Category Archives: climate

Earth Day & March for Science

I’m heading to the lovely Santa Cruz March for Scienceonlinesquare and Earth Day celebration, and wanted to share a song to celebrate that:

(You can also see the lyrics to IFLS hereHank Green has lots of other nerdy science songs, plus SciShow and Crash Course, and I guess I’m a fangirl.)

Happy Earth Day!

Star Trek or Little House on the Prairie, the Red/Blue Divide, and Imagining Complexly

The US election results of 8 Nov 2016 were a bit shocking to me. David Wong at provided a strikingly insightful explanation of why I and my ivory tower, liberal left coast colleagues failed to see this coming.
John Michael Greer noted that the success of the Trump campaign in rural counties is a predictable result of the frustration and hopelessness that permeate the lives of people who have felt neglected by the powerful elites of the country’s urban centers. This deep cultural gulf between cities and small-town-America is an important consideration for successfully maintaining a symbiotic relationship between urban and rural communities (and remember, the cities need the countryside if they want to have things like food and water). Those of us who care about the future of this planet need to find ways to build a future that includes a vision of a better life that will appeal to the rural and ‘Rust Belt’ communities. And we can’t do this by objectifying or vilifying them. As John Green is fond of saying, we need to take the time to “imagine others complexly,” and a big part of that is learning to get better at listening to other people’s concerns. As with planting a tree, the best time to do tbest time to plant a tree.jpghis was twenty years ago (like, seriously), but the second-best time is now.
I started writing this post a while back, shortly after I had the good fortune to visit the Sustainability Institute at Pennsylvania State University. I put it on a back burner for a time, but realized that it had become even more important since the results.  While visiting Penn State, Jeremy Bean asked me a question that, ideally, everyone should ask and explore on a regular basis: What is your vision of a sustainable future? I realized with some surprise that no one had ever really asked me that question in that way. What I attempted to articulate was the ways in which I see a high-tech world and a deep permaculture world as being not just two alternatives, but in fact two tracks that can, should and perhaps must be run in parallel: not Star Trek* vs. Little House on the Prairie, but both at the same time.

 What is your vision of a sustainable future?

To elaborate somewhat on my response, I see these two directions or modes of improving sustainability (shiny high-tech on one hand, and an engaged horticultural society informed by both ecological science and more ancient ways of knowing on the other) as having the possibility not only to co-exist amicably, but in fact to synergize. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing could release human resources to allow for a more hands-on (yet intellectually demanding) kind of small-scale, locally specific, intensive food production  (“Hello computer, make me a mattock head that will work the best around my hazelnut bushes and apple trees, and design a yoke I can use to team my mule and my llama”). We may need to consider alternative economic systems to accommodate this very different suite of human occupations.
I emphasize the plurals in the last sentence, because I think it is important to try to imagine the future complexly. Specifically, we should neither expect nor seek a monoculture. Resilience, and therefore our chances of suvival, are best served by the healthy pursuit of multiple strategies. Evolution works not by a steady chain of progress along a single line, but by the differential survival of diverse organisms. If we see human economic-social-ecological systems through this lens, diverse societies with different strategies will yield a much better chance of surviving and improving upon the present than a single, unified strategy.  So what I would advocate is for different locales and communities to seek alternative ways of balancing post-industrialism, agrarianism, pastoralism, and nomadic foraging economies, using either novel or traditional models. Some yak herders may use satellite imaging and GPS to make migration systems more efficient; some urbanites might rely on hydroponic produce and lab-grown proteins in complex systems based on the latest renewable energy and water management technologies; some rural communities may choose isolated self-reliance with a cap on technology at the 19th century level (as in some Amish communities), or perhaps earlier still (to connect with more ancient lifeways and traditions).
In general, I think the majority of people are unlikely to want to give up some of the benefits of our current global levels of knowledge and interconnectivity, and I would be personally opposed to any kind of enforced primitivism (or enforced techno-urbanism, for that matter). There are challenges to keeping lines of communication and personal options open between diverse economic-social-ecological systems, but these are not insurmountable. Even within more rural Transition Town strategies, a diversity of personal choices regarding technology may be able to co-exist harmoniously.
The question of technological reliance is but one factor. Other questions to be addressed in articulating a vision for sustainable futures engage more deeply with the meaning of sustainability: How do we save what needs to be saved?  What kinds of limits do we set? What technologies are most important and useful to a sustainable society, and which technologies should and could be effectively abandoned? What systems do we use to ensure we stay on a path towards future sustainability?
Maintaining healthy ecosystems is my highest priority. This may now require some fairly heroic efforts to preserve functioning biodiversity, especially in maintaining what remains viable in old-growth rainforests (both tropical and temperate) and aquatic habitats (coral reefs, lakes and rivers), especially in the face of at least some ongoing climate instability. This will mean committing ourselves to reducing harvesting of renewable resources (forest and ocean products, and anything that degrades air, soil or water quality) to below the rate at which they can be replenished or repaired. It will also mean eschewing extraction of non-renewable resources, and finding ways to recycle instead of wasting what has already been extracted.
At the same time, I also don’t want to lose our capacity to maintain and even advance the progress we have made in many of our complex technologies, and I definitely want to advance the benefits of science and these technologies to all humans (assuring not just basic subsistence, but also universal access to medicine, sanitation, communications, transportation, education, research and exploration). I expect that there are many important linkages between the technological achievements and the social progress of the last three centuries, and I do not relish a future in which those gains are abandoned.  I believe the challenge here will be to judiciously determine which technologies are most worth maintaining, and finding truly sustainable ways to maintain those while abandoning some technologies which are no longer ethical or viable.
As I’ve said in previous blog posts, it is clear we need to consider some deep transformations of our current economic system. The challenge is not small. An industrial/post-industrial economic system that supports and incentivizes sustainable behavior while dis-incentivizing unsustainable behavior has yet to be developed. Some may argue that only our current model of capitalist economy provides the proper freedom and incentives to maintain our spectacular rate of innovation. In some senses this may be true, and I also expect that in the coming decades, the pace of research and technological advancement may slow. However, we are have more brainpower now on the planet than ever before. Average IQs and similar test scores are going up (probably not the best way to measure actual individual intelligence, but somewhat indicitave of collective intelligence nonetheless). In 1950, there were only about 17.5 million people with any post-secondary education; by 2010 there were over 318 million – an increase of more than 18X (data from Barro and Lee, 2013).  We almost certainly have more PhDs alive now than the total number of people who ever had PhDs before 1950. In addition, we have the benefit of all of the accumulated information from this history, and increasingly improved ways to search and analyse it. So while innovations may not progress as quickly in the next fifty years as they did in the last fifty, it would be amazing if things slowed down by more than a little, at least when it comes to things that are important and useful to genuinely improving sustainable quality of life.
We don’t really know what these post-scarcity, post-growth economic systems will look like, we only know that we haven’t seen them yet. How would such systems intersect with emerging social and political systems? Can we find ways to get people working more on caring for the earth and caring for one another, and still assure that everyone can have a healthy and rewarding life?  There is no shortage of work to be done, in repairing damaged ecosystems, in re-inventing our food systems, in caring for children and the elderly, in educating those whose current or recent jobs are not sustainable. Perhaps new economic systems will find ways to better reward people who work toward a net-positive ecological ‘footprint,’ leaving ‘credits’ for indulgences (travel, amusing gadgets, more consumptive hobbies), rather than facilitating wealth concentration regardless of environmental harm.
While I cannot yet form a clear image of what will be required of us, I do see some blurry shapes that we might anticipate being resolved by our efforts. max_temkin_poster_550I suspect that most of us in the industrialized world will probably have to be ready to embrace things being  slower and less convenient. Hopefully, the trade-off will be less soul-crushing, meaningless drudgery for wage laborers (many of the people whose rage and distress were voiced in this week’s election results). I believe the best approach to healing the rifts that this recent U.S. election revealed will be to come together to develop more self-reliant, socially-engaged and emotionally rewarding ways for more people to make a living, recognizing the need for maintaining healthy rural communities and lower-tech options for those who prefer them. If we put our minds to it, we can figure this out.

*It turns out that Star Trek actually did presage this vision, at least in small ways. In 1990, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Family” showed something that might have surprised a lot of Trekkies – Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s brother as a Luddite, Slow Food movement kind of guy, getting along just fine as a traditional vintner in the 24th century – neither isolated nor unaware, just choosing to use less technology.

Other Trek universe episodes were likely to portray those who choose lower-tech lifestyles in an even less favorable light (e.g. “The Way to Eden“, “Paradise“), but at least they continued to acknowledge the possibility that some would go for voluntary simplicity despite the appeal of Star Trek’s techno-cornucopian society.




from : Introducing … The Nearly Carbon-Free Academic Conference: The World in 2050 by John Foran

Scholars from University of Calfornia, Santa Barbara, wanted to see if they could reap most of the benefits of an academic conference without the huge carbon footprint associated with air travel. They have launched an interdisciplinary, online conference about climate futures:

…a conference where anyone could give a talk, no one had to fly to, and which anyone could attend and even participate in wide open discussions about the talks.

They thought that asking people to think about what the world would be like in 2050 would get a conversation going, and so they called the conference “The World in 2050:  Imagining and Creating Just Climate Futures,” and they invited the whole world to attend for three weeks starting on Monday, October 24 by going to a website at

to see what was going on.

Then they stayed home and waited to see what would happen.


The Scale of Change Over Time

(or “The difference between rust and fire”)

Randall Munroe has given us a great way to look at climate change over a somewhat-deep-time perspective.  (Remember, I’m an anthropologist, so 20,000 years is trifling – it’s next to nothing in geologic time, and only about one-tenth of the time since the first Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.) Today’s XKCD walks the viewer through a very nice scale model of the 20 millennia since the last glacial maximum, with some key events from the geological, archaeological and even linguistic record.  I’ll admit I haven’t taken the time to fact-check his placement of these events, but the ones I’m familiar with seem to be in about the right place (tragic extinctions of saber-toothed cats and Pokemon, I’m less certain about).  Scrolling through 500-year chunks of time, and reading the events therein, leaves one with a clear sense of just how out-of-the-ordinary the change over the last 500 years – and especially the last 100 years – has actually been.


It’s good to see that the associated explainxkcd has not yet descended into a flame war (as of 11am PDT on 12 September 02016).  Clear, popular and provocative explorations often attract the attention of professional climate-denier trolls – this even happened to me once, gentle readers, despite the fact that I have “dozens of loyal fans… baker’s dozens… they come in 13s.” Remember, when there is over 97% scientific consensus on something, it is about as close to proven as science can reasonably get.

As Randall Munroe had pointed out previously, the difference between the effects of regular corrosion and a car fire is simply a question of how fast the oxidization is happening.


When it comes to climate change, extinctions and far too many other phenomena, the difference between Anthropocene changes and natural background rates of change are roughly on that scale of difference.  It’s time to be in emergency response mode if we are to have any hope of saving what’s left.


Energy Return on Investment

What every schoolkid (and investor) should know, and why it is time for fossil fuel divestment.

Energy Return on Investment (EROI) is easy to understand: how much energy do you get out (R) compared to how much energy you had to put in to get access to that energy (I) –R:I. EROI tells you how much net energy you can expect to use for other things (driving cars, running generators, etc.). Traditional petroleum (think gushing oil wells) used to have a lucas_gusherspectacularly high EROI, about 1000:1 a century ago [1]. Since the 1970s, the EROI of the average barrel of petroleum has been dropping fast – it is now below 5:1 [1].

“The evidence suggests that the global production of conventional oil plateaued and may have begun to decline from 2005.” [2]

Essentially, we are expending a lot of energy to scrape the bottom of the barrel, digging out very hard-to-get stuff in deep seas (think Deepwater Horizon and its attendant complications), tar sands, athabasca_oil_sandsand “tight” shale oil.  Because we have to use so much energy just to get at that fuel, it only makes sense (from a profit perspective) if the selling price of the resulting fuel is very high.

“We find the EROI for each major fossil fuel resource (except coal) has declined substantially over the last century. Most renewable and non-conventional energy alternatives have substantially lower EROI values than conventional fossil fuels.” [1]

As you may have heard (or noticed, if you fill a gas tank), the selling price of petroleum has recently dropped a lot.  Seems weird, but there are explanations (more on that later). What this price drop means is that a lot of places where it used to make sense to be extracting these fossil fuels, places where extraction companies have invested a lot in exploration and infrastructure to get at the stuff, don’t make sense anymore.  This is part of what is meant by “stranded assets” (more below) and it can lead to things like bankruptcy [3].

So if energy from petroleum is increasingly hard to get, why would the price be dropping now? Some of it may be due to a drop in demand because of the global economic slowdown, in turn related to China slowing the pace of its phenomenal economic growth [4].  Some of it may be due to the production boom from short-lived tight oil extraction and fracking taking place in the U.S., where production is high enough at first, but seems to fall off rapidly after about 15 years at each new site [2].

“Thus, despite the fall in crude oil prices from a new peak in June, 2014, after that of July, 2008, the peak oil issue remains with us, and broad economic recovery combined with the consequences of recent oil exploration and production cut-backs will bring back further major oil price rises.” [2]
The truth of the current situation is even more complicated than the EROI, of course. There is also the climate disruption represented by fossil fuel reserves.  And this leads to the other reason that fossil fuel companies should expect collapsing prices: we don’t want it so much anymore.  If we are serious about meeting the targets that global leaders just signed onto, we can’t even burn the fuel reserves that people have already invested in developing, let alone continue to develop new ones.  This concern was laid out by Bill McKibben in 2012 in “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” and is even more relevant in light of the Paris COP 21 agreed ambition to attempt to stay below a 1.5C rise in average global temperatures [5].

When whales get stuck on beaches, helping them back to deeper waters is usually the right thing to do [6].  But when fossil fuel titans are stranded, gasping for profits under the weight of their history, the most merciful response for everyone might just be to put them out of their misery.  A few brief moments of economic pain can spare us all from longer decades of climate and pollution disasters if these beasts are allowed to keep flopping around on- or off-shore.  Sadly, we are past the point of easy, painless solutions now.

“If the oil crisis hits the economy hard, then the prolonged recession that results could dampen the rising demand that everyone projects. If oil prices thus remain relatively depressed for longer than expected, this could hemorrhage the industry beyond repair.”[6]

To hasten the inevitable demise of fossil fuels, there are increasing calls for divestment.

“Divestment is the opposite of an investment – it simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.” [7a]

Cities, colleges, foundations and individuals are hearing from activists demanding that they withdraw investments from fossil fuels.  And they are responding, with 517 institutions committed to withdrawing their investments in fossil fuels as of this post [7b].

“For the divestment skeptics who believe I am pushing an environmental agenda at the expense of necessities such as financial aid, let it be clear: The financial argument for divestment is sound, even independent of environmental concerns. The investment literature overwhelmingly shows that fossil fuel-free portfolios have higher risk adjusted returns than those invested in fossil fuel companies, which is understandable, considering the increasing risk of fossil fuel companies’ faulty practices and the imminence of carbon legislation. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in August that California pension funds lost $5 billion due to investment in fossil fuels. ” [8]

If you are so inclined, you might think of divestment as a death penalty for criminal corporations who knowingly perpetrated [9] mass murders [10] in the past and who plan to continue into the future. I generally prefer less retribution-focused imagery, perhaps that of allowing an ill and deranged sufferer the dignity of a quick death, but then again, perhaps that metaphor is less accurate.  Either way, the humane thing to do is to get it over with quickly, before more harm is done.  Keeping fossil fuel extraction on life-support with continued investments is doing no one any good at this point.

Since EROI from fossil fuels will continue to drop, and since there is essentially incontrovertible evidence of harm from the stuff,  why would any sane person invest money in fossil fuel extraction at this point?

Divestment is the rational and compassionate thing to do.


(Note: much of the cited information actually came from other primary sources, referenced in the summaries below, because this is just a blog and I didn’t want to take the time to dig for primary sources – not the best scholarship on my part, but still a good starting point for discussion.)

[1] J. Lambert, C. Hall, S. Balogh. 2013.  EROI of Global Energy Resources: Status, Trends and Social Implications

[2]   M. Jefferson. 2016. A global energy assessment. WIREs Energy Environ 2016, 5:715. doi: 10.1002/wene.179

[3] 2015. The $2 trillion stranded assets danger zone: How fossil fuel firms risk destroying investor returns.

[4] D. Nathman. 2016. Crude Oil Prices In 2016: Made In China?  Forbes.

[5]  N. Scharping. 2016. Half a Degree Makes a Big Difference for Global Climate

[6] 2013. What To Do If You Find A Live Stranded Whale Or Dolphin: An Inconvenient Advice from StrandedNoMore.

[7] N. Ahmed. 2016. This Could Be the Death of the Fossil Fuel Industry — Will the Rest of the Economy Go With It?

[7] 2016. a) and b)

[8] S. Vaughan. 2015. Divestment Movement Spurs Existential Crisis in Higher Education.

[9] S. Hall. 2015. Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago. Scientific American.

[10] World Health Organization. 2015. Climate change and health.

We’ve got goals: the 17 SDGs

Global Goals SDGs

The UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals took effect the first day of 2016.  I’ll be leading a discussion of these goals at the upcoming NTU Sustainability Salon.  As I see it, the most promising thing about this renewed effort is the intention to interlink these challenges, recognizing interconnections and building bridges between disciplinary silos.

Learn more:



Goodbye and good riddance to coal

Two fascinating and promising new articles regarding this fossil of a fuel (both from German Energiewende perspectives):

Is renewable electricity now driving coal prices?

 at Energy Transition makes the argument that, particularly in light of COP21 and the divestment movement, coal’s dropping price may not lead to more demand (as traditional economics would predict), but instead may be a consequence of the fact that no one really likes coal anymore.  Even China’s coal use is down 5%, and their coal imports are down 35%. Is “The Invisible Hand” actually getting it right for a change, or is this really just demonstrating the efficacy of national policies in places like China and Germany?coal_and_renewables

Coal prices are at rock bottom, and coal companies have been hurt badly. (Photo by Marcel Oosterwijk, modified, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Can Germany engineer a coal exit?

This Science Climate Policy editorial notes that, although cheap coal is still Germany’s top energy source (43% in 2015) and top GHG emissions source (40% of carbon emissions), renewables are rapidly overtaking coal there.  They are particularly heavy users of some of the least-efficient, dirtiest coal: lignite.  Germany has pledged to go to 80% renewables by 2050 (and they’re committed to giving up nuclear power, and it’s not exactly the sunshine state up there, so it’s not as if they’re just doing it because it’s easy). Weaning themselves off coal is the only way they will get there.  Agora Energiewende proposes halting all construction of new plants and lignite mines now, and closing down the older lignite plants beginning in 2018.


“The Stone Age did not end because people ran out of stones.”

Fritjof Capra (from Z. Yamani)

Coal is the fuel that opened the way to the Industrial Revolution, for both good and ill. That was a long time ago, at the beginning of the Anthropocene.  It really is time to move on to something better. Germany is one major industrial nation who’s getting serious about doing it, and China appears to be on her way as well. This is a most welcome reflection of the Great Work of our time.