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The End of the Age of Extraction

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderToday’s global economy is causing shortages of natural resources (both renewable and nonrenewable) as we come to the end of what might be called the Age of Extraction. A true cost, steady state economy, on the other hand, would prevent resource problems by maintaining population and resource consumption well within the carrying capacity of the planet.

Energy and mineral shortages, along with depletion of forests and fisheries, are driving the extractors and harvesters to evermore remote places. No longer able to find gushing oilfields, vast stands of virgin timber, or waterways teeming with fish, the extraction companies are racing to the farthest reaches of the planet in search of profits.

The end of the Age of Extraction does not mean that such resources will disappear. In his recent book, The Quest, Daniel Yergin describes oil and gas discoveries that he predicts will turn the Western Hemisphere — from Canada to Brazil — into the next Saudi Arabia. But today’s extraction is pursuing fuels that are either dirty or hard to get. We see more pollution, both from accidents and mundane chronic causes, increasingly pushing civilization beyond the carrying capacity of the earth, wiping out more and more species, and accelerating climate destabilization.

Today’s global economic operating system tolerates and even abets severe pollution damages as industries externalize the costs from their books. Scarcity has made some of the most environmentally devastating energy and mining projects “short-term cost effective.” For example, according to price and revenue figures, it’s cost effective to extract oil from tar sands in Alberta, a process that requires huge energy inputs, grotesquely contaminates land and water, and poisons people, fish, and wildlife.

A surge of fracking to reach natural gas deposits more than a mile underground has attracted drillers in a manner reminiscent of the California Gold Rush days. Fracking, along with very deep offshore oil drilling, illustrates the contamination that is occurring from energy extraction in numerous locations. Shell oil company is preparing to drill in the Arctic Ocean where little if any emergency relief will be available to contain a spill.

Overfishing during the Age of Extraction (photo taken in 1983) has pushed the goliath grouper to the edge of extinction.

Overfishing during the Age of Extraction (photo taken in 1983) has pushed the goliath grouper to the edge of extinction.

Along the world’s coastlines overfishing has depleted stocks. Some near inshore “fisheries” have actually become fishless. Recent analyses of the history of fishing off the California coast, as seen through interviews with three generations of fishermen, produced startling findings. The youngest group (age 15-30) had no idea that it was once common to fish right off the coast. They didn’t view the coastal zone as being overfished because, they said, there were no fish in this zone (see p. 140 of Climate Wars by Harald Welzer).

The oldest group (age 55 and above) could recall eleven species that had disappeared from today’s far offshore fishing ground, whereas the group between age 31 and 54 could recall seven, and the youngest group only two. Sixty years ago the oldest group could recall catching 25 goliath groupers per day, but by the 1960s the number had plunged to eleven, and then to only one a day in the 1990s. Tragically, only ten percent of the youngest group believed that stocks of the grouper had disappeared because they didn’t think they were ever there to begin with.

Today this experience is being repeated on a massive scale as ocean trawlers are “vacuum cleaning” the oceans as they seek scarce schools of fish. A strong potential exists to push fish and other renewable resources beyond the point of recovery.

The world economy has been unable to reverse the depletion trend. Without a true cost, sustainable economy, nations are faced with three choices. They can:

  1. reject concerns about shortages and environmental decline and proceed for a few more decades with expanded drilling, mining, and harvesting;
  2. acknowledge the problem and adopt policies that lead to sustainable resource use and reliance on renewable energy; or
  3. treat the situation like a wartime crisis as President Franklin Roosevelt did in World War II when practically overnight he forced Detroit to shift from making cars to manufacturing ships and airplanes.

High-tech operatives try to assuage public concern with the claim that geoengineering on a gargantuan scale can enable the oceans to absorb more carbon and produce more cloud cover to prevent planetary overheating. For those nations that can’t get a robust program going on such easy technologies as wind and solar energy, the claim for geoengineering as a savior from climate disruption seems a tad on the ambitious side.

After the transition to a true cost, sustainable economy, the extractive projects I have described would be a curious relic. The global economy would be seen as a subset of Spaceship Earth. Survival on board the spaceship depends on using sufficient supplies (not ever increasing supplies) of resources, as well as consumption rates that are commensurate with regeneration rates.

Too many world leaders are focused on restoring an economy that has been undermining the life-support systems of Spaceship Earth. A different kind of economy — a true cost economy — is needed to take us forward at the end of the Age of Extraction.

The Role of Regulation in a Steady State Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

Regulations have played an essential role in modern attempts to curtail pollution, prevent abuses in the banking system, ensure safe food, and protect public health. They have been indispensable in checking powerful corporate interests that abuse the public trust.

Now, just on the heels of the global financial collapse and forty years after the first Earth Day, we are witnessing two frustrating failures in the United States:

(1) the failure of regulatory bodies to perform their duties, and

(2) the failure of regulations to achieve objectives contained in major laws (e.g., the coal strip mining law (SMCRA), the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act).

A prime example is the inability and the unwillingness of the government to implement the law and halt the obliteration of portions of the Appalachian Mountains by mountaintop-removal mining. Despite creative strategies by many citizen groups involving all branches of government — legislative, executive, and judicial — the erasure of the landscape continues. The destruction of these biologically diverse mountains in West Virginia and the wreckage of public drinking water, however, are not just environmental nightmares. They are also economic calamities that are completely incongruent with the principles of a steady state economy.  A corporation with a health, safety, and environmental record like Massey Energy would not even be able to maintain a license to do business in a steady state economy.

Better regulation could prevent problems like this nightmare on Kayford Mountain.

Regulations, including tax code changes and outright bans on particularly destructive practices, will be part of the landscape in a steady state economy, but we have to structure them differently. We need to change the dynamics that cripple much regulation today. Here are some key elements of the regulatory transition aimed at curtailing the abuses of corporations and preventing pollution:

(1) Make it vastly more expensive to pollute than to prevent pollution: no more token fines, legal delays, and slaps on the wrist.

(2) Increase taxes on pollution — it’s a no-brainer to tax what we want to reduce or eliminate.

(3) Apply special regulatory attention to the natural resource extracting industries (i.e., fossil fuel, timber, and mining). These industries are causing immense pollution and wiping out entire ecosystems. Extra disincentives should accompany any regulations on pipelines, drilling, reactors and other risky ventures where the consequence of an accident — natural or man-made — produces very damaging health or environmental impacts.

(4) Economize the use of raw natural resources in production processes and establish comprehensive recycling programs. In his seminal book, Cradle to Cradle, architect William McDonough has described such a strategy for reducing the enormous throughput of raw materials to a sustainable level.

Here are two examples to illustrate the above points:

(1) The U.S. strategy for phasing out the use of ozone-depleting chemicals under the Ozone Treaty of 1987 (Montreal Protocol) was a smashing success. It is a strategy worth implementing for other pollutants. The Congress set phase-out dates for a group of ozone-depleting chemicals and imposed a steeply increasing tax on their usage until the date of the ban arrived. In response, corporations stopped using the chemicals ahead of schedule, quite a different scenario from the usual foot-dragging.

(2) Yet another oil spill just occurred, this time on Montana’s magnificent Yellowstone River when an Exxon pipeline ruptured and spilled an estimated 42,000 gallons. In the past year the world has witnessed a major nuclear catastrophe in Japan at the reactors in Fukushima, run by Tokyo Electric (TEPCO), as well as a gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico when BP’s deep drilling went awry. In these and other similar cases the current global system privatizes the gains and socializes the losses (i.e., the corporations keep the profits, and citizens get stuck with the bill for the environmental disasters). Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz observes that societies following this policy “inevitably mismanage risk.” With each passing day, it becomes clearer that we need to manage risk, not continue to mismanage it. Thus, regulatory controls on extractive industries must reflect the riskiness and magnitude of adverse outcomes.

In contrast to this discussion on improving regulatory approaches, the present Republican leadership has given a green light to eviscerating regulations across the board, much as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attempted in the mid 1990s. This is part of a long-term, deliberate effort to frame regulation as being the problem, not the solution.

I suggest that we directly confront this ideology and switch the frame to view new regulatory approaches as problem-solvers that will achieve beneficial results for human civilization and the ecosystems we inhabit.