Avoiding “The Long Emergency” in Food Supply

The Mayas of Mexico and Central America created amazing temples, pyramids and palaces, all constructed by hand.  We don’t know precisely why, but the Mayan civilization suffered a serious blow in the 8th and 9th centuries when drought, disease or overpopulation caused the abandonment of the lowland cities.  The Spanish invasion later finished off the remainder of the Mayan civilization.

They used several calendars but the Mesoamerican 5000-year long count calendar generates some controversy today.  A number of new age mystics have come to the belief that the world ends in 2012 since that calendar also ends.  Mayan scholars, of course, insist that the ancient Mayans meant nothing of the sort.

We can easily dismiss the idea of the world ending, but we might examine why Mayan society ran into trouble, or why the Roman Empire collapsed if we want to understand the serious threats to our present day society.  Reasons suggested for the downfall of Rome vary from overtaxation of agriculture to support a massive military necessary to retain the outer limits of empire, foreign invasions and political instability, a dissolute economy incapable of production, and many more.

Some of those conditions, such as a feeble Canadian agriculture sector, American overexpenditure on military to maintain the empire, exist today in our society.  I might add that we have an unprecedented energy decline coming very shortly on the horizon.

The “banksters” of Wall Street have really sabotaged the world’s financial system, not from intention, but from structural greed.  Who dislikes a bonus?  Previous to the credit crisis we had a diversion of corn supply to ethanol and rise of food prices to the world.  Products like rice also rose in price and countries hoarded supplies.  Now, we have the tightening of trade of agricultural goods between countries, although temporary.  Will the tightening of credit apply to world farmers and affect our available food in 2009?

Security of supply is a matter of extreme concern.  The food supply chain is dependent on cheap and available fuel, and there is probably only three days food in the local supermarkets.  Food travels thousands of kilometers across the world – melons from Mexico, bananas from Ecuador, lettuce from California, oranges from Florida, water from Italy or Fiji and on it goes.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) sees the narrow viewpoint of industrial agriculture, ignoring security of supply or the plight of the small farmer around the world.   Food is not a discretionary product like a video game but we treat our farmers as unimportant elements in an ordinary production process.  It is an article of faith that we will always be able to ship food around the world by air or truck.  Unfortunately, that is not going to be the case in a few years as fuel supplies trend down.

The higher price of food today has many in the Maritimes thinking of growing a garden in their yard.  As well, there are citizens across North America pushing for the right to have some farm animals in their urban garden.  This “chicken in the city” movement is gaining converts.  Locations such as Victoria BC, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Baltimore, New York City and many other locations permit chickens.

The rules typically permit 3 or 4 hens, but no roosters and may specify other conditions such as size of coop or distance from residences.  Here in the Maritimes, the city of Moncton bylaws allows rodents, rabbits, Vietnamese potbelly pigs, but only if they are pets.  Unfortunately, no chickens are welcome.

Recently, I had the pleasure to meet a young couple who would like to add chickens to their backyard urban farm.  They look for the eggs that chickens would provide, as they are vegetarians but not vegans.  Being very aware of their ecological footprint, they give me some hope that we can turn around our society.

Writer James Howard Kunstler gave a talk at Mount Allison University this week.  The author of “The Long Emergency” has a vision of our future that is bleak, but entirely possible.  He considers that energy independence and being car-dependent are mutually exclusive.

According to Mr Kunstler “We have to get off of petro-agriculture and grow our food locally, at a smaller scale, with more people working on it and fewer machines. This is an enormous project, which implies change in everything from property allocation to farming methods to new social relations. But if we don’t focus on it right away, a lot of people will end up starving, and rather soon.”

James suggests that we will know if the world wants to survive when it starts to rebuild the train system for freight and passengers.

On the other hand, Shawn Graham is suggesting hundreds of millions of dollars on four lane highways such as route 1.  You might think about the Atlantic Gateway as a boondoggle, socializing the costs to you and privatizing the profits to someone else.

There should be a law to stop the wasting of our money in such a cavalier manner.  Oh wait, there is one! – The voting act.

It’s all in the Performance

Recently, a small industrial owner asked for advice.  He was thinking about converting equipment from oil to electric as a way of saving money.  A quick look at his electric bill indicated that his average cost was 16 cents per kWh, which is relatively high.  His rate for furnace oil was actually lower than his kWh rate and conversion to electric would only worsen his situation. Although most business people are very smart, few understand the complexities of the small industrial rate and the variable first block.  NB Power’s rate design is intended to flatten demand but does it achieve anything but costing some customers more money? The solution chosen by this industrial customer was to reduce the size of compressors and install ground source heat pumps for space heating.  This case made me reflect about NB Power’s lack of progress on rate reform and much more.

In the rarified altitude of NB Power’s 9th floor, there are bigger fish to fry than rates today.  The Lepreau refit, with fuel costs at $1 million per day, must be weighing heavily on David Hay’s mind.  It’s now three months late or $90 million over budget.

His salary and bonus has been in the news virtually every day.   Over at Nova Scotia Power, their CEO is paid $600,000 per year.  Remember Jim Hankinson, the well-respected CEO of NB Power from 1996 to 2002?  He’s now working as CEO at Ontario Power Generation for $1.6 million a year.  That’s one of the companies generated when Ontario Hydro was broken up by the privatization / de-regulation ideology prevalent several years ago.

Although his salary is high by New Brunswick standards, perhaps we should be asking another question – Is David Hay doing the job that he is hired to do in a competent manner? And to be fair, how are the groups directly associated with NB Power playing their roles.  – The Energy and Utilities Board, The Department of Energy and Efficiency New Brunswick.  Are they doing a good job?

The Minister of Energy Jack Keir is ultimately responsible for NB Power.   Mr Keir has indicated that he wants to have NB Power run as an efficient business and operate at arm’s length to the government.   Let’s take the issue of company structure, something that is really outside the domain of CEO Hay.  The previous Conservative government split the corporation up into 5 units and incurred multi million dollars costs for no obvious benefit.  This Liberal government has given no clear direction to NB Power to re-integrate the corporation and reduce costs.  A report was commissioned back in July 2008 with Bill Thompson and Bill Marshall as the authors.  Has this report been given to the minister?

The Department’s major interests are the new refinery and private sector financing and building a second Lepreau unit with power to be sold to New England states.  There are a few problems blocking this project: inadequate transmission capacity south of Maine, no long term contracts signed from US utilities, an unfinished design for the new ACR-1000, and an uncertain future for AECL.  As well, the earliest in-service date would be 2017, the construction cost could be $7.5 billion dollars, and the possibility of cheaper photovoltaic energy being available to customers before that date may be the financial ruin of utilities who buy into the deal.  Aside from these immense obstacles and uncertainties, apparently it’s going well.

If we look over at the EUB and it’s predecessor’s performance over the past twenty years, most objective observers would agree that it has failed to reform and regulate rates.   A couple of examples – Any rate increase below 3% is not subject to review and the revenue-cost ratios are consistently out of the range suggested by the EUB.  Large customers get better rates than small customers and on it goes.  Our energy watchdog is just a cute poodle but it’s not all their fault.  Let’s face it, government wants it that way – An agency with responsibility but little authority.

The folks at Efficiency NB want to see more efficient use of energy and that’s exactly what we need both for NB Power and the citizens of this province.  Roughly three years into their mandate, we see little solid evidence that the agency is achieving its goals.  What percentages of homes in the province have been upgraded?   1%?  2%?    Their annual reports are astoundingly short on detail and context.

So, are EUB, DOE, ENB, NB Power doing a good job?  Respectively, how does ineffective, incompetent, ineffective and not good enough, sound to you?

May I make a few quick suggestions?

1) Give the EUB authority or eliminate the EUB and roll its functions into the Energy Department.  Without real rate reform, we have no incentive to conserve.

2) Premier Graham needs to accept that the energy hub is unlikely to produce anything of value, and re-task the Energy department to do its real job. A maybe solution in 2017 doesn’t cut it.

3) Efficiency NB has not lived up to its mandate.  It has no sense of urgency, and requires attention from government.

4) The Energy Minister should be the chairman of NB Power’s board of directors.  Recombine the corporation into one business unit.

Our modern society provides amazing benefits that result from the incredible energy of liquid fuels such as oil.  Our level of usage is not sustainable and change must begin immediately if we are to re-organize our very survival. The Graham government needs a complete energy reboot.  The question is whether he will press the button or whether the people will do it for him in 2010?