The speech Obama needed to make

May 13, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedI’ve stayed away from politics pointedly in posts, because voting for either party is still just voting for growth, with different labels applied. I do not believe that the current corporate giveaway that we call a political system is fixable unless we elect a leader who is ecologically and energetically literate. I doubt that will happen. That said, here is an earth day wish for real servant leadership which would fix our problems. The post is directed at a specific leader, Obama, since the United States is the worst offender in terms of extreme behavior and unsustainability.

As your president, I can set the agenda for what needs to be done, but I am relatively powerless unless I have the backing and the will of the people behind me, to mobilize the other two branches of government–the legislative Congress and the judicial Supreme Court. Increasingly, the checks and balances in this country are creating a stalemate, which only the powerful corporate lobbyists can overcome, and only in their favor. I am asking now for your help in averting a major crisis in this country, one that we have never faced before.

The energy basis of society

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We have gotten ourselves in a real fix over the past four decades. In 1970, America’s oil production peaked, and turned down, so that there was less oil being produced each year afterwards. This affected our ability to grow as a nation. In the mid-1970s, we suffered an oil shock when the Saudis restrained oil exports to our country. That caused an oil crisis in America, where we worried about energy, turned down our thermostats, bought small cars, out of respect for our limits. And in 1979, the per capita oil consumption globally peaked. That means that the energy basis for every person on the planet has been declining ever since, even though some countries were able to lasso more oil than others, and gain advantages in the short-term as a result.

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But in 1980, the oil crisis eased, and we decided that we could overcome our limits by using debt and borrowing from the future. Ronald Reagan declared a “new morning in America.” We then proceeded to behave like spoiled children, and took the solar panels off of the White House, in favor of McMansions, sport utility vehicles, and exotic vacations paid for with credit cards. We behaved the same way as an aggregate country, too, by expanding debt to pay for the running of the country, while we borrowed resources from other countries to expand our footprint to the globe. We were able to do all of this because we gained early opportunities in using oil and coal. Those early advantages led to expanded science and technology, which led to more fossil fuel production and importation, which led to more technology, and so on.

What are our biggest problems?

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Many have identified climate change as the most important problem of the future. But our problems go further than that. Our problem is that our entire economic system is designed to run on more energy than we will have in the future, because of peak production of oil. As a result, it will be especially hard for Americans to adapt, since we now use almost 25% of the world’s oil, for 4% of the world’s population. And we import most of it, since we’ve already produced most of our own easy oil. That’s not right, it’s not fair, and it can’t last.

Our current economic crises has its roots in declining energy production. Instead of adapting our society to a contracting economy, we decided to just paper over reality. Currencies are just the monetary grease that lubricates the economic flywheel. Money makes things run smoothly. But when money becomes the end instead of the means, we lose all rationality about who we are as a country. We have taken the individualism and competitive ethic too far—we will not be able to continue in this way with fewer resources available to our country.

Our expectation is that the finite fossil fuels are infinite. That is not true. We also think that supposedly renewable energy technologies such as ethanol, solar photovoltaics, shale oil and gas, natural gas can replace fossil fuels and allow us to keep our current society. That belief or hope is also not true. We must cut our voracious appetite for fossil fuels through economic contraction and redesign, or we will collapse. Those are our choices for the future. We need to do the right thing, so that our children and grandchildren can thrive. We can no longer count on continued expansion to take care of our descendants. Which values or principles from our past are sustainable into our future? And what do we need to do now? How do we live within our means as a country and as people?


Our energy future

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Brown, Cohen & Sweeney, 2009

Over time, we will need to cut our non-renewable energy use. We will not be able to replace the high-quality, dense fossil fuels with non-renewables, which are more dilute, less dense, and less portable. We can no longer afford an all-of-the-above energy policy. We will subsidize development of tidal, hydropower, wind, and geothermal technology in locations that are proper. We will no longer subsidize ethanol, solar photovoltaic, shale gas, or other technologies that are negative net Emergy. I was wrong to pursue nuclear–its time has passed. We will shut nuclear power in this country to protect the environment from our antique plants, and we will begin to cask the fuel. We will promote taxation of luxury or wasteful uses of fossil fuels, so that we can become more efficient as an economy, using our precious fossil fuels instead for building a new economy that is sustainable during descent.

And if that doesn’t conserve enough energy, I propose rationing or taxing of excessive fuel usage for all. We must redesign our economies now around less gasoline usage, so that oil shocks do not stun or collapse our national economy. This cannot happen overnight, so if we will not do this willingly, a little rationing will force wiser use of fuel. We need to be using surplus fuels to help build a new, lower-energy economy. The only energy independence we can achieve will be through more efficient use of current production, expansion of renewables, and reduction of imported fuels. We need to do the right thing for a change, and begin to leave some of our resources in the ground for our children and grandchildren. We need a national mobilization of skills and know-how to rebuild our society from the ground up.

What do we do about our currency and the debt?

Printing money is not the answer. Thomas Jefferson said,

“If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation then by deflation, the banks and the corporations will grow up around them, will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs” (Jefferson, 1809).

So we will do just that. The too-big-to-fail banks are finished. We will reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act, and break up the big banks. Government guarantees will be reduced so that insurance such as FDIC only insures reasonable, working bank accounts. I am removing the revolving door in the Executive Branch that allows financial company managers to lead in this administration. The Federal Reserve will be dissolved, and we will make other arrangements using publicly-controlled entities and not private interest groups.

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Our government should not own the housing stock in this country, and neither should powerful, private, for-profit companies. We will get the people their houses back. We will take the mortgages and mortgage-backed securities from the failed banks and from our semi-governmental sponsored enterprises (GSEs) such as Freddie Mac (FRMC), Ginnie Mae (GNMA) and Fannie Mae (FNMA) and unpackage them, retooling the GSEs to create an agency to lease back homes to foreclosed lower-income families, with option to buy. We will turn back the voracious Housing Bubble and let people earn their houses back at a reasonable cost, over time.

Our currencies only work when the value of the currency reflects the underlying assets. Our currency must contract as the energy basis contracts, or risk losing all relevance. In order to do so, I propose relocalized monetary experiments using Emergy and other metrics. I also propose redesigning our economic metric away from the measure of growth through GDP. At the national scale, we can use Cumulative Gross Emergy Product (CGEmP) to calculate well-being of countries and their citizens in terms of population density, renewable and non-renewable resource availability, and other indices of sustainability. Our international debt can be controlled through fair trade that values international resources appropriately, again using emergy indices.

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Brown, Cohen & Sweeney 2009

Local communities can also use socially oriented metrics to measure their progress using other simple metrics that are right to a sustainable society, such as the Happiness Index or other quality-of-life metrics. We can no longer measure our quality of life on the basis of economic growth.

What do we do about our unemployment?

I’m going to work on turning taking back the power of the corporations that they got through the United rulings by the Supreme Court, the Congressional lobbies, and campaign funding. We cannot do this anymore with the system we have in place, though, after 40 years of deregulation. If we’re going to treat corporations as people, then the corporations need to be treated like people, who can go bankrupt and be liable. Our free markets are no longer free, and the corporate Big Brother is in danger of taking over the show. Too big to fail companies will no longer be bailed out, starting with the banks, insurance companies, and automakers. Preventing bankruptcy creates moral hazard and (give public blessing) to systemic bloat, waste, costs, and ensures eventual collapse. We can no longer afford the brain drain where the brightest minds go into genetics, medicine for profit, and high finance.

I am starting here, by saying that taking money and counsel from corporations is wrong. Since I have no power as President in returning us to the old ways without a ground swell of support, I am asking you to vote for change with your feet. Stop buying stuff, and snuff the large corporations who are exerting too much control. Towards that goal, I am mandating a limit on salaries today so that corporate managers can no longer skim gross profits from their companies. Managers can make no more than 100 times the pay of the lowest paid worker. That should equalize pay scales quickly.

Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex has also come to pass. Our military is too big, and it is engaged in too many countries. The associated private companies that profit from war and disaster have become too big and too powerful. War is wrong, unless we are being threatened. No longer will we go to war over oil. I am pulling back our military, closing bases overseas, including Guantanamo, and we will place more emphasis on building a new society and not trying to destroy the old one.

People who need a job can pay their rent and build equity by becoming part of a new century’s Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). A public works relief program could help to add jobs that are needed to make us sustainable. We can rebuild public transit for trains and improve access for human-powered transport. We can reinstate a natural resources conservation program in every state and locality. We can reforest America (again), and recover our wetlands and fisheries. We can teach millions how to garden, and we can reclaim our soils, through organic processes. Those who are retired can also work part-time in the CCC. We will measure our progress by how we cherish and restore the biosphere.

I’m reining in TSA, and cutting its funding. Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Americans need to understand that as energy wanes, we can either use more and more of our energy for martial law, or we can rebuild a safer, saner, more local society. I am plan to cut the bureaucracy in DC, beginning with programs that do not promote sustainability.

Image RemovedAs Americans, you haven’t been asked to do anything significant in 40 years except to go out and shop. We were given permission to behave like children, and we did so. As a country, we have grown selfish and narcissistic. But consumption and the pursuit of wealth will not make you happy, and you can’t take it with you. What matters is how we live on this earth, and how we will be remembered is in a large part due to how we behaved to our community and the planet. What can you do as people to contribute to living within our means as a country?

Image RemovedThe first thing is to live within your own means. Decide how to live without debt, and pay down the debt you do have. Save money so that you have a buffer, and so that you can pay for things you need in the future. We can no longer foist our debts on our children, who will not be able to pay them. If your family has two incomes, live on one and save the other (or pay off debt). If you can’t afford the home you have now, find one that you can afford. Small is beautiful.

Secondly, build personal resilience and security by growing a victory garden. We can no longer safeguard everyone everywhere against everything. If there is a catastrophe, you may need to be able to feed yourself for a while, without relying on help from the government. There are just too many people for that. Recent catastrophes have illustrated what happens when there are too many people and too much complexity, and too much dependence on a very advanced lifestyle.

Third, begin thinking about how you can improve your personal energy budget. Is your car or house too big? Do you shop too much? Do your throw out too much trash? Where you can, cut back on these things. Could you withstand a power outage? What do you need to become more independent in terms of food, water and heat?

This is just a start on what needs to be done. But we need to tackle the big picture first, by living within our energy means by reexamining our energy basis. We need to bring our currency under public control, and we must transform our economy by transitioning towards people working and living sustainably. If we keep trying to tweak what we’ve already got, which doesn’t work in the first place and is too complex and unwieldy, we’ll end up in big trouble. We’ve got to start over, and I want you to help me turn things around. We need a new dialogue, with new values, and new goals.

“For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to that Government but that Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! And my friends, powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent to Mankind.

For nearly four years now, you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. And I can assure you that we will keep our sleeves rolled up. We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. And we know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred” (FD Roosevelt, 1936).

Mary Odum

Author Mary Odum is an adjunct nursing professor with a background in critical care, and a PhD in Health Policy.

Tags: economic crisis, Energy conservation, limits to growth, peak oil, powering down