Sunday, October 22, 2006

All Kinds of Energy

The Worldwatch Institute ( has released a report entitled "The Renewable Path to Energy Security." It's a comprehensive overview, covering everything from biofuels to geothermal to marine energy. It is a report that every non-expert should at least glance through.

What continues to be frustrating is that a great deal of research in renewable energy sources has been going on for some time in both the public and private sector, yet policy makers worldwide have been, to various degrees, almost lackadaisical in their responses to both the potential problems of relying on fossil fuels, as well as the opportunities that renewables present.

In the United States, certainly in the last six years, the government has been almost criminally negligent--to put it kindly. While we Americans are supposedly in some global battle against the forces of "darkness," the U.S. imports about 13 million barrels of oil each day from some not so stable countries. This represents more than 60% of our total daily production. It's also costing us approximately $300 billion annually.

This is not to say the world has been standing still. The second-largest industry in the world--the insurance industry--has decided that stupidity may be too costly. The industry has slowly changed how it evaluates "risk-assessment." It more and more, for example, assesses how future climate change models may look, and less on current weather patterns. As well, the insurance industry is doing such things as cutting premiums for "green" buildings and giving discounts to people driving hybrid cars. As the insurance industry modifies its priorities other sectors will likely have to follow.

Right now global investments in renewable energy is some $38 billion. It is still a proverbial drop-in-the-bucket but continues to grow. Worldwide, wind and solar power are the fastest growing energy sources.

Jobs in the fossil fuel sector are expected to show little growth, in part because of automation, while significant employment growth is expected in the area of renewable energy over the next 20 years.

But we still have the "yeah, but" reaction more often than not and deservedly so. Until we have a serious nation-state response--meaning a political will--which ultimately means a real funding commitment, leadership, and education, we're indulging in a grand delusion. A survey taken not long ago in the United States indicated that nearly 75% of those polled believed global warming was a serious problem. Yet, this same percentage was equally at a loss as to what causes global warming. Perhaps Europe and Japan are not quite so uncertain but....

Equally important, until we have a coordinated international strategy, which must include China and India, we will remain locked in a narrow "free" market fantasy. So once again it comes down to the familiar question. What are we willing to do?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Painted Technology

It came to mind after reading an article by Michael Pollan in The New York Times.

A couple of weeks ago I hiked through the Painted Hills (part of the National Park Service) in eastern Oregon. It's a remarkable sight; it looks like a vast watercolor landscape. The hills are of various hues, colors sometime blending together and sometimes separate and distinct.

The reasons for this phenomenon are complex. The Painted Hills are made up of layers of hard claystones that were formed some 33 million years ago. Along with variations in moisture and light reflection, mineral elements such as Magnesium, Iron, Potassium, Silicon, Phosphorous and other elements are mixed together. It is as inspiring as anything any human artist could conceive of.

Three days before I left for Oregon I wrote a column for the Kansas City Star on the upcoming November congressional election and the growing "rot" in America. It does connect, no matter how tenuous it first might appear.

Pollan's article entitled "The Vegetable-Industrial Complex" (10/15/06) discusses the outbreak of E. coli last month where some 200 Americans in some 26 states became sick from eating packaged spinach.

It is not the dreary news that food in America (meat and vegetables) has become industrialized and increasingly susceptible to more disasters and diseases, but Pollan's contention that "it's easier to find a technological fix than to address the root causes of such a problem. This has always been the genius of industrial capitalism--to take its failings and turn them into exciting new business opportunities."

If we Americans--out of indifference, avoidance or ignorance--choose to let our food be controlled by a handful of conglomerates, than we ought to be prepared for the consequences.

Animals crammed together on cement floors, standing all day in manure, and fed a steady diet of antibiotics are not "Little House On the Prairie." If we don't mind our vegetables ending up in large food processing factories with bacterial contamination more and more likely, then sit back and enjoy. Only about 70 million Americans each year get sick, or end up in the hospital--or die from the food they eat. But national regulations may not be the answer either.... Michael Pollan's article is worth reading.

A visit to the Painted Hills is worth doing but sadly most people won't be able to. This small section of the United States tells us a lot about the planet we live on and our place on it. It's deserving of preservation. Industrial agriculture also tells a lot about what kind of people we've become--something not worth preserving.