Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Fun Time

Are you looking for a time-sucking, computer-hogging activity completely unrelated to peak oil? You are? Well, I have one for you. Let me introduce you to the

Sherwin Williams Color Visualizer

which is designed to let you see how different colors will look on your wall, ceiling, and trim. Theoretically, it could save you some painting time and keep you from wasting a whole bunch of little paint samples. In reality, it sucks you into a color-combining addiction and takes up a lot of computer memory. Did I mention it's fun if you like to play with color?


Monday, August 24, 2009

The Big Necessity

We in the Westernized world tend to take our toilets for granted, because we want to take them for granted. We flush our "waste" away and never give it a second thought, never considering what life was like before indoor plumbing and sewage treatment plants, never considering what life is like for the 2.6 billion people who don't have access to any sanitation at all - no toilet, no latrine, no outhouse, no nothing. While clean water gets plenty of attention, the main source of waterborne disease gets none. It just ain't sexy. Umm, to say the least.


Rose George approaches this topic by alternating humor and seriousness, and sometimes sorrow. She's not afraid to get her feet wet, criss-crossing the globe and diving into dark spots for her research. She visits the extensive sewer systems of New York City and London, meets with weary sanitation activists around the world, tours the high-tech toilet manufacturing plants of Japan, and reports on the indignities of the Untouchables of India, who are still being forced to collect human waste with their bare hands.

The Big Necessity weaves a fascinating story of sanitation, a story many people don't know that they need to hear. Sanitation is a pillar of modern society, the foundation for public health, the savior of millions of lives. In developing countries, diarrhea (virtually always caused by lack of sanitation) is the largest hurdle a child needs to overcome to make it to their fifth birthday. 2.2 million people, usually children, die of diarrhea - more than AIDS, TB or malaria. But diarrhea is only the beginning. There's also cholera and cryptosporidium, and numerous other "waterborne" diseases (meaning water contaminated by sewage) which kill as well.

In the first chapter, "In the Sewers," we find that even though citizens of the Western world are saved from these deadly diseases by our sewer infrastructures and basic hygiene measures, our sewage systems are crumbling and filled to capacity. Our sewers are often easily overwhelmed by a few inches of rain, when they begin to discharge the raw sewage into the nearest handy body of water. In New York City alone, the weekly toll of polluted discharge is 500 million gallons. Per week. So even with our thousands of miles of sewer lines and our millions of toilets, we still haven't figured out what to do with sewage.

The most disturbing part of this chapter was not the tour of the sewers but the fact that the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the United States wastewater infrastructure a D-minus in 2005, and the EPA estimates that 50 percent of our nations sewer pipes will be in poor or very poor condition by 2020. Something to think about next time you're on the pot.

The next chapter, the Robo-Toilet revolution, was frankly hilarious. Apparently the Japanese have the most advanced toilets in the world - heated seats, programmable to your specific habits, computerized, with retractable bidet nozzles. This chapter alone is worth reading the book. I giggled my way through the discussion of how persistent Japanese engineers isolated the precise location of the average anus (necessary in order to know where to position the bidet water nozzle). In fact, I'm giggling right now.

"2.6 Billion" dives into the plight of the under-developed world, a plight made all the problematic because it can't be mentioned in polite society. But for aid workers, public health organizations and governments working to decrease mortality, sanitation is a key project. Trying to provide clean water without stopping a major source of pollution and disease is a losing proposition.

Lack of proper sanitation is even a serious impediment to education - many schools have nonexistant, limited, or unclean facilities - meaning that children simply have to leave the school for the nearest bar just to use the bathroom, and many girls stop going to school once they reach the age of menstruation. I'll leave the descriptions for those of you who read the book. They are an eye-opener.

The chapter on biogas units in China may be of interest to you if you are looking for a "clean" renewable energy source. The Chinese have really been the leaders in this technology, which uses the gas products from human and livestock waste to power lights and cooking fires. Hey, turns out it's useful for something - maybe it's not just "waste" to be sent away as fast as possible, but a source of energy. If I had a pig or two, I might be in the market for one of those units.

So far, this book has been alternately fascinating, disturbing, infuriating, and full of adventures and interesting statistics. If you haven't started reading The Big Necessity yet, I hope the information above will spur you to action, because one of the main achievements of this book is to make the unmentionable, mentionable. We are not going to solve the sustainability issues of our world by turning up our noses at the most basic aspects of human life, so let's just open our eyes and take a look at the facts. Stay tuned for the second half....

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Locked In

There's an article today in the Wall Street Journal that to me, drives home a sad point for many in the college generation: You're going to be deep in debt. And without rising wages and a strong job market, debt is a stone that will drag many young people into years of taking whatever job will pay the debt servicing.

College costs have gone way up since I was in college ten years ago. I see these kids graduating with a B.A. degree in something with no particular demand (history, English, art, literature, etc., correct me if I'm wrong here) with $50,000, $100,000, $150,000 in debt and I just wonder, "WHAT are you thinking?"

I think part of the problem is the basic educational assumption of our time:
1. Middle class kids must go to college.
2. They should follow their dream (going to the best college they get into and majoring in their favorite subject, regardless of whether there is a market for it or not).
3. They can pay back the money later (without figuring out what it's going to cost them first because of course they are going to have a successful career).

This attitude, which is so pervasive that it's hard to even question it, may have been fine when college costs were reasonable and could be paid back in ten years, when incomes seemed to be rising, when peak oil was just a glimmer in Colin Campbell's eyes. But now I think it may be time to challenge this fundamental assumption.

It's not that I don't want kids to follow their dreams. Getting a job doing something you hate can be soul-sucking drudgery. On the other hand, being forced to take whatever job you can find because there is no demand for your skills and you owe $50,000 - 100,000 to a variety of government and private lenders, debts which can never be discharged, even in bankruptcy.... that's soul-sucking drudgery for twenty years. Drudgery that, with one late payment, can easily lead to a mountain of fees and rising interest rates and ultimately despair.

I just wish these kids had someone to educate them in basic financial literacy. Someone to tell them what one school vs. another is going to cost them. What kind of wages or salary they can expect when they get out. What their monthly payments are going to be when they graduate, and how that will relate to their salary. Maybe even (gasp!) the facts about peak oil. Just the basic facts. Then they can make an educated decision.

Surveys have shown for years that college graduates make more money. But what about junior college and public school vs. private school graduates? What's the difference in their salaries? What about the trade schools? What about the salary of a college graduate MINUS their debt payment - how does that compare? Some people may think junior college or trade schools or a public college are below them - but they should take another hard look at the financial consequences of their decisions.

Because the choices that kids make at 18, choices they make when they are still so young, hopeful, and naive, will still, in many cases, be following them at 28, 38 and even 48 years old. The choices they make at 18 can determine whether they can afford to buy a home, change jobs if they hate their first, go back to school, stay home with their kids. It may even determine whether their parents can retire at 62 or if they have to wait until 72.

So if you have a close relationship with a high school student, you may want to make sure they know basic financial information. Debt is no longer a matter that can be taken lightly, without serious discussion about the numbers, our assumptions, and the future. Debt incurred at 18 can affect the rest of the lives of the college generation, and they deserve to know the facts.

Monday, August 17, 2009

From 48 to 76

If you ask the average Joe or Jane how we have so radically improved our life expectancy during the 20th century, the answer is likely to be "medicine." Most people believe that our doctors have become so skilled at treating infections and disease, and our medications so advanced, that they have been responsible for prolonging our average life expectancy from 48 to 76 years of age.

Life expectancy 1900 - 1997

But that is a misperception. Public health professionals, unlike most of the rest of us, understand that the underlying foundation of our life expectancy advance is the invention of electricity, which allowed for a step-change improvement in our sanitation. Electricity allowed us to design, implement and maintain energy-intensive systems such as water treatment systems, sewage plants, refrigeration systems for our food distribution and storage, and widespread vaccination manufacture and distribution. (Of course, medications such as antibiotics, anesthesia and painkillers have contributed as well, but not nearly to the same extent.)

In countries where proper sanitation is not available, millions of children still die of diarrhea, often before they are two years old. In countries with proper sanitation, such tragedy is decades gone, and we enjoy the ability to never think about our sanitation situation as we go about our daily business.

So if modern urban sanitation is dependent on electricity, how is electricity dependent on oil? As a direct source of electricity, oil is in the distinct minority. It is the source for diesel power generators the world over, for backup generators, and for a very small number of large power-plants. It is dwarfed by the number and capacity of power plants run on coal and natural gas.

Yet oil still affects power production in many ways. For one, the machinery that mines coal runs on oil; the trains and ships that transport coal run on oil. The workers that keep electricity flowing get to work in oil-powered cars and trucks. Oil-based transportation is needed to maintain and repair the power lines that criss-cross our cities and our country. Replacement parts for the electrical infrastructure are shipped in trucks. And let's not even mention the financial relationship of commodities such as oil, natural gas and coal that are traded on an open market. My conclusion is that any kind of prolonged oil disruption would be very likely to affect the flow of power, although less in areas running on natural gas than those running on coal.

Peak oil is inevitable. An extended oil disruption (or "oil shock") is not necessarily inevitable, but it is a significant enough risk that we should plan for it. Because how long will the sanitation systems that have increased our lifespans be able to function with an unreliable power grid? And how we will we maintain them as oil prices become more volatile and expensive, while city and county budgets are slashed? What sanitation alternatives that use less energy could we deploy on a widespread, urbanized basis?

I am planning a series of two or three posts about The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters, by Rose George, in the near future. If anyone wants to read along, it's an extremely interesting and sometimes hilarious look at sanitation around the world, along with a discussion of some of the problems facing us.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

From the geniuses at the Heritage Foundation

The red line is domestic oil production, the blue is foreign oil imports, the green is oil imports from OPEC.

The text reads:
Federal limitations on domestic oil production have contributed to a steady decline in US production since 1985. By 1994, the United States was importing more than its total domestic production. Restricting supply raises prices and unnecessarily contributes to US reliance on foreign oil imports.

And peak oil analysts get called conspiracy theorists!!

Seriously though, I can see how someone could fall for this BS, especially if they already hate the government. But wait! A steady decline since 1985?? Wasn't that RONALD REAGAN's term in office? That liberal environmentalist do-gooder. He must be the cause of all our problems.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sun Oven saves the day

The Sun Oven is a versatile tool. It can bake banana bread, roast a butternut squash, cook a lasagna or quiche, and turn brown rice into moist perfection. Normally, I appreciate it for the way it keeps my house cool in the summer and for it's zero carbon emissions.

But lately, it's been doing more than that. It's been saving my bacon.

I currently have no functioning kitchen sink, dishwasher, cooktop, or oven. Because my family is in the middle of a remodel in which we are doing half the work (general contracting, prepping cabinets for paint, painting, and tiling), it's proceeding slowly. Despite the remodel, we are still living and cooking at home. But how to make a variety of healthy meals without a cooktop or oven? The answer is: the Global Sun Oven.

I've been able to use it on almost every sunny day that we plan to eat at home, and what a blessing that is! About two-thirds of the days have been sunny since our remodel began, and I've re-discovered the variety of things that the Sun Oven can cook:

- Rice for rice and bean salads, burritos, a good side for anything
- Chili, stews, soups
- Quiche and cheese -and-egg dishes
- Beans
- Potatoes (baked or cut up for potato salad)
- Roasted vegetables / ratatouille

Of course, it's cloudy today. Looks like we may have hummus sandwiches for dinner!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Quick Guide to Peak Oil

A one-page simple explanation of peak oil, hitting just the highlights. Kind of dry, but definitely not hyperbolic. The back page normally has a graph of oil discoveries by decade, and a graph of energy sources with a breakout of renewable sources from the Energy Information Adminstration, but Blogspot is being finicky today and does not want to upload my graphs.


Why is oil so important?
Forty percent of our energy comes from oil. Our entire economy and way of life run on oil, including the vast majority of transportation fuels, fuel for agricultural machinery, raw materials for plastics, chemicals and roads, and heating oil to heat our homes.

How is oil so different from other sources of energy?
Unlike electricity, which can be generated from many different sources, oil is virtually our only transportation fuel. Oil has an incredible return on energy - just one unit of energy is required to extract and refine 20 to 30 units of oil (1:30 ratio). Compare this to corn ethanol, which has an energy return ratio of 1:2-3 (90 to 95 percent less net energy than oil). Additionally, petroleum can easily be shipped all around the world (unlike natural gas or energy from wind).

What is peak oil?
Every oil field reaches a point where the production rate starts to decline, like a bell curve. Oil continues to be produced, but less and less comes out every year. Countries that produce oil experience the same phenomenon, when oil production can no longer be increased and starts to decline. For example, oil production in the U.S. peaked in 1970-71. We are not “running out of oil”; however, we are getting close to the point where we have used half of the world’s oil, which means we are running out of the easy-to-find and cheap-to-produce oil. The term “peak oil” refers to the point at which we can no longer grow world oil production.

As oil gets more expensive, won’t we just find more oil?
Oil must be discovered before it can be extracted. World oil discovery peaked in the 1960s and has been declining in recent years. Experts estimate that we are now consuming six barrels of oil for every one we find. We will continue to find more oil - but the oil we find tends to be difficult, expensive to produce, the finds are much, much smaller, and the process of producing oil is environmentally destructive and often located in places that are hostile to the United States. The U.S. has to import more than 60 percent of the oil that we use.

When will world oil production peak?
Estimates vary, but estimates from independent petroleum geologists tend to cluster around 2008 - 2015. Several government reports, including the Hirsch Report, and the 2008 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), conclude that peak oil will occur before 2020-2030, and they also conclude the world needs to begin preparing for the peak in world oil production at least 10 -20 years in advance.

What are some likely effects of declining oil supplies after world oil production peaks?
Our economy and financial model are based on the idea that we can, and should, grow our economy forever. Without a cheap and expanding supply of oil, this will be difficult to accomplish. Most analysts predict recession/depressions and volatility of oil prices as the hallmarks of reaching the peak of world oil production and traversing the downward slope after the peak.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Sister city

A lady from Transition Houston called me yesterday and I got the opportunity to chat with a woman whose city is on a similar path as ours. Houston and Oklahoma City have many of the same characteristics: conservative, oil and gas industry-dominated, huge sprawling metroplexes, and so it was a very interesting discussion.

It seems that Transitions Houston and OKC are working with some of the same challenges as well. For instance:
- How do we phrase and present the issues to a resistant population?
- How do we discuss what may seem like 'liberal' ideas to conservative people?
- How do we emphasize the positive while not minimizing the urgency and scale of the negative? - How do we focus our efforts, especially where there is so much geographic space?
- How do we appear credible and legitimate?
- How to engage other groups already working on related issues?

One thing that Transition Houston is doing is encouraging neighborhood initiatives. This kind of hyper-local organizing is something that I think will be very valuable for Oklahoma City. Neighborhood initiatives were one of the discussion groups that we had during our recent retreat, and we are going to refine the idea more during our next meeting - and hopefully get to some action soon ;).

I'm glad that I got the chance to talk with Transition Houston and I hope to keep in touch. As our groups make progress, it will be interesting to compare notes and share ideas. I believe Transition Town is a very grand experiment, where we need to continually try new things, see what works, and improve and refine our efforts. It's great to have a sister city for the journey!