Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Making Changes by Working Together

by Bill Totten

Nihonkai Shimbun and Osaka Nichinichi Shimbun

(November 03 2005)

(I've written a weekly column for two Japanese newspapers for the past several years. Patrick Heaton prepared this English version from the Japanese original.)

This past summer our company participated in a national project called "Team Minus Six", which was administered by Japan's Ministry of the Environment. The project entailed setting office air conditioners at 28 degrees Celsius, having male employees wear short-sleeved shirts without neckties or jackets, and having female employees wear comparably cool clothes. The campaign, nicknamed "Cool Biz", was intended to help Japan achieve by 2012 its target of reducing emission of greenhouse gases by six percent below 1990 levels.

Joining Efforts

The countermeasures a single individual may employ against global warming can seem insignificant. But, if many individuals cooperate and combine their efforts, large changes can be achieved. Earlier in the year, when several of our young employees told me they wanted our company to participate in the "Team Minus Six" program, I was impressed that they were not only aware of the imminent "global warming" and "peak oil" catastrophes, but also that they understood that important change occurs only when realistic plans are made and implemented. When each individual cooperates on a team basis, the effects of measures to save resources and reduce pollution can begin to be felt first by the local group, then in the larger community, and eventually on a nation-wide basis. Much can be achieved by team effort.

As autumn approached, the price of oil on world markets continued to remain high. Observers predicted the price of heating oil would be much higher than in recent years. Continuing the "Team Minus Six" program, the Ministry of the Environment launched a "Warm Biz" program stipulating that throughout this winter thermostats in business offices should be set at twenty degrees Celsius. Both Cool Biz and Warm Biz are laudable attempts to reduce greenhouse gases, but I believe we should do more to address our energy and environmental crises.

Peak Oil and the Kyoto Protocol

During the past several months bankers (such as Goldman Sachs), leaders of oil producing nations (such as Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez), and others have warned that crude oil prices soon will exceed $100 a barrel.

On the other hand, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia said in an interview on US television that his country is still capable of producing over ten million barrels of crude oil per day, and that his country should be able to continue oil production for another seventy years. Is it prudent, however, to take his pronouncements at face value? Observers note that it will take vast amounts of energy to inject sea water into Saudi oil fields to extract the remaining oil. We can already see drastic changes in the situations of oil producing nations. For example, Indonesia, the largest oil producer in Southeast Asia, already has become a net oil importer.

In Japan, gasoline prices are rising rapidly, greatly affecting trucking, agriculture, fishing, and other industries that rely heavily on gasoline. Considering the huge role of petroleum products in our daily lives, it would probably be difficult to find an industry that will not be affected by high oil prices. Yet within the mainstream media of Japan there still seem to be very few reports on the issue of peak oil.

Japan's current government seems more focused on privatizing (and cutting) services to its own citizens and re-militarizing relations with other nations than on crucial issues such as energy and pollution. For example, not only has the government and media not informed the public of the pressing issue of peak oil, Prime Minister Koizumi has not made much progress on achieving the goals of the Kyoto Protocol. Even though Japan is a cosignatory of the Kyoto Protocol, Mr Koizumi did nothing and said nothing to prod the United States about rejoining the Kyoto treaty when President Bush visited Kyoto last month. Our government fiddles while the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases continues to rise because nearly half of the global emissions are not being absorbed by the forests or oceans.

Policies Benefiting Elites and Special Interest Groups

I think the primary reason why there are so few government or media reports on diminishing oil resources and other energy and environmental issues is that many in the elite class are gaining tremendously from the current situation. Investors and executives - and their servants in government, the media, and academia - know that reducing energy usage and curbing pollution
requires, and surely will result in, a shrinking of the economy. They may try to maximize their profits, not by being making their companies more responsible about energy and pollution, but, instead, by converting into gold and other safe assets the spoils they gained by squandering our limited endowment of fossil fuels and despoiling our environment.

It is time both to curtail the amount of energy we use and to convert to clean sources of sustainable energy. The brief age of relying on oil and of destroying the planet for short-term profits is ending. Although we need and should hope for responsible media to inform us honestly about vital issues, and responsible government to address those vital issues sincerely and competently, we cannot rely on media and government so thoroughly and so obviously co-opted by privateers. Like the young employees in our company, we each need to seek out alternatives actively on our own. We each need to keep ourselves informed about energy and environment issues and to devise creative and effective ideas based on accurate information. I believe we can achieve these goals if we work together.

Bill Totten


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