Business as usual is no longer possible. In an unsustainable system, business as usual will eventually reach the limits of the system. We are rapidly approaching the limits in our ecology, our energy resources and our economy.
While there are still those who argue against the idea of global warming, our weather is telling us that business as usual has pushed our climate to its limits. If hurricane Katrina did not convince you, ask the people in Florida about the 2004 hurricane season; ask the people in Los Angeles how it felt to get twice the annual average rainfall in the 2004-2005 season; ask the people in Seattle how it felt to get half as much rain as the people in L.A.; ask the people in Northern Europe how it felt in the summer of 2004 to have friends and relatives die of heat stroke. While we may have business as usual, the people who paddled kayaks at Bad Water in Death Valley in the spring of 2005 can tell us that we obviously don't have climate as usual.
While some would like to believe that we have virtually unlimited petroleum resources, the facts of the marketplace are telling us that business as usual has us pushing limits here, too. The price of a barrel of crude has topped $140 markets and will probably never go below $40 again (some say we may never even see $100 again). Supply is simply not growing fast enough to meet the rising demand. Even if every American who owns an SUV traded it in for a compact hybrid, demand would continue to rise since China has passed the U.S. as the number one market for new cars (and India is gaining on us). By the middle of the 21st Century, at current growth rates, the approximately 900 million vehicles in use worldwide will increase to over 3 billion.
While there are those who still view the United States as having the greatest economy in the history of the world, the facts say that business as usual has pushed our economy to its limits. The United States currently borrows over $2 billion (with a "B"; no typo) per day to keep our economy afloat. Japan, China, Taiwan, and South Korea hold 40 percent of our government debt. "By helping keep mortgage rates from rising, China has come to play an enormous and little-noticed role in sustaining the American housing boom" (NYT, Dec. 4, 2004). How much will a new homeowner spend on goods made in China? Can he or she even find goods made in the U.S. to buy? How long can we keep this up? And, as the price of crude oil continues to go up, the situation only worsens.
In short, business as usual has pushed us perilously close to the
reducto ad absurdum limit at which things fall apart. This is happening on multiple fronts simultaneously. Many people no longer question if we will reach these limits, they ask, "When?" Some business and political leaders have put forth ten or twenty year plans to make necessary changes, but do we have that long?
Unless we really want to see what happens at and beyond the limits - probably not a pretty picture - we need to change the question. It is time to stop asking, "When?" It's time to start asking:
What can we do to change things?
How can we change things to improve our economy and the quality of our lives?
How quickly can we make the changes?
Some may find the second question somewhat audacious, but unless we ask it we don't stand a chance of answering it.
Let's start by examining the problems. We have a veritable smorgasbord of reasons for despair. Alternatively, we can view these as opportunities to effect beneficial, if seemingly radical, changes.
We need to radically curtail our use of fossil fuel to even begin to address the climate changes caused by greenhouse gasses.
We need to radically disengage ourselves from our dependency on fossil fuel before it becomes entirely too scarce and too expensive.
We need to radically move to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil as matter of national security. The American military without gasoline, diesel, fuel oil and jet fuel is an extremely expensive and highly lethal paperweight.
We need to radically reduce our use of imported crude and become more self-sufficient if we ever expect to balance our national checkbook. Also, unless we become much more self-reliant for our energy needs, we can continue to expect to have our foreign policy strongly influenced (if not completely dictated) by considerations of how much oil which nations have.
While we are on the subject of self-sufficiency, let us note that as of June 2004 the US became a net importer of food. (Could this have anything to do with the fact that American farmers' usage of petrochemicals and petroleum per acre ranks among the highest in the world?)
Given all of the problems caused by burning fossil fuels, should we take the Luddite position? Should we eliminate everything that uses fossil fuels? Remember, we are trying to determine, "How can we change things to improve our economy and the quality of our lives?"
Eliminating everything that runs on fossil fuel would destroy our economy, not improve it.
Admitted, eliminating everything that runs on fossil fuel might, to some, sound like it could improve the quality of our lives. But how many of them would willingly live in a 19th Century society with limited mobility? Are they willing to ride to the emergency room in a horse-drawn ambulance? How many would argue that we do not have a richer society, culturally and even spiritually (as well as financially), because of our mobility made possible by things that run on fossil fuel?
We do not want to eliminate everything that uses fossil fuel. We need to find a viable replacement for the fossil fuel. People have proposed various options including electricity and hydrogen. Unfortunately, those who propose these two options rarely address the question of where do we get the electricity or the hydrogen? A vast majority of the electricity used in the U.S. comes from burning fossil fuel (natural gas, fuel oil or coal); much of the balance comes from nuclear power - hardly a preferable alternative. As for hydrogen, it usually either comes from natural gas or coal, or by splitting it out of water molecules. While the latter may sound clean, it requires enormous amounts of electricity (see discussion on electricity two sentences prior). Consider also that it is very difficult to match the thermodynamic properties of gasoline (i.e., how far you can go on how little you have to carry). Batteries for electric cars, or tanks sufficiently strong to transport hydrogen, add a significant weight penalty to a vehicle. By the time we take this into consideration along with the losses in transmission and storage of electricity, a well designed and well-maintained internal combustion engine may use less fossil fuel than either an electric or hydrogen powered vehicle.
If neither electricity nor hydrogen is the answer, what can we do? Let's begin by taking another look at fossil fuel. We have stated a number of its disadvantages. What are its advantages?
It works well; actually it works very well. The thermodynamic properties of gasoline and diesel make them ideal fuels for use in transportation.
Gasoline and diesel are very easy to transport and use safely.
The internal combustion engine is a well-developed technology. We have it in hand. Now.
We have the infrastructure in place to support it. It is difficult to find a place in the United States (at least the lower 48 and Hawaii) more than 100 miles from a gas station.
We already have vehicles that run on gasoline and diesel.
Given these advantages, why not consider the possibility of keeping the "fuel", but losing the "fossil". Fossil fuel is derived from natural processes that trapped hydrocarbons beneath the surface of the earth hundreds of thousands of years ago. Recent theories have challenged the assumption that these hydrocarbons come from decomposed vegetable matter and posit that they may come from mineral sources; this could, if correct, mean that we might have more petroleum available. In either case, it is the release of this trapped carbon into the atmosphere that causes the problems with greenhouse gasses. And most, if not all, of the undiscovered and/or unexploited sources of petroleum lie outside the US.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that petroleum comes from decomposed plant matter. Why not use decomposed plants that we grow instead of decomposed plants that grew hundreds of thousands of years ago? We have the technology to do this. It is called pyrolysis. By heating plant matter to a very high temperature in a reduced oxygen environment, we get approximately 10% of the plant mass converted to methane, 15% to carbon coke and 75% converted to sludge. The sludge is actually a reasonably high grade, very sweet (i.e., very low to no sulfur content) crude oil. Burning the carbon coke produces more than enough heat to sustain the process (to use the technical term, the process is exothermic).
This is not pie in the sky technology that may be available in twenty years. Agribusiness heavyweight Con-Agra is part of a joint venture currently operating the first commercial-scale plant in Carthage, Missouri. Using a slight variation on straight pyrolysis (i.e., injecting water to get more gasses and less coke) it turns 200 tons of low-value, organic and agricultural waste per day into valuable energy and industrial-use products including crude oil. [While the facility has had problems, including odor, we believe these come from the fact that Con-Agra is attempting to use, among other things, turkey offal rather than plant matter, as feed stock.]
By using plants that we grow (biomass), we reduce the amount of fossil carbon released into the atmosphere to zero. We actually remove carbon from the atmosphere unless we use all of the plant, including the root system. While not the entire answer to the problem of global warming, this is a major and necessary step in the right direction. An added ecological benefit comes in elimination of spills by oil tankers.
By using biomass we also eliminate the need to depend on sources outside the US for our energy supply. This not only has a positive impact on our balance of trade, it also removes petroleum from the list of "American interests" abroad that have to be defended, with a consequent reduction in the Defense budget. And it means that our foreign policy need not depend on which country has how much oil. Do we really want a new American century of an empire driven by its need to exploit other countries? Wouldn't we rather have a true American century based on self-reliance and producing enough to share?
By switching our economy from fossil fuel to biomass we can also restore the American family farm. Biomass becomes the cash crop to make family farming viable economically. Simply exempting up to (to pick a number; this is obviously negotiable) 640 acres of biomass land from taxes, while taxing any thing more than (once again, a negotiable number) 3,200 acres of biomass at a higher rate would bring the family farm back to America almost overnight. While a corporation with land in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Canada might find it more cost effective to import food than grow it here, a family farm will grow food as part of a crop rotation plan. There is no excuse (other than the interests of multinational agribusiness concerns) for the U.S. to be a net importer of food.
Can we really do this? Is it possible? If it is possible, why aren't we doing it? The answer comes down to one word - politics. And no, it is not the politics of the oil companies.
Think about it. The oil companies spend money on exploration, drilling and transporting crude; they make money on refining, distributing and retailing gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc. Not only are their expenses for exploration and drilling going up, but they may reach a point soon when they cannot get sufficient crude to refine and sell regardless of the cost. Switching to biomass eliminates their greatest expenses while guaranteeing a virtually unlimited supply of relatively cheap, high-grade crude. Studies have shown that biomass can compete economically with crude at $30 to $35 per barrel. How much gasoline can the oil companies sell at $1.25 to $1.50 per gallon? By converting to biomass the oil companies also realize multi-million dollar windfalls in the form of massive "carbon credits" that they can sell to other industries working to meet Kyoto limits. And, by eliminating any possibility of oil spills and working to reduce greenhouse gasses, the oil companies become environmental good guys. The political problem does not come from the oil companies.
So where is the political problem? It turns out that the only plant capable of producing sufficient biomass to make this work is the hemp plant. Using one third to one half of the fallow farmland in the U.S. we can produce enough biomass in the form of hemp to power all of our transportation. No other plant produces anywhere near as much biomass per acre. Of course hemp is also known as marijuana, and there, as they say, is the rub. To transition from a fossil fuel economy to a biomass economy would require changes in the law to allow farmers to legally grow industrial hemp, the agricultural equivalent of non-alcohol beer.
Yes, it is possible for us to eliminate our use of fossil fuel. We could do so within four years or less. This timeframe has historic precedents in the Liberty Ship and "Hemp for Victory" programs during WWII. It would take a concerted effort on the part of farmers and refineries to do this, but both would benefit greatly.
This could even make it possible for farmers to convert land back to organic farming, since they would have a cash crop that would not require pesticides and fertilizers.
We could justify giving the refineries a 200% tax credit for the expenses incurred in adding the pyrolysis units (savings in defense spending alone make this a worthwhile investment).
This would also make it feasible to build additional refineries in inland areas, far from where oil could arrive by tankers (e.g., the Gulf Coast) but close to where the biomass grows.
Gandhi said, "The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problems." Yes, it is possible to:
Eliminate our use of fossil oil.
Save the environment.
Restore the family farm.
Secure our nation's future.
Correct our balance of trade deficit.
Guarantee the future of the oil companies.
Bring the price of gasoline back down to below $1.50 per gallon.
It is possible. Will we do it?
As we approach the limits of business as usual we can choose a future based on fear, hate and greed, as an empire taking what it sees as necessary for its survival. Or we can choose a future based on hope, love and a celebration of the abundant universe where we move back toward self-sufficiency and sharing. It's our choice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Geo. McCalip has an extensive background in systems analysis and has done graduate level work in Environmental Studies. He currently serves as VP/CTO of a small multi-national company working on land use and other development issues in East Africa. Although he has worn hemp clothing, he has never smoked marijuana.
As of October 2009 Mr. McCalip is Director and President of California Legal Rights Fund, an educational nonprofit organized to educate the people of California as to their legal rights.