Friday, May 22, 2020

The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

Just a few days before the influence of the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus began its remoulding of everyday life in Britain, I chanced upon a television broadcast of a brilliantly executed film that I hadn’t seen for many years, “The Day the Earth Caught Fire.” Although this was first released in 1961, I was struck by an uncanny resonance with broad undercurrents of our present times, and, over the past couple of months or so, since the UK lockdown was imposed, this has consolidated into a pulsating impression of living within the plot of a sci-fi drama. Indeed, the periodicity of our daily flow, with its social distancing and unaccustomed emptiness of places and spaces, normally thronged, imbues a palpable sense of the “unreal”.

“The Day the Earth Caught Fire” depicts a crisis situation in which peoples across the globe try to cope with unparalleled high temperatures, brought upon them by the Americans and Russians simultaneously detonating (“testing”) two super-hydrogen bombs near the poles, which causes an alteration in the Earth's nutation, in concert with a shift in the tilt of its axis by 11 degrees, and, as is revealed later in the film, a change in its solar orbit, which leaves the planet barrelling towards the Sun so that, as one of the plot’s protagonists asserts, they have about four months,"before there’s a delightful smell in the universe of charcoaled mankind."

Scenes of chaos and social breakdown are embodied in the wanton, antisocial acts of “beatniks”, who are squandering water by pouring it over themselves and each other. Meanwhile, tap water supplies are turned off to people’s homes, in a government declared state-of-emergency. Public showers are installed and drinking water rationing arrangements are introduced, with inevitable punch-ups ensuing, both at the water dispensing hubs, and en route, as the hero battles to the home of his love interest, who is being tormented by an out-of-hand group of teens and 20-somethings. One of her assailants meets his demise by falling down the lift shaft, as a further metaphor for descending civil order.

Documentary “authenticity” is lent to the film by the plot’s setting in the actual offices of the Daily Express – then a credible newspaper – and centred around a group of journalists and their editor, who are trying to “get the truth out”, while the government downplays and downrightly lies about the severity of the situation, finally having to come clean, once the paper breaks the story about what has really happened, and the facts can no longer be concealed.

Clearly, we are in no such exact situation and probably never will be. Yet, the sense of an unsettled and vulnerable civilization, portrayed in the film, is mirrored in the feelings of unease and uncertainty about the future of the world, that are now pervasive almost 60 years later. Back then, the major terror was that nuclear war would break out between the two great superpowers, perhaps “World War III”, and engulf the world in a cataclysmic conflagration.

Although such fears had long been allayed, the recent nuclear sabre rattling, with threats of hypersonic missiles, too fast to be shot down, has fanned their embers once more. That this spectre should reappear is both surprising and distressing, but reflects more profound tensions over securing a sufficient share of various finite and rapidly depleting resources. The lack of any firmly set plans to use them less carelessly than we have done so far, can only aggravate future unrest.

Among the 100 billion tonnes of natural resources that are now consumed annually to feed the demands of a human population that grows relentlessly, both in its number and acquisitiveness, are fifteen billion tonnes of fossil fuels, whose combustion is thought to be the major driver of climate change.The term “changing climate” has been coined, to stress that it is not only the likely consequences of global warming that need concern us, but to encapsulate a whole range of effects, some of them involving the Earth system, as a whole, such as degradation of land, air and water resources, while others are more societal and political, but often linked to resource depletion, although they are all bound together, by mutually interconnecting threads, into a complex web.

Indeed, what are mostly perceived as individual problems, to be solved in their own right, really provide a litany of interrelated signs that the overall system of resource-consumption is failing. To this list, we might add the “culture of fear” that has emerged, from the combined and continual impact of these global troubles on our awareness, especially as spun by an arsenal of media which increasingly and constantly bombards us.

The latter sounds a steady drum beat which initially terrifies, then begins to dull the senses into torpor. Thus, a state of denial of the fundamental issues emerges, and a lack of belief that there is anything we can do to change the impending worst outcomes. It is either salient or ironic, that the much vexed 5G is able to beam out vastly more “information”, even though it may be causing great human harm in the process. This is, therefore, a single example among many, of an experiment in which we all are both participants and subjects of, in real time. Thus, although the overall consequences of our collective tinkering with the environment are as yet unknown, it is a reasonable inference that by the time the experimental results are available for scrutiny, our geographical and human landscapes will be so transformed that “going back” is impossible.

In the fictional “The Day the Earth Caught Fire, an attempt is made to bring the Earth back into a stable orbit by simultaneously detonating several massive nuclear bombs in western Siberia. However, the ending is left ambiguous, with two versions of the newspaper’s front page being prepared, one reading “World Saved” and the other “World Doomed.” The film ends, giving no clue as to which one will be published.

The fate of our present reality is also unclear, but is likely to involve a mixture of salvation and loss, rather than a clear selection of one over the other, due to the complex nature of the Earth system, and that different influences will unfold varyingly across the biosphere. Nonetheless, all projected efforts to limit the rise in mean global temperature (since pre-industrial times) to 1.5 oC, at least by 2050, most likely represent steps in the right direction, albeit that the expansion of various low-carbon technologies may be limited in scale by the availability of critical raw materials.

There is great uncertainty over the likely course of the COVID-19 pandemic, as is true of all complex phenomena, but the current state-of-fear is at a red-alert, probably not previously seen during peacetime, and for most born since 1945, certainly in mainland UK, a complete novelty. The current lockdowns across the globe have changed our outlook immeasurably, to one of living in the moment and within the zone (in permaculture terms, the zone 0 of our closest surroundings, but also the contentiously termed zone 00, the inner landscape, which, to me, means the “core self”: body, mind, self-awareness and spirit).

Thus, some of our attention has been diverted from more trivial distractions such as video games and social media, while the latter have now taken on the importance of communication lifelines, and the “core self(s)" extend beyond individuals to a collective mindset of mutual awareness and care. Accordingly, kinder communities have emerged, and while the forecasts are dire for the economies of nations, and indeed, the entire world, it is breathtaking and inspiring, to see what can, or might, be achieved when the human family unites in all purpose, action and identity.

During the absorbedness of dealing with this virus, and even having vanquished it, the broader indicators of a changing climate yet beckon us to act in solution of the overall “problem”, as cracks in a weakening wall that will tumble if left ignored and unbutressed. While the overall course we choose to take must respect the planetary boundaries, it is important to contemplate what we mean by sustainability – i.e. as taken in the context of the likely duration of a civilization – and how we will maintain our destination once we arrive there?

But, I wonder, who will “we” be by then? A mere statistic of 10 billion – or more than this, or far fewer – or whether however many humans there are will have become a true collective, thinking and acting as being interlinked with all other riders on Spaceship Earth? Will we construe complexity and synchronicity as being implicit to the integrated whole that is Nature, having evolved a worldview that no longer believes in its own exclusion and detachment, with labels such as inanimate and separate, no longer useful, but anachronisms?

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Negative Oil Prices – “they’ll pay you to take it away”.

For the first time in history, negative oil prices have been recorded, and so, in effect, producers must pay consumers to take the oil away. Strictly, this is the benchmark price that would have to be paid in May, of —$37.63 a barrel: a loss that traders were prepared to shoulder, in order to get around the conundrum of where to store the rising oversupply of oil. The lack of storage capacity is particularly acute in the US, which is why the price crash has been so remarkable for WTI.

Oil prices had been falling since the start of 2020, being above $60 a barrel in January, but which then plunged to around $20 for WTI, and $26 for Brent Crude.  Typically, WTI trades at maybe 10% lower than Brent, for a variety of reasons,  and when the two prices diverge far from this, or narrow, or even change order, it is a sign that something has dramatically perturbed the equilibrium of the oil market. The current market has been thrown off balance in an unprecedented way by a sudden collapse in demand for transportation fuels (and hence the oil they are refined from), as the world locks-down to slow the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS‑CoV‑2), along with continued robust production from shale, and elsewhere, leading to an excess of oil, which is beginning to overwhelm storage reservoirs.

However, very low oil prices impose considerable pressures, particularly on the shale industry, and it is a matter of debate whether, or for how long, the latter will be able to weather the current storm, but should the industry derail, the size of the oil glut will begin to ebb

It has been speculated that the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve capacity may be expanded to one billion barrels, but it is likely that some oil companies will try to cut their losses by a shutdown of rigs and wells in order to ameliorate deepening debts or even avoid bankruptcy. The recent agreement to curb 10—20 million barrels worth of daily production, has been met with dismissive calls of “too little, too late”, taking the view that a market crash is still possible. Meanwhile, some 160 million barrels worth of oil are in “floating storage”, i.e. in supergiant oil tankers off major oil shipping ports, the largest quantity thus held since the economic crash of 2009, which, contrastingly, has been linked to a relative undersupply of oil against demand, although the matter is complex.  

In that thinking of a decade ago, extreme price volatility was an expected sign that we had reached “peak oil”; this was before the shale bonanza came to our rescue, or in reality, masked the overall picture.  In a nutshell, 81% of the world’s conventional oil fields are in decline, meaning that we will need to find at least 4 Saudi Arabia’s worth of new production by 2040, just to hold level. This will need to come mainly from unconventional sources, such as from fracking shale, and since that industry has been losing money for over a decade, it is hard to see how it could keep going for 2 decades more, even at above $60, let alone now that it is scraping along at well below the shut-in price. 
 
The price of WTI rose by a formal +476% on Tuesday (to +$10), as traders began to focus on selling oil in June, while Brent fell by -32% to $19.  However, these are such strange, and uncertain times, that it is difficult to make accurate predictions, on any level. Nonetheless, the security of the current global economic system and its underlying fossil fuels base, is further called into doubt.

Brett Fleishman, who is from climate campaign group at 350.org, is quoted as saying that the oil price crash is: “another powerful example of how fossil fuels are too volatile to be the basis of a resilient economy”.

“We are experiencing an unparalleled upending in our economies. And it is time for the fossil fuel industry to recognize that, from now on, the cheapest and best place to store oil is in the ground.”

“While this recession shows us that we desperately need sustainable, resilient, and stable economic systems, based on renewable, accessible and just energy sources, the fossil fuel industry is not only trying to profit off of the current chaos, but continues to drive us further into climate breakdown.”

This line of thinking begs the question of "what next?" and climate change activists are urging against bailouts of the fossil fuel industry, in an effort to prop-up the status quo, which can do no more than place a sticking plaster on a corpus that is very ill indeed. Even prior to COVID-19, the fracking industry was already in dire straits, having lost around $280 billion in a decade, and, along with other fossil fuel industries, with efforts to address climate change biting at its heels. The present situation has compounded many of these troubles, but also exposed the fragility of the globalised system, and our accustomed complacency that what we need - be it food or face masks - will continue to flow in cheaply from "somewhere else". When it does not, we are shocked and only then begin to understand the true value of what can be made available from more local sources.


However, even if we managed to tool-up to provide sufficient manufacturing capacity within these shores, some basic raw materials would still need to be imported: in the case of face masks, polypropylene from China. Thus, the question of supply is broad and complex, and redesign and substitution must be at least as important as moving the factories closer to home, for example using cloth face coverings, rather than plastic masks. In the longer run, to use items which are home grown from the beginning of the supply chain will curb the use of fossil resources and help to build local and regional resilience.

More generally, the concept of
choice editing may prove a useful starting point in inaugurating a process of deglobalisation/relocalisation - i.e. do we really need 100 different kinds of breakfast cereal available? - and begin to produce less psychological angst in the realisation and acceptance that, in fact, we don't.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Transition Towns, Re-localisation, COVID-19 and the Fracking Industry.


The vulnerabilities of the global village and its economy have been laid bare by the assault of the coronavirus (Sars-CoV-2), which has led to a pandemic of the infectious disease, COVID-19. The mobility chains that enable the flow of civilization are now substantially truncated, with collapsing demand for transportation fuels – and crude oil, from which they are refined – leading Russia, Saudi and other OPEC countries to agree on combined production cuts of 10 million barrels a day, even though demand might have fallen by 30 million barrels a day. It remains an open question how soon, or if at all, everything will get back to normal, when arguably, it is “normal” that has brought this current situation upon us, as yet another element of a changing climate. The broad reach of the expanding global mechanism both invades previously uncharted terrains and ecosystems, and provides vectors for the transmission of contagion. Thus, the relentless rise of a resource-intensive civilization and its highly mobile population carries many potential dangers.
The need for re-localisation, in the anticipation of Peak Oil, leading to waning supplies of cheap transportation fuel, was a founding tenet of the Transition Towns (TT) movement. However, this motivation appeared to lose some of its urgency, once a flood of oil entered the market, largely as exhumed from shale by the procedure of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Indeed, a few years ago, TT-HQ asked itself the question, Does so much cheap oil mean peak oil as an argument is now over?” In fact, the production of conventional crude oil has remained on a plateau since 2005, while 71% of subsequent growth in the production of “oil” has been provided by shale hydrocarbons; hence, we may anticipate that any stalling of the fracking industry will begin to restrict the overall global oil supply.
Although uncertainties surround the immediate picture, oil price recovery can be expected due to a combination of rebounding economic activity, once "lock-downs" are lifted, and supply adjustments from selective production shut-ins by high-cost producers, lower investments in US shale and potential voluntary production cuts by OPEC.The EIA also anticipates that demand may recover in the second half of 2020, and through 2021, with a dwindling in the surplus. In the longer term, further rising oil prices might be expected on a simple “supply and demand” basis, but the cost of producing unconventional oil is, in any case, high, and the selling price must ultimately reflect this.
While the market is currently awash with cheap oil, this is likely to peter out, and supply challenges appear, probably within the present decade, due to sustained contraction of the fracking industry, and the fact that 81% of the world’s oil fields are already in decline. On this basis, new production greater than the equivalent of 4 Saudi Arabia’s would be required by 2040, only to maintain current output, and more than this, to meet any demand growth. Should the shale industry derail completely, the oversupply correction would be even more rapid.
In the absence of cheap, plentiful liquid fuels, it will prove extremely challenging to maintain the mobility required for globilisation, whereupon re-localisation begins to emerge as a concerted approach toward reducing demand for fuel/oil, and coping with some of the enormous changes we are likely to experience, even at the deepest human level. In the present time, although mobility on all scales has been crushed, temporarily, in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, this situation does not offer us an exact foretaste of how life might be in a future marked by oil-deficiency (other than the unaccustomed silence from immobile cars and planes). There, people will be able to get together physically, as they must, to perform essential tasks, whereas presently, a “social distance” of 2 meters must be maintained, other than between immediate family, and any others dwelling in the same household.
While, during the past decade, the broader issue of addressing climate change has largely taken over the mantle from the more specific topic of peak oil, an expected reining in of the global oil supply may have the more immediate impact, by triggering a crash of the global financial system. Once again, we are reminded that neither the peaking of particular resources, mainly as a consequence of depletion, nor the warming Earth, are “the problem”, but are among the many signals of a broader systemic failure that we experience viscerally, rather than as physically detached observers. Thus, they can be interpreted as cracks in a wall, but indicators that the wall is highly stressed and likely to crumble: COVID-19 may be another such sign. In so many manifestations, all of we humans are both participants and subjects of an experiment of exquisite complexity, being carried out in real time. Hence, none of us will be impervious to whatever outcomes it may unfold.
It has been some 15 years since the Transition Towns concept was inaugurated,  over which time the manifestations of a “changing climate” have become more intensely palpable, in terms of: economic instability, relentless CO2 emissions, global warming, degradation of the soil-water-air nexus, and resource depletion, including that of global oil reserves, if definitions of “oil” are examined in depth. While some transition towns have recast their banner, e.g. as a “Greener Henley”, in order to emphasise an aim towards ameliorating climate change, the importance of establishing small, resilient communities remains, be they Transition Towns, Eco-villages, or any other denomination that holds, at its core, a belief in re-localisation as a pathway toward sustainability, which, in the longer run, must become regeneration. [It is, therefore, reasonable to assume de-globalisation as a necessary and default counterweight to this process]. 
Probably the aspect that is most specific to the TT model is that it intended largely to begin within existing infrastructure, e.g. the energy descent action plan, and so the notion of “urban permaculture” matches perfectly with this, i.e. that we can’t simply knock everything down and start again from scratch. Thus, an adaptation of the space and structures we already have in place is a critical factor, so to produce more of our food and energy at the local level. The use of land, and even roof-space (that had previously either served other purposes or none in particular), along with insulating and draught-proofing buildings, are all key elements. This is not to rule out “new build” entirely, but this should meet highly efficient energy criteria, e.g. “Tony’s House” in Reading, a town which, although not yet with “city” status, remains the largest in the United Kingdom. 
Clearly, such a dramatic transformation (either by design or default) is likely to bear profound economic ramifications. The present ultra-low oil price is a passing shadow of combined low demand, during the global coronavirus lock-down, and oversupply, principally from an industry of sufficient fragility that a US government bailout may be requested, to prop it up. As noted in the recent Finnish government report, “The era of cheap and abundant energy is long gone… Money supply and debt have grown faster than the real economy. Debt saturation and paralysis is now a very real risk, requiring a global scale reset. Money supply and debt have grown faster than the real economy.”
Thus, once the full force of the coronavirus storm has passed us, and the oversupply of oil begun to ebb, a necessary phasing out of petroleum products that are too expensive to buy will necessitate the reengineering of the entire global industrial system. Peak oil can be considered as a narrowing window between the price that producers need to stay in business, and one sufficiently low that customers can afford to buy products and services based on oil. Thus, the present economic system sets an upper limit of about $100 a barrel, but at lower than $45, producers need to borrow more money to keep going. Hence, “peak oil” may equate to “peak credit”.

The Finnish report notes that as oil markets become unreliable, the world needs to develop “an entirely new energy system based around an entirely different paradigm.” This is no “return to the Stone Age”, but a requirement “to create a high technology society” that does not depend on relentless consumption of natural resources, now in excess of 100 billion tonnes annually.The report further offers the sombre prognostication that “If this is not achieved, the alternative is the degradation (and fragmentation) of the current industrial ecosystem.” Thus, while a rapid shift from oil and the other fossil fuels toward renewable energy is necessary, a curbing in our use of energy, overall, is mandatory.


T
his will involve a profound reorganisation of all societies around the globe, otherwise conflict can be expected. The present BAU model, however, accelerates all forces in the direction of achieving ever larger systems, and to consume inexorably more energy and other resources. Professor Nate Hagens, a former Vice President at investment firms Salomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers, who now teaches ecological economics at the University of Minnesota, is quoted as saying:

“Not only are we speeding, but we are wearing energy blind-folds at the same time. But the momentum of our current system forces us to have conversations about a bigger system not a smaller one—so the correct and valid plans and blueprints are not discussed… It is a perfect storm—and when the waters recede we are going to have smaller, simpler and more local, regional economies."

It might appear sage, therefore, to prepare the ground in advance of any collapse; to divert our resources and planning away from the proverbial global village, and toward a globe of villages. The currently enforced “working from home” may become part of the new normal.
Thus, although Transition Towns thinking arose primarily from considerations about peak oil, all essential efforts toward re-localisation and community resilience may provide the strongest available single buffer against the many storms that are likely to prevail upon us.