The core argument is very simple: America has a problem and the world has a problem. America’s problem is that it has lost its way in recent years – partly because of 9/11 and partly because of the bad habits that we have let build up over the last three decades, bad habits that have weakened our society’s ability and willingness to take on big challenges.
The world also has a problem. It is getting hot, flat, and crowded. That is, global warming, the stunning rise of middle classes all over the world, and rapid population growth have converged in a way that could make our planet dangerously unstable. In particular, the convergence of hot, flat, and crowded is tightening energy supplies, intensifying the extinction of plants and animals, deepening energy poverty, strengthening petro-dictatorship, and accelerating climate change.
The convergence of hot, flat, and crowded has created a challenge so daunting that it is impossible to imagine a meaningful solution without America really stepping up. “We are either going to be losers or heroes — there’s no room anymore for anything in between,” says Rob Watson, CEO of EcoTech International and one of the best environmental minds in America. Yes, either we are going to rise to the level of leadership, innovation, and collaboration that is required, or everybody is going to lose – big.
Tom Friedman: Hot, Flat, and Crowded
There are signs of hope that the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant may not happen. But no guarantees.
The oil may not flow “normally” (what is normal?) in Libya anytime soon.
The rest of the Middle East seems more of a powder keg than any time in recent memory – and it’s always been just half a step away from being a powder keg.
Here’s a history lesson for us. On December, 1941, Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. In July, 1941, Japan was buying 80% of its oil – look at that number again: 80%! – from the United States. Japan has no oil of its own. In August of 1941, the United States cut off the supply. And in December, Japan attacked.
(Yes, I know there were very good reasons to cut off Japan from our oil. They were a country with imperialistic ambitions, and did not play “fair” in a very volatile world. But that is the way of the world – some countries, some leaders, do not play fair).
So, Japan determined that they would find some sources of energy that could not be cut off. They wanted to aim at as much self-sufficiency as they could muster. Nuclear was the way to go. So they built nuclear energy plants – lots of them. But, as Michael Lewis warned in 1989, the “big one’ hits at an average of every 70 years in Japan – it has done so for over four centuries. This current “big one’ is the first to hit in the nuclear power age. And it is a fright… And no one believes that it will be the last “big one” to ever hit Japan.
And there may be a “big one” on our shores one of these days. To a certainty, it will come to us…
So, what do we do?
We will run out of oil. No, I don’t know when, but the experts are convinced that it will happen. Nuclear is dangerous. Coal is dirty, and too much of it is bad for the planet. And in the meantime, every teenage boy in China and India is now dreaming of his own “’57 Chevy.” (If you don’t understand this reference, then you’re too young).
So – if there has ever been a time for grown ups to go to the table, and say something like this: “we’ve got to put all of our efforts into finding a sure, clean, safe alternative” — this is the time! Nuclear; oil in Libya; coal – these are all increasingly scary sources of energy. And all of the whitewash we put on the subject will not hide the dirty, dangerous, scary reality. (“Clean coal” is only whitewash, buying us a little time, but not any real long-term solutions. “Clean coal” feels a little like “filtered cigarettes.” We know how well that worked out).
We need leaders – lots of leaders – to step up to the plate. Now.
Jimmy Carter called for it in 1979. Even George W. Bush called us to rid ourselves of addiction to oil. It really is time to act. Almost past time.
Leaders, the world awaits. Leaders, all over our seemingly ever-more-fragile planet. we wait. We need you.
• You can substitute “planet” for “Land” – “This planet is our planet…”
This Land Is Your Land
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie
This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.
As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.
I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
A Few Thoughts About Our Need For Oil – Prompted By The Big Rich By Bryan Burrough, And the Oil Rig Disaster in the Gulf
A few comments about oil… First, my leanings. I think we ought to get off of oil – as soon as we can. I prefer some kind of clean, renewable replacement. No, I do not know what it will be.
But, I was re-visiting The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes this past week, and was reminded of the role of Texas oil in World War II. The Axis Powers (the other guys) used a total of 276 million gallons of oil in all of World War II. Texas alone provided more than 500 million barrels to the Allies – more than 100 million barrels from H. L. Hunt alone.
Here are some lines from the book:
When the war was finally won, American oil was among the heroes. The Allies, it was said, “floated to victory on a sea of oil.”
As Axis leaders acknowledged, they couldn’t compete with the Allies’ supply of aviation fuel and gasoline. “This is a war of engines and octanes,” Joseph Stalin said in a toast to Winston Churchill in Moscow. “I drink to the American auto indusrtry and the American oil industry.”
Now, here’s my big observation. For all of World War II, the entire amount of oil used was less than 1 billion barrels of oil. For all of World War II! On both sides! Today, the entire planet uses 85 million barrels of oil every day. Every 11 days or so, we use as much oil as was used in the entire Second World War. That is why we look for oil everywhere we can find it – under ground, under oceans – we need it all. And we will need it all until we find an alternative. Which we need to find – fast!
When the Exxon Valdez went down, the planet earth used 66 millions barrels of oil a day. 21 years later – today – we are using 85 millions barrels a day – every day. And every teenager in America, and now every teenager in China, and India, and… dreams of having his or her own car. And those cars will need fuel. As Tom Friedman put it in Hot, Flat, and Crowded, the problem is not how much oil America uses. The problem is that there are now “too many Americans.”
As the rest of the world catches up to us, there will be more big cities needing more electricity and more cars and more oil and more…more.
It really is breathtaking to realize that we use as much oil every 11 days as was used in the entire Second World War. And our 85 million barrels a day today will grow to 110 million barrels of oil in the blink of an eye. I was 39 years old when the Exxon Valdez went down. We’ve increased oil usage by 19 million barrels a day since that happened. By the time my son is my age, we will have far surpassed the 110 million barrels a day figure. And why is that figure important? There are plenty of experts who say that 110 million barrels a day is it – the top – the most we can get out of the ground and ocean and use. In other words, when we hit 111 million barrels a day, need exceeds capacity. (And let’s say that the capacity can increase some more. This much we know – the day will come when need does exceed capacity).
And if you know any history at all, when that happens – when need exceeds capacity — with any needed resource, you’ve got real trouble.
Last night, I presented my synopsis of Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman. It was a large, opinionated, animated group. The conversations were passionate, and the whole evening really was quite a learning experience.
He observed that Collapse is a book with real implications for the whole oil usage/crisis question. I think he is right.
The message of Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed, written by Pulitzer winner Jared Diamond, is that culture after culture throughout history has “collapsed,” many because they lived only for the day and did not make the right choices for tomorrow. They “used up” what they had, foolishly – tragically. But, because it was then and not now, their collapse was an isolated collapse.
We now are too connected to “collapse” all by ourselves. Diamond wrote:
“Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation… Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote, can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents, and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of global decline. But we are also the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That’s why I wrote this book.”
He tells the stories of a number of “collapses,” including modern day Montana, and Easter Island, and the Norse in Greenland, and others.
Diamond presents a five point framework for collapse:
1) Environmental damage.
2) Climate change
3) Hostile neighbors
4) Friendly trade partners
5) The society’s response to its environmental problems
And he asks this perplexing question:
“ How could a society fail to have seen the dangers that seem so clear to us in retrospect?”
(or – “what were Easter Islanders saying as they cut down the last tree on their island?”)
I think the participant was correct. It’s a good time to take another, very close look at Collapse.
For a quick read of just one of the stories in Collapse, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s The Vanishing for The New Yorker, his retelling, from the book, of the collapse of the Norse in Greenland. Cultural snobbery was one of the reasons they collapsed. Here’s Gladwell’s concluding paragraph:
When archeologists looked through the ruins of the Western Settlement, they found plenty of the big wooden objects that were so valuable in Greenland—crucifixes, bowls, furniture, doors, roof timbers—which meant that the end came too quickly for anyone to do any scavenging. And, when the archeologists looked at the animal bones left in the debris, they found the bones of newborn calves, meaning that the Norse, in that final winter, had given up on the future. They found toe bones from cows, equal to the number of cow spaces in the barn, meaning that the Norse ate their cattle down to the hoofs, and they found the bones of dogs covered with knife marks, meaning that, in the end, they had to eat their pets. But not fish bones, of course. Right up until they starved to death, the Norse never lost sight of what they stood for.
(note from Randy – I am certainly no expert in this field. I read books, and then try to let the authors and the books speak. This post is an attempt to let Friedman’s book speak to us).
The news is not yet turning any better in the aftermath of the Gulf Oil disaster. Oil continues to escape. No expert is sure, but there seems to be a growing consensus that the total amount of oil seeping into the environment is going to be greater than the 11 million gallons of the Exxon Valdez disaster – maybe much more.
Maybe it’s time to revisit a few of the quotes/warnings from Thomas Friedman’s book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Like this paragraph:
We now understand that these fossil fuels are exhaustible, increasingly expensive, and politically, ecologically, and climatically toxic. That’s the line we’ve crossed.
What changed? The simple answer is that flat met crowded. So many more people were suddenly able to improve their standards of living so much faster. And when the crowding of the world and the flattening of the world converged around the year 2000, the world went into a track where global demand for energy, natural resources, and food all started to grow at a much accelerated pace – as the Western industrialized countries still consumed considerable amounts of energy and natural resources and big emerging countries got to join them at the middle-class dinner table.
So, this is the problem. What is the solution? There is no “one solution” — it will take an array, a constellation of solutions. But, before we embrace any solution, we have to acknowledge the reality:
“Hello, my name is Randy,
We are the United States,
We are the world,
And we are all addicted to oil.”
Only when we acknowledge the depth of the problem do we have a chance to turn toward true alternatives. (Remember, the phrase “alternative energy” is about true alternatives!)
Friedman includes this quote in his book:
“Obsessing over recycling and installing a few special light bulbs won’t cut it… We need to be looking at fundamental change in our energy, transportation and agricultural systems rather than technological tweaking on the margins… To stop at “easy” is to say that the best we can do is accept an uninspired politics of guilt around a parade of uncoordinated individual action…” (Michael Maniates, Washington Post, November 22, 2007).
Our economy needs us to make money on energy in ways that are – renewable; cleaner; different.. The fish, and the people who make their living from our oceans, need no more oil spills. Our bodies need cleaner air. The reasons are numerous – it really is time to get serious about alternatives.
Here’s Friedman’s key quote from the book:
Green is the new red, white, and blue because it is a strategy that can help to ease global warming, biodiversity loss, energy poverty, petrodictatorship, and energy supply shortages – and make America stronger at the same time. We solve our own problems by helping the world solve its problems. We help the world solve its problems by solving our own problems.
If climate change is a hoax, it is the most wonderful hoax ever perpetrated on the United States of America. Because transforming our economy to clean power and energy efficiency to mitigate global warming and the other challenges of the Energy-Climate Era is the equivalent of training for the Olympic triathlon: If you make it to the Olympics, you have a better chance of winning because you’ve developed every muscle. If you don’t make it to the Olympics, you’re still healthier, stronger, fitter, and more likely to live longer and win every other race in life. And as with the triathlon, you don’t just improve one muscle or skill, but many, which become mutually reinforcing and improve the health of your whole system.
Is America really in decline?
This question seems to be popping up with more frequency. The latest comes from Rick Newman from U.S. News & World Report. In an article entitled Nine Signs of America in Decline, he begins this way:
The sky isn’t falling, exactly. America isn’t on a fast track to irrelevance. Even in a state of total neglect, we could probably shamble along as a disheveled superpower for a few more decades.
But all empires end, and the warning signs of American decline seem to be blinking more consistently.
The article is filled with links (for those who want to really dive deeply into this discouraging scenario), including “4 problems that could sink America: we don’t like to work, nobody wants to sacrifice, and we’re uninformed.”
Spiegel International trains its sights on our middle class in an article entitled: America’s Middle Class Has Become Globalization’s Loser by Gabor Steingart.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the United States is still a superpower. But it’s a superpower facing competition from beyond its borders as well as internal difficulties. Its lower and middle classes are turning out to be the losers of globalization.
This article is one of a series of excerpts from the new book “World War for Wealth: The Global Grab for Power and Prosperity” by Spiegel editor Gabor Steingart.
There have been many warning signs through the years.
David Halberstam’s book, The Reckoning, warned about softness in America compared to a more energetic work ethic, born of hunger, in countries on the ascendancy.
Technology has taken so many, many jobs away from those with education that stops before a college degree. And Fareed Zakaria wrote The Post-American World, in which he argued that it’s not so much America in decline as it is that the rest of the world is rising. Here’s an excerpt:
This is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else. It is about the great transformation taking place around the world, a transformation that, although often discussed, remains poorly understood…
Look around. The tallest building in the world in now in Taipei, and it will soon be overtaken by one being built in Dubai. The world’s richest man is Mexican, and its largest publicly traded corporation is Chinese. The world’s biggest plane is built in Russia and Ukraine, its leading refinery is under construction in India, and its largest factories are all in China. London is becoming the leading financial center, and the United Arab Emirates is home to the most richly endowed investment fund. Once quintessentially American icons have been appropriated by foreigners. The world’s largest Ferris wheel is in Singapore. Its number one casino is not in Las Vegas but in Macao, which has also overtaken Vegas in annual gambling revenues. The biggest movie industry, in terms of both movies made and tickets sold, is Bollywood, not Hollywood. Even shopping, America’s greatest sporting activity, has gone global. Of the top ten malls in the world, only one is in the United States: the world’s biggest is in Beijing. Such lists are arbitrary, but it is striking that only ten years ago, American was at the top in many, if not most, of these categories.
Let me be so bold as to offer a couple of my own observations.
1) We’re developed, the others are developing.
Developing is more exciting, and more “profitable,” than “developed.” Growth rates are higher, excitement is higher, and developing spurs ever more growth rates while developing.
The signs are all around us. Mary Kay, McDonald’s…, company after company is finding more growth across the world than they can find in America. America is “grown.” The rest of the world is “growing.” We built our Interstate Highway System long ago. The growth that brought our country was massive. Other countries are now building their highway systems (I use this literally and figuratively), and their growth will be massive. Developing is exciting – developed is stable. And, ironically, stable is not as exciting as developing.
2) The jobless recovery could become a permanent high-percentage jobless economy.
This is truly worrisome. There is plenty being written about this. The problem is simple: what we used to call “blue collar jobs” have disappeared in huge numbers. For example, it used to take hundreds of strong “men” to unload a ship at a port – not it takes a dozen people at a computer terminal with robotic technology loading and unloading containers. These hundreds of men have nowhere else to go to find the work they were qualified/trained to do. Education is critical, and America is not growing in our educational excellence. Many warn that we are falling behind.
Here’s a line from the Spiegel book excerpt:
The new jobs were created elsewhere, which had to have an effect on family income in the United States.
If we do not re-train our work force, and innovate our ways into brand new jobs yet unseen, this will grow from being a big problem to a huge, huge problem.
Thomas Freidman wrote, in Hot, Flat, and Crowded, that in many places in other parts of the world there are too many Americans – too many wanting to modernize, with modern appliances, modern technology, with cars and affluence.
In other words, they are developing – we are developed.
I think the solution will lie in the American ability to be bold, daring, innovative – to be American. We have to out-America the rest of the world. I think we will, but our work is cut out for us.
Last Monday, Apple announced that it would be quitting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of the Chamber’s opposition to global-warming legislation. And that was just the latest in a series of defections: in the past few weeks, the public-utility companies Pacific Gas & Electric, PNM Resources, and Exelon all announced that they’d be leaving the Chamber, while Nike quit the organization’s board of directors. Historically speaking, this is a positive exodus. (from the Suroweicki article, referenced below).
I have presented synopses of at least two books that deal significantly with global warming and its implications for business: Hot , Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Freidman and The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones. (I’ve blogged about these before, most recently here). And, if you pay attention to the news at all, you see more and more companies getting serious about going green. Freidman has argued passionately for this, both because it is good for the planet, and it would be good of the economy.
Green is the new red, white, and blue because it is a strategy that can help to ease global warming, biodiversity loss, energy poverty, petrodictatorship, and energy supply shortages – and make America stronger at the same time. We solve our own problems by helping the world solve its problems. We help the world solve its problems by solving our own problems. (Friedman: Hot, Flat and Crowded).
Now comes word that some pretty visible companies are withdrawing their memberships from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over this issue. James Surowiecki, in an article titled Exit Through Lobby, speaks of this development, and concludes his article with these words:
But it may reflect a calculation that global warming is simply too big an issue to get wrong, both economically—few companies are really going to benefit from the melting of the polar ice caps—and from a public-relations point of view. It’s also probably no coincidence that these resignations have come at a time when the Chamber’s anti-regulatory zeal looks not just outmoded but self-defeating. Had the Chamber supported tougher regulation of financial and housing markets, after all, the myriad small businesses it represents would undoubtedly be better off today. And it’s far from clear that across-the-board hostility to regulation is really in the best interests of the free-enterprise system. We assume that lobbies always recognize what’s best for their members. But they don’t, and, in the case of climate change, they may very well be missing what the companies that have resigned in protest have seen: global warming isn’t just bad for the planet; it’s bad for business.
There are other practices that can be bad for public relations, but they may help the “bottom line.” What will actually get a business to do “the right thing,” for people, for the planet, even if it is expensive for business to do? One would wish that ethics alone, the goal to do the good/right thing, would be enough. But, alas, it isn’t. So what will?
The simplistic answer is “peer pressure.” The deeper answer is still peer pressure – but at a little more sophisticated level of understanding. Here is Kenneth Burke’s famous definition of man (later expanded to definition of human):
“Man is the symbol-using inventor of the negative
separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making goaded by the spirit of hierarchy
and rotten with perfection.”
The key portion of this definition for this discussion is this:
goaded by the spirit of hierarchy.
If a company is at the top of the ladder in terms of public respect, and then by failing to go green, it will slip down that hierarchy, then such a company will switch energetically to a “green” philosophy. If they lose the respect of the people – and especially, if they lose the patronage of the people; if they lose their customers – they will make whatever changes are necessary.
In other words, companies will go green when the customers demand it, by the withholding of their dollars. And for the future, companies will make whatever other changes we “demand” in the same way. I wish that appealing to ethics would do the job – but companies are in business to make money, and I suspect that they will become good/better citizens when it will help them make more money.