Helpful round-up of the week’s environmental news from around the world, from Debra on Under the Pecan Leaves:
News includes marches against Monsanto, two counties in Oregon ban GMOs, wildfires take hold in Arizona, waste water from fracking damages streams, radioactive water from Fukushima being released into the Pacific, and a lot more.
…but let’s not worry about that yet, say the crowd in the pub.
An asteroid might or might not slam into Earth, but there are more immediate dangers to understand. Richard Heinberg — link below — argues that we must build more resilience into our straining, breaking systems — environmental, social, political, economic… In ‘Fingers in the dike’ on http://www.resilience.org, Richard Heinberg looks at the unpleasant interactions between energy, money and climate systems:
The ways that we compartmentalise and certificate knowledge are, I think, partly to blame for the difficulty we have in visualising our world as a complex adaptive system in which the linkages between component parts are as critical as the parts themselves. The people who analyse the functioning of broad systems, across the boundaries of traditional ‘subjects’ are often on the receiving end of academic and political marginalisation, sadly.
The Sustainable Development Commission had a greenwash type of name but, led by Jonathon Porritt, it acted as a subtle ecological conscience for the United Kingdom. It was an advisory link between government departments, and a reminder that systems do not stop at the exits of ministerial domains.
The commission was abolished by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government in 2010. In fact, axing the commission was one of this government’s early acts, although the British people were told it would be the “greenest government ever”, a misleading statement which adds to the widespread distrust of politicians, and to apathy.
Both Richard Heinberg and Gail Tverberg (what is it about the bergs?) see clearly how systems form interacting hierarchies that should not be analysed solely in isolation from each other. Gradually the power of their arguments is gaining support from green-minded people.
Pat Dodd Racher
Thought-provoking from New Economics Foundation:
Why are people so suspicious of politics? Not only politicians, but politics too. Political debate is at the heart of democracy. Even our limited democracy, for most confined to an occasional vote, is better than none at all – that way lies the resurgence of slavery and totalitarianism, which are both evident in more of the world than we may imagine.
The idea of politics as a fundamental element of our society has to become strongly rooted again, and this is why Plaid Cymru had a stall at Llandovery’s busy Sheep Festival last weekend (Saturday and Sunday September 29 and 30, 2012). Over the two days of this popular festival in east Carmarthenshire, hundreds of people made circuits of the stands in the big striped marquee, in what was just as much a social as a commercial occasion – bumping into friends and neighbours, exchanging news. Our stand was between two enticing ones, selling hand-made wool-topped footstools and woollen clothing hand-spun from sheep with fleeces of many shades.
Lots of passers-by looked at our stand, and on the Saturday – fine and sunny – several children were attracted to the sheep-and-farmyard colouring competition. It was different on Sunday, when the rain was horizontal, the wind tore at the sides of the tent, and the temperature was many degrees lower. Most of the smaller children, swathed in waterproof clothing, looked as though they would rather be at home. The adults seemed readier, on the whole, to talk about the aims of the Transition Town movement than about Plaid’s policies (we had Transition Town Llandeilo information sheets on the stand). Is this because Transition Towns are seen as non-political?
The Green agendas of Transition Towns and Plaid Cymru overlap. For both, sustainability into a resource-poor, climate-challenged future is a top priority. Transition Town members work up small-scale practical solutions such as new allotments, community orchards, local currencies, barter systems, and volunteer-led enterprises like village shops that could not survive if left to face supermarket competition on their own.
The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2012 tells us (p.44) that “If everyone lived like an average resident of the USA, a total of four earths would be required to regenerate humanity’s annual demand on nature”. The UK is not quite as profligate, but is still depleting our planet two and a half times faster than it can regenerate, an overshoot that led the Welsh Assembly Government to release One Wales One Planet in 2009, representing “Our new vision of a sustainable Wales, based on using only our fair share of the earth’s resources.”
As yet unspoken is the detail of how we attain this necessary objective. Many of the people who came to the Sheep Festival were ready to do their bit, by growing their vegetables, recycling more, cutting back on fossil fuel use, but there is still a gap between these individual efforts and the national good intentions.
Different parties, different gaps: Labour at their annual conference this week appear to have ditched green policy in favour of spend, spend, spend and build, build, build. The Conservatives can be green-tongued but their tongues are somewhat severed from their Gradgrind policies. LibDems cast some green splodges on Conservative agendas, but softening the hard Tory edges has become their defining feature, rather than distinctive ideas of their own. That’s how it seems from where I sit, at least. No wonder why so many of us look on politics as a disreputable game of trading insults – but as Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (House of Commons, November 11 1947).
If we don’t plan a rapid reduction in our consumption of resources that are not renewable, the alternative is likely to be a much more uncomfortable rationing by ability to pay, or even by ability to defend your local resources from raiding by others, in ferocious Viking fashion perhaps. We can’t create a radically different, more sustainable society without participating in political discussion and planning. So thank you, Sheep Festival, for the opportunity to be there, and here’s to next year’s event!
This post is a link to environmentalist, novelist and poet Wendell E Berry ‘s lecture last Monday, April 23, on the necessity of attachment to place and community.
Here are just two paragraphs from the lecture, which I hope many people will go on to read in full.
‘The economic hardship of my family and of many others, a century ago, was caused by a monopoly, the American Tobacco Company, which had eliminated all competitors and thus was able to reduce as it pleased the prices it paid to farmers. The American Tobacco Company was the work of James B. Duke of Durham, North Carolina, and New York City, who, disregarding any other consideration, followed a capitalist logic to absolute control of his industry and, incidentally, of the economic fate of thousands of families such as my own.
My effort to make sense of this memory and its encompassing history has depended on a pair of terms used by my teacher, Wallace Stegner. He thought rightly that we Americans, by inclination at least, have been divided into two kinds: “boomers” and “stickers.” Boomers, he said, are “those who pillage and run,” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street,” whereas stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”2 “Boomer” names a kind of person and a kind of ambition that is the major theme, so far, of the history of the European races in our country. “Sticker” names a kind of person and also a desire that is, so far, a minor theme of that history, but a theme persistent enough to remain significant and to offer, still, a significant hope.’
Smash-up riots are a microcosm of our attitude to the Earth’s resources, which we have looted to give us ‘economic growth’ involving vast quantities of unnecessary consumer goods.
We have already consumed over half of extractable oil. I think the peak was passed in 2005-06.
What is the ethical difference between looting our planet and looting personal property constructed upon the planet? Both are selfish and unjust. Both are done for human enrichment and/or satisfaction. We have privileged personal property above virtually everything else, of course, and in doing that we only accelerate the rate at which we are extracting oil, gas, coal, iron, precious metals, rare earths and all the other finite constituents of our Earth. There’s also the soil we are destroying, the oceans we are polluting and the ancient trees we are felling.
Rioting looters may not, in most cases, make the connection between the destruction of Earth and their own behaviour, but they are on a micro scale copying – to give just a few examples — the oil companies whose activities have destroyed the livelihoods of inhabitants of the Niger delta in Africa, the cruise liners which discharge rubbish into the ocean, the mining corporations which poison water supplies as in Bolivia, the nuclear power plants which threaten future generations with radiation.
It seems that only big accidents, like the radioactivity spewing from the broken Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan and the acute rioting in England in early August, focus our attention. Once out of the headlines, it’s back to business as usual, in resource extraction and on the streets of London, until the next eruption.
Let’s look at the resource issue more closely, using oil as the example.
World oil consumption in 2011 is likely to be about 32.193 billion barrels.
The US Energy Information Administration reckoned that in 2009 the world’s proven reserves of crude oil totalled 1,342.207 billion barrels. That equals 41.7 years’ supply at the consumption rate in 2011. Rising demand for oil, notably in China, India and Latin America, will shorten the already frighteningly short timeline.
Saudi Arabia and Canada are supposed to have the world’s largest oil reserves. Our assumptions about the amounts of oil in both countries are more than questionable.
Saudi Arabia has almost one-fifth of the world’s stated oil reserves, 266.710 billion barrels of the 1,342.207 billion total. Amazingly, despite thirty years of continuous pumping, and the absence of major oil finds, Saudi Arabia’s reserves in 2009 were 60% higher than in 1980. The reserves figure jumped from 172.575 billion barrels in 1989 to 257.559 billion in 1990. Similar inflation happened in other members of OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, in the late 1980s. The main reason for the reserves inflation was OPEC’s introduction of production quotas based on each member’s stated oil reserves.
No major fields have been discovered in Saudi Arabia since the 1960s, the last of any size being the Zuluf field in 1965, which started producing in 1973 and contained between 8.5 billion and 10 billion barrels. The Ghawar field, the largest in the world, was discovered in 1948, started production in 1951, and contained between 66 billion and 150 billion barrels. The field yielded over 65 billion barrels by 2010. This means either that the field is almost empty, or in the best case scenario, it is about half empty.
Saudi Aramco, the state oil company of Saudi Arabia, is secretive, and if the field is nearing depletion, would want to keep this information to itself for as long as possible. There are many signs, though, that the field is in the latter stages of its life. Aramco intends to inject carbon dioxide into the field, at the rate of 40 million cubic feet a day, to reduce the viscosity of the remaining oil. The injection is due to start in the Uthmaniyah zone in 2013. Carbon dioxide injection is typically a technology of the tertiary or final stage oil recovery. Water flooding, to fill the space created by the extraction of oil, is regarded as the secondary stage: the remaining crude oil floats on the water and rises nearer to the surface. Water injection in the Ghawar field began as long ago as 1964. Aramco was at pains to stress that the carbon dioxide injection programme is not because the oilfield is depleting, but to “quantify how much reserves we can recover and for the environment”. So said Saad Turaiki, vice president of Aramco’s southern area oil operations.
The Saudi Gazette reported, on November 10th 2010, a speech by King Abdullah to Saudi students at universities in the United States. King Abdullah was explaining his decision, made in summer 2010, to stop oil exploration in the kingdom, so that oil wealth would be saved and passed on to future generations. “Thank God, your homeland is proceeding resolutely to a prosperous future, God willing. And what is unknown is even better,” the king told the students.
King Abdullah’s comments reinforce the circumstantial evidence that Saudi Arabia’s oilfields have passed their peak. If this is the case, it would be logical to save oil for coming times of scarcity and high prices. The energy investment banker Matthew R Simmons, in his 2005 book Twilight in the Desert: the coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy, concluded that Saudi Arabia’s fields were in decline, but his arguments were not universally accepted. Mr Simmons accidentally drowned in his hot tub, at home in Maine, in August 2010. That was the verdict of Maine’s Chief Medical Examiner, who noted that Mr Simmons, aged 67, suffered from heart disease.
Canada has the world’s second largest reserves of crude oil according to the US Energy Information Administration. In 2009 those reserves were estimated at 178.092 billion barrels, or 13.3% of the global total. Canada is a newcomer to the oil reserves leader board. In 2003 its oil reserves were just 4.858 billion barrels. What accounts for the massive increase? Answer: the oil sands of northern Alberta, regions of bituminous sands that can be processed into usable oil – but the extraction and processing themselves consume huge quantities of energy.
Richard Heinberg, in his web book Searching for a Miracle: ‘Net Energy’ Limits and the Fate of Industrial Society explains the impact of Energy Return on Energy Invested, or EROIE. This ratio summarises the energy input required to obtain one unit of energy output. The world’s largest oilfield, Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar, has yielded an EROIE of 100 to 1, according to Heinberg’s calculations. The global average EROIE for crude oil is some 19:1. As new oilfield discoveries wane, oil companies seek to drill in more challenging places, like the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic shelf of Alaska, and northern Siberia. Very large amounts of energy are expended in securing oil from hostile and marginal environments. The oil sands of northern Alberta were regarded as marginal until the ‘00s. Their ROIE is between 5.2:1 and 5.8:1, Heinberg suggests. That is still a positive return, but has severe economic implications. As the energy demands of finding and extracting fossil fuels grow, the proportion of energy returned to the economy will fall. Put another way, the energy industries will themselves absorb escalating amounts of the energy extracted to power the world.
Oil shales are a case in point. The manufacture of usable oil from shales, fine-grained sedimentary rocks with high levels of organic matter, results in serious environmental harm, such as carbon dioxide emissions to groundwater and surface water pollution, as well as returning a low EROIE ratio, typically in the range 1.5:1 to 4:1, according to Heinberg, although the very complexity of the technology means that EROIE figures are fuzzy. From an environmental point of view, the exploitation of oil shales is similar to the adulterated drugs that heroin addicts use when nothing better is to hand. China, Brazil and Estonia all use the dirty technology of oil shale extraction, and several pilot projects are running in the USA. When oil companies start drilling oil shales, it is because all the easily extractable oil has gone.
Canada’s oil sands may not be quite as energy-hungry as oil shales, but it is sobering to note that nearly one-seventh of the world’s current oil reserves are in the form of bituminous sands in northern expanses of the Canadian state of Alberta.
 International Energy Agency forecast made on 13th October 2010: the IEA predicted 88.2 million barrels a day, which over a year is 32.193 billion barrels.
 Saudi Arabia oilfield data from ‘Saudi Arabia: an attempt to link oil discoveries, proven reserves and production data’ by Sam Foucher, www.theoildrum.com, 3rd January 2008, accessed 12th November 2010. The paper includes oilfield estimates from Petroconsultants, Colin Campbell, Matthew Simmons, Fredrik Robelius and others.
 ‘Aramco pride at ‘pampered’ Ghawar’, op. cit.
 Reported in ‘Aramco pride at ‘pampered’ Ghawar’, op. cit.
 ‘Oil shale economics’, Wikpedia, updated 9th October 2010, accessed 12th November 2010.
Transition Town Llandeilo, interested in the idea of community supported agriculture, has been told about a block of farmland for sale, 29.37 acres of pasture at Golden Grove in the Tywi valley between Llandeilo and Carmarthen. The biggest barrier is the cost, £145,000, which works out at £4,937 an acre.
Even within the Transition Town movement, where money is concerned opinions range widely. For some, the prospect of adding to local food supplies has intrinsic merit, and profit is not important. For others, who are no less worried about the repercussions of peak oil and climate change, it would be folly to embark on any agricultural venture without a detailed, checked and monitored Business Plan. We agreed to dip a toe into community supported agriculture, cautiously, by doing a feasibility study into this and other options.
Community supported agriculture can mean a co-operatively owned or leased farm, or community subsidy — maybe as work – on an existing farm, or community involvement in marketing. There are probably as many forms as there are ventures. Searching for more information, I came across the Campaign for Real Farming (www.campaignforrealfarming.org), which was started by Colin Tudge and his wife Ruth West. Colin and Ruth believe that the UK needs ten times more farmers than at present, an injection of youthful enthusiasm, and a whole new food chain to link local producers to local customers. They argue that part-time farming will be at the heart of the sorely needed farming renaissance, and that such a renaissance should lead us to agro-forestry, farms where trees, livestock and crops are integrated into a sustainable whole.
This sounds like permaculture, which I think means landscapes designed in accordance with the natural environment. David Holmgren, who with Bill Mollison founded the modern concept of permaculture, sees it as “the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising framework” for implementing the vision of “consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs”. Permaculture is simple and complex at the same time, demanding knowledge of the natural ecosystem and how to fit the sustainable harvesting of food, fibre and fuel into each ecosystem.
Big profits and sustainable production are rarely if ever companions. Colin Tudge points out in ‘Can Britain feed itself? Should Britain feed itself?’ that “farming can never be as instantly profitable as simple, urban, industrial pursuits – not unless it is itself turned into a simple industrial pursuit, as has been the ambition of the past 40 years”. To achieve “good farming”, he says, “we have to insulate the economy of agriculture by whatever means are necessary from the ups and downs of mere cash”.
I am starting to see community supported agriculture as a layer of insulation to protect sustainable production from freezing to death in the blizzards of the open market where only money matters, insulation that enables us to make the transition from oil-guzzling industrial farming to diverse, complex, tree-rich permaculture. What better venture for a Transition Town?
 Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren, p.xix. Ref: Holmgren 2002 reprinted 2009.