Friday, May 28, 2010

can we stay in the suburbs?

A reworked rerun for the holiday weekend. Enjoy.

There is little doubt that during that last 60 years we here in America have transformed our manmade landscape in a way that is fundamentally different from any form of human habitation ever known. While many have flocked to this new way of organizing the spaces in which we live, critics have noticed the shortcomings and have loudly pointed them out. It’s been suggested that the development of the suburbs here in the U.S. was a really bad idea. Author James Kunstler describes suburbia as, “the greatest misallocation of wealth in human history.” The ability of most citizens to own and cheaply operate an automobile means we’ve had access to a level of mobility never before experienced. The outgrowth of which has been a sprawling pattern of living that changed the rules about how and where we live, work, and play and how we get there and back. We are now more spread out than ever before, mostly getting back and forth from one place to another by driving alone in our cars. This could turn out to be a really bad thing.

As the cost of fueling those cars increases, it’s becoming obvious we’ve foolishly put too many of our eggs into one basket. And as America wakes up to the realities of a changing climate, it’s also painfully obvious that soloing around in a huge fleet of carbon emitters isn’t the most thoughtful way to transport ourselves from one side of suburbia to the other. The question is, as the expansive nature of suburban life becomes too expensive, both economically and ecologically, what will we do with this great “misallocation” of wealth?

Will we, as some suggest, simply abandon this experiment? The likelihood of moving everyone out of suburbia and into mixed use, walkable communities is quite remote. Likewise moving everyone from the suburbs out into the countryside and onto farms is unlikely. To be sure many, many people will move. Some people are already choosing to move to places where they can safely walk and bike to meet more of their daily needs. Others are choosing to reruralize, but completely depopulating suburban America is a project we have neither the fiscal resources nor the fossil fuel energy necessary to accomplish. It seems reasonable to assume that lots of people are going to continue to live in the suburban communities we’ve created all over this country during the last 60 years.

Will these places simply devolve into slums with roving bands of thieves stripping building materials and other valuables from abandoned homes and formerly homeless drug addicts burning them down while trying to keep warm? They’ll probably be some of that especially if the housing crisis worseness (and it will) and the government continues to address it largely by bailing out banks. From a recent article in The Atlantic,

At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community’s 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son’s bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who’d moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlotte Observer, “I thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen.”

That is to say, this is already a problem. And with more people defaulting on their mortgages and losing their jobs as the economy slumps we’re likely to see this scenario play out repeatedly. But it’s important to take a moment and assess the possibilities presented by the problem. That is, if we’re going to do anything other than whistle while a large number of the communities in this country turn into the slums of the 21st century, we’re going to have to comprehensively address the problem and that means starting with an assessment of not only the disadvantages of suburban America but the advantages we might have in this arrangement of living. Could the problem actually turn out to be the solution?

One of the results of a declining in the availability of oil and other fossil fuel resources will undoubtedly be a rise in the cost of food or even outright shortages of certain types of calories we’ve grown accustom to acquiring quite easily. Lots of people have written about this. It’s seems increasingly obvious that we’re going to have to grow food differently if we have any chance of adapting to a low energy lifestyle with any semblance of grace. Growing food means using land for some sort of agriculture. Exactly what land we use is entirely up to us. It’s worth noting that while David Pimentel et al have suggested that it takes 1.8 acres of land to feed each of us now. That number could be reduced to 1.2 acres per person while still meeting the nutritional needs of the average American. But by 2050 we are likely to have only 0.6 acres person both because of the rise in global population and the loss of land due to desertification, salinization and soil depletion. In the very near future we’re not going to have enough land to feed ourselves in the manner in which we’ve been doing so. Where will more “new” land come from?

The suburbs were born out of an idea that each man could have his own cottage in the forest, his own unmolested paradise outside of the nastys of the industrializing cities and still go to work in those cities each day. (Just how many of the problems we’re facing today are born out of us wanting to both have and eat our cake?) The idea was that a man could still earn a living in the dirty city but return to his pristine piece of land where his wife and children could be free from pollution, crime, brown people, noise and traffic. It never quite worked out that way, which is to say it has, since the beginning, failed to achieve what this experiment set out to accomplish; to say nothing of the negative aspects of this way of developing our countryside. But nevertheless, the end result is that a lot of people live on small amounts of land in communities that aren’t completely paved over with asphalt and concrete. Many of us here in this country have access to land albeit in small amounts. This provides us with the most important resource needed to address the rising cost of food- soil.

In other words, the fact that we’ve chopped up much of the existing farmland that once surrounded major metropolitan areas in this country and parceled it out in fairly small sizes to many more people ultimately may or may not prove to have been a really bad idea. But, not only is it the hand we have now been dealt, it might turn out to have been a fairly nifty way of developing and maintaining a moderately democratic land ownership policy here in America. We still have, albeit in another form and with a reduction in the quantity and quality of soil ready for food production, a reasonable amount of land for growing food.

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that's roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

What do you do with a surplus of more than 22 million large lot homes during a period of failing industrial agriculture and rising food costs? You establish new microfarms of course. Those people who do continue to live in the suburbs either because they can not move or because they don’t want to, could feed themselves by using this land to grow food for themselves and their neighbors. The food could be grown largely free from fossil fuel inputs and would be produced very close to the people who will eventually eat it. This solves two of the really big problems associated with the industrial model of agriculture. It provides a ready land base not for the reinstitution of plantation style farming whereby wealthy landowners who profited from energy descent reintroduce a horrible form of feudalism that enslaves the former paper pushing population of America who are likely to lose their jobs as the American economy continues to decline. No, this land has already been subdivided into manageable parcels that could serve as the basis for a revolution in agriculture.

Mention this idea to an ordinary citizen unaware of the prospects we face in the near future and you’re likely to get a host of responses about how unlikely or unreasonable such a solution might be. It’s likely we haven’t reached the pain threshed necessary to get the real attention of average Americans, but one response certainly will be that we can’t grow very much food by just tearing out our lawns. This of course isn’t true at all.

Several recent studies suggest that small scale, sustainable agriculture is actually more productive per unit of land than industrial farming. We’ve come to think of farming efficiency in terms of human labor, with the adoption of the idea that the fewer people doing it the better. But in terms of what the land can yield, we’re better off farming it intensely on smaller plots of land and the math is there to back up that claim. Yields can be substantial even on such small plots as would be available to the average suburbanite.

The Dervaes family of Path to Freedom provides an excellent example of what is possible in our front and backyards. They live on an urban lot of about 1/5th of an acre. They cultivate about 1/10th of an acre or about 4,400 square feet. That’s 210 feet X 210 feet. In other words, that’s not much land and yet they consistently produce more than 6,000 lbs of vegetables annually. The four adults living there eat about 85% of their vegetarian diet from the yard during the summer months and are still able to get more than half of what they eat out of their gardens in the winter. This and they sell some produce to nearby restaurants. It should be noted that they live in southern California where the weather is extremely generous to those who growing food (and have access to water), but Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch point out in Four-Seasons Harvest: Organic Vegetables from You Home Garden All Year Long, even people living in Maine are capable of growing a tremendous amount and variety of nutritional, tasty food regardless of where they live.

And let us not forget all those paper pushers I just hand pink slips to earlier in this post. Our government and a lot of well meaning business-as-usual types are going to put together all sorts of plans to try and reemploy all the people who lose their jobs in the post carbon economy. There is already talk of a kind of “Green Works Project Administration” like the WPA seen during the New Deal era. At one time the WPA was the largest employee base in the country and was designed as a way to build up American infrastructure while reemploying those negatively affected by the Great Depression. Such an effort now could get much needed projects up and run in terms of new forms of energy that aren’t fossil fuel based. To say nothing of conservation and energy efficiency projects such as home insulation that needs to be done on a national scale. But this or any other response that doesn’t include a large measure of self sufficiency for the average American would be missing out on a great opportunity to redemocratize America. It is painfully obvious that we are at our greatest disadvantage when we are in debt to others for the basics we need in order to survive. Growing more of our own food in our own personal gardens, parks, school yards and community gardens is a great way to address this problem while providing for the nutritional shortfall likely to be experienced in the wake of the decline of industrial agriculture.

Luckily the sun is still shining and even those of us who live in heavily wooded neighborhoods have the option of modifying the canopy of those trees to gain access to sunlight. The soil is still under our feet and we can use it going forward to meet more of our food needs. The suburbs also offer a certain amount of impervious surfaces or surfaces that shed water. This is often a problem in many communities. The idea is that if too many roofs tops and too many roadways shed too much water during a rainstorm. The result is a high volume of water after a storm that has to be diverted out of these neighborhoods before rushing into our creeks, streams and rivers. This often leads to flooding and/or substantial amounts of soil runoff, the number one water pollution problem in many communities. I find it annoyingly amusing that while my county has storm water problems to such an extent that we are under EPA mandate to address this problem, we are simultaneously experiencing water restrictions due to the drought in southeastern America. In other words, we have two water problems where I live, too much water and not enough. It is too simple to suggest that we collect some of what we get where it falls and use it?

The point is that the structures of suburbia- specifically rooftops and roadways- could be used to gather the water we would need to grow food for ourselves. This could be especially important going forward as global climate changes throws weather curveball after curveball at us. The solution is to designing simple, elegant ways to collect this water for use during times between rain storms. 600 gallons of water can be collected from 1,000 square feet of rooftop in just a 1” rainstorm. Many McMansions are much larger and as such have the capacity to gather much more rain. It’s worth noting that 65% of the water we use in our homes each day goes to irrigation, toilet flushing and laundry. Rainwater could be used to do all three with simple filtration. Doing this could go a long way towards restoring the health of our waterways.

In his paper Garden Agriculture: A revolution in efficient water use, David Holmgren notes that “Australian suburbs are no more densely populated than the world’s most densely populated agricultural regions.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that American suburbs are populated in roughly the same way. This suggests to me that it is at least within the realm of possibility that the suburbs could be transformed in a way that helps us: A) take advantage of new soil for growing food, B) foster a redemocratization of America by offering a reasonable amount of food self sufficiency for families during the coming era of change and volatility and C) capture the rain water necessary to address the deepening water crisis being experienced worldwide. We may find that in a time in which we are unable to build out grand new responses to peak oil and climate change, agriculturally at least, we may not have to. We might do best to just stay put.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

drilling for offshore oil.

My original post from Sept 2008 is all the way at the bottom. Just above it is an update regarding President Obama's announcement of more offshore oil exploration. Then the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burned and sank. Most recent updates regarding this, the worst oil spill in US history, start at the top.

Update 7.19.2010 Swimming in oil. Go on in, the water is fine...

7. 14. 2010 This isn't an update on the BP Gulf of Mexico spill but I do think it is telling.
On 1 May this year a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline in the state of Akwa Ibom [Nigeria] spilled more than a million gallons into the delta over seven days before the leak was stopped. Local people demonstrated against the company but say they were attacked by security guards. Community leaders are now demanding $1bn in compensation for the illness and loss of livelihood they suffered. Few expect they will succeed. In the meantime, thick balls of tar are being washed up along the coast.

In fact, more oil is spilled from the [Niger] delta's network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico, the site of a major ecological catastrophe caused by oil that has poured from a leak triggered by the explosion that wrecked BP's Deepwater Horizon rig last month. Read more
Update 6.27.2010

Insert your own expletives. I'm telling you, this is USAChernobyl.
A mysterious "disease" has caused widespread damage to plants from weeds to farmed organic and conventionally grown crops. There is very strong suspicion that ocean winds have blown Corexit aerosol plumes or droplets and that [oil]dispersants have caused the unexplained widespread damage or "disease". Read More...

Update 6.23.2010

Update 6.19.2010
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection authorized the Coast Guard to burn oil offshore, and the county is warning people of potential health issues. Read More.

Update 6.8.2010
Deepwater Horizon installation manager Jimmy Harrell, a top employee of rig owner Transocean, was speaking with someone in Houston via satellite phone. Buzbee told Mother Jones that, according to this witness account, Harrell was screaming, “Are you #@% ing happy? Are you #@%!ing happy? The rig’s on fire! I told you this was gonna happen.” Read More.
Update 6.8.2010
The chief executive of BP sold £1.4 million of his shares in the fuel giant weeks before the Gulf of Mexico oil spill caused its value to collapse. Read More. He's not the only one...
Update 5.28.2010

Matt Simmons was an energy adviser to President George W. Bush, is an adviser to the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre, and is a member of the National Petroleum Council and the Council on Foreign Relations. Simmon is chairman and CEO of Simmons & Company International, an investment bank catering to oil companies.

Simmons told Dylan Ratigan that "there's another leak, much bigger, 5 to 6 miles away" from the leaking riser and blowout preventer which we've all been watching on the underwater cameras...

Update 5.27.2010

I stopped updating because most of what you wanted to know was being reported in the newz. Even the more accurate estimates of flow leak (+100,000 barrels a day) were being published in the media. These two however don't seem to be making the newz.

Transocean, according to the letter, also says it will make a $270 million profit on the insurance policy for the rig. And the senators claim the rig was insured for more than it was worth. Read More.
Talk about shorting yourself! Can you believe how much money people are making by betting against the continuation of the America as is? Also,

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, partly owned by BP, shut down on Tuesday after spilling several thousand barrels of crude oil into backup containers, drastically cutting supply down the main artery between refineries and Alaska's oilfields. Read More
Update 5.3.2010

A confidential government report on the unfolding spill disaster in the Gulf makes clear the Coast Guard now fears the well could become an unchecked gusher shooting millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf.

"Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought."

In this case, an order of magnitude higher would mean the volume of oil coming from the well could be 10 times higher than the 5,000 barrels a day coming out now. That would mean 50,000 barrels a day, or 2.1 million gallons a day. It appears the new leaks mentioned in the Wednesday release are the leaks reported to the public late Wednesday night. read more
Update 5.2.2010

The Gulf Coast spill will have eclipsed the Exxon Valdez in terms of total gallons of oil before the weekend is over -- making it the largest oil spill in U.S. history -- according to calculations made by oceanographer Ian MacDonald after studying aerial Coast Guard photos taken earlier in the week. read more
Update 4.29.2010

It looks like the damage was underestimated. I for one am shocked!

Five times more oil a day than previously believed is spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from a blown-out well of a sunken drilling rig, the Coast Guard said Wednesday, an estimate the oil company trying to contain the massive spill disputes. A new leak was discovered in the pipes a mile below the ocean's surface... read more
Update 4.28.2010:

The Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster will develop into one of the worst spills in US history if the well is not sealed, the coast guard officer leading the response warned.... But BP officials say the relief wells will take up to three months to drill, and with oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of 42,000 gallons a day... read more

Update 4.23.2010:

This ought to put a damper on the offshore drilling debate.

A blazing oil rig sank Thursday into the Gulf of Mexico sparking fears of an environmental disaster almost two days after a massive blast that left 11 workers missing.
But don't worry...

The 396-by-256-foot (121-by-78-meter) platform, owned by Transocean, Ltd. and under contract to BP, was still ablaze but officials said environmental damage appeared to be minimal because the fire was burning much of the spilt fuel.
End Deep Water Horizon Updates

Obama announcement of more offshore oil exploration...

What follows is something I posted in September of 2008. The US presidential campaign was building up steam and I was sick and tired of hearing 'Drill Baby Drill.' It made me ill because of the stupidity of the entire argument. I wrote,

Even when production is pumping at full capacity, additional offshore drilling facilities would amount to about 200,000 barrels per day (bpd). The US currently uses 21 million bpd. This does not take into account the increase in oil consumption necessary to continue to grow our economy[during the time it would take to get the drills up and drilling]. The bottom line is that additional offshore drilling will provide 1.2% of the oil we use every day if we don't increase consumption and we're willing to wait 20 years.
So now Obama has opened up most of the east coast among other areas for oil exploration.

The Democrats are pretending to have been betrayed, the Republicans are saying he didn't go far enough and the environmentalists are mad as hell.

The truth is that this was a beautiful political move. President Obama gave his Democratic base ammunition for the upcoming election and took steps towards soothing the sting of those opposed to "health care" reform on the right. Sure there are factions within the Democratic party who are oppose to more offshore drilling but fewer than five Democrats will actually vote against their Democratic candidates this November because the President opened up more offshore areas for oil exploration. Instead those candidates will be able to say, "Look, we're trying to become more energy independent by opening up areas previously off limits and the Republicans aren't going along with us. We're willing to try what the Republicans have been asking us for years." I'm not sure if those political bullets will hit their targets but hey, it's something.

The real genius of this move lies in the fact that the Republicans have been saying for ever and ever that we could solve this energy problem if those wacky environmentally conservative Democrats would just open up more offshore areas for drilling. It's total bullshit of course, as you'll read below but they've gotten away with it because average Americans don't know the facts. Obama has now taken that sound bite away from them. And as an added bonus if the Republicans do speak out against this they will be branded even more deeply as the Party of No.

I'm guessing the environmentalists who are upset about this don't understand the facts. Little if any of the oil in these new areas will ever be pumped out of the seafloor. It's too costly. We won't be able to afford it. There is no real threat to the environment here because it's highly unlikely that any substantial new drilling in these areas will ever take place.

This is political theater, nothing more. Grab a bag of popcorn and be amused.

Original post from September 2008...

I won't go so far as to say I'm against lifting the ban on drilling for oil off the east coast of the United States of America. I say that because the only reason the idea is being bandied about is that the last two Republican presidents were oil tycoons and that party is desperate to reframe the rise in the price of gasoline as the fault of the Democrats. Perhaps Democrats should agree to lift the ban and when the price of gas doesn't go down, Republicans will be left without that political punch to throw.

Having said that, I am not in favor of lifting the offshore drilling ban because drilling for oil off the east coast of the U.S. is stupid. Here's why.

The USGS says there are 17.8 billion barrels of undiscovered recoverable resources(read Unproven Reserves) in waters currently off limits to exploration. The EIA says production couldn't really get started until 2017 and wouldn't be fully ramped up for another 15 years until about 2030.Remember the U.S. uses more than 7 billion barrels a year.Great, there might be two and a half more years worth of oil.Even if we could start pumping at full capacity today when my daughter is 2 ½, she'll be 5 when all that oil is used up.Even when production is pumping at full capacity, additional offshore drilling facilities would amount to about 200,000 barrels per day (bpd). The US currently uses 21 million bpd. This does not take into account the increase in oil consumption necessary to continue to grow our economy. The bottom line is that additional offshore drilling will provide 1.2% of the oil we use every day if we don't increase consumption and we're willing to wait 20 years.

Oh and if the oil companies don't sell that oil to other countries. Remember, we currently export about 1.5 million barrels of oil from the US every day. There is no guarantee that big oil will even keep this measly 200,000 bpd in the US.

And don't forget the hurricanes.

Notice I didn't even mention the possible environmental catastrophes or the hit tourism might take if lounging at the beach starts to include a beautiful view of the flare from a drilling rig.

Offshore oil is politicians playing the blame game and that's all it is. The sad part is that a majority of Americans are falling for it while their leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, continue to refuse to act appropriately.
If you want a quick test of whether or not a politican understands energy issues ask her if she'd like to see the cost of gasoline go down. If she says yes,

she doesn't know what the hell she's talking about.