What is Seattle Peak Oil Awareness (SPOA)?
Seattle Peak Oil Awareness is a group of local citizens trying to understand how oil depletion will affect the nation and our city. While other groups are promoting a lot of so-called 'solutions', SPOA has concluded that most of these solutions are based on bad assumptions and misunderstandings about how our economy really works. Peak Oil is a predicament that we can't escape entirely, but it might be a reality we can learn to cope with through some thoughtful changes in how we inhabit the Puget Sound. While everyone certainly won't choose to make these changes, we can choose changes that will still help us individually.
We recommend three areas of focus:
Get Out of Debt
Grow & Store Food
Generate & Store Energy
Phil recently wrote in asking about the sidebar “Peak Oil Wisdom” featuring quotes about Peak Oil from around the internet. I started the quotes while playing with wordpress a couple of years ago, and as I played, I realized that with only 50 or so quotes, one could almost capture the whole peak oil story, predicament and scope of approrpriate responses. Playing with the order may vary the mileage, but I really think the useful thinking is nearly all contained in these quotes.
I add to them from time to time, but I think the collection can stand on its own as it is today.
Phil had asked for a list of the quotes we use, so I thought I would share them with everyone, in case others are interested in seeing the list all together.
There are a couple of quotes that aren’t specifically peak oil related. The financial ones are not what I am talking about. The financial system is absolutely bound up in all of this. If you don’t understand that, refer to our “Finance & Peak Oil Investment Strategies” recommended websites section The one that isn’t peak oil related is Frank Tibolt’s:
We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action.
I put this quote in because so many people seem to learn about peak oil on the internet, but then get stuck in the loop of learning about it. They don’t seem to find that exit from learning into doing.
Greer talks about some of these problems in his latest post, because it’s still quite an epidemic among peak oilers. If the top layers of society are collapsing, then change will be bottom up, whether it is change out of a planned effort like transition towners imagine, or whether it a messy and improvisational change arising out of needs and crisis (we expect the latter!). But, change will certainly happen, so if you are unimpressed with change at Obama’s level, consider change at your household level.
Frank’s quote reminds us that this is how we inspire others, but I think what’s more compelling is that this is how you protect yourself, and your family. Giving yourself options and resiliency is rewarding and fun even if the rest of the world doesn’t understand you yet.
Anyway, I think you get the point.
I’ll let the rest of these quotes speak for themselves. Enjoy!
|The economists all think that if you show up at the cashier’s cage with enough currency, God will put more oil in the ground.|
|– Ken Deffeyes|
|Of all the contrivances for cheating the laboring classes of mankind, none has been more effective than that which deludes them with paper money.|
|– Daniel Webster|
|We’ve got to find a way out of the incessant motoring and a way to live without it, and a happy way to live without it—not a punishment way to live without it, but a way to be happy and do it.|
|– James Howard Kunstler|
|It is to be expected that we will run out of fossil fuels before we run out of optimists, who are, along with fools and madmen, a renewable resource.|
|– Dmitry Orlov|
|We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.|
|– Albert Einstein|
|The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy – and the extraordinary power densities it gives us – with ambient energy is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for cutting back.|
|– George Monbiot|
|When the pie starts shrinking, then you are going to see people taking pie from other people. That’s when the chaos begins.|
|– Jay Hansen|
|In my dealings with a lot of the optimists, they don’t have the vaguest understanding of how complicated it is to actually drill a well.|
|– Matt Simmons|
|Apparently the U.S. economy is a sort of pyramid scheme, based on nothing more than faith in its growth potential, and can only continue to exist while it continues to expand, by sucking in ever more resources, particularly energy.|
|– Dmitry Orlov|
|I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.|
|– Thomas Edison|
|People who own cars have more money than people at risk of starvation. In a contest between their demand for fuel and poor people’s demand for food, the car-owners win every time.|
|– George Monbiot|
|The real question they should be asking is, not where are we going to get more oil, but how can we control men when there’s no economic growth? That’s the question.|
|– Jay Hansen|
|Far from being “efficient”, the so-called “market system” is probably the MOST INEFFICIENT social organization possible! The overhead (commuting to work, banks, insurance companies, advertising agencies, etc.) associated with our present way of organizing consumes the largest fraction BY FAR of our natural resources – something like 2 trillion tonnes of oil equivalent per year!|
|– Jay Hansen|
|Other nations are forced to export products to the United States because this is the only way for them to gather the dollars they need to purchase oil.|
|– Dmitry Orlov|
|Economists are starting to look a bit ridiculous, as their predictive abilities are repeatedly shown to be quite feeble. Moreover, the whole discipline of economics is starting to become irrelevant, because its main concern is with characterizing a system – the fossil fuel-based growth economy – which is starting to collapse.|
|– Dmitry Orlov|
|The passing of abundant oil is not shaping up to be a soft landing for those with the fattest asses.|
|– Jan Lundberg|
|The issue is not so much what form of technology is more terrible, but how many people are engaging in the technologies. There appears to be very little thought given to how large a population size is sustainable with a renewable-energy economy.|
|– Jan Lundberg|
|The combined weight of all these boondoggles is slowly but surely pushing us all down. If it pushes us down far enough, then economic collapse, when it arrives, will be like falling out of a ground floor window. We just have to help this process along, or at least not interfere with it. So if somebody comes to you and says “I want to make a boondoggle that runs on hydrogen” – by all means encourage him! It’s not as good as a boondoggle that burns money directly, but it’s a step in the right direction.|
|– Dmitry Orlov|
|It takes a lot of creativity and effort to put together a fulfilling existence on the margins of society. After the collapse, these margins may turn out to be some of the best places to live.|
|– Dmitry Orlov|
|Economic collapse has a way of turning economic negatives into positives. The last thing we want is a perfectly functioning, growing, prosperous economy that suddenly collapses one day, and leaves everybody in the lurch.|
|– Dmitry Orlov|
|It’s not about keeping your hands clean or avoiding guilt. Imagine birds living in a forest. Humans come and cut the forest down and build barns and plant crops. If some birds are able to live in the barns, or eat the crops, they don’t say, “I’m not going to live in the barn — that’s cheating,” or “I’m not going to eat the crops, because then I’m just part of the system.” Of all the species on Earth, only humans are that stupid.|
|– Ran Prieur|
|The only subject under discussion about our energy predicament is how can we keep running all our cars by other means. Even the leading environmentalists talk of little else. We don’t get it.|
|– James Howard Kunstler|
|Our leaders don’t have the courage to tell us that we can’t continue to live this way, because too many jobs, incomes, and votes would have to go with it.|
|– James Howard Kunstler|
|I always tell them to learn skills. You know the saying: get a fish, eat for a day; learn to fish, eat for a lifetime. (Just don’t take it too literally — there might not be any fish left!)|
|– Ran Prieur|
|The economist sees the environment as a subsystem of the economy, rather than the other way around. In other words, economists are trained to believe that natural resources come from “markets” rather than the “environment”.|
|– Jay Hansen|
|As long as we believe in fairy tales of a new and better America for clean, continued consumption, instead of first dismantling the present system and building true alternatives on a local scale, we are eating BS for breakfast lunch and dinner.|
|– Jan Lundberg|
|It took Homo sapiens over 200 years to accept the Copernican theory and the species has yet to accommodate the Darwinian theory. Consequently I see little chance that it will face the looming decline of industrial civilization in time to change course.|
|– Richard Duncan|
|Green plants in the United States collect about 53 exajoules of energy per year from sunlight. Americans consume slightly more than twice that amount, however.|
|– David Pimentel and Ted Patzek|
|Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.|
|– Kenneth Boulding|
|The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.|
|– Albert A. Bartlett|
|All the perplexities, confusion and distress in America arise, not from defects in their Constitution or Confederation, not from want of honor or virtue, so much as from the downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit and circulation.|
|– John Adams|
|In many places, it feels as if there just isn’t that much left that’s worth trying to save. If all the culture we see is commercial culture, and all the society we see is consumer society, then the best we can do is walk away from it, and look for other people who are ready to do the same.|
|– Dmitry Orlov|
|Currently, the political class couldn’t be farther from understanding what is about to happen. I listened in on one of the recent presidential debates. It struck me that the two candidates spent most of the time arguing over ways of spending money that they don’t have.|
|– Dmitry Orlov|
|I do believe we have peaked out at 85 million barrels a day globally|
|– T. Boone Pickens|
|The American people are going to pay a terrible price for not having had an energy strategy.|
|– Robert Gates|
|The economy we’re moving into will have to be one of real work, producing real things of value, at a scale consistent with energy resource reality.|
|– James Howard Kunstler|
|Declining civilizations always seem to get prophets who insist that some vast and improbable transformation will suddenly replace their civilization with the kind of society they would rather inhabit. They are always wrong.|
|– John Michael Greer|
|Give me control of a nation’s money and I care not who makes it’s laws.|
|– Mayer Amschel Bauer Rothschild|
|We are in danger of being overwhelmed with irredeemable paper, mere paper, representing not gold nor silver; no sir, representing nothing but broken promises, bad faith, bankrupt corporations, cheated creditors and a ruined people.|
|– Daniel Webster|
|We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action.|
|– Frank Tibolt|
|The science is clear: The use of corn and other biofuels to solve our energy problem is an ethically, economically, and environmentally unworkable sham.|
|– David Pimentel / http://kennebecjournal.mainetoday.com/view/columns/4793307.html|
|Growth is dead. Let’s make the most of it. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.|
|– Richard Heinberg / http://postcarbon.org/end_growth|
|I think the worst case scenario is actually happening. Price of oil is going down but don’t kid yourself, depletion will bite our ass even faster as we will not be able to make the necessary investments in new oil production or energy alternatives.|
|– Khebab / http://www.theoildrum.com/node/4629|
|In the United States, cheap fossil fuel has eroded communities. We’re the first people with no real practical need for each other. Everything comes from a great distance through anonymous and invisible transactions.|
|– Bill McKibben / http://www.progressive.org/node/124963|
|there’s no meaningful sense of the adjective “sustainable” that can cohabit with any meaningful sense of the noun “growth.” In a system – any system, anywhere – growth is always unsustainable.|
|– John Michael Greer / http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2011/02/overcoming-systems-stupidity.html|
This week, Jim Puplava interviewed Nicole Foss, aka “Stoneleigh” of The Oil Drum, and later The Automatic Earth blog. She believes we are experiencing deflation and that it is about to get much worse. The interview left me with some nagging questions.
What is the definition of deflation?
She offers several:
- The excess claims to underlying real wealth are extinguished, and that is deflation by definition
- deflation is the contraction of money and credit relative to available goods and services.
- a wave of debt default, which is deflation by definition.
- when people realize that … these excess claims exist, there will be an almighty resource grab, underlying real wealth grab, and that is deflation
I think number 2 is the right one.
Number 1 and 3 are poor statements, because they leave out the fact that inflation or deflation measure a ratio of economic product available versus the power to purchase it.
The worst definition of all is the fourth, and I think that one is wrong.
Are we in a deflation now?
The current wave of debt default has been offset by increased government debt, so the message of this chart is that Bernanke has been successful in making sure that very few net claims have been extinguished … at least so far.
So, I’d say we’re in a stalled economy, but not a deflation. One could make an awfully good case for stagflation by adding the gold price against this chart.
Is cash the same as “real wealth”?
Elsewhere, Stoneleigh has explained:
We are still near the beginning of a deflationary spiral, as the credit hyper-expansion of the last couple of decades morphs into contraction. Whereas currency inflation divides the underlying real wealth pie into ever smaller pieces in a form of forced loss-sharing, credit hyper-expansion creates multiple and mutually exclusive claims to the same pieces of pie. The appearance of great wealth is created, but it is illusory. As expansion comes to an end, the excess claims are rapidly and messily extinguished in real wealth grab. The dynamic is Enron-esque and the result will be a long and extremely painful economic depression.
As credit (ie excess claims) represents probably 99% of the effective money supply, the removal of credit causes the money supply to crash. This is deflation by definition, as deflation is the reduction of the money supply relative to available goods and services. ‘Printing money’ (monetizing debt) will not help under these circumstances as injections of liquidity disappear into a black hole once a cash-hoarding mentality has taken hold.
I have a really hard time with what she is saying here. If “excess claims” are “extinguished in real wealth grab”, then why is there simultaneously “a cash-hoarding mentality”?
The cash is part of the claims, right? If there are excess claims, then why wait for yours to be “extinguished”? Wouldn’t people instead use the cash to participate in the “real wealth grab” today, before their claim can be extinguished?
I agree with her, that it is going to end like a ponzi scheme, but I think the US dollar is part of the fraud. From where I sit, she is predicting a financial panic, but claims that everyone will be running to the entrance instead of the exits.
I don’t get it. It feels like she is mistaking the cash for real wealth here, but that seems like a foolish thing for someone who gets so much of the rest of it right.
What’s so important about “Multiple and Mutually Exclusive Claims”?
I think the crux of Stoneleigh’s problem is rooted in her fixation on “multiple and mutually exclusive claims” on wealth.
Of course inflation and fiat money represent excess claims on wealth, but I’m unclear why she thinks massive defaults are the only way out. Clearly, Ben has been printing and so far interest rates are preternaturally low.
The only thing I can spot in her writing is this idea that default represents the only way to clear out the excess claims, but since money and credit are divisible and fungible, I don’t see any reason why the claims can’t be watered down over time. Markets have been discounting claims based on risk since the invention of markets, so I don’t understand why Stoneleigh has decided this can’t work in the near future. It seemed to work after Lehman, after all — we’re still here…
What Will Force the Inflation Trends to Change?
I’ve made a chart of US money supply compared to world oil supplies. This is the data I could find easily, and I don’t think US money supply is a bad proxy for global money here. In fact, I think the red line would be even more extreme if we used a dataset that matched up with Stoneleigh’s money and credit definitions.
If Stoneleigh predicts these trends are about to change, then what indicators can we look for to predict changes in the chart above?
Peak oilers know that the blue line has leveled off forever. The response to the US peak in the 70s was to go out to the rest of the world and leverage their resources under the banner of “free market” globalization. That’s a one-time trick that we won’t be able to repeat.
On the money side, it seems an open question. Will money follow energy down the slope of depletion? Certainly there is no physical limit on money and credit, so Stoneleigh needs to convince us that there is some limit, some reason why the constant inflation since 1913 will not (can not) continue.
All the chart tells us is that since Nixon broke the link with gold, inflation has become more and more extreme. Yes, 2008 was quite a challenge to the inflation regime, but in the end, we only had a few quarters of mildly negative CPI (depending on whom you ask):
Still, inside our infinite-growth economic model, slow growth is awful, and mildly negative growth is a complete disaster! But, will those disasters make money and credit disappear faster than the goods and services that come to us courtesy of the earth’s post-peak oil bounty? Hard to say.
All I know is that the resources are definitely limited, and the growth economy is faltering badly. The only response so far is to keep up business as usual, and the instruments of that response have been loose money policy.
If we believe that bad money chases out good money, then gold may disappear from the streets soon, and US dollars may be about as valuable as, well, mere pieces of paper. That doesn’t sound like deflation to me.
The Witch of Hebron: A World Made by Hand Novel
By James Howard Kunstler
336 pp., hardcover. Atlantic Monthly Press – Sept. 2010. $24.00.
Reviewed by Frank Kaminski
James Howard Kunstler has long been among the most talented, impassioned and engaging commentators on humankind’s ecological crisis. But when he first proposed to incorporate his message into a work of fiction, neither his agent nor his publisher was thrilled. They perceived that he was known mostly as a nonfiction writer—his main claim to fame being The Long Emergency, a stark warning to the industrialized world that a reckoning lies in wait for its plundering ways—and they thought it best that he continue in this vein. As Kunstler later recalled, “I tell them I want to write a novel, they say, ‘Oh, no, please don’t. Write The Long Emergency Two.’”*
Kunstler didn’t listen. And now, two novels later and to the great benefit of the environmental community as well as the reading public at large, he has officially won the battle of wills with his publisher, Grove/Atlantic. His first post-apocalyptic novel, World Made by Hand, was a memorable, deeply touching, nuanced and richly imagined tale that became a bestseller shortly after its release in March 2008. It garnered excitement and praise from the likes of NPR, the New Yorker and Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, among others. And Grove/Atlantic has now apparently decided to seize the day by allowing Kunstler to parlay this first book into a series. That’s how we’ve come into The Witch of Hebron, a fine sequel to World Made by Hand.
Both novels take place in an unspecified near future in which the cheap, abundant oil that makes modern life possible is no longer available. Amenities like automobiles, hospitals, electrical appliances and cuisines from around the world simply aren’t a part of people’s lives anymore. Famine and disease have easily halved the population, and for those who remain, farming, religion, barter and trade take center stage. Horses are a necessity for traveling long distances, but few people can afford one in these lean times.
The Witch of Hebron picks up a couple of months after World Made by Hand ended. Returning to the small upstate New York town of Union Grove, the new book further defines the post-apocalyptic setting, adds depth to characters who played only minor parts in the first story, ties up loose ends from the previous book and introduces some all new dilemmas. And it does all of this against the backdrop of a full-moon Halloween, lending a delicious sense of foreboding to the proceedings.
The novel’s unlikely hero is a remarkable 11-year-old boy named Jasper Copeland. The son of Union Grove’s only doctor, Jasper has been studying under his father for years, and he’s anxious to strike out on his own despite his parents’ insistence that he finish school first. (In these new times, youth seem to learn their future livelihoods at an early age and often follow the same trades as their parents or other family members.) As it happens, the story quickly provides Jasper with an opportunity for a trial run at a doctoring career. Distraught over events surrounding the loss of a beloved pet, he runs away from home hoping to get a fresh start in a town where no one knows him, and where he can find a local doctor willing to take him on as an apprentice.
He never succeeds in this plan, but he proves his abilities in a far more poignant way. During his time on the run, he treats a man’s festering boils and saves another man’s life by removing his inflamed appendix. The appendectomy scene, incidentally, is a masterful set-piece, an elaborate, well-researched and totally convincing depiction of surgery in an era of low-tech medicine. In this procedure, lighting comes from candlelight reflected in a small mirror, and brandy serves as an antiseptic while opium acts as anesthesia.
Along the way, Jasper has the misfortune of falling in with a young man named Billy Bones. A thief and a crazed killer, Billy only gets Jasper deeper into trouble by making him an accomplice (his so-called protégé) in a torrid killing spree. The horrible worldly experience that Jasper picks up in Billy’s company, together with his doctoring feats and an entirely different type of initiation at a place called Madam Amber’s Fancy House—a shrewdly run home-based business of sorts that’s no place for a child, to put it mildly—all reinforce a central theme of this book. It’s that the laws and norms that have traditionally guided the course of one’s life no longer have any real hold or relevance. A boy’s parents may insist that he finish school rather than taking up medicine right away, but their words don’t have the weight of the law behind them. And there’s no real “law” to see to it that Jasper is found and returned home, that Madam Amber is punished for letting him be defiled or that Jasper obtains certification for practicing medicine. Indeed, it’s even far from clear whether any of the murders will be investigated or prosecuted.
Among the more controversial aspects of the first book was its inclusion of magic and the paranormal. A number of the book’s central characters (members of a mysterious fellowship called the New Faith Brotherhood Church of Jesus) seemed to possess extrasensory abilities such as telepathy, psychokinesis and precognition. Kunstler has since explained that he intended these paranormal elements to “get across the idea that the consensus of reality based on the mental infrastructure of the Enlightenment was withering away.”** But many Kunstler fans were disappointed by these otherworldly touches, believing that they ran the risk of casting doubt on the book’s morals for the real world.
I personally felt that they were just what that first book needed. I love the idea of a world once again thought to be so vast and unexplored that it could contain untold wonders, be they latent gifts of the mind or faraway lands in the physical world (imagine an actual undersea Atlantis, or an island where prehensile beasts roam in wait for another Beowulf). Thus, I’m glad to see the supernatural dimensions of World Made by Hand further explored here.
And The Witch of Hebron really does have a witch, by the way. She’s just not the clichéd, broomstick-toting grotesque with which we’re all familiar from costume shops and The Wizard of Oz. Her witch nature is far subtler than that. As near as we can tell, she’s more or less an ordinary woman with extraordinary abilities that she prefers to keep private, unless she happens to find herself in the right company.
Almost all of the original main characters are back in this book. And, where relevant, the narrative recaps major events in their lives from the previous book, so that readers new to the series will still be able to follow the drama. The New Faith followers, who were a source of awe and mystery in the first book, are just as fascinating again here, using their extrasensory perception to divine details of Jasper’s journey and his whereabouts. Some other memorable characters continued from before include the eminently likable Robert Earle, a corporate executive-turned-carpenter who was our first-person narrator last time; the brilliant, entrepreneurial Stephen Bullock, whose vast property is rigged with electricity and other almost-unheard-of luxuries of yore; and Robert’s best friend and the local congregational minister, Loren Holder, who is suffering a crisis of faith because of all that he’s seen and been through in these harsh new times.
The Witch of Hebron is the kind of part two that leaves you clamoring for a three. Nor would the series have to stop there—Kunstler’s post-oil world is so rich that it could easily sustain several robust sequels. And I for one will be first in line for every one of them.
* The quote is from: Kunstler, “Futurist.com Glen Hiemstra w/ James Howard Kunstler, Author: Part 1,” interview with Glen Hiemstra, Futurist.com, Aug. 6, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYW-Wh5n2m0 (accessed Aug. 22, 2010). See also: Alan David Doane, “Completely at Ease: An Interview with James Howard Kunstler,” ADDwriteblog, Aug. 6, 2007, http://addwriteblog.blogspot.com (accessed Aug. 22, 2010).
** Kunstler, personal communication with the author, May 14, 2008.
Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil
By Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl
434 pp. New Society Publishers – Mar. 2010. $26.95.
Reviewed by Frank Kaminski
Transport Revolutions presents an ambitious vision of a world, 15 years from now, that is well on its way to kicking oil and being run on renewably produced electricity. The book’s authors, internationally recognized transport policy experts Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl, readily acknowledge the enormity of this challenge, with transport worldwide currently 95 percent dependent on oil. They have no illusions that the transition would be painless. But they nonetheless insist that it could be done. And they seem to have sold a lot of people on their vision: both editions of their book so far have been bestsellers.
The book will appeal especially to those who appreciate the gravity of peak oil—the point at which global oil production begins to irreversibly decline—but who believe that there’s still time to do something about it. It will disappoint the so-called doomers among the peak oil crowd, those who equate dwindling oil production with the end of civilization as we know it. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, it won’t register at all with those who think that peak oil poses no threat and will be obviated altogether by market forces and human ingenuity.
Gilbert and Perl’s analysis excels on several fronts. First, it does a superb job of clearly, systematically defining key terms and concepts. For example, it defines a transport revolution as “a substantial change in a society’s transport activity that occurs in less than 25 yrs.” And it defines “substantial change” as a shift in which “something that was happening before increases or decreases dramatically, say by 50 percent; or a new means of transport becomes prevalent to the extent that it becomes a part of the lives of ten percent or more of the society’s population.”
The book also makes great use of figures, tables and statistical analysis—though this technical material gets a bit too dense in a few places, where it probably would have been better consigned to appendices.
A third strength of Transport Revolutions is its originality. Rather than focusing exclusively on passenger transport, a common oversight by transport scholars at large, the authors note, it includes lengthy discussions of freight transport as well. And in its survey of past transport revolutions, it looks not only at periods of increased transport activity but also at dramatic slowdowns in transport. For instance, it uses the World War Two mass curtailment of motorization to illustrate how quickly and sharply people can reduce their automobile usage when the need arises.
Transport Revolutions’ thesis is that, with the coming of peak oil, the world is on the eve of revolutions that will utterly transform how people and freight move. And the best hope for an en-masse transition away from fossil fuels, the book argues, lies in a monumental campaign to electrify motorized land transport—coupled with drastic curtailment of energy usage—across the developed world. Gilbert and Perl point out that in nations where concerted government efforts have been undertaken to curb oil consumption, electricity-driven solutions are the ones that have overwhelmingly prevailed. However, they take issue with these efforts’ almost complete focus on battery electric and hybrid automobiles. They see far more promise in transport systems that rely on grid connection while in motion.
Grid-connected vehicles include electric trains, trolleys and streetcars, and they draw their electricity directly from the grid through rails or overhead wires. They offer truly amazing efficiency gains over other types of electric vehicles, not only because they’re freed of having to lug around heavy batteries but also because they don’t have to contend with the efficiency losses entailed in charging a battery, which can be as high as 37 percent.
In addition to land transport, the authors also discuss the likely future changes to marine transport and air travel/air freight. They foresee wind energy increasingly supplementing the use of bunker fuel to power oceangoing ships, and both air travel and air freight movement declining precipitously because of how oil-intensive they are.
In the book’s final section, Gilbert and Perl sketch out in profound detail what they believe the state of motorized transport could resemble in 2025. They chose 2025 as a counterpoint to the present mainly because they feel that it is “near enough to provide a meaningful close target date that could motivate action,” and is also “a sufficient period within which to attain significant results from redesigning transport systems.” In the future that they describe, world oil production is down 17 percent from its 2007 level, and the United States has stayed well ahead of depletion by cutting its consumption by more than 40 percent. China, on the other hand, is still increasing its oil consumption—but not at the rate that current projections would suggest, since its days of runaway economic growth are over.
The authors focus on the United States and China in this discussion because they believe that these two countries “present the most challenging cases among what are now richer countries and poorer countries that are striving to become affluent.” America’s challenges lie in the fact that it generates far more transport activity, and uses more oil per capita in doing so, than does any other rich nation. China’s challenges stem from its status as the largest and most populous of the poorer countries striving to become affluent, and also from the fact that it is motorizing more quickly than any of these other poorer nations. Because the United States and China are extreme cases, they bring into sharp relief the challenges and potential rewards of a shift to renewably produced electricity.
The authors are cautious about making specific predictions about our transport future, but they do have many specific, in-depth recommendations. Above all, they stress that all existing highway and airport expansion programs must be terminated immediately. They also suggest that government take a central role in the transition ahead. They believe that through fiscal mechanisms such as investing in infrastructure and taxing oil used for transport, the federal government could relieve much of the pain of the transition.
These federal efforts would be presided over by a new agency called (the authors suggest) the Transport Redevelopment Administration, or TRA. The TRA’s board would be chaired by the U.S. vice president and would also include the secretaries of Energy, Defense, Transportation and Treasury, as well as members representing state, county and city governments. In addition to helping fund transport redevelopment projects, the agency would also be involved in planning and overseeing them.
This book represents a passionate, intensely argued assessment of the world’s prospects as it moves into the post-peak-oil era. I personally find its proposal to be a bit too optimistic, since it ignores the findings of the Department of Energy’s “Hirsch report” (this document, well known among peak oilers, concluded that peak oil mitigation efforts must begin at least two decades prior to peak, i.e., by the early nineties, in order to avert catastrophe). But whatever your particular spot on the continuum of peak oil opinion, this book certainly offers analysis and insights that will prove invaluable during future transport revolutions.
Sound Truth & Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
By Riki Ott
561 pp. Produced for Dragonfly Sisters Press by Lorenzo Press – Jan. 2005. $24.95.
Reviewed by Frank Kaminski
At just before 10 p.m. on Tuesday, April 20, 2010, the Transocean Ltd.-owned and BP Plc.-operated floating oil rig Deepwater Horizon was boring an exploratory well in the Macondo Prospect—about 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast and nearly a mile underwater—when it exploded without warning from a well blowout. For more than a day the inferno raged without respite, killing 11 crew members and injuring 17 others, sending the rig’s remains plunging to the bottom of the ocean and leaving the broken seafloor well to spew millions of gallons of crude oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. BP has tried repeatedly to stop the flow, to no avail. (As of this writing on Tuesday evening, July 13, it remains to be seen whether the well cap installed last night, a Band-Aid pending completion of the long-awaited relief wells next month, will actually work.) The spill’s magnitude has beggared description or belief. By mid-June it was four to eight times the size of Exxon Valdez and had earned the title of worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. By the beginning of the current month it held the record for biggest offshore spill in world history, according to high-end government estimates.*
And as dire as the Deepwater Horizon spill is already, its harm could be magnified still further by a bungled or ill-considered cleanup response. That’s exactly what happened with Exxon Valdez, argues marine biologist and oil spill activist Riki Ott, who has been aptly called the Erin Brockovich of that earlier disaster. Ott has written two books showing how gross misconduct on the part of Exxon (now Exxon Mobil Corp.) in the wake of Valdez created a secondary disaster that was just as damaging as the first one. These books, titled Not One Drop and Sound Truth & Corporate Myth$, exhaustively document how Exxon’s actions compounded the oil’s harm and destroyed the health of thousands of cleanup workers, in many cases permanently. In the interest of helping current spill victims, both books have now been made available online for free as ebooks. Ott is presently in the Gulf Coast area, sharing her expertise and prior experience with Valdez to try to make sure that BP doesn’t get away with the same shenanigans as Exxon did.**
Ott holds a Ph.D. in fisheries and marine toxicology, and even long before Valdez was a prominent public figure and salmon “fisherma’am” in the spill’s epicenter of Cordova, Alaska. The Valdez spill was a calling for Ott. She decided to make it her life’s work to expose the truth behind the corporate line that Exxon was toeing (and that most people still believe, she feels) regarding the spill and its aftereffects. To that end, she has conducted extensive scientific research, testified at hearings, drafted legislation aimed at preventing future spills—and incorporated all of this research and activism into her two books, which are nothing short of heroic. Written with as much feeling as rigor and investigative enterprise, these books are required reading for anyone affected by either Valdez or the current Gulf spill. I reviewed the more recent of the two, Not One Drop (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), last year for Energy Bulletin. Here I review the earlier but equally important Sound Truth, a pioneering piece of scholarship that forces us to rethink our notions about how toxic oil and the chemicals used to clean it up really are.
Oil is much more toxic than scientists used to think—that is Ott’s consistent refrain throughout the book. According to the old understanding of oil toxicity, impacts from oil spills should be entirely short-term. Since for the most part oil is non-water-soluble, scientists reasoned that it must not be that harmful to aquatic life and that whatever harm it does cause happens early on as the oil is shedding its highly volatile compounds. Thus, the old thinking goes, any oil that doesn’t weather away completely after a certain amount of time is harmless, even if it remains visible in the environment for years after a spill. But studies done in the years since Valdez have shown these notions to be sadly mistaken. Oil actually becomes more, not less, harmful the longer it remains in the environment, because the weathering process exposes increasingly toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—which Ott says “may well be the DDT of the 21st century.”
And it’s clear that Exxon had much more of an inkling about oil’s true toxicity than it was willing to admit, even long before the findings discussed above had come to light. Ott proves this using some of Exxon’s own documents, serendipitously obtained when company lawyers weren’t quick enough at the draw to have them barred from scrutiny. Ott’s other sources include medical records, court depositions, unpublished government reviews, academic journal articles and workers’ ledgers and travel logs. The portrait that emerges from this mosaic is sordid indeed. Ott shows how Exxon abused the legal system by exercising constitutional rights originally intended for people; covered up the devastation caused by its disaster with skewed scientific studies and a skillful propaganda campaign; and went ahead with a PR-driven cleanup that it knew was fouling the environment with additional toxins, eradicating beach life spared by the initial oiling and poisoning workers by exposing them to dangerous levels of hazardous chemicals.
To begin with the impacts on wildlife, Sound Truth documents the huge losses that fish, birds and marine mammals endured as a result of the spill. The populations of numerous species crashed precipitously, and some animals began having trouble producing viable offspring or evading predators in their own native habitat. And this harm was all occurring at far lower PAH concentrations than those that scientists had long deemed to be safe, and that were permissible under existing state and federal laws. One study found significant effects in young salmon exposed to PAH concentrations that were 60 times lower than those permitted by federal law. In light of this evidence, Ott concludes that current regulatory standards for PAHs in water “are grossly under-protective of aquatic life.”
These findings couldn’t have been more at odds with those reported by Exxon-funded scientists. Exxon’s scientists detected far lower PAH levels and harm to wildlife than did government-funded scientists. A subsequent report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) concluded that this is because Exxon scientists used analytical procedures that were 10 to 100 times less likely to pick up PAHs than the procedures used by their government counterparts. Exxon’s scientists also did studies purporting to assess the recovery of numerous animal species. Among the tricks that they used to make it look like beaches had recovered, Ott relates, was the use of inappropriate control beaches. Instead of choosing unoiled beaches that hosted a similar wildlife makeup to that of the oiled beaches, Exxon’s scientists chose beaches that were naturally barren due to their harsh, glacial conditions. Compared to these glacial beaches, even heavily oiled beaches looked like they had fully recovered and were flourishing once more.
Indeed, Ott dissects in great detail many cases of Exxon scientists skewing their studies so that they “tuned out” inconvenient findings. In support of her assessment, she cites Darrell Huff’s seminal book How to Lie with Statistics, as well as a journal article identifying 18 differences in study design between government-funded studies and Exxon-funded studies that dramatically biased the latter’s results. And she laments that government scientists were unable to counter these boisterous claims by Exxon with findings of their own, due to a gag order imposed on account of pending litigation. Ott contends that by the time this gag order had expired and public-trust scientists could finally publicize their findings, it was too late: Exxon’s version had become the popular understanding of the spill and its environmental effects.
Besides the discovery of crude oil’s extreme, persistent toxicity, the other half of Exxon Valdez‘s legacy, believes Ott, is the terrible saga of thousands of people cut down in their primes by exposure to noxious cleaning agents that should not have been used. (The warnings on numerous chemicals stated that they shouldn’t be permitted to drain into watercourses, which obviously meant that they shouldn’t have been allowed to drain into Prince William Sound.) In an ominous omen for cleanup workers, Exxon’s primary cleanup contractor had been cited by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only a year earlier for failing to maintain proper records related to hazardous wastes or adequately train personnel working around these wastes. In another ominous omen, Exxon paid workers to sign a waiver stating that they would not sue the company for any health-related problems that they might subsequently develop. Further, several cleaning solutions used during the cleanup contained an organic solvent called 2-butoxyethanol, which was on the EPA’s list of “janitorial products to avoid.” Prolonged exposure to these chemicals along with oil mists led to 6,722 recorded cases of upper respiratory infection among spill response workers. Exxon’s trick for not reporting these health claims to the government was to lump them under the heading of cold-and-flu-like “infections,” which don’t need to be reported, as opposed to occupational illnesses, which do.
As this book poignantly reveals, the Valdez tragedy also shed light on a previously little-known disease called chemical sensitivity. People with this sickness are extremely sensitive to everyday chemicals that never used to give them problems in the past (for example, cosmetics or gas fumes) because of some past exposure to dangerous levels of hazardous chemicals. Chemically sensitive people can have life-threatening reactions to even trace levels of common chemicals. From court documents, personal journals and other sources, Ott pieces together the stories of some former Valdez cleanup workers who went on to develop chemical sensitivity. Because the illness was such a recently recognized phenomenon, many people faced tremendous challenges in trying to obtain diagnosis and treatment. To their immeasurable frustration, they often wound up being diagnosed as hypochondriacs or prescribed antidepressants because their doctors thought that it was all in their heads.
One of Sound Truth‘s greatest strengths is that it goes way beyond merely uncovering the scandal of Exxon’s corporate myths. It also provides clear, well-informed suggestions aimed at reducing the likelihood of future spills and better handling the spills that still will inevitably occur. Ott recommends, among other things, the enactment of federal legislation requiring spillers to pay for their cleanups but prohibiting them from being in charge of cleanups. She points out that this policy of “federalizing” spill responses has been tried in other countries and has worked well. Because those in charge of such cleanups are beholden to the public interest rather than shareholders, they have no incentive to cut corners and merely sweep the problem under the rug while doing further environmental damage.
And that brings us back to BP and its spill in the Gulf. Some commentators have taken heart from BP’s prompt admission of responsibility, its pledge to clean up the oil and its agreeing to set up a $20 billion damage claims fund. But stacked against these seemingly altruistic gestures are hints of Exxon-style negligence and secrecy, including security guards barring journalists from beaches, animal carcasses and other potential crime scene evidence mysteriously disappearing and spill response workers going without protective respirators.† Regardless of which reports reflect BP’s true colors, there’s one PR move BP chiefs could make that couldn’t possibly go wrong: putting a copy of Sound Truth into the hands of every cleanup worker, and taking care to read it long and hard themselves. It would be an honorable gesture, ensuring that workers are properly informed and outfitted—and giving us BP’s word that it intends to succeed where Exxon failed on the social/environmental responsibility front. Fortunately, however, we don’t have to wait for BP to disseminate this vital information. Anyone can access Ott’s books online for free.
* Background on Deepwater Horizon gathered from the following sources: “New Oil Estimates Show Spill Rate Much Higher,” Morning Edition, NPR, Jun. 11, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127760703 (accessed Jun. 27, 2010); Ken Hoffman, “Despite spill, a few birds get a chance to live,” Houston Chronicle, Jul. 4, 2010, http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/business/deepwaterhorizon/7093979.html (accessed Jul. 5, 2010); “What do we know about the Deepwater Horizon disaster?, BBC News, Jun. 22, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/us_and_canada/10370479.stm (accessed Jun. 27, 2010); NPR Staff and Wires, “Transocean Seeks To Limit Liability For Oil Rig Blast,” NPR, May 13, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127760703 (accessed Jun. 21, 2010); “Anadarko Refuses to Pay Costs of Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill,” Environment News Service, Jun. 18, 2010, http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/jun2010/2010-06-18-091.html (accessed Jun. 21, 2010); Tommy Dickey, “A Brief Introduction to Ocean Oil Spills,” University of California, Santa Barbara, http://www.opl.ucsb.edu/tommy/pubs/Oil_Spill_2010_vers6.pdf (accessed Jul. 12, 2010); Associated Press and Miami Herald, “BP spill hits a somber record as Gulf’s biggest,” Seattle Times, Jul. 1, 2010, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2012259363_oil02.html (accessed Jul. 13, 2010).
** The Erin Brockovich comparison comes from: “Chelsea Green Bookstore: Nature & Environment: Not One Drop,” Chelsea Green, http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/not_one_drop:paperback/praise/ (accessed Jun. 28, 2010). Not One Drop‘s release as a free ebook was reported in: “Chelsea Green Partners with Scribd on Oil Spill Book,” Publishers Weekly, May 18, 2010, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/43213-chelsea-green-partners-with-scribd-on-oil-spill-book.html (accessed Jun. 21, 2010). Sound Truth‘s free ecopy is at: http://www.rikiott.com/pdf/Sound%20Truth.pdf.
† Riki Ott, interview with Keith Olbermann, “Countdown,” MSNBC, New York, Jun. 14, 2010, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036677/vp/37697092#37697092 (accessed Jun. 21, 2010); “Has BP been attempting to erase evidence? Shocking video of security guard confrontation,” World News Network, Jun. 16, 2010, http://article.wn.com/view/2010/06/16/Has_BP_been_attempting_to_erase_evidence_Shocking_video_of_s/ (accessed Jun. 21, 2010).
Thriving Beyond Sustainability: Pathways to a Resilient Society
By Andrés R. Edwards
227 pp. New Society Publishers – Feb. 2010. $17.95.
Reviewed by Frank Kaminski
The more research you do into the subject of sustainability, the more you realize that talking about sustainability is like talking about matter. It’s so wide-ranging, multifaceted and pervasive a topic that it’s hard even to know where to begin. “Sustainable development” is often equated with environmental protection and conservation, but it’s actually far broader than that, encompassing economic, political and sociocultural concerns as well. Defined simply as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,”* sustainable development is more a general approach than a specific set of practices or policies. And it can be applied across literally all sectors of human endeavor, from education to enterprise—and from fine arts to the physical sciences.
Given what a sweeping category sustainability is, author and noted sustainability expert Andrés Edwards is to be commended for distilling it down into two easily digestible volumes for lay readers: The Sustainability Revolution and Thriving Beyond Sustainability. The first book, released in 2005 by New Society Publishers and subtitled as a “Portrait of a Paradigm Shift,” showed how large numbers of individuals and organizations across the world had come to recognize the failings of the industrial “growth” economy fast undermining its own ecological foundations, and had begun to forge pathways toward a sustainable future. Their grassroots efforts, Edwards predicted, would prove to be vital guideposts along the uncertain course ahead for humanity. This first book was mostly a theory study; Edwards recalls that he didn’t get a chance to flesh out its concepts with tangible examples to the extent that he would have liked. Hence the need for this new book (also from New Society), which he says is intended to share “the stories of the people and organizations undertaking this important work.”**
The method of Thriving Beyond Sustainability is straightforwardness itself: the book simply gathers together pointed examples of several key themes long at the core of the global sustainability conversation. The first chapter, titled “Lessons from Our Ancestors,” reminds us of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond’s case, articulated in his bestselling book Collapse, that human civilizations often decline largely as a result of having despoiled the natural capital on which they depend. Edwards poignantly demonstrates how the modern developed world stands to learn as much from the ancient inhabitants of Easter Island, who went into steep decline after they over-harvested their trees and marine life, as it does from the Inuit, who have managed to thrive for centuries in the Earth’s North Polar regions. Some other notable chapters include those on regenerative design, saving ecosystems, going “glocal” and the evolution of the corporate world’s new “triple bottom line”—which requires that companies heed social and ecological concerns in addition to economic imperatives when making decisions.
In a vision that will please technological optimists but will seem like blatant pie in the sky to the more pessimistic among the environmental crowd, Edwards insists that with the right approach industrial society can attain a state not only of sustainability, but of “thriveability.” Edwards never gives a clear-cut definition of thriveability but he does eloquently describe how it differs from sustainability. “Sustainability,” he writes, “separates us from nature and envisions us ‘getting by’ by limiting our negative environmental impacts over the long term.” Thriveability, in contrast, represents a “shift from ‘less bad’ solutions to solutions that energize us and improve our quality of life through our connections with all life forms.”
Edwards asserts that if we citizens of the developed world are to successfully meet our biggest challenges as a civilization (which he deems to be ecosystem decline, energy transition, population growth, economic disparity and climate change), then we must drastically change our entire worldview so that it reflects a thriveability perspective. He says that before beginning any new sustainability initiative we must first evaluate the extent to which it is “Scalable, Place-making, International, Resilient, Accessible, [and] Life-affirming,” as well as whether or not it promotes “Self-care” (these criteria go by the acronym SPIRALS). We must also follow the precautionary principle, which states that if there is any doubt as to a proposed initiative’s potential risks, we must err on the side of caution and forego implementing it until we have better information.
In the chapters that follow, Edwards presents a thorough analysis of how individuals, corporations, national and regional governments, nonprofits and international organizations, among countless others, are currently undertaking projects that espouse SPIRALS ideals. For example, he highlights the City Repair Project in Portland, Oregon, as an exemplary model of the place-making dimension of SPIRALS. The project aims to transform intersections into lively public squares dubbed “Share-It Squares,” which foster community and help reclaim public spaces. Edwards points out that crime rates in these repaired sections of the city fell by 10 percent following their conversion into public squares, as reported in the Journal of Public Health. And he cites the environmentally responsible forestry practices of lumber company Menominee Tribal Enterprises (MTE) as a prime example of SPIRALS’ intergenerational component. MTE embraces the “seventh generation” thinking of traditional Native American ethics, which requires that today’s decisions be made with a view toward how they might affect people living seven generations from now. Under this directive, the Menominee Forest’s total timber volume has not dwindled but rather has steadily grown from 1.3 billion to more than 1.7 billion board feet over the past century and a half.
Where Edwards’ analysis falls short, however, is in attempting to illustrate the scalable and accessible aspects of the SPIRALS framework. Compared to the others, these two sections seem overly brief and light on specific examples. For instance, Edwards provides only one concrete example of a present or emerging initiative demonstrating the scalability part of SPIRALS. And that one example, a nationwide infrastructure for electric vehicles (EVs) as envisioned by the EV service provider Better Place, is patently of dubious scalability, as anyone can tell you who has bothered to look into the daunting obstacles that impede wide-scale EV adoption. Further, Edwards sometimes seems to be hammering an example into a particular subset of the SPIRALS framework, when in fact it could just as easily fit into a completely different one, or even multiple subsets.
But these are relatively minor flaws in what is, for the most part, a comprehensive, prodigiously studied panorama of today’s sustainability landscape. Drawing on its author’s considerable knowledge of ecological design, sustainable business, environmental education and community development projects, Thriving Beyond Sustainability is sure to be one of the authoritative desk references on sustainability for some time to come.
* The World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 43.
** Andrés R. Edwards, Thriving Beyond Sustainability: Pathways to a Resilient Society (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2010), ix.