Aug 30 2009

Ever-Smaller Apartments

Before cash, there was land. The family held some, and grew rice on it. It was passed to the children — the sons anyway. Divided among them. They passed it to their sons in turn, and the soil split into fractals. But the people didn’t get smaller too, and so they began to starve. This process is still going on in places like Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Laos.

HowLongWillItLast

Yet we in the industrialized world seem astonished that our parents could afford the houses that we cannot.

The economics of sustenance farming in the face of rising population are immediately clear, yet we do not take the general lesson. We still act like we have infinite resources. Our population is still increasing, yet land, water, oil, and every single mineral is finite and running out. A 2007 article in New Scientist discusses this more cogently than anything I’ve ever seen, including the above chart “How Long Will It Last?”

We need to apply the same thinking to energy. I am not talking about running out of oil. The oil will run out, of course, and not before we do tremendous environmental damage — I, for one, am planning on hitting the world’s great beaches sooner rather than later. But when the oil is gone, it’s simply gone. Unlike copper or plastic, energy cannot be recycled in any way (in fact energy is the limiting input in recycling everything else.) We have no choice but to switch to sunlight for our ongoing power needs. And sunlight, like land, will have to be divided smaller and smaller among more and more of us.

I’m currently looking for an apartment in Hong Kong. On my own I can afford about 200 square feet. I saw a place where the Indonesian nannies live; there were six people in this space, crammed into bunk beds barely narrower than the one tiny room. I was shocked, until I realized that I had arrived in the future. It’s not going to get better. We’re already out of space, but soon we will feel the energy pinch. One day soon, electricity, transport, and hot water are going to be just as rationed as real estate (by each of us individually, because of the cost.)

An engineer named Saul Griffith has done the calculations. To meet the current world population’s current energy requirements, we would need to collect the incident sunlight over an area about the size of Australia. That’s a stupendous amount of solar power to build. It will be a very long time before it is built, if ever. More fundamentally, the physical relationship between incident sunlight and land area brings us right back to passing ever-smaller fields to our children. (By the way, nuclear power won’t help: even without building more power plants we will run out uranium some time in the next century. And wind power, wave power etc. are actually solar driven.)

We will never see the easy material affluence of our parents; we have entered the zero-sum game phase of land- and energy-measured wealth where the only way to get more is to take from someone else (as evidenced by the increasing wealth inequality in industrialized countries over the past few decades.) We can no longer teach our children to expect more than their parents. It’s all a lie; barring insane technological shifts or catastrophic population reduction, the future is high density.

The big house of the American Dream, which is also the big house of the aspiring middle-class everywhere in the world, is over.

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Nov 25 2008

You Can Tell the EPA to Regulate Carbon Emissions

mmm carbon-spewing oil refineries

But only until Friday.

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Oct 08 2008

ABC Refuses to Air Clean Power Ad

I was going to write about something else today, I really was, but this is both annoying and beautifully obvious. Al Gore’s We Campaign, which I have written of before, attempted to purchase an ad spot on ABC immediately after last night’s presidential debate. According to WeCanSolveIt.Org, ABC refused to air the following ad:

Why? Probably because it includes the narration,

So why are we still stuck with dirty and expensive energy?
Because big oil spends hundreds of millions of dollars to block clean energy.

Instead, ABC aired Chevron commercials during the debate.

Sort of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Call it confirmation bias, but I take this as a bad sign for the enviroment.

Are we completely powerless here? Probably not. One could take a moment to digg the story, and perhaps also to add your name to the letter that the We Campaign is sending to ABC. They’re hoping to get 100,000 signatures, which seems a very reasonable number. I wonder if they’re going to print them all out and hand deliver that stack of paper… and then smack someone with it. Sadly, this would probably not help them in their actual goal, which is to get the ad aired during next debate.

This may be difficult, because Chevron no doubt has an even bigger stack of paper.

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Jul 30 2008

Biodiesel Hottie

This morning I saw a circus training hottie wearing a tight black T-shirt with BIODIESEL written on it in silver bling sequins. This, I thought, is how you combat global warming.

Several friends have written to me about my piece on Gore’s Sustainable Electricity Challenge, trying to answer the question of how you make climate change mitigation sexy. One person argued that it’s all about associations. When people think of oil they need to think of black goo, the agony of war, evildoers and open sores. When they think of sustainability they should imagine pretty young people, green trees, crystal waterfalls and shining futures. This idea of associations is at the core of classic marketing and public relations techniques. Hence, the Biodiesel Hottie.

I mentioned this to a friend and he instantly translated the central meaning: “preventing the collapse of civilization gives me a boner!”

Well, yes. That is sort of what a hot body in biodiesel bling says. From this ridiculousness he argued that real social change had to include deep education at the primary and secondary school level. I agree completely — but we still need marketing, because, near as I can tell, people don’t actually base the vast majority of their opinions on critical thinking. This should not be shocking.

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Jun 12 2008

The Energy Companies are Still Oil Companies

The Exxon ad on CNN this morning talked about “using advanced technology to find new sources of oil.” The four-page Shell spread in the current issue of Wired – a high-tech, futurist magazine – proclaims “our scientists feel free to break rules that say providing energy could mean impacting our environment,” then goes on to discuss their technology for converting natural gas to liquid fuel. According to their website, Chevron invested $20 billion dollars in 2007 to develop new sources of oil and gas, compared to just $2.5 billion to develop alternative energy sources in the three year period of 2007-2009.

Am I the only one who thinks it’s insane that the energy companies are still trying to convince us that using more fossil fuels is a good idea?

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