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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 November, 2010

As has been reported on a number of other Peak Oil-related websites, the International Energy Agency, in its World Energy Outlook 2010, has finally come around to admitting what many have been stating for some time: Peak Oil is no longer a challenge to be faced in the distant (or even not-so-distant) future. The IEA has now gone on record as stating that world conventional oil production will never match or exceed the approximately 70 million barrels per day produced back in 2006.

Uh-oh!

So while that reality hits us, let’s consider another of those damned facts about oil production and usage:

“If you sort all of the countries by per capita daily oil consumption and start from the lowest consuming countries, you need to sum up the consumption of nearly 100 countries to match the daily oil consumption in the U.S. Among these countries are China and India.
“Altogether the citizens of the U.S. consume the same amount of oil as 4.8 billion people elsewhere.” [1]

Houston, we have a problem. Notwithstanding any sense of entitlement, or the false bravado of assured technological solutions just in the nick of time, our use of oil and its innumerable by-products (forget for a moment—but only for a moment—the demand and usage of every other nation) is going to smack head-first into a wall of declining supply and/or more expensive but still-declining supply. And it’s not going to get any better.

I don’t like it; I assume readers here do not like it; and I’m fairly certain that few individual or business consumers will appreciate or enjoy learning this. There’s no place to look around for any immediate solutions because there aren’t any! Changes won’t necessarily occur tomorrow or next week or next month, but the painful and unpleasant truth is that we’re not going to have available to us the same amounts of readily-available oil supplies at the same relatively low prices we’ve enjoyed for decades. Not gonna happen. That means adaptations, adjustments, and yes, even sacrifices beginning soon enough, with no end in sight. That’s a problem we’re almost completely unprepared to deal with or correct.

We’re all in this together, and we’re going to have to put our thinking caps on and start figuring out what we’ll need to do individually and as a nation to transition away from oil. The optimist in me still thinks opportunities abound, but the clock is definitely ticking.

We’ll still have a number of decades to make a complete transition away from oil as the power source. But the problem is that we’ll be making this monumental transition away from oil at a time when the supply is diminishing, world-wide demand is increasing, costs are on the rise, production and refining become more difficult (and of course more expensive), and it’s going to take much longer to bring that fossil fuel resource to market. That’s just for starters.

We use oil for just about everything produced, transported, and consumed. We’re now going to have to start figuring out many new ways to try and maintain some semblance of a “normal” industrial economy as well as a personal lifestyle using new forms of energy to power just about everything we rely on oil to do for us now. That’s also not gonna happen … certainly not to the extent, with the ease, at the low costs, or with the same quality and quantity we’ve come to expect.

Plans are in order—lots of plans. This is no quick-fix modern day dilemma, and it is most definitely not a challenge that we can rely on the “market” to solve on its own. What remains just as doubtful is the ability of our national government to lead the way, and that’s a problem. I’m not sure right now that Congress could easily, quickly, or even by majority vote declare December 25 as Christmas Day. Certainly they couldn’t do so if President Obama offered that up. This is not encouraging, and it’s even less so when we have a more-than-insignificant number of “leaders” who cannot seem to accept anything that even remotely resembles scientific fact.

We’re going to need a national government with national leaders who can … you know, lead; people who actually understand what is at stake, have some kind of vision for what we need to do now and going forward, are willing to articulate that to the citizenry, can explain what we all have to contribute, and are willing to make the tough choices devoid of ideology. Declining oil production has absolutely nothing to do with conservative or liberal philosophies of governance.

We’ve got an entire industrial and commercial infrastructure that is going to have to be modified, re-built, or in many cases created anew to allow us to move forward with something other than oil to power it. There’s no pretending otherwise, and waiting is simply not an option any more—not that it has been. The Hirsch Report which issued several years ago was quite clear that 20 years of full-out national effort would be needed to effect an orderly and hopefully pain-free transition away from fossil fuels in order to continue to power our economy and support our lifestyles.

If the IEA is finally admitting that peak conventional production happened four year ago, simple math tells us we’re a wee bit late on maximizing opportunities from that 20-year window. Uh-oh, again!

Just to keep things interesting, the transition from an oil-based industrial economy to Whatever-Plan-B-Will-Be will have to be achieved using that same declining measure of supply to design and construct and transport and put into place the infrastructure we’ll need to support and maintain this as yet unidentified and not-planned- for-yet Plan B. We’re talking about using a lot of declining energy supplies that’s a lot more expensive, over the course of a lot of years to put into operation a lot of new industrial and economic and civic foundations to (we hope) enable us to maintain some semblance of growth and prosperity—all while using new energy resources that simply will not be as efficient or inexpensive or dependable as oil has been.

And who does without or with less in order to achieve all of this? “Someone else, of course” is not the answer. We’re all “someone else” now. (As a bonus, extracting this now-more-difficult-to-come-by resource will create even more environmental and other resource-supply difficulties.)

So far, this is not encouraging. Where are the plans? Do our leaders have any courage at all to start dealing with the difficult truths all of us are now going to have to contend with? “Drill, baby, drill” was a poor solution when it was first suggested. Now, it’s just a fantasy. We’re going to need something a bit more intelligent as a solution.

The IEA’s 2010 Outlook states that more than three-quarters of the 2035 production amounts are going to originate from either oil fields that so far have not been developed (including the more costly, less efficient, and less reliable unconventional resources such as the Canadian tar sands), or from fields that haven’t even been discovered yet! Hello! There are a lot of unspoken hopes and wishes and finger-crossings being counted upon. And another bonus: all of this is going to be even more expensive.

What’s even more startling is that the IEA is projecting that by 2035, the conventional oil production we’ve relied on for decades will have decreased from the 2006 peak of 70 million barrels per day to less than 20 million barrels per day. According to my calculations, 20 million is a lot less than 70 million. That is not good math.

These are just some of the facts we have no choice but to deal with. This is not an ideal set of circumstances for us to confront in the midst of our continuing economic woes. But we play the hand we’re dealt, or we fold. Our choice.

First, we need to come to terms with these facts, and that means at a minimum the partisan, fact-free or manufactured-out-of-thin-air political nonsense must end immediately.

From there, we move toward plans and actions. None of the options will be simple, fast, or cheap. Are we willing to bet on human ingenuity and human capital? It won’t be the first time, and there’s no rule that even suggests that change won’t be better for all of us. I’m not willing to relinquish my hold on optimism (though I find myself having to grip a bit harder these days).

The game is different now, the rules are different, and if there is to be any “winning”, it’s going to have to come about with different strategies and lot more playing partners than some would like. But that’s the reality.

“Peak oil and the events associated with it will be an unprecedented discontinuity in human and geologic history. Peak oil crises will soon confront societies with the opportunity to recreate themselves based on their respective needs, culture, resources, and governance responses. Peak oil will require a change of economic and social systems, and will result in a new world order. The sooner people prepare for peak oil and a post-peak oil life, the more they will be able to influence the direction of their opportunities. Nevertheless, there are probably no solutions that do not involve at the very least some major changes in lifestyles. Consequently, peak oil will probably result in some catastrophic upheavals. Peak oil will also present opportunities to address many underlying societal, economic, and environmental problems.” [2]

I’ve ended more than one post to date with this question, and it’s just as vital today as it always has been:

Crisis, or opportunity?

Sources:

[1] http://seekingalpha.com/article/231957-the-end-of-oil-s-golden-age; King Oil – posted Oct 25, 2010
[2] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-11-21/collapse-nov-21 and http://www.global.ucsb.edu/climateproject/papers/index.html; Peak Energy, Climate Change, and the Collapse of Global Civilization: The Current Peak Oil Crisis by Tariel Mórrígan; Global Climate Change, Human Security & Democracy, Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

The Global Climate Change, Human Security & Democracy Project from the University of California (Santa Barbara) has issued a report (PDF here) discussing the problems awaiting us at the convergence of peak oil, energy decline, and global warming.

The report offered a concise summary of the current state of our oil supply considerations:

* Peak oil is happening now.
* The era of cheap and abundant oil is over.
* Global conventional oil production likely peaked around 2005 – 2008 or will peak by 2011.
* Global oil reserve discoveries peaked in the 1960’s.
* New oil discoveries have been declining since then, and the new discoveries have been smaller and in harder to access areas (e.g., smaller deepwater reserves).
* Huge investments are required to explore for and develop more reserves, mainly to offset decline at existing fields. [And it should be noted that given the world-wide recession, investments in oil exploration and production have been significantly curtailed in the last few years – my comment]
* An additional 64 mbpd of gross capacity – the equivalent of six times that of Saudi Arabia today – needs to be brought on stream between 2007 – 2030 to supply projected business as usual demand.
* Since mid-2004, the global oil production plateau has remained within a 4% fluctuation band, which indicates that new production has only been able to offset the decline in existing production.
* The global oil production rate will likely decline by 4 – 10.5% or more per year.
* Substantial shortfalls in the global oil supply will likely occur sometime between 2010 – 2015

Yet in the face of even more facts about the reality of declining oil production and availability, more nonsense—written by Clifford Krauss and published in the New York Times, no less!—denying the reality of our predicament has surfaced. (Stuart Staniford also had a very nice and well-reasoned article challenging the statements found in that NYT piece. I’m taking the opportunity to expand on his thoughts.) *

As I’ll demonstrate below, this at-best-misleading NYT article is yet another in a seemingly limitless supply of carefully-worded challenges to the facts and realities of our political, energy, and climate environments—challenges which upon even casual examination completely fall apart. Facts remain stubbornly annoying….

Regular readers of this blog may recall a post last month wherein I discussed the curious methods by which the factually-challenged attempt to persuade others. This New York Times article is a perfect Exhibit A. I’m not picking on Mr. Krauss for any personal reasons; it’s just that his article is such a perfect example of the peak oil-and-global-warming-denying-Obama-misrepresenting nonsense that litters public discourse. I remain ever-hopeful that at some point, the majority will begin to see that producing fact-free, one-sided arguments (or arguments laden with misrepresentations at the very least) are probably not as convincing as the authors might wish. As I’ve stated before, if you cannot rely on the truth and facts to make your case, what kind of a case do you have to begin with? (And what is one’s motivation in attempting to do so?)

I also recently explained my position (here) that it is important that we immediately challenge misrepresentations, lies, or disingenuous half-truths as and when they appear (a full-time job, to be sure). It’s my belief that much of the right-wing nonsense issuing from the media and politicians is done under the explicit assumption (hope?) that the readers/listeners have neither the time nor the inclination nor the means nor the ability to appreciate or learn the facts. Their reliance on “leaders” to provide information is thus an essential part of the strategy to hide the truth.

To what end?

After mentioning the state of oil supply back in 2008, author Krauss then states:

“But no sooner did the demand-and-supply equation shift out of kilter than it swung back into something more palatable and familiar. Just as it seemed that the world was running on fumes, giant oil fields were discovered off the coasts of Brazil and Africa, and Canadian oil sands projects expanded so fast, they now provide North America with more oil than Saudi Arabia.”

“Giant oil fields”? The world currently uses approximately 30 billion barrels of oil per year. The “giant” oil fields (and Krauss is not the first to offer this statement as the be-all and end-all of our oil supply worries) are estimated to contain, respectively 8 billion barrels and 40 billion barrels according to a 2007 source. Not much has been written about this larger field since then, although another decent-sized field of about 15 billion barrels may be in the works.) Of course, no mention is made of the feasibility of producing every last drop, the at least multi-year time frame, and/or the costs or efforts needed to produce these deep-water fields. Why explain when an impressive-sounding statement will hopefully be enough?

Deep-water fields aren’t like the truly giant fields of old: one does not dig a hole and wait for the hundreds of billions of barrels of oil to gush out as some did decades ago. Deep-water implies … well, deep water, as in beneath the deep water (deep as in many thousands of feet deep.) No engineering degree required to realize that just might pose a problem or two. As Mr. Krauss himself stated later in the article:

“Exploration and drilling below 10,000 feet of water and through miles of hard rock, thick salt and tightly packed sands required the development of supercomputers and three-dimensional imaging and equipment that could withstand the heat and pressures common at such depths, as well as submarine robots to make repairs.”

Sounds like just a wee bit of extra effort and cost. But let’s be optimistic! Perhaps we have discovered another 18 months or so worth of oil in Brazil—assuming of course demand does not increase. Ooops! Seems we have an issue with that. As Krauss then explained:

“The International Energy Agency, the Paris-based organization that advises industrialized countries, projected this month that global energy demand would increase by an astounding 36 percent between 2008 and 2035.”

A 36% increase in demand can certainly be fairly described as “astounding.” But in a world where supply is in fact declining, (or at best, has plateaued) “astounding” increases aren’t exactly a good thing. Increasing demand and declining (or flat) supply creates a second-grade level math problem. If you want more but keep getting less to provide that want, then … um, ah … how does that work? “Demand” something all you want, but if it’s not feasible to produce or supply then “demand” is gonna run into real-world problems. (I’d like to demand that our daughters’ college tuitions be eliminated, I’d like to demand a new BMW every couple of months, and I’d like to demand a million dollars to be deposited into my savings account by Christmas—and I’m going to continue to demand it. Not too difficult to see where that goes.)

As Stuart Saniford sagely pointed out in his critique of the one-sided Krauss article, Mr. Krauss relied on CERA and oil company executives as his sole sources. Now there’s a fine bit of objectivity! (CERA, an energy consulting firm, is routinely castigated by many peak oil proponents far more knowledgeable than me for their errant projections.) For example, Krauss quoted James Burkhard, a managing director of IHS CERA:

“The competitiveness of oil and gas and the scale at which they are produced mean that there are no readily available substitutes in either one year or 20 years.”

That’s quite true. The problem is that this is not a solution. It is instead a very clear statement about the problems we face in a world of declining fossil fuel supply: we do not have in place adequate substitutes. That’s more of the same kind of math problem I discussed above. The world wants more energy, we’re finding and producing less of what is needed, and the few substitutes in place aren’t anywhere near enough to make up the shortfall, so … what is the solution?

It’s not going to get any better. We’re simply not finding enough oil to make up the natural decline found in existing fields, let alone finding enough to match increasing demand. More bad math.

Krauss then adds:

“Yet, the outlook, based on long-term trends barely visible five years ago, now appears to promise large supplies of oil and gas from multiple new sources for decades into the future.”

Based on what information? No source is cited (damned facts just get in the way, anyhow). And “appears to promise” means what? A typical empty phrase that means absolutely nothing! Here are some more examples from this same article:

“The same high prices that inspired dire fear in the first place helped to resolve them. High oil and gas prices produced a wave of investment and drilling, and technological innovation has unlocked oceans of new resources. Oil and gas from ocean bottoms, the Arctic and shale rock fields are quickly replacing tired fields in places like Mexico, Alaska and the North Sea.”

“As IHS CERA and other oil analysts see it, new oil is going to come from both conventional and unconventional sources — from anticipated expansions of fields in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and from a continued expansion of deepwater drilling off Africa and Brazil, in the Gulf of Mexico and across the Arctic, where hopes are high in the oil world, although little exploration has yet been done.”

“Oceans of new resources” sounds impressive, except that it is impossible to measure, and as one might customarily think about the size of your run-of-the-mill “oceans”, that’s about as gigantic an exaggeration as the English language allows! And note the reference to finding these fossil fuels “from ocean bottoms” and in “the Arctic.” (Where, he adds, “little exploration has yet been done.” But then again, “hopes are high.” Hooray! That solves everything!)

Not a word about what all exploration or production involves, how long discovery and production might take, or how much it costs—among other annoying pieces of information that just might provide more clarity and perspective. And more aspects of Oil Production 101 that require very little engineering expertise. Getting anything from the bottom of the oceans or from the Arctic is not “easy” by any definition of easy. But why let an explanation get in the way? Let’s just hope that “oceans of new resources” is enough to satisfy the vast majority of casual readers.

And there’s more!

“No matter what finally plays out, energy experts expect there will be plenty, perhaps even an abundance, of oil and gas.”

How many new barrels of oil in a “plenty” and how many additional barrels than a “plenty” is a “perhaps even an abundance”?

“IHS CERA, which monitors oil and gas fields around the world, projects that productive capacity for liquid fuels could rise to [my emphasis] 112 million barrels a day in 2030 (including 2.75 million barrels in biofuels), from 92.6 million barrels a day this year.”

Pigs could fly, too, and perhaps we could find oil in every back yard in America. (My suggestion would be that no one actually relies on that, however, although you never know! It could be true!)

“‘The estimates for how much oil there is in the world continue to increase,’ said William M. Colton, Exxon Mobil’s vice president for corporate strategic planning. ‘There’s enough oil to supply the world’s needs as far as anyone can see.’”

“‘We’ve got a wealth of opportunities to address around the world,’ said [Robert N. Ryan Jr., Chevron’s vice president for global exploration.] ‘We have quite a few deepwater settings all over the world, some of them very new, like the Black Sea. There are Arctic settings. We have efforts under way re-exploring Nigeria, Angola, Australia. The easy stuff has been found, that’s true, but in the end, we still have many basins in the world to explore or to re-explore.’”

Nice objective quotes from major oil company officials as offered by Mr. Krauss, and for balance and objectivity countered by his quotes from ah … um … well, no one, actually. In about .4 seconds, Google could supply a few dozen experts who have a different view. Then again, perhaps Mr. Colton’s viewers can’t see very far….

And as for Chevron’s Mr. Ryan: how many barrels in “quite a few deepwater settings”? Is it more or less than a “plenty”? How many are “many basins” and exactly how barrels of oil in each of those “many basins”? Is a “setting” bigger than a “basin”? And let’s not focus at all on Mr. Ryan’s acknowledgement that “[t]he easy stuff has been found.” Can’t have a good argument of plenty if you have to deal with the truth.

And let’s not forget the magical and wondrous tar sands in Canada. Mr. Krauss didn’t!

“The vast oil sands fields in western Canada, deemed uneconomical by many oil companies as few as 15 years ago, are now as important to global supply growth as the continuing expansions of fields in Saudi Arabia, the current No. 1 producer.”

Unfortunately, this rosy scenario has to stop by and visit reality for a while, and those “vast” oil sands aren’t quite as efficient as this author seems to suggest. The following is one of many statements of fact that put just a slightly different spin on the availability of the “vast” resources in western Canada.

“The problem with unconventional resources seems to be that only a fraction of them are determined to be recoverable.
“Even though unconventional resources seem to be vast, they are estimated to add only approximately 10 million barrels per day to the supply side – in the best case – when taking into account all unconventional sources such as biofuels and oil from coal. For example, The National Energy Board of Canada estimated back in 2006 that the best case for oil sands production in 2015 would be 4.4 million barrels a day while the base case was 3.2 mb/d and the low case only 1.9 mb/d.
“The current production rate of oil is about 84 million barrels a day, so the unconventional resources will not have a major effect in the long run given depleting conventional sources. Also, a major problem with all sources is decreasing EROEI ratio (energy return on energy invested). For oil it used to be 100 a long time ago and now it is somewhere below 20. EROEI for biodiesel is roughly 3 and for ethanol it is not much more than 1. Depending who to believe, EROEI for oil sands is between 2 and 4. Basically anything above 1 makes sense, but because we are used to a high ratio (= cheap energy), we may have a serious problem when the average EROEI of all supplies of oil goes below 5.” [1]

Damned facts!

This article also weighs in on the recent surge in production of natural gas from shale deposits (a completely separate discussion, but I couldn’t let this quote pass).

“Similar advances have made drilling gas and oil from shale possible on a large scale for the first time. Advances in so-called horizontal drilling allow well drillers to steer and carve through hard shale to expose more and hard-to-reach rock, and it also makes possible drilling under city neighborhoods, as in Fort Worth, which happens to sit atop a large gas field.”

Let’s think about this for just a moment: “drilling under city neighborhoods”?! Won’t the Fort Worth residents be delighted! No impact or consequences there, right? Right? Apparently unable to contain his enthusiasm, Mr. Krauss then goes on add:

“Shale drilling is also beginning to produce significant amounts of oil in the United States. The Bakken shale field centered in North Dakota has become the fastest-growing major oil field in the United States, with production rocketing to about 350,000 barrels a day, from 100,000 barrels a day a decade ago. In a recent report, the consultancy firm PFC Energy projected production would climb to 450,000 barrels a day by 2013.”

For a nation that imports close to three-fourths of the nearly 19 million barrels of oil per day, “rocketing” production all the way up to 450,000 barrels a day means we’ve got about ten days worth of oil demand covered each and every year. Fantastic! (And to hell with the rest of the world.) Of course, extracting oil from shale is a piece of cake … dig a few inches, spend a few bucks, coupla hours ‘a work, no environmental consequences, and we’re good!

At the risk of picking on this one author too much, let me close with another eye-opening quote from this fascinating NYT article, this time from Edward L. Morse, the head at commodity research at Credit Suisse, after Mr. Krauss posits the following:

“Add up the shale, the deepwater drilling and Canadian oil sands, says, and what you get is less dependency on OPEC and hostile countries like Venezuela.”

To which Mr. Morse adds:

“When you add it up, you get something that very closely approximates energy independence.”

Seriously? What kind of math is that? I’d like to use it for our investments.

For all those struggling in this economy, let me add this:

“When you add it up, your $400.00 per week salary very closely approximates $4000.00 per week and financial independence.”

Gee, that’s so easy! I love the fact-free world.

* Shortly before posting I came across this solid open letter to the New York Times from David Hughes, offering a very pointed and fact-filled (what a concept!) challenge to Clifford Krauss’s piece. A must read….

[NOTE: With the holiday coming up, this will be my only post this week. Happy Thanksgiving!]

Sources:

[1] http://seekingalpha.com/article/231957-the-end-of-oil-s-golden-age; The End of Oil’s Golden Age

Richard Heinberg, as knowledgeable a Peak Oil teacher as we have, and by personality apparently disinclined to be overly dramatic, is nonetheless offering some sobering thoughts about our future.

“Economic growth as we have known it is over and done with.
“The “growth” we are talking about consists of the expansion of the overall size of the economy (with more people being served and more money changing hands) and of the quantities of energy and material goods flowing through it.
“The economic crisis that began in 2007-2008 was both foreseeable and inevitable, and it marks a permanent, fundamental break from past decades—a period during which most economists adopted the unrealistic view that perpetual economic growth is necessary and also possible to achieve. There are now fundamental barriers to ongoing economic expansion, and the world is colliding with those barriers.” [1]

Evan Thomas, in Newsweek, also shared a prescient essay [2] about our current economic challenges, and the threat to future prosperity. I’d like to think his message will be taken to heart by the President and Congress, but I am not optimistic that it will happen. I don’t think most of America is prepared to hear it, and certainly most Americans do not want to hear it. We’re still looking to have Someone Else deal with the big problems of the day while we all struggle with the burdens we each carry. As Thomas noted:

“[B]roadly speaking, American popular culture is not very amenable to sacrifice, to choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, as our sterner parents and grandparents might have said. We have built a society of safety nets, a lawyer-constructed web where no one really has to take responsibility, where there’s always someone else to blame.”

It’s an understandable position to take, mired as we are in the midst of our individual financial and employment woes, but things are different now. Relinquishing that responsibility entirely to others is a recipe for disaster. Not only do we need to hear the truth, we need to take action—personally and collectively—to help steer our nation back onto some semblance of solid footing.

Political writer Steve Benen recently wrote [3] about a Tennessee state government worker who, while opposing the Republican Party’s positions on taxes and health care (fairly important issues, needless to say), still managed to cast his vote for the Republicans. Benen quoted the man as stating: “I’m tired of what’s going on, and the only way to do it is to make a change.”

Shooting ourselves in the foot ought to be a bit lower on our list of responses and contributions. As I suggested in my last post, we need to be better, and we need to take the time to consider—painful as it will surely be—the problems and challenges we all face, the solutions and approaches suggested by leaders from both parties, and then assess what kind of a nation and a people we want to be in the many years ahead … in a society and economy that will be vastly different than the one we left behind in 2008.

In an absolutely brilliant post (kudos to Daily Kos), a writer identified only as “Ed” listed the “mandate” Americans voted for in the recent mid-terms elections. It’s a quick read but well-worth taking the time to do so, because the piece points out exactly how most of us are choosing to view the problems we face. It’s just as clear that that strategy is mindless! (Just one example of what this writer suggests that Americans now require after casting their votes: “Giant trucks and SUVs that drive like Formula One race cars, look cool, fit into small parking spaces, cost under $18,000, and get the fuel economy of a Toyota Prius”)

As Richard Heinberg made crystal clear, the prosperity and a return to the familiar paths of economic growth are not likely achievable any longer. It’s an unappealing truth, but the only way we can deal with the challenges and fashion some sort of national strategy for transitioning into a different society and economy is to first accept the facts and the truth. We’re not particularly inclined to take up that approach when the problems are even a bit daunting, let alone something of this magnitude. But it’s the only way. Adopting any other approach that smacks of disregard, or ignoring the evidence, or pretending, or hoping for the magic of the marketplace, will only create more problems. We need more chairs in the room because we need a lot more adults to take part.

“[T]here are three primary factors that stand firmly in the way of further economic growth:
* The depletion of important resources including fossil fuels and minerals;
* The proliferation of environmental impacts arising from both the extraction and use of resources (including the burning of fossil fuels)—leading to snowballing costs from both these impacts themselves and from efforts to avert them and clean them up; and
* Financial disruptions due to the inability of our existing monetary, banking, and investment systems to adjust to both resource scarcity and soaring environmental costs—and their inability (in the context of a shrinking economy) to service the enormous piles of government and private debt that have been generated over the past couple of decades.” [4]

Those are the facts. No one has to like them very much, but ignoring them, or pretending otherwise, or choosing an alternative reality where evidence is not a consideration is exactly the wrong strategy. It might be less stressful, but it’s still the wrong strategy. Time for the adults to enter the room….

“So the world needs to come to a common understanding that:
1. The alternative energy is not mature enough to completely replace fossil sources any time soon.
2. Energy security means a diversified and balanced portfolio inclusive of every bit of resource, fossil as well as renewables,  just to meet the projected demand.
3. Real “green” energy is easier said than done.
“All this requires a balanced and unbiased government policy to guide exploration and development of technologies to unlock the new fossil fuel reserves, expanding the R&Ds of emerging technologies, while effectively practicing and promoting energy efficiency and conservation.” [5]

No easy choices. No simple solutions. No freebies. Not much time. Not our first choice for options to solve the problems, but that’s what we have.

Delaying the acknowledgement about the extent of the problems means only a delay in trying to fashion solutions or alternatives or strategies or plans or innovations or research or some combination of all of that and more. Absolutely no one wants to hear that we’re going to be facing a very different future with very different definitions about growth and success and prosperity. But that’s what we have. You name it: production, distribution, transportation, finance—all of it is going to change when we begin to feel the pinch of less energy. If anyone is hoping we can just wait and come up with instant solutions only when that day is upon us, I’d suggest you re-think that approach.

Although speaking about the debt and the deficit, Evan Thomas’s advice to President Obama rings just as true about the energy and climate issues that will soon enough overtake us (and I continue to acknowledge that we still have lots and lots of fossil fuels in the ground, and I agree that we will not be “running out” of anything for many years if not decades. But that’s beside the point.)

“But being honest about the real choices is the only way Obama can break through the noise and chatter. It is also absolutely necessary to save the country from very hard times ahead, or at the very least a steadily declining standard of living. Obama needs to start by explaining the mess we’re in.”

Echoing the themes Richard Heinberg urges, Thomas’s Newsweek article goes on to state:

“But very few economists believe that growth will solve the problem. Some warn of the ‘new normal,’ flat or at best slow growth or a decade of stagnation. A real growth spurt, in any case, will require government spending on badly deteriorating infrastructure and massive research and development. But there is no money….”

So as Richard Heinberg sees it, here we are:

“The result: we are seeing a perfect storm of converging crises that together represent a watershed moment in the history of our species….
“The end of growth is a very big deal indeed. It means the end of an era, and of our current ways of organizing economies, politics, and daily life. Without growth, we will have to virtually reinvent human life on Earth.”

Can we start to think about this seriously? Can we put our heads together and come up with at least some ideas to start with … ideas that take into account facts and the real world we leave in? The grunt work has to start at some point, and yesterday is as good a day as any.

Sources:

[1] http://richardheinberg.com/222-the-end-of-growth; MuseLetter #222 / November 2010 – The End of Growth by Richard Heinberg

[2] http://www.newsweek.com/2010/11/13/what-obama-needs-to-do.html?from=rss; Truth or Consequences: Obama’s only real hope to be an effective president and secure his legacy: talk straight about the looming economic disaster facing the country by Evan Thomas

[3] http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2010_11/026593.php QUOTE OF THE DAY

[4] Heinberg

[5] http://www.marketoracle.co.uk/Article24260.html; Panic Time for Peak Oil Pundits By: Dian_L_Chu

“[B]y 2050 another 130 million people are projected to be living in the United States; by 2100 the Census Bureau’s high estimate is more than 1 billion. Providing infrastructure and transportation for this expanding population will generate a long list of required equipment and materials….”[1]

That’s a lot of energy demand and usage under the best of supply conditions! When many other nations are dealing with similar population growths, how on earth (literally) are we going to provide?

That question is troubling enough. How do we provide when the supply of oil that has so far supported our rising populations and ever-increasing demand is no longer as plentiful, inexpensive, or easily obtainable?

World oil production has been flat at best since the middle part of this decade. Even when oil was zooming up to nearly $150.00 per barrel just a few short years ago, oil production didn’t increase. As yourself: why? Why wouldn’t nations allegedly up to their eyeballs in plentiful reserves not ramp up production so as to generate untold billions and billions in additional income? Hello! Just having those plentiful reserves isn’t enough. If they are too difficult or too costly to extract, or if the quality is poor, we could have a gazillion barrels of oil in reserves and not a drop of it would help. Those are the present-day facts about a good deal of our oil supplies. It’s not going to get any better.

“[C]onventional oil reserves are being depleted throughout the world at twice the rate of their replacement, historically slow annual capacity declines from major oil fields are being replaced by rapid declines from significantly smaller new developments, and finally marginal new reserves such as arctic and deep water oil accumulations require inordinate new technology advancements and massive funding in order to be brought on-stream in adequate volumes as affordable costs.” [2]

It’s true that the possibility exists that the tipping point when oil production begins its unavoidable decline may yet be many years away, [see this for a good summary of the current state of oil production] but are we really willing to wager that something will come along to save the day when it’s time to deal with those challenges on a day-to-day basis? Are we willing to even place bets on exactly when that might be? Doing nothing seems like a monumental—and monumentally foolish—strategy.

“’We are confronted with a society built on high-quality energy, dense forms of energy, fossil fuels especially,’” says [Boston University] ecological economist Cutler Cleveland. ‘Could you have the same standard of living with renewables? I don’t think we really know. Things might have to change very fundamentally….’
“[R]enewables’ handicaps do not bode well for speeding up the next energy transition. Fossil fuels ‘were phenomenally attractive,’ yet it still took 50 to 70 years to bring them into widespread use, says [systems analyst Arnulf Grübler of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)]. That’s because, no matter how attractive a fuel might be, it takes time to create the infrastructure for extracting and transporting the resource, converting it into a usable form, and conveying it to the end user. It also takes time for inventors to develop enduse technologies—such as steam engines, internal combustion engines, and gas turbines—and for consumers to adopt them and create demand. Renewables ‘will be slower because they’re less attractive,” says Grübler. “They don’t offer new services; they just cost more.’” [3]

Not exactly an ideal solution, especially when we consider how little research funding we currently provide (which will likely become less as a shortsighted Congress is already suggesting). It’s estimated that fossil fuels (oil in particular) plays a role in the production of more than 90% of all industrial goods, and a similar percentage in supplying fuel for all forms of transportation. There is no denying that our economic way of life is supported by what has long been a ready supply of oil. That’s going to change. Pretending it won’t is just dumb.

Doing nothing, or waiting for some “better” time to deal with that problem will result in one certain outcome: we’ll have fewer options available to actually deal with the problems of decreasing supply.

“Until we get out of the gravitational pull of the Great Recession, government is the only remaining booster rocket. If anything, we need more government spending and lower taxes on the middle class. This means bigger deficits, at least for the time being. Even worse, budget-deficit mania will slow future growth if it forces government to cut the things that fuel growth  – education,  basic R&D, child health, improved infrastructure.
“No smart family would choose to balance the family budget over borrowing money to send the kids to college. The same logic holds for the nation as a whole. If certain government spending generates higher future productivity, we’d be nuts not to make the investment just to avoid a larger deficit.” [4]

With so much of our individual and commercial livelihood dependent on a vital and finite resource on the verge of an irreversible decline (at least in terms of affordable prices and in sufficient quantities to meet ever-increasing demand), we’ve got a big problem ahead of us. Global warming won’t help (despite the Right’s intentional unwillingness to recognize that problem—a purely political calculation that is destined to lead to unimaginable difficulties), and an economy already straining to remain upright both serve to create a convergence of challenges about which we are at present woefully uninformed and ill-prepared for. Toss declining supplies of affordable oil into that pot and we’re brewing some kind of nasty future for ourselves.

Exactly how quickly does our leadership think it’s going to take to transition away from fossil fuels? How long do most of us think that will take?

For those narrow-minded and shortsighted public personalities denouncing Big Government in all its facets, they’re creating an environment in which government will be the only entity left standing and capable of managing what will surely be an upheaval of historic proportions … with no guarantees that it will succeed. (When media personalities on the Right are denouncing Republicans for not being conservative enough because they supported legislation eliminating incandescent light bulbs as one means to conserve energy [5], it’s a demonstration of narrow-minded ignorance about our energy future that’s difficult to fathom. Are these people incapable of understanding anything about the future? Is there some genetic defect that prevents them from considering consequences beyond the end of the month?}

Acting on an oddly-based belief that all of this evidence (facts are so damned annoying at times!) leads to some happy outcome completely divorced from reality is a mind-numbingly dangerous strategy to follow at the expense of hundreds of millions of people.

We need to be better.

That admonition applies not just to the media and political personalities too many of us depend on for guidance. If we don’t step up and start recognizing how much of our everyday lives depend in small or large part on having oil and gas at the ready 24/7, and then considering how much of that 24/7 is going to be altered when those same supplies either become exorbitantly more expensive and/or (likely both) not as readily available any longer, then we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves. Is that a roll of the dice we should be considering?

Take a moment to reflect on how many products you own in your own home that were produced either directly from fossil fuels or were transported or otherwise supplied using fossil fuels in the distribution process. Is there anything not attributable to oil? How long and how much effort and how many changes and how much of our production facilities and how much of our infrastructure and how much of our transportation services are going to have to be adapted to a world where oil is no longer at the ready as it has been for more than 100 years? How do implement the new facilities, which will themselves no doubt demand a considerable amount of energy in their creation and distribution, when there’s even less efficient, inexpensive, and available fossil fuels to power all of that?

Even in the midst of the hardships and burdens the vast majority of us are being obliged to endure daily as our economy stumbles along—which surely cloud our abilities to take on even more burdens—we need to become better educated about the challenges that loom in the much-too-soon future, and we need to become at least a bit smarter about the contributions we make to solving the problems. The evidence from recent polling seems quite clear that a too-large percentage of Americans have their facts completely wrong about President Obama’s legislative accomplishments (here, here, and here), and that lack of understanding will be of no help to any of us as we undertake the massive challenge of revising … well, just about everything!

If we either remain uninformed or mislead by the facts and the options we’ll have to rely on, or if we make decisions based not on reason and consideration of the realities confronting us (daunting as they will be), then we should expect very little in the way of solutions or success.

“Is America ready for the 21st century? The answer is no.” [6]

We need to find a better answer, and we should start working on that right about now.

Sources:

[1] http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100301/alperowitz_et_al/single; The Cleveland Model By Gar Alperovitz, Ted Howard & Thad Williamson – TIM ROBINSON

[2] http://www.emirates247.com/news/region/saudi-oil-analyst-disputes-high-supply-theory-2010-11-10-1.315931; Saudi oil analyst disputes high supply theory

[3] http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/329/5993/780; Do We Have the Energy for the Next Transition? Richard A. Kerr

[4] http://robertreich.org/post/1549020696; Why We Should Beware Budget-Deficit Mania by Robert Reich

[5] http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1110/45059.html; Right burns over Upton light bulb law By: Robin Bravender

[6] http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2627; America’s Aging Infrastructure: What to Fix, and Who Will Pay? Erwann Michel-Kerjan, managing director of Wharton’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center.

“I don’t think people quite understand how fundamental transportation is to the economy and their standard of living.” [1]

“Some might also wonder why a shortage of oil should automatically trigger a collapse. It turns out that, in an industrialized economy, a drop in oil consumption precipitates a proportional drop in overall economic activity. Oil is the feedstock used to make the vast majority of transportation fuels—which are used to move products and deliver services throughout the economy. In the US in particular, there is a very strong correlation between GDP and motor vehicle miles traveled. Thus, the US economy can be said to run on oil, in a rather direct and immediate way: less oil implies a smaller economy. At what point does the economy shrink so much that it can no longer meet its own maintenance requirements? In order to continue functioning, all sorts of infrastructure, plant and equipment must be maintained and replaced in a timely manner, or it stops functioning. Once that point is reached, economic activity becomes constrained not just by the availability of transportation fuels, but also by the availability of serviceable equipment.” [2]

“The United States is saddled with a rapidly decaying and woefully underfunded transportation system that will undermine its status in the global economy unless Congress and the public embrace innovative reforms, a bipartisan panel of experts concludes in a report released [several weeks ago].
“U.S. investment in preservation and development of transportation infrastructure lags so far behind that of China, Russia and European nations that it will lead to ‘a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations for American prosperity in the long run.” [3]

This is real life; this is what happens when you put on blinders and decide that a political ideology already proven not to work will nonetheless work magic this time. If they do what they’ve always done, we’ll get more of what we’ve already gotten … hello!

Spending the kinds of money being tossed about for transportation infrastructure modernization is mind-boggling. As one recent report suggests, an additional $134 billion to $262 billion must be spent per year through 2035 to rebuild and improve roads, rail and air transportation systems. [4] Coupled with even larger investments needed to modernize our entire infrastructure, and it becomes terrifying. Talk about bad options or bad options! There are few short-term upsides to the choices we’re confronted with, but that’s the key issue: this is not about what’s best for us only right now. Difficult decisions or difficult decisions are the choices on the table.

But what is the option? Where do we wind up ten, twenty, fifty years down the road? Do we leave our children and grandchildren with potentially burdensome debt but in an economic environment that meets their needs and gives them hope and chance for an even better future, or do we send them into the world relatively debt-free but confronted with decay and decline and little hope as far as the eye can see?

“The United States can’t compete successfully in the 21st century with a 20th century transportation infrastructure—especially when its chief trading partners, including not only the advanced economies of Western Europe and Southeast Asia but also rapidly developing countries like China, are making significant investments in cutting-edge transportation technologies and systems. Transportation efficiency has a direct impact on Americans’ standard of living and on the cost of goods and services delivered by U.S. firms and businesses.” [5]

The knee-jerk reaction to raising any fees, notably the 18.4 cent (per gallon) federal gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993, hamstrings any efforts to legitimately address these challenges. A sense of entitlement—that we shouldn’t have to pay for public services—is rapidly becoming not just an enormous impediment to resolving our difficulties. We also run the risk that our fears of national decline will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and with no one to blame but ourselves.

“We would also note that while other nations are effectively rebuilding and improving transportation infrastructure (think China, France, India and other competitors), we are consumed with debates about the proper role of our national government, all the while avoiding the tough decisions that would give us the resources to do the same. [6]

You don’t have to be a math whiz to understand that inflation and increased fuel mileage over the years (and thus less spending at the pump) have dramatically reduced the sufficiency of the gas tax as a source for highway construction and maintenance funds. The sad truth is that Americans don’t want to pay for much, and that’s a sure recipe for all kinds of disasters, but our attention span is short and our memories about other consequences are just as short.

One proposal repeatedly floated about only to be instantly shot down is a one or two cent (cent, as in penny!) increase in that per gallon gas tax. Two or three cents would be fabulous, but we can’t get Congressional leaders to even consider a one freaking penny increase to help pay for road maintenance and repair … one penny per gallon! Let’s take a look at how this breaks down in the real world of facts:

Estimated miles traveled per year by the average driver is 15,000

Average miles per gallon is 15 – 20 miles per gallon. Let’s lowball and say it’s only 15 mpg

15,000 miles per year divided by 52 weeks = 290 miles; let’s say 300 miles per week

300 miles per week divided by 15 miles per gallon = 20 gallons of gas used per week, or about $60.00 per week at current prices, or about $3000.00 per year

20 gallons of gas per week with a one freaking cent gas tax increase = 20 cents per week, times 52 weeks means that the average driver paying $10.40 more per year to help alleviate an urgent need … ten freaking dollars per year!

And we have leaders and organizations and media personalities telling us that raising this tax is as calamitous as anything we’ve ever seen. This begs the obvious and unfortunate question:

How irresponsible, clueless, and short-sighted is this?

“The fact is that failure to adequately maintain and invest in our transportation systems means not only gridlocked roads and deteriorating bridges in the near term, but a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations for American prosperity in the long run. Avoiding this outcome means government, and ultimately taxpayers, need to be willing to invest more in transportation, not just for one year or a few, but on a sustained basis over time….Policymakers and the public will need to understand that investments in transportation infrastructure—provided these investments are wisely chosen and effectively implemented—will have long-term benefits that more than justify their near-term costs.” [7]

“[O]ur transportation infrastructure also is the foundation upon which virtually every major industry sector depends. Many industries could not exist without the wise infrastructure investments our nation has made in the past. These industries include tourism, manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, agriculture and forestry, mining, retailing, wholesaling and many others that are essential to our economic vitality and quality of life. Dependent industries provide more than 78.6 million American jobs with a total payroll in excess of $2.8 trillion, illustrating just how much we have at stake when we underfund our transportation efforts.” [8]

As my favorite political blogger, Steve Benen, so dryly noted: “We are, by the way, talking about projects that create jobs, spur economic development, relieve traffic congestion, and help the environment, all while offering the promise of transforming American transportation in the 21st century.” [9]

Not that that matters….

Whether or not we manage to restore some semblance of prosperity in the near (or even not-so-near) future will depend in no small part on the courage and wisdom we ask our leaders to demonstrate—with our support—in making wise investment decisions with an eye to the future, difficult as those choices may be. Not making those decisions has the potential to be catastrophic.

We have to encourage and even insist on a vision for our future that takes into account legitimate concerns on both sides of these investment issues but also moves beyond them in recognition of the fact that in a near-future powered by less fossil fuel resources, changes will have to be made in how we address these challenges. Throwing more money at public roads is not the sole option, nor can it be.

“Name one attribute America’s most successful cities have in common. The ‘it’ factor often overlooked – but necessary for success – is transit. Successful cities all across the nation have made the choice to make public transit a priority – and that decision pays off.
“According to the American Public Transit Association, for every $1 cities invest in public transportation, they generate $4 in economic returns. Economically viable cities make funding transit a priority because they can generate multiple, positive economic outcomes with a single investment:
“Developers are attracted to transit areas. If a city wants to revitalize a blighted area or dictate where high-density growth and expansion occur, one of the smartest things it can do is invest in transit.” [10]

For all the (many of which are legitimate) arguments against investing in high speed rail, the reality that almost none of those opponents bother to consider is that in a world with ever-declining oil production, increasing world-wide demand, and more complex geopolitical and geological challenges, our insistence on remaining an automobile-based nation evidencing our greatness and independence is at best extremely foolish. We are simply not going to have same level of fossil fuels we now depend on for transportation. That’s just the reality, and we ignore it or stubbornly insist otherwise at our peril. Alternative forms of transit—expensive or not—are going to play a critical role for us in the future, both personally and commercially. Stomping our feet and demanding otherwise is nice, but not going to get you much.

“In the United States, high-speed rail remains roadkill for Republicans who, in playing to anti-big-government voters, reflexively say states cannot afford it rather than reflect on how mass transit and speedy corridor trains will wean us off oil and improve quality of life for generations to come.” [11]

We, and our leaders, need to be wiser and far less shortsighted than we tend to be.

Sources:

[1] http://www.infrastructurist.com/2010/10/22/new-report-shows-states-want-to-cut-infrastructure-spending/; New Report Shows States Want to Cut Infrastructure Spending by Eric Jaffe (quoting Byron Schlomach, director of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona)

[2] http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2010/11/peak-oil-is-history.html; Peak Oil is History

[3]http://millercenter.org/policy/transportation [link to PDF]; Report from the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virgina: Well Within Reach – America’s New Transportation Agenda – David R. Goode National Transportation Policy Conference (Norman Y. Mineta and Samuel K. Skinner, Conference Co-Chairs, Jeffrey N. Shane, Conference Director) issued October, 2010

[4] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/04/AR2010100402269.html; Failing U.S. transportation system will imperil prosperity, report finds By Ashley Halsey III

[5] Miller Center Report (above) p.26

[6] http://www.amconmag.com/cpt/2010/10/19/how-to-finance-the-next-six-year-transportation-authorization-a-taxing-issue/; How to Finance the Next Six-Year Transportation Authorization: A Taxing Issue – October 19, 2010 by Glen Bottoms

[7] Miller Center Report (above) p. 27

[8] http://www.hntb.com/point-of-view/think5-investing-in-our-economic-future; Investing in our economic future

[9] http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2010_11/026518.php; SO MUCH FOR HIGH-SPEED RAIL…..

[10] http://transportation.nationaljournal.com/2010/10/talkin-about-a-railvolution.php; Talkin’ About A Rail-Volution? By Fawn Johnson; (Response by Tom Madigan: The ‘It’ Factor Of Successful Cities)

[11] http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2010/10/30/us_needs_to_get_on_track_for_high_speed_rail/; US needs to get on track for high-speed rail By Derrick Z. Jackson

“America’s infrastructure needs are dauntingly large, complex and urgent. Ultimately, if we are to regain not only economic stability but also prosperity, if we are to remain a creative and competitive nation, we will need to demonstrate the capacity for holistic thinking and integrative action.” [1]

“What this election suggests to me is that the United States may have finally lost its ability to adapt politically to the systemic crises that it has periodically faced….

“The American people, mired in debt, with one in six lacking full-time employment, are not spending; and businesses, uncertain of demand for their products, are not investing no matter how low interest rates fall. With the Fed virtually powerless, the only way to stimulate private demand and investment is through public spending.” [2]

“What’s the right tool? The cure for the Great Depression was World War II — a massive fiscal and technological stimulus. Annual wartime deficits peaked at about 28 percent of Gross Domestic Product. The government went on a hiring binge, both for war production and via the military draft. The economy blasted out of depression.

“Today, however, both parties are wringing their hands over much smaller deficits, projected this year at about 9 percent of GDP. Republicans just took back the House with a campaign against big government.

“So there is no political appetite for the civilian equivalent of World War II — a public campaign to rebuild rotting bridges, roads, ports, water and sewer systems, and to invest in 21st century infrastructure such as a smart electric grid and clean energy technology that would make the economy more productive as well as creating millions of jobs.

“The Republicans do speak of ‘fiscal stimulus,’ but they mean tax cuts. However, a recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concludes that tax cuts are a far less efficient use of deficits than direct public investment.” [3]

“Improving water systems — and infrastructure generally, if properly done — would go a long way toward improving the nation’s dismal economic outlook. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, every dollar invested in water and sewer improvements has the potential to increase the long-term gross domestic product by more than six dollars. Hundreds of thousands of jobs would be created if the nation were serious about repairing and upgrading water mains, crumbling pipes, water treatment plants, dams, levees and so on.

“Millions of jobs would be created if we could bring ourselves to stop fighting mindless wars and use some of those squandered billions to bring the nation’s infrastructure in the broadest sense up to 21st-century standards.

“The need is tremendous. The nation’s network of water systems was right at the bottom of the latest infrastructure grades handed out by the American Society of Civil Engineers, receiving a D-minus.” [4]

In my last post, I asked what our vision was for our future. Where we’re going as a nation obviously carries significant import for where we go as individuals: can we expect prosperity and growth, or will the decline feared by many prove to be to our destiny? That’s not a pleasant option to contemplate under any circumstances.

But now, when the energy resources we might otherwise count on to boost us back to customary levels of prosperity (and beyond) will not be available to us in the same measures in the immediate years to come (and beyond), we have even more daunting challenges. Even acknowledging them is extremely painful and discouraging. Contemplating what has to be done is paralyzing to most of us.

So what do we do?

Let’s say that during last evening’s rain storm you discovered a small hole in your roof. You have some options this morning. Ignoring the problem completely is one choice. Painting over it is another. Calling a repairman is a third choice. Safe to say that most homeowners would choose from those three options, and perhaps the majority would choose the third option right away.

Make no mistake, this is definitely not an expense you want to deal with. But what’s the thought process if you don’t fix it now? It would probably go something like this:

“Well, I’m pretty certain this is not going to get any worse. No need to check to be certain, I just believe it won’t get worse. Actually, I’d rather not find out, to be honest, so I’m just going to ignore it. Heck, I’ll stay out of the room entirely!”

Or you have this conversation with yourself: “Not a big leak right now, and I am pretty certain that this is only going to get a bit worse and no more than that. No need to check. I’ll grab some towels, put down a couple of buckets, figure it’s not going to rain or snow much, and I think we’ll be okay for a few more years.”

Or perhaps you have this conversation: “This is probably going to get a lot worse if I don’t do anything soon, but I’m pretty certain that nothing really bad will happen. I’ll just move the furniture for now. I’m also pretty certain that if I do have to spend money to fix this in a couple of years, it’s probably going to cost even less than it would to fix the little problem now. Yeah, I think that sounds about right. But I think I’ll just tell the kids to stay away from the upper floors. That should cover it.”

Anyone want to float those options by your significant other and expect agreement? But that’s pretty much what we’re proposing by declining to spend money now on our infrastructure. (And yes, finding the money is a huge problem, to say nothing of convincing those ideologically bound to even less spending to turn around and agree to more … a lot more. Spending/borrowing the hundreds of billions of dollars we need to get our infrastructure back in shape, in this economy, has a whole suitcase full of reasons why that makes no sense. I acknowledge that.) But….

“First Britain, and now the United States, are responding to the worst economic contraction in 75 years by contracting government, despite the fact that the world’s best economists are screaming that it’s exactly the wrong thing to do….

“From China to India to Brazil, hundreds of millions of people are rising economically in ways their parents could scarcely have imagined, in part because their governments are investing in infrastructure in the way the United States did in the late nineteenth century. The American dream of upward mobility is alive and well, just not in America.” [5]

There’s little reason why we cannot be the world’s most successful or prosperous nation as those attributes are commonly measured. But we will not do so by relying on business as usual, demonstrably failed policies of the past, or levels of vitriol that are almost laughably inane. These are not the paths to restore our nation to that lofty place. (Waiting for tax cuts to the wealthiest one per cent of Americans as one strategy to help all of us guarantees one thing and one thing only: one hell of a long wait.)

Is this the best we can do? Are we going to permit justifiable anxieties and fears and doubts cloud our vision as to the choices we need to make (fraught with their own set of less-than-ideal policy considerations and consequences). This is a crisis. There is no getting around it. It was a long time in the making, and it will not be “fixed” anywhere near as quickly as we would wish. Perfect solutions are nowhere to be found, and every choice has ardent supporters and detractors. Economic challenges atop and surrounded by looming energy and climate challenges most are ill-informed about at best only add to the dimension of what we will have to contend with. We need broad-based plans now, and under the worst possible conditions.

But as I have suggested often, this is also about opportunity. Our future prosperity will be measured in large part by the vision we develop right now about how economic growth will be produced and sustained in a world with a very different base of energy resources. We cannot continue to rely on unlimited amounts of inexpensive and energy-dense fossil fuels to sustain us at the same levels as in the past, let alone support our hopes for greater levels of growth and economic prosperity in the years to come. We need to accept that. Then our work and innovation can begin in earnest.

Oil production has not increased in nearly five years, and with demand on the upswing and a host of economic and geological challenges confronting prospects for producing more, we need to come to terms with the fact that we need to redefine growth and create new means and methods of production in a once-again growing economy. Less government is the exact opposite of what we need. Less ideology runs hand-in-hand with this approach.

We’re not going to suddenly discover magical amounts of fossil fuel reserves though magical technologies because the Republican Party now controls the House. Energy resources don’t concern themselves so much with political ideology. What’s left (and there are still massive amounts left) is going to be harder to find, extract, and pay for. The quality and quantity will simply not be there in the manner we’ve come to expect. That’s the reality, and those are the facts. This means we’re going to have to make do with less just when we need it all more than ever, and just when millions more have asserted at this same time their needs and demands for the same finite amounts. Party affiliations shouldn’t be expected to change any of that.

But buried as we are under the weight of this Great Recession, it is even more frightening to contemplate that we may not get back to our expected levels of growth soon, if ever. That fear and anxiety—stoked by too many for whom integrity is an entirely foreign concept (if you have to resort to disingenuous misrepresentations to further your aims, what does that say about the message, and the messenger?)—clearly played itself out in the elections held last week.

I get the sense that what this most recent election was about was not a rejection of the President’s agenda and legislative successes as much as it was a frustration and anger (buttressed by much legitimate anxiety) that things are not better already, and too many of us thought that it would be. Feeling largely powerless, the majority of voters opted to check off the box marked “Someone Else” as their way of contributing to problem-solving. “Someone has to do something to get us some results right now” was the basic message … not entirely dissimilar to 2008’s message. We’ve proven once again that we’re an impatient and forgetful nation.

“Someone else” is a familiar electoral option, but at times one of questionable logic and wisdom. The delusion about quick and inexpensive solutions (and amnesia about the severity and breadth of problems that escorted President Obama into the White House)—notions or hopes that this could all be fixed with a couple of waves of his magic wand—collided quickly with the reality of the depth of fundamental problems which ushered in the Great Recession. Choosing Someone Else is no guarantee that the nearly insurmountable economic, industrial, and employment problems are going to be alleviated any quicker, if at all. And with one party committed to spending even less on crucial needs, we’ve got our work cut out for us just to stay afloat, let alone move ahead.

We need to be educated about the truths, painful as they are. There are no golden options, no guaranteed measures to restore us back to the “normal” we took for granted. Yes, deficit spending is no panacea. Debt passed on to future generations is not anyone’s first choice under ideal or even less-than-ideal circumstances. No one wants to pay more taxes for anything! But that’s the deal we strike with this form of governance. Less means less. More doesn’t always mean better, but more is more, and we need more of the more than we need the less.

The harsh reality is that we are in a far different set of circumstances than most of us have ever faced. Coupled with the equally harsh truth that we are going to have to fashion new measures and definitions of growth and prosperity (if that’s even possible, hate to say), and will have to achieve much of it in the years to come under a different set of rules and with different energy resources (many not yet in place), we have some serious, deep-seated, and long-lasting problems to address. The time to plan and prepare so as to ensure a seamless transition to new standards of industrial and economic production has passed. It’s not too late, but it is getting very late in the game. Adapting to means of production and supporting our vital infrastructure with different sources of energy will take extraordinary vision, planning, innovation, and implementation … and that will all be years in the making.

We’ve kicked enough cans down the road as it is. This is one more we cannot afford to pass on to the future.

These challenges need to be addressed not just by others. As I have taken pains to stress in numerous posts, we all have a stake in what happens to us and to our nation, and we all bear responsibility for helping to fashion solutions. Voting is one contribution to be sure, but let’s make certain that it is an informed choice and not solely a lashing out in impatient frustration. I’ve been on the unemployment lines, too. I understand and remember the anguish and the soul-sucking stress that governs every waking moment. Tomorrow is too long a time to wait.

In these circumstances, voting cannot be our only contribution, however. Ideology won’t create a better climate, or produce more fossil fuels from ever-declining reserves. Technology and innovation and inventions will help, but there are no plans for them to all show up early in December. We’re going to have to recognize—on top of all of our other economic challenges—that we’re going to have to make do with less of the fossil fuel-based means of producing goods and services which have long sustained our ways of living. Conserving, like it or not, is going to be a standard M.O. for us.

And to think that we can achieve any semblance of prosperity again under a political agenda that suggests we’ll spend less—less on education, less on research, less on training, less on our children, less on programs to help the many disenfranchised, less on vital infrastructure, less on necessary federal programs and departments that safeguard our citizens in a variety of ways—is to compound the delusions. The truth is that the only place where these magical economy-strengthening spending cuts will come from will be on programs that aid or benefit the vast majority of the not-wealthy Americans—ones that offer us the potential for future prosperity or serve as lifelines now. Do we really want to define our nation’s character by the philosophy of “every man, woman, or child is on their own ‘cuz I got mine.”?

By all means let’s be certain that we cut back even more programs to help the distressed, and compound the neglect to our vast infrastructure needs to insure that the wealthy have enough money to buy a seventh or eighth home. That money is gonna trickle down one of these days to us, I just know it!

“If there’s any lesson that Republicans are going to take away from this election it is that vitriol and intransigence and total unwillingness to cooperate work — politically, at least, if not in terms of getting anything done that meaningfully improves the welfare of Americans.” [6]

This is a good thing? This is what we cast votes for? This is who we are?

Are the hundreds of millions of not-wealthy Americans really content with the nonsensical explanations that the few wealthy and the major corporations need more tax cuts at their expense, while asking those same hundreds of millions of not-wealthies to sacrifice even more? Now, under these dire economic conditions?!

An ill-informed electorate that too often allows others it only thinks have more knowledge and information to lead the debate and frame the issues is every bit as damaging as abuses of power or media manipulations. The reality is that Republican Party officials’ statements about creating jobs by reducing the deficit through spending reductions and tax cuts are economic nonsense and nothing more. Analysts much more intelligent than I am have demonstrated that not one of the policy plans the Republicans produced would reduce the deficit by so much as a nickel, and prominent among those misrepresentations is their proposal to reduce taxes on the wealthiest one per cent of Americans (oh the horror that that may not come to pass!) as a means of jump-starting us back to prosperity. That alone is going to add $700 billion to the deficit! Hello?

We have to be better than that, and we have to be smarter.

The Republican agenda favors business and the wealthy. It’s not any more complicated than that. That is their history over these past few decades. If you are comfortable with that ideology, if you think that that approach is going to somehow help you and your community; or enhance and support your personal values; if you think that you can obtain the same breadth and depth of government services (most of which we completely take for granted) by giving government less funding; that spending less money on the fundamental and badly in need of repair and maintenance and revitalization infrastructure (which enables us to have industrial and economic success in the first place) is the path for future economic and industrial growth; and/or that these and similar approaches will somehow help restore this nation to levels of progress and growth and prosperity and innovation that have long been the envy of the world, then keep leaning right. It’s a free country.

“I don’t get what they think they’re doing to stimulate the economy right now,” said [Bill] Gale [a senior fellow in economics studies at the Brookings Institution]. “I can understand that people are angry or upset about the economy. But I can’t understand how that anger and anxiety has turned into this set of legislative proposals [tax cuts for the wealthy, less regulation, massive spending cuts].” [7]

We have to be better than that, and we have to be smarter. We cannot afford otherwise.

Our rage and frustration and animus that things are not better by last month at the latest has blinded and is blinding us to the future we do face: one where the rules will change of necessity, and one where the energy foundation of all of our progress and prosperity in the past century and a half will not be available to us as it has been. It’s not pleasant to accept that, but accept it we must, for if we do not understand what is at stake, what kind of changes need to be made, and how much we need to act in concert—political ideologies notwithstanding—then any hopes we have for pulling ourselves out of this dire set of economic challenges are a collective waste of time. (And yes, deficit spending by our government cannot and must not continue indefinitely, I get that part. We’re talking about spending a lot of money. That’s not nearly as simple a proposition as one would like to think.)

We have too much to do and design and innovate and implement and repair and maintain and support and provide to rely solely on the market place. Borrowing costs are ridiculously low; there’s an urgent need to repair and modernize our transit systems and bridges, schools, power grids, water and sewer facilities and all the other elements of our vast infrastructure; there are millions looking for work whose income earned will in turn be spent in the marketplace, and thousands of companies and millions of their employees who will benefit from the spending accompanying this work.

“The American Society of Civil Engineers calculates that the U.S. would need to spend an additional $1.1 trillion over the next five years to restore roads, bridges, dams, levees and other infrastructure to good condition. In its latest report card, the engineering society gave the nation’s public works a ‘D’ grade.” [8]

“For years, we have deferred tough decisions, and today, our aging system of highways and byways, air routes and rail lines hinder our economic growth.”  – President Obama

Seems simple enough.

We need a national vision with courageous, honest national leadership (Democrats and Republicans) unconcerned with narrow-minded and short-term ideological nonsense. This is about so much more than partisan principles. It’s about what is best for us as a nation now, next week, next year, and for the rest of this century at the very least. No easy, simple, or inexpensive and consequence-free decisions are on the horizon.

What will we choose for our future? What answers—and opportunities—will we be able to provide for our children and grandchildren?

Sources:

[1] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-11-02/infrastructural-ecologies-principles-post-industrial-public-works; Infrastructural Ecologies: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works by Hillary Brown

[2] http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/78890/a-lost-generation?utm_source=ESP+Integrated+List&utm_campaign=3b5b04383f-TNR_Daily_110310&utm_medium=email; A Lost Generation: Obama deserved to lose—but the country doesn’t deserve the consequences by John B. Judis

[3] http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2010/11/05/cheap_money_wont_fix_this_economy/; Cheap money won’t fix this economy By Robert Kuttner

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/26/opinion/26herbert.html?_r=1&hp; The Corrosion of America By BOB HERBERT

[5] http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-11-03/how-the-gop-will-help-get-obama-re-elected-in-2012/; Election Night’s Big Loser by Peter Beinart

[6] http://www.salon.com/technology/how_the_world_works/2010/11/03/what_next_for_the_economy/index.html; After the GOP deluge, what next for the economy? By Andrew Leonard

[7] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/05/AR2010110507092.html?hpid=topnews; Republicans map out their agenda of less By Lori Montgomery

[8] http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/us_will_to_build; US shuns some big public works projects By David Porter And Michael Rubinkam, Associated Press

“I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that there should be a vision of what America can be, what our states can contribute to America, that quality of life is all part of people having jobs and maybe paying a little bit of those taxes out of the jobs to create a general public contribution to a quality of infrastructure. I think part of the problem is that too many other things are put on the table at the same time and they’re put on in a confusing way. Should we pay for health care? What about the war? What about gay marriage? All these things that a number of us think are sideshows and that deviate from the fact that Americans have to invest in the quality of life in their own country.
“I think the real problem is that we’ve not been able to come together and put together a true vision, and not a plan, of what we can be with the next generation of infrastructure: a country filled with jobs and opportunities and new businesses and ways of getting kids to school. People are worried about that.” [1]

“The United States is not just losing its capacity to do great things. It’s losing its soul. It’s speeding down an increasingly rubble-strewn path to a region where being second rate is good enough.” [2]

“I find it kind of frightening this trend toward criticizing the government and blaming someone else when we’re the problem. Government is good at technical problems, fixing roads and dams, but government can’t fix human behavior,” she says. “Folks aren’t willing to get involved, and they need to.” [3]

“It’s so easy to get on the bandwagon: lower my taxes, smaller and more efficient government, don’t touch my liberties, throw the bums out, etc. But what if that bandwagon has to cross a bridge? And what if that bridge hasn’t been maintained in years?” [4]

The election results have sent a message. That’s the prevailing wisdom, and any number of opinions from both sides of the partisan divide will tell us everything we need to know and then some as to what that message might be.

But is it the right message … whatever that political message might be? Given that we have an electorate that seems both woefully uninformed (see here, here, and here, for example) about basic facts regarding the legislation passed for their benefit in the past two years, and decidedly short of memory as to the events that lead to our current—and deep—economic and employment woes (and yes, as ardent a supporter as I am of this Administration, they bear some share of blame), how much should anyone rely on whatever the political message might be?

Is it right for us as a nation to rely on those who may not have (or have no interest in) relevant facts, and/or who are instead lashing out in justifiable and understandable frustration at their predicaments and apparent powerlessness over circumstances? The economic grievances are legitimate, but are decisions predicated in no small part on blind frustration an appropriate gauge for our elected leaders to base their decisions (particularly when some have an agenda that is only marginally related to what the majority in fact seem to desire—or need)?

I raise this clearly political issue because our current economic woes may very well turn out to be nothing but gathering clouds on the horizon—clouds that will usher in far more lasting consequences—when we’re required to confront our industrial and economic challenges in a world with less and less oil available to us each day. Our nation’s ability to right itself is already under siege. Limiting our options might not be the best Step One.

Tea Partiers, left wing radicals, wingnuts on the far right, and everyone in between are all in due time going to be obliged to personally deal with and endure the challenges brought on by an ever-declining amount of readily available fossil fuels. The evidence is in, and while we are just as free to ignore the facts and reality of declining oil production just as we do with clear evidence about global warming and its consequences, we do so at our own peril.

Progress as we’ve come to expect is going to take a sharp turn off its familiar path long before we’ve all given ourselves the full range of opportunities to prepare. Our current strategy of avoiding and denying has immediate psychological merit (perhaps), but it is clearly remains just about the worst option.

Strong opinions are now being cast about arguing in favor of smaller government, less expenditures, and belt-tightening. Noble sentiments; and not without their economic merit. But in the midst of this Great Recession with its high unemployment, considerable uncertainty, and the fears this all spawns; and according to some knowledgeable estimates more than $2 trillion worth of repairs, upgrades, and maintenance needed to bring our infrastructure (e.g. roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, electrical and other power grids, rail, seaport, and airport systems) to proper levels of function and utility, is less spending and less government really the most intelligent approach?

How do we remain competitive with an international body of nations looking to match us? Falling behind on purpose is a curious strategy.

“What has always struck me about this issue is that there is a desperate need to improve the nation’s infrastructure and a desperate need for the jobs and enhanced economic activity that would come from sustained, long-term infrastructure investment. But somehow the leadership and the will to move forward on the scale that is needed are missing.” [5]

To be sure, there are great arguments to be made pro and con, so it’s inappropriate of me to be completely dismissive. But what kind of a nation do we want to be ten, twenty, fifty years from now?

“Earlier this month the White House released a report stating that most Americans—84 percent, in fact—are perfectly happy to spend money on the country’s broken infrastructure. But a new study also released this month suggests that such approval exists only in the abstract. It turns out that when people are asked which specific parts of their state’s budget should get cut, they choose infrastructure over all else.” [6]

Hello!

Decisions we make now about these long-term investments will most certainly affect us for those many decades and beyond. Should we really be worrying about the deficit when so much is needed to help us regain our footing, and when other nations (think China) are spending massive amounts of money to position themselves to be economically competitive for the remainder of this century? Without a properly functioning and up-to-date infrastructure (one adapted to an environment that can no longer rely on the same levels of fossil fuels to sustain it), any hope we harbor about maintaining a position of prominence in the world order will indeed remain just that: a hope, and one that fades farther into the distance every day.

If we’re spending less owing to our own personal circumstances, and we’re now asking the Spender of Last Resort to tighten its belt to appease the narrow-minded, short-term focused, and ill-informed (together with media know-nothings or worse, fabricators of alternative and fact-free realities) rather than take advantage of an incredible and incredibly important need (and in a climate of amazingly low borrowing costs), what’s left for us to do to re-energize this moribund economy? Thinking that the booster shot (the primary purpose) that was the President’s stimulus plan was instead our long-term investment strategy is to completely misunderstand what was being done! And if you’re thinking tax cuts for the wealthy are the answer, I’ll politely suggest you consider the realities here on Planet Earth first. (Hate it when facts get in the way, but sometimes you just gotta deal with ‘em!)

“America’s more serious deficit is one of inadequate social investment — in children, worker skills, basic public facilities, and the advanced infrastructure of the 21st century. The long-term health of the economy depends on these outlays. It is a mistake to view spending only as “stimulus” for the economic emergency — and then to revert to our normal underinvestment in people and social overhead once the immediate crisis ends.” [7]

How do we get Washington to think beyond next week? How do we do so, in the midst of our own burdens?

The challenges of working within the constraints of our post-easily-available-and-inexpensive-fossil fuel future is an issue that legitimately requires a commitment not just from the federal government, but from all of us. If we allow the making of these decisions to become products of pissing contests between ideological Democrats and Republicans or battles of wallets among special interests, we’ll accomplish absolutely nothing and suffer much longer than we’re prepared to. Now that’s something to look forward to!

The problems we face now and will likely face in the days to come demand more of and from out than narrow-minded partisanship. That may gain you votes and boost your war chest, but it’s not of much help to the rest of us.

We need to adopt that same longer term perspective that will be so crucial a determinant in our success and prosperity post-Peak Oil. This is not an issue of hoping Someone Else takes care of this while we roll merrily along amid our frustrations and “throw the bums out” mentality as our sole contribution. We own this problem and these challenges, too.

We’re going to have to adapt our entire infrastructure to a world where the supreme energy efficiency of oil and its by-products are available to us in ever-declining amounts. That adaptation is not going to happen quickly. Years and years is the starting point to measure that undertaking, with no guarantees we’ll get it right, or get it right in time.

Can anyone honestly believe that deferring this critical (and yes, almost unimaginably expensive) undertaking to some undetermined future date is anything other than insanity? Does anyone think it will be easier or preferable to try and cram this massive effort into existence years from now, on a shorter time scale, when the urgency will be that much greater and the ongoing neglect that much worse and more costly? Perhaps these systems so badly in need of repairs and upgrades will magically fix themselves; perhaps more neglect and increased damage won’t cost more in the future; and perhaps we’ll all have guardian angels at the ready, but I’d rather not count on that, thank you very much. Do you want to? Prefer to pass that risk on your spouse or children, instead?

Which leader urging less spending and less government is willing to send his or her child or grandchild across the next bridge an engineer certifies as sub-standard or worse? What soothing words will be offered when another collapse takes place? “We really think it’s best to wait for a better time to spend money; right now we’d like to make sure that the wealthy become wealthier at your expense” isn’t likely to cut it. But that’s a choice that’s being offered to us now.

Our citizens need to invest some time into understanding for themselves what’s at stake and what is being done now in the shadows, and not nearly enough of us have done so. I don’t pretend that’s easy to do, but since decisions being made (largely behind the scenes) affect each and every one of us, it seems to me that this awareness needs to be elevated a bit higher on the priority list, especially in view of the above-cited articles pointing out how uninformed so many of us are.

These are not easy or simple or inexpensive decisions, and while I’d like to think it’s a clear case of no-brainer, I understand the economic arguments against more spending and added debt. Having said this, this is a no-brainer! If we do not invest the money now, if we do not ask our federal officials to step in on our behalf and assume the responsibility for making the investments needed by all of us (Tea Partiers, Birthers, Truthers, Tenthers, liberals, conservatives, nitwits, socialists, media blowhards, and insert-your-belief-system-here members), then our current problems will seem like Christmas in years to come. Not the kind of happy holidays we’d wish on anyone.

When do we come to our collective senses and recognize that the ultimate bottom line right now and for the foreseeable future is not less?

What is the Vision going to be?

Sources:

[1] http://www.infrastructureusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/paaswell-robert1.pdf; Robert Paaswell, Ph.D., Executive Director, CUNY Institute for Urban Systems, speaking with Steve Anderson, Managing Director, InfrastructureUSA, 9/24/2010.

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/09/opinion/09herbert.html?_r=1&ref=opinion; Policy at Its Worst – By BOB HERBERT

[3] http://transitionvoice.com/2010/11/take-back-our-government/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TransitionVoice+%28Transition+Voice%29; Take Back Our Government by Lindsay Curren (quoting Debbie Cook, current board president of the Post Carbon Institute, and the former mayor of Huntington Beach, California)

[4] http://www.infrastructureusa.org/gridlock-sam-the-tea-party%E2%80%99s-bridge-to-beyond-nowhere/; Gridlock Sam: The Tea Party’s Bridge to Beyond Nowhere – From The No. 13 Line, a monthly blog by Samuel I. Schwartz and Ana Maria Lima

[5] http://www.infrastructurist.com/2010/10/22/new-report-shows-states-want-to-cut-infrastructure-spending/; New Report Shows States Want to Cut Infrastructure Spending by Eric Jaffe

[6] http://prospect.org/cs/articles?article=the_debate_we_should_be_having; The Debate We Should Be Having by Robert Kuttner – October 29, 2010

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/26/opinion/26herbert.html?_r=1&hp; The Corrosion of America By BOB HERBERT

“The question the world faces is no longer whether to reduce energy consumption, but how. Policy makers could choose to manage energy unintelligently (maintaining fossil fuel dependency as long as possible while making poor choices of alternatives, such as biofuels or tar sands, and insufficient investments in the far more promising options such as wind and solar). In the latter case, results will be catastrophic. Transport systems will wither (especially ones relying on the most energy intensive vehicles—such as airplanes, automobiles, and trucks). Global trade will contract dramatically, as shipping becomes more costly. And energy dependent food systems will falter, as chemical input and transport costs soar. All of this could in turn lead to very high long-term unemployment and perhaps even famine.

“However, if policy makers manage the energy downturn intelligently, an acceptable quality of life could be maintained in both industrialized and less-industrialized nations at a more equitable level than today; at the same time, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced dramatically. This would require a significant public campaign toward the establishment of a new broadly accepted conservation ethic to replace current emphases on never ending growth and over-consumption at both personal and institutional-corporate levels.” [1]

Crisis, or opportunity? The Great Recession has beaten and battered many of us. So too has it ushered in a political atmosphere that is rife not only with bitter, extreme partisanship. Much worse for all of us, we’re confronted with an almost endless stream of distortions and manipulations and outright lies that have left most of us searching for the nearest, fastest, and easiest exit. That’s not the solution.

We’re better than this. We need to show it, because we are going to need to be better in the years to come.

“The point is that the way we live together now, the way we govern ourselves, the way we arrange our physical spaces and our commerce, the way we do economics and measure prosperity—all these have to be changed in creative ways if we want to achieve the goal of sustainable prosperity. All these changes require … wait for it … innovation. Innovations in the way we think, interact, and structure our lives require just as much imagination, intelligence, persistence, and funding as innovations in technology.” [2]

Crisis, or opportunity?

What is our vision and expectation for the future of this nation? What and how do we want our country and its citizens to be in the 21st century? We have to come to terms with the truth: the decline in oil production and availability that is Peak Oil will change everything … probably not next week or next year, but too soon as it is.

Business as usual cannot and will not be the option going forward. Revamping our entire industrial production system has innumerable components and facets, great complexity, and a very, very lengthy timeline for implementation. Every day we delay planning for and addressing the changes we’ll have no choice but to confront is another day down the road when we’ll be forced to unsuccessfully compact too much into too little; and every day will be one more day that other nations—principally China—move closer to a more sustainable energy future for themselves, supported by a 21st century infrastructure which so far most of our leaders have been both too timid to pursue vigorously and too ignorant to appreciate. We’ll have that much more catching up to do, with fewer tools and resources at our disposal.

Will that be our choice?

Everyone has an objection or a study or statistics to tell us exactly why we can do something, or exactly why not (the New Jersey Governor’s recent decision to cancel a vital rail/tunnel project being only one of many examples). We need to find a way to move past the viewpoints that largely govern only the short term, and think about what kind of a nation we want to be in the many years to come—industrially, socially, and politically—in an environment radically different from the one that got us here. In doing so, we must come to terms with the fact that most aspects of our lives are indeed going to be different … all the complaining and denying in the world notwithstanding. An insistence on things being the way they once used to be—whether you are for or against an issue—has to be overcome.

It’s going to take one great village to adapt to what the future holds for us. We’ll all have a say as to whether “different” turns out to be a positive experience, or a harmful one.

“The problem is, we’re facing an emergency, but we don’t have a critical mass of elected leaders willing to do anything about it (and one reason for that is that not enough of their constituents are willing to do anything about it). Overhauling our transportation, food, and energy-generation systems will take time and resources that the US doesn’t seem willing to invest.” [3]

We need more grown-ups in the room who will help us move past the narrow-minded ignorance of facts that governs too much of our political discourse, just as we need to try to find a way to convince those who manipulate fears for their own purposes that they too will suffer from the consequences of their own mindlessness in the face of a different world. It cannot be acceptable to dispute truth solely for the purposes of pursuing an agenda that will serve the few at the expense of the many, and the many need to come to terms with the fact that this is precisely what is being done now.

When we have one party’s leadership announcing that there is no longer a place for compromise in our political and public debates, and that their overriding goal is not to do what’s best for this country but to instead regain power for the sake of power first, we have bigger problems. We must learn to rely on our own intelligence rather than permit others to lead us down paths that will surely aid and abet the few at the expense of the many. We all need to be grown-ups.

“As Northwestern University’s David Gal and Derek Rucker recently documented in a paper titled “When in Doubt, Shout!,” many Americans respond to convention-challenging facts not by reevaluating their worldview. Shaken by an assault on their assumptions, many become more adamant in defense of wrongheaded ideas.” [4]

We’re better than that. We’ve already demonstrated so on countless occasions in the past. In a more complex world, the challenges will only grow greater. Do we grow greater with them, or do our fears win?

The honest answer is that we can no longer allow our justifiable fears cloud our vision about where we want to be as a nation in the years to come, as noble as that may sound.

This means taking a few moments to think, to reflect on the facts and the evidence before us, to understand even just a bit more about what the potential consequences might be about both our changing climate and the availability of easily accessible and relatively inexpensive fossil fuel resources. We have more than enough information available, so let’s no longer allow a doubt here and there to serve as the deciding factor. Perfect knowledge or perfect proof or perfect guarantees are not the goals.

Then, we must decide that we need to be better, and that we can be. Giving in to narrow-minded prejudices and fears helps no one. It may be an easier path to negotiate, it may alleviate psychological concerns, it may serve as a balm to the many fears we feel as though we cannot control, but in the end it will only harm us more. Just how big a crisis do we want to expose ourselves to before we start taking action?

We will get what we deserve. Let’s all hope that we come to a better definition of a better future. We can lament the presence of all the Democratic and Republican idiots in government, but let’s remember who voted them in, who makes the choices to ignore facts when they intrude on narrow ideology, and who encourages more of this by their silence and tacit support. Let’s be better because we can be and we are. Let’s not allow this mindless group-think to harm us any more than it already has.

Yes, the changes will be great, and yes, it is human nature to prefer the comfort of continuity in the face of great change. That fear (understandably) motivates many today. But the problem is that our fears and denial of the facts won’t prevent change, it will only delay dealing with it, and it will make dealing with it that much worse for that many more of us. Not exactly the solution we would prefer, and (I hope) not the conditions we would want to leave to our children and grandchildren to deal with.

Life is always moving forward, and the more we dig in our heels to resist change or to deny what we must address—all the while watching Life move past us—the more internal struggles we create for ourselves. Argue for limitations and doubts and fears and you win! That cycle quickly takes on a life of its own, making us feel all the more helpless and dependent on others upon whom we hope we can trust. We can’t let the facts get away from us any longer, clouded as they have become by distortion and ideology and selfish pursuits.

Let’s decide differently this time. Change is going to happen. Do we lead or follow?

Go out and vote tomorrow as if your future depends on it, and think about what kind of a nation we want to be. It’s going to matter … a lot.

Sources:

[1] http://www.postcarbon.org/blog-post/164666-uttering-the-c-word; Uttering the “C” Word, Oct 23, 2010 by Asher Miller (from the conclusion of Richard Heinberg’s Searching for a Miracle)

[2] http://www.energybulletin.net/node/51627; Why Bill Gates is wrong – Published 02/17/2010 by Grist

[3] http://scienceblogs.com/thepumphandle/2010/10/transportation_food_and_electr.php; Transportation, Food, and Electricity Systems Not Well Prepared for Peak Oil. Posted on: October 18, 2010 by Liz Borkowski

[4] http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/feature/2010/10/29/sirota_stupidity_stupid/index.html; It’s the stupidity, stupid. Two new academic studies suggest all roads lead to ignorance By David Sirota