Review: The Pipeline and the Paradigm 

click to enlarge The Pipeline and the Paradigm - Keystone XL, Tar sands, and the Battle to Defuse the Carbon Bomb - By Samuel Avery - Forward by Bill McKibben - Ruka Press; $17.95
  • The Pipeline and the Paradigm
    Keystone XL, Tar sands, and the Battle to Defuse the Carbon Bomb

    By Samuel Avery
    Forward by Bill McKibben
    Ruka Press; $17.95

The soon to be released book, The Pipeline and the Paradigm, is a mixture of science, philosophy and first-person advocacy. The book is adamantly anti-Keystone XL, but Sam Avery gives space to the other side, respectfully allowing them their say, and letting their side of the story deepen his thinking about the issue.

The book begins with a picture of Avery in handcuffs in D.C., purposely being arrested to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. Especially in its second half, the book is a travelogue of his adventures across the U.S. and Canada, interviewing activists and pipeline proponents all along the way.

But Avery, based in the Louisville, Ky., area, is also a businessman, a solar installer, so he knows this issue from an important angle, that of an expert in renewable energy.

Why are tar sands so bad?

The Keystone XL pipeline will enable the massive extraction of oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. Many call it a carbon time bomb. James Hansen, who recently announced his retirement from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, famously maintains that if the pipeline is approved, it's "game over" for the climate and thus the planet.

Part of the problem with extraction of tar sands is that it's an energy intensive, dirty process.

According to research just released by the Post Carbon Institute, while the EROI (energy returned on investment) for conventional oil is 25:1 - 25 oil-based units of energy for every one unit of energy used to extract it - tar sands has a ratio of only 5:1. And deeper extraction makes that ratio sink to 2.9:1.

It's the upgrading of the tar sand bitumen that is so energy intensive and pollution creating. According to Avery's book, "Compared to refining conventional oil, upgrading tar sands (removing impurities and adding hydrogen) produces two to three times more sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain), volatile organic compounds (producers of ozone), and particulate matter (a cause of heart and lung diseases)."

Avery also writes that, "Tar sands extraction uses - and pollutes - enormous quantities of water. It drains watersheds and destroys thousands of acres of wetlands by withdrawing groundwater at rates measured in the billions of cubic feet and trillions of gallons."

Add all this to the concerns of the threat of pipeline breaches, as witnessed by the recent pipeline breach in Mayflower, AR, and thus soil and aquifer damage and, overall, the anointing of further fossil fuel extraction as baptism of the collapsing ecosystem, and Keystone XL pipeline is medium and message of our planetary peril.

Mind and spirit

Avery states from the outset, "What I want to do with this book is look into the mind and spirit of people, like me, who understand that the Earth is in crisis and feel they have to do something about it."

He calls for a new paradigm, an ecologic one.

"In the ecologic worldview, biological communities exist in their own right, whether or not they are 'useful.' Trees, soil, animals, streams, plants, lakes, deserts, and oceans have no less right to exist than human communities." He adds, "The living world includes the economy, but it is not limited to the economy."

Ultimately, in the ecologic paradigm, "human need is subordinate to the Earth's capacity to sustain life... . We fit into it."

Remember, Avery is not just a tree-hugger. He knows what solar power can do and believes its promise has only begun to manifest. But it needs policy support, like a state (or the entire country) adopting Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (requiring electric utilities to produce energy from renewables), or states adopting a feed-in tariff, which gives residential customers using renewable energy to produce more energy than consumed - with the excess energy sold back to the utility.

Finally, there is the practice of conservation, which, according to Avery, "means having less, doing without, having a colder house - or a hotter one."

These ideas and approaches solidify one of Avery's main messages, that "humanity has to understand itself as a whole" - i.e. as part of the living system know as planet Earth. "[Humanity] has to fit its system in with other systems." While once we were part of the overall ecosystem, now we are "an entirely new form of life ... too big not to know or care about how we affect the rest of life." The official release date for the book is April 23.


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Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser is Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana, a statewide organization that was one of over two dozen nonprofit partners in Greening the Statehouse. A former managing editor of NUVO, he won HEC’s Environmentalist of the Year Award in 2013.

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