Sunday, July 15, 2018

"In Praise of Idleness" Revisited

Last week a new acquaintance displayed mild astonishment at the volume of my writing. He asked me how I come up with ideas for my pieces. I had to pause to think about that since my process has become more of a reflex that anything else.

My answer was that I have the luxury of time. Despite the heightened pace of my life since moving to Washington, D.C., I continue to leave many hours unscheduled so that I can read, think and write.

I am reminded of Bertrand Russell's 1932 essay entitled "In Praise of Idleness"  which critiqued the modern obsession with labor in the age of the machine and with production as an end in itself.

Much of the work in wealthy countries now, however, is in the service industries. Service jobs have always been around, but not as much as they are today. Yet strangely, in an age where a smaller and smaller proportion of the population produces the actual physical objects of life—work that in the past has been associated with long hours of physical labor and repetitive drudgery—many of those engaged in the professions, managerial work, and other white-collar jobs have seen their workday expand almost without limit. We receive emails from workplace colleagues and clients at all hours, sometimes with tasks that must be performed immediately. A dinner with a lawyer friend last week was interrupted by an email from a client who needed a memo that evening for the next morning.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

10 years after the oil price spike: Is peak oil a process rather than a moment?

Ten years ago this week—July 11, 2008 to be exact—the price of a barrel of oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange hit an intraday high of $147.27, its highest price ever. By the following autumn the world economy was in shambles and the price of oil was tumbling. The oil price eventually bottomed out around $34 per barrel in mid-February the following year.

Oil prices started 2002 around $20 per barrel and then rose almost continuously until mid-2008. As they rose, the world's best known critic of peak oil* prognostications, Daniel Yergin, began to look so foolish for having predicted ample supplies for decades to come that his firm finally reversed itself in mid-2008 and began to forecast higher prices. That should have been read as a contrarian signal; just two months later the oil bull market ended.

Peak oil thinkers at the time believed that their forecast of a nearby all-time peak in the rate of world oil production had been fulfilled. The official numbers seemed to confirm this. Petroleum geologist Kenneth Deffeyes' had made a half-serious prediction that Thanksgiving Day 2005 would mark the all-time high for production. Production of crude oil including lease condensate (which is the definition of oil) was slightly more than 74 million barrels per day (mbpd) in December 2005, but thereafter declined.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Is the decline of coal a national security problem?

As the Trump administration seeks to resuscitate the moribund American coal industry, it has decided to invoke "national security" as the justification for a plan to subsidize coal-fired power plants.

Three things are notable about the administration's proposal. First, invoking "national security" has become a favored tool for getting around existing regulations, precedents and the Constitution. It's also handy for labeling one's opponents as unpatriotic in order to avoid a genuine discussion of the true purpose of a proposed action. Second, the coal industry used to be the one attacking renewable energy sources as too expensive to stand on their own without subsidies. As the cost of renewable energy has continued to plummet, the tables are now turning.

Third, the move has united an unlikely coalition in opposition that includes the oil and gas industry, anti-nuclear activists (since nuclear power plants are included in the subsidy plan), environmentalists and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which is dominated by Trump appointees. It takes amazingly bad policy to get an alliance like this together.