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Things to come: part I
Michael Ventura, Austin Chronicle (“Letters at 3AM” column)
…In a recent interview, [Britt] Ekland, now 62, offered an idea to be remembered if we are to endure the enormous changes that are overtaking us: “The key to life is being able to downsize without losing your dignity.”
That thought will run through this series of columns, in which I’ll sketch, as best I can, what we’re in for (for good as well as for ill).
…With its excellent rail system, Europe is far less dependent (internally) upon air travel. That is tonight’s subject. More than pump prices, and perhaps more than heating-oil prices, the first drastic change for middle-class and more-or-less affluent Americans will be their inability to fly.
In the last year, the price of jet fuel has risen 50% (NY Times, Sept. 15, p.C1). The airlines have desperately tried to absorb this price hike, keeping fares low and hoping for the best. But those days will be over by Easter, if not Thanksgiving. USA Today, Sept. 15, p.1B:
…The average driver may be able to absorb fuel costs for a few years more, but not the average flier. Within a year – or two, or three? – affordable passenger flight will be history.
What will that mean in real life?
Airfares will skyrocket. Schedules will be pared to the bone. If you’re not rich, and if your lifestyle includes hopping planes when you choose – you’re grounded. As airlines fail and the surviving carriers cut back, flights will be fewer, especially to smaller cities. …Tourism as we know it, an industry merely decades old, will not survive.
… What good could possibly come of this? Well, for starters, if it happens soon enough it may save many millions of lives.
The Economist, Aug. 6, p.10: “[E]xperts now believe a global outbreak of pandemic flu is long overdue, and the next one could be as bad as the one in 1918 [before passenger flight], which killed somewhere between 25 and 50 million people.”
The Times, Sept. 22, p.12: ” …The experts’ greatest fear has been that air travel will spread the disease uncontainably before its symptoms are obvious, raising the casualty rate into the hundreds of millions. Without convenient air travel, that’s unlikely.
Another benefit: 9/11 turned the U.S. into a no-fly zone for three days. There were many reports that air quality throughout the country (after just three days!) was measurably much better. Drastic curtailment of flight would not only make our environment healthier, but would probably do more to slow global warming than the full enforcement of the Kyoto Treaty, and do it quicker.
I’ll explore other benefits in future columns, but briefly now: Amid this massive disruption, we will be forced to pay attention to where we are. You can’t go elsewhere for culture; you must cultivate it where you are.
…With long-distance travel a rarity, communities will become more conscious of being communities. I’m no optimist, but perhaps, perhaps, many will realize that we’re all in this together, and that our well-being and our neighbors’ are entwined. Above all, the frantic pace of American life will slow down. Way down.
(30 September 2005)
Michael Ventura has been writing his biweekly column “Letters at ..” for twenty years. It appears now in the Austin Chronicle and online at www.austinchronicle.com. He’s published three novels, written several movies, and is the author of four books of nonfiction, including We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse (HarperCollins), with James Hillman.
Robert Bly Talks with Michael Ventura (PDF) in the Sun magazine
Willits Economic Localization website
I have been getting a lot of phone calls and emails over the past several months from people wanting to know more about what we’ve been doing in Willits, CA. Now that a major paper has mentioned our activities (see the San Francisco Chronicle article), I expect some more attention.
Fortunately, Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL) has a web site that can provide many answers for the curious. We are eager to share what we have learned and hope others can do even better!
(2 October, 2005)
Why isn’t energy conservation a higher priority?
John W. Schoen, MSNBC
Why don’t we, or more to the point, why haven’t we, stressed conservation instead of consumption as a national policy? — Susan D. Wellington, Fla.
The simple answer is that — until very recently — it’s been extremely unpopular politically for anyone in government to stand up and tell Americans to use less energy. Every politician alive today remembers what happened to one-term President Jimmy Carter when, in response to the oil shortages of the 1970s, he urged Americans to turn down the thermostat and wear sweaters. Many people (wrongly, we believe) interpreted that call as an admission of defeat — an acknowledgement that conserving energy meant lowering our standard of living.
For most of this decade, the word “conservation” was rarely spoken on Capitol Hill. Even proponents of conservation preferred to speak of “increasing energy efficiency” — because of the negative connotations associated with the “C” word. And as long as energy was still cheap, it was tough to make the case for cutting consumption.
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The Bush administration, early on, took the view that the solution to tight energy supplies was to develop more of it. Vice President Dick Cheney made this clear four years ago when, as head of a task force on energy, he described conservation as a “personal virtue” that has no place in national energy policy. Those who agree with this view (again, we’re not among them) believe that curbing energy consumption amounts to curbing economic growth.
…So if you can’t make more oil fast enough, the only other alternative is to try to curb demand. And there are really only two ways to do that: Either the world economy stops growing, or we figure out how to do more with less oil. Given the choice between global recession and conservation, I’ll take conservation. Further, with oil prices now above $60 a barrel, the economics of saving fuel are much more favorable than they were when oil sold for $25.
(30 September 2005)
John W. Schoen, a Senior Producer at MSNBC, has been writing some outstanding Q-and-A columns on energy for consumers — including one column on peak oil.
EU Parliament calls for renewables targets to be set at 20%
But not on track to reach 12% (by 2010)
Parliament has called for ambitious mandatory targets to increase the share of alternative energy sources in the EU to 20% by 2020. The report outlines specific initiatives to do away with unfair distortions in the electricity market.
The 2001 directive on renewable energies aims to increase the share of renewable energy sources from 6% to 12% of the EU’s total energy consumption by 2010. Three years after its adoption, in May 2004, the Commission published a first progress report, showing that member states are not on track to meet their national targets set out in the directive. …
In a parliamentary vote on 29 September 2005, MEPs restated their call for an ambitious mandatory target for the share of renewable energy in the EU’s energy mix for the period after 2010. In a non-binding report, Parliament emphasises that a target of at least 20% by 2020 has been proven to be feasible. This would confirm the EU as the world leader in renewable energies, as well as combat climate change and boost innovation and job creation. …
MEPs have called on the Commission to come up with new legislative initiatives in the area of renewables in order to put an end to market distortions penalising the production of renewable energy. These distortions stem from decades of subsidies for conventional energy sources such as coal and oil, according to MEPs.
(29 September, 2005)
Doing the Hybrid Math
Rising Gas Prices Have Consumers, Auto Makers Calculating the Difference
Joseph B. White, Wall Stret Journal Online
As the premium gasoline I am supposed to put into my Subaru WRX neared $3 a gallon last week, I started wondering if it would make sense to trade it in on a Toyota Prius… Armed, as most consumers would be, with only an Internet connection and a calculator, I began investigating whether a switch to a hybrid ride would provide an economic — as opposed to just a psychological — benefit.
…Toyota, the hybrid sales volume leader, says it wants to build as many as a million hybrid vehicles a year by early in the next decade, and is gearing up to increase production to about 400,000 next year. Jim Press, president of Toyota’s U.S. sales operation, said in an interview last week that some day, all cars will be hybrids.
Still, a lot of industry executives are anxious that unless hybrids can quickly offer more than a feel-good factor and become an economically sound choice for average consumers, the drive toward mass-market acceptance of gas-electric vehicle technology could stall.
Mr. Press also points out that even now, American motorists are insulated from the true cost of gasoline. What about the cost of the Iraq war? he asks.
You could keep a lively conversation going from appetizer to after-dinner drinks debating whether the U.S. government should levy a gasoline tax of 50 cents or more to finance the Iraq war, or post-hurricane reconstruction efforts. But the future of alternatives to the internal combustion engine will more likely be decided as American consumers, one by one, sit down with calculators and payment schedules and weigh out whether making the leap to the future makes sense in the here and now.
(26 September 2005)
Capitalism at work as oil gets more expensive. A subsequent column detailed Readers’ responses to hybrid numbers.
Chard on the Green? S.F. in a post-oil future
Tim Holt, San Francisco Chronicle
Acres of chard and lettuce in Golden Gate Park? The Marina Green with community gardens? Wind turbines on top of the Bank of America Building?
Welcome to the post-oil future.
Depending on which expert you believe, we have already reached or will reach in the next few years the point when worldwide oil demand starts to exceed supply — and gas prices really go through the roof. If cities like San Francisco are to survive as viable places to live, they will have to redesign themselves in ways barely imaginable now. …
It’s hard to overstate the impact the looming oil squeeze is going to have. A lot of people are going to be left stranded in the suburbs, and a lot of grocery store shelves are going to go empty as supply lines collapse due to rising fuel costs. Many folks are going to lose their jobs as our oil-dependent economy withers. But there will be a greater need for farmworkers, as petroleum-fueled factory farms give way to smaller, labor-intensive operations. In general, human energy will replace machine energy, and there will be an increased demand for craftspeople with time-honored skills: shoemakers, soapmakers, glassblowers, seamstresses. …
(2 October, 2005)
Stylish Window Treatments Help Clear the Air
Divya Abhat, E Magazine
There’s that draft of wind again, and this time it was strong. You head toward the thermostat and turn the heat up some more. But that won’t solve your problem.
According to the Department of Energy (DOE), 25 percent of the energy used to heat and cool buildings goes right out the window. If windows aren’t installed properly or aren’t made of the right kind of material, you could end up losing a tremendous amount of energy. When installing new windows or window treatments, there are several rather simple environmentally friendly options that can help make a big difference.
(September/October 2005 issue)