A Real Energy Challenge

by Gilles d'Aymery

November 12, 2001

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[This commentary is a continuation of the essay, "Terrorism and the Ozone Layer," which the reader may want to read first. If the reader wishes to cut to the chase he/she may skip the thought process of the author and get right down to the challenge.]

"The forest precedes man, the desert follows him."
—May 1968 Graffiti (in Paris, France)
In a conversation with president Jiang Zemin of China in early 1996 former president Clinton said, "the greatest threat to our [US] security that you present is that all of your people will want to get rich in exactly the same way we got rich. And unless we try to triple the automobile mileage and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if you all get rich in that way we won't be breathing very well. There are just so many more of you than there are of us, and if you behave exactly the same way we do, you will do irrevocable damage to the global environment. And it will be partly our fault, because we got there first and we should be able to figure out how to help you solve this problem." (1)

According to an ExxonMobil infomercial, "The developing economies of the Asia Pacific region have been among the fastest growing in the world. [...] Only 20 years ago this region, which includes China and India and the countries of the Southeast Asia, had a combined Gross Domestic Product about one-fifth that of the United States. Twenty years from now, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates this region's economy will have grown to three-fourths the size of the U.S. Even with the latest advances in energy-saving technology, a growing industrial economy requires energy — and lots of it. [...] The EIA estimates that between now and 2020 this region will account for over a quarter of the worldwide increase in oil and natural gas demand." (2)

Remember, it's the same EIA that estimated in 1998 that conventional oil production will peak in 2012. (see "Terrorism and the Ozone Layer.")

"At the present time," writes Daniel Quinn, "the United States represents the high point of maximum affluence that our civilization has reached. There's no place on earth where people have more, use more, or waste more than the United States. Though other nations haven't as yet reached this high point, they yearn to reach it." Quinn calls "a culture in which all members are dedicated to attaining the high point of maximum affluence (and to forever raising the high point of maximum affluence)," the culture of maximum harm. (3)

Any pattern here?

Daniel Quinn also says that "We believe in taking a military approach to problems. We proclaim 'war' on poverty. When that fails, we proclaim a 'war' on drugs. We 'fight' crime. We 'combat' homelessness. We 'battle' hunger. We vow to 'defeat' AIDS." (4)

Now we have declared "war on terrorism."

Another connecting pattern here? After all, we should not be surprised by the repetitive approaches taken by our society over history. Part of our culture is a warring culture, an aggressive culture, whether we shape the environment to our will, or people. According to military.com, "in the United States, the entire military community is 80 million strong." Add all the Law Enforcement Agencies (police, etc.) and about one-third of the US population live and breathe combat, be it defensive or offensive — and this does not even show the surface of the 200 million guns owned in America alone.

"Terrorism" or not, as these pages have amply demonstrated, our latest "war" is much about securing access to oil in the Caspian basin — among competitive interests (see ExxonMobil above) for this finite and fast depleting natural resource — and the armed operations had been planned long before the 9/11 tragedy. (5)

Daniel Quinn again: "The greatest discovery any alien anthropologist could make about our culture is our overriding response to failure: If it didn't work last year, do it AGAIN this year (and if possible do it MORE)." (6)

Meanwhile, the people presently in power, our so-called leaders, from the president through the vice president and the chain of command, are strongly related to oil interests and keep doing and implementing policies that they've kept doing and implementing for as long as they know — for that is really all they know.

Grim picture? Possibly, but a realistic, actual picture of our predicament. People, supposed to represent us, keep replicating policies that do not work, keep representing short term interests in disregard of the long term consequences, and keep sending the common people to far-away wars that they and their families do not fight. Not "bad" people, mind you; just people who doubt little and firmly believe that they are an intelligent minority who know what's best for us (it does not hurt when it sure is best for them...). We can either feign to ignore the facts (I say feign, for deep down we know these facts); we can fly a small flag attached to the antenna of our Chevrolet 1500 Suburban conscientiously driving to school or on errands and back, and happily consuming a gallon of gas every 15 miles, gas for which our boys and girls are sent to war (it feels good doesn't it?); we can accept the dents in our civil liberties in the hope of increased security; we can even watch football and stop thinking altogether, our heads buried in the sand ostrich-like. This will not alleviate the predicament or make it disappear with some magic wand. Oil is finite. Oil is getting close to maximum production. Oil is increasingly required by an increasing number of people and nations. We know this and we know the consequences in terms of destruction. So again, we can either feign to ignore and keep doing the same old-same old OR we can try something different.

Incremental Approach

In a February 2001 essay former Arthur Andersen partner, Joe Kresse, writes, "With the rate of change today, fixing the present is too late — it's already past and too well entrenched. For example, we could be worrying about fossil fuels and our use of oil. It's something we don't want to completely turn our back on, but the leaders in the oil companies and in the car companies already know that that game is over — oil is running out and future cars will run on hydrogen. Shell, British Petroleum, Ford, the Japanese automobile manufacturers — they're not fighting the petroleum foot-dragging game anymore. They gave that up probably two or three years ago, and now are in a race to see who is the greenest and who is going to develop the alternative to oil." (7)

Joe Kresse often emphasizes an aspect of change that is rarely fully appreciated in the touch-and-go of daily life. Change happens in a continuum — in a physiological kind of way — though it's not necessarily visible to the eyes. He takes the example of the ocean's tide rising through a bay. When the tide turns around, he says, you need to look at the banks of the bay. While the water keeps rising so far as the eye can see, it actually is receding along the banks. The tide has turned. It's only a matter of time before it becomes fully noticeable. (8)

Notwithstanding his keen observation and his acknowledgement that present interests are "too well entrenched," one should notice that the same oil conglomerates, Shell and British Petroleum, are a part of the various consortia that are combing the world for additional oil finds. They and their US sister companies are in the Caspian Basin, drilling and building the pipelines that will bring the black gold to our western markets. One could further remark that relying upon these companies — oil and car makers — to bring the solutions to the predicament requires a high degree of optimism. The conflicts of interest are too obvious. They certainly are working on solutions, yet at the same time Ford et al. are marketing the SUVs and trucks that are huge gas-guzzlers (thus compounding the predicament) but generate high profits. So, solutions, yes, but the right solutions? Big question mark!

To say that future cars will run on hydrogen can be quite deceptive. What kind of hydrogen? If the automobile manufacturers bring to market hydrogen cars with fuel cells using hydrogen created through steam methane reforming, hence using fossil fuels as feedstock, this will be at best a palliative and at worse a placebo. Alternatively, using hydrogen from water remains very much in an experimental, though apparently a promising stage. (9)

The predicament is still here. A big hole in the ozone layer; a rapidly depleting source of energy (fossil fuels); our economies are totally dependent upon energy; we have yet to find (invent?) a replacement to fossil fuels. Add to this water shortages, huge and increasing poverty around the world, and you can sense that we are in for more social dislocations and more wars with their diverse appellations du jour (communism, humanitarianism, terrorism, etc.). It may look like an alarmist message but it's nothing less than the reflection of a reality in which we keep doing more of the same year after year. It has not worked. It is not working and there is no reason to believe it is going to work in the future.

So? As Hazel Henderson, the author of Creating Alternative Futures: The End of Economics (Kumarian Press), says, "The problem is, of course, that not only is economics bankrupt but it has always been nothing more than politics in disguise ... economics is a form of brain damage."

Our predicament calls for a bolder move, for a true challenge to American positive creativity and determination.

A real challenge

What about declaring that by the end of this decade we will cut our consumption of oil by half? What about bringing together all the talents in science and industry, universities and government with that specific goal? By January 1, 2011 we, the United States of America, will have cut our oil consumption in half and we will share our new technologies with the entire world.

Do you remember May 25, 1961 when President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress? He delivered a "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs." The ninth item in his message was about the space program. He said:

"Now it is time to take longer strides—time for a great new American enterprise—time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.

I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

[...] I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

[...] Let it be clear—and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make—let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs...

[...] This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.

New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further--unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space."

Yes, yes, it was Cold War rhetoric, based on a false premise (Sputnik). We all know this.

On September 12, 1962, JFK gave a speech at Rice University, Houston, Texas, on the "Nation's Space Effort." He said:

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

[...] However, I think we're going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don't think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job. And this will be done in the decade of the sixties. It may be done while some of you are still here at school at this college and university. It will be done during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade."

Cold War rhetoric without any doubt but on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." (Neil Armstrong) (10)

America is famous for its can-do attitude. So, why not a new "great American enterprise?" We do "possess all the resources and talents necessary." This nation "can accept a firm commitment to a new course of action." "Every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant [can] give his personal pledge that this nation will move forward [...] in the exciting adventure of" new energies for a cleaner environment. Why not indeed! "We choose to cut our oil consumption in half and develop new energies. We choose to do it in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too." Because we are Americans and we can do it; and we will do it.

The goals

By the end of this decade we will have all the millions of roofs in this country covered with solar panels and each home, or community, set with small hydrogen plants with a tank, or more, to supply electricity in the evenings and cloudy days. We will retrofit the utility companies to become energy service providers instead of, or in addition to, energy suppliers.

All buildings in government, industry and commerce, the military, universities, small business and non-profit organizations, all, absolutely all sectors of the economy will have their roofs covered with solar panels. So will individual homes. All will be hooked to the national grid in combination with solar hydrogen cycles. (11)

It will be a costly enterprise. The federal and state governments will finance it. Roofs will be leased from the property owners on a long-term basis. Payment will be made in terms of free electricity for a portion equal to a determined consumption (at the least equal to present use) for all homeowners and renters. Any increase in usage will be billed accordingly. All excess production will be transferred as need be to sun-poor parts of the country.

Vehicles will either run on hydrogen as studies show they may or will have a minimum consumption of 150 miles per gallon (we know that 100 MPG is already realizable). Common transportation will supersede private driving in urban areas. Expenditures to educate the public will be earmarked.

In deference to Vice President Cheney, conservation measures are not covered (!)....but they could....and should be.

Remember, by 2011, we will still be depending on oil and other fossil fuels. Planes will still fly. Our defense will still be provided with all the gasoline, diesel and jet fuels they require and there will still be plenty of necessary uses. This plan has nothing to do with the return to the stone age (albeit one could argue that's exactly where we are going to end if we continue our present policies).

Water scarcity, unrelated to our energy needs (really?), calls for different goals, not addressed here. However, one of the very first measures that can be implemented at limited cost is the development of rain retention systems such as those in countries that depend on rain for their daily needs (e.g., Bermuda). Cisterns, tanks and reservoirs can be built to increase water supplies.


This author may lack the extensive knowledge necessary to affirm the feasibility of this plan — this is plainly recognized — but the American people do not. The goal is to halve our consumption of fossil fuels before the end of the decade. I trust the American people, their resiliency, their diversity, their imagination, their knowledge, their creativity, their ingeniousness and their steadfastness. We may end up with a different system. This will be fine, so long as the goal is achieved. I trust America can answer the challenge.

The objective has been set. It's time to go to work!


[In Swans' next rendition, we will offer a few more thoughts on how we could help such a plan to be implemented by, for instance, evolving the nature of our electoral system.]



1.  "Do as I say..." Swans, May 9, 1996.  (back)
2.  The New York Times, November 8, 2001 A27.  (back)
3.  Daniel Quinn, "Beyond Civilization." Three Rivers Press, 1999 p109 - ISBN 0-609-80536-3.  (back)
4.  ibid p124  (back)
5.  See Stephen Gowans, "Getting the Pipeline Map and Politics Right." Swans, November 12, 2001 and Gilles d'Aymery, "Osama Bin Laden: Convenient Scapegoat?" Swans, October 29, 2001.  (back)
6.  "Beyond Civilization" p123  (back)
7.  Joe Kresse, "A Reformist View: Business as if the Earth Matters." Swans, February 5, 2001.  (back)
8.  Personal conversation with the author.  (back)
9.  The Schatz Energy Research Center  (back)
10.  http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/apollo11/  (back)
11.  "Electricity from photovoltaic panels can be used to run an electrolyzer, a device which splits water (H20) into its elemental parts, hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2). The oxygen is released into the air and the hydrogen is pumped into storage tanks, where it can be kept on site or transported to sun-poor regions." See http://www.humboldt.edu/~serc/solarh2cycle.html  (back)


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This Week's Internal Links

Our Masters of Propaganda - by Stephen Gowans

Propaganda: Then and Now - by Gilles d'Aymery

Mind Control in the New Kind of War - by Jan Baughman

Our Religious Monsters - by Stephen Gowans

Our Terrorists - by Stephen Gowans

Getting the Pipeline Map and Politics Right - by Stephen Gowans

Unlikely Suspect - by Philip Greenspan

Stormy Skies - by Milo Clark

Staring at the Stars - by Milo Clark

The War and the Intellectuals - by Randolph Bourne

War Is the Health of the State - by Randolph Bourne

Dance of Flowers at Cherokee - by Sandy Lulay


Published November 12, 2001
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