The Suppression of Collective Joy

From Counterpunch at http://www.counterpunch.org/gardner01272007.html

January 27 / 28, 2007

Barbara Ehrenreich at the Commonwealth Club

The Suppression of Collective Joy

By FRED GARDNER

Barbara Ehrenreich made a quick visit to San Francisco last week to promote her new book, “Dancing in the Streets.” Her noontime talk at the Commonwealth Club Jan. 18, excerpted below, was attended by about 100 people, mostly women. The subject was the suppression of collective joy, a historical trend that might seem abstruse -who but an insightful sociologist would try to name and explain it?- but which has affected every one of us directly. “‘Collective joy’ is a clunky term,” Ehrenreich acknowledged, “but it’s the best I could come up with.”

Almost a decade ago, before Ehrenreich’s forays into the labor force recounted in “Nickel and Dimed” and “Bait and Switch,” she got interested in human bonding. Not sexual bonding, she explained, and not just the kind that holds families together, but:

“the kinds of bonds that hold communities together and can even bring strangers together… Ritual, organized ways that people can make each other not only happy but joyful, delirious even ecstatic… Dancing, music, singing, feasting -which includes drinking- costuming, masking, face paint, body paint, processions, dramas, sporting competitions, comedies…

“These activities are almost universal. When Europeans fanned out across the globe from the 15th to 19th centuries conquering people, they found rituals and festivities going on everywhere from Polynesia to Alaska to Sub-Saharan Africa to india. Everywhere there were occasions for dressing up -often in a religious context but not always. The Europeans were horrified by what they saw and described it as ‘savagery’ and ‘devil worship.’ They thought it showed the inherent inferiority of indigenous people that they could let go in this way. The truth is, these traditions were European, too, but forgotten. The ancient Greeks had a god for ecstasy, Dionysus. Women especially worshipped Dionysus…

“There is evidence that Christianity until the 13th century was very much a danced religion. The archbishops were always complaining about it. When dancing was eventually banned in the churches it went outside in the form of carnival and other festivities that filled the church calendar. In 15th century France, one out of four days of the year was given over to festivities of some sort. People didn’t live to work, they lived to party…

“Going back 10,000 years we find rock art depicting lines and circles of dancing people. There is evidence that this capacity for collective joy, especially through synchronized, rhythmic activity such as dance, is hardwired into humans. It’s part of our unique evolutionary heritage. Chimpanzees can get excited and jump up and down and wave their arms, but they’ve got no rhythm. They can’t dance. They can’t coordinate their emotions…

“The evolutionary scientists say it was probably this capacity that allowed humans to form groups larger than kinship groups -large groups that were essential for defense against predatory animals and eventually against bands of other humans. The techniques -the dance steps, the musical instruments, the costumes- are cultural, but the capacity for collective joy is innate. We are hardwired to be party animals…

“Why is there so little collective joy today? Why is our culture bereft of opportunity for this kind of thing? Mostly, we sit in cubicles at work and we sit in our cars. If you mention ‘ecstasy’ people think you’re talking about a drug. The cure for loneliness and isolation and despair is Prozac… The simple answer is: the ancient tradition of festivities and ecstatic rituals was deliberately suppressed by elites -people in power who associated this kind of frolicking with the lower classes and especially with women…

“The Romans had their own Dionysus worshippers in Italy and they slaughtered them in 60 BC with the kind of ferocity they later directed at Christians… The Protestants were the real killjoys. They just wiped out that entire calendar of festivities from the Catholic church and outlawed dancing and masking. Around the world it was mainly missionaries who crushed the ecstatic rituals of indigenous people. In this country, slave owners banned not only reading and books, they banned the drum. They understood that in these kinds of rituals people found collective strength. A similar thing happened in 18th century Arabia with the rise of Wahabist Islam, the antecedent of Al Qaeda and Saudi Islam. Their main enemy was not Christians or Jews so much as it was the Sufi tradition within Islam which is ecstatic and involves music and dance.

“Elites fear that disorderly kinds of events could turn into uprisings. And this fear is justified. Whether you’re looking at European peasants in the late middle ages or Caribbean slaves in the 19th century, they were using festivity and carnival as the occasion for revolts.

“A second reason that comes with the industrial revolution is, of course, the need to impose social discipline. It’s hard to take agricultural people or herding people and convince them that they should get up and work six days a week, 12 hours a day, and then spend the seventh day listening to boring sermons in a church. To discipline the working class and slaves was a huge enterprise.”

Festivity has been replaced over the centuries by spectacle -“something you watch or listen to but you do not participate in directly.” As examples Ehrenreich cited the transition “from danced Christian worship to the masque, a drama going on on stage,” and football, which originally “was played by hundreds of people on a side. It was a mass sport in which whole villages took on other villages, men women and children. It was a melee that got tamed into football where a few participate and most watch. Spectacles involve your eyes and ears, not the muscles of your body, and they require no creativity on the part of the spectator. The creativity has been centralized.”

People keep trying to reinstitute festivity because, Ehrenreich emphasized, “we were meant to get up and move.” She recalled “the rock rebellion of the 1950s and ’60s -the kids in the audience refused to sit still. They kept lifting up out of their seats. Police would be called. But the kids would get up and dance as soon as the police turned their backs.” Other examples include “costuming, even if it’s only wearing the team colors or a cheesehead. Face paint -what could be more ancient. The wave… In Latin America you get people bringing their drums to the stadium and dancing in the bleachers…

Ehrenreich remarked the emergence of entirely new festivities such as Burning Man, the Love Parade in Berlin (at which a million people have danced in the streets), and the transformation of Halloween into a grown-up celebration. In response to a question about San Francisco’s efforts to contain the partying on Halloween, Ehrenreich said that repression has often been rationalized in terms of maintaining public safety and order -“too much noise, that kind of thing.” Almost as an afterthought she added, “a lot of the repression of what goes on in clubs is carried out in the name of the war on drugs.” (Ehrenreich is a former board member of NORML.)

Ehrenreich’s scholarship (even her throwaway lines contain the seeds of PhD theses) doesn’t keep her from waxing lyrical. She concluded by reading a passage from “Dancing in the Streets:” “Walking along the beach in Rio we came upon members of a Samba school rehearsing for Carnivale -four-year-olds to octogenarians, men and women, some gorgeously costumed and some in tank tops and shorts -Rio street clothes. To a 19th century missionary or a 21st century religious puritan their movements might have seemed lewd or at least suggestive. (Missionaries always called indigenous people lewd.) Certainly the conquest of the streets by a crowd of brown-skinned people would have been distressing in itself. But the samba school danced down right to the sand in perfect dignity, rapt in their own rhythm, their faces both exalted and shining with an almost religious kind of exaltation. One thin, latte-colored young man dancing just behind the musicians set the pace. What was he in real life? A bank clerk? A busboy? Here, in his brilliant feathered costume, he was a prince, a mythological figure, maybe even a god. Here, for a moment there were no divisions among people except for the political ones created by Carnivale itself. After they reached the boardwalk, bystanders started following in without any indication or announcements, without embarrassment or even alcohol to dissolve the normal constraints of urban life, the samba school turned into a huge crowd and the crowd turned into a momentary festival. There was no quote point to it, no religious overtones, no ideological message, no money to be made. Just the chance -which we need much more of on this crowded planet- to acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sort of celebration.”

Hawking warns: We must recognise the catastrophic dangers of climate change

Hawking warns: We must recognise the catastrophic dangers of climate change

By Steve Connor,

Science Editor Published: 18 January 2007

http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/article2162862.ece

Climate change stands alongside the use of nuclear weapons as one of the greatest threats posed to the future of the world, the Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking has said.

Professor Hawking said that we stand on the precipice of a second nuclear age and a period of

exceptional climate change, both of which could destroy the planet as we know it.

He was speaking at the Royal Society in London yesterday at a conference organised by the

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists which has decided to move the minute hand of its “Doomsday Clock”

forward to five minutes to midnight to reflect the increased dangers faced by the world.

Scientists devised the clock in 1947 as a way of expressing to the public the risk of nuclear

conflagration following the use of the atomic weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at

the end of the Second World War.

“As we stand at the brink of a second nuclear age and a period of unprecedented climate change,

scientists have a special responsibility, once again, to inform the public and to advise leaders

about the perils that humanity faces,” Professor Hawking said. “As scientists, we understand the

dangers of nuclear weapons and their devastating effects, and we are learning how human activities and technologies are affecting climate systems in ways that may forever change life on Earth.

“As citizens of the world, we have a duty to share that knowledge. We have a duty, as well, to

alert the public to the unnecessary risks that we live with every day, and to the perils we foresee

if governments and societies do not take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and to prevent further climate change.

“We are here today to outline the results of the Bulletin’s recent deliberations and to warn the

public about the deteriorating state of world and planetary affairs by moving the hand of the clock,” Professor Hawking said.

“Lord Rees of Ludlow, president of the Royal Society, said humankind’s collective impacts on

the biosphere, climate and oceans were unprecedented. These environmentally-driven

threats ­ ‘threats without enemies’ ­ should loom as large in the political perspective as did the

East-West political divide during the Cold War era.

Technology in the 21st century could offer immense opportunities to everyone but it would

also present new threats that were more diverse and more intractable than those posed by nuclear weapons, Lord Rees said.

“To confront these threats successfully ­ and to avoid foreclosing humanity’s long-term potential

­ scientists need to channel their efforts wisely and engage with the political process nationally and internationally.

“We shall need, in all fields of science, individuals with the wisdom and commitment of the

atomic scientists who founded the Bulletin,” he said.

The board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said the threat of nuclear

apocalypse was now almost matched by the environmental threats posed by climate change.

“We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices,” the board said in a statement issued yesterday.

“North Korea’s recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a renewed US emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth.

“As in past deliberations, we have examined other human-made threats to civilisation. We have

concluded the dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons. The effects may be less dramatic in the short term than the destruction that could be wrought by nuclear explosions, but over the next three to four decades climate change could cause drastic harm.”

“Climate Solutions” from Co-op America

“Climate Solutions” from Co-op America

With the election of a new Congress come new opportunities to plan a better way forward on the issues we all care about.

That’s why Co-op America is mailing our recent “Climate Solutions” issue of the Co-op America Quarterly to each new and returning member of the 110th Congress. In it, we explore the climate pollution generated by several economic sectors, and propose economic solutions based on the work of Princeton University’s
Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) — a plan designed at the speed and scale necessary to curb the climate crisis.

The CMI scientists propose reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by dividing this huge task into smaller, doable segments – or “wedges” – of equal size. They propose 15 wedges, of which we only need to achieve seven to make a difference to the climate.

Co-op America used our own green filters on the CMI analysis, screening out measures that are too dangerous, costly, and slow (like nuclear power plants and “clean” coal), while beefing up those that are safe and cost-effective (like energy efficiency and renewables).

The resulting plan offers 12 “wedges” (listed below)that each would reduce carbon emissions by 1 billion tons per year by 2054. What’s more, the plan issafe, clean, cost-effective, doable with today’s technologies, and ambitious enough to meet the climate challenge.

Steps like number 2 (drive less), number 3 (push energy use in buildings to zero), and numbers 5 and 6 (expand wind and solar power), depend on each of us taking action today. (Use the links in this Real Money article to find renewable power in your state, or this article to reduce the energy-use of your appliances.)

Other steps require real action now from our elected officials, car companies, power companies, and other decision-makers to create real change.
If you have a blog or a personal Web site, post Co-op America’s 12 Steps to Curbing Climate Change and help us spread the word. Send a copy of this e-mailto your state, local, and national representatives, and to your friends and family.

Send our complete 12-Steps editorial to your local newspaper for reprinting, or contact us for copies of our “Climate Solutions” Quarterly to share with friends, family, and elected officials.

Here’s to real climate solutions,

Alisa Gravitz
Executive Director
Co-op America

Each of these steps would reduce carbon emissions by at least 1 billion tons per year by 2054. Implementing at least seven of them brings us to the scale necessary to meet the climate challenge, but we have to start now, and move quickly. We have a ten-year window in which we need to be well on the way to achieving these steps.

The good news is that we have the technology and know-how to accomplish all of these steps right now. The best news is that we don’t just save the climate with these steps. They bring us real energy security, more jobs, a cleaner environment, real progress on the war against poverty, and a safer world. Let’s get started today.

1. Increase fuel economy for the world’s 2 billion cars from an average of 30 mpg to 60 mpg. (Current US averages are a woeful 22 mpg.)

2. Cut back on driving. Decrease car travel for 2 billion 30-mpg cars from 10,000 to 5,000 miles per year, through increased use of mass transit, telecommuting, and walking and biking.

3. Increase energy efficiency by one-quarter in existing buildings and appliances. Move to zero-emissions plans for new buildings.

4. Decrease tropical deforestation to zero, and double the rate of new tree plantings.

5. Stop soil erosion. Apply “conservation tillage” techniques to cropland at 10 times the current usage. Encourage local, organic agriculture.

6. Increase wind power. Add 3 million 1-megawatt windmills, 75 times the current capacity.

7. Push hard for solar power. Add 3,000 gigawatt-peak solar photovoltaic units, 1,000 times current capacity.

8. Increase efficiency of coal plants from an average of 32 percent efficiency to 60 percent, and shut down plants that don’t meet the standard. No net new coal plants; for new plants built, an equal number should close.

9. Replace 1,400 gigawatts of coal with natural gas, a four-fold increase in natural gas usage over current levels — a short-term step until zero-emissions renewable technologies can replace natural gas.

10. Sequester carbon dioxide at existing coal plants. Sequestration involves storing carbon dioxide underground, an unproven technology that may, nonetheless, be better than nothing.

11. Develop zero-emissions vehicles, including plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles powered by renewable energy.


12. Develop biomass as a short-term replacement for fossil fuel until better carbon-free technologies are developed — but only biofuels made from waste, and made without displacing farmland and rainforests.

If you have a blog or a personal Web site, post Co-op America’s 12 Steps to Curbing Climate Change and help us spread the word. E- mail us for graphics you can use to link to our site.

The Real Scoop on Biofuels – by Brian Tokar

From: ww4report.com, Dec. 15, 2006
“Green Energy” Panacea or Just the Latest Hype?
By Brian Tokar*

You can hardly open up a major newspaper or national magazine these days without encountering the latest hype about biofuels, and how they’re going to save oil, reduce pollution and prevent climate change. Bill Gates, Sun Microsystems’ Vinod Khosla, and other major venture capitalists are investing millions in new biofuel production, whether in the form of ethanol, mainly derived from corn in the U.S. today; or biodiesel, mainly from soybeans and canola seed. It’s virtually a “modern day gold rush,” as described by the New York Times, paraphrasing the chief executive of Cargill, one of the main benefactors of increased subsidies to agribusiness and tax credits to refiners for the purpose of encouraging biofuel production.

The Times reported June 25, 2006 that some 40 new ethanol plants are currently under construction in the US, aiming toward a 30% increase in domestic production. Archer Daniels Midland, the company that first sold the idea of corn-derived ethanol as an auto fuel to Congress in the late 1970s, has doubled its stock price and profits over the last two years. ADM currently controls a quarter of U.S. ethanol fuel production, and recently hired a former Chevron executive as its CEO.

Several well-respected analysts have raised serious concerns about this rapid diversion of food crops toward the production of fuel for automobiles. WorldWatch Institute founder Lester Brown, long concerned about the sustainability of world food supplies, says that fuel producers are already competing with food processors in the world’s grain markets. “Cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in grain production this year,” reports Brown — a serious concern in a world where the grain required to make enough ethanol to fill an SUV tank is enough to feed a person for a whole year. Others have dismissed the ethanol gold rush as nothing more than the subsidized burning of food to run automobiles.

The biofuel rush is having a significant impact worldwide as well. Brazil, often touted as the most impressive biofuel success story, is using half its annual sugarcane crop to provide 40% of its auto fuel, while accelerating deforestation to grow more sugarcane and soybeans. Malaysian and Indonesian rainforests are being bulldozed for oil palm plantations — threatening endangered orangutans, rhinos, tigers and countless other species — in order to serve at the booming European market for biodiesel.

Are these reasonable tradeoffs for a troubled planet, or merely another corporate push for profits? Two recent studies aim to document the full consequences of the new biofuel economy and realistically assess its impact on fuel use, greenhouse gases and agricultural lands. One study, originating from the University of Minnesota, is moderately hopeful in the first two areas, but offers a strong caution about land use. The other, from Cornell University and UC Berkeley, concludes that every domestic biofuel source — those currently in use as well as those under development — produce less energy than is consumed in growing and processing the crops.

The Minnesota researchers attempted a full lifecycle analysis of the production of ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soy. They documented the energy costs of fuel production, pesticide use, transportation, and other key factors, and also accounted for the energy equivalent of soy and corn byproducts that remain for other uses after the fuel is extracted. Their paper, published in the July 25, 2006 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that ethanol production offers a modest net energy gain of 25% over oil, resulting in 12% less greenhouse gases than an equivalent amount of gasoline. The numbers for biodiesel are more promising, with a 93% net energy gain and a 41% reduction in greenhouse gases.

The researchers cautioned, however, that these figures do not account for the significant environmental damage from increased acreages of these crops, including the impacts of pesticides, nitrate runoff into water supplies, nor the increased demand on water, as “energy crops” like corn and soy begin to displace more drought-tolerant crops such as wheat in several Midwestern states.

The most serious impact is on land use. The Minnesota paper reports that in 2005, 14% of the U.S. corn harvest was used to produce some 3.9 billion gallons of ethanol, equivalent to 1.7% of current gasoline usage. About 1 1/2 percent of the soy harvest produced 68 million gallons of biodiesel, equivalent to less than one tenth of one percent of gas usage. This means that if all of the country’s corn harvest was used to make ethanol, it would displace 12% of our gas; all of our soybeans would displace about 6% of diesel use. But if the energy used in producing these biofuels is taken into account, the picture becomes worse still. It requires roughly eight units of gas to produce 10 units of ethanol, and five units of gas to produce 10 units of biodiesel; hence the net is only two units of ethanol or five units of biodiesel. Therefore the entire soy and corn crops combined would really only less than 3% of current gasoline and diesel use. This is where the serious strain on food supplies and prices originates.

The Cornell study is even more skeptical. Released in July 2005, it was the product of an ongoing collaboration between Cornell agriculturalist David Pimentel, environmental engineer Ted Patzek, and their colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley, and was published in the journal Natural Resources Research. This study found that, on balance, making ethanol from corn requires 29% more fossil fuel than the net energy produced and biodisel from soy results in a net energy loss of 27%. Other crops, touted as solutions to the apparent diseconomy of current methods, offer even worse results.

Switchgrass, for example, can grow on marginal land and presumably won’t compete with food production (you may recall George Bush’s mumbling about switchgrass in his 2006 State of the Union speech), but it requires 45% more energy to harvest and process than the energy value of the fuel that is produced. Wood biomass requires 57% more energy than it produces, and sunflowers require more than twice as much energy than is available in the fuel that is produced. “There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel,” said David Pimentel in a Cornell press statement this past July. “These strategies are not sustainable.”

The Cornell/Berkeley study has drawn the attention of numerous critics, some of whom suggest that Ted Patzek’s background in petroleum engineering disqualifies him from objectively assessing the energy balance of biofuels. Needless to say, in a field where both oil and agribusiness companies are vying for public subsidies, the technical arguments can become rather furious. An earlier analysis by the Chicago-area Argonne National Laboratory (once a Manhattan Project offshoot) produced data much closer to the Minnesota results, but a response by Patzek pointed out several potential flaws in that study’s shared assumptions with an earlier analysis by the USDA. In another recent article, Harvard environmental scientist Michael McElroy concurred with Pimentel and Patzek: “[U]nfortunately the promised benefits [of ethanol] prove upon analysis to be largely ephemeral.”

Even Brazilian sugarcane, touted as the world’s model for conversion from fossil fuels to sustainable “green energy,” has its downside. The energy yield appears beyond question: it is claimed that ethanol from sugarcane may produce as much as eight times as much energy as it takes to grow and process. But a recent World Wildlife Fund report for the International Energy Agency raises serious questions about this approach to future energy independence. It turns out that 80% of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions come not from cars, but from deforestation – – the loss of embedded carbon dioxide when forests are cut down and burned. A hectare of land may save 13 tons of carbon dioxide if it is used to grow sugarcane, but the same hectare can absorb 20 tons of CO2 if it remains forested. If sugarcane and soy plantations continue to spur deforestation, both in the Amazon and in Brazil’s Atlantic coastal forests, any climate advantage is more than outweighed by the loss of the forest.

Genetic engineering, which has utterly failed to produce healthier or more sustainable food (and also failed to create a reliable source of biopharmaceuticals without threatening the safety of our food supply) is now being touted as the answer to sustainable biofuel production. Biofuels were all the buzz at the biotech industry’s most recent mega- convention in April 2006, and biotech companies are all competing to cash in on the biofuel bonanza. Syngenta (the world’s largest herbicide manufacturer and number three, after Monsanto and DuPont, in seeds) is developing a GE corn variety that contains one of the enzymes needed to convert corn starch into sugar before it can be fermented into ethanol. Companies are vying to increase total starch content, reduce lignin (necessary for the structural integrity of plants but a nuisance for chemical processors), and increase crop yields. Others are proposing huge plantations of fast- growing genetically engineered low-lignin trees to temporarily sequester carbon and ultimately be harvested for ethanol.

However, the utility of incorporating the amylase enzyme into crops is questionable (it’s also a potential allergen), gains in starch production are marginal, and the use of genetic engineering to increase crop yields has never proved reliable. Other more complex traits, such as drought and salt tolerance (to grow energy crops on land unsuited to food production), have been aggressively pursued by geneticists for more than twenty years with scarcely a glimmer of success. Genetically engineered trees, with their long life-cycle, as well as seeds and pollen capable of spreading hundreds of miles in the wild, are potentially a far greater environmental threat than engineered varieties of annual crops. Even Monsanto, always the most aggressive promoter of genetic engineering, has opted to rely on conventional plant breeding for its biofuel research, according to the New York Times (Sept. 8, 2006). Like “feeding the world” and biopharmaceutical production before it, genetic engineering for biofuels mainly benefits the biotech industry’s public relations image.

Biofuels may still prove advantageous in some local applications, such as farmers using crop wastes to fuel their farms, and running cars from waste oil that is otherwise thrown away by restaurants. But as a solution to long-term energy needs on a national or international scale, the costs appear to far outweigh the benefits. The solution lies in technologies and lifestyle changes that can significantly reduce energy use and consumption, something energy analysts like Amory Lovins have been advocating for some thirty years. From the 1970s through the ’90s, the U.S. economy significantly decreased its energy intensity, steadily lowering the amount of energy required to produce a typical dollar of GDP. Other industrial countries have gone far beyond the U.S. in this respect. But no one has figured out how to make a fortune on conservation and efficiency. The latest biofuel hype once again affirms that the needs of the planet, and of a genuinely sustainable society, are in fundamental conflict with the demands of wealth and profit.

* Brian Tokar directs the Biotechnology Project at Vermont’s Institute for Social Ecology (social- ecology.org), and has edited two books on the science and politics of genetic engineering, Redesigning Life? (Zed Books, 2001) and Gene Traders (To-ward Freedom, 2004).

Making Other Arrangements by James Howard Kunstler

This article by James Howard Kunstler appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of Orion Magazine; On the web at http://www.orionmagazine.org/pages/om/07-1om/Kunstler.html

Making Other Arrangements
James Howard Kunstler

AS THE AMERICAN PUBLIC CONTINUES sleepwalking into a future of energy scarcity, climate change, and geopolitical turmoil, we have also continued dreaming. Our collective dream is one of those super-vivid ones people have just before awakening. It is a particularly American dream on a particularly American theme: how to keep all the cars running by some other means than gasoline. We’ll run them on ethanol! We’ll run them on biodiesel, on synthesized coal liquids, on hydrogen, on methane gas, on electricity, on used French-fry oil . . . !

The dream goes around in fevered circles as each gasoline replacement is examined and found to be inadequate. But the wish to keep the cars going is so powerful that round and round the dream goes. Ethanol! Biodiesel! Coal liquids . . .

And a harsh reality indeed awaits us as the full scope of the permanent energy crisis unfolds. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil production peaked in December 2005 at just over 85 million barrels a day. Since then, it has trended absolutely flat at around 84 million. Yet world oil consumption rose consistently from 77 million barrels a day in 2001 to above 85 million so far this year. A clear picture emerges: demand now exceeds world supply. Or, put another way, oil production has not increased despite the ardent wish that it would by all involved, and despite the overwhelming incentive of prices having nearly quadrupled since 2001.

There is no question that we are in trouble with oil. The natural gas situation is comparably ominous, with some differences in the technical details—and by the way, I am referring here to methane gas (CH4), the stuff that fuels kitchen stoves and home furnaces, not cars and trucks. Natural gas doesn’t deplete slowly like oil, following a predictable bell-curve pattern; it simply stops coming out of the ground when a particular gas well is played out. You also tend to get your gas from the continent you are on. To import natural gas from overseas, it has to be liquefied, loaded in a special kind of expensive-to-build-and-operate tanker, and then offloaded at a specialized marine terminal.

Half the homes in America are heated with gas furnaces and about 16 percent of our electricity is made with it. Industry uses natural gas as the primary ingredient in fertilizer, plastics, ink, glue, paint, laundry detergent, insect repellent, and many other common household necessities. Synthetic rubber and man-made fibers like nylon could not be made without the chemicals derived from natural gas. In North America, natural gas production peaked in 1973. We are drilling as fast as we can to keep the air conditioners and furnaces running.

What’s more, the problems of climate change are amplifying, ramifying, and mutually reinforcing the problems associated with rapidly vanishing oil and gas reserves. This was illustrated vividly in 2005, when slightly higher ocean temperatures sent Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slamming into the U.S. Gulf Coast. Almost a year later, roughly 12 percent of oil production and 9.5 percent of natural gas production in the gulf was still out, probably for good. Many of these production platforms may never be rebuilt, because the amounts of oil and gas left beneath them would not justify the cost. If there is $50 million worth of oil down there, why spend $100 million replacing a wrecked platform to get it?

Climate change will also ramify the formidable problems associated with alternative fuels. As I write, the American grain belt is locked in a fierce summer drought. Corn and soybean crops are withering from Minnesota to Illinois; wheat is burning up in the Dakotas and Kansas. Meanwhile, the costs of agricultural “inputs”—from diesel fuel to fertilizers made from natural gas to oil-derived pesticides—have been ramping up steadily since 2003 to the great distress of farmers. Both weather and oil costs are driving our crop yields down, while the industrial mode of farming that has evolved since the Second World War becomes increasingly impractical. We are going to have trouble feeding ourselves in the years ahead, not to mention the many nations who depend for survival on American grain exports. So the idea that we can simply shift millions of acres from food crops to ethanol or biodiesel crops to make fuels for cars represents a staggering misunderstanding of reality.

Still, the widespread wish persists that some combination of alternative fuels will rescue us from this oil and gas predicament and allow us to continue enjoying by some other means what Vice-President Cheney has called the “non-negotiable” American way of life. The truth is that no combination of alternative fuels or systems for using them will allow us to continue running America, or even a substantial fraction of it, the way we have been. We are not going to run Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, Monsanto, and the Interstate Highway System on any combination of solar or wind energy, hydrogen, ethanol, tar sands, oil shale, methane hydrates, nuclear power, thermal depolymerization, “zero-point” energy, or anything else you can name. We will desperately use many of these things in many ways, but we are likely to be disappointed in what they can actually do for us.

The key to understanding the challenge we face is admitting that we have to comprehensively make other arrangements for all the normal activities of everyday life. I will return to this theme shortly, but first it is important to try to account for the extraordinary amount of delusional thinking that currently dogs our collective ability to think about these problems.

The widespread wish to just uncouple from oil and gas and plug all our complex systems into other energy sources is an interesting and troubling enough phenomenon in its own right to merit some discussion. Perhaps the leading delusion is the notion that energy and technology are one and the same thing, interchangeable. The popular idea, expressed incessantly in the news media, is that if you run out of energy, you just go out and find some “new technology” to keep things running. We’ll learn that this doesn’t comport with reality. For example, commercial airplanes are either going to run on cheap liquid hydrocarbon fuels or we’re not going to have commercial aviation as we have known it. No other energy source is concentrated enough by weight, affordable enough by volume, and abundant enough in supply to do the necessary work to overcome gravity in a loaded airplane, repeated thousands of times each day by airlines around the world. No other way of delivering that energy source besides refined liquid hydrocarbons will allow that commercial system to operate at the scale we are accustomed to. The only reason this system exists is that until now such fuels have been cheap and abundant. We are not going to replace the existing worldwide fleet of airplanes either, and besides, there is no other type of airplane we have yet devised that can work differently.

There may be other ways of moving things above the ground, for instance balloons, blimps, or zeppelin-type airships. But they will move much more slowly and carry far less cargo and human passengers than the airplanes we’ve been enjoying for the past sixty years or so. The most likely scenario in the years ahead is that aviation will become an increasingly expensive, elite activity as the oil age dribbles to a close, and then it will not exist at all.

Another major mistake made by those who fail to pay attention is overlooking the unanticipated consequences of new technology, which more often than not add additional layers of problems to existing ones. In the energy sector, one of the most vivid examples is seen in the short history of the world’s last truly great oil discovery, the North Sea fields between Norway and the UK. They were found in the ’60s, got into production in the late ’70s, and were pumping at full blast in the early ’90s. Then, around 1999, they peaked and are now in extremely steep decline—up to 50 percent a year in the case of some UK fields. The fact that they were drilled with the latest and best new technology turns out to mean that they were drained with stunning efficiency. “New technology” only hastened Britain’s descent into energy poverty. Now, after a twenty-year-long North Sea bonanza in which it enjoyed an orgy of suburbanization, Great Britain is again a net energy importer. Soon the Brits will have no North Sea oil whatsoever and will find themselves below their energy diet of the grim 1950s.

If you really want to understand the U.S. public’s penchant for wishful thinking, consider this: We invested most of our late twentieth-century wealth in a living arrangement with no future. American suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. The far-flung housing subdivisions, commercial highway strips, big-box stores, and all the other furnishings and accessories of extreme car dependence will function poorly, if at all, in an oil-scarce future. Period. This dilemma now entails a powerful psychology of previous investment, which is prompting us to defend our misinvestments desperately, or, at least, preventing us from letting go of our assumptions about their future value. Compounding the disaster is the unfortunate fact that the manic construction of ever more futureless suburbs (a.k.a. the “housing bubble”) has insidiously replaced manufacturing as the basis of our economy.

Meanwhile, the outsourcing of manufacturing to other nations has spurred the development of a “global economy,” which media opinion-leaders such as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (author of The World Is Flat) say is a permanent state of affairs that we had better get used to. It is probably more accurate to say that the global economy is a set of transient economic relations that have come about because of two fundamental (and transient) conditions: a half century of relative peace between great powers and a half century of cheap and abundant fossil-fuel energy. These two mutually dependent conditions are now liable to come to an end as the great powers enter a bitter contest over the world’s remaining energy resources, and the world is actually apt to become a lot larger and less flat as these economic relations unravel.

This is approximately the state of the nation right now. It is deeply and tragically ironic that the more information that bombards us, the less we seem to understand. There are cable TV news networks and Internet news sites beyond counting, yet we are unable to process this deluge of information into a coherent public discussion about the fundamental challenges that our civilization faces—not to mention a sensible agenda for meeting these hardships. Meanwhile, CBS News tells millions of viewers that the tar sands of Alberta will solve all our problems, or (two weeks later) that the coal beds under Montana and Wyoming will sustain business as usual, and CNN tells another several million viewers that we can run everything here on ethanol, just like they do in Brazil.

Of course, the single worst impediment to clear thinking among most individuals and organizations in America today is the obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs. Even the environmental community is guilty of this. The esteemed Rocky Mountain Institute ran a project for a decade to design and develop a “hyper-car” capable of getting supernaturally fabulous mileage, in the belief that this would be an ecological benefit. The short-sightedness of this venture? It only promoted the idea that we could continue to be a car-dependent society; the project barely gave nodding recognition to the value of walkable communities and public transit.

The most arrant case of collective cluelessness now on view is our failure to even begin a public discussion about fixing the U.S. passenger railroad system, which has become so decrepit that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of it. It’s the one thing we could do right away that would have a substantial impact on our oil use. The infrastructure is still out there, rusting in the rain, waiting to be fixed. The restoration of it would employ hundreds of thousands of Americans at all levels of meaningful work. The fact that we are hardly even talking about it—at any point along the political spectrum, left, right, or center—shows how fundamentally un-serious we are.

This is just not good enough. It is not worthy of our history, our heritage, or the sacrifices that our ancestors made. It is wholly incompatible with anything describable as our collective responsibility to the future.

We have to do better. We have to start right away making those other arrangements. We have to begin the transition to some mode of living that will allow us to carry on the project of civilization—and I would argue against the notion advanced by Daniel Quinn and others that civilization itself is our enemy and should not be continued. The agenda for facing our problems squarely can, in fact, be described with some precision. We have to make other arrangements for the basic activities of everyday life.

In general, the circumstances we face with energy and climate change will require us to live much more locally, probably profoundly and intensely so. We have to grow more of our food locally, on a smaller scale than we do now, with fewer artificial “inputs,” and probably with more human and animal labor. Farming may come closer to the center of our national economic life than it has been within the memory of anyone alive now. These changes are also likely to revive a menu of social and class conflicts that we also thought we had left behind.

We’ll have to reorganize retail trade by rebuilding networks of local economic interdependence. The rise of national chain retail business was an emergent, self-organizing response to the conditions of the late twentieth century. Those conditions are now coming to an end, and the Wal-Mart way of doing business will come to an end with them: the twelve-thousand-mile merchandise supply line to Asian factories; the “warehouse on wheels” made up of thousands of tractor-trailer trucks circulating endlessly between the container-ship ports and the big-box store loading docks. The damage to local economies that the “superstores” leave behind is massive. Not only have they destroyed multilayered local networks for making and selling things, they destroyed the middle classes that ran them, and in so doing they destroyed the cultural and economic fabric of the communities themselves. This is a lot to overcome. We will have to resume making some things for ourselves again, and moving them through smaller-scale trade networks. We may have fewer things to buy overall. The retail frenzy of recent decades will subside as we struggle to produce things of value and necessarily consume less.

We’ll have to make other arrangements for transporting people and goods. Not only do we desperately need to rebuild the railroad system, but electrifying it—as virtually all other advanced nations have done—will bring added advantages, since we will be able to run it on a range of things other than fossil fuels. We should anticipate a revival of maritime trade on the regional scale, with more use of boats on rivers, canals, and waterways within the U.S. Many of our derelict riverfronts and the dying ports of the Great Lakes may come back to life. If we use trucks at all to move things, it will be for the very last leg of the journey. The automobile will be a diminishing presence in our lives and, increasingly, a luxury that will be resented by those who can no longer afford to participate in the “happy motoring” utopia. The interstate highways themselves will require more resources to maintain than we will be able to muster. For many of us, the twenty-first century will be less about incessant mobility than about staying where we are.
We have to inhabit the terrain of North America differently, meaning a return to traditional cities, towns, neighborhoods, and a productive rural landscape that is more than just strictly scenic or recreational. We will probably see a reversal of the two-hundred-year-long trend of people moving from the country and small towns to the big cities. In fact, our big cities will probably contract substantially, even while they re-densify at their centers and along their waterfronts. The work of the New Urbanists will be crucial in rebuilding human habitats that have a future. Their achievement so far has been not so much in building “new towns” like Seaside, Florida, or Kentlands, Maryland, but in retrieving a body of knowledge, principle, and methodology for urban design that had been thrown away in our mad effort to build the drive-in suburbs.

It is harder to predict exactly what may happen with education and medicine, except to say that neither can continue to operate as rackets much longer, and that they, like everything else, will have to become smaller in scale and much more local. Our centralized school districts, utterly dependent on the countless daily trips of fleets of yellow buses and oppressive property taxes, have poor prospects for carrying on successfully in an energy-scarce economy. However, we will be a less affluent nation in the post-oil age, and therefore may be hard-pressed to replace them. A new, more locally based education system may arise instead out of home-schooling, as household classes aggregate into new, small, neighborhood schools. College will cease to be a mass-consumer activity, and may only be available to social elites—if it continues to exist at all. Meanwhile, we’re in for a pretty stark era of triage as the vast resources of the “medical industry” contract. Even without a global energy crisis bearing down on us, the federal Medicaid and Medicare systems would not survive the future as currently funded.

As a matter of fact, you can state categorically that anything organized on a gigantic scale, whether it is a federal government or the Acme Corporation or the University of Michigan, will probably falter in the energy-scarce future. Therefore, don’t pin your hopes on multinational corporations, international NGOs, or any other giant organizations or institutions.

Recent events have caused many of us to fear that we are headed toward a Big Brother kind of governmental tyranny. I think we will be lucky if the federal government can answer the phones, let alone regulate anyone’s life, in the post-oil era. As power devolves to the local and regional level, the very purpose of our federal arrangements may come into question. The state governments, with their enormous bureaucracies, may not be better off. Further along in this century, the real political action will likely shift down to the local level, as reconstructed neighborly associations allow people to tackle problems locally with local solutions.

It’s a daunting agenda, all right. And some of you are probably wondering how you are supposed to remain hopeful in the face of these enormous tasks. Here’s the plain truth, folks: Hope is not a consumer product. You have to generate your own hope. You do that by demonstrating to yourself that you are brave enough to face reality and competent enough to deal with the circumstances that it presents. How we will manage to uphold a decent society in the face of extraordinary change will depend on our creativity, our generosity, and our kindness, and I am confident that we can find these resources within our own hearts, and collectively in our communities.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER is the author of The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere, as well as the novel Maggie Darling: A Modern Romance. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Indiana Town to Create Sustainable Power

Here’s an article from In Business magazine  

  

THE LITTLE TOWN THAT COULD CREATE RENEWABLE POWER

In Business, September-October, 2006, Vol. 28, No. 5, p. 18

A major goal of this small community is to use homegrown local power sources to become independent from foreign oil by implementing conversion technologies.

Mark Jenner

REYNOLDS, INDIANA in White County is starting a one-town rebellion to launch homegrown local energy production to become independent from foreign oil, while gaining solutions to waste management issues and revitalized economic development. Its biorenewable power resources will convert animal and human waste to biogas and electrical energy. “We do have a vision to create the first biorenewable community in the United States,” declares this town of 533.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels took a bold approach in naming Reynolds the future BioTown USA. With the implementation of the plan to convert Reynolds from a reliance on fossil fuels, a template will be set that simultaneously promotes energy security, rural development, profitable agriculture and a green thriving environment.
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