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Our tails get in the way: The problems and principles of energy descent

"How did you get there, Roo?" asked Piglet.

"On Tigger's back! And Tiggers can't climb downwards, because their tails get in the way, only upwards, and Tigger forgot about that when we started, and he's only just remembered. So we've got to stay here for ever and ever - unless we go higher. What did you say, Tigger? Oh, Tigger says if we go higher we shan't be able to see Piglet's house so well, so we're going to stop here."

-AA Milne, "The House At Pooh Corner"

Note: I wrote this essay several years ago, and have been thinking about it a lot in relationship to the BP problem, so I thought it was worth a rerun. I think in some ways the Deepwater Horizon issue has been a perfect example of a "tail in our way" problem - we used our cool technologies to be able to drill 5 miles under the ocean - but now we can't get down. Also this is the week Eric and I have an actual overnight without the kids, something that happens about once every thousand years or so ;-).

My kids were out climbing trees yesterday, supervised by Eric and our visiting friend and my honorary brother, "Uncle" Jesse. Isaiah really wanted to climb up to a particular spot, but couldn't get there on little four year old legs. Jesse helped him up part of the way, and then told him he had to do it himself, or be content with where he could get to. Jesse observed, "I wanted to give him a boost, but only up to a place he could get back down from himself."

I was struck by what a useful metaphor, and perhaps even principle was embodied in that casual statement. I was also reminded, perhaps because I've now read _Winnie The Pooh_ to my children approximately 1000 times, of the classic representation of what happens when you climb up and can't climb down.

Let us imagine human beings climbing up a rather steep and precarious tree, boosted up by fossil energies into a place we simply could never get to without them. The problems we are facing right now all originate in our fundamental inability to voluntarily set limits - that is, at no point did most of us even recognize the basic necessity of stopping at a point at which we could get down on our own, without our petrocarbon helpers. So right now we look like Tiggers high in the trees - we can climb up but we can't climb down. Is the problem our fears or that our tails (our structural addictions to energy) get in the way? It can be hard to tell. But what is not terribly hard to tell is that one way or another, we have to come down - and probably quite rapidly. The goal is to avoid a painful "thud" upon descent.

Why do we have to come down? Well, there are two compelling reasons, which will be entirely familiar to my regular readers, but perhaps are worth rehashing. The first is this. We can't keep burning fossil fuels - period. And we have very, very little time to make our choices not nearly as much time as we need to make a smooth, easy descent.

The problems we face have several names. Peak oil, which the Hirsch report suggests requires a 20 year lead time before we reach an oil peak - a peak that even optimistic sources suggest is much less than 20 years from now (the USGS, for example, uses 2023, many sources suggest much sooner - the US Army JOE report anticipates major constraints within 2-5 years).

But even if we had all the fossil fuels we wanted, we know we can't burn them. The recent IPCC update, the Copenhagen Diagnosis, before that ill-fated conference, pointed out that if we don't begin making rapid changes before 2015 it won't matter what we do. Because it is unlikely we will radically alter our entire basic energy structure in the next 4 1/2 years by any estimate, that means we effectively have to stop burning fossil fuels, and those changes will have to come out of substantive conservation.

Moreover, all of our analyses begin from the premise that we have a fairly stable economy, and can expect fairly stable economic terms. This does not seem to be correct - and whatever accomodations we make, they will be taken in difficult financial circumstances.

That's another reason we have to get down from the tree. Both the world's poor and the US poor are increasingly being priced out of energy markets. A growing deflation means that energy and everything else is being rationed by price - we can see this in rising utility rate shutoffs, for example. Deflation most likely has further to go and more of us are in danger of experiencing real shortages of energy for meeting basic needs. Whether those shortages of food, energy or other resources arise from absolute shortages or simply because of inequity and our price rationing system doesn't really matter. The simple fact is that we must either find useful ways to climb down rapidly or simply pitch out of our tree as rising costs make the crisis acute.

There is a great deal of talk about the potential of this renewable technology or another, about how if we just do this and this and this, we can get carbon emissions down, or help people adapt. Generally speaking, these plans fail to take into account several factors. They are:

1. The sheer scope of the problem. This is partly denial and partly the fact that the science has changed so rapidly. For example, when the proposed climate changes in the US were imagined, reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 seemed likely to prevent us reaching 2 degrees of warming. Now we know that climate sensitivity is greater than previously anticipated, and that's not enough. And yet, many analyses of costs and feasibility still rely on this older date.

Then there's peak oil - for years, we were told that the declines would be a slow and stately 2% or so. Then came Jeffrey Brown's useful Export Land Model and the IEA's own projections that suggest declines could come more rapidly. And, of course, we've also seen energy costs play out in arenas that people didn't expect, and in ways no one quite predicted, spiking food prices, for example.

2. The scope of all the problems put together. Nearly everyone doing this work is completely out of their fields on some level. Climate scientists are usually not petroleum geologists, and vice versa. Neither are either generally economists, and thus expert on how global economic crisis is likely to impact what we can expect to do. Nor are economists, climate scientists or geologists usually ethicists, writers who can communicate issues effectively or experts in issues of justice, geopolitics or agriculture.

It would not be inaccurate to say that no one fully understands what I like to call the "Crisis Ourobouros" that is, the disaster that is always swallowing its own tail. And because no one full understands it, and most people are experts only in one area, it is very hard to come to a clear analysis, say, of how a growing deleveraging and economic instability and volatility in energy prices will constrain a future build out to address energy shortages. The feedback loops don't just exist within climate change and peak oil, but in the whole of our present situation.

Although a few scientists and writers have done compelling analyses of how climate change and peak oil are likely to impact one another, they have barely begun to look at the giant iceberg of what faces us. Indeed, in many cases, thinkers who are wholly sound on the subject of one area simply don't grasp the magnitude of the other problems.

3. How urgent things are. I frequently run into people who believe all of these things are real problems - but that they will definitely wait until it is convenient for them, ideally after they are dead, to become difficult and actively inconveniencing. But this is not necessarily the case - one can be hopeful without being unrealistic.

Not only do radical emission cuts have to be made now, we are running up against other constraints. As capital tightens, the economy struggles and our infrastructure frays, we may well have a very limited period in which we can build renewable energy capacity, or reinsulate homes. We may simply have to do some serious triaging, recognizing that each of our pet build-out strategies may never come to fruition. The emphasis, then, has to be on strategies that return to us even if they are halted by fossil fuel supply constraints, loss of capital or other crisis. That is, we have to do things that will help us even if we can't do everything - that have interim benefits.

4. The costs of the solutions. Most renewable build out analyses don't contain a full, fair analysis of their climate implications, a gaping hole in analysis that must be filled. That is, a build out that gets our emissions way down but does so with an emissions cost that pushes us past tipping points is obviously a failed solutino. The odds are very good that some or even many build-out strategies will simply turn out to be far too carbon intensive to keep up anything like our present life going. They may also simply be too expensive.

We may simply have waited too long for a renewable build out on a vast scale to be feasible. In any case, we have almost certainly waited too long to make a smooth transition, as many analyses document - that is, we have waited too long to have our new renewable supplies waiting for us to evenly switch from oil and coal to sun and wind. That is, even if we can do a renewable build out, several decades of drastic conservation are likely upon us, as we cut back our emissions while we await the results of what the Hirsch report and other research suggests will be a very long term project.

The other cost that hasn't been fully calculated is the economic one. Overwhelmingly we are told that green solutions will be good for the economy. This is the most arrant nonsense of our times - and most analyses in that regard are based on far lower emissions cuts than are even remotely acceptable. Stabilizing emissions will involve among other things, huge cuts in consumer spending, because there is no way to make a perfectly green VCR, flat screen, or foot massager. They still use resources - lots of them. The truth is that consumer spending alone would probably be enough to tip us into major recession, and since we're already heading that way, the word "depression" is probably appropriate. If we act, we are going to have to act fast, with little money, little credit and careful calculations of emissions costs. This is not happy news, but it is no less correct for being unpleasant. The only good reason to do so is that we have seen as the Stern Report and others indicate, that the economic costs of not acting are much higher.

5. The sheer cowardice of most of us. The blunt truth is that we are very close to being past the point at which anything will do us any good at all. And my own sense is that because we're so close to the verge, and unsure of whether we may have crossed it already, many people would rather we imagine ourselves to be well past it, so that they are not required to make the hefty sacrifices. And most people cringe from the notion of telling an energy-addicted populace that the solutions we have to come up with rapidly probably involve a great deal of hardship, economic suffering and a host of other bad things. How much easier to argue that we can refine a little on our present situation and essentially have what we have had?

There are some people with the courage to tell the truth, however almost none of them are elected to office (it is virtually impossible to elect someone who tells hard truths), and those who do tend to be tarred with the brush of apocalyptic fantasists. It is generally easier to talk about technical possibilities than to deal with the real possibility that even technically possible solutions may fail for lack of money, energy, political will or for their potential to crash carbon limits. This cowardice may, in the end, be our final undoing.

And it will hurt us not only because of the enormous political difficulties (greater, even than the technical ones) of addressing peak energy or climate change, but also because our fear of mentioning self-sacrifice makes the political opposition to this situation more acute. The simple fact is that we are taking precisely the wrong course as we de-emphasize self sacrifice - and everything we do to reinforce the idea that people will have essentially the same lifestyle that they have reinforces their inevitable sense of betrayal when that proves not to be the case. We are, in fact, seeing that sense of betrayal in working class and lower income families joining tea parties to express their sense that they have lost a basic access to a decent way of life.

What could work - with great difficulty - is for us to enlist our fellows in a great project of courage and self-sacrifice - engage those people who feel least a part of this society. People climb mountains, run marathons, march off to be killed at war, and engage in all sorts of grand, painful and difficult challenges because doing so expresses their sense of honor, their courage, their patriotism, their love for others. As long as we fear to call upon one another to sacrifice, as long as we sell the narrative that an essentially similar life is possible, as long as we deny the costs, we will give up the greatest tool we have - the passionate energy of those who are doing what must be done for a better future. There is no certainty that such a course would be successful, of course, but it could hardly be less successful than our current strategies.

So what tools have we left in this time of great exigency and crisis? What are our options to get out of the tree? How do we get the tails out of the way, and overcome the enormous fear we have when the boosting power is taken away.

To my mind, there are a few relevant principles that are needed to get us to go in the true direction we need to go.

1. In the absence of a full and fair peer reviewed literature that clearly delineates a best course in a technological sense, the presumption must be towards more conservative estimates. As James Hansen notes, we may actually have to get to 300 ppm. That means that the emphasis should be on not making emissions now, on quick reductions rather than slow ones, on widely accessible solutions rather than expensive ones. The goal must be the dramatic reduction of industrial emissions quite quickly. The precautionary principle must be put into play routinely in any large scale planning for the future.

2. Renewable energies will be built, but they must be built at a pace that doesn't push the climate over the edge, and that allows for the fact that future generations may want to use a bit of fossil energy too. That is, we cannot blow any limits doing this - our build out will almost certainly have to be gradual, and probably comparatively slow until the total density of renewables is great enough to power regeneratively. Until/if we have enough renewable energies to actually power the construction of more renewables - not in theory, but in reality. In the very short term, this means massive constriction of access to energy, while hopefully, the future of energy for our posterity becomes brighter than it is.

3. Human and animal powered technologies can and should fill in the gaps. With 6.7 billion people and growing, human power is the most abundant and underused energy resource on the planet. For systems, such as agriculture and local transport, that can be easily human powered, and in fact, improve in efficiency when human powered, we must make much greater use of human resources.

This will, of course, require a massive restructuring of the economy - paying people well to grow and make and produce things people actually need and also to provide care and support to other people, while paying them badly to make cheap plastic crap or defend the manufacturers of such crap in court, in complete opposition to everything we've set into place. Thus, this will not be easy and will require a great deal of change - if it is possible.

4. All solutions should, as mentioned above, work even if the project cannot be finished or scaled as desired. That is, we need to triage and emphasize projects that are feasible in the current situation within its timescale and other limits, that also get us part way there, even if we can't go the whole distance. Currently, we have few mechanisms to prioritize, but we need to think hard about what matters most to our quality of life. For example, providing power for public water pumping, education and health care should preceed providing renewable power to private homes. Public resources must be prioritized over private ones. This would, of course, massively overturn the trend towards privization, and howls of fury will go up in all sectors of the economy. Tough.

5. All solutions must work on a world scale. China and India will not accept a lower standard of living than we have, and will not reduce their coal burning and car usage if we demand that we all keep our cars and run our a/c any time we get warm. Neither will Russia. No narrative that includes the underlying idea that we're going to keep using more energy than most other people can possible address climate change - period. I

If we're going to have fridges, others will. If we're going to have private cars, others will. Now it is perfectly possible that China and India and Russia won't follow our lead - or rather, that they will continue to follow our lead and won't follow our final change of heart. But there is no hope whatsoever that anyone, in any nation will ever accept the idea "Oh, we'll just use more, and you can bear the consequence - you won't mind, will you?" They mind. So any solution we have has to involve equitable use - period. Otherwise, other nations will attempt to achieve what we have, and we already understand the basic math that says everyone cannot have this. That way leads to a worldwide game of apocalyptic chicken.

So when we figure out our plans for the future, they need to look rather like 'a fair share' as little as most of us are accustomed to that thinking. The basic assumption here is "kindergarten ethics" - that is, if there isn't enough for everyone, you don't get a private one either. Think back to how you learned to share, and we need to begin the large process of establishing a way of life for the developed nations that retains what is valuable about modernity while also accepting a shift to using and having less. This will not be easy, but without a new dream to aspire to, we will continue to fail.

6. Finally, we are going to have to rethink how high in the tree we can and should be. That is, in many cases the energy we've used hasn't gotten us nearly as much as we think it has - not in happiness, not in our declining real wealth, not in security. What it has done is get us treed.

It has also given us tails that get in the way of getting out. It has placed us in an enormously vulnerable situation - one that may well cause enormously more misery than doing without the energies in the first place would have. That vulnerability is economic, political, moral and physical - we now risk a devastating fall. So any future analysis of how the world should look must also take into account the real question of where in the branches we want to stay. It should be low enough that, have we waited too long and courted disaster too badly, any further falls will be merely inconvenient, and not disastrous.

As Milne puts it,

"I thought," said Piglet earnestly, "that if Eeyore stood at the bottom of the tree, and if Pooh stood on Eeyore's back, and if I stoood on Pooh's shoulders - "

"And if Eeyore's back snapped suddenly, then we could all laugh. Ha ha! Amusing in a quiet way," said Eeyore, "but not really helpful."

"Well," said Piglet meekly, "I thought - "

"Would it break your back, Eeyore?" asked Pooh, very much surprised.

"That's what would be so interesting, Pooh. Not being quite sure till afterwards."

Since the blunt and painful truth is that we are simply not sure whether we have placed the final straw on the camel's back, whether we have waited too long with both climate change and peak oil to avert the worst consequences, we must work from a radically different set of principles, and with awareness that what we have done so far is not adequate to the task at hand. We must simultaneously work to avert disaster and prepare for our own failure. As Eeyore notes, that is what will be so very interesting.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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