I'd like to send out a shout to any of our readers who might recently have lost a job. Losing a job is both a blow and a loss, and it's notoriously tough to cope with at first. At a stroke, you lose security, your sense of usefulness, friends and colleagues, even the structure by which you formerly organized your days. It's tough. Been there.
Might I offer a humble suggestion? Don't forget your camera. Assuming you already own a digital camera of some sort, shooting a hundred pictures every morning won't cost you anything. Getting out at sunrise every day can get you out of bed, get you going, give you some exercise, and take your mind off things for a little while. I don't know if it'll help. But it might.
This has certainly been a chastening and alarming month or two, even if you haven't lost a job. I'm sure I don't need to detail the particulars of the financial meltdown that has everyone worried—although I might point out that it wasn't so much the losses suffered in the stock market in 1929–33 that caused all the trouble back then, as it was its volatility—the constant wild swings. And we're certainly seeing volatility on the boards in the last couple of weeks. Whew.
One bright spot in the clouds seems increasingly difficult to ignore, however, and I keep thinking about it. Consider: America used to be the world's biggest producer and exporter of oil. It fueled our growth and our wealth. We not only won the Second World War with our oil production, we also fueled every other Allied country's war effort—six out of seven barrels of oil used by the Allies came from the U.S. mainland. Our oil made us rich. Our prosperity in the 20th century was based on it, and to a great extent the very structure of our society is based on it, too.
There's good and bad news about that. The bad news is that, traditionally, societies have not done a good job adapting to new sources of energy if they were dominant in older forms. If historical precedent holds—and there is every sign that it is doing so thus far—America will have a very difficult time moving away from oil as the dominant energy source in our culture. Our nation will decline right along with the decline of oil.
But history only indicates the future; it doesn't predict it.
America reached its peak oil production in 1970–72, and it's been falling off ever since then. Gradually, but inexorably, the amount of oil we've been obliged to import has risen. Right now, it's somewhere around 70% of what we use.
Therein lies the opportunity. We're spending a huge amount of money to pay other nations for the oil we're buying from them—something on the order of half a trillion dollars a year. The economic equation is simple: the more alternative energy we can produce here at home, the more of that money will go back into the pockets of Americans instead of getting dumped into the coffers of Saudis, Russians, Venezuelans, and so forth. To restore our economic equilibrium, alternative energy is our best hope, because it will keep our energy money right here at home, in our own economy.
As an aside, one interesting idea I've run across recently—I got this from Thomas Friedman's new book Hot, Flat, and Crowded—is the notion that the problems of solar and wind electricity production—namely, its intermittency, and the difficulty of storing it—is essentially solved if we manage to run our cars off batteries. Essentially, the national fleet of automobiles would be the infinitely expandable, mobile, adaptable, tailorable national electricity storage network. Think about that when you read about the introduction of the Chevy Volt in 2010—it's not just a car, it's a harbinger. Fascinating.
At the risk of appearing partisan, I have to mention one very wrong idea that's really been distorting some peoples' thinking on some of these issues lately—summed up by the phrase "drill, baby, drill." That is, the idea that somehow Congress (I guess that's the story) is "preventing" us from using all the oil that's still underneath America, just because we've set a little parkland, a few wildlife refuges, and some shorelines off limits for drilling, on account of people don't want to look at wells or rigs in those places.
The idea that there's still enough oil here if only "they" would let us drill for it is...uh, let's say, wrongheaded. That's the kindest way I can think of to put it. Oil geologists have been scouring America for oil for decades, and they know where most of it is and how much there is. The off-limits places are a minuscule percentage of our land mass—with very few exceptions, we'll pretty much drill anywhere. People in Oklahoma have oil wells in their front yards. There are over a million discrete oil wells (active and abandoned) in Texas alone. Petroleum engineers can very accurately chart the incidence and the size of new discoveries, and the trend is unmistakable—it's just a fact that our production peaked around 1970. Wishing that it wasn't so won't make it not so. If we opened the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and extracted every drop that's there, it would serve the nation's oil needs for about eight months, give or take a month or two. That's not a solution. If we absolutely maximized production here in America tomorrow—that is, if we could bring every possible oil source online immediately, which we can't—we might increase domestic production from 30% to 40%. It's just not enough. It's not going to solve the longterm problem.
All that this "drill, baby, drill" idea is doing is allowing us to avoid facing the real problem, and delay dealing with it. It's a bit like saying Michael Jackson would look great if he could just have a little more plastic surgery. Or, one of my favorite lines, from Jon Stewart, after pointing out that even George W. Bush said we're addicted to oil but also that we should allow offshore drilling: "if you're addicted to heroin, the solution to your problem is not a little more heroin."
The idea that we can drill our way out of our energy dilemma is analogous to "a little more heroin." The real problem is that the oil isn't going to last forever, and we need to start preparing for the future. We can do it, but not by sticking our heads down a dry well and fantasizing.
There's going to be lots of money to be made in alternative energy. I think it will be socially beneficial, too, in that alternative energy won't need to be so centralized—lots of "little people" will share in the new wealth, rather than just a few moguls. Going after it is America's best chance to continue our historical prosperity till the end of this century. It's possible we just won't have the mental flexibility, the conceptual agility, the collective will—and, ah, the leadership—to pull it off; but then again, maybe we will. We'll have to see about that.
But in any case, it's something I think about every time I pay for a tank of gas: I think, there goes thirty dollars to the Saudis—thirty dollars that could, and should, have gone to one of my fellow Americans here at home who needs it.
Featured Comment by Dave Sailer: "Let's bookmark this post and come back to it every five years for the next 50.
"I hate to say that I'm right all the time, but it's my personal burden, and I have to bear it. Usually it takes five to 10 years for proof that I was right all along, but everyone I talked to back then is gone somewhere else or they don't care any more.
"So sad, my life. But.
"The issue I see is in the second-to-last paragraph. I keep waiting for the politicians to wake up, stand up, and roll up their sleeves. I've heard from more than one source that we have (theoretically, and not all reachable) 3000 times our current energy needs in geothermal resources right beneath our feet.
"Crude oil and nuclear weapons are similar in that using them will destroy us in the process. When global warming tips and it becomes too late to prevent disaster, then everything else will be irrelevant. Right now we have a huge blossoming in ideas. Improvements in solar cells are announced almost daily. Wind farms spring up. Wave and tidal resources are being researched. And there are other options.
"The United States, if focused, could own new energy technologies. We could have everything from theoretical science all the way through design, development, and manufacturing to installation and maintenance. If we embraced this option it would revitalize every aspect of our society, and help the entire world. We would have jobs, and money, and factories, and technology. And once at the forefront we could keep surfing that forward edge.
"Instead we have crowds of people throwing dipsticks at each other while the rest of the world quietly passes by, bemused, on its way to the future."
Featured Comment by ch: "I am a petroleum geologist by profession. I make a good living looking for oil and gas, and I have my own exploration company. In short, I am 'small oil.' And everything you say is correct. In the USA, it has been impossible to find enough new production to offset declines in old production since the early 1960s. which is why we are importing more oil every year. The only effect of 'Drill, baby, drill!' will be to ever-so-slightly decrease the rate of our decline. But it will continue to decline. That is a fact that no political posturing will be able to overcome.
"If you really want to scare yourself, look at what total world production has done since 2005. It has begun to decline. In the face of rising prices. This, of course, would make no sense if oil were an infinitely available commodity that is responsive to price signals. But it is not infinite. The essential problem boils down to this: The huge, easy-to-find, high-production-rate fields were mostly found in the '40s and '50s. They are all beginning to decline. The oil fields that remain to be discovered are at once smaller, harder to find, and logistically more difficult to ramp up to their peak rates. In short, we are not able to offset the production rate declines in the big old giants such as Saudi Arabia's Garwar field with new discoveries.
"Does this mean that the taps will run dry? No, but it does mean that planning an economic future for our nation based on a commodity whose price will surely increase is a fool's game. To plan this way will likely increase the likelihood that we end up at war at some point with another energy-hungry nation. Oh, wait. I guess I mean another war."
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "My first profession out of school was in energy engineering. More specifically, I began as a consultant specializing in teaching engineers and building owners how to simulate, estimate, and improve large buildings' energy performance. I wrote papers, taught an average of a seminar every 10 days someplace in the world, gave interviews, participated in advanced research often with national labs, etcetera. In short, I was a goggles-on energy conservation 'guru.' I was positively a boor on the subject at a time when the world was really scared...like now.
"But as oil prices gradually dropped in the late 1970s and early 1980s so did public interest in the subject. I realized that people acted mainly out of immediate self-interest rather than long-term societal concerns. I could see that my future 'self-interest' would not be best served in energy management and conservation. I might as well have been a forest ranger (which actually seemed appealing). So I bailed, made life changes, and all has turned out fine so far.
"But here we are again. A whole new generation of empty-pocketed energy drunks asking the same damn questions, getting the same damn answers. Economists often spouting half-truths about energy supplies and consumption mainly to get notoriety. Politicians misquoting stews of economists hoping to produce the right blend of guilt, fear and hope to get votes. Nothing much has changed in 30+ years.
"Personally, like a military veteran, I feel I've served my time on this front. I've also lived for over three decades with a daily eye toward my own energy footprint. So I refuse to be guilted by newcomers whose credit card statements are suddenly putting energy awareness into their life scene. I also refuse to participate in any deep energy discourse ever again. The same future is on the same wall and will remain largely unaltered until the last drop of gas is sucked into the last auto from the last pump.
"Mike's advice to use a camera to relieve stress and keep in touch with other facets of life can be very sage for many people, particularly regular visitors here. During the coming year or two one hell of a lot of people are going to visit tough times, many for the first time. That digital photography is free of ongoing costs should be a blessing to many of us."