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October 28, 2009

Climate change, sustaining the unsustainable

The Canadian Charger

Climate ChangeTechnology is not going to save us from the crises that are already upon us, according to James Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and other Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.

Speaking at the launch of the University of Waterloo's Center for Ecosystems Resilience and Adaptation, at the Toronto Botanical Gardens recently, Mr. Kunstler said the most impressive part of the situation we're facing is the failure of a coherent consensus on what's happening to us and what we're going to do about it. “We've got converging catastrophies,” he said.

Noting the U.S. consumers' decades long shopping spree and frequent motoring habits as examples, and later adding airline travel, Mr. Kunstler said high energy costs and a scarcity of capital are two of the major forces that will combine to undermine America's way of life.

“Wealth has flown out of the system (the current financial crisis) and it's not coming back, so it won't be there to build the green economy... The old oil theory: Ramp up production and use more and more, isn't going to work.”

He said world oil production reached its peak in the last year or so, while the world has been using more oil than it discovers since the early 1980's.

“We would need a new Saudi Arabia every year to replenish our oil supply. Exporting nations are using more of their own oil even when their supply is depleting, so export rates are going down.”

He cites the United Kingdom (UK) and Mexico as being in situations which spell trouble for future world oil supplies, with Mexico – The U.S. number 3 oil supplier – experiencing a 30% reduction in oil exports to the U.S. on a year over year basis.

“They're done as the number three U.S. oil source and nobody's talking about this.”

The U.K's and Norway's North Sea oil operations are examples of diminishing returns of technology, Mr. Kunstler said, because despite techniques such as injecting nitrogen and sea water into the rock to get more oil out, the two nations' oil production peaked in 1999, and the UK has been a net importer of oil since 2005.

And don't expect Canada's tar sands to rescue the situation either, Mr. Kunstler said, because due to environmental reasons, the tar sands will never produce more than 3 to 4 million barrels of oil per day.

A failure of complex systems we depend on for our daily lives, is not going to result in a smooth segue to an alternative lifestyle, Mr. Kunstler said.

And his examination of suburban sprawl gives some insight into the results he predicts we're going to face.

“Suburban sprawl is the greatest misallocation of resources in history because there's no future in it. The project is over because there's no capital left. We're going to have to grow on that land.”

Walkable communities, with a relationship to productive agriculture, are going to have to be the wave of the future in North America, according to Mr. Kunstler. He said suburbia will fail because of exorbitant energy costs for transportation and monetary devaluation of suburban properties – and cities will contract, while at the same time, form independent districts.

He gave the example of Johanesburg, South Africa as an example of a city that's already experiencing demographic shifts due to high energy costs.

“Skyscrapers were only possible with cheap energy. They're a liability now. We shouldn't build anymore of them. In Johanesburg, they've abandoned the downtown. Now you can see laundry hanging out the 27th floor and the elevators seldom work, so the poor live on the higher floors.”

He added that in Europe urban development looks like it did 50 years ago, with low rise buildings the trend, not skyscrapers.

Energy shortages resulting in prohibitively high energy costs will make air travel increasingly available only to the elite, and within five to 10 years it will cease to exist, Mr. Kunstler said.

And, while he said he's not opposed to alternative fuels, he stressed that there's no way they can be produced on a massive scaled needed to replace fossil fuels.

Rebuilding the railway system is one response to the energy and financial crises that are upon us, Mr. Kunstler said.

“The insolvency of governments (in municipalities across America) is so extreme that they don't have the capital to maintain the massive road systems that exist. Highways have to be kept in immaculate condition or they fall apart quickly. We can't keep up with the maintenance.”

Meanwhile, all the environmentalists and urban planners who are offering solutions to these problems are working on the premise that technology will allow us to keep living they way we've been living since after World War II, Mr. Kunstler said; and he doesn't think this is realistic.

Instead of solutions, Mr. Kunstler said he offers intelligent responses to situations.

“We're faced with the task of downscaling and relocalizing virtually all the major systems of daily life, including the way we grow our food, do commerce, move around the landscape, manage and deploy capital, and many other things; and we're not showing a lot of interest in doing that.”

Because we've made massive investments in our current systems we can't overcome the psychology behind our previous investments, so the tendency is to try desperately to sustain the unsustainable, Mr. Kunstler said.

He cites factory farming as an example: it requires huge amounts of capital investment and consumes massive amounts of fossil fuels, both of which are becoming scarce.

We're rapidly becoming a much poorer developed world at a time when mutually reinforced problems such as the current financial crisis and energy depletion are upon us. We need to generate confidence by showing we can respond intelligently to these crises because - in Kunstler’s words - “History doesn't care if we pound civilization into a rat hole.”

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