SUBHEAD: Obama leadership in mitigating the inevitability of energy flow declines.
By George Mobus on 21 January 2009 in Question Everything
After watching the spectacle of the inauguration, seeing the joy in so many people's faces, and listening to President Obama's inspiring speech I must say I am moved to share the hope expressed in this historic occasion. Questioning everything also means questioning my own beliefs, assumptions, and understanding. I hope the new president has the ability, and we as a nation/world have the options to right the world. My short-term, seemingly pessimistic view could turn out to be wrong on any one or more of the dimensions I have written about. I hope things aren't as bad as they look to me. My long-term optimistic view — that humanity will evolve into a eusapient species — is what has motivated me to think about what we should be doing now.
image above: A cel from the 1949 "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment of Disney's "Fantasia"
The more I see Obama in situations like today's proceedings, the more I like him. He is human and potentially superhuman. Chief Justice Roberts didn't help the situation, but did you see how gracefully Obama stumbled on the oath of office but recovered without a blink of the eye? That says a lot to me.
Hopes are high, but so are expectations. The world is hurting and just about everyone expects this man to provide salvation. I suspect a lot of people are ready to sacrifice, to work hard, to change their ways, and basically follow Obama's lead. I know I am.
But I can't follow blindly. He has to lead in a direction that makes sense.
I've been claiming that energy flow is declining and the ability to do economic work is the root cause of our financial troubles. I further have claimed that this decline will worsen over time because there is no way alternative energy sources can be scaled up to prevent major contraction. So here is the acid test. Over the next four years Obama will have an opportunity to manage this decline, or, and this is clearly preferable, somehow reverse it. The next four years will tell all. Obama has a solid majority in the Congress, he has the goodwill of 60% of the populace in the USA and who knows how much of the world. The problems are daunting, but no one has entered office with a more supportive electorate/audience. If Obama can't pull it off, no one can I suspect.
Watching Bush depart was both a relief to see him go at last and a sadness for the carnage he leaves behind. How much of the world's woes can be attributed to this man and his minions? He has done incomparable damage to the world with his God-directed actions or inactions as the case might be. His attitudes toward global warming and energy policy have been outright destructive. The moral justice part of me wants to see retribution eeked out on this man and his cronies. On the other hand I suspect the real problems stem from us. We are the ones who burned fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow. Bush just enabled us to keep at it even when the net energy flow decline started to have a negative impact on our economy. In a real sense, he gave us what we wanted. And he helped us lie to ourselves about the consequences.
Energy is the key to so many things. It is the one thing that Obama will have to put a significant amount of attention. My recommendations are to quickly attend to conservation and efficiency measures — the two things we know we can do something about. Conservation first, since that really is the lowest hanging fruit. This is where sacrifice comes in. We need to give up the discretionary spending on frivolous novelties and entertainment. We need to give up luxuries. We need to do it right away. And we need to intentionally reduce our use of fossil fuels immediately.
Efficiencies come next, but this will not have the immediate effect that eschewing the high life will have. Building insulation and reducing speed limits will be something we can start immediately. But increasing fuel efficiency and appliance standards will take years to start having a real impact. Nevertheless it beats the amount of time it will take to scale up alternative energy sources like wind and solar, not to mention nuclear fission. Austerity will actually help fund the early efficiency efforts. But we will still have to find resources to change out machines and build new sources. That is the part of the equation that is really mysterious. Where will the energy come from to bootstrap the new sustainable sources?
I hope to see Mr. Obama adopt a strategic position that recognizes the reality of peak oil and of the decline of energy available to do economic work. I hope to see him realize (in spite of the advice of Larry Summers, et al) that we are about to go into an era of diminishing wealth production and reversal of growth. Such a condition could be managed and we might yet avoid the worst kinds of consequences if we recognize the problem and plan for it.
So this is the acid test. For me, I've gone on record here as saying that I think we are going into contraction and should act accordingly. If Obama realizes the rhetoric of his speech in the real world then I will happily fail the acid test and life goes on. If, however, the next four years prove disastrous for our society then I will have to bite my tongue and not say 'I told you so.'
Of course we might both be right in certain ways. Perhaps the writing on the wall that I seem to be able to read will be seen by Obama too. Maybe he will recognize the inevitability of energy flow decline and start managing the process in such a way that it doesn't have to be as painful as it might be. He could do it through leadership and bringing the populace along. In his speech he called for personal responsibility, and that is exactly what will be needed. That, and understanding.