Irradiated by LabRat
For some issues out there, there really are no clearly good solutions. Abortion comes to mind; there is absolutely no way around either of the legitimate issues- the morality of killing a developing fetus and the biological autonomy of the mother- through reason and simple ethics, so both sides generally substitute screaming at each other with increasing volume and increasing firebreathing rhetoric for debate. Nobody’s going to win the debate, and admitting that the other side has a really valid point and the only moral thing to do is try and demilitarize the battered middle ground as painlessly as possible just plain isn’t as much fun as the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric.
Iran is another such issue. There’s really nothing we can do to Iran to make them stop their quest for nuclear weapons, short of actually attacking them, if there’s nothing we can offer them that they want more than they want nukes. As it is, the last time we had talks, the Iranians almost immediately swept suspension of enrichment- the ONLY thing the US really wants from Iran, aside from less-likely goodies like “Stop trying to exploit Iraqi instability in order to expand your power in the region”- completely off the table of possible deals.
Everybody recognizes invading Iran as a highly undesirable result (including Iran), but there don’t seem to be any really good options in between. Diplomacy doesn’t work if the other side either wastes your time in endless bad-faith negotiations or just plain tells you to go hang- both of which Iran has done- so our realistic options are reduced to sitting around waiting to see what’s going to happen and how fast and crossing our fingers that the Israelis know where all the facilities are and are willing to take another international black eye to avoid the green-glass-sea option. You would not, however, know any of this from the public debate, which sounds like this:
“If you think diplomacy is actually going to work, you’re a PANTS-WETTING PANTYWAIST THAT’S DOOMING ALL OF US TO THE APOCALYPSE.”
“You foaming knuckle-dragging bloodthirsty chickenhawks are exactly why America has such a bad reputation! If you’d ever been willing to try TALKING instead of BOMBING, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”
“They’re happy to TALK until they have their NUKES. Show me where they’ve ever kept a single promise they’ve ever made!”
“If we actually welcomed them into the international community, they wouldn’t feel like they needed them! The US and Israel have them!”
Depending on how you look at it, fortunately or un, the only realistic way of dealing with Iran at the moment is also the default result of indecision: sitting on our butts and waiting for something to happen one way or another that makes one bad option just that .01% less unpalatable than the other.
Definitely UNfortunately, one of the other biggest issues in the country today is one where sitting on our butts waiting for something to change is definitely not the best option: energy. The price of oil has risen high enough and fast enough to make that majority of America which is normally happy to leave such messy and tedious issues in the hands of the chattering classes feel the butthurt. Where normally candidates get a “get out of issue free” card by blathering for a bit with the correct buzzwords calculated for that carefully calibrated share of their own base plus a healthy slice of the middle, now Americans really want to know just what the fuck the people In Charge plan to do about this. The politicians in question, though, probably don’t have many good rhetorical options of their own- they just can’t get by without looking inadequate. This is because the debate about energy policy currently looks like this:
“NOW are you paying attention, you wasteful SUV-sucking scum?! Now that your widdle wallet hurts? Too fucking bad! This is the way it’s going to be, because oil is a finite resource, you braindead protosimian!”
“Yeah? Yeah? What are you planning to power civilization with, Mother Gaia’s heartfelt sighs? What did you think, oil would get a little costly and so we’d all go live in yurts and eat grass? If you hadn’t decided that practically any kind of domestic production made the spotted owls cry, we wouldn’t be paying four bucks a gallon- OR having to give a shit what those psychos in the Middle East think!”
“That WOULD be your solution- we’ve been whipping it for all it’s worth and now it’s running out, so now obviously the solution is just to DRILL MORE. I guess your solution to lung cancer is MORE CIGARETTES to kill the tumor, huh?”
“What the fuck do you think ‘alternative energy’ is, pixie dust kept in Chevron’s secret Tinkerbell warehouse that they’re keeping off-limits so people don’t wake up to the oil scam?”
“Do you like breathing without coughing up your pancreas? Do you like water that doesn’t taste like a chemistry set? Do you like forests you can shoot all the Bambi you want in? We only have that stuff because we declared it off-limits to rapacious morons like you and put some goddamn national commitment into CONSERVATION! If you got everything you wanted, we’d still have the EXACT SAME FUCKING PROBLEM except LATER and with all of that stuff GONE. How is that a solution?!”
“WE ARE NOT GOING BACK TO THE NINETEENTH CENTURY SO YOU CAN FEEL BETTER ABOUT YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT!”
As with abortion and Iran, the fundamental problem here is that both sides are right. Oil and other fossil fuels are, in fact, a finite resource. There is only so much energy locked up in naturally-formed carbon compounds that are extractable from various sources in the earth. Oh, there’s plenty more of it- it will just require greater investment in getting more out of failing fields (in fact, it is lack of investment that is putting so many oil-rich nations with nationalized oil industries into failing production), investment in new technologies for exploiting things like shale oil, and general commitment into putting more and more into less and less.
Depending on the pace of advancement, this could even carry us on much further than we currently think it could- we usually underestimate our own capacity for technological advancement, especially when we’re feeling a pinch that makes it a sudden priority. However, only an idiot thinks that this is a viable strategy indefinitely. Add in the very real international problems we have that we presumably wouldn’t if we didn’t need to be so concerned about the whims of nations that have lots of oil but governments staffed by the All Star Slimeball League, and getting off the oil teat sounds like not just a really good idea, but maybe the only good idea.
Only Possible Rational Position number one: We can’t depend on oil forever, and we need to find more sustainable sources of energy for when it becomes a nonoption.
Stop smirking, greenies: I haven’t even started with you yet. The problem is, despite all the glowing reporting on various possibilities for alternative energy technology, we’re nowhere even REMOTELY close to being able to turn the bulk of our energy needs over to other sources- not even coal, not even nuclear. As for solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric: they’re all great supplements, but we can’t get on-demand, storeable power through any of them the way we can with fossil fuels. They are good solutions… except that they’re all hopelessly local, as current technology stands. As for biofuels and hydrogen, they’re NON-solutions, as I’ll get to in a bit.
It’s become popular to frame the energy crisis thusly: “America is addicted to oil”. In the sense of “we desperately need it, and a lot of it, to survive as a civilization”, this is absolutely true. In that sense, I am also addicted to oxygen in order to survive as an organism. Just because certain bacteria have managed to find ways to survive on CO2 and sulfur doesn’t mean I can manage the same trick, or that if I could, I’d find any aspect of my new existence a fraction as fulfilling as I found being a wasteful oxygen-consumer.
But that’s not fair, you cry. What a civilization needs is not oil but energy, and there are a lot more ways to get energy- and civilizations aren’t limited the way organisms are in what kind of energy they use.
Fine. The base of third-world diets is almost always some form of starchy grain- rice, corn, or wheat are the most popular- and almost all the evidence is now showing that subsisting with starchy grains as the overwhelming bulk of your diet is one of the worst diets you can undertake. It’s contributing to rates of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease in all sorts of populations as soon as the citizens that rely on these diets take up any form of existence that doesn’t involve hours of mandatory labor. They are addicted to grain.
However, if you proposed to drastically cut or eliminate starchy, nutritionally poor grains from a third-world nation- perhaps through some form of divine fiat- the result would not be a healthier population, it would be a population in which most people had starved to death, because they couldn’t afford or store most of the meat, fruits, vegetables, and nuts that make up a healthier diet. Grain is the near-universal unit of the human diet in civilization not because people are stupid and don’t know any better, but because grain is incredibly energy-dense, economical, and easy to grow, transport, and store. It doesn’t spoil easily, it doesn’t get destroyed by mildly rough handling, it can be shoved into a cabinet for months with no ill effects, and all of those economic realities are reflected in its price (cheap) and its production (huge and ubiquitous). Getting off grain as the base of the food pyramid is, currently, only something a rich and most thoroughly industrialized nation can afford- that, or a population that’s willing to reduce to a few thousand widely scattered hunter-gatherers.
Oil- and other fossil fuels- are like grain: they’re produced with known technology, they’re relatively easy and cheap to transport, they’re easily stored, the energy payoff per volume unit of fuel is high, and it works with or through just about everything. If corn, wheat, and rice were what the sustainable populations of big industrialized civilizations of the modern world were born and grown from, fossil fuels are the similarly cheap and efficient- though not cost-free- substances that make it all run. We have effectively been coasting along on an extraordinarily well-designed-for-use-by-humans substance that happens to be finite.
“Coasting along”, mind you, does not describe mere consumer excess- it’s everything we associate with advanced civilizations. Without fossil fuels, we wouldn’t just have to do without our iPods or corner Starbucks; we’d also have to go without heat in winter (that saves lives and enables year-round production in temperate regions), cooling in summer (that does likewise for hot ones), the refrigeration that makes it possible to live prudently off fruit, veg, and small amounts of meat… and the technology and laws that make it possible to set aside huge areas of wild, pristine land for our recreational pleasure. There is a reason the only less-than-fabulously-wealthy nations that are remotely known for their environmental quality are either ones that are living almost purely off a tourist trade from fabulously-wealthy nations… or have never developed much beyond the band-and-tribe level of civilization.
Clean, healthy environments in any remote proximity to people cost wealth. Lots of wealth- to make people rich enough that they can live as data-entry technicians instead of slash-and-burn subsistence farmers, to make them rich enough that they can entertain the idea of having some of their wealth taken away by the government and used to enforce clean air and clean water laws, to make them rich enough that they can depend on goods and services other than the exploitation of natural resources to produce something like a gross domestic product.
One of the reasons you so rarely see a concrete price tag put on serious carbon dioxide abatement when it’s discussed in the media (as opposed to heart-warming shots of the whole family recycling) is that it’s so stupid high it’s almost impossible for humans to wrap their heads around- trillions and trillions and trillions, much of it in lost opportunity for growth. All developing nations give up any chance at ever emerging from poverty, all developed nations cut back to the point where wealth levels per capita look like India does now. You may as well read “CO2 abatement” as “reduced use of fossil fuel”, as they are fundamentally the same thing; the vast, vast majority of those CO2 emissions are from the burning of those efficient, finite fossil fuels- the use of energy to drive economy and human development, in all civilization the world over. This outlook is not belt-tightening or reducing and reusing, it’s wholesale rollback of human progress- and while there are a small minority that are completely okay with that, it’s sure as hell not what the rest of the world is ever going to go along with.
Even if those who are taking the position that blocking the use of fossil fuels will lead to higher prices that will pressure America* to take alternative energy Really Seriously (as opposed to the complete inattention we’ve apparently paid so far) get their way, the major impact is not going to fall on the relatively wealthy and Highly Principled voting constituency that thinks this is a good idea- it’s going to fall mostly on people who can’t afford that kind of principle when it comes to working, feeding their families, and heating their homes. And they vote, too.
Only Possible Rational Position number two: Everyone would prefer clean water, air, and forests full of animals to bad water and air, unchecked development, and no animals: nobody is FOR an unsustainable lifestyle or a filthy environment. Opposition to “sustainable” movements have other sources.
BUT they are ALSO for being a first-world developed country and being able to live as though they’re a citizen of such, and support for the “sustainable lifestyle” for the nation will vanish as their own lifestyles become seriously unsustainable- not “buying McMansions on credit and driving their Humvees”, but “commuting to work and paying the same bills every household has to on less and less money”. Environmentalism as a movement depends on the support of this majority: and if it takes an unmoveable stance against them, it is not they but conservation as a movement with serious political power that will be destroyed first.
Only Possible Rational Position number three: Nobody is actually FOR taking humanity back to the Neolithic.
Those who oppose any further drilling (not Alaska!), shale oil development (not the Rockies!), offshore drilling (not our beaches and coasts!) are not actually morbid misanthropes out of the worst Malthusian fantasies, they think we already have, or can rapidly develop, alternate, cleaner, more sustainable forms of energy. The practical problems with solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and many other things have been covered enough to make some impact on the overall consciousness, which is why the two big things that people cite when they’re groping for a true, sustainable alternative to oil are biofuels and hydrogen.
Biofuels are all the rage right now- dude, did you hear about that guy who runs his ride on cooking oil?- but they’re also proving to be completely UNsustainable. A few mavericks can run a car cheaply on what’s currently mostly a waste product- although cooking oil prices are already skyrocketing elsewhere, and there’s a been a big enough spike here to make thefts of used cooking oil go through the roof- but NOT as a serious alternative to fossil fuels.
The acronym in the title of this post is Robert Heinlein’s; it stands for There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. On the surface, biomass fuels look like a free lunch: they’re made from plants, which have this really cool thing they do where they use solar power to EAT carbon dioxide and turn it into energy that WE can then use. It’s a beautiful surface image- like the green opposite of pulling energy we can’t replace out of the earth and spewing excess CO2 in the process.
But plants aren’t magic energy pixies, they’re living organisms that have a lot more needs than just sunlight, water, and air- like fertilizer to provide the boatloads of other nutrients they need, which costs energy to produce and distribute. They also require processing- which takes… more energy. And then there’s the refining. And oh, all that space to grow, which has resulted in huge food price increases that are affecting… everybody poorer than us… and, oh yeah, massive deforestation as those same third-world nations that live much closer to the bone and can’t afford to place premiums on their wild land take advantage of the new market. It’s not just not as good as fossil fuels, biofuels turn out to be actively destructive to the environment. Whoops.
Hydrogen suffers from similar, but more obvious problems: since there are no natural reservoirs of pure hydrogen (and how would we extract it if there were?), getting the hydrogen takes so much energy that using the hydrogen itself as a fuel source would be as inefficient if not more so than powering everything by hamsters on wheels. In order to get hydrogen, you need electricity… rather a lot of it. The hydrogen itself is also hard to store (thanks to its lively chemistry, it brittles metals and increases maintenance costs) and hard to transport. If it takes more energy to create a “fuel” than it gives in result, it is not a viable alternative. Supplement, maybe- build a ton of nuclear plants (as the scientists in the linked article, from our own home Bomb Town, suggest) to power the creation of tons of hydrogen fuel, and then use that to run mobile fuel-requiring things like car. But that’s not a solution to any kind of energy crisis, since the net energy balance is the same: a loss.
Only Possible Rational Position number four: We can’t go “cold turkey” or even lukewarm turkey from oil until we have real candidates to replace it- and right now, we just have potential supplements from varying sources.
Our cheap lunch that we’ve been relying on for so long isn’t so cheap anymore, and there’s no way in hell we’re going to get a free one now matter how shiny it looks on the surface. The last position I consider “only rational”- and I would, because it’s my own- is to answer both sides: put as much as we can afford into VIABLE alternative energy research- not unworkable ones that happen to make the agricultural lobby really, really happy. At the same time, widen the pipeline- I’m no happier about the idea of disturbing the environment for more oil resources than anybody else that would take one empty Yosemite over the entire human-filled mess of Manhattan would be, but I also recognize that I live in a republic, and if I want my political priority (conservation) to remain viable, it can’t come to be percieved as an elitist hobbyhorse pushed by people who don’t give a shit what happens to anyone who’s not on the Endangered Species List.
More radically, I’m in favor of letting the oil companies keep their “obscene windfall” profits- because they actually know that investment is necessary to their future survival, they know how to work with and transport energy, and they’re who we’ll be needing to go to for distribution and technological help when that far-off alternative to fossil fuels actually DOES come around. Their track record at all of these things is far better than the government’s- even though the government gets more in tax than the oil companies get in profit they can keep already.
What I actually expect will happen is that Congress will curl into a ball and make humming noises as long as it can, and then most of it will take the position that seems least likely to get them unelected, which will consist of some combination of obstructionism, lip service, and cargo-cult economics. In the meantime, conservationists will continue to pretend that they’re in an episode of Captain Planet in which the evil oil companies and their political tools conspire to keep us all poor and sick and away from the free lunch, and conservatives will continue to pretend that their enemies are the sinister New Marxists who’ve adopted a strange death cult.
In other words, life as usual.
*To those that think if America takes the moral lead and really makes the economic sacrifices necessary to seriously cut fossil fuel use, nations such as China, Russia, and India will be so impressed they’ll follow suit: Name me ONE instance in history where pure moral example on the part of one nation was so compelling that other powers of similar size (but less wealth) followed suit at serious cost to themselves. Hell, name me one instance where pure moral authority was enough to make them do so at moderate cost to themselves.