The Age of Peaking of Resources

Recent news about water crises has again got me thinking about the issue of reaching the maximum levels of extraction of natural resources and then every effort put in results into getting less and less of it.

This is not only true for water or oil, but also for renewable resources like wood. In my field experiences of visiting and staying in villages I often encountered cases of how the depletion of forest has led to increased drudgery over women. Their road miles (these roads are different) for fetching wood to be able to cook has constantly been going up. Once a women explained how the time it takes her to fetch wood is twice as much while the quality of wood is not the same.

Similar would be the case for our efforts in fetching ground water. In fact the increasing depths of borewells in cities is an example of how we are putting in more effort to fetch water which is inferior in quality (often higher TDS is recorded in deep borewell water). The more deeper we go it costs more (electricity for pumping and higher horse power motors). As the ground water crises deepens, at some point in time the costs of water could become so high that we may end up buying it from rationing shops. Hopefully water riots could still be avoided.

Crude oil is no different. My introduction to the world of sustainability or rather un-sustainability was through my research on oil as a commodity in the stock markets. My own modeling projections revealed that the rate at which we are able to extract oil would peak soon and then the supply would be unable to keep up with the demand. This means that the demand would have to adjust. Either by choice or force. The case is pretty similar to water. The demand for water could automatically get managed if we have to purchase it through open markets or if it gets rationed.

So joining the three dots that I mention above, wood, water and oil, today I again think of the issue of peaking of resources and how they are due to transform our lives. Richard Heinberg wrote a book on this called Peak Everything, 11 years ago. I had also read on the issue of peak gold where the underground extraction of gold peaks in a similar fashion like oil and water. The only difference is gold is a non consumable item and hence would still be available in the markets. But oil and wood are being burnt and converted into CO2 while ground water is extracted, evaporated and converted into waste through industrial, agricultural and household consumption.

While it can be argued that freshwater is renewable and thus if we reduce our consumption then we could have more of it. But one must remember that the ground water that we extract is a resource stock build up over centuries which we have exploited in great hurry. In order for that stock to build up again it could take a long long time. Hence, for our day to day purposes ground water is somewhat non renewable.

During my first encounters with the resource depletion issues I thought re-localisation would be a strategy to defy all odds. One relocates to a resource abundant small geography and maintains it through a community driven process. It has been close to 10 years and in reality I have only gone farther away from the idea.

But these recent news of water crises has got me thinking again.

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My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part V

There is a famous saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”. This week I saw it in action. What I also saw was the relatively inefficient and purposefully expensive way of bringing up children in urban ecosystems back home. I then took help of systems thinking to synthesize my observations and feelings. Some of them I am writing down here below…

In the hills of Devprayag there is a small village called Kim Khola. Until last month it would take a 45 min trek to climb a mountain to reach this village. But I was lucky. There is a road under construction which goes right upto the village. The taxi guy was generous enough to drive the car into the kachcha road. He took us as far as he thought was safe, not for us but for the car. We got down on the top of the mountain. We then went downhill to reach the village and went to the house where I was to spend two nights and two days.

Early Morning View from the Porch

 

It was in a nice setting. East facing porch, toilets, a traditional kitchen (with a wood stove) and one new kitchen with LPG. Two nice big rooms and a breathtaking terrace.  The owner of the house also maintained a garden with newly planted Rosemary. He was a nice progressive chap. The house cooked amazing food. I ate with great satisfaction. Pleasant weather made my stay even more comfortable. It was a relief to be away from Delhi heat.

I was there for a purpose. My job was to uncover the reasons for disappearance of water springs of Kim Khola and how it has affected life of villagers, what they are thinking to do now and what kind of future do they envisage. I should say I was able to uncover some key things that I would not have if I was in Delhi reading on internet about Kim Khola and its springs. What I understood would be out in the publications as part of the project and I would share those when ready.

Apart from all the intelligent stuff, for which I get paid, I also observed social and cultural dynamics which were not part of my questionnaire or so called research scope. The home I was staying in was of a family having two teenagers, one boy and one girl. I would see the girl in house more often than I would see the boy. She would assist her mother in household chores with great skills and purpose. My mind first went towards categorizing this in the gender imbalance research theme, which we researchers jut love to spot every now and then. Its kind of that we are programmed. With some difficulty I tried to unlearn the gender stuff and started observing the structure more closely.

First, I think what I saw was a gender system evolved over time. It was not that the village was trying to copy an alien culture. Second, I think the boy use to be out of house through out the day but I did not feel any sense of discomfort in the family. They were at great peace with his behavior, partially because they were focused on doing what they do and more importantly they knew that the whole village is one big family. In cities we call them care takers. They are now increasingly being found inside day care set ups. One has to pay hefty money to be partially sure that their kid is in safe hands. Forget about things like learning by doing, interacting with nature, socializing etc. just finding a safe place to park your kids is enough. And this does not guarantee that the parents and family would feel no sense of anxiety.

How does systems thinking help understand what I observe? At a meta level, I am essentially comparing two systems here, village and city. The former acts more like a coupled system of Nature and Humans. Both interact and shape each other. Eg. The forests change in response to humans (massive deforestation for wood) and humans change in response to forests (loss of livelihood forcing out-migration). In between these interactions evolves the culture of the human network of friends and family. Cities act like a coupled system of Economy and Humans. Both interact and shape each other. Eg. The jobs change in response to humans (higher spending creates more jobs) and humans change in response to jobs (high paying jobs lead to increased spending). In between these interactions evolves the culture of the human network of friends and family.

If you observe, both the examples I give are reinforcing in nature. If forests go up the livelihood opportunities go up and so people help the forest grow. While if forests go down the livelihood opportunities go down and people start consuming the forest for sustenance. Similarly more spending creates more jobs leading to even more spending while fewer jobs create poor business growth further weakening the job market. The place based culture evolves through a combination of multiple such reinforcing and balancing processes. It is the combination of such processes that leads to the behavior of the system. Raising children in cities is becoming more expensive, high paying jobs are few, simultaneously social fragmentation is increasing leading to more spending on buying social services. Depleting forests and loss of traditional springs is leading to spatial fragmentation of the households causing increase in labor. The gender dimensions in the village or cities are not isolated events of this system. They also get affected and evolve over time with its changing environment.

Using such multi loop reflection I told myself that what I see, observe or collect information is just tip of the iceberg. Drawing conclusions based on that would be silly. Even though I may be able to jot down a hell lot of facts (like the time spent by boys and girls on household chores etc.). But reaching conclusions based on data/information that we are able to measure or see at a point in time is not uncommon. We are always tempted to run campaigns based on facts and data, often leaving out the deep structures, the reinforcing and balancing processes, whose interactions lead to events that we see.

“It takes a village to raise a child”. Of course it would, where else would a child be able to learn through the dance of interactions between human, economic and natural systems in a safe environment.

That too for Free!