The End of Growth

It’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed a book on here. Probably because I don’t have a helluva lot of time for reading these days.

I’m about half way through “The End of Growth” by Jeff Rubin, former chief economist at CIBC and author of “Why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller”, and interested enough to blog about it prior to finishing it. He’s painting a pretty dire picture of the state of the world’s economy, with very compelling arguments. The combinations of triple digit prices on oil, the quadrupling of coal prices in recent years, combined with a general anti-nuclear stance around the world (particularly after the Fukushima incident), are flatlining growth in Europe and North America. Add to this mix a voracious appetite from China and India for fossil fuels, and it’s pretty apparent that the era of cheap energy is over.

And without cheap energy, our current system of globalization falls apart. It no longer makes sense to build cheap widgets in China, if the fuel for the boat costs more than the cargo is worth.

Why are we drilling in the arctic? Levelling the boreal forest in northern Alberta and boiling sand to extract bitumen? Because “conventional oil” (the kind that erupts out of a hole in the ground in Texas) is basically tapped out. As oil companies run out of cheap oil, we have to turn to oil that’s harder and harder to find, extract, refine and ship. Which means it’s never going to be cheaper. The price will fluctuate of course, but the days of using cheap energy to shock our economies out of recession are over.

So if growth is dependant on cheap energy (which Jeff makes a pretty clear argument for), and we no longer have access to cheap energy (also pretty evident)….it’s pretty safe to assume that no-growth or very slow growth is our new reality.

There are some pretty big consequences for society, if that’s indeed the new reality. From sovereign debt loads to youth unemployment, to the performance of my RRSP…a world with no growth looks very different than the one we currently inhabit, the one that’s been propped up by cheap energy for the last 200 years. Of course, we know that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) doesn’t influence the happiness and satisfaction of society…so maybe a “no-growth” economy might actually do us some good? I’m pretty sure that’s where the book’s headed.

Either way, it’s looking like it might be time to lock down some more grease suppliers for the ol’ veggie truck

Transit and Windmills and NIMBY’s (oh my!)

It’s been awhile since I weighed in on Cochrane’s controversial topics (currently transit and windmills). Let’s start with windmills.

Recently, there’s been a lot of chatter in the local papers about plans for a 5kW wind turbine that’s proposed for the Cochrane High School. For those that aren’t familiar with this school, they’ve been on the leading edge of sustainable development since 2000. A group of their students beat me out of an Alberta Emerald Award a few years ago (much deserved!). I’m not going to dive into the details of this ongoing drama, preferring instead to comment on a couple of things that come to mind.

First, there was a recent motion (by the mayor) at Town Council to develop an alternative energy framework for projects such as this. I think this is a splendid idea…so long as it’s sole focus isn’t on some minority groups definition of “unsightly”. There’s also talk of asking the high school to put their windmill project on hold until this framework is completed. I think that’s a terrible idea….unless we’re halting all development projects until the appropriate “framework” is in place. Trying to establish this framework at this time is going to encourage the NIMBY’s No Turbine’s in Town Coalition (NTTC) to direct their pent-up rage towards a document that is going to be around for a long time. The project should go in front of the Alberta Utilities Board for consideration, as the next step in due process for these students.

Diversifying our aging electricity grid with sustainable local energy production is critical.

Next up: Transit. Oh god. The issue that seemingly won’t go away, prompted in large part by one of the local papers. On page 2 of the Cochrane Eagle this week was a column with no fewer than 17 questions, disguised loosely as an editorial.

Is it a convenience for the few paid for by the many? Does it make sense for taxpayers to subsidize a bus service taking shoppers to another city?

I have a feeling those questions aren’t being asked out of curiosity.

Having followed the transit discussion for some time, it’s intriguing to me that the town is catching such flack over the issue (then again, I’m regularly intrigued by what get’s published sometimes…). Sure, they jumped out of the gate pretty hard off the bat, but since then they’ve taken feedback, slowed down the process, listened to people’s concerns and come back to the table with 3 very reasonable and affordable approaches to phasing in transit (an identified community need). What seems to be the issue at hand comes back to some very vocal people who disagree with the finding’s of a variety of robust Ipsos Reid polls and surveys, which concluded that there is general support of transit in the community.

Disagreeing with something doesn’t make it any less true….whether it’s a windmill or a bus.

The problem that isn’t.

At a recent teacher’s conference in Edmonton I asked some workshop attendees if addiction is a problem. Everyone in the room nodded and raised their hands.

If I asked you “is climate change a problem?” or “is deforestation, overfishing, water pollution and habitat loss a problem?”, I’m betting that there would be a collective raising of hands and nodding.

Unfortunately, we’re all wrong. Addiction is not a problem, and neither is climate change. Both of those phenomena are symptoms of a solution to other problems.

Take climate change. Scientific consensus points to the burning of carbon based fuels as the primary driver of the greenhouse affect, which induces global climate change. Why do we burn fuels? To transport ourselves and goods, heat our homes and our water, create electricity, etc. When I have the problem of needing to get somewhere, I start the truck and drive there. Problem solved. When the house is chilly and the furnace kicks on, problem solved. When I feel the need to blog about something, on goes the computer. Problem solved.

As long as we’re looking at symptoms as if they’re problems in their own right, we’re limiting both the discussion on how to solve them, and the tools at our disposal. So long as there’s no real incentive for me to upgrade my 32 year old furnace, it’s likely going to keep chugging away, keeping my house pleasantly warm through the depths of winter. Of course, if my problem suddenly became very expensive natural gas…you can bet that I’ll do something about it. We’re hardwired to solve our individual problems, not so inclined to make sacrifices for the broader good. Which isn’t to say that we’re not capable of doing so, just that we don’t often.

If I’ve learned anything from my work with addicts over the years, it’s that change IS possible. It’s just really hard. And if we don’t address the underlying issue driving the addiction (or climate change, et al), we don’t really have a snowball’s chance in hell of solving it.

The first step in an addict’s journey to recovery? Figuring out what the real problem is.

I’ve been getting some requests to run a webinar on change, addiction and system’s thinking. Interested? Follow the link and let me know what day/time works best. If I get enough interest we’ll make something happen. 

The Resilient System: Feedback

Last week I wrote about Diversity vs. Efficiency, and how often in our systems we’re sacrificing the former for the latter. This week I’m going to get into Feedback a little bit.

Not the dreaded “sit down with the boss every year and chat about your annual review” kind of feedback. The kind of feedback that drives systems, both little and huge.

First though, two kinds of Feedback:

Positive Feedback: Encourages the system to “do it again”. From rave reviews at the concert hall that sparks a 2nd run of the same play, to diner’s consistently ordering the same dish at the local restaurant, positive feedback is what propels systems forward (usually quite rapidly). Positive feedback often encourages the system to use up resources (think of shareholders getting high returns from companies that cut down rainforests… the positive feedback encourages more investment, which results in more logging, which results in higher profits, which results in more investment…).

Negative Feedback: Places limits on the system, and is essential for long term system stability. It’s the wolf or coyote that keeps the rabbit population in check. It’s the group of book publishers that only buys recycled paper, instead of virgin wood. It’s the ability of the planet to absorb the carbon we emit.

Typically, positive feedback loops are much faster than negative feedback loops. Often, these positive loops will lead to runaway growth within a system, until the negative feedback loops of the system catch up (or the system uses up all the resources and crashes…also a form of negative feedback. A recent financial crisis come to mind…lot’s of little positive feedback loops at work there, creating a runaway system.)

The most important thing about feedback is that it exists, and we need to listen to it. First we need to figure out what the heck we’re measuring, and whether that’s the right “thing” that measures the stability and sustainability of the system. Thinking back to the cod fishery example from the previous post, it becomes pretty apparent that the positive feedback that was being measured didn’t indicate the resiliency of the system.

How do you know what’s going on in your system (business, classroom, community, etc.)? What do you measure? Why do you measure it? Is it positive feedback or negative?