Recognizable Characters in Predictable Circumstances By Dmitry Orlov on 1 February 2010 in ClubOrlov - (http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2010/02/recognizable-characters-in-predictable.html) Act I of James Kunstler's new play "Big Slide" is now available as a staged reading via KunstlerCast, with Acts II and III to follow, and the entire text also available as an e-book. The play is set in the not-too-distant future, after West Los Angeles has been obliterated by a bomb, Chicagoland's drinking water has been laced with Botox, the President has been suicided, gas is at $10 a gallon and mostly not for sale, stores have been looted, electricity is off for good and armed gangs in police uniforms man checkpoints and confiscate anything edible. Other than that, everything is fine. It is a story of three generations of the prosperous and privileged Freeman family, who flee the growing mayhem in New York and Boston and hole up at Big Slide, which is their family compound in the Adirondacs. Big Slide comes complete with a stalwart and competent caretaker, a large collection of guns and fishing tackle, a nearby lake stocked with trout, a forest full of deer, rabbit and seasoned timber felled by a winter storm, a greenhouse and an ample garden plot. If only the Freemans had prepared... but then their varied needs include morphine, a replacement hip joint, a strict vegan diet and plenty of booze—all inaccessible or in short supply, now that even venturing into the nearby town has been deemed inadvisable. Also, with family tensions worthy of Anton Chekhov, can they avoid shooting each other? .
It’s an unnaturally cold, cloudy afternoon in Havana. Horse-drawn carriages and Pedicabs share the road with Plymouths, DeSotos, Studebakers and other pre-revolution antiques, which rumble along in loud defiance of Detroit’s planned obsolescence. The busy street scene is embedded in a crazy quilt of architecture, from European Baroque to American neoclassical to Soviet brutalism. Most of the buildings appear to be in a state of elegant decay – and some not so elegant. Ornate light standards from the Batista era stand askew in The Capitol’s plaza, where stray dogs lick themselves and beg from tourists. The faces in the streets are white, black and mulatto and the fashions range from Miami chic to spontaneous grunge.
The Cuban travel experience is otherworldly. It’s like falling into a Caribbean Stargate, constructed from rusting Russian tank parts, vacuum tubes and Marxist boilerplate, and stumbling out into a Terry Gilliam fever dream.
On the surface, Cuba would seem to have little to offer the rest of the world, other than a lesson in stubbornness and staying power – especially considering this nation of 11 million people is only 140 kilometres from its erstwhile enemy, the US. But with today’s contentious issues of diminishing resources, food security and healthcare, Cuba may have a hard-won lesson for westerners about getting by in hard times.
The nation has already had its own “peak oil.” Up until 1989, Cuba’s superpower benefactor, the Soviet Union, granted the nation easy credit terms, cheap fuel and ready access to Soviet technology and aid. With the fall of the Soviet Union, 80 percent of Cuba’s imports and exports – mostly with East Bloc nations – evaporated. Without Russian fuel, and still under the US trade embargo, the nation fell into crisis. Cuba’s food production system collapsed and the average Cuban’s caloric intake dropped 30 percent.
Then-president Fidel Castro euphemistically referred to this time of crisis, from 1990 to 1994, as the “Special Period.” With only a trickle of fuel to transport the diminishing foodstuffs into the cities, Castro abandoned the top-down Soviet model for agriculture and called on urban Cubans to grow their own food on any available plot of land. The result was the largest program in sustainable and organic farming ever undertaken. It was goodbye to the centrally planned agricultural system, with its heavy energy inputs into machinery, oil, pesticides, herbicides and animal feed.
Today, 80 percent of Cuba’s food production is organic. As of 2006, there were 10,000 urban gardens in Havana and other cities across the nation, according to the CBC documentary, Cuba: The Accidental Revolution. Schools, hospitals, seniors’ homes and even factories grow these “organiponicoes.”
The US/Canadian agricultural model takes 12 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food. Cuba produces 12 calories of organically grown food with one calorie of energy. Urban farmers use as little as five percent of agribiz energy inputs. The nation has also introduced privately owned farms and cooperatives, in effect incentivizing agriculture and making it an attractive career option for younger Cubans.
Gregory Biniowsky, a British Columbian lawyer and environmentalist, has lived in Cuba intermittently since 1993, working on Canadian-Cuban development programs. Sitting in his apartment in Old Havana’s Malecon district, Biniowsky tells Common Ground that Cuba never had a subsistence economy under Soviet aid. “It was as mechanized as California’s agricultural system. The cows gave milk as long as there was Russian cow meal. When that ran out, everything collapsed.” Ironically, the Soviet approach mirrored the agribiz “Green Revolution” food production model of western nations.
During the “Special Period,” Cuban agronomists and scientists learned how to feed cows with protein-heavy plant diets, and in the absence of pesticides, insects were bred to control pest infestations from other insects. Cuban doctors discovered natural plant remedies to replace some pharmaceutical drugs. Out of sheer necessity, Cubans began to work with nature rather than against it.
Despite some successes with adapting to the Soviet absence, the nation was still economically hamstrung by a relic from the Cold War, the US trade embargo. Western consumer items we take for granted, like pens, pencils and household tools, are still hard for some Cubans to come by, especially in rural areas. Dial-up Internet access is available at schools and universities, but otherwise limited. Yet the Cuban constitution still guarantees every citizen the “right to health protection and care.”
“It depends on how we want to evaluate Cuba,” says Biniowsky. “If you look at GDP, efficiency, sure. This is a centrally-planned bureaucratic economy, with lots of wastage.” But, by other measures, – being healthy, having a guaranteed place to live and having strong community networks – Biniowsky says Cuba is unlike other developing nations. He draws a comparison between Cuba and other Third World countries he has visited, where the social contract has been broken, resulting in mass suffering and Darwinian squalor. “Community has broken down because everyone is a competitor.
“I could see the fundamental difference between poverty and misery. There’s lots of poverty in Cuba. There’s no misery. In the Dominican Republic and Jamaica there’s rampant misery – misery being tarpaper shantytowns, kids with the swollen bellies, no doctors, rampant violence, corruption. That’s misery. Cuba is the only country that can boast that they have no street children. And we’re talking about tens of thousands of street children throughout Latin America.”
With the 1959 revolution, Castro’s peasant army chased out President Batista’s cronies, along with a clutch of Miami/Vegas-based mobsters. At that time, one quarter of the people were illiterate and half died before the age of 60. Cuba now has a 99.8 percent literacy rate, according to UNICEF statistics from 2007. The nation has the longest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality of any developing country. UNICEF’s figure for overall life expectancy for the average Cuban – 78 years – puts the nation on a par with the US.
Cuba also has more doctors per capita than any other country. General practitioners examine their patients twice a year, practising what they call “Integrated General Practice Medicine.” The focus is preventative medicine, and interpreting the patient as a whole person, rather than a patchwork of disconnected organs. In seeking treatment, Cubans have their choice of traditional or alternative medicine.
The impact that Cuba has had on healthcare around the world is an incredible, and largely untold, story. At the Latin American School of Medical Sciences, described by The Economist as possibly the biggest medical school in the world, there were 10,000 to 12,000 students from between 27 to 29 countries enrolled in 2007. The students hailed from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. To be accepted, a student must be too poor to finance his or her own medical education. The Cuban government pays for all accommodations, books and training. In exchange, students agree to perform two years of community service in Cuba.
The school even accepts students from the US. IN 2006, 95 American students, unable to afford a medical education in their homeland, were enrolled in the school, according to the Washington Post. LASMS’s mission is to train general practitioners and primary healthcare providers for impoverished communities outside of Cuba. As of 2007, Cuba had 25,000 doctors in 68 countries. “We are learning that every human being has the right to be healthy,” Colombian native Daniel Phillip Marie told the CBC in halting English. “We are the army to help them. We have to be any place in the world, not with terrorism, not with war, but with help and care.”
Blame it all on Ernesto “Che” Guevara. While he isn’t much more than an iconic (and ironic) T-shirt character to westerners now, he remains a martyr figure to Cubans – a revolutionary doctor who believed healthcare was an essential part in liberating the world’s poor.
Cuba dispatched thousands of doctors to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, and to Southeast Asia after the 2004 tsunami. In 2005, Fidel Castro offered to fly 1,100 doctors into Houston, to provide medial attention to the victims evacuated from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Castro’s public offer included 26 tons of equipment, according to an online CNN report. “They brought a thousand doctors and mobilized them. They were assembled at a stadium, the airplanes were on the tarmac and the US turned them down,” says Biniowsky. (Actually, US officials simply ignored Castro’s offer.)
According to The Canadian Network on Cuba, at the time of the recent earthquake disaster in Haiti, “…402 Cuban internationalists, 302 of them medical personnel, had already been helping Haitians. These, together with many of the 500 Haitian doctors who had been trained in Cuba free of charge, formed the essential early group of lifesavers, attending to 1,102 Haitian patients in the first 24 hours after the earthquake.”
Through international medical and foreign aid programs, Cuba is focusing on a knowledge-based service sector. In a deal made with Hugo Chavez, Cuba has dispatched hundreds of doctors to the slum barrios of Venezuela in exchange for oil.
With its paradoxes and contradictions, Cuba is like a Latin American magical-realist novel, Biniowsky observes. The most potent symbol of the debauchery of the Batista era was the big burlesque show, yet Cuba has kept the Tropicana nightclub act going. The quintessential symbol of Wall Street fat cats is the giant stogie, yet the best producer of cigars in the world is the last communist holdout. Further, Cuba has the biggest collection of antique cars in the world and the national sport is baseball.
But it’s hardly a workers’ paradise. Cuba has an autocratic culture, with no free press to speak of. Private complaints about the leadership are tolerated, but public criticism is not. Dissenters are exiled, jailed or harassed. Neighbourhoods have citizens’ groups called “Committees for Defense of the Revolution” – snitch networks organized for the reporting of suspicious activities to authorities.
Doctors working in Cuba don’t make much more money than the average citizen: a meagre salary equivalent to $15 to $25 Canadian a month. Every Cuban is guaranteed spartan monthly food rations from the government, but lineups and shortages are the norm. The cramped, crumbling living conditions are initially shocking to the visitor. A housing shortage necessitates several generations living together under one roof and many Cuban couples are forgoing family as they wait for the elders to pass on. Eighty-five percent of Cubans own their own home, which can be inherited or traded, but not sold. The scarcity problems have increased in the past few years, several Cubans told CG, described by one as “frightening.” In many places, the Cuban infrastructure looks like it’s been picked up several feet off the ground and dropped down, hard.
Citizens must apply to their government for permission to travel, which is not always granted. “It depends which ministry you work for,” says Gabriella, 29, who works in the tourist industry and is dubious about her own chances to travel.
Maria, 47, is a Havana surgeon who lives with her teenage daughter in a sparsely furnished, small apartment that would not seem out of place in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She told CG the government would not permit her to leave the country to visit her brother in Florida, for fear she won’t return. She can only travel internationally for medical conferences. Her father, now deceased, left Cuba for Puerto Rico when she was young. Her daughter has told her mother that if she can get a job overseas, she will not return. Maria may be facing old age alone, stranded in her homeland.
Ramon, 42, is a former mechanical engineer who has taken a more profitable job as a cab driver in the tourist district to support his family. Asked if he would ever consider leaving the country, he shakes his head sadly, saying it’s impossible, given the necessity of supporting his family. His eyes fill with tears. Most Cubans still support the goals of the revolution, he adds.
“There’s a lot of frustration in the general population to see more economic liberalism in terms of small businesses, notes Biniowsky. “Some old-school party members admit the biggest mistake of the revolution was to try to nationalize everything. They’re realizing that small businesses or medium sized businesses, whether they’re owned by cooperatives or privately, are much more efficient than a centrally planned economy. So Cubans want to see that economic liberalization happen sooner rather than later, but the government has been very slow doing that, because they’re afraid of the equity issues, and they’re also afraid a very radical change in their economic system will create instability. And they know the United States will take advantage of any opportunity to wreak havoc here.”
One source of instability is of the Cuban leadership’s own design. Once a playground for the wealthy comprador class, Varadero is now a string of all-inclusive hotels. Tourists from Canada, Europe and Asia get to party like it’s 1939. They dine at buffets, drink at poolside bars and recline on the beaches of the Caribbean coast.
Beginning in the seventies, in desperate pursuit of hard currency, the Cuban government ventured into the tourist market. In effect, they created a two-tiered economy. The first uses the standard peso. The second uses the new convertible peso, which is worth 25 times more, for the tourist market. The result has been a slow progression toward income disparities, with many Cubans seeking out jobs in the lucrative tourist industry. There is a thriving underground economy among the inventive citizens, who finesse the system and its paltry rations, to better themselves and their families.
Marx held that capitalism is eventually undercut by its internal contradictions, but the Cuban revolution has a few oddities of its own, if store window displays in Havana are any indication. Surely, there was no place in Marx’s “withering of the state” for a shirt that costs several months of a doctor’s wages. The nation in its geographic entirety is a contradiction. At the western end of the island, the socialist leadership does a cautious tango with capital, by maintaining a string of pleasure palaces for currency-loaded tourists. At the eastern tip of the province of Guantanamo, the US maintains a concentration camp for alleged terrorists, on land they’ve staked under a disputed 99-year lease.
The half-century long US economic blockade, which began under the Kennedy administration, is not the only source of Cuba’s economic troubles – but it’s a huge factor. (Imagine how well Canada would perform if the US suddenly declared a trade embargo). What would the Cuban experiment look like today without US intransigence? We’ll never know, though many Cubans are hopeful that more private initiatives, both foreign and domestic, can work alongside the ideals of social welfare embodied in Castro’s revolution.
Yet the old guard are fearful of losing control of the revolution, and understandably so. According to writer Fabian Escalante, there have been many documented instances of state-sponsored terrorism over the years against Cuba, including an alleged 638 assassination attempts against Fidel Castro. Some of the early CIA assassination attempts were worthy of a Pink Panther film. These included placing an explosive device activated by remote control inside a seashell left inside in an area frequented by Castro, and a gift of a diving suit impregnated with toxic substances.
Given the past dangers, and Washington’s refusal to remove Cuba from its list of terrorist nations, the aging Castro brothers’ hermit crab lifestyle seem more practical minded than paranoid. On a tour of Havana, I asked Gabriella where the aging ex-president resides. “No one knows,” she replied with a shrug. “He goes from house to house.”
With all its contradictions, cock-ups and cautious concessions to a global economy, the Cuban revolution stumbles on, only 90 miles from the Florida Keys. In a long-running, real-world Survivor series, Fidel Castro has somehow managed to outlast and outplay 10 US administrations and outlive six US presidents. A succession of Caesars have been voted out, with Fidel and his brother Raul left standing on the island they conquered back in the Sputnik era, with a rebel army that grew from 12 to 10,000. Who could have ever predicted such a turn of events? Cuba is like the most unlikely reality television production ever conceived, or a bizarre mash-up of a Tom Clancy potboiler and Gabriel Garcia Márquez fantasy. But the Castro brothers will not live forever.
Through sheer necessity, Cuba has become a crucible for sustainability: a test case of how to survive without mortgaging costs into the future, whether monetary or environmental. The economic blockade may have even had a silver lining. Freezing Cuba out of the IMF and the World Bank may have allowed the nation to adapt itself to crises without racking up ruinous debts to outsiders.
Gregory Biniowsky and his wife Dane have a brand new daughter, Savannah, and he is obviously betting on a better future for the island. “Through the process of living here and living like a Cuban, and going through all the hardships, the long lineups, the shortages and bureaucracy, and all those other things that are difficult, I became less romantic about the Cuban revolution,” he observes in The Accidental Revolution.
“…But it’s this little, stubborn island that’s challenging the status quo, and it’s trying to think outside the box. It doesn’t have all the right answers, but the fact that it’s this kind of irreverent, rebellious little place that’s challenging the huge establishment of global capitalism is an attractive thing, and I want to live here and be here and see how this David and Goliath battle turns out.”
And in the Netherlands, Jessy Wijzenbeek-Voet recently rode an electric bicycle on a long trip that, at 71, she would not have been able to make on a standard bike.
Detroit may be introducing electric car designs and China may be pushing forward with a big expansion of its highways and trains. But people like Mr. Jiang, Ms. Wijzenbeek-Voet and Mr. Chiu — as well as delivery workers in New York, postal employees in Germany and commuters from Canada to Japan — are among the millions taking part in a more accidental transportation upheaval.
It began in China, where an estimated 120 million electric bicycles now hum along the roads, up from a few thousand in the 1990s. They are replacing traditional bikes and motorcycles at a rapid clip and, in many cases, allowing people to put off the switch to cars.
In turn, the booming Chinese electric-bike industry is spurring worldwide interest and impressive sales in India, Europe and the United States. China is exporting many bikes, and Western manufacturers are also copying the Chinese trend to produce models of their own. From virtually nothing a decade ago, electric bikes have become an $11 billion global industry.
“It’s miraculous — it takes the hills out of riding,” said Roger Phillips, 78, who rides an electric bike around Manhattan. The sensation is akin to a moving walkway at the airport, he said.
Electric bikes have been a “gift from God” for bike makers, said Edward Benjamin, an independent industry consultant, not only because they cost more — typically $1,500 to $3,000 — but also because they include more components like batteries that need regular replacement.
In the Netherlands, a third of the money spent on bicycles last year went to electric-powered models. Industry experts predict similar growth elsewhere in Europe, especially in Germany, France and Italy, as rising interest in cycling coincides with an aging population. India had virtually no sales until two years ago, but its nascent market is fast expanding and could eclipse Europe’s in the next year.
“The growth has been tremendous in the last two years,” said Naveen Munjal, managing director of Hero Electric, a division of India’s largest bicycle and motorcycle maker. He expects sales at Hero to increase to 250,000 electric bikes in 2012, from 100,000 in 2009.
While the American market has been modest — about 200,000 bikes sold last year, by some estimates — interest is rising, said Jay Townley, a bicycle industry consultant. Best Buy began selling electric bicycles in June at 19 stores in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. Trek, a manufacturer based in Wisconsin, recently began selling a bike created by Gary Fisher, a prominent bicycle designer.
“Electric-assisted bicycles will change how people think about bikes in urban areas,” predicted Mr. Chiu of San Francisco, who has been riding a prototype of the Trek bike since the summer.
Improvements in technology are resulting in lighter designs that appeal to older cyclists. “Now you’ve got a product you can present to a baby boomer,” Mr. Townley said.
New York City’s largest electric bike store, NYCeWheels, opened in 2001, and in the last few years, business has been growing, said Bert Cebular, the owner. In Chinatown, electric bikes are showing up on nearly every corner and several shops have recently appeared, selling bikes imported from Chinese factories.
As the global market develops, two types of electric bikes are emerging. One is similar to a standard bicycle with pedals, but it has an electric motor that engages on command or when the cyclist pedals. These are the most popular type in the United States and Europe, with many people using the electric motor mainly for help in wind or on steep hills.
By contrast, in China, electric bicycles have evolved into bigger machines that resemble Vespa scooters. They have small, wide-set pedals that most cyclists do not use as they travel entirely on battery power. The bikes move at up to 30 miles an hour, with a range of 50 miles on a fully charged battery.
Gaining a Toehold for the E-Bike
Image above: Sanyo has introduced its Eneloop Hybrid bike, priced at $2,300, in the United States.
By Brad Stone on 16 January 2010 in the New York Times - (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/17/business/17ping.html)
Technology has eliminated many of life’s milder physical demands, like getting off the couch to change the channel, or going to the store to buy a book.
The latest exertion to be conquered: biking uphill.
Electric bicycles — a regular pedal-driven bike with a motor for steeper slopes and an optional extra boost — is an idea that has been around for more than a century. But while e-bikes have caught on in certain parts of the world, particularly China, where tens of millions are sold each year, they have never quite captured the imagination of auto-obsessed Americans.
That may be about to change. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, Sanyo, the Japanese electronics maker and a major producer of car batteries, showed off a sleek, lightweight e-bike called the Eneloop Hybrid Bicycle.
The Eneloop, priced at $2,300, came to stores in the United States late last year. It operates like any normal bike and, save for the black lithium-ion battery strapped to the frame beneath the seat, looks exactly like one as well. But when you press a button on the left handlebar, a 250-watt motor gently kicks in, providing about twice the power as your own pedaling — and making you feel like Lance Armstrong on even the steepest slopes.
“The average auto trip in the U.S. is five miles or less,” said David Cabanban, bicycle business manager at Sanyo North America. “At the end of the day, how do you lower pollution and get people healthy? We’ve got to get people back to riding bikes.”
For years, e-bike proponents have argued that these machines can get people to abandon their cars and cut down on pollution, all without working up the unsightly sweat acquired when biking to work. But early e-bikes were never very good.
In the 1990s, people like Lee Iacocca and Malcolm Currie, the former chief executive of Hughes Aircraft, got into the e-bike business. Their bikes had heavy steel frames and the same lead acid batteries used in automobiles, which themselves could weigh 80 pounds. The entire Eneloop weights about 50 pounds.
Those older e-bikes (many were more like electric mopeds) often needed repairs and service. And their regulatory status was ambiguous — were they motorcycles? bikes? — so many retailers were afraid to sell them. The federal government resolved the legal obstacle with legislation in 2002, classifying any two-wheel, pedal-driven bike with a maximum speed of 20 miles an hour as a bike, which does not need turn signals or licensed riders.
New technology has addressed the other obstacles. Lead acid batteries have given way to efficient and lighter lithium-ion batteries.
The earliest e-bikes of the 1990s got about 15 miles on a single charge. The Eneloop’s battery can power the bike about 46 miles before it needs to be plugged into an outlet and recharged for around three hours; it also partially recharges when the rider brakes or coasts downhill.
Other e-bike makers brag about similar performance.
“If it wasn’t for the lithium battery I wouldn’t be in this business. It’s made this category possible,” said Marcus Hays, founder of Pi Mobility, a company in Sausalito, Calif., whose red, angular bikes cost $2,500 and can operate as a bike, a moped or both at the same time.
E-bike makers in the United States saw something of a mini-boom in 2008, when gasoline prices spiked and people started looking for eco-friendly alternatives to the automobile.
Some basic e-bike models, like the Ezip Trailz by Currie Technologies, now sell for as low as $500. Trek and Schwinn, traditional bike makers, both began selling e-bikes last year, the latter in conjunction with Toshiba.
E-bike makers say that some of the stigma surrounding the bikes — critics see them as a tool to avoid actual exercise — has faded.
“Four years ago, we encountered many people saying, ‘Oh wow, we are so lazy, we need motors on our bikes’ ” said Scott Shaw, president of EcoBike USA, an e-bike maker in Southern California. “Now people are understanding and saying, this is more a utilitarian vehicle for commuting and getting outside on two wheels rather than four.”
RETAILERS have also sensed the growing opportunity. Big-box stores like Wal-Mart, Sears and Costco have dabbled in the category for about a decade. Last year, Best Buy started selling e-bikes experimentally in three test markets: Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Ore.
E-bikes, like regular bikes, still face plenty of challenges. In many parts of the world, biking is an important form of transportation; in the United States it is seen primarily as recreation. Many major cities still do not have bike lanes, and the most important sales channel in the industry — independent bike shops — has been shrinking for more than a decade.
But there may be a greater challenge for companies like Sanyo and other e-bike makers. People tend to think of their transportation, like their clothes or cellphones, as an expression of their identity.
In China, riding an electric bike conveys professional achievement, even a certain degree of wealth. People in the United States, said Ed Benjamin, an independent consultant in the bike business, don’t quite know whether these bikes are fashionable. The e-bike is “an ambiguous statement,” Mr. Benjamin said.
The next few years, he said, could bring higher prices for gasoline and airline tickets. “We have to make some fundamental changes, and e-bikes can be a part of that,” he said.
The machine waits, eager and enticing, as I pull on helmet, goggles and gloves and zip my armored jacket to the chin. The charger's pulsing green light says, “Go!”By William Thomas on 18 November 2009 in Hope Dance - (http://www.hopedance.org/home/transportation-news/1596--electric-biker-) Stepping outside my island hideout, I hoist the bamboo-stiffened tarp like a gaff-rigged mainsail and cleat it off to the side of the shed. In the soft interior light, the bike's clear plastic fairing throws off reflections with the promise of motorized adventure only two wheels can offer. The machine waits, eager and enticing, as I pull on helmet, goggles and gloves and zip my armored jacket to the chin. The charger's pulsing green light says, “Go!” Unplugging the BikeE, I wheel it out under last winter's ravaged apple tree, swing my leg over its low-slanting frame, and settle back in the semi-reclining seat with a sigh of coming home. A quick brake check and final adjustment of the handlebar mirror gives me a moment to focus and quiet the adrenaline surging through me like the voltage I'm about to feed my pony. Reaching down, I punch the big red button on the heavy duty controller bolted to the side of the bike's box frame. A red glow reflecting on my glove is the only indication that we have ignition. I touch the thumb throttle and any doubt disappears in a surge of torque. As Honda Chairman Takeo Fukui reminds us, "Even the best internal-combustion engines still waste more than 80% of the energy created by burning gasoline." But electric hub motors can deliver full power directly to the wheel. And if that rotating motivator happens to be just 16-inches in diameter and connected to the front of a low-slung bicycle, you'd better be ready to brace for the kind of acceleration that brings big grins to the faces of all those who believe that fast is good. And faster is better. Shouting, “Power to the people!” I tuck my feet into the Power Grip straps as the bike moves forward under its own power and each pedal rotates into position. Making for the cove's paved two-lane road, I swing out of the gravel driveway that earlier last summer judo-flipped me into a 10-week aching meditation on paying attention. (Nothing broken and not a scratch on the bike - and no bruises if I'd been wearing the padded mountain bike jacket I always wear now.) Downshifting the internal rear hub transmission, I keep peddling in laid-back comfort for the long climb out of the “gravity well” leading up the relentlessly steep and scenic hill from Ford Cove. Passing Olson's farm, the grade inclines. Tilting back in the seat like a light plane pilot on a long climb-out, I keep peddling easily while gradually coming in with full power. Despite the drastically steepening grade, speed continues to hover around 22 kph as the numbers denoting amperage draw tick over quickly on the Cycle Analyst meter: 8, 10, 14, 20… 29 amps! Don't try this on a hot summer day without at least a 36-volt motor/battery combo, heavy-duty fuse clip and overbuilt power controller! But this classic, power-assisted BikeE handles the load without strain. Even at full power, the whine of the motor is much quieter than the bird cries and soft wash of distant surf . Lulled by the hum of the bike's spinning tires, I lay back in my lawn chair and admire the ocean view as the hill that used to necessitate three panting stops to recharge my “premie” lungs tops out in trees, sunshine and smiles. Starting down the backside, I firm my grip on the handlebars as the bike tips straight down in one long burn of all this “heightened” energy. Weighing over 225 pounds with rider, battery, controller and motor onboard, the BikeE sucks up gravity like rocket juice, accelerating like a Saturn IV leaving the pad. In seconds, the speedo whisks past 40 k. Whack! A bug bounces off my newly acquired ski-goggles. Good purchase! Even with power all the way off, at 45 kilometers-per-hour, “organic” regen kicks in as the spinning front hub motor maxes out and begins pumping juice back into the battery. Our descending rush does not slow as 13 amps momentarily surge back into the 36-volt sausage of wired-together Nickel-Metal Hydride laptop batteries cinched to the bike's boxbeam frame in front of the seat. Nearly supersonic, I “think” the bike's little front wheel past a jagged pothole. Even though you can't fly over the handlebars in a recumbent crash, a front tire blow-out at 57 k would not be fun. Which is why that Kenda Qwest high-pressure tire is new, internally protected with slime and a Kevlar puncture barrier - and regularly replaced. Speed slackens gradually as the BikeE levels out, but it's still another few moments before peddling again takes effect. Downshifting once, twice, three-times on the seven-speed rear sprocket, I thumb the power back in to keep grunt work off the pedals as the next hill looms. One more swooping roller-coaster is followed by a long pleasant flat stretch that finds me lightly blipping the throttle in a “pulse and glide” technique that extends range while keeping peddling speed near a brisk 30 k. Onboard a conventional bike, I'd be staring down at the pavement, back bent, with my weight on my aching wrists. But unlike full recumbents, which put riders almost on their backs, the BikeE's more upright seating gives me good eye contact with the astonished driver of a passing car - as well as fine views of unscrolling woods, sky and farms. I once passed Hogan trotting his horse along this stretch, proving conclusively the “one horsepower-plus” rating of my 480-watt Crystallite e-motor. Then comes another long delightful downhill run past a fine sweep of ocean rolling into Little Tribune Bay. Even leveling off, this descent carries me in a rush all the way to the Co-Op bike rack. Who says a grocery run has to be boring? Or must burn carbon? The bike's big wire basket, Spiderman totepack, and extra-long frame allow me to carry more than 30 pounds of cargo with ease. (I've even hauled logs lashed to the frame.) A trailer would turn this bike into a pickup truck, while carrying an extra battery for nearly 100 km range! So far, so good. The reliability of this rig is nearly 100% after I learned to obsessively tape, wire-tie and check every looping strand of wire clear of spinning sprockets and pedals. Over less than a year, the 1,800 or so kilometers I've covered on my electrified BikeE translate into roughly 40 gallons of gasoline saved - or more than 800 pounds of CO2 kept out of the atmosphere forever. Except for my own exhalations of course. Which I tend to do anyway. Mental and physical health benefits are incalculable. Not to mention the additional personal liberation of saving a fortune on the car I no longer support. Given all that's coming down, at 59, on my electrified BikeE, life is good! No one ever told me the end of the world (as we've known it) would be so much fun. .
Is there such a thing as sustainable agriculture, or is “sustainable agriculture” a self-contradictory term? To keep a piece of land producing crops, it is necessary to maintain a high level of various minerals. The most critical are phosphorus (P), potassium (K), and especially nitrogen (N). These minerals might be abundant in the soil before any cultivation is done, but whenever crops are harvested a certain amount of the three critical elements is removed.
The native people of North America had a simple solution: abandonment . No fertilizer was used, except for the ashes from burned undergrowth and corn stalks. As a result, the soil became exhausted after a few years, so the fields were abandoned and new ones were dug. Primitive agriculture in many other parts of the world has been similar, and sometimes such a technique is called “slash-and-burn.”
A common partial solution to the N-P-K problem, used in many countries for centuries, has been to turn crop waste into compost and put it back onto the land. The problem with that technique, however, is that one cannot create a perpetual-motion machine: every time the compost is recycled, a certain amount of N-P-K is lost, mainly in the form of human and animal excrement (after the crops are eaten) but also as direct leaching and evaporation. One can come closer to sustainability by recycling those human and animal wastes, but the recycling will always be less than perfect. After all, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are elements, and by definition they cannot be created. Of the three elements, nitrogen is by far the most subject to loss by leaching, but to some extent that can also happen with phosphorus and potassium.
In the original organic-gardening movement pioneered by Sir Albert Howard in the early years of the twentieth century, nothing but vegetable compost and animal manure was allowed. In modern organic gardening, a common technique is to replace lost minerals by adding rock powders, particularly rock phosphate and granite dust. For most present-day gardeners and farmers, the usual response to the problem of soil replenishment is to apply artificial fertilizer, N-P-K largely derived from those same types of rock used in organic gardening. (In fact, the use of rock powders in later organic gardening sounds suspiciously like a drift toward artificial fertilizers.) When the fragile international networks of civilization break down, however, then neither rock powders nor artificial fertilizer will be readily available. These materials are very much the products of civilization, requiring a market system that ties together an entire country, or an entire world.
Writing early in the twentieth century , F.H. King claimed that farmers in China, Japan, and Korea were managing to grow abundant crops on about one tenth as much cultivable land per capita as Americans, and that they had done so for four thousand years. If they kept their land producing for 40 centuries, what was their secret?
The answer, in part, is that most of eastern Asia has an excellent climate, with rainfall most abundant when it is most needed. More importantly, agriculture was sustained by the practice of returning almost all waste to the soil — even human excrement from the cities was carried long distances to the farms. Various legumes, grown in the fields between the planting of food crops, fixed atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. Much of the annually depleted N-P-K, however, was replaced by taking vegetation from the hillsides and mountains, and by the use of silt, which was taken from the irrigation canals but which originated in the mountains. The system, therefore, was not a closed system, because it took materials from outside the farms.
These three countries are, in any case, problematic as sources of agricultural “wisdom.” King remarks that “the first days of travel in these old countries force the over-crowding upon the attention as nothing else can.” In a chapter on Tientsin, he cites a Scottish physician’s description of a common solution to over-crowding:
“In times of famine the girls especially are disposed of, often permitted to die when very young for lack of care. Many are sold at such times to go into other provinces.”
As for the hard labor and low remuneration, King says of a Japanese rice farmer that “it is difficult for Americans to understand how it is possible for the will of man, even when spurred by the love of home and family, to hold flesh to tasks like these.” The “miracle” of growing so much food on so little land was largely due, therefore, to neither technology nor topography, but to the fact that starvation was the only alternative.
Besides using vegetable compost and animal manure for increasing the sustainability of agricultural land, many societies have employed related techniques, such as crop-rotation, fallowing, cover-cropping, and green manuring. If any of these techniques includes the use of legumes, nitrogen is added to the soil. Such practices also replenish the humus content of the soil, important for retaining moisture and minerals.
In some societies, agriculture meant slow but inexorable burnout, as was the case for most of Europe. In other cultures (China, Japan, Korea etc.) the response was to recycle intensively. As much as possible, vegetable compost and human and animal excrement had to be reclaimed, and other loss was made up by importing soil and vegetation from the wilderness. Even for those cultures, however, a growing population exacerbated the problems.
Vernon Gill Carter and Tom Dale  claim that all previous civilizations have managed to destroy their agricultural systems, except for a few societies that were lucky enough to have sufficient annual flooding, thereby replenishing their soils from an outside source. The Egyptians long ago had such replenishment from the Nile, which brought a small but sufficient annual supply of silt from the highlands of Ethiopia and central Africa; it was Egyptian grain that kept the Roman Empire alive. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia received new silt annually from the Tigris and Euphrates. Carter and Dale regard the Indus Valley civilization as in a similar situation to that of Mesopotamia. Perhaps the situation of China, Korea, and especially Japan is similar to that of Egypt, since all three Asian countries (as described by King) used to derive much of their soil fertility from river-borne silt.
In describing the Far East, however, Carter and Dale are generally closer to the mark than King. Speaking of China, they note that “erosion as a whole continues to ruin much of the land, reducing China, as a whole, to the status of a poor country with poor undernourished people, mainly because the land has been misused for so long.”
In the first chapter of Walden, Thoreau says that it would be better “to select a fresh spot from time to time than to manure the old.” Perhaps he was right. His method, which is essentially the type of practice referred to above as abandonment, might not be ecologically sound, since on a large scale it would mean leaving behind a long string of what used to be called “worked-out farms.” For a large population of farmers and consumers, such a method would be impractical, although many ancient cultures tried it. On a very small scale, however, it might not be so ecologically unsound, since the abandoned spot would, over many years, revert to reasonably fertile land, particularly if there were wild legumes to replace the nitrogen.
One further possible disadvantage to Thoreau’s suggestion is that preparing the “fresh spot” might require a good deal of work. It is noteworthy that the native North Americans preferred forest, rather than grassland, as sites for agriculture — the forest land was more fertile, and digging up heavy sod (especially on the prairies) would have been arduous with the available tools. The native people girdled the trees (cutting a ring of bark from around each tree) to kill them, and then felled the trees much later, with fire and axes.
Actually, if the abandoned land is taken up again at a later date, the practice of abandonment tends to fade into that of fallowing, another practice to be found in many societies. With the traditional European method of fallowing, half the land is left to revert to grass and weeds for a year before being plowed again. Alternately, a farmer’s land might be divided into three parts, and the fallow portion might be part of a system of crop rotation.
World agriculture faces the problem of a reduction in arable land, but there is also the problem of water. The natural availability of water has always been one of the most critical factors in farming. Nearly half of the United States receives only 20 inches or less rainfall annually. Low precipitation, however, is a problem on every continent. In a real survival situation, what are the chances that anyone would be able to pick up a plastic hose and get an endless supply of clear cold water? Not very great. Even wells, cisterns, and ponds would be useless if their water flow had been controlled by electricity. When water must be pumped by hand or carried in buckets, it becomes a precious commodity.
One possible response to aridity is dry farming, leaving crops at the mercy of the weather, relying solely on whatever rain may fall . Grains, legumes, potatoes, and several other crops can be farmed in this way. “Dry farming” will again become a popular term, as the aquifers run out of water and modern systems of agriculture become largely impossible.
The essence of dry farming is to space out plants so that the distance between them is two or three times greater than usual. The roots can thereby spread out in all directions, finding water that has been stored in the ground in previous months. Because each plant has more room in which to grow, reducing plant density does not lower the total yield by an equal amount.
To make the best use of the water in the ground, all weeds must be removed, because most water vanishes by evaporating from the leaves of any plants that are growing on that soil. The ground must be hoed or otherwise cultivated frequently, so that the surface is kept watertight under a “dust mulch”: water does not easily pass through a layer of well-disturbed dust, since the lack of water and the separation of soil particles prevent capillary action . Further conservation of soil moisture can be achieved by the use of windbreaks. Dry farming is an excellent means of producing food without dependence on complex technology. Dry farming, however, can only make better use of the world’s soil; it cannot increase the yield of the world’s crops.
But the world’s food problems cannot be solved merely by devising a method to increase agriculture. The world’s human population is now approaching 7 billion, while the amount of arable land is not great. Massive inputs of artificial fertilizers and pesticides only replace one problem with others: poisoned water, eroded soil, and insufficient humus. Even the world’s present arable land is rapidly disappearing under cities and highways. Nor can we extend that land by pumping more water from underground, because the aquifers cannot be made to yield more water than they receive.
The real solutions bear little resemblance to anything that is intellectually fashionable. What is of primary importance is to discard the glib, facile sermons that are often tacked on: “We must do such-and-such” or “We have to do such-and-such.” After all, who is the “we” in these statements? If “we” means the poor and powerless, then the statements may be false, because often such people cannot force the political and economic elite to make massive changes in policy. If “we” means the rich and powerful, then the statements are even more likely to be false, because these people have only to say, “No, we don’t have to. We are in power, and no one can make us change — certainly not silly book-scribblers.”
There may be something resembling sustainability, depending partly on one’s definitions, but it would have little to do with the simplistic concepts that are usually put forward. In the first place, there is nothing “natural” about agriculture. Agriculture has only been practiced for about ten percent of the entire history of Homo sapiens, and in that sense it is still an experiment with uncertain results.
To plow the earth is to “go against Nature,” since it means disturbing the soil, the intricate, complex surface of the planet. Even the slightest and shallowest disturbance causes chemical and biological losses of various sorts. Yet in some countries one can drive for days without seeing an end to cultivated land (or, of course, concrete and asphalt). Almost no attention is paid to the final consequences of such practices, and the relentless quest for money makes it unlikely that serious attention will ever be paid. Even on a theoretical level, the permanent feeding of humanity is not simple. Any long-term solution would require paying as much attention to restoration of the land as has previously been paid to its cultivation.
Secondly and more importantly, to maintain a permanent balance between population and cultivation would require a considerable reduction in the former. It is foolish to say that the gap between food and population can be met by increasing the production of food. The error, a rather obvious one, is that an increase in food is inevitably followed by a further increase in population, which in turn leads to another shortage of food. Since the dawn of the human race, people have been trying to find ways to increase the food supply; often they have succeeded.
Perhaps the biggest success of all was agriculture itself, the discovery that one can deliberately put seeds into the ground and foster their growth, rather than going off into the jungle to look for plants growing in the wild. That particular revolution led to a great increase in human population. The original problem, however, simply recurred. The solution (some means of increasing food) always leads straight back to the original problem (an excess population).
But these two forces do not act merely in a circular fashion. It would be more exact to say that they act as an ever-widening spiral. If we double the food supply, and thereby induce a doubling of human population, the new problem (that of excessive population) is not entirely identical to the original problem, because as the spiral widens it creates further dangers.
At some point, we push the planet Earth to the point where it can no longer maintain that spiral. We can convert vast quantities of petrochemicals into fertilizers and pesticides, we can draw water out of the deepest aquifers and even desalinate the oceans, but at some point we have to face the fact that the Earth is only a small rock, small enough that it can be encircled by a jet plane in a matter of hours.
We are squeezing both our residential areas and our farmlands beyond endurance. The greatest danger of such a spiral is that when it breaks, it will do so in a far more destructive way than if the problem had been solved earlier. When the human race suddenly finds itself unable to manage the reciprocity of overpopulation and food production, there will be no more choices left to make.
References 1. Brengle, K.G. Principles and Practices of Dryland Farming. Boulder, Colorado: Colorado Associated University Press, 1982.
2. Carter, Vernon Gill, and Tom Dale. Topsoil and Civilization. Rev. ed. Norman, Oklahoma: U of Oklahoma P, 1981.
3. Driver, Harold E. Indians of North America. 2nd ed. rev. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
4. King, F.H. Farmers of Forty Centuries, or, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. Various editions.
5. McMahon, Kathy. “Remember, Remember the 5th of September, 2000.” Peak Oil Blues. www.peakoilblues.com
6. Solomon, Steve. Water-Wise Vegetables. Seattle: Sasquatch, 1993.
Image above: #1 worst record of ethics as a corporation is Monsanto.
By Grace Kiser on 28 January 2010 in Huffington Post - (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/28/the-least-ethical-compani_n_440073.html)
This week, the Swiss research firm Covalence released its annual ranking of the overall ethical performance of multinational corporations. The idea behind the Covalence research is that there's value -- both for companies and consumers -- in measuring corporations against an ethical standard. (We're hoping this idea also applies to Wall Street firms.)
To complete its ethics index, Covalence compiled both quantitative and qualitative data, spanning seven years, for 581 companies. The data encompass 45 criteria that include labor standards, waste management and human rights records. And because it is a reputation index, the Covalence survey also incorporates media, industry and NGO documents into its evaluation.
Of course, while the index had its winners -- the first-, second-, and third-place companies were IBM, Intel, and HSBC, respectively -- we were more interested in the companies with the lowest ethical ratings. Among those companies with the most awful records are some of the usual suspects in the oil and mining industries but Covalence also found some lesser-known offenders.
Check out a snapshot of the 12 companies with the worst ethical ratings, and some of the things they've done to earn the ranking:
12) Barrick Gold Corporation Twelfth worst in the Covalence ranking is Barrick, the Toronto-based gold-mining corporation. The company spent several years attempting to mine the Pascua Lama region along the Argentina-Chile border, but was stalled by concerns about the impact the operation would have on the area's ecosytem. The dispute was resolved only when the company promised to leave the nearby glaciers untouched. A team of the company's engineers and technicians in Los Cacaos, Dominican Republic is pictured.
11) Mediaset SPA Mediaset, the massive Italian television company Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi founded and still controls, ranked eleventh worst in the survey of ethical multinationals. Late last year, Berlusconi's government raised eyebrows when it attempted to double the tax rate of one of Mediaset's main competitors.
10) Total SA French oil and gas company Total has been accused of building a pipeline with the aid of slave labor in Myanmar. In addition, in 1999 one of the company's oil tankers, the Erika, which had 30,000 tons of oil on board, sunk off of the coast of Brittany. A French court later asked the company to compensate the victims of the spill.
9) Grupo Mexico SA de CV Grupo Mexico, the mining giant, placed ninth worst in the Covalence ethical index. In 2007, miners at Mexicana, the copper mine in Cananea, northern Mexico (pictured), went on strike to protest safety and health violations -- and more than two years later, the workers are still striking. But just today, Grupo Mexico proposed a new deal to workers aimed at resolving the dispute.
Image above: #2 worst record of ethics as a corporation is Halliburton.
8) Syngenta AG The Swiss agriculture and chemicals company Syngenta ranked eighth worst in the survey. The company was fined by the EPA in 2008 for pesticide-related infringements, and one of its former employees was recently awarded nearly $2 million after she was wrongly fired for reporting discrimination in the workplace.
7) Ryanair Holdings PLC Michael O'Leary, the CEO of Irish budget airline Ryanair, is known for his outrageous behavior and aggressive cost-cutting measures. Employees of his company are reportedly forbidden from using the company's pens or charging their cellphones with its electricity. And O'Leary has been known to get nasty with customers, allegedly yelling and cursing at one person who requested a refund after a relative fell ill.
6) Occidental Petroleum Corporation Occidental, one of America's largest oil and gas companies, has been involved in a number of territory disputes in multiple countries, including Ecuador and Colombia. The company also drew ire from environmentalists in 2005, when it proposed building a road through Ecuador's Yasuní National Park.
5) Philip Morris International Inc. Philip Morris, one of the world's leading cigarette manufacturers, ranked fifth-worst in the Covalence survey. Earlier this month, the company reportedly attempted to persuade the government to abandon its ten-year-old lawsuit against the tobacco industry for allegedly concealing the dangers of cigarettes.
4) Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. Freeport-McMoRan, a copper and gold producer, has run into opposition in Indonesia's Papua province, where locals have tried to claim the area's vast gold deposits -- reportedly the largest in the world.
Image above: #3 Worst record of ethics as a corporation is Chevron.
3) Chevron Coproration Chevron, the oil and gas behemoth, has been accused of tax evasion as well a number of environmental infractions in several countries around the world. But perhaps most controversial was a 1998 episode in Nigeria: after protesters took hostages as part of a demonstration against the company, Nigerian soldiers shot at the demonstrators, killing two. Chevron was accused of facilitating the transport of the soldiers, known for their "general history of committing abuses," to the scene. The company, however, was cleared of the charges in 2008.
2) Halliburton Company After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Halliburton, the oil and gas company famously associated with former Vice President Dick Cheney, was accused of unfairly procuring billions of dollars in government contracts for oil repair in the country.
1) Monsanto Company Monsanto, the Missouri-based agriculture giant, ranked dead last in the Covalence ethical index. The company, which leads the world in the production of genetically-engineered seed, has been subject to myriad criticisms. Among them: the company is accused of frequently and unfairly suing small farmers for patent infringement.
Jeff Rubin is not a traditional peak oil alarmist—he doesn’t think that the world’s supply of crude will run out and cause resource wars and food shortages of apocalyptic proportions. In fact, he doesn’t even think the world’s supply of crude is running out at all. Rubin made this clear as he addressed the Business of Climate Change Conference in Toronto last September, opening his keynote address with the statement, “The world’s not running out of oil.” However, after milking the pause for a second or two, Rubin went on: “But it has already run out of oil it can afford to burn.”
Rubin, former head economist at CIBC World Markets, is often referred to as Canada’s top economist, largely because of his bold and accurate economic predictions: in 2000, he forecast that the price of crude would hit $50 per barrel within five years (it broke the $50 mark in 2004) and foresaw the huge price spike of 2008. He recently predicted that the price of crude would hit $100 again by the fourth quarter of this year.
His view of the future of oil and its role in civilization is just as startling as many prevailing theories within the peak oil community, but interestingly different from most that have come before.
As he explained at the Business of Climate Change Conference, Rubin envisions a world that has run out of cheap oil “not in the next 10 to 12 years, but in the next 10 to 12 months.” In his model, the beginning of the oil crisis is not marked by a sudden and extreme depletion of oil reserves, but oil prices that rise at an accelerating rate, driven by rapidly growing demand from the global economy (primarily from developing countries like China and India) and expanding development of expensive and energy-intensive non-conventional sources.
According to Rubin, “since 2005 conventional oil supply has not grown, and may never grow again.” As the supply from conventional oil fields drops off, it will have to be replaced by supplies from dirtier, harder-to-process unconventional sources like the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. Because the processing of unconventional sources is so expensive, Rubin argues, the crude oil it produces will be more expensive. Combine higher baseline production costs with growing global demand and you get a huge increase in crude oil prices over a short period of time.As anecdotal evidence of the rapid depletion of conventional oil resources, Rubin pointed to frequent news stories on discoveries of major oil reservoirs in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere, in contrast with the lack of reporting on massive, decades-old oil fields drying up. According to Rubin, the world loses 4 million barrels per day of crude oil production every year, but we don’t hear much about it.
On the demand side, Rubin sees the global economy as the overarching driver of the world’s skyrocketing thirst for crude. Globalization has created a system of commerce that requires raw materials to be shipped from their places of origin to far-away industrial centers that produce consumer goods (everything from chicken wings to HD televisions), which are then shipped around the world again to consumers. Petroleum-based fuels power all of this transport, be it by sea vessel, airplane, or truck, Rubin reminded his audience. The problem with the global economy, he says, is that “it assumes that the cost of moving goods around the world is minimal or marginal.” And it was that assumption that allowed the sudden spike in crude oil prices in July of 2008 to trigger a global recession, Rubin said, emphasizing his belief that “the world’s biggest energy shock” and not the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US caused the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression.
In short, Rubin emphatically believes that two intensifying and antagonistic trends will cause a blast-off of crude oil prices in the next 15 months: exponentially-increasing demand for oil tied to the global economy and the ever-accelerating depletion of conventional (cheap) oil reserves.
Instead of calling for government action to avert the crisis-causing apex of these two trends, Rubin thinks the crisis will be addressed by local and individual action driven by market forces. “The prices needed to get unconventional oil out of the ground are the same prices that will get you off the road,” he explained.
He elaborated by predicting that stratospheric oil prices would force consumers and producers alike to change behaviors that would eventually lead to a breakdown of the global economy and a return to local economies. After people stop driving, he suggested, they will begin to seek out cheaper goods, which will by then be made and distributed by nearby manufacturers and distributors, who are able to offer affordable prices thanks to lower fuel utilization and a resulting decrease transport costs. “In a world of triple-digit oil prices, we will not be getting our food from China…we’re going to have to grow our own,” Rubin proclaimed.
So what if Rubin is right? What if his streak of correct predictions extends to this global bombshell? Under Rubin’s model, people should brace themselves for steep increases in gasoline, diesel, and heating oil prices over the next two years (after oil hits $100 this year, Rubin has said, it will reach $225 by 2012). Specifically, those preparations should amount to major cutbacks in consumption of and reliance on petroleum-based fuels—switching to ethanol or biofuels wherever possible, and reducing overall consumption of fuels by switching to more efficient vehicles and appliances are the most obvious first steps.
As is the case with all predictions, only time can prove Rubin’s right or wrong. In five years, Jeff Rubin will be definitively proven to be a genius or a paranoid dud. In the winter of 2015, if you find yourself sitting down in your biofuel-heated home to a dinner of locally produced food carried home on a bicycle while you marvel at the collapse of the global economy and shake your head at $15-a-gallon gasoline, remember, you heard it here first!
See also: Ea O Ka Aina: Business of Climate Change 1/15/10.
Alley was expected to give one of the best speeches of the December 2009 annual meeting of the AGU in San Francisco, and he did not disappoint. Here is a short digest of that hour-long Bjerknes Lecture to the AGU in San Francisco in December.
Professor Alley begins with the attack:
"I said these were interesting times. This is a copy of an email that was sent to my administration at Penn State by a former graduate, and said alum copied me on this, so I believe I am fair. The alum asks for certain personnel changes to be made, and I have just put in the ones that relate to me.
"So for what it's worth:
'Dr. Alley's work on CO2 levels and ice cores' - now I don't actually do that but I talk about it - OK, 'Dr. Alley's work on CO2 levels and ice cores has confirmed that CO2 lags Earth's temperature. This one scientific fact alone proves that CO2 is not the cause of the recent warming.'
"I continue to mislead the scientific community. There should be prompt response (getting rid of me), I have 'crimes against the scientific community, Penn State, the citizens of this great country and the citizens of the world' that 'must be dealt with severely' because of my 'shameful' activities."
[laughter from the audience][applause]
"So there'll be a wanted poster which will be up here somewhere, but the thing which is fascinating, and we'll come back to, is that this email has in it a logical fallacy which is evident on casual observation. And I think it's worth our understanding at some level, how polarized the world is, how easy it is for someone to misunderstand our science, if they aren't fully within it, the amount of education, the amount of outreach, the amount of clarification, that we have to make, to get from this to a proper scientific understanding."
In fact, the former Penn State grad calls for "an investigation into...Dr. Alley's activities [that] will... start prior to the end of this year."
Later in this program, we'll follow Professor Alley as he explains the denialist bugaboo of carbon dioxide lagging temperature rise in climate history. In excerpts from this important speech, we'll learn more about the scientific history of our planet, and its atmosphere.
This was part of a concerted effort against climate scientists at Penn State, including the famous "hockey stick" graph creator, Michael Mann, and others.
The Bjerknes Lecture is one of the keynote speeches to the American Geophysical Union annual meeting each year. Named after a famous Arctic researcher, Professor Bjerknes - Penn State's Professor Richard B. Alley received the award, and gave his speech at the December 2009 meeting in San Francisco, for his work teaching the history of Earth's past climates.
The title of the speech was "The Biggest Control Knob, Carbon Dioxide in Earth's Climate History". The entire speech, with accompanying slides, can be seen as a 57 minute: video here.
I have made this transcript of the excerpts used in our radio program – likely the only print version from the speech so far.
The first 20 minutes of Alley's speech go into the many ways that scientists can measure past CO2 levels. These include actual air samples trapped in ice cores, plus a whole range of cross-checking available from sea-bed analysis, shells of creatures... a list of techniques too long to list here.
In a sense, this is the most important foundation for everything we will hear next - because it establishes how we know. These are not mere guesses, or religious beliefs, but the results of millions of careful measurements, by hundreds of thousands of scientists around the world. The result is compiled and cross-checked by large scientific bodies, ranging from national Academies of Science, to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, through peer review and criticism by the world's scientific community. The results are not opinion, and are moving toward established facts about our world.
Dr. Alley explains, with graphs, the "Rock-Weathering Thermostat" that operates, over long periods of time, to balance both the CO2 and the temperature on planet Earth. This was developed by Walker, Hays and Kasting in 1981, and has stood the test of further research.
Dr. Alley tells us about the coldest times, labeled "Snowball Earth." But we begin our radio coverage with an event that must concern us all: 250 million years ago there was a massive extinction event called "The Great Dying."
"Basically, 251 million years ago, almost every critter on the planet dies. "The Great Dying" - the end Permian extinction. Maybe 95 percent of the species go, but because you can keep a species alive with a reasonably small number of individuals, this is really nasty.
" It turns out that there are bugs in the ocean, green sulfur bacteria, that use hydrogen sulfide, rather than water in their photosynthesis, and they have very interesting biomarkers, and those biomarkers are found widespread at the time of the dying. Which means - and these things are living in the photic zone of the ocean, and they're living on hydrogen sulfide, which means that the ocean's surface is filled with hydrogen sulfide. And if you breath very much hydrogen sulfide, you die.
"And it's probable that was true for a whole lot of oxygen-breathing critters back in the past. And so some time here, the ocean runs out of oxygen, and then it gets [unknown term] and fills up with hydrogen sulfide, and then it kills off most stuff on the planet.
"And it turns out that happens to be a warm time. There's a big warming coming up to that and the warming seems to have been because there was a big volcanism."
This is the theory popularized in the book "Under A Green Sky" by scientist Dr. Peter Ward. Listen to our Radio Ecoshock interviews with Dr. Peter Ward, especially our "Under A Green Sky" interview in the September 12h, 2008 program, and then his later explanation "The Medea Hypothesis" in the October 10th, 2009 Radio Ecoshock Show. It's best to listen to the earlier interview first. Isn't it important to know how the worst case climate scenario and how it developed? If that explains how rampant warming could kill off 95 percent of life on Earth? Listen to
We know that Earth has experienced extreme warming, where crocodiles played in tropical seas at the Poles. Professor Alley:
"Now come a little farther forward in time, and we're now in the Saurian Sauna of the mid-Cretaceous. It's still hot. There's no ice near sea level at the Poles, anywhere. You have balmy temperatures, you have forests crowding up to the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
"The continents are not that different from now. And if you put them in a model, as has been done, you melt all the ice, and the sea level gets a little higher, and that changes the planet's Albedo a little, and you get a little bit of warming. And you move the currents around, and you get a little bit of warming with some configurations, you can't get much.
"And so it's really stinking hot, and the only explanation we can find on this is that CO2 is really high again. Probably again because volcanism is running pretty fast. If you put high CO2 in the models, you sort of match what happened, except the world seems little bit too warm at the Poles. If you leave the CO2 out of the models, you don't get very close.
"The only way we can attribute this warmth, of having an ice-free world, is to have a high CO2."
But let's look at another horrific example from Earth's past climate. This is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum - something that looks possible for us even today. Professor Alley says:
"And that's a very interesting little blip. It's where the Paleocene meets the Eocene, and it is a thermal maximum, so we call it the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum...
" What do we find there? There's a big isotopic anomaly that says 'CO2, CO2, CO2'. Maybe starting as methane, but going to CO2.
"There's a big temperature change. The whole world is already hot, and it cranks up a few degrees C. in a fairly short order. The ocean acidifies, and all the shells on the sea floor are dissolving, and there's a big extinction event of things that live on the sea floor.
"Pretty much all the ecosystems get kicked around. There's huge migrations, there's seems to be the start of some evolution going on. There's a lot of ecosystem disruption. Things get out of place, and out of time, as it were.
"You can't possibly blame this on drifting continents. The CO2 rises in a few thousand years, and it falls in tens of thousands, a hundred thousand years, so this is not a drifting continent thing. The CO2 shows up and it gets hot. And it's fast compared to other things.
"And the way that it recovers looks just like our carbon cycle models."
Alley continues with a detailed time-line of Earth's temperatures, showing a direct correlation between CO2 and temperature periods. The measurements are amazing for their breadth, running from soil and sea samples, to fossil teeth, to leaf damage in fossil leaves. The work of scientists all over the world, over decades. Boom! the CO2 goes up, and Boom! so does the temperature. Like dancing partners.
There were times that didn't seem to fit, beyond the meteorite hit. But, says Alley, in the last decades, almost all of those have been reasonably explained, and most turn out to be CO2-related after all.
At minute 40 in the talk, Richard Alley goes into the science discounting other theories of climate disruption, such as the volcanoes and the Sun. Of course, there are many factors in this complex system. Volcanoes and the Sun, among others, do matter. But myriads of scientific studies show they are not "the control knob" when it comes to climate. Carbon dioxide is.
One theory, which still needs more research is this:
"People say 'Oh, wait a minute, the Sun doesn't change much, but the Sun modulates the Cosmic Rays, the Cosmic Rays modulate the clouds, the clouds modulate the temperature, so the Sun is amplified hugely.'"
I believe this is the main theory from dissenting University of Alabama scientist Roy W. Spencer. He's coming out with two new books from the Conservative publisher Encounter Books, titled "Climate Confusion: How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians and Misguided Policies That Hurt the Poor" in January 2010, and "The Great Global Warming Blunder: How Mother Nature Fooled the World's Top Climate Scientists" in March 2010. A barrage of denial of human-induced climate change, and a comfort to fossil fuel producers and users everywhere.
Alley says of this theory:
"It's a really interesting hypothesis. There's really good science to be done on this. But we have reason to think it's a fine tuning knob. Because this record, this is sixty thousand years ago on the left, up to today, and this is a record that is Beryllium 10 in the ice core. And Beryllium 10 is made by cosmic rays.
"Now the Sun modulates cosmic rays, so do the magnetic field. Forty thousand years ago, the magnetic field basically zeroed out, in what we call the Le Champs anomaly, for a millennium or so. And when it did, the cosmic rays came screaming into the Earth's system, and you see, and basically in all sedimentary records, this peak in cosmic rays-produced nucleotides.
"We had a big cosmic ray signal - and the climate ignores it. And it's just about that simple. These cosmic rays didn't do enough that you can see it. So it's a fine tuning knob at best."
Alabama scientist Roy W. Spencer has also denied the theory of evolution, replacing it with intelligent design and creationism, theories embraced by the deeply Conservative Christian movement.
Here is the end of the talk by Professor Richard B. Alley, to the American Geophysical Union, December 2009, in San Francisco:
"So where do we end up? ... If higher CO2 warms the Earth, climate history makes sense. And if CO2 doesn't warm, then we have to explain why the physicists are stupid, and we also have no way to explain what happened.
"And it's really that simple. We don't have any plausible alternative at this point, and so it surely looks like it...
"CO2 can be a forcing. It can be a feed-back. The warming effect of a CO2 molecule - it does not remember why it's there. It only remembers that it is there. And the paleo-climate data shows that sort of the mid-range models are right, and if there's a problem, the world is a little more sensitive to CO2 on some time scales than the models tend to predict.
"Now, be clear. There's lots of knobs that control the climate. The Sun knob, we're really lucky it doesn't get twiddled very much. The cosmic rays, the space dust, the magnetic field, and the other knobs, if they matter, we can't find it yet.
"There are really interesting things to be learned. And I hope that the science rolls forward on those. But so far, they're either not doing anything, or they're not doing much. They are fine tuning knobs, and that's how it looks.
"This is not a regional story! You close the Isthmus of Panama and the people who used to have coastal property don't anymore. Their climate changed.
"You take India from the Pole, and you run it to the Equator, and it's climate changes. The Younger Dryas was a big regional thing. There's lots of things in regional climate, that don't do much to the globe. The Younger Dryas is warm in the South and cold in the North, so it doesn't do much to the global temperature.
"So, in terms of things that people care about, CO2 is just the start, it's not the end. There's real interesting things to be done in here. And I think there's a lot more work that needs to be done here yet, because where we really stand now, we're not quite yet at that pound on the table, this is nailed, we're done and this is our confidence interval level.
"The paleo-climate data they are coming in real fast, they're really good, it's really sharp. But, sort of, these latest advances have not had time to percolate through to the IPCC yet. And so we're going to see more on this. We're going to see more discussion on this. This story is very clearly not done.
"But it's fairly clear where we stand now. Which would be: an increasing body of science indicates CO2 has been the most important controller on the global average climate of the Earth."
But what if we burn all the fossil fuels we can get our hands on? Richard Alley answers that question in the short Q and A session:
"The question was: if we burn we burn all the fossil fuels, where do we get to. And there's this huge gap between sort of proven reserves, and what we think is out there if we're really clever, and really desperate.
"And so, do we get it out of the oil shales, do we get it... and people are kicking around numbers like five or six thousand gigatons, I think is the number. There's a big number that's floating around on what might be recoverable.
"And if you take all of that, and you turn it to CO2 pretty fast, there's some chance of getting above that Cretaceous level. Like I say, the temperatures might have been a little high at that site, because the Atlantic is a little narrower, and so the ocean circulation has slowed a little bit - but that was 37, 38 sea surface temperature. That was hot.
"So you start thinking about this, and say 'well you know if we really crank it up, are we really confident we're stopping at 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 [degrees C]?'
"You can think of a burn-it-all future getting really hot."
In other words, we could get out of control global heating, where the seas could reach 38 degrees Celsius, or 100 degrees Fahrenheit - hotter than the human body. That has happened in Earth's past.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the 20th century average sea surface temperature was 16.4 degrees C, or 61.5 degrees F. If we burned up all the fossil fuels, it is conceivable the average sea temperature could more than double in Celsius, or rise about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Given what it takes to heat water, that kind of super-record warming would presumably take at least centuries, if not millenia, but in our strange case of rapid emissions, we really don't know. Human fossil mining is an ahistorical event. Nothing in the natural record prepares us for this.
Surely humans, and the ecosystems which support humans, would have gone extinct before that happens? Maybe not. The delay in warming, caused by sea absorption, among other factors, means we could burn many gigatonnes of carbon, with results a generation or three later. But then, the warming can last at least 100,000 years, as shown by David Archer in his book "The Long Thaw" (see our Radio Ecoshock interview with Dr. Archer here: ecoshock.net)
Could we be so stupid as to burn it all? We are already doubling tar sands production, and fracking gas shales, while drilling miles deep below the ocean for oil - all to get more fossil fuels. Right now, barring a vast revolution in our economy, we are headed toward "Thermageddon," as described by the late Greenpeace founder, Robert Hunter. [ecoshock.org/podcasts]
But wait, we didn't allow Dr. Alley to answer one of the biggest denier complaints: that the climate record often shows CO2 following a temperature rise - so how could CO2 cause climate change? That's why they want him fired, if not charged with crimes against humanity.
In the talk, Alley showed graphs of time and ice cores to explain it. He compared the situation to interest on your credit card. Yes, the original debt comes first, but the debt becomes much larger with 18 or 28 percent interest. You can't say the interest costs don't exist, just because the debt came first. If you do claim that, bankruptcy follows.
The clearest way to understand the role of carbon dioxide and temperature change is found in the conclusion of the speech:
"CO2 can be a forcing. It can be a feed-back. The warming effect of a CO2 molecule - it does not remember why it's there. It only remembers that it is there."
When other lesser control knobs, like exploding chains of volcanoes, or even the regular tilt in Earth's orbit, begin the process of warming - CO2 becomes an amplifying factor which drives the planet into a much warmer state. That has happened many times.
But now, for the first time, a species on Earth has brought out CO2 accumulated over long eras, and burned it in a century or two. In this case "CO2 can be a forcing." That is, humans can trigger a great warming event, and it seems almost certain we have done so.
Could we save ourselves by mimicking natural processes? That's the last question of the night. So far, that doesn't look possible, because things like rock weathering take thousands, or tens of thousands of years. If we try to mine the right rock, grind it up, and expose it to form calcium carbonate - the energy involved in the process might be greater (and more carboniferous) than the carbon removed. It is easier, Dr. Richard Alley says, to applause, to prevent the carbon from entering the atmosphere in the first place.
In February 2009, Richard Alley shared the 2009 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement with Veerabhadran (Ram) Ramanathan, "for their scientific contributions that advanced understanding of how human activities influence global climate, and alter oceanic, glacial and atmospheric phenomena in ways that adversely affect planet Earth."
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