tisdag 29 mars 2016

Books I've read (March last year)

I have taken a long break from blogging about the books I have read "recently" so I am basically one year behind at this point. I have continued to read books during the past 12 months and I read the books below in March and April last year (2015). The previous blog post about "books I have read recently" can be found here. All three books below treat the topic of energy and especially oil/peak oil. The number of asterisks (*) signify the number of quotes from the book that can be found further below. 

****** Jeff Rubin (Wikipedia) was the chief economist at a Canadian bank but kind of made himself impossible in that role when he started to write about peak oil and resources and the challenges these trends will pose to economic growth and Business As Usual. I read his first book, "Why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller: Oil and the end of globalisation" (2011) some years ago and "The end of growth" (2012) is his second book. Jeff is a great author and because of (or despite of) him being an economist, he manages to explain difficult concepts in the intersection of on the one hand oil, energy and resources and on the other hand economics and the financial system. Despite this, I would primarily recommend his previous book (written just one year before this book). 

************ Kjell Aleklett is the first academic to dig into peak oil and he also became the first president of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) in 2002. He has been a professor of physics and he led the Global Energy Systems research group at Uppsala University between 2000 and 2012. His book, "Peaking at peak oil" (2012) can be seen as his testament as it was published at just about the same time he retired.

I have read my fair share of books about (peak) oil and about energy but most have been written by journalists who in a best case scenario have interviewed people like Kjell Aleklett. It is good to finally get the word from the source. Kjell might not as good an author as some of the journalists are, but he knows his stuff and it is great to read a 300 pages long book that is written by a knowledgable researcher and that is crammed with facts from the first to the last page. I can recommend Kjell's blog (Aleklett's Energy Mix) as a starting point for those not willing to run out and buy his book right this second.

****************** I bought Timothy Mitchell's book "Carbon democracy: Political power in the age of oil" (2011) after I heard an interview with him in an Extraenvironmentalist podcast (#69, November 2013). Mitchell (Wikipedia) does something extraordinary - something I have never heard anyone else to before when he compellingly connects the emergence of a fossil fuel (coal) economy with the emergence of democracy in the Western world. His convincingly makes a case for how the characteristics of the energy source in question and the structure and the topology of the new energy system created the conditions for the working class to force elites to make a number of political concessions. Mitchell's book is exceedingly interesting and stimulating and is food for thought about thinking about the connection between tomorrow's decarbonised, renewable energy systems in relation to issues of power, justice and governance.

My one problem with Mitchell's book is that the really interesting parts - the same parts that were covered in the podcast - primarily are treated (only) in the first and the last chapter of the book (e.g. about only 20% of the book). The seven chapters in-between presents a more "traditional" story about the the shift from coal to oil and the emergence of the modern economic system. That is a story I have read several times before and while Mitchell of course has his own angle and his own interests, it to a large extent overlaps with many other books I have read. It's still a great book but half the greatness is encapsulated in the very first and the very last chapter of the book. I recommend any reader who has read this far to also read the quotes below and those from Mitchell's book in particular (but the quotes from the other two books are actually also pretty great).


----- On economics-as-usual vs the end of economic growth -----
"Whether you're a free-market type or you believe in government intervention, your common ground with most economists is an unswerving belief in growth as the panacea of all economic ills. From the first page of your Economics 101 textbook to the last page of your Ph.D. dissertation, the discipline teaches you that an economy's trajectory is always upward. The postwar era has given economists few reasons to doubt their faith in limitless economic expansion. ... But what happens if this new economic downturn isn't just one of those cyclical events? What if the global economy is entering an era where static growth is the new normal? In short, what will happen if our economies stop growing? Well, we're going to find out, because that scenario is about to unfold."
Rubin, J. (2012). "The end of growth", p.33-34.

----- On oil being the most important and versatile energy soucre -----
"Why exactly is oil so special? For starters, it provides more than a third of the energy we use on the planet every day. That's more than any other energy source. But even that statistic doesn't come close to capturing oil's importance to the world. Where oil is truly indispensable to the global economy is as a transit fuel. More than two-thirds of every barrel of oil produced goes towards transportation, whether it's in the form of gasoline, diesel, jet or bunker fuel. Planes, trains, cars, trucks, ships and even motorbikes run on oil. ... Just how unique is oil? Oil can be stored. It doesn't spoil. It can be easily moved through pipelines, trucks or tankers. It's found all over the world. It's used to make pop bottles and to power fighter jets. Most critically, it packs an unparalleled amount of energy into a tiny package. Given the same volume, oil contains more energy than natural gas and roughly twice as much as coal. We're making strides at developing alternative energy sources, but we still don't have anything close to a viable substitute that captures all of oil's magical properties.
Rubin, J. (2012). "The end of growth", p.36.

----- On the downside of living in a networked, interconnected world -----
"Exposure to Greece's economic problems cut the market value of French banks in half. Two of the country's banking giants, Société Générale and Crédit Agricole, own Greek bank subsidiaries. By comparison, German banks have less direct exposure to Greece. That would seem to make the situation less serious for Germany than for France. But it doesn't. What matters to Germany is the fate of French banks. Germany's financial sector is inextricably bound to France's, and as a result, bankers in both countries are terrified of a Greek default. So while it appears that Berlin is trying to prop up a failing Greek economy to help save the eurozone, what's really at stake is the solvency of Europe's biggest banks. A sovereign debt default would send shock waves throughout Europe's banking system. Massive write-downs at banks would be followed by even bigger bailout checks to help save those same financial institutions. And the fallout won't be limited to Europe. That was the great lesson of the US subprime crisis: no one is safe. A Greek default might start in Athens, but it would quickly spread to Paris, Berlin, New York and Tokyo. Today's interconnected financial market gives everyone exposure to everyone else."
Rubin, J. (2012). "The end of growth", p. 63-64.

----- US coal production peaked in 1998 despite vast (low-quality) reserves -----
"Because of the huge differences in energy content between coal grades, physical tonnage can offer a misleading picture of energy supply. For example, coal production in the United States, which boasts the world's largest reserves, has never been greater. But from the standpoint of how much energy is produced, coal peaked in 1998. While physical production has grown since then, the substitution of lower-grade coal for higher grades has resulted in a reduction in actual energy content. In fact, America's production of high-grade anthracite has been steadily declining for more than sixty years. Annual production is now less than a quarter of its 1950 level. Production of the next-highest grade of coal, bituminous, peaked in 1990 and has since been declining as well. But despite a drop-off in high-quality production, the total coal output from US mines has increased. ... Less energy for more tons mined - just another example of the concept of diminishing returns that's now common in our energy landscape.
Rubin, J. (2012). "The end of growth", p. 63-64.

----- On the correlation between food prices and riots (and the Arab spring) -----
"Energy has never been in higher demand than it is in today's world of commercial farming. The quantum leaps made in agricultural productivity in the postwar era were achieved by channeling greater amounts of energy into food production. Farming is now extremely energy intensive ... higher energy prices flow directly into higher food prices. In fact, world food prices are rising even faster than energy costs. The UN's food price tracking index reached a new record in January 2011, eclipsing the previous high set in 2008. Back then, soaring food prices sparked riots in the developing world. Turn the clock forward to 2011 and it should come as no surprise that countries in the Middle East and North Africa were again convulsing with social and political unrest. ... Rulers in the Middle East and elsewhere in the developing world are learning there's a direct correlation between keeping people fed and staying in power."
Rubin, J. (2012). "The end of growth", p. 214-215.

----- Supply curves are not applicable on a tight global food market -----
"The challenge of feeding a growing global population doesn't get any easier when major food-exporting countries decide to curtail shipments. That's not how markets are supposed to work. [But] Governments don't necessarily respond to price signals in the same way as corporations that are motivated by maximizing profits. ... during the food crisis of 2008 ... Food didn't go to the highest bidder, but to the citizens of the countries in which it was produced. ... when the price of basic foodstuffs soars ... you can toss out everything the textbooks say about supply curves. ... The experience of the last food crisis shows that relying on the market mechanism of higher prices can leave a country full of hungry people. If pushed, food-exporting countries won't hesitate to sacrifice foreign markets in favor of holding down domestic prices. That tendency is hardly reassuring to nations who import large amounts of food. Even countries in the Middle East that boast vast petro-wealth can't buy food when foreign governments cut off supply. That's part of the reason oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia are talking matters into their own hands and snapping up agricultural land in other places."
Rubin, J. (2012). "The end of growth", p. 217-219.

----- The opening salvo of the book I just started to read -----
"We live in a world that can no longer function without oil. Our dependence on oil has become so great that we can justifiably state we are addicted to it. We know that oil was formed under highly unusual and uncommon circumstances during the past 500 million years. Most of the world's extractable oil was discovered between 1945 and 1970. We know where on our Earth it is still possible to find new oilfields, however, the amount those new oilfields will yield will be limited compared to those oilfields already discovered."
Aleklett, K. (2012). "Peeking at peak oil", p.xi.

----- On peak oil being an irreversible trend in the here-and-now -----
"Today we know that the world's oil companies made their largest discoveries of oil during the 1960s. The average size of oilfields discovered has decreased in every decade since then. This trend is now sufficiently clear (and irreversible) that we can estimate how much oil will be discovered in the future. We know also that there are limits to how much oil can be produced in any year. All this knowledge and the fact that the world's largest oilfields are showing declining production mean, as we show throughout the book, that that hopes of oil companies and other national and international agencies for increased oil production must be regarded as wishful thinking."
Aleklett, K. (2012). "Peeking at peak oil", p.2.

----- On the official energy predictions gone haywire -----
"The future of oil production is decisive for the future of oil companies, and it is to their advantage if the public has limited knowledge of this issue. National bodies, such as the Energy Information Administration (EIA) in the United States, and international bodies, such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) based in Paris, have, for many years, made prognoses of future production. However, only limited information is available on how these prognoses are produced. None of them satisfies the requirements of a scientific publication, and for many there are indications that a political agenda might be influencing the prognoses. The fact that governments around the world use these prognoses to plan our common future ... means that everyone should possess knowledge of this subject."
Aleklett, K. (2012). "Peeking at peak oil", p.10.

----- On the energy content of 1 liter of oil -----
"1 L of of crude oil can release 10 kWh of energy. To begin to comprehend our dependence on oil we must first understand how much work 1 L of oil can do. Imagine that you park a small car weighing 1,200 kg at the base of the Eiffel Tower. ... Then, by hand (with the help of a pulley) you raise the car to the top of the tower. You have now done work equivalent to 1 kWh. The human capacity to do work varies between individuals but to perform a task equivalent to 1 kWh one would need to be strong and fit, and to work for at least 2 days. That means that the energy stored in 1 L of crude oil is equivalent to raising ten cars to the top of the Eiffel Tower or to the work that 20 people can perform during 1 day."
Aleklett, K. (2012). "Peeking at peak oil", p.19.

----- On the global warming in the age of dinosaurs -----
"over 50% of the world's oil was formed during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods approximately 150 and 100 million years ago, respectively. During these periods the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was three to six times higher than today's 380 parts per million (ppm). These are levels far higher than those that have been discussed at various international climate change negotiations. Therefore, it is not surprising that the average temperature during these periods may have been around 22°C, which is much higher than today's 15°C.
Aleklett, K. (2012). "Peeking at peak oil", p.25.

----- On shifting energy and economic paradigms -----
"During the 1960s when actual oil discoveries averaged 56 billion barrels per annum (Gb/a) and oil consumption was only 10 Gb/a, our reserves of oil were so great that economic models were generated that did not consider oil availability to be a limiting factor. The expectation was that, if more oil were needed, it could easily be produced from these huge reserves. Today the reality is different, and it is time for contemporary economists to put assumptions of unlimited oil behind them. They must familiarize themselves with the concept that future oil flows will be determined, in large part, by [the laws of natural science]. They must reformulate their economic prognoses according to this."
Aleklett, K. (2012). "Peeking at peak oil", p.70-71.

----- There is no "better" energy source in line to replace oil -----
"If we compare the energy content per unit volume of oil to that of renewable sources of energy then nothing can replace oil. ... The technological progress that we have experienced from the beginning of the nineteenth century until today was founded on our development of methods to exploit cheap, abundant energy sources. The dramatic technological progress that we have seen since the Second World War has been based principally on oil. The Oil Age will end because oil is running out, not because oil is replaced with some other energy source."
Aleklett, K. (2012). "Peeking at peak oil", p.146.

----- On the United States vs Russia in terms of oil production and consumption -----
"Today, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, independent Russia produces approximately 12% of the world's oil and the United States contributes 9% of world production. Nevertheless, the United States leads the world in oil consumption by using 22% of the oil produced every day whereas Russia only uses 3%.
originally, the United States and Russia had fairly similar volumes of reserves with each possessing approximately 10% of global resevers of crude oil. The difference is that the United States developed a lifestyle requiring six times as much oil as Russia. Today, the United States is the world's largest importer of oil whereas Russia and Saudi Arabia are are the world's largest exporters of oil."
Aleklett, K. (2012). "Peeking at peak oil", p. 191-192, 197.

----- On Europe's deep dependence on Russian oil -----
"Since 2005 Russia has exported 7 Mb/d and so is the world's second largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia. The largest parts of the exports go to Europe and Europe's future oil supply is dependent or Russia's future ability to export oil.
Russia consumes approximately 30% of the oil it produces and we estimate its consumption will increase. Clearly, Russia is unlikely ever to be an oil importer because, when their production falls below their domestic requirements, there will probably be no other land from which to import oil. We can expect that Russia has a strategy to guarantee domestic needs in the future. ... During the next 10 years we can expect them to export more than 6 Mb/d if no serious disruptions occur. After that, Russia's exports will decline. This is a signal to Russia that it needs to develop an economy that is less dependent on oil revenues. Likewise, the world, and especially Europe, should demand that Russia declare its strategy for future oil exports to, at least, 2035.".
Aleklett, K. (2012). "Peeking at peak oil", p.200-203.

----- The six countries that will be responsible for 65% of all future CO2 emissions -----
"If we study where the world's coal resources are located we find that 90% of these lie in six nations: the United States, China, Russia, India, Australia, and South Africa. These nations also consume 80% of the world's coal production. According to our research, the 90% of future coal-derived CO2 emissions that these six nations are responsible for will amount to 65% of all future CO2 emissions. Therefore, we can conclude that, although CO2 emissions are a problem for all the nations of the world, it is the six nations above that will be responsible for the bulk of those emissions."
Aleklett, K. (2012). "Peeking at peak oil", p.248.

----- Who has the right to the oil that remains? -----
"An important question for our future is who has the right to extract oil. Fifty years ago the international oil companies had this right whereas today the national oil companies are dominant. Another important question is who has the right to buy the oil that is produced. After Peak Oil we may be faced with a market where an oil-producing nation or company chooses to sell its oil only to a few select customers. We cannot be certain that the future world market for oil will be free, fair, or open."
Aleklett, K. (2012). "Peeking at peak oil", p.274.

----- On the future price of oil -----
"When questioned about the future price of oil my standard answer then [in 2008] was that the price would be what people are willing to pay. In May 2008 at the International Transport Forum in Leipzig the CEO of Airbus made a comment about future oil prices that "an oil price of $200 per barrel would close down the aviation industry." This comment has influenced me greatly so that my standard answer to the question of the future price of oil is now that it cannot exceed $200. This is because an end to the commercial aviation industry would have severe impacts on globalization and, consequently, the world economy."
Aleklett, K. (2012). "Peeking at peak oil", p.297.

----- On oil and democracy -----
"what if democracies are ... carbon-based? ... The leading industrialised countries are also oil states. Without the energy they derive from oil their current forms of political and economic life would not exist. Their citizens have developed ways of eating, travelling, housing themselves and consuming other goods and services that require very large amounts of energy from oil and other fossil fuels. ... A larger limit that oil represents for democracy is that the political machinery that emerged to govern the age of fossil fuels, partly as a product of those forms of energy, may be incapable of addressing the events that will end it."
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p.5-7.

----- On exponential growth of energy use and of the economy -----
"Human societies have known previous episodes of exponential growth, where each year's increase is greater than the previous one, fuelled by a sudden technical advance or the rapid colonisation of new territories. However, the nineteenth-century increase was different. Technical breakthroughs and, as we will see, the control of large additional areas of the earth's surface were combined with the opening up of a third dimension: the subterranean stores of carbon. Whereas previous bursts of accelerating growth might have lasted a generation or two, the new ability to access and rapidly deplete the world's stores of fossil fuel allowed such exponential growth to continue for over 200 years, into the early twenty-first century. ... Britain's coal reserves [allowed] the motive power used in British industry to expand by about 50 per cent every decade, from an estimated 170,000 horsepower in 1800, almost all water-driven, to about 2.2.milllion horsepower in 1870 and 10.5 million in 1907."
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p.14.

----- On fossil fuels as the driver for urbanisation -----
"Since the solar radiation that powered pre-industrail life was a much weaker form of energy, converting it for human use required a sizeable terrain. The need for energy encouraged relatively dispersed forms of human settlement - along rivers, close to pastureland, and within reach of large reserves of land set aside as woods to provide fuel. The timescale of energy production was dependent on the rate of photosynthesis in crops, the lifespan of animals, and the time taken to replenish grazing lands and stands of timber. In contrast ... Coal and oil made available stores of energy ... in compact, transportable solids and liquids. This transformation released populations from dependence on the large areas of land previously required for primary energy production. ... In Great Britain, substitution of woods by coal created a quantity of energy that would have required forests many times the size of existing wooded areas if energy had still depended on solar radiation. ... Thanks to this new social-energetic metabolism, a majority of the population could now be concentrated together without immediate access to agricultural land, in towns whose size was no longer limited by energy supply."
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p. 14-15.

----- On fossil fuels, concentrated power, sabotage and political power -----
"Foot-dragging and other forms of worker protest were nothing new. But the term 'sabotage' reflected the discovery that a relatively minor malfunction, mistiming or interruption, introduced at the right place and moment, could now have widespread effects. ... In 1895 ... A coal-fired steam locomotive could deliver ... thirty times the motive power of the first reciprocating steam engines of a century or so earlier. The new effectiveness of sabotage derived from this vast concentration of kinetic energy in a mechanism that a single operatior could disable. By the turn of the twentieth century, the vulnerability of these mechanism and the concentrated flows of energy on which they depended had given workers a greatly increased political power."
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p. 22-23.

----- On fossil fuels and general strikes -----
"The coordination of strikes, slow-downs and other forms of sabotage enabled the construction ... of a new political instrument: the general strike. ... From the West Virginia coal strikes of 1919 to the German general strike of 1920 and the British general strike of 1926, the coordination of industrial action by mine workers, dockers and railwaymen reaffirmed their new power to shut down energy nodes. The dispersed energy systems of solar radiation had never allowed groups of workers to assemble a political capability of this sort. The power of the general strike put large industrial employers on the defensive."
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p. 23-25.

----- On democracy rising out of fossil fuels -----
"Between the 1880s and the interwar decades, workers in the industrialised countries of Europe and North America ... acquired a power that would have seemed impossible before the late nineteenth century. The rise of large industry had exposed populations to extraordinary forms of social insecurity, physical risk, overwork and destitution. But the concentration and movement of coal required to drive those industrial processes had created a vulnerability. Workers were gradually connected together not so much by the weak ties of a class culture, collective ideology or political organisation, but by the increasing and highly concentrated quantities of carbon energy they mined, loaded, carried, stoked and put to work. The coordinated acts of interrupting, slowing down or diverting its movement created a decisive political machinery, a new form of collective capability built out of coalmines, railways, power stations, and their operators. More than a mere social movement, this socio-technical agency was put to work for a series of democratic claims whose gradual implementation radically reduced the precariousness of life in industrial societies."
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p. 26-27.

----- On the hidden agenda of the Marshall Plan -----
"An important goal of the conversion to oil was to permanently weaken the coal miners, whose ability to interrupt the flow of energy had given organised labour the power to demand the improvements to collective life that had democratised Europe. ... Spurred by ... American subsidies [representing over 10% of the Marshall plan funds], oil increased its share of Western Europe's energy consumption from 10 per cent in 1948 to almost one-third by 1960. The diversion of steel to build pipelines and of Marshall Plan funds for this purpose was justified in part by the need to undermine the political power of Europe's coal miners."
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p. 29-31.

----- On oil production depending less and on fewer workers than coal production -----
"Oil production often grew rapidly, in regions remote from large populations, to serve distant users in places already industrialised with coal. ... [oil] production require a smaller workforce than coal in relation to the quantity of energy produced. Workers remained above ground, closer to the supervision of managers. As the carbon occurs in liquid form, the work of transporting energy could be done with less human labour. Pumping stations and pipelines could replace railways as a means of transporting energy from the site of production to the places where it was used or shipped abroad. ... oil pipelines were invented as a means of reducing the ability of humans to interrupt the flow of energy. They were introduced in Pennsylvania in the 1860s to circumvent the wage demands of the teamsters who transporter barrels of oil to the rail depot in horse-drawn wagons.
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p.36.

----- On oil liberating itself from the power of workers to interrupt its flows -----
"Unlike railways, ocean shipping was not constrained by the need to run on a network of purpose-build tracks of a certain capacity, layout and gauge. Oil tankers frequently left port without knowing their final destination. ... the flexibility further wakened the powers of local forces that tried to control sites of energy production. ... whereas the movement of coal tended to [create] potential choke points at several junctures, oil flowed along networks that often had ... more than one possible path and the flow of energy can switch to avoid blockages or overcome breakdowns. These changes in the ways forms of fossil energy were extracted, transported and used made energy networks less vulnerable to the political claims of those whose labour kept them running."
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p. 38-39.

----- On the connection between modern warfare and fossil fuels -----
"The First World War was the first great carbon-fuelled conflict. Coal-fired factories produced munitions, armaments and motor-driven vehicles that multiplied the capacity of humans to kill. ... By connecting human combat to much greater stores of energy ... Armies became war machines that continuously deployed their mechanical and human elements in ever-greater quantities over large areas and prolonged campaigns. ... The expanding apparatus of war required coal and oil, steel and nitrate-based explosives, but also food, fodder and clothing. The more the conflict extended, therefore, the more dependent it became on those whose labour in coal mines, munitions factories, wheat fields and cotton plantations made it possible. ... An industrialised state like Britain could now fight a war of extraordinary violence, extent and duration, bringing much of the Middle East under its control. ... Industrialised warfare confirmed the importance of petroleum as a fuel for transportation rather than illumination.
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p.66.

----- On the connection between industrialism and colonialism -----
"The industrialised world brought into being with the energy from coal was also a colonising world. While the coal enabled an extraordinary concentration of production and population at the sites, close to the coal mines, where industrialisation had first occurred, the need for materials unavailable in the industrial regions, such as cotton, sugar, rubber and gold, encouraged the expansion of mining, plantations and colonial settlement across wide areas of the non-European world, along with railways, banking firms, investment capital and imperial armies."
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p.84.

----- On the state of oil production at the end of the second world war -----
"In 1945 the United States produced two-thirds of the world's oil, and more than half of the remaining third was produced in Latin America and the Caribbean. ... In 1945 the Middle East produced only 7.5 per cent of the world's oil ... In building oil industries in Venezuela, Mexico and other parts of Latin America, the oil companies had been obliged to deal with sovereign states, independent for more than a century and increasingly able to negotiate more equitable oil agreements. In the Middle East, sovereign states were still forming out of older local and imperial forms of rule. The oil companies could portray their role there as the 'development' of remote and backward peoples, and impose less equitable arrangements."
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p. 111-114.

----- On the post-WWII Marshall Aid vs the Point IV program -----
"President Truman would refuse to extend a programme of Marshall Aid to the Middle East, offering instead the Point IV programme. America would not be able to share capital or material wealth with the world's 'underdeveloped areas', Truman explained, for those resources 'are limited'. As a consolation, Washington would offer them ideas. US businesses would be encouraged to share their 'imponderable resources in technical knowledge', which 'are constantly growing and', in contrast to material wealth, 'are inexhaustible'. Technical knowhow would enable countries to use their existing material resources to produce more food, clothing and mechanical power. The idea of development would play a ... role ... to manage the differences between extraordinary levels of affluence for some and most levels of living for the vast majority of the world, rather than to offer effective means of addressing those differences.
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p. 120-121.

----- On the connection between exporting oil and importing weapons -----
"oil and weapons ... fit together in a particular way: one was enormously useful, the other importantly useless. As the producer states gradually forced the major oil companies to share with them more of the profits from oil, increasing quantitates of sterling and dollars flowed to the Middle East. To maintain the balance of payments and the viability of the international financial system, Britain and the United States needed a mechanism for these currency flows to be returned. ... Arms were particularly suited to this task of financial recycling, for their acquisition was not limited by their usefulness. ... Weapons ... could be purchased to be stored up rather then used, and came with their own forms of justification. Under the appropriate doctrines of security, ever-larger acquisitions could be rationalised on the grounds that they would make the need to use them less likely. Certain weapons, such as US fighter aircraft, were becoming so technically complex by the 1960s that a single item might cost over $10 million, offering a particularly compact vehicle for recycling dollars. Arms, therefore, could be purchased in quantitates unlimited by any practical need or capacity to consume."
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p. 155-156.

----- There are no limits! On (supposedly) smart people being exceedingly stupid -----
"Leading oil economists [45 years ago] argued that the supply of petroleum, for the practical purposes of economic calculation, was inexhaustible. Although reserves were depleted by extraction, they were replenished by exploration, discovery and new technology. Their exhaustion was so far into the future, they argued, that it could have no impact on the oil price. Oil reserves were less a natural resource being used up, more an inventory being run down and then replenished. 'Minerals are inexhaustible and will never be depleted', argued Morris Adelman in 1972. 'A stream of investments creates additions to proved reserves from a very large in-ground inventory. The reserves are constantly being renewed as they are extracted. How much was in the ground at the start and how much will be left at the end are unknown and irrelevant.'
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p.188.

----- On prioritising today's profits instead of planning for the future (it's a conspiracy of kinds!) -----
"A long struggle unfolded through the 1970s and beyond, to today, in which oil companies continually used their political connections to defeat legislation aimed at restricting their influence or at managing natural resources. ... In the 1980s, neoliberal think tanks began promoting another set of tools: carbon trading. To limit government regulation of the increased burning of fossil fuels, and reduce the costs of such regulation to corporate profits, a variety of schemes were devised whereby reductions in pollution in the West could be traded against much cheaper putative reduction in the global south. The rapid increase in the price of oil assisted this process in a more direct way [as] a handful of families in the United States turned their fortunes from oil into windfall funds for the neoliberal movement [and] neoliberal free-market political organisations [such] as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Manhattan Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies [and] the Cato Institute. These think tanks and policy organisations oversaw the neoliberal movement, with a programme ... to remove from the state its role in regulating the economy and replace this public regulation of collective life with its private regulation by the market.
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p. 197-198.

----- On the peculiar episode in time in which we live -----
"We are entering the declining decades of the fossil-fuel era, that brief episode of human time when coal miners and oil workers moved an extraordinary quantity of energy, buried underground in coal seams and hydrocarbon traps, up to the earth's surface, where engines, boilers, blast furnaces and turbines burned it at an ever-increasing rate, providing the mechanical force that made possible modern industrial life, the megalopolis and the suburb, industrial agriculture, the chemically transformed world of synthetic material, electrical power and communication, global trade, military-run empires, and the opportunity for more democratic forms of politics. Yet, even as the passing of this strange episode comes into view, we seem unable to abandon the unusual practice to which it gave rise: ways of living and thinking that treat nature as an infinite resource."
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p.231.

----- On oil and the birth of a limitless economy -----
"[Before the 1970s] oil could be counted on ... Its ready availability, in ever-increasing quantitates, and mostly at relatively low and stable prices, meant that oil could be counted on *not to count*. It could be consumed as if there were no need to take account of the fact that its supply was not replenishable. In turn, not having to count the cost of humankind using up (largely within the space of two or three centuries) most of the earth's limited stores of fossil fuel made another kind of counting possible - new kinds of economic calculation. ... Before the mid-twentieth century, [the] assumption that political life could be organised on the principel of limitless growth would have been an unlikely idea. In the earlier part of the century the limits of nature were everywhere".
the birth of the economy - a dematerialised conception of economic flows - was enabled by the arrival of oil, an energy source so cheap and so plentiful, from the 1930s, that a system of general economic calculation could be devised that made no reference to questions of the exhaustion of non-renewable resources or the cost of energy. This made possible the idea of growth without limits".
Mitchell, T. (2011). "Carbon democracy", p.234, 247.

söndag 27 mars 2016

Undisciplined environments


My previous blog post treated a panel I participated in (on automatization, digitalization, and the possibilities for a just future society ) at the conference "Undisciplined Environments". I did not have the opportunity to attend the whole three-day conference except for the last day of the conference (Wednesday). These are my impressions.

The conference was organised by the European Network of Political Ecology (ENTITLE). I have to admit that I'm not exactly sure where political ecology as a subject (discipline?) comes from and I assume it's one of these hybrid topics much like "Cultural Studies" (see this blog post about my impressions and analysis of a cultural studies conference I attended back in 2013. According to Wikipedia, "Political ecology differs from apolitical ecological studies by politicizing environmental issues and phenomena". Rather than read up on Wikipedia pages or surf the web, I have instead ordered an introductory book about political ecology (that was recommended at the conference).

The day started with two keynote speakers, one of which is listed as a "prominent contemporary scholar" on the Political ecology wikipedia homepage, Nancy Lee Peluso. She talked about her results from anthropological studies in Indonesia, including migration of womenfolk to become maids in Hong Kong and sending sizeable remittances back to their families who uses the money to buy cows and build permanent residencies inside a nation park (!).

Nancy finished her talk by stating that migration (not to be confused with people fleeing and seeking asylum) will be the crucial question for the 21st century. I then asked a carefully worded question about a possible connection between her studies and issues of population (Indonesia has doubled its population from 120 to 240 million inhabitants in the last 40 years but has also had drastically falling fertility rates) and the status of that issue (population) in political ecology. She rejected the question outright and stated that "overpopulation is a complete smokescreen". I presume she meant that we shouldn't talk about (over)population as long as we in the affluent global North over-consume and as long as the distribution of resources and power is so skewed (she for example mentioned that a tiny handful of people own as much as the billion poorest on the planet). What was interesting was that people in the audience (hard to gauge how many) applauded her (non-)answer to my question. I don't have enough background knowledge to know exactly how to interpret her answer and the situation (the applause). I can understand that she/political ecology might consider other questions more important, but she didn't say that but rather just rejected the question outright. Perhaps (over)population is a taboo in political ecology? I hope to find some answers in the book I ordered but can also imagine that it won't be raised there either (if it's a taboo).

My own position is that while us living in the global North obviously over-consume and while Western lifestyles obviously are unsustainable and should be scaled down significantly, the not-quite-so-affluent and the poor are not exempt from making bad decisions, including striving for and trying to emulate western lifestyles and consumer patterns. Also, I can't understand how migration can be a question of outmost importance while population isn't even on the table. Here's an example. Syria had 22 million inhabitants before the civil war started. Upwards to half the Syrian population has been displaced and has moved either inside the country or to (primarily) neighbouring countries. But 25 years ago, there only lived 12 million people in total in Syria and 45 years ago there was only a little more than 6 million people there. It seems hard to discuss the civil war and the many millions of displaced Syrians with no reference to the fact that Syrian had a population that has increased by a factor of 7 since 1950, has a partly desert and partly semi-arid climate and that Syria has suffered from a multi-year drought proceeding the civil war. But I can understand that hard facts like these can be painful to contemplate since they raise difficult questions but provide frightfully few answers.

The rest of the day I attended three sessions. It was hard to choose since there were always around 10 parallell sessions to choose from. But it wasn't so hard to choose the first session:

Commons, Exploitation and Resistance in Southern Europe
Maria Christina Fragkou (Session chair/Discussant)
Ermioni Frezouli: Austerity policies and environmental struggles in crisis driven Greece
Georgina Christou: Escaping ‘adult’ enclosures? The role of the commons in the radicalization of youth: the case of Faneromeni square
Aggelos Varvarousis and Giorgos Kallis: Commoning against the crisis

Although the sessions supposedly was about "Southern Europe", it was actually all about Greece (and Cyprus). The first two talks were (pretty detailed) case studies and of limited interest to me since they did not generalise much beyond their specific cases. The last talk was great though and I later invited the speaker (ph.d. student Aggelos) to lunch to continue the discussion. I now also await the arrival of a paper (a book chapter) that he promised to send to me.

Aggelos comes from Greece but is a ph.d. student in Barcelona, Spain and he had some interesting reflections when it came to comparing these two crisis-stricken societies. Greece is a society with a severe deficit in social capital. People don't (have never) had faith in the Greek state and they don't as a rule trust strangers. They do instead trust and depend on their (extended) families. Spain (and perhaps especially Catalonia) is much more oriented towards cooperation. 

I wanted to know how the crisis of 2008 and its ongoing aftermath has changed peoples' values and perceptions. The answer was that "it is complicated". Greek society has definitely been radicalized in the wake of austerity policies and after the last election(s). Unemployment is high (30%), youth unemployment is much higher and there are lots of grassroots initiatives to provide people with the basics. Greeks currently have Chinese salaries and Chinese standards but also the Euro and European prices. It is hard to enact changes on a political (state) level and a more fruitful strategy (both in Greece and in Spain) is to cooperate with authorities on a local level (much like the Transition Town movement advocates).

While people have moved beyond denial ("it can't be true, things will be fine again soon"), few people have reached acceptance ("this is the new normal"). This is partly because things are still in flux so there is no "new normal" as of yet (something that I hadn't really realized before). Aggelos discussed the emergence of social clinics, working cooperatives, local currencies and soup kitchens in his talk and these can of course be seen as ways to adopt to an emerging "new normal", but the internal economical and political problems have lately been overshadowed by the refugee crisis which has underlined that the future is very uncertain and that anything can happen. One of the speakers said that she plans for the next 6 months but that it's impossible for her to plan for the next two years as there are just too many uncertainties multiplying on a "longer time scale". 

The second session concerned Challenges and Tensions in Scenarios of Energy Transition and it was the fourth session on "Political Ecologies of Renewables".
Gabriel Weber : The Green Economy Zeitgeist and Environmental Conflicts – The Political Ecology of Germany’s Energy Transition.
Lise Desvallées: Energy poverty “coming out” in Catalonia: exploring the social consequences of Spanish energy transition policies.
Daniela Del Bene: Hydropower Expansion in the Himalayas: Community Resistance in the Era of Consensus of (Energy) Technology

Lise's talk about energy poverty was the most interesting to me. One definition of energy poverty is that you spend more than 10% of your income to buy energy. Lise mentioned that an energy bill of 60 Euros is a lot of money if you earn only 400 Euros per month - which apparently quite a few people do in Spain and Portugal. Energy prices in these two countries have doubled between 2000 and 2015, primarily because of the transition from fossil to renewable energy sources. 

This talk raised a lot of questions to me about the price of energy (primarily electricity). Is energy cheap or expensive? How much energy do poor people use in absolute terms - does it "cost a lot" only because we/they use a lot? Energy is on the one hand very inexpensive from a historical perspective but on the other hand a substantial expense for people who earn little. So should (inexpensive) (clean) energy be seen as a human right? One thing is clear though and that is that high energy prices sparks social movements and protests but it was hard for me to understand if people primarily protested against high energy prices, against inequality, against the capitalist system or all of the above.

The last speaker in the session seemed to be very well read (degrowth, radical ecological democracy, appropriate technologies, intermediate technologies) but what was most interesting to me was her reference to a conference, the 11th International Conference of the European Society for Ecological Economics (EESE 2015) at the University of Leeds and where all the keynotes are online. There are several interesting speakers there that I would like to listen to!

The last session I attended was a presentation and discussion of [the book] "Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era". The discussion was interesting enough for me to order the book. Despite having been at the third International Conference on Degrowth, Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, I still feel that I have not come to terms with what the degrowth movement and its theorisers are all about. I understand that degrowth is very different from the "negative economic growth" that Southern Europe has experienced in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, but I have a hard time understanding exactly how they have shaped a positive vision of the future out of less. Some hastily scribbled down notes states that degrowth critiques of the ideology of growth, that degrowth is a hypothesis for something new that implies a smaller "social metabolism" (materials throughput) and that degrowth stands for the equitable downscaling of production and consumption. 

I believe in all those things too, but there is one important point where my view and the degrowth view seems to differ significantly since they forcefully reject a world view of limits as formulated by the Limits to Growth report (1972) and especially by Thomas Malthus/Malthusianism. Panelist and conference organiser Giorgios Kallis stated that political ecology has been critical of Limits to Growth (and Malthusianism) from the very beginning. That extends to a critical stance towards peak oil and, I suppose, also of the concept of Ecological Footprint (and of Earth Overshoot Day). They seem to want to move from terms like limits and scarcity to abundance, of us having enough of what we need to live bountiful lives if we share what we have more equitably (which would also rule out compatibility with World Systems Theory). I also understand that degrowth theorists see the term scarcity as "external" and instead want to shift the perspective and the discourse to overcoming "internal" (social, psychological) limitations. We should embrace internal limitations and realise that they will lead to better lives and a more just society/world. I have to admit that I don't "get it" but I am still intrigued (while sceptical) and want to know more. I should also add that I'm not sure all panelists agreed on this radical reinterpretation/annihilation of the term "scarcity".

I'm really keen to understand the degrowth/political economy position towards limits and scarcity since they, in their rejection of Limits to Growth, are in good (bad?) company with the techno-utopians and the singularitarians - despite probably not having anything else in common. All in all the conference left me confused, but on a higher level. I look forward to learn more and hope the two books I've ordered will help me. One last note is that the last panel is also where I first heard about a related (to either political ecology, degrowth or singularitarianism...?) line of thinking called accelerationism

onsdag 23 mars 2016

Automatization and digitalization as a strategy for reaching a social-ecological just future

I was invited to participate in a panel on "automatization and digitalization as a strategy for reaching a social-ecological just future" by my sometimes colleague Ulrika Gunnarsson-Östling at the conference "Undisciplined environments". The conference was held at KTH and I will write a separate blog post about it as this blog post only treats the panel I participated in.

The background to me being invited to the panel has to do with my background/position (computer science), my report on the future of work two years ago and my involvement in organising the symposium "After work - Life after jobs disappear" one year ago. While preparing the symposium, we really only worked on extrapolation from current trends and I commented a couple of times that sustainability and disruptive change (for example the possibility that we are experiencing the end of economic growth) was a perspective that wasn't represented at the symposium. Such perspectives were instead the focus of this panel. Below is the invitation to the panel including some questions that me and the other panelists were asked to think about when preparing for the panel:

Automatization and digitalization as a strategy for reaching a social-ecological just future

In many of today’s sustainability policies, continued GDP growth is taken for granted. Sustainable growth is thus seen as an overall political goal. However the rhetoric around this concept has become increasingly criticized by researchers pointing to that there is no evidence of nations having decoupled growth from environmental degradation, given that the global footprints of these nations are accounted for. Besides, GDP growth is still reliant on access to cheap energy, and in the context of climate change and peaking resources, it is predicted that energy costs will rise.

Questioning GDP growth often means questioning the belief in technological development as a savior for the environment. In this round-table we will turn this starting point upside-down and instead imagine automatization and digitalization as a scenario for social-ecological liberation. In the discussion, we imagine that the automatization and digitization has enabled human labor power to be replaced, but also that our consumption has changed so that land use has become social-ecological just and climate impact radically reduced.
Questions will include:
Can we imagine that automation takes place within the planetary boundaries? How? Why/why not?
Can automatization be imagined in an social-ecological just and post-capitalist way? How? Why/why not?
What would this mean for our way of consuming goods and services?
Can production systems in this scenario be democratic?
What would we do with all the spare time that would materialize in this scenario?
Is automatization a provoking issue to consider within the research field political ecology?

Ulrika moderated the discussion the other two panelists besides me were Ann Bergman, Professor in Working Life Science at Karlstad University and Henner Busch, Ph.D. student at Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS). 

We were not only invited to think about questions in the intersection of automatization and sustainability, but were also tasked with thinking about the almost utopian possibility of the near-future machines liberating humans from the toil of work and creating an equal and just society for the benefit of all. 

None of the three panelists had an easy time and we all raised critical questions about the possibility of even imagining such a world. I suggested that we would have to turn to fiction to find such happy endings based on the extrapolation of current trends. I personally even oppose the use of the term "sustainable growth" (see the description above) as I think it's an oxymoron and a "softer" version of proposing that we should aim for "sustainable overexploitation"(!).

I made copies of some book covers that I thought could be useful to invoke in the discussion and I did in fact referred to a couple of books that I have read; Mitchell's "Carbon Democracy", Nikiforuk's "The energy of slaves", Beinger's "Control revolution" and (unread) Brynjolfssson and MacAfee's "Race against the machine" and "The second machine age". 

In the panel itself, I took every opportunity to inject an energy perspective into the discussion. I assume that technological progress as well as economic growth are dependent on access to plenty of inexpensive oil (energy) and we can't really be sure about that so there are no guarantees that the machine-dominated futures we discussed will ever appear. 

As to the utopian visions of an equal and just society, I suggested that that wasn't really an option, or, at least possible only with difficulty and then dependent on struggles and strife for workers'/citizens' rights. Machines might solve the challenge of producing goods inexpensively but they wont solve the problem of distributing the "spoils" evenly. Someone will own those machines and it is hard for me to see that the profits will "automatically" be evenly divided between all citizens in a society. A perhaps-positive alternative vision is to rethink what "affluence" actually is and so I went to the panel armed with a great quote by Marshall Sahlins from his book "Stone age economics":

"[hunting and gathering] was, when you come to examine it, the original affluent society. ... For there are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be "easily satisfied" either by producing much or desiring little. The familiar conception ... makes assumptions peculiarly appropriate to market economies: that man's wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although improvable: thus, the gap between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity. ... But there is also a Zen road to affluence ... that human material wants are finite and few .. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty - with a low standard of living. That, I think, describes the hunters."

Based on the quote, it is hard to imagine that we would ever have any problems with "too much spare time" (the second to last question above). A vision of affluence in terms limited wants and needs (e.g. low standards of living) but plenty of time for leisure and social activities is unfortunately hard for us even to imagine in this day and age. It sounds only slightly more attainable than returning to the garden of Eden...

A final comment was that it was great to have a professor of working live science ("arbetsvetenskap") as a discussion partner. That is something I missed when I read up on and wrote about the future of work. Ann brought up several really interesting points about work and salaried labour; perhaps it is possible to imagine a utopian society that is based on critical feminist thinking that does not put reproduction and reproductive labor (caring for the young and the old) at the sidelines, but instead at the center of what a society is and does? Ann also raised other interesting points including the role of resistance and meaning-making characteristics of work (related to important issues of identity, status and self-respect). We work not just to earn money and buy food, but also to get the respect of other (and ourselves).

I came to the workshop prepared with a mixed bag of jotted down notes and quotes and will end this blog post with a quote I did not have the opportunity to use in the panel. It might be that it aptly describes both the panel and many other activities in the academy and in modern society where we tend to obsess about issues that in the end are not the most important ones - perhaps our eyes habitually glaze over the elephant in the room? The quote comes from G.K. Chesterton's book "Heretics" from 1905:

"And the weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon."

söndag 20 mars 2016

Blog absence

This is the first blog post after a four months long absence that comes on top of another four months long absence last year (June-October). Several factors have conspired to put a halt to my blogging and I have to admit that I hadn't decided if the most recent halt was temporary or permanent.

Reasons to continue blogging are:
- This is a diary that marks the time for me, work-wise. For me as a white collar desk workers, time tends to float together and it becomes hard to remember what you did last week, last month, last year.
- One specific example of marking the time is the ongoing series of blog posts, "Books that I've read recently" where I have not blogged about books read since last spring, but where I have continued to dutifully read and put books aside that are, so to speak, "waiting in line to be blogged about".
- Another example is that I don't really systematically take notes any longer when I go to conferences or attend seminars. This blog has therefore been a repository for interesting leads, persons, links that is much more accessible than jotted down notes on a paper (that invariably gets misplaced or forgotten in some binder or some pile on my desk.
- I have written quite extensively about reasons for blogging before, primarily in the blog post "On the many functions of this blog". Everything I wrote back then is still valid.

Reasons to quit blogging:
- It takes a lot of time. Sometimes really a lot. My probably longest and most ambitious blog post ever can partly be seen as a personal take on and a primer on design fiction. It could easily be the draft of a book chapter. The follow-up blog post about the other workshop I attended at the same conference (about Sustainable HCI) was also pretty ambitious. Again, it takes a lot of time to write such blog posts.
- Very few people seem to have missed the blog. I think no more than two persons have encourage me to continue to blog and told me they miss the blog. I can on the other hand see that many persons actually read the blog posts (or at least load the webpages).

I haven't decided what to do with the "backlog" of blog posts that I so to speak "should have written" during the past four months. Should I skip them? Or should I write them up and backdate them so that it will seem that they were published when they "should" have been published (e.g. when the events being described happened)? I haven't decided yet but one thing I have decided is that I have to lower the standards (and the length) of my blog posts. It's not a good idea to have high quality requirements for blog posts if the end result is the non-publishing of said blog posts.

This will be the 348th blog post since I started to blog back in 2010. Unfortunately, I also have more than 100 draft blog posts that I have started to write but that were never finished. Some of these draft blog posts are just repositories for notes never meant to be published, but way to many were supposed to become blog posts but weren't. An extracurricular project could be to finish some of these blog posts and backlog them to get them out of the door. The other (psychologically harder) alternative would be to delete them.

Anyway, I'm back and I will from here on try to live up to my original goal of publishing at least one and at the most two blog posts each week.