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Carbon Shift: How Peak Oil and the Climate Crisis Will Change Canada (and Our Lives) Paperback – Apr 13 2010
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Quill & Quire
In these early years of the 21st century there are two related challenges facing human civilization. As the global economy continues to grow and consume more energy, what happens when we start running out of non-renewable fossil fuels? And how do we find a safe way of burning these traditional fuels, given the negative effect they have on the environment? The six essays presented here by various experts in the field don’t even try to solve this double bind. Instead, the goal of the book is to view the issues “through the eyes of those who think about them rigorously.” The results are informative and the discussion stimulating, but the overall effect is mixed, because those who think about these subjects rigorously are by no means in agreement about them. In the first essay, for example, David Keith argues that climate change is the greater threat to our civilization, because we have plenty of energy resources to keep us going for centuries. Next, J. David Hughes flips this around and says that energy is the more urgent problem because in fact we are running out of cheap hydrocarbons. Keith sees coal-to-liquids technology as one solution to the problem; Hughes dismisses the same process as “a complete non-starter.” Hughes places heavy emphasis on an analysis of declining Energy Return on Investment (EROI), but in the next essay, by Mark Jaccard, this calculation is challenged with a different economic model. It’s hard to imagine working together on solutions when there is so little consensus about the exact nature of the problems. As Keith sees it, the twin carbon crises are characterized by high uncertainty and high inertia – the former represented by the mixed messages Carbon Shift delivers, and the latter exemplified by the dismal political response outlined in the final essay by Jeffrey Simpson. Homer-Dixon adds a conclusion that attempts to provide some coherence to the different points of view as well as suggest a very general plan for action. But while a case for radical change is made, Homer-Dixon admits that “logic alone isn’t going to cause us to act.” Things are going to have to get worse before they start getting better. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Homer-Dixon clearly sets the scene. He correctly argues that cheap oil has undermined our economic models, and business as usual is no longer an option."
–Andrew Nikiforuk, The Globe and Mail
"And that's why the brief collection of essays in Carbon Shift really matters. Edited by Thomas Homer-Dixon, an intellectual straight shooter, the book offers six distinct point of views about Canada's troublesome twins: climate change and peak oil and their central role in Canada's discordant future."
–Andrew Nikiforuk, The Globe and Mail
"This book works because it's a set of essays by six people from different backgrounds: two oil experts, two economists, and two from newspapers. Oil has a lot of angles (if a liquid can have angles), and it's a relief to see someone making an attempt to bring this variety."
–Tom Spears, The Ottawa Citizen
From the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
It contains strong essays by top experts in their fields - economics, geology, etc.
The experts place different emphases on different sets of facts, and come to different conclusions about which is a more grave and urgent problem - the end of cheap oil, or global warming. Thus the reader will be required to think, and come to her/his own conclusions.
What they all agree on, though, is the urgent need for governments to adopt policies that will quickly and sharply reduce consumption of fossil fuels. This would address both challenges.
I would have given it five stars, but for two minor shortcomings. First, the essay by William Marsden is passionate and interesting, but doesn't really seem to fit with the other essays, which are more fact-based and less rhetorical. (Incidentially, I do agree with Marsden's general point about Alberta's headlong rush into uncontrolled tar sands development being incredibly short-sighted - see "Stupid to the Last Drop".) Second, I wish there could have been a chapter (or perhaps an associated online wiki) where the various experts have a brief exchange, and we see the analysis advanced further.
But these are truly quibbles. This is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in these areas.
I somehow expected more from this book. In the end it came across as experts arguing and not much holding it together. I found myself wondering who was right, and which stats to trust. Each expert marshall all sorts of evidence, the problem is one chapter says that peak oil is the biggest problem, and the next argues it's the least or our worries.
I ended up not knowing who was right, or what data to trust. Overall I don't feel as if I know much more about the problems we're facing on the climate / energy front. I just know it's a very very complicated and difficult problem
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Peak oil and climate change have epic implications for continuity of the human species. If one of the two possibilities is in our future, as the leading Canadian scientists within Thomas Homer Dixon's Carbon Shift argue, our lives will change forever. If they both occur (to varying degrees), Homo Sapien Sapien's role on the Earth will change past the point of familiarity over the next decade.
Carbon Shift is a must read for forward thinking people. One great example from the book demonstrates how economist Robert Solow tried to predict GDP growth in 1956. Solow argued that because 70% of costs were labor related and 30% of costs were capital related, GDP would grow .7% for every 1% in increased labor and .3% for every 1% increase in capital. But a study of growth shows that GDP has grown much faster. This is the Solow Residual that was later explained by Reiner Kummel. Demonstrated by Kummel, the discrepancy between predicted growth and actual growth was because Solow had left out energy. Kummel modeled energy inputs on a per joule basis and nearly perfectly reproduced the growth curve of the last few decades. A 1% rise in energy inputs led to .5% increases in GDP, but this revelation came with a damning realization. We are paying for energy about a tenth of what it is worth. Eventually the cost and the value will equalize. In Robert Ayers and Benjamin Warr's recent paper, Economic Growth Models and the Role of Physical Resources, they take it a step farther with the following conclusions,
The first is that exergy is a major factor of production comparable in importance to labour and capital. The second is that the empirical work/exergy ratio f is an important measure of technical progress in the long run. Similarly, and third, the output/work ratio g can be regarded as a useful indicator of the extent to which the economy is "dematerialising" (if it is) or "informatising"66 in some sense. Third, it is possible that technical progress as traditionally defined can be approximated reasonably well by mathematical expressions involving ratios of capital, labour and exergy inputs. Source: Ayres and Warr
Essentially this work demonstrates that we each have the equivalent of many energy slaves (the average US citizen having ninety of such slaves). The average US citizen has the benefit of work equivalent to 90 human slaves to support our lifestyle because of cheap energy. Basically, we are completely dependent on inexpensive fossil fuel energy. Some argue that a peak in oil production will look like: a spike in oil prices, followed by global recession, followed by more spikes in the cost of oil. A repeating cycle. Eerily similar to what the world is now experiencing. In fact, James Hamilton of the Brookings Institute presented in a recent paper that the current recession was caused by oil price shocks.
In a nutshell: Higher oil and gasoline prices whacked the U.S. auto industry, the effects of which cascaded through large swathes of the rest of the economy and helped curtail spending. Energy prices also pummeled consumers' disposable income and confidence. To the extent that the housing meltdown did play a huge part in the recession, that too can be partially chalked up to higher oil prices: Cheap digs in the distant suburbs went underwater with $4 gasoline. Source: Keith Johnson of the Wall Street Journal
All of the above occurring while we are beginning to understand the role of feedbacks in climate change.
Carbon Shift may be frustrating for someone looking for an absolutist description of our current situation. The scientists within, David Keith, J. David Hughes, Mark Jaccard, Jeff Rubin,William Marsden, and Jeffery Simpson, aren't necessarily in agreement on our needed course of action. They each advocate differing approaches, each presenting solid cases on why we should be concerned about peak oil and/or climate change with varying degrees of urgency. However, this book serves as an excellent primer to intelligent thought about these issues. I learned a tremendous amount from spending time with each of these thinkers through Thomas Homer-Dixon's editing. The only essay that might fall short for some is the discussion of Canadian policy by Jeffery Simpson. I found this intriguing because I'll soon be a Canadian immigrant and because there are lesson learned for the United States political approaches. Yet, I could see why many would want to skip this one. Every essay is spot on with relevance and importance.
This is the kind of hard hitting, heavy thinking journalism lacking in major media and public space discussions of the issues that will change our lives forever within the next generation.
While I did not necessarily agree with every point presented in the book, I found the essays to be thought provoking and these essays caused me to ask questions that hadn't occurred to me previously. I would recommend this book to all who have an interest in the status of fossil fuels, as well as climate change. This is not a book for a beginner in either subject, but rather an extension of the readily simplified material that is already available.
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