Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Big Chill

by Jim Kunstler (February 19 2007)

One of the farmers who organized the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's annual meeting put it nicely: "The ethanol craze means that we're going to burn up the Midwest's last six inches of topsoil in our gas-tanks".

The American public is in chill mode in more ways than one. We are finally freezing our asses off in the Northeast after a supernaturally mild December and January, and the heating oil trucks are once again making the rounds of the home furnaces (and running down their inventories). But we're also chillin' on the concept that there is an energy problem per se. The public is convinced that we are one IPO away from attaining the sovereign rescue remedy that will permit us to continue running our Happy Motoring utopia.

The public is bombarded daily with feel-good news about new bio-engineered bacteria that can turn sawmill refuse into high-test gasoline, cornucopias of miracle diesel beans, lithium batteries that will take you from Hackensack to Chicago on a single charge, and still (despite all the evidence against feasibility) hydrogen-powered SUVs. The public is convinced that we will enter a nirvana of "energy independence" just-in-time - the same way that WalMart miraculously restocks it's shelves.

The truth is, we will never be energy independent as long as we remain a car-fixated society. It's that simple. If we can't let go of the sunk costs associated with Happy Motoring, we're probably not going to make it very far into the future, either as a nation or a viable economy or as an orderly society. By sunk costs I mean our previous investments in car-oriented infrastructure.

For the moment, I blame the Democrats (and I am a registered Democrat). One shouldn't expect rational thinking from the current generation of Republicans. The sheer fact that so many of them have sold their allegiance to the Born Again dominionist fold, where magical thinking rules, means that they are incapable of evaluating the energy predicament - in fact, if they are sincere in their apocalyptic dogma, then many of them would probably welcome a global struggle over oil, with all the military mischief it would entail in the vicinity of the Holy Land.

No, I blame the Democrats. The Democrats are supposed to represent the reality-based faction of the general public. They should be able to do the math without getting sidetracked by Jesus-haunted visions of WalMart running on biodiesel. They should be willing to tell the public the hard truth before it's absolutely too late to make some collective decisions that would lessen the hardship in the circumstances we face - like allocating some federal funds to passenger rail, or reforming codes, incentives, and subsidies that favor suburban sprawl, or replacing the FICA taxes with a gasoline tax (as proposed by oil man Jeffrey Brown of Dallas), or by aggressively promoting local agriculture.

Most of the university professors in the USA are liberals or progressives or Democrats, or at least not Republicans trafficking in magic. University professors in the so-called "hard sciences", especially, have to lead reality-based lives which encompass such ideas as cause and effect and conclusions derived from facts. They ought to know that we are not going to run the interstate highways on any combination of "alternative" fuels. Why are they not challenging the politicians who would pander to the public's delusions?

How about the policy wonks in the progressive foundations? Why is Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute still trying to sell the snake oil of a "hyper-car", when its chief effect is to reinforce the mistaken idea that we can continue to be a car-dependent society?

This may be the Democrat's last chance to get their shit together. The Republicans are already done. You can stick a fork in them. But the Democrats have an opportunity to lead America back into a reality-based channel of history's stream. They can tell the truth about climate change, about oil-and-gas, and about the terrible misinvestments that we have to put behind us. They can prepare the public to deal with the new facts of life.

My guess is that this may happen with Al Gore emerging as the party's candidate for president. The 2008 election campaign has started way too early and the candidates who have announced so far, whatever their merits or demerits, are liable to exhaust themselves. If Al Gore intends to step up to the plate - and I think he will - he would be wise to chill out and wait until at least next fall. That seems to be what he is doing anyway.

Bill Totten


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