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Working Together

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

This morning’s author considers why we Americans are having such a difficult time with accepting and adapting to our new reality.


Dreams Die Hard

James Howard Kunstler

In The Long Emergency (2005, Atlantic Monthly Press), I said that we ought to expect the federal government to become increasingly impotent and ineffectual – that this would be a hallmark of the times.  In fact, I said that any enterprise organized at the colossal scale would function poorly in years ahead, whether it was a government, a state university, a national chain retail company, or a giant midwestern farm.  It is characteristic of the compressive contraction our society faces that giant hypercomplex systems will wobble and fail. We should expect this.

It’s tragic that the avatar of hopefulness himself, Barack Obama, stepped into his role at exactly the moment when this set of conditions was getting traction. It is sure to get worse, and there are going to be a lot of disappointed people out there who will be suffering terrible losses and real pain in daily life. Societies don’t do well when the public falls into the broad despair that is the opposite of hope. That’s when the long knives and the tribal animosities come out and things get smashed.

Within the context of conventional party politics – the kind that has been baseline “normal” in the USA for a long time – we see this playing out in two factions that are increasingly out-of-touch with reality.  The Obama government has made itself hostage to a toxic form of pretense and lying. In order to sustain the wish for “hope” – if not hope itself – the President and his White House advisors along with his cabinet appointments, are pretending that the historical forces of compressive contraction are not underway.  They’re flat-out lying about the employment figures issued in the government’s name.  They’re willfully ignoring the comprehensive bankruptcy gripping government at all levels. They refuse to bring the law to bear against “the malefactors of great wealth.” They appear to not understand the epochal energy scarcity problem the whole world faces, or its implications for industrial economies. Most of all, they persist in promoting the lie that this economy can return to the prior state of reckless debt accumulation (a.k.a “consumerism”) that has made us so ridiculous and unhealthy.

The trouble with self-delusion, either in a person or a society, is that reality doesn’t care what anybody believes, or what story they put out.  Reality doesn’t “spin.” Reality does not have a self-image problem.  Reality does not yield its workings to self-esteem management. These days, Americans don’t like reality very much because it won’t let them push it around. Reality is an implacable force and the only question for human beings in the face of it is:what will you do?  In other words, it’s not really possible to manage reality, but you can certainly choose to manage your affairs within reality.  We won’t do that because it’s too difficult. This harsh situation leaves the public increasingly with little more than bad feelings of discouragement and persecution. It’s astonishing that all the smart people around the president don’t get this.

Reality unfolds emergently, and this ought to interest us.  For instance, I have maintained for many years that we are approaching the twilight of the automobile age – and the implications of this for daily life in the USA are pretty large. For a long time, I had assumed that this change of circumstances would proceed from our problems with the oil supply.  But reality is sly.  It has thrown two new plot twists into the story lately. America’s romance with cars may not founder just on the fuel supply question.  It now appears that our problems with capital are so severe that far fewer people will be able to borrow money from banks to buy cars at the rate, and in the way, that the system has been organized to depend on.  Our problems with capital are also depriving us of the ability to pay to fix the hypercomplex system of county roads, interstate highways, and even city streets that make motoring possible. What will we do?

For now, a cashless government gives out cash-for-clunkers, which is basically a self-esteem building program designed to make the government feel better about itself because it is ostensibly taking 11-miles-per-gallon cars off the road and replacing them with 27-miles-per-gallon cars, thus forestalling scary problems with climate change. It’s dumb of course, but the failure of leadership is comprehensive. Even the elite environmentalists at the Aspen Institute are preoccupied with finding new “green” ways to keep all the cars running.  They put zero effort into the idea of walkable communities, or restoring the railroad system, which will be the reality-based remedies for the car-dependency problem.

The Republican right wing is, if anything, even more childishly delusional. For Glen Beck and Sarah Palin it comes down to “drill, baby, drill.”  They know nothing about the geology of oil – they don’t even believe that the earth is more than six-thousand years old, meaning they don’t believe in geology, period – but they are inflamed with the faith of eight-year-old children that we must have a lot more oil in the ground because this is America and God loves us more than people in other parts of the planet so it must be there. As their disappointment mounts, their childish ideas will turn cruel and sadistic. They’ll seek to punish anybody who believes that the earth is more than six thousand years old. The catch is, If they get into power in the election cycles ahead, they’ll be impotent and ineffectual even at persecuting their enemies.

In the meantime, American life will just wind down, no matter what we believe.  It won’t wind down to a complete stop.  Its near-term destination is to lower levels of complexity and scale than what we’ve been used to for a long time.  People will be able to drive fewer cars fewer miles.  The roads will get worse.  They’ll be worse in some places than others. There will be fewer jobs to go to and fewer things sold. People who live in communities scaled to the energy and capital realities of the years ahead are liable to be more comfortable. We’re surely going to have trouble with money. Households will drown in debt and lose all their savings.  Money could be scarce or worthless. Credit will be scarcer.

Both factions of American political life indulge in the fiction of control. History is reality’s big brother.  It is taking us someplace that we don’t want to go, so it will probably have to drag us there kicking and screaming. For starters, both reality and history will probably take us out to some woodshed of the national soul and beat the crap out of us.  That could be a salutary thing, since the crap consists of all the lies we tell ourselves. Once we’re rid of all that, we may rediscover a few things left inside our collective identity that are worth regarding with real self-respect.


Read Kunstler’s newest novel World Made by Hand.
Read Kunstler’s
The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.
Visit his website.

Working Together

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover is known as the father of the nuclear submarine. He was also instrumental in getting the United States started using nuclear power to generate electricity. He was an advisor to Jimmy Carter, who is known for his interest in renewable energy. The world would no doubt be much different if we had listened to Mr. Rickover’s ideas from more than 50 years ago and acted on them. The following speech was delivered on May 14, 1957 speech to the Minnesota State Medical Association. This speech was brought to my attention by long time reader Dexter Graphic. … Reposted from Gail Tverberg’s blog Our Finite World.


Energy Resources and Our Future

Hyman Rickover

I am honored to be here tonight, though it is no easy thing, I assure you, for a layman to face up to an audience of physicians. A single one of you, sitting behind his desk, can be quite formidable.

My speech has no medical connotations. This may be a relief to you after the solid professional fare you have been absorbing. I should like to discuss a matter which will, I hope, be of interest to you as responsible citizens: the significance of energy resources in the shaping of our future.

We live in what historians may some day call the Fossil Fuel Age. Today coal, oil, and natural gas supply 93% of the world’s energy; water power accounts for only 1%; and the labor of men and domestic animals the remaining 6%. This is a startling reversal of corresponding figures for 1850 – only a century ago. Then fossil fuels supplied 5% of the world’s energy, and men and animals 94%. Five sixths of all the coal, oil, and gas consumed since the beginning of the Fossil Fuel Age has been burned up in the last 55 years.

These fuels have been known to man for more than 3,000 years. In parts of China, coal was used for domestic heating and cooking, and natural gas for lighting as early as 1000 B.C. The Babylonians burned asphalt a thousand years earlier. But these early uses were sporadic and of no economic significance. Fossil fuels did not become a major source of energy until machines running on coal, gas, or oil were invented. Wood, for example, was the most important fuel until 1880 when it was replaced by coal; coal, in turn, has only recently been surpassed by oil in this country.

Once in full swing, fossil fuel consumption has accelerated at phenomenal rates. All the fossil fuels used before 1900 would not last five years at today’s rates of consumption.

Nowhere are these rates higher and growing faster than in the United States. Our country, with only 6% of the world’s population, uses one third of the world’s total energy input; this proportion would be even greater except that we use energy more efficiently than other countries. Each American has at his disposal, each year, energy equivalent to that obtainable from eight tons of coal. This is six times the world’s per capita energy consumption. Though not quite so spectacular, corresponding figures for other highly industrialized countries also show above average consumption figures. The United Kingdom, for example, uses more than three times as much energy as the world average.

With high energy consumption goes a high standard of living. Thus the enormous fossil energy which we in this country control feeds machines which make each of us master of an army of mechanical slaves. Man’s muscle power is rated at 35 watts continuously, or one-twentieth horsepower. Machines therefore furnish every American industrial worker with energy equivalent to that of 244 men, while at least 2,000 men push his automobile along the road, and his family is supplied with 33 faithful household helpers. Each locomotive engineer controls energy equivalent to that of 100,000 men; each jet pilot of 700,000 men. Truly, the humblest American enjoys the services of more slaves than were once owned by the richest nobles, and lives better than most ancient kings. In retrospect, and despite wars, revolutions, and disasters, the hundred years just gone by may well seem like a Golden Age.

Whether this Golden Age will continue depends entirely upon our ability to keep energy supplies in balance with the needs of our growing population. Before I go into this question, let me review briefly the role of energy resources in the rise and fall of civilizations.

Possession of surplus energy is, of course, a requisite for any kind of civilization, for if man possesses merely the energy of his own muscles, he must expend all his strength – mental and physical – to obtain the bare necessities of life.

Surplus energy provides the material foundation for civilized living – a comfortable and tasteful home instead of a bare shelter; attractive clothing instead of mere covering to keep warm; appetizing food instead of anything that suffices to appease hunger. It provides the freedom from toil without which there can be no art, music, literature, or learning. There is no need to belabor the point. What lifted man – one of the weaker mammals – above the animal world was that he could devise, with his brain, ways to increase the energy at his disposal, and use the leisure so gained to cultivate his mind and spirit. Where man must rely solely on the energy of his own body, he can sustain only the most meager existence.

Man’s first step on the ladder of civilization dates from his discovery of fire and his domestication of animals. With these energy resources he was able to build a pastoral culture. To move upward to an agricultural civilization he needed more energy. In the past this was found in the labor of dependent members of large patriarchal families, augmented by slaves obtained through purchase or as war booty. There are some backward communities which to this day depend on this type of energy.

Slave labor was necessary for the city-states and the empires of antiquity; they frequently had slave populations larger than their free citizenry. As long as slaves were abundant and no moral censure attached to their ownership, incentives to search for alternative sources of energy were lacking; this may well have been the single most important reason why engineering advanced very little in ancient times.

A reduction of per capita energy consumption has always in the past led to a decline in civilization and a reversion to a more primitive way of life. For example, exhaustion of wood fuel is believed to have been the primary reason for the fall of the Mayan Civilization on this continent and of the decline of once flourishing civilizations in Asia. India and China once had large forests, as did much of the Middle East. Deforestation not only lessened the energy base but had a further disastrous effect: lacking plant cover, soil washed away, and with soil erosion the nutritional base was reduced as well.

Another cause of declining civilization comes with pressure of population on available land. A point is reached where the land can no longer support both the people and their domestic animals. Horses and mules disappear first. Finally even the versatile water buffalo is displaced by man who is two and one half times as efficient an energy converter as are draft animals. It must always be remembered that while domestic animals and agricultural machines increase productivity per man, maximum productivity per acre is achieved only by intensive manual cultivation.

It is a sobering thought that the impoverished people of Asia, who today seldom go to sleep with their hunger completely satisfied, were once far more civilized and lived much better than the people of the West. And not so very long ago, either. It was the stories brought back by Marco Polo of the marvelous civilization in China which turned Europe’s eyes to the riches of the East, and induced adventurous sailors to brave the high seas in their small vessels searching for a direct route to the fabulous Orient. The “wealth of the Indies” is a phrase still used, but whatever wealth may be there it certainly is not evident in the life of the people today.

Asia failed to keep technological pace with the needs of her growing populations and sank into such poverty that in many places man has become again the primary source of energy, since other energy converters have become too expensive. This must be obvious to the most casual observer. What this means is quite simply a reversion to a more primitive stage of civilization with all that it implies for human dignity and happiness.

Anyone who has watched a sweating Chinese farm worker strain at his heavily laden wheelbarrow, creaking along a cobblestone road, or who has flinched as he drives past an endless procession of human beasts of burden moving to market in Java – the slender women bent under mountainous loads heaped on their heads – anyone who has seen statistics translated into flesh and bone, realizes the degradation of man’s stature when his muscle power becomes the only energy source he can afford. Civilization must wither when human beings are so degraded.

Where slavery represented a major source of energy, its abolition had the immediate effect of reducing energy consumption. Thus when this time-honored institution came under moral censure by Christianity, civilization declined until other sources of energy could be found. Slavery is incompatible with Christian belief in the worth of the humblest individual as a child of God. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire and masters freed their slaves – in obedience to the teaching of the Church – the energy base of Roman civilization crumbled. This, some historians believe, may have been a major factor in the decline of Rome and the temporary reversion to a more primitive way of life during the Dark Ages. Slavery gradually disappeared throughout the Western world, except in its milder form of serfdom. That it was revived a thousand years later merely shows man’s ability to stifle his conscience – at least for a while – when his economic needs are great. Eventually, even the needs of overseas plantation economies did not suffice to keep alive a practice so deeply repugnant to Western man’s deepest convictions.

It may well be that it was unwillingness to depend on slave labor for their energy needs which turned the minds of medieval Europeans to search for alternate sources of energy, thus sparking the Power Revolution of the Middle Ages which, in turn, paved the way for the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century. When slavery disappeared in the West engineering advanced. Men began to harness the power of nature by utilizing water and wind as energy sources. The sailing ship, in particular, which replaced the slave-driven galley of antiquity, was vastly improved by medieval shipbuilders and became the first machine enabling man to control large amounts of inanimate energy.

The next important high-energy converter used by Europeans was gunpowder – an energy source far superior to the muscular strength of the strongest bowman or lancer. With ships that could navigate the high seas and arms that could outfire any hand weapon, Europe was now powerful enough to preempt for herself the vast empty areas of the Western Hemisphere into which she poured her surplus populations to build new nations of European stock. With these ships and arms she also gained political control over populous areas in Africa and Asia from which she drew the raw materials needed to speed her industrialization, thus complementing her naval and military dominance with economic and commercial supremacy.

When a low-energy society comes in contact with a high-energy society, the advantage always lies with the latter. The Europeans not only achieved standards of living vastly higher than those of the rest of the world, but they did this while their population was growing at rates far surpassing those of other peoples. In fact, they doubled their share of total world population in the short span of three centuries. From one sixth in 1650, the people of European stock increased to almost one third of total world population by 1950.

Meanwhile much of the rest of the world did not even keep energy sources in balance with population growth. Per capita energy consumption actually diminished in large areas. It is this difference in energy consumption which has resulted in an ever-widening gap between the one-third minority who live in high-energy countries and the two-thirds majority who live in low-energy areas.

These so-called underdeveloped countries are now finding it far more difficult to catch up with the fortunate minority than it was for Europe to initiate transition from low-energy to high-energy consumption. For one thing, their ratio of land to people is much less favorable; for another, they have no outlet for surplus populations to ease the transition since all the empty spaces have already been taken over by people of European stock.

Almost all of today’s low-energy countries have a population density so great that it perpetuates dependence on intensive manual agriculture which alone can yield barely enough food for their people. They do not have enough acreage, per capita, to justify using domestic animals or farm machinery, although better seeds, better soil management, and better hand tools could bring some improvement. A very large part of their working population must nevertheless remain on the land, and this limits the amount of surplus energy that can be produced. Most of these countries must choose between using this small energy surplus to raise their very low standard of living or postpone present rewards for the sake of future gain by investing the surplus in new industries. The choice is difficult because there is no guarantee that today’s denial may not prove to have been in vain. This is so because of the rapidity with which public health measures have reduced mortality rates, resulting in population growth as high or even higher than that of the high-energy nations. Theirs is a bitter choice; it accounts for much of their anti-Western feeling and may well portend a prolonged period of world instability.

How closely energy consumption is related to standards of living may be illustrated by the example of India. Despite intelligent and sustained efforts made since independence, India’s per capita income is still only 20 cents daily; her infant mortality is four times ours; and the life expectance of her people is less than one half that of the industrialized countries of the West. These are ultimate consequences of India’s very low energy consumption: one-fourteenth of world average; one-eightieth of ours.

Ominous, too, is the fact that while world food production increased 9% in the six years from 1945-51, world population increased by 12%. Not only is world population increasing faster than world food production, but unfortunately, increases in food production tend to occur in the already well-fed, high-energy countries rather than in the undernourished, low-energy countries where food is most lacking.

I think no further elaboration is needed to demonstrate the significance of energy resources for our own future. Our civilization rests upon a technological base which requires enormous quantities of fossil fuels. What assurance do we then have that our energy needs will continue to be supplied by fossil fuels: The answer is – in the long run – none.

The earth is finite. Fossil fuels are not renewable. In this respect our energy base differs from that of all earlier civilizations. They could have maintained their energy supply by careful cultivation. We cannot. Fuel that has been burned is gone forever. Fuel is even more evanescent than metals. Metals, too, are non-renewable resources threatened with ultimate extinction, but something can be salvaged from scrap. Fuel leaves no scrap and there is nothing man can do to rebuild exhausted fossil fuel reserves. They were created by solar energy 500 million years ago and took eons to grow to their present volume.

In the face of the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact length of time these reserves will last is important in only one respect: the longer they last, the more time do we have, to invent ways of living off renewable or substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes which we can expect from such a shift.

Fossil fuels resemble capital in the bank. A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance. A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare.

Engineers whose work familiarizes them with energy statistics; far-seeing industrialists who know that energy is the principal factor which must enter into all planning for the future; responsible governments who realize that the well-being of their citizens and the political power of their countries depend on adequate energy supplies – all these have begun to be concerned about energy resources. In this country, especially, many studies have been made in the last few years, seeking to discover accurate information on fossil-fuel reserves and foreseeable fuel needs.

Statistics involving the human factor are, of course, never exact. The size of usable reserves depends on the ability of engineers to improve the efficiency of fuel extraction and use. It also depends on discovery of new methods to obtain energy from inferior resources at costs which can be borne without unduly depressing the standard of living. Estimates of future needs, in turn, rely heavily on population figures which must always allow for a large element of uncertainty, particularly as man reaches a point where he is more and more able to control his own way of life.

Current estimates of fossil fuel reserves vary to an astonishing degree. In part this is because the results differ greatly if cost of extraction is disregarded or if in calculating how long reserves will last, population growth is not taken into consideration; or, equally important, not enough weight is given to increased fuel consumption required to process inferior or substitute metals. We are rapidly approaching the time when exhaustion of better grade metals will force us to turn to poorer grades requiring in most cases greater expenditure of energy per unit of metal.

But the most significant distinction between optimistic and pessimistic fuel reserve statistics is that the optimists generally speak of the immediate future – the next twenty-five years or so – while the pessimists think in terms of a century from now. A century or even two is a short span in the history of a great people. It seems sensible to me to take a long view, even if this involves facing unpleasant facts.

For it is an unpleasant fact that according to our best estimates, total fossil fuel reserves recoverable at not over twice today’s unit cost, are likely to run out at some time between the years 2000 and 2050, if present standards of living and population growth rates are taken into account. Oil and natural gas will disappear first, coal last. There will be coal left in the earth, of course. But it will be so difficult to mine that energy costs would rise to economically intolerable heights, so that it would then become necessary either to discover new energy sources or to lower standards of living drastically.

For more than one hundred years we have stoked ever growing numbers of machines with coal; for fifty years we have pumped gas and oil into our factories, cars, trucks, tractors, ships, planes, and homes without giving a thought to the future. Occasionally the voice of a Cassandra has been raised only to be quickly silenced when a lucky discovery revised estimates of our oil reserves upward, or a new coalfield was found in some remote spot. Fewer such lucky discoveries can be expected in the future, especially in industrialized countries where extensive mapping of resources has been done. Yet the popularizers of scientific news would have us believe that there is no cause for anxiety, that reserves will last thousands of years, and that before they run out science will have produced miracles. Our past history and security have given us the sentimental belief that the things we fear will never really happen – that everything turns out right in the end. But, prudent men will reject these tranquilizers and prefer to face the facts so that they can plan intelligently for the needs of their posterity.

Looking into the future, from the mid-20th Century, we cannot feel overly confident that present high standards of living will of a certainty continue through the next century and beyond. Fossil fuel costs will soon definitely begin to rise as the best and most accessible reserves are exhausted, and more effort will be required to obtain the same energy from remaining reserves. It is likely also that liquid fuel synthesized from coal will be more expensive. Can we feel certain that when economically recoverable fossil fuels are gone science will have learned how to maintain a high standard of living on renewable energy sources?

I believe it would be wise to assume that the principal renewable fuel sources which we can expect to tap before fossil reserves run out will supply only 7 to 15% of future energy needs. The five most important of these renewable sources are wood fuel, farm wastes, wind, water power, and solar heat.

Wood fuel and farm wastes are dubious as substitutes because of growing food requirements to be anticipated. Land is more likely to be used for food production than for tree crops; farm wastes may be more urgently needed to fertilize the soil than to fuel machines.

Wind and water power can furnish only a very small percentage of our energy needs. Moreover, as with solar energy, expensive structures would be required, making use of land and metals which will also be in short supply. Nor would anything we know today justify putting too much reliance on solar energy though it will probably prove feasible for home heating in favorable localities and for cooking in hot countries which lack wood, such as India.

More promising is the outlook for nuclear fuels. These are not, properly speaking, renewable energy sources, at least not in the present state of technology, but their capacity to “breed” and the very high energy output from small quantities of fissionable material, as well as the fact that such materials are relatively abundant, do seem to put nuclear fuels into a separate category from exhaustible fossil fuels. The disposal of radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants is, however, a problem which must be solved before there can be any widespread use of nuclear power.

Another limit in the use of nuclear power is that we do not know today how to employ it otherwise than in large units to produce electricity or to supply heating. Because of its inherent characteristics, nuclear fuel cannot be used directly in small machines, such as cars, trucks, or tractors. It is doubtful that it could in the foreseeable future furnish economical fuel for civilian airplanes or ships, except very large ones. Rather than nuclear locomotives, it might prove advantageous to move trains by electricity produced in nuclear central stations. We are only at the beginning of nuclear technology, so it is difficult to predict what we may expect.

Transportation – the lifeblood of all technically advanced civilizations – seems to be assured, once we have borne the initial high cost of electrifying railroads and replacing buses with streetcars or interurban electric trains. But, unless science can perform the miracle of synthesizing automobile fuel from some energy source as yet unknown or unless trolley wires power electric automobiles on all streets and highways, it will be wise to face up to the possibility of the ultimate disappearance of automobiles, trucks, buses, and tractors. Before all the oil is gone and hydrogenation of coal for synthetic liquid fuels has come to an end, the cost of automotive fuel may have risen to a point where private cars will be too expensive to run and public transportation again becomes a profitable business.

Today the automobile is the most uneconomical user of energy. Its efficiency is 5% compared with 23% for the Diesel-electric railway. It is the most ravenous devourer of fossil fuels, accounting for over half of the total oil consumption in this country. And the oil we use in the United States in one year took nature about 14 million years to create. Curiously, the automobile, which is the greatest single cause of the rapid exhaustion of oil reserves, may eventually be the first fuel consumer to suffer. Reduction in automotive use would necessitate an extraordinarily costly reorganization of the pattern of living in industrialized nations, particularly in the United States. It would seem prudent to bear this in mind in future planning of cities and industrial locations.

Our present known reserves of fissionable materials are many times as large as our net economically recoverable reserves of coal. A point will be reached before this century is over when fossil fuel costs will have risen high enough to make nuclear fuels economically competitive. Before that time comes we shall have to make great efforts to raise our entire body of engineering and scientific knowledge to a higher plateau. We must also induce many more young Americans to become metallurgical and nuclear engineers. Else we shall not have the knowledge or the people to build and run the nuclear power plants which ultimately may have to furnish the major part of our energy needs. If we start to plan now, we may be able to achieve the requisite level of scientific and engineering knowledge before our fossil fuel reserves give out, but the margin of safety is not large. This is also based on the assumption that atomic war can be avoided and that population growth will not exceed that now calculated by demographic experts.

War, of course, cancels all man’s expectations. Even growing world tension just short of war could have far-reaching effects. In this country it might, on the one hand, lead to greater conservation of domestic fuels, to increased oil imports, and to an acceleration in scientific research which might turn up unexpected new energy sources. On the other hand, the resulting armaments race would deplete metal reserves more rapidly, hastening the day when inferior metals must be utilized with consequent greater expenditure of energy. Underdeveloped nations with fossil fuel deposits might be coerced into withholding them from the free world or may themselves decide to retain them for their own future use. The effect on Europe, which depends on coal and oil imports, would be disastrous and we would have to share our own supplies or lose our allies.

Barring atomic war or unexpected changes in the population curve, we can count on an increase in world population from two and one half billion today to four billion in the year 2000; six to eight billion by 2050. The United States is expected to quadruple its population during the 20th Century – from 75 million in 1900 to 300 million in 2000 – and to reach at least 375 million in 2050. This would almost exactly equal India’s present population which she supports on just a little under half of our land area.

It is an awesome thing to contemplate a graph of world population growth from prehistoric times – tens of thousands of years ago – to the day after tomorrow – let us say the year 2000 A.D. If we visualize the population curve as a road which starts at sea level and rises in proportion as world population increases, we should see it stretching endlessly, almost level, for 99% of the time that man has inhabited the earth. In 6000 B.C., when recorded history begins, the road is running at a height of about 70 feet above sea level, which corresponds to a population of 10 million. Seven thousand years later – in 1000 A.D. – the road has reached an elevation of 1,600 feet; the gradation now becomes steeper, and 600 years later the road is 2,900 feet high. During the short span of the next 400 years – from 1600 to 2000 – it suddenly turns sharply upward at an almost perpendicular inclination and goes straight up to an elevation of 29,000 feet – the height of Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest mountain.

In the 8,000 years from the beginning of history to the year 2000 A.D. world population will have grown from 10 million to 4 billion, with 90% of that growth taking place during the last 5% of that period, in 400 years. It took the first 3,000 years of recorded history to accomplish the first doubling of population, 100 years for the last doubling, but the next doubling will require only 50 years. Calculations give us the astonishing estimate that one out of every 20 human beings born into this world is alive today.

The rapidity of population growth has not given us enough time to readjust our thinking. Not much more than a century ago our country – the very spot on which I now stand was a wilderness in which a pioneer could find complete freedom from men and from government. If things became too crowded – if he saw his neighbor’s chimney smoke – he could, and often did, pack up and move west. We began life in 1776 as a nation of less than four million people – spread over a vast continent – with seemingly inexhaustible riches of nature all about. We conserved what was scarce – human labor – and squandered what seemed abundant – natural resources – and we are still doing the same today.

Much of the wilderness which nurtured what is most dynamic in the American character has now been buried under cities, factories and suburban developments where each picture window looks out on nothing more inspiring than the neighbor’s back yard with the smoke of his fire in the wire basket clearly visible.

Life in crowded communities cannot be the same as life on the frontier. We are no longer free, as was the pioneer – to work for our own immediate needs regardless of the future. We are no longer as independent of men and of government as were Americans two or three generations ago. An ever larger share of what we earn must go to solve problems caused by crowded living – bigger governments; bigger city, state, and federal budgets to pay for more public services. Merely to supply us with enough water and to carry away our waste products becomes more difficult and expansive daily. More laws and law enforcement agencies are needed to regulate human relations in urban industrial communities and on crowded highways than in the America of Thomas Jefferson.

Certainly no one likes taxes, but we must become reconciled to larger taxes in the larger America of tomorrow.

I suggest that this is a good time to think soberly about our responsibilities to our descendants – those who will ring out the Fossil Fuel Age. Our greatest responsibility, as parents and as citizens, is to give America’s youngsters the best possible education. We need the best teachers and enough of them to prepare our young people for a future immeasurably more complex than the present, and calling for ever larger numbers of competent and highly trained men and women. This means that we must not delay building more schools, colleges, and playgrounds. It means that we must reconcile ourselves to continuing higher taxes to build up and maintain at decent salaries a greatly enlarged corps of much better trained teachers, even at the cost of denying ourselves such momentary pleasures as buying a bigger new car, or a TV set, or household gadget. We should find – I believe – that these small self-denials would be far more than offset by the benefits they would buy for tomorrow’s America. We might even – if we wanted – give a break to these youngsters by cutting fuel and metal consumption a little here and there so as to provide a safer margin for the necessary adjustments which eventually must be made in a world without fossil fuels.

One final thought I should like to leave with you. High-energy consumption has always been a prerequisite of political power. The tendency is for political power to be concentrated in an ever-smaller number of countries. Ultimately, the nation which control – the largest energy resources will become dominant. If we give thought to the problem of energy resources, if we act wisely and in time to conserve what we have and prepare well for necessary future changes, we shall insure this dominant position for our own country.

Working Together

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Last week, I gave you a current report on Peak Oil from the peanut gallery. Now let’s get it from the horse’s mouth. … Jay Hanson has some interesting thoughts for us to consider at this moment in our human evolution.


America 2.0

Jay Hanson

The “bad news” is that “peak oil” marks the beginning of the end of capitalism and market politics because many decades of declining “net energy” [1] will result in many decades of declining economic activity.And since capitalism can’t run backwards, a new method of distributing goods and services must be found. The “good news” is that our “market system” is fantastically inefficient! Americans could be wasting something like two billion tonnes of oil equivalent per year!!

In order to avoid anarchy, rebellion, civil war and global nuclear conflict, Americans must force a fundamental change in our political process. We can keep the same political structures and people, but must totally eliminate special interests from our political environment. A careful review of the progressive assault on laissez faire constitutionalism and neoclassical economics, from the 1880s through the 1930s, explains how this can be done legally and without violence. These early progressives showed how we can save our country. All that is lacking now is the political will. I call this adjustment of our political environment “America 2.0.”

To achieve America 2.0, we must first separate and isolate our political system from our economic system so that government can begin to actually address and solve societal problems rather than merely catering to corporate interests. The second step is to retire most working American citizens with an annuity sufficient for health and happiness, as government begins to eliminate the current enormous waste of vital resources by delivering goods and services directly. This would allow most adults to stay at home with their families but still receive the goods and services they need to enjoy life. …

The criterion of “profit” has shaped our political decisions since the founding of our country, but now that we are facing peak oil, new “scientific systems” criteria must replace “profit” or our civilization will “collapse” like so many others have throughout history.

In order for America to survive this crisis, a moderate, “doable” modification to our political environment is required. This paper does not attempt to describe a complete system to replace state-sponsored capitalism and market politics. My modest goal here is to show a way forward which could avoid the worst. …

http://heatusa.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/hubbert-peak-graph.png

Our present “business-as-usual” model, which requires endless economic growth and endless job creation, is no longer physically possible. Here’s why:

1. Business-as-usual depends upon jobs and markets to distribute goods and services.

2. Economic growth and increasing job availability require increasing net energy.

3. Net energy correlates with peak oil and both are expected to decrease for decades. …

4. Decades of decreasing net energy will cause job opportunities to decrease for decades because less and less energy will be available for economic development.

5. Globally, millions of new workers enter the job market each year, but job availability is expected to decline by millions of positions each year. Eventually, the projected high unemployment among young men will cause catastrophic political failures similar to those that led to Hitler’s takeover of German democracy. Therefore, business-as-usual is no longer a viable method of distributing goods and services and a new method must be found—and soon!

Historians will say that “peak oil” marked the end of the second free trade episode. If we don’t abandon capitalism now, we will be forced into another global war over resources. …

The “good news” is that: The Market is fantastically inefficient. Yes, that is correct: The “market system” is fantastically inefficient! Our present way of distributing goods and services wastes enormous amounts of natural resources, but gigantic resource savings are possible. As an illustration, let’s make a rough estimate of per capita food energy requirements and current waste:
If we wanted our government to distribute food directly instead of using the market, how much energy would be required to produce and deliver provisions to each and every American?

Adults need about 3,000 nutritional calories of food each day. Let’s allow 30,000 calories to produce and another 3,000 calories to deliver food to every American. That’s a total of 36,000 calories per day.

Just how much energy did the American “market system” actually consume? In 2006, Americans consumed an average of 231,008 calories per day, so 231,008 minus 36,000 equals 195,008 calories wasted each day. This simple calculation suggests that Americans could be wasting something like 2 billion tonnes of oil equivalent per year! That’s FAR more oil wasted than all the oil produced in the Middle East! …

In order to prevent collapse on the downside of the net energy curve, Americans must force corporate special interests completely out of our political environment. A careful review of the progressive assault on laissez faire constitutionalism and neoclassical economics, from the 1880s through the 1930s, explains how this can be done legally and without violence. These early progressives showed how we can save our country. All that is lacking now is the political will. I call this adjustment of our political environment “America 2.0.”

The modification that I am proposing could reduce natural resource consumption by something like 90% and greatly reduce, or possibly eliminate, civil violence caused by the inevitable post-peak-oil-economic collapse.

Our present method of distributing goods and services works something like this:

•     Our government loans money to banks, so bankers can operate businesses (which require buildings, computers, furniture, lights, air conditioning, employees, commuting, etc.)

•     The bankers then lend money to other businesses, like restaurants, real estate developers, etc. (which also require buildings, computers, commuters, advertising, accountants, etc.)

•     So the employees of these restaurants, real estate developers, etc. can buy a car and drive to the store (with even more buildings, computers, commuters, etc.)

•     Just to buy a loaf of bread!

The “market system” has to be the most inefficient organization possible! Why not simply have government pay someone to pick up that loaf of bread at the bakery and deliver it to the consumer? This is a form of distribution that would eliminate the banks, most of the other businesses, and all the stores. Most Americans would no longer need a car to commute to work or run to the store! However, some private businesses that provide critical services would still be operated but at our government’s direction.

We could use the same efficient method of distribution for everything that Americans really “need.” Shoppers would order provisions online, in the same way that Amazon or Netflix works now, and then their orders would be delivered the next day. And a medical care caravan could regularly drive through neighborhoods, filling teeth, giving checkups, and so on.

But first we must separate and isolate our political system from our economic system so that government can begin to actually address and solve societal problems rather than merely catering to corporate interests. The second step is to retire most working American citizens with an annuity sufficient for health and happiness, [10] as government begins to eliminate the current enormous waste of vital resources by delivering goods and services directly. This would allow most adults to stay at home with their families but still receive the goods and services they need to enjoy life.

Unless something is done now to prevent it, America will face anarchy, rebellion, and civil war on the downside of the net energy cliff. In order to maintain public order, the state must do one thing: take special interests totally out of politics.

The urgency, necessity, and practicality of this proposal should be apparent to all sectors of society if they could be brought to understand how our social systems are depleting our physical systems. I am convinced that if Americans were given the honest science and engineering behind what needs to be done, the vast majority would willingly make a peaceful transition to a “sustainable retreat.”

Besides wanting to sell their ephemeral products and services to an unsuspecting public, special interests also want to prevent the state from solving social pathologies because they can profit from treating the symptoms. These special interests can do no better because they are machines programmed to create profits!

ALL special interests—even universities, charities, and churches—depend on perpetual economic growth for their budgets, but the laws of thermodynamics tell us that perpetual economic growth is physically impossible. Therefore, ALL special interests must be removed from the political environment.

The first simple step is to remove the “personhood” Constitutional protections from corporations, which could probably be done by the President acting alone, via his “police powers.” Certainly it could be done by the Supreme Court or Congress if they had the political will to do so. Once corporations are firmly under democratic control, the federal government can begin correcting the abuses of capitalism as gracefully as possible. We want to preserve and include the great achievements of capitalism while removing its pathologies.

What follows are six political steps, listed in order of priority, that are designed to mitigate the societal disruptions of the net energy cliff:

1.      Remove the “personhood” Constitutional protections from corporations.

2.      Make it a federal crime for corporations to advocate anything (including, but not limited to, advertising) in the mass media.

3.      Make it a federal crime for anyone employed by a corporation to lobby elected or appointed officials directly or indirectly.

4.      Mandate public financing for elections.

5.      Assemble teams of the country’s best and brightest medical doctors, scientists, engineers and other thinkers—but no representatives of religious groups, economists, or other special interests—to recommend public policy. (We do not need a Manhattan Project for economics—on how to save the corporations and their outrageous profits; we need a Manhattan Project on how the country can survive the net energy cliff!)

6.      Encourage public debate on proposed changes.

Read the entire essay with images, footnotes, and links  by Jay Hanson …


Working Together

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

In 1997, Jay Hanson predicted that America would find a need to invade and occupy Iraq to insure access to their oil. Jay Hanson is known as the Paul Revere of the Peak Oil story. He has been shouting the truth of the finiteness of our small planet for nearly 18 years. … Now the PO story has become front page news.

Reposted from the Thursday, October 8, 2009 edition of The Telegraph/UK.


The world could start to run out of oil in the next ten years,
sparking soaring energy prices and a rush for even more polluting fossil fuels,
an influential new study by the UK Energy Research Council has warned.


Era of Cheap, Easy Oil is Over, Warns Study

Louise Gray

The exact date of “peak oil” – when the amount of oil being pumped out of the ground every day reaches its highest point before beginning an inexorable decline – has been hotly debated for decades. Environmentalists have tended to warn oil could run out at any moment, while oil companies insist there are plently more oil fields yet to be discovered.

[Oil supplies could start running out before 2020, according to a new study.  (Photo: Getty Images)  ]Oil supplies could start running out before 2020, according to a new study. (Photo: Getty Images)

The most recent estimation from the International Energy Agency, that advises Governments around the world, said conventional oil would not peak until after 2030.However an authoriative new study from the Government-funded UK Energy Research Council called this prediction “at best optimistic and at worst implausible”. The peer-reviewed research looked at 500 studies from around the world and took into account the difficulty of accessing new oil fields as well as growing demand. It predicted oil will begin running out before 2030 and there is a “significant risk” peak oil will be reached before 2020.

“In our view, forecasts which delay a peak in conventional oil production until after 2030 are at best optimistic and at worst implausible. And given the world’s overwhelming dependence on oil and the time required to develop alternatives, 2030 isn’t far away,” said the report’s lead author Steve Sorrell. “The concern is that rising oil prices will encourage the rapid development of carbon-intensive alternatives which will make it difficult or impossible to prevent dangerous climate change.”

Robert Gross, Head of Technology and Policy Assessment at UKERC, said as soon as oil begins to run out it will make energy more expensive, sparking a knock on effect on industry and economies around the world. Petrol prices would rise and long distance travel become more expensive.

“The age of easy and cheap oil is coming to an end,” he said. “It doesn’t suddenly come to an end, obviously it’s a gradual change, but we’re moving away from easy and cheap oil to increasingly difficult and expensive oil.”

At the moment oil is around £44 ($70) per barrel after peaking at around £92 ($147) per barrel earlier in the year during the height of the economic crisis.

Dr Gross said the spectre of peak oil should encourage Governments to invest in more energy-efficient vehicles such as electric cars, renewable energy like wind or solar and improving energy efficiency in industry and homes.

But he said there was a risk that instead the world will start to look at even more intensive forms of fossil fuels, therefore producing more carbon emisions and causing “catastrophic climate change”. Alternatives include heating tar sands to produce oil at huge cost both environmentally and financially.

“The danger is high oil prices push us into high carbon resources just as much as they might help push us towards renewables,” he said.

“The challenge for policy makers is to make sure, on a global scale, that that isn’t the response to more difficult and expensive oil.”

The world produces around 85 million barrels of oil every day. It is estimated this could rise to more than 100 million barrels per day before declining.

Oil companies like BP claim billions more barrels are availabe in new oil fields discovered in the Gulf of Mexico.

However Mr Sorrell said these new supplies are extremely difficult to access and will only delay peak oil by a few weeks or even days.

Even if the new fields are exploited, he said the world needs to move away from oil in order to stop global warming.

But Mr Sorrell said the UK Government had no contingency plans for oil peaking before 2020.

“If these problems are ignored and we do not make these changes ahead of time, we are heading for trouble,” he warned.

The IEA is due to release its latest report on peak oil this November, just before the world meets in Copenhagen to decide a new deal on climate change. The report will be a key influence on whether the rich world is willing to agree to set targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, while also helping poor countries to switch to a low carbon economy.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change is currently considering the UKERC report.

“We are already well aware of the significant challenges for investment in future oil production and that there is a role for Governments to play in reducing demand for fossil fuels,” a spokesman said. “Our climate change, energy efficiency and energy security policies outlined in the UK low carbon transition plan are not only reducing the UK’s carbon emissions, but are consistent with the need to reduce our use of fossil fuels.”

© 2009 Telegraph

Working Together

Monday, October 5th, 2009

This morning, I repost the author’s newest essay from his website.


Time for a New Crisis ?

James Howard Kunstler

When Alan Greenspan predicted three percent economic growth showing up in the reported figures for the third quarter of 2009, did he mean executive compensation packages?  Maybe the lesson here is: don’t ask a crackhead to predict the future supply of crack.  Greenspan’s greatest success may be to drive economics into such disrepute that it will be cut loose from the universities and only be taught by mail order or internet subscription from the same outfits that offer PhD’s in astrology.  That is, before the universities themselves go broke.

The predicament that the USA finds itself will not be “solved” at the scale of operation that we’re accustomed to, and we should just stop wasting precious time and dwindling resources in the idle hope that it will be.  The failure to recognize this dynamic is the most impressive part of the meltdown.  The only thing that the federal government is likely to prove in the process is the ineffectiveness of its actions as applied to any of the raging current problems from the killing burden of hyper-debt to the brushfires of geopolitics. Congress will only make the health care system more complex. Both congress and President Obama will do everything possible to keep housing prices unaffordable — in a quixotic effort to protect the collateral of the big banks. Capital will continue to vanish in the black hole of default.

Something’s got to give in the remaining three months of 2009.  My guess is that attention will shift overseas for a while.  This will not be due, as many probably think, to a cynical effort by the government to divert attention from the financial fiasco, but because the intrinsic tensions in the Middle East are reaching the snapping point.  Iran is being called out on its nuclear program.  If, from the start, it had just maintained the need for electric generating power in the face of dwindling fossil fuel reserves, they might have gone unchallenged.  As it happened, though, the elected leader of Iran made too many intemperate remarks about wiping other nations off the face of the earth, and this has only prompted the leaders of other nations to take his remarks at face value and presume that Iran’s nuclear program was devoted to armaments, not electric power generation.

So, now the USA has picked up the gauntlet.  If Iran doesn’t act to demonstrate the de-activation of its bomb-making capacity, then the USA will try to impose sanctions depriving Iran of necessary imported supplies. (Iran actually imports gasoline, due to inadequate refineries.)  For sanctions to be effective, support will be required by other nations, including Iran’s chief gasoline supplier, China.  What a delicate calculus this will be!  I rather imagine that China would not like to see the Middle East blow up. I’m not so sure about the nations of the Middle East though, or at least major parties in certain nations.  The rulers of Saudi Arabia would probably enjoy seeing Iran get into big trouble, since Iran is Saudi Arabia’s most active antagonist, working tirelessly to destabilize the Kingdom. Al Qaeda interests dispersed in many nations would certainly cheer any mayhem.  The Taliban would love anything that takes the spotlight off them in Afghanistan.  The Russians are conflicted between the wish to enhance their own leverage in world affairs and their need to discipline Islamic maniacs along their own borders.  Europe is probably scared to death of anything that might threaten their energy lifeline.  Pakistan is too tormented to have a position, but its radical Islamist factions are probably on the side of disorder — as the best remedy for the status quo.  If any of that spills over on India, as in the Mumbai bombing, then that flashpoint could turn to conflagration very quickly.  We forget about Turkey, which was the hegemonic player in the region for centuries until its swift decline after 1914, but it has potent military capability and very mixed feelings about the the Jihad to ruin the West (since it is partly of the West).  And finally there is Israel, the object of Iran’s intemperate public statements.

This is a dangerous situation.  I’m not so sure that Israel could launch an effective attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but it might try anyway, especially if a US-backed sanctions effort fails to coalesce quickly.  I’m not sure Israel would seek permission from the US to do this, though the US would certainly be tasked with defending the shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. Iran might succeed in sinking more than a couple of US ships-of-the-line with sunburn missles and other toys, and this would lead to the bigger danger of oil supplies being choked off to the rest of the world. The US air response would be impressive, but possibly not effective against hardened targets. The leaders of Iran might exult even if the Iranian people were swept into a maelstrom.  I imagine that what followed would be a very extravagant military frenzy amounting to World War Three, with European air forces and navies dragged in, with Hezbollah and Syria striking back at Israel, India and Pakistan possibly incinerating each other, and mayhem galore among the bystanders in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. There could easily be internal mischief in the UK, France, and Germany from angry immigrant populations, and “sleepers” could work some overdue hoodoo in the USA.  I don’t know what Turkey would do, but it could be the biggest beneficiary of a bad regional meltdown, providing the only effective governance what remains in the region. China and Japan would probably just gape at the spectacle in wonder and nausea from the sidelines as they saw their energy supplies for years-to-come go up in flames.

The G-20 nations would be crippled as global oil supplies were choked off indefinitely.  And if anyone — Iran, or its friends inside the Kingdom — managed to pull off a stunt such as blowing up the Ras Tanura oil terminal — then a darkness will spread across places that were used to being lighted and they will stay dark a long time.

I don’t know if any of this will come to pass, but as I said, tensions have reached a breaking point, including the greater tensions of history, which seem to require periodic release no matter how poignant the Pete Seegar songs are.  It is perhaps, just another prime symptom of “overshoot,” the world’s way of shedding some of the toxic organisms that are making it so unhappy — Gaia in a really bad mood.

If nothing develops along these lines on the geopolitical scene, the USA is still stuck in its predicament of trying desperately to maintain an overscaled living arrangement, with no coherent public discussion of downscaling, re-scaling, or re-arranging things.  My guess is that this kind of restructuring only occurs when all other options have been exhausted. The last time the USA found itself in an intractable economic morass, World War Two came along and it made things all better here (after considerable sacrifice for us and catastrophe elsewhere). After World War Two, we ruled the world for a couple of generations. The outcome of World War Three would not be so favorable for us. At the very least, it would leave us attempting to run things on about one-quarter of the oil we’re used to. That does not suggest a seamless transition between how we behave now and how the future will require us to behave differently.


Order: The Long Emergency at Amazon. Visit James Howard Kunstler’s website.