Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, June 20, 2005

Reducing Japan's Dependence on Oil

by Bill Totten

Nihonkai Shimbun and Osaka Nichinichi Shimbun (June 09 2005)

(I've written a weekly column for two Japanese newspapers for the past three years. My colleague, Patrick Heaton, translated this one from the Japanese original.)

As regular readers of this Weblog are aware, for some time I have been warning of the approaching end to the age of plentiful, cheap oil. I am now in the process of studying how to use organic agricultural methods in order to plant my own vegetable garden. My interest in this subject was stimulated by a book I read entitled 'One Straw Revolution' by Fukuoka Masanori. The book jolted me into reviewing my lifestyle and values. Mr Fukuoka has lived his entire life working at an agricultural experiment station involved with organic gardening. Because his books have been published in English and because he has received various awards, such as the Magsaisai Award from the Philippines and top honorary awards from India and other places, he is known not only in Japan but around the world.

His life has been very different from mine. Whereas I have been managing a computer software company while also trying to glean information from around the world via the Internet and thinking about the direction humans should take to live in harmony with the earth, Mr Fukuoka has actually been living in strict accordance with his natural lifestyle philosophy.

I have always believed that everyone has their own purpose, and that life is a matter of fulfilling one's individual destiny to the greatest degree possible. I do not think it is a coincidence that I began to become interested in environmental issues after learning of Mr Fukuoka's philosophy.

I have long realized that agriculture is an important issue, having understood it mainly from the point of view of the balance between self-sufficiency rates and populations, and the amount of oil used to maintain that balance. But when I read Mr Fukuoka's book, I realized anew that if people, including myself, live only by looking at efficiency and economics, we will only continue to contribute to the destruction of nature, thereby disrupting all natural

Many people today seem to believe that science is everything, and that only through scientific progress will the problems of food, energy, and environmental degradation facing humankind be solved. But if we seriously look at the real situation, we can see that modern 'scientific' methods of using artificial fertilizers and pesticides in agricuture are simply damaging the soil. When it rains, topsoil is eroded. Yet to maintain production levels, ever more artificial fertilizers have to be added to lands impoverished by previous practices, thus continuing the vicious cycle of destroying the balance of the ecological system. We who live in the industrialized world are now at a crossroads: To stop this destructive cycle, we all must re-evaluate the direction our civilization is headed, and as individuals we must thoroughly re-examine our lifestyles and our value systems.

When considering, however, what we can do toward this goal in our daily lives, we tend to think that none of us as individuals has power to change anything. This is because a class of people with money and influence, who gain great profits from the current economic and social systems, use extreme mind control.

For instance, regarding the theory of peak oil, a large amount of information has been appearing in the English-speaking world since I first began researching the subject about a year ago. But it seems very little information on this issue has been published in Japanese. Even when information does appear about the fact that market prices for petroleum products are at their highest levels in ten years, the cause is usually attributed to the Iraq war, or to the sudden increase in oil consumption by China and India. Little if any mention is made of the possibility that the production peak of oil in many oil-producing nations may be approaching, or may even have been passed. I wonder just why it is that the Japanese government and financial organizations do not say that the actual cause of the shortage is the reaching of peak production.

In English documents, even Goldman Sachs gives its customers information on the fact that we have definitely entered an era of a sudden jump in crude oil prices. When crude oil prices rise, not only do gasoline and heavy oil prices also go up, but all 500,000 products that are made from oil are also largely affected. It is clear that Goldman Sachs, which has a close relationship with the Bush administration, gives information to its customers on why the United States is trying militarily and politically to put both Iraq and Iran under American control. It is obvious the US has initiated these wars primarily to harness energy resources. Many innocent civilians have lost their lives in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East because of these policies. I believe as the reality of peak oil becomes even more evident, it is possible we will see warfare in many other areas of the world.

Prime Minister Koizumi has obeyed US imperatives and has dispatched Japan's Self-Defence Forces to Iraq. But it is folly on Japan's part to believe the United States would share energy resources with Japan when those resources become scarce. Before oil supplies drastically decrease, what Japan, a country with no resources, should do is strive to tap Japanese technical knowledge and begin a movement toward a sustainable society that does not destroy the planet's ecological system. Individuals and the state should employ policies that reduce reliance on oil as much as possible.

As someone who manages a computer software company, I am beginning this effort on a personal level by starting my own vegetable garden. It is a modest effort but I hope someday many individuals and other organizations will be able to produce agricultural products through methods that do not destroy the environment, and can provide such products to their employees. It may sound only like a dream, but as a businessman looking at this issue from an international perspective, I believe this is the right track and that now is the time to begin efforts in this direction.

From Onko Chishin (Learning from the Past) column by Bill Totten in Nihonkai Shimbun and Osaka Nichinichi Shimbun (June 09 2005)

Japanese original is at

Bill Totten


  • Let me start by asking a question: why should I (or anyone) buy software from your company? Shouldn't I (and my neighbors, and everyone else) just write their own software?

    In otherwords, if you truly believe in self-sufficiency shouldn't you tell all of us (your software customers) to go learn C++, Java, etc. and roll our own?

    Well, that is what you are trying to do with the agricultural industry. If you believe in division of labor (e.g., software) then why don't you believe that specialized argriculturalists can outproduce you in food?

    I'm in Japan too. There are a lot of people here living in much smaller spaces than, say, back in the US. Thus the Japanese are specialists in making use of space, including gardening. But it is also true that the goverment has to protect the rice farmers, because people in other parts of the world can produce rice much better at lower cost. Still, the Japanese import much food - because they *choose* to do so, even so there is plenty of agricultural land in Japan that is not used (because the land owners are too old to do the labor anymore.)

    Yes, no doubt, Japan is totally (well, something like 98%) dependent upon imported energy. And no kidding, the US will not give Japan energy. Nor will anyone else. They don't today either. Rather, Japan *buys* it. Japan buys uranium from Australia, oil from Iran, Libya, misc. gulf states, etc. It also buys coal from China for mostly industrial use. So, as oil production peaks and enters its long decline, Japan will first import LNG, also buy coal from the US, and of course turn to breeder reactors and buy more uranium from Australia, Canada, etc for the long run. It (energy, mostly electric from nuclear and a bit from wind and solar) will go up in cost, but that does not mean Japan will go without.

    Doomsday scenarios become very attractive to people for various reasons - but that doesn't make them any more real. You might want to go back through your essay and fugure out why you believe (and want to believe) each assertion or accusation. Just because life may become more difficult (especially for Japan) in the years ahead does not mean it will be impossible.

    And it certainly does not mean becoming an anti-division-of-labor survivalist - *especially* in Japan where society prides itself on the integration of individuals into the whole.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:23 PM, June 22, 2005  

  • Dan, you are much too critical of Bill's article. Nobody really knows how the future will unfold - people publish their thoughts in order to get the discussion going. Regarding division of labor, much of it will be uneconomical due to the cost of transportation involved. As long as that cost can be managed, of course division of labor will continue to flourish.

    Software can be sold over the internet at almost zero cost. Transporting vegetables over a couple of miles requires a nontrivial amount of energy. In other words, it does make sense to maintain division of labor in software production, but that may not be the case with the production of food. I have lived in Japan (Fukuoka, Kyushu) for over one year during 1994-1995. I am still deeply impressed by the extraordinary ability of the Japanese people to maintain a highly productive and civilized society - a society where the per capita consumption of essential resources is roughly one half of the corresponding rate here in the US. I still think we can learn a lot from Japan.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:59 PM, June 22, 2005  

  • Just to be clear, I was not trying to personally attack Bill, but rather pointedly challenge some of the thinking....

    Nor am I trying to disuade people from gardening at home.

    Also, I too believe there are many things that can be learned from Japanese society that in some way can be applied to other societies in the future.

    And while many people in Japan garden, and even more could be done as I alluded to (with the underutilized land), the Japanese still walk or bike (or drive their car) to the store and buy high calorie, high protein and fat dense food - e.g., meat, milk, bread etc. That is because all the cucumbers and tomatoes they grow in their small plots, while tasty and maybe good for them, are woefully inadequate for the essential calorie, protein, and fat requirements of humans.

    The agricultural industry specializes in producing calorie, fat, and protein dense food.

    Nevertheless, the whole peak oil bandwagon is growing quickly and all sorts of "solutions" are being offered - an amazing number of them are simply rehashed Bolshevism (I'm not trying to label Bill with that term.)

    One idea that is growing amongst the blogs is that of self-suffiency, and this I gather is a key point in Bill's essay. This is what I criticize, as I think it, taken to extremes, simply means death to many people. That each of us can specialize (in whatever we do) brings about the necessary increase in productivity and efficiency in that endeavor. Being a total generalist (knowing a little bit about everything, being able to do anything that is absolutely necessary) may sound nice, somewhat romantic perhaps, but in reality it also means being sub-optimal in any given field, compared to a specialist.

    Much to chew over...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:06 PM, June 22, 2005  

  • Responding to Dan...

    Currently Japan produces about 40% of its food calories domestically. It's very easy to concoct doomsday scenarios with a number like that.

    1) No one is suggesting taking away farms from people who know how to farm.

    2) Japan can't instantaneously return unused farmland to production. There isn't enough people with the know how. The average farmer is in their 50's and there is a heck alot of them in the 70's and 80' who won't be doing it much longer. The younger generations aren't replacing them.

    3) A cucumber and a tomato may save your life. If something bad did happen, how many days can you live eating 100 calories less that it takes to maintain your weight? Its better have your body eating a tomato and not your liver.

    4) When the energy crisis deepens, Japan may not have a market to sell to. Thus not having the foreign currency to buy food or energy. Any energy crunch will undougtedly cause financial difficulties for all industrialized nations. Any reduction in demand will also reduce japan's buying power. Obviously Japan is the most vulnerable of industrialized nations to Peak Oil and anyone living Japan would be wise to at least keep an eye on it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:58 PM, June 22, 2005  

  • Reply to Dan's Comment at 2:33 Yesterday

    First, Dan, thanks for writing.

    Most of our customers buy software from our company because they believe we can provide better software faster, less expensively, and more conveniently to them than they could produce comparable software themselves. And they trust in our sustainability, that is, they trust that we will continue to provide software that satisfies some of their needs better, faster, less expensively, and more conveniently than they could produce comparable software themselves. If such criteria fit you, I hope you will consider buying software from us. But if such criteria don't fit you, my salespersons and me would be the first to recommend that you don't buy our software.

    None of our customers buy all their software from us and most of our customers produce much of their software themselves.

    I don't plan to produce all of my own food, just that portion that I think I can produce better, more healthily, less expensively, more conveniently and enjoyably, and on a more sustainable basis than by buying from "specialized argriculturalists".

    I don't think Japan should depend on importing food from other nations, particularly the United States, for several reasons, including these:

    1. The US (like most other agricultural exporters) heavily subsidizes its agricultural industry (the main reason why Japan must protect its domestic importers), so the trade is neither fair nor based on comparative advantage.

    2. The US persistently uses economic boycotts to bully and coerce other nations, so I don't think Japan should put itself at the mercy of the US by depending on food imported from the US.

    3. I think the greedy grab to maximize profits impels too many "specialized argriculturalists" in the US to produce unhealthy and dangerous food.

    4. I think the mass production of food, particularly in the US, depends too much on rapidly depleting resources, such as oil, to be sustainable much longer; I think Japan needs a more sustainable supply of food.

    5. I don't agree that the Japanese "choose" to import food so much as the US government dupes and bullies the puppet governors it installed (instead of hanging as "war criminals") after World War II to import food from the US instead of producing their own. (Much like England destroyed India's ability to produce most of its own clothing and other needs in order to enrich English producers.)

    As to energy, as with food, Japan jeopardizes its independence by importing nearly all its energy from other countries, particularly a country like the United States that frequently uses economic boycotts to bully and coerce other nations.

    Moreover, the other sources of energy you mention will deplete soon after oil, so what Japan really needs to do (what all nations really need to do) is end their addiction to cheap and abundant energy, an addiction caught with the emergence of the oil-producing industry about 150 years ago. What we thought was an "industrial revolution" was really just a short-lived oil bubble, and its about to burst.

    I don't think the peaking of oil production is a "doomsday scenario". When I first queried Google on "peak oil" one year ago, I found about 60,000 articles. When I queried Google yesterday, I found about 888,000 articles. Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche Bank all have warned their clients about this in recent months. I've read and thought too much about this imminent crisis to ignore it. And I prefer to prepare too much than to prepare too little for anything bad.

    Finally, I don't know where you got the idea that I'm a "anti-division-of-labor survivalist". I stress teamwork, rather than individualist play, in leading a company of 700 employees, I've played as a team member in team sports all my life, and I am an active member of the communities in which I live, work, and play.

    Hope this answers the points you raised. Once again, thanks for writing.

    Bill Totten
    2005-06-23 11:17

    By Blogger Bill Totten, at 11:19 AM, June 23, 2005  

  • Response to Robert Sczech's comments at 4:59 PM yesterday

    Good point, Robert, as energy prices rise, due to peaking of oil production and lack of cheap and abundant energy alternatives, cost of transportation will severely limit division of labor requiring travel and transportation.

    Same with food: Even in the United States, which produces most of its food domestically, food travels an average of 2500 kilometers from farm to mouth; for Japan, which imports 60% of its calories and 70% of its grain, the distance must be much farther and the cost much greater. As energy prices rise, our ability to transport food economically over great distances will shrink.

    And, as you point out, software and other forms of information can be transported cheaply by wire and wave, so division of labor pays economically over great distances. This is a major reason why much information work is being offshored and outsourced to areas where educated labor is cheap - and why jobs and wages of white collar workers are shrinking in industrialized nations.

    By Blogger Bill Totten, at 11:41 AM, June 23, 2005  

  • Response to Dan's comments of 8:06 pm yesterday

    Thanks again, Dan. I agree that far too many Japanese are increasingly (not still) buying
    high calorie, high protein and fat dense food - eg, meat, milk, bread et cetera. I say increasingly, not still, because this is a new and recent trend in Japan. But I don't think it is because the vegetables and fish, which were the staples of Japanese diets in the past, were inadequate. Rather, I think it is because consumers are duped by the advertising campaigns of the mass producers of food, which specialize in producing profits, regardless of the harm their products wreak on the health of their customers. The results can be seen in the declining health of the Japanese people, who are well on their way to joining Brits and Yanks in obesity and other symptoms of bad eating.

    I agree fully with your point that anything, taken to extremes, is bad. Bolshevism is one example, the survivalists or hermits who try to satisfy all their own needs are another example, and the fundamendalists who want to put a price on everything and everyone while replacing societies with markets are still another example. All mean death to many people.

    All societies have a certain amount of specialization and division of labor. The extent depends largely on economic conditions. The peaking of oil production along with the lack of cheap and abundant energy alternatives are changing those economic conditions. With less inexpensive energy to use, we'll have less specialization over shorter distances than during the 150-year oil bubble now ending.

    By Blogger Bill Totten, at 12:31 PM, June 23, 2005  

  • Response to Mark's comments of 9:58 pm yesterday

    Good points, Mark. Since Japan cannot instantaneously return unused farmland to production, they better get started quickly.

    Yes, a cucumber can save your life while a diet heavy in beans, avocados, and nuts can provide most of the protein we need.

    As you say, as the energy crisis deepens, Japan will lose much of its exports and, thus, much of the income needed to pay for imports of food and energy. Did you know that Japan's economy is 99% domestic and only 1% international? And has been for the past forty years? Most people don't know that because they read and listen to media hype instead of looking at the GDP statistics. Sixty percent of Japan's economy is private domestic consumption, thirty percent is domestic capital investment, nine percent is social consumption (government expenditure), and only one percent is the international component, net exports (ten percent exports minus nine percent). However, the thirty giant corporations that produce more than half of Japan's exports also supply most of the campaign funds to venal politicians, most of the revenues to the advertising-dependent media, and most of the consulting fees to hireling academics and "experts", so these spend all their breath and energy on the miniscule 1% of Japan's economy.


    By Blogger Bill Totten, at 3:01 PM, June 23, 2005  

  • Fukuoka Masanobu - Japanese: 福岡正信
    (not Masanori)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:58 AM, November 20, 2010  

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