Techno-Fix And Sustainability: Grappling With illusions

by Milo Clark

April 26, 2004   


There are two major illusions clouding reason and hovering over probabilities of continuing human presence on this planet. One says we'll figure out technologies to fix things -- Techno-fix. The other says we'll figure out how to work with it or to restore balances -- Sustainability. Both assume we can fix what we have already done, are doing or will do. Both are significant barriers to themselves. Both depend on believers ignoring or denying evident actualities.

The techno-fix school believes that new technologies will overcome past depredations and meet new challenges. The sustainability school says we can adjust ourselves to persist, if not thrive. Both assume that we will live happily ever after if their fixes are implemented.

What has brought us to this juncture? Some point to interpretations of Genesis, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic creation story. Man being made in the image of God, the pinnacle of creation, is given dominion over earth and all its life. Be fruitful and multiply.

Others, less sanguine, point to greed in all its myriad forms. Folks just can't keep their fingers, hands, arms, torsos and whole selves out of the cookie jar, much less each other.

However approached, it doesn't take big smarts to see that too much has already gone to catch up again. Peter has been robbed blind to pay Paul. We are the seventh generation of the seventh generation that doesn't get it. All curves have gone exponential. There are no excesses not being exceeded.

A lot of fancy writers, interpreters and analysts will shout and spout that it can be fixed or that it can't be fixed. What can we see, if we will look?

Simple things such as oil supply are getting attention again. The more Americans figure out ways to use more, more has to come to America. The U.S. alone already takes about 40% of all there is to take. As long as there is more to come, no problem for the moment. Remember that there is not much left to be mined or drilled out of America. To support present and projected rates of consumption, more, always more, has to be brought here. The more we are dependent on imports, the easier it for those who control them to control us.

At this moment, however, other folks in other places are getting cars, scooters, dirt bikes, trucks, tractors and internal combustion motors of all kinds in ever increasing numbers. They believe they have rights to fill their tanks, too.

Nobody pretends that the supply of oil is infinite. We just act like it until something happens. Right now something is happening. Even the industry hints that something like 40 more years' worth may be available at projected rates of consumption and demand.

In the early 1970s, major suppliers got political with their oil. They stopped sending as much. Panic hit very hard. Here. Right now, those same folks have decided to send less, again. Fallout or unintended consequences from Afghanistan, Iraq and Israeli situations? Trickle down from emerging economies determined to make our mistakes?

After the 1970s' oil shocks, billions were spent to find more, to prove doomsayers wrong. Since then, more billions were spent and are being spent to control oil sources, pipelines, refineries and distribution channels. A local, very busy gas station recently had signs on its pumps announcing NO GAS TODAY! -- except premium. Hey, what's an extra twenty cents per gallon?

Americans assume that heavy bluster and raw military power will keep their tanks full of relatively inexpensive fuels. In the last dozen years, experts estimate that American taxpayers have been spending $70,000,000,000 or more annually to keep an overwhelming military presence near mid-Eastern oil fields alone. That money subsidizes gas prices here. The current adventures in Iraq are already adding close to $200,000,000,000 to the short-term bill. Anybody remember when a billion was a big number?

Meanwhile, even though heavily subsidized and marginally taxed, gas pump price creep is upon us. Seems Chinese and Indians and others are driving more miles in more vehicles in exponential numbers. Competition in the global economy means prices follow demand, supply follows prices. Check our local gas pumps for a glimpse of the future arriving.

Seems one of the strategies of a global-minded American administration is to cheapen the world value of the dollar. Cheaper dollars make imports cost more to consumers. Oil is primarily an import. Cheaper dollars benefit some and hurt most.

Do you know that Russia is projected to exceed Saudi Arabia as number one oil producer as soon as 2005? Do you know that Russian president Putin is restoring autocracy to Russia? Is he getting ready for the next big push to world power? Who needs nukes when they have oil. . . and water?

Another commodity being gulped faster than supply is water. In vast areas of the planet, ever-deeper water systems are draining fossil water deposited thousands of years ago and not now replenished by natural processes. Prosperous Americans, Europeans and Asians expect water to flow. Yet, folks just about everywhere either have no potable water, little potable water or lessening access to potable water, much less bath water. Right here, today, people pay more for a gallon of water than for a gallon of gasoline.

A glance here shows how many are carrying about expensive bottled water in preference to trusting water out of their faucets. That their expensive bottled water is probably tap water run through a filter is ignored. That their expensive plastic bottle is not biodegradable is also ignored. They believe bottled water is better.

Do you know that ambitious corporations are buying up water rights, water companies, water suppliers all over the world? Do you know that political analysts are predicting more water wars than oil wars for the world's future?

Economists proudly point out that there is less poverty. Of the close to two billion people who were recently living on the equivalent of 1.00 US Dollar per day, maybe half are now living on about 2.00 US Dollars per day. Assuming that the US Dollar is a constant, which it isn't, these people advancing over that poverty line are now consuming twice the resources daily. If any resource is finite, whatever resources these now upwardly mobile consumers consume becomes less rather than more for tomorrow.

Do you know that there is general agreement that world agricultural production has probably plateaued, leveled off? More fertilizers, more chemicals, hybrid and genetically modified seeds planted on less land are not producing significantly more food for more people. Plant scientists are going to more and more extremes to coax a bit more product from increasingly sterile lands.

Whether hybrid, hydrogen or hallucination drives our techno-fix transportation, the vehicles involved continue to use and to expand use of metals and other irreplaceable or non-biodegradable materials. Lighter bodies and engine blocks use aluminum which is produced by horrendous amounts of electricity. More sophisticated technologies require more exotic metals, whether platinum or palladium used in catalytic converters, or others needed for hybrid or hydrogen systems. Anything dug out of earth anywhere reduces the amount of that resource available later. Impossible to make more iron ore or any metal ore. Have you ever seen an open-pit or open-cast mine and its immense and toxic tailings?

Have you seen the immense mountains of used tires? Do you notice the great accumulations of junked cars? Are clogged landfills on your tour lists?

All plastics, resins, binders come from chemicals, mostly petro-chemicals, meaning oil. Take it now, don't have it later. Technical improvements in product per gallon or per ton are sliding behind demand, straining supply. American manufacturers are already fighting to maintain supplies of basic metals such as steel.

Shall I mention burgeoning populations? Every person consuming more anywhere means less for others to consume tomorrow. Unless, of course, allocations are skewed, ever more skewed, as time progresses, as numbers of people grow, as supplies decline relative to population.

Are Malthusian projections of over-population weighing us all down about to come true at last? Can we continue to pretend that these problems are immaterial?

A few years ago, people talked about lifeboat theory. With more people trying to crowd onto the lifeboat, some have to get tossed off or the boat sinks. Today, we note that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Homelessness is becoming apparent even to those who won't look. I guess we don't want to notice that the lifeboat is up to its gunwales and about to founder. Most people assume that their seat is secure.

Let's jump back to basics. All the techno-fix strategies are substitution strategies. All sustainability strategies are also substitution strategies. Substituting reprocessed used cooking oils for diesel fuel substitutes only one tiny component of the overall system which produces and runs the vehicle. Substituting hydrogen or hybrid technologies similarly deals only with small components of a very complex, very global extractive and earth exploitive system.

A simple formula for minimally exploitive systems reads: Use local resources processed by local people primarily for local uses in ways which generate surpluses for local reinvestment. With this litmus test, any system can be tested. Every one will flunk, even rigorous Permaculture...

Historian John Lukacs tells us that we have reached the end of an Age. Which, he insists, need not be the end of the world. Is he accurate or a wishful thinker?

See the illusions? OK?

Now I will drive my energy-efficient new car to town for our weekly shopping at the farmers' market.

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Notes and Resources

The Financial Times is the world's Wall Street Journal. The following quotes are taken from the Tuesday, 13th April edition:

"Barclay's Capital Highlights reports that US crude output was 254,000 barrels per day (b/d) lower than a year ago."

"Barclay's estimates fourth-quarter demand for OPEC crude to be 3.3 million b/d higher than in the second quarter." Meanwhile, OPEC members have agreed to reduce production 1.0 million b/d.

[World oil demand second-quarter 2004 estimated at] 78.3 million barrels per day. [78.3m b/d is about 4 billion gallons daily. Nearly 29 trillion barrels per year]

"Commodities: Platinum hits 24-year high in thin trading"

"Platinum: $935.50 per ounce"

"Palladium: fresh 19 month high at $335.00 per ounce."

"Gold: $417.80 per ounce"

"Diesel catalytic converters alone used 1,000,000 ounces of platinum in 2002."

"Last week. A Belgian group said it had developed technology that used palladium instead of platinum in emission control systems."

"Oil and gas prices rose on a mix of concern about supply and forecasts that demand would rise further still."

". . . NYMEX contracts for May delivery [have] risen more than 8% in the last week."

"IEA [International Energy Agency] . . . raised its forecast for global oil demand for a sixth month citing appetite from China as a leading factor."

"Yesterday . . . official Chinese News Agency [reported] crude imports rose 35.7 per cent year-to-year on first quarter."

"Average price at US petrol pumps last week rose to fresh record high at just over $1.80 per gallon . . . many forecasters are expecting . . .more than $2.00 per gallon in the summer months."

"US gasoline stocks declined in week to April 2, the ninth weekly fall out of eleven."

". . . expectations [are] that demand estimates would be revised higher again."

"Concerns about instability in key oil-producing nations such Iraq and Venezuela are boosting prices."

(There is similar information related to water.)

America the 'beautiful' on Swans


Milo Clark on Swans (with bio).

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Published April 26, 2004
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