Frosting On The Cake

My mother never dared turn her back after making the frosting to spread on a cake. I was right there with a big spoon in my little hand, ready to dunk and run with whatever I could get. Second best was a beater to lick, and third best was the chance to scrape the mixing bowl with my fingers. I always wanted the frosting to last forever. It was much better than broccoli. To me the bowl always looked so big, but unfortunately the frosting always ran out.

A lot has happened in the years since then, but one thing has remained true: nothing lasts forever. As adults of course we plan around things running out; we have contingencies and “Plan B’s.” We even plan for outages of normally reliable things like electricity. For some reason though, many of us find it difficult to plan around the concept that the earth has a limited supply of something we extract from underground: petroleum. Surely we will never run out of that!

The answer is: yes and no. Because the oil industry actually drills for profit, not for oil, there will always be some oil left in the ground. At some point the only oil left in the ground will be so deep, or so contaminated, that it becomes unprofitable for the industry to extract, refine, and deliver. To do so would mean selling it at a cost the market simply wouldn’t bear. So yes, there will always be oil in the ground, and the Earth will never run out. But you and I, and all our vehicles, and all our businesses, and all our governments, we will all definitely run out. Running out of petroleum is not a question of ‘if’ but rather of ‘when.”

Some people make it seem as though the world will run out of oil tomorrow; others as though the Earth has a miraculous endless supply. Scientists have run countless computer models, most of which give us about another twenty years. Here’s how it works:

Remember the bowl of frosting? The first oil mankind drilled was the low-hanging fruit. It was close to the surface, and had relatively few impurities to be refined out. That was easy picking, akin to dipping a spoon in a bowl of frosting.

In the second half of the twentieth century mankind had tapped a lot of the low hanging fruit. In 1972, America’s oil wells began producing less than they used to. It was as if a balloon were deflating. When oil extraction productivity had been maximized and the curve began dipping, the USA had hit what is called “peak oil.” Luckily for us the rest of the world was still highly productive, so we began importing to meet demand. Hello 1973 gas crisis!

Since then many other oil-producing countries have also hit peak oil production and also begun downward slopes in extraction and refining. As a planet, Earth hit peak oil globally back in 2005.

When a country passes peak oil extraction, most of their easy and clean oil is gone. If you can no longer dip a spoon in the bowl of frosting, the next step is to lick the beater. It’s more work for less reward, but it tastes the same. In oil’s case, the next step is to drill in awkward places like the ocean, or by hydrofracturing (fracking). These are terribly expensive methods of extraction, generally result in smaller yields, and the oil extracted contains more contaminants that must be refined out – making that process also more lengthy and expensive. At this point, the costs involved are often so high that it’s simply not worth the oil industry’s investment.

Back in the kitchen, if we cleaned the beater we could always run our fingers through the bowl. Then that was it, the frosting was all gone. In oil terms, if the industry exhausts the easy oil fields, then secondary options such as ocean drilling and fracking, there is one final option left: tar sands. This is the most expensive, dirtiest, petroleum in the world. To extract and refine a usable vehicular gasoline product from tar sand the industry requires a high retail price, one much higher than we are seeing at the pump today. Tar sand oil would be sold at a price many consumers would find objectionable, and most responsible businesses would plan around.

Something to consider: if efforts are already being made to extract oil from tar sand, how close are we really to the bottom of the barrel?

It would be nice to think that business as usual could last indefinitely, but there is only a finite amount of anything that is extracted from the ground. At some point we need to plan for what’s next. That means petroleum’s gradual disappearance from our lives, and embracing the products and energies that replace it.

Do you or your business have a 20-year plan?

Why has the price of oil fallen so much recently?

Three things have contributed: first, due to their slowing economies, demand has fallen in China, Japan, and the EU. Second, oil production has increased here in the US so we are importing less. And third, despite sluggish demand worldwide, Saudi Arabia (the world’s biggest producer) has not slowed down exports. All these factors mean that the world temporarily has more supply than demand, and this has naturally forced down prices.

You may have noticed that this has benefited American consumers, and has lowered many costs for American businesses. On the other hand, it has strengthened the US Dollar relative to other currencies, making American exports less competitive. Some companies with a global presence are hurting, and individuals may be finding evidence of this in their investment portfolios. Such conditions are not likely to improve until the dollar weakens.

So what will happen next? Some economists expect the price of oil to remain relatively low for the next year, possibly two years, before climbing again as US production falls. That one or two years will seem like an eternity though for many fossil fuel companies. Fueled on credit, the industry expanded rapidly over the past several years. With the price of their product halved some fossil fuel companies may now find it difficult to meet the terms of their enormous loans, and this may leave their creditors in a very difficult place. Economists therefore warn of a potential crisis in the banking industry again, which of course would have further ripple effects on the economy overall. Are you prepared for another credit crunch?

With prices so low, oil companies are pulling back from ocean drilling and other high-cost, low-return projects. This will contribute to a slow down of supply, and in one or two years the temporary return to familiar territory of our supply:demand ratio and price. What should us individual and business consumers do? Rather than plan our future around a volatile past, the savvy among us will build foundations for the future on reliable economic theory and solid science.

Worth considering:

How would gasoline at $1 per gallon impact you or your business ten years from now? How about at $10 per gallon?

How would another banking crisis impact you or your business two years from now? How about ten years from now?

Three Questions

It can be hard to know what to believe about the environment. Politicians argue about it and end up doing nothing, and corporations claim to be green but sell us products that pollute. Many individuals are left thinking that maybe the most they can do about this confusing and overwhelming issue is recycle or drive a hybrid vehicle.

Think about these three questions. Your answers may help clear things up for you:

1. Might there be ways to help the environment that do not require politicians?

2. Might there be ways to help the environment that do not require corporations?

3. Might there be simple ways for ordinary people to help the environment?

The answer to all these questions is YES. There are things that you or your business can do right now to reduce your impact on the environment. Anyone, no matter their point of view on politics, religion, or economy, can reduce their impact on the environment and make the world a better place.

Can it really be that simple? Our media often paints a very different picture. Environmental problems are enormous, confusing, and best left to experts. Or they’re not problems at all, and we’re being fooled. Or the answer is actually just to buy lots and lots of “natural” stuff. This confusion leads to inaction or the wrong action, and that has lead us to where we are today: comfortably watching while the conditions necessary for life gradually change.

The time for action has come. And while others fruitlessly demand changes in other people, you can wisely and simply demand change in yourself. It’s more than a quote: it really is possible for all of us to be the change we wish to see in the world.

A Future Without Homogenization

Yesterday we had some errands to run downtown. No, not in our own town; our community is little more than a handful of private offices peppered between a parade of big-box retail clones. The town lacks a business center, and honestly there’s not much to make our town different than most others. A Wal-Mart, a Home Depot, some fatty national chain restaurants, several churches and nail spas and medical offices, and neighbors we wave at but don’t really know. And of course a drug store or gas station on every other corner. There’s not much distinctive about our place; this could be any town in any state. With no sense of place there’s also nothing to anchor us here. We know that we could move to a virtually identical place anytime and have just as little sense of community.

Why is our town so much like the next one over, like the one in California, like the one in Illinois, like the one in Pennsylvania?

This is a phenomenon – well, no, more of a sad process really – that progressive urban planners refer to as “Main Street homogenization” or “High Street homogenization.” In ecological science homogenization refers to a lack of (bio)diversity and of everything being the same. In chemistry homogenization is a term used when the studied chemical properties of a mixture show no variation. “Main Street homogenization” means that whatever town you’re in, Main Street will be essentially the same. You could fall asleep on the train, wake up in a different town, and in many ways continue your life uninterrupted.

Many years ago affordable automobiles and affordable fuels meant it was no longer necessary for the working classes to live near their work. Something new called “suburbs” sprang up all over the country, and it wasn’t long before city planners were being courted by corporations promising jobs and tax revenue if they could build a location of their national chain there. Family-owned businesses and local resilience were plowed down by economies of scale, and for several decades corporations have defined both our landscapes and lifestyles.

If you think about it it’s a rather dangerous situation: we’ve placed the livelihoods of entire populations in their hands. Without those big-box stores and chain restaurants many of us would have almost no way to feed, clothe, shelter, or support ourselves. At one time this was a self-sufficient nation of small business owners, of private producers and growers and cooks and craftspeople. Now, with the help of these cheerful omnipresent big-box stores and chain restaurants we have been turned into the world’s most proficient and hopelessly addicted consumers.

Industries make our vast quantities of daily consumer purchases possible by themselves consuming vast quantities of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels allow them to outsource raw materials from countries around world, to then transport those raw materials to points of outsourced production in yet more countries, to then transport finished goods to retailers, and for retailers to transport to goods to stores and consumers. When – not if – fossil fuels become difficult to obtain and more expensive to buy, every point of this chain of events breaks down. It will no longer make financial sense for big-box stores and chain restaurants to import from around the world, nor eventually to economically ship from regional distribution centers to local store fronts. To cover the rising cost of fuel they would have to price their goods above what consumers would tolerate. At that point, us consumers might not be able to afford the fuel to drive across town to the store or restaurant anyway. When this comes to pass, our economy as it is currently defined, and the way of life we know now, will cease to exist. Thank goodness better things lay ahead.

Our downtown errands took us to the big city and economic center of the state. Partly because big-box stores and chain restaurants avoided the city’s downtown corridor for many years, the people of the area are now more resilient to future economic shock, at least relative to us suburban types. The city has a large number of small locally-owned businesses, several farmer’s markets, and an active permaculture movement. There is some manufacturing, and although virtually all of these businesses currently use imported raw materials this still involves a skilled local workforce of makers. The makers of today will be the teachers of tomorrow… and by makers I mean everything: crafters, carpenters, bakers, cooks, farmers, knitters, sewers, plumbers, builders, potters, painters, in short all those skills that corporate America has outsourced. To change that we can do without those things, or even better: we can learn how to make them ourselves.

Few city politicians or Wal-Mart shoppers or McDonalds eaters have contemplated what our world might look like just thirty years, one generation, from now. Have you thought about where your food will come from? Where your water will come from? Where your news will come from? Where your music will come from? Where will you buy anything electronic? Who will build electronic things? From what raw materials? Where?

Finally, the future is in your hands. Your opinion, your voice will answer those questions. Stand firm and do not allow corporations, or a culture totally reliant on corporations, to answer those questions on your behalf. The future is exactly what you will make it, and the ripple effects of your choices literally reach around the world. Make your choices wisely, considering their impact on the whole world, and your choices then have the potential to make the world a better place rather than contribute to its homogenization.

Look around your house now and consider “the five W’s:” who, what, where, when, and why. “How” is also often included in this list. You’re reading on an electronic display right now (monitor, tablet, or mobile phone), so let’s use that as an example.

1. Who made your display? Not the company. Do you know the name(s) of the person or people who sat at a workbench and skillfully used tools to manufacture it? What was the impact of this work on them and their community and environment?

2. What is your display made from? How many different raw materials? What was the impact of mining / refining / collecting / synthesizing those materials on those who do so, and on their community and environment?

3. Where were the raw materials sourced? Where was each component built? Where were the components assembled into the final product? If you added up all the distances traveled by the various components, how many total miles of transportation is the display responsible for? What might that distance represent in carbon footprint terms?

4. When did you buy this display? How long do you expect it to last? If the various plastic components remain a landfill for say 3,000 years, divide 3,000 years by the display’s expected lifespan. The answer, in years, is in reality roughly how long you should wait until you buy your next display. Darn that planned obsolescence!

5. Why was this display purchased? Was your previous one broken, or was this a fashion / cool factor upgrade? Did the technology around grow to the point that it could no longer be used? Darn that planned obsolescence!

6. How did you decide this was the best display to buy? What criteria will you use in future? How would you feel about buying a used one? About sharing one? About living without one? How did people perform the same tasks with different tools previously? Do you have the skills necessary to perform the tasks in those ways?

If you ask these questions about just one thing each week, over the course of a year you will have brought fresh thinking to over fifty things in your home. It’s fun doing it with things like cinnamon, and eye-opening doing it with things like refrigerators. When you start asking question like these you are likely find that the low sticker prices found in national chains and big box stores often come with hidden costs. Hidden costs that you are no longer prepared to support. That’s when the higher sticker price of locally-made and sustainable items suddenly becomes a better deal and more obvious choice.

A New Mantra

For years we’ve been going about all this backwards, and as a result we’re stuck in all sorts of corporate denial, governmental conflict, and some people are swayed by each. For years we’ve been reciting the mantra “save the environment,” when in fact as long as there’s an Earth there will always be an environment. So don’t worry, our environment isn’t going away. It doesn’t need to be saved. But just as living things change in response to their environment (the process we call evolution), our environment changes in response to living things (the process we call climate change).

To be fair, a number of things contribute to the process we call climate change, and responses to living things such as humans is just one portion of the process. Humanity’s portion of responsibility for this process, or at the very least for its acceleration, is staggering, overwhelming, and scientifically undeniable.

So perhaps our mantra needs to be changed from “save the environment” to “save life as we know it.” But as we humans continue to change the environment, a variety of species unable to adapt to the changes will perish and face extinction. Extinction is a normal part of evolution; it happens in all species. Several questions come to mind then:

– Now that we know our actions are leading directly to the extinction of other species, how can we continue to pollute the environment?

– Because our population is growing at a record pace but our actions are making the world’s environment less stable, how are we going to grow the food we need to feed our increasingly huge population?

– Because extinction is a normal part of evolution, when will extinction come for humans? By slowly destroying our own environment and making it uninhabitable are we bringing extinction upon ourselves?

Maybe our mantra needs to be changed again. Because of human irresponsibility campaigns such as “save the whales,” “save the polar bears,” and “save the bees” became necessary long ago, and we have long heard well-meant if misdirected calls to “save the environment.” Starting immediately, our new calls to action will most appropriately need to be framed around “save us from ourselves.” We are greedily poisoning the only place in the known universe that can support life as we know it, arrogantly destroying our own home, blissfully spewing petroleum, chemicals, plastics, and myriad toxins in one place and living in another, as if all places aren’t connected by common soil, common water, and common air. Now the impacts of our actions are becoming clear, and the sooner we clearly connect our own actions with our own imminent demise the sooner we will begin to protect our own species.

Whether we realize it or not, we are endangered. A species qualifies for inclusion on the endangered species list when its numbers drop perilously low, and clearly we do not meet that criteria. But we ourselves are creating a variety of conditions that together can lead to population loss. It is a tragedy that we have not recognized the growth of such dangerous conditions affecting other animals and plants so that we could take steps to save them. It will also be a tragedy if our greed and arrogance prevent us from recognizing the growth of conditions dangerous to the continued existence of human life.

We don’t need to save the environment. It will always be there, in one form or another, even if we aren’t. Increasingly it seems as though our answer to human adaption to the changing environment is to shield ourselves from it. Rather than adapt we hide in air conditioned buildings, we wear plastic waterproof clothing, we pour toxic chemicals on genetically modified plants to force them to grow or to kill others. Hiding from the environment rather than adapting to it, and attempting to control nature rather than partnering with it, means that human beings will find the continuing changes in our environment increasingly intolerable. Inevitably, at some point, the weakest in our herd will fall. And then more.

So join the call to save us from ourselves. Be one of the early adapters. The environmental movement as we know it has only been around for about forty years. In evolutionary terms that’s nothing, and yet in evolutionary terms participation in the environmental movement means absolutely everything. It means saving from extinction entire species of plants and animals – including a certain genus known as Homo Sapiens.

Evolving Differently

I walked out onto the porch last night with a container of bird seed, leaving a trail of seed where the birds congregate each morning for their breakfast. It was nice to imagine the dawn’s cooing and chirping and fluttering, the bustling among one another, and the boisterous synchronized departure. I’m always especially proud of the one or two birds who remain, not following the crowd.

Yesterday’s temperature reached 100 degrees, which meant that last night the darkness on the porch was still deliciously warm. A gentle breeze blew through the trees and bushes, and as it brushed my skin I imagined the birds feeling that same breeze brushing their feathers. I wondered for a moment how many other plants and animals and insects also felt that very same breath of earth. There was something very unifying in that thought.

I walked past the wonderfully intoxicating scent of a heavily blooming jasmine bush and made my way out to our fig tree. I stayed there for a moment, enjoying the air, the darkness, the stars, and the companionship and connection with everything around me.

While I stood there enjoying the warm night air it occurred to me that the air inside our home had been artificially chilled. The machines that performed this task for us use an enormous amount of energy, despite being “efficient” models, and their use means that my family is less acclimated to the climate that we falsely believe we live in. Our house is truly the one acclimated to the desert; we are merely acclimated to the house. We spend the majority of our lives in a variety of temperature-regulated, humidity-controlled, air-filtered environments which are very often quite different than those outdoors. Rather than living with nature we shield ourselves from it. Without realizing it we have literally ended millennia of climate-related adaptation and evolution.

I wonder what people will do as water becomes more scarce, temperatures continue to rise, storms become more intense, and petroleum and natural gas become more expensive? Perhaps laws will be passed regulating how we use resources, and new shelters might be built, but that would amount to little more than shielding ourselves from a changing world that is simply asking us to adapt.

We adapt to other changes all the time, and of course we can adapt to a changing climate too. Like other things we adapt to, like a new child or a new job, changes in lifestyle need to be made. These adaptations don’t make our lives worse, they make our lives different. And as with so many other things we’ve already adapted to, we often find that adapting opens new doors in our lives – new happiness, new opportunities, new dreams, new directions. In this way, we could look at climate change as a huge gift, a chance to re-assess our priorities, adjust our actions, and begin setting things right in each of our corners of the world.

Adapt and Evolve

The news today is filled with reports of heavy snow, freezing temperatures, and millions of us Americans breaking down and helpless due to what might otherwise be post card-beautiful conditions. These conditions, extreme to us even if not to others, remind me of the remarkable endurance of the plants and animals that live outside. I was happy to see hummingbirds, sparrows, and other birds visiting the yard this morning; it always brings a smile to my face when I see them trying to fly in their tiny North Face coats and boots.

For thousands of years we humans and the climate evolved simultaneously. Like any other animal we lived outside and learned to adapt to both hot and cold temperatures. We likely didn’t get as much done in the peaks of hot and valleys of cold, but we managed to survive. In fact, we did really well – so well that we may have gotten a bit arrogant. At some point we became domineering and controlling. We ended up downright abusive, and climate was left with no choice but to hire a lawyer. She’s off now doing her own thing, and our domineering, controlling, abusive selves are stuck paying the consequences. It’s sad when a relationship ends. In this case we’re not paying alimony, because climate doesn’t care about money. What we’re paying is life as we know it. Winters are colder, summers are hotter, storms are more intense, rains either don’t come or come as floods, plants aren’t growing the way they used to, species are dying off, and us? We’re taking bold action: we’re staying indoors, turning up the heat, turning down the air conditioning, making sure that our little space remains at a comfortable 72 degrees, even if the ultimate price might be as high as our own extinction.

Think about it: we’re isolating ourselves from the environment that would have challenged us to evolve. And we’re certainly not challenging ourselves to evolve in the same ways. We arrogantly believe we can control the world, but all it takes is one storm to remind us how small we truly are. Those perspective-altering storms are going to be coming more frequently in the years to come, so I expect us to be feeling very, very small. Left without central heating and air conditioning people interviewed on the news this morning complained bitterly; we no longer understand how to stay either warm or cool without employing machines and using energy. Just a few decades ago our great grandparents lived in both triple-digit and single-digit temperatures, but now look at their spoiled great grand children. Norway should be laughing at us. Especially Norwegian great-grandparents, the ones who had to walk to school in their bare feet, for hours, through a blizzard, while carrying the piano they needed for their lessons.

When a bird flies by your window today, take a moment to consider how such a small, delicate, beautiful creature lived through the long cold night – and continues to go about his or her normal activities today. That bird didn’t have a television, had no magazines, no internet, and didn’t have to buy anything. If that bird can do it, we just might be able to do it too. Here’s a great way to start:
1) Turn down your heat and put on a sweater.
2) Get active! Turn on your body’s own thermostat.
3) Learn how to sew and knit. Make your own flannels, sweaters, blankets, and quilts.
4) Once you’re all cozy walk or bike to your local library, find these books, and read them: Diet For A Hot Planet, by Anna Lappe; and Soil Not Oil, by Vandana Shiva.