Today I’m getting serious and I ask you to read what I have to say below.
It was a windswept and rainy Sunday on Easter in San Francisco this year. I woke up on that Easter Sunday some 3,300 miles from home because of a work trip and upon getting out of bed and peeking outside, I quickly realized that my plans for spending some time outdoors in one of America’s greatest cities were quashed. I had budgeted a couple of hours later in the day for a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, which would end up introducing me to the stunning photorealism artwork of Robert Bechtle, but other than that I had the whole day to myself.
I started wandering around a little, trying to find something in the neighborhood that would suck up some time and I came across Barnes & Noble, a place where I knew I could easily kill the clock. I wasn’t even in there for five minutes when a book called The End Of Oil struck my eye. Upon picking it up, the premise seemed interesting enough – the world is running out of oil, what do we do? Having virtually no knowledge of the innerworkings of our energy industry, I decided right then and there that I had found my calling for the day. Fifteen minutes later, I was back in my hotel room, pulling open a book that turned out to be, quite possibly, the most eye-opening book I’ve ever read. The author of the book, Paul Roberts, has written what many now consider to be the standard for people who are even remotely curious about the energy industry and how it affects everyone in the entire world. The complicated tentacles of the industry manage to reach into places, people and events around the world. It helped transform the orb we call Earth from hunting & gathering into the industrial revoloution. It has been the cause of bitter political infighting, it affects everything you do every day and it has, more than once, been the cause of war. Even if you’re not curious about this far-reaching and surprisingly prevalent issue, the book will make you curious. It is an absolutely fascinating read which has caused me to look at the world in such a dramatically different way.
Americans are using energy at an incredibly stunning rate, of which the foundation is based in the production of oil, which is clearly the two-headed monster of the energy economy. Oil is cheap, fairly easy to get out of the ground, easy to transport and, at one time, it was incredibly plentiful. Not for long. The easy supply of oil and the cheap cost of getting it out of the ground are for days gone by. It is simply no longer the case. A longtime political battle has seen conservatives and liberals at clear odds about how plentiful it really is, but one thing that both sides agree on is this: the timeline for the peak of oil production is nearing and it may have already occured. It has definitely already occured in the United States – nearly 60% of our oil is bought internationally (Iran, Saudi Arabia and yes, Iraq) and that number is only rising. What number is falling? The amount of oil the U.S. is able to generate from it’s own land. We currently only produce 2% of the world’s oil. We consume 25% of the world’s energy. Everyone agrees the former number is going nowhere but down and unquestionably the amount of energy the U.S. consumes is going up. This getting any clearer?
The fact that we’re getting most of our oil from politically unstable nations who are a part of OPEC is only part of the long, complicated story. The other part of the story is that OPEC is purposefully vague about exactly how much oil they have left to produce – this should really turn commoners heads. It doesn’t. Non-OPEC oil in places like Russia and South America, are able to produce oil currently, but nobody is fighting the fact that these are stopgap solutions.
Do you care yet? You should. I didn’t care until that Easter Sunday in San Francisco when I started reading this book and found out that every single day we are using more and more energy. But wait, you ask, haven’t automobile engines become more efficient? Haven’t home appliances become more energy friendly? Aren’t they building better houses that utilize newfound efficiencies? Absolutely. The problem is that many automobiles have doubled in size (hello Ford Excursion) and there are many more vehicles on the road then there were twenty years ago. People are buying enormous refridgerators, televisions and double ovens. They might be more effiencient, but our super-size mentality negates whatever effeciencies we can take advantage of – by a lot. Look no further than the glut of SUV’s you see on the road. And houses? Don’t even get me started. A family of four doesn’t need 3,500 square feet. Over one town in Stow, MA, we have friends who live next to man in a McMansion (at least 4,000 sq. feet) who lives by himself. It’s simply insults my intelligence how irresponsible we’re being and you know what? Nobody seems to care. Why?
Here’s an excerpt from the book you might find interesting:
“We live today in a world completely dominated by energy. It is the bedrock of our wealth, our comfort, and our largely unquestioned faith in the inexorability of progress, implicit in every act and artifact of modern existence. We produce and consume energy not simply to heat and feed ourselves, to move ourselves, or to defend ourselves, but to educate and entertain ourselves, to expand our knowledge, change our destiny, construct and reconstruct our world, and fill it with stuff. Everything we buy, from a hamburger at McDonalds to a duck at a Beijing market, from plastic lawn chairs and opera tickets to computers and garbage service, from medical services and cancer drugs to farm fertilizers and Humvees, represents a measure of energy produced and then consumed.”
So the answer to the question – why doesn’t anyone care? Because the cost of energy hasn’t really hit us where it matters most – our pocketbooks. We live in an economy that, while sometimes bumpy, generally has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 20 years. A 50-cent increase in gas prices, while certainly a bitch, isn’t really killing many people’s buzz. So what will it take? $5.00 gas? Look over to Europe, where gas prices are almost that high now – they’re acting. A wind farm provides most of the electricity for a entire town in Germany and laws are being enacted over there curbing the use of carbon. All of this is well and good, but we’re the ones using 1/4th of the energy in the world, until we act, the needle virtually goes nowhere on this.
Before I get too verbose here, let me throw the real wildcard at you now. Even if Americans were to never increase their energy use another iota starting tomorrow, we still have two economies, China and India, that are hurtling without brakes down the train-tracks on a crushing pace and well on their way to actually using more energy than the U.S. does. What’s fueling those economies, you ask? Carbon (oil, coal, etc).
What’s worse, I haven’t even gotten into what our energy use is doing to the environment. I could write as much about the enviromental issue as I have already in the above paragraphs – but I encourage you to buy the book. You won’t put it down.
When I was in the 8th grade, I was leafing through the book rack in Mrs. Morgan’s English class and I pulled down Helter Skelter, the book about the Manson Family. I remember opening it and the very first thing I saw was a page which simply said one thing: “The book you are about to read will scare the hell out of you.” They were right. That book did scare the hell out of me. But this one honestly scared me more.
We are heading into very, very uncertain times here regarding our use of energy and I feel like nobody cares. Especially politicians. What are they doing? They’re essentially sucking on a nipple, when you think about it. Who do you think contributes the most money to our political parties? The auto industry, the oil companies and the utilities. You think our politicians are going to break away from that? Forget it. A lot of this is up to us.
The book will make you care – no matter what your political leanings are. The thing I really appreciated about Paul Roberts effort here was that he’s not some extremely hardcore liberal throwing off sirens and screaming about the end of the world. He truly examines both sides of everything and does it in a simple, incredibly interesting and easy-to-understand way. He’s equally supportive and combative to both views on the energy economy. He’s fair.
In the end, everyone agrees that the end is near for oil. There are so many directions we can go in, but the key is that we need to act – now. If we don’t, the implications are beyond your wildest imagination and I am not kidding when I say this. Read the book.
Before I go on, I want to say one more thing. I have many friends and family members who drive SUV’s, buy double ovens and have big houses. This is not, by any means, an indictment of the way they live. Hell, I’m as guilty as anyone for taking energy for granted – I have a 43-inch television and I’m as into gadgets and “stuff” as anyone else is. I do not and will not ever be judgemental to anyone based on their energy practices. All I want is for more people to know and understand how it impacts us – the choice is completely yours regarding what you do with the information. My gut tells me that if you read the book, you’ll gain an understanding of a very important issue and feel a responsibility like you’ve never felt before. It is that good.
It is with great pleasure, admiration and excitement that I was able to find and interview the author of “The End of Oil,” Paul Roberts, for the latest installment of Item Five. I hope you enjoy the interview and I encourage you to contact me or leave comments if you have any questions.
1. During the course of your book, it’s mentioned several times about the average Americans’ view on energy – it’s largely apathetic. The costs just aren’t affecting them so much, so it’s more or less consumption-as-usual. As an introduction, can you
summarize for people the everyday ways and means in which we’re using/wasting energy (other than the obvious) that might surprise the average American?
Americans use energy as if it were almost free, which it almost is. The current price of a gallon of gas or a ton of coal only the covers the costs of extraction, refining and distribution. It misses such external costs as pollution or climate change. As such, energy’s cheapness is artificial: if we had to pay all the costs that come with using oil, we’d probably use it more sparingly. But that’s not the case. I guess I would say that writing the book made be both want to be more conscious in how I used energy, but also more discouraged in my inability as a consumer to drive much change. Every gallon of gasoline I save by minimizing my trips to the grocery store seems to be outweighted by all the many more gallons of gasoline consumed by new cars because the auto industry is still selling–and we Americans are still buying–cars that are needlessly thirsty. I think the best action people can take, beyond buying only as much car or house as they need, is to work to influence the political system. This particular Congress isn’t going to enact serious energy policy.
2. To that end, you mention Bush’s pining for $15 barrels of oil, yet since your book was released [mid-2004], the cost of oil has skyrocketed up to the low $50 range. Are there any signs since the book came out that the administration is, behind closed doors, really freaking out about this? Bush’s meeting a couple of weeks ago with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia seemed more like a broadway production than progress. I mean, did you see them holding hands?
The Bush administration does seem anxious about high oil prices, which not only makes the White House look ineffectual (Wouldn’t a REAL president simply MAKE the Saudis pump more oil?) but reminds voters that the oil status quo, which the administration supports, ain’t a safe bet. And yes, I did see them hold hands. It’s sort of an Arab tradition, so don’t get too excited.
3. You listen to music? What do you like?
No, I never listen to music. It uses too much energy. [note: yes, he’s kidding]
4. If you could fill Fenway Park exclusively with SUV owners and have their forced, undivided attention for fifteen minutes, what would you tell them? What kind of car do you drive?
I’m not sure that doesn’t happen already every time the Sox play. But seriously, I try to avoid force-feeding anyone anything, especially on energy. No better way to turn off people than openly criticize. I’d rather make the case carefully and without pyrotechnics like I tried to do in the book. And I drive a 1994 Subaru Legacy, which gets 30 mpg and does well in snow.
5. The chapter where you delve into the Kyoto Treaty was particularly fascinating to me. What I found most ironic was that it was actually the Clinton/Gore administration (supposedly very “green”) who essentially turned their backs on committing to the reduction of carbon emissions in fear of losing public support from the “emitters” like the auto industry and the utility companies. There is certainly much more to that story, but do you think any party or politician is ever going to step up to the plate and break those bonds for the greater good? Even if it means alienating important corporations and financial contributors?
The short answer is: no. No politician would commit political suicide like that. A more realistic scenario would be for a politician to propose a GRADUAL move toward a carbon-reduction plan, one that began with a very low tax on carbon and only slowly raised that penalty over a period of years. That way, the big emitters would have time to implement the changes, thus avoiding any catastrophic costs. They still wouldn’t like it, but their opposition would be far less severe, and far more surmountable.
6. What was the last thing that made you laugh really hard?
I don’t laugh much. It’s a waste of energy that could be spent glowering.
7. What are your thoughts on the current Energy Bill that Bush is pursuing? I feel like it’s heavy on more-of-the-same, i.e., adding more refineries and drilling for more oil, with a small sprinkle of renewables in there, probably just to see if they can get a few liberal votes on it. Your take?
The current proposals are really more of the same, with a few exceptions. There are, for example, provisions calling for programs to increase production of ethanol and other energy alternatives. But mainly, it’s a rehash of a U.S. energy policy that focuses too much on increasing SUPPLY and not enough on reducing DEMAND.
8. I’m interested to know more about how you live. Did the research or knowledge you’ve gained from all your research on the energy issue cause you to change your own habits in any way?
I think much more carefully about how my life choices effect my energy use. I tended to be a low-intake consumer anyway – I really hate “stuff.” But the research made me more acutely conscious that every step I take has some energy impacts. It also made me more than a little anxious about the world my kids will inherit.
9. Talk about traveling the world – you went from Russia to Houston to Saudi Arabia and many points in between. When you were in Saudi Arabia talking with the Saudi Prince of oil, Ali Bin-Ibrahim al-Naimi, did you, at any time, think to yourself, “this is the most insane thing I’ve ever done.” If not, what is the most insane thing you’ve ever done?
Mostly, I was wondering what he was thinking, as in: Are ALL American journalists this insipid?
10. One thing that really, really worries me is China, which has the potential to be a complete disaster in terms of enviromental dangers posed. Since you wrote the book, has China made any inroads towards cleaner, efficient energy?
China is pushing hard on such alternatives as wind and, recently, biofuel, which is growing fuel from grain. But the truth is that coal is China’s most readily available resource and they’re burning more of it every day. The Chinese would LIKE to burn it cleanly, but they still can’t afford to.
11. Do you think it’s any coincidence that the price of oil/gas has gone up so significantly since the election? Am I being too suspicious?
I do think it’s a coincidence. OPEC has NEVER been successful in fine tuning the price of oil. They would really like to see the price moderate a bit, since it would make the rest of the world hate them a little less. I think the main driver behind the price rise is that the global economy has steadily improved, which has raised consumption.
12. I feel like if I make the claim that the war in Iraq was all about oil, then I’m simply labeled a left-wing freak (which I am not). While I definitely lean left, I ain’t no freak, man. Your book, though, surely seems to indicate that the war WAS almost all about oil. How does the situation in Iraq play into this whole energy mess?
That’ a big question. Suffice it to say that ANYTHING that threatened the stability of the Middle East – WMD, fundamentalism, etc – would be regarded as a serious threat to the U.S., whose economy depends on cheap oil. I think the U.S. would truly like to see a stable Middle East, but one of the big reasons is that a stable middle east is more likely to be a reliable supplier of oil.
13. In December of 2003, I bought a 43″ television. Do you hate me now? I’m sorry. Really. I think it’s probably one of the only truly frivilous things I have. Oh wait, I have an IPod, too – is that bad?
I think you’re probably a decent human being. I suppose it depends on things like whether you wear your IPod while you watch your 43″ TV.
14. Are you working on any other books right now? Do tell!
I’m looking into some other energy-related projects, but I haven’t yet settled on a subject.