Thursday, September 29, 2005

alternative fuels

Last Week I attend a workshop in Raleigh, NC entitled Refueling America. The link goes to the PowerPoint presentations used by the speakers and now available online. The highlight was an address by the keynote speaker Paul Roberts, author of the book, "The End of Oil". Mr. Roberts is a gifted speaker well educated in the coming conundrum facing our nation as global oil production peaks and heads into decline. He was also a guest last week on the local radio program Charlotte Talks, hosted by Mike Collins. I add this note because this radio show has begun to address the issues surrounding peak oil with mulitple shows and I am happy to seem someone doing so locally. Other speakers at the conference presented information on alternative fuels such as ethanol and bio-diesel as well hybrid technology. As a land planner I found it interesting that only the medical doctor presenting concerns about air quality and health brought up the subject of reducing dependency on fossil fuels through the use of thoughtful land planning. You don't have to develop a new whiz-bang technology to power your car if you don't need a car, but I digress.

All in all I found the information interesting. Nothing presented convinced me that other sources of energy will be able to make up for the depleting petroleum supplies in terms of the amount of oil needed to fuel our current transportation habits. Most of the technologies seem like great ideas on a small scale but no single source or combinations of energies seem poised to take over our current circumstance. My take on the day was that it is important to understand the new fuels becoming available and to use them to transition to lifestyles of lower energy use. Do not however, let them blind you to the extraordinary changes set to take place in the amount of energy we consume and the way in which we consume it.

Monday, September 26, 2005

problem in a nut shell

"We're willing to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to mitigate any shortfalls that affect our consumers," said George W. Bush on the Monday after Hurricane Rita struck.

Within this statement lies the problem. The powers that rule this nation both corporate and governmental (if there is even a difference anymore) think of the American people first and foremost as consumers. I for one still think of myself more importantly as a citizen. Our government will be totally ineffectual in helping its citizens adjust to the coming conditions brought on by the decrease in available petroleum because they don't see us as citizens. To them we are merely customers.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

not waiting around

I spent this past weekend on the road. I drove to Philadelphia, PA to pick up my new form of transportation, a 1988 BMW K100 motorcycle purchased online. I couldn’t help but realize that the money saved by shopping at the national flea market that is eBay will soon disappear as shipping costs increase along with fuel prices. I was happy though to stretch my legs and see some of the country and anxious to secure my new vehicle. I have relied on a motorcycle as a means of transportation before, but that was in college where the ability to park next to the front door when running late for class was more important than the increase in fuel efficiency. This time the purchase was planned in order to decrease my personal dependence on big oil companies and overseas supplies. On my drive northward I couldn’t help but think that I see more and more alternatives to the standard 4-wheeled automobile cruising the roads these days.

I thought about my good friend Jared Paulsen. As a wedding present this past May, he received an electric scooter his wife had been excited about for some time. At first, the scooter was relegated to play toy. But being from Nebraska, Jared quickly began tinkering and added enough additional battery power to make round trips to his place of employment. The flat topography of his new costal hometown, Mt Pleasant, SC and his close proximity to work, grocery stores and pubs made his new form of transportation quite practical. Jared and his brother Mat run a kayak touring company called Barefoot Island Sports. They have now added an additional component to their business and have become the local representatives of a website that sells similar forms of 2-wheeled transportation. To date they’ve sold 5 scooters using only word-of-mouth advertising.

I find another example in my good friend Keith Cummings. Keith is a medical student at Duke University and an interesting mix of intelligence, stubbornness and spirituality who will make an excellent doctor if not a wonderful shaman someday. Recent discussions concerning resource depletion show Keith strongly aligned with the technophile group who think human ingenuity spurred to action by the invisible hand of the market will step in with a sword to save us from the beast of supply exhaustion at the very last moment. He is however a very smart guy and I was not surprised to learn that he too has recently acquired an alternative form of transportation of the 2-wheeled variety. He describes his new bike thus:

Displacement - 49cc

Vmax - 42mph (43 downhill)

Efficiency - 87 mpg

Fun Level - 6.5

Off the line - 3-toed-sloth-esque.

Chickmagnitude - 3.1

I couldn’t help but think that the trend is here, that those with the vision to understand the greater context of fuel resources and our coming energy crisis have already begun to react. They are investing in unconventional transportation as the convention itself is distorted by decreasing fuel supplies. Perhaps “The Long Emergency” is already here and we have begun to take steps to transition into a world where energy is not cheap and plentiful. Or maybe bikes are just more fun.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

swimming in oil

It’s a widely known fact that gasoline is produced by refining oil. Did you know that millions of everyday products are also made from oil and natural gas? Stop and think for a moment about what would happen if the cost of the following list increases as dramatically as the cost of gasoline recently did.

fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, detergents, candles, shower doors, vcr’s, cassette tapes, paints, flooring, carpet, vinyl wall paper, electric blankets, computers, shampoo, fan belts, bowls, cups, plates, roofing, trash bags, toilet seat curtains, toothbrushes, computers, shampoo, fan belts, bowls, cups, plates, roofing material, trash bags, toilet seats, curtains, cell phones and telephones, glue, furniture, toys, computers, tires, records, paraffin wax, film, packaging materials, surfboards, soccer balls, football helmets, skis, basketballs, uniforms, sunglasses, sleeping bags, tents, polyethylene canoes, brake fluid, car batteries, jet fuel, insect repellent, garden hoses, awnings, artificial turf, clotheslines, asphalt, anti-freeze, wire coating, car bodies, oil filters, deodorant, eye glasses, sweaters, crayons, combs, heating oil, pillows, lipstick, nail polish, hair spray, Tupperware, life jackets, beach umbrellas, golf balls, legos, dice, frizbees, fishing rods, roller skates, clothing ink, heat valves, parachutes, antiseptics, pantyhose, rubbing alcohol, shoes, ice trays, rope, balloons, luggage, guitar strings, pens, preservatives, perfumes, and anything made of plastic including an enormous amount of medical equipment.

Don’t forget that many of these items are produced using energy provided by oil and natural gas and shipped to your local Wal-Mart from thousands of miles away using oil to power the boats and the trucks. Your everyday life is incredibly dependent on petroleum.

List provided by the Artic National Wildlife Refuge

Monday, September 12, 2005

so who can i count on?

I come from the South. And while I think overblown stereotypes of Southern culture and Southern people have misrepresented the region of this country I call home, there is a little truth in every lie (or so the saying goes). If you read any of what I would describe as the currently conscious descriptions of our country than you will have no doubt stumbled onto news of our coming energy crisis. Many who regularly discuss this impending paradigm shift in our nation believe that the South will not be a safe place to live when the gas runs out. Recent fist fights in Charlotte associated with Katrina-induced gasoline shortages seem to bear this out. Also religious fanaticism and hyper-individualism have taken root in disproportionately larger numbers in the Bible belt. This is hard to argue against. Perhaps no where I have traveled domestically is the idea of the individual more important than that of the community than in the Southeastern United States. In addition, owning a weapon is considered not only a right but an honor.

But what about Southern hospitality and the small, rural towns of close knit neighbors and dependable friendships? Perhaps I too have submitted to the oversimplified idea that anyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line is more likely to shoot you than to feed you. “Where you goin’ city boy?” This is an idea for all of us with ties to this region to ponder as the global peak of oil production begins to make itself known to the greater population. More importantly though I am interested in an idea I trust is not foreign to the South or to any part of the world inhabited by those people who believe in each other- that believe in the power of caring and giving and sharing as not only their duty, but as a way towards a better tomorrow. I believe that innate in all of us is an understanding that no man is an island. We all need friends and loved ones on whom to depend and with whom to share the good and the bad. The idea that we can do it alone is juvenile bravado, fostered currently not only by history but by a culture increasingly supportive of and fascinated by entertainment based on overly simplistic ideas of macho emotional highs. Rambo can kick everyone’s ass and you can too. Rambo doesn't go home at night and rest on the couch. He does not stop at a friend's house on Friday for a beer. He does not need to borrow his neighbor’s wheelbarrow. He is his own man; capable of everything he needs to be. What a dangerous idea. If this thought pattern once found its home more often in the South than in the rest of the country, I’d venture to say it has since spread.

Over zealous individuals ready to use violence to enforce their ideological convictions on others have also historically found home in the southeastern portion of America. And not just those of religious differences but also the idea of racial and other physical differences defining the worth of a human being. Southerners have struggled to come to grips with the horrible history of slavery in their region. Sadly though I must venture to state that these morally base tendencies of human nature are found in people throughout our nation and the world. They regularly manifest themselves in areas outside of the Southern U.S. It is with hope though that I can report that with each new generation I see growing understanding among those of us here in the South that this world is made up of all sorts of people and that prejudgment based on colour or creed or any other difference is useless and debilitating. In short, I know plenty of open-minded young Southerners and plenty of Bigots from elsewhere.

So what are some of the strengths the South has to offer in light of a future in which energy consumption and all the trappings it provides will be dramatically reduced?

The weather is a definite advantage of this area. Perception fluctuates widely but as a whole the South gets ample rainfall. Here in NC we average 40 to 55 inches annually with rain occurring regularly- 95 to 105 days a year. Temperatures are also fairly mild. Our mean daily average temperature is 60 degrees which is one reason why, I suspect, there are so many moving here from the Northeast. Having spent more than 25 winters here I will tell you that it can get cold but seldom do we spend more than a few days with daytime temperatures in the 20’s. Our warmer temperatures do make for some hot summers, but going without air conditioning is much easier to do on a 95 degree day than going without heat on a 5 degree night. To be sure you need a heater to live here, but I fear for those who require large amounts of fuel in the north when heating oil and natural gas become less available. Sunlight is another plus. We average 214 sunny days a year. I think it is also appropriate to look at the three regional conditions discussed above when considering food production. Our warmer temperatures allow us a longer growing season. I’ve read about four seasons gardening in greenhouses in Maine but it’s a whole lot easier to provide for large numbers of people if you don’t have to worry about frost from April until November. And try growing cotton indoors.

This region has other resources. Even in a city the size of Charlotte (1 million or so) you can still find agriculturally viable land within several miles of the city. We have reasonably sized forested tracts for wood and all the red clay for building you could ask for. In addition, there are plenty of small, rural communities, many of whom were established before the automobile was invited. This means that at their core they can do without the large amounts of fuel required to inhabit sprawling suburbs. They can also provide appropriate templates for similar development patterns to begin again.

I believe that in the real world humans need each other. Competition sharpens the axe but cooperation provides the occasion for humans to thrive in every sense of the word. Never could we be more in need of a cooperative, communal spirit than when our species is most challenged. As the most prolific energy source ever discovered begins to show up in smaller amounts it will be community and our willingness to rely on others and allow others to rely on us that will either foster in a new era of understanding among us or, lacking this grace, divide us like never before. I truly hope balance prevails here in the Southeastern United States as well as throughout the rest of the world. Can we here in the South come together and set aside historic differences of opinion for the sake of the greater good? Or are we doomed to fight it out and renew our subscription to idea that the individual above all is more important than the group.

I can not do it alone. I will need your help.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

we must plan for ourselves

Before reading my post today, I would ask that you read this article from the Hearld Sun.
[The article is no longer available at that link. You can read the story here.]

I am not interested at this moment in laying blame or shame on any specific doorstep. The point of my post is to draw attention to the lack of response to the disaster or maybe more appropriately stated, the chaotic nature of the limited governmental response to hurricane Katrina. The lesson I take personally from the catastrophe is not to count on being saved by the authorities of this nation.

Years of stable living for those of us lucky enough to be able to provide for ourselves and years of government subsidies for those of us who can not have produced a sense of complacency and entitlement. To believe that anyone owes us anything is to misunderstand the idea of generosity.

I believe in the spirit of giving and I believe this superb attribute to be one of the characteristics that define humanity and civil society. But it is not a certainty that our government will provide us with anything and should not be mistaken for one. Anyone who expects the government to care for him or her in times of crisis and chaos is placing false hope in our inept leaders. The responsibility for the well-being and safety of yourself and your family and your neighbors lies squarely on your shoulders. Are you prepared to take care of yourself and those around you?

I think it is helpful to consider the basic necessities of human life when evaluating your preparedness and the preparedness of those in your community. I find it useful to think in terms of what would be the most important resources to have, and to consider how long you could go without each. In other words a Nintendo Play Station is not necessary and you could go your whole life without it but without water you last only a few days. The short list goes something like this:

Medical Care

To be sure the above are interconnected. If you have transportation, you can probably obtain food. And in some cases, like the middle of winter in Maine, a heat source might be more important even than water in the short term. Having said that, I hope that as individuals, as families, and as communities we can use the crisis of Katrina to examine how we would go about filing these needs in times of trouble.

Ask yourself, do you have enough food in your pantry for a week? How about 3 months? From how far away does most of your food supply come? Where does your water come from? Do you know anything about rainwater collection and simple methods for purifying it? What sort of tools do you have and how handy are you with them? Could you heat or cool your home without electricity or natural gas? How about cooking with out it? Could you communicate to your family and others without your cell phone? Could you get out of the way of danger if the gas stations run out?

I am not suggesting amnesty for those governmental organizations entrusted by our society with the response to such storms. Nor I am not suggesting a panicked attempt to learn all the survival skills necessary to walk into the woods with only a backpack. You will drive yourself crazy with such a mindset. Further, I think a survivalist mentality runs contray to produtive local reactions to crisis developed through strong local connections. I do hope though that the above are all questions that Americans are asking themselves as they watch those stranded and displaced by Katrina amidst a government response that has lacked luster to put it mildly. I for one will not be sitting at home with my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

katrina: will we simply react?

The winds of Katrina blew storm surge up, over and into the city of New Orleans and surrounding gulf region and the jazz trumpets were silenced. Did the storm trumpet in a national recognition of the over-dependency of this nation on oil, a finite resource? Or will the focus be on the storm itself and only the devastation and cleanup? To be sure Katrina cause terrible and regrettable loss of life and horrible destruction to the communities in her path. The immediate actions taken should be those of search and rescue, followed by care for the affected. But as the catastrophe moves from our collective windshield to our collective rear view mirror, will we have merely reacted or planned a response to the larger issue?

In our current culture, information and entertainment are available in unprecedented formats. Cell phones make most individuals available at any hour in any location. The internet makes products and services accessible at the click of a button. You can even pause live television to ensure your bathroom break doesn’t mean you miss the winning touchdown. One downside of this availability though is an evloving dependency on this on-demand technology. Another drawback is the shortening of American attention spans. Now more than ever we ask, “What have you done for me lately”. The difference is though that now we mean last minute not last week. We have become accustom to filling our heads with sound bites, failing on a regular basis to digest and examine in depth the interconnectedness of our society and its strengths and weaknesses.

Why did a single hurricane cause such a problem in the energy infrastructure of America? Our country uses 21 million barrels of oil a day. The storm reduced the amount available by 1.5 MBD. That’s only a 7% reduction. The result however was an overnight rise in gasoline prices of more than 40% in some markets. There are also refineries responsible for transforming the oil into gas which have been knocked off line. But I none the less was shocked to here reports from friends who witnessed fist fights and rammed cars at gas stations in Charlotte, NC. What would happen if the bread trucks had been unable to fill up and deliver?

On March 16, 2005, OPEC announced that it could no longer handle the indefinite increase in world demand for oil. The announcement was largely unreported by the sound biters and refuted by Saudi Arabia some time later. I’m sure a stern phone call or two from various parties prompted the about face. The second announcement was that, "The world is more likely to run out of uses for oil than Saudi Arabia is going to run out of oil". In other words, it was fantasy.

Then United States was, for quite a while, the leading producer of oil in the world. Oil production in this country peaked in 1970. Since that year our production of oil has decreased each year. There was a brief up tick in production when we tapped Alaska, but we quickly returned to a downward trend in production. Isn’t na├»ve to think that other nations will not also peak in production? Should we expect these countries to be truthful about the when their peaks will arrive? Because of our constantly declining source of domestic oil, we import more each year. Currently we get roughly 60% of our oil from abroad. As was evident this past week at gas stations in the Southeast, when the supply of energy is limited what’s left will be fought for. Globally perhaps we are already positioning ourselves for a larger battle. I just wonder if the violence and hardship can be blamed solely on the shortages of oil. Or whether we must blame ourselves for not taking the time to examine the events of the present and understand their root cause and respond in appropriate ways.

Katrina was a monumental tragedy as well as a prophetic event. Will it generate only reactionary attention? Will we quickly turn our attetion to the next issue provided for us on our blackberries? Or will it spawn truly responsive action as well to the coming crisis?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

the end of the beginning

I have postponed this first posting as I haven't known exactly where to start. I've decided not to let that fact deter me any longer.

When I was ten years old I first asked myself a question who's answer now seems so obvious. The answer however came with its own set of dreadful recognitions. The question arose from a reading of the book "Watership Down". To put it simply, I began to wonder why humans had so dramatically increased their numbers and their influence over this planet in such a short time. Humans had been kicking around this ball of rock for 10,000 years and just suddenly, in one century jumped from a little over 1 billion in population to just a tad over 6 billion? Surely pure numbers alone can not explain this explosion?

At first of course the question was crudely formed in my young mind but it stuck with me and refined itself over time. I continued to read and studied land planning at University. With this education came an explanation of past civilizations and their organizations. Lacking was any focus on the ones that had collapsed or more specifically why they had collapsed. We are all familiar with the fall of Rome. But I never studied the Norse, the Anastasias, the people of Easter Island or the others. The focus was always on past progress and how our civilization in its current form had come to be. For sure the arithmetic of steady growth played a part, described quite eloquently by Dr. Albert Bartlett, but I began to piece together other bits of information that pointed to the massive role that petroleum played in the rise of this our civilization. Never before had man been able to harness such an incredibly energy source like the one first drilled for by Mr. Edwin L. Drake in Pennsylvania in 1859.

With this new energy source available the number of farmers in the United States of America decreased. In 1890 the census showed a little more than 40% of the population was farming for a living. That number had dropped to less than 2% by 1990 and don’t forget the increase in population to feed. Tractors and pumps power by oil and fertilizers and pesticides created from oil meant fewer humans were needed to produce the food. That left quite a few individuals to think up things like internal combustion engines and such. This is but a single example among many of the pieces of information that began to answer the question that had so long vexed me.

Oil is the cheap, easily recoverable, highly transportable, energy-dense fuel on which the current boom of human population and this age of technology are based. But with my epiphany came a horrible realization. This finite resource is about to reach the peak of its production. This means that for the first time since its discovery, there will be less oil available than oil demanded- for physical reasons, not political ones. Our society will follow oil production in a downward trend and slowly implode or even possibly burst and suddenly crash. In less than 100 years we will live again (with some exceptions) as we did in 1901. Fasten your seatbelts; the ride will be very bumpy.

This will be my place to come and vent my thoughts and feelings, ideas and anxieties concerning this historic shift in the direction of the path of human beings of this our planet Earth and the aforementioned bumps. Feel free to join in.

Graph: The Energy Curve of History?
Source: Community Solution