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Sunday, 26 October 2008


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I agree with you on the fact that drilling for more oil will not solve the problems in the US or the rest of the world. I don't agree with the more protectionist thinking, in general, that it is better to spend money on ones own countries products or services. Some people or countries are better equipped or trained to produce certain products or services. Trying to hold on to this industries for sentimental reasons is not helping anybody in the long run. For example the US car industry has long lost the battle of mass producing high quality cars in an efficient way. Other countries are better at it, let it go and spend you energy and money on other industries.

It is this protectionist way of thinking which is not helping the US (and the Europeans). Opening up is the only way to go, I think. Don't fight the outside world and, as you say Mike, show leadership to the rest of the world to try to gain back some of the credibility and friendships which were lost the last eight years.

Well put. Its time to find a solution, not feed the addiction. And, take some pictures in the process.

C Ravsten

Exxon and car companies own the US government. If you think alternative energy is on the horizon, guess again. Also, the US has ZERO public transportation, we are a car culture and will continue to be a car culture until people realize the automobile is killing us... how many cars do you see with just one person in them on the highway's?

The entire economy is based around an internal combustion engine, 100+ year old technology. We are all driving box cameras with 15 second exposures.

The US would rather have a 300 billion a year DUI problem opposed to riding a bus or a subway/train. Make sense? No, but the lawyers/police/and big oil are running the show. It's so neat being able to see the demise of a civilization happening in front of your eyes. I would say more, but a visigoth is coming for my laptop.

BTW, the windfarm energy espoused by the Picken's Plan and others will do more to destroy migratory bird species than any technology in human history. Say goodbye to pretty birds if you think wind is the solution.

Everyone wants a quick solution for everything these days. McCain is pushing "tax cuts" as the panacea while every economist worth his salt is saying that will not work. Solutions to big problems take time and technology will not bail us out this time.
Every complicated problem has a simple, easy-to-implement, cheap and fast WRONG answer.

"Our oil made us rich. Our prosperity in the 20th century was based on it, "



What the hell car do you drive that only takes $30.00?

Aside from that, nice Sunday "talk".


The first time I've written here. Because it's deserving. This is a great piece of blogging / writting. Well done and I agree with all of it. I'd like to add if I may, we should have left the natural order of things alone re: the financial markets or the "Free Capital" markets, let them implode, let the biggies take over the broken ones and used the 700B (SOON to be 2 Trillion, no doubt) to rebuild America, every road in every town, in every city in every State and put the 1,000's of unemployed workers into Gov't jobs in these projects. Think IKE. It works.

"I love the way you put words around facts!"

Thank you Jean-Claude. You're very kind.

Mike J.

'lots of "little people" will share in the new wealth, rather than just a few moguls'

Sounds like you just answered why it might take a while to get the ball rolling. Many big companies won't get in a game if they can't be #1 or #2 and they are the ones with the ability (budgets) to create the demand, make the initial investments and overcome the early inertia.

Maarten B.:

"show leadership to the rest of the world"

Uh, no thanks.

Thanks for the "shout out", Mike, as I am one of those sorts who lost their job in the past month, that has been weighing on me very heavily, and stressfully, ever since... and even more so with rent time coming up a week from yesterday.

Remarkably, I am doing better than I probably should be, considering... I don't know how, but am somehow maintaining this positive disposition. Trying to keep my focus, my perspective, to throw in some photographic analogies.

And yes, thankful for my camera. I just yesterday went out, like I had nothing better to do or concern myself with, and just shot. That roll I will add with the other three rolls I have to get developed, when times get good again... and I do have three more rolls of film left to my disposal... so, thank goodness for that.

Also, as a nice distraction, been watching the old television series 'Man With A Camera'... which I just got done writing about on my own site.... again, like I have nothing better to do... You do what you can do... even if it's just to keep yourself sane...

Anyway, bottom line - a thanks to photography and the things we love to keep us holding on.

Everyone interested in the financial situation should watch this. It's 12 minutes long, but it's key.


Mike J.

Excellent post Mike. Though I have no problem with the short term solution that increased drilling might offer I am aware short term is not the future. I really find it hard to believe we can't come up with an affordable, practical electric car. To hell with messy fuels. I know some folks cringe at the word nuclear but it's probably our best bet along with increased solar and wind powered technology.

I read three papers today on an airline flight, so I can't say for sure which one it was (I think it was the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal), but it had an interview with the guy who runs FedEx who says that a vast number of problems would be corrected simply if cars and trucks ran on batteries -- and he says that batteries used in laptops and other high-tech are now good enough that we could probably do that, if we were forced to.

I've seen other stories like that, that suggest battery power could be here. We'd have some huge infra-structure problems to solve, but essentially, the answer is in battery-driven cars and nuclear power plants of one kind or another. (There's good evidence that the problems connected with nuclear plants can be solved; actually, have already been solved in France and Japan.)

The people who worry a lot about global warming tend to be a little bit less than global in their worries, though. The big problems in global warming threaten island nations and areas (like the US and Europe) with certain climatological peculiarities. Southern California may become uninhabitable, or inhabitable only the way Saudi Arabia is, and much of the high plains west of 100 degrees could become hard desert. But the Russians seem to be interested in the idea that global warming could open up all of Siberia in a way that it has never been open, and that the they might finally get year-around ports on the Arctic Ocean...So the "problem" of global warming could depend to a certain extent on whose ox is being gored. <-- pun.


The Tesla basically runs on the equivalent of laptop batteries:


Note that 0-60 time, too. Electric cars are pretty fast:


The Tesla is essentially a toy, even though it's a production car (sold out, too). The reason is that the range of about 230 miles makes the car impractical for anything but "sorties from home base." The Volt is going to be an important step because it's not really a hybrid in the Prius sense--it's a fully electric car with gasoline backup, meaning that it can be used for occasional long trips yet it is 100% for the duration of most commutes.

This technology and implementation is going to snowball. When, and whether it's in time, is another question. But it'll be exciting to observe.

Mike J.

Discussions of energy, climate change, and the world economy are never "Off-Topic". It deserves discussion on every blog and website. When we realize this, perhaps we will have the resolve and leadership necessary to move forward. More and more I'm feeling that others are taking it seriously enough to invoke the examples of Ike, WW II, Carter's "Moral equivalent of War"speech, Kennedy's call to go to the moon, and of course Gore's work. People who never thought about the environment are now experiencing daily examples of the interconnectedness of life on this planet. Besides the Friedman book, may I recommend Plan B 3.0 by Lester R. Brown which goes beyond the wake-up call to present a plan. The US has the wherewithal and the talent. Hopefully soon we will have the leadership to not just try and fix our problems in isolation, but to lead the world.
Frankly, I visit this website often as respite from these issues. Not tonight. Thanks for a great post Mike.

You're basically right about the oil - and the US would be even better off if it could shrug off its NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome and be more forthcoming in cooperation and adopting ideas from other countries.

But that's not what I want to write. It's the first part - losing your job. I am a researcher. Losing my job is what I do.

What I mean is that life in research usually is a series of grant applications and temporary positions for whatever project you want to do or can expect to get money for (this does not always coincide). But of course you don't always get that grant money or that position, leaving you "between opportunities" on a fairly regular basis. It means you tend to move around quite a bit (I've switched continents once already) and that your level of financial and social insecurity is quite high.

But it also teaches you that you are not your job. This is important. I don't suddenly become a bad researcher or bad human being just because some grant application fell through. I don't suddenly become great when I land yet another assistantship. This is the hardest thing to remember when you first lose your job: unemployed does not mean you're worthless. But it is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind.

In the short-term increased drilling is not a solution because additional drilling whether offshore or in the ANWR will take at least 5-10 years to develop. There is a shortage of drilling rigs and incentive, especially since oil prices have dropped to around a $60 per barrel. The only workable short-term solution I see is conservation, whether more efficient automobiles, life style changes, or more engineering applied to efficiency. Notice how as global consumption has dropped in the last month or so, so have oil prices. We have to conserve to buy time to develop other solutions; i.e.: alternative energy sources.

I'm not sure why McCain/Palin got so hung up on "drill, baby, drill" after McCain started out with his nuclear plant proposals. There's only so much oil out there, and most of what's left is difficult (in varying degrees) to get at. Cheap oil has made it economically unfeasible to drill for oil in some places; as demand outstrips the supplies of easy oil and prices rise, it will become increasingly possible to drill for oil in other places profitably. And that's all there is to it - we can continue to produce some amount of oil for some time so long as consumers are willing to pay higher and higher prices. That's not a solution; it's a downward spiral. So either (some) government or (some) market will address the issue by researching alternatives. Whatever the answer(s), I think energy is simply bound to cost more in the future.

The major problem as I see it is that politicians only think in election cycles. To change our infrastructure drastically so that other energy sources can be utilised efficiently and effectively requires a huge commitment to long term planning and a bi-partisan approach.

Mike, just like to say how much I enjoy the blog, especially the little diversions. They're almost always topical and erudite. Why should photographers be one trick ponies... you keep right on stirring the pot old mate!

I feel the bush years were wasted years in relation to global warming and the energy crisis. (And God knows a whole lot else!) I was gobsmacked when you folks put him in a second time. What really surprises me is why any of you should surprised at where you are.

I am one of those 'crazies' who saw the writing on the wall in the 70's. Part of the movement that went exploring for something more than the 'same old'. This usually meant heading for the country to set up a more sustainable and meaningful existence. We didn't always succeed, but we gave it a shot. Then in a heartbeat; all those things we talked of, lobbied for and protested about are suddenly world headlines. The moral of the story: If you wanna know how things are gonna turn out - go ask some dumb hippie...!
Dennis F.

PS I know my dots and the space are arse about... but I just prefer how they look on the page that way! See, I'm a maverick - just like you and whats 'is name!

PSS ... and dont worry, you're not alone. We put our backward thinking idiot in THREE times!

Before getting on to the larger issues at hand, I must say I'm constantly dumbfounded by the never ending plethora of consumers who even now are contemplating just which multi-thousand dollar body (plus lenses) they will ultimately choose to buy...

That said, just think how much further we'd be along in solar and electric energy technology if we took heed back in the seventies when the country was waiting on gas lines. Instead, Reagan came along, tore off the solar panels from the White House roof and made certain we continued to be knee deep in gas guzzlers.

BTW Mike, the electric Volt was supposed to be America's affordable family car of 2010, but has gone up from 18 to a currently projected 40 grand. And when it was rolled out recently for filming on Frontline, it crawled along at 10 mph before finally puttering out a few seconds later...

For an absorbing & comprehensive intro to the current global warming/energy crisis do see Frontline's 2hr. PBS documentary HEAT...

Twenty-six years ago I wrote a research paper on methane. A weed that was being harvested in the Arizona desert could grow and decompose in no time, and the head researcher of this project estimated that if the government would fund his project, twenty-five percent of the energy needs in the southwest could be met within two decades.

Ever hear about it? Of course not... just like the cars that run on water, and the nuclear powered car that was designed back in the forties... a car that would run forevever without ever a need for a re-charge.

The power companies want their profits.

I don't think battery run cars are the way to go. Producing batteries is a very environmentally dirty process. Batteries are nice for small portable products like laptops or mobile phones.

The future is IMO the Hydrogen car.


and its already available, all we need is the infrastructure of the gas stations providing it.


(Just for fun a MPG comparison between a Toyota Prius and BMW M3. Guess who won? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLgwiQwGRcU )

I like Janne's response. I used to work in research too, albeit only for a while, and I've always been self-employed. Sometimes it's tough, but it teaches you that uncertainty is always part of the life.

Concerning the oil problem, there is no easy solution. There certainly does not exist any alternative to oil now or in the foreseeable future that I know from what I've read. Conservation is good but it can get us only so far; for our society oil is water, air and food combined, and there is a certain point where "lean" turns into "starved." Moreover, right now tightening the screws would make the current crisis even worse. At best we can hope that with a reasonable amount of conservation that would not restrict our growth too much we could get a little more time to do some research, assuming it's not too late.

I am an optimist at heart; the mankind has gotten through incomparably worse times in the past. But it's one thing to read about large crises in history books and quite another thing to live through them.

Brilliant as all your writing, Open Mike...
Losing a job can be trying, as losing your savings or your income. It all comes at the same time anyway... But once I was in Venezuela and a poor worker told me something I, rich by comparison, found ridiculous then: Lo que sucede, conviene. Roughly: Whatever happens is convenient. On the plane, back to Spain, I gave it some time, went over some of the most difficult periods of my life and found out he was right.
So this crisis will wipe out lots of money, but also the criminal arrogance of neocons who pretend the State and Gov haves to care just for the rich and then wealth will trickle down. Hope it also convinces a majority of the Americans that you do need to supervise and control investment bankers, regulate markets and oversee what they do with your savings, and that free markets are never free and benefit only a few. Maybe you finally decide to establish a public health system and tax the rich as they deserve to benefit all the country with the resulting income. It's a major shock to read Warren Buffet saying he pays less income tax than the lowest paid clerk in his office, and that is without resorting to any dirty tricks, just applying the law..
Regarding energy, my guess is that your hopes of seeing a more decentralized supply are unfounded. Large corporatioons always find a way to control new technologies and keep their power. For instance, there was this vision of a self catering home with its own solar panels providing all the needed electricity. Well, that type of equipment has been almost abandoned, now you'll find huge solar farms controlled by the same companies. I must accept that other companies seems to have a different outlook: I saw a docu a couple of months ago about GE and GM research on fuel cells and the researchers envisaged a system where your car would power the electrical appliances in your home and "sell" the extra power to an electrical distributor, instead of having a power plant lying idle in your garage. Your harbinger... It may work like that in the end.
In any case, I hope the American century stretches a couple of hundred years more. I can't envisage a world run by the likes of Russia, China or India. The US may not be perfect, and their foreign policy has been particularly disastrous, but it has given us a lot, and the alternative seems to be much worse.

"Our oil made us rich. Our prosperity in the 20th century was based on it, "


Well, not really.
The ability to use fossil fuels, starting really in the latter part of the 18th century, and going full bore in the 20th with oil, was profound in effect.

It has, around the world (not just the U.S.) resulted in vastly increased economic activity, the population bomb, motorized & high tech warfare etc.

The essential things to grasp:

1. The vast majority of our social and economic reality is based on fossil fuels.
2. Our "success" as a species in the last 200 years, is the cause of our current mega-problems.
3. Those mega-problems, and what arises from them are the crucial challenges to our species in this century.
4. The mega-problems are:
Climate change
Peak oil
Fresh water scarcity.

To quote the subject of a recent post at this site, Betty Davis:
"Fasten your seat belts, looks like we are in for a bumpy ride."

Stan B,
My contention that countries don't adapt well to new energy paradigms comes courtesy Kevin Phillips, via the first section of his book "American Theocracy." The most critical 96 pages I've read all year, I would say. I've urged both Phillips and his publisher to put out that small section as a separate book--Phillips can be wordy and scholarly and difficult to read. That section is worth the price of the book.

Phillips is now a critic of the right, but he was one of the architects of Movement Conservatism. He was a strategist for Richard Nixon and was the author of "The Emerging Republican Majority" in 1968, which essentially predicted Reaganism and the '94 Republican Revolution. It's actually quite remarkable how much he's been right about.

Mike J.


I don't usually write to you, as I am too impressed with what I read about photography here to be able to comment. With economics (and politics) I am not quite so sure. Therefore I have a few questions.

"To restore our economic equilibrium." Economic equilibrium is not easily understood and therefore much misused as an argument. So could you please define what that is? And please explain why it is important?

"It fueled our growth and our wealth." Right on the spot, if you ask me. But could you define wealth, how it is created and explain why oil fuels it?

"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." I would say that people have done a fantastic job at adapting to new sources of energy, from horse and windmill, to steam, to the current generations of combustion engine and nuclear power. So could you please elaborate on your assertion?

"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." There are many countries who do not have oil themselves. Countries like Switserland, Singapore or the Netherlands (where I live) are poor on natural resources, but nevertheless very wealthy. Could you - in this light - explain why you make such a big point out of the Americans being able to be self-sufficient in energy?

"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". At the moment, and for the near future, alternative energy is more expensive than oil and nuclear power. What that means is this. To obtain energy, you have to put some energy in. With oil, for example, you would have to built a drill, pump the oil and distribute it. With alternative sources of energy, you would have to put in more energy into obtaining the energy, making it more expensive. Could you explain how that puts money "into the pockets of Americans"?

"Oil geologists have been scouring America for oil for decades, and they know where most of it is and how much there is." Could you please provide peer-reviewed scientific publications which would validate this assertion?

"I think, there goes thirty dollars [...] that could, and should, have gone to one of my fellow Americans here at home who needs it." It is implied (repeat: implied) throughout your piece that, for some reason, people outside of America are humans who are not worthy of your dollars or don't need it. As I am one of those people, could you give me that reason?

Thanks in advance, and thanks for all the wonderful stuff you write about photography!

The short answer to all your questions is "no." This is an off-topic piece in a photography blog, so providing the depth you're requesting wouldn't be appropriate here.

Like most opinion writers, I'm a generalist--my current reading project is Boswell's "Life of Johnson," for instance. And I read slowly and widely, so I'm not familiar with all of the literature on these topics by a long shot. So take the following with a grain of salt if you like: I think the best short overview (from an historical perspective) is the short section of the Phillips' book mentioned above. A good all-around introduction to the subject is Paul Roberts' excellent and readable book "The End of Oil." Roberts is a reporter rather than a subject-matter expert, but he does a good job of laying out the basics in a readable fashion (even though his book is already a couple of years out of date). "The Party's Over" by Heinberg is more controversial and more alarmist, but also good. For more on oil exploration, start with "Hubbert's Peak" by Ken Deffeyes, a Princeton professor who was an oilman for many years. As for the economic meaning of the "green revolution" in the short term, the new Friedman book I mentioned is probably a good place to start for a general reader. I haven't finished it yet.

I admit that the phrase "economic equilibrium" does not encapsulate any deep argument--it's merely a phrase I chose in reflection of the fact that our current state is pretty obviously economic _dis_equilibrium.

Don't think that any economy--Singapore, Switzerland, the Netherlands--will not be effected by the coming paradigm changes in energy. The current upsets in our world are merely the first stirrings of far more profound changes. It's very unfortunate that human beings are not very good at long-term planning, because preparation and "the long view" is really the best chance we have. We really need to be thinking further out into the future than we customarily do--that's my belief.

Mike J.

I always think it a little funny when Saudi Arabia takes all the heat when it comes to oil imports into the United States. Only 15% of oil imported into the United States comes from Saudi Arabia and less than 20% comes from the middle east. The largest amount of oil coming into the US comes from we Canadians.


Not that I intend to encourage any Canadian camel jockey jokes. ;-)

Losing a job is awful, but it puts things into perspective. A few years ago I bought a house that I could afford if my law practice continued the way it had been going. I had no reason to think that my practice would almost die shortly thereafter. For one year, I had almost no income; I had to use my savings and liquidate my stocks to pay the mortgage and put food on the table for my family.

As luck would have it, we sold the house, albeit it a loss, downsized the house, cut expenses, and retooled our way of thinking. Things are turning around, albeit slowly, but they can turn back around the other way just as quickly. Things were so bad that I couldn't afford to have film developed for almost a year.

Yes, whatever happens is convenient. Even having COB can be a worthwhile diversion from things, as long as COB is kept in perspective. Buying the latest equipment just to say that you have it or so that you can fondle it, is a waste of time, money, and precious mental energy.

Having the latest equipment won't make you a better photographer. As one photographer once said (I forgot who), "crap in, crap out."

Kiss your significant other (if you don't have one, find one), and kiss your kids and be thankful that you have your health, if you have your health. Everything else can be worked around.

"The short answer to all your questions is "no."" Sorry, but that is the problem I have with pieces like this. It is very alarmist. It calls for intervention. But when one challenges presumptions, the answer is "no".

"It's very unfortunate that human beings are not very good at long-term planning, because preparation and "the long view" is really the best chance we have. We really need to be thinking further out into the future than we customarily do--that's my belief." Wouldn't we all want to be able to look in the future? Unfortunately nobody - that I know off - can. No wonder that we are not good at long-term planning. But humans have been fantastic at adapting to new circumstances. Reason why we are such a succesful species.

So what I believe is that there is no reason for alarmist predictions. Much more need for sound advice on photography, which brings me to my last question: don't you think that the Panasonic G1 is the street photographers dream?


And I would say that "the problem" is that this piece is NOT "very alarmist," but that some people think it is.

Mike J.


Now that put a smile on my face! Thanks!

It's like this: all our modern civilization was built upon the petroleum piggy bank. Not replacable, we are spending the energy bank dry. The energy use surrounding us we don't recognize in our daily lives...what makes the water flow from the tap? How did the produce get into our local market? Flick the lights on, will you? It's cold, better turn on the heat.

Or: shovel and pick to break the ground to grow the food you will eat in 3 months. Out to the outhouse in winter at night, good thing it's a full moon because there's too much icy wind to carry a candle...not that you don't know this path too well...

Muscle power to pull water up from the well, muscle power to grow, harvest, prepare the food, lucky if you have a horse or else it's shanks' mare....everything slows down, dumbs down, travel more than a mile or two is a major event in most lives.

It's only been a 100 years, a drop in the bucket of recorded human experience.

All because of cheap, abundant energy. We eat oil, literally. We wear it. All pervasive, all encompassing our daily lives.

Energy and economic issues discussed by people looking for answers, not pushing agenda:


I get the bus to work every day. Winter spring summer and fall I'm on the bus and I'm seldom without a camera, I've got some good shots on buses. Currently, a gallon of petrol/gas in the UK is about £5 which is around $7.81. Public transport won’t save us I know, but a certain mindset will. I slept on a toilet floor for three months when I was 20. I didn't have enough socks for each day of the week let alone a camera. But at least I didn't have far to go when I needed go at night. How we deal with bad times often determines the outcome

“It’s my belief that history is a wheel. ‘Inconstancy is my very essence,’ says the wheel. Rise up on my spokes if you like but don’t complain when you’re cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away.”


Mike, I think one difficulty with your general article is that it sort of emotionally ties together a lot of problems that may be somewhat related, but are not directly linked.

The current financial crisis is not really caused by energy problems (oil), but rather by rampant speculation -- and not just by big companies, but also by people like us. It didn't happen much in Wisconsin or Minnesota, where we live, but if you were to travel out to California or to Miami, you'd be utterly astonished by what you see there. Tens of thousands, and maybe hundreds of thousands (I don't think anybody knows) of ordinary people got into the house speculating business, betting that they would not be the "final fool" who got stuck with the highest price. There are entire suburbs out there that appear to be abandoned, and I saw condos in the Central Valley that the developer stopped building halfway through -- just skeletons standing there in the middle of towns.

This insanity was encouraged by politicians of all stripes, for a variety of reasons, and with the Obama presidency, it won't get better (and I say that as an Obama supporter.)

That's one problem. The energy problem (and the linked global warming problem) existed long before the speculative frenzy got underway, and simply continues and worsens. Unfortunately, as the speculative frenzy collapses, the price of oil will decline, temporarily, which will once again slow conservation efforts...but then when the government attempts to spend its way out of this upcoming recession, and Big Inflation kicks in again, the price of oil will go back up...etc. Actually, hard-hearted as it seems, one of the best things the Obama administration could do to start fixing this problem is to pile on gasoline taxes as the general price of gas drops -- to hold the general price at, say, $4 or $5 a gallon. That could be the first step toward a sane energy policy, by encouraging people to drive energy-efficient cars. Won't happen.

But generally, I really don't think we have so much of an oil-shortage problem or a irresponsible-business problem as we have a political problem. The past few years have been consumed by arguments about gay marriage (gays make up ~4% of the population and whether or not they are married has little effect on global warming or oil use), guns (it doesn't make much difference whether or not we have concealed carry, the crime rate doesn't change) abortion (a large majority nationally favors it, but in some small states a majority may oppose it) or what is really a relatively minor war (which we shouldn't be involved in, perhaps, but who really knows?)...and while we fiddle with these marginal problems, the core burns down: we lose millions of jobs, we have no coherent energy policy, we may face national disaster through global warming, we have no control over our borders, our infra-structure is going to hell, and in our biggest cities, nobody wants to send their kids to public schools, because the schools suck.

The problem isn't really Main Street or Wall Street in my view, it's Washington; and the current political campaign suggests to me that we're about to get an Administration that plays to a different set of special interests, rather than the old set, and none of these core problems will really get addressed in any serious way. Depresses the hell out of me.


Mike, it seems the current economic problems could be summed up in the saying: "Our planet can produce enough for everyone's need, but never enough for everyone's greed."

P.S. I'm not excluding or excusing myself from the "greed" part.

Barack Obama and I live in a state that gets half its electricity from nuclear power, the highest percentage in the nation. For this reason, Illinois is well on its way toward meeting the Kyoto treaty carbon targets. I wish he would have brought this up in one of the debates, strongly endorsed nuclear power, and shown his independence from some of the no nothings in his own party.

Although both Obama and McCain purport to support action to address carbon emissions, based on my 35 years working for USEPA under both parties, I do not believe a Republican administration would ever have the will to take effective action. At least we have a fighting chance with Obama.

It is amazing to me that the potential solution to this the single most important problem facing mankind hinges on the votes of a relative few uninformed people in a handful of swing states. God save us, every one.

I'm not nearly educated enough to weigh in on large issues such as these, but I did read an excellent article in Wired about a new plan for electric cars being implemented by a man named Shai Agassi and his company, Better Place.

His plan is to run it like a cell phone company - where you get your vehicle at a subsidy (or even free) and pay them for the service (i.e. # of miles on the road per month). It is slated to come online in test countries Denmark and Israel in 2011.

It's long for a magazine article, and fairly gung ho, but I found it fascinating.


Alarmist? I would say it's a tame text. If I had to believe what I read here on major papers every day, we should be preparing ourselves for apocalypse. Most journos are predicting famine, chaos, and huge riots once the system collapses next month in the US. Or the month after that.
Most of the explanations you're asking for are easily available: For instance, oil fueled growth because it used to be cheap. How good a job some society did adapting to one form of energy or another is clearly a matter of opinion. But I would hardly consider a success story how we went in just five or six hundred years from sailboats to steamers.
Regarding how shifting to alternative energy can put more money into the pockets of americans, the answer is equally simple: By avoiding huge payoffs to third countries. As long as the companies who build and suply the alternative energy industry are American, no matter how much you invest in the process, the money stays in the US. And, believe it or not, alternative energy is not more expensive than nuclear power, once you do the accounting properly.
I understand Mike is writing for his peer Americans and admit since I do not like nationalism at all, I could almost agree on your worries about his desire to keep his money from reaching the rest of us. I am all for free trade etc., still I find it hard to accept how we are dumping undeserved wealth on medieval countries ruled by tyrants. As hard as accepting that we open our markets to goods that are cheaper only because their producers have no concern for labour rights or environmental damages. I took ages of fighting to get some wealth reaching the working class, I'll never forget that. I feel we are shooting ourselves in the foot accepting to compete with these labour criminals.

I fully understand that wealth is not strictly related with the availability of natural resources but Mike was, if I got it right, proposing that the money that goes out to pay for oil can -and should- be used in a different way. Not so much writing about self suffiency as about alternate uses for limited resources.

Well, and he didn't yet gho into the how the military-industrial complex is eating the flesh out of the US in the Bush era. I read recently on a photographers blog -yes Mike, you're not the only one to go into OT rants- Eisenhower's speech from the 50's, the one about how building a bomber is stealing from the poor... see http://claytoncubitt.tumblr.com/post/34472191

For the statistics geeks, here is a link to the DOE site that contains some interesting information in regards to oil production rates:


Check out the data from 2005, 2006 and 2007. (The last column on the right)

And that is during a time of increasing prices. Hmmmm..

Prius versus a BMW M3. If you do not own either it may be a good idea not to dis the Prius and prefer the BMW.
I own a Prius, it does everything my (s)old 6 cylinder used to do but at 4.1L/100km, better in the city. Let me talk to someone that drives a BMW M3 that gets better fuel economy with normal day to day driving.

Little more than 1% of our electrical generation is from petroleum. (round numbers: Coal 50%, Nat. Gas 20%, Nuclear 20%, Hydro 7%, Renewables 2%, Petroleum 1%) Therefore wind, solar, or whatever, will not reduce our oil imports by one drop until a large fraction of transportation fuel is moved away from oil. Maybe to battery, natural gas, or hydrogen fuel cells??

The transition away from petroleum based transportation fuel is a monumental task. Batteries will not work in hilly or mountainous terrain. The power requirements are to high and range is too short. The 40 mile range advertised by GM’s Volt is on flat terrain where the only work done is to overcome wind resistance. Two or three New England hills in mid-winter will kill the battery in short order. The middle class will have to abandon the suburbs and go back to 19th century style row houses within walking distance to the mill or office. Not necessarily a bad thing. But a huge societal and cultural change in lifestyle. Not to worry. No one reading this post will live to see it.

I was watching a BBC series ('Walking with Beasts'- if you're interested) the other day and I was struck by the fact that *each* dominant species (dino/reptilian/avian/mammal) lost its relevance and rapidly its dominance, even as the Earth changed periodically.

I think we're at the cusp of a similar environmental disaster, and with global warming and fresh water shortage, mankind's survival will be at risk. Our demand for energy will grow exponentially (making hydrogen, cooling our homes, extracting freshwater) and research into *primary* electricity (fusion/solar) is key to survival. Maybe if we as a species can generate huge amounts of energy at minimal environmental impact/low economic cost we could start curing the earth too.

So why can't the world do another 'Manhattan Project' like the US undertook, this time to develop nuclear fusion? I'm sure a 100x funding boost would cost a fraction of the USD 3 trillion frittered away in Iraq!

Another thing, I'm an Indian and like (the mostly American) people posting above I too am tired of my country beggaring itself and funding countries that are dedicated to waging terrorism and war against mine. Transfer of wealth through oil payments *will* change the course of history, passing ownership of economic assets and ultimately great geopolitical power on a scale never seen before.

"The transition away from petroleum based transportation fuel is a monumental task. ..... No one reading this post will live to see it."

Probably true.

Sooner or later our culture will have to confront straight on this peculiar situation we've placed ourselves in whereby the interests of various corporations are placed ahead of what is best for society.

I still hear clichés about not wanting to pay for welfare cheats when jurisdictions compete with each otehr to give tax concessions to companies so that they will install a plant in their county. We have placed ourselves in the position of begging companies to come to our neighbourhoods instead of viewing companies as entities that serve us. Here in Canada, we recently witnessed the incredible spectable in western Canada where people were against the government raising the royalties on oil extraction lest it annoy the oil companies. As if the oil belonged to Exxon and not to the citizens. Exactly what were we worried about? Did we think the oil companies will go elsewhere? Where?

Have we gone mad?

Recently, the price of a barrel of oil dropped from $140 or so to under $60 in a few months. Do you think that's because of fundamental changes in the economy or because of speculation?

Some big cheeses from the federal reserve were being interviewed on some show or other on the weekend and one of them said that they hadn't expected housing prices to drop. That's right. The brightest economists (?) in the US were surprised that house prices did NOT continue to rise indefinitely, far past the level that the median income could support. If that scene occurred in a Hollywood movie, someone that stupid would immediately be suspected of being someone's paid stooge. Yet, the interviewer didn't break out in stunned laughter and continued to talk to them as if they were serious and important people.

Remember that nut in the movie Dr. Strangelove who was worried about fluoride in the water supply affecting our precious bodily fluids? Well, maybe there is something in the water.

"No one reading this post will live to see it."

I very much doubt that's true.

For example, a conservative reader sent me a pro-oil, anti-alternative internet pass-around piece advocating for increased oil exploration and recovery here in the U.S. (the "drill baby drill" argument). It used the most optimistic estimates of known U.S. reserves, stating that the ANWR contains 11 billion barrels and that known, recoverable reserves on U.S. soil total 171 billion barrels. The implication was clear: "that's plenty."

First of all those numbers conceal a little secret, which is that prices have to go up--in some cases WAY up--to make extraction feasible. There's been a big scramble here in the U.S. lately to bring oil production online as prices have gone up. That's because there are lots of reserves that are not profitable to exploit at $13 a barrel but that become quite profitable when oil is going for $135 a barrel. Well, some of the "known reserves" in the U.S. would require selling prices of *more* than $135 a barrel in order to make them profitable. So saying that we "have" certain reserves is really hiding a significant part of the story, which is: how much would a barrel of oil have to sell for to make extracting that oil economically feasible?

But even if those numbers--the 11 / 171 billion--are correct, consider that that means there's enough oil in the ANWR to provide for all of this country's needs for 30 months, and enough in the U.S. to provide for all of our needs for another 23 years.

That's just not much. Although I won't and you might not, there are certainly readers of this blog who will live another 50 years. Earth's oil will be largely gone by then even if consumption stays at 2007 levels, which it will certainly not do.

Mike J.

The generally used figure (see CIA World Fact Book, and industry sources) for proven U.S. reserves is:

Appox. 21.7 billion barrels.
@ a standard accepted consumption rate of 20,730,000 barrels per day, in the U.S.,
That is 22.6 years.
Of course, one cannot assume this sum will go to the U.S., since oil is a world market, and not a nationalized commodity.

Generally accepted reserve estimate is 10.3 billion barrels recoverable. At the above consumption rate, that is 496 days of U.S. Consumption. Of course, one cannot assume this sum will go to the U.S., since oil is a world market, and not a nationalized commodity.

Re who will live to see the day...etc.

Given the current low level of support for the effort to transition to non-oil fuel sources;
Given the tendency of humans to become more competitive in conditions of perceived scarcity;
Given nationalism, etc.

I would expect lower specie population count, less complex social organisation, and less demand for fossil fuels before 2050.

I enjoyed this post, most of all the friendly words about job loss. I've lost two jobs. The first, I was laid off because the company was losing money -- actually, I was happy to leave. It was a summer job in high school anyway. The second time I lost a job, my boss fired me because she didn't like me personally. That one was rough. Not only had it been my favorite job to that point, but I was a "face" there and I thought I knew everybody at the workplace, had many friends... and not one person stood up for me. None of the other managers lifted a finger on my behalf. And my manager went about this in a passive-aggressive way, not even telling me that I was being bumped, leaving me to investigate why I suddenly wasn't getting any more hours. After that experience, I think I can shrug off something as benign as a lay-off.

Better check your arithmetic....

Mike J.

Here is a page re planetary supply & demand readers may find of interest:


Planetary wide, the current oil discovery rate is 1 barrel for every 4 consumed.

U.S. Reserve (21.7 BB) divided by daily U.S. Consumption (20.73 MB)is 1,049 days, or 2.87 years, not 22.6 years.

Sorry about that.

Hello Mike, thanks for stirring up this discussion. I'm an avid reader at this site but like one or two others before me, I've never added my two cents before.
...and being a recent job-loss statistic, two cents is all you're getting from me! I appreciate your shout to those of us that have lost their relied-upon source of income (in my case photojournalism, actually), and have had to adapt. I'm happy to report that I'm now doing quite well as a freelancer but its been tough adapting to life without a regular paycheck.
All of the previous posts have been thoughtful and inspiring...notably (for me anyway), those of JPH, Stan B, Mikal, and Sean.
I've been in serious need (read: want) of upgrading my rig for some time now. I've been working my EOS 10D DAILY since I bought it in early '03 and I think soon I'll upgrade to the outdated 5D. The 10D was the first camera I ever bought new (since buying my first camera in 1987), and though I'll buy new cameras, never the latest model again. Photo tech (and automobile tech, etc) will of course bring us new toys at an ever increasing rate, thanks in large part to digital (and the desire for cleaner transportation), but to relate to the larger idea here, my own opinion is that we are a global nation of consumers and that is one of our greatest weaknesses.

The 'accepted' mean reserve estimate on ANWR is based on guesswork from geologic extrapolation of known wells in Prudhoe Bay and the surrounding area. ANWR has NO wells yet. Which means that one possible outcome is that there is nothing in ANWR. I like the odds, but I have seen many sure bets in my 30 year career turn into expensive dry holes.

Your thoughtful advice for those who have lost their jobs hit brought back some memories. In 2001, I lost my job twice in a ten-month period. A couple of weeks before being let go for the second time, I had gone out and bought a camera, and started dabbling in photography again after many years' absence. That camera provided me with a much needed release during my months of unemployment, as I would go out mornings to shoot film and just reflect on things... I was ultimately able to turn the situation into a positive outcome. I've observed that that is most often the case, and have seen many friends move onto something better after being laid off. Since the '01 turmoil, I've been with a company that actually exports to China (!), and continues to be a healthy, growing business. It all works out in the end. As someone who's been there, I wish the best for those who have lost jobs recently.

Dear Mike,

Coming a little late to this party... (I was in transit)…

The Tesla is a "toy" not because of its range. 99+ percent of daily driving needs are entirely satisfied by that range. Most of the population would have no more problem by a vehicle with that range than they do buying a compact car (as opposed to a pickup truck, needed for those few times a year when you need to haul something really big).

It's a toy because of its price! The low-end model is about $60,000. A large fraction of that cost is the electricals. The battery technology being used is NOT cheap, and already has much of the economy of scale of mass production, so it won't get much cheaper in bigger volumes.

Technological and manufacturing advances *will* make batteries cheaper, but the Tesla simply is not a solution to the mass electric car problem. Nonetheless, it's extremely valuable, because it convinced large numbers of people that there is such a solution. And expectations create demand. All in all, a very good thing.

Electric car batteries are NOT a trivial engineering problem. There's a reason lots of very, very smart people have been working on it for 40 years now (I photographed the very first cross-country electric car race and even toodled around in Wally Rippell's "Voltswagon"). The batteries have to be long-term reliable under extremely dicey conditions (constant high vibration, massive temperature extremes, and very erratic charge-discharge cycles, just to mention three). They must be sufficiently inexpensive, sufficiently compact, and sufficiently light weight per kilowatt-hour of energy. They can't be too much more dangerous than a tank of gasoline (which is actually not terribly dangerous, action-movie car chases to the contrary), and not excessively expensive to manufacture and dispose of in an environmentally benign fashion.

None of these are new problems. They are well known to the researchers in the field and have been from Day One. I merely present them to explain why it's taking so long to get there.

People who think that hydrogen is the wave of the future because batteries are so tough should look at the detailed technological and economic issues involved in building a hydrogen infrastructure. Scary. It will make them think twice, maybe three times. It *might* prove to be a better way to go, eventually, but that is absolutely not a no-brainer at the moment.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear Folks,

People who are convinced they already know the best answer to the carbon-free energy problem ought to read the featured article in the Aug 14, 2008 issue of Nature-- "Electricity Without Carbon"

You will be in for some surprises.

Many ways to successfully bell this cat, but all are different, all with features and bugs.

Best damn summary (with solid data) I've ever seen; a must-read, really!

pax / Ctein

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