Monday, November 30, 2009

Diagonal Economy 4: Compatibility with Human Ontogeny

Humanity evolved into its current biological state in a far less hierarchal social and economic environment.  However, it is important to recognize that our world, our culture, and our economy are not now strictly hierarchal, and have never been strictly non-hierarchal.  Hierarchy is a matter of degrees, and humanity has been surrounded by a shade of gray when it comes to hierarchy.  Manuel de Landa, in his “1000 Years of Non-Linear History,” does an excellent job of illustrating this spectrum—from geology to “primitive tribes” to modern financial systems, there has always been a mix of hierarchal and non-hierarchal structures.  I belabor this point now because, in the past, my arguments have often been criticized as advocating for the impossibility of a purely non-hierarchal system.  That was not, nor is it now, my intent.  Rather, I hope to show that the degree of hierarchy in our current system is problematic for many reasons—here, that it is incompatible with our ontogeny, our evolutionary course of development—and that we will realize many benefits in a system that is less hierarchal.

The core argument—unfinished, but that I’m developing in this post—is that our biological selves will be more compatible with a less hierarchal civilization, and that our civilization will be more sustainable and egalitarian as a result.  How do we know what is best for our biological selves, anyway?  I’m operating here on two theories: 

First, that human civilization is subject to several evolutionary mechanisms, not merely DNA as is commonly thought.  These are:  DNA, our biological “hardware”; our psychological programming that operates on this hardware but that is the product of our upbringing, our environment, and our conscious choices (see Leary’s “imprints” and Robert Anton Wilson’s work on “meta-programming the human bio-computer”); and our cultural programs (both cultural “software” such as religion, morality, political systems and “hardware” such as our geography and built environment).  While I’m quite confident that it’s possible to rapidly breed changes into our DNA (and, in fact, I think this is currently happening due to social stratification and absence of any serious survival challenge in Western societies), I think that approach is too morally dangerous to consider further (though I’m open to opposing views here).  Therefore, I’m operating on the assumption that our DNA is a fixed constraint.

Second, I’m operating on the broad assumption that much of our physiology and brain hardware operates best in environments, and under conditions that are roughly analogous to the environment in which we evolved.  For example, we find more satisfaction in creative problem solving and start-to-finish handcrafting than we do in pushing the same button on an assembly line 8 hours a day; we are able to handle roughly 150 personal relationships fluently (Dunbar’s number), significantly beyond which, or below which we tend towards psychological symptoms of alienation and depression; we respond physiologically better to fire light than fluorescent; etc.

Admittedly, there’s a lot of room to dispute these assumptions an their application, and I have far from offered a rigorous proof of their validity.  I’m not arguing that we must abandon hierarchal institutions because their dissimilarity to the environment of human ontogeny is the sole cause of our impending downfall (though I do think it is a major root cause of the critical Problem of Growth).  Rather, I am arguing that we should at least explore the potential to improve human civilization by modeling our environmental conditions after key elements of our ontogeny.  And that’s where the Diagonal Economy comes in.

First, a quick note on what metric I’m using for measuring quality of life:  optimization of median happiness within a permanently  sustainable framework (in terms of human, not geological or cosmological time scale, aka several thousand years +).  I don’t claim that this is an objectively measureable value, but only that, for now, this is the subjective value I’m keeping in mind when considering the appropriate balance of hierarchal and non-hierarchal systems with relation to human ontogeny.

In one example, our levels of material consumption may be so “sticky,” so difficult to voluntarily abandon even if we are aware of the long-term consequences, because this consumption acts as a coping mechanism for alienation from our ontegeneological environment.  Conversely, reconnection with key ontogeneological features may address the Problem of Growth (that our civilization is structurally biased toward an unsustainable perpetual growth) by making us happier with less.  The distributed economic production that will characterize the Diagonal Economy has the potential—if we consciously make this a goal—to make our networks of personal relationships more aligned with that in our ontogeneological environment.  Similarly, it has the potential to allow all, or at least many more of us to be self-employed, to work on more flexible schedules, to work at more cohesive and fulfilling tasks, etc.  To the extent that these features make us more satisfied with our lives even with less material consumption, it may also allow us to “work” less (less consumption to pay for) and “play” at our hobbies, our families, our communities more, which will act as a positive feedback loop further strengthening our happiness and the cohesiveness of our personal connections.  This feature can certainly be seen in “primitive” societies, and also in many modern but poor societies (e.g. Cuba or rural Brazil) where familial and community bonds remain strong.  However, absent powerful, networked economies and broader awareness of these forces, these examples are easily supplanted by expanding hierarchal systems.  The Diagonal Economy provides the promise of sufficient networked strength to resist such advances of hierarchy, and also to gradually grow within geographic areas currently controlled by hierarchal states.

Finally, and perhaps a bit more “new-age-y,” I intuitively feel that a return to an environment more similar to our ontogeneological environment will facilitate the further evolution of our psychological software—call it spirituality, call it perception or a shift in consciousness, call it the “occult,” whatever label fits, I think it will be very important for the long term trajectory of humanity to move closer, as a group, toward enlightenment because this may be the most effective safeguard against tyranny and unsustainability.  There have always been scattered individuals or small groups that have exhibited this ability, intentionally not defined here, but their minority status and frequent disconnection from economic power and resiliency have prevented a widespread political and economic shift away from growth-oriented hierarchal models and toward truly sustainable and fulfilling societies.  I think that the Diagonal Economy has the potential to combine those traits.  Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Aldous Huxley’s ultimate novel “Island” is an example of the potential of such widespread spiritual/consciousness advancement, and also the perils of such advancement when disconnected from an economic base (or, as with Pala, when tied to a Cartesian/geographic “state” identity).  In that sense, it may be valid to think of the Diagonal Economy as  Huxley’s “Pala,” but without defined territorial borders and closely integrated to a powerful, networked economic mode of production.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Blurry (Non-Cartesian) Threat: Maj. Hasan and the Sensory System of the State

One of my favorite books is "Seeing like a State" by James C. Scott.  It chronicles the capabilities, limitations, and propensities of the sensory apparatus of the state.  This, alone, is a fascinating concept, but now it provides a fascinating window into the failure of the Nation-State system to understand what is really happening with a situation like the recent Fort Hood shootings by (allegedly) U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan.

Our societal sensory system likes to categorize things--probably because it's an aggregation of human sensory systems that function similarly, and because it's an evolutionarily successful strategy (from a media capture standpoint, not human biological survival).  At present, US media is grappling with this question:  was Maj. Hasan a "terrorist," or just "psychotic"?  Of course, this is a false dichotomy, but the reasons why it is false, in my opinion, illuminate a fundamental failing of the Nation-State system that is growing increasingly problematic for its survival.

The media's categories of terrorist vs. psychotic is an attempt to divide an expansive continuum of actors into two neatly distinct sets that resonate with the over-simplified american understanding of global events post-9/11.  Not only is it inaccurate and misleading, but it also highlights fundamental structural weaknesses of our current system as outlined below.

While still a false dichotomy, I think a more useful categorization is to view individual actors' motivations as a mix of influence/control of an outside hierarchy and individual feats of self-organization based on freely dispersed influences (memes, though that term has met with mixed reception).  While the media seems intent on categorizing Hasan either as someone that was acting at the behest of a "radical yemeni cleric" or as someone who "snapped," my categories better capture that all actors represent some mix of self-motivated emergence and strict hierarchical control.

Understanding the continuum of individual actors as emergence of memetic influences:  philosophy, religion, economic circumstances, individual neurochemical feedback-loops.

The false dichotomy resistance--it's just action, and the Nation-State's insistence of framing the issue in terms of enemies and opposition fundamentally fails to understand the problem.

Rose-colored glasses: the security-state's understanding of the challenge posed by the "lone-wolf" threat, and the desire to categorize perceived threats to facilitate the illusion of control (e.g. that they aren't "lone-wolfs").  Because this emergence is not intentionally crafted as an opposition to the state, the state's efforts to fight an "enemy" fail to exert any leverage on the center of gravity of the problem.

Ultimately, the Nation-State lacks understanding and ability at what I've called "Guided Emergence."   Some may suggest that the Nation-State is, in fact, highly competent in this area but is simply hiding its ability to control the masses (i.e. UN black helicopters or Bilderbergers).  I reject this--the Nation-State is neither this monolithic nor this competent.  Instead, evidence suggests that the Nation-State's efforts to fight the symptoms of an emerging global threat are fundamentally misguided.  Of course, as I set forth in my thesis on the future of the Nation-State, the process of guided emergence is antithetical to the constitutional nature of the Nation-State itself, one reason why I see little future for that institution.  Quite the Catch-22.

This phenomenon can be see not only in the current media fixation on salafi jihadism, aka "Islamic Terrorism," but also environmental movements, nationalist movements, etc.  I've even toyed with facilitating the Nation-State's use of the concept of guided emergence in my former job as a counter-terrorism analyst focused on dams and water/electrical infrastructure.  There, I suggested that rather than follow the traditional "interdict/prosecute" model of domestic counter-terrorism, we would be better served by guiding followers of, say, Derrick Jensen, away from the idea that they can achieve their goals by destroying dams and toward the idea that they can best address the fundamental causes they seek to rectify by, for example, pursuing something akin to the Diagonal Economy.  Needless to say, this idea wasn't well received by the Nation-State apparatus.

Can the Nation-State guide emergence of the global threat away from its own centers of gravity?  Can improved public diplomacy solve the problem, or are the demands of the Western Nation-States (e.g. the maintenance of standard of living and relative temporal and geopolitical position via exploitation of the global commons and a global South) simply too antithetical to the concept of guided emergence?  Alternatively (and perhaps diabolically), will the western Nation-States exploit the gene/meme interface via political story-telling (e.g. Ayn Rand), nationalist religions (e.g. an updated take on National Socialism)?  Or will our consciousness itself bifurcate or metastasize in a fundamentally game-changing way as Julian Jaynes suggests happened several thousand years ago?

I'm only beginning to grapple with these issues, but I do feel confident that fluency with the politics/psychology, meme/gene interface will be the core competency in the future struggle between competing political structures (e.g. hierarchy vs. Rhizome, the Diagonal Economy vs. the Market-State).

Monday, November 09, 2009

2009 ASPO Presentation - "The Renewables Gap"

Appologies for the break in posting--the perfect storm of the birth of my second daughter and an extremely busy period at work have forced me to prioritize, and my writing didn't make the cut.  However, I'm cautiously optimistic that I'll be able to get back to posting on a fairly regular (Mondays) schedule.  I plan to dive right back in to where I left off on the "Diagonal Economy" series. 

For now, here are the slides from my recent presentation at the Association for the Study fo Peak Oil conference in Denver, entitled "The Renewables Gap" (.pdf).  If you want to watch the video of the presentation, you can purchase it at the ASPO website.  I've posted a general text of what I said to accompany the slides below:

My talk is about what I’m calling the “Renewables Gap.” The basic question that I’m seeking to evaluate here is whether, and at what cost, it’s possible for our civilization to mitigate peak oil with renewable energy generation—specifically solar PV and wind power.
One important caveat before I get started—My goal is to explore the solution space of our future, not to predict exactly what will happen.

Slide 1:  If we seek to mitigate peak oil with renewable energy, we need to first ask what do we need to mitigate. My answer: the decline in NET energy produced from oil, not the decline in overall production. This graph shows the decline in NET energy available from oil, taken from Dave Murphy’s previous presentation.
If, hypothetically, 20 years from now we’re producing 100 million barrels of oil per day, but it requires 100 million barrels of oil worth of energy input to do so, we have ZERO energy left for the operation of society at large. This is functionally the same as producing no oil at all.

Slide 2:  What I want to quantify is the amount of net-energy that we need to replace going forward. A “classic” peak oil decline graph shows a plateau, followed by a gradually accelerating decline. Let’s consider why that’s so. What happens when we hit a plateau—as we arguably have now? The existing fields are declining at rates between 3% and 15% per year. But, because we’re scrambling to bring new production on-line, the overall level of production is buoyed for some time. We’re compensating for this underlying decline with more expensive oil—both financially and energetically. That keeps the level of OVERALL oil production steady, but the rate of NET energy production from oil is falling. That’s what this graph depicts.
For the purpose of exploring the solution space, let’s pick two numbers to evaluate: 5% and 10% annual rates of decline in NET energy production from oil. I’ll call these the “low” and “high” range scenarios. I’ll be discussing the potential to use renewable wind and solar power to mitigate this decline.

Slide 3:  Specifically, I want to focus on some systemic effects of unique profile of solar and wind energy: the vast majority of the energy invested in these sources comes up front, before they ever begin to generate. Between 80% and 90% of the total energy ever required to build, operate, and maintain these systems must be invested UP FRONT.
I won’t discuss other renewables such as tidal and geothermal power, though their profiles are largely similar. I’ll also ignore biofuels and nuclear—hopefully we’ll have time to discuss these in the question period, but the bottom line is that I think they don’t significantly change the thrust of this presentation.

Slide 4:  Another preliminary issue: these renewables produce ELECTRICITY, not oil. We’re talking here about using them to replace oil—let’s talk about conversion issues. How many GWh are needed to replace 1 mbpd of oil production?
A straight BTU-to-BTU conversion: replacing 1 million barrels of oil per day production, or 365 million barrels of oil per year, equates to 70.78 Giga-Watt-Years. Clearly, however, oil and electricity are not the same thing.
Some people have suggested that you only need 1/3 this much electricity to mitigate peak oil because oil fired electricity generation can be only 33% efficient. I think that modern oil-fired electricity is actually somewhere between 50% and 66% efficient, but we need to explain the validity of using the BTU-to-BTU conversion:
First, because we need to replace oil, not electricity, and because relatively little oil is used to generate electricity, it’s incorrect to use this oil-fired electricity efficiency number.
Second, our infrastructure is currently adapted to burning oil in many applications. Therefore, to the extent we want to use renewably-generated electricity to replace this oil, we need to adapt this oil-burning infrastructure to electricity. For example, if you want to replace transportation fuel with plug-in electric cars, you need to invest in significant new infrastructure in the form of cars, batteries, charging stations, etc.
Third, any form of mitigation using renewably-generated electricity will require significant additional investment in the transmission grid to handle higher loads and to balance or store electricity due to the variable availability of renewable generation.
I don’t know if it’s possible to calculate the exact energy balance here. However, I’ll argue that, in order to mitigate peak oil with renewably-generated electricity, we’ll need to generate effectively the same number of BTUs of electricity as we’re losing in oil. Maybe slightly more, maybe slightly less, but I think the BTU-to-BTU figure of 70.78 Giga-Watt-Years per million barrels of oil per day lost is pretty close.

Slide 5:  Another argument is that we don’t need to produce as much energy renewably as we lose to peak oil because conservation and improved efficiency can largely make up the difference. There’s some truth here, but it’s only ½ the equation. That’s because two factors—population growth and the desire of the world’s poor to improve their standard of living—will cancel out some or all of the gains from efficiency and conservation.
As shown in this graph, if population increases according to various UN estimates, that alone could cancel efficiency and conservation gains of as much as 40%.
Additionally, at least 5 Billion people and growing want to “improve” their level of energy consumption to Western levels. In India, car sales are up 26% over last year, to 120,000 cars per month. Admittedly, these cars tend to be more efficient than in America, but this is new demand, and far more than cancels out the fact that the Tata Nano gets 56 miles per gallon. While markets or force may deny the world’s poor access to Western levels of energy consumption, the geopolitical consequences of such this disparity will only accelerate energy scarcity.

Slide 6:  The key question is: how much up-front energy input will be required to build out enough renewables to mitigate the decline in net energy from oil production? We know how much energy must be produced to meet this target, so the answer to this question is a function of the EROI and the lifespan of our renewable options.
You’ve just heard David Murphy’s excellent presentation on EROEI, which highlighted many of the same issues involved here. What I want to focus on is this concept of boundary.
We could talk about this boundary and EROEI calculation issue until we’re all blue in the face—my intent here is not to argue that some specific number is correct, but rather to point out the uncertainty and potential range. At the lower end of the range, I’ve proposed a proxy of price to account for ALL inputs and outputs. There are significant problems with this methodology, such as dealing with financing costs, but it has the distinct advantage of allowing us to account for all inputs—regressed infinitely—rather than drawing some sort of artificial boundary. IF you look at modern wind turbines using the price proxy, you get something like an EROEI of 4. I’ll call that my “low” value.
Now let’s consider more conventional calculations. Wind seems to be most promising at the moment, and I’m looking specifically at a 2009 paper by Kubiszewski, Cutler, and Endres entitled “Meta-analysis of net energy return for wind power systems.” The authors review 50 different studies of wind EROEI. In a section entitled “Difficulties in calculating EROI,” they make this statement:
“Studies using the input-output analysis [one method of calculating EROEI] have an average EROI of 12 while those using process analysis [another method] an average EROI of 24. Process analysis typically involves a greater degree of subjective decisions by the analyst in regard to system boundaries, and may be prone to the exclusion of certain indirect costs compared to input-output analysis.”
What I take away from that is that there seems to be a range of 12-24, but the authors—a highly respected group—suggest that the “24” figure fails to account for many inputs. That suggests to me that an EROEI of 12 is more accurate.
For our purposes, though, my intent is to explore the solution space, so I’ve selected what I think is an optimistic upper “high” EROI value of 20. I think this is unrealistically high—especially because this figure doesn’t even account for the intermittency, transmission, and storage energy costs that must be considered in such a large-scale societal transition—but for now let’s use 4 and 20.

Slide 7:  How much energy must we invest if we want to ramp up renewable generation to keep pace with declining net energy from oil? This graph answers that question using a 5% net energy decline and a renewable EROEI of 20.

In this scenario, to mitigate the year-1 decline in net energy from oil, we’d need to invest 467 GWy of energy in year one without any production in return—that’s the equivalent of almost 7 million barrels per day. Then in year two it’s about 130 GWy more invested than cumulative production to that point, or about a 2 million barrel per day deficit. Not until year-three will the cumulative renewable generation be more than the investment deficit for that year—meaning that not until year 3 will we begin to have surplus energy available to mitigate the actual decline in oil production (which by this point leaves us 12 million barrels per day behind the peak oil decline curve.
That’s the “Renewables Gap.”

Slide 8:  Here’s the pessimistic quadrant – 10% net energy decline, and a renewables EROI of 4. Here, the up-front energy investment is more than 4,600 Gwyears in year one. That’s 58 million barrels of oil per day diverted to renewable energy production. Plainly impossible. And the level of renewable energy production wouldn’t even catch up to the level of energy invested EACH YEAR until year 7.

Slide 9:  Here you can see the boundaries of the Renewables Gap—the optimistic assumptions on top, pessimistic on the bottom. The lines represent, under each scenario, the net energy supplied by oil, minus the energy invested that year in building renewable energy production, plus the energy produced that year by the renewables brought on-line to date.
To be sure, we can slow the initial rate of investment in renewables in order to lessen this dramatic initial impact, but that option results in falling even further behind the net energy decline curve. We can also bootstrap the energy produced by renewables to provide the energy required for the next round of renewables—if the EROI is 20, this will work to some extent, but it will still have the effect of making us fall even further behind the decline curve. If the EROI is 4, it’s simply unworkable—we never catch up.
Is it theoretically possible to close this gap more quickly? Sure—by investing more energy up front, which actually serves to exacerbate the problem over the short term. We’ll be chasing our tail. It might be possible to catch up—to make a significant public sacrifice up front and kick start the program—IF the economy as a whole is healthy. The Renewables Gap puts us in a Catch-22 situation: using renewables to mitigate peak oil will make the situation worse before it makes it better. Our ability to absorb the up-front costs of transitioning across this gap is a function of our economic health, but to the extent that our economy remains healthy enough to do so we are unlikely to muster the political will to address the problem.
Just to provide some context for the size of this gap: Under the optimistic scenario, this is the equivalent of adding one new China to world oil demand immediately, and maintaining that for many years. Under the pessimistic scenario, this is the equivalent of adding more than 9 new China’s to world oil demand.
Now I recognize that there are energy conversion issues, there are calculation issues, there are timing issues—simply too many variables to make any definitive statements here. But what I hope I’ve highlighted here is this CONCEPT of the Renewables Gap problem, and the uncertainty of our ability to bridge that gap.

Slide 10:  As a civilization, we still have a small and shrinking bank of net-energy surplus with which to build our future. We have to make tough choices about how to spend it. Perhaps our most fundamental choice will be this: do we spend it attempting to bridge the Renewables Gap—despite our uncertain ability to do so? Or, at the risk of using the phrase “Paradigm Shift” in serious conversation, do we cut our losses with the “perpetual growth project” and consider if that energy could be better spent building a fundamentally different future?

I don’t mean to make any secret about my own views here: it seems unlikely to me that we’ll be able to continue “Business as Usual” via massive investment in renewables. It seems sufficiently unlikely that I don’t think it’s the best way to spend our civilization’s limited and shrinking supply of surplus energy. I think that energy will be better invested in the infrastructure needed for communication within and transition to a much more locally-self-sufficient, topologically flat society. I’m not here to tell you that my vision of the future is somehow “right,” or that other visions are “wrong,” but I am here to suggest that ANY vision of the future predicated on a transition to renewable sources of energy to mitigate the decline in oil production must first address this Renewables Gap.

Readers may also find my litigation checklist of interest.