Written by Derryl Hermanutz
This began as a comment on a Naomi Klein (of “Shock Doctrine” fame, or infamy, depending on your ideological perspective) article on a “progressive” blog. But it became too long for a comment and perhaps too critical of “lefty” orthodoxies, so it morphed into this article on a non-ideological website committed to publishing “diverse” perspectives.
Without intending to disparage, I want to disabuse North American “greens” of their apparent belief that their life would go on pretty much unchanged, or actually “improve”, in a post fossil fuel scenario where they would live low energy, low impact, “sustainable” lives in “local economies”. I suggest that their human lives are not “sustainable” in that scenario. For many, I expect it would be non-sustainable as in “death”. Some point to recent Bolivarian revolutions in Latin America as a model to emulate, but the Latin model doesn’t fit the North American reality. Let’s compare.
♦ The “Other” America
I live in Costa Rica (CR), which is admittedly not typical of Latin American nations because CR has a vibrant diversified economy with good national health care and social security systems and gainful work for most everyone, including a great many migrants from Nicaragua and the rest of Central and South America. Social democracy “works” here, as do the people. But working class wages are very low, about $3 per hour. And a lot of independent entrepreneurs don’t do much better. Nevertheless people live on these wages.
Bolivarian revolutions, local self-sufficiency movements to cast off the yoke of great power colonizers and their large scale centralized “extractive” economies, can work in tropical countries because in this climate you can grow food year round and you don’t need much of a house – people spend much of their time outdoors. You can live without the supports of the corporatized economy. A simple block building (with strong concrete and sufficient rebar to be earthquake-proof) with a metal roof extended over a patio area is all you need for a house, which makes basic housing “affordable”.
♦ Living Where There is No Frostline
You don’t need to trench water and sewer lines 8 feet deep to prevent them from freezing and bursting. You don’t need 12 foot deep pilings to prevent frost heaving (due to freeze-thaw cycles) from jamming all your doors and windows and stressing your house to pieces. You don’t need fleets of snowplows and tow trucks plus winter tires, parkas and all the other heavily taxing defenses against cold and snow.
Much of North America is forced to expend massive resources to gird itself against the annual natural disaster called “winter”. That alone makes life in North America “expensive” and “energy intensive”. Without the fossil fueled corporate consumer economy, life in cold climates is brutally hard. Many folks on the hurricane and blizzard ravaged Eastern seaboard are suffering that right now as they try to restore electricity and other infrastructure amidst an “after shock” nor’easter.
♦ Affordable Housing
Here in Costa Rica rents for simple apartments or little houses with electricity, water (drinkable) and sewer, fridge and stove, a bed and table and chairs and couch all included, and phone and cable and internet hookups if you want to pay for them, are $200-300 per month. That is “affordable housing”.
In Canada you need to hermetically seal and insulate your house against almost constant cold weather (even most summer nights are cool or cold almost everywhere in Canada), and keep it heated most of the time. And you can’t “live outdoors” like people do here year round so you need a bigger house to prevent claustrophobia. Nor do you need much in the way of clothing here beyond shorts and sandals (all the locals wear flip flops), though people working at rough physical labor or in more “formal” businesses, and people in the city that is higher in elevation and breezier, wear full clothing.
In addition to the inescapable high costs of building houses to survive North American climates, and the high cost of burying all that water infrastructure, and preparing road bases that can withstand recurring freeze-thaws (all of which contribute to the high cost of serviced lots), North American building and architectural codes demand that houses are built to “local standards”. This means big and fancy and expensive, so it is not possible to build truly low cost housing like they do here in Costa Rica.
Stated differently, they can’t build like they used to in North America when we were still poor and free – tough enough to spend our time outside. Back then local bureaucrats didn’t tell you how you had to build your house and how much you are going to pay them for their ‘help’. It is our out-of-control municipal governments and their bureaucratic legions, not federal regulation of economically and politically powerful large financial and industrial corporations, that are the bane of North American small businesses.
♦ Living and Working
And municipal “zoning laws” in North America demand that people keep their residential and commercial activities confined to separate areas miles apart, whereas here in Costa Rica every second house is also the “premises” of a small business. And over every ‘downtown’ business are apartments. Children and dogs are part of the mix. There is no separation of commercial and residential building uses here, little separation between “work” and “life”. People “commute” from their bedroom to their kitchen or their covered front breezeway where their business is located. They make a living “locally”:
There’s a “pulperia” (convenience store), a bakery, a meat market, a fruit vendor, a liquor store, two restaurants, a shoemaker, a seamstress, a bicycle repair guy, a welding shop, an auto parts store, a law office, a developers’ office, a dentist, two medical clinics, three little clothing stores, many apartments of all descriptions, an apartotel, a resort hotel under construction, among myriad other individualistic entrepreneurs (and free range chickens!) within slingshot range of our house. And we live about half a mile from the center of downtown and beach in the “purest” residential crescent in this town of about 10,000 (double in tourist season).
Everything is close because people are allowed to combine residential and commercial building uses, and they do. This is what “free enterprise” looks like. It’s also what “local economies” and “sustainable living” means. It is highly convenient for all concerned, except the local bureaucrat who sees all the “land use” colors distressingly mixed together on his big impressive zoning map.
North American propriety honors bureaucratic niceties over market freedoms: no “non-conforming uses” violating the comforting monocolor squares on municipal land use maps. Notwithstanding the fact that the vast residential subdivisions become ghost towns every weekday when everybody drives off to work (kids to daycare) so there’s nobody home to be “bothered” by a neighbor running a mechanic shop out of his garage. So North Americans are forced to commute and pay for separate business premises and are prevented from working out of their homes to earn a local living.
And in the integrated community they can also raise their own kids rather use daycare, by the way. “Family” is not a luxury in Costa Rica. It is the way of life. What they lack in standard of living they more than make up for in quality of life.
♦ Everybody’s Gotta Earn a Living
Most of the people in Latin America are used to living on incomes that are far below North American welfare rates. Poor people here simply do without many of the luxuries that North Americans see as “necessities”. People pick up work and income where they can, much of it in the “informal” cash economy. This includes drugs and prostitution, which are “prevalent” but not “problematic”. The attitude is: everybody’s gotta earn a living. They are not “secure”, but they are “free”. And very few of them are miserable about their life here. They live in a natural paradise where family is close and basic living does not require buying a lot of stuff.
It’s not all rosy. All four of the supermarkets in our town are now owned by Walmart, and grocery store products and prices are “globalized” as in equal or higher prices than in North America. Furniture is expensive. Chinese manufactures are about the same as in North America. Baked goods and fresh fruits and produce and rice and beans are cheap, but fish and meats and cheeses are expensive, even though they’re all locally produced by low wage labor. Restaurant meals run about the same range as North America. All the American fast food joints do a booming business here.
Costa Rica has embraced neoliberal economic and trade policies to (successfully) attract foreign direct investment, and in lieu of aggressive income taxes there is a comprehensive 13% VAT applied at the retail level. Income earners (and expats with CR residency) pay into the SS system, “the Caja“. Expats with residency pay about $50 per month for comprehensive health care in the public clinics, though locals complain about long lineups and waiting lists (nothing new to us Canadians). There are also good private clinics for quick service that charge about 1/5 of Canadian prices, or about 1/8 of America’s outrageous health care prices.
♦ High Living and Slum Living
“First world” style real estate is priced about the same as in the US post-crash, which is now cheaper than Canadian real estate that has not crashed (yet). Costa Rica is not an inexpensive place to live, even for the poor people who live in inexpensive housing. But like Alberta or North Dakota, people keep coming to Costa Rica because there is work here for them.
Latin America has its share of dangerous slum shantytowns around megacities like Caracas, and also its share of harsh climates at high elevations and far to the south. And, of course, the Caribbean side of Central and South America is periodically blighted by Atlantic storms. But small town existence in benign climates is usually an option for anyone willing and able to do any kind of useful work. Costa Rica’s capital San Jose, in the central valley at 3300′ elevation, bills itself as “the city of eternal spring” for its cooling and cleansing breezes (they blow the air pollution away). Life on the coasts is hot and humid.
There’s plenty of “rough and ready” construction in poor areas of the city and around the country, but nothing that looks like “crushing” poverty. Anything built in the past 20 years conforms to earthquake-proofing codes: our 2 story cement and steel house withstood the rocking and rolling of the 7.6 quake on Sept. 5 (centered 70 miles from here) without so much as a crack. There’s also, in the up-and-coming SW San Jose suburb of Escazu, a Salvadoran owned megamall that looks like it belongs in Miami or New York City. I’m amazed that anyone but drug mavens can afford to shop there, but it’s busy. Costa Rica has an optimistic and growing middle class.
♦ The Reality of the Frozen North
Most of Canada, by comparison, where I worked outside for four decades (32 of those years as a construction trade contractor doing building exteriors), is a bleak frozen hellhole for 4 months of every year. Most “environmentalists” ride around in heated cars or buses or airplanes and do their “work” inside climate controlled buildings. Sorry folks. You live “in buildings” where “climate” is never a part of your everyday experience of life. You have no idea what living “in Canada” is really like, after you strip away all those man made comforts of fossil fueled civilization.
In 1979 I worked on some drilling rigs in northern Alberta and NE British Columbia. One winter night looking out the V-door of a rig 60 miles from nowhere near the Arctic Circle in 40 below weather, I became grimly aware that without the heat provided by that island of “industrial civilization” in the midst of that vast uninhabited forest, I would die a cold quick death. The North is not red in tooth and claw. It is deathly and silently white.
In early 1976 I worked on the construction of the Syncrude oil sands megaplant (Mildred Lake) 30 miles NW of Ft. McMurray, which is 300 miles north of Edmonton (Edmonton is 180 miles north of better known Calgary). There were 7000 men and women living in Syncrude camp at that time. I had never made so much money in my life. There was a 2 week period in late January – early February where the daytime high temperature never cracked 40 below zero. The coldest overnight low was 60 below zero; the warmest overnight low was 52 below. Exposed skin freezes in seconds at those temperatures, and steel gets brittle and breaks, but we kept working (mostly under heated hoarding). Then one morning we woke up and a freakishly far north Chinook wind had blown in raising the temperature to 40 above. I quit and hitchhiked the hell out of there. But tens of thousands of men and women continue to work up there in that sometimes bitterly cold climate so the rest of us can enjoy our fossil fueled comforts.
Going outside for recreation when you feel like it in your cool high tech gear is “fun”. I spent 5 youthful winters working at ski areas and had a great time. Staff housing is provided and you make enough money to eat and ski and party. Staying outside all day every day because you have to earn a living to support a family isn’t fun at all a lot of the time. It is hard and cold and grueling, aside from a few nice days each season when it’s actually pleasant to be working outside. When you’re working with your hands you can’t wear nice warm mittens. Thawing out your frozen hands is excruciatingly painful.
You can’t live in Canada without (1) burning enormous amounts of oil and other fuels to keep warm, (2) traveling the vast distances and (3) powering the entertainment infrastructure of living inside buildings all the time, which almost all Canadians (and Americans) do. How many people would prefer to spend 4 or 5 winter months every year huddling in igloos eating raw blubber, or squatting in teepees boiling moose meat over a smoky wood fire to stay alive like the natives used to do? “Natural life” in cold climates is cold hell. “Civilized life” in these forbidding climates and vast geographies requires massive consumption of energy.
♦ Democracy and Community
All of Central America would fit handily inside Alberta or Texas. Alberta is almost exactly the size of Texas, though Texas has over 6 times Alberta’s population. Costa Rica is geographically 20% the size of Alberta and with 4.5 million people has a slightly larger population than Alberta’s 4 million. But it doesn’t feel crowded here at all and it seems like a “human size” country.
Maybe that’s why they have a functioning democracy and when members of the power elite are caught rigging bids or stealing cookies they are exposed by the scandal loving media, charged, convicted and sent to prison; not covered up and patted on the hand and set free to steal, steal again. “The people” actually have power to change politicians’ minds in Costa Rica. And the daily papers and TV stations have no qualms about going after bigwigs. Nobody here is rich enough or powerful enough to defy democracy or break the laws with impunity.
And people don’t live “in Costa Rica”, as if an individual spends his time traveling the length and breadth of the country. People live in little towns scattered all over the place where you can get everything you need, with a full menu of foods and other necessities supplied locally year round. Or they live in the occasional big city with all the traffic and globalist retailers and other features of high density city life you can find anywhere on this planet.
♦ The Green Vision and Latam Reality …
Greens seem to think they can pack humans into high density “energy efficient” cages and avoid the rat-nasty social pressures of high density life. Reality seems to argue to the contrary. Green sustainable life happens in the low density countryside with small towns.
Most people in Costa Rica do their distance travelling by bus, and there is an excellent inexpensive bus system to accommodate this. The last vestige of the country’s not-to-be rail line was destroyed in the 1989 Limon earthquake. There are more little motorbikes and bicycles and pedestrians on the roads than there are cars, because it is never cold here and people live close to where they work. I rarely drive, unless I have to buy large or heavy items or go to the city, because everything we need is within walking distance and walking everywhere is so much more relaxing and pleasant (and I need the exercise). Even the rain is warm here, as is the water in the Pacific Ocean.
♦ … vs. Canadian Reality
I’ve seen determined souls pedaling mountain bikes on city streets during Edmonton snowstorms in bitter temperatures, but 99.9% of the working population is not physically rigorous enough to endure that so they use cars and buses fueled by gasoline and diesel. So greens, appreciate the men who repair the frozen and burst water and sewer lines in that weather, and keep the natural gas flowing, and the power lines up, and the gas pumps restocked, and the roads plowed. Without those men freezing to maintain that infrastructure, cold climate life is impossible and people die.
Half of the Europeans who originally came to take up free homestead land in Western Canada left after their first winter because they nearly starved and froze to death (some did). The idea that 34 million Canadians can live satisfactory lives in that country without the fruits of the oil drilling, fossil fueled, produce importing corporate Walmart economy is a fantasy. The reality would be more like the worst days of impoverished “low impact” life in the former Soviet Union.
For a real taste of non-industrial life try moving out to the bush where there is no economic infrastructure, just “pure nature”. I tried it when I was young and wanted freedom from “the system”, in an old long vacated trapper’s log cabin beside a beaver dam in the central Alberta foothills east of the Rocky Mountains. I found out why all those European settlers said “F___ this” and went back to Europe. Trying to wrest a self sufficient living from “nature”, in Canada and much of North America where nights and winters are cold, is killing hard.
Math quiz: How many years would it take 370 million North Americans living without fossil fuels to burn down all the trees on the continent for heating and cooking fuel?
In the 1990s an Edmonton city councillor named Tooker Gomberg seriously suggested that the city should flood the downtown streets in winter so everybody could skate to work. Right. Seriously suggesting that Canada (and America) should, or even can, abandon its fossil fuel economy for less energy intensive living is not much less unrealistic. There are plenty of places on this planet whose geography and climate and political culture lend themselves to local self sufficient living with minimal use of fossil or other fuels. Canada is not one of those places.
♦ Peak Oil
I believe “peak oil” is a reality. We’ve found and pumped most all of the cheap, easy to extract supply. From here on in supply gets more expensive and less plentiful. Fracking and other innovations are water intensive, and water is also a scarce resource. Guys in the oil and gas business are in the business of “finding supply”. If they’re not optimistic about the possibility of finding voluptuous new supply, then exploration is the wrong line of work for them. Asking oil and gas guys about prospects in their market is like asking realtors about prospects in their real estate market. Happy days again are always just over the horizon, no matter how discouraging the present reality.
I think a more sober assessment of our future is a high cost energy environment with real possibilities of physical scarcity. The greens are not wrong to be seeking a less energy dependent future, even if I don’t share their belief in “man made global warming”. Northern climates where I have lived would welcome some global warming, as far as that goes.
♦ Climate Change – A Needle in a Haystack
Over 40 years spent working outdoors I have seen climate patterns shift, with sometimes a few years of milder winters and sometimes a few years of harsher winters. Sometimes a period of long cold rainy springs, and sometimes warm early springs. In Edmonton the arrival of “Spring” weather (consistent above freezing daytime highs) has varied between the first week of March and the third week of April, a 7 week variation in a 40 year sample. And “Winter’s” arrival (consistent below freezing daytime highs) has varied between the third week of October and the third week of November, a 4 week variation.
That’s 7 plus 4 weeks of variation within a 52 week year, for an 11 week total variation in the changing of the freeze-thaw seasons. Which means any short term measure of “climate change” can be overwhelmed by just these 20% irregular oscillations. Trying to pick a geological trend out of this statistical noise is a fool’s errand.
I think we will become less energy dependent because we have to, not because we choose to. It will happen not to “stop global warming”, but because “we run out of oil that we can afford to burn“, as peak oiler Jeff Rubin puts it. Most (certainly not all) Russians survived “energy poverty” in the Soviet Union, which has climates similar to Canada and the northern US. It is possible to live a low energy lifestyle in a cold climate. But that life is nothing at all like the rich life of carefree abundance that many soft North Americans have come to believe is their “right”.
Read More by This Author
‘The Author’: (in his own words)
My academic background is in philosophy and political economy, but since 1978 I have made my living in small business so I consider myself a free enterpriser and a “worker” (though “owning” and “managing” are also part of being in business). I began studying monetary systems after the 1982 crash that was precipitated by the Mexican default. Most people are not aware that most of the big American (and Canadian) banks were rendered technically insolvent by their Latin loan losses, just as American banks are currently insolvent due to real estate value declines. I began blogging about monetary reform after the 2008 crash and have been happy to encounter a wide and varied movement promoting understanding of our money system and why its current operation generates the perverse outcomes we are suffering today.