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Deep thought - June 24

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage


My Home, My Shadow Home: Where We Really Live

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon's Book
... ecologist and ecological footprint inventor William Rees makes the case that cities (and really, not just cities, all people in the developed world) are rather like human feedlots, disconnected from the acreage on which they really “live” - ie, the acreage that supplies their food, energy and other needs.

... Now I think this is an acute assessment - but I hope it will not be taken simply as the sort of indictment of city life that many rural dwellers, who do not like city life, are inclined to make. Before I was a rural dweller, I lived in a number of cities, and I do like them. I do not think that cities will disappear, or that living in one is inevitably disastrous. Nor do I think that the above statement is inaccurate if you substitute the terms “suburban” or “rural” in most of the developed world - even in places where one potentially can meet most of one’s needs from the agricultural and natural resources readily available, few people do. But I think this is a tremendously useful way of thinking about this issue - to say that we truly live where our needs are met forces us to ask the question - if our lives are not in the places we reside, where are they? Where should they be?

Now to some degree, as long as there has been human trade, there have been “shadow acres” - that land that supplied needs that could not be locally met. It is a very ancient reality - there has been trade almost as long as there have been humans. And yet, there is a real and qualitative difference between societies that provide much of their own needs, and those that do not. Among other things, distance makes us willing to be exploitative - that is, we do not feel we have an incentive to preserve the acres of other people, far away, even if that land feeds or clothes us.

For cities, historically the surrounding outlands provided their food - often in literally reciprocal relationship. Rees mentions the enormous waste-management problem caused by urban population density - in much of the world, the reciprocity of that relationship was direct, food was brought in to the cities from the outlying countryside, while human wastes were brought out, to be applied back to the fields. While the direct application of human manures to the fields is not desirable, this relationship is almost certainly one that will have to be re-established - but one made difficult by the fact that our growing land is quite distant from most of our largest cities - the transmission of municipal manures would be enormously energy intensive, and the surrounding suburbs, densely populated themselves, cannot absorb them. That is, without large quantities of fossil fuels, there’s really no way to set up a truly sustainable system, in which waste becomes not a problem, but a benefit.
(22 June 2009)
The urban waste-management problem mentioned by Sharon is the same one that preoccupied 19th century thinkers, including Justus von Liebig and Karl Marx. See Liebig, Marx, and the depletion of soil fertility: relevance for today's agriculture. -BA




The financial return on energy invested

Euan Mearns, The Oil Drum: Europe
Global GDP has grown steadily and continuously since WWII, in step with a growing global population and primary energy consumption (see below). Oil shocks have caused recessions compensated by higher energy prices that have bolstered global GDP at time of recession in the non-energy economy.

A number of recent posts on The Oil Drum have explored the relationship between energy and the economy. Francois Cellier provided an overview of links between energy consumption and GDP on a per capita basis. This post will expand on the work of Francois taking a somewhat different approach. In a guest post, Ian Schindler provided an overview of the Ayres-Warr model of economic production which I found easier to read and understand than the original Ayres-Warr paper. Ian made some valuable points about the role of energy efficiency in promoting higher energy prices and higher energy production. David Murphy looked at the relationship between oil prices and rates of oil price change in relation to US GDP and growth whilst drawing attention to the view that the current recession was in part caused by high oil prices.

In this post I want to explore further links between energy consumption, GDP and energy prices.

... Industrialising China is on an energy intense trajectory whilst the "post-industrial" mature economies of Europe and the USA appear to be on energy efficient trajectories. This, however, is oversimplified. The flattening of the European and US trends introduces the possibility that GDP may be generated without increasing energy use. To an extent energy efficiency may allow this to happen (Figure 3). However, the mature economies benefit from generating GDP from imported goods, which has also caused growth in unsustainable trade imbalances (Figure 3). The energy embedded in these goods should rightly be added to the importing countries and deducted from the exporting countries to present a true picture. This is averaged out in the global view. The mature economies also benefit from phantom GDP which is described below.

... We are not yet at the point of peak fossil fuel supply though we are likely close to peak oil supply and since oil is the most convenient of the fossil fuels to use this is likely to exert a destabalising influence. When fossil fuel supplies do begin to fall, the only way that GDP can genuinely grow is through energy efficiency. As Ian Schindler pointed out, energy efficiency will facilitate higher energy prices and thus energy efficiency will promote higher GDP/ mmtoe, higher mmtoe produced and higher prices.

This may enable the global population and economy to grow beyond the date of peak fossil fuel supplies for a while at least? Herein lies one of the greatest paradoxes and threats to the human race. Improving energy efficiency is arguably a major part of our salvation from fossil fuel energy decline but this will merely allow population to grow to higher unsustainable levels. In arguing for energy efficiency measures one must therefore also argue for measures to ration energy use and population management. What chance in a world obsessed with extending life expectancy, reducing mortality rates and averse to birth control?
(23 June 2009)




The "Export Land Model" in English: NET is what matters, not gross

Walker, Love Salem

OPEC Crude Oil Production 2002-2006.The most significant graph you're likely to see all year. Image via Wikipedia

A commenter to the prior post mentioned Jeffrey (Westexas) Brown's "Export Land Model," which is a very, very important concept that I think everyone needs to be familiar with.

It's actually quite easy to understand, although I think the terms used are off-putting and confusing.

In a nutshell, the ELM says that, when it comes to oil exports, the only thing that matters is NET exports (the oil that crosses the borders, rather than the oil that comes out of the ground).

...Post-Carbon Oregon has a nice post on this with graphics, taken from The Oil Drum, the indispensable site for those who want to understand the major force propelling history right now.

As for me, I wish the "Export Land Model" (you can Google that and Jeffrey Brown to learn how that obscure name came to be) was better understood, particularly by those in jobs where an absence of leadership has serious consequences (elected officials, planners, etc.).

I think we need a grabby name that explains the concept in the name itself: I propose that, instead of referring to the "export land model," we talk about either the

  • Oil Producers' Export Contraction curve ("the OPEC curve"), or, if you prefer, the
  • Oil Exports' Continuous Decline curve ("the OECD curve")

(where OPEC is, of course, the acronym for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- the ones who are exporting a smaller and smaller share of a smaller and smaller total production each year -- and OECD are the initials of the group of rich countries that are going to be hammered by this inexorable process, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.) Both terms make the point that, on the whole, the amount of oil flowing from the first group (exporters) to the second (importers) is going to decline even faster than the decline in the amount coming out of the ground.

And, given the centrality of oil to our lives, this means that a "return to a growth economy" is probably a fantasy from here out.
(June 23, 2009)

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