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"Energy Independence"

By Absolutely ·
by James Howard Kunstler

The day after the impressive Democratic election victory, Senate Majority Leader-to-Be Harry Reid declared that a top priority for the new congress would be policy leading to ?energy independence? for America. The time of jubilee will certainly come, but not in the way Harry Reid thinks it will - nor in the way the rest of the country imagines this idea.

When politicians flog the term ?energy independence? around, they invariably mean that we will continue enjoying the happy motoring utopia by means other than imported oil (which makes up 70 percent of all the oil we burn). Get this - the day is not far off when, for one reason or another, the flow of imported oil to the United States will cease. But when that day comes, we will not be running our country the way we have been running it. That day will be the end of the interstate highways, Walt Disney World, and Wal-Mart - in short, the way of life we are fond of calling ?non-negotiable.?

We are not going to run our cars on coal liquids or tar sand byproducts or oil shale distillates or ethanol or biodiesel, or second-hand french-fry oil - nor on solar, wind, nuclear, or hydrogen. You can run other things on that stuff, but not the biggies we run at their current scale. If the Democrats really want to get serious and act responsibly, they?d better not squander whatever is left of our credit and collective confidence in a futile campaign to keep this racket going. They?d better prepare the public to start living differently.

Where to begin? They can start by recognizing that massive long-haul trucking of goods has to end and be replaced by improved, electrified rail and water transport - with trucks used only for the final, local leg of the journey. To reach this point of recognition, the Democrats will have to overcome the entrenched interests of the trucking industry - but, by now, most of the truck drivers in this country have been successfully converted into right-wing Republican zombies, so it might not be so difficult to overcome them. They will also have to overcome Wal-Mart and its ?warehouse on wheels? composed of thousands of 18-wheelers full of discount goodies incessantly in motion for ?just-in-time? delivery to the big box outlets. And, of course, by ?Wal-Mart? I mean not only the company itself but the millions of Americans who think they can?t live without it.

Do the Democrats have the guts to go against this tide? My guess is probably not. But, get this, to Sooner rather than later, whether we like it or not, we?re going to have to replace Wal-Mart with an entirely different system of retail trade - probably resembling the system of multi-layered local trade networks that were destroyed by Wal-Mart. And the further off we put this task, the more difficult it?s going to be. So, real political leadership will have to inform the public that the time has come to start making other arrangements.

Instead of supporting the fiction that happy motoring can continue forever, the Democrats should create an ?Apollo Project? to restore the U.S. passenger rail system, too. (We hear a lot about an ?Apollo Project? to develop a miracle fuel for our cars, but that ain?t gonna happen, and we?d be much better off devoting that investment to public transit.) This will baffle and **** off a lot of the public, but it is necessary if we are going to survive as an advanced civilization. Please notice, by the way, that I am not suggesting we deprive anyone of the right to drive a car, only give them the option of getting somewhere by train instead. And don?t worry, the politicians will not have to do a thing to restrict automobile use - circumstances will do it for them as the world plunges into a permanent oil crisis that does not go away.

Another thing the Democrats can do with their new power is reorient the activities of the U.S. Department of Agriculture - and especially legislated cash subsidies - away from the ?agribusiness? Big Boys to small-scale, local farmers. We are silently and stealthily approaching a crisis situation with the American food supply. Most localities now only have a two or three-day food supply, and any number of crisis events could disrupt the three thousand mile chain of frozen pizzas and Cheez Doodles that the public depends on for basic sustenance. We desperately need to reactivate what?s left of the productive land around our towns and cities, and to repopulate it with people who can grow real food.

The Democrats will have to contend with the imminent cratering of suburbia whether they like it or not. The ?housing bubble? is the first leg down for a development pattern that has no future. What?s out there now is a vast over-supply of exactly the kind of houses in exactly the kinds of places that will not have value in an energy-scarcer world.

The overbuilding of tract houses is a tragedy caused by reckless and irresponsible behavior in the lending industry and in the government officials who regulate interest rates and the credit supply. The investments are already lost, and the individual carnage is going to be extreme, but the depth of the problem will reveal itself slowly for two reasons: 1.) Both homeowners and realtors will desperately try to maintain the fiction that these properties still have high value, and 2.) Individuals who are in trouble with their mortgage payments will never reveal their dire situation to their friends and neighbors because it is too humiliating. The news about default and repo will only arrive with the moving vans (if the individuals can afford to hire them).

The collapse of suburbia will be the Democrats? chief inheritance from the ?free-market? economically neo-liberal Republicans who were too busy money grubbing at all levels to notice that there was such a thing as the future. The tragedy of suburbia will finish off whatever is left of Reagan-Bush1-Bush2 Republicanism - although the truth is that Bill Clinton did as much to promote this way of life, indeed, to turn suburban development into a new basis for the U.S. economy when manufacturing crapped out.

The nation as a whole - however it reconfigures itself politically in the aftermath of this fiasco - is going to have to come to grips with a lot of hard truths. One will be that ?energy independence? means a whole different scale and system for daily life, not just ?new and innovative? fuels for cars. As long as we are stuck in a foolish national wish-fest aimed at keeping all the cars running and propping up all the trappings of car-dependency, we will remain lost in a wilderness of our own making. And the next president of the United States, whoever it turns out to be (whether a Democrat or the leader of a party that has not yet coalesced) will have all that he-or-she can do to keep this nation from completely falling to pieces.


James Howard Kunstler
for The Daily Reckoning

Editor's Note: James Kunstler has worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975, he dropped out to write books on a full-time basis.

His latest nonfiction book, "The Long Emergency," describes the changes that American society faces in the 21st century. Discerning an imminent future of protracted socioeconomic crisis, Kunstler foresees the progressive dilapidation of subdivisions and strip malls, the depopulation of the American Southwest, and, amid a world at war over oil, military invasions of the West Coast; when the convulsion subsides, Americans will live in smaller places and eat locally grown food.

I don't know about the specific predictions this guy makes, and I don't agree that nuclear reactors + battery-powered cars are impossible, but until the average voter can correctly explain the costs and benefits of different sources of energy, in terms of energy produced, side effects, and economic value, manipulative & opportunistic politicians will continue to be able to screw us all by lying about what is practical and what is necessary.

I do agree that transporting freight more by train is sensible and that trucks should only be used for the last, local part of transport, because trains can more easily run on wires connected to whatever power source is most efficient, and because long haul trucks weigh 20 or 30 times a Hummer and shouldn't share the road with passenger vehicles.

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by Tony Hopkinson In reply to "Energy Independence"

Energy independance is an oxymoron

He's seems to be discounting what attempts to keep the current status quo will bring. There's no doubt in my mind that if you leave it to the oil industry, things will change at their pace, and they aren't hurting at the moment, and we all know how far bean counters think ahead.

Save a penny today to spend 10 next week makes sense to them.

How long our ecomonies can afford the level of profiteering they think is their just desert is another question entirely.

When you here all the waffle about energy independance particularly in terms of oil. It's only some voters that see value in that. Oil Companies certainly don't and teh politicians they fund can't, if they want to mount an election campaign that will get noticed.

Maybe something will happen when we hit $100 a barrel, aside from the big fella's producing really good end of year reports that is.

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Predictions are way off.

by jdmercha In reply to "Energy Independence"

Energy independance for the US can happen now. It is only a matter of money. Foreign oil is by far the cheapest energy source we have. Biodiesel is a viable option now. We can keep our big cars and trucks. And we can keep our interstates and Walmarts. As long as you are willing to pay $8 per gallon.

But then again, if we are paying $8 per gallon for fuel, then we may want to turn to hydrogen fuel cells for our short commutes. This is also a vailbe option now. But adds about $4,000 to the price of a car, and recharging fuel cells is not much cheaper than gasoline.

Nuclear power would be a lot cheaper if groups like Greenpeace stopped interfering.

I live in a small city. We looked at building a light rail system. It would be cheaper to take a taxi to work. Because the population is so spread out most people would have to drive almost as far to get to a train station as they would to drive to work.

We may run out of oil some day, but there are plenty of more expensive alternatives.

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"Nuclear power would be a lot cheaper if groups like Greenpeace stopped..."

by Absolutely In reply to Predictions are way off.


No kidding. Normally, I don't go for the un-truism that the perfect is the enemy of the good, but in the case of environmental protection, a lot of genuine improvements are opposed by lefty loonies because they are still imperfect, although they also would be major improvements. If you aren't willing to settle for gradual improvement, you don't deserve any.

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Agreement part 2 - predictions way off

by Absolutely In reply to Predictions are way off.

Here's hoping. The possible benefits, if he's wrong, are impressive. The unstated assumption of the article is the reason why all the viable solutions you know will not be implemented. The author just asserts that they won't be implemented. Why not? Greenpeace? Petrol companies? Petrol consumers? Who has the most motivation to make the changes? Do they have the wherewithal and individual discipline to do so?

So my question is, why not implement one or more of the author's Utopian dreams? Acknowledging that every change is likely to involve both costs and benefits, which of the author's ideas would do more harm than good, and why?

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I think..

by jdmercha In reply to Agreement part 2 - predic ...

that the author is just trying to take pot shots at big oil and the current administration, blaming them for the lack of alternatives.

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Some perfectly valid pot shots in there though

by Tony Hopkinson In reply to I think..

Mass transport, definitely being one of them.

Any reduction is private transport hit's the oil companies and requires a massive infra structure spend.

It's a double whammy for the politicians, they have to go for higher taxes and take a cut in their campaign budget to sell the idea.

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Roll on Greenpeace

by Tony Hopkinson In reply to Predictions are way off.

A few more years and we might have a viable means of dealing with nuclear waste. Now oil prices have gone up enough to make building the things economic, all we need is some way to get rid of the nasty toxic crap they produce.

Without Greenpeace we'd have nuclear power and our kids would be glowing in the dark.

The latter would be handy you could use them as lights to see how many heads the fish you just caught at night has.

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Greenpeace IS NOT an environmental organization. . . . .

by maxwell edison In reply to Roll on Greenpeace

...but rather a political one.

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This is a problem ?

by Tony Hopkinson In reply to Greenpeace IS NOT an envi ...

Environment is social issue, a lifestyle one and an economic one. How could it be anything but political. In fact there is no such thing as an apolitical issue. If it matters to more than two people a politician will take a position on it.

I don't agree with everything Greenpeace advocates come out with any more than I do any other person or group. Sometimes I even disagree with myself

In the main I do agree with the main stream green parties, possibly easier for me as I'm left of centre, but our right wingers are shouting green green green now. It's an issue that now crosses political parties it's always crossed political issues.

Decrying everything they say because some of it is left wing, would be was stupid as me saying everything right wing was 'wrong'.

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It might not be stupid to say that.

by Absolutely In reply to This is a problem ?

Decrying everything they say because some of it is left wing, would be was stupid as me saying everything right wing was 'wrong'.

There might be a valid reason to say everthing right wing, and everything left wing, is wrong.

Our Democrat and Republican parties initially differed on whether representation should be direct or by elected representatives. They had agreed on the Constitution, which requires a small government that guarantees personal freedom and doesn't interfere much beyond that. Now, the ongoing debate is not about the best method of achieving an agreed goal, but of the goal itself. The left is wrong to expect free lunches for everybody, and the right is wrong to respond with a social agenda that intrudes unnecessarily into citizens' personal lives. They should be debating minimally about how to run a small government, then get to running it. Instead, they are mainly arguing about how to expand government, accomplishing next to nothing, and hardly doing a thing to reduce the size of government since 1994, although government has been growing faster than the economy for as long as anybody can remember.

If it matters to more than two people a politician will take a position on it.

So what?

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