Monday, June 06, 2005

Awaiting the Sensation

Whether what’s coming is a short, sharp shock, on the other hand, remains in dispute. In the last six months or so a great many people have finally noticed the problem with liquid fuels. There was even a made-for-TV faux documentary on one of the off-brand stations last night that dealt with the consequences of an interruption of oil supplies, though even this pot boiler, which was otherwise sufficiently alarmist, was careful not to let on the fundamental problem isn’t recalcitrant Arabs, balky technology, or hurricanes but the sheer disproportion between a finite supply and a continuously growing demand. Absent Ben Laden or Iraq, we’d still be up against it, albeit the political and military angles will doubtlessly have a lot of do with how and when the crisis plays out. And of course it does make some difference that the current administration is doing nothing substantive to deal with the problem.

The approaching problem hasn’t been a secret for some time. Aside from assorted environmentalists and folks who simply hate the car-dependent suburban lifestyle and can be dismissed for parti pris, sober scientific types such as Philip Morrison have been sounding the alarm for many years, though it must be admitted that publishing editorials in SCIENCE is not exactly calculated to reach a large audience. Even when the message has been audible outside the technical ghetto, it has been misunderstood as a claim that we were facing a generalized energy shortage instead of something a lot more specific and hard to deal with. But the point is not that there aren’t many available substitutes for oil but that the sources of energy that remain abundant are not the right forms of energy to sustain an economy like ours. Despite its abundance and high caloric value, coal can’t be put in your gas tank, for example, anymore than you can eat it. Converting coal into what we need is not, contrary to the G.E. ad, merely a matter of filling the coal mines with sweaty Victoria Secret models. It is not going to be easy to figure out how to use coal or nuclear or the renewables to fuel transport and, perhaps more crucially, to produce the huge inputs of fertilizer that have so far kept agricultural production ahead of world population growth.

Perhaps we misunderstand the problem because the public discussion of energy issues tends to be dominated by economists who tend to think that energy is as fungible as money and engineers who tend to think that every problem is solvable by sufficient ingenuity. I’ve think I’ve tended to be overoptimistic about the effectiveness of the technical solutions myself, in part because I deal with the technological side of the issue in my day job and know of many possible ways of ameliorating the situation if only the political will existed to implement real steps to deal with the problem. Even making the dubious assumption that the nations and their citizens can be persuaded to act rationally in all this, I may still be too optimistic.

It’s easy to dismiss the scary prophesies of writers like Jim Kunstler as green hysteria, but rather more difficult to defeat the particulars of their arguments, especially the very important point that the transition to a non-petroleum economy will be exceedingly expensive, perhaps impossibly so, without a fairly drastic decline in the standard of living. It takes a lot of gas to fill up the trucks that deliver the cement that goes into a new nuclear plant, for example; and that gas is likely to be even more expensive by the time we finally get around to building even one new nuclear plant. Even the building of new coal power plants and the mining infrastructure needed to supply them with fuel requires a great deal of petroleum. Biofuels have the same weakness. Indeed, since agricultural production in its modern form requires a huge and continuous input of petroleum products, synfuels may be dimes purchased at a quarter a piece even after you amortize the costs of ramping up their production.

Any change involves waste, but the transition of this country to a totally different energy regime is likely to result in an enormous write-off of assets. A large proportion of the wealth of a country like the United States is tied up in suburban real estate. Increasing the price of gas automatically deflates the real value of much of this store of wealth by making it more and more expensive if not impractical to live many miles from work. Having made the decision to build huge suburbs, we can’t just move all those buildings into more compact and energy efficient cities. We’re stuck with the consequences of earlier choices.

Students of economic geography often point out the dilemma faced by the Russian Federation. Huge cities were built in Siberia during the Soviet period at the whim of tyrants and commissars even though it never made much sense to locate large population centers so far from markets in such a miserable climate. Now that the cities are there, however, it is next to impossible to dismantle them, even though they have filled up with unemployed people and represent a drain on the entire country. We’re going to have to deal with the Capitalist version of the same problem. L.A., Phoenix, and Las Vegas are every bit as artificial as Magnitogorsk or Irkutsk.

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