The CEO of Calgary’s Talisman Energy recently predicted that global oil production had already peaked, meaning that prices of the non-renewable resource will inevitably climb.

Telfer agrees, but noted that some feel production peaked as far back as 1990, while others say it will arrive later.

“We need to use less carbon. That’s going to hit us” before peak oil arrives, predicted Vadgama.
(28 June 2007)

Finding Needles in a Haystack

WebHubbleTelescope, Mobjectivist and also at The Oil Drum

In school, we used to do horrendously difficult mathematical “word” problems routinely. I remember occasionally getting one right, but more often ended up punting on the problem, and then waiting for the teacher to explain the solution in all its elegant simplicity. Of course, just about every real-world problem contains inherent ambiguities and incomplete information. So we rarely get to see the elegant solution in our day-to-day work life. Sometimes we get lucky and nail a problem, but in the majority of cases, we eventually resort to creating a limited model of the problem domain and deal with that.

The problem that I have recently wrestled with has to do with predicting future oil discoveries based on historical dynamics. Ideally, I want to reduce it to a solution that has the elegance of a word problem, and not have to deal with messy economic and geologic factors that would quickly turn it into a rat’s nest of complexity. Call me an optimist in this regard, but my intuition tells me that the solution remains as simple as … finding needles in a haystack.

Simple as finding a needle in a haystack? Perhaps not so in regard to the actual process, but simple as in the premise behind the problem. Let me explain why this provides a good primer to the oil discovery problem. Scaled back to relative terms, the ratio of needles to hay compares intuitively to the ratio of oil to the earth’s crust. So first and foremost, this rather naive analogy allows us to get our arms around a problem with just enough initial insight to get started– the description of which amounts to nothing more than imagining that the haystack acts like the earth’s crust and the needles serve as the pockets of oil. Statistically speaking, happening across a random needle in a haystack has a lot in common with running across a pocket of oil. We can also add technology and human incentive to the mix to extend the simple analogy before we migrate to the real problem.

So I present a starter word problem:

Given a large number of needles dispersed in a random spatial manner throughout a good-sized haystack, at what point in time would we find the maximum number of needles? As a nod to technology we get to monotonically increase our search efficiency as we dig through the stack, and we can add human helpers as we progress.

…Finally, one could question why no one else in the oil industry thinks in terms of this kind of discovery model, in other words, why hasn’t someone else found this proverbial needle in a haystack? Don’t ask me; for all I know, an analyst in some energy corporation’s back room has come up with the same idea and it has transformed into filing-cabinet intellectual property with no hope of seeing the light of day (i.e. what good would it do them financially?). Or perhaps, a similar idea remains buried in some academic journal, for which I lack the resources to discover on my own
(28 June 2007)
I’ve always been in awe of the posts about statistical models that WebHubbleTelescope (WHT) regularly posts on his blog, Mobjectivist. This looks like one of his better ones, and yet… I still can’t understand the significance of it.

Could this humble technical writer/journalist make some suggestions so that important ideas such as WHT’s become accessible to a much wider audience?

  • Give articles an alternate headline that summarizes the article. Cute headlines like “Finding needles in a haystack” should always be paired with another meaningful headline. For example: “Alternate oil depletion model avoids dubious assumptions”.

    Some online newspapers instead will provide a 1-3 sentence summary immediately after a cute headline. For example, at The Guardian today:

    Home to roost

    Twenty years ago, the red kite was more or less extinct in Britain; today, 2,000 are flying free. Conservationists have also successfully reintroduced sea eagles, ospreys, great bustards and ladybird spiders. What’s next – wolves?

  • For long, complex arguments such as WHT’s, readers appreciate introductory paragraphs that explain the context. For example:
    • What is the subject area?
    • What is the history of the problem?
    • What arguments are you responding to?
    • What point are you seeking to prove?
    • What will be the structure of your argument
    • WHY should people care?
  • The last paragraphs of an article should be used to summarize the message and suggest actions that people can take – What’s the bottom line?

Ireland stuck at crossroads … without fuel

Ralph Riegel, Independent (Ireland)
IRELAND will be one of the most exposed European economies to future carbon fuel shortages with a staggering 70pc of Irish electricity generation set to be derived from natural gas supplies.

The warning came as the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) previewed their landmark carbon fuel conference next September.

ASPO founder, Dr Colin Campbell, stressed yesterday that Ireland now faces a major crossroads in relation to energy dependency – with the emergence of the Green Party as Coalition Government partners assuming huge significance.

Dr Campbell acknowledged that if strategic decisions are taken now, Ireland could move from a position of being one of Europe’s most exposed economies to carbon fuel shortages to becoming a world leader in alternative energy development over the coming decades.

The academic said the appointment of Green Party TD Eamon Ryan as Energy and Natural Resources Minister could potentially have enormous implications for Ireland’s carbon fuel dependency – and stance on alternative energy sources.

The ASPO conference takes place in Cork from September 17-18 next and will have the theme ‘Time to React’.
(28 June 2007)

ASPO-6 conference in Cork Sept 17-18

ASPO-Ireland (from ODAC)
ASPO Ireland have announced that registration for ASPO-6 is now open. The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) will hold its 6th International Conference in Cork City Hall, Ireland on 17th – 18th September 2007. The Conference, entitled ‘Time to React?’, seeks to highlight a future where oil and gas demand outstrips supply.

The Conference will feature speakers who are leaders in the industry, with Dr. James Schlesinger (former US Secretary of Energy); Lord Ron Oxburgh (former Chairman of Shell UK ); Herman Franssen (former Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency); and Eddie O’Connor (Chief Executive of Airtricity) already confirmed. The Conference will be attended by over 500 delegates from across the globe.

The format of ASPO-6 is slightly different from previous ASPO conferences in that there are fewer presentations, but more time for general discussion.
Conference Speakers
Conference Agenda
ASPO-6 Home Page
(28 June 2007)
UPDATE: Fixed headlines that said “Dublin” rather than “Cork”.