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Paying the bill

The enemy within (Part II)


VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – One political assumption that really needs to be challenged is the one that suggests that a nation is analogous to a business. That assumption is one to which the Republican Party of the United States is particularly attached; they persist in nominating candidates who believe that their background as business leaders in the private sector somehow prepares them for the entirely different function of representing all of the people as their head of government and the entire country as its head of state.

Among the differences between the two functions is that a corporation’s mission is to make a profit; a government’s is not. A government is there to ensure the wellbeing of all stakeholders and do things that individual citizens and profit-driven entities cannot or will not do; things like create educational standards, provide a social safety net, create and implement domestic and foreign policy, protect the citizens in time of war, support minority rights, and regulate the economy for everyone’s benefit. In none of these functions is corporate success an even vaguely appropriate resume item.

One overlooked yet crucial distinction between the corporate worldview and the perspective required of a political leader is that a corporate leader looks at a business plan that is broken down into quarterly financial statements, while a genuine statesman has to consider the impact of his decisions on many generations to come. A corporate board of directors with a long-term view looks at annual profits; a particularly visionary director might consider profits and bonuses as far into the future as the duration of his tenure. Meanwhile, his governmental counterpart has to take an historic view; the creation of national parks, for example, is a legacy for generations long after the passing of any individual leader. And nowhere is this difference between perspectives more glaring than in the creation of energy policy.

Oil company directors and CEOs have to maximise the profits of the companies they helm; that’s their duty and that duty extends to the end of their term as director. They have no vested interest in the survival of the company in the long term; today’s business paradigm is to grow fast, make windfall profits and liquidate the assets at the end of the first rush of success. In the oil business that translates into making as much money as they can while the oil lasts and then cut and run when it’s gone. Will our planet be liveable? Will society survive the collapse if there is no viable energy source to replace fossil fuels? Not their problem. The individuals will have lived their lives and died wealthy, and the corporation simply doesn’t care…it’s not human and it has no interest in human affairs.

This explains the otherwise bewildering refusal of the wealthiest and most profitable corporations in the history of civilisation to consider seriously working on the development of alternative fuels. It even explains their apparently suicidal policy of suppressing alternatives and more fuel efficient technology: keep competition down and prices up; the classic short term business paradigm. And that’s where government comes in.

Government’s function is to do what individuals and profit-motivated entities can’t or won’t do. Governments can force oil companies to develop alternative fuels that will quite literally save the world. At the moment, because of the Republican congress’s debt to the oil lobby for campaign contributions, these vastly successful corporations are the recipients of the greatest corporate welfare handouts in history. It isn’t realistic to expect politicians to stop dispensing pork to their contributors, but neither is it unreasonable to add a few strings to the roast suckling pig upon which the oil companies feast.

The handouts being given to oil companies should be tied to the development of alternative energy sources. Exxon, Shell, and the rest all have extensive R & D departments and they employ scientists and researchers of all sorts; the infrastructure for a concerted effort to develop a new non-oil-based economy is already in place. If these companies together or individually put the billions of dollars of free cash the people of the United States are handing them to work on such a project, nobody seriously doubts that they would be successful.

The effort would require some outside-of-the-box thinking on the part of the corporations; admittedly not their strong point, but if the terms of the grants include the hiring of outside consultants with a track record in alternative energy R & D, the fresh blood will inspire some new approaches. Benchmarks and success payments can also be built into the grant disbursements; those of us familiar with NGO grant work are very familiar with these not unreasonable requirements for ongoing funding.

One of the first things they’ll realise – and I’ll give them this one for free right now – is that the solution won’t be a single energy source analogous to oil. That is to say, we won’t be looking at a new paradigm in which a single energy source and its supporting infrastructure will simply replace fossil fuels. Any solution we find is going to include a mix of energy sources, all of which will pour power into the grid to be tapped into.

Naysayers point out that if you live, as I do, on North America’s wet coast, solar power isn’t the best answer to our energy crisis; winters are typically overcast, rainy, and the days are short and the nights are long. Sunshine is a precious commodity. While some passive solar collection eases the demands on the existing grid, it won’t replace non-renewables. However, the same region is located on the Pacific “ring of fire”, suggesting the exploration of geothermal energy; the ocean is right there with tidal power to be harnessed; wave power can be looked into, and this area is where some of the seminal prototypes of hydrogen engines were developed.

The prairies are ripe for wind farms, the deserts for solar arrays, the tropics for biomass harvesting; each region is suited to the exploitation of one or more alternative energy sources while the roads, airways and seas between them can be populated by vehicles burning hydrogen, who’s only by product of combustion is pure H2O. A worldwide grid would permit permanent solar arrays at both poles, each operating for half of the year, while inaccessible and hostile mountain plateaus could provide us with wind generated energy, and virtually anywhere on earth where there is volcanic activity has geothermal potential. With an investment equivalent to the amount that is just being handed to the oil corporations, we can solve the energy crisis before we run out of oil, and incidentally work on slowing, stopping, and ultimately reversing climate change.

But that takes government. That takes political will. And that takes the efficiency and ingenuity of the corporations who got us into this mess in the first place. Clearly they will never do it voluntarily; they have demonstrated that by their recalcitrance and obdurate refusal to do anything but “drill, baby, drill!” Nevertheless, they can be forced to save this planet. They are, after all, as addicted to government handouts as we are to their oil. Perhaps it’s time we applied harm reduction principles to our mutual dependencies.

I would be very grateful for your comments. I know this is just a sketch with some broad stroke ideas…this is a conversation that needs to happen.


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