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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.


Living on our children’s credit card

The enemy within


 VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – A lot of ink and bandwidth is wasted on the fringe elements who argue that global warming or human-caused climate change is a myth. The fact is that we live in a post-environment-debate world. The Earth’s climate is changing. Every genuine climatologist acknowledges that, just as every respected and legitimate scientist agrees that the root cause of the change is human impact. Those conspiracy theorists who deny this scientific reality are buffoons who fly their ignorance like a team banner and revel in the role of village idiot; they don’t really expect to be taken seriously and they enjoy pushing the buttons of the rational people who are profoundly concerned about the condition of this planet. It’s time we stopped taking their inane claims seriously just as wise parents learn to ignore children who are being deliberately annoying in a bid for attention. 

Despite those troglodytes, tremendous strides have been made in the environmental movement.

Here in the west, to a greater or lesser extent, everyone is an environmentalist. Some of the things we do as a matter of day-to-day habit were unheard of in my parents lifetimes, and, if seen through the eyes of someone 40 years ago, would have been considered crackpot environmental extremism. Composting of kitchen waste, which is a service provided for those who don’t have backyard composters in the town where I live, was something only farmers did, and then only because they already had tons of livestock manure composting for fertiliser. When I was a child we had two garbage pickups a week and each family in our suburban Montreal neighbourhood had two or three metal garbage cans at the curb each Tuesday and Friday. Today, in my suburban Vancouver Island neighbourhood, we have one fortnightly garbage pickup and we don’t always have a full can for them. We also have a fortnightly recycling pickup for which we usually have a full blue box, and a weekly compost pickup which we use if our backyard composter is full or it’s too miserable outside to use.

Pretty much everyone recycles jars, paper, aluminum cans, cardboard, plastic, and nearly everything that isn’t compostable or used to end up in landfills. Most people diligently make a weekly trip to a recycling depot to return bottles and other containers for the deposit, and it’s not entirely for the money; our depot has a box where one can contribute their deposit refund to a local food bank, and at least half the people seem to leave their refund money there. This all seems second nature to us now, but in my childhood, those kinds of behaviours were unheard of.

It’s not just in our manner of dealing with waste that our standards have evolved.

We don’t burn leaves in our backyard as we did in years past; we actively seek out ways to reduce the amount of energy we use; we don’t litter; we reuse wherever possible and reduce our use of non-recyclables like plastics; we insulate our homes more efficiently. Smoking isn’t permitted in buses, bars, restaurants, offices, or any enclosed public space – I can remember flying across the Atlantic on a plane in which virtually every adult lit up as soon as the seatbelt/no smoking lights shut off. Today, you’d be arrested and charged with air piracy for doing that. In all of these ways, the world is much better than it used to be and getting better still every day.

Nevertheless, we are losing the fight against the climate change that we have caused because we still just don’t get it. 

I go into my little boy’s playroom and I can’t help but note that half the toys he has in there need batteries; cars, trains, his Buzz Lightyear language computer, talking Barney, even the clock on the wall. Certainly each of these things is vastly more energy efficient than comparable toys were when I was his age, but in aggregate, they use much more battery power than all of my toys did. But that’s only the beginning. I bought a pack of “AA” batteries today and was once again struck by how much packaging was necessary to enclose a few items, each smaller than my little finger; paper labels and cardboard packaging that come from trees that no longer live to scrub our atmosphere, and stiff plastic packaging that will still be somewhere, entirely unchanged when my son’s great grandchildren’ grandchildren visit him on his 200th birthday.

I was in a Boeing 777 recently and I was aware as we gained altitude that the plane I was in burned more fossil fuel and belched out more ozone-destroying emissions on takeoff than do both of my cars in an entire year. That’s right…this environmentally conscious commentator owns two cars. To be sure, both are far more fuel efficient than any family car my father had when I was a child – one is a Smart Car that runs on diesel and gets about 75 miles to the gallon – but, still, that’s two cars along with all the various fluids and replacement parts needed to maintain them. My father’s father never had a car; he travelled primarily by electric streetcar in Quebec City until he died in the 1980s. Certainly I use the more efficient fluorescent coils rather than bulbs, but I probably have ten times as many light sources in my house as my grandparents did, even when electricity replaced their kerosene lamps. Fridge, stove, freezer, two microwaves, smoke detectors, dishwasher, five light sources, and a radio all draw power in only one room of the house; some of those draw power twenty four hours a day. That’s not even mentioning the heat pump, water heater, WiFi, and night lights that perpetually draw small amounts of electricity from the grid and contribute to light and heat pollution.

And I am firmly on the conservationist side of the bell curve.

Clearly, worrying about it and doing the politically correct things – separating recyclables, going on a family bike ride in place of a Sunday drive, turning the thermostat down at night, choosing low-wattage Christmas lights – isn’t enough. The problems caused by our human footprint on Planet Earth are getting worse and they’re getting worse at an increasing rate. So where do we go from here?

Obviously we have to step up our efforts to minimise our energy consumption. Nevertheless our energy requirements will continue to grow; no matter how assiduously we try to reduce the amount of energy we use daily, the demand will continue to increase with technological advances and population growth. And this is happening at the same time as we are beginning to see the end of the oil supply coming at us with increasing velocity.

So while, as Pogo so clearly saw it, the enemy is most certainly us, there are other villains at whom we need to keep a vigilant eye squinted. The enemy is us, because we just cannot seem to wean ourselves off dependence on fossil fuels. But lurking behind our addiction is the greatest enabler of them all…our suppliers. Like all suppliers of powerfully addictive substances, oil companies have a vested interest in ensuring that we remain reliant on their product as long as they have some to sell. And bewilderingly, despite the fact that these same companies are more profitable now than they have ever been, the right wing insists on providing them with billions and billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies each year. They scoff at any attempt to address environmental issues and regard any investment in alternative energy sources to be an indulgent waste of money.

What is absolutely, unquestionably, crystal clear is that we will run out of oil. If our civilisation is to survive we must have alternative sources of clean, renewable energy; our society will collapse when the oil runs out if there is nothing to replace it, and the earth will undergo catastrophic climate disruptions if we were to continue to use a fuel as damaging to the planet as fossil fuels.

This first in a series of pieces on environmental issues will leave the topic for now with just one recommendation. Since our oil companies are as addicted to public largesse as we are to its oil, it is unlikely that the enormous grants and subsidies will end any time soon. With that in mind, what ought to happen is that those subsidies need to come with a very simple string attached: 50% of the corporate welfare must be dedicated to R & D of alternative energy sources. The oil companies could even keep all patents and profits from the results of such research and development. How could big oil object? They would create a new revenue stream to replace the old obsolescent one; they would ensure their own survival for the ages.

An alternative, and frankly one I would prefer, would be to take those same billions of dollars and fund individuals and small research groups and companies engaged in alternative energy development. With that kind of funding and the native ingenuity of the human race in the face of a crisis, I have no doubt that the race might survive. Whether that’s a good or bad thing remains to be seen.

More soon.