Sunday, July 28, 2013

My energy-rich move across America

Someone once said that the journey is more important than the destination. Given the amount of energy global society consumes each day simply moving people and things from one place to another, we can conclude that this shibboleth has taken hold, but not quite in the way we had expected.

My journey--a relocation, actually--across America from Michigan to Portland, Oregon is illustrative of the casual attitude most of us have toward energy consumption, particularly that devoted to transport.

The pod: Crammed, but not full

First, there was the so-called pod which I rented for the journey, a box 7 X 7 X 8, into which I crammed all my worldly goods--less the numerous items which had become superfluous and which I had thrown away, given away or recycled. (I know, I know, there is no "away.") The pod is really a version of containerized freight for mere civilians moving their households. The worldwide logistics system--a system that will only function so long as transportation fuels remain affordable--has found its final conquest.

A friend skilled in packing for maximum utilization of space assisted me in loading the pod. He said he once packed a truck for one of his family moves so tightly that only a liquid cargo would have used the space more completely. As it turned out, a mandatory weigh-in at a state police weighing station revealed that his truck was overweight for its class. And so, with his help we were able to pack everything I wanted to take and even had room to spare.

Off went the pod the next day, picked up by a device that might have been an arachnophobe's mechanical nightmare. The spider-like crane lifted the pod off the ground and placed it onto a flatbed truck for delivery into a logistics system which moves nearly weightless plastic housewares and heavy metal ingots with equal ease and profit across oceans and continents.

Pod crane: An arachnophobe's mechanical nightmare

Two days later my car journey west began. My father accompanied me--the first trip in 29 years that included just the two of us. In the weeks preceding the trip, people were telling me how happy they were that gasoline seemed to want to stay under $4 a gallon this summer. Such short memories and warped perspectives, I thought, aided and abetted, of course, by oil industry propaganda about rising supplies--really, very, very marginally rising, a paltry 2.7 percent in seven years vs. about 1.5 percent on average EVERY YEAR prior to that for crude including lease condensate (which is the proper definition of oil). The public by and large does not understand that we have passed into a new era of high-priced oil.

In the first leg of my trip, we raced across Lake Michigan in a fast-running ferry that carried cars and passengers to Milwaukee in just two and one-half hours. Opposite our starting point we had spied the Milwaukee Clipper, now a museum and a reminder of an era when ferries just carried people (though this one was eventually refurbished and outfitted for carrying vehicles).

The relative ease of crossing the Great Plains--straight, flat roads--makes it easy to forget that some of the fuel powering my vehicle was ethanol from corn grown on these prairies--demand for which is driving up food prices.

A stop in Rapid City, South Dakota had me reciting James Mason's lines from the Hitchcock thriller, North by Northwest. Those who have seen the movie know that its climactic scene is staged on Mount Rushmore, home of the mountaintop sculptures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. The combined sculpture is a testament to the gigantic dreams of America which have led to great achievements, but also more lately to a morbid gigantism in cars, houses and office buildings as a substitute for real achievements.

Hitchcock's America in 1959 was wealthy, comfortable and oblivious to nearly everything except the Cold War and the traffic in secrets that was the ostensible subject of the film. America's peak in oil production was still 11 years away and few then could imagine a country beholden to foreign powers for oil imports which--despite industry misdirection--remain substantial and are critical to our way of life to this day.

Devil's Tower to humans: I'll be around longer than you

We stopped briefly at the Badlands and then at Devil's Tower. This latter site is a testament to what makes much of the West so astonishing to see--the simple fact of differential rates of erosion. Different types of rock erode at different rates, and since the Earth's subsurface is rarely uniform in its composition, erosion creates the topography we see. Saying it this way deflates the experience, however. To the naked eye, the West is nothing less than astonishing in its physical features in a way that photographs will never capture.

To understand the time line for such formations as Devil's Tower--tens of millions of years--is to come into contact with an Earth which cares little about our existence and probably will have obliterated all memory of us tens of millions of years hence. We like to think of ourselves as the highest outcome of evolution. But, on such time lines we are merely an intermediate and perhaps not very impressive product, considering what might yet happen in the vast stretches of time to come before a dying Sun turns Planet Earth into a cinder.

At Yellowstone Park I saw the Old Faithful geyser for the first time (other than in photos and video). The heat beneath Yellowstone is a warning that at any time a vast explosion could hurl untold millions of tons of debris into the atmosphere, smother much of the western United States (as it did approximately 640,000 years ago) and reduce sunlight to the rest of the globe for many years. We almost always think in terms of how we can harness energy from nature and not how nature's mighty stores of energy might clobber us.

From there it was on to the marvel of engineering that is an interstate highway winding its way through river gorges and mountain passes. Other more confident (reckless?) drivers sped past us on the curves and steep downslopes that rather suggested caution to me.

I was reminded of an exchange I had with my sister many years ago when I took up bicycling in earnest. She said that the vast majority of drivers are courteous to cyclists. My response was that it only takes one who isn't courteous to kill you. The extreme outcome, the supposed outlier, is always on my mind, but on the mind of few others. In some ways that may be a good thing for it is not clear to me how this tightly networked, just-in-time world we've constructed would function unless possible extreme outcomes were ignored (as they routinely are).

The final mountain pass delivered us downward onto a sere plain of what appeared to be winter wheat, some of which was being harvested by combines. One-hundred-degree heat baked these eastern Washington state farms that day, heat that is a legacy of our profligate, but until quite recently, unconscious burning of fossil fuels, the major force behind man-made climate change.

Not far away lay the Columbia River, a vast, energetic artery of western-flowing water harnessed to serve the water and power needs of the American Northwest. As I walked along the river in front of the inn that would mark our final night's stay before entering Portland, the Columbia looked not so much like a river, but a lake--made slumbering and weary by dams downstream.

Bonneville Dam spillway

The next day as we drove on the interstate along the banks of the Columbia, we found those dams, massive walls of concrete and steel spanning the river at three separate and amply-spaced intervals. The churning water at their bases gave witness to a controlled flow that generates electricity--electricity dispatched through thick wires hanging from giant metal towers and destined for the energy-hungry metropolises and hamlets of Oregon, Washington and possibly other areas.

Mt. Hood: Dormant, but not dead

The parched brown landscape gradually grew greener as we approached Portland. We passed Mount Hood, the highest spot in the state and a dormant, but not extinct, volcano. (The last eruption is thought to have been between 170 and 220 years ago, though it was not a major explosive event).

In our travels so far we had not worried about finding a room for the evening or about whether there would be enough gasoline to fill the car or about whether the restaurants and grocery stores would run out of food. Of course, not! This is America as it hovers near its highest rate of energy consumption in history. Everything seems fine, everything works more or less as expected--even though an irreversible decline may arrive in the not-too-distant future.

Overconfident, we drove to the center of Portland believing we could easily find a hotel room. (We had arrived early and the pod was not due for another three days.) But three medical conferences and the usual flush of summer tourists had filled nearly every downtown hotel to 100 percent of capacity. A list of possibilities given to us by a sympathetic doorman at the first hotel we tried led to a frantic search by cellphone until we found something on the edge of the downtown area, but only for two nights.

Luckily, two nights turned into three and then, unluckily, into four and five as the pod failed to appear on schedule--a breakdown in the worldwide logistics system, at least for me. Pleasant evenings that we at first filled with restful waterfront meals of fresh seafood turned into a finger-tapping waiting game with little to do but shop for some previously anticipated needs and tour the city with an aimless demeanor.

When the pod did arrive, friends who had promised to help unload on a Saturday were occupied at work on a Monday. That left my 88-year-old father and me to do the unloading.

As is sometimes the case, circumstances make the man. My father worked like a stevedore to bring boxes by hand cart to the bottom of the stairway that led to the apartment. I carried the lighter ones up the stairway and transported others too heavy to carry by dragging them up on a hand cart backwards.

I had predicted it would take us only two hours to unload with the help of friends, and yet, with just the two of us, it took slightly under two hours in the 90-degree heat. My father then slumbered for a couple of hours in a studio chair on the porch as I started to open boxes and arrange things.

This man, who hit his stride professionally during the sweet spot of the fossil fuel age, is a testament to what strenuous daily exercise, a healthy diet, an engaged mind, and a wealth of friends can do to extend the vigor of the thermodynamic system we call the human body. We don't often think of the human body as an energetic system, but we should for we would all then recognize what my father recognizes: energetic systems require continuous flows of activity and proper fuel even when those systems are aging human bodies.

The next day he did what is arguably the most potent single act anyone can undertake against climate stability: He boarded a plane for home. Because jets fly so high in the atmosphere, their emissions have a disproportionately large effect. We could congratulate ourselves for having used public transportation to get him to the airport, but little else. We had looked into train travel. But the two-day return trip alone on a train seemed an unnecessary delay for a man who felt he had been away too long and needed to return to his wife's side quickly. Perhaps on a future visit he would take the Empire Builder to Portland and back.

And so, I begin my life in Portland, a city powered by the hydroelectric generators hidden inside the dams I saw on the Columbia. The electricity produced in comparison to fossil fuels is relatively benign--unless, of course, you are a salmon, whose upstream journey was blocked until fish ladders were installed or unless you are a fisherman who has witnessed declining catches of these fish.

Every action has consequences, even if they are visited on someone else. This is an awareness that I found more widespread in Portland than anyplace else in America I had previously visited. And, Portlanders frequently remember to ask whether it's fair for one person to bear the costs of another's action, believing that thorough consideration and discussion ought to ensue in such a case. It's the kind of thinking that made me want to move here. And, it's the kind of thinking that offers the possibility of getting us out of the mess we have gotten our society and our planet into.

Photo Credits: Pod and pod crane, Olga Bonfiglio (reproduced with permission); Devil's Tower, Bonneville Dam, Mt. Hood, Wikipedia Commons

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, July 07, 2013

No posts next three weeks - Moving to Portland, Oregon

I am about to relocate to Portland, Oregon and have had little time to write. I don't like to slap pieces together just to get something posted, and so I'm suspending my posts until late July by which time I expect to be settled in. I anticipate that I will post again on Sunday, July 28.

As always, I am gratified to be writing for such an intelligent and engaged group of readers, and I look forward to continuing our conversation soon.