Friday, June 23, 2006

Oil, Peaking?

The peak oil theory, which argues that at some point—either now or in the future, depending on whom you consult—oil reserves will reach peak production and then decline, with potentially catastrophic effects on our civilization, is the subject of furious controversy. Few, apart from a small number of commentators who believe that the market will provide a "bottomless well" of energy, question the theory's basic premise: that oil is a finite resource which will eventually run out and leave a major gap in energy supplies. The disagreement is over geology and arithmetic. Some researchers believe peak oil has already arrived; some believe it will arrive in the near future; and others believe the future is much farther off. provides a good introduction to the theory and the controversy

Environmentalists like Karen Street point out, quite rightly, that many of the remedies suggested for the feared peak oil disruptions would be worse than the disease. For them, the central issue is not that we are running out of oil, much less of fossil-based energy, but that we are already burning too much of it for our own health and that of the planet. In theory we could convert coal to synthetic fuel for uses where only liquid would do, and burn coal directly for other uses, for about a thousand years. This would solve the peak oil problem, but, according to climate change experts, at a cost that is too heavy, both for us and for the earth.

The scientific consensus is that our heavy use of fossil fuels is making the planet warmer, threatening significant rises in sea levels and average temperatures that could inundate many cities and threaten many species—quite possibly including our own. We cannot solve the problem of peak oil, which will arrive at some point, by tweaking the supply side of the equation. The environmental risks are simply too great.

In a sense, the question of whether we are actually reaching peak oil is less important than the perception that we are, and the disruptions this perception could cause. The political analyst Gwynne Dyer points out in "Oil: The Party is Over" that if the markets decide we have reached peak oil—never mind what the actual situation may be—oil prices will "soar out of sight overnight." In a society designed to run on cheap oil, the disruptions would be enormous. It might even seem like the end of civilization as we know it (a favorite phrase among the more ardent peak oil theorists).

Both the environmentalists and Gwynne Dyer are right. Peak oil is a problem with only one obvious remedy: using less oil. And even the perception that it has arrived hardly bears thinking about because of the disruption it might cause.

The prospects of climate change in the long run and oil-price-induced recession in the short run are not attractive. But they do provide an opportunity to advance the argument for changes in the way we manage our civilization. If we are going to run short of oil anyway, and the substitutes for it do as much or even more damage to the environment than it does, it follows that we cannot go on as we have. One way or another, business as usual is going to end. This does not mean the situation is hopeless because business as usual, the way we have done it in the past, has been less than ideal. The end of cheap oil gives us a chance to do better—and it "concentrates the mind wonderfully," as Samuel Johnson would put it. Or it should.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Death in the Neighborhood—Part 2

The closing of one of our neighborhood supermarkets was a blow to the neighborhood (See "A Death in the Neighborhood—Part 1.") Fortunately, a very good local grocery chain has now bought the site and plans to open a new store on it later this year or early next. "Now Hiring" signs are already up, and the site is full of workers and construction vans. In the long run, what had been a sad death may turn out to be an improvement for the neighborhood.

The new owners plan to rehabilitate the old building rather than tearing it down and rebuilding. This will not only save money for them; it will save energy and resources for the planet. Big-box stores like this old supermarket were designed to be disposable, but they need not be. In any future worth mentioning, we will need to use existing buildings creatively, unless they have gone irretrievably to the bad.

So our neighborhood will get a good store, locally-owned, with high-quality foods, and within walking distance of a very large population. This is a better ending than the more typical story: neighborhood store (and shopping district) dies a slow, agonizing death because of competition from big-box stores outside of town.

In the long run, driving to the big box store will become too expensive and too dangerous for the environment, and we will need the neighborhood store again. Many towns won't have it. Our neighborhood, luckily, will.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Ideology Run Amok

In the Soviet Union in 1968, a small party of visitors was standing near a beautiful lake in Karelia. The group, eight from the U.S., eight from Great Britain, and eight from the Soviet Union, was there as part of a Quaker-sponsored work camp and seminar. I was among them.

Karelia is just across the border from Finland, a country of pine forests, snow in winter, and astonishingly blue lakes. And here, not a quarter of a mile from where we were standing, was a paper mill pumping raw sewage into one of those lakes. One of the party, not from the Soviet Union, asked our guide about pollution.

"That is not a problem under socialism," the guide replied. And still the plant pumped its refuse into the lake.

Years later, during the reunification of Germany, the reorganized government discovered to its horror that almost no East German manufacturing plants had pollution controls of any kind—let alone controls that met Western European standards. Pollution, you see, was not a problem under socialism. It occurred only under capitalism.

The problems with Eastern European pollution didn't surprise me. I had stood less than a quarter of a mile from a plant that was actively polluting a lake and heard a Soviet bureaucrat argue that neither I nor anyone else in the party was seeing what we plainly were seeing. Eastern European and Soviet plant managers had production quotas to meet, and never mind the effect on the environment or, for that matter, the bodies of the workers.

In fairness to those plant managers, we need to remind ourselves repeatedly that the capitalist West only discovered the environment after uncontrolled industrial pollution had already done quite a lot of damage. And only in the last forty years have we begun to realize just how serious that damage was. An industrial ideology that puts its faith chiefly in the economic bottom line—which, in their different ways, unrestrained market capitalism and Soviet-style socialism are—is always a threat to the environment unless other forces intervene to hold it back.

Now we must begin to pick up the pieces. But as we try to find ways to do so, I worry—a lot—about China. The Chinese are not Soviet-style socialists, and they are not laissez-faire capitalists. It is hard to put them in any category but their own. Unlike industrialists in the West, they are aware of the costs of what they are doing. But they are caught up in the same Faustian bargain that entrapped both the West and its Communist opposite numbers. Industrial development on the traditional model uses a lot of fossil fuels and creates a lot of pollution. To develop, one must put the environment at risk.

Or so it has been in the past. A society bent on growth, wealth, and production simply did not take the environment into account. Now we are learning that this was a mistake. Will we find new ways of development fast enough? And, just as important, will China?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Bottomless Wells

A few days ago I was in a bookstore looking for a book that I never found. At the end of one set of bookshelves, prominently displayed on a rack of featured books, was The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy, by Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills. An astonishing title in a finite world governed by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Of course we will run out of energy—or, more correctly, the fuel we need to produce energy—but no one now living will see that day. We can burn coal for a thousand years, build nuclear power plants, even extract energy from silicon, according to Huber and Mills. Even if they are right, a thousand years' supply of energy, or ten thousand, is not "endless."

That, at least is what logic and history tell us. A thousand or ten thousand years is a long time in the history of civilization, but it is a minor blip in geological time. It is even a short time in the human story if you count prehistory. Homo sapiens has been here about a quarter of million years; our ancestors, for just over 2 million years before us. Modern use of energy dates back 200-500 years, depending on one's definition of "modern." Suddenly a thousand years does not seem so long, and the well seems less bottomless. Our ancestors, had they used oil and coal or even the silicon that Huber and Mills see as a practical alternative, would have used up their fuel supplies hundreds of thousands of years before we came on the scene.

Our ancestors, of course, did not even discover coal and oil. They evolved into us. And we discovered coal and oil and began burning them, not knowing until recently how badly we were damaging the environment. We could not have known; the science that allowed us to know did not exist when the industrial age began.

Even supposing that Huber and Mills are right about the world's seemingly endless energy potential, they are wrong on this key point: We do not always know the consequences of our energy use. And those consequences are not always benign. When we extract energy, we must proceed with care and use the energy wisely and carefully. If we don't, we may make our world unliveable. That is what The Bottomless Well leaves out. And by leaving it out, the theory moves from the merely flawed to the dangerously illusory.

There is a precedent that shows the danger of this kind of illusion. During the late Cold War, the discipline of "nuclear strategy" or "nuclear warfighting" had a very brief revival after being dormant through the 1960s and 1970s. Roughly, it was an attempt to project "scientifically" how many casualties a nation could sustain in a nuclear war and still "survive" as a nation. Nuclear warfighting was a delusion, pure and simple. A United States (or Soviet Union) that had lost a million citizens at a stroke, along with a major city or two, would be shattered, and the radiation released would damage generations of humans, plants and animals to come. And that, in the nuclear warfighting world, was a "small," "survivable" war.

I make this brief excursion into the netherworld of nuclear strategy because, in a quieter way, the bottomless well thesis could be just as destructive. The nuclear strategists allowed Reagan-era policymakers to think that nuclear war was winnable, not mutual suicide. The bottomless well theorists allow us to think that it's perfectly okay to go on burning fuel and driving SUVs and leaving all the lights on. But you can't fight nuclear war; you can only die in it—if you are lucky—or survive a brief time in a world that is uninhabitable. And you can't go on using energy as if the supply is never going to run out. It will, and in the meantime, we may find ourselves surviving a brief time in a world that is uninhabitable.

We have so far avoided nuclear war, although the future is not guaranteed. Whether we can avoid the consequences of our fecklessness about energy is still very much in question. We can only do so by changing our ways of living, getting from place to place, growing our food, and making the goods we need. The Bottomless Well essentially argues that our current ways are just fine, thanks. That is an argument which could kill us all.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Parking Lots

There are at least four things wrong with the private car as a primary mode of transportation:
  • It uses enormous amounts of fossil fuels. Even an efficient car (which in the U.S. seems to be defined as 25-50 miles per gallon) will use as much as 180 gallons per year for a daily commute of 10 miles each way. Inefficient cars use a lot more. All of this based on highway driving, but
  • It gets stuck in traffic jams, sometimes for an hour each way. This raises fuel usage. This in turn makes it more damaging to the environment than it might be without traffic jams. Even assuming the best-case scenario (free flowing traffic moving steadily at optimum speed), the car still has a third problem
  • It generates enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, especially when used on a regular basis by millions of commuters. And when you arrive at your destination
  • You have to put it somewhere. This is either on the street or in a garage. Or in a surface parking lot.
You don't always notice parking lots as you walk around a city. We are so used to them that we tune them out. But it is harder to tune out the damage that they do to the city. They break up the fabric of the street. They make the city hotter than it otherwise might be—less shade and more paving. And if there are enough of them, they create a bombed-out wasteland like downtown Houston.

As if that weren't enough, parking lots make a great deal of money for their owners, who usually pay the attendants a pittance and are taxed at a low rate because property taxes are based on the value of buildings and not land. The value of parking lots as money-spinners often leads parking lot owners to supplement the salaries of public officials in the hope of favorable treatment. This does not improve the quality of governance in cities.

The high profit margin of parking, combined with a badly designed property tax system (in most cities) removes any incentive to put buildings, even bad ones, on the parking wasteland, thus hampering development and making the city less attractive for people who might want to live there or attend events there. Of course, if you don't have ample parking, people won't come to events because they can't think of any way to get to them except by car. But if you do have ample parking, the city will be part wasteland and correspondingly unattractive. It's a wonder that cities work at all in the age of the private car and the parking lot. Some, like Houston, don't, at least not at night: there is usually nobody around the downtown. It is dead. It is eerie. It is depressing.

As if that weren't enough, parking lots do fearful damage to the environment. They encourage people to drive to work, which is bad for a start. They do more damage to water runoff than well-designed buildings or small parks. They heat up the city, as previously noted. And their entrances and exits create traffic jams, which in turn decrease the efficiency of their customers' cars and help increase the greenhouse gases that those cars generate.

Houston is an extreme example—a small number of mediocre skyscrapers surrounded by a bombed-out wasteland—but even older cities are succumbing to the ravages of parking. Another reason why our love affair with the car has become dysfunctional.