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Peak Oil Matters

A fresh perspective on the concept of peak oil and the challenges we face

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Archive for March, 2010

Before I leave to visit my daughter next week (there will be no further scheduled posts until the week of April 4 at the earliest), I thought it was worth mentioning that a recently-issued report (here) strongly suggests we’ll reach Peak Oil in 2014, at least 5 or 6 years earlier than most other predictions. This report (written by a petroleum engineer and his colleagues from Kuwait University) has garnered a fair amount of attention in recent weeks. For those who enjoy more technical explanations, this may do the trick!

While some countries (including the United States) have recently experienced an uptick in oil production in recent months, the general trend by most indications continues to point to Peak Oil’s arrival much sooner than most experts thought as recently as 2 or 3 years ago. The surge in production thus appears temporary at best. A nice article (here) explains why that may be so.

Oil supplies close to half of the world’s energy, and almost all worldwide transportation is fueled by oil. When demand outstrips supply, whether that’s in 2014, 2020, or some date nearby, we’re going to face major upheavals in how we all conduct our lives. The naysayers who suggest we have zillions of barrels of oil still left in the ground do all of us a tremendous disservice by failing to explain that most of those reserves (if indeed they are correct in their estimates) are more difficult to locate, extract, refine, and produce. That means they cost a lot more, and if the price is prohibitively expensive, then it really won’t matter much how much is left in the ground. It will stay there, and while I’m no expert, I am confident that oil (or its cousins like the tar sands or oil shale) won’t do any of us much good buried underground.

My next series of posts will be devoted to a more detailed explanation of oil’s many roles in modern society. We would all be better served if we start thinking how much we rely on oil, how much of our lives will be impacted when the supply is not quite so readily-available or relatively inexpensive at it now is, and just how much will have to change—and how long such changes might take.

The sooner we start considering this, the sooner we can start taking action and seizing opportunities to prepare ourselves for changes that geology is going to impose on us—whether we like it or not.

It’s been almost a week since my last post … much less frequent than has been the case over these first few months.

Just a note to let you know that I am planning an extensive series of related posts in the next few months, and will also be concentrating a bit more on the issues of infrastructure and transportation. I just concluded two separate series on those two topics, and will be returning to them fairly regularly.

I’ll continue to drop in some observations and links to articles of note over the course of these next few weeks (as I have been from time to time), but I will be devoting most of that time to research.

What it means right now is that the more extensive series of posts I’ve been writing over these past few months will be delayed for a few weeks. That’s not to say I won’t be offering commentary on essential points during that time (I will! Peak Oil isn’t going away.)

I’m simply taking needed time to organize the next batch of 30 – 40 posts before I jump back in with multiple postings each week.

But I’ll be taking all of next week off, visiting my lovely daughter in New Orleans during her spring break.

Keep checking back!

Thanks

I’m still planning my next series of posts, which I don’t expect to begin until sometime next week, but two more articles of note crossed my desk in the last day or two, and are worth passing along if for no other reason than the fact that it clearly appears that other nations “get it” when it comes to the importance of high-speed rail and investing in transportation infrastructure.

 “Two years ago, nearly 90 percent of the six million people traveling between Madrid and Barcelona went by air. But early this  year the number of train travelers on the route surpassed fliers. The trajectory is ever upward.”

Like their counterparts in Germany and France, travelers in Spain are discovering the values inherent in high-speed rail travel, as this recent New York Times article makes clear.

And no nation seems more prepared and willing to devote the financial resources to this than China, as is evidenced here.

As that article notes, China is planning to connect its high speed rail line through 17 other countries in Asia and Eastern Europe, with additional plans to build in Southeast Asia and Russia. That is not an insignificant project, and if successful will clearly help position them as a solid economic leader for decades to come. That level of infrastructure and transportation commitment, as I have stressed frequently in recent posts, is absolutely vital to economic prosperity. Notwithstanding President Obama’s solid leadership, vision, and understanding of this, we fall woefully short in measuring up against China’s progress in these areas.

Our recent $8 billion down payment on high-speed rail transit, important as it is, doesn’t quite cut it when you consider that (as the New York Times articles noted) by 2020, half of Spain’s $160 billion transportation will be devoted to rail travel.

If we don’t figure it out that we have to join the high-speed rail game soon, we’ll pay a hefty price for a long time. As I keep insisting, short-term thinking and planning cannot be our strategy for economic revival and sustained growth. Transportation and infrastructure investments are of critical importance, and we ignore this at our peril.

More choices … and more opportunities

Before I get started on my next series of posts beginning either later this week or early next week, I came across a couple of posts related to my recent series on Transportation that are worth noting today.

First up is another informative piece by Chris Nelder (here) in the form of an open letter to Congress. It contains some very straightforward information about the state of our energy future, and as I discussed in my last post also, he calls on our leaders to begin thinking long term, and to make rail transit a fundamental part of our economic revitalization. (Growth of rail transit infrastructure = jobs.) Of necessity, he is blunt in warning Congress not to make decisions that are only “politically expedient.” That approach, the one Congress is far more comfortable in adopting, simply won’t get it done.

The process of transforming our infrastructure will take decades, and as I continue to insist, waiting to formulate the plans we’ll need to guide us is sure to make things worse.

Just as important, Nelder makes it clear that all Americans need to understand what is at stake here, as I and others continue to urge as often as we can. We’re all in this together, much as we may think—or wish—that the solutions are in the hands of “others.”

It’s well worth the read.

This weekend, I also came across this terrific article from early in 2009. Anyone looking for a solid primer on the basics and importance of high-speed rail can’t do much better than this one.

The author also makes clear the challenges faced by rail proponents (including, shocking as it may be, shortsighted Congressional opposition). Understanding those issues moves us many steps closer to finding solutions and overcoming obstacles that simply should not be factors at all. Narrow-mindedness usually doesn’t get you very far, and so education remains a vital component in the process of economic renewal and future prosperity.

The vital message in author Craig Canine’s article on the critical importance of high-speed rail is this:

“…countries that aspire to participate fully in the twenty-first-century economy are coming to see that a high-speed rail network is as essential as a robust Internet or mobile-phone infrastructure.”

No one is saying any of this will be easy, or quick. But if we truly want this country to return to solid economic footing so as remain a world leader, the re-building of our infrastructure, with rail transit as one of its most essential components, is simply not negotiable. We need to understand this yesterday, and start working on making this happen today.

It is a goal of the United States to develop a national intermodal transportation system that moves people and goods in an energy efficient  manner. The Nation’s future economic direction is dependent on its ability to confront directly the enormous challenges of the global  economy, declining productivity growth, energy vulnerability, air pollution, and the need to rebuild the Nation’s infrastructure.

That prescient language came from a 1991 piece of legislation, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. At the dawn of Peak Oil, and with an infrastructure woefully inadequate and under-maintained so as to properly meet the changing needs of our economic, environmental, and energy-driven revival, these words should serve as the foundation for a renewed commitment to transportation. To be sure, the President understands this, and his initial commitments to high-speed rail are a welcome first step. But so much more needs to be done.

Unfortunately, that language was stricken from successor pieces of legislation, and the result over the years has been (as is true of too much legislation) a mish-mash of efforts with no overriding vision and structure. We too often continue to plug holes here and there instead of summoning the national will, courage, vision, and leadership to plot new courses. President Obama recognizes this, but as with too many other visionary ideas he brings to us, they fall victim to the ugly and insane workings of Congress and an even more insane opposition from the Right. “Long-term” planning continues to serve as four-letter words to those out of power and to those too concerned with their next election, polls, and donations.

Make no mistake: we will not be running out of oil soon, as all legitimate Peak Oil advocates continue to insist despite the at-best disingenuous contradictions from other quarters. Even though production is probably going to soon begin its inexorable decline, we should have enough to meet almost all of our needs, albeit more costly, for years to come.

The problems will really hit home later, when we can no longer borrow from Peter to pay Paul or cover up the decreasing resources with band-aids or sleight-of-hand. What happens then?

We cannot afford to wait until those more drastic times to start making changes to our infrastructure or modes of transportation. They are too vital to our well-being. When production declines really take hold, we will have too many segments of our infrastructure, too many business models, too many political decisions, and too many financial concerns that will all have be addressed, modified, repaired, renewed, or invented in fairly short order. We will simply be unable to meet those challenges only after they all appear.

We must begin planning now, and that can only happen if we understand what is at stake and what changes we’ll all be obliged to make. This is not a problem to be solved by the government … that nebulous entity “out there.” We—all of us—have a stake and a role to play. We cannot afford to pass the responsibility of doing to anyone else.

Almost everything we do and have is in place because we’ve had inexpensive and plentiful amounts of oil available to help us build, produce, market, transport, invent, and repair/replace … almost everything! Few aspects of our industrial society will be unaffected when Peak Oil is in full bloom, and we will then have no choice but to make drastic changes in virtually everything we do. Do we prepare, or hope for the best and continue on our merry little delusional and ignorant ways?

It has taken decades to build the structure of society we now live in, and it will take probably just as long to put into place a new foundation and framework by which we hope to progress in decades to come—without plentiful and inexpensive oil.

What are we going to do, starting now?

Urban transportation systems in particular will be of critical importance as we fashion new ways of growth and development in a Peak Oil world. I hold no illusions that the transitions will be effortless and that we’ll just continue growing and inventing and prospering pretty much as we always have without any bumps in the road. We’re going to have a different future to contend with, and we can either choose to be part of its creation, or be victims of the changes that we’ll have no choice but to accept.

With less oil/gas available in the years to come, we’re all going to be faced with very different and very difficult choices about how we conduct our daily lives. Transportation, as essential as it is to our ways of life—personal, industrial, and political—will continue to play a pivotal role in what we achieve, but it will of necessity take on very different hues when we can no longer afford to fill the gas tanks of our several thousand pound, 140-miles-per-hour-top-speed SUVs and passenger autos (luxury and otherwise) so that we can travel a mile or two into town at fifteen miles per hour in (we hope) less than half an hour (along with thousands of others doing the same and at the same time) to buy two bags of groceries or visit the dentist or pick up our children from school or visit our elderly parents or shop for new household gadgets or drop in on a friend or go to the office or….

We’re simply NOT going to have the energy resources we now have at our disposal. With urban areas carrying the majority of the world’s population now, we’ll have to create different modes of transportation to accomplish all of those necessary elements of daily life mentioned above. With millions still living in more rural settings, or in suburbs individually designed and thus with no broader strategy in mind (and subject to the same energy-deprivations as those living in downtowns all over the country), a comprehensive, creative, and national strategic vision for transportation will be mandatory if we have any hope of meeting the challenges of day-to-day living in a world where oil and gas are simply not available for the countless, mindless all-too-easy and too-often-taken-for-granted chores and trips and errands we all run multiple times per day. Whew!

What are we going to do? Anyone who thinks for even a micro-second that magic technology is going to save the day just in the nick of time and prevent any of us from having to endure even the slightest changes in the ways we live is practicing delusion on a grand scale.

Do we drag ourselves kicking and screaming into the future, or do we begin recognizing what is at stake—what’s involved in doing our best to avoid inconceivable disruptions to our lifestyles—and instead work together to create and seize new opportunities now?

I’m already on record as stating that I absolutely do not want my lovely lifestyle to change at all. I love the luxury vehicles my wife and I drive, I love our forty-five-miles-away-seven-bedroom-ocean-view summer home—the one I can get to in less than an hour any time I want by just hopping into the car and going there, and I love the fact that I can do exactly the same thing when I go and visit my parents at the opposite end of my state. Do I want to have to ride a couple of different bus and/or subway lines near my suburban home in order to get to the train station so that I can take a MUCH longer ride on someone else’s schedule to go to our summer home or to see my parents (and make the same alternative and time-sucking transportation arrangements at the other end) instead of … just driving there on my own? Of course not! But I’m not going to have much choice in the years to come, and I for one know that I’d like to have a say in how our governments and our business leaders and our fellow citizens work together to create new transportation systems so I can (I hope) still do those things with only slightly less convenience.

Slightly less convenience would be a good goal to shoot for.

With much less oil available to us in the years to come yet with the same personal/travel/food/goods/work needs and wants then as we have today, we’re going to have to figure out different ways of dealing with those myriad transportation issues. Fifty thousand dollar SUVs that get forty miles per gallon instead of eighteen really won’t make that much of a difference when all is said and done. The sooner we recognize what we’ll have to change (sacrifice) in order to continue to live prosperous and fulfilling lives with readily available and inexpensive supplies of oil and gas no longer at our disposal, the sooner we provide ourselves with the best opportunities for making those continuing ambitions a reality. Waiting until “then” to do something cannot be the plan.

The federal government will have to lead, but there will also be vital roles played by state and municipal governments in implementing the strategies needed. We will not be able to afford ad hoc experiments. While each locality will have its own unique needs, responding to those transportation needs and concerns will have to be shaped at the “top” so that we minimize the waste and unsuccessful attempts that hundreds if not thousands of individual transportation plans would otherwise occasion. Funding considerations can be adopted with national purposes and goals in mind, so that we avoid the unfortunate and unnecessary competitions that still take place from one congressional district to another.

Goods and citizens will still have to be transported across state lines, from the suburbs to regional hubs, and within urban/metropolitan areas. That won’t change. Given the economic demands, safety requirements, environmental concerns, and yes, climate considerations, a national transportation strategy (high-speed rail and other forms as well) must be what guides our decision-making.

How soon can we start?

I’ll be back next week with something new….

“The time is long past due for a national transportation vision that recognizes the spatial concentration of our economic life and  responds accordingly. It requires an extreme makeover, with a fundamentally new approach to almost every aspect of national  policy: how we allocate funding; how we set priorities; how we apportion responsibilities; how we engage the private sector;  how we price the system; how we connect transportation to other policies; how we structure the national government; and how  we move from pork-driven politics to empirically grounded policy.

“Fortunately, the time is ripe for such systemic reform.  From genuine concern about the condition and quality of our existing   infrastructure, to difficulties and limited choices in moving people and goods, to major national problems like climate change,  foreign energy dependence, and strained household budgets, there is growing recognition that left unchecked these challenges  threaten not only the quality of life in our country but also the competitiveness of our nation.” [1]

Those words were written two years ago, but they carry the same urgency and necessity today. No subject as complex as rebuilding our infrastructure and the role public transportation will play can lend itself to resolution within the confines of a blog post or two. But what can be discussed is the framework for deciding whether that revitalization, sound national directives, and the necessary levels of investment are worth pursuing as an answer (in part) to the challenges Peak Oil will pose. If you’ve read any of my posts to date, my affirmative answer will not come as a great surprise.

Greater investment in public transportation is not a panacea; no solution is. Trade-offs are inevitable given the scope and magnitude of what we need to create some legitimate semblance of economic growth and prosperity again (and I am convinced that those terms will be defined differently when “recovery” is in full swing. The good old days will remain the good old days.). But as has become a strategy all too often in most essential public and political dialogues since President Obama’s election and his bold attempts to define a new vision for American strength and prosperity, too many strive to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

The government continues to be the Right’s great bogeyman, except of course for things they like. They will need to figure out soon that we will not and cannot go back to how things were. There is no more “business as usual,” and the sooner they understand, the sooner they can participate in an American re-birth that will remain our best hope for prosperity. The rank hypocrisy and outright lies they work so diligently to perpetuate is a strategy that can only harm Americans long-term.

“We can compete, and the Obama administration wants us to compete, but it would take considerable infrastructure  investment and a functioning legislative process….government spending has suddenly become a bad thing, while  mandatory supermajorities have suddenly become good things….

“It’s easier to stick our heads in the sand and count on tax cuts as the solution to every problem, but it’s reasonable to think just  about every policy dispute on the American landscape can, and probably should, be reframed to answer the question: how does  this position the United States for global competition in the 21st century?” [2]

Discussing investment in high-speed rail and related energy issues recently, the President pointed out that “Other countries aren’t waiting. They want those jobs. China wants those jobs. Germany wants those jobs. They are going after them hard, making the investments required.” (Tom Whipple recently pointed out, however, that some of China’s massive infrastructure investments seem destined to be of decidedly short term benefit.  Whipple questioned spending “trillions on 11,000 miles of ultra high-speed passenger lines that will whisk a relatively few passengers between cities at unprecedented speeds and costs,” and even more for tens of thousands of additional roadway miles of similar dubious merit. [3])

In the next five years, China’s high-speed rail plans call for them to lay down more high-speed tracks than will the rest of the world in total (and let’s keep in mind that they continue to quietly position themselves for access to a lot of future oil). While that may only be serving a short-term purpose now, if their economy does grow as they envision, they will be competitively positioned well ahead of us in the decades to come by virtue of these types of investments—including the efforts they expend for clean energy. There are no magic pills that will keep us competing without similar investments and strategies.

There’s no doubt that federal investment in necessary high-speed rail and other transit systems would act as a positive and substantial economic stimulus for the nation and the job market. Let’s not forget that electric rail usage also decreases the amount of foreign oil we’re obliged to use—and pay for, and benefits our environment.

Enough studies have demonstrated that rail investment has a greater economic effect than do funds spent on highways, and it creates nearly twice as many jobs. The truth is, Peak Oil is going to impose severe limitations on the availability of oil and gas for the modes of transportation we now continue to take for granted. Highway funding may soon seem to be an insane choice for devoting limited resources. We cannot afford to be caught short when those limitations come into play.

Almost all economists of any repute acknowledge that the President’s stimulus plan prevented us from falling over an economic cliff. But let’s not assume we’ve scrambled back safely to the top just yet. States are desperate for funds and opportunities to employ their citizens. In this recession, with so many adversely affected for so long, those citizens will have different needs once recovery (however that may be defined) is eventually on solid footing. Having automobiles at their disposal may fall lower on their list of priorities, but that won’t obviate a great need to remain mobile. We’ll just have to learn to do so more efficiently and economically. Transportation likewise will not and cannot return to “business as usual.” We need to understand that now.

Transportation-related expenditures are second only to housing costs for most Americans, and in this economic climate, we simply cannot afford to continue on as is. Significant investment in alternative forms of energy—to the extent that can help over time—and in other forms of public transportation have to play a major role in any national strategic vision.

We also cannot discount the impact and influence of rail development on local economies as well. Providing hubs of any size invariably lead to business expansion and development surrounding rail stations. Investments in mass transit are proven job-makers, and that leads to better overall economic well-being.

As I have been urging all along, we’re all in this together, and our elected leaders and the business community will have to work even more closely to develop, define, refine, and implement strategies for economic revival than ever before. The problems we now face, and the problems that will confront us in the face of Peak Oil necessitate national strategies (no doubt to the Right’s great dismay.) All the hoping and praying won’t bring us back to the place we once knew as “business as usual.” The rules of engagement are different, and winning will require vastly different approaches than ever before. (And keep in mind that decreased driving and greater fuel efficiencies in our stable of vehicles means less tax revenues to repair our roads and bridges. Changes have to be made.)

Opportunities abound. Are we smart enough to seize them, or are we really better off with sniping over idiotic points of questionable merit?

Despite the diligent efforts of those for whom facts and clear evidence remain at best signs of some vast, nefarious conspiracy designed to render us Socialist Martians or whatever nonsense is being spouted, we have legitimate energy constraints on the horizon and equally serious environmental concerns to deal with. We all need to dive in and work together to fashion better plans that lead to a better and more prosperous future. “Tax cuts” aren’t it, and inane diatribes about socialist/Marxist/Nazi plots and wondering if our President is really an earth-born citizen simply derail us from what needs to be done.

We have a glaring need for much greater investment in our existing infrastructure and transportation systems—ones that will carry us through this new century. The benefits are immense, and the opportunities are already there.

Do we have the vision and courage to do the right thing?

Next: A Few More Thoughts About Transportation

Sources:

[1] A Bridge to Somewhere: RETHINKING AMERICAN TRANSPORTATION FOR THE 21st CENTURY; Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution, by Robert Puentes (p.11)
[2] http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2010_02/022394.php; February 13, 2010; TRAINS ON DIFFERENT TRACKS by Steve Benen
[3] http://www.energybulletin.net/node/51815; March 3, 2010; The Peak Oil Crisis: China’s Year of the Tiger by Tom Whipple

I’ve touched on the theme of transportation previously (here), and would like to devote the next couple of posts to exploring this vital topic a bit more.

“The automobile industry simply can no longer rely on oil to supply 98 percent of the world’s automotive energy  requirements.” Robert A. Lutz, General Motors’ vice chairman for marketing

Changes are coming. Not necessarily soon, but not too long from now, either.

Peak Oil will leave us with few options but to change—drastically—how we transport our goods, our services, and ourselves. Once production of oil reaches its peak (and there’s enough evidence to suggest that’s probably already happened), we’ll all begin seeing cutbacks here and there, rising prices that don’t really come back down much, if at all, and a dawning realization in industry, government, and its citizens that what we once had so easily and freely will no longer be ours again.

I’ll say again: this is not happening next week or next month, and probably not in the next year or two. But the scope of changes necessitate that we start acting as if they’ll change then, because we’ll have a lot of prep’ work to accomplish first.

This great recession has impacted almost every segment of society, transportation as much any other. Two of our Big Three automakers nearly ceased to exist; vehicle miles driven has been in a more or less steady decline for several years now; auto sales have plummeted, and that recovery will likely never reach its peak again. If lost jobs didn’t do it, then the fear kept buyers away.

The days of our auto-centered life may very well now be in our rear view mirrors. The recession has forced many families to abandon not just plans to buy or add new cars, but to cut back on the ones they already owned. Last year, more autos were scrapped than purchased, and trends suggest that will continue.

In my generation, owning a car as a teen was almost a religion. Not, not so much.

If we wanted jobs to pay for cars, we rarely had much trouble finding one, or two. Today’s teens clearly do not have that option, and since Moms and Dads aren’t usually in a position to buy one for them, that market segment has seen a marked change in purchasing in these last couple of years. More environmentally-conscious youths are more concerned about pollution and global warming and other consequences stemming from autos, so their urgency in owning a car may be curtailed in part for those reasons as well.

In the not-too-distant future … perhaps a decade or two at most, both suburban and urban modes of transportation will likely be very different creatures than the several thousand pound giants we use today to travel that long one-third of a mile to the store or bank. (The vast majority of Americans travel less than 50 miles per day.) Even though more people now live in urban area than anywhere else, the many who still reside in rural areas will be severely impacted. What will they do?

The simple fact that oil/gasoline will be both prohibitively expensive and not-so-easily obtained will mandate different ways of meeting our various needs. Our metropolitan areas will have no choice but to re-fashion themselves in ways more conducive to smaller modes of transport, with electric grids capable of “fueling” the vehicles of tomorrow, and urban and industrial design geared more towards walking and biking. Of necessity, most of our consumer needs will be met more locally than they are now.

We’re unlikely to discover, refine, and mass produce technologies or alternative sources of energy fast enough to permit a seamless transition to a new generation of those heavy, 5, 6, or 8 passenger beasts that dominate the roads today. We likely won’t have as many passable roads then! Repairs and maintenance will no longer be economically feasible in many instances. Asphalt will be harder to come by, as it already is.

This all sounds terrible because it will be so … different. What?! I can’t own a BMW 7 series and a Lexus SUV? I can’t even own one of them? How about just a basic Ford F-150 or a Honda Accord? No? No way!

Trust me: I’m one of those people! As I stated in my very first post, I am not Peak Oil’s poster child. My wife and I own a German luxury vehicle; we own a Japanese luxury SUV; and we own two more cars (one brand-spanking new) for our three children. I’m not even a little bit happy that someday in the not too distant future my enjoyment of these kinds of vehicles will be fond memories of  “the good old days.”

I’m not nearly smart enough to know with any certainty whether electric or hybrid vehicles will actually work in years to come. Is it even possible to mass produce those alternatives in anywhere near enough quantities to replace the several hundred million cars we now own? How can that possibly work?

But with changing demographics and a soon-to-be-urgent need to reconfigure our urban areas to reflect an increasingly car-less society, I do know that in just a couple of short decades, our modes of transportation will be different; our communities will be different; our ways of life will be different. I’m an optimist, so I’m thinking “different” will be okay, and maybe even a lot better. Quieter.

It’s all about what we do with the opportunities we’re now presented.

Truth is, we won’t have any choice. Using whatever precious reserves of oil might then be feasible for extraction to fill up cars and SUVs and pickups will seem insane to most of us.

Suburban sprawl will pose new challenges for us in the years ahead. Largely designed for access by automobiles, those far-flung residential centers will require a new face and new means of egress and ingress. Of necessity they will have to be more self-sufficient. The challenges are daunting, make no mistake. The sheer volume alone is staggering to contemplate. It’s easy to understand why those transitions will not take place in a time period anyone could rationally consider “short.” Opportunities….

We need to begin planning now for a 21st century transportation system, one that addresses our desires and expectations for mobility, productivity, and a better, healthier environment. We can’t afford to get caught wondering “what the hell happened?”

We’re ten years in already. We cannot be having these same discussions at the outset of our next decade.

Next: More Transportation Considerations

“We’re not investing adequately or strategically in our nation’s future, and we’ll pay a huge price if we don’t change course….

“Because we’re under-investing in the areas that will determine our future dynamism and standard of living, we’ll continue to  lose ground relative to our competitors and may eventually lose ground in absolute terms as well….

 “[I]t’s hard not to conclude that the past ten years were a lost decade. We can’t afford to lose the next one.…

 “Our margin for error is a lot smaller than it was a generation ago. We can no longer afford to waste resources, public or  private, on expenditures that do not create economic or social value.” [1]

In this most recent series of posts (here and here) I’ve attempted to provide a framework of understanding as to why we need to consider the vital role our infrastructure (highways, water and sewer systems, power/electric grid, etc.) has played in our nation’s economic development, and how vital it will remain provided we understand that the infrastructure of the future will require a substantial overhaul in the age of Peak Oil. It will no longer be enough to maintain or repair what we have. A move away from fossil fuel dependency necessitates that we design and build/renovate a foundation that reflects a new energy era … assuming we wish to maintain our role as one of the dominant economic powers, that is.

The problem is that we have no coherent infrastructure policy per se. Like most national issues nowadays, we have an infrastructure that is usually at the mercy of whatever whims move a particular congressperson to seek pork for his or her district (or, to be fair, occasional legitimate expenditures to maintain, repair, or replace an infrastructure system). As we see time and again, “long term strategies” usually run from today until next election day.

This political and economic ignorance, evidence of which we are now witnessing on an almost daily basis, is going to lead us right off the edge of a very high cliff unless we smarten up. Too few of our leaders appreciate this, and 300 million of us are going to suffer because we continue to tolerate misinformation, obfuscation, obstruction, and a level of mean-spirited and astonishingly narrow-minded partisanship unlike anything most of us have ever seen.

And yes, while that criticism falls on both sides of the aisle, there is no doubt in my mind that the Right’s fear that President Obama’s success will end their reign for decades to come will be the predominant cause of our ruin. They offer almost nothing constructive (beyond hypocrisy and a generous supply of deceit and misinformation) to the dialogues we need to have. When a shameless right-wing Senator places a hold on 70 federal government appointees (!) and in the next breath claims “I don’t have any idea” if they are qualified or not, we have a problem of integrity and character well beyond all bounds of decency. [2]

Just saying “No”, arguing against spending money at a time when no other entity has the ability to do so to re-energize our economy (and yes, deficits matter … just not now), and then cutting taxes, is a collective strategy all right, but not one that’s designed with a genuine long-term vision in mind—at least not a vision with any hope of helping anyone. The Right’s borderline insane attacks on the President and their outright refusal to step away from their single-minded aim of regaining political power and instead consider joining the other side in fashioning a better future for the citizens of this country are means to a genuinely troubling end. The United States will not be alone in suffering the consequences of this political arrogance and ignorance.

If we don’t collectively agree on where we want to be not just next month or after the next election cycle, but 5, 10, 20, 50 years out, recognizing at last that we live in a different world with different and more complex challenges that require different solutions, then we might as well pack it in now. We’ll be a third-rate country in a couple of very short decades.

The issues and problems and challenges that confront us now cannot be resolved the same way we resolved problems before. It’s 2010, not 1910. The rules are different; the game itself is different. And yes, to the Right’s great dismay, government has to be involved. It’s the only institution big enough to provide the framework for what needs to be done. So the choice is to join and invigorate the debate and play a role beyond obstructing progress, or to contribute to our collapse.

“… most of the needed investment should come not from government, but from the private sector. However,  government’s role will be decisive in setting the course through leadership, coordination, regulation, and investment.” [3]

“Firms will not provide the trillions of dollars needed to develop energy infrastructure in the coming decades without credible  signals that governments are serious about instituting policies that will allow the private sector to cash in on such investments.”  [4]

It’s time to stop being stupid. It’s time for the leading voices of the Right to stop treating their followers as if they are stupid. Educate them! Frightening or misleading them instead is insane.

Start telling the truth—all of it, not just the parts that make those voices seem as if they are the only god-fearing patriots in America. They’re not. Get over it. Grow up. We have serious issues to deal with here in the real world. Join in. The door is open. (What will earn them greater respect: their insistence on a narrow-minded philosophy that clearly does not have the long-term interests of this nation at heart, or the courage to admit we have some serious issues to resolve and that we need to handle them differently and cooperatively?) Those “leaders” own that choice.

“A competitive America is also an America that finally has a smart energy policy.  We know there is no silver bullet here – that  to reduce our dependence on oil and the damage caused by climate change, we need more production, more efficiency, and  more incentives for clean energy. 

“What we can’t do is stand still.  The only certainty of the status quo is that the price and supply of oil will become  increasingly volatile; that the use of fossil fuels will wreak havoc on weather patterns and air quality….This country has to  move towards a clean energy economy.  That’s where the world is going.  And that’s how America will remain competitive  and strong in the 21st century.” President Obama [5]

The man understands….The question is, how many other leaders from both sides of the political fence, how many business leaders, how many local government officials, how many influential voices in the media, and how many of us, appreciate those same truths? (How does any rational person consider the increasing world-wide industrialization, the growth of China and India among others, and the millions of new cars on the road and honestly believe that has no significant effect now or later on our climate or energy supplies?)

Our infrastructure as presently constituted took decades to create. It will likely take decades to re-fashion one not dependent on coal, oil, and gas—although we really don’t have that much time. So where do we start?

We need to understand the importance of a vision for the future that extends beyond November’s elections. What we need is not a left wing, progressive, center-left, center, center-right, or right wing plan. We need an American plan, an American strategy that will place us at the forefront of economic recovery and prosperity in the decades ahead—decades in which oil has been supplanted by new energy sources and innovations commensurate with the demands of the future. Oil provided us with a great ride for 150 years, but it’s getting close to the end of that ride. Do we plan for the rest of our journey now, or wait until we crash into the wall before we figure out how to continue on? Planning means effort; it means vision; it means the courage to take unpalatable steps now and then, and it means spending money now.

Our success and prosperity going forward will depend on how many of us understand and accept the fact that we’ve been utilizing finite resources that by definition will eventually run out. And long before they do, the efforts to extract whatever is left will become increasingly pointless.

Making the perfect the enemy of the good is no longer acceptable. Yes, there are some concerns about the causes and effects of global warming as well as Peak Oil’s imminence. The verdicts are not unanimous. But we cannot afford to cast aside the solid and credible, irrefutable evidence that now exists just because it’s not all perfect. How many things in life ever are?! The at best disingenuous (and occasionally nutty) denials guarantee a lot of standing around. What exactly is that gaining any of us except to make the problems that much more intractable later on? We can only continue to kick these cans so far down the road.

The world is moving ahead, and changing. Do we lead, or race like hell to try and catch up because too many of us were too delusional, too ignorant, or too fearful to admit that there are enough facts, truths, and evidence (the kinds that have no political affiliations) that mandate we act on them now? More choices….

Could we all use a bit more convincing? Sure. But are we really helping ourselves by standing firm in denial and delusion while we wait? There is a LOT of evidence suggesting that the days of easily accessible, available, and inexpensive oil are coming to an end; and there is a LOT of evidence suggesting that what we humans are doing is creating a potential global warming catastrophe. It should be enough to convince rational and intelligent people to start acting.

So do we do nothing instead, waiting for perfect proofs at every turn, or do we begin the research and planning and production now, allowing market forces and more creativity to spark even more innovation? Clearly NOTHING happens if we do nothing, or wait for the perfect moment and perfect set of economic conditions….No one wants to hear it, but the truth is that this is going to be a major, expensive undertaking, and all of us have roles to play. And yes, undoubtedly there will be sacrifices along the way.

 “The contours of a resilient, low-carbon recovery are becoming clear. Underlying all these measures is a common principle:  the need to lay down now the infrastructure and the hardware to support a low-carbon recovery and the green economy of the  future.” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

We need to start now. We need to have serious discussions involving serious people with serious understanding and a serious desire to vault us into a new era of growth and well-being. Opportunities….

Next: A Look At Transportation

Sources:

[1] http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/future-shock-0; Future Shock: Americans just aren’t equipped for the 21st century. William Galston February 24, 2010
[2] http://thinkprogress.org/2010/02/26/shelby-unapologetic/; Shelby Dismisses The Adverse Effect Of His Holds On The Pentagon, Says He Has No Clue If Nominees Are Qualified by Amanda Terkel, February 26, 2010
[3 http://globalpublicmedia.com/memo_to_the_president_electMuseletter 200: Memo to the President-elect on Energy Realism and the Green New Deal; 04 Dec 2008; MuseLetter 200 by Richard Heinberg
[4 http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65897/david-g-victor-and-linda-yueh/the-new-energy-order; The New Energy Order: Managing Insecurities in the Twenty-first Century; January/February 2010; David G. Victor and Linda Yueh
[5 President Obama in a February 24, 2010 address to the Business Roundtable, as reported here: http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/677-e2-wire/83457-obama-smart-energy-policy-key-to-competitive-america