Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for May, 2010

The Lonely Mission of David Hughes

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

May 30, 2010

What’s the true value of a barrel of oil?

Around $70, say the markets. The market value of anything is the price that a willing buyer will pay and that a willing seller will accept.

David Hughes shakes his head. It is a big head, with a high forehead topped by a thatch of curly hair. Hughes is a hydrocarbon geologist, a veteran of 32 years with the Geological Survey of Canada. He is now an independent consultant living in Cortes Island, BC. His special interest — his obsessive interest — is the rate at which human beings have been consuming the earth’s fossil-fuel supplies. He has spoken about this subject all over the world, including here in Nova Scotia.

For Dave Hughes, the value of a barrel of oil is the amount of work the oil can do. It represents about six gigajoules of energy. A joule is roughly the amount of energy it takes to lift an apple from the floor to the kitchen counter. Six gigajoules is six billion joules, enough energy to lift that apple 6,000,000,000 times.

Put a guy on a treadmill wired to a generator, and in an hour he can generate about 360,000 joules. Keep the guy on the treadmill continuously except for breaks, weekends and holidays. How long will it take him to produce the energy contained in a barrel of oil? About 8.6 years — and if you were paying him the Alberta minimum wage, you’d owe him $138,363.

That’s the real value of a barrel of oil. Oil is a miracle substance. It has given us a lifestyle hitherto obtainable only by people who owned slaves, and we literally treat it like garbage. That plastic bag you buy, the bag that was created for the sole purpose of being thrown away, is made out of invaluable, irreplaceable, vanishing oil.

And the era in which that was possible, the era of cheap fossil fuels, that era is ending. Spreading that message is what Dave Hughes is all about.

Discussions of energy supply have been dominated by economists, not geologists. Economists will tell you that shortages make prices rise, and rising prices create additional supplies or alternative technologies or both. So the problem is self-correcting.

Geologists reply that the economists’ model only works if there is no limit to the potential supply But that’s a fictional world. In this world, Dave Hughes notes, what count are things like EROEI, or Energy Return On Energy Invested, a very different measurement.

In traditional oil fields, EROEI is about 100 to 1. You consume one barrel of oil to drill a hole in the desert, and 100 barrels come gushing up. Today, EROEI in traditional oil fields has fallen to 25:1. Oil scraped off the surface of Alberta’s tar sands has an EROEI of only 6:1. Oil retrieved from deep in the tars sands has an EROEI of 3:1. The ratio for corn-generated ethanol is barely over 1:1.

Oil supplies with an EROEI lower than 1:1 will never be produced, no matter how high the price of oil, because they absorb more energy than they yield. And that’s why it’s meaningless to note that there may be billions of barrels locked up in formations like oil shales, which have never been mined at a net energy profit. It’s possible, of course, that technology will find an efficient way to extract oil from such sources — but not soon, and not on a sufficiently massive scale to allow us to continue using oil at our present breakneck clip.

Fundamentally, to understand EROEI is to recognize the truth of Dave Hughes’ analysis. Obviously, if we had access to plentiful oil reserves with an EROEI of 25:1 or so, we would not be bothering with low-yield sources like corn ethanol and the tar sands. We would not be spending $100 million to lower a drill bit through a mile of ocean water in order to drill down through four more miles of Brazilian sea-floor.

But we are.

We are not “running out of oil,” Hughes agrees. But we are certainly running out of cheap, easily-recovered oil. We are about to discover the real value of oil, and it may not be a pleasant experience.

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Silver Donald Cameron’s full-length video interview with David Hughes was recently posted at This column is also posted on the blog at

Live coverage of the BP oil spill

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

On The Green Interview blog, I’ve just posted a link to the feed from the remote vehicles operating at the ruptured oil well. It makes one instantly heart-sick, but some of you may want to check it out.


The Magic of the Cell Phone

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

May 23, 2010

After hiking four hours up a Himalayan mountainside, we have reached an elevation of more than 3000 metres. Breathing heavily, we stop for refreshments. Our Bhutanese guide reaches inside the folds of his traditional gho, whips out a cell phone, and calls the hotel about dinner arrangements.

At a meeting in Halifax, the phone line for the conference call is being balky. As the organizer struggles with the phone system, the woman across the table types furiously with her thumbs, sending instructions and receiving email reports from the Sydney member through her Blackberry.

When you give a village woman a cell phone and a solar charger, says Bunker Roy, the director of India’s Barefoot College, you have given her a business. Now she can make phone calls for other people, send text messages and emails, do research on the internet. You have brought the resources of the modern world to that isolated village.

At the pub, my friend Jack is showing me how easy it is to create and transmit video using an iPhone. He holds his phone up in the air, and slowly pans across the room. He taps his finger on the screen a couple of times, and turns to me with a smile. There, he says. That video is in your inbox.

In the ruins of Haiti, a victim taps out a text message on a cell phone. NAN DELMA 33 NAN PAK T.OKAP LA NOU BEZWEN TANT, SI LAPLI TONBE NOU MELE! In Creole — and you can almost pick it out if you know some French — this says “At Delma 33, at the park, we need a tent. If the rain falls, we are in trouble.” The message arrives at an emergency response centre, and is forwarded to a worldwide network of Creole-speaking volunteers. They translate it, locate the park on a global positioning system and and send the message onward with a map attached. Moments later it reaches the Red Cross, just minutes after it was sent.

“Wherever I’ve been in the world — in Africa, in South America — the telephone industry is just exploding,” says Dan Jacob, a young management trainee working for Telus. We’re talking at a restaurant in Montreal. “The use of cell phone technology not just for connecting people, but for m-commerce — mobile commerce — is just phenomenal.”

And that’s just the beginning, he says. Universities are planning to make their courses available by cell phone, which means that a university in Alberta could offer distance education to people in Africa who have no computer. And have I heard about the new emergency phone for people with heart disease? The phone is wirelessly connected with a pacemaker. If the person has a heart attack, the phone instantly consults the GPS and uploads the patient’s health records and precise location as part of an automated emergency call to the nearest paramedics.

Nobody ever expected this. The original developers of the cellular phone system thought they were building something for a niche market of business travellers. Instead, the cell phone has created a whole new reality. Half the earth’s people now have cell phones. Whole nations have simply skipped the process of wiring their communities with landlines. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but 25% of its people have cell phones — which proved invaluable in the aftermath of the earthquake.

In the Philippines, cellular airtime serves as a form of currency. In Argentina, farmers sell their products by cell phone. In Kenya, cell phones have brought banking into the lives of the poor, allowing them for the first time to create savings accounts. During Kenya’s last elections, cell-phone users were able to report electoral violence to the police as it happened.

A great tool solves a million problems that its inventors never imagined. Decades ago, electronic visionaries imagined a computer so unobtrusive and powerful that users would carry it with them and treat it as an extension of themselves. It seemed hard to imagine, and nobody suspected it would look like a telephone. But here it is, and that’s what it looks like, and it has transformed the world.

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Breaches of Trust

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

May 16, 2010

Now that the Dexter government has brought in regulations to cover MLA expenses, I confess that I never really understood why the issue generated such flaming pillars of indignation.

True, the questionable expenses identified by the Auditor-General revealed a deplorable fat-cat mindset among MLAs of all three parties. But, as others have noted, the $73,500 spent on big-screen TVs, high-end cameras, office furniture, espresso-makers and other baubles amounted to just .00045% of provincial spending during the three years that were audited. And the expenditures weren’t generally illegal, just ill-considered.

To put it in perspective, if your household income is $50,000 a year the Nova Scotian average then the equivalent loss would be $22.50. It’s as if your kid had taken your old electric drill without permission, and lost it. You might give him a scandalizing — to use the good old Nova Scotia word — but you wouldn’t spend six months frothing and fulminating about it.

Yet that’s exactly what the editors and commentators did. At the same time, with few exceptions, they blithely overlooked a genuine scandal involving 700 times as much money, namely the systemic mismanagement of public-private partnership arrangements in the province’s schools. In that same report, the Auditor-General identified $52 million in losses on those contracts.

And the school contracts are about much more than money. They’re also about the safety and well-being of children. Employees at P3 schools were found to be inadequately trained — they lacked CPR and first-aid qualifications — and their backgrounds had not always been checked with the criminal or child-abuse registries. That’s an authentic scandal, which genuinely puts people at risk, but we heard precious little about it. Nor have we heard much — now or ever — about the other corporate welfare programs that cost us millions under the guise of tax holidays, incentives, payroll rebates and other giveaways.

So why did the MLA expense issue make commentators and citizens so furious?

Two things, I think. First, for most people there comes a point when large numbers cease to have meaning and simply become “a lot.” The mind slides away from enormous numbers like an ice-cube off a stovetop. Fifty-two million, five hundred million, five billion, who can understand such figures?

But we understand four laptop computers, or a $3000 TV set, or $8000 for a generator. And that’s stuff we want ourselves. (Actually, I don’t entirely understand that $8000 generator. I bought a pretty decent one for $700. Where does Richard Hurlburt shop?) In any case, we do understand $8000. We know how hard it is to earn that much. And so, paradoxically, we find it easier to get outraged about $8000 than about $52 million.

The other factor is a general sense of betrayal about our institutions and our leaders. Bankers, once the model of prudence and sobriety, now play craps with the world’s economy and demand that taxpayers bail them out. Members of Ottawa’s law ‘n’ order government allegedly cavort with cocottes and cocaine. Plagiarists infest the New York Times. The auto industry holds governments to ransom. The Commissioner of the RCMP pervaricates to Parliament. Trusted financial advisers steal client funds. The Roman Catholic hierarchy smells worse every week. And by some loopy logic, the government of Nova Scotia — in the middle of the MLA brouhaha — restores the title of “Honourable” to convicted fraudster Billy Joe MacLean.

Ye gods.

A year ago, Nova Scotians elected the NDP not because a wave of socialist fervour had swept through Nappan and Coddles Harbour, but because Nova Scotians were sick of governments they considered incompetent, self-serving and untrustworthy. Six months later they were furious to discover that MLAs from the new crowd, as well as the old, had been vigorously milking the public teat all along.

To sell your soul for a kingdom is grand opera. To sell it for an espresso-maker is farce. But now, having seen the issue dealt with, can we reclaim our sense of proportion? Yes, the MLAs snuck a pint of milk. But the proponents of P3 prisons, highways and convention centres are after the whole cow. Can we now pay attention to that?

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Storms of Angels

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

May 9, 2010

In the frosty pre-dawn darkness, Bridget Stutchbury is slipping stealthily through the Pennsylvania woodlands, occasionally flashing a light to illuminate a landmark. She is trailing a philanderer, hoping to catch the hussy in the act. For two hours she tracks her target by sound and by radio — and she fails. The floozy demonstrates perfect chastity.

The philanderer is not a woman, but a bird, a female Acadian flycatcher, and Dr. Stutchbury is not a private eye, but an ornithologist who studies the social life of songbirds, including their sex lives. This is not leering voyeurism. Songbird populations are falling steeply, and to reverse the decline we need to understand not only the reasons for their decline, but also their requirements for successful reproduction.

Professor Stutchbury, who teaches at York University in Toronto, actually calls herself a “behavioural ecologist” or, more colloquially, a “bird detective.” That’s also the title of her newest book, and of the talk she’ll deliver at Dalhousie University Wednesday evening. She has spent her life studying songbirds in the wild, and her first book, Silence of the Songbirds, described what she had learned about them.

Silence of the Songbirds is an intensely readable book, a finalist for the Governor General’s literary award. But the story it tells is a sad one.

Songbirds are astonishing little creatures. Many of them winter in tropical forests from Central America to mid-South America, and breed in the Canadian north. They cross the Gulf of Mexico in a sustained 15 to 20-hour overnight flight that can cost them nearly half of their body weight. At the height of the migration season in April and May, US coastal radar stations pick up huge clouds of north-bound birds soon after sunset — as many as 50 million in a single night. In the early days of radar, before operators realized what was happening, they referred to these mysterious waves of aerial movement as “storms of angels.”

The destination of billions of these “neotropical migrants” is what Stutchbury calls “the biggest migratory bird nursery in the world,” the vast northern boreal forest that stretches across Canada from Newfoundland to the Yukon and Alaska. Here, in a few intense summer weeks, the birds find mates and build nests, conceive, hatch and nurture their young — and then fatten themselves again for the long trip south.

The birds are at risk in every part of this demanding life cycle. Fully half of them die in the course of every year’s migration, and the explosion of human populations has multiplied the hazards they confront. Their breeding grounds in the boreal forest are being chipped away by industry. The temperate forests of eastern North America once provided a vast leafy flyway from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, but they have been reduced to fragments and the tropical forests are falling at a terrifying rate.

Lighted skyscrapers and transmission towers represent lethal obstacles to night-flying birds. Latin American farmers use staggering quantities of pesticide, with lethal effects on wintering birds. A Wisconsin study in the 1990s estimated that, in that state alone, domestic cats annually killed somewhere between 8 million and 217 million birds.

And all of this is in addition to natural predators like squirrels, raccoons, snakes and other birds.

Stutchbury notes that we can all help by behaving thoughtfully — keeping our cats indoors, drinking shade-grown organic coffee, eschewing pesticide-soaked produce, buying FSC-certified lumber and paper products, dousing office lights during migration season. Most of these are better choices anyway.

Meanwhile, the annual Breeding Birds Survey shows at least 18 species of migrant songbirds in serious decline. And if you think this has nothing to do with you, think again. The songbirds are an integral part of the web of life that sustains us all. The quality of our air, for instance, relies on healthy forests — and the trees rely on the songbirds to control their insects, pollinate their flowers and distribute their seeds and fruits.

But to value songbirds for their usefulness to humans is morally bankrupt. Songbirds are among nature’s most exquisite creations. If they don’t lift our hearts, if we can’t value them for themselves, then we have no right to share a planet with them.

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I interviewed Bridget Stutchbury for The Green Interview during her visit to Halifax. We’ll run the interview on the site later this year.

Update: The Green Interview (May 1, 2010)

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

May 1, ,2010

Hi, everyone:

There won’t be a column tomorrow because the Herald is devoting the entire section of The Novascotian to the centennial of the Canadian navy, and even my page will be given over to that. I’ve taken the time off to do more work on — and here’s an update on our progress there.

Many of you are members of The Green Interview, and so you’ll be getting a second copy of this update. My apologies. We’re still working some of this stuff out.


New at!


The Farley Mowat interview is posted and accessible. If you’re a subscriber, go to the Home page or the “Interviews” page and click on the thumbnail. If you’re not a subscriber, you can still see the video sample from the home page. That little five-minute snippet – which is also on YouTube – is a powerful interview in itself.


As a direct result of visitor feedback, we’ve just implemented a reduced subscription fee of $6.95 monthly for students, seniors and other low-income members. I’ve just posted a Forum entry and a Blog note about this change, and about the site’s pricing policy in general terms, and I invite your comments.


I want to remind everyone that you don’t have to sit in front of your computer and watch these interviews – though a lot of people are doing just that. One alternative, though, is to download just the audio tracks of the interviews as MP3 files, and then listen to them at your convenience, while you’re driving, exercising, walking, riding the subway or whatever. In fact, that was the original concept of the site, until Chris Beckett persuaded me that people as exciting and important as our guests should be captured on high-definition video as well.


I’ve also posted a Forum note about transcripts. A couple of visitors have asked whether the interviews could be made available in that form. It’s an appealing idea. (One of these is a world-cruising sailor who wants to print off the transcripts and read them at sea, like a book. Another has only slow dial-up access to the internet.) We can certainly do this, but transcription is an additional cost. Would other people like the option of reading transcripts? Please let us know.


This note is going out as a mass-mailing to everyone who’s registered on the site, and to members of a couple of other mailing lists. Since not everyone will want to receive all the updates, we aren’t going to do mass-mailings very often. Instead, we’re going to issue future updates as Newsletters. If you want to stay in touch, please go to the site and subscribe to the Newsletter. You don’t have to be a subscriber to the site to subscribe to the Newsletter — and you can unsubscribe at any time, of course.

Happy spring!

Silver Donald Cameron

The State of Mexico

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

April 25, 2010

A failed state, says George Friedman, “is one in which the central government has lost control over significant areas of the country, and the state is unable to function.” Last year, he thought that Mexico was approaching the status of a failed state. Now he’s not so sure. And his analysis is extremely interesting.

Friedman is the head honcho at an outfit called Stratfor, which provides political, economic and military analysis to investors, leaders and others. Last year, he noted that the Mexican government had essentially lost control of northern Mexico to drug-smuggling organizations. The central government was “weakened to the point that decisions made by the state against the cartels are not being implemented or are being implemented in a way that would guarantee failure.”

That’s still true. But Friedman now believes that the Mexican state has “accommodated itself to the situation.” Rather than failing, it has developed strategies designed to maximize the benefits of the drug wars.

The basic problem is that the United States represents an enormous market for drugs — cheap products, easily made, but worth a fortune precisely because they are illegal in the US. The effects of prohibition are worse than the effects of drugs themselves, including 5000 murders just this year in Mexico. So we’ve lost the “war on drugs.” If drugs can’t even be kept out of maximum-security prisons, how can they possibly be kept out of the state of Texas?

The result is a dazzling business opportunity — a market of desperate users willing to pay almost anything for a product that costs pennies to manufacture. Unsurprisingly, the drug industry has pretty much taken over northern Mexico, where drug militias are perpetually shooting it out over market share.

But, says Friedman, the core of Mexico is far away from the lawless, arid highlands along the US border, and the drug business brings in $35 to $40 billion annually. About 80% is sheer profit. Lakes of cash, sloshing about the country in the middle of a recession, are tremendously helpful to the Mexican government. Why would it shut down the drug trade even if it could?

And so, says Friedman, Mexico makes formal, feeble efforts to stop the drug trade. It discreetly reminds the Americans that drugs are fundamentally an American problem, reliant on the illegality of drugs and the unslakeable demand of US consumers for them. If the US decriminalized drugs, prices would plunge and the trade would dry up overnight. In that spirit, the former presidents of Brazil, Columbia and Mexico recently called for the US to re-define drug use as a public health matter rather than a criminal one. Fat chance. If you thought health care was divisive, just try legalizing drugs.

What can the Americans do? Attempting to stamp out the drug trade by force clearly hasn’t worked. Decriminalization won’t happen. The US could invade Mexico, bleeding its treasury in yet another hopeless war while turning the drug lords into patriots — which is roughly what has happened in Afghanistan. Or it could bluster and froth while implicitly accepting the present situation. That has been the actual US policy for years, and will be for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, says Friedman, “if massive amounts of money pour into Mexico as a result of this U.S. failure, Mexico is not going to refuse it.” Mexico is not a failed state but a clever one, stick-handling adeptly between realities and rhetoric, and prospering in the process.

All very depressing — and its implications are even more depressing. Here’s a problem that’s destroying the very fabric of several nations — enriching thugs, dissolving civil society, and turning vast regions into war zones. The rot and bloodshed could be stopped in an instant by a simple change of policy. Everybody knows this — the cops, the robbers, the Mexicans, the Americans, everybody. And yet it doesn’t happen.

In a global and ecological perspective, the Mexican-American drug dance is a minor regional issue, entirely under human control. It’s nowhere near as complex or difficult as ocean acidification, atmospheric change, the decline of biodiversity. If human societies can’t solve a problem like that, what chance do we have of solving the really big problems of our time?

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