Cleaning Up for the Kardashians

KimKEveryone is probably familiar with the “reality” television show, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”. It is a digital landfill dedicated to the glorification of gluttonous consumerism. A Dead Kennedys’ song (see, “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death”) evoked similar sentiment when Jello and the gang railed against the excesses of 1980s consumerism. Solid waste is discussed extensively in Other Inconvenient Truths Beyond Global Warming (2015). So what is there to clean up for the Kardashians? There is a much compelling and sobering “other inconvenient truth” that raises its ugly head. This truth not only applies to Kenedythe Kardashians, but also to many of their fellow Hollywood celebrities and also many of the members of the economic elitist1% club which drew the wrath of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Please understand that this other inconvenient truth is not the sole purview of the Hollywood crowd but it crosses all strata of the 1%. That’s right, you can also include Dick Cheney, the Koch brothers, Hillary Clinton, and Michael Moore as also being complicit. But being complicit with what? The simple fact of the matter is that with increased affluence comes increased wasting of resources. Data collected by the World Bank has shown that the rate of wasting resources is much higher with the affluent than it is with lower economic groups. In other words, those members of society that are the most economically privileged or fortunate are the most promiscuously wasteful. It is a sad, but true, irony.

The referenced World Bank report (Hoornweg and Bhada -Tata, 2012) assembled pie-chat-imgdata which showed that waste generation varies according to both region and economic levels. Waste generation rates vary as a function of affluence. It appears to be clear that greater societal technological sophistication and affluence results in greater per capita waste generation. Consider the chart showing the impact of affluence on waste generation. High-income countries produce the most waste per capita, while low income countries produce the least solid waste per capita (Hoornweg and Bhada -Tata, 2012). The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries generate 572 million tones of solid waste per year. The per capita values range from 1.1 to 3.7 kg per person per day with an average of 2.2 kg/capita/day.

Data for this trend is reinforced in the graph shown below from a World Bank Report (Hoornweg and Bhada -Tata, 2012). These data show the profound impact of affluence which is strongly linked with societal technological complexity on waste generation. As human societies get more technologically capable, waste generation rates per capita rise in kind. In effect, as societal functionality gets more technical, waste generation rates increase and humans become less resource efficient and more wasteful.

Not surprisingly, the World Bank (Hoornweg and Bhada -Tata, 2012) has reported that global waste volumes are increasing quickly at faster rates than the rate of urbanization. This is not unexpected if one is inclined to believe that per capita waste generation rates will be similar to a trend that Cook (1971) projected for energy usage per capita. That is, the combined impact of population increases along with upgrades in standard which is increased affluence trump urbanization rates.

bar-graph-imgAnother inconvenient truth as noted by McKinsey (2011) is the potential impact of having 3 billion people suddenly thrust into middle class. This trend alone could massively increase the waste production rates of resources. To illustrate this point using the data from the chart above, let us assume that 1 billion people migrate from the lower middle class of affluence to the high affluence. The chart shows that the low class produces about 0.5 kg waste/capita/day while the average middle class produces about 0.8 kg waste/capita/day. This is a difference of 0.3 kg waste/capita/day. In a scenario having 3 billion people transition to the middle class, world waste generation rates increase by a staggering 2.4 billion kgs/day or almost 1 trillion kgs per year. In other words, increased affluence not only increases per capita resource consumption, but also per capita waste production. As world societies strive to increase standards of living, we must be fully aware of this twofold unfortunate reality. A renewable economy with a recycling system is more than a want, it is a necessity.

Rozich, A. F., Other Inconvenient Truths Beyond Global Warming, Super Nexus Press, West Chester, PA, 2015.

Hoornweg, D. and Perinaz Bhada-Tata, P., What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management, World Bank, Washington, D.C., 2012.

Cook, E., “The Flow of Energy in an Industrial Society”, Scientific American, September, 1971.

McKinsey Global Institute, Resource Revolution: Meeting the World’s Energy, Food, and Water Needs, McKinsey and Company, San Francisco, November, 2011.

van Leeuwen, M., et. al., “The agri-food sector in Ukraine: Current situation and market outlook until 2025”, European Commission Joint Research Centre, Seville, Spain, 2012.

Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death!

The Dead Kennedys (DK) are a punk band with hits such as “California über alles”, a commentary on California’s two-time governor, Jerry Brown (watch here). They also took on sustainability issues and I think they dead kenedyshad it right. Hat’s off to Jello Biafra and the gang. In their compilation album of 1987 entitled, “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death,” DK’s album title is a play on the famous quote by the US Revolutionary Era politician, Patrick Henry, who proclaimed, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” Henry’s quote came from his famous speech to the Virginia state parliament, the House of Burgess, in March, 1775 in Richmond, Virginia. The full quote from the ending to Henry’s speech is thought to be, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”

So what do the Dead Kennedys and Patrick Henry have to do with global warming, climate change, environmental deterioration, and the impending resource scarcity crisis? Henry’s message from 1775 is clearly that freedom for the American colonies is so precious that it is paramount above all else, even life itself. patrick henryWhat the Dead Kennedys are espousing in their 1987 album with its puck rock polemic is that wanton consumerism and wasting of material things derived from our precious resources is more important to human society than anything else, even life. Thus, “Give me convenience or give me death.”

Consumerism in its earliest forms made life for humans and human societal functionality more palatable. It can now be argued that societal perception of consumerism has morphed significantly during the 20th and 21st centuries. Before this time, having appliances and goods that make daily easier was viewed somewhat as a privilege for which one is grateful. Now it seems that the reckless purchase, consumption, and wasting of goods obtained from resources of any kind is essentially a pathological obsession for material “things.” The “throwaway society” was born. Chemicals which are pivotal for making consumables were created using nuclear reactions with incomprehensible amounts of energy in distant stars. What the Universe took billions of years to create and to convey to Earth, society consumes and wastes in a matter of days.

ratA final note submitted for your consideration. In Chapter 1 of “Other Inconvenient Truths Beyond Global Warming,” the account of the rats of the Mautam is told. Once every 48 years, local black rat populations (Rattus rattus in the Mizoram environ of India) explode in huge numbers because of the production of bamboo fruit. The locals refer to these events as the “Mautam”. The hordes of rats decimate crops and food supplies in the nearby villages leading to potential famine conditions for the human inhabitants. The rats are also decimated. The rats consume the new resource with a vengeance, see their populations skyrocket and still continue to consume. As the bamboo fruit is exhausted, the rats’ societal structure collapses and degenerates into cannibalism with female rats eating their young. There are compelling lessons to be taken from the Mautam incidents. It should be noted that the events in Mizoram are real and not the subject of a fictional story or movie. There are clearly parallels between the actions of the rats of the Mautam and the consequences of unbridled human activity and associated resource consumption. Consumerism in its earlier forms in balance with resource availability and the environment needs to be standard. The alternatives as depicted by Nature are too abhorrent to even consider and must be avoided at all costs.

-Dr. Alan Rozich

Photo credits: Dead Kennedys Logo, Patrick Henry Speaking to the House of Commons-Wikimedia Commons; Common Black Rat-Wikimedia Commons and Rathater

Why Oil Industry Estimates for Energy Reserves Can Be an X-File

“Mulder…not everybody is plotting to deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate.” So says Dana 1Scully (in the “Teliko” episode from Season 4 of The X-Files originally aired in 1996), the intrepid FBI agent and partner to the sometime over-zealous Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) on The X-Files. The story revolves around Agents Mulder and Scully  investigating “X-Files” which are essentially unsolved cases with paranormal features. Mulder believes in the paranormal while Scully, the skeptic, is tasked to use scientific methods to discredit Mulder’s work. The agents are gradually manipulated as part of a larger agenda and ultimately come to trust only each other.

The topic of fossil fuel energy reserves is one that is subject to fierce debate and discussion. Take for example the case for oil reserves and supply outlook. As one would expect for the energy space, oil and other energy reserves are hotly debated and frequently laced by some with mindless political rhetoric sans engineering, scientific, and economic reality. The result is the creation of a public perception that actual reserve numbers are subject to wildly different variations for “no apparent reason”. This situation is almost worthy of being designated an “X-File” requiring the investigative acumen of Agents Mulder and Scully.  The public perception is realistic, but the reason 2for the chasm in reserves estimate is more subtle and should be embarrassing for the fossil fuel lobby. Examining this chasm reveals the underlying reasons for this difference and there may those who attempt to “deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate” or, at the very least, “spin” the reality for energy reserves.

The key is trying to assess the underlying reasons for the variation in estimates. For example, consider two sources for 2012 oil reserve estimates which both use the same data from the US Energy Information Agency (EIA):

•    CIA (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency): 22 billion barrels

•    Wintery Night: 2,303 billion barrels (view link).

It should be noted that the EIA 2012 oil reserves data are provided in four categories: 1) proved reserves, 2) technically recoverable, 3) oil shale, and 4) undiscovered resources. The data are based on a report from the Rand Corporation. A preliminary reaction would be something like, “If that’s the case, then why isn’t the U.S. the world leader in oil exports?” or as the Wintery Night articles implies, “Is Obama telling the truth about US oil reserves?” This confusion could have the public asking, “Why does the CIA say we have 22 billion in reserves while Wintery Night says 2,303 billion barrels?”

The answer is simple and comes down to two words. One word is “proved” and the other is “economical”. “Proved” oil reserves are those that are well-defined and can be extracted and processed using existing technologies with known economies. Furthermore, proved oil reserves are the only ones that the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) allows energy companies or others to put on their balance sheets as assets. The SEC’s rationale is that there is a high enough confidence level that the reserves exist and can be processed to be a net energy resource. This means Obama was following SEC guidelines in reporting to the American public while Wintery Night noted that “undiscovered reserves” are available to meet national energy demands. One of these parties, and probably not the President, must have been wearing a virtual reality helmet while crafting their commentary.

Wintery Night is not the only that entity that creatively portrays EIA reserves data. The group, Energy Tomorrow ( takes a similar tact with the EIA data. Their approach is more subtle. In their pyramid portrayal (view link), they refer to all oil deposits as “ultimately recoverable”.  They also nimbly articulate the difference between “reserves”, “resources”, “undiscovered technically recoverable resources”, and “discovered and undiscovered sub-economic resources”. Energy Tomorrow also states that, “The distinction between ‘reserves’ and ‘resources’ is important to note because it can inform policy decisions. If you believe the amount of oil is small, then energy development strategies will differ than if you know it is large.” OK, so if there is no direct evidence that something exists, simply note that it “may exist” and that it may be “very large”. This sounds like a creative way to influence policy and scarily reminiscent of the “WMD” argument for the second Iraq war.

By the way, “undiscovered sub-economic resources”? These are not “reserves”, they are “resources” and they are “sub-economic”. What a deal for the American public! Not only do they not exist, they aren’t economical. I think I’ll buy two. Should the American taxpayer have to have energy security future based on a cacophony of lawyered, verbiage that could have been better written by Saul (“Better Call Saul!”) Goodman. (Goodman is the ethically-challenged attorney on the “Breaking Bad” television series. Here is his website should you need his services: Mulder’s evidence for little green men was far more concrete than those for large energy reserves which are really “resources” that don’t exist and that are not economical. Are we good now?

Interestingly, the Institute for Energy Research (IER, 2012) has noted that “the U.S. technically recoverable oil resources at 1.442 trillion barrels, 57 times more than EIA’s current proven reserve number for oil, and over 200 years worth of oil at current consumption rates”. That may sound great, but realistically 200 years is not a long time. It should be stressed that the 200 year supply for oil reserves uses the very optimistic and rather high-end reserve estimates shown in the pyramid diagram that was previously referenced.

3It is obvious that long term planning for a vital energy resource should use conservative reserve estimates and not depend on estimates based on “irrational exuberance”. Also, this thinking must consider the population and economic expansion trends that are in play which will have a huge impact on energy and all resource availability and costs as noted by the McKinsey Group. It also does not consider that assuming that “current consumption rates” will hold is wishful, if not reckless, thinking.  Unfortunately, when considering the U.S. and the world’s energy future, one has to be very careful. Hopefully, we won’t have to deal constantly with misinformation like Mulder and Scully had to when jousting with their malevolent arch-nemesis, the Cigarette Smoking Man. However, be prepared to do some digging to get at the facts.

The truth is out there!

Photo credits:
Gillian Anderson (Dana Scully) and David Duchovny (Fox Mulder) of the X-Files, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Gage Skidmore
X-Files Logo, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) of the X-Files, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons and   B D Engler