We have an energy problem. At the end of the day, no energy source is free. We all want energy that is readily available, reliable, and without external costs. We want to be able to cheaply power our HDTV, our car, and our furnace. We want our supply chains to be affordable, so prices will be low. In short, we want the magic elixir that will allow us to carry on in our current configuration without having to change.
Unfortunately, we are painfully unaware of the external costs of the energy we produce. Gwyneth Cravens, on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, spoke about the cost of coal:
“But I would just like to remind people that over 10,000 people a year die in the United States alone from fine particulates from coal-fired plants, which, incidentally, spew out more – it’s a low-dose radioactive material, but burning coal concentrates uranium and radon – radium, and so on. And so in the coal ash, the waste which lies around in unlined pits, there’s enough in the coal ash of one big coal-fired plant to make about six atomic bombs, uranium 235. So the – and the stuff coming out of the stacks looks – you know, you don’t see the soot anymore so much, but you see – or you don’t – what you don’t see are these invisible gases, sulfur and nitrogen gases which turn into fine particulates when they’re combined with water vapor and get into the airways of our lungs and kill people with lung cancer and heart disease. So this is an ongoing catastrophe, along with ocean acidification. As the ocean takes up more carbon dioxide, the water becomes more acidic. This is beginning to affect shelled organisms like corals. They can’t make the calcium carbonate shells in the acidic waters. And so – and about three million people a year die from fossil fuel combustion pollution worldwide. We have to think about how to provide base-load electricity – that is 24/7, around-the-clock electricity. We are witnessing in Japan what happens when you don’t have electricity and how terrible that is for people from the health point of view alone.”
In Japan, we are seeing at Fukushima Daiichi what a 9.0 Earthquake and a massive tsunami can do to the best laid plans of mice and men. Opposition to wind turbines remains strong here in New England. In Rhode Island, where I live, there is ongoing opposition to a Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Mt. Hope Bay. More broadly, opposition is growing to hydrofracking of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and across the country. Large scale renewable energy projects are challenged by environmentalists (like the large scale solar project in California) and by parents (opposition to the construction of high-power transmission lines). In individual communities, wealthy homeowners fight the construction of wind turbines and solar panels.
Does anyone else see this? We live under the myth that there is a cheap source of energy without cost out there. Our gasoline, which we import mostly, must be defended by the Fifth Fleet (in Bahrain, where Shiites are rising up against the Sunni king) and heavily subsidized. The greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles are not without cost, as much as denialists would like to believe. Because we remain under the spell of the cheap energy myth, some of us remain willing to accept the costs of hydrofracking (water) and coal (see above quote). We compare the cost of renewable energy to the cost of natural gas and coal, and ignore the external costs, and say that renewable energy is too expensive. Unfortunately, our cheap energy is simply not sustainable.
If we were smart, we would realize that 1) there is no perfect, cheap, elixir out there. We need to take into account the external costs and start planning a smart, renewable energy future. We would also realize that 2) NIMBY is the enemy of planning a smart energy future. People want to plug in their laptop or their iron, and remain ignorant of where that power comes from and how it arrives at their outlet. People want their homes to be just the right temperature in the summer and winter, and not recognize the cost of doing so. People want to live in the suburbs, and commute long distances to work, to karate practice, to visit Disneyland. Yet, people get upset when a wind turbine goes up, or when talk of a new transmission line starts. NIMBY is simply not sustainable. If we truly understood the costs of the energy we use, we would use less of it, we would be much more efficient, we would plan for the long term instead of just one quarter ahead.
What do we need? We need a smart grid, decentralized power generation, a diverse mixture of renewable energy, state of the art nuclear power, and some fossil fuels, and above all else we need to place a price on carbon. Energy will not be cheap, but we fool ourselves if we believe it is cheap today. We need to embrace the future, instead of wishing we could return back to 1890. If we don’t of course, we will eventually fall out of the cheap energy spell, but we will start kicking ourselves for not recognizing it sooner.
Paul Greenberg’s fascinating new book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, examines the reasons why humans chose to seek out salmon, tuna, bass, and cod, the four staples of our seafood diet, and questions the sustainability of our efforts to continue doing so. I recently lived in Japan for three years, and had my fair share of Toro sashimi, fatty blue fin tuna, along with other delicacies. Having lived in that seafood-based culture, and having fished for salmon myself, I understand the appeal of the current staples of seafood. I was really impressed with the background and the framework with which Greenberg examines these fisheries.
Greenberg grew in Connecticut, fishing along its namesake river (Connecticut comes from the Algonquin word quonehtacut, or ‘long coastal river’), and developed a love of fishing from an early age. He understands fisheries management and aquaculture, and deftly explains how our fisheries came to be in their current state. At root, the book is examining four fish, “Or rather four archetypes of fish flesh which humanity is trying to master in one way or another, either through the management of a wild system, through the domestication and farming of individual species, or through the outright substitution of one species for another.” In fact that is where Four Fish is particularly insightful – Greenberg identifies some potential sustainable aquaculture candidates that are efficient and safe (for both humans and the marine environment), that you probably never heard of, like barramundi and Kona Kampachi.
I recently attended a public hearing about proposed fisheries regulations in Rhode Island, and what became immediately apparent to me was that most of the audience, stakeholders in the fisheries industry, spoke an entirely different language than the fisheries scientists, employees of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). There were both commercial and recreational fishers of a wide range of aquatic species, ranging from soft-shell clams to cod, stripers to monkfish. Their individual economic incentives often conflicted with each other; party boat captains relied on a large bag limit of tautog, because the state regulations were more liberal than in neighboring states; divers and waders for shellfish fought for different season opening dates, to get an advantage on each other. The fisheries scientists spoke of maintaining sustainable fisheries through regulation, while the fishermen complained they would be unable to make a profit with ‘micromanagement.’
Greenberg’s Four Fish examines the economic aspects of fisheries as well, and he recommends that artisan fishers replace factory trawlers; subsidized fishing fleets should go away and in their place, respectful fishermen-herders who will steward the species as well as catch them. He also argues that blue fin tuna and other species that travel across oceans are unmanageable, and should be protected like tigers and whales. Having seen the Japanese fish markets, I know how difficult that will be, but mercury-laden tuna is simply not sustainable or manageable. Here in Rhode Island, fishermen at the hearing spoke of resources and jobs; while they may sometimes disagree with the fisheries scientists, both will need to work together in the long term to create sustainable fisheries, sustainable jobs, and sustainable seafood. Ultimately, that will require “a profound reduction in fishing effort,” and open-minded consumers.
Looking back upon my 34 years in the world, my most complex and frustrating relationship as a consumer has been in the realm of transportation. I have owned six vehicles personally, and at various points relied on different transportation choices out of choice or necessity. At times, I was frustrated with the financial investment in transportation. Without doubt, I would prefer to live in a place where I could rely on public transportation, and forego ownership of an automobile altogether. Where I live, a bus that heads into the city every 30 minutes is only a ten minute walk away; from there, access by train into Boston and New York is very convenient. However, I also find intrinsic pleasure in driving vehicles. Additionally, I value the freedom that my automobile offers in terms of scheduling. As a result, while I sometimes scold myself for choosing to drive, I remain locked into that consumption pattern.
As a teenager, the automobile represented freedom, a freedom that was not accessible to me. My father bought me my first car, a weary, worn, 1981 Ford Mustang. The engine of the Mustang was in disrepair to the point that each week I replaced a quart of oil, and power steering fluid as well. I finally gave up on the car after the battery died on top of a mountain. At the age of 20, that automobile was definitely present, because I could barely afford to take care of it, and it required constant attention. The Mustang was easy to give up, because I was not yet accustomed to freedom, and I lived on a college campus.
However, my desire for the freedom of the automobile did not die, and I purchased a brand new Saturn Coupe months before graduation. I was able to get a loan because of my impending commission as a Naval Officer. However, I did not quite budget out the costs of the automobile, so after graduation, I left the Coupe behind in California to sell, and headed to Newport, Rhode Island, without a car. I depended on my bike, as well as the kindness of strangers, to get around Newport for one summer. In fact, that dependency, led me to have a close connection to my community. After I moved west to Everett, Washington, I again chose to live without an automobile, relying on public transportation and the kindness of friends to get around. However, the lure of freedom inevitably led me to get another car. I have had a car in the years since, and never really questioned the need, until I spent three years living in Japan. I found the trains there to be very convenient, and even though I bought an old Honda within a month of arriving in Japan, I rarely drove it. Once again, in Japan, I felt a closer connection to the community around me.
Today, the costs of the two cars my wife and I own are ever present on my mind. In the future, I would like to work in either Providence or Boston, and can see myself relying on public transportation instead of my automobile in daily commuting. However, while I could rely on public transportation today, it would change my daily life significantly. It would force me to plan ahead more for meals, and would limit my ability to travel around the larger community. However, my wife works within a mile of the house, so in theory we could both manage with one automobile. However, our communities are designed around the automobile. Many of the businesses nearby are designed for automobiles, not public or personal transportation. To not have an automobile would require a lot more planning, and some sacrifice. We are used to having what we want, when we want it. This logic defines nearly all of the decisions we make today as consumers. To not have an automobile which I can always access would require me to rely on others more, and would potentially affect my ability to accomplish business or personal needs. However, it would also bring me closer to the community around me. When I walk home from the bus stop, I often speak to neighbors that I wouldn’t see otherwise even notice from the seat of my automobile. Even my sense of place is affected, as I notice little things about the world around me. In the long term, I would like to avoid the purchase of any more automobiles. I would like to rely on public transportation and my bike. However, to make that happen, I will need to be willing to go against the grain, to slow down my life, to sacrifice mobility; if my past is any sign, I may gain much more in terms of a connection to my community than I give up in terms of freedom.
Yesterday in the Times Japanese Professor Norihiro Kato reflected on the news that China recently overtook Japan as the World’s second biggest economy. Surprisingly, Kato reacted with “relief,” as if a “load [was] off my shoulders.” In fact, he calls the new Japanese reality a maturity:
“The rest of the world’s population is still exploding, and we are coming to see the limits of our resources. The age of ‘right shoulder up’ is over. Japan doesn’t need to be No. 2 in the world, or No. 5 or 15. It’s time to look at more important things, to think more about the environment and people less lucky than ourselves… Freshly overtaken by China, Japan now seems to stand at the vanguard of a new downsizing movement, leading the way for countries bound sooner or later to follow in its wake. In a world where limits are increasingly apparent, Japan… may well reveal what it is like to outgrow growth.”
Some economists, those of the ‘right shoulder up,’ neo-classical province, would argue that limitless growth is possible, especially if you remove all regulation and government interference. These neo-classical economists do not recognize limits, they do not account for the stock of natural resources that is blindly being used. Of course, Kato points out that in Japan the new 20-somethings are revolting against the old logic of limitless growth. He calls them non-consumers, frugal, savers. Will the United States follow Japan?
Inevitably, yes. Japan is mired in deflation, where “consumer demand has become so weak – and deflationary expectations are now such the norm – that the economy seems no longer to respond to such monetary tools.” Sound familiar? Interest rates are at record lows here in the United States, and the economy is responding sluggishly, if at all. Economists are arguing that the era of inevitably rising house prices is over. That housing wealth was the engine for the nacent growth in the past decade. With health care costs continuing to rise, our current economic model is unsustainable.
Of course, when you consider looming resource limits, where oil, minerals, and even fresh water will become more scarce and more expensive, and you have a recipe for a sea change. The old guard will continue to argue for exponential growth, but sooner or later, the kids won’t buy the same tired argument.
- China Overtakes Japan as No. 2 Economy (time.com)
- Op-Ed Contributor: Japan and the Ancient Art of Shrugging (nytimes.com)
Get the kids, get the dog, and grab whatever weapons you happen to have within arms reach, zombies are coming! Now, I’m not talking about the raised dead, like we all saw on Thriller, but rather bond vigilantes, about to pull the plug on good old Uncle Sam because they perceive us as unable or unwilling to pay our debt. At the G20 summit this week, President Obama argued that more Keynesian stimulus was necessary until employment recovered. The rest of the G20 balked, opting instead of fiscal austerity, because they fear the bond vigilantes. Economist Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate, believes you can put that weapon down:
“Yes, America has long-run budget problems, but what we do on stimulus over the next couple of years has almost no bearing on our ability to deal with these long-run problems. As Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, recently put it, “There is no intrinsic contradiction between providing additional fiscal stimulus today, while the unemployment rate is high and many factories and offices are underused, and imposing fiscal restraint several years from now, when output and employment will probably be close to their potential.” Nonetheless, every few months we’re told that the bond vigilantes have arrived, and we must impose austerity now now now to appease them. Three months ago, a slight uptick in long-term interest rates was greeted with near hysteria: “Debt Fears Send Rates Up,” was the headline at The Wall Street Journal, although there was no actual evidence of such fears, and Alan Greenspan pronounced the rise a “canary in the mine.” Since then, long-term rates have plunged again. Far from fleeing U.S. government debt, investors evidently see it as their safest bet in a stumbling economy. Yet the advocates of austerity still assure us that bond vigilantes will attack any day now if we don’t slash spending immediately.”
However, advocates for austerity want to cut off unemployment benefits, when the housing market, and the larger economy, is still on life support. They want to fire teachers, firefighters, and policemen around the country by slashing state aid. In the halls of power, you can hear faint echoes of Herbert Hoover. These austerity advocates often talk about Japan’s lost decade, and the inability of government spending to lift that country out of its recession. However, no less than the Economist, Bible to the global business elite, brings up the much more pertinent examples of Canada and Sweden:
“The advocates of austerity… base their argument on cases in the 1990s, when countries such as Canada to Sweden cut their deficits and boomed. But in most of these instances interest rates fell sharply or the country’s currency weakened. Those remedies are not available now: interest rates are already low and rich-country currencies cannot all depreciate at once. Without those cushions, fiscal austerity is not likely to boost growth.”
What would be a sensible action to take right now? Well, how about finally tackling entitlement reform? Sure sure, Republicans would never undertake bipartisan work on entitlements in their Party of No posture, but stepping outside of political reality, now is the perfect time for politicians to compromise and craft a sensible reform of Social Security. If not now, when? It would send the right signals to those (imaginary) bond vigilantes that everyone worries about so much, but more to the point, it would deal with the long-term deficit, which we will have to deal with sooner or later. Politicians will always try to punt that football down the road, but who is to say that there will be a better opportunity in the future?
It was a busy weekend in my old stomping ground, the Western Pacific. Late last week South Korea announced that clear evidence points to a North Korean submarine in the March 26 attack on the South Korean corvette Cheonan. South Korea, with U.S. backing, announced that it would sever all trade with North Korea, which would deny the Stalinist regime an estimated 14.5% of its international trade and $253 Million in revenue. Of course, North Korea relies on China for much of its trade, and China is and an awkward position. One wonders if this crisis dance will ever end, or whether China will take a firm hand with North Korea. It looks like this will be a busy summer in the waters off the Korean Peninsula.
Further south, Japan relented to American pressure and agreed to keep the Marine Corps Air Station on the island, against the wishes of Okinawans. This was a loss of face for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who campaigned on a promise to remove the air base from Okinawa. The islanders have been upset with the American presence on Okinawa since the 1995 rape and abduction of a 12 year old girl by two Marines and a Sailor. The history of this island is fascinating, and revealing. Until 1868 it was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, an independent regional trade hub between China and Japan; Japan annexed the island and it became the Ryukyu prefecture in 1879. Just a few weeks ago, on the excellent Tom Hanks-produced mini-series The Pacific, the Battle of Okinawa was portrayed; over 150,000 U.S. and Japanese troops, and over 100,000 Okinawans died during the 82-day battle, which the Americans fought to get a staging ground to attack the Japanese mainland. The island was actually under U.S control from 1945-1972, and many military bases were built on the island. Okinawa is perched in the East China Sea at a location that all but guarantees its continued military significance.
UPDATE: (5/25) NY Times: Relations between North and South Korea, already strained over the sinking of a South Korean warship, deteriorated to their worst point in years on Tuesday as the South Korean president redesignated the North as its archenemy, and the North said it would sever its few remaining ties with the South.