Our dependence on (snake) oil

As is being said oftener and oftener, we should be much more worried about the corruption of language than the corruption of senators.

As the gentleman from Arizona said at the end of last week:

My friends, I will have an energy policy that we will be talking about, which will eliminate our dependence on oil from the Middle East that will – that will then prevent us – that will prevent us from having ever to send our young men and women into conflict again in the Middle East.

The salutation he starts off with just seems more than a little smarmy, probably because I don’t believe what follows it, and he’s willing to allow these in such a direct proximity that it sounds like something he’s been told will ‘work’. But it reeks, and reminds me of something recent.

Oh yeah. A trickster. Someone who is trying to pull something over on someone. It’s the condition of false, deeply contemptuous bonhomie. Even if you were among friends, would you address them as such? And if you weren’t actually among friends, then… . Again, the old stand-by: Ignorant, or thinks you are.

But the whole concept of oil independence brings up a host of prickly issues that need to be addressed. The answer to the question of whether it can be accomplished would be revelatory in several directions, if we go about answering it honestly.

The prevailing opinion among (honest) policy experts is that we will not be able to completely eliminate our dependence on Middle East oil. Not only would it be impossible to do at our present consumption rates, but as oil production decreases in the rest of the world, our reliance on oil from the Middle East is likely to increase in the future. So, there’s that, and the question then swerves toward how much of this we might begin to displace with alternative sources. No one seems to think we can or should focus on decreasing consumption.

But, alternatives are where our desire for energy security and the need to reduce greenhouse gases to mitigate global warming converge. The U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 provides a new annual production goal of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. Fourteen years. Currently we produce about 6 billion gallons per year, mostly from corn ethanol, which is draining the aquifer beneath the American Midwest and poisoning the Gulf of Mexico with huge hypoxia zones. Those are just two of the environmental implications of producing that much biofuel. So where did those numbers come from? What were they thinking?

They were thinking about reducing our dependence on foreign oil. But while biofuels won’t do that, they may do something else. The lack of a passenger rail system is really biting us on the ass here, and that’s really what this comes down to. We can and will displace an increasing proportion of our imported transportation fuel with innovative new, non-corn feedstock biofuels. But there’s an enormous gap between there and here. There is no getting around the fact that we’ve got to reduce consumption AND pour significant, war-fighting-type money into renewable energy research. Where does that money come from?

I know it’s counterintuitive-y and all but instead of a temporary gas tax holiday, how about hiking the gas tax permanently? Make ourselves feel the pinch of the very dependence we’re talking about, nudge ourselves to come up with our own alternatives to driving so much, even if it’s just a reason to be more strategic and less wasteful. Introduce a calculus to it, empower the public to play a role instead of feeling helplessly at the mercy of expensive gas. Introduce some measures that drive down consumption. My friends, why can’t we talk about this?

What’s that bumper sticker – control your fate or someone else will?

On to Piraeus

In 1939, just before war returned to Europe after a brief interlude, the ultimate ne’er-do-well Henry Miller came back to America after almost ten years living in France. The state of the States he observed upon his return was startling, to say the least, and after traveling across the country his reflections on what he found became The Air-Conditioned Nightmare:

“But there was nothing of the animal, vegetable or human kingdom in sight. It was a vast jumbled waste created by pre-human or sub-human monsters in a delirium of greed. It was something negative, some not-ness of some kind or other. It was a bad dream and towards the end I broke into a trot, what with disgust and nausea, what with the howling icy gale which was whipping everything in sight into a frozen pie crust. When I got back to the boat I was praying that by some miracle the captain would decide to alter his course and return to Piraeus.

It was a bad beginning. The sight of New York, of the harbor, the bridges, the skyscrapers, did nothing to eradicate my first impressions. To the image of stark, grim ugliness which Boston had created was added a familiar feeling of terror. Sailing around the Battery from one river to the other, gliding close to shore, night coming on, the streets dotted with scurrying insects, I felt as I had always felt about New York – that it is the most horrible place on God’s earth. No matter how many times I escape I am brought back, like a runaway slave, each time detesting it, loathing it, more and more.

And at that point he wasn’t even properly off the boat yet. Weekend assignment: Love your neighbor, read your Miller.


They think we’re stupid with the gas tax holiday malarkey. It’s hard to draw any other conclusion. Such proposals must rank among THE most paternalistic displays of faith in your fellow countryman’s inability to understand even minimally how phenomena like a government or taxes work. Clinton and McCain really have religion on this point – and they’re serious about it. A dearth of evidence to the contrary and all that but still, it makes you wonder whether it’s merely a game to satisfy a sick curiosity about just how much can be pulled over on all of the people some of the time.

Even the jingoist Friedman is right on the money on this one; what does that tell us?

Don’t answer that. Maybe it will provide some daylight between those who subscribe to such and those who don’t.

Now this is a much better idea.

mg of CO2 per km

In a much simpler context, whenever consumerism is able to actively embrace and integrate its most earnest desires within the ‘go green’ phenomena, profound results will follow. Two examples:

Last year about this time, a very good friend in France hit a big birthday and I went over for a week to drink great champagne and deliver a present. This was an incredible hassle, as the present was a painting his wife bought from another friend over here; I built a plywood box around it, tacked on a handle and checked it at the airport. When I spotted it safe and sound at the luggage carousel at de Gaulle the next morning, my odyssey with this box had only begun. Customs officials, the Paris Metro, all sorts of stairs, taxis, a friend’s place, hotels… but there were all kinds of wonderful elements to a few days in the city, including my discovery of an arrondissement I’d never visited ( the XIXeme), this crazy David Lynch art show at the fondation Cartier, plus a stroll out to La Defense one evening – one evening when there happened to be small riot between some kids and the police at the Gare du Nord (this was about two weeks before Sarkozy’s election. If you want to see the underside of any country, visit it right before a national election.)

So, by mid-week I had dragged the box halfway around the city, all the way to the Gare du Lyon, where I waited with it for the TGV to take us both down to Valence. The recorded SNCF lady’s voice, reminding passengers of track changes and other crucial information, was so pleasant reverberating in that old station. It makes you look up at the somewhat ornate ceiling and forget for a minute about the non-existent place you might be able to stow an oddly shaped box somewhere in the second class compartment. There was a billboard that caught my eye, high above the din of arrivals and departures. Nothing high tech, just a static, color sign, an advertisement for some new Peugeot or something. As the SNCF lady was speaking, I noticed the copy on the billboard. They weren’t advertising its engine size, or on-board nav system, or even the fuel efficiency. The ad copy, streaming outside a glamorous profile shot of the sedan gliding across a wide landscape, merely and with a sort of halting understatement noted the vehicle’s amount of carbon emissions per kilometer. BAM. I was right back in the future.

There was a lot politics in discussions with my friend, his wife and their friends during the rest of my stay, most of it very depressing to me as an avowed admirer of most choses francaises. Their cynicism was very well-informed and convincing, and I could but go along and commiserate on most issues. But I kept holding onto that sign in the Gare du Lyon. Like most symbols, it stood for more than itself, particularly in a milieu that seemed like it was sliding back toward its own worst impulses. It was a small reminder that all was not lost; that company’s ad people had some pretty amazing confidence in the car buying public, and if they had it, then…

The other example, from the same trip. Near the end of the week, my friend and I went to grocery store so I could buy some of my wife’s favorite items to smuggle back: some wine, chocolate, jars of mustard, a little foie gras and tin of this delicious peasant food that we love. Anyway, we got all that plus a few more things and headed for the checkout. I paid with my debit card and went around to the end of the checkout counter to bag my buys. Now this was a huge grocery chain, like Le Clerc or Intermarche or something. But when I went around to the end of the counter and reached for some bags, a funny thing happened: there weren’t any.

I was honestly shocked. They were no longer providing free plastic shopping bags for customers, for every reason everyone already knows. But someone had made the decision, and some company had made it policy. No more, sorry. Perhaps it had been mandated by the government or they had started charging people some inordinate amount to use, make or dispose of them. Whatever it was, it worked. They were gone. My friend looked at me and apologized with sudden alarm that he had left his bags in the car, where they always now were. This little array of habits was splayed out embarrassingly for me, a sort of gratuitous display of acting sensibly that put most other actions in a very poor light. It made me wonder as we grabbed our stuff in our arms and darted out into the waiting drizzle, why do we still live this way, hemmed in so many sides by the little conveniences we demand?

It’s just a little thing, bringing bags to the grocery store or buying a car for its low emissions. But they are both on their way. You don’t have to feel especially empowered – or as though your liberty has been infringed upon – by doing the right thing, but you can.


It takes place every day

Nietzsche said, “He who has a strong enough why can bear any how.” The primary force of the vague tautology that we must be able to do certain things (simply because of the inherent need to do them), weighed against the true probability of any outcome, helps us get a handle on the most current odds-making on the question of global climate change. In addition, we might ask as we often do, what is the smart money doing?

This is what we usually can see first – the motion of resources – when the top of the chain begins to move, if not thrash about. The impetus to go green remains at its fashion stage, though many venture capitalists have started to put their money into some interesting niche ideas. But the popular uprising remains in its gesture phase. We may prefer this because everything else would seem like panic, and no one really wants that.

Perhaps this fear of panic is holding back the phenomenon from becoming the full blown existential crisis that it portends, on which its sunnier moments are truly based if the full scenario is to make any sense whatsoever. Mr. Gore’s movie terrified many people, but again, our ability to tell ourselves certain things permitted us to move on. There is a dissonance about conditions being severe enough to act, though not just yet. It seems a sort of patrician patience in the service of good form, prudence based on perception in a kind of “Just so, old chap,” way.

We have been here before, however, though in the heights of the Cold War we were also yet able to foster that remove from ever-encroaching oblivion. It didn’t prevent us from lining up for nuclear bomb drills in school (!), but we went on making long term plans just the same, maybe factoring in the odds of annihilation, maybe not, but living with the specter all the same. Maybe we just haven’t gotten comfortable with the idea yet; I even have trouble writing about it because everything sounds like such dooms-saying when all we’re really talking about are big, big changes.

Yet even these are simply about returning to more sensible dimensions in the way we live. When we talk about green this or sustainable that, these are just transitional codes for simple things that used to be common place like knowing where your food comes from or walking to work. To the extent we don’t want or care to do these things, well, they’re that much easier to shroud in Greenery.

I’ve always loved how Camus in L’Homme Revolte explained that Communism was a sickness, a system predicated on the elimination of absurdity in our daily lives. He knew that wasn’t possible and in so many ways, we’ve returned there, struggling to explain and justify some of the absurdities we’ve been living with and on. We can change what we call them, tweak the edges and continue to tell ourselves certain things. But they can’t just be explained away. They are there. And we simply must change them.

Coal and the horse it rode in on

Just keeping this debate about coal on the radar is an accomplishment, so this article pointing a sooty finger at Europe can be commended in that respect. As it states, without carbon capture and sequestration, or storage, coal simply cannot be green. Capturing carbon invokes the specter of attaching costs in the form of penalties to carbon emissions, which presumes there’s not already a cost. We’re in the process of admitting to ourselves that there is, and that we’re running out of time to remedy the situation. Can penalties be turned into value? There’s where the carbon credits switcheroo comes into play, but convincing ourselves of this sort of inevitability seems to be predicated on the assumption of an everybody’s-all-in-or-it’s-not-going-to-work state of affairs.

So, as the above graph illustrates, there are only limited amounts of gas and oil remaining, though there are substantial coal reserves. Mostly, we fall into three categories:

1)Global climate change is a hoax and there’s no need to do anything.

2) Technology will catch up and save us from the worst.

3) It’s too late and nothing can turn the tide of the planetary destruction our civilization has wrought.

1) is interesting with respect to its shrinking constituency, bearing a striking resemblance to the polar bear clinging to an small ice float. The pervading acknowledgement that there is a need to do something is one benefit of the oversaturation with ‘Green’ everything. However 2) immediately puts a strict limit on what we might do in favor of the hope of a magic bullet. I can say with certainty that scientists and engineers are, as I write this, toiling away on everything from hydrogen fuel cells to enzymes that will break down cellulose more quickly… but – these labors by themselves will not be enough. There must be an element of 3) mixed in with 2) to persuade and engender a mass effort – people, governments, industries – to change the way we light, heat and travel the world. Sure, I can tell you that we can make money while we save the environment, but continued growth? And what’s a world without continued growth?

Just a world, I’d say.

Image courtesy of James Hansen, NASA GISS

Natural Racehorses

I’m going to pick door number three.

There is a wonderful book written by Howard and Elisabeth Odum (kinfolk to the father of modern ecology, Eugene Odum) called A Prosperous Way Down. But it’s just not a conversation many of us modern first-worlders will deign to have. We just seem to not want to talk about it, unless there’s some angle we’re pushing, hence the Green marketing explosion. Yet it hides a real, multi-tentacled phenomenom, which itself – if we really were smart capitalists on top our game – is shrouding a mountain of astounding opportunities.

As it is, we are ruled not by passion but by caution. Too much Greenspan, not nearly enough Rilke. Ugh. I can’t believe I just wrote that; I can’t believe it took this long. We are afraid to be scared and so just look the other way. Where are the real bastards of the renewables industry (There Will Be Wind!), anyway? We are going to have to be turned on the spits of our ugly sides, like so often is the case. All of this dissonance might not come to jarring end, but there will have to be some reconciling of this absurd idea of growth based on whatever we want vs. the actual laws of the universe. Sadi Carnot, people.

Also looming, and possible source of massive profiteering if you B-school droolers would spend some time in intro-to-engineering classes, is the correlation between the rising global thermometer and said running-on-empty scenario. For an excellent rundown of what we’re looking at as far as how much oil is left and what the real worry is, viewing this would be a good start.

Bio-fuel conversion

This is not what is usually meant when those two words are put together. It’s sort of the guerrilla aspect of using alternative fuel for transportation (green) before and until the law catches up with you ($). So these are two sides of green that clue into the fact that there are far more than two sides.

Good to know.

But this instance also alludes to being able to go green from a dead-stop; off-the-shelf enabling technology or in this case, a jerry-rigged Jiffy Lube ( Riggy Lube?). In gerneral, we are far, far off base from being able to walk into one of the Big Box home improvement stores and buy a wind-mill kit or a do-it-your-self solar panel set-up. It’s a huge opportunity that still going wanting, as of this weekend. Stop trying to come up with yer exotic financial instruments to fleece the lowlanders and come up with something for them to use.

Now that would be green. But, that’s what I thought.

Bio-fuel conversion

This is not what is usually meant when those two words are put together. It’s sort of the guerrilla aspect of using alternative fuel for transportation (green) before and until the law catches up with you ($). So these are two sides of green that clue into the fact that there are far more than two sides.

Good to know.

But this instance also alludes to being able to go green from a dead-stop; off-the-shelf enabling technology or in this case, a jerry-rigged Jiffy Lube ( Riggy Lube?). In gerneral, we are far, far off base from being able to walk into one of the Big Box home improvement stores and buy a wind-mill kit or a do-it-your-self solar panel set-up. It’s a huge opportunity that still going wanting, as of this weekend. Stop trying to come up with yer exotic financial instruments to fleece the lowlanders and come up with something for them to use.

Now that would be green. But, that’s what I thought.