Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, February 28, 2005


by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (March 2005)

A party which is not afraid of letting culture, business, and welfare go to ruin completely can be omnipotent for a while. -- Jakob Burckhardt

As seen from New York through the screens of the print and broadcast media during the weeks following last year's elections, the news from Washington seemed to promise the chance of animated debate, maybe even strong and honest argument, when the newly-minted 109th Congress assembled on Capitol Hill in early January to take its collective oath of office. Such at least was my supposition. Prominent Democrats were making it a point to complain to equally prominent journalists about the muzzles placed on the snouts of their integrity by the stage managers of Senator John Kerry's failed presidential campaign - no loud objections to the war in Iraq, no sarcasm spilled on the platitudes, nothing uncivil about the patriot in the White House. The restrictions had prevented them from saying what needed to be said about the deliberate and premeditated harm done by the Bush Administration to the American people. But now that the senator from Massachusetts had sailed merrily down the stream on his windsurfing board, the gag rule had been lifted, and they were free at last to speak the truth.

On the other side of the aisle the Republicans were even more up front about their intention to tell a straight and candid story. Emboldened by their November victories in both the presidential and congressional elections, the party's fuglemen were touting their plan to destroy, in all its liberal tenses and declensions, the hated remnants of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. At his triumphant press conference on November 4, President Bush made no attempt to conceal the ferocity of the forthcoming preemptive strike. "I earned capital in the campaign - political capital", he said, "and now I intend to spend it". By Christmas what had become known as the "Bush Agenda" encompassed the privatization of the Social Security system, a reformulation of the tax code in such a way as to provide more money for war and law enforcement, less money for the undeserving poor, the nomination to the Federal Appeals Courts of judges apt to find legal precedents in the books of the Bible rather than in the Articles of the Constitution, more laws limiting the freedom of individuals, fewer laws restraining the freedoms of property.

The lines thus so clearly drawn on the sand tables of the media raised the hope that somewhere in the Capitol or its vicinity a traveler from the provinces was surely bound to come across restless stirrings of parliamentary debate, bold expressions of impolitic dissent, some reason to believe that the forms of democratic government we see pictured on the postcards exist in substance as well as name.

The expectation was short-lived. Under a pale winter sun on the morning of January 4, the Capitol grounds resembled a military encampment. No leaves on the trees, few birds in the sky; the spacious vistas interdicted in all directions by armed men in black uniforms - police at the perimeter barricades, police on motorcycles, police drifting overhead in helicopters. Standing for an hour in the long line of citizens waiting to submit to the security procedures, I understood that it was neither the time nor the place to recite the Gettysburg Address. The impression was that of a medieval walled town preoccupied with its own weakness and fear, and well before I reached the last fortified checkpoint I knew that the notion of a government by the people, for the people, and of the people wasn't the kind of thing likely to meet with the approval of the metal detectors.

The bulwark of suspicion was reinforced by the heavy police presence inside the Capitol, every thirty yards another man in uniform asking for an identity, the official attitude similar to that of customs inspectors inclined to look upon lost luggage and Arab tourists as disguised weapons of mass destruction. It was another hour before I'd found my way to the office in which I filled out a form, sat for a photograph, and so received the press badge that allowed safe passage through the checkpoints. Still obliged to empty my pockets, of course, but no need to remove my shoes.

At noon in the Senate Chamber almost the whole of what its one hundred members like to call the "greatest deliberative body in the world" gathered for the swearing-in of their newly elected companions (nine for a first term, twenty-five for additional terms) , and as they stepped forward four and five at a time to swear the oath of office in the presence of Vice President Dick Cheney, I was struck by the ways in which they looked so much like one another. The media flood the nation's editorial markets with testimonies to the piebald character of the American democracy jumbled together from a wonderful diversity of colors, creeds, and cultural dispensations, which is a swell story, but in the United States Senate not one visible to the naked eye. The press gallery affords a close and well-lighted view of the Chamber, and with it an occasion to study the collection of faces as if they already had become portrait busts in Statuary Hall. Even at the privileged distance of less than twenty feet it was hard to imagine any of the members present - middle-aged and comfortably settled in their flesh, white, wearing expensive suits, glad to be here in Tampa for the golf outing - finding the time to write his or her own speech, much less taking the trouble to read through the 2,858 pages of the Federal Budget that distributes an annual appropriation of $2 trillion. Nothing in their manner suggested a shred of difference in their preconceptions and modus operandi. Red state, blue state; Old Testament, New Testament; popular assembly, oligarchical junta - why argue the details as long as everybody knows how and when to count the money?

The swearing-in ceremony was accomplished in less than an hour, Senator Kerry notable for his absence. Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican majority leader, then delivered a speech welcoming "everyone here and everyone watching at home ... to this historic first day of the 109th Congress". Although never a man known for his oratory, Frist did his best to impart to the words the flourish of high flown sentiment accompanied by stately gestures in the manner of Henry Clay - "My colleagues ... [we] are the stewards of this ancient and yet still living and thriving tradition ... The American people - and indeed the people of the world - look upon this Capitol and those of us who serve here for inspiration and leadership and unwavering devotion to our common cause ... My fellow Senators, you are all honorable men and women ... God bless you ..."

The effect was disconcerting because by the time Frist arrived at his second paragraph, hardly anybody remained in the chamber (two stenographers, the clerk, and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader obliged to speak next), which meant that Frist was addressing what I'm afraid he mistook for his eloquence to nobody else except the cameraman recording the event for C-SPAN and posterity.

Reid's speech consisted of a tribute to Frist ("one of the most prominent transplant surgeons in the country"), a senseless and disjointed anecdote about his father rescued from certain death in an Arizona mine shaft, and a vow to seize "the bipartisan opportunities" available to this new Congress looking "to the future with a greater day, a nicer day, a more pleasant day ahead". Unlike Frist, Reid made no attempt at rhetorical grandeur, content to read his prepared text straight into the camera lens in the flat voice of a real estate agent bored by his own sales presentation.

Much of the legislative business brought before the Senate and the House of Representatives later in the afternoon continued in the same spirit and tone, for the most part consisting of routine measures appointing committees, establishing rules and procedures, expressing sympathy for the victims of the Christmas tsunami in the Indian Ocean, mourning the loss of American soldiers in Iraq. A similarly dull calendar on Wednesday and Thursday gave me the chance to seek out a number of Democrats whom I admired for what I'd seen of their reflections in the news media, among them Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Congressmen Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Henry Waxman of California, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, also of California, the minority leader in the House.

As forthright in my bias as the talking-heads at Fox News, I began each conversation by expressing the hope that somehow the Democrats might find the ways and means with which to counter the Republican motion to reconstitute the United States in the image of Mexico. None of the four respondents quarreled with the observation that what was now at risk in the 109th Congress was nothing more nor less than the principle of democratic government, which, given their constituencies and voting records, wasn't surprising; what was surprising was both their sense of ineffectualness and their agreement as to the obstacles standing in the way of the animated debate that I'd been pleased to think possible when talking to myself in New York.

"It's truly amazing", Waxman said, "that so many people still think that this place is on the level". He explained that ever since the Republicans gained the maioritv in the House in 1994. the House leadership had been changing Rules - eliminating the possibility of debate when one of their own bills comes to the floor for a vote, routinely giving the Democrats as little as twelve hours to read 800 pages of small and treacherous print. No Democrats were invited to the House and Senate conference considering last year's intelligence bill; nor were any Democrats allowed to propose an amendment to the medical prescription bill. Congressional requests for information from the executive agencies of government - from the Pentagon about the cost of weapons, from the Justice Department with regard to its policies on torture and the detention of "enemy combatants" - may or may not receive the courtesy of a reply. In the absence of answers to their questions, Congressional Democrats lately have been forced to file lawsuits in order to discover how the government for which they're held responsible conducts itself behind soundproofed doors.

As an instance of the strong-arm methods deployed by the Republican leadership in the House, also of the majority's contempt for the due process of law, Nancy Pelosi mentioned the new rule, passed with no chance of amendment on the first day of the 109th Congress, that rendered meaningless the name and purpose of the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct. Evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, the Committee henceforth will investigate no charge of moral or financial wrongdoing unless at least one of the Republicans present provides the enabling vote, an event as unlikely as a descent on Washington by the armies of Napoleon.

"These people are shameless", Pelosi said, "arrogant, petty, short-sighted". Representative Markey chose stronger words to express the same meaning. "They do as they please", he said. "They wish to wipe us out".

More than once while listening to the several confessions of parliamentary weakness, it occurred to me that our elected representatives of government construe themselves as having been reduced to the peonage of journalists. Dorgan had reformulated the Democratic Policy Committee to hold hearings meant to advertise the malfeasance of the Bush Administration - hearings about the subversion of the Social Security System, about the Halliburton Company's failure to account for the $10 billion that it had either stolen or buried in the deserts of Mesopotamia - but because the committee lacked subpoena power as well as legislative footing, it would depend for its effect on the whim of the news media. Would CBS News send a camera, or the New York Times a reporter? Waxman likewise presented himself as a mere gadfly, doomed to convene press conferences in the hope that somebody would accept the invitation. Markey described Congress as a "stimulus-response institution", taking its cues from the expression of public outrage that maybe could be incited by the circulation of e-mail and messages posted on the Internet. "We must capture the words", he said, "convert issues into melodrama - children dying, mothers weeping. The coin of the realm." Not wishing to discount Markey's last, best hope for Senator Reid's "nicer and more pleasant day ahead", I refrained from saying that the coin was counterfeit, that to think the media blessed with courage, conscience, or convictions was to build one's house on mud and sand.

The point didn't need belaboring because it was made clear the next day when the Senate Judiciary Committee briefly examined the qualifications of Alberto R Gonzales, the White House counsel, to serve as attorney general of the United States. The nominee showed himself to be a man of little principle and less integrity, a clever eunuch in a corporate harem, grinning and self-satisfied, unwilling to give a straight answer to questions about the part he played in the drawing up of the memoranda for President Bush that referred to the Geneva Convention as "quaint" and "obsolete", and defined torture as "only physical pain of intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injuries such as death or organ failure". When asked for specific recollection of documents that the White House refused to release to the committee, he dodged behind the phrases "I don't recall ... I don't remember ..." Obviously, Senator, "his [President Bush's] priorities will become my priorities ..."

Nor did the Democratic members of the committee hold the judge accountable either to the facts or to the tests of scorn and ridicule. Senator Edward Kennedy and Patrick Leahy expressed concern, even tried to make sense of the bowdlerized record, but neither of them were willing to risk their depleted store of political capital on a bet already lost.

Among the 250-odd people crowded into the hearing room in the Hart Office Building, the majority were reporters come to see and not to tell. Failing to find the stuff of melodrama (children dying, mothers weeping), they turned the story into a corporate press release to which their editors affixed headlines signifying nothing - "GONZALES DEFENDS HIS WHITE HOUSE RECORD" (the Washington Post), "GONZALES SPEAKS AGAINST TORTURE DURING HEARING" (the New York Times).

Or, in plainer language, power is as power does, and if it's accountable to no law other than its own, well then, dear reader, at least you've seen the pictures and heard a government spokesman say that America never tells a lie. What else do you expect? Maybe a piece of marble quarried from one of the Capitol's portrait busts, or possibly a small square of glazed tile cut from the flooring of the Rotunda. A souvenir. Something to remind me of what was once a great republic before it lost the war on terror.

I couldn't have guessed at the scale of the defeat until I came to Washington with the hope of proving it a dismal rumor. But except as proofs of fear and weakness, how else to interpret the practice of torture as state policy, the nervous habit of official secrecy, the military entrenchments around the Supreme Court and the Capitol?

Shortly after noon on Thursday the police locked down the building for twenty minutes - nobody allowed to enter, nobody permitted to leave - while one or another of the government's praetorian guard units (Secret Service, possibly the Wyoming National Guard or elements of the 82nd Airborne Division) cleared the grounds and the nearby streets for the arrival of Vice President Cheney and his vanguard of motorcycles. On the west front of the building workmen were setting up the defenses (tactical, strategic; ancient, modern, and medieval) designed to protect Bush's inauguration later in the month from so vast a host of enemies (real and imagined, foreign and domestic) that the list of suspects amassed by the Department of Homeland Security was said to run to almost as many pages as were to be found in the Pentagon's library of plans for the domination of five continents and seven oceans. The news media already was chattering about the magnificent display of vigilance scheduled for January 20 - 8,500 uniformed officers securing the perimeter of the parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue, thirty-one checkpoints, dogs trained to sniff out explosives, sniper teams on rooftops, patrol boats in the Potomac River, monitors sensitive to poisonous substances in the atmosphere, political protesters confined to cages well out of the sight of Peter Jennings.

Walking down and away from Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon I didn't notice any riflemen practicing their aim on squirrels or pigeons, but I could see the construction gangs extending the fortification of the West Steps, and in the distance beyond their cranes and pulleys, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Maybe it was a trick of the fading light, but instead of calling to mind the strength of the American spirit, the two landmarks at first glance reminded me of stage props for a television news show or a Hollywood movie, conceivably for a theme park Democracyland where, twice on weekdays and three times on Sunday, top quality high-school marching bands perform that well-known and much beloved musical number "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave". The thought was not one that I could slide through the checkpoints at an Inauguration Ball, and I figured that the sooner I got back to New York the better my chance of finding an American political idea not so frightened of a future in which most of the days were apt to be neither nice, non-partisan, nor pleasant.

Bill Totten

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Writer Karel van Wolferen tells Japan ...

... to get out from 'wings of American eagle'

by Manabu Hara, Senior Staff Writer

IHT/Asahi Weekend Beat (February 19 2005)

Japanese government officials claim that under the Koizumi administration, relations between Tokyo and Washington have never been better.

However, in "Sekai ga Nihon o Mitomeru Hi" (The Day that the World Can Take Japan Seriously Again, PHP Interface, 1,785 yen), published this month, Karel van Wolferen, University Professor of Comparative Political and Economic Institutions at the University of Amsterdam, argues that Japan should "discard an antiquated role as a vassal of the United States" and take an independent diplomatic line to contribute to world stability and peace.

In a telephone interview, the writer said that continuation of the same diplomatic line shows Japan lacks a government that can take initiatives to adjust national policy.

The author has written numerous books on Japan, including the best-selling "The Enigma of Japanese Power", which analyzes the Japanese system as a whole.

Q: In the new book, you again say Japan has no government in the true sense. Could you expand on that a bit?

A: Government, in the meaning we usually give to it, implies the ability to take initiatives in making important adjustments to national policy. Japan has a sophisticated administrative system, which is very effective in making small adjustments to maintain the status quo of overall national policy. Those adjustments are made only when domestic social, economic developments or new circumstances surrounding Japan force the country to do so. Postwar Japan has never taken the initiative to change its policy priorities.

Japan has a huge and internationally relevant industrial and financial capacity, which translates into an unacknowledged strong political effect on the world. But Japan is known as a country that does not want to be a political presence and has remained nearly invisible as a political power.

The effect has been continued great political dependence on the United States and the lack of new thinking and new diplomacy to cope with the very great changes in the world around Japan: China becoming a major industrial power, Russia joining the capitalist world and the United States breaking with its own foreign policy traditions.

The Yoshida doctrine, which formulated the priority of maximum expansion of industrial capacity made possible as Japan [was] sheltered in the shadow of the United States, made some sense when there was little policy choice for Tokyo to make during a later phase of the Cold War, but does not at all make sense in this much-changed world. It would seem the country has crept ever more snugly under the wings of the American eagle.

The Koizumi Cabinet slavishly follows the Bush administration in international politics and, very contrary to earlier Japanese objections to war as a policy tool, helps destabilize the world as it does so. It has come time, in this 21st century that Japan discards its antiquated role as a vassal of the United States, become truly independent and develop its own strong diplomacy toward Asian countries and the European Union. With all that, it may contribute to the stability and peace of the world.

Q: Some people say that sending troops to Iraq and Japan's interest in having a permanent seat on the UN Security Council show that Tokyo is trying to change its low profile in international politics.

A: No, I do not think so. Sending troops to Iraq simply means that Tokyo makes it easier for Washington to tell the world the Bush administration has a big ally supporting its occupation of Iraq.

Japanese troops should not be under American supervision, but under that of the UN. Military cooperation with the United States in this case helps give a semblance of legitimacy to an invasion that violates the tradition of international law the world has slowly developed. Japan has been a strong supporter of international law, believing it helps foster international peace. What Japan is doing now runs counter to what it has been saying with emphasis in the past.

If Japan was truly breaking away from its stance of international passivity, it could have reminded Washington that it is heavily dependent on Japan, as Japanese-owned dollars keep supporting the American economy.

Once that had sunk in, it could then have warned the Bush people that they are currently making the world a more dangerous place. No one in his or her right mind believes that present American policies are effective in reducing actual international terrorism.

With respect to becoming a permanent member of the Security Council, this has been a dream of the Japanese establishment for a long time. I think it is a good idea in principle, but many countries would be justified to ask whether permanent Japanese membership would, for practical purposes, merely mean one extra vote for the United States.

The Security Council is a relic from a vanished world, the world just after World War II. Japan would actually be better served by switching its diplomatic energies to another objective relating to the UN. It is the only world forum we have, but it could be made much more effective as one helping to solve humanity's collective problems if the General Assembly were turned into a political body with more weight. There are various ways to do this. A Japanese initiative for such a purpose would surprise other countries and immediately establish Japan as a power to be taken seriously.

Q: Some say it is risky for Japan to pursue an independent diplomatic line while depending on US military might.

A: That kind of argument may have been valid during the Cold War period but not today. It is much riskier now for Japan to remain a de facto protectorate of the United States. Again, the Asian environment has changed dramatically, but Japan is steadily losing room to maneuver diplomatically.

Suppose the neoconservatives and the Republican right wing stir up trouble between China and Taiwan. They are, in fact, continually promoting tension between them. If Japan remains an American appendix, it will have to behave in accordance with American wishes. Such a situation would be very dangerous for Japan. The future of the world depends on a lot of things, not the least one a relatively good relationship between China and Japan.

Japan's strong pacifism used to be viewed in the world as unrealistic and irresponsible. But the 21st century is very different from the 20th century, in which two nuclear superpowers confronted each other. Although any country should have the military means to defend itself, diplomatic means are now far more important than they were in the previous century for peace and stability in the world.

With respect to the Japanese Constitution, it could easily be revised and make the Japanese military legitimate while continuing to express its famous antiwar commitment. The war-renouncing article could confirm that Japan, like all states, has the right to wage war, but the Japanese people, on the basis of their tragic experiences, are resolved never to use this right except to stave off an attacker.

Q: How can Japan reform its governing system to take the initiative in adjusting its national policy?

A: I have written about the various possibilities in quite a few books. But to sum up: Japan should build a politically directed governing system.

I must say that the Japanese bureaucracy will always remain important. There are good aspects to it. As long as normal conditions prevail, the bureaucracy can absorb political madness (which sometimes emerges in the world of politics). The American bureaucracy is rather weak and cannot play the same role as the Japanese administrative system does. At the same time, by its nature, the Japanese bureaucracy cannot take genuine initiatives concerning important national issues - no bureaucracy in history has ever done that on its own. A bureaucratic system has to be guided by people with a political mandate. In a democracy, such guides must represent the wishes of the population and have coherent and responsible visions of desirable possibilities.

I think that since 1993 the Japanese public has nursed a desire for building a true governing system. The political party upheaval of those days instilled a taste for true representation. New political talents have emerged since then, and some politicians have learned a great deal. The consolidation of a political system in which different coalitions of parties could take over from each other would be a healthy development. Very important in this context is that politicians learn to translate what is politically desirable into policies that are feasible and carry them out in cooperation with the bureaucrats.

Q: In your book, you say the image of Japan's "lost decade" is distorted and prevailed due to the influence of the Western media.

A: The international financial press sticks to standard yardsticks derived mainly from neoclassical economics for measuring economic health. As a result, people and governments around the world were given the impression the Japanese industrial machine was on its back and Japan had become an economic basket case. This is utter nonsense.

I would be the last to deny that Japan faces formidable economic problems, but absence of significant growth does not necessarily mean absence of health. In that so-called lost decade, large segments of Tokyo were completely renewed, and an earlier sense of gloom has been replaced by a greater sense of relaxed comfort.

With the fast-rising industrial power of China and India, however, the Japanese industrial and financial systems face entirely new challenges, which are related to changing political realities, insufficiently understood environmental and energy realities, and other problems that will require collective efforts to find solutions and help preserve international order.

This makes the need all the more urgent for Japanese talent to come to the fore and develop new thinking with collective human interests in mind. The nowadays extraordinarily narrow vision of the ideologically driven "big brother" on the other side of the Pacific has become dangerous, which is why Japan ought to assert itself positively rather than meekly follow.

(IHT/Asahi: February 19,2005)

Bill Totten

Saturday, February 26, 2005

From Cleopatra to Columbia

by Randy Udall

Home Power (March 10 2004)

It is now apparent that the space shuttle Columbia was in trouble long before it broke up over Texas last February. Within hours of the tragedy, disturbing photos taken by California astronomers were posted to the Internet. In these images, the streaking shuttle shone like a torch. Off to the side were smaller bright spots, fluttering down and away. These, NASA believes, were omens of disaster, heat shield tiles shedding from the left wing. As superheated plasma fed into the breach, it melted the wing's aluminum skeleton, dooming the reentry. When the first tiles came off, the astronauts were traveling 15,000 miles an hour. Six minutes later, and 1,500 miles to the east, their ship disintegrated over Texas.

From time to time, I lecture about energy issues, and before this accident, I had often compared our industrial civilization to a space shuttle, the world's most sophisticated flying machine. The shuttle,like the civilization, has an enormous energy appetite. During launch, each of its six fuel pumps consumes as much energy as a city of 50,000. At full thrust, its main engines could power California.

As a child of the space age, I remember watching John Glenn's first orbital mission in 1962. It was a quick trip - three laps at 17,544 miles an hour. In a few hours aloft, Glenn clocked 80,000 miles. The original astronauts were revered as a special breed. Lately, though, I've begun to wonder if all of us aren't, in some curious way, as energy-rich and speed-drunk as any NASA pilot. John Glenn and John Doe have more in common than they suspect.

A typical baby boomer, for example, will drive and fly more than a million miles during his or her lifetime, equal to forty trips around the planet. Magellan and Amelia Earhart were the famous circumnavigators of their days. But now every man is Magellan, every woman Amelia. Even if you never fly, it's still possible to log a million miles. Many commuters drive 20,000 miles per year, the distance to the Moon every twelve years. I own a rusty Volvo with 250,000 miles on it. It's been to the Moon, and is on its way back.

Our fantastic hypermobility is taken for granted. This afternoon you could drive to the nearest airport, book a flight for Paris, and fly the Atlantic just like Lindbergh did in 1927. He was greeted by thousands of awestruck Frenchmen, and like Glenn, would be a hero for life. You? You can gripe about the airline food or carp about security. So, how did we get here - to this place where fifty miles per hour seems slow, where jet lag is an occupational hazard, where speed rules? If as someone once wrote, "Your soul can only travel at the speed of a camel", there must be millions of plodding souls out there, searching the barren wastes, wondering where in the blazes their owners went.

Our world is so dominated by machines and motors (fifty in a typical home) that it's easy to forget that most of human history has been powered by muscle.

In his book, Prime Mover: The Natural History of Muscle, Steven Vogel describes how muscle makes up forty percent of our weight, that nature perfected muscle a billion years ago, that muscle powers ant and elephant alike, that "flies fly with it, clams clam up with it". To watch bicyclist Lance Armstrong hammer up the French Alps is to see muscle returned to its former glory.

As every backpacker quickly learns, a muscle-powered world has a different rhythm, a slower tempo. Writing about the Lewis and Clark expedition, author Stephen Ambrose explained, "In 1800, nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, side of beef, no letter, no information, no idea, order, or instruction moved faster. Nothing ever had moved any faster and, most people thought, nothing ever would."

By canoe and horseback, it took Lewis and Clark two-and-a-half years to travel from Saint Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back. Paddling downstream on the swollen Missouri, they may have broached eight miles an hour, but that was their speed limit. To go faster than this, you need a machine of some sort. On flat ground, Armstrong can pedal his bike about thirty miles an hour, generating about one-half horsepower for short periods. If men or women work in unison, it's possible to develop more power, and Cleopatra offers a nice example. Her idea of a good time was to have sixty slaves row her along the Nile. Tugging on the oars, with some encouragement from the lash, this crew could produce about eight or ten horsepower. Put differently, the queen of Egypt, the world 's richest woman, had about 200 times less power at her disposal than a typical soccer mom in an SUV.

Unlike muscle, aka meat, the ancient edible engine, machinery is quite new. Go outside and pop the hood of your car. There in your driveway sits an engine more powerful than anything on the planet two hundred years ago. Your neighbor has one, too. From an energy perspective, both of you are astoundingly rich.

Cars have not been good for civic life, climate protection, or land use planning. But the engines manufactured by car companies each year are more powerful than all the world's electric power plants combined. American automobiles consume about four times more energy each day, in the form of gasoline and diesel, than we humans do in the form of food. They, not we, are the planet's dominant life form. Photovoltaic panels and wind turbines and sailboats run on flows of energy. But machines must be stoked with fuels. Wood, of course, is the original. Towards the end of their empire, the Romans had built an entire fleet of ships to import wood from France and North Africa. Whenever wood ran short, and wherever geology permitted, people burned coal.

In her book Coal: A Human History, Barbara Freese describes how some Chinese miners used to work what they called the "big shift", living in the mine for a month at a time, digging, eating, sleeping, smoking opium, and even doing laundry underground. Coal has long kept people warm, and still does in many places, but it took a genius to turn coal into motion and thus spark the Industrial Revolution. His name is found on every light bulb and solar panel - James Watt, the famed Scottish inventor of the steam engine. From coal came steam and iron, and the three quickly learned how to feed on each other.

The poet Emerson was among the first to grasp the implications. "Coal is a portable climate", he wrote. "Watt whispered in the ear of mankind his secret, that a half-ounce of coal will draw two tons a mile, and coal carries coal, by rail and by boat, to make Canada as warm as Calcutta, and with its comfort brings industrial power".

Today, coal seems like a retro fuel, but more than half of US electricity comes from burning it, and the Chinese have more coal miners than soldiers. If coal and steam feed on each other, so too do energy and ingenuity. In 1903, the Wright Brothers, bachelor bicycle mechanics, deciphered the rules of flight and built the pieces of the world's first airplane, lashing them together with muslin cord. Wilbur Wright, in particular, was brilliant, a total genius. Their plane was powered with gasoline donated by John D Rockefeller and a four-cylinder, twelve-horsepower engine that the Wrights built above their bike shop. When Wilbur flew around the Statute of Liberty in 1905, he lashed a canoe below the wing in case of a water landing. Sixty-six years later, Americans were driving on the moon.

The essayist Loren Eiseley wrote, "Man's long adventure with knowledge has been a climb up the heat ladder. The creature that crept furred through the blue glacial nights now lives surrounded by the hiss of steam, the roar of engines, and the bubbling of vats. And he is himself a great flame, a great roaring wasteful furnace, devouring irreplaceable substances of the earth." Those of us alive today tend to believe that we are living in a normal time, that malls and expressways are the nature of things. From an energy perspective, however, this is lunacy. In recent times, we have read about the Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and Tajiks in central Asia, strange tribes with curious customs. But contemporary Americans are arguably the world's most exotic people, members of the Oil Tribe. Daily energy flows in the US are now a million British thermal units (BTUs) per person. This is the energy equivalent of eight gallons of gasoline or 100 pounds of coal. The queen of Egypt, the world's richest woman, had about 200 times less power at her disposal than a typical soccer mom in an SUV.

One million BTUs is also roughly equivalent to how much energy it would take to ride a bike 25,000 miles. Or the amount of energy contained in a bolt of lightning. This is America - explosive, lit up, mobile, jacked to the nines. The defining ritual of our culture is not Monday Night Football or church on Sunday; it is pulling into a gas station to fill 'er up. Per person, we Americans now consume 140 pounds of petroleum products each week - nearly our body weight every seven days. Petroleum is more addictive than cocaine, and for a culture like ours, all roads eventually lead to Baghdad, to the Persian Gulf, to five Muslim nations that own half the world's remaining oil.

We Americans are as dependent on oil as the Sioux were on bison. But whereas they celebrated the beast in dance, story, and ritual, we pull into the 7-Eleven, buy twenty gallons and whine about the cost. We ought to have a holiday dedicated to petroleum, or at least bow to Mecca when we buy it. And the fact that we don't says something troubling about us.

I'm left with two questions. If our oil-driven civilization can be compared to a space shuttle, have the first tiles already come off? How stable is our Starship Enterprise? And it's not just the 150,000 soldiers we've sent to Iraq, and the other soldiers fighting proxy oil wars on our behalf in Colombia, Kuwait, Qatar, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia that concern me.

Last summer, we also had the spectacle of Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan testifying to Congress about the nation's natural gas crisis. Due to rapid depletion rates at existing wells, Greenspan noted, "More than half of the nation's current gas production must be replaced in the next three years".

Two-thirds of the nation's oil has already been burned, automobile fleet mileage is at its lowest level in twenty years, the 1990s were the warmest decade in a thousand years, purchasers of Hummers qualify for a $100,000 tax deduction, and since 1990 we have added one California's worth of people and automobiles.

And so, as we fasten our seatbelts in the event of unexpected turbulence, it behooves us to ask my second question - is anyone in the cockpit, is someone actually flying this thing, or are we on autopilot? I've visited drilling rigs and power plant control rooms, so I know that engineers are monitoring the electricity grid, gathering the natural gas, and making sure that the Alaska oil pipeline doesn't freeze and turn into the world's largest Chapstick, in Amory Lovins' memorable phrase.

But the more I read, the more convinced I am that the flight deck itself is empty. Maybe the pilot had an infarct, or maybe there never was a pilot, but US energy policy is brain-dead, and prospects for a soft landing don't appear good.

So maybe it's a good time to learn about energy, learn about home power, learn about how we might capture some of that sunlight hitting the roof, which has traveled 93 million miles in eight minutes, photons hauling ass. If we've climbed up Eiseley's heat ladder, our children and grandchildren may have to climb back down. So maybe we ought to spend less money driving to the Moon, and a bit more on compact fluorescent lights, which can reduce our greenhouse gas debts, and on photovoltaic panels, which outliving us, are a gift we can give our descendants, Godspeed on their journey. You and I are traveling awfully fast, but no one ever said that members of the Oil Tribe couldn't join the Sun Clan, celebrate the Solstice, and rearrange our priorities. It's an unusual moment in human history. Maybe speed and power aren't everything they've been cracked up to be. If we slowed down a bit, let the engine cool, maybe our souls could finally catch up.


Bill Totten

Friday, February 25, 2005

Imperatives for Transition to a Sustainable and Just Society

by Ted Trainer (November 2004)

Before it makes sense to discuss the form a sustainable and just society must take it is important to be clear about the nature of the global predicament we are in. Most people do not grasp how grossly unjust and unsustainable our society is. Consequently few realise that we must face up to vast and radical change.

1. First, What is Our Situation?

There is no possibility of the "living standards" of all people on earth ever rising to the present rich world per capita levels of consumption of energy, minerals, timber, water, food, phosphorous, and so on. These rates of consumption are the direct cause of the many numerous alarming global problems now threatening our survival, especially resource depletion, Third World poverty, armed conflict, the destruction of the environment, and a falling quality of life.

Many lines of argument lead to this general conclusion regarding the magnitude of the overshoot. Consider for example,

<> If all nine billion people soon to be living on earth were to consume resources at the present per capita rate in rich countries, world annual resource production rates would have to be about eight times as great as they are now. All estimated potentially recoverable resources of fossil fuels (assuming two trillion tons of coal) would be exhausted in about eighteen years.

<> "Footprint analysis" indicates that the amount of productive land required to provide one person in Australia with food, water, energy and settlement area is about seven to eight hectacres. The US figure is closer to twelve hectacres. If eight billion people were to live as Australians do, approximately seventy billion hectacres of productive land would be required. However the total amount available on the planet is only in the region of eight billion hectacres.

<> Atmospheric scientists have estimated that if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to be kept below twice the pre-industrial level, annual emissions must be in the region of nine billion tons. (Enting, 1994.) For a world population of nine billion this means a per capita limit of one ton per year. Yet the present Australian per capita rate of emission from fuel burning alone is sixteen tons.

The point which such figures makes glaringly obvious is that we are not just a little beyond sustainable levels of resource demand and ecological impact - we are far beyond sustainable levels. Rich world ways, systems and "living standards" are grossly unsustainable, and can never be extended to all of the world's people. We must face up to dramatic reductions in our present per capita levels of production and consumption.

Now add the absurd commitment to economic growth.

We now come to the biggest problem. The main worry is not the present levels of resource use and ecological impact. It is the levels we will rise to given the obsession with constantly increasing production and consumption. The supreme goal in all countries is to raise incomes, "living standards" and the GDP as much as possible, constantly and without any notion of a limit.

Few economists or politicians would be satisfied with 3% rate of economic growth. If we assume a) a 4% per year economic growth, b) a population of nine billion, c) all the world's people rising to the "living standards" we in the rich world would have in 2070 given 4% growth until then, the total volume of world economic output would be 120 times as great as it is now. Even if we assume only 3% growth in rich countries and the Third World rising only to the present "living standards" of the rich countries, the multiple is 14.

So even though the present levels of production and consumption are grossly unsustainable, the determination to have a continual increase in income and economic output will multiply these many times in coming decades. Yet it is impossible to get people or governments to even think about this "limits to growth" critique of our situation.

It is also a grossly unjust society.

We in rich countries could not have anywhere near our present "living standards" if we were not taking far more than our fair share of world resources. Our per capita consumption of items such as petroleum is around seventeen times that of the poorest half of the world's people. The richest 1/5th of the world's people are consuming around 3/4ths of the resources produced. Many people get so little that malnutrition affects 1.2 billion people and more than that number have dangerously dirty water to drink.

This grotesque injustice is primarily due to the fact that the global economy operates on market principles. In a market, need is totally irrelevant and ignored; things go mostly to those who are richer, because they can offer to pay more for them. Thus we in rich countries get almost all of the scarce oil and timber traded, while billions of people in desperate need get none. Even more importantly, the market system explains why Third World development is so very inappropriate to the needs of Third World people. What is developed is not what is needed; it is always what will make most profit for the few people with capital to invest. Thus there is development of export plantations and cosmetic factories but not development of farms and firms in which poor people can produce for themselves the things they need.

These are the reasons why many now regard conventional development as a form of plunder. The Third World has been developed into a state whereby their land and labour benefit the rich, not Third World people. Rich world "living standards" could not be anywhere near so high if the global economy was just.

2. The Required Alternative: The Simpler Way.

There are inescapable implications from the foregoing analysis for the form that a sustainable and just society must take. The basic principles must be:

<> Far simpler material living standards,

<> High levels of self-sufficiency in households, nations and especially neighbourhoods and towns, with relatively little travel, transport or trade. Mostly small, local economies in which most of the things we need are produced by local labour from local resources.

<> Basically cooperative and participatory local systems,

<> A quite different economic system, one not driven by market forces and profit, and in which there is far less work, production, and consumption, and in which there is no growth. There must also be a large cashless sector, including many free goods from local commons, and mutual aid, et cetera.

<> Most problematic, there must be a radically different culture, in which competitive and acquisitive individualism is replaced by frugal, self-sufficient collectivism.

Following are some thoughts on the practical implications of these principles.

Living more simply.

Living more simply does not mean deprivation or hardship. It means focusing on what is sufficient for comfort, hygiene, efficiency, and so on. Most of our basic needs can be met by quite simple and resource-cheap devices and ways, compared with those taken for granted and idealized in consumer society.

Living in ways that minimize resource use should not be seen as an irksome effort that must be made in order to save the planet. These ways can and must become important sources of life satisfaction. We have to come to see as enjoyable many activities such as recycling, growing food, "husbanding" resources, making rather than buying, composting, repairing, bottling fruit, giving old things to others, making things last, and running a relatively self-sufficient household economy.

Local self-sufficiency

We must develop as much self-sufficiency as we reasonably can at the national level (meaning less international trade), at the household level, and especially at the neighbourhood, suburban, town and local regional level. We need to convert our presently barren suburbs into thriving regional economies which produce most of what they need from local resources. They would contain many small enterprises, such as the local bakery, enabling most of us to get to work by bicycle or on foot. Much of our honey, eggs, crockery, vegetables, furniture, fruit, fish and poultry production could come from households and backyard businesses engaged in craft and hobby production. It is much more satisfying to produce most things in craft ways rather than in industrial factories.

Many market gardens could be located throughout the suburbs and cities, for example on derelict factory sites and beside railway lines. Having food produced close to where people live would enable nutrients to be recycled back to the soil through compost heaps and garbage gas units.

We should convert one house on each block to become a neighbourhood workshop, including a recycling store, meeting place, surplus exchange and library. Because there will be far less need for transport, we could dig up many roads, greatly increasing city land area available for community gardens, workshops, ponds, forests, et cetera. Most of your neighbourhood could become a Permaculture jungle, an "edible landscape" crammed with long-lived, largely self-maintaining productive plants such as fruit and nut trees.

There would be many varieties of animals living in our neighbourhoods, including an entire fishing industry based on tanks and ponds. In addition, many materials can come from the communal woodlots, fruit trees, bamboo clumps, clay pits, forests, ponds, meadows, and so on. These would provide many free goods. Thus we will develop the "commons", the community land and resources from which all can take food and materials.

It would be a leisure-rich environment. Suburbs at present are leisure deserts; there is not much to do. The alternative neighbourhood would be full of familiar people, small businesses, common projects, animals, gardens, forests and alternative technologies and therefore full of interesting things to do. There would be many festivals, drama clubs and celebrations. Consequently people would be less inclined to go away at weekends and holidays, which would reduce national energy consumption.

More Communal and Cooperative ways.

We must share more things. We could have a few stepladders, electric drills, and so on, in the neighbourhood workshop, as distinct from one in every house. We would be on various voluntary rosters, committees and working bees to carry out most of the child minding, nursing, basic educating and care of aged and disabled people in our area. Committees will also perform most of the functions councils now carry out for us, such as maintaining our own parks and streets. We would therefore need far fewer bureaucrats and professionals, and this would reduce the amount of income we would need to earn to pay taxes and for services. Especially important would be the regular voluntary community working bees.

There would be genuine participatory democracy. Most of our local policies and programs could be worked out by elected non-paid committees and we could all vote on the important decisions concerning our small area at regular town meetings. There would still be some functions for state and national governments, but relatively few.

There will be little place for international trade, foreign investment and transnational corporations. Most of the things we will need will be produced within a few kilometres of where we live.

Because we will be highly dependent on our local ecosystems and on our social cohesion, such as for water and effective committees and working bees, all will have a very strong incentive to focus on what is best for the town, rather than on what is best for themselves as competing individuals. Cooperation, helping, responsibility and good social behaviour will be automatically rewarded. This is firstly because these behaviours are satisfying, and more importantly because we will realise that it is very much in our interests to think about what is good for the neighborhood or town ... because we can't prosper unless it does. This situation is very different from that in consumer capitalist society. It will transform politics from conflict-ridden pursuit of self-interest, to striving for the right decisions for all.

The new economy

There is no chance of making these changes while we retain the present economic system. The fundamental concern in a satisfactory economy would simply be to apply the available productive capacity to producing what all people need for a good life, with as little bother and waste and work as possible.

Market forces and the profit motive could have a place in an acceptable alternative economy, but they cannot be allowed to continue as major determinants of economic affairs. The basic economic priorities must be decided according to what is socially desirable (democratically decided, mostly at the local level, not dictated by huge and distant state bureaucracies - what we do not want is centralised, bureaucratic big-state "socialism"). However, much of the economy could remain as a (carefully monitored) form of private enterprise carried on by small firms, households and cooperatives, so long as their goals were not profit maximization and growth. Market forces could operate within regulated sectors. For example local market days could be important, enabling individuals and families to sell small amounts of garden and craft produce. (This is not capitalism because these small private firms only yield "wages" to those who own and work in them.)

Unemployment and poverty could easily be eliminated. (There are none in the Israeli Kibbutz settlements). We would have neighborhood work coordination committees which would make sure that all who wanted work had a share of the work that needed doing. Far less work would need to be done than at present. (In consumer society we probably work three times too hard!)

Most of the things we need would be produced within a few kilometres of where we lived, but items such as fridges and stoves would come from regional factories. Very few things, including steel, would be moved long distances, and very little (perhaps items such as high-tech medical equipment) would be transported from overseas. We would still have national systems for some things, such as railways and telecommunications, but on nothing like the present scale. Above all, in the new economy there would be no economic growth.

When we eliminate all that unnecessary production, and shift much of the remainder to backyards and local small businesses and cooperatives and into the non-cash sector of the economy, most of us will need to go to work for money in an office or a mass production factory only one or two days a week. In other words, it will become possible to live well on a very low cash income. We could spend the other five or six days working and playing around the neighbourhood, doing many varied and interesting and useful things everyday.

The new values and worldview.

The biggest and most difficult changes will have to be in values. The present desire for affluent consumer living standards must be replaced by a concern to live very simply, cooperatively and self-sufficiently. Our main life goals must be things like reading, learning, working with others for the social good, gardening, arts and crafts, and participating in self-government, as distinct from getting richer. The quality of life for most of us would probably be much higher than it is now.

We would have fewer material things and would have much lower monetary incomes but there would be many less obvious sources of life satisfaction. These would include a much more relaxed pace, having to spend relatively little time working for money, having varied, enjoyable and worthwhile work to do, experiencing a supportive community, experiencing giving and receiving, growing some of one's own food, keeping old clothes and devices in use, running a resource-cheap and efficient household, practising arts and crafts, participating in community activities, having a rich cultural experience involving local festivals, performances, arts and celebrations, being involved in governing one's area, living in a nice environment, and - especially - knowing that you are not contributing to global problems through over-consumption. Only if these alternative values and satisfactions, which contradict those of consumer society, become the main factors motivating people can The Simpler Way be achieved.


Modern and sophisticated technology is not very relevant to solving the global problem - that requires change in systems and values. However, adopting The Simpler Way does not mean abandoning modern science and technology.

We would have all the high tech and modern ways and R & D that made sense, for example in medicine, windmill design, public transport and household appliances. We would have far more resources for science and research, and for education and the arts, than we do now because we would have ceased wasting vast quantities of resources on the production of unnecessary items, including arms.

Simple traditional alternative technologies will be quite sufficient for many purposes, especially building houses, and furniture, and producing food, pottery and many clothes. Much production will take place via hobbies and crafts and small farms and family enterprises, because these are much more satisfying ways to work.

3. Implications for the Transistion?

If the limits to growth analysis is basically correct, then in rich and poor countries we have no choice but to work for the sort of alternative society outlined above. Following are the main implications for transition strategy.

The transition cannot be imposed by a state or an authoritarian or revolutionary group. The new local societies can only be made to work by the willing effort of local people who have come to understand why The Simpler Way is necessary and who want to live that way and who find it rewarding.

There is therefore no value in working to take state power, either within the parliamentary system, or by revolution.

The main target, the main problem group, the basic block to progress, is not the corporations, the rich or the capitalist class. They have their power because people grant it to them. The problem group, the key to transition, is people in general. If they came to see The Simpler Way as preferable, consumer-capitalist society would immediately collapse.

The main task therefore has to be gradual grass-roots education about the need for The Simpler Way, and its rewards. The changes can only come from the bottom, via change in the ideas, understandings, and values people in general hold. These cannot occur except through a lengthy process of experiencing and practising the new ideas, ways and values in the places where people live. Small communities have to develop their own systems and procedures and traditions in line with their local conditions; these things cannot be imposed from above or from the outside. The Simpler Way cannot exist unless there is willing acceptance of the new practices and systems, and enthusiastic participation.

We do not have to get rid of consumer-capitalist society before we can begin to build the new way. The way to replace the old system is to ignore it to death, that is, to start building its replacement and persuading people to come across.

There is no possibility of significant change for a long time to come. We are nowhere near the necessary level of public awareness of the need.

It could be a very peaceful revolution ... if we can get enough people to see the sense of moving to The Simpler Way. The rich and the corporations will have no power if enough of us decide to ignore them.

There are two things that anyone concerned about the fate of the planet must work at.

<> Help as many people as possible to understand that capitalist-consumer society has to be largely abandoned, and that there is a far better way,

<> Contribute to the building of elements of The Simpler Way, here and now. This can best begin by setting up cooperative community gardens and workshops to enable local people to begin using local resources to meet local needs, thus initiating the new kinds of economic and social systems. To this base can be added things like working bees, committees, development of commons, initiation of small firms, cutting town imports, with a view to taking more control of the local economy. The visibility of these ventures will be our main educational device. The fate of the planet depends on whether we can get enough impressive examples going before the mainstream's problems become too serious.

For detailed analyses and documentation on these themes, see

Ted Trainer is a lecturer in the School of Social Work, University of New South Wales. His main interests have been global problems, sustainability issues, radical critiques of the economy, alternative social forms and the transition to them. He has written numerous books and articles on these topics, including, The Conserver Society; Alternatives for Sustainability (Zed, 1995), Saving the Environment; What It Will Take (University of New South Wales Press, 1998), and What Should We Do? (in press). He is also developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney, and a website, ]

Bill Totten

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Beyond Organic

Energy and Food Production

by Jim Minick, Counterpunch (December 25 2004)

Imagine you're standing in the produce section of your local grocery faced with a variety of apples. You want to make the best choice, for the good of your family, farm workers and the environment. Do you buy the organic Galas shipped from across the country or the Granny Smiths grown conventionally but locally?

The decision is not easy.

First, consider organic. Organic farming, because it shuns synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, is friendlier to the environment than conventional practices. And evidence is increasing that organic food is better for you.

Organic produce on average contains about twice the essential minerals of conventionally grown food, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition. And a University of Washington study found that children eating conventional food had six to nine times the pesticide exposure of children who ate an organic diet.

It is no wonder that consumers have made organic food the fastest growing sector of agriculture. Sales of organic food are rising by twenty percent annually.

But organic is not without problems. As organic sales have grown, organic farming has moved away from its small family-farm roots and is becoming industrialized. The organic carrots I buy at Wal-Mart were probably grown on a large scale, a system dependent on fossil-fuel mechanization, underpaid farm labor and imported organic fertilizers. How sustainable over the long run is the diesel tractor plowing up the soil? How fair are the labor practices? And the chicken litter fertilizer might be organic, but how far was it shipped before it was spread on the field?

This distance question highlights a problem of our entire food system, including organic: our love affair with airlifted, railroaded, tractor-trailored grapes in December or tomatoes in February. Often this produce comes from Mexico or Chile or some other faraway place, and its cheap price belies the waste of energy used to transport it to our tables.

"Eaters might begin to question the sanity of eating food more traveled than they are", quips Joan Dye Gussow, author of This Organic Life (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2002). Noting that a calorie is a unit of energy, she says: "It costs 435 fossil fuel calories to fly a 5-calorie strawberry from California to New York."

The burning of fossil fuel to move food means more globe-warming greenhouse gases. My organic carrots from Wal-Mart might do my body good, but in eating them, I'm harming the larger body of our earth, and that ultimately circles back to everyone's health.

Now consider locally grown food. It solves the problem of shipping food long distances. The Granny Smith apple from your nearby orchard only has to travel a few miles, in contrast with the 1,000 to 2,000 miles that most of our food travels from field to plate. And because of this short commute, local food - organic or conventional - is naturally fresher and tastier.

Another advantage of buying locally is food security. Today's centralized system processes food in huge factories and moves products in large quantities, creating attractive targets for terrorists looking to contaminate as much food as possible. A decentralized system of small local farms and processors would be much harder to disrupt on a large scale.

Finally, buying local food means keeping our dollars circulating in our own communities.

So next time you are in the supermarket pondering the organic Gala or the local Granny Smith, consider how you might help create a food system that is both organic and local. Seek out a local farmers market or vegetable subscription service that provides a weekly bag of produce. Meet your local farmers this way. Encourage them to use organic methods and local sources of compost and other soil amendments. And seek out the small growers, who don't have to exploit labor to gather their harvests.

If you enjoy quality food and a healthy planet, consider what you eat, where it was grown and how. Let's choose both organic and local if possible, so we can begin moving our food economy in ways that benefit our health and the earth's.

Jim Minick teaches at Radford University in Virginia and also farms. A poet and essayist, his latest work, Finding a Clear Path, will be published in April by West Virgina University Press. Minick is a member of the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kansas.

Bill Totten

Grapes of wrath

With our supermarket shelves groaning under the weight of so many wines, why do they all taste the same?

Supermarkets don't want to muck around with a small grower here, another there, or waste time haggling with local wine co-ops.

by Joanna Blythman

The Ecologist (February 2005)

I was one out of a total audience of seven at a Friday night screening of the Palme d'Or nominated documentary Mondovino. That's the sort of reaction you get in the UK to a film that runs for two and a quarter hours, is subtitled for substantial chunks, and whose subject is wine - something that the great British public still feels inadequate to discuss, despite the best empowering efforts of Richard and Judy's new wine club. Indeed it suspects that anyone taking anything approaching a serious interest in wine is elitist and possibly ever so slightly pretentious too. In the UK and US, wine buffs have long been viewed as members of a strange sect, versed in the arcane and labyrinthine complexities of obscureforeign labels that dare to eschew the lingua franca of world trade - English - and which cling to antiquated grading systems such as the French Appellation d'Origine Controllee.

But director Jonathan Rossiter's thought-provoking documentary raises issues that should resonate with anyone concerned about globalisation and the homogenisation of taste. The film consists of illuminating interviews with winemakers and influential figures in the wine trade. What it flags up is an historic stand-off in the wine world. In one corner of the ring you have small-scale traditional wines from essentially family or co-operative-run vineyards. These unique and diverse wines are variable in quality, sometimes magnificent, other times disappointing. But they are not cloned. They have 'terroir' , that is to say they speak of geographic specificity, of different soils, climates and grape varieties. They reflect the eccentricities of their makers, the most dedicated of whom view wine as a vocation, a symbol of civilisation even. In the other corner is a new, homogenous, internationalised wine style, which is now spawning fast-maturing, easy-drinking wines with approachable Anglophone labels in countries as distant as Chile, India, Portugal and the Czech Republic.

Typical here are the wines produced in California's Napa Valley, where companies with multi-million dollar turnovers such as Mondavi turn out vast quantities of uniform wine from manicured, wall-to-wall vineyards that would not look out of place on The Truman Show. Their high priest is the American wine critic Robert Parker who is seen in Mondovino congratulating himself on what he sees as the American-led democratisation of wine drinking.

Parkers' palate is what you might expect from a country that has come late to wine drinking, a nation more inclined to partner food with milk, cola or soda than wine. Old World oenophiles are prone to see wine as more of a debate over style rather than rightness or wrongness. In Italy, for example, the celebrated Tre Bicchiere Awards organised by Slow Food and Gambero Rosso rely on a judging panel with several participants to reflect a range of views and tastes. Not Parker though. He is judge, jury and potentially executioner all rolled into one. His blousy tasting notes - 'outstanding ripeness, elegance and focus ... earthy floral scents ... packed with minerals, white flowers, pears and anise' - and verdicts (marks out of 100) are clear-cut, accessible and resound with certitude. This is why they appeal to people who feel bamboozled by wine.

Such is Parker's influence in the wine world, if he likes a wine, it will be blessed with commercial success. If not, it is fated to gather dust in some dank cellar - and not because it needs maturing.

Parker favours wines that are are deeply coloured, high in alcohol, heavily oaked, low in acidity and free from any challenging tannins. They have an in-your-face fruit pastille sweetness about them - he calls them 'fruit bombs' - which palls quickly and lack subtlety. Some of the wines he champions are generally well rated, others merely reflect Parker preferences. The most worrying thing about them, however, is that they are all terribly similar.

Parker has created a one-size-fits-all commercial wine style template that can be adopted anywhere. Its drip-down effect means that it is ever more likely that when you buy a wine from Europe it will ressemble a wine from South America or Australia or the US. The palate of younger generations of wine drinkers is becoming accustomed to Parkerised wines. So, unless they are content to cater for a minority of more sophisticated wine afficionados, winemakers are changing their styleaccordingly to suit the market trend.

There is opposition. Mondovino features winemakers like Hubert de Montille in Burgundy and Aime Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac in Languedoc who refuse to alter their unique winemaking philosophy and cultivation methods to accommodate what they consider to be US wine imperialism. Guibert, assisted by an incoming communist mayor, other vignerons and local environmentalists who objected to swathes of trees being felled to make way for easy maintainance industrial vineyards, succeeded in blocking the Mondavi Corporation's plans to move into the Aniane forest. Amongst critics, both Jancis Robinson and Michael Broadbent in the UK continue to question both Parker's palate and his hegemonic grip. In Mondovino, Broadbent says that he would rather take the chance of drinking a wine with faults than drinking a series of Parker-perfected wines that are all tediously alike.

But wine consumers may not get the chance to make that choice. Big Retail loves Big Wine. As with food, our supermarkets favour concentrating their purchases with giant wine brands who can afford to pay thousands of pounds as a sweetener to get their wines onto the shelves. Supermarkets don't want to muck around with a small grower here, another there, or waste time haggling with local wine co-ops. They can't be bothered with small quantities, annual
variations in the vintage and so on. This is why they love big brands like Gallo, Fetzer, Penfolds and Lindemans which can be relied on to come up with a standardised, Parkerised product with an unthreatening label in English. Scared of ceding even more territory to the supermarkets, a chain like Oddbins, once keen on quirky individual wines, is dumbing down its range accordingly. In this brave new world of wine democratisation our shelves now groan under the weight of an unprecedented number of wine labels. Unfortunately, not many people know enough about wine to realise that they are becoming pretty much the same.

Mondovino rings an alarm about this creeping monoculturisation of our wine-drinking habits. Watching it I felt a strong urge to go right out and buy wine from the small independent wine shops and wholesalers that remain pockets of diversity by listing wines too small, too diverse, too whimsical or immune to Parker-led, big brand fashion for the supermarkets and big chains to bother with. Post-Mondovino, every bottle of wine now strikes me as a profoundly political purchase.

Bill Totten

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Running Out of Gas

by David Goodstein, PhD (June 07 2004)

This morning's article, by a Professor of Physics at Cal Tech, was originally published in New Dimensions in Bioethics, Yale University Press in 2002. An expanded version of this article is now part of the new book Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil published in February 2004.

We are faced with a grave crisis that may change our way of life forever. We live in a civilization that evolved on the promise of an endless supply of cheap oil. The era of cheap oil will end, probably much sooner than most people realize. To put this looming crisis in perspective, and to judge its significance, it helps to start from the beginning. Here is how it all works.

Nuclear reactions inside the Sun heat its surface white hot. From that hot surface, energy in the form of light, both visible and, to our eyes, invisible, radiates uniformly away in all directions. Ninety million miles away, the tiny globe called Earth intercepts a minute fraction of that solar radiation. About 30% of the radiation that falls on the Earth is reflected directly back out into space. That's what one sees in a picture of the Earth taken, say, from the moon. The rest of the radiant energy is absorbed by the Earth.

A body such as the Earth that has radiant energy falling on it warms up or cools down until it is sending energy away at the same rate it receives it. Only then is it in a kind of equilibrium, neither warming nor cooling. In any given epoch, the Earth, like the Moon or any other heavenly body is in steady state balance with the Sun, neither gaining nor losing energy. That is the primary fact governing the temperature at the surface of our planet.

The rate at which the Earth radiates energy into space depends on its temperature. Because it receives only a tiny fraction of the Sun's energy, it radiates much less energy than the Sun does. So, it can balance its energy books at a temperature much cooler than the Sun. In fact it can radiate as much energy as it receives with an average surface temperature of zero degrees Fahrenheit. The Earth's radiation is not visible to our eyes. It is called infrared, or below red radiation because its color is beyond the red end of what we are capable of seeing.

Fortunately for us, that's not the whole story. If the average surface temperature of the Earth were really zero degrees Fahrenheit, we probably would not be here. The Earth has a gaseous atmosphere. The atmosphere is largely transparent to the white-hot radiation from the Sun. The nitrogen and oxygen that make up nearly all of the Earth's atmosphere are transparent as well to the infrared radiation from the Earth, but there are trace gases, including water vapor, methane and carbon dioxide that absorb infrared radiation. Thus the blanket of atmosphere traps about 88% of the heat the Earth is trying to radiate away. The books remain balanced, with the atmosphere radiating back into space the same amount of energy the Earth receives, but it also radiates energy back to the Earth's surface, warming it to a comfortable average temperature of 59 degrees Fahrenheit. That is what's known as the greenhouse effect.

There is a tiny but vital exception to the perfect energy balance of the Earth-Sun system. Of the light that falls on the Earth, an almost imperceptible fraction gets used up nourishing life. Through photosynthesis, plants make use of the Sun's rays to grow. Animals that eventually die eat some of the plants. Natural, geological processes bury some of that organic matter deep in the Earth.

For hundreds of millions of years, animal, vegetable and mineral matter has drifted downward through the waters to settle on the ocean floor. In a few privileged places on Earth, strata of porous rock were formed that were particularly rich in organic inclusions. With time, these strata were buried deep beneath the ocean floor. The interior of the Earth is hot, heated by the decay of natural radioactive elements. If the porous source rock sank just deep enough, it reached the proper temperature for the organic matter to be transformed into oil. Then the weight of the rock above it could squeeze the oil out of the source rock like water out of a sponge, into layers above and below, where it could be tapped.

Other theories of how oil originated have been proposed from time to time, but they have not stood up. Modern instruments are even able to detect what sorts of organisms went into making different deposits of oil. Nearly all geologists today agree, that is how oil came to be.

Oil consists of long molecules of carbon and hydrogen. If the source rock sank too deep, the excessive heat at greater depths broke the hydrogen and carbon molecules into the smaller molecules that we call natural gas.

Meanwhile, on the land, in certain swampy places, the decay of dead plant matter created peat bogs. In the course of the eons, buried under sediments and heated by the Earth's interior, the peat was transformed into coal, a substance that consists mostly of elemental carbon. Coal, oil and natural gas are the primary fossil fuels. They are energy from the Sun, stored within the Earth.

So, not all the energy from the Sun flows back out into space. A tiny fraction of distilled sunlight gets stored up in the form of fossil fuels. The process is agonizingly slow and inefficient. But it has been going on for a very, very long time. The net result is that the Earth has accumulated a legacy that we in our generation have inherited.

Until only 200 years ago, the blink of an eye on the scale of history, the human race was able to live almost entirely on light as it arrived from the Sun. The Sun nourished plants that provided food and warmth for us and for our animals. It illuminated the day and left the night sky, sparkling with stars, to comfort us in our repose. A few people traveled widely, even sailing across the oceans, but most probably never got very far from the villages where they were born. In Europe, there were beautiful paintings, sophisticated orchestral music, elegant fabrics and gleaming porcelain from China, for the rich. For the common folks in Europe and around the world there were more homespun versions of art and music, textiles and pottery. Merchant sailing ships ventured to sea carrying exotic and expensive cargoes including spices, slaves and, in summer, ice. No more than a few hundred million people populated the planet. A bit of coal was burned here and there for one purpose or another, but, by and large, the Earth's legacy of fossil fuels was left untouched.

Today we expect illumination at night and air conditioning in summer. We may work every day up to a hundred miles from where we live, depending on multi-ton individual vehicles to transport us back and forth on demand. Thousands of airline flights per day can take us to virtually any destination on Earth in a matter of hours. When we get there we can still chat with our friends and family back home, or conduct business as if we had never left the office. In the industrialized parts of the world, the amenities that were once reserved for the rich are available to most people. Refrigeration rather than spices preserves food, and machines do much of the work that was once done by slaves. Ships, planes, trains and trucks transport goods of every description all around the world. The population of the Earth is approaching ten billion people. We don't see the stars so clearly anymore, but on most counts, few of us would choose to return to the 18th century.

This revolutionary change in our standard of living did not come about by design. If you asked an 18th century sage, like Ben Franklin, what the world really needed he would not have described those things we have wound up with, except perhaps for the dramatic improvement in public health that has also taken place since then. Instead of design or desire it resulted from a series of inventions and discoveries that altered our expectations. What we got was not what we wanted or needed but rather what nature and human ingenuity made possible for us.

One consequence of those inventions and changed expectations is that we no longer live on present day light from the Sun. Instead we are using up the fuels made from sunlight that the Earth stored up for us over those many hundreds of millions of years. Obviously we have, unintentionally, created a trap for ourselves. We will, so to speak, run out of gas. There is no question about that. There's only a finite amount left in the tank. When will it happen?

The answer is not simple, but some of those who know best, certain petroleum geologists, predict that the first great crisis will come in this decade. <1> Throughout the last century (the twentieth) demand and supply of oil grew rapidly. Thse two are essentially equal. The stuff is always used as fast as it's pumped out of the ground. Until the 1950's, oil geologists had the mathematically impossible expectation that the same rate of increase could continue forever. There were those who knew better, but all warnings of finite supplies were hooted down because new reserves were being discovered faster than consumption was rising. Then, around 1956, a very clever geophysicist named M King Hubbert predicted that the rate at which oil could be extracted from the lower 48 United States would peak around 1970 and decline rapidly after that. When he turned out to be exactly right, other oil geologists started paying serious attention.

Hubbert used a number of methods to do his calculations. The first was similar to ideas that had been used by population biologists for well over a century. When a new population (of humans or any other species) starts growing in an area that has abundant resources, the growth is initially exponential. That means that the rate of growth increases by the same amount each year, like compound interest in a bank account. That is just how the geologists used to think oil discovery would grow. However, once the population is big enough that the resources no longer seem unlimited, the rate of growth starts slowing down. The same happens with oil discovery because the chances of finding new oil get smaller when there's less new oil to find. Hubbert showed that, once the rate of increase of known oil supplies starts to decline it's possible to extrapolate the declining rate to find where growth will stop altogether. At that point all the oil in the ground has been discovered, and the total amount there ever was is equal to the amount that's already been used, plus the known reserves still in the ground. Hubbert noticed that the trend of declining annual rate of oil discovery was established for the lower 48 by the 1950's.

Others have now pointed out that the rate of discovery worldwide has been declining since about 1982. The total quantity of conventional oil that the Earth stored up for us is estimated by this method to be about two trillion barrels. <2>

Hubbert's second method required assuming that in the long run, when the historic record of the rate that oil was pumped out of the ground is plotted, it would be a bell-shaped curve. That is, it would first rise (as it has been), then reach a peak, then decline at the same rate at which it rose. Now that it's far enough along, half a century after he made that assumption, it's clear that he was right in the case of the lower 48. If it's correct for the rest of the world, and if you have the historical record of the rising part of the curve, and a good estimate of the total amount of oil that ever was (see above), then it's not difficult to predict when the peak, Hubbert's peak, will occur. Hubbert had that information in the 1950s for the lower 48. We have it now for the whole world. Different geologists using different data and methods get slightly different results, but some (not all) have concluded that the peak will happen at some point in this decade. The point can be seen without any fancy mathematics at all. Of the two trillion barrels of oil we started with, nearly half has already been consumed. The peak occurs when we reach the halfway point. That, they say, can't be more than a few years off.

Hubbert's third method applied the observation that the total amount of oil extracted to date paralleled oil discovery (total already extracted plus known reserves) but lagged behind by a few decades. In other words, we pump oil out of the ground at about the same rate that we discover it, but a few decades later. Thus the rate of discovery predicts the rate of extraction. Worldwide, remember, the rate of discovery started declining about twenty years ago. That gives an independent prediction of when Hubbert's peak will occur. It will occur, according to that method as well, some time in the next decade.

Not all geologists agree with this assessment. Many prefer to take the total amount known for sure to be in the ground, divide that by the rate at which it's getting used up, and conclude that we can go on like this for a long time. This is known as the R/P ratio in the industry, that is, the ratio of reserves to production. Depending on what data one uses, that number is currently between 40 and 100 years.

Another point of disagreement concerns the total amount of oil nature made for us. Over the period 1995-2000, the highly respected United States Geological Survey (USGS) made an exhaustive study of world-wide oil supplies. The resulting report concludes that, with 95% certainty, there were at least two trillion barrels when we started pumping. However, it also concludes there is a 50-50 chance that there were at least 2.7 trillion barrels, a number that would leave much more in the ground today. That number is based on the assumption, contrary to the trends we discussed earlier, that new discovery will continue at a brisk rate for at least thirty more years. <3>

The fact is, the amount of known reserves is a very soft number. For one reason, it is usually a compilation of government and commercial figures from countries around the world, and those reported figures are at least sometimes slanted by political and economic considerations. Also, what we mean by "conventional" or "cheap" oil changes with time. As technology advances, the amount of reserves that can be economically tapped in known fields increases. The way the oil industry uses the term, the increase in recoverable oil counts as "discovery", and it accounts for much of the new discovery the USGS expects in the next thirty years. Finally, as oil starts to become scarce and the price per barrel goes up, the amount recoverable at that price will necessarily also increase. <4> These are all tendencies that might help to push Hubbert's peak further into the future than the most pessimistic predictions. <5>

Nevertheless, all of our experience with the consumption of natural resources suggests that the rate at which we use them up starts at zero, rises to a peak that will never be exceeded, and then declines back to zero as the supply becomes exhausted. There have been many instances of that behavior: coal mining in Pennsylvania, copper in northern Michigan, and many others including oil in the lower 48. <6> That picture forms the fundamental basis of the views of Hubbert and his followers, but it is ignored entirely by those who depend on the R/P ratio. Given that world-wide demand will continue to increase (as it has for well over a century) Hubbert's followers expect the crisis to occur when the peak is reached rather than when the last drop is pumped. In other words, we will be in trouble when we've used up half the oil that existed, not all of it. If you believe the Hubbert view, that the crisis comes when we reach the production peak rather than the last drop, but accept the USGS estimate that there may have been 2.7 trillion barrels of oil, then, compared to the earlier estimates, the crisis will be delayed by about a decade. <7>

If Hubbert's followers are correct, we will be in for some difficult times in the near future. In an orderly, rational world, it might be possible for the gradually increasing gap between supply and demand for oil to be filled by some substitute. But anyone who remembers the oil crisis of 1973 knows that we don't live in such a world, especially when it comes to an irreversible shortage of oil. It's impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but we can, all too easily, envision a dying civilization, the landscape littered with the rusting hulks of useless SUVs. Worse, desperate attempts of one country or region to maintain its standard of living at the expense of others could lead to Oil War II (history would remember the Gulf War of 1991 as Oil War I). Knowledge of science is not useful in predicting whether such dire events will occur. Science is useful, however, in placing limits on what is possible.

To begin with, conventional oil is not the only fossil fuel. Once all the cheap oil is pumped, advanced methods can still squeeze a little more oil out of almost any field. There is also what is known as oil sands or tar sands and heavy oil. Like the remains of depleted oil fields, these are deposits of oil that are more difficult and expensive to extract than conventional oil. Then there is shale oil. As we have seen, conventional oil came about when source rock, loaded with organic matter, sank just deep enough in the Earth to be cooked properly into oil. Oil shale, from which shale oil can be extracted, is source rock that never sank deep enough to make oil. There are very large quantities of it in the ground, and it can be mined, crushed and heated to produce an oil-like substance. There is also another possible fossil fuel called methane hydrate. It is a solid that looks like ice, but that burns when ignited. It consists of methane molecules trapped in a kind of cage of water molecules. Nobody knows how to mine it or how much of it there is, but there may be quite a lot of it in deep, cold regions of the ocean.

Exploiting any of those resources will be more expensive and slower than pumping conventional oil. <8> Once past Hubbert's peak, as the gap between rising demand and falling supply grows, the rising price of oil will make those alternative fuels economically competitive, but it may not prove possible to get them into production fast enough to fill the growing gap. That's called the "rate of conversion" problem. Worse, the economic damage done by rapidly rising oil prices may undermine our ability to mount the huge industrial effort needed to get the new fuels into action.

Natural gas, which comes from overcooked source rock, is another alternative in the short term. Natural gas, mostly methane, is relatively easy to extract quickly, and transformation to a natural gas economy could probably be accomplished more easily than is the case for other alternative fuels. Ordinary engines similar to the ones used in our cars can run on compressed natural gas. Even so, replacing the existing vehicles and gasoline distribution system fast enough to make up for the missing oil will be difficult. And even if this transformation is accomplished it is only temporary. Hubbert's peak for natural gas is estimated for the decade between 2020 and 2030.

There is also a huge amount of chemical potential energy stored in the Earth in the form of elemental carbon, that is to say, in the form of coal. With coal, as with the other fossil fuels, to extract the stored energy, each atom of carbon must be converted to a molecule of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Converting all the coal in the ground into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would have consequences for the Earth's climate that are not entirely predictable. <9> In addition, coal often comes with unpleasant impurities such as sulfur, mercury or arsenic that can be extracted from the coal only at considerable expense. Coal is a very dirty fuel.

Nevertheless, coal can be liquefied and used as a (rather poor) substitute for oil. If we take our chances on fouling the atmosphere and turn to coal as our primary fuel, we are told that there is enough of it in the ground to last for hundreds of years. That estimate however is like the R/P ratio for oil. It doesn't take into account the rising world population, the fact that the rest of the world would like to be more like us fuel-happy Americans, and above all it doesn't take into account the Hubbert peak effect, which is just as valid for coal as it is for oil. The simple fact is, the end of the age of fossil fuel, coal included, will come in this century.

Controlled nuclear fusion has long been seen as the ultimate energy source of the future. The technical problems that have prevented successful use of nuclear fusion up to now may someday be solved. Not in time to rescue us from the slide down the other side of Hubbert's peak, certainly, but perhaps someday. Then the fuel could be deuterium, a form of hydrogen found naturally in seawater, and lithium, a light element found in many common minerals. <10> There would be enough of both to last for a very long time. However, the conquest and practical use of nuclear fusion has proved to be very difficult.

Nuclear fission on the other hand, is a well established technology. The very word nuclear strikes fear into the hearts of many people, so much so that the utterly innocent technique called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance by scientists had to be renamed Magnetic Resonance Imaging before it could be accepted by the public for medical use. When the oil crisis occurs, the fear of nuclear energy is likely to recede before the compelling need for it. However, once we bite the bullet and decide to go nuclear again, it will take at least a decade before new plants start coming on line. And even then there will continue to be legitimate concerns about safety and nuclear waste disposal. Also, nuclear energy is suitable only for stationary power plants or very large, heavy moving things (ships, submarines). Don't look for nuclear cars or airplanes any time soon. <11>

Economists seem to believe that the problem is not real. As oil becomes scarce, its price will rise, permitting other fuels to take over. That argument ignores fundamental realities however. Our vehicles, our roads, our cities, our power plants, our entire social organization has evolved on the promise of an endless supply of cheap oil. It seems unlikely that the era of cheap oil will end painlessly.

A more likely possibility is that when the peak occurs, rapidly increasing demand will meet rapidly decreasing supply with disastrous results. We had a small foretaste of what might happen in 1973, when some Middle Eastern nations took advantage of the declining US supplies and created a temporary, artificial shortage of oil. The immediate result was long lines at the gas stations accompanied by panic and despair for the future of our way of life. After Hubbert's peak the shortage will not be artificial and it will not be temporary. At the very least, the end of cheap oil will mean steep inflation, not only due to the rising cost of gasoline at the pump, but also due to the rising cost of petrochemicals, and of anything that has to be transported.

Once Hubbert's peak is reached and oil supplies start to decline, how fast will the gap grow between supply and demand? That is a crucial question, and one that is almost impossible to answer with confidence. We can make a crude attempt at guessing the answer as follows: The upward trend at which the demand for oil has been growing amounts to an increase of a few percent per year. On the other side of the peak, we can guess that the available supply will decline at about the same rate, while the demand continues to grow at that rate. The gap, then, would increase at about, say, 5% per year. That means that, ten years after the peak, we would have to have a substitute for close to half the oil we use today, something approaching 10-15 billion barrels per year. Even in the absence of any major disruptions caused by the oil shortages after the peak, it is very difficult to see how that can possibly be accomplished.

What about the possibility that a huge new discovery of conventional oil will put off the problem for the foreseeable future? Better to believe in the tooth fairy. Oil geologists have literally gone to the ends of the Earth searching for oil. There probably isn't enough unexplored territory on Earth to contain a spectacular unknown oil field. <12> Remember that, in spite of intense worldwide effort, the rate of oil discovery started declining twenty years ago, and it's been declining ever since. That is why the USGS assumption of thirty more years of rapid discovery, mentioned earlier, seems questionable even if it is more a prediction about future technology than future discovery. But let us suppose for one euphoric moment that one more really big one is still out there waiting to be discovered. The largest oil field ever discovered is the Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia, with 87 billion barrels. If someone were to stumble onto another 90 billion barrel field tomorrow, Hubbert's peak would be delayed by a year or two, well within the uncertainty of our present estimates of when it will occur. It would hardly make any difference at all.

That fact points up the sterility of our current national debate about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. If the ANWR were opened for drilling, it would yield enough oil to supply the United States for about three months. The best reason for not drilling there is not to protect the wildlife. It is to preserve the oil for future generations to use in petrochemicals, rather than burning it up in our SUVs. In fact, 90% of the organic chemicals we use, including pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals and commodities such as plastics are made from petroleum. There are better uses for the stuff than burning it up.

Besides, burning all the fossil fuel in the ground poses another grave danger for us. Every carbon atom in the fossil fuels we burn turns into a molecule of carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, remember, is a greenhouse gas. We have been pouring it into the atmosphere since we started burning fossil fuels in large amounts during the nineteenth century.

The net result of tinkering in that way with the atmosphere is not easy to predict. Increasing the amount of carbon dioxide increases the amount of infrared radiation intercepted by the atmosphere and radiated back to Earth. That warms the Earth slightly, causing more water to evaporate. Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas, so the effect of the carbon dioxide is amplified. The warming also causes the polar ice caps to shrink, reducing the amount of sunlight reflected directly back to space, which leads to even further warming. On the other hand, the extra moisture in the air tends to condense into more clouds, and clouds reflect sunlight, decreasing the warming effect. And so on. The effect is complex, with both positive and negative reinforcement acting in ways that will have consequences that are not well understood. There is even a theory that the melting of the polar ice caps could lead to a change in the ocean currents that would cause a sudden cooling of the entire planet.

The cozy climate we now enjoy is in what scientists call a metastable state. That means small perturbations do not cause drastic changes. But it also means we could tumble out of that state into a completely different one. There are other possible metastable states that are dramatically different from the one we're in now, without changing the central fact that the Earth is ninety million miles from the Sun. For example, suppose there were no greenhouse gases at all. The temperature would immediately drop to 255 kelvins, but that's not the end of it. At that temperature water everywhere would begin to freeze, reflecting more sunlight and further cooling the Earth. Some geologists think the Earth went through periods like that perhaps a billion years ago. It's called the "Snowball Earth" theory.

On the other hand suppose we succeed in increasing the greenhouse effect to 100%. What would the temperature of the Earth be then? We don't know exactly, but we do have a real example to look at. The surface of Venus should be somewhat warmer than the surface of the Earth, because Venus is closer to the Sun. However, that difference is not very large. It's possible that Venus could be very Earth-like. But we know it isn't. Venus has a poisonous atmosphere with a run-away greenhouse effect. When a Russian spacecraft sent a probe into the Venetian atmosphere, it recorded a surface temperature hotter than molten lead.

We don't know how big a perturbation it would take to tip the Earth's atmosphere into an entirely different state, one that might not be inhabitable by life at all. However, even the relatively small perturbations we've already made can have dramatic local effects. The arctic permafrost can soften, low-lying islands may be inundated, coastlines will change and so on. As long as we don't understand the dynamics of the atmosphere far better than we do now, we toy with it at our peril. Maybe, as some optimists believe, Hubbert's Peak will prevent us from doing irreparable damage. That's a little like hoping that a fatal heart attack will save the patient from dying of cancer.

Before we turn to prospects for the future, a little summing up is in order. The followers of King Hubbert may or may not be correct in their quantitative predictions of when the peak will occur. Regardless of that, they have taught us a very important lesson. The crisis will come not when we pump the last drop of oil, but rather when the rate at which oil can be pumped out of the ground starts to diminish. That means the crisis will come when we've used roughly half the oil that nature made for us. Any way you look at it, the problem is much closer than we previously imagined. Even beyond that, burning fossil fuels alters the atmosphere and could threaten the balmy but metastable state our planet is in. We have some very big problems to solve.

So, what does the future hold? We can easily sketch out a worst case scenario and a best case scenario.

Worst case: After Hubbert's peak, all efforts to produce, distribute and consume alternative fuels fast enough to fill the gap between falling supplies and rising demand fail. Runaway inflation and worldwide depression leave many billions of people with no alternative but to burn coal in vast quantities for warmth, cooking and primitive industry. The change in the greenhouse effect that results eventually tips the Earth's climate into a new state hostile to life. End of story. In this instance, worst case really means worst case.

Best case: The worldwide disruptions that follow Hubbert's peak serve as a wake-up call. A methane-based economy is successful in bridging the gap temporarily, while nuclear power plants are built and the infrastructure for other alternative fuels is put in place. The world watches anxiously as each new Hubbert's peak estimate for uranium and oil shale makes front-page news.

Is there any hope for a truly sustainable long-term future civilization? The answer is yes. Stationary power plants can run on nuclear energy. More difficult is a fuel for transportation. The fuel of the future is probably hydrogen. Not deuterium for thermonuclear fusion, but ordinary hydrogen to be burned as a fuel by old fashioned combustion, or by use in hydrogen fuel cells that produce electricity directly. Burning it or using it in fuel cells puts into the atmosphere nothing but water vapor. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas to be sure, but unlike carbon dioxide, it cycles rapidly out of the atmosphere in the form of liquid water. Hydrogen is dangerous and difficult to handle and store, but so are gasoline and methane. Nature has not stored up a supply for us, but we can make it ourselves.

Of course you can't get something for nothing. Hydrogen is a high potential energy substance. That's precisely why it is valuable as a fuel. That energy has to come from somewhere. Where will we get the energy to make hydrogen?

Interestingly, one possible source is the potential energy stored in coal. There are existing industrial processes that combine coal and steam to make hydrogen and, inevitably, carbon dioxide. The process does not involve burning the coal. In principle, the carbon dioxide could be separated and stored ("sequestered" is the current buzzword). Where could it be stored? That little problem has not been solved yet. And in any case the coal will eventually run out. We're trying to think long-term here.

Civilization as we now know it evolved because there was a cheap, plentiful supply of oil in the ground, available for the taking. There is another cheap, plentiful supply of energy available for the taking, and this one won't run out for billions of years. It's called sunlight.

We now make very poor use of the sunlight that arrives at the Earth. Farmers use it to grow food and fibers for textiles. A little bit is collected indirectly in the form of hydroelectric and wind power. Here and there a few solar cells provide energy for one use or another. But by and large, it just gets absorbed by the Earth. It will wind up as heat in the Earth, eventually to be reradiated back out into space in any case, but we could learn to make better use of it along the way.

Sunlight is not very intense as energy sources go. The flux of energy from the Sun amounts to 343 watts per square meter at the top of the atmosphere, averaged over the entire surface of the Earth. By comparison, we Americans consume about a thousand watts of electric power each, all the time. Nevertheless, the solar power falling on the United States alone amounts to about ten thousand times as much electric power as even we profligate Americans consume.

Both sunlight and nuclear energy can be used to make hydrogen in a number of ways. There are chemicals and organisms that evolve hydrogen when sunlight is added. Electricity is made directly from sunlight in solar cells. Electricity can also be generated by using sunlight or nuclear energy as a source of heat to run a heat engine, such as a turbine, that can generate electricity. By means of electrolysis, electricity can make hydrogen from water. There is not much reason to doubt that hydrogen can serve as a fuel for transportation needs. At present, nuclear technology is far more advanced than solar for all of these purposes, but that could change in the future.

So, technically, scientifically, the means exist to build a civilization that has everything we think we need, without fossil fuels. The future exists. The remaining question is, can we get there?

Scientists are supposed to make predictions. Experiment or observation tests the prediction, and the fate of the scientist's theory, acceptance or rejection rides on the outcome. That's how science works. I have a prediction to make. Here it is: Civilization as we know it will come to an end some time in this century, when the fuel runs out.

This is different from normal scientific predictions in a crucial way. Usually, the scientist hopes that the prediction will prove to be correct, and merely making the prediction does not change the phenomenon in question. In this case I do hope the prediction will be wrong, and I hope that merely making the prediction will help make it become wrong. Early life forms released oxygen into the atmosphere and buried carbon in the ground, preparing the planet for creatures like us. Now the planet is in our hands, and unlike early life, we are aware of our responsibilities and the possible consequences of our actions.

What happens next is up to us.


1 See, e.g., M. King Hubbert, Energy from Fossil Fuels, Science, Vol. 109, Pgs. 103-109, Feb. 4, 1949; A.A. Bartlett, "Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth and the Environment" Published in Population & Environment, Vol. 16, No. 1, September 1994, Pgs. 5 ? 35; Walter Youngquist, Geodestinies, National Book Company, 1997; THE END OF CHEAP OIL by Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrere, Scientific American, March 1998; Richard C.Duncan, World Energy Production, Population Growth and the Road to the Olduvai Gorge, Population and Environment, Vol. 22 No. 5, May-June 2001; L. F. Ivanhoe,; Kenneth S. Deffeys, Hubberts Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage, Princeton University Press, 2001

2 See Deffeyes, op. cit..


4 This point is made by Michael Lynch at

5 US Department of Energy predictions of this kind can be found at

6 For further examples see Walter Youngquist, Geodestinies, National Book Company, 1997

7 I have made this calculation, using Hubbert techniques.--DLG

8 It will also require more energy input to get a given amount of energy out. Once the energy needed gets to be equal to the energy produced, the game is lost. We already use one fuel that requires more energy than it provides: ethanol made from corn is a net energy loser. We use it for purely political reasons.

9 It would not deoxygenate the atmosphere however. Burning all the known coal in the ground would consume less than 1% of the oxygen in the atmosphere.

10 The nuclear reaction envisioned for fusion reactors is the fusion of deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen. Tritium doesn't exist in nature, but the fusion reaction yields neutrons, which would be used to make the tritium in a lithium blanket. Thus the actual fuels are deuterium and lithium. It has been said of both nuclear fusion and shale oil that they are the energy sources of the future, and always will be.

11 The fuel for this kind of reactor is the isotope uranium 235. The supply available for mining probably contains an energy equivalent comparable to the Earth's supply of coal. If it's used in a type of reactor, called a breeder reactor that makes the isotope uranium 238 while it's producing heat, the supply becomes much larger.

12 The largest remaining unexplored area is the South China Sea. Geologists consider it a promising, but not spectacular region. It is unexplored because of conflicting ownership claims by various nations, and murky international law governing such mineral rights at sea.

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Dr David L Goodstein, PhD, is Vice Provost and Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Caltech, where he has been on the faculty for more than 35 years. In 1995, he was named the Frank J Gilloon Distinguished Teaching and Service Professor. In 1999, Dr Goodstein was awarded the Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers, and in 2000, the John P McGovern Medal of the Sigma Xi Society. He has served on and chaired numerous scientific and academic panels, including the National Advisory Committee to the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate of the National Science Foundation. He is a founding member of the Board of Directors of the California Council on Science and Technology. His books include States of Matter (Prentice Hall, 1975, Dover, 1985) and Feynman's Lost Lecture (Norton, 1996), written with his wife, Dr Judith Goodstein. In the 1980's he was Director and host of The Mechanical Universe, an educational television series that has been used by millions of students all over the world.

In recent times, while continuing to teach and conduct research in experimental Condensed Matter Physics, Dr Goodstein has turned his attention to issues related to science and society. In articles, speeches and colloquia he has addressed conduct and misconduct in science, the end of exponential growth of the scientific enterprise, and issues related to fossil fuel and the climate of Planet Earth.

Dr Goodstein has been Caltech's Vice Provost since 1988.

Bill Totten