A few more thoughts about energy. Sunday morning I had brunch with A-Stock, who told me an interesting anecdote about how a financial heavy had made a bet it the middle of the '70s energy crisis that fuel would be more expensive in the 1980s, and that losing this bet caused him to come to the realization that it's not wise to bet on increasing costs for energy.
This is connected in my head to the blurbs from a book Bill Gates "loves" called The Bottomless Well:
Humanity is destined to find and consume more energy, and still more, forever.
Fuels recede, demand grows... but logic ascends, and with the rise of logic we attain the impossibleâ€”infinite energy, perpetual motion and the triumph of power.
Emphasis is mine. This is magical thinking. It is the opposite of science, but it is reflective of a kind of thought that is pervasive among the establishment. I am talking about the particular kind of narrow-mindedness which is grounded in the refusal to acknowledge the possibility that our civilization (indeed our world order) may fail, recede or collapse. I'm an optimist, but I also hew to the laws of thermodynamics and treat as serious the lessons of history.
A people's ability to extract, transport and apply energy through systems is its ability to affect the universe. Buckminster Fuller explains all this quite well, though he was optimistic enough to frame this as an issue for the species rather than any particular nation or coalition.
The point is that increased energy costs, in the long run, mean a net decline in all aspects of civilization. This is inconceivable to people who are invested in the righteousness of the status quo. However, there's nothing indestructible about our current world system. There's very little that is sustainable about it either, and as they say, if you don't change the direction you're headed, you're liable to end up where you're going.
Now, I think there are a lot of options. In our conversation, A-Stock mentioned Oil Shale. Shale has been on the radar since the 1960s, but there are problems with its viability. Currently, there is an idea floating around that we can build lots of small (read: relatively safe) nuclear power plants in these semi remote areas where the shale is, use the plants' primary generation phase to power our electricity grid and then re-use the still high-temperature steam in a co-generation phase to process the oil shale and slake our thirst for petroleum.
It's so fucking crazy that it might work for about 100 years, but what we'll be left with is piles and piles of waste, both in terms of spent nuclear fuel and byproducts from the shale, which is much more dirty than refining crude oil. And in the end we're still working off a relatively small finite resource base. And it will cost a ton of money to set up.
I think we need to spend a ton of money on energy research and infrastructure. But I think we should invest in something that will last, that can be built on by future generations. This can happen through a national "new deal" type program, or it could happen in a more decentralized fashion by establishing a marketplace which responded to environmental and human costs and regulating that market tightly to prevent abuse.
Given the nature of the energy industry, both are uphill battles. There will be strong resistance to any government-driven change which jeopardizes the current bottom line of any major players, probably on the grounds that it is "socialist" or some-such. There would be even more vociferous resistance, ironically most likely expressed through lobbying the government for sweetheart deals and protective legislation, to any attempt to introduce real competition and real prices into the energy market.
The only way this is going to work out is if the Public Interest can somehow get out front on these issues. I strongly doubt the sincerity of a lot of recent "we know oil's going to run out, help us find a solution" PR that's coming out of a number of the big companies (e.g. Chevron's willyoujoinus dot-com). This includes even BP and their redesigned logo. The name of the corporation is still British Petrochemical, even if their slogan was changed to "Beyond Petroleum." Have some statistics:
BPâ€™s total six-year investment in renewable technologies was US$200-million â€“ the same amount it spent on its â€œBeyond Petroleumâ€ ad campaign. Nearly US$45-million of this went to buy Solarex Corporation â€“ meaning BPâ€™s renewable energy investment was 0.05% of the US$91-billion it spent to buy oil giants Arco and Amoco back in the 1990s.
Now, the only reason they spent that $200M on the ad campaign, and the only reason Chevron spent whatever it spent to create and publicize willyoujoinus.com, is because they know that some opinion leaders are getting nervous. Depending on the effects and severity of ongoing economic shock we might see concerned citizens continue to drive the agenda. Some believe 50 to 100% increases in home heating prices this winter may lead to a decline in holiday shopping, which would badly harm many US retailers who are dependent our culture's annual year-ending orgy of consumption to balance their books. If it's bad, and if energy is identified and accepted as a root cause, we could see something where, like what's happening with GM and health care, very large corporations begin to join with progressive citizens in calling for the overhaul of our economic infrastructure.
But again, even if that happens, the outcome it really all depends on who seizes the initiative. The insurance industry currently retains the upper hand on issues of health care just as the petrochemical, coal and nuclear industries retain the upper hand on issues of energy. Maybe this will change, but in spite of what free marketistas would have you believe, it's not the pattern of history for consumers to direct the action of producers.
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