James Hansen, author of Storms of my Grandchildren
As if there aren't already enough difficult problems in the world, suddenly climate change activists are themselves divided over the right way to deal with climate change. The hot issue now is "cap and trade."
Oh wonderful, you're probably saying to yourself. How much do we need to know about climate change — do we need to worry about all this? Yes.
Gail Tverberg ("Gail the Actuary") of TheOilDrum.com
We desperately need radical changes to meet the challenge of resource shortages and global warming; but there's no political will to do so. Until this happens, two potential economic futures are likely: a slow decline, or a dramatic, quick crash. These alternatives were covered marvelously in a brief talk by Gail Tverberg, mild-mannered actuary by day but also an editor at TheOilDrum.com.
"Slow slide" looks like the default choice. As oil becomes more difficult and expensive to extract, energy becomes more expensive, people stop buying, and we go into a recession (as happened in 2008). The downturn causes oil prices to fall, but as soon as the recovery starts, oil consumption rises and the price of oil spikes again: wash, rinse, repeat.
Will renewables like wind and solar power help get us to a renewable energy economy? At the recent ASPO-USA conference, Jeff Vail, a regular at TheOilDrum.com and a former Air Force intelligence officer, presented a thought-provoking paper on "the renewables gap" which threw this whole idea into question. Vail’s point was not that wind power wasn’t a good idea, or that it wasn’t technically feasible, but that it wasn’t politically feasible, because of the need for up-front investment.
The estimated EROEI ("energy return on energy invested") for wind turbines varies widely, all the way from 4:1 (pessimistic) to 24:1 (optimistic) — comparable to other forms of energy generation with fossil fuels. But unlike generating electricity from coal or natural gas, for wind almost all of the energy investment is up front, namely, in the manufacture and set-up of the wind turbine. This up-front investment will have to be huge and will take a big chunk out of the rest of the economy. This chunk is the "renewables gap."
There’s good news and bad news about oil depletion. The good news is that the International Energy Agency (IEA) and our government are both a lot smarter than we thought!
Two senior IEA officials (one current, one former) recently told the Guardian, a prominent newspaper in the U. K., that key oil data is being distorted by the IEA under American pressure, and that the reality is that we are much closer to oil shortages than we think. We’ve known for years that the official IEA figures are silly; that’s not news. What is news is that the IEA itself knew this.
It’s confusing because we’ve learned that in a "natural state," carbon dioxide breathed out by animals is balanced by carbon dioxide taken up by plants. There is no net effect on greenhouse gas emissions from respiration by livestock, and everything is in balance, right?
To see the fallacy here, let’s back up to the time before you add that cow to the landscape. There are wild animals and humans breathing CO2, but also a lot of plants taking it up, so you have a balance. Then, along comes the cow — and boom, there goes your balance. With livestock agriculture we have bred so many animals that we have upset this natural balance. We have too many animals and not enough plants.
Many people will find this hard to believe. Don't the livestock just replace wild animals, who also breathe out CO2? And if we had too many animals, wouldn’t plants be eaten and start to disappear?
Vegetarians haven’t been much aware of peak oil, and I am continually annoyed at things like "The Vegetarian Travel Issue" in vegetarian magazines. Oil underlies our economy, including our food system. Peak oil means that we are entering a new era, the era of limits.
Peak oil is simple concept: it is the maximum rate of oil production. Our economy only works well when it’s expanding — and there are no cheap and easy substitutes for oil.
Peak oil would be a tremendous economic shock, or I should say: it is a tremendous economic shock. Most likely, we passed peak oil in July 2008 and still haven’t really absorbed the economic damage. If we do somehow go over our production of oil in July 2008, it probably won’t be by very much. After that, it’s downhill all the way.
The oil shocks of the 1970's, caused by the OPEC embargo of 1973 and the Iranian revolution of 1979, are our only real precedent for what the world will look like post-peak. These oil shocks produced several trends: expanded bicycle sales, high food prices, a lot of talk about world hunger, and . . . a lot of talk about vegetarianism.
In the 1970's, vegetarians had virtually no organizations and inferior literature to that today; and yet vegetarianism became a big deal, pretty much out of nowhere, rather quickly. Why? Of course there were a lot of factors, ranging from the hippie counterculture to Diet for a Small Planet; but the underlying reason was economics.
What the oil shocks of the 1970's really provided was a taste of what a world of resource shortages would feel like — a world in which people paid a lot more for food, they worried about natural resources, and world hunger was a serious international issue. It didn’t just appeal to everyone’s higher ethical sensibilities: it hit them in their stomach and their wallet.
A world of resource shortages is a world in which, suddenly, food can't be taken for granted by anyone. Vegetarians have something to contribute to this discussion, and that’s why they should pay attention to peak oil.
Today is 80 years after the "Black Tuesday" which signaled the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The Great Depression was caused, basically, by a credit bubble: by living beyond our means.
Certainly an oil depletion crash would be bad news for all the people who lose their jobs, houses, or worse. But this is a problem with the transition, which we should handle with utmost compassion, not with where we're ultimately headed.
In terms of our destination, it's good news. This economy, while good at some things, is pretty stupid with the really important things. It promotes consumerism, destruction of animals, war, pollution — and don't get me started about drivers talking on their cell phones.
There’s even more good news today: high government officials are aware of this issue. "(Steven Chu, US Secretary of Energy) was my boss. He knows all about peak oil, but he can't talk about it. If the government announced that peak oil was threatening our economy, Wall Street would crash. He just can't say anything about it." (From David Fridley, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.)
We’re in a massive credit bubble right now. Total U. S. debt (credit cards, business loans, government debt, etc.) went from $2.4 trillion in 1974, to $17.2 trillion in 1994, to 44.7 trillion in 2006. It is now over $50 trillion. Uh, where is this all headed? Has anyone ever heard of "Limits to Growth"?
Oil depletion is not the only problem that our perpetual growth economy has created, by the way — think soil erosion, deforestation, global warming, and all the rest. Oil depletion is merely the first insurmountable problem. We can’t "save" our perpetual growth economy, nor should we try. We need to prepare for, and welcome, the era of limits. "Simple living" is a good thing, and we're going to see more of it.
I may have a vested interest in the person giving the lecture (she's my life partner), but the subject matter of the lecture given by Mia MacDonald, Executive Director of Brighter Green, at a recent Climate Week NYC conference, is very important. Her talk offers the clearest exposition I've seen in a while of how we're going to have to grapple with the issue of intensive animal agriculture if we're going to deal seriously with the challenges of climate change. Moreover, we need to do this on a worldwide scale, and not simply here in the United States, although as Mia states: The example we set matters.
Mia and I knew we wouldn't see much. We knew it would be cold. We knew there'd be a lot of standing around and that we'd have to get up early and go to bed late. But we had to be there—not only because we supported Barack Obama as a candidate; not merely because we admired him as a man and shared his vision of a transformed American polity that understood the power of communitarian radicalism; not even because we knew it would be an historic event and wanted to be a part of it, no matter how small. We wanted to go because, sometimes, you have to show up—to bear witness, to speak out, to be present to the possibilities that such a moment opens up. A chance for change.
We took the Shuttle from NYC to DC—astonishingly enough one of the cheaper and more efficient options of getting there. We arrived in DC at 8 am, and then got ourselves onto the Metro, which took forty minutes to get us to Farrugat West across the Potomac in DC proper. While we were delayed on the Metro, and squeezed so tightly that you almost didn't need to hold on to anything when the train moved because other peoples' bodies kept you upright, no one lost their temper, and there was almost a party atmosphere on board.
John Sergeant, the former BBC politics correspondent, decided to leave the show this week when it became clear to him that there was a real danger that he and his professional dance partner, Kristina Rihanoff, might actually win the competition. In spite of the fact that Sergeant was clearly not a good dancer, and was told so by the panel of experts, the Great British Public took a shine to him and voted in massive numbers to keep him in the competition. Naturally, this had the effect of knocking out other dancers who were clearly more deserving of going forward. When the very decent Sergeant saw that he might actually win when he was not the best, he decided to withdraw.
Among Barack Obama's many extraordinary gifts to catch my eye—his capacity to seize the moment; his rhetorical flair; his attentiveness; and his nerve and ability to play the long game—is his stillness. Watch how he holds his head during pauses for applause and crowd reaction, and how when he sits he is at once relaxed and yet ready to move (a marked contrast with the urgency and meandering walk and manner of speech of McCain).
Obama's economy of gesture and movement suggests self-containment. It embodies perhaps a belief that when a move is made it should be considered and effective (and dramatic, precisely because unanticipated and forceful). Certainly, his physical style matches his campaign, which had both discipline and cunning, and, unlike McCain's, resisted the empty gesture and endless shape-shifting. It may also hint at how Obama will govern: cautiously, craftily, and with a minimum of fuss—both disarming and lulling opposition into a false sense of security, while all the time accumulating the capital and support needed to make victory inevitable.
It's been almost a week since Barack Obama was elected the forty-fourth president of the United States, and it seems both remarkably strange and remarkably normal that it should be so. However, this time last week, Mia and I were pounding the broken but welcoming sidewalks of west Philadelphia encouraging folks to go out and vote (for Barack) and asking them if they knew where their polling places were, whether any folks in their household needed help, and if they needed any literature.
In fact, the vast majority of people we met in this overwhelmingly working-class, African-American neighborhood seemed neither to need encouragement nor much information: they knew what they had to do and they were going to do it. You could feel the urgency and the steeliness in their anticipation of what was going to happen and their part in making it so.
On Monday night, we went to a very different part of town—south Philly, a white working-class enclave where the Obama campaign was worried that resistance to a black candidate might depress the kind of turnout in Philly needed to compensate for McCain support elsewhere in the Keystone state. It was billed as Joe Biden's last rally before election day, and public officials turned out in force: Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia; Martin O'Malley, governor of Maryland; Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania. Star power was provided by Jimmy Rollins, short-stop for the World Series champion Phillies.
Mia and I have come to love Joe Biden—for his folksiness and his logorrhea, and the disarming way he has of being so blatantly political. Anyway, he was on fine form that night (you can see his speech here), and we (along with 2,000 others in the damp November night) had a blast.
The following day, we canvassed in the morning and took the train back to New York. That night, after wetting our whistles at a bar in DUMBO (that's the District Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass to you non-Brooklynites) and then subwayed over to Red Bamboo in Fort Greene to see California put BHO over the top. The place erupted; folks took to the street; car horns honked—and a new dispensation began.
I work part-time at a nonprofit where I teach immigrants personal finance and "life success" skills. I begin each course by telling my students about how, when I was a kid 40+ years ago, my dad supported a family of five on a Post Office letter carrier's salary.
How rent—for a two-bedroom apartment in New York City!—took up only about 30% of his salary.
How, with his raises, we could afford to "move up" to a nicer apartment every three years.
How, with my mother's secretarial salary eventually added, my parents were able to save for a house and (with the help of low-interest, federally-subsidized student loans) send their kids to top colleges.
And, of course, how we had great health insurance, and my folks were able to retire with solid pensions.
Another fabulous runner up essay from our 2007 Essay Contest. This contributor hails from Oakland, California.
by Casey Reed Miner
Because there is not another way, I'm considering locking myself in a bathroom for twenty-four hours to find out what it's like to be imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.
I have a specific bathroom in mind. It's tucked into the back of my favorite breakfast spot in New Haven, Connecticut, a place where I go on my own, sit at the counter, drink endlessly refillable coffee, and talk jazz and bluegrass music with the owner. The women's bathroom is a small, yellowish room with no windows and bare walls, a low electrical buzz around the light. Its cold sharply contrasts the warmth on the other side of the door—friendly people, jazz, a spinach and feta cheese omelet. But if not there, any bathroom will do, as long as it is merely functional. A gas station bathroom, for example. No stalls, just a lock.
I live surrounded by prisons. The Hudson Valley is full of them, one right down the street, and I see buses full of people from Rikers Island (in the city) being moved here for long term sentences. The weekend trains are filled with families on their way to visit loved ones in these prisons. I pass Sing Sing on the way to work every day. I read regularly about towns starved for economic stimulation agreeing to host huge new private prisons. I have friends and loved ones in prison.
The article came the same day as the news that Free Jeff Luers' sentence has been reduced, from 23 years, to 10, for the arson he committed at a Eugene SUV dealership. His original sentence was deemed "illegal."
So many of us are imprisoned that our government can't possibly still claim to be "leaders in the free world."