Saturday, May 31, 2008

Market Logic

The WSJ reports that oil exports from top producing nations have continued to drop, even as the price of crude has shot up dramatically. Their assessment: it is "a shift that defies traditional market logic and looks set to continue."

"Traditional market logic" suggests that where prices rise and demand is constant, more of the demanded product will be produced, bringing supply and demand into equilibrium. However, the opposite is taking place: supply continues to drop. Again, the WSJ: "Fresh data from the U.S. Department of Energy show the amount of petroleum products shipped by the world's top oil exporters fell 2.5% last year, despite a 57% increase in prices, a trend that appears to be holding true this year as well."

Even if "traditional market logic" does not seem to be working, Mr. Market is indeed telling us something: the price of oil is rising because it appears that there is less of it. The logic - if not "traditional" - that IS working is that we are experiencing higher prices due to less supply. "Traditional" market logic appears to be based on the belief - or fantasy - that because something is in demand, it will appear. The actual "logic" at work is that once when supplies become constrained, prices will inexorably rise. That the traditional "logic" is not working may puzzle some, but only if one believes that the market can actually create something. It is simply not "traditional" because it's something we haven't seen before. And, it's likely that what is referred to here as "traditional" logic - rising supplies to meet any demand - only applies when there are ample supplies of energy. Going forward we're likely to see a different kind of market logic - a logic of less, not more.

This new logic suggests different sorts of behaviors than one's we're accustomed to seeing. There is growing evidence of "virtuous" behavior among Americans, cutting back and using less. Of course, this contributes to an ongoing economic downturn: the "virtue" of the citizenry is the consequence of want. Good habits may form, but at the moment choices for smaller cars and more public transportation, as well as fewer purchases of various foreign-made plastic products, are likely to be evanescent if higher energy costs don't persist.

We are seeing the rise of other behaviors as well - ones decidedly less virtuous, and more likely to increase as we become poorer. There are rising incidences of gas theft - including even used cooking grease - or even taking to the streets in Europe, giving rise to anxiety and concern in world capitals that permanently rising oil prices could lead to severe political unrest. Everyday the newspapers are revealing new ways that higher fuel prices translate into economic and ultimately political stress, and the sanguinity of our reliance upon "traditional market logic" - i.e., the belief that if we want it, it will appear - appears less a sound economic presupposition than a touching if naive and dangerous faith.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

Memorial

Etymology:
Middle English, from Latin memorialis, from memoria memory
Date:
14th century

1 : serving to preserve remembrance : commemorative
2 : of or relating to memory



From "The State of the Union Address," President James Earl Carter, 1980


...The overwhelming dependence of the Western democracies on oil supplies from the Middle East... demands the participation of all those who rely on oil from the Middle East and who are concerned with global peace and stability. And it demands consultation and close cooperation with countries in the area which might be threatened.

Meeting this challenge will take national will, diplomatic and political wisdom, economic sacrifice, and, of course, military capability. We must call on the best that is in us to preserve the security of this crucial region.

Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.


Andrew Bacevich, 2006:


Carter gives the so-called malaise speech, I think, in July '79. The Russians invade Afghanistan in December '79. Then comes Carter's State of the Union Address in January 1980 in which he, in a sense, recants, abandoning the argument of July and saying, by God, the Persian Gulf is of vital interest to the United States and we'll use any means necessary in order to prevent somebody else from controlling it. To put some teeth in this threat he creates the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, which sets in motion the militarization of U.S. policy that has continued ever since. So, July 1979 to January 1980, that's the pivotal moment that played such an important role in bringing us to where we are today. But of course we didn't understand that then -- certainly I didn't. In July 1979, Carter issued a prescient warning. We didn't want to listen. So we blew it.

Fast forward to 2006, and President Bush is telling us, thank you very much, that we're addicted to oil. I heard [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi on the radio over the weekend saying that the Democrats now have a plan to make us energy independent by 2020. She's lying through her teeth. There's no way anybody can make us energy independent by then. We needed to start back in 1979, if not before. Even to achieve independence from Persian Gulf oil will be an enormously costly, painful process that none of the politicians in either party are willing to undertake. Gas is now roughly $3 a gallon. I heard some guy on a talk show the other day say: "Whaddya think we should do? I think we should all park our cars on the Interstate and stop traffic until the government does something." What does he actually want the government to do, I wondered? Conquer another country?




To fallen soldiers let us sing
Where no rockets fly nor bullets wing
Our broken brothers let us bring
To the Mansions of the Lord
No more bleeding, no more fight
No prayers pleading through the night
Just divine embrace, eternal light
In the Mansions of the Lord
Where no mothers cry and no children weep
We will stand and guard though the angels sleep
Through the ages safely keep
The Mansions of the Lord

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Update from the Morons

Mr. Manzi, in a response to a response, humbly suggested it might be worth it to check in with some "morons" who might know something about petroleum production, rather than relying on the word of a highly credentialed professor of Government (I think that's what's called sarcasm. Though I do sympathize with, and share his distrust of, highly credentialed academics). He wrote, "Since I am not a petroleum geologist, I decided to check in with those morons who have actually studied this question. Apparently, Professor Deneen did not bother to read the links I provided to the forecasts from the DOE (estimates peak oil sometime in the 'middle of the current century'), the International Energy Agency (only forecasts out to 2030, with rising production through that date) or OPEC (only forecasts out to 2030, with rising production through that date). So, what if we thought we would reach peak in 2050 (42 years from now), would that change what we should do? How about 2100?"

Well, if we assume that OPEC just gives bogus numbers - and we ought to, if the word of another "moron" like energy expert Matthew Simmons (of VP Cheney's 2001 Energy Commission) is to be believed, then that leaves us with only a few other morons cited by Manzi. According to stories in both the NYT and the WSJ today about one of of his expert "morons" - the IEA - they are in the process of significantly revising their figures.

According to the Wall Street Journal,

The latest supply worries arose after reports Thursday that the International Energy Agency, based in Paris, was considering reducing its assessment of the long-term world supply of crude oil after a study of depletion rates at the world’s 400 biggest fields.

“Clearly this is the issue we have had for a while of an increased deficit in consumption versus production,” said John Kilduff, energy analyst at MF Global in New York. “That’s produced this creep up in the rise in oil prices. The market gets hit on a daily basis.”

The energy agency has long forecast a slow but steady increase in production that would keep pace with demand. Output was projected to reach 116 million barrels a day in 2030, from 87 million barrels a day now.

“We are conducting a major study,” Fatih Birol, the agency’s chief economist, said in an interview Thursday, “and we are going to revise our oil supply prospects.”

“We don’t know the results yet,” he added, which will be conducted “project by project and field by field.”

“But there are difficulties in expanding production,” he said, and the World Energy Outlook 2008 — which will be published in November — will take that into account. The I.E.A. has expressed concerns for some time that the growth of new supplies may not keep pace with demand as oil companies struggle to find new sources of oil.


So, in light of these concerns, I guess I might ask a similar question: "So, what if we thought we would reach peak now or very soon, would that change what we should do? How about 2005?" (that's the date that has been suggested by Kenneth Deffeyes, petroleum geologist and professor emeritus at Princeton University - I guess another moron).

Interesting times.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Age of Globalization

Three news items of note:

First,

David Tice, [Manager of "The Prudent Bear" Fund], says the Standard & Poor's 500 Index may tumble 40 percent during the next 12-24 months as the credit crisis undermines the economy, bankrupts households and companies and whacks profits. The drop would be worse than the 37 percent plunge in the index from 2000 through 2002.

Tice predicts U.S. equities will enter a bear market that may exceed the 15-year slump from 1965 to 1980. Moreover, he says if the Fed and Wall Street don't break their addiction to easy credit, the economy will eventually crash in a depression -- a condition marked by reduced purchasing power, unemployment and corporate failures.

The U.S. can't continue to inflate bubbles in stocks, real estate and other assets without crippling the financial system, Tice says.

``We've become a country of drunken sailors'' he says, snapping his fingers as he makes his point. ``If you spend, spend, spend, there are going to be consequences to that -- you can't borrow your way to prosperity.''

Even so, the turmoil has been good for Prudent Bear... Prudent Bear, which has $1.1 billion in assets, has returned 11 percent from June 30, 2007, to May 20, beating the 6 percent decline in the S&P 500.


Second,
AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, the world's largest carrier, said it will cut ``thousands'' of jobs as it slashes U.S. capacity and retires as many as 85 jets to blunt surging fuel prices and slowing demand.

AMR plunged the most since 2003 in New York trading, slicing its market value in half since the start of this year to $1.53 billion. The carrier also added a $15 fee to check one bag, the first in the U.S. with such a charge.

Chopping domestic seating by 12 percent ``is the right and necessary thing for American to do with oil at $130,'' said Doug Runte, managing director at RBS Greenwich Capital in Greenwich, Connecticut. The move will help American boost fares, he added.


Third,
High gas prices have driven a Warren County farmer and his sons to hitch a tractor rake to a pair of mules to gather hay from their fields. T.R. Raymond bought Dolly and Molly at the Dixon mule sale last year. Son Danny Raymond trained them and also modified the tractor rake so the mules could pull it.

T.R. Raymond says the mules are slower than a petroleum-powered tractor, but there are benefits.

"This fuel's so high, you can't afford it," he said. "We can feed these mules cheaper than we can buy fuel. That's the truth."

And Danny Raymond says he just likes using the mules around the farm.

"We've been using them quite a bit," he said.

Brother Robert Raymond added, "It's the way of the future."

(h/t, Caleb Stegall)

Again, we should recall Wendell Berry's question to a group of graduating college seniors last year:

"What more than you have so far learned will you need to know in order to live at home? (I don’t mean “home” as a house for sale.) If you decide, or if you are required by circumstances, to live all your life in one place, what will you need to know about it and about yourself? At present our economy and society are founded on the assumption that energy will always be unlimited and cheap; but what will you have to learn to live in a world in which energy is limited and expensive? What will you have to know – and know how to do – when your community can no longer be supplied by cheap transportation? Will you be satisfied to live in a world owned or controlled by a few great corporations? If not, would you consider the alternative: self-employment in a small local enterprise owned by you, offering honest goods or services to your neighbors and responsible stewardship to your community?
Even to ask such questions, let alone answer them, you will have to refuse certain assumptions that the proponents of STEM and the predestinarians of the global economy wish you to take for granted."

Our globalization free market predestinarians assume that the market always and forever giveth; what of the prospect that it taketh away?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Guvment

"Call this a guvment! A man can't get his rights in a guvment like this. Sometimes I've a mighty notion to just leave the country for good and all."

--Pap Finn


Much umbrage has been taken in certain quarters, and there is a widespread belief among many, at the suggestion that Guvment should be charged with pursuing certain ends by coercive means (including taxation, incentives and legislation). In the view of many, such coercion represents a limitation on our freedom - particularly our freedom of consumption or liberty of bodies - and should be discouraged so that we can allow the flourishing of the free market and the free choice of individuals.

This argument (notwithstanding all of its simplifications here) is specious. The Guvment is constantly intervening in our market system, helping certain outcomes and hindering others. We may disagree with particular ways it intervenes, but only the most optimistic libertarian "spontaneous order" fundamentalist believes that a political, economic and social order can exist without government (and yes, I have met a few of those).

A good deal of the current order is the result of the partnership of large scale industrial enterprises and Guvment. Many policies favor companies that engage in economies of scale of national and international scope. The U.S. system has had a long tradition, one that spans party lines, of supporting what Lincoln and others called "internal improvements" - canals, railroads, roads, airports, as well as telegraph, telephone, internet, etc. - to expand commerce among and between the States as well as internationally. The growth of Guvment and the scale of the economy increased together, constantly in tandem. It could be argued that this is simultaneously the logic of market capitalism that requires a strong state (of course, a liberal state) in order to expand with firm expectations of stability and enforcement of laws and contracts, and it is the logic of the Constitutional order (modified and interpreted increasingly so along the way), which was designed in significant part to support this economic logic (as Antifederalists saw on their first reading).

We have seen recently that the Guvment is an essential partner in the operation of a "free" market - the Fed's intervention and support for the financial system (not only banks, but now investment firms) was only the most visible way that we have seen what is otherwise the constant presence of Guvment in our markets. Another good example is that of the Bush administration's significant regulatory activity in striking down various State regulations in areas such as auto emissions, environmental impact, and food safety, with the aim of creating uniform regulation in these and other areas across the nation for the sake of convenience and efficiency of industry. This from a party that has, for over half a century, rhetorically defended Federalism, localism, and the use of the States as "laboratories." Both parties defend greater centralization and homogenization when it suits the particular ox they don't wish to be gored.

The guvment puts more than a finger on our economic scale - without its constant intervention through regulation, legislation and enforcement, we would not have the system that we call "the free market." It is specious even to suggest that within the legislative and regulatory boundaries there is a great deal of economic freedom, since the very type of economic activity that will occur will be significantly defined by those bounds. Without the legal definition of a corporation as a "person," our economic activity would be very different. The growth of corporations has in turn resulted in extraordinary influence over our guvment. In important respects, the two are now so deeply intertwined that it's difficult to think of either of them as separate from one another. We see this in the fields of finance, agriculture, defense, retailing, etc. - a significant public policy preference for economies of scale (recall, it was official government policy when Earl Butz told farmers, "Get Big or Get Out.") and against more stable local forms of local economic activity. The larger point is that guvment is always involved in the economy, influencing its direction and activities in one way or another. The fundamental debate is not whether it should do so, but how and to what end.

What is important, then, is not whether guvment is involved - it is finally to what end. And our current end is growth and expansion of the modern project of the human mastery of nature. When we debate over guvment involvement in the market, we obscure the nature of the debate - whether this is the appropriate or sole goal of a society. I would submit that it is a deeply flawed goal - sharing the view of Aristotle that a proper economy is cognizant of limits to moneymaking in the name of fundamental human goods of which prosperity is a part, but only a part. Those goods include healthy and stable communities which are both formed by culture and in which cultures are maintained and preserved; a sound culture that inculcates central human virtues and that is ably passed on from one generation to the next; a culture that makes and keeps good families; a culture that inculcates the very virtues that will be necessary for a good, humane, and moral economy (one that avoids the abuses that we have recently seen in our financial markets); a culture that strongly emphasizes a sense of gratitude and obligation between generations; a culture that encourages stewardship, conservation and fidelity; and perhaps above all, a culture that reins in and chastens our eternal temptation toward Promethean or sinful self-aggrandizement, that teaches and enforces limits, that calls to our mind our flaws, and that does not allow us to lose sight of our fundamental condition of being dependent upon one another. A further good is our ability to act in concert with one another to achieve and maintain such a culture and polity - citizenship as shared and mutual governance, which goes far beyond our current conception as citizenship as suffrage.

This general form of a polity is a legitimate end of guvment, but it is one that is now largely rejected in our own society in the name of individual liberation from such culture - on the Right, in the name of economic liberty and unlimited growth, and on the Left, in the name of personal autonomy. Because we are so often engaged in the discrete political battles of our day - and I wouldn't suggest that they don't matter, for they do - nevertheless, we easily lose sight of the deeper similarities between our two main Parties, parties that are both defenders of what John Stuart Mill indicated was actually one Party - the Party of Progress. In our current society there are few defenders of what he identified as the other Party, the Party of Tradition. Mill was a severe critic of this latter Party, inasmuch as it discouraged what he called "experiments in living" and the obstruction of our experience of ourselves as "progressive beings." The Party of Tradition, he suggested, held the view that humanity had a certain kind of nature and end, and thereby sought in various instances to limit or restrict activities that it viewed as contradictory to that nature and end. He was particularly scornful toward traditional religion that sought to restrain our acquiescence to our appetites: he viewed "Calvinism" - and any religion, including Roman Catholicism - which could not be included in the "Party of Progress" as pessimistic and restrictive, and therefore an entity in the modern polity that could not be tolerated.

Among my students, and more broadly in the culture at large, Mill is widely admired and embraced, whether by self-described people on the Left or Right alike. All are variously attracted to his stirring libertarian defense of the individual (they quickly become less enamored, the Left when I point out the logic of his assumptions that leads to a justification of imperialism, the Right when I point out his equally stirring defense of communism). In that initial positive reaction (e.g., not only do my colleagues on the Left adore Mill, but they readily purchase the Collected Writings of Mill from Liberty Fund press, by reputation a conservative organization which published Mill's works) one sees that we live in a time largely defined by one party. That is, we are not truly capable as a society of debating over legitimate ends, because very few of us are even able to articulate any alternatives.

Until we are able to begin to articulate, even see as possible, some of these alternatives, we can barely begin to think of actual distinctions in policy. Many if not most policy debates today take place within the context of a broad and general agreement that economic growth is the ultimate end of policy. If we began to bring in other human goods that could be considered legitimate - ones that might at times lead to less economic growth - it would be possible to debate some actual policy alternatives. It would be possible to consider policies that would encourage and defend local economic and communal forms of life, rather than what occurs in our current political arrangement, which is almost always to their detriment. Nor is it simply a matter of arguing that we can achieve more robust local forms by reducing the size of Guvment (particularly Federal government). While I would dearly love for this to happen in some nearly unimaginable future, in the meantime one of the main challenges for such local forms are the immense concentrations of power among private entities, corporations in particular. Government had much to do with their ascent; it will have to be involved in their restraint. Policies should be conceived - with all due awareness of unintended consequences - that will strengthen local communities. Such policies would not, and should not, be heavy-handed - much can be achieved through incentives, tax policy, and regulation of just the sort that now advantages large actors with little or no loyalty to specific places. It's not a matter of government illegitimately engaging in influencing the "free" market - it already does that, giving lie to the notion that there is anything actually called the "free market" - but of seeking a different end. It's time to put aside the canard that such intervention would represent a fundamental shift in the relationship of government and economics. Hogwash.

There is a legitimate debate to be had. It cannot be had in our current state of ignorance, however, because we are largely incapable of considering whether "liberty" as we currently define it (largely the absence of restraint) is even debatable. We have resources, however, even within our own tradition - broadly in the West, including Aristotle and Aquinas, Burke and Chesterton, and in America, including the Antifederalists, Hawthorne and Melville, Orestes Brownson, Henry Adams, Jonathan Edwards, Santayana and Royce, the Southern Agrarians, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Christopher Lasch, Alasdair MacIntyre and Wendell Berry, among others, who help us see that there are alternatives that we currently do not consider (in spite of our vapid self-congratulation about our "diversity"). Such authors allow us to see that what is at issue is not "guvment" vs. our liberty, but a different conception of liberty altogether - one in which, ultimately, we govern ourselves by governing our appetites, and in so doing become ourselves a government, a democracy of citizens (not "consumers") enacting laws that we impose upon ourselves with an appropriate and chastened acceptance of limits and humility.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Til Death

The California gay marriage decision has received plenty of commentary, and the world hardly needs another. One particularly striking implication, noted by both E.J. Dionne and Joe Knippenberg, is that the Court's decision renders untenable the "moderate" stance of approving domestic partnerships but disallowing marriage. Courts, as usual, circumvent the messy imperfection of politics to force all-or-nothing outcomes, thereby increasing polarization throughout the electorate. And, ironically enough, as Bill Kristol noted today, the decision will probably hurt the Obama candidacy.

However, few have noticed that the Court's logic really contradicts the basic grounds for marriage. My particular concern is the basis of the California State Supreme Court decision:

"The constitutionally based right to marry properly must be understood to encompass the core set of basic substantive legal rights and attributes traditionally associated with marriage that are so integral to an individual’s liberty and personal autonomy that they may not be eliminated or abrogated by the Legislature or by the electorate through the statutory initiative process. These core substantive rights include, most fundamentally, the opportunity of an individual to establish — with the person with whom the individual has chosen to share his or her life — an officially recognized and protected family possessing mutual rights and responsibilities and entitled to the same respect and dignity accorded a union traditionally designated as marriage."

To my mind, what's most striking about the Court's decision is the language of the inviolability of "individual liberty and personal autonomy." These are the legal and Constitutional grounds on which a decision about the basis of marriage are being grounded. On the basis of such grounds, can there really be marriage at all, at least in a form that is worthy of defense? Aren't we really talking about an advantaged tax and property arrangement, one that can and should be altered at the will and inclination of the individual's "liberty and autonomy"? It is really nothing other than the contractual partnership defended in Locke's Second Treatise, sans the children (or at least conceived by the couple in question). And doesn't it permit any possible form of coupling, including ones not limited to couples (e.g., polygamy, etc., between consenting adults?)

Consider some of Wendell Berry's writings on marriage - certainly among the most articulate on the matter - and compare them to the language of the California Supreme Court:

"Lovers must not, like usurers, live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another and back to the community. If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their own behalf and on its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. These lovers, pledging themselves "until death," are giving themselves away, and they are joined by this as no law or contract could ever join them. Lovers, then, "die" into their union with one another as a soul "dies" into its union with God. And so here, at the very heart of community life, we find not something to sell as in the public market but this momentous giving. If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing - and our time is proving this is so." ("Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community," pp. 137-8).

Marriage is the sacramental form of self-sacrifice and self-denial upon which all societies must ultimately be based. No society can continue into the future without the willingness and ability of adults to govern their own personal and selfish inclinations for the sake of a future generation. It is the fertile training ground in which such sacrifice and "self-dying" is practiced and always imperfectly achieved - and, one hopes, passed on to the young. It is the oath a current generation makes to future generations.

Once marriage is defended on the grounds of "individual liberty and autonomy," it may as well not be defended at all. In this respect, the victory of proponents of gay marriage is a further expansion of individualism (and, of course, the real prize is "recognition," the Hegelian marker of modern autonomy - it's not enough to be free, one has to receive positive, official confirmation of one's freedom and worth). With the advance of the logic of modern liberalism and free-market ideology, marriage has been increasingly justified by many heterosexuals in just the manner that gay marriage is being legally advanced. Many would seem to want to close the barn door after the horse has escaped, or at least a good way out of the door.

Would gay marriage proponents be willing to step up in defense of the elimination or serious truncation of no-fault divorce provisions, and in support of "covenant marriage" counseling, efforts to reduce sex before marriage, the legal discouragement of divorce, and more generally "the dying of the self" for the other against the grain of our time that valorizes "individual freedom and autonomy?" For that matter, would a vast number of heterosexuals? Until then, we are debating at the edges and missing the heart of the matter.

No Prob

A person named Jim Manzi over at NRO's The Corner is quite irritated by Peak Oil "hysteria," reminding us - rightly - that oil production's "peak" has been predicted at various times in the past, and yet didn't to come to pass in accordance with those flawed prognosticators. His advice - don't worry, be happy.

It amazes me that anyone could be so obtuse about the nature of the situation, once one has really given it any thought. Manzi, and others like him, doesn't deny that we are facing a future of energy constraints - he simply says we don't know when this will take place, so there's nothing we can nor should do about it. However, implicitly he and others like him recognizes that it WILL happen, so the "don't worry, drive happy" stance is tantamount to child neglect. It's saying, let the future worry about our irresponsibility. It's hard to think of a civilization that has been based on such an infantile premise.

A respondent (and reader of this humble "blawg"!) to Manzi's post at "The American Scene" really says it better - and certainly more succinctly - than I'm able:

"...It seems kind of beside the point whether Peak Oil is upon us now or twenty years in the future. There is a fundamental logic there that shouldn’t be shrugged off. It is simply a fact that we have designed huge chunks of our country around the premise that gasoline will be abundant and cheap. (I’m from Indiana, and let me tell you, if you don’t have a car in Indiana you ain’t going anywhere!) When that abundant and cheap era ends, we will have to find a new way of living our lives. I’m sorry, but twenty years does not sound like enough time to begin rearranging those places in our country that most need the rearranging. Especially when there is zero political will to do anything right now. I tend to share Deneen’s belief that we will have to get to Peak Oil, and beyond, before any meaningful changes are made precisely because we will be forced to. The problem is, those changes will have to be made during a different era, one of expensive and unreliable energy. Deneen’s basic premise seems pretty sound, that we are enjoying a relative life of ease while our children’s lives (or their children) are going to be infinitely more difficult."

This is the actual implication of today's column by Paul Krugman, who of late has really jumped on the peak oil bandwagon (and is one of the few places in the MSM where the issue even gets a mention). In a column entitled "Stranded in Suburbia," Krugman discusses some of the implications of peak oil and energy constraint, particularly the need to own smaller cars and drive less (he has yet to catch on to its implications on "globalization," its impact on the trucking industry, and its agricultural implications, etc. He seems oblivious to the implications of a no-growth economy for the financial markets. But you can only do so much in a short column, and he's coming along). He points to Europe as an example of a living arrangement that uses far less oil than the U.S., and nevertheless does well economically. He suggests that America will come - by necessity - to resemble the German model. This is something I suggested not too long ago, and for which I took some significant heat. Americans don't like being told that the Europeans are doing some things better - especially not "conservative" Americans.

Based on the lower patterns of energy consumption in Europe, Krugman opines "I have seen the future, and it works." But, Krugman should read the likes of Manzi: it is the mainstream view, and certainly that of the "economists," that nothing needs to be done until we receive the proper price signals. As Manzi's commentator points out, we will wait until energy is constrained to begin changing our behavior. However, if Europe is to be our future exemplary living arrangement (one that closely resembles the vision of "the urban transect" advanced by New Urbanists and some Catholic natural law thinkers such as Philip Bess), we should note 1. Europe has kept prices "artificially" high for years - since the gas shocks of the 1970s - through higher taxation, which it uses to fund an excellent public transportation system, among other things; and more importantly, 2., Europe never changed its basic living patterns as a result (along with smart zoning regulations that permit mixed use areas as well as limit building outside town and city limits).

Manzi suggests that we can wait until the last possible moment - when peak oil is upon us, which we will not know until we can compile several years of data about worldwide oil production - and then begin to make adjustments. However, if we KNOW it will be upon us at some point - and many reputable geologists believe it will be soon, soon, but regardless, it will come - then shouldn't we use whatever energy bounty we have now to prepare for that eventuality? We will need to begin a rather significant project of infill of existing living arrangements, particularly the suburbs, to achieve the necessary population density to justify public transportation. We will need to build high speed trains between the more far-flung cities of the U.S., in anticipation of the demise of the airline industry (if Manzi doesn't think they are done for, then he hasn't been reading the papers.) We will need to encourage more local forms of economic activity, particularly agriculture. Not only will it be more expensive to drive, but even maintaining our current huge investments in the automobile infrastructure will prove increasingly untenable. For instance, the cost of paving our millions of miles of petroleum-based asphalt roads will prove unaffordable.

In short, we will need to invest huge sums to prepare for a way of life that will be significantly different than the way we live now. And people like Manzi are saying, "we don't know WHEN it will happen, so don't sweat it." What we will find is that once we begin to sweat, we won't have the means - the energy and the attendant funds - to change very much. In the meantime, we WILL use the existing surplus and still cheap energy to continue the great American wasteland - the build-out to nowhere, an economy premised upon an infinite future of cheap transportation, an agricultural system based on energy inputs that far exceed calorie outputs, and the destruction of arable farmland for endless tracts of McMansion temples to the modern ego. The petroleum reservoirs of the earth were not formed for any one of us, not even those with the most money. However, we act as if it is ours alone to use and exploit without thought or reflection on the implications for future generations. The future will suffer as a result of our profligacy and unwillingness to act responsibly.

I'll say it again - it amazes me that we have come to a pass in this nation's history when someone like Manzi would be called a "conservative." To be oblivious of the implications of our current actions in the name of an ever better future is the hallmark of progressive liberalism.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Saudi Arabia to U.S.: Drop Dead

Dubya went begging, cowboy hat in hand, for the sheiks to open their spigots for all us poor Americans. Their answer: shove off. Some superpower.

An interesting question arises, however: whether the Saudis CAN increase production. Everyone assumes that they can increase oil flows with the flip of a switch, doubtless based on their stated reserves. However, based on the research of Matthew Simmons and Stuart Saniford, there is substantial evidence that Saudi Arabian oil production has begun to go into decline. As Simmons has stated, if Saudi Arabia is in decline, then ipso facto the world has reached peak oil.

It's difficult to say of course, and only the benefit of hindsight will tell us whether this is the case. It is and it is not in Saudi Arabia's interest to allow the price of oil to remain at these historically high levels (today broaching $127 per barrel). Given that they are keenly aware that their reserves are finite, it is in their interest to get as much lucre as possible for what they can still pump. However, at a high enough price, the world economy will decline and, subsequently, so too the price of oil. Further, high prices will only stoke greater demand for alternative fuels. Saudi Arabia would likely only be willing to accept these latter conditions if they had little control over current high prices due to constrained supplies.

When we await our alternative energy future, we often do so with current assumptions of the existence of plentiful energy and accompanying wealth. However, investment resources will dry up as quickly as the empty petroleum wells in Saudi Arabia if those assumptions do not pertain. We saw how quickly billions of dollars disappeared with the flash of a computer screen during the credit crisis during last summer and in recent months. While we wait for market signals to kick in, the Saudis are enjoying the remaining years of their party while we willfully cling to the belief that the solution lies in their simply letting us buy more of their oil. Because we want it, it must be there (this is the most pervasive and generalized form of faith of our age, infecting people on the Left and Right alike). Just so, we demonstrate that the wages of gluttony is a loss of freedom and abject humiliation at the feet kings from the likes of whom we once declared independence.

Graduation Weekend at Georgetown

So many happy, expectant faces. Visions of success, travel, adventure. Proud parents. Professors in robes, as if they profess their faith. The students are good kids, and have been taught well by their elders about a world that has existed for about 150 years and yet which increasingly seems fragile, tenuous, even fanciful. They have few resources, have been taught little that will stand them in good stead, for a world that will be different. It all seems a bit surreal to me. I wish them all well - and hope that their future will not feel like a mugging.




(h/t J.P.)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Jeremy Beer has called my attention to these lines from T.S. Eliot, in "The Idea of a Christian Society," written in 1939, nearly 70 years ago.

"We are being made aware that the organisation of society on the principle of private profit, as well as public destruction, is leading both to the deformation of humanity by unregulated industrialism, and to the exhaustion of natural resources, and that a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly. I need only mention, as an instance now very much before the public eye, the results of ‘soil-erosion’—the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale for two generations, for commercial profit: immediate benefits leading to dearth and desert. . . . [A] wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and . . . the consequence is an inevitable doom. For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanised, commercialised, urbanised way of life: it would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet."

Why was it possible for a renowned conservative to write such a thing over half a century ago, and now for such a statement - were it written today - doubtlessly to be reviled by conservatives who are deeply wedded to "organisation of society on the principle of private profit"? Certainly the Cold War was the intervening event that made possible, even necessary, the coalition - or fusion - between traditionalists and economic libertarians. Even as we can agree that Communism was a malevolent, pernicious, and false political dogma, can it be that one of its most enduring and lamentable legacies was this coalition in the West - in particular, the ascent of economic individualism over a healthy culture? If so, can we be so certain that we really did "win" the Cold War?

Certainly not if it turns out that Eliot was right - and growing evidence suggest that he was. We are indeed confronting alarming levels of topsoil erosion across the world, the result of the very efficiency of industrial production. Possessing the "wrong attitude" toward nature, we ultimately strip the world of any respect and sanctity, reflecting ultimately - as Eliot suggests - "a wrong attitude towards God." Or, as Berry has written, "if we understand that no artist - no maker - can work except by reworking the works of Creation, then we can see that by our work we reveal what we think of the works of God" ("Christianity and the Survival of Creation"). Our work today is one of profanation and ingratitude.

We are literally on the path to starvation because of the plenty we are producing. For starters, we will need to change our basic paradigm, as the assumptions of the above-linked article reveal:

"Organic farming methods also can reduce soil loss. [Such methods] have shown a marked increase in soil health, water retention and regrowth when organic methods are used rather than the traditional methods."

That is, organic farming is considered a new-fangled alternative to "traditional methods," i.e., industrial farming. I don't think I have to explain what's wrong with this formulation.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Peak Oil - Liberals vs. "Conservatives"

In a column yesterday, Paul Krugman discusses the widely held theory that the recent spike in oil prices is the newest financial "bubble." He entertains various possibilities and concludes that financial speculation is not the most fundamental basis of the rise in oil prices.

"The only way speculation can have a persistent effect on oil prices, then, is if it leads to physical hoarding — an increase in private inventories of black gunk. This actually happened in the late 1970s, when the effects of disrupted Iranian supply were amplified by widespread panic stockpiling.

"But it hasn’t happened this time: all through the period of the alleged bubble, inventories have remained at more or less normal levels. This tells us that the rise in oil prices isn’t the result of runaway speculation; it’s the result of fundamental factors, mainly the growing difficulty of finding oil and the rapid growth of emerging economies like China. The rise in oil prices these past few years had to happen to keep demand growth from exceeding supply growth."

In short, the rising cost of oil is due to rising demand and constant, even declining, supply.

What's most interesting about Krugman's column is his observation of the political reaction to the growing evidence of constrained oil supplies. He writes, "Traditionally, denunciations of speculators come from the left of the political spectrum. In the case of oil prices, however, the most vociferous proponents of the view that it’s all the speculators’ fault have been conservatives — people whom you wouldn’t normally expect to see warning about the nefarious activities of investment banks and hedge funds. The explanation of this seeming paradox is that wishful thinking has trumped pro-market ideology. After all, a realistic view of what’s happened over the past few years suggests that we’re heading into an era of increasingly scarce, costly oil."

The denial of the growing evidence of - yes - "peak oil" by commentators on the Right resembles their vociferous denial of global warming (more sophisticated responses now reveal that, all along, it wasn't the reality of global warming that bothered them; it was the implications. And they are daunting).

The same is true of the reaction on the Right about Peak Oil (in fairness, there's a good deal of techno-optimism on the Left as well; while the Right thinks there's plenty of oil - enough in ANWR to run our civilization for another century, it is implied - the Left thinks we're going to replace oil with algae and fairy dust.)

Krugman's column prompted Andrew Leonard over at Salon.com (their in-house Peak Oil man - h/t Joe Knippenberg) to post a smart column about "the peak oil culture wars," observing what should be obvious at this point - the debate isn't about the facts, it's about the implications. And, people on the Right - "fighting like caged rats" - don't want to entertain the possibility that all those "dirty Gaia-worshipping hippies might be right" - and worse still, we might have to change our behavior.

Writes Leonard:

"Partisan conservatives pooh-pooh peak oil (and human-caused climate change) because they think that to concede that these challenges are real and must be confronted is to acknowledge that greed is not always good, and that free market capitalism must be restrained, or at least tinkered with substantially. Peak oil and climate change are fronts in the culture wars, and to some conservatives, watching the price of oil rise as the Arctic ice melts, it might feel like being in Germany at the close of World War II, with the Russians advancing on one front while U.S.-led forces come from the other. The propositions that cheap oil is running out and the world is getting hotter -- as a result of our own activities -- threaten a whole way of life. The very idea that dirty Gaia-worshipping hippies might be right is absolute anathema.

"Given that many on the left also see peak oil and climate change as cultural battlefields, as weapons with which to assault enemies whose values they politically and aesthetically oppose (see James Kunstler), it's no wonder that some conservatives are fighting back like caged rats, or that they want to blame speculators for oil prices, or biased scientists for climate change."

My own view is that this debate is going to collapse as more people realize that our high oil prices are NOT the consequence of financiers or the evil oil companies stoking profits (all along, their production of oil is declining), but the cold hard facts of reality. The tired Left-Right consensus - one essentially designed to obscure that there is no real disagreement about whether a growth economy premised on an itinerant and rootless workforce is desirable - is going to collapse and something else will take its place. The great fear is that a new consensus will form that someone is to blame, and we have plenty of weapons to get what we want, or at least to distract us from our penury. The great possibility is that we will realize that a future of less driving, stable neighborhoods, greater localism, the reinvigoration of diverse local cultures isn't as bad as our kneejerk panic about impending change would lead us to believe. Surely this is something a "conservative" would not object to?

What may be most productive in coming years is to stop calling this cadre of economic libertarians - what we now call "the Right" or even conservatism - conservatives. There is nothing they want to conserve - nothing in the natural or moral ecology. They are rapacious exploiters who want to use every last natural and cultural reservoir for their own immediate profit - even at the price of leaving nothing for their children. Recall, it was Dick Cheney who said "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis all by itself for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." Probably true, but it's a damned good place to start, and we fool ourselves if we think we are not going to need substantial reservoirs of personal and political virtue in coming years.

Soon, if not soon enough, I predict, there will be a party of conservatives and a party of "live now'ers." Live now'ers have original sin on their side, and are likely to win a lot of votes until it's clear that the grasshopper was wrong and the ant was right. Then they will tell us it's time to get the guns. Are you sure that's the side you want to be on?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Y Reed Bukes?

Mark Bauerlein nails it - we're seeing the rise of "the Dumbest Generation." Will Tom Brokaw Jr. write a book about them? Will there be anyone left to read it?

A snippet:

Mr. Bauerlein presents a wealth of data to show that young people, with the aid of digital media, are intensely focusing on themselves, their peers and the present moment. YouTube and MySpace, he says, are revealingly named: These and other top Web destinations are "peer to peer" environments in the sense that their juvenile users have populated them with predictably juvenile content. The sites where students spend most of their time "harden adolescent styles and thoughts, amplifying the discourse of the lunchroom and keg party, not spreading the works of the Old Masters."

If the new hours in front of the computer were subtracting from television time, there might be something encouraging to say about the increasingly interactive quality of youthful diversions. The facts, at least as Mr. Bauerlein marshals them, show otherwise: TV viewing is constant. The printed word has paid a price – from 1981 to 2003, the leisure reading of 15- to 17-year-olds fell to seven minutes a day from 18. But the real action has been in multitasking. By 2003, children were cramming an average of 8½ hours of media consumption a day into just 6½ hours – watching TV while surfing the Web, reading while listening to music, composing text messages while watching a movie.

This daily media binge isn't making students smarter. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has pegged 46% of 12th-graders below the "basic" level of proficiency in science, while only 2% are qualified as "advanced." Likewise in the political arena: Participatory Web sites may give young people a "voice," but their command of the facts is shaky. Forty-six percent of high-school seniors say it's " 'very important' to be an active and informed citizen," but only 26% are rated as proficient in civics. Between 1992 and 2005, the NAEP reported, 12th-grade reading skills dropped dramatically. (As for writing, Naomi Baron, in her recent book, "Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World," cites the NAEP to note that "only 24% of twelfth-graders are 'capable of composing organized, coherent prose in clear language with correct spelling and grammar.' ") Conversation is affected, too. Mr. Bauerlein sums up part of the problem: "The verbal values of adulthood and adolescence clash, and to enter adult conditions, individuals must leave the verbal mores of high school behind. The screen blocks the ascent."


Faculty are constantly being pushed by administrators and their lackeys to incorporate more technology into their classroom "experiences." We are told to be electronically "with it," to promote online discussion, to increase opportunities to foster online communities and to use electronic interactive materials in lectures and discussions. It is implied that we should avoid circumstances where students are passive - such as during lectures (with JUST WORDS! The horror.... the horror....) or reading books. Anyone with half a brain knows that a lecture (at least a decent one) and a book (at least a decent one) is a remarkably interactive experience. However, it requires the hard work of attention and concentration, the ability to think, ponder, evaluate, criticize and incorporate even as the words continue. When we, the faculty, are told that we should liven up our classrooms with electronic bells and whistles, what we are really being told is to adjust ourselves to our students' shorter attention spans and the inability to concentrate for more than several nanoseconds on a line of thought or argument. Maybe we should meet our students more than halfway and just run our classes on Facebook. We could see which professors get "friended" the most!!

What is most alarming about the ascent of the electronic media is the utter decline of the book. Yes, our students read online, but what they mostly read is the parade of silliness on Facebook and MySpace. Few students read for the sake of reading, i.e., something that is not assigned. The passionate conversations about certain books some of us might remember having at 3 a.m. in the dormitories or on the campus lawn have given way to 24-hour glowing computer screens with entranced, solitary students in the reflected glare. If there is one thing we can do as educators, it's not to perfect our "assessment" metrics, nor to create more opportunities for "group learning," nor to jive up our class with another idiotic and mind-numbing PowerPoint presentation. No, the one thing we can do is to encourage our students to read good books and to talk about them with one another. It's an unsexy low tech option - too simple and difficult for our administrators to embrace - but the one thing needful on our campuses today.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

We'll Think Up Something

Our techno-optimists continue to make a major category mistake: when responding to concerns about peak oil production, inevitably they reply that "technology" will come to the rescue. We're just a few gadgets away from the Jetsons and Knight Rider. We'll think of something.

The thought seems not to have occurred to them that technology is not, and cannot create energy (I guess they were absent on the day Mr. Verdigris covered the Laws of Thermodynamics in Physics 101). Yes, perhaps technology can marginally assist in the retrieval and more efficient utilization of various energy forms, but its cheerleaders wholly overlook the essential fact that it is not finally technology that extracts energy, but energy that extracts energy. We've been lucky (or damned unlucky) the past 150 years to have an energy source that required almost no energy to extract. Put a straw in the ground and watch it bubble up. What we're finding now is NOT that we lack energy - there's plenty of various forms of energy in the world - but that it's damned expensive to collect and utilize it. Which is to say, we need more to get less. That's when we start complaining about how expensive everything is...

To put an even finer point on it: technology does not create energy; energy powers technology. Take energy out of the equation, and technology is the main character in a Jules Verne novel. Leonardo DaVinci knew how to design an airplane; he just didn't have fossil fuels to bring plans to life. We will continue to know how to fly airplanes; we just won't have enough fuel to do so. (I was in the Quad Cities of Illinois over the weekend - a very good time was had by all - and it was disclosed in the Rock Island Argus, newspaper of record, that the direct flight from Moline to Las Vegas was slated to cease operation. It is increasingly too expensive for airlines to fly to smaller airports, and increasingly too expensive for people to gamble when most discretionary income goes toward filling gas tanks. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Las Vegas is a city with no future. Ditto Phoenix and Albuquerque, among others).

Case in point: it's getting difficult to get valuable metals out of the ground (among them uranium - the substance that's supposed to replace petroleum) because of energy shortages. According to this story on Bloomberg, "Runaway growth in emerging markets that's squeezing world oil supplies has led to electricity shortages, cutting output of commodities needed for ever-rising demand. Platinum jumped to a record in January after mines in South Africa closed for five days as utilities rationed power. Cobalt gained 58 percent in the past year as production growth in the Democratic Republic of Congo was limited by electricity supply. 'There will be a sustained level of risk from power shortages in the commodities markets,' said Michael Lewis, London-based global head of commodities research at Deutsche Bank AG. `We are pricing bigger supply losses as a result.'" I.e., less energy means less ability to get stuff we want. Including energy.

My strong suspicion is that we are going to find that much of what we regard as our technological prowess was actually our ability to burn fuel ever more creatively. Technology has been a particularly glitzy form of energy use, but little else. We suppose that technology will create us more energy, when it's actually using it up at astounding rates. We will find the inexorable laws of "EROEI" - energy returned on energy invested - will limit how much technology we can utilize when energy becomes constrained. We've got lots of fancy devices for extracting minerals and metals from the earth, but those technologies are being "underutilized" because of energy shortages. We've got lots of airplanes to carry people from Moline to Las Vegas, but mobility is getting too expensive. We've got lots of tractors - some with GPS systems, I learned at the John Deere pavilion in Moline (since the acreage of industrial farms is so immense that farmers need to be guided by satellite to their houses at night), but not enough fertilizer to spread on the crops (<==Read this link. And buy seeds).

Earth to techno-optimists: technology isn't going to make something out of nothing - especially when you need to plug it in to do anything. It's helping bring on the shortages it won't solve. Time to wake up and smell the humus.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Borrowing from Hu to Pay Abdullah

As if we needed any further evidence of the financial foolishness of our nation: it's coming to people's attention that the forthcoming "rebate checks" that were approved several months ago by suspiciously cooperative politicians, in order to stimulate the economy, will in fact be going to OPEC to pay for higher fuel costs (or, indirectly, to farmers who, in turn, buy fertilizers and pesticides that are made primarily of fossil fuels). In the midst of a "war against terror," our government is sending cash to its citizenry that will be used to further enrich the autocrats of the Middle East, especially to that nation that provided the dominant number of footsoldiers who flew the planes into the buildings of New York and Washington. Do we suppose that none of our largesse will find its way to outfits like bin Laden's?

No less ironic is the fact that the Federal government will go further into debt to finance this little boondoggle for our Middle Eastern friends, primarily borrowing the funds from the Chinese and other Asian nations. Coming or going, we continue the one time gigantic firesale of America to nations that do not mean us well.

My favorite little tidbit from the Bloomberg story linked above: OPEC and WalMart will be in competition for the rebate dollars. But here again we fool ourselves if we think this is a real competition. WalMart buys the dominant amount of its products from China, who in turn purchases resins for the massive quantities of plastics it manufactures from - yes, you guessed it - OPEC. Either way, it's a win-win for the Saudis and the Chinese and an absolute disaster for our children, upon whom we'll be saddling the debt from our continued profligacy and adding to the pile of discardable plastic while burning through the remaining cheap energy that we'll be purchasing with the largesse from the government. Where's the outrage? We're too busy shopping to notice.

Horse Sense

There is much hand wringing today over the fate of Eight Belles, the filly who broke both ankles at the conclusion of Saturday's Kentucky Derby and who was euthanized on the track immediately following the conclusion of the race. Numerous commentators have criticized the sport for its inhumane mistreatment of the horses. It's a charge that I find difficult to credit so long as those critiques are limited to the high-profile deaths of beautiful horses like Eight Belles and Barbaro, while we continue to condone the massive and brutal mistreatment of "ordinary" animals like cows, pigs and chickens in our factory farming practices.



However, I could not help but be struck by several sentences in a column in today's Washington Post in which sports writer Andrew Beyer tries to excuse these high profile equine deaths as the consequence of a set of poor and lamentable developments in horse racing. Sports - like much of modern culture, including finance, schooling, and media - are driven by the bottom line, and above all by the demand to get results immediately no matter what the underlying or deferred costs. So, writes Beyer,

"In earlier eras, most people bred horses in order to race them, and they had a stake in the animals' soundness. By contrast, modern commercial breeders produce horses in order to sell them, and if those horses are unsound, they become somebody else's problem. Because buyers want horses with speed, breeders have filled the thoroughbred species with the genes of fast but unsound horses."

If you replaced every mention of the word "horse" in this passage with the word "mortgage" (along with a few other modifications), you could put this article on the front page of the Business section. Or, you could slightly alter the subject while retaining the basic sentiment and explain much about modern factory farming, professional sports, modern media, economics, and modern education. "Unsoundness" that is eventually someone else's problem is the order of the day.

And what lies at the heart of the problem? Well, too much money deriving from the resource that underlies modern civilization, for starters: "The Big Brown scenario is almost too easy to predict. He'll run brilliantly and be retired in the fall as his owners sell him for stud duty -- probably to a sheik." Countless sheiks now dominate the thoroughbred racing and breeding circuit. The excess wealth they have accumulated by virtue of their tents having been set up atop submerged oceans of petroleum now funds an endless and absurd cycle of breeding and racing, the point of which is to breed ever more fragile animals.

The most basic problem, however, is the ethic of getting something for nothing, or as little as possible. The demand for immediate return makes us willing to cut whatever corners - whether breeding animals whose limbs are so fragile that they easily break; or promoting a sports culture in general that turns a blind eye to the abuses to which athletes subject their own bodies in the name of ever tinier marginal improvements; or encouraging a financial culture that valorizes debt and externalization of costs - leading to a widening set of breakdowns as the rottenness becomes unavoidable. Eight Belles is a sad story, but the bigger story goes undetected amid our inability to see this as a symptom of a deeper and more pervasive problem at the heart of the logic of our civilization.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Unthinkable

Recently I've given a few talks at which I've discussed the basic rudiments of Hubbert's Peak, including the calculation of a number of leading geologists that we have already, or are currently on the verge of reaching, the worldwide peak of oil production, similar to what occurred in the United States in 1970/71. The first and immediate response of most listeners is to ask what we will use to replace these decreasing oil supplies. This response shows the depth of the problem we face.

For many, the instant response to the growing evidence that the era of cheap energy is over is to insist upon its replacement with something else. Anything short of that is simply unacceptable, even inconceivable. A few years ago, when I began reading and writing about this great challenge we face as a civilization, I assumed that if I - and many others - were able to show the evidence and implications of peak oil, that people would be awoken from their dogmatic slumber and we would at once begin to arrange that we live together more responsibly and demand that our leaders help us toward that end. What I find instead is the absolute demand that something else be found in order to ensure that nothing has to change. So fully defined are we by our profligate way of life that nothing short of its permanent continuation can be deemed acceptable.

I am asked: won't we simply have to produce more electricity?

I answer: doubtless. But where will it come from? We will be digging and burning more coal or digging and enriching more uranium. And, doubtless we will choose to remain oblivious to the costs of each in order to maintain our wasteful lives. We will, for instance, readily ignore the tremendous costs and dislocation that results from mountaintop removal. The electricity we will generate will provide power enough for innumerable distractions that will allow us to avoid acknowledging the harm and damage we are doing. Already we are entering an new era of soporific self-deception in which we call electricity (or better still, electric cars) "clean."



I am asked: won't we instead have to generate more electricity using uranium?

I answer: doubtless. But we will again ignore the costs upon local cultures that the ferocious race to extract ever-more valuable uranium from anywhere it can be found exacts. And we will again - as in the case of oil - seek to extract in full a non-renewable resource, leaving behind for our children a legacy of toxic and undisposable waste and a civilization that cannot be run on anything close to the order as we ran it.

I am asked: won't we instead have to seek unconventional sources of petroleum?

I answer: doubtless. We will extract everything we possibly can, even transforming the face of the earth into a living hell if it means we can continue to run a civilization of Dunkin Donuts, TGIFs and leaf blowers.



These immediate responses - the desperate wish to avoid, at all costs, the prospect of having to change our behavior - are the definite signs that we are not likely to change one iota until we have extracted every last possible form of energy that can be transformed into our active effort to control and master nature and to avoid the possibility of self-restraint. We do so thinking the alternative must be unthinkable, so awful and horrific to be unimaginable. A world built closer together, with greater stability of communities and requisite cooperation among neighbors in order to live, survive, and thrive, and absent the kinetic and kaleidoscopic activity of our age as well as the vast military empire needed to support and defend fuel supply lines - this is the prospect that we must avoid at all costs. We will accept ignorance of any atrocity we are committing in order to avoid an acceptance of limits, the forging of community and the reality of less. Of course, we only delay that day, and make it more likely that the transition to such a world will be violent, bloody and horrific. So long as we can power our IPODs just one more day...