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Infrastructure for the Future We Want

Alex Steffen, WorldChanging
Infrastructure bores us. Most people in the developed world spend a significant portion of their incomes primarily to avoid ever having to think of the infrastructure we use, or the implications of the way we use it. Therefore, we ignore it.

But like most of the ignored products of our minds, infrastructure is about to demand that pay it attention once more. Throughout the developed world, so called infrastructure deficits — large accumulated backlogs of needed work on existing infrastructural systems, and newer demands for infrastructure that go unmet — are growing rapidly.

Nowhere is this more true than in the U.S., where a study done last year by the Urban Land Institute, Infrastructure 2007: A Global Perspective, found that we’d have to spend $1.6 trillion dollars to bring our infrastructure up to date.

Now you don’t have to agree with ULI’s ideas about what up to date means (they’re long on totally discredited ideas like new freeway construction and automotive infrastructure) to realize what numbers like that mean: America is falling apart at the seams.

… Most of the infrastructure we use today was designed a century ago: some of it is based on ideas that go back to the Roman Empire. Almost all of it is at best industrial in its thinking. Essentially all of it was designed for a world without climate change, resource scarcity or any proper understanding of the value of ecosystem services. In other words, most of the systems upon which we depend are not only in a state of critical disrepair, they’re out-dated and even out of touch with the realities of our century.
(13 February 2008)

Tapped out

Ofri Ilani, Haaretz (Israel news)
What will life look like 10 years from now? Most people work on the assumption that it will resemble life today, more or less. Yaron Hochman, on the other hand, sees things differently.

“In another 10 years, mankind will be busy with one main issue – finding ways of making do without oil, but continuing to do most of the things we do today,” he says. “People are constantly asking when the world oil supply will run out, but that is not a relevant question. The question is, at what point will world production rates begin to decline? That moment will arrive very soon. We received a gift of a huge energy reservoir, but soon we will have to figure out how to get along without it.”

Hochman, 26, from Jerusalem, studied biology at university, but now he works in gardening. The changing point occured three years ago, when he understood how extreme the changes in our lives would be. “The climbing global price of oil is neither temporary nor coincidental,” he writes on his blog,, the only blog in Hebrew devoted to the end of the oil era. “The world is about to face a historic event, unparalleled in its scope and its implications for the human species … We are now in the twilight of the modern era.”

Hochman says that these insights led him to prepare a “Plan B” for his life. “When I started to read about the decreasing oil resources, this really shook me. This was a moment of awakening,” he says. “As soon as you grasp the idea that oil is being exhausted, every day you find new aspects of the change that is about to take place. Oil is the oxygen of our civilization. All the systems around us are almost entirely based on it. We all have become addicted to a lifestyle based on a resource that is being exhausted. It is better not to wait for this drug to run out, and to try to wean ourselves beforehand. Whatever we do will make life easier.”

…If the oil supply indeed begins swiftly diminishing, the struggle for resources could turn into an all-out war, and nations with oil resources could nationalize them and cut off other countries.

And what will happen to these other countries?

“It is impossible to say,” says Noam Segal, of the School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Some of countries will have oil and some will not, and this apparently will give rise to giant waves of migration. We are talking about mankind being forced to deal with a massive change. The current economic system will not be able to continue, and this requires a change in the way of thinking.”

In his doctoral thesis, written under the instruction of Dr. Avi Gottlieb, Segal is examining the attitude of the political system and the media toward the oil crisis. He found that they are largely ignoring the issue.

…In the U.S., quite a few communities of “survivors” are already preparing for life in the next stone age. Some of them are stockpiling barrels of oil or building isolated houses in far-off places that get their energy from solar panels. Others are learning to supply their basic needs, such as food, water and heating, by themselves or through people in their immediate surroundings.

In Israel, there are only a few people who are making preparations for a future of this kind. Most are young people who encountered information about the oil crisis on the Web or in lectures. Pavel Gosenfeld from Petah Tikva is one of them. Gosenfeld grows lettuce and two kinds of tomatoes in the garden next to his house. “I live in a building with 10 floors, and with six square meters, I grow a significant portion of the vegetables that my family eats,” he says.
(14 February 2008)

What are the Sustainability Implications of Peak Population?

Alex Steffen, WorldChanging
Sometime in the latter half of this century, human population will peak. Having swelled to a bit over nine billion people, our numbers will begin to drop as people age and women worldwide pass through the urban transition, gain control over their own life-choices and have fewer children.

After that, population will proceed to decline by the middle of the 22nd century to a number somewhere between 8.5 billion and 5.6 billion (depending it seems largely on whose assumptions about longevity growth you find most credible).

That’s pretty much the consensus position among demographers (though there is a range of belief about when the peak will happen and whether we can expect to more or less plateau at 8.5 billion or experience a long bumpy slope to a stable-state population of about 6 billion). Note that we don’t need to assume any sort of apocalypse here: this is the orderly progression of human beings passing through a post-industrial demographic threshold you can already see in cultures from Japan to Italy to Finland.

Note, too, that the major difference, if I’m reading the studies right, between a 22nd century with 8.5 billion people and one with 6 billion is the number of old people. We live now on a planet of children and youth, with a world median age (in 2000) of about 26. By 2100 it will be 44 years, if U.N. demographers (PDF) are correct. If that median age continues to rise because life expectancies continue to rise, we’ll end up with a flatter global population including a lot of people who are by today’s standards extremely old; if the growth in life expectancy levels off, we’ll see a gradual decline in population (and I suppose it is even possible that radical life-extension could mean that population continues to grow… which could have very grave consequences).

But let us, for the sake of argument, take a middle ground position. Let us assume that human population peaks about 2070, that we experience modest but constant life-expectancy gains and low fertility rates, and we end up with, say, a little over 7 billion people sharing the planet by the middle of next century. Why does this matter?

We’d have two essential tasks here: the first is a well-understood challenge of seeing humanity to that peak with the least possible permanent damage to the planet and vital human institutions — essentially, building a bright green future 9 billion people can share; the second is one I don’t think I’ve heard any discussion of, which is planning that bright green future with the different needs in mind of the shrinking, aging population to follow.

We might think of this a two-stage process: working to see a young humanity safely through the shoals of this century while preparing the groundwork for a more mature humanity to live happily in the centuries to come.

How we design our answers to the immediate crisis will have, it seems to me, much to do with the conditions faced by our great-great grandchildren in the next couple centuries.
(10 February 2008)

Replacing ourselves

Editorial, Ottawa Citizen
Worrying about the declining birth rate can seem like standing against the tide. It’s a worldwide trend with complex causes. It is, however, not irreversible.

The birth rate in the United States recently hit a 35-year high. For the first time since the early 1970s, women there are finally having enough children to replace the population.

That replacement rate is 2.1 children per women. In Canada, each woman will have, on average, 1.5 children. Most industrialized countries are in similar situations; the United States is an exception. But if the U.S. can reverse a decline in fertility, perhaps Canada can too.

As the Citizen’s Pauline Tam showed in her recent series, “The Age of Methuselah”, the decline in birth rate is part of a larger, and worrying, demographic shift. Canada is getting older. That has consequences for the labour market, for social services, for family dynamics.
(11 February 2008)
Rooting for a rise in population. -BA

Hierarchy must grow, and is therefore unsustainable

Jeff Vail, rhizome
This first essay in a five-part series, The Problem of Growth, looks at hierarchal human systems and explains why their structures fundamentally demand continuous growth. The second installment will investigate what causes and sustains hierarchy. The third, fourth, and fifth installments will formulate an alternative to hierarchy that addresses its cause, not merely its symptoms, along with proposals to apply this alternative at both the personal and societal levels.

Why must hierarchy continually grow and intensify? Within the context of hierarchy in human civilization, there seem to be three separate categories of forces that force growth. I will address them in the order (roughly) that they arose in the development of human civilization:

Human Psychology Drives Growth

Humans fear uncertainty, and this uncertainty drives growth. Human population growth is partially a result of the desire to ensure enough children survive to care for aging parents. Fear also drives humans to accept trade-offs in return for security.

One of the seeds of hierarchy is the desire to join a redistribution network to help people through bad times-crop failures, drought, etc. Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, is a prime anthropological example of this effect.
(11 February 2008)
Jeff Vail is an author, former intelligence officer, and law student. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. rhizome is “weekly notes on the emergent system, geopolitics, energy & philosophy.”