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A conversation with Wendell Berry (the cheap energy economy)

Tom Healey, CounterPunch
…TH: You maintain that the basis of the economy is the land, the air and the water, including the fertility of the land and the ability to make good use of it. Is that an accurate reading?

WB: That’s right. Try to imagine an economy without fertile land or drinkable water or breathable air. You won’t get very far. The people who’ve carried on this line of baloney about the “information economy” are fantasists. The idea that you can have a sound economy of money or stocks and bonds with a degraded landscape underneath it is preposterous.

We’re investing in the development of fuel the effort and the economic power that we ought to be investing in taking care of our land and our forests.

TH: You mean alternatives to fossil fuels?

WB: No. Any fuel that’s burnt is a very curious kind of property. When you think of fuel as a property, you’re thinking about a property that is valuable only insofar as it can be destroyed, whereas land, as a property and given proper care, has a permanent value. Given the degraded state of a lot of our soils, it’s a property that can appreciate as a “good”–on the condition of good treatment.

In Kentucky, we’re destroying mountains, including their soils and forests, in order to get at the coal. In other words, we’re destroying a permanent value in order to get at an almost inconceivably transient value. That coal has a value only if and when it is burnt. And after it is burnt, it is a pollutant and a waste–a burden.

TH: Your colleague Wes Jackson talks about “geologic time”–the tens of thousands of years it took to build up fossil fuels–and how we’re using them up in “industrial time”–a couple of hundred years. We’re spending the capital that has accrued over tens of thousands of years in hundreds of years.

WB: That’s right. As Wes is pointing out to anybody who will listen, something like 99 percent of all the oil that’s been burnt has been burnt in his or my lifetime.

It finally comes down to a question of the stewardship of natural gifts. You have to take care of what you’ve been given. We’ve arrogated to ourselves the right to destroy what we have judged to be worthless or of inferior worth–which, like the wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi, turn out to have a very significant worth. The forested mountains of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia will eventually turn out to be worth more than the coal.

…TH: What about biofuels?

WB: Well, ethanol, from what I’ve seen in test reports–and I’ve seen significant ones and several, and from what I get from Wes and his people at the Land Institute–the conversion ratio on ethanol is a laugh. The ratio between the energy you put in and energy you get out is about one to one. A little more or a little less than one to one, even according to the USDA. So ethanol is just a way to get rid of surplus corn.

TH: And it’s not going to help reduce our dependence on fossil fuel.

WB: No. And to start raising a burnable fuel from your cropland at the present cost in erosion and soil degradation and toxicity is a fool’s bargain.

…TH: So I’m way off base thinking that the Heartland is going to transform either East Coast or West Coast sensibilities.

WB: The Heartland could do it but the Heartland can only do it if it’s willing to take national security or regional security as the complex issue it really is. If the powers that be in Louisville and Indianapolis, for instance, were to ask themselves, “Why should we be living like Phoenix, trucking in everything we use, when we’re sitting here in the middle of a fertile, well-watered landscape? Why should we be dependent on long-distance transportation for our food?”

TH: That’s a great question that’s not being asked.

WB: It’s a real question. It’s a valuable question. They won’t ask it until they ask another question, and that is, “If you take our present life and subtract cheap fossil fuel from it, what would we have left?” That’s the first question and it would lead naturally to the second one. That question is an exercise that I learned from Wes. It has certainly been the burden of a lot of conversation between us. Ask it of almost anything you can think of–the school system, for instance. Suppose you subtracted cheap fossil fuel from the public school system. It’s a petroleum-based education. And it’s a cheap petroleum-based education, moreover. Things will change as we leave this cheap fossil fuel, cheap energy economy.
(15-16 April 2006)
Recommended by Tom Philpott at Gristmill.

Presentations from Triangle (NC) peak oil conference

NC PowerDown & Duke University Greening Initiative
Duke University Greening Initiative and NC Powerdown hosted the Triangle Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions on March 25, 2006 in Durham, NC. We had some great speakers and you can see their presentations on our website:

Larry Shirley, Director of the North Carolina State Energy Office, gave a powerful and candid presentation on peak oil and climate change based on Phillip Fairey’s ‘Into the Storm’:
Into the Storm: The Twin Challenges of Peak Oil and Global Warming

Also, check out:
Beyond Peak Oil to Sustainable Energy: Insights from Ecological Economics
by Dr. Ed Cox, North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association

Addressing the Challenge of Peak Oil Through Compact Green Developmentby Patrick McDonough, AICP, Executive Director of The Village Project

Renewable Energy at NC Solar Center by Shawn Fitzpatrick, North Carolina Solar Center

Post Peak Eats by Aaron Nuline,
(April 2006)

Global energy outlook
(Transcript in PDF)
Great Decisions TV, Foreign Policy Association

Hosted by Ralph Begleiter, the Great Decisions Television Series enters its 20th season as the longest running television program devoted solely to international affairs and foreign policy.

Guests include:

Paul Roberts, author, The End of Oil

Vijay Vaitheeswaran, Author, Power to the People, How the Coming Energy Revolution will Transform an Industry, Change our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet, Environment & Energy Correspondent, The Economist

GDTV 2006 Energy transcript (52K)

Informative discussion, the kind we need. This programs is part of the “Great Decisions” series which may be seen on PBS and cable channel stations. -BA

“Rich Dad, Poor Dad” author: the coming oil crisis

Robert Kiyosaki, Yahoo!Finance
How many of you are old enough to have been working in 1973? If so, you would’ve had the kind of economic experience I did at that time. But if you were in school or missed the period of the oil crisis, get ready because those times could return with a vengeance.

…My reason for taking you on this trip down memory lane is because I believe we’re approaching a repeat of that 1973-1974 crisis. Once again, oil prices are going through the roof. During the mid-70s, oil went from under $3 a barrel to over $35 a barrel. And in 1974, we were stuck in an unpopular war in Vietnam, a war we would not win.

In 1998, oil was just $10 a barrel, and today it is over $60. We’re also stuck in a war we may not be able to win.

The difference this time is that things are actually worse than they were in 1974, at least in my opinion. One difference is that the oil crises back in 1973 to 1974 and again in 1978 were political problems. Today, the oil crisis is a problem of diminishing supply and increasing demand. In other words, this time, there really is an oil crisis.

…While many environmentalists, concerned with global warming, are thrilled that oil supply is on a decline (and we truly do need to replace oil with more renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar power), there’s another concern that must be considered. If energy costs continue to rise and our economy stops growing and starts shrinking, many stocks will crash, older Americans will not be able to retire, inflation may skyrocket, businesses will close or cut back, and jobs will be lost. Not only will we be facing global warming, we’ll be facing civilized chaos.

The problem today is that oil companies are too short-sighted, the environmentalists too far-sighted, and politicians only concerned with being elected. As a result, there will be a gap between the end of oil and a conversion to less destructive forms of energy. In this gap, all hell may break loose.
(18 April 2006)
Robert Kiyosaki, “author of “Rich Dad Poor Dad,” is an investor, entrepreneur, and educator whose perspectives on money and investing fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

Colorado state geologist: Oil world in decline
Q&A with State Geologist Vincent Matthews

Allen Best, ColoradoBiz Magazine
Despite ever-ingenious ways of extracting oil, world production might be past its peak. Will Colorado’s economy benefit from a decline, or suffer?
Vincent Matthews was among the 275 people who attended a conference held in Denver last winter on the topic of the world reaching its peak in oil production. For Matthews, a former petroleum geologist who now directs the Colorado Geological Survey, the topic was not new, as his own research in the late 1990s led him to a similar conclusion…

…Matthews, who is officially Colorado’s state geologist, also has credentials. First coming to Colorado in the 1960s to teach at the University of Northern Colorado, he jumped ship to Amoco in the 1970s to improve his salary – and was immediately put in charge of exploration in the Overthrust Belt of Wyoming and Utah, the nation’s most exciting energy frontier at the time. But, like Hickenlooper, who he met in the mid-1980s, Matthews was soon out of work in the up-and-down world of oil extraction.

…CB: Why do you believe that the same revolution in computing power that you describe will not lead to the extraction of more oil?

M: Because so many things, major things, have been done – and we’re still declining. We still haven’t turned it around. So what on earth is it that we haven’t thought of? We have been coming up with incredible leaps in technologies all along, and still production in the U.S. has gone down.

CB: What about some of the proven reserves, such as Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

M: It will be the same thing as Prudhoe Bay. It will be a blessing if you want more domestic production, but it will only be a blip. An important blip, but only a blip. It will turn things around for a little bit, but it will never take us back to the peak where we were in 1970. We didn’t get back to peak U.S. production with Prudhoe Bay, nor can we do so with ANWR.

You can’t turn oil shale on fast. Oil shale and most other forms of energy are 10-year projects, or more. You can’t ramp up wind power. You can’t ramp up solar. But we’re going to need them all, every single thing we can do. That’s why I have a task force on geothermal energy in Colorado. I think there’s a lot of potential there. But that’s way down the road. Really the only thing we can turn on quickly is by turning off: conservation. That’s the only thing we can do immediately.

…CB: What should be our response to peak oil?

M: Petroleum is too valuable to be burned in motor cars. We need to cut back on our use in transportation in order to have oil for use in other things for which there are not necessarily substitutes.

CB: How will this decline in world oil supplies affect Colorado?

M: Declining oil supplies are likely to result in more nuclear power plants. But we have declining supplies right now of uranium, about 80 million pounds per year. The result we saw was 8,500 new mining permits for uranium filed in Eastern Utah and Western Colorado. The pressure will mount to develop those resources.
(April 2006)

Why metals stocks haven’t peaked

Jim Jubak, MSN Money
Call the theory Peak Metal. The price of gold and other metals, and related stocks, will keep rising as finding new sources gets harder and more expensive.
…It’s at this stage [when oil become more expensive to extract] that opponents of Peak Oil theory often object that Peak Oil doesn’t take into account the effect of those higher prices on oil production. As oil prices go up, it becomes profitable to exploit oil deposits, such as Canada’s huge oil sands reserves. And it becomes profitable to find substitutes for oil — such as ethanol or bio-diesel. This postpones the day of Peak Oil, perhaps indefinitely.

But this counterargument, ironically, actually validates the key insight of Peak Oil. As the production peak approaches, the price of oil rises — even as unconventional sources of oil and substitutions come to market — because these new sources and substitutes are more expensive to produce than oil used to be. If they weren’t, they would have been put into production during the days of cheap oil. In effect, the rise of oil prices in Peak Oil theory creates a price floor for these new sources. As the floor moves up — to $40 oil from $30 oil, for example, and then to $60 oil — new sources and substitutes become profitable. That slows the price rise predicted by Peak Oil. But it doesn’t reverse it

Now look at the three similarities between Peak Oil and Peak Metal:

* It’s becoming harder and harder to find significant new deposits of everything from gold to copper. …
* When new deposits are discovered, they are in politically riskier countries…
* Production costs are higher in newly discovered deposits. …

To those, I’d add these factors that could produce even sharper and more sustained price increases for Peak Metal than for Peak Oil.
(18 April 2006)

Sustainable Energy Forum May 7-9 Washington, DC

Press release, University of Maryland
Sustainable Energy Forum 2006 Brings Together Leading Scientists and Policymakers to Discuss the Realities of Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil
Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, Governor Brian Schweitzer, Lester Brown, and James Hansen Join 20 Leading Thinkers on Energy Sustainability

WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA – The University of Maryland’s Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development Program will host Sustainable Energy Forum 2006, May 7-9 at the Marvin Center in Washington, DC, on the implications of global oil production constraints for climate and economic stability. The Marvin Center is located at 800 21st Street NW. Sustainable Energy Forum 2006 will bring together the world’s leading sustainability thinkers for a discussion of the environmental and social ramifications of tomorrow’s energy options.

Scientists, policymakers and advocates from government, environmental non-profits and academia will gather to discuss this year’s theme, “Peak Oil and the Environment.” For registration and information visit

“America is ‘addicted to oil’ but this addiction will not be broken through technology alone,” said Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD). “This gathering will make an important contribution toward our understanding of true energy security.”

Congressman Bartlett will be joined by fellow University of Maryland alum Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, to discuss the mounting challenges to America’s goal of energy independence in light of impending constraints imposed by ‘Peak Oil’- reaching the maximum rate of global oil production.

“When oil production turns downward, it will be a seismic economic event, creating a world unlike any we have known during our lifetimes,” said Brown. “Indeed, when historians write about this period in history, they may well distinguish between ‘before’ and ‘after’ Peak Oil.”

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer will give the dinner address Monday evening, May 8 entitled “America’s Energy Future”. Montana holds vast wind energy and biofuels production potential, as well as the nation’s third largest reserves of coal.

“Clean, affordable energy can be produced in America while adding value to agricultural products,” said Schweitzer. “This will be an integral part of the solution for the near term – bridging the petroleum economy of the past to a new sustainable energy future – and as an important step in reducing our dependence on foreign oil.”

Mona Sahlin, Sweden’s Minister for Sustainable Development, will announce her country’s new initiative to be free of oil dependence by 2020.

Other speakers include James Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who will discuss ecosystem and climate constraints to continued fossil fuel use; and Michael Klare, Director of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College, who will highlight America’s growing vulnerability to further geopolitical conflict as a result of global competition for remaining oil reserves.
(17 April 2006)

Lester Brown: Wartime mobilization-style effort needed to save the environment and civilization

Lester R. Brown, Baltimore Chronicle & Sentinel
…As we contemplate the rapid restructuring needed, it is both instructive and encouraging to look at the U.S. restructuring for World War II. Initially, the United States resisted involvement in the war and responded only after it was directly attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But respond it did. After an all-out commitment, the U.S. engagement helped turn the tide, leading the Allied Forces to victory within three-and-a-half years.
In his State of the Union address on January 6, 1942, one month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt announced the country’s arms production goals. The United States, he said, was planning to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, and 6 million tons of merchant shipping.
From the beginning of April 1942 through the end of 1944, nearly three years, there were essentially no cars produced in the United States.
No one had ever seen such huge arms production numbers. But Roosevelt and his colleagues realized that the largest concentration of industrial power in the world at that time was in the U.S. automobile industry. Even during the Depression, the United States was producing 3 million cars a year. After his State of the Union address, Roosevelt met with automobile industry leaders and told them that the country would rely heavily on them to reach these arms production goals. Initially they wanted to continue making cars and simply add on the production of armaments. What they did not yet know was that the sale of private automobiles would soon be banned. From the beginning of April 1942 through the end of 1944, nearly three years, there were essentially no cars produced in the United States.
In addition to a ban on the production and sale of cars for private use, residential and highway construction was halted, and driving for pleasure was banned. A rationing program was also introduced. Strategic goods—including tires, gasoline, fuel oil, and sugar—were rationed beginning in 1942. Cutting back on consumption of these goods freed up material resources to support the war effort.

Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute. This article has been adapted from Chapters 1 and 13 in his book, Plan B 2.0: Rscuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), which is available for free downloading or may be purchased at Additional data and information sources at
(18 April 2006)