One of the main reasons I enjoy reading Wendell Berry’s nonfiction, is that he is a Kentucky farmer who is observing, questioning, and talking about many of the conservation issues that I’m also observing, questioning, and talking about. But he talks about the human dimension of these issues in soulful, sometimes soul-piercing language; as opposed to the technical aspects discussed in the stale, robotic language of scientific journal articles. Don’t get me wrong, the journal articles are absolutely critical to science and are written the way they are for objectivity and clarity. But for the health of my own ‘human dimension’, Berry satisfies a more artistic, spiritual connection to the issues I find myself seeking at the end of the day.
In this lovely interview, Berry eloquently shares his thoughts in gems like this one:
“The world and our life in it are conditional gifts. We have the world to live in it and the use of it to live from–on the condition that we will take good care of it. To take good care of it we have to know it and know how to take care of it. And to know it and to be willing to take care of it we have to love it.” –Wendell Berry
See the full interview on “Bill Moyers & Co.” at this link: http://billmoyers.com/segment/wendell-berry-on-his-hopes-for-humanity/
This interview is a treat, in part, because Berry does not appear in video often. Enjoy.
I continue to be troubled by what I hear in the media, at conferences, in university lecture halls, etc. with respect to what basically amounts to the promotion of “sustainable growth.”
You can’t have economic growth forever on a finite planet, resource substitution and other measures of technological development notwithstanding.
We in the developed world got used to continual growth as “normal” over several generations’ time since the advent of fossil fuels, primarily oil. In the past, always being able to expand our access to cheap, accessible high net-energy (high EROEI, Energy-Return-On-Energy-Invested) oil allowed us to grow our economy and vastly increase in societal and infrastructure complexity.
Subtract cheap high EROEI oil and growth stalls and reverses into contraction, and society rapidly decomplexifies. (Some use the term, “collapse.”)
By now we’ve run out of cheap, easily accessible, high quality oil, and have begun to exploit more dispersed, environmentally risky, geo-politically contentious, low quality, and therefore more expensive, low EROEI resources (e.g. fracked shale oil, tar sands, super deepwater offshore deposits).
The question is, what minimum EROEI is required to run a highly globalized and integrated, sub-/peri-/urbanized, industrialized, hyper-complex society, and where are we now with respect to that minimum?
In the first decades of oil drilling in PA and TX, the EROEI was 100:1 or more. Currently, conventional oil clocks in at around 25:1. Average for US oil today is about 10:1. Tar sands run from 3:1 to 5:1, biodiesel from soybeans at 1.7:1, and corn ethanol at a mere 1.3:1. (Solar, wind, and hydro fare better, but are good for electricity production, not transport, and still require a platform of cheap fossil fuels in order to be deployed at a meaningful scale.)
The fracking “boom” does not represent a real boom in new resources, or old resources opened up by technological breakthroughs in horizontal drilling. It is a combination of high ($100+/barrel) oil prices, and Wall Street financial bubble shenanigans. (The shale oil bubble – give it a year or so and this will be a household term – is the current in a series of US economy bubbles dating back at least to the S&L scandal of the 80′s, the Enron scandal and the tech bubble of the 90′s / early 2000′s, and the housing bubble and financial crash of the mid-2000s).
The trouble with high oil prices is that they reliably send the economy into a recession. (Because energy is the “master resource” that effects the production, and prices, of all other goods and services in the economy.) This destroys demand; but if oil prices drop, then it is no longer economical for energy companies to exploit expensive new “tight oil” plays. These upper and lower oil price bounds have characterized the bumpy plateau of oil production that we have been on since 2005, and go along way explaining our protracted economic non-recovery from the crash of 2008. Some analysts think that this indicates we’ve hit peak oil. Some analysts think this also signals the end of the era of economic growth – that we are not in a “recession” per se (because “recession” implies a defined trough ending with an uptrend back to “normal”), but are experiencing the first symptoms of economic stall and contraction.
We talk incessantly about sustainability when we should be talking about un-sustainability…
Here is a must-see for AGua readers: A NYTimes Op-Ed by Thomas Friedman. In this piece, Friedman explores “the parallel between how fossil fuels are being used to power monoculture farms in the Middle West and how fossil fuels are being used to power wars to create monoculture societies in the Middle East. And why both are really unhealthy for their commons.” Friedman makes these connections with help from Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute and long time AGua hero.
“The poisoning caused by artisanal mining from a gold rush killed at least 400 children, yet villagers still say they would rather die of lead poisoning than poverty…Villagers make 10 times as much money mining as they do from farming in an area suffering erratic rainfall because of climate change.”
–Simba Tirima, environmental scientist & field operations director in Nigeria for TerraGraphics International Foundation.
People taking risks to escape poverty is not a new story. But people cornered into deadly occupations by climate change is a new force warranting global attention. As my title indicates, lead poisoning from climate change sounds illogical, but the indirect consequences of climate change are diverse and far-reaching both spatially and temporally. Mr. Timrima’s quote above sums up a ghastly incident in Bagega, Nigeria (see map below), but the decisions faced by the people behind the AP news story deserve further discussion. Some of the questions that come to mind include: Was the switch in occupation from farming to mining driven by the 10-fold increase in income from gold mining and processing or simply by erratic rainfall preventing a farmer from feeding their family? Or both? How rapidly did the decline in reliable rainfall and harvest occur? Even if farmers had had access to alternative crop seeds, information for new farming techniques, or rain-fed water storage would any of these have allowed them to surmount the changing climate? What other risky endeavors will become more common as the world’s poorest people can no longer support themselves through farming? What can science contribute to this growing problem? [I do not have the answers to these questions--but see this previous post. Stay with AGua as we dig further into these issues in future posts! ]
Not only did the lead contamination (from makeshift, at-home gold ore processing) kill and permanently disable hundreds of children, it poisoned the soil and water–water used by nomads and their livestock, killing cows and goats. The soil in Bagega, reaching up to 100,000 parts per million of lead, has 10 to 20 times the US’s maximum lead level in soils (400 ppm). So even if the climate became amenable to reliable crop harvests in the future, much of the topsoil has been removed (see photo above) and what soil remains may still be toxic. Certainly, the mining is driven by desperation (and potentially greed); but once the soil and sky have prevented you from feeding your family, perhaps you lose respect for, or even develop animosity toward, nature.
With the recent conclusion of a five and a half month cleanup, Doctors Without Borders will now begin to treat affected children. This comes three years after Doctors Without Borders uncovered the illegal gold mining in this very remote village. A lack of funds from the Nigerian government delayed the clean up. To read the Associated Press article click here.
Let’s step away from agriculture for a moment to have a look at energy. But really, if you’re doing your homework, you know that industrial agriculture does not solely rely on energy from the sun to power photosynthesis, rather it is heavily dependent on fossil fuels for machinery, fertilizer, biocides, seeds, etc. For example, methane (the main constituent of natural gas) is used in the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing nitrogen fertilizer, consuming about 3-5% of the world’s natural gas production . These days, you can’t get away with talking about natural gas production without talking about hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) and horizontal drilling (see illustration above). And since my roots are in western Pennsylvania, I’ve been following how fracking the Marcellus Shale has transformed the landscape and the economy in that area. Here I’ve summarized a publication from this past February in the journal Water Resources Research by Brian Lutz, Ph.D. and others. The major finding was (spoiler alert!) that fracking produces much less wastewater per unit energy than conventional natural gas drilling .
Wastewater treatment and storage is one of the leading environmental and human health concerns over fracking. There are three main pools of wastewater generated. First, “flowback” refers to frac fluids that have returned to the surface. Frac fluids are water mixed with various chemicals (including health and environmental toxins) to aid in the fracturing process. Second, “drilling fluid” is the water plus other additives to cool and lubricate the drill head. Finally, “brine” refers to the naturally occurring subsurface water that is brought to the surface as a byproduct of the drilling process. Typically this water is highly saline, hence the name, and can be even more toxic than the flowback, often containing high concentrations of metals, organic compounds and sometimes radioactive materials–all of which are naturally occurring and not contaminated as a result of the drilling process. Fracking wastewater is approximately 45% brine, 43% flowback, and 12% drilling fluid while conventional wastewater is approximately 87% brine, 8% plowback, and 5% drilling fluid.
What to do with this wastewater once it has reached the surface? Conventional natural gas drilling typically occurs in regions where the geology allows for the wastewater to be reinjected into deep geologic formations, essentially avoiding any need to treat the water or posing a threat to human or environmental well-being. However, the Marcellus Shale’s geology is such that reinjection is not possible. So dealing with wastewater from natural gas production is relatively new and legislation has evolved alongside the practice. Disposal of the wastewater has transitioned from municipal water treatment facilities (peaked in 2008 and is still the main mode of disposal for conventional well wastewater), to industrial water treatment (peaked in 2009 and 2010), to current efforts to reinject or recycle the wastewater. As lawmakers recognized that municipal facilities were not suited for dealing with such high total dissolved solids (TDS), industrial facilities were sought for processing the wastewater. However even industrial treatment facilities are incapable of removing the majority of ions that contribute to the high TDS wastewater. So the surface water neighboring the industrial treatment facility receives high TDS loads from the “treated” wastewater. Notably, most industrial wastewater treatment facilities in Pennsylvania are located in the Ohio River basin, so between 2009 and 2011 fracking well operators in eastern PA (Delaware or Susquehanna River basins) seeking industrial treatment facilities sent nearly 50% of their wastewater west to the Ohio River basin.
Guidelines constraining municipal and industrial treatment of the fracking wastewater increased demand for underground injection disposal since 2011. Due to the underlying geology of this region, there are only 7 commercial injection wells in Pennsylvania, 3 in West Virginia, and 184 in Ohio. In order to transport the wastewater to the injection wells, big rig trucks haul the wastewater sometimes hundreds of miles, mainly to Ohio. Since Ohio has recently experienced earthquakes believed to be associated with the wastewater injections, there is likely to be new regulations limiting injection disposal. Recycling wastewater makes some sense but has a limited capacity in that it depends on the installation of new wells to make use of the recycled wastewater.
This seems like a lot of trouble dealing with this wastewater, how is it economically feasible? According to Lutz and his co-auth0rs, “The average Marcellus well produced only approximately 35% of the amount of wastewater per unit gas recovered when compared to conventional wells.” In other words, conventional drilling produces about 13.4 liters of wastewater per million Btu gas energy while fracking produces only 4.8 liters of wastewater per million Btu gas energy. The authors continue, “However, Marcellus wells collectively generated approximately 570% more wastewater in 2011 than conventional wells.” This massive generation of wastewater is the result of dramatic increases in number of fracked wells and the lucrative amount of gas recovered from each well despite fracked wells’ greater efficiency in wastewater production over conventional wells.
While fracking appears to be wastewater intensive, this is a product of the size of the Marcellus Shale and not the method of drilling. Only ~1% of the Marcellus Shale has been explored, so the arms’ race between fracking technology and environmental regulation will continue to play out for years to come.
 pdf file of the original article: Lutz et al 2013 WRR Gen, transp, disposal of wastewater assoc’d with Marcellus Shale
Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone. — Albert Einstein
My friend and fellow scientist, Shengpan Lin, and I have been thinking about the importance of science communication. Among scientists, we generally assume that any time spent communicating our research to non-scientists is time spent not being productive, which ignores how communication also benefits scientists themselves. This communication is a two-way exchange of information, not just one-way broadcasting.
Often, presentations can come across as “too technical” or using “too much jargon” leading to scientists themselves coming across as “spending too much time in their head” and not caring about the audience’s interests. If scientists create their presentations for non-scientist audiences by simply making adjustments to existing presentations for a scientific audience, the presentation is not likely to be useful for the audience or help the scientist nurture a working relationship with the audience members.
When communicating with non-scientist audiences, scientists need to consider what the audience is most concerned with, what their experiences might be with the topic, their level of knowledge of the topic (do not underestimate this!), and most essentially how the scientist can connect with the audience. We suggest that scientists consider these elements when outlining their presentation before deciding on the content of the presentation. We came up with a checklist to help you get started (see Box 1 below). This process involves taking a step (or several steps) back and looking at the big picture, i.e. ask yourself, where does my research fit into society? This may involve thinking and talking about things you don’t normally think and talk about because you take them for granted. Every scientist thinks their own research is important but rarely do we think critically about how to explain its importance to others, except briefly in the opening line of a grant proposal or article. Give this a try and drop us a line with your feedback!
Check out my guest posting on the Kellogg Biological Station Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) blog: