Thursday, August 26, 2010

Letter to the Seattle PI (Aug 2010)

Time for a Green New Deal

The economy continues to slide, with what looks like a double-dip recession not far away. News of housing, stocks, and unemployment look grim. As consumers pull back, we could even see the onset of deflation like that which killed Japanese growth for over a decade. Meanwhile, world demand for oil is approaching the level which kicked off the Great Recession in 2008, which could mean another oil spike as soon as next year.

Surely it is time for President Obama to replace his economic team and bring on New Deal policies in earnest. Economic measures which increase productive activity will pay for themselves over time, and can be funded by restoring the upper-income tax levels of the Clinton years and paring the bloated military budget. Putting people to work on needed projects will pay dividends to them and to us.

The calling of our time is to save the world from runaway climate change. Meanwhile, peaking oil production will bring severe stress to the U.S., the country most heavily dependent on automobiles. These two factors can be mitigated if we design government projects that transition us to renewable energy, rail-served urban centers and sustainable agriculture. By doing so, we will expand the manufacturing base which will grow the economy. We may even save the planet for future generations.

If not now, when?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

National Energy Corps (Nov 2006)

Letter to Editor

I read with interest U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott's proposal for one year of national service for young people, including possibly in the military (Wednesday).

I hope he is open to a related suggestion. First, we withdraw from Iraq, and shrink our armed forces by cutting the military budget by 25 percent. After reparations, we use that savings of more than $100 billion for a national energy conversion program to wean ourselves off foreign oil. At the same time, we would be well on the way to joining the world community by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
An Energy Corps of young people could retrofit every house and building in the country for energy conservation. It could help build local solar, wind and biomass facilities as well as upgrade an aging electrical grid. It could help set up a transportation infrastructure that reduces our reliance on oil, including more public transit, pedestrian sidewalks and bike paths. Finally, it could help foster a local agricultural economy, whereby much of our food could be grown without costly petrochemicals and long-distance transportation.

Many respected economists are afraid that we are entering a major recession. Many independent geologists say that the world's oil production will peak by the end of the decade. We can either wait and see if the are correct or we can take preventive action by stimulating our economy and moving toward a peaceful, sustainable way of life that heads off the worst of global warming and ensures that civilization will continue into the next century.

I trust McDermott is not asking for an even bigger military. But how about proposals more in line with the challenges we face?

Colin WrightSeattle

A New Economy for Puget Sound (Nov 2009)

Letter to the Editor (Nov 11, 2009)

Taking Jon Talton’s advice one step further

Economic worries top regional and national concerns, as Jon Talton noted [“Our future economic strength depends on adding value,” Business, Nov. 8].

Top companies like Boeing and Microsoft seek to make the quick buck by selling out local constituencies in favor of cheaper labor elsewhere. Talton, as usual, offers us his sage advice: Keep the Puget Sound a competitive region by fostering innovation, education and a high quality of life. Keep one step ahead of the race to the bottom.

But can we really prosper if we accept the main tenets of the neoliberal model of free trade? If cheaper labor is always available elsewhere, are our jobs safe when companies can just pick up and go? And anyway, what future does the neoliberal model have in a world of diminishing trade and higher energy prices due to global warming and oil depletion?

What if instead we try to make the Puget Sound region a center of quality and stable employment by developing new economic models that tie companies to their roots. What if, at the same time, we tried to foster a new regional economy that puts us at the forefront of ecological sustainability.

We can do this by offering incentives to local companies to use regional products. We can explore new ownership models where workers and unions get a seat at the table, and a stake in the company. Our credit unions, an alternative to large distant banks, with help from local government, could be used to provide the needed seed capital.

With a new mayor promising green jobs, we have the opportunity to make Seattle an innovator not just of new products but of new ways of doing business. A robust and resilient local economy could make us secure and prosperous and less dependent on the fickle and devious attitudes of multinational corporations.

— Colin Wright, Seattle

Oil Spill in the Gulf (May 2010)

Published Letter to Seattle Times, May 3 2010

Oil spill in Gulf of Mexico gets messy

Editor, The Times:
The spreading oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico ought to make us rethink more than just the wisdom of expanding offshore oil drilling. It should make us rethink our dependence on petroleum in general [“Underwater oil gusher a crisis no one imagined,” page one, May 1].

This latest environmental disaster should open our eyes to the damage our oil addiction is making. Not only does our oil dependence prop up autocratic, unfriendly regimes, it fouls up our own nest.

Tens of thousands of us die prematurely due to the air pollution associated with automobiles. Tens of thousands more die in car accidents. More important, we endanger future generations by generating greenhouse gases that are pushing the planet toward an inhospitable, ice-free state.

As if those aren’t enough reasons, consider how our society is organized around the assumption that oil will always be cheap and readily available, though independent geologists warn us that we are close to the peak of global oil production.

The Department of Defense estimates that surplus oil-production capacity could entirely disappear by 2012. That means a future of high gas prices and increasing international tension over remaining supplies.

We could be planning a future based on walkable communities and electrified public transit. Instead, we close our eyes to the damage oil does to the environment and ignore the future, wildlife and future generations be damned.

— Colin Wright, Seattle

Can Peak Oil Save Us? (Eat the State, March 2007)

note: also scavenged from Peak Oil News

Occasionally I run into someone who has heard about Peak Oil, but doesn't think it will matter much. Usually they are convinced that the peak is at least 30 years off. Or that we have copious amounts of alternative sources of energy (tar sands, oil shale, methane hydrates, etc.) that we can tap into as soon as the market signals. They may have read somewhere that people have been warning about the depletion of oil ever since it was first discovered. Or they may dismiss Peak Oil as the rantings of a doomsday cult, much like the Y2K prophesies of societal collapse.

Unfortunately the Peak Oil deniers are usually not familiar with the writings of world-class geologists like Colin Campbell and Ken Deffeyes. Or energy analysts (and Friends of Bush) like Matt Simmons. They usually don't know about the Hirsh Report, a DOE-sponsored study concluding that Peak Oil would need 20 years to plan for and would require multi-billion dollar investments in coal-to-liquid projects.

Meanwhile world oil production has been flat for two years now, even as increasing demand from the US, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East has priced the third world out of the little oil they have been using. Peak Oil means that half the world's usable reserves are gone, but more importantly, that falling production rates will have devastating economic consequences on the global economy.

The Portland City Council takes Peak Oil very seriously (see Their 12-member Peak Oil Task Force is recommending that the city cut its fossil fuel consumption by 50 percent over the next 25 years. They think this is achievable through high-density planning and zoning and increased public transportation. Additionally, they "see the potential for profound economic hardship and high levels of unemployment, and recommend having plans in place to adapt social and economic support systems accordingly."While Portland has been actively preparing for an expensive-oil future, Seattle has been planning to spend billions of dollars on a new highway replacement. While claiming to be a leader in the fight against global warming, the city of Seattle seems to have no recordings of greenhouse gas emissions, like Portland, on its web site. It's not clear whether we're on target to meet even Kyoto standards (which apparently we're not). Biofuels are going to save us and our auto-centric lifestyles, I suppose, if we can believe the mayoral photo-ops.

The silver lining of Peak Oil and Gas is of course that it may save us from the worst of global warming (if we leave the remaining coal in the ground). A low-carbon diet will be forced upon us, which will make Ron Sims' 80 percent carbon reduction targets by 2050 much more realistic. (But if we don't manage to construct an effective mass transit system in the next two decades, increased energy costs will probably mean it will never be built.)But I see another possible "upside" to Peak Oil. It forces upon us the chance of a paradigm change in our behavior.

For almost all of our history human populations have been growing and we have sought out just about every available niche. "Go forth and multiply" has been the biblical imperative. In North America, Europeans decimated native populations and spread west when group or class conflicts arose. Elites urged imperial expansions in places like Hawaii, the Philippines and Iraq. When African Americans and other minorities demanded equitable treatment in employment, housing and education, many whites simply fled to the newly-developing suburbs.These expansions were all made possible by developments in technology (among other factors)--Guns, Germs and Steel. But underlying this were new ways to harness energy, be they in sailing ships or automobiles. Human population growth has been mirrored and enabled by energy growth. In fact, while the population quadrupled over the last century, the energy in the food production system has gone up by 80 times (according to Thomas Homer-Dixon).

We are now close to the pinnacle of net energy use. (In fact, we have long passed the net energy per capita peak.) To use an analogy from physics, the centrifugal forces which pushed humans out into the world will soon be replaced by centripetal forces which will draw us back together again. As we go over the energy peak and move onto the energy down-slope, we will be forced to learn to live with less. This will require a new outlook, but one for which I believe we are well equipped.Humans are extremely adaptable. It's one of our defining traits. But above that, we are social animals. Except for a few outsiders, our hopes, dreams and efforts are all motivated by group purposes. Everyone wants to be well-regarded by their peers and neighbors. We crave respect and status. (How do you want your obituary to read?)The mythical figure of the macho, rugged individual suited imperial expansion. In their time and place, these Davy Crockett figures were common heroes. (They were for my boyhood. And no doubt for W's.) But now, driving a Hummer signals the driver as someone decidedly un-cool, a square, out of touch with the new zeitgeist. The new status symbols are high-tech, but low-energy. Think iPod. Bicycle. Condo. The Dandy Warhols.

Anecdotal evidence for a change in zeitgeist, perhaps. No doubt, change will be uneven and drawn out, dependent on local circumstances. But my feeling is that when people are forced to live and work closer together, this will unleash the creativity to produce a richer social environment that will counter the isolated consumer/worker ethos that corporate capitalism fosters.

Just because we are moving into a low-energy future does not mean we will move backwards in time, like a movie in reverse. Writers like James Howard Kunstler look to a dystopian future, where women lose their freedoms and ethnic tensions are exacerbated. But the "Long Emergency" is definitely not the only possibility in the history books not yet written. We have accumulated fantastic wealth and know-how, including hundreds of years of science and technology, and advances in human understanding. The trick is to convince enough people of the changes that are coming before we are overtaken blindly by events. To plan for our future.Over 70 years ago, in a country using little oil, Bertrand Russell wrote in In Praise of Idleness that we could meet all our needs with less than four hours of work per day. His evidence was how England mobilized its economy during WWI. As he put it:

"Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever."

Even today, machine technology and cooperative economics may offer the keys to a prosperous and sustainable low-carbon economy, as writers such as Jon Rynn have suggested. The biggest challenge may be convincing people that our current economic system, after a century of state and corporate propaganda, is not the only option. In fact, I would argue that the current system is one which supported a growing population and a growing GDP during the up phase of the energy curve. (And that is why the working classes went along with it, bought off with the trickle-downs.) In a world of diminishing energy, we will need to rethink our economy--and that implies our relations to one another. Peak Oil will provide us with that opportunity, perhaps sooner than we expect.

The Warning of Peak Oil (Dec 2005, Eat the State)

Note: Eat the State back issues no longer appear to be online. This version was scavenged from Peak Oil News.

After years of work by a small group of dedicated activists, the concept of Peak Oil is slowly percolating into mainstream dialog. Peak Oil is not, as a friend once surmised, a marketing campaign for a particular brand of gasoline. Rather it is the imminent maxing out of global oil production, the point after which each succeeding year produces less oil.

By now Peak Oil has been covered (at least briefly) by most major media from Time magazine to USA Today. It has been debated on campuses such as Caltech and Stanford. Even Congress is getting in the act. A Peak Oil caucus has formed in the U.S. House, whose members recently held hearings: see, which ought to be required reading for every person.Perhaps like me, you had thought oil depletion would be something to worry about around 2030. In fact, the alarm bells have been sounded by the independent Association for the Study of Peak Oil ( Consisting of academics and former oil industry analysts, ASPO is perhaps the most credible oil research group. They're currently predicting 2010 as the year of peak oil production.

That would not be bad in itself (given the way global warming has taken off), except that it doesn't leave us much time to plan for alternatives. In the words of Dr. Robert Hirsch from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory: "Unless a mitigation crash program is started 20 years before peaking occurs, the economic consequences will be dire" (

Why? As world-wide competition for the remaining oil increases (particularly from China and India), prices will escalate. Oil supplies about 40% of the world's energy and powers over 90% of the world's transportation. Our entire industrial society is based on cheap oil, and just about every product these days, from pharmaceuticals to plastics, is oil-based.

It is not only the date of oil peaking that is unknown, nor the amount of time we will have before oil is essentially gone from our lives (perhaps 30 years after peak). The consequences are impossible to predict. On one end of the spectrum of opinion are the worst case scenarios -- worldwide depression followed by mass starvation (e.g. On the other end, we have business-as-usual with alternative sources of energy. The problem is that the alternative sources of energy are mostly expensive, dirty and finite themselves. Renewable sources of energy, while a welcome partial solution, are not "energy-dense," meaning that the energy return is small per dollar invested. (For a survey of our energy landscape, I'd recommend Richard Heinberg's excellent ground-breaking book "The Party's Over.")While we can't know the future, it's a safe bet that expensive energy will lead to less travel and more conservation. Price inflation will surely follow expensive oil, as production and transportation costs increase. In other words, we can expect a negative effect on the world economy with a possible recession.The task for progressives and environmentalists will be to situate oil and natural gas depletion in an ecological context. We are pushing the Limits to Growth, as GDP's increase annually all over the world, populations continue to increase and one resource after another appears to be finite within our lifetimes. (For example, natural gas is expected to peak a decade after oil. Copper extraction has been reported to be near peak at

We can continue to grow our consumer-capitalist economy until we have exhausted and fried the earth, guaranteeing ecological collapse. Or we can start pushing for a sustainable society that is not based on material accumulation, increased energy consumption and market competition. We can work for a culturally-rich, less-affluent and community-oriented society.

Fortunately, in Seattle, we have many advantages that will help us in the years ahead. We have a fairly well-educated, environmentally-friendly population with a progressive tradition. We have a relatively mild climate and useable hydroelectric power. (Note: that hydro-power could help electrify our transit system.) Much of our food could be grown in-state. The challenges will be to localize our economy to provide our basic needs and our livelihoods. (For example, eventually, the demand for jet airliners will slow and we will need to foster new eco-technologies.) Sweden is pushing ahead in this regard with the formation of networks of "eco-municipalities", which create local employment.

The ramifications of Peak Oil will be immense. We will need to push for a global oil depletion protocol so that the world's remaining oil can be shared equitably without warfare. We will need a new ethic of cooperation and sharing to find new ways of relating to each other as neighbors and citizens. (Groups such as Sustainable Ballard and the Seattle Permaculture Guild are already forging new pathways.) The key to surviving Peak Oil will be to build strong neighborhoods filled with citizen-activists, who elect progressive leaders. Educate yourself, then get active. (One place to start is the Seattle Peak Oil Awareness group,

We must create a sustainable society while we still have the energy and resources to prepare. If we wait until the last load of coal or uranium is burned, the last tree cut down, our fate (as Jared Diamond warns) will be that of the Easter Islanders. That is the warning of Peak Oil.