Sunday, May 13, 2018

America's 'Cadillac Desert': Is there a substitute for fresh water?

Thirty years after Marc Reisner penned Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water his prophesy is being fulfilled. As the chalky rings which mark previous higher water levels around Colorado River reservoirs grow ever wider, Grist reports that major disputes are now afoot over the remaining water supply.

Modern economists have long told us not to worry about resource scarcity. Higher prices will bring on new supplies whenever resource supplies decline. And, if a resource truly is becoming unobtainable, then we'll always find a substitute.

When I hear this, I often counter: "There is certainly some truth to what you are saying. But, please tell me what the substitute for potable water will be." The response is usually to change the subject—for the obvious reason that there is no substitute.

A Scientific American article in 2012 put world freshwater usage at more than 9 trillion cubic meters for per year. Per capita, Americans, not surprisingly, consumed more than twice the world average. Certainly, there is much room for water conservation in America and in the American West.

But what does conservation mean when 70 percent of the world's fresh water is used for agriculture? Of course, it means that conservation is going to affect food production. At first, it might mean simply making irrigation systems more efficient through, say, drip irrigation.

But once conservation has achieved all that it can achieve, what will we do? It is important to remember that what is normally measured when it comes to water consumption is "freshwater" consumption. The water optimists will point to the vast brackish aquifers still available to us humans, not to mention the almost limitless supply in the oceans. The fact that the U.S. Geological Survey was asked by Congress to survey brackish water availability in the United States is an indicator of how serious the situation has become.

However, the fact that something is available is not the same as it being affordable. The key ingredient to making salty water fresh is energy, lots of it. Desalination technology is now widely available. Israel, for example, now gets 60 percent of its water from desalination plants, a build-out that came after a long drought that taxed other water sources. With a renewed drought drying up the remaining sources, Israel plans to build two more plants to supplement its water needs. The Israelis have managed to keep water bills down to levels comparable to major cities in the United States, where water is by world standards relatively cheap.

This technology will work only for those who have the financial resources and technical expertise to build and run such plants, have the necessary water infrastructure to distribute the desalinated water, and who live near large bodies of saltwater. For those far inland such arrangements may not be practical unless vast brackish aquifers are available at a reasonable depth. The deeper the water, the more energy it takes to lift it and therefore the costlier it is too lift.

But affordable desalination is all premised on cheap energy. And, cheap energy may not be a given far into the future in a world where 80 percent of society's energy comes from finite fossil fuels. (One needs also to consider that the burning of fossil fuels to run a desalination plant contributes to the very climate change that is making droughts longer and more devastating—creating the need for more such plants.)

Most people believe (wrongly) that renewable energy will soon come to rescue even though the combination of wind, solar, geothermal, wave, tidal and ocean energy accounted for only 1.5 percent of total world energy consumption as of 2015 according to the International Energy Agency. And, hydroelectric generation which depends on the very waters now in short supply in the American southwest makes up just 2.5 percent of total worldwide consumption.

People keep moving to the southwestern United States where a long drought continues to aggravate water problems. One wonders whether this area of the country would be so attractive if water rates there represented the true cost not only of supplying water, but also of replacing it as the current sources of water run down.

Danes on average pay the most of any country for water. They do so not because Denmark is poor in water resources, but because Danish water policy insists that users pay the full cost of the water system. In the United States, vast subsidies make water cheap for agriculture and encourage waste. (See here and here.)

It turns out that there is no substitute for potable water—despite what economic theory may wish to assert. To get enough of it in many locales will be increasingly expensive as we turn to ever more exotic means to extract water while both population grows and climate-enhanced droughts diminish replenishment of existing sources.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Information overload, sustainability, and the emerging organization

Nafeez Ahmed, an exceptional journalist who writes at the intersection of resources and society, understands the complexity of the ecological predicament we humans face. In a piece he wrote last year, Ahmed asserted that our current arrangements are approaching a convulsive crisis point. One reason for this is as follows:

[T]he system faces a crisis of information overload, and an inability to meaningfully process the information available into actionable knowledge that can advance an adaptive response.

If he's right, is there anything we can do? The short answer is maybe. The great human ecologist William Catton pointed out in his 2009 book Bottleneck that the mass media has become a conduit for propagating bad or at least inconclusive information. In short, the feedback we humans need in order to run our society in a sustainable way is dangerously lacking.

But what if we could reorganize society to better handle the information available and act on that information quickly, decisively and appropriately? Management consultant and author John Hagel may be able to shed some light on this. (Regular readers will recall that I was channeling Hagel in last week's piece.)

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Is the CEO obsolete? A look at the emerging organization

Recently, the writer of a guest editorial in The Guardian Weekly proposed a solution to what ails the world's business schools: Shut them down. The author, Martin Parker, claims there are 13,000 business schools on the planet and he says that's 13,000 too many. He says the reason he knows a total shutdown is the only remedy that will actually work is that he's taught in business schools for the last 20 years.

His detailed critique covers a lot of territory, but I found one part of it particularly interesting in light of what I've been reading lately. Parker wrote: "If we want those in power to become more responsible, then we must stop teaching students that heroic transformational leaders are the answer to every problem[.]"

At first blush it seems as if we need more such leaders. But I think the point here is the same point which management consultant and author John Hagel is making in his book, The Power of Pull: This kind of thinking leads to passivity rather than the creative engagement which our society so desperately needs.

Hagel explains that what he calls "scalable" collaboration and learning are now the essential ingredients to have broad impact on society.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The global village and the surveillance society

Media savant Marshall McLuhan coined the term "global village" in 1962 in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy. Today, we take the concept of an electronically connected global population with instant access to practically every plugged-in person on the planet as a fact of life.

We often see our global village as a force for good, creating understanding and binding people across cultures regardless of distance. McLuhan saw the downside as well. In his book he notes:

Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.

It turns out that the global village has many key similarities to an actual village or small town. Fellow villagers and small town neighbors are much more likely to know about each other's personal lives (often including many of the intimate details) than those who live in a large city. The anonymity and privacy today which so many prize and enjoy in the big city is quickly being eroded in the new surveillance economy. Living in the global village can now subject us to the same kind of scrutiny which those in small towns and villages have long been accustomed.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fake news, algorithmic sentinels, and facts from the future

The suggestion that social media outlets need to police so-called "fake news" rings true on its face. Who wants to read news coverage known to be false? But what rates as "fake news" will be harder to define than we think.

And, putting algorithms in charge of policing those vast information flows claiming to be news will almost certainly not solve the problem. In a piece reflecting on artificial intelligence (AI) on the 50th anniversary of the release of the film, "2001: A Space Odyssey" writer Michael Benson tells us that "[d]emocracy depends on a shared consensual reality."

Well, actually everything we do in groups, whether it's democracy or going to a hockey game, depends on shared consensual reality. And, therein lies the problem. We are now in a fight not over opinions concerning the import of agreed upon facts, but over the consensus itself—whether scientific findings can be trusted, whether corporate-owned media can be believed, whether "objective" reporting is even possible, whether the history we were taught is indeed the "true" history of our country and our world.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Migrant caravan: Foreshadowing the future and reflecting the present

The march of hundreds of Central American migrants through Mexico has inflamed tensions between the Trump administration and the Mexican government and focused attention on the United States' southern border.

The ostensible reasons for the march are familiar: The migrants were fleeing corruption, social and political turmoil, and lack of opportunity in their home countries. Many were from Honduras which suffered a coup in 2009 that continues to divide the country politically including during the last election in which supporters of the challenger to the incumbent president claim their candidate was cheated out of a win.

All of this reminded me of Jean Raspail's novel The Camp of the Saints. In it, impoverished Indians seized hundreds of ships docked in their harbors and set sail to find a better place to live. (The book was published in 1973 when many believed that millions of Indians and other Asians would likely starve in the coming decades due to poor agricultural yields. The full effects of the so-called Green Revolution still lay ahead.)

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Silent spring revisited: New worries and the human future

A precipitous decline in bird populations in France suggests that the silent spring foretold by Rachel Carson more than 50 years ago in her book of that name may yet arrive. The proximate cause of the 33 percent decline in avian populations noted by French researchers over the last 15 years is lack of food.

In practical terms, the birds are not being poisoned as they were in Rachel Carson's day. Rather, their main sources of food, insects, are dropping like, well, flies. The ultimate cause is overuse of pesticides related mostly to agriculture, pesticides which are working all too well in keeping insect populations in check.

Described as "an ecological catastrophe," the decline in bird populations has reached 66 and 70 percent for some species; and the decline is not just in agricultural areas, but also in forested areas outside of agricultural zones.

The findings are not that surprising given previous reports of declines in insect populations of up to 76 percent over that last 27 years in Germany.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Driverless cars and bodiless brains

The death of a pedestrian during a test drive of a driverless vehicle (even as a backup human sat in the driver's seat) calls into question not just the technology—which didn't seem to detect the pedestrian crossing a busy roadway and therefore didn't brake or swerve—but also the notion that driving is nothing more than a set of instructions that can be carried out by a machine.

The surprised backup driver seemed to have confidence in the inventors of driverless cars as he was looking down at his computer briefly just before impact.

Certainly, a real human driver might have hit this pedestrian who was crossing a busy street at night with her bicycle. But, of course, as a friend of mine pointed out, there is a big difference in the public mind between a human driver hitting and killing a pedestrian and a robot killing one. If the incident had involved a human driver in a regular car, it would probably only have been reported locally.

But the real story is "robot kills human." Even worse, it happened as a seemingly helpless human backup driver looked on. The optics are the absolute worst imaginable for the driverless car industry.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The troubling realities of our energy transition

I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world's energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.

Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.

The group was astonished when I related the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.

I hadn't included hydroelectricity in my list, I told the group, which would add another 2.5 percent to the renewable energy category. But hydro, I explained, would be growing only very slowly since most of the world's best dam sites have been taken.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Taking a short break - No post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, March 18.