A Three-Way for the Real Third Way

Science, Sustainability, and Distributed Generation in the Information Age

This is an extended version of a speech given to the Ontario NDP Socialist Caucus Conference held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education on October 13, 2007.

Two things to start. The first being, that by every measure we humans can agree on, moving as quickly as possible to get off of fossil fuels will leave ourselves and future generations the richest of all possible lives.

The second is that I am not an environmentalist or even a socialist per se.

Now don’t get me wrong I completely accept that the weight of scientific evidence proves that anthropogenic factors are a major contributor to climate change and I too think Tommy Douglas was the greatest Canadian.

I also accept the consensus among marine biologists that states that if we don’t change our fishing practices we are going to collapse fish stocks so thoroughly that all commercial fisheries will be wiped out by 2048! And I do see how this problem is being generated by the economic distortions known as net present value, future discounting and the maximization of shareholder profit and so is a social issue.

So yes, in the sense that I believe the scientists’ information, I’m an environmentalist and a socialist. Or at least I am when these movements are in alignment with the best available information. This point notwithstanding, the subjects that I write about mostly these days aren’t so much about what’s coming out of the tailpipe in terms of emissions as they are about what’s going into the industrial engine in terms of fossil fuels.

And the message that I am involved in massaging for the purpose of increasing its general consumption is about the increasingly strong consensus that is taking place in the field of resource geology and petroleum and mining engineering about the future of coal, oil, gas and even uranium.

In two words, ENERGY is my bailiwick and EMISSIONS are our bane.

And speaking about the future of energy how many of you here feel you have a strong understanding of the term peak oil or peak gas? Please raise your hands (Less than half did)

One last question how many of you believe that oil and gas are finite? Please raise your hands if you think oil is finite. (All but one did)


Which is why I prefer the term fossil fuel finitude over peak oil. Everyone gets that this stuff is finite. And once you dispose of that fact the whole rest of the sound and fury surrounding the peak oil and gas and coal and uranium debate is about nothing more than timing and urgency.

Not that timing and urgency are unimportant by any means. They are after all near and dear to my heart very precisely because I know how little understood are the necessary lead times for the ramp up to sustainable systems and how pressing is the urgency that we do everything possible in this direction now!

Fossil fuel finitude has been, shall we say, misunderestimated. Unsurprisingly, given his pappy, it is also one of the few things that GW Bush has not been guilty of doing.

My favorite line concerning the reams of “Is peak oil just a theory?” literature was actually told to me by a climate scientist — U of T’s very own Dr. Danny Harvey and a lead author of the IPCC’s AR4 — who said: “Peak Oil is just a theory in the same sense that Round Earth is just a theory.”

On the other extreme from those like me who are studying fossil fuel finitude and peak energy are the environmentalists who think the whole peak oil debate is pointless.

In fact, one of the best environmental minds in Ontario, now a Toronto city councillor, Gord Perks, said just that this summer to myself and Greg Greene the director of two documentaries on peak oil and gas, The End of Suburbia and Escape from Suburbia.

What Mr. Perks said verbatim was, “Peak oil’s a crock!” And yes he did say it with a smile and with an intention to rile. Still why he said it is for the very same reasons a lot of environmentalists say it. Which basically comes down to two reasons.

1) To them if we burn what we have we’re cooked anyway, so what does peak oil matter? and

2) They think to themselves, even if only privately, “We’re running out of COG? Good can’t happen soon enough!”

COG is by the way how I refer to the trinity of fossil fuels Coal, Oil and Gas as they are the cog to our industrial wheel. Whether it be a holy or unholy trinity I leave to you.

And even after five years of banging my head against the wall of indifference on an issue that I have chosen to specialize in still I say. “I hear you and you are not wrong.”

But! Yes the proverbial but.

The thing is Energy Matters! For one thing people want it. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say, “Ya, ya, the greenies. All they care about is the planet; they don’t care about the people!” This is of course not a socialists’ problem but people, especially them pesky engineering types, nonetheless wonder where is the guts and nuts and bolts of the NDP’s energy plans?

People want the services that fossil fuel energy today provides and I got to say on this one I side with the people. Because if you don’t care deeply about energy and fully attend to all it does negative and positive then you are not truly caring about the people in an effective and responsible way. Point finale, full stop!

It truly is that profoundly and fundamentally simple in this global warming and fossil fuel finitude parmetered world of ours.

And yes if we were to stop using all COG tomorrow the planet would be happier, and the plants and the animals would be happier, and more abundant, and prolific, which has a certain amount of attraction to it sans doute. But at the same time if we stopped using COG tomorrow a whole lot of people would die prematurely as well.

How many? Well I’m no expert in this area but I can tell you since the start of the oil part of COG in 1856 we have gone from 1.2 billion to 6.7 billion.

Beyond that straightforward fact, I am, as I say, no expert. And in any case, we don’t have time to today to go into this aspect of the energy, sustainability, and carrying capacity debate. Suffice to say, if you don’t make energy a centerpiece of whatever sustainability and social justice programs you’d like to see implemented, then you are economically and, therefore, politically and culturally dead from the get go.

Now there is no doubt that this fact has begun to penetrate deeply into the environmental community. The NDP’s energy platform this past provincial election here in Ontario (thank you Peter Tabuns), the work of Pembina, WWF, Sierra, Greenpeace, Environmental Defence, ICF International and Science for Peace among others, including our government staff researchers and scientists who were part of the national round table on economy and the environment, are very clear proof of this.

And speaking of proof, I could have talked to you today about geoscience, linearization curves, creaming curves, pool size distribution, tectonic plate theory, and what the fractal law of self similarity tells us about the possible range of extraction rates that we can expect as we make our way to “Ultimate Resource Recoverability.”

I could have talked about the various forecasts that are being made for the end in the growth of supply of hydrocarbons and even uranium and sought to prove to you that the consensus among resource geologists is now for all intents and purposes as strong and meaningful to the future of humanity as the consensus that exists among climatologists.

I could have prattled on about why ASPO’s and EWG’S and IFE’s analysis is more reliable than the EIA and the IEA and even the EIEIO. I could have explained why production is a better indicator of the future of reserves than reserves are of future production .

I could have talked to you about the findings of Dr. Stuart Staniford and the data gnomes at the Oil Drum and throughout the U.S. and what Mathew Simmons study of over 200 technical papers from the Society of Petroleum Engineers and his book Twilight in the Desert says about global oil production.

But these are not the facts that should matter to you. These are merely the means necessary to vanquish the deniers. You all know that we have to get off oil and gas and coal and uranium, and you all know that 95% of all transportation is today wholly dependent on oil.

The facts you need to know are that the U.S. General Accounting Office’s most recent finding is that if the U.S. pushes hard in the direction of biofuels it might get up to 4% of current liquid fuel consumption by 2015. In numerical terms this translates to less than 1 MMb/d. In other words, no matter what you think of biofuels, they are no silver bullet for Business As Usual.

To my mind in any case, Fidel Castro got it right in an essay published on the internet a few months ago when he called the biofuel revolution the ‘Internationalization of Genocide’. This summer, for example, saw corn riots among Mexican peasants because they now have to economically compete with the biofuel market for their corn flour tortillas.

Another fact you need to know as we battle to get off the sauce and save our transportation system is that the hydrogen transportation economy is an impossibility from the basic standpoint of the fundamental laws of physics. Not to mention the fact that virtually all hydrogen today in North America is made by burning natural gas. The techno “solution” being proposed for this problem? Nuclear fired electricity.

How ruinous would a hydrogen economy diversion be? Let me count out for you just one of the ways.

If you start with a 100 barrels of natural gas energy and convert it into electricity for the electrolysis needed to create hydrogen; and then you store that hydrogen in a fuel cell; and then you step on what is still very much your gas pedal powered car; you will have lost more than 50% of the energy you started with to unavoidable physical laws. Much better to heat or cook with this non-renewable fuel. Or at the very least use it for a source point heat purpose.

To instead now start entirely new industries that will act as competitors for corn and natural gas and electricity at a time when natural gas is ready to go off a cliff here in North America in terms of production and when there are people that are going hungry would be the height of car addicted folly. It is true I know that we have paid every other possible obeisance to our metal gods but are we now really going to feed the car and our war machines our heat and food? Really? Sigh!

By the way, many an environmentalist and others got caught out by these developments thinking them great green ideas and lending them their greenwashing support. And the reason that this happened is because they did not pay attention to the energy analysis. Energy has been and will as long as we remain corporeal always remain the nub of the matter.

The other nub of the matter is that the problem of energy as it relates to the environment, transportation, sustainable systems and social justice is for the most part not a technical problem but a social one.

Oh sure there’s an essentially infinite number of things that will need to be done from an engineering p.o.v as we make our way off the sauce that even GW Jr. knows we are addicted to (addiction being something that he actually knows something about) but that’s really just a chat about job opportunities.

The real problem is not this, the real problem is the social problem we face. That problem being that too many people believe and are afraid that the real third way — sustainability and social justice — demands of them that they lose their creature comforts.

The solution to this is very simple. All we need do is to reassure them, over and over and over again, that we love comfort just as much as they do. Which is after all nothing less than the god’s honest truth. Ashes and sackcloth is not what we are practicing or preaching.

After this is done what we then need do is to utilize the minds in the fields of energy, geology, economics and environmentalism who can illuminate for the public that it is in fact their governments and their industries that are involved via a conspiracy of dunces to fail away those very comforts that we are trying to save for them.

Socialists have never, in fact, had a problem with comfort. Their problem, and a legitimate one it is, is that the way our systems are going about creating that comfort is ensuring that many/most other people end up really depressingly poor and uncomfortable. The good news is that today this is also viewed as a problem by just about everybody. And yes some do less about it than others it’s true, but this fact notwithstanding everybody but everybody today at least pays this problem lip service and that wasn’t always true.

That it is so completely true today is a political advance and a significant evolution in human thinking methinks or at least mehopes.

The bad news is if we do not change business as usual a whole lot more of us are going to end up in the depressingly uncomfortable category.

People very much need to understand that this is one of the very real implications of the fact that we have essentially come to the end of the growth in fossil fuel availability. People in Canada and the U.S. also need to know that this is especially true here in N.A.! The tarsands notwithstanding!

A great many of our citizens are being put in grave jeopardy of becoming part of the depressingly poor ‘others-class’ and since it’s true anyway we may as well sell this fact as a political and environmental and conservational tool. Sure a lot will not pay attention until they actually get whacked but we must do this work now if we expect to be listened to then.

When our middle class does finally get hit it will help a great deal with the enlistment of new supporters, though this will not come as much comfort to as many as it should.

As for the political competition and how to maneuver the other parties that try and out-compete us on these issues, truer words were never spoken than these by Senor Juan G. Carbonel: “A moral threat may serve to change your rulers rhetoric, but an economic one will change their behavior.”

This economic threat will more importantly also serve to clinch the argument for conservation, relocalized economies, a reinvigoration of our appreciation for our neighbors, walkable communities and a slower pace of life, not to mention the successful selling of the virtue of a simpler lifestyle.

It will even extend to include the fact that the potential of ‘Distributed and micro generation of energy in the information age’, the age of the great neurally wired collective mind that the internet has made possible, very certainly represents the greatest opportunity for real power to the people in every sense of that phrase that the world has ever seen.

And I say again to you that what stands in our way is not primarily a technical challenge. Once we get started down the implementation road in a major way it will be readily apparent to everyone just about immediately how much work/employment opportunity is ahead of us. What stands in our way is what has always stood in our way. The problem of capital and its infinitely mutable talent for concentration and inexpert and uncreative destruction.

Before all else what lies before us is the challenge of putting into place the mechanisms that prioritize best-in-class data and peer-reviewed information far above dollar concerns and even higher above money interests. The fact of one dollar-one vote must go the way of all slave and chattel concepts and become as odious.

To my mind events have redefined left and right.

With freedom of information as the new left and monetization as the new right.

Or as my more poetic friend senor Carbonel puts it: “Today information is the new left; money, on the other hand, is very much still the old right. Thi9s is what scientists are are battling over.”

And as it is very much a zero sum battle between these two combatants for diminishing resources. For the world’s greatest minds, there is no real room for compromise. Since we are going to have to enlist everybody if we are truly serious about winning this fight, this means that we are going to need to be far more flexible and inclusive than we have ever been before.

For the last 150 years, we in North America have been uniquely advantaged in terms of fundamental resources. This worm has now very much turned.

The simplest solution to the problem of Greenhouse Gases and global warming is, after all, to keep hydrocarbons sequestered right where they currently are. Admittedly effecting such an outcome is a mite more complicated but starting by dedicating their use to the primary purpose of the building of sustainable systems is an idea whose time has come.

For once you think even a little bit about the shape and scope of the energy/emissions problem we face it is not all that difficult to come to the realization that the deep conservation of fossil fuels, and their almost complete dedication to nothing but the creation of sustainable systems, ties very neatly and directly into what we need to do to save the planet from our mismanagement. If only because conservation is from the most selfish of perspectives what is best for ourselves and the creature comforts with which we are so sensibly enamored.

This is so because peak energy in fact totally and utterly slam dunks the argument for conservation. Again, if only because it is such a potent economic threat to the established order.

And don’t think for one second that the military industrial complex and the Pentagon and the CIA and the NSA haven’t picked up on this fact and are not planning to use it to advantage their world view. Believe you me that just ain’t the case. For example just this past September at the 6th ASPO conference, James R. Schlesinger said: “Conceptually the battle is over. The Peakists have won — everyone is a Peakist now.” Schlesinger for those of you who may not know is a former U.S. Secretary of Defence, former head of the CIA, and was the very first Secretary of Energy in the U.S.A. In other words this is one of the most connected and influential militarists in the whole damned white world.

And while its true that environmentalists and social workers can ignore fossil fuel depletion and, unlike engineers and militarists, go back to their work with a clean conscience, they cannot do so and win! And really people it is now officially past time for the forces of life to win.

Which means that it is also past time that the environmental and social movements reach out and fully embrace their natural allies in the peak energy movement. Today, all but everybody, thanks to the environmental pioneers, understands just how right these folk always were about the living systems crash we are enacting.

And “thanks” to the disastrous failure of Pax Americana as practiced by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Blair, and Brown all but all of the techs and geeks and engineers get the peril that genuine socialists have long been detailing. We all get the peril. It is time you all got the potential that lies begging.

Because for all the rightness of the environmental arguments and for all the virtue of the socialist positions the fact is that emissions and military spending are still rising and they are doing so at an increasing rate.

And while fossil fuels and uranium may be limited, and will fix both of these problems eventually, even if we do nothing, this will not be sufficient to the task of saving us and our sister and brother species from ourselves.

It really is time to end the car culture. Given what our climate scientists and resource geologists know today Nascar and Indy car and Formula 1 and motocross and funny cars and drag racing and demolition derbies and monster trucks must go the way of the dodo before we do. It is time to end the obscenity of $1.2 trillion yearly spent on creating things that go boom. Over half of that being spent by the U.S.

Canada FYI is actually 12th in the world in military spending and 7th in the OECD in absolute terms. And that’s before our PM Harper and the bipartisan consensus among the Conservatives and the Liberals finishes muscularizing our military.

For Christ and our sake — if we as a people won’t abide by the moral threat implicit in renouncing our Christian and secular moral values — will we not then at least listen to the arguments of the moneylenders and the security professionals who have proved that militarism drains the treasury and not the swamp?

Dead ahead is one of the greatest revolutions human society has ever seen and by hook or by crook it will take place even if we make no choices. The geology of this still blue planet alone makes this inevitable. If best information dominates the policy process as we move forward to meet the enormous challenges facing us then we can use this unavoidably radical transformation to gain more social justice and a higher quality of life.

If instead we fail again and let consumption manage us and not us it, I’m guaranteeing here and now that energy fascism is the jackboot that we will all be ground under.

Most of the rest of the world gets this already. They do not hate us for our freedoms they hate us for the insane recklessness and abuse of freedom that our everyday fossil fuel lifestyle screams at them.

And who can blame them?

Jeff Berg is a freelance writer and activist whose focus is Energy & Emissions and their micro and macro implications ecologically, economically and socially. Read other articles by Jeff, or visit Jeff's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. gerald spezio said on December 3rd, 2007 at 7:20am #

    Even better and more direct anti-arab peak Israeli oil propaganda here;


    Great video pitching

    Woolsey is terrific, but Tom Friedman is even better.

  2. gerald spezio said on December 3rd, 2007 at 8:19am #

    See Tom Friedman, Zionist champion at the NY Times, pensively nodding to sweet baby Anne Korin’s pitch about the IRANIAN WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION.

  3. gerald spezio said on December 3rd, 2007 at 5:34pm #

    Jeff Berg writes freely and does “communications emissions” for the Toronto wing of Julian Darley’s Post Carbon Institute – an anti-Arab peak oil propaganda bunch.

  4. bob harrison said on December 3rd, 2007 at 5:40pm #

    How about some simple fact checking guys.Jeff did not speak at “the institute for studies in science and education” but at “the institute for studies in education” Toronto , Ontario.

  5. gerald spezio said on December 4th, 2007 at 9:56am #

    Do you want energy fascism and jackboots?

    Hell no.!

    Take the advice of Anne Korin and Gal Luft, you schmucks!

    Anne Korin and Gal Luft want to get us off Arab oil and give us hope.

    We need hope.

  6. gerald spezio said on December 4th, 2007 at 9:58am #

    Frank Gaffney wants to protect the children of America from Islamo Nazis and their oil.

  7. gerald spezio said on December 4th, 2007 at 10:00am #

    Hope is good, and how can hope be anti-Italian or anti-Semitic?

    Even the Palestinians need hope.

  8. gerald spezio said on December 5th, 2007 at 11:03am #

    The Palestinians in the GAZA CONCENTRATION CAMP must learn about peak oil and Saudi duplicity about their reserves.

    The starving and dying GAZA Palestinians in the ISRAELI CONCENTRATION CAMP must learn how to survive without oil – or food, clothing, and shelter.

    Some spiritualists in Israel and NYC want to train the dying Palestinians in Breathairianism leading to a better life today here on earth.

  9. gerald spezio said on December 5th, 2007 at 11:07am #

    Anne Korin and Gal Luft both prefer a good French vintage to a stint in the Gaza CONCENTRATION CAMP.

  10. gerald spezio said on December 5th, 2007 at 11:14am #

    Islamo energy fascists with their jackboots and their hateful & hurtful anti-Semitism should all be locked in a CONCENTRATION CAMP just like the anti-Semitic Gaza Palestinian People who would deny Israel’s right to their Palestinian land.