Thursday, May 28, 2015

Questions about the City of Vancouver May 27th Trans-Mountain Expansion Proposal Summary of Evidence

Yesterday my twitter feed was stuffed with multiple re-tweets of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Proposal (TMEP) Summary of Evidence (SoE) prepared for Vancouver City Council 27 May 2015 (ref). I was first directed to the document by Jeff Lee (@SunCivicLee on Twitter). The following blog post represents my initial impression of the SoE with particular emphasis on the air quality analysis component.

My initial response, upon scanning the SoE, was to challenge some of the statements at the front end of the report. Specifically, the report makes a number of, what I feel are, questionable but commonly held  assumptions about future of oil sands development/ production and the use of fossil fuels in Canada. The SoE presents an analysis that suggests that the TMEP is an unnecessary project that will become a “stranded asset”.  I strongly disagree with that statement and said so on Twitter. In my opinion the SoE ignores oil sands projects currently operating and/or under construction, that on their own are sufficient to keep TMEP fully subscribed.  As I described in my post On the economic and environmental folly of trying to “strangle the oil sands” just because oil prices are low will not stop the production of oil sands crude. To explain, a company that has sunk multiple billion dollars into an oil sands project is not going to shut it down simply because it is insufficiently profitable. The income from those projects is used to pay for the sunk costs on those projects. Profits are calculated only after the capital and debt costs are accounted for. If a project stops producing the oil company will still have to pay the banker for those capital and debt costs but will have to do so without any income. Imagine that your job only pays you enough to pay the car bill, the mortgage and groceries but doesn’t pay you enough to put money aside. Would you just up and quit your job knowing that once you quit you still had to pay the car bill, the mortgage and groceries, only without a salary? Dr. Leach from the University of Alberta explains this concept very well in this Maclean’s article. He also points out that any project with substantial investment already in the ground will complete that investment rather than abandon it for exactly the same reason.
In my opinion, the SoE also makes some faulty assumptions about the future market for fossil fuels in Canada. As I wrote in my post: “Starting a Dialogue - Can we really get to a "fossil fuel-free BC?" even using the sunniest forecasts Canada is not going to be a fossil fuel free country in the next several decades. Until that blessed day comes we will still have a need for fossil fuels. As I wrote in that post: given our dependence on fossil fuels, I would prefer they travel in pipelines and via double-hulled tankers rather than on trains, barges or tanker trucks.
What really jumped out at me, however, was later in the report. It was a series of slides (starting on page 35/42) presenting an air quality analysis created by “Metro Vancouver”. The slides are incredibly compelling showing how much of Vancouver would be exposed to dangerously high benzene concentrations in the case of a spill. Based on the models, in the event of a major spill, most of the City of Vancouver will be exposed to benzene concentrations ranging from 4,000 µg/m3 to 166,019 µg/m3 while a portion of the central core would potentially be exposed to concentrations ranging from 166,019 µg/m3 to 2,554,137 µg/m3. For the non-chemically-inclined the US EPA provides a conversion factor for benzene from mg/m3 to ppm (ref) of 1 ppm = 3.19 mg/m3. Doing the math, the Metro Vancouver numbers translate to 1.25 ppm – 52 ppm for the City and the high values range from 52 ppm to 800 ppm. Now these numbers caused my chemist’s antennae to shoot skyward. If correct these numbers would represent a devastating risk to the City of Vancouver in the case of a spill. Any regulator seeing these numbers would have to seriously reconsider the risks of an oil spill. The problem is that these numbers are completely out of whack with the numbers you see in the academic literature. Consider this practical experiment where the US Navy simulated an oil spill and then took measurements (ref). The Navy scientists measured benzene concentrations ranging from 7 ppm under a simulated wharf (a location sheltered on three sides) to below the detection limit in open areas. In open areas the maximum recorded benzene concentration was 0.4 ppm. Further testing carried out by the Navy and reported in a different paper (ref) using ultra-light crude (API Gravity 36.0, see below for an explanation of API Gravity) and sampled from a mere 2.5 cm above the oil surface resulted in immediate benzene concentrations ranging from 80.4 ppm to 3.5 ppm. Over the first hour the benzene concentrations went down to a range from 68 ppm to 23 ppm. The two-hour time-weighted average was 15.8 ppm at 2.5 cm above the oil slick. The conclusion of the paper indicated that a crude oil spill with an API Gravity under 25 (dilbit has an average API Gravity around 21) would be expected to result in a negligible benzene exposure except under ideal conditions and even the worst case scenarios came nowhere close to the numbers presented in the SoE.
To be fair, the SoE presents the outputs of a modelling exercise and everyone knows that while  modelling is a useful way to get data, models are often overly conservative and do not always accurately reflect real-world scenarios. That being said, these numbers even jump out of the page for a modelling exercise. Consider one of the more famous modelling exercises of this type, one where the scientists conducted a detailed modelling exercise based on the conditions during the Exxon Valdez spill (ref). In that report the maximum calculated hourly-average concentration of benzene was 4.86 ppmv or 0.1% of the maximum benzene concentration reported in the SoE?
So you can understand my confusion. The numbers presented in the SoE are not even in the same ballpark as the literature would have us believe. Because the SoE was only a summary document, I sought the underlying data and was rewarded when the City of Vancouver generously provided me with a copy of a technical report prepared by Levelton Consultants Ltd (the Levelton report). 

Time for some conflict of interest info: in my dealings with Levelton in my professional life (outside this blog) I have found them to be a very competent consulting company. My company does not currently do modelling of this sort in Canada and to the best of my knowledge nothing I write hereafter is in conflict of interest or will help me in my professional or private life. Okay back to our regularly scheduled blog posting.

As I said, Levelton is a very reputable company and my examination of their report indicates that they are using state-of-the-art modelling programs? So how did they end up with numbers so completely out of the mainstream with respect to oil spill benzene concentrations? Well, as a chemist, I know that modeled benzene vapour concentrations are very sensitive to the inputs into the model, in particular the initial concentration of benzene in the originating crude, the time from spill initiation, the outside air temperature, the spill thickness and the wind speed (ref) . Being an inquisitive sort, I went looking for the numbers the modellers used to derive their assumptions and was completely befuddled. The authors reported that they used data from which I understand to be industry-supported web site, however when I looked at the data they used the numbers did not jibe? The report indicates that the data for the modelled crude was for Cold Lake Blend Crude (a dilbit blend) and looking at the summary data it seems pretty correct. The density, specific gravity and viscosity presented in Table 2.1 looked pretty standard. But when I looked at Table 2.2 all I saw was a mess. Rather than using the accepted concentrations for various components of the Cold Lake Blend they used a feature called “pseudo-components/surrogate chemicals” which broke the dilbit into “15 Pseudo-Components”. As they put it:

Each of the pseudo-components was represented by a single surrogate chemical, which was modelled in CALPUFF and compared directly to corresponding ambient air quality objectives and/or human health exposure thresholds. The use of surrogate chemicals is consistent with the approach taken with the Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) conducted by Intrinsik as additional supplemental information for the Project application, where Intrinsik associated surrogate chemicals with the pseudo-components modelled by Tetra Tech EBA. A listing of the speciated components for Cold Lake Blend crude oil has been obtained from the available crude oil speciation data on, and each of these components was assigned a surrogate chemical and corresponding chemical properties. In order to prepare a distillation curve for OilWx, the boiling points of the surrogate chemicals were sorted in ascending order and the cut percentage of these surrogate chemicals. 

To explain, they took the dilbit mixture and pretended that instead of being made up of thousands of components that it was made up of only 15. Now I am not entirely sure how they established (as the helpful City of Vancouver representative did not have this information) how much of each of the pseudo-compounds to use in the model but the simplest approach (which I will use here) would be to simply split the pseudo-components down the middle. If I read Table 2.2 correctly the middle of the “hexane” cut would appear be at 6.37% and the middle of the “benzene” cut is at 7.45%. The mean of these two would be 6.91% so presumably everything from 6.91% to 7.45% was treated as “benzene”. On the other side the mean of the “heptanes” (9.24%) and “benzene” (7.45) would be 8.34% By my back-of- the-envelope calculation using this method their cut of “benzene” would therefore represent as much as 1.4% of the total volume of the spill. Now I know from their definition that my approach is not exactly what they did  but the point is the same. The “benzene” reported in the technical report (and thus the SoE) is not really the chemical benzene used in all the toxicity testing; it is “pseudo-benzene”. The funny thing is that if we go back to we find that the five year average for benzene concentration in Cold Lake Blend is 0.23% +/- 0.03 % so at the very lest every value should be off by at least a factor of 7. The bigger problem with using this “pseudo-benzene” in the subsequent calculations is that benzene is very much more toxic than the other components in the dilbit “cut”. The vast majority of the materials in a dilbit blend have substantially less toxic effects than benzene and are less soluble. So in this report they use the most rotten apple in the barrel as a representative of the entire barrel? Moreover, throughout the remainder of the report (and in the SoE) they then continue to refer to this “pseudo-benzene” as “benzene” and use that surrogate value in all the calculations for toxicity. But as I have described, it is not “benzene”, it is several hundred hydrocarbon compounds 99.99% of which have much lower toxicity effects and are less volatile than benzene. The entire page 35/42 of the SOE talks about “benzene”, but that is not what the model is talking about. I don’t think I can repeat this enough, the benzene in this report is not the benzene known to chemists and toxicologists around the world and the toxicological calculations and plumes are not those for benzene. How can anyone be expected to make an informed opinion when the data you are presented has no relationship with reality. At least it does explain why the numbers presented differ so much from every other literature value I could uncover in my research. 

Well this blog post has gone overlong, so I don’t have enough time to continue to critique the model. I won’t go into how they appear to fail to incorporate the solubility of benzene in seawater (I think they might ignore it even though some benzene will dissolve in the sea water) or any of the other areas where I would differ with the author’s choice of assumptions. To be clear here, any major oil spill (in this case an unprecedented and incredibly unlikely spill in a harbour in the world since double-hulled tankers were made mandatory) will have negative air quality issues. If such a huge spill were to occur directly in First or Second Narrow there would undoubtedly be some risk to the public, but regulators and decision-makers would be better served by looking at papers that actually model benzene based on its reported concentrations in dilbit ( or a comparable API crude ref or ref) rather than making an untenable assumption that dilbit is only made up of 15 compounds and that the toxicology should be calculated using only those compound’s toxicological characteristics as surrogates. 

Author's note: To be completely clear here, I hold the modellers from Levelton in the highest regard and do not in any way suggest that their work is underhanded. They were commissioned to do a challenging modelling exercise and the model they use appears to be a standard one. Moreover, they fully document all their choices and decisions in their report and include provisos and limitations on the interpretation of their work. Unfortunately these provisos failed to make it to the SoE, as often happens when reports are summarized by people who did not write the report themselves. Absent those provisos, the results reported to council (and subsequently in the press) are completely misleading.

Primer on API gravity for the non-chemically inclined:
Crude oils are described based on their API gravity. API gravity is the standard specific gravity used by the oil industry. As described in an earlier post (More on Oil Spills: Some Toxicological Calculations and What if it were Dilbit?) specific gravity simply refers to the relative density of a liquid versus water. API gravity, however, is calculated using the specific gravity of a specific oil. To borrow from a useful web site (ref): 

 Specific gravity for API calculations is always determined at 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  API gravity is found as follows: 

API gravity = (141.5/Specific Gravity) – 131.5 

Though API values do not have units, they are often referred to as degrees. So the API gravity of West Texas Intermediate is said to be 39.6 degrees. API gravity moves inversely to density, which means the denser an oil is, the lower its API gravity will be. An API of 10 is equivalent to water, which means any oil with an API above 10 will float on water while any with an API below 10 will sink.

The API gravity is used to classify oils as light, medium, heavy, or extra heavy. As the “weight” of an oil is the largest determinant of its market value, API gravity is exceptionally important. The API values for each “weight” are as follows: 
•Light – API > 31.1
•Medium – API  between 22.3 and 31.1
•Heavy – API < 22.3
•Extra Heavy – API < 10.0

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

On the “conspiracy” to force people to remain connected to sanitary and sewer systems

The topic for tonight’s blog arrived on my radar because of the story of a Florida woman who went to court in an attempt to legally get herself off the grid (ref and ref). Her story created a pretty significant storm on my twitter feed and so I thought it would be a useful to further discuss the basis for laws requiring our connection to various grids. As I wrote in my earlier posts about Ecomodernism and Degrowth and Modern Environmental Fairy Tales: "Moving Back to the Land" and the 100 Mile Diet, there is a movement out there to get “off the grid”, to simplify and to live closer to the land. This mode of living is proposed as an ideal by the Degrowth movement and is the topic of any number of web sites explaining how to “live off the grid” (ref, ref, and ref). In this post, I hope to demonstrate that these grids are not there, as suggested by some, in order to enrich faceless corporations but rather to preserve our shared ecological and natural resources. Moreover, I hope to show, that at least in the case of sewer and water services, getting as many people as possible hooked into communal systems is the only way to help improve our shared resources. On a slightly different tack, connections to common grids also form a necessary initial step in any Ecomodernist future. These grids enhance our ability to un-couple and reduce our per capita drain on our natural resources. Just a note, this blog post is nowhere near long enough to go into the complexity associated with solar power and electricity grids (see this Scientific American article for some basic details). That is a topic for a blog post all of its own.

Let’s start with a tiny bit of a background. As described in the linked news reports, the news story deals with a Ms. Robin Speronis who currently lives off the grid in Southern Florida. She used a rainwater cistern for drinking/cooking and solar power for her electrical needs. Her sole connection to the city services was a connection to the sewer system which she used to flush all her excess wastes (ref) before the city shut the line (arguably for lack of payment). Many, (including myself in this specific case) would consider her decision an acceptable one, but her local community took it a bit differently. The case is sufficiently convoluted that it does not serve as a useful case study since both Ms. Speronis and the city appear to have been less than pure actors (the city for shutting off sewers and she for non-payment of bills and possible animal cruelty issues) but the story did bring out a class of activists who view connections to our communal grids as a means for the government to maintain control over the populace (ref and ref). The truth, however, is far less menacing and far more straightforward.
Those of us who were taught our social history in school are reminded that after physical protection of the person, the primary role of governments in early communal societies was to ensure the provision of basic services. In earlier feudal societies, basic services were reserved for the rich and the powerful. Anyone familiar with the rise of cities in the Middle Ages in Europe will have heard of the regular outbreaks of dysentery. In the Middle Ages dysentery was a disease of the cities and was the second leading cause of death by disease (ref and ref). It was caused when human waste got into the communal drinking water supplies and was particularly deadly for the very young and the very old. One of the major advances in the Roman Era was a system that allowed for clean water to be supplied to their cities via aqueducts and one of the hallmarks of the rise of responsible and representative governments was when they started to ensure that basic sanitation and water services were supplied to all levels of society. I was taught in my high school social studies that you can establish a pretty reasonable gauge of the level of representativeness of a government by the types of services provided by the government to all its citizens. While this topic is a pretty huge one I would direct you to Marq de Villiers’ book “Water” which presents a terrific history of water in societies and discusses how we are using, misusing and abusing our shared water resources and the roles of governments (historical and present-day) in its supply, protection and allocation. The take home message from this paragraph should be that: governments aren’t using services as a means to control the public, but rather the primary reason for governments in a modern society is to ensure the fair allocation and provision of services.
So why is the provision of common services an important role for government? Well as the human population has risen, our ability as humans to rely on natural/ecological services to provide us with clean, potable, water and to dispose of our waste has become unbalanced. Rather than depending on natural systems to address these needs, we have developed engineering solutions to these problems. Were we, as a society, to move back to the land and get off the grid we would encounter the scenario described by Garett Hardin in 1968 in the seminal paper The Tragedy of the Commons. For those of you not familiar with this important work, it recounts the tale of the mistreatment a common resource (the British common lands) by competing private interests (farmers with their personal sheep). Given an absence of personal stake in the ownership of the common land, and the benefits accrued by exploiting those common lands for personal profit, the commons were overgrazed and ultimately the resource was lost to the community.
For a direct case relating to water/sanitation, let’s consider my local community: the Township of Langley. The Township of Langley is located in the Metro Vancouver region and is part of the Greater Vancouver Water District (GVWD) and the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District (GVS&DD). Unlike the majority of the users in the GVWD, 23% of the Township is not supplied with potable water by the GVS&DD and residents in these areas rely on private wells (ref). The Township is underlain by 18 identified aquifers with five being big and shallow enough to be used for the provision of water (ref). Four of these five aquifers are “unconfined” (ref). An unconfined aquifer is an aquifer that is refreshed via surface water percolation (ref). Another feature of the Township is that over half its surface area is in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and is used for various farming practices. Even with only 23% of our population in Langley relying on groundwater, our groundwater aquifers are in trouble. Water levels have been receding and the local salmon-bearing streams reliant on water from these aquifers are under threat. As a consequence, the Township has had to spend millions of dollars hooking communities like Aldergrove into the main GVS&DD water system (which is primarily fed from reservoirs in the North Shore Mountains. Were 100% of the Langley population made reliant on our limited groundwater reserves that water would be gone in a generation. From a naturalist’ point of view, it would also mean the end of the Nicomekl River, the Salmon River, The Little Campbell River and Bertrand Creek as breeding grounds for fish as all depend on flow from these aquifers and all would dry up in the summer absent those flows, destroying those fish habitats. It is only through the provision of potable water via the GVS&DD that we can maintain our population in this region. Now consider that we live in a coastal rainforest area? If we can’t depend on groundwater from unconfined aquifers in a coastal rainforest with our current population densities how will the populations in the Eastern Seaboard described in my post Ecomodernism and Degrowth: Part II Future Scenarios make it work?
Now earlier in this post I talked about dysentery. Now in a future “off the grid” Langley we could mostly avoid the threat of dysentery through the use of septic tanks and septic fields. The problem with septic tanks is that they need to be maintained and if not maintained can fail (resulting in a risk of dysentery). One of the issues with septic fields is that they require space. The size of your septic field is dependent on the percolation rate of your soil but a typical septic field for a family of four is about a quarter/half acre. The problem is that too many septic fields, too close together, can cause too much stress on aquifers. The US EPA suggests that any more than 1 system per 16 acres puts a community at risk to groundwater contamination (ref). Moreover, at high densities even perfectly functioning septic fields can harm an aquifer as was discovered in the Santa Ana Region in California (ref). The reason for this is that septic fields are not magic, they cannot eliminate all waste and one of the serious concerns with high densities of septic fields is nitrate contamination of the groundwater. Due to their chemical nature, even a perfectly designed and operating septic systems flushes nitrates, pretty much undisturbed, into groundwater (ref) and nitrates are recognized as a cause (or arguably at the least a co-factor) of blue baby syndrome (Methaemoglobinaemia) (ref). Nitrates can also build up in aquifers over agricultural areas due to poor farming practices and over-fertilizing (as is the case in Langley Township). Nitrate pollution represents only one of many chemical issues associated with too many septic fields in too small an area and anyone interested should read the Santa Ana case study to see the other problems they can cause.
I hope this blog post has made it clear that going “off the grid” is not simply a personal choice, as suggested by Ms. Speronis, but one that can affect a whole community and all the animals and plants that live in that community. Thus the community has a stake in ensuring that as many people as possible are connected to the grid. This control is not to keep the utility users in the pockets of big government or big corporations but rather to preserve our shared resources and avoid a collapse of our commons similar to the one described by Hardin in The Tragedy of the Commons.

Friday, May 22, 2015

On Seattle’s Kayaktivists: Are they really hypocrites?

My twitter feed has been filled these last few days with pictures of the “Kayaktivists” protesting Shell’s Arctic Endeavour drilling platform at the Port of Seattle. I am of two minds on this topic. First and foremost, I do not want to see further drilling in the arctic. I firmly believe that we already have access to more fossil fuels than we can burn without engendering serious and possibly irreversible global warming. Moreover, drilling in the arctic represents an overly risky endeavour. It involves some of the most technically challenging drilling in one of the most ecologically sensitive habitats on the planet. That being said I can‘t help but consider the point of view that says that many of the protestors in Seattle (and frankly the Obama administration) are being more than a little bit hypocritical in all this. Since my first point is self-explanatory, the intention of this post is to dig deeper into that second thought and see if we can establish whether the kayaktivists really are hypocrites or not?   

I think we can all agree that if anyone is acting hypocritically on this file is has got to be the Obama administration. Last week President Obama gave a commencement speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy where he declared: 
"Climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security, and, make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country. And so we need to act — and we need to act now." (ref)
This is the same president who used his presidential veto to block the Keystone XL pipeline (ref) and has “pledged to cut US Greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below their 2005 levels by 2020” (ref). To then turn around and authorize drilling in the arctic runs contrary to everything he has said up to date. I think we can all agree that anyone able to simultaneously hold two diametrically opposed positions shows a level of cognitive dissonance worthy of a world class politician.
Next let’s talk about the City of Seattle tucked into the end of the Puget Sound. As readers of my blog know, the Puget Sound is home to five major refineries with a combined capacity of approximately 640,000 barrels/day (bbl/d). The State of Washington imports approximately 8.5 billion gallons of crude oil annually (ref) and virtually all of that goes to the Puget Sound. The refineries in the Puget Sound supply most of the Pacific Northwest with its gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, fuel oil and asphalt. The largest individual private sector employers in the Seattle area are in the aerospace industry (Boeing, Alaska Air etc..) which employs over 103,000 people (ref). Anyone aware of the environmental (and fossil fuel) footprint of air travel will attest to the fact that having Boeing and Alaska Air as two of your top private sector employers doesn’t exactly give you clean hands in any debate about fossil fuels. On the transit front Seattle is in the middle of the pack for American cities with respect to transit (ridership was 18.19% in 2010 American Community Survey ref) but runs way behind cities like New York (55.66%), San Francisco (34.05%). As for more local comparisons Seattle comes in a distant second when compared to Vancouver on transit ridership (ref). As for whether transit is expanding? on that front the answer is a clear no. The current goal is not to expand transit but rather to avoid major transit cuts (ref). As for the mayor we keep hearing on the news? He stated that: “I'm willing to draw the line, and I’m willing to be called the anti-transit mayor if it’s to protect the property tax,” (ref).
On a community level Seattle is something of a study in contrasts. Seattle was the #1 top “green” city in 2009 (ref) and was still in the top 5 (ref) in 2014. Continued good outcomes in this file can be attributed to good leadership on a community front. But outside the city center Seattle is known as a city of suburban sprawl (ref). Compared to other major North American  cities Seattle has relatively low walkability and bike scores (ref). Given the aforementioned where does Seattle fit in our scale? It would seem that Seattle is a bit of a split personality with strong environmental credentials in some files (especially in its central core) and weaker ones elsewhere. Overall it seems a bit of a wash.
Having established that the politicians involved in this fight are politicians and the community is pretty balanced from an environmental front, let’s talk about those protestors in their kayaks. I can’t count the number of hits on my twitter feed showed the “Irony” of the protestors pointing out that the Kayaktivists:
“Came in automobiles fueled, by oil, wearing clothing made from oil, to protest oil, in kayaks made from oil. Then they tweeted their photos on phones made from oil and drove home. Share the irony”.
A lot of the activist tweets then directed me to “The Stranger” website (ref) where Ansel Herz responded to the complaint. His response had three points (paraphrased below):
1)      During the time of abolition people in the North wore clothes made of cotton picked by slaves. That did not make them hypocrites when they joined the abolition movement.
2)      It's about telling Shell they can't lock us into this catastrophe anymore.
3)      "If someone—or, say, the planet—is getting beaten up with a baseball bat, is it immoral to use a baseball bat to fight back?
My response is to suggest that these 1 and 3 represent some pretty poor arguments and number 2 is just barely defensible.
Let’s start with the “cotton” gambit. During the height of the US slave trade cotton was indeed used by the Northern abolitionists. That statement comes with a mighty big proviso: in the early 1800s there was no readily available alternative to cotton. They didn’t have nylon, polyester or other synthetic fabrics suitable for use in summer clothing. Can you imagine William Wilberforce wearing cotton if he had had the option of polyester? Abolitionists, however, did use boycotts to spur the downfall of slavery. Consider that one of the first blows to the slave trade in Europe came when abolitionists in Europe boycotted sugar, even though few contemporary alternatives existed for the product (ref). In Seattle, in 2015, there are numerous alternative energy choices to gasoline. I was amused to listen to Ron and Don in Kiro Radio (ref) who suggested that “if given a choice people would not use gasoline”. In the same conversation, however, they go on to admit that they do have a choice; they can use solar panels at home and electric vehicles on the road. However, they bemoan the price of said alternatives. This is the crux of the problem. Unlike the abolitionists wearing cotton in the 1800’s, the Kayaktivists have an alternative; they just want an alternative that is as cheap and easy as gasoline. Well, I will tell you a secret from someone who has lived a low-carbon lifestyle for the last decade. Making that choice is neither easy nor cheap but it is still necessary if you want to take a leadership position in this discussion. It might mean paying more for a house closer to work; taking transit when you’d prefer to drive; paying more to shop locally; and putting up with inconveniences so you can not only “act locally”, but you can “act personally”. The problem is that if you are only going to do what is cheap then the market won’t exist for renewable and their costs won’t come down.  
As for argument number 3: “the baseball bat argument” that one is simply laughable. Actually reading the article I first guffawed as I realized that the author Ansel Herz, quotes himself in the third person for point 3. If you are making a statement against fossil fuels then why not make an effort to avoid their use in your protest? I find it constantly amazing when I hear people (like Ansel Herz) claim to be trapped in the system? It is your fault Ansel. You can choose to take the bus, to carpool, to use a modern automobile with modern emission systems and better gas mileage, but those choices cost money and can be inconvenient. In reality the argument can be summarized by its final line: “herp derp”. It is a mindless statement made by someone who has no coherent rationale for his point of view. It is a vacuous statement from a vacuous mind.
Now let’s look at argument #2: the “it’s all around us” argument. I have pretty much addressed that argument above. Certainly there are some fossil fuel-related conveniences that are necessary to maintain a modern lifestyle and I am not suggesting that the protestors give them all up. But there are many alternative choices that individuals can make and each choice has its consequences. I find it particularly ironic that the activist leader in the story brags about going to the protest via the least environmentally sensitive mode of transport left on our roadways: a ’76 Chevy  pickup? Are you trying to rub your hypocrisy into our faces? Perhaps if you informed us that the ’76 Chevy had been retrofitted to operate on the tears of baby polar bears you could have done a better job, but lacking that you did a pretty good job there. Maybe next time you may want to tone down your attempts to sound cool and stick with the program just a little bit?
So let’s go back to our initial question: are the kayaktivists hypocrites? My initial answer is: probably not. Many, if not most of them, likely live lifestyles that we would call low or lower carbon and are protesting from a sense of moral outrage and to protect our shared future. Those people are not hypocrites. As for the native leaders in their handmade canoes who are fighting to protect our shared natural resources? They are clearly anything but hypocrites and would appear to occupy the moral high ground in this discussion. As for the rich protestors who live in their 3000+ square foot houses with lots of yard-space in the suburbs? the intellectual and pseudo-intellectuals who skipped work at their public sector jobs (why are there always so many university professors and grad students at these things?) and drove to the protest in their luxury SUVs? the people who commute to work every day in their single occupant vehicles and fly off on vacations (or to annual conferences) and then absent-mindedly throw a pittance out for a “carbon offset” [for my view on carbon offsets read my post Carbon Offsets: a Basilica to Bad Policy]? Well these people pretty much epitomize the word “hypocrite”.  

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Ecomodernism and Degrowth: Part II Future Scenarios

In my last post I introduced readers to both the Ecomodernist and Degrowth movements. Both movements look to provide a roadmap to get humanity off its current ecological/climate change path and on to one that is more sustainable. The Ecomodernists see a world where we seek continued economic and social growth conducted in a manner intended to de-couple human activities from environmental destruction while the Degrowthers seek to stop economic growth and return to a harmonious co-existence with nature (ref). As I discussed in my previous post, based on my reading of the literature, the critical difference between the two movements is their vision of humanity. To my best understanding, the Ecomodernists view the world from a more libertarian lens [author's note: it has been pointed out that I am wrong in this in that Ecomodernism is completely compatible with social democratic government]. Their plan acknowledges that humans are the products of our evolutionary and genetic heritage and that changing human nature is not going to happen soon. Thus their approach allows for this by encouraging green-growth and de-coupling that growth from the environment through improvements in technologies. Degrowthers view a future through a more socialist lens and believe that we can grow to be better than our evolutionary and genetic heritage. As any reader of my blog knows, I am a pragmatist and as such I do not believe that we can ignore the lessons of history and those lessons are clear. Every society that has attempted to implement a socialist worldview has failed in that quest. In every case, the reason has been that egalitarianism ignores the fact that once an embryo starts undergoing cell division we start becoming less equal, and by the time our genetics combine with our varied upbringings all ideas of egalitarianism go out the window. Most importantly, parents have a genetic predisposition to aid kin first, community or social grouping second and strangers last. Given a choice between kin and stranger humans will almost always choose kin.

An Ecomodernist Tomorrow
Form my reading I understand that in a future Ecomodernist world, life would be very similar to life in the cities today. Humans would live more densely packed than is the current norm but would otherwise have lives very similar to those lived in a modern New York, Tokyo or Boston. There would be universities, high-tech hospitals, manufacturing and modern services. Power would be supplied by some combination of solar, geothermal, wind and run-of-the-river hydro and supplemented, when necessary, by a major expansion of nuclear energy. The biggest change would be the reduction/elimination of the suburbs. Suburban lifestyles, with large yards and large distances between houses would no longer be feasible. Instead the areas currently dedicated to suburbia would be allocated to greenhouses and food production. Resource extraction would continue but in a less destructive manner. An Ecomodernist world would still need rare earth metals, steel and aluminum, but the footprint for these facilities would be limited. By densifying our cities the energy needed to transport food and household supplies would be reduced on a per capita basis. Providing services like sewer and potable water would be simplified by reducing the number of miles of underground pipe resulting in lower per capita costs for supply and maintenance. On a personal level, an individual willing to work harder than their neighbor would still be able to excel and pass on the fruits of their hard work and excellence to their progeny. Outside of the human footprint nature would be allowed to re-establish itself in areas previously dedicated to human resource exploitation or human habitation.
The implementation of this future scenario would require the expenditure of tremendous amounts of political and financial capital and could only be accomplished following a number of major technological advances, including cheaper, more plentiful nuclear energy (thorium reactors etc..). Major investments would also be needed to improve renewable energy technologies. Suburban and rural land-owners would need to be compensated for loss of access to their lands and many outdoor wilderness activities would need to be curtailed as we decoupled the human from the non-humans parts of the planet. Huge costs would be incurred in building cities as the only way to make this vision work would be to invest in infrastructure in some of the world’s poorest countries. Moreover, those investments would necessarily be covered primarily by the richer countries. Call it climate reparations or what you will but a huge transfer of wealth would be necessary from the wealthier societies to the less wealthy societies. In the absence of such transfers the Ecomodernist scenario would fail. Investments in cities in North America and Europe, absent similar investments in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, would only result in the creation of an unsustainable two-tiered world and the continued degradation of our shared ecological and environmental heritage. Of interest to me, I have yet to read a critique of the Manifesto which considers the tremendous outlay of capital necessary to bring the lesser-developed world up to a standard where they could be part of an Ecomodernist world-view.
In summary, looking at the Ecomodernist future there are some holes in the application of the philosophy big enough to drive a supertanker through the biggest being: who will pay for what? and can we really de-couple to allow for growth without increased environmental degradation? That being said, in my mind this path represents the best future alternative because it does not call for us to completely overhaul our human nature. It provides outlets for human ingenuity and allows for a future where people can lead healthy, happy, productive lives on a healthy and ecologically productive planet.
A Degrowth Tomorrow
As I pointed out in my last post, I am not fully familiar with all the ins and outs of the Degrowth movement and I have solicited suggested readings. The most promising suggestion was Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet” which I will seek out to further educate myself. Otherwise an article in Adbusters (ref) seems to be the most cited suggestion. I have also read A Degrowth Response to An Ecomodernist Manifesto (ref), An Ecomodernist Mishmash (ref) and Life in a ‘Degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it (ref). All these articles share a similar view that we can simplify our lives by returning to an existence that is more in tune with nature. Most describe scenarios where central governments are virtually eliminated and the majority of decision-making is moved to the community level. This world-view is consistent with the worldview I described in an earlier post (Modern Environmental Fairy Tales: "Moving Back to the Land" and the 100 Mile Diet). As I wrote at that time the idea of moving to a neo-Walden and experiencing a Thoreau-like existence is not new and was discussed by one of the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto: Martin Lewis in his 1992 book “Green Delusions”. In the book Dr. Lewis wrote about the new “Arcadians”. The term was used to describe environmentalists who wanted to go back to a simpler time and live off the land. The members of the “back to the land” movement who desire to live off the land (ref) have long been recognized as a subset of the greater environmental community. For those of us from British Columbia their adherents are well known on the Gulf Islands, especially Saltspring and Lasqueti. There even exists a  nongovernmental organization, The Simplicity Institute, dedicated to this cause. The Simplicity Institute literature (ref): suggests we move to small cooperatives where we would live in “small, ecologically designed houses, using locally grown timber and eventually tiled from local clay, and all built from earth.” They suggest we would all live lives as “jacks-of-all-trades most of the time” and live a simpler way of life:
“The Simpler Way of life is very productive at the level of the home economy, involving gardening, preserving, repairing, fixing, looking after animals, making furniture, toys, chicken pens and gadgets, keeping bikes going, recycling, cutting fire wood, maintaining pumps and machinery, and engaging in hobbies, arts and crafts.”
All this sounds so delightfully pastoral and beautiful. The problem is that with the exception of the “maintaining bikes” the life described is that of a sustenance farmer from the Middle Ages. For the non-history buffs out there sustenance farmers in the Middle Ages lived lives that were solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short (H/T Thomas Hobbes).
The reason our society flourishes the way it does is because of the benefits of specialization and mechanization. An agrarian town is fine until your bicycle frame breaks and cannot be fixed, the last tractor breaks an axle and the farmers are forced to farm by hand. It is unclear to me how an agrarian village is going to pay to train and equip a thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon or to be less extreme, how about a hospital with a functioning emergency room? Without the benefits of high tech who is going to build the defibrillator and who is going to insert the rod into your child’s leg when they fall off the fence and get a compound fracture? Who is going to manufacture the insulin so the type I diabetic baby doesn’t go into insulin shock and die? Who will make and distribute the vaccines when the last of the vaccinated generation dies and the measles, and whooping cough return with a vengeance? Our lives of relative safety, security and health are built upon specialized skills that can only be developed and maintained in a society with a sufficient number of taxpayers to support a service economy. Water treatment plants and sewage treatment facilities don’t build themselves and infrastructure like our water and sewer systems cannot be maintained with the free labour of a handful of “jack-of-all-trades”?
Okay I readily accept that the Simplicity Institute represents the far end of the spectrum and that advocates of Degrowth seek simply to move a much more organic and mindful existence. The problem is that given our current planetary population density any move to return to a sustenance economy, while maintaining a viable and healthy environment, does not seem possible. Consider the following extract:
The minimum amount of agricultural land necessary for sustainable food security, with a diversified diet similar to those of North America and Western Europe (hence including meat), is 0.5 of a hectare per person. This does not allow for any land degradation such as soil erosion, and it assumes adequate water supplies. Very few populous countries have more than an average of 0.25 of a hectare. It is realistic to suppose that the absolute minimum of arable land to support one person is a mere 0.07 of a hectare–and this assumes a largely vegetarian diet, no land degradation or water shortages, virtually no post-harvest waste, and farmers who know precisely when and how to plant, fertilize, irrigate, etc.. In India, the amount of arable land is already down to 0.2 of a hectare; in Philippines, 0.13; in Vietnam, 0.10; in Bangladesh, 0.09; in China, 0.08; and in Egypt, 0.05. By 2025 the amount is expected to fall to: India, 0.12 of a hectare; Philippines, 0.08; China, 0.06; Vietnam, 0.05; Bangladesh, 0.05; and Egypt, 0.03 (ref).
So under the Degrowth economy most of Southeast Asia and over half the world’s population live in countries where sustenance agriculture would not be possible due to population constraints. In the extract they suggest that a person can live off 0.5 hectares, using the most optimistic numbers I could find (ref) a person would need 0.44 acres to survive growing an absolute minimum number of calories to survive and assuming no famines, crop losses, insects etc.. . As of the year 2000, the US Northeast had a population of 49.6 million people who live with a population density of 359.6 people/km2 (ref). This translates to 0.69 acres per person. So under a radical Degrowth scenario there would barely be enough land to support the population of the US Eastern Seaboard with a minimal vegetarian diet. Without modern sewage treatment and water supplies the population would indeed undergo massive Degrowth as diseases and weather slowly eliminated the majority of the population. You see, under the 0.44 acre scenario, the only power would be supplied by solar panels. Solar panels will certainly supply a house in South Carolina with reliable power in summer, but the same cannot be said about those same panels in a northern winter. Consider the “Snowpocalypse of 2015” and think about how those solar panels would provide power in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record, while buried under two meters of snow?
As for nature, once you discounted the areas where humans cannot farm (bogs, lakes etc..) there would not be an unallocated acre on the Eastern Seaboard. There would be no room for growing crops for profit and more importantly there would be no room for nature of any sort. I don’t see that existence as being in harmony with nature as much as being utterly antithetical to nature.
I hate to keep harping on the topic, but the reason we live so well in this era is that we have the excess financial capacity to train, equip and pay specialists to build and run our hospitals and water treatment facilities. We pay electricians and electricity companies to ensure consistent access to power, even in the worst weather. Even in the most simple of the simplicity scenarios the citizens had access to bicycles and solar panels. Bicycles and solar panels do not grow on trees. They are manufactured in facilities that require raw materials, power and workers. In order to maintain a reasonable quality of life we would need to keep many of those facilities open and the only way to do that is to produce an excess of resources elsewhere to pay the specialists so that they too, might be able to feed and clothe their families. I do not understand where those specialists will come from in a Degrowth society.

Monday, May 11, 2015

On Ecomodernism and Degrowth Part I: Initial Thoughts

As detailed in my previous post, the last E in PELE stands for “Ecomodernist”. Having had the time to read and digest An Ecomodernist Manifesto I thought I should expand on why I think of myself as an Ecomodernist. To begin I need to add some qualifiers here. As I implied in my post expanding on a broader definition of a “Lukewarmer”, I believe that many terms describing social movements are open to enhancements as definitions can evolve to reflect how movements refine their thinking. The difficulty lies when outsiders attempt to re-define terms in order to re-label or re-frame a debate in a negative manner. For those of you who took debating this would be considered the difference between a friendly amendment and an unfriendly amendment in a parliamentary debate. I like to think that my broader, more inclusive, definition of a “Lukewarmer” would be considered a friendly amendment. The re-framing of the definition by the denizens of Skeptical science and their ilk, appears intended to strictly limit the definition to a smaller, less agreeable one. In my view that would be considered an unfriendly amendment.  My intention, in this post (and a following post), will be to propose some friendly amendments to the concept of Ecomodernism. In doing so I will try to keep to the spirit of the authors of the Manifesto, while suggesting some ideas that may make the concept more palatable to some of its critics. In the process of describing my version of Ecomodernism, I will also consider the arguments of the “Degrowth” movement.

You may ask why I would deal with the arguments of the Degrowth movement (who I will call Degrowthers hereafter) in a post about Ecomodernism? The reasons are two-fold: firstly, the Degrowthers appear to have been the first group to really take the ideas put out by the Ecomodernists and challenge them in a direct manner. I have read numerous articles that dismiss the Ecomodernists out of hand, without ever addressing their major points. The Degrowthers have not done this. Rather, they have put on their scholar hats and attempted to refute the Ecomodernist world-view. In doing so they have allowed me to crystallize my thoughts on the topic and frankly they have helped me understand why I now think of myself as an Ecomodernist. The second reason for addressing the Degrowthers is that they look at society (and frankly humanity) from very different worldview and an interesting angle. As a consequence, they have looked at the same issues of societal growth, climate change etc…and come up with not an opposite solution but rather one that a chemist might describe as enantiomeric. To explain: enantiomers are molecules that share the same chemical formula/general conformation but they represent mirror images of each other and are thus not superimposable. I use the term “enantiomeric” because the obvious alternative term: “a mirror image of” has too many negative connotations in our modern culture. Too many times the concept of a mirror image has been associated with ideas having different underlying motivations, thus driving towards a “good” versus “bad” narrative. Enantiomers do not have that baggage. In a pair of enantiomers, neither enantiomer is inherently better than the other; rather enantiomers are made up the identical components in approximately the same configuration and yet they can have vastly different properties. In this first post I will describe what I understand to be some of the theoretical underpinnings of the two schools of thought and in a subsequent post I will address what that can mean in a practical/ecological sense.

On the Communal versus the Individual:
As I wrote in my earlier post on Ecomodernism (and Mannsplaining): in university I was taught that a few simple premises underlie human and societal development:
  • as societies become more affluent, their birth rates tend to decrease
  • as societies become more affluent, populations tend to become more urban as specialization and improved  technologies allow for a reduction in the need for as much human labour in food production and increased per hectare crop yields
  • as societies become more affluent, their willingness to devote more resources for environmental protection increases as does their desires for improved environmental health outcomes.

In light of these premises, scientists and sociologists see a world where the human race continues to expand until the population tops out at an approximate maximum population of 10 billion souls sometime this century at which time the population will begin a decline which could either move towards a demographic cliff or a steady-state number dependent entirely on the choices made in those future decades. I will now add another important consideration not included in my previous post: 
  • humans remain deeply driven by their evolutionary and genetic heritage
While many try to ignore this last fact, humans are first and foremost the products of our evolutionary and genetic heritage. While we as a society continue to work to grow past our evolutionary and genetic heritage, Homo sapiens, as a species, have been around for almost 200,000 years. Our current civilization, meanwhile, is much less than 2000 years old (one might argue that our industrial society is less than 200 years old). Given the vast disparity in time it is not unexpected that our pre-industrial evolutionary history will still influence our industrial-era brains. We do not completely understand brain biochemistry but we do know that human brains are driven by combinations of hormones over which we, as individuals, often have very little control. One feature of our genetic heritage is a drive to procreate and the preference of kin over strangers. This appears to be hard-wired into our genetic make-up. While much research has been carried out on the evolution of altruism, most of the research demonstrates that altruism is typically only observed in limited contexts, typically amongst interrelated social units or in small readily identifiable groups. As groupings get larger, humans tend to become more insular, seeking to share amongst smaller kin or social groups and trusting/sharing less with the greater whole. Yes, I recognize I am being very simplistic in this discussion, but we are talking in general terms here. There will always be altruistic individuals who are altruistic for no identified cause, but the small number of such individuals in our population provides the exception that proves the rule in the case of the majority.

The thing I appreciate most about the Ecomodernists is that they recognize our humanist nature and Ecomodernists acknowledge both the best and worst features of humanity in their discussions. In this they are very different from the Degrowth community. The thing I found most problematic in my reading of the Degrowth literature is how much it ignores human nature. Ironically, it does so, in my view, by pre-supposing that we can be a much better species than we actually are. The Degrowth literature reads like an outgrowth of a form of communalism or utopian socialism (please note I am by no means an expert on this and would accept corrections and further readings if offered). The article that summed it up best for me was in Adbusters (ref), and in reading that article the same thought kept bouncing around in my mind: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. For those of you not familiar, that it one of the most recognizable lines from Marx’ Communist Manifeto. The problem with the Communist Manifesto, as demonstrated repeatedly in the 20th and 21st Centuries, goes back to one of the failings of human nature. As I noted above, while individuals can act in an altruistic manner, we, as a species, tend to only do so based on identifiable groups. Once the individual becomes less attached to the whole, levels of individual altruism fall. For a degrowth-based society to flourish we would need to deny the lessons learned from attempts to apply communism across the globe. We would need to ignore our ultimately human failing: our genetic drive to protect kin over non-kin. In this I don’t think of Degrowthers as naïve, rather I see them as idealists in a less than ideal world. 

On the Intrinsic Value of Nature and the need for true wilderness
The second area where I most strongly agree with the Ecomodernists is that they, like me, appear to cherish the importance and intrinsic value of nature. While we, as a society, seek many services from nature, in my view that cannot be nature’s only role. In order for humans to coexist with nature on our planet we need to give nature the opportunity to grow, evolve and adapt; absent (as much as possible) of human influences. The Ecomodernists describe this in their description of decoupling of the human enterprise from the natural enterprise. While the Ecomodernists acknowledge that we will always have need for ecological services, they want to limit our human ecological footprint on the planet. By exploiting denser energy sources and densifying our populations into a smaller physical footprint the Ecomodernists seek to carve out a foothold for nature to do its own thing. One way in which I disagree with the Ecomodernists, is their strong preference towards nuclear energy. I acknowledge the need for nuclear power in an Ecomodernist energy mix, but I would not give it the dominance that it receives in the Manifesto. I see a world where geothermal and solar power play much larger roles, with nuclear energy forming a role as the ultimate backup/base supply. I envision a world where flexible solar panels allow every window blind to incorporate a solar panel so the act of shading your room from the sun actually results in the generation of power. Similarly, the walls and roofs of our cities should be turned over to the generation of power and/or the growing of foodstuffs. This type of expansion of solar power would not be cheap and the broad implementation of solar energy will definitely require some regulatory changes, but it should be possible to implement gradually and with a minimal amount of regulatory creep. Similarly, I see a strong role for wind (especially vortex-based wind power) and geothermal energy in our future. Moreover, when designed properly, I see run-of-the-river hydroelectricity as an important power source that can be developed to maximize energy output while minimizing our human presence.

The Degrowthers point out that historically the generation of increased power has not driven a reduction in power use (ref) but rather has only served to fuel more demand. This is indeed true to date, but any attempt to apply Ecomodernist theory would require a paradigm shift both in how we view power and how we view growth. My view is as long as the paradigm shift is designed to acknowledge our human failings, it can still be made to happen. I know that is a pretty big qualifier, but I believe it is one we can handle. The biggest challenge to Ecomodernism by the Degrowthers, however, has to do with how the two philosophies deal with how we interface with nature. Sadly, this post is already overlong and so I will leave that for a future post.