Sunday, September 30, 2007

The nonheroes of peak oil

We laud heroes who save us from dangers that are immediate and concrete. President Franklin Roosevelt lifted the spirits of an America weary from economic depression and later led that nation through a victorious war against the forces of fascism. We celebrate the brave police officers and firefighters of the New York Police Department who risked all to save the unfortunate victims of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. We also have lesser recognized heroes for the environment who helped to clean up our air and our water.

But, the most obscure of heroes are those who prevent bad things from happening. Perhaps the least known, but most notable hero in this regard is Norman Borlaug who is often called the father of the green revolution. Whatever one thinks of Borlaug's type of agriculture (chemical- and petroleum-intensive and biotechnology friendly), arguably his work helped to avert mass starvation among the rapidly growing populations of Asia and Latin America. As a result, Borlaug was the recipient of many awards including the Nobel Peace Prize. But, since there are apparently no newsworthy photos or videos of people not starving because of Borlaug's work, he is little known to the general public.

Let us now imagine the fate of a courageous, peak oil aware president of the United States who sets about making drastic changes in federal policy to help the nation prepare. This president decides to use all his (or her) power to persuade the U. S. Congress that peak oil is a reality, that it could come soon and that serious action must be taken. (I do not for a moment believe this is a realistic scenario; rather it is just a thought experiment to make a point.)

Luckily, this president has commanding majorities in both the House and the Senate and is able to push through his program. It includes an immediate rise of $1 a gallon in gasoline taxes, increasing to $3 after five years. The money raised is used to begin an ambitious plan to expand the national passenger rail network and run it primarily on electricity. Vast outlays are also made for expanding public transportation in cities. The operation of this transportation is heavily subsidized to encourage its use. Additional taxes are levied on other energy sources such as coal and natural gas to reduce all energy usage and encourage conservation. Tax incentives are given for the purchase of gas-electric hybrid vehicles and electric-only vehicles. Gas mileage standards are raised by 50 percent over five years. The plan calls for a vast increase in electrical generating capacity using wind and solar to keep up with the new demands that will be made on the electrical grid.

These are the broad outlines of the president's plan, and he does many other things as well related to efficiency and alternative energy development. By the time the president has finished passing his plan, he is wildly unpopular. The members of his party are swept from office in the next midterm election. The mandate of the new majority is to repeal the president's peak oil measures. But the president retains enough support in Congress to sustain vetoes, and he vetoes every attempt to change his plan.

After three years of difficult adjustment, the price of gasoline, even with the new taxes, is only somewhat higher than it had been when the president took office. New rail passenger service is becoming a favorite among the public, especially the high-speed corridors that were the focus of the initial efforts. Wind and solar electric capacity are now rising at such a steep rate that orders for new power plants using fossil fuels have leveled off. In general, energy remains quite a bit more expensive than it was because of taxes and the general rise in energy prices, but business, government and households have become far more efficient. Perhaps most important, world oil demand has declined and continues to decline. Along with it underlying crude prices have also declined. The president's opponents, of course, seize on this price decline as evidence that there was never any problem with oil in the first place.

The turnabout in U. S. energy policy encourages many other nations not already doing so to adopt high energy taxes and stringent efficiency standards. The vast increase in orders for wind and solar electric generation brings the price down considerably making it more affordable for countries both rich and poor.

As the presidential campaign begins at the end of his third year, the president appears not to have much chance of winning re-election. Members of his own party are running against him in the primary. Even though they plan to keep the "good" parts of the president's energy policy, they all pledge to repeal the gas taxes. Candidates from the other party want to keep some of the plan too, but repeal most of the tax increases.

The president doesn't even make it through his own party's primary, and the other party ultimately takes Congress and the presidency. Despite this new Congress and president, much of the former president's policy stays in place. By now there is a huge and powerful lobby for the wind and solar industry that successfully fights off any attempt to scale back incentives for wind and solar electric generation. The production of vehicles of all types, trucks, busses, and cars, using hybrid and electric technology is now the norm so nothing is done to repeal gas mileage standards. The Congress repeals some, but not all of the tax increase on gasoline because the government is now dependent on the revenue to keep the quickly expanding rail and public transportation network moving.

The former president, however, is a pariah in his own party and in his own country (except in train stations). He spends most of his time at a vacation home in Costa Rica. It is there that he dies two years later--from grief more than anything for having been so thoroughly reviled by the country he once served and saved from the worst effects of peak oil.

This, unfortunately, is a likely trajectory for any politician who grasps the nettle of peak oil and pursues it to its logical end even if that politician succeeds. (The fate of the last president to grapple seriously with energy issues, Jimmy Carter, is not lost on the current crop of American politicians.) The abstract and hypothetical nature of world peak oil production prevents it from having heroes in the usual sense of the word. Its heroes might be likened to a bureaucrat whose regulation saves thousands of babies from injuries that might otherwise occur. There is no celebrity for such a person, of course, since he or she cannot be photographed, for example, snatching a helpless baby from a crib and carrying it from a burning house to safety. In fact, when the regulation the bureaucrat proposes goes into effect, he will be roundly criticized by anti-regulatory groups as just another nanny for the nanny state. Of course, there is rarely any acknowledgement later that such a person was responsible for a fair number of healthy babies who grow up unharmed.

Certainly some who work to prevent future harms ultimately get credit. Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader come to mind. But in their cases the harm was already in evidence. For Carson it was the decline of songbirds and for Nader it was the horrific damage inflicted on people by automobile accidents. The invisibility of peak oil, however, makes it difficult to grasp. And, the harm resulting from it will not be in evidence until it arrives. Peak oil, unlike car accidents and the spraying of pesticides, is a one-time event.

So the heroes of peak oil awareness and preparedness are faced with describing the hypothetical harm from an abstract event in the future over which there is considerable disagreement as to the timing and ultimate effects. It is hard for them to illustrate that harm, and even more difficult to make the case for heroic action. And, yet heroic personalities are often critical to the advance of a movement.

It is a sad commentary that those who are now laboring so hard to prepare us for a world with declining oil may succeed only when the rest of us fail. Their heroic work may only be recognized as such after we have begun our slide down the other side of Hubbert's Curve, when it would have been so much better had we recognized them long ago and simply followed.


Jan Steinman said...

This obsession with "success or failure" and "legacy," while not uniquely American, is irrelevant.

The task at hand is to establish a new ethic of frugality, of being held in high regard the less one consumes and the more one gives away.

That is a much more difficult task than building electric trains or increasing gasoline taxes, but the rewards are much greater, as it becomes self-perpetuating.

If each person learns how to do with less, and if people feel good doing so, the success or failure of any individual politician will not matter.

Now maybe you say this can't happen. But you even said your scenario can't happen, so why not dream for true change, rather than the incremental change that, as Ronald Reagan said, "only means we'll run out of energy more slowly."

Anonymous said...

It's ironic that you cite Norman Borlaug as a hero who saved millions (or is it billions) from starvation, because the effect of his work isn't over yet. I think you put the cart before the horse. His work didn't save millions, it made it possible for them to be born and grow up. The green revolution, based on massive petroleum requirements --as you indicated-- has set us up for a huge decline in human population numbers during this century. As fossil fuels become scarce, the green revolution will wither under our feet. Then the immense population overshoot that Borlaug's work made possible will be revealed for what it is: an unsustainable overshoot. I won't be around in fifty to a hundred years to see what history says of Borlaug work, but I think it will be a mixed review at best.

Kurt Cobb said...

I agree with Cameron that Borlaug's legacy may ultimately be one of simply contributing to population overshoot. But my purpose in citing him is that his work was primarily devoted to preventing something bad from happening and this is very similar to the task of the peak oil movement. One could argue that Borlaug has only made a bad situation worse by preventing something bad from happening in the short run only to have something more horrible happen in the long run. This, of course, is the terrible logic of overshoot since it turns all our moral categories upside down. Our natural moral inclination, to save the lives of our fellow human beings whenever we can, has disturbing implications when we look at it from the perspective of unlimited growth within a limited system. That is why family planning is so vital to our prospects. But certainly many of us have noticed that population seems to be a taboo subject even in environmental circles these days.

Anonymous said...

"overshoot" is another calculation, model, prediction.

It says, "according to my calculations, the human population must crash."

As a prediction it is a caution, that we can all rationally relate to.

It becomes more perverse when people that we not help the living now in our actual world.

Why? Because in our arrogance we think we've got the future figured out. Cue Taleb.

(Reminder: there are a wonderful variety of actions that we can take today that improve the lives of our fellows AND improve sustainability. We don't NEED to go to the dark side.)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, missing word:

"It becomes more perverse when people [suggest] that we not help the living now in our actual world."

Anonymous said...

Nader as an unsung hero? Nader?!!! That stupid, stupid overweening fool put Bush in the White House through his narcissism...whatever good Nader ever did he more than expunged from his record by crowning Bush. Mentioning Nader in the same breath as Carson ... nauseating.