08 July 2007

A Whiff of Apocalypse in the Air

Inside the front cover of the July/August issue of the Atlantic is a two page advertisement from Chevron. The crux of the message is that global energy security is everyone's responsibility, and the ad invites us to visit a website that they have setup at willyoujoinus.com. Right there on the front page it says, "One thing is clear: the era of easy oil is over." Explore the site and you find a few other remarkable gems, including a section with e-cards that you can send to your friends to encourage them to conserve energy. That's right, Chevron is encouraging us to become conservationists.

Then there is the recent piece in the Times by Jeroen van der Veer, the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, in which he tells us about three hard truths:
Global demand for energy is growing, but the reality of how fast hasn’t really sunk in.

The growth rate of supplies of “easy oil”, conventional oil and natural gas that are relatively easy to extract, will struggle to keep up with accelerating demand.

Increased coal use will cause higher CO2 emissions, possibly to levels we deem unacceptable.
He concludes his article by suggesting that,
we should aim to become twice as efficient in our use of energy by the middle of the century. That is entirely feasible, provided that the will is there.
So the oil companies are telling us, both in expensive advertisements and in opinion pieces written by their chief executives, that we need to use less energy. I believe that this situation is unprecedented: I can think of no other example of an industry that recommends that consumers use less of their product. Why would they do such a thing?

It would appear that the oil industry has concluded that peak oil is real and that unless demand is reduced, there is a very real risk to the entire infrastructure upon which they rely for their business. CEO van der Veer concludes his piece on this decidedly unreassuring note:
The world’s energy system is entering a turbulent phase, and the only question is: how turbulent? A cooperative world will respond more effectively than a fragmented one. Provided governments create the right rules and incentives, and don’t throw up barriers, the global market will direct money and brainpower to the best solutions. The alternative is a global market failure, and future generations would pay the price.
I don't mean to be alarmist, but when these guys become conservationists, the whiff of apocalypse in the air becomes quite pungent indeed.

30 June 2007

Eating locally

The speakers at today's Galiano Conservancy AGM were Alisa Smith & James B. MacKinnon, authors of the 100-Mile Diet. It was wonderful to hear the thoughts of two bright young people who had touched upon the right topic at the right moment; for those of you who don't know, the book is about their efforts to spend an entire year eating food that was grown within 100 miles of their apartment in Vancouver. The premise is wonderful, and the notion of eating locally has much to recommend it: not only is less energy required to transport the food, but one is naturally forced to eat seasonally.

But as I listened to Alisa and James speak about the manifold advantages of eating locally, I could not help but reflect upon the fact that it is unlikely to be widely adopted. At least not yet. True, it is better for the planet, and these days there is a remarkable groundswell of support for all things green. But such efforts are not sustainable when motivation is tied to altruism; an economic incentive is required as well. Indeed, the epidemic of obesity is linked to the observation that never before in human history have so many calories been available for so little money.

Of course, when the ongoing party enabled by cheap oil ends, eating locally will not just be in vogue but will become a practical necessity. Suburban lawns will convert very nicely into subsistence gardens. Urban gardens will spring up everywhere. Local farms will once again be valued for the edible bounty that they provide. One can only hope that we are not already so estranged from the good earth that we will still be able to make the transition.

Update: James posted a nice piece on the 100 mile diet website about their day on Galiano, including the wonderful local lunch that they had at Rose's home.

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20 June 2007

Natural Recycling

Here on Galiano Island, it is really quite easy to recycle. True, we have a wonderful recycling depot that accepts not only the usual suspects such as hard plastic, glass bottles, tin cans and newspapers, but also aluminum foil, plastic bags, corks, and more. All that is required is to bring your recyclables in on Thursday or Friday, and the nice folks at Galiano Island Recycling take it away for you.

But what really sets Galiano Island apart from other places is that essentially everyone recycles here. No, the people on Galiano are not saints. And while we have our fair share of true blue Greens, this rural island's population consists of people just the same as everywhere else. The reason everyone recycles here is because there is no garbage dump on Galiano. If you live on Galiano and have garbage that needs to end up in a landfill, there is a guy with a truck who will take your green garbage bag away for five bucks. When he collects enough bags he takes a trip on the ferry to a neighboring municipality and pays to dump our garbage in someone else's backyard. Eventually, nearly everyone here ends paying to have a bag of garbage taken away. But it is easier and cheaper to recycle. So people do.

The natural recycling that takes place on Galiano Island is arguably unique, but it illustrates one of the central challenges of the Green movement. People recycle, or take the bus, or reduce their carbon footprint, because they know it is the right thing to do, but reliance on altruistic behavior is insufficient. What is needed is convergence of incentive and action. Here is an example, drawn once again from the universe of recycling, that lends further supports to this idea.

A paltry 32 percent of people in the US recycle. In Philadelphia, a clever company called RecycleBank started paying people an average of $8 per week for recycling; rather than pay in cash, RecycleBank gives people coupons that are redeemable at various local shops. Not only do they pay people, but they take the headache out of recycling: they collect it at curbside and do all the sorting. They make their money by receiving the refundable deposit that accompanies bottles and cans, and they are paid a fee by the municipality for reducing garbage that would otherwise end up in the landfill. Six months after the program was rolled out, the percentage of people who recycled shot up to 90 percent. [For a more extensive report on how their business works, you can read the New York Times article here, but a paid subscription is required.]

That is why a proposal from Richard Stuebi over at Cleantech Blog makes sense. He argues that the price of gas should include all of the costs associated with its production, including defense spending in the Persian Gulf. He calculates that this would bring the price to roughly $6/gallon. His proposal would really make sense if income taxes were reduced commensurately. This is precisely what Elizabeth May, the head of the Green Party in Canada had in mind when she recently proposed a $.12/litre carbon tax.

Aligning actions with consequences makes sense. It may not save us from Kunstler's Long Emergency, but it is a step in the right direction.

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