Tag Archives: all energy crisis

Knowing limits

Adapted from remarks delivered to the York Model United Nations in February 2009, and recently rescued from my drafts folder.

batmanIn the film The Dark Knight, there’s an exchange between Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth about limits. Specifically, Alfred warns Bruce that he needs to “know his limits.” Bruce first rejects this idea, claiming that “Batman has no limits.” When Alfred points out that, while that may be true, Bruce Wayne does have limits, Bruce counters that he “can’t afford to know them.”

“And what’s going to happen on the day that you find out,” Alfred asks.

“We all know how much you like to say ‘I told you so,'” Bruce says.

“On that day, Master Wayne,” Alfred says, “even I won’t want to.”

People within the green movement have been talking about limits for years. On a finite planet like ours, there are limits to growth, whether you’re talking about energy generation, the economy, or how much we can squeeze out of the environment. In fact, the recognition of limits has often been used as the key distinction between the Green party and other political parties. In 2004 David Suzuki was the keynote speaker at a federal Green party convention in Bragg Creek, Alberta where he told us that the Green party was the only party that understood limits to growth.

Contrary to popular belief, and despite the party’s own messaging and positioning, most Greens I know have been very concerned about an impending economic collapse for years, and have been focused on it as the core challenge we should be addressing. We have recognized that the environmental, economic and energy crises are interrelated and must be dealt with in a coordinated fashion.

The response from most people to these realities, including our political leaders, has first been one of denial (“we have no limits”) then one of inconvenience (“we have limits but we can’t afford to know them”). The first goal of the green movement was to convince people that it was better to understand our limits and discover them on our own terms rather than encounter them unexpectedly in a way that would have disastrous consequences.

By many measures, that objective was not met. I don’t mean to say I’ve lost hope for a better future, because I have not. But realistically, many of the things we should and could have prevented will now come to pass. There were limits to how far we could push destructive economic growth, and we have learned (some of) them. There are limits to how much we can abuse and take for granted our environment, and we are beginning to learn them. There are limits to how long we can continue to exploit our current sources of energy at current rates, and we are rushing towards them. We are stumbling towards the triple E crisis instead of meeting it on our own terms.

The day has arrived where we can now say “I told you so.” And on this day, we don’t want to. Nor should we waste our breath. The fact that we’ve allowed the great challenges of our time to become even greater only means that we must focus more than ever, and work harder than ever, on solving them. Every time we miss the mark, we will redouble our efforts and start anew.

The Triple E Crisis, Plus

Last Friday the NDP sent out their fifth e-mail newsletter in a row (update: sixth, seventh) complaining about gas prices, saying that Canadians are “victims,” getting “gouged” and “cheated” at the pumps. The implication, of course, is that if the NDP were in power they would make sure gas prices were lower. That might be a good way to get votes, but it’s completely irreconcilable with their claim to have a strong environmental platform. (I was going to let it slide after the first and second email, and I forgot about it after the third and fourth, but now that the fifth one has reminded me, I thought it was worth opening up the discussion.)

There’s a triple-E crisis at work here. Our Environmental crisis is, in fact, an Energy crisis that will become an Economic one if we don’t take the right kind of action. The problem, simply put, is that we’re using up too much stored solar energy (fossil fuels) too quickly. And it doesn’t take a doctorate in economics to understand that when something is cheaper, people use more of it less efficiently. When we use more fossil fuels less efficiently, we exacerbate the climate crisis while simultaneously using up what has been the source of almost all economic growth and prosperity in the past two hundred years.

Instead of acknowledging that reality, too many politicians focus on playing to the cameras. There’s a reason so many people have come to believe that politicians will say almost anything to get elected; it’s true. (In the last federal election, I used the fact that Greens recognize the need to end artificially low energy prices as an example of how we were an exception to that rule.) This is what Joe Trippi calls “transactional politics,” the process by which politicians offer promises (lower gas prices, lower taxes, more police) in exchange for your vote. It’s also what has led Mark Kingwell to declare that “politicians have become brokers of interest rather than leaders, and citizens reduce themselves to consumers of goods and services enjoyed in return for regular obedience to the tax code.”

The problem is that transactional politics exist in direct opposition to transformational politics–the kind of leadership that Kingwell (and, I suspect, most Canadians) pine for, and that we so desperately need in this time of crisis. That’s why the biggest threat to our quality of life (best case) and collective survival (worst case) is not the Triple E Crisis itself, but the lack of attention most citizens are paying to the complex political issues that confront us. Here, we add a fourth E, the Electorate. Democracy requires that we all take some responsibility for the direction of our government, yet many Canadians feel no such responsibility. We’re all too busy with too many other important things to be bothered by the mud-slinging PR exercise that politics has become. And that, I would argue, is what makes us more susceptible to things like Jack Layton’s claim that we pay too much for gas (never mind the fact that we pay way less than most other counties), Stephen Harper’s claim that there’s a foreign stripper epidemic that needs to be addressed (never mind the fact that only ten strippers immigrated to Canada last year), or Stéphane Dion’s claim that somehow there are “mega-bucks” to be made by taking action on Kyoto (acting is cheaper than not acting, but that doesn’t mean we’re all going to somehow magically get rich).

That’s why I take democracy itself so seriously. An engaged, informed electorate is the only way we’re going to solve the problems facing us. I have no doubt that the Canadian public is intelligent enough; we only need the will, and to direct our energies and attention to the right places.

Of course, there’s hope. The attempts of the status-quo parties to buy votes aren’t proving effective, to the point where the only party telling you what you don’t want to hear is the only one that’s up in the polls since the last election. It’s just like we were told in high school: just be yourself, the other kids will learn to like you for who you are soon enough.

My Canada Includes The Laws Of Thermodynamics

There’s an episode of the Simpsons where Lisa, who has a lot of free time due to a teachers’ strike, builds a perpetual motion machine. Homer is upset, and yells “Lisa, get in here! In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”

Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.

Last night I had a nice long political debate with a friend of mine. Let’s call him “Sean,” because, well, that’s his name. (I think it’s unfortunate and somewhat dangerous that talking about politics with friends and family is increasingly considered impolite. I don’t know how we expect democracy to work otherwise.) Our conversation jumped around a lot, but the argument basically came down to Sean’s belief that the status quo was more or less great and that concerns about converging environmental crises were overblown or entirely made up. I, uh, maintained a different viewpoint.

I love debate, and one of the things I enjoy doing is getting a good understanding of why people think what they do. As a result, Sean and my conversation got more and more fundamental, as I searched for things we could agree on. Eventually, I said, “ok, well I know that we can at least agree that the Earth has limits.” Sean did not agree. “Um, ok,” I continued, “well, let’s make it more specific then. We can agree that energy cannot be created….” But again, Sean did not agree.

That’s when we changed the subject. The first two laws of thermodynamics state, in essence, that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, and that you can’t get something for nothing. Somehow, there are now at least a handful of people in Canada and throughout the western world who think (actually, feel might be a better word) that that’s not true. As James Howard Kunstler points out in The Long Emergency, some of our culture’s most basic assumptions have become misaligned with the realities and limitations of the physical world. For example, energy policy is based on the assumption that energy is “generated” (created), and can continue to be created in increasing quantities in perpetuity. Similarly, much of our economic activity is based on the assumption that it’s reasonable to get something (like, money) for nothing (see speculativebubble.com).

Sean’s not a dumb guy. He’s no Homer. In fact, that’s the crazy part — he’s come to his conclusions in a rational way by observing the world around him. Problem is, the world he and I have grown up in is currently in the process of throwing all the wood on the fire, so of course we’re lacking perspective. (Except, of course, that instead of wood we’re using oil, which, well, doesn’t grow on trees.)

Brownie points will go to the first MP willing to stand in Parliament and say, “Mr. Speaker, be it resolved that this House will obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

Our Economic Pyramid Scheme

Some mornings, for no discernible reason, I wake up much earlier than others. That means that I get to hear Metro Morning’s business analyst Michael Hlinka, who throws in his daily two cents on the CBC Radio One morning show at around 6:45am. Yesterday morning was one of those days.

I used to live in Michael Hlinka’s building. He’s extremely friendly and outgoing, and we’ve had several good chats. Both before and after meeting him, I’ve often listened to him and agreed strongly with whatever he had to say. Yesterday morning was not one of those days.

Hlinka was reacting — like everyone else — to the new Statistics Canada census data that was released the day before. To make a long story short, Canada’s population is growing faster than any other country in the G8. Most of the attention in Ontario has been focused on Milton (one of my old stomping grounds), which has grown by 71% in just five years.

Hlinka was ecstatic at this “great” news. You see, he explained, (and I’m paraphrasing here) we used to have this guy named Malthus who thought that population growth was all bad and would eventually cause society to collapse. Now, however, we’re enlightened, and understand that population growth is, without reservation, a good thing, because people create wealth, so more people means more wealth. Also, we’re going to have a large retired population soon, so we need lots of younger people to pay for the care of the older ones. And, ultimately, we need to keep making more and more stuff (he actually used the word “stuff”), because we need more stuff swirling around all the time to keep this whole machine running.

In other words, Hlinka was arguing that we need to encourage infinite population growth in order to support infinite economic growth. It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the dogma of perpetual economic growth has been given the status of infallible religion by many, and is causing otherwise intelligent individuals to ignore the blatantly obvious.

Let’s start here: surely we can agree that population cannot grow forever. We don’t give this much thought because it doesn’t seem like an immediate problem, but even if we’d argue about how much the Earth’s human population can grow (or if it’s already too high), we have to acknowledge the fact that all ecosystems have a carrying capacity, and that at the end of the day this planet of ours has limits.

From there, we have to agree that economic growth, at least as we know it now, is pretty tightly linked with population growth. That’s why some economists get excited about growing populations. It’s also why Ronald Wright has described our current economy as a pyramid scheme: it only works as long as you’re constantly introducing new inputs of people and resources.

Arguments like Hlinka’s, that people “create wealth,” are fundamentally flawed. In a resource-based economy, people do not “create” wealth, they extract it from the Earth. Or, in other words, they move it from the public realm to the private. In that case, a resulting increase in a country’s GDP is actually a measure of how much natural capital has been used up. That’s like taking $20 out of the bank and claiming that by so doing you had generated $20.

Now sure, this is all just semantics as long as you’ve got another pay cheque on the way. But in the case of the tar sands, for example, currently one of Canada’s largest sources of economic growth, there’s no chance of having that bank account replenished. What we’re calling “wealth creation” in the tar sands is just a one-time massive withdrawal from a savings account that took millennia to accumulate.

But this is a conversation that we as Canadians (and especially politicians) don’t have very often, probably because most of us don’t know where to begin solving the problem. For example, some might (wrongly) approach it from the population end, suggesting we need government-mandated population control. But that presents too many human rights concerns, and is often unworkable. Others would choose to blame immigration, without recognizing that immigrants (a group to which all of us save Aboriginals belong — and, on a long enough timeline, them too) contribute great value to our country and define who we are as a people. (Not to mention the fact that population is a global phenomenon, making any attempt to deal with it by geographic isolationism not only morally questionable, but environmentally and practically ineffective.)

So, as we approach solutions, we need to start by guarding against temptations towards xenophobia or drastic measures. We’re all in the same boat here. Then, we can focus on the good news. For example, it turns out that birth rates stabilize as women’s rights and access to education increase, and as poverty and infant mortality decrease. Surely those are desirable goals anyway. Also, we need to tackle the economic side of the problem. Many economists (including Dr. Peter Victor at the University of York) are developing resilient economic models that don’t depend on the pyramid scheme of growth.

In fact, we already have a model for that: the human body. We only grow until around the age of eighteen, but does that mean we stop developing, learning, or getting better? Let’s start to have a conversation about how we can be more without having more.

Whether we agree on if growth is good or not, the reality is that it can’t continue forever. We’d better deal with that fact, or else it will deal with us. And besides, we already have a word for something that grows forever in an unrestrained way. It’s called cancer.

One morning soon, I hope to wake up to a world where we place a higher value on quality over quantity, and where we measure genuine progress. And please, no more stuff for stuff’s sake.