Post revisited – Journeys

Post revisited – Journeys

Netflix has an excellent period drama called Victoria on the life of the iconic queen of England who ruled for 63 years and married off her progeny into most of the royal families of Europe. She died in 1901 aged 81. Throughout her life, she moved around in luxury carriages drawn by horses. Steam trains and iron-hulled ships occasionally took her and her entourage further afield but it was the stables that did most of the heavy lifting.

She was in her late sixties when the first motor car appeared in Germany but did not live to see the mass production of cars or the first powered flight (1903) but she did have a few photographs taken.

Skip just 100 years and there are websites that track air traffic so you can follow the travel of your own flight or that of a loved one across the vast reaches of land and sea to every far-flung destination on the planet. Browse one of these sites and the globe lights up with traces. There are a million people in the air at any one time.

Amused or not, Queen Victoria would not have believed it was possible.

Here is an Alloporus thought on air traffic from June 2011

In 2009 2.5 billion journeys were taken in aircraft.

Evened out across the global population, every third person on earth took a flight. In reality it is the wealthiest proportion of the 1 billion people in western economies who took most of the journeys.

The projection is that by 2014 there will be 3.3 billion journeys taken.

This represents a 32% increase in 5 years.

Mobility is an inevitable consequence of affluence. As more and more people have disposable income, many will want to use some of those funds to travel. As economies grow, more business is done and so travel to buy, sell and negotiate also increases.

In the mid 1960’s the first Boeing 737s carried 100 passengers up to 2775 km. This was quite a revolution at the time.

The latest Boeing 737-800s carry twice the number of people over 5,500 km and use 23% less fuel.

Suppose it were possible to replace all the aircraft flying in 2009 with the latest fuel efficient models. It would be possible to absorb almost all of the 5 year increase in passenger volume to 2014 through fuel efficiencies that these more efficient vehicles bring.

Future aircraft construction materials that are lighter and still strong enough will see even greater fuel efficiencies. Aircraft built in the next decade or two might only use a third of the fuel guzzled by the earliest models.

Replace all the 737-800s with aircraft of composite material designs and 13 years of growth in passenger numbers could be accommodated without increasing fuel use above that used in 2009.

But even if all these replacements were possible by the mid-2020s, less than a generation from now, fuel use in air travel would begin to increase over 2009 levels.

In half the time since those first Boeing 737 aircraft began flying all the fuel efficiencies would have been used up by the increased volume of traffic.

Clearly instant replacement with the best technology is impossible.

Some of those fuel hungry early models are still in the air on the more remote routes operated by obscure airlines. And it is these cheaper fare options that will be responsible for much of the growth in passenger numbers. The fuel efficiencies will arrive incrementally.

In the absence of some remarkable technology that can replace jet engines running on aviation fuel, greenhouse gas emissions from or air travel will grow along with the airline industry.

PS

There is talk of a jet-rocket vehicle that would travel in the stratosphere, have no emissions because it flies above the atmosphere on hydrogen fuel and could reduce the travel time from Sydney to London to a few hours. Commercial flights might happen by 2040.

By then there will be close to 10 billion journeys per year.

Turns out there were 3.1 billion journeys in 2014, a little down on projections, but not by much. Dreamliners notwithstanding, the fuel consumption numbers are still up there as is the prospect of Tesla rockets.

There is no obvious solution to the emissions issue. Aircraft are going to continue flying passengers and freight, we are now over 100,000 flights per day, and the fleet still runs on aviation fuel.

In China alone, the expectation is that over 800 million people will join the ‘middle class’ meaning that there are going to be plenty of bums to put on all the seats. A GFC 2.0 or nuclear confrontation might slow things down but in the short term, there will be journeys taken and plenty of them.

The scale of all this is very difficult to comprehend. Numbers like this only come up when we are buying a house. Volume is an issue but the kicker is the rate of change. Horse-drawn carriages to 100,000 flights a day in 100 years is staggeringly rapid, even for a planet that is no stranger to the odd dramatic shift in fortunes.

‘Journeys’ was a post about emissions to highlight how significant they were going to be in the near future. The real message is to think about the rate of inevitable change. Those aircraft are here for their productive lifetime. They will fly as long as they can be operated at a profit. The fleet is added to rather than replaced and more flights are taken. More this year than last and more than the year before that. This is change that is fast and locked in. There is no reason, bar catastrophe, to suggest otherwise.

I don’t think we really understand what this means.

Queen Victoria would not have believed a word of it and I am not sure that we do either.

Ideas that persist

Ideas that persist

Nor, considered aright, does it seem any argument in favor of the gradual extinction of the Sperm Whale, for example, that in former years (the latter part of the last century, say) these Leviathans, in small pods, were encountered much oftener than at present, and, in consequence, the voyages were not so prolonged, and were also much more remunerative. Because, as has been elsewhere noticed, those whales, influenced by some views to safety, now swim the seas in immense caravans, so that to a large degree the scattered solitaries, yokes, and pods, and schools of other days are now aggregated into vast but widely separated, unfrequent armies. That is all. And equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

This quote is from a fictional account published in 1851. I get that.

Except that I can’t help feeling that this passage reflects how Melville thought about this issue. He had been to sea of course, as a merchantman and on a whaling voyage, so he had first-hand experience with months of time to talk and explore what other mariners knew about the sea and its fish. Somewhat cutely, whales were fish back then.

Melville chose to ignore the evidence as many a purveyor of fiction is want to do, and refashion it. He used spin in a novel.

Or did he?

The ideas that actions of hunting could deplete such animals on unfathomably large oceans defied logic to the Victorian generation. It just could not be possible. The evidence of obvious depletion, reduced distribution, lower contact rates and changed behaviours, just did not fit the worldview.

In ‘Awkward News’ there is a passage reflecting a similar thought in the minds of early settlers to Australia. Here so vast an expanse of country lay before the first, second, third and even subsequent generations of rural folk that no amount of vegetation clearing could ever deplete it.

It is a though there is something in our DNA that programs us to ignore the possibility that resources could ever be in short supply. We seem to have to believe that resources are infinite.

This helps us in two ways.

A belief in every renewable resource buffers us from the fear of lack. This is a powerful base fear, for starvation is a slow and emotionally painful death.

It also allows us moral latitude for actions that deplete resources, especially pertinent in the case of whaling that was a brutal culling of wild sentient creatures for commercial gain. If the belief is that taking a few whales does little or nothing to their long-term survival as a species it mollifies the obvious brutality of killing individual animals slowly with harpoons and lances.

Same idea with bulldozers and chains. Removal of native vegetation is justified because there is plenty more of it across the horizon.

Jump forward 160 years and the demand for natural resources has increased beyond what could have been imagined in the 1800’s. We don’t need whale oil anymore and, for the most part, whales are back in the stomping grounds of their ancestors if not quite in the same numbers as before.

We do need land though. Water too. And space to live and recreate in. The world has shrunk perceptibly with technology able to whisk us over the ocean at speeds and distances that the old whalers would have defiled as some evil magic.

Yet that DNA is still expressed.

Many of us continue to believe that resources are either infinite or if, for some bizarre reason, a resource is used up, our technological ingenuity will conjure up a replacement that is better and more profitable.

Whatever we do those base fears of lack are still there. They persist and our emotional response remains to ignore them or refuse to believe that their realities will ever be realised.

It should be a sobering thought. Only our response is to thrust our heads in the metaphorical sand and hope that that nagging feeling will go away.

When we look up again all is well because, for sure, “some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle”.

Interesting take on sustainability

Interesting take on sustainability

Our problems go far deeper. We are going to need a rapid and fundamental shift in our values, habits, behaviours, and outlooks.

Marc Hudson

This is a UK academic talking about the empty rhetoric on “sustainability” and reminding us that we’ve known about the problem of using up resources faster than they can be replenished for at least a century, longer if you agree with what was written about the ancient Greeks.

We are no more sustainable than an eBay shopper with a credit card.

As Lilly Allen wrote, “we are weapons of massive consumption” and its not our fault.

We can spruik stewardship of natural resources, modern simplicity, even organic foods but the reality is we are consumers. It is what we do. Not even a circular economy can fix this core trait that is glued to our limbic system with aruldite.

We might need a fundamental shift but no amount of sustainability rhetoric can change the reality that the human condition is to progress, individually and collectively. We all benefit from this for despite global and local problems — and there are many — on average, conditions for the majority are far better today than they have ever been.

So I would argue that sustainability, together with its architects, advocates, and acolytes, are just our conscience talking. Well, whispering actually from the deeper recesses of our reptilian brain stem.

Sustainability, resilience, adaptability and other offerings more at home in the 1960’s are words we know we should hear and act upon but we just cannot make the fundamental shift.

My contention is that we are just not wired for the change that is needed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to make a sneaky last second bid on one of my watched items.

Post revisited – Can we have sustainability?

Post revisited – Can we have sustainability?

There is a problem with sustainability.

It is only possible if the resource base can cope with a human population growing at 8,000 per hour and support the 7.5 billion already here as they climb the hierarchy of needs. Resources must either be vast enough to not show symptoms of depletion or renew at rates greater than use.

This is clearly a very big ask.

Any one action might, on its own be sustainable — always take a reusable mug to the coffee shop — but this does not mean that the supply of beans, milk or the power to run the espresso machine is sustainable.

This post from 2011 explains more…

Can we have sustainability?

Sydney at four million inhabitants is a moderate sized city by modern standards. It is a similar size to Phoenix, half the size of Chennai, and a suburb compared to the 34 million inhabitants of Tokyo.

But Sydney is plenty big enough to have transport problems. The arterial roads that feed into the harbor side CBD are mostly modern freeways, with tunnels and six lane bridges, but they just cannot handle peak flow. Smart commuters travel on the train.

One bonus of train travel is that on the days when you forget your iPod you get to hear people chat. A young couple sat ahead of me on one such day and discussed water.

“No we can’t.”

“Why not?” said the husband.

“Those things just spray you with drips that don’t even get your hair wet. I need to get my hair

wet.”

“What about the water crisis?”

“What about it?”

“Here, the dams at 39.2%”

It was true; there in the black and white of the morning paper ‘Dam levels at a record low’.

Sydney relies on water storage in a major dam, Warragamba, and the rain sometimes forgets to fall in its catchment in the Blue Mountains some 80km inland from the coast. The significant drought that began in 2006 and broke three years later forced water restrictions on all domestic use. To augment supply and reassure consumers there was drawdown of groundwater together with pumping from catchments further afield. And then, just to be absolutely sure, a desalination plant was commissioned and constructed.

The husband pressed his point.

“If only half the residents of Sydney took a shower this morning that’s two million showers,” he said.

“Ah, you want me to sit next to someone who hasn’t showered. Gross.”

“No, if they all showered for a minute less than usual they would save ten litres a minute, that’s 20 million litres saved.”

He said 20 million as though it was a large number and it certainly sounds impressive. The water from a minute of 2 million showers is 20 megalitres, enough to fill 30 Olympic sized swimming pools, provide 2 million toilet flushes or irrigate several hectares of winter wheat.

“I don’t care if it saves the planet I need a real shower.”

“It would help,” the young man said with hope in his voice.

It is easy to imagine a similar discussion over all sorts of conservation actions that can be done around the home. Recycling kitchen waste for example. All it requires is a sealable tub on the kitchen bench.

“But it smells and clutters up the place, get rid of it. And I hate those ants.”

Yet even in an average household it is easy to generate 10 litres of apple cores, vegetable peels and melon skins every week. Then if everyone in the street did it, say thirty homes, then we might see many tons of green stuff that the garbage men would not have to truck, saving fuel and space in the landfill for the garbage we cannot recycle.

There is a 60 litre black plastic bin in my garden that receives all the kitchen scraps. Every now and then there is a layer of brown leaves added and a bucket of water from the washing machine rinse cycle. All those apple cores and potato peelings decompose readily so that the bin is never full, even in winter. The magic of entropy facilitated by the military style operation conducted by decomposer organisms keeps the breakdown ahead of the household ability to generate waste. In spring the material under the bin is carbon rich compost ready to start off the vegetable patch.

If every second household in Sydney did this then, over a few years, millions of tons in greenhouse gas emissions would be avoided just by not having to shift the waste into landfill. There would be issues around nitrogen runoff into remnant vegetation patches from gardens now replete with green manure, but it is food for thought.

These sustainability actions are all good but surely we can do better. It would be great to do more than change the light bulbs, install a low-flow showerhead, manage the compost to help build up the carbon in the stony garden soil, recycle the gray water, install solar panels, grow vegetables and any number of household behaviours for sustainability.

Perhaps we could become self-sufficient.

The reality is that there is little prospect of genuine self-sufficiency for most of us. Even with half a hectare of yard and the compost going great guns, most of the vegetables I grow end up feeding the wildlife. There is greenery but not enough to provide for the family. The household members are also used to vigorous hot showers, power on demand, perfect fruit and veggies, the air conditioner in summer and the fireplace lit when it gets chilly.

No longer do we sit in front of smoky coal grates in high backed chairs with wings to keep the draft off our necks. We are acclimated to an even twenty something degrees wherever and whenever we happen to be. This level of comfort has sensitized us to the point where we really feel deviations from our comfort level, not that a few degrees colder or hotter would have any affect at all on our chance of survival.

We have climbed the hierarchy of needs yet, in our minds, we sit as though we are still at the base level where deviations from what feels safe have the power to upset us.

Does this mean that westerners are desensitized to the problems we have in the environment? Not totally. The media runs stories of environmental challenges and energy saving bulbs are sold in supermarkets. There are energy use ratings on white goods and grants to install water saving devices or solar heating systems.

In Sydney, the Inconvenient Truth made it onto the most watched movie list for a few weeks despite being shown only in selected cinemas; school kids prepare assignments that help them learn about water, land and wildlife challenges; market surveys put the environment high on the list of issues that decide elections hot on the heels of taxes, education, health and the military. Yet whatever we say people still want their needs met. This is their priority.

What we must accept is that our living environment has changed. For better or worse we are sensitized human beings. Most of us really would struggle to survive in the wild and this puts very different parameters on sustainability. Now we must sustain conditions in narrow comfort bands, supply only certain food types and ensure a high level of creature comforts.

The exchange on the train said it all. Not in the words, but the incredulity in the woman’s voice and the despairing logic of her husband.

“Ah, you want me to sit next to someone who hasn’t showered. Gross.”

The numbers are vast. The resource base has to be equally huge or unfailingly renewable if sustainability has even a remote chance.

Only this post suggests that provisioning is not even the real problem.

Our heads are just not in it.

Five percent

Five percent

What is 5%?

Well apart from being a proportion, here are a few things.

  • 5% is one in twenty
  • 5% is an arbitrary threshold value considered significant in statistical analyses
  • 5% is half the current rate of GST in Australia
  • 5% is a pay rise almost worth having
  • 5% is less than the percentage increase in US military spend under the Trump administration

5% is quite the conundrum. It is not very big and yet it can be big enough to be noticed. You would not want food prices to increase by 5% but they have, roughly every two years or so in most mature economies.

You’d like a 5% pay rise over no pay rise at all but in the US rust belt, many workers have waited over a decade to get it, only for it not to really matter that much.

It seems that 5% is an awkward, niggly kind of proportion. Always a bit on the cusp of significance — one in twenty is surely just chance. Give me one in a hundred and I’m listening.

The other day a friend of mine, also a fellow science nerd, told me that 5% of the hip pocket dollar is spent on the environment.

One in twenty of the dollars in the average wallet ends up as an environmental expenditure.

Now this bald statement that could take a bit of unpacking. What’s in the hip pocket? What is the environment in this context? Would the 5% spend include food or the council waste levy or just donations to the WWF?

In most of the developed world food counts for around 8% of household spend. There is an environmental levy in my own local council but I pay that in my rates, part of my tax spend. And my hip pocket has a whole heap of unavoidable bills from utilities to the mortgage.

We could be here all day figuring it out, so let’s just say that, on average, people spend 5% of their after-tax dollar on something environmental.

That’s $5 for every $100 that arrives in their bank account, at their discretion.

So is this enough? Is it significant?

People die if they don’t eat and have access to clean water. They need somewhere safe to stay and the opportunity to build a meaningful life with some fun in it. These primary needs would use up most of the $100, most of the time.

Add in the inevitable unexpected cost when the boiler bursts, the roof leaks or a family member needs hospital care and there may rarely be 5% left over.

$5 is significant if the cost of living has already allocated the contents of your hip pocket to the necessities of life.

This is where the thought usually stops.

The cost of living is unavoidable. If it eats up all you can earn, then the environment is not even a thought.

Only think a little longer. The environment is where the food, clean water, timber for the house, sand for the mortar, clean air, space for fun, among many other key necessities comes from.

Ignore the environment and it is used up, polluted and dysfunctional for these key goods and services.

Fail to pay anything for these things and they stop.

We should be very scared that we spend only 5% for there is no point in investing in ourselves if the foundation for many of the vital things we need is eroding away beneath us.

One million people

One million people

Consider a city of roughly 1 million people, Adelaide, Australia for example — Calgary, Canada; Bonn, Germany; Tuscon Arizona; or Bristol in the UK would do equally well.

Adelaide has two Australian Football League teams, a pro soccer team, two professional basketball teams, three Universities, a cathedral, numerous hospitals, many shopping malls, around 440 schools, an International airport, and a zoo.

There are over 400 suburbs arranged around a CBD that has high-rise office blocks that provide a common destination for a metropolitan public transport system that includes a fleet of over 1,000 buses.

There are doctors, dentists, lawyers, Artisans and actors; and enough skilled tradesmen to build or engineer almost anything.

In short, Adelaide is a self-contained community surrounded by enough farmland to feed everyone.

If it were possible to gather all the people who live in Adelaide into one, standing room only location it would be quite a spectacle. It is hard to imagine what it would look like.

There would people as far as the eye could see. Lay them down head to toe and the line would stretch 1,800 km — 400 km further than a road trip from Adelaide to Sydney.

Stand them in single file and the line would be 30 km long, similar to the queue at the post office.

Now having conjured the image of so many people in your mind’s eye put them all onto commercial aircraft.

Because 1 million is roughly the number of human beings who are, at any one time, airborne in commercial airliners making vapor trails around the globe.

This is both staggering and scary at the same time.

It is enough just to illustrate the scale of the challenge to provide life support to all the people we have made and still retain some environmental integrity.


First posted on LinkedIn

Warrior

Warriors beachThe desert bakes the feet of the brave warrior even in the shade of the acacia. A waft of thick air brings a strange scent, somehow fresh and made of vibrant colour. Our warrior turns toward the smell and an urge comes to stride out. Instinct draws feet forward ever faster as clean air banishes the torpor of heat. So powerful is this cleansing that he runs towards the breeze. As beads become rivulets down his temples he reaches the edge of a cliff and is amazed at what he sees, an azure vista full of promise and opportunity. Fatally he stops to think. The view is too much. It calls and repels in equal measure, pregnant with the opportunity of pastures new and yet is far away. His breath hurts and his legs stiffen in fear of further exertion. He thinks again and returns to the safety of the scalded earth.