October 16, 2011
October 16, 2011
APOCALYPTIC VISIONS of the 1973 oil embargo still linger: drivers brawling in lineups at the pumps; a neutered US president begging foreign dictators for more oil; prices skyrocketing; and OPEC, a four-letter word. Today, oil remains the pragmatic root of our society. With world supplies shrinking and the prices marching ever higher, all eyes are now on Alberta, and both the US and China are making a big play for its vast reserves of crude oil. Will Washington take the oil in exchange for a sweeping trade deal with Canada? Alberta Premier Ralph Klein is in the catbird seat as a weak prime minister wonders how to protect the national interest.
In the frozen morning, a parade of buses moves along highway 63 north from Fort McMurray, delivering employees to the oil sands. I am in a Syncrude company truck with two PR people discussing oil, Alberta’s central intoxicant, driver of the economy, fuel for the provincial mythology — that shit-kicking, populist, plain-speaking, debt-free image that is exported with such care. Signs mark the distance to the oil sands projects: Suncor 22 km, Syncrude 35. They are towns, overlit, ceaseless, like Las Vegas containing thousands of hopefuls and billions of dollars. Passing Suncor as the sun rises low in the sky, there is a cloud of steam and smoke that has the viscosity of whipped cream, folding in opulent spiralling funnels that drift east towards Saskatchewan. Farther along, at Syncrude, flares are visible through the dense fog, a product of dozens of stacks emitting steam, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and other elements that yield, the former mayor once said, “the smell of money.”
Lights define an exoskeleton that covers hundreds of acres, a scene that evokes both a space station future and an industrial past. There are nascent pyramids of sulphur, brilliant yellow stockpiles awaiting a viable market. Almost 12,000 people currently work at Syncrude: contractors expanding the operation in hesitant, expensive steps, process operators, engineers, nurses, welders, doctors, cooks, bartenders, firemen, truckers — a city contained around a single idea.
In the vast open mine, dozens of 400-ton trucks, the largest in the world, move continuously, dumping the sand into hoppers that take it to the upgrader to be processed. The upgrader is part of Syncrude’s Stage 3 expansion. Budgeted at $4 billion in 2001, the expansion will cost $7.8 billion by the time it’s completed in 2006, an overrun that fits in with the theme of gigantism that is presented out here with a schoolyard pride, and in equivalencies of football fields, or elephants, or the distance to the moon. Twenty-eight billion dollars have been invested in the oil sands since 1996, with another $32 billion committed. There are eighty-one projects either underway or planned.
As part of the tour, I climbed up to the cab of a monstrous electric shovel operated by Alf Poppen, an Ontario emigrant and former dragline man, who strokes his 100-ton bucket against the face of the mine with the touch of a lover. He fills a 400-ton truck in minutes and it joins others rumbling across the bitumen.
The oil sands are the largest hydrocarbon deposit in the world, three separate fields that hold 1.6 trillion barrels of heavy crude. Nearly 174 billion barrels are listed as reserves, meaning oil that is recoverable using existing technology under current economic conditions. It is expensive to get out of the ground — it cost Syncrude $18.61 per barrel last year compared to roughly $1 for Saudi oil — but it represents the world’s most stable supply. When Suncor (then Sun Oil) began production in Fort McMurray in 1967, the oil sands were viewed by much of the industry as experimental folly. But the cost of extraction has steadily declined while the price of oil has gone up…
October 16, 2011
SOMETIME AROUND 2014, Italy will complete construction of seventy-eight mobile floodgates aimed at protecting Venice’s three inlets from the rising tides of the Adriatic Sea. The massive doors—twenty meters by thirty meters, and five meters thick—will, most of the time, lie flat on the sandy seabed between the lagoon and the sea. But when a high tide is predicted, the doors will empty themselves of water and fill with compressed air, rising up on hinges to keep the Adriatic out of the city. Three locks will allow ships to move in and out of the lagoon while the gates are up.
Nowhere else in the world have humans so constantly had to create and re-create their infrastructure in response to a changing natural environment than in Venice. The idea for the gates dates back to the 1966 flood, which inundated 100 percent of the city. Still, it took from 1970 to 2002 for the hydrologist Robert Frassetto and others to convince their fellow Italians to build them. Not everyone sees the oscillating and buoyant floodgates as Venice’s salvation. After the project was approved, the head of World Wildlife Fund Italy said, “Today the city’s destiny rests on a pretentious, costly, and environmentally harmful technological gamble.”
In truth, the grandeur that is Venice has always rested—quite literally—on a series of pretentious, costly, and environmentally harmful technological gambles. Her buildings rest upon pylons made of ancient larch and oak trees ripped from inland forests a thousand years ago. Over time, the pylons were petrified by the saltwater, infill was added, and cathedrals were constructed. Little by little, technology helped transform a town of humble fisherfolk into the city we know today.
Saving Venice has meant creating Venice, not once, but many times since its founding. And that is why her rescue from the rising seas serves as an apt metaphor for solving this century’s formidable environmental problems. Each new act of salvation will result in new unintended consequences, positive and negative, which will in turn require new acts of salvation. What we call “saving the Earth” will, in practice, require creating and re-creating it again and again for as long as humans inhabit it.
MANY ENVIRONMENTALLY CONCERNED people today view technology as an affront to the sacredness of nature, but our technologies have always been perfectly natural. Our animal skins, our fire, our farms, our windmills, our nuclear plants, and our solar panels—all 100 percent natural, drawn, as they are, from the raw materials of the Earth.
Furthermore, over the course of human history, those technologies have not only been created by us, but have also helped create us. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the reason for our modern hands, with their opposable thumbs and shorter fingers, is that they were better adapted for tool use. Ape hands are great for climbing trees but not, it turns out, for striking flint or making arrowheads. Those prehumans whose hands could best use tools gained an enormous advantage over those whose hands could not.
As our hands and wrists changed, we increasingly walked upright, hunted, ate meat, and evolved. Our upright posture allowed us to chase down animals we had wounded with our weapons. Our long-distance running was aided by sweat glands replacing fur. The use of fire to cook meat allowed us to consume much larger amounts of protein, which allowed our heads to grow so large that some prehumans began delivering bigger-brained babies prematurely. Those babies, in turn, were able to survive because we were able to fashion still more tools, made from animal bladders and skins, to strap the helpless infants to their mothers’ chests. Technology, in short, made us human.
Of course, as our bodies, our brains, and our tools evolved, so too did our ability to radically modify our environment. We hunted mammoths and other species to extinction. We torched whole forests and savannas in order to flush prey and clear land for agriculture. And long before human emissions began to affect the climate, we had already shifted the albedo of the Earth by replacing many of the world’s forests with cultivated agriculture. While our capabilities to alter our environment have, over the last century, expanded substantially, the trend is long-standing. The Earth of one hundred or two hundred or three hundred years ago was one that had already been profoundly shaped by human endeavor.
None of this changes the reality and risks of the ecological crises humans have created. Global warming, deforestation, overfishing, and other human activities—if they don’t threaten our very existence—certainly offer the possibility of misery for many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of humans and are rapidly transforming nonhuman nature at a pace not seen for many hundreds of millions of years. But the difference between the new ecological crises and the ways in which humans and even prehumans have shaped nonhuman nature for tens of thousands of years is one of scope and scale, not kind.
Humans have long been cocreators of the environment they inhabit. Any proposal to fix environmental problems by turning away from technology risks worsening them, by attempting to deny the ongoing coevolution of humans and nature.
NEVERTHELESS, ELITES IN THE WEST—who rely more heavily on technology than anyone else on the planet—insist that development and technology are the causes of ecological problems but not their solution. They claim that economic sacrifice is the answer, while living amid historic levels of affluence and abundance. They consume resources on a vast scale, overwhelming whatever meager conservations they may partake in through living in dense (and often fashionable) urban enclaves, driving fuel-efficient automobiles, and purchasing locally grown produce. Indeed, the most visible and common expressions of faith in ecological salvation are new forms of consumption. Green products and services—the Toyota Prius, the efficient washer/dryer, the LEED-certified office building—are consciously identified by consumers as things they do to express their higher moral status…
October 16, 2011
ON 31 October, a newborn baby somewhere in the world will become the 7 billionth member of the human race. Or so says the UN – alternatively, this date could be at least a year too early.
Behind the UN’s patina of certainty may lie outdated and unreliable census data. The suspicion is that millions of births and deaths have not been counted and there is huge uncertainty about the rate at which women are giving birth.
The precise “day of 7 billion” may not matter much. But the inaccuracies make it harder to answer a more important question: is human population set to peak within the next few decades or will it carry on growing beyond that?
Wolfgang Lutz of the Vienna Institute of Demography says the UN is “under political pressure to disregard uncertainty and name a date” for 7 billion. But he and colleague Sergei Scherbov estimate that the world probably won’t reach 7 billion until early in 2013, though it could be as late as 2020.
The director of the UN population division Hania Zlotnik defends her data but agrees that “an interval of a few months or even a year would be a reasonable range of uncertainty”.
One problem for demographers is undercounting. Even developed countries reckon their censuses miss up to 3 per cent of people. Up-to-date figures have to adjust for both this and the changes since the last census, which could be decades in the case of some African countries. So adjusting for extra people is routine.
The big danger, Scherbov says, may be overadjusting. The world has seen a dramatic decline in fertility in recent years, with the average woman now having only 2.5 children, half as many as her grandmother 50 years ago. So there may be far fewer new arrivals than demographers assume.
Take China, the world’s largest country. Raw census data suggest that the average woman has 1.2 children, but this hides a multitude of problems. State demographers believe people are hiding tens of millions of babies to evade the one-child policy, and so estimate that the rate is 1.8. But Zhongwei Zhao of the Australian National University in Canberra says other figures in the 2010 census suggest the raw data may be nearer the truth. The UN currently plumps for 1.5 children per woman.
Discrepancies in estimating populations are amplified in long-term projections. Zhao says China’s recent overadjusting of its fertility rate will turn into an overestimation of as much as 100 million by 2030…