Paradise on Earth

by Stan Kahn

A couple decades ago the US Social Security Administration predicted, based on straight line projections, that per capita income in America would rise to one million dollars in 2050. Wouldn’t that be wonderful. Everybody in their 10,000 square foot designer mansion on their twenty leafy acres with their stuffed 6-car garage, a yacht or two, a few secondary homes scattered around the world which they jet to frequently, caviar, lobster, filets up the wazoo; just about anything one could ask for. What a life.

By the same reckoning, by then the three billion people of India and China will be up to at least two or three hundred thousand greenbacks a year and all, pretty much, living the life of Riley. Everybody will have the world at their fingertips, similar, at least in relative terms, to a high-roller that an old friend of mine, who’s a landscaper, worked for some years back. Said friend lives in one of the most desirable pockets of the California coast where all the best view properties were developed long ago. Said high-roller purchased a 7,000 sq. ft. (700 sq. meter) house constructed 20 years previously that was outfitted with fine hand-painted ceramic tiles, imported tropical hardwoods, all the best, etc., and bulldozed it to the ground so he could build a 20,000 foot behemoth more to his liking. (This by the way, when I was expending much effort and energy picking up tin can lids and bits of scrap paper working for a cooperative recycling company trying to save the world from said rapaciousness.)

Why indulge in limitations; the world is our oyster. If we run out of this or that; we’re clever, we’re ingenious, we’ll figure something else out. Only an America-bashing eco-freak would get all bent out of shape over excessive waste, a monstrous hoax like climate change, fossil fuel depletion or destruction of ancient forests – didn’t our illustrious former president (who just kicked the bucket, and good riddance, and who had oldtimer’s disease all through his presidency as far as I’m concerned) say that trees cause pollution? He was a smiley great communicator (with rouged cheeks and dyed hair) so how could you not trust him?

Why am I being so cynically sardonically sarcastic? Well, because we doomsdayers are being vindicated – albeit still mystifyingly unbeknownst to most of society – by facts on the ground. In the recent past and even today on BBC I was told by ‘experts’ that peak oil production won’t come for another 20 years. (To be fair BBC has also occasionally offered more realistic, commonsense perspectives.) Peak production is more important than proven reserves because, in our present world market situation of escalating demand, how fast you can get it out of the ground has more impact than how much is still left there.

General Motors isn’t worried, it just announced a three billion dollar investment in car production facilities in China, the world’s fasted growing car market and consumer of oil. China has gone from being self-sufficient in oil just a couple of years ago to the world’s second largest consumer and importer; trailed only by the US.

Several times in the last year or so I’ve seen figures stating that demand for oil by 2020 was going to rise to 110 million barrels per day from the present 80 mbpd. But here’s where reality rears it ugly head. The leaders of the G-8 industrial countries have recently demanded that OPEC increase production to cool world oil prices. Saudi Arabia said sure. It’s the only country in OPEC (or the world) with significant excess capacity; all the others are already producing full bore. Saudi Arabia has the capacity to produce an additional 2mbpd – not much of a cushion in a total output of 80mbpd. If demand is going to increase as predicted by 2 to 3% a year, where is it going to come from? And how can you even predict steady rises in demand if the supply isn’t there to match it?

There’s exceedingly delicious irony in the fact that absent America’s obsession over punishing Saddam, Iraq would now be producing an additional 4 to 5 mbpd and the point of equilibrium between supply and demand would have been set back by at least a couple of years. Whatever; any new sources slated to come on line in the future will be offset by older fields getting tapped out. We’re maxed out – however much we want to predict future increases in demand in defiance of reality – the supply curve will soon start its downward slide.

There are any number of good alternatives to the fossil fuel economy, but the sad truth to those of you out there who are pining for that designer mansion, et al, is that they are no substitute for old dinosaur bones. The alternative energy skeptics are absolutely right; there is no way gentle, intermittent solar energies can power the haughty, profligate, couldn’t-care-less-about-the-environment American lifestyle. Small or medium sized houses in compact efficient cities taking full advantage of active and passive solar technologies and not fully climate-controlled present no problem. Blind to the sun, arrogantly designed, giant houses located 40 miles from nowhere; impossible.

What about hydrogen? It’s limitless and clean burning. Very true but it takes more energy to produce it than it returns. We could in theory produce a lot of extra coal or nuclear power to fuel our hydrogen production facilities; not a pleasant prospect for the world and still doesn’t change the energy sink factor. Also hydrogen is a very difficult and potentially dangerous gas to contain and transport.

We’ll use biofuels. No problem, you can dump corn oil directly into your diesel tank, though obviously it wouldn’t be cheap. Ethanol too is perfectly good as a fuel – though it doesn’t quite have the power of petroleum based gas – but similar to hydrogen, the way we produce ethanol from corn today, it takes more energy than it gives back. We could theoretically use organic methods to grow the corn, but then it’d clearly be very expensive and no substitute for cheap oil. Besides, considering the world is headed for a shortage of grain, it’s hard to imagine finding the cropland necessary to power America’s (or the world’s) fleet of guzzlers. Fuel for the wealthy before food for the masses?

When we think of oil, the first thing that comes to mind is transportation. It’s the most difficult sector to imagine substitutes for but in fact not even the most important since fossil fuels are central to current methods of world food production and to the inanity of worldwide distribution. Fertilizer, agricultural chemicals, machinery, processing, shipping, all totally derived or dependent on fossil fuels.

Organics? Well sure, but the problem is transition time; you don’t take cropland that’s been cultivated industrially for fifty years and turn it into an organic farm overnight. Conversion on a mass scale would require collecting and utilizing every ounce of human, animal and vegetable waste society produces and even then it would still take years for fertility to reach adequate levels. Moreover, organic farming requires many times the labor. Rural America has been depopulated, where even would all those farm workers live?

Virtually all plastics are petrochemically based; no problem making it out of corn, except once again, it’d have to be grown organically and where is the cropland going to come from? Personally I can’t wait for the end of the plastic era – its waste is especially pernicious here in the developing world.

Ninety percent of all pavement is petroleum based asphalt. Concrete is better anyway, but it’s much more expensive or else we’d already be using it more. Ninety percent of all pharmaceuticals are petroleum based. And the list goes on and on.

Ok, we hit peak production, supplies tighten up while demand continues to surge. Add control of the market in the hands of a few greedy, manipulative mega corporations and a little sabotage and instability in the Middle East and the price of gas goes to five dollars a gallon. (And then ten dollars and then twenty dollars.) Well we’ll just buy smaller cars and otherwise adapt. Sure, in theory, but fossil fuels are central to the production of everything else so $5 gas means the cost of that new car has just risen by 20%.

Besides if you’re the typical American you’ve recently bought a new guzzler which you still owe a lot of money on which is worth less than you owe on it at least partly because nobody would want to buy it with gas prices so high so before you can even plunk the money down on that new car you have to take money out of your pocket to buy out your guzzler loan. You’ve also maxed out the equity potential of your new mcmansion which is so far from everything nobody would buy it even if it were still worth what you paid for it but it won’t be worth what you paid for it because the housing price bubble is about to burst. In effect you’re stuck with a dysfunctional house and car and have no choice but to keep them and pay soaring energy prices.

Conversion to a sustainable lifestyle is entirely doable, not to mention eminently preferable, but not easy to accomplish under even the best circumstances and especially not even remotely likely in the present political climate where even nominally ‘liberal’ politicians accept the term liberal as an epithet and try their best to disown it. Besides, face it folks, liberalism, since it willingly accepts and embraces the preposterous proposition that unlimited economic growth is the most important objective of society, is no answer to anything. As long as every new exurban mcmansion accessed by a new guzzler is applauded as economic progress, the downhill slope can only get slipperier and, in effect, makes everything we do in response to today’s challenges equivalent to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as it’s heading down. The only glimmer of hope? Not everyone on the Titanic faced a watery demise.