Social and environmental problems and opportunities
By Toban Black at Dec 10, 2007
A version of a speech given at the December 8th International Demonstration on Climate Change in London. This version is much longer and slightly edited. I’ve also added web links.
My name is Toban, and I’m part of Post-Carbon London, a group that I’ll be telling you about. I’m also a graduate student. I research and write about environmental problems—-specifically the social causes of these. I’m speaking to you now to try to offer you some insight. I’ll begin by discussing the energy issues Post-Carbon London addresses.
When we use fossil fuels—-in cars, in power plants, and elsewhere—-we contribute to global warming and other climate changes. Global warming is, to say the least, a great threat. We are creating more violent storms (like Hurricane Katrina). There are many tragedies and catastrophes on the horizon if we can’t stop global warming.
Post-Carbon London challenges fossil fuel dependency, which is behind global warming. We concentrate on carbon energy dependency in London in particular. We do this in response to global warming as well as a closely related problem:
Post-Carbon London also highlights how more affordable and relatively accessible supplies of oil and gas are rapidly being used up. I’m sure you know that there aren’t endless supplies of oil and gas in the ground. What few people realize, though, is that we have been exhausting the more readily available and inexpensive supplies of these fuels.
This is why Middle Eastern oil imports are more and more important, and this is why so much of Canadian supplies are sent to the United States. Americans had burned through more than half of their oil by the 1970s. Since then United States oil outputs have been dropping. Now U.S. companies and the U.S. federal government are leading an international scramble to claim what’s left of worldwide oil supplies. Of course, the largest reserves of this oil are in and around the Persian Gulf. As fossil fuels outside this area in and around the Gulf are being used up more rapidly, the Middle East is being made more and more internationally significant. I mention these international trends to explain fossil fuel depletion, but Post-Carbon London focuses on the London area—specifically on local fossil fuel dependency, so usually we don’t address particular sources of oil.
Natural gas sources, on the other hand, are much more of a local issue-—because it’s far more difficult to transport these fuels. So nearby gas supplies are crucial. This means that regional supplies (from around southern Ontario, in our case) are required for local natural gas heating and electricity. Most likely very little of the natural gas in and around the Persian Gulf will be brought here. And I’m sorry to say that it looks like we shouldn’t expect the natural gas supplies around London to hold out for long—much as we can’t count on international oil supplies.
What I’m saying is that oil and gas supplies will rapidly dry up—more and more-—as the cost of these fuels will skyrocket. This problem is often referred to as “peak oil” (a phrase that doesn’t take natural gas into account). What I’m telling you about “peak oil” and gas isn’t just a theory. As I’ve said, “peak oil” already happened at a national level in the United States during the 1970s, when U.S. oil outputs began to fall (which is why sociopolitical developments at the time in the Middle East had such an impact on North American oil prices—-because so much U.S. oil had been used up, so there was demand for the Middle Eastern oil that was not available.)
So what consequences are likely given diminishing supplies of oil and gas fossil fuels?
Since most people don’t think much about how we use oil and gas, I’ll say more about this. Natural gas is often used to heat homes and other buildings; it’s also an important source of the electricity that is used to power factory machinery and other equipment. And we make fertilizers with natural gas. Without oil we generally can’t run cars, airplanes, ocean freighters, and other vehicles—-some of which are used to ship goods to stores like Wal-Mart and Loblaws. Farm equipment and other oil-fuelled machines also won't be usable. And plastics, as well as many other products that we take for granted, are made with fossil fuel chemicals.
Basically, society as we know it cannot function without fossil fuels. Yet we’re rapidly burning through oil and gas supplies anyway. As we do this we are bringing global warming down on our heads. We are driving ourselves towards outright social breakdown—partly because we won’t be able to fuel our society. Given how our economy is set up, reduced access to oil and gas will mean recession, if not depression, if not eventual economic collapse as currencies become worthless. No one knows the future, but it’s clear that—-right now—-we’re headed for a rocky one.
Alternative and unconventional sources of energy, alone, are far from enough to allow us to escape this future. These energy sources are either too expensive (as with solar panels) or they don’t offer enough energy (as in the case of ethanol; the same is true of the Albertan tar sands, which a lot of energy must be put into—-along with dwindling water supplies—-before energy can be taken out.)
Coal is an option, but it’s one that is environmentally devastating. (So-called 'clean coal' technologies may prove to be ineffective, and they are not being developed and used to any significant extent.)
There’s also nuclear energy, which is very controversial. Post-Carbon London rejects nuclear power, and for good reasons. One grounds for not depending on it—and this is one that you probably don’t know—is that uranium supplies are limited. As with fossil fuels, if we continue to use uranium, it will be made increasingly less affordable and available.
Limited materials also are needed to produce and maintain renewable energy technologies (such as wind turbines).
As for energy efficiency improvements, these have lagged well beyond rising energy demands. There's no reason to believe that this will change if demands continue to rise. Even if we can level off our energy demands, there are only so many energy efficiency improvements that we can find and create.
Beyond Energy Issues
Ultimately, all energy demands must be drastically cut back to tackle oil and gas depletion as well as global warming. These are only two of many broader environmental problems, however. I now will discuss others (by stepping outside of Post-Carbon London for a moment). We are running out of fresh water supplies; species are dieing off more quickly than most of you would ever believe; pollution is pretty much everywhere, including our bodies; we are destroying top soil, which we need to grow food; somehow we also are killing off bees, which pollinate plants. This list is a taste of the devastation that we are spreading across the planet. We may well see mass starvation—-even in Canada—-if we aren’t able to change our course. It’s not pretty, but we are headed toward social breakdown.
This is an upsetting prospect, but it comes with opportunities. Even without ecological problems we should want to change our society. Otherwise, we’ll continue to live in a world where automobile fatalities are a leading form of violent death; people often are lost in TV and computer screens; advertising is difficult to avoid; obesity and body image obsessions are common; and females are regularly made into sex objects. These are merely examples,
and conditions are far worse further from home, where there is war, shanty towns, famine, and sweatshop labour—among other appalling conditions.
We can do so much better. Why settle for these social conditions?
One way or another, our society has to change. We’ll either accomplish this voluntarily—by bringing our society back into balance with nature—or it will fall apart (due to a lack of fuel; or because of the various other problems we are creating).
Humanity may not survive.
If we choose to make our society environmentally sound before it crumbles before our eyes, we can achieve so much more at the same time. We can work toward equality, peace, and genuine democracy. In short, we can form vibrant, healthy community relationships.
In fact, if we don't accomplish this, we'll fail to confront the environmental crises around and ahead of us.
A quotation will help me to explain how these goals are connected to confronting the environmental problems that we are creating. Maurice Strong has said that “the environment isn’t just an issue, something to be fixed while everything else remains the same.”
You see everything in this world either is from nature or it is nature. Food, clothing, electricity, and electronics are all extracted from nature. An ecologically sound society must have environmentally-friendly education, professions, medicine, community, and culture. Ultimately, an entire society must be brought into balance with nature. If it is to survive—let alone flourish—our ecologically unsound society must be changed from the ground up. These changes must involve greater attention to the future, while transcending self-interests as well as prevailing currents that drive people to place money and profit before all else—-
to give a few examples of what must change.
Sweeping changes like these cannot be accomplished by them—-the politicians, the corporate executives, the bureaucrats, and other distant figures at international climate negotiations, and elsewhere. They are only human, and they have vested interests in society as we know it. If they challenge the status quo too much, their careers will not last. There are rewards for conformity (-- usually).
Besides, only so much can be achieved through policies and through tinkering with product manufacturing (by, for instance, changing the materials that are used to make toilet paper and other products).
They can’t fix environmental problems on their own, and neither can you. Alone, you can’t accomplish much. Isolated consumption, isolated recycling, and isolated voting won’t amount to much.
If you must focus on those approaches, at least find ways to draw others into what you’re doing. Make proactive change contagious…
because what matters is us—-what we do about how our whole society is set up. Although it’s important to be the change that you want to see in the world, there won’t be a great deal of constructive change if we don’t work together.
Here are some examples of ways that we might constructively remake our society; we could:
• Dramatically improve bus and train transportation
• Arrange for more communal forms of housing
• Eliminate fossil fuel and automobile subsidies
• Subsidize greener products (such as bicycles and mopeds)
• Set up smaller shops and workplaces closer to home
• Establish many more community composting and community gardens
• Set aside far more bicycle trail space
To bring about changes like these anytime soon we’ll have to act together, and we’ll have to find ways to make it attractive and relatively easy for people to join us.
It can be done.
But this proactive change won’t happen if people continue to be so disengaged from public life. We are being led toward disasters, and society will continue on this course if we don’t intervene. There is a need for far more active participation in managing our collective affairs. In other words, there is a need for genuine democracy.
Don’t let the mind-numbing normality all around us fool you…
We are on the brink of major changes. The direction of these changes will depend on what we do next…
and on what we don’t do.
I like to think that Post-Carbon London can contribute to the changes that I’ve started to describe here, but re-making society from the ground up will require much more than attention to fossil fuel dependency, energy demands, and carbon emissions. These and other ecological problems are issues to rally around, but to do that we will have to see well beyond environmental degradation.
To avoid many related calamities that lie ahead, and to pursue numerous interconnected opportunities for constructive change, we must see beyond the narrow constraints that are being imposed on our thoughts and actions.
The long-term vitality of our communities is at stake.
I recommend that you read the speech that Cory Morningstar—the president of the local chapter of the Council of Canadians—read at the December 8th demonstration. The writing that I've posted above addresses many of the issues that Cory also covered in her speech. The two pieces fit together well.
The Story of Stuff is a video that covers many of the same issues. I highly recommend it.