More on the size of the task



Just about every couple wants to raise children. It is an innate, inescapable need that is hardwired and natural. All organisms have this requirement to make more.

So when couples face biological challenges to natural conception they seek help that in most western countries now includes the benefits of medical technology. In vitro fertilization (IVF) and related fertility treatments have helped hundreds of thousands of couples create a family with more than 3 million babies born since the techniques were introduced in 1978.

Not surprisingly there was much chuntering at the Australian government for removing subsidies for IVF treatment under the national medicare system. Australian couples now have to find up to $2,000 per treatment in upfront cash.

In the short time since this funding change that has saved the government around $50 million, IVF proponents claim that some 1,500 babies have not been born because many people cannot afford the treatment.

Perhaps I am callous because my first thought was that this good news; 1,500 fewer mouths to feed. But then I am obsessed with 8,000 an hour and sometimes find it hard to empathize with childless couples as I have two sons and a step-daughter.

So I mellowed and clipped my own ear for being so heartless.

Then came the kicker. Advocates were arguing that, in fact, $50 million was a sound investment spurned. Eventually the ROI on the $50 million from taxes paid by those 1,500 kids more than justifies the government spending on the subsidy.

This is where I really despair. There can be no rational argument for taxes being a return on government investment because this is not an investment model. Taxes are a way if distributing wealth for services that are financial beyond most individuals, not an investment scheme. Nor are the accounts complete. The environmental cost of 1,500 omnivores living western lifestyles for 80 years would make $50 million look trivial.

The thinking that makes intelligent people (the proponent in this case was a University professor) misquote economic rationalism is scary.  It suggests that we are just more-making machines unable to pull in the logic to understand what we do. The bigger picture eludes us in our quest for advocacy, especially when that finds us on the moral high ground.

In an earlier post I pointed to the size of the task to support 7 billion humans in practical terms of energy, food and water is gargantuan.

Now I am concerned that the size of the task in the human dimension is even bigger if our logic is stuck with the eventual benefit of babies to the tax system.

Size of the task

Opera House, Sydney HarbourIt is desirable to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that the greenhouse effect doesn’t get out of hand and warm the world by amounts not seen for millions of years.

And should this warming happen too fast for our production systems to adjust, then desire must become an imperative.

Fair enough.

Now let’s consider the size of the task.

If we convert the current global energy use into oil equivalents – that is combine all the coal, oil, gas, hydroelectricity, nuclear and alternative sources and convert the energy we gain from them into the energy we get from a barrel of oil – we use the equivalent of 10 million barrels of oil an hour.

Or, if you prefer, 1,590 million litres an hour.

That’s enough to liquid to fill over 15,000 Olympic sized swimming pools every 24 hours or in less than two weeks fill Sydney Harbour, onE of the largest natural harbours in the world.

Plus this number is, believe it or not, getting larger by the day thanks to more people and rapid growth in demand from emerging economies.

10 million barrels an hour is colossal demand. No wonder superannuation funds invest in fossil fuel energy.

Perhaps the next time you lounge with a G&T by a swimming pool, imagine the pool, and a few thousand more, full of oil, and you may glimpse the size of the task.

Our energy demand is simply vast. And thanks to availability, some legacy issues and economics, most of this demand comes from fossil fuels. Partly because of the volume and locked in infrastructure for generation and delivery energy generation is a tough thing to shift, requiring huge investment in alternative sources, a clunky transition period, and unbridled commitment to change.

And because it will take time, any shift will require great tenacity.

It is a big ask and very unlikely that we will take on this transition voluntarily. It will be both difficult and costly. The engineering task alone is staggering: reworking energy grids, distributed generation, engine conversions and replacement. Even the decision to keep the grid or move to a distributed model is a big one.

Then there is the economics. New monies must be found to develop alternatives at scale and monies found to support uptake of what will initially be more expensive energy sources. Then those who have already invested heavily in fossil fuel power risk lost dividends, losing out to new investors. And more of us have invested than we might realize. Superannuation funds that will pay out for many a retirement, like the low risk of traditional energy investments.

The US and Europe are oil and coal dependent because their entrepreneurs and investors backed fossil fuels. New wealth in China, India and South America can be more flexible. They will invest for the far side of the transition, in the new technologies, not the status quo. In 100 years time it is unlikely that the old west will hold the purse strings, which is actually ok, if a little scary for those who have already invested.

Sydney Harbour

So the size of the task is huge, not just because we gobble 10 million barrels an hour, but also because we are not nimble enough economically to act swiftly.

So when the debate on a carbon price uses hip pocket rhetoric, remember the size of the task and know that change to something this big it is not going to be cheap


Plan A: Code Green

UK retailer Marks & Spencer’s sustainability statement, 4 May 2007 reads…

Plan A is our five-year, 100-point plan to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing our business and our world. It will see us working with our customers and our suppliers to combat climate change, reduce waste, safeguard natural resources, trade ethically and build a healthier nation. We’re doing this because it’s what you want us to do. It’s also the right thing to do. We’re calling it Plan A because we believe it’s now the only way to do business. There is no Plan B.

I wonder how they are going?

It finally happened

After back stabbing, vacuous argument and dithering for long enough for us to have been in and out of the next ice age, and despite (or perhaps because of) a hung parliament, yesterday Australian politicians passed a carbon pricing bill through the lower house by a couple of votes.

Champagne all round for the warmers, gnashing of teeth for the deniers and plenty of “why did they do that?” from the majority of the populace more concerned with their own stuff.

And a wry smile from the historians, for this is truly a moment for them to record.

It is the point at which a conservative country in a remote corner of the western world, bound to a colonial past that created significant wealth by exploiting natural resources, made a tentative, but hugely symbolic step towards accounting for externalities.

A brown economy allowed its politicians to introduce a policy that starts to capture the hidden environmental costs of doing business. Those costs that never make it onto the company accounts, the externalities, or what the policy people prefer to call spillover effects.

On the balance sheets of 500 companies and organisations with the largest greenhouse gas emissions there will now be a line item that will show they have made payments for an environmental impact. Not from a point of pollution into the creek that runs by their factory, or for installing mufflers to counteract machine noise, or the filters and scrubbers to remove particulates from the smoke stack, but for an invisible and diffuse environmental effect.

Truly this is historic.

And what history will record is that on 12th October 2011 Australia made its move down the road of major economic reform. It started the process of converting from a fossil fuel based economy with centralized energy infrastructure built with entrenched investment structures; to a fluid, entrepreneurial, environment friendly era of economic development.

And this happened because it realized that even though a capitalist system fits the human psyche like a glove, capitalism is not sustainable unless profit is real. It cannot be profit declared by hiding costs in the environment. For, in the end, the environment stops absorbing those costs and closes down, cutting off production.

There will, of course, be u-turns and moments of doubt about this historic decision. There will also be kick back from the old ways that claim emissions are just hot air. And those claims may turn out to be true.

Only this path is as inevitable as peak oil, because even if it’s not about emissions, it is about knowing and accounting the true environmental costs of doing business.

Only then we can live well and live within our means.

Enough clean energy

“There are people who believe that unlimited cheap energy is a recipe for disaster in the long run…   But in the short run our problem is not having enough clean energy…”

Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute as quoted by Thomas L. Friedman in his fascinating book “Hot, flat and crowded

What would happen if there were ubiquitous, cheap, energy?

Likely we would give in to our insatiable desire for stuff and just buy and buy and buy. Our houses would become cluttered with any amount of clothing we couldn’t possibly wear out, gadgets that waste more time than they save, and furniture we only sit on once.

Our stomachs would grow on the copious quantities of food in the fridge.

And the landfills will expand to cope with all the old stuff we (eventually) threw out.

All this would be possible because energy is a big cost to manufacturing and primary production. Make it cheap and available everywhere and no end of opportunities emerge for the production of salable goods.

The only thing holding back commerce would be the availability and cost of raw materials.

This outcome of ubiquitous, cheap, energy we might call the ‘no impulse control’ scenario. Unfortunately it aligns closely with the economic paradigm of growth. In order to keep economies growing we have to create and sell more stuff.

So cheap energy would simply fuel the runaway train.

Now if this energy were dirty in some way, either for the climate or as a more tractable pollutant that created smog or contaminated waterways and land, then there would inevitably be a regulatory check on its consumption. At some point public health concerns will slow the exploitation of a dirty resource. Sometimes environmental concerns can be enough to curb excess.

But what if it was clean? The clean, ubiquitous and cheap energy nirvana that is common in sci-fi novels. There would be nothing to stop rampant capitalism, especially if by ‘clean’ we meant next to no environmental impact, greenhouse or otherwise.

And this may indeed be a problem. Supply of other resources and skills would curtail some of the excess – there is already a global shortage of steel and skilled developers for large-scale infrastructure projects – but the social and economic ills of fast growth would still be a risk.

“But in the short run our problem is not having enough clean energy…” because right now we have cheap energy only it’s dirty and running out. We need the clean stuff and soon.

At the moment we have all the growth problems plus the dirty consequences. So we should be mobilizing our smarts, capital and entrepreneurial talent to find a secure, clean and scalable energy source.

Instead we invest yet more in fossil fuels.

Serious change should be controversial

Back in 1979 when I still needed a hairbrush, I wandered the campus of the University of East Anglia as a sporty nerd. I was the type of student who spent far too long in the library but covered up this flaw with an addiction to team sports and the associated drinking games.

At the time I barely noticed that some of my peers were far trendier. They took to barricading themselves in the University registry – the main administration building that housed the office of the Vice –Chancellor and senior management staff – for days at a time. They would drape sheets out of the windows with slogans denouncing whatever oppression they were feeling. Each time the occupation was for a political, and no doubt, worthy cause that usually involved solidarity (a big word back then).

The longest occupation lasted a week. It was in solidarity with mine workers who were on the receiving end of a crusade by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to break the power of trade unions. Both Thatcher and those trendy students were railing for or against a serious change.

Thatcher won of course and sent the country into a market driven phase that arguably brought some prosperity but also eroded much of the traditional political divide and eventually gave the UK ‘New Labour’.

Even nerds got caught up in some of the radicalism of the day, albeit safely. Many of us boycotted Barclays bank because they happened to have a subsidiary of the same name in South Africa. We didn’t realize that undermining banks was probably not all that helpful to the struggle against apartheid but it was a statement we could make on the way to the library. I had my account with the Midland.

Spectacles may be rose tinted when remembering such heady days, but it does seem that, naive as we undoubtedly were, the issues of the time stoked ire and action. Politics was controversial as societies across the world brought about change.

Serious change should be controversial.

It was a big deal to break down union power that itself had come about in a struggle to correct past wrongs in exploiting the workforce; the same kind of wrongs that were fought against in the apartheid struggle.

Today there are still hard and controversial choices to be made, especially about environment, climate and resource use, but we seem to have lost the ire and action that sets up any issue as controversial.

At best we get posturing and egoist rhetoric with an occasional ‘straw man’ to give the appearance of real debate. In short we have argument for the sake of it. Nobody seems to occupy the registry anymore.

As the Harvard philosopher Michael J Sandel puts it:

“When everyone – Democrats, Republicans, corporations and consumers – claim to embrace your cause, you should suspect that you have not really defined the problem, or framed it as a real political question.”

We seem to get this all the time in the age of the sound bite. Noone seems to define the problem.

Rosy or not we need some true controversy back. Real dissention forces us to argue our position from first principles. We must not just react against the alternative view but think it through and become convincing, drawing on as much logic as we can muster.

Do this often enough and we shake hands with our core truths and get to know the problem.

The result will be some argument, perhaps even a demonstration or two, but also some political innovation. There will be thoughts that are outside the narrow middle ground into which the bulk of the west has converged.

A little controversy might help us to find real solutions to the challenge of keeping 7 billion people happy without destroying nature or each other.