Friday, May 30, 2008

A Golden Opportunity

What's a body to believe? Every day the debate rages on -- it's global warming. No, it's not. We're running out of oil. No, we're not. The price of gas is going up. No, it's not. Oh, wait, that one's true for sure. The answer is, it doesn't matter who is right and who is wrong. We have a golden economic opportunity here, my friends.

T. Boone Pickens, Jr., the Texas oil billionaire, recently announced that he was investing in wind farms, not because he has suddenly turned green, but because that is where the money is to be made. Oil is passé. The future is alternative power -- solar arrays, wind farms, wave turbines. The future is hybrid cars that get 350 mpg. The future is buildings that are designed to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter thereby slashing power bills to a shred of their former selves. The future is no more dependence on foreign oil and foreign oil prices!

But what about all those dire predictions that our economy would be hurt by a conversion to alternative fuels? Well, I've scoured the internet looking for a credible source for those dire predictions, and I can't find any! What I do find is more and more businesses, including oil companies like Shell, BP and ConocoPhillips, more and more economists, more and more experts of every kind and ilk saying that moving away from oil to cleaner, healthier, renewable sources of energy will only make our economy stronger.

So it's win-win-win-win. We strengthen our economy and create thousands of new jobs. We tell Iraq and Saudi Arabia, thank you very much but we don't want any more of your blankety blank oil. We lower our energy bills. We leave our children a cleaner, healthier, world. And, just in case the doomsayers were right after all, we avert doom.

There is a bill being debated in the senate right now that addresses this very opportunity. That bill is The Climate Security Act. It has already been endorsed by 800 entrepreneurs and investors who believe it will create whole new industries and thousands of new jobs. But don't take my word for it. Check it out for yourself. If you believe, as I do, that this is where our future lies, then please take the time to let your senator know where you stand. It's time we gave American ingenuity the incentive it needs to usher in a bright, new age.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Price of Oil and Life as We Know It

I've been trying to understand why the cost of oil is skyrocketing. A year ago, economists were warning that if oil prices rose to a consistent $80 a barrel, it would spell disaster for our economy. And here we are at close to $130 per barrel and still climbing. I wanted to know, is this the new norm or is this a temporary spike? So, I decided to do some investigating. I went to the US Department of Energy for most of my statistics, and here is what I found.

First of all, we are currently maxed out. Worldwide production and demand are pretty much equal at present -- at around 85-86 million barrels a day. Not only that, but we are at our max in terms of refining capacity. Any increase in production would require building new refineries, and refineries cannot be built overnight. No wonder oil prices are going up! Now, with prices so high, demand may fall off a bit, and that could bring prices down a notch -- at least in the short run. But if demand continues to grow, so will prices. Up and up.

Secondly, we have an estimated 1317 billion barrels of oil left in known reserves. If we take the number 85.5 million barrels per day and multiply it by 365 days per year, we get an annual consumption rate of a little more than 31 billion barrels per year. At our current rate of consumption, we have about 42.5 years left of known oil reserves. But we are unlikely to stay at current rates of consumption. If the rate rises, we will have somewhere between 30 to 40 years left. At the historic rate of increase, 1.76% per year (average rate from 1994-2006), we will double our usage in 40 years. At the rate we have experienced in recent years (2003-2004), 3.4% per year, we will double in 20.5 years. So, to make it easier on ourselves, let's go with the middle ground -- let's say we have 35 years of oil left and at the end of the 35 years, our consumption will have doubled. That means that 35 years from now, we will need to have discovered and be ready to pump, refine and transport an amount of oil equal to twice the amount of oil consumed throughout the entire history of mankind! Now there may be undiscovered oil fields out there, but that many and that much??

The bottom line is this: life as we know it is about to change. Forever. With vision and aforesight, we can shape our future into something cleaner, healthier, and more at peace with the natural world. Or we can blindly stumble into the future, helpless victims of the coming change. The choices you and I make today will decide the future for thousands of generations to come. It's on us. There is no escape clause.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


This morning, I have been browsing the internet, following links which led, this time, to a discussion of permaculture -- which is basically a way of living in the world with emphasis on sustainable agriculture. Permaculture, Peak Oil, Global Climate Destabilization, Over Population, Over Exploitation of the World's Resources, Deforestation, Pollution: there is a lot of concern out there about the world and its problems, a lot of predictions, a lot of speculation, but the underlying agreement seems to be that we cannot continue the way we are for much longer. Eventually, we will run out of fossil fuels. Eventually, climate change will force our hands. Eventually, we will reach the maximum population the world can sustain. Growth cannot go unchecked forever and a day. The disagreement centers around the questions 'how soon will we reach the tipping point,' 'how fast will change occur,' and 'how extreme will the change be'? All seem to agree that, eventually, human beings are going to have to adapt or die.

So, what does the adaptation look like? Does it look like dolphinesque cars powered by electricity, sleek, modern buildings with rooftop gardens, solar panels and windmills, and suburban lots converted to mini-farms, garages converted to businesses, and communities becoming even closer? Or does the future look like Mad Max with the strong preying on the weak and everyone struggling to survive? Probably both and neither.

There seems to be at least one wild card in every deck - the one thing no one saw coming: AIDS, the fall of the Soviet empire, the Americanization of China, 9/11. This time, too, I believe the unexpected will occur and will change everything, but how that will play out, I cannot begin to guess. I hate to say it, but maybe we need a Pearl Harbor to set things in motion before we reach free fall.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Come Hell and High Water

It's one of those mornings. I put on my grunge clothes, made a list of all the things that needed done in the garden, and fully intended to take advantage of a cool, overcast day to do the dirty work. But before I got out the door, something I had read yesterday started niggling at my mind, and I knew I would have to see it onscreen before I could go forward with my day. So here it is.

In August of 2005, a storm named Katrina struck the Gulf coast of the USA leaving a legacy of death and destruction. In Pass Christian, Mississippi, a 30 foot high wall of water with waves up to 55 feet obliterated the once charming, southern town, including the home of one Mr. Romm and family. Now Mr. Romm lived one mile inland. He did not have waterfront property. Was this storm a freak of nature or something likely to repeat, he wondered. Temporarily relocated in Atlanta, he contacted his brother, Joseph, and said, "Hey, Bro. This is your area of expertise. Tell me, should I rebuild in Pass Christian or get a new life?"1

Now his brother, Joseph, was highly qualified to answer that very question. After all, he had a doctorate in physics from MIT, had done his dissertation on physical oceanography, and had served as head of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy during the Clinton administration. But Joseph knew this was a question that deserved careful analysis. So he did some research. He asked top scientists in the field. What he found out was that "the climate situation was far more dire than most people -- even many scientists, myself included -- realized. Almost every major climate impact was occurring faster than the computer models had suggested. Arctic sea ice was shrinking far faster than every single model had projected. And the great ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica were shedding ice decades earlier than the models said. Ecosystems appeared to be losing their ability to take up carbon dioxide faster than expected. At the same time, global carbon dioxide emissions and concentrations were rising faster than most had expected."2

In Romm's estimation, and in that of many climatologists, hurricane seasons like those of 2004 and 2005 may become commonplace in the very near future. 2006 was a lucky year -- most of the hurricanes headed out into the Atlantic. 2007 was not so lucky.

Aha, my friends would say. 2007 was a dud so far as hurricanes go. The US hardly got hit at all. Well, despite what some of my friends seem to think, we are not the only country in world. According to Wikipedia, 2007 was a record-breaking year in many unfortunate ways:

On August 18, Hurricane Dean was upgraded to category 5 status and eventually made landfall at that strength on the Mexican Yucatán Peninsula. When Hurricane Felix reached category 5 status, 2007 became one of four recorded Atlantic seasons that have had more than one category 5 storm — the others being 1960, 1961 and 2005 — and the only time two Atlantic hurricanes have ever made landfall at Category 5 strength in the same season. Dean and Felix also both reached Category 5 strength more than once, the first such occurrence in an Atlantic hurricane season. Also, the 2007 season was the second season on record that an Atlantic hurricane and an eastern Pacific hurricane made landfall on the same day (Felix and Henriette). Hurricane Humberto also became the fastest developing storm on record to be so close to land; it strengthened from a 35 mph (55 km/h) tropical depression to a 90 mph (150 km/h) hurricane in 14 hours while 15 miles (24 km) off the coast of Texas. September had a record tying 8 storms, but the strengths and durations of most of the storms were low. Hurricane Noel was the deadliest storm of the season, killing 169 people. The post season Tropical Storm Olga caused 40 deaths in the northern Caribbean, primarily in the Dominican Republic.

Unfortunately, hurricanes are not all we have to worry about. In August of 2003, a heat wave caused 35,000 deaths across Europe. That's a lot of dead people, People. And global climate destabilization is a contributing factor to a host of weather extremes, many of which the US of A is experiencing almost daily -- droughts, floods, tornadoes, wildfires to name the most popular.

I know I harp on this a lot. Sometimes my high horse gets so high even I get a nose-bleed. But I challenge everyone to read Romm's book. Prove it wrong. Prove me wrong. If you can't, then at least care enough to care.


1 Okay, I took liberties. This might not be an exact quote.

2 Joseph Romm, Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- the Solution and the Politics -- and What We Should Do, p. 29

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Earthship Fantasy

One of the things I love most about earthships is that they represent a return to the elementals, to living at the root of things. I love that they are formed out of dirt and rubbish and cement into a living sculpture. I love that they are a world of their own, providing power, water, and food to the people who shelter within. I love that they are a return to self-sufficiency, if not completely, then at least much more closely than most of us will ever get.

We go to the grocery store and load our carts with plants and animals we have never seen alive and growing. We go to malls and buy clothes we have not sewn, metals we have not dug, electronics that might be magic for all we know of how they work. In an earthship, one knows where the water comes from and where it goes. One feels the sun's power as it streams through windows to be collected in the thermal mass the walls provide. One showers in rain water and picks bananas through a kitchen window. One is connected to mother earth and to one's own life in ways we have almost forgotten. I love earthships! and hope to live in one someday.

This is the floorplan for my dream earthship, based on a model currently being built in New Mexico. My version incorporates back-up systems for heat, cooking, and refrigeration, in addition to a means of pumping water manually should the need for alternatives arise. It is a 'convertible' model that could accommodate additional family members if so desired. It's my plan B. I always feel more secure when I have a plan B.