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<nettime> Energy to Internet outages?
human being on Sat, 6 Sep 2003 07:00:14 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Energy to Internet outages?

[this essay was from Orion Magazine was posted on the
alternative energy (ae) list and it brings together various
economic, social, and political aspects of today's energy
issues, in relation to the past through retelling of a story.

questioning whether today's technologies (and also our
knowledge of them) would be capable of surviving major
crises and loss of traditional supplies without a strategy
to adapt to a future requiring less consumption is of great
interest considering that several 'western' grids went down
in the last few months, in the USA and Canada lights-out
for some 50 million, in the UK in oddly and eerily parallel
encounters, and mass heat-deaths related to power issues
in France, where water cooled nuclear reactors got too hot.
many issues between weather patterns (global warming),
economic investments (industrial development patterns
extended into a fictitious future), and social aspects (in
which value is to produce and consume more and more
energy, itself being considered a virtue for others to now
emulate US Energy Policies, including China, which with
little doubt leads to a global war over energy resources).

the industrial mindset can be challenged as below, in a
basic, common sense approach to needed and required
changes, whether described in these words through other
synonymous sets (conservation, investment, strategic design)
it leads to the same questions and a different evaluation of
the value, use, and purpose of energy and energy issues
in relation to, if anything could be more extended and iconic
at the moment- the global internet in 2003, and its future life.
cheap oil = cheap internet? unknown, but it will be found out
once today's rear-view retroactive policies prove disastrous.
bc http://www.electronetwork.org/works/pen/new_power/ ]

As the energy emergency unfolds, is the blackout
of 2003 a preview of things to come?
by David Ehrenfeld

(This article has been abridged for the web. To read the full article, 
... to receive a Free Trial copy of the current issue of Orion 

WHEN PEOPLE THINK OF THE DRAMATIC STORY of Joseph and his brothers, told in
the Book of Genesis, they think first of the Canaanite family drama -- of a
brother abused and brought low by his siblings -- ending in one of the most
moving family reconciliations in all literature. Less often considered is
the subplot of the story: Joseph's accurate prediction of impending
environmental catastrophe -- drought and famine -- and his masterful
strategy for avoiding disaster by taking steps while resources were still

Sold into slavery, Joseph becomes known as a skilled interpreter of dreams,
a talent that comes to the ears of Pharaoh, who has been troubled by two
dreams that his advisors cannot explain. The dreams are similar: in one,
seven fat cows emerge from the Nile to graze, followed by seven emaciated
cows which swallow them up; in the other, seven full, healthy heads of
grain are eaten up by seven thin, shriveled ones. The repetition of the
theme in two dreams was believed a sign that God was about to bring these
events to pass. Pharaoh sends for Joseph.  Joseph's interpretation of the
dreams is that there will be seven years of abundant harvest, followed by
seven years of famine.

Therefore, he suggests to Pharaoh with breathtaking boldness, you should
appoint a wise and discreet man who will oversee Egypt, and who will
organize the collecting of one-fifth of the grain during the years of
plenty, to be stored in granaries in the cities and doled out during the
years of famine.

AT THE HEART OF JOSEPH'S STRATEGY was a simple lesson: In a world of
changing fortunes, long-term survival of an individual or a country can
often be achieved by saving during the good years. This is a profoundly
conservative strategy, one that must have evolved along with the
development of agriculture, which from the early days was largely based on
the planting of annual grain crops.

This lesson has been ignored in more recent history. In the 1920s, times
were good; during the postwar boom many people believed prosperity would
last forever, and they spent lavishly on every kind of luxury. Then, in
1929, came the crash, followed by the Great Depression, a shattering
experience for millions. Personal and corporate bankruptcies were legion,
and survivors lived the rest of their lives obsessed by the need for
savings and insurance.

In 2003, a new generation is repeating the mistakes of the '20s. We have an
administration that calls itself conservative, yet countenances with
equanimity a rising tide of bankruptcies and unemployment, and a deficit of
more than six trillion dollars. We are allowing our state and federal
legislators to borrow against pension plans and Social Security funds as if
tomorrow will never come. This fiscal nonchalance shows how little we
remember the Depression and its grim teaching: All parties sooner or later
come to an end, as many who put their life savings into high-tech stocks
have realized.

Our party, like the revels of the carefree summer of 1929, is ending, too.
Grave troubles concerning the environment, health, security, food, and
water have already begun to arrive. But the mother of them all is the
dwindling global supply of cheap energy, upon which modern civilization and
global commerce utterly depend. Here is a fundamental problem that will not
go away. All of the oil in Iraq, all of the oil in the Caspian region, all
of the oil in Russia, all of the oil that may be under the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge, and all of the potential supplies that have yet to be
discovered and developed anywhere will not be enough to meet the
increasingly ravenous demand of industry, transportation, agribusiness,
consumerism, and other modern sinkholes for cheap energy, even in the short

And it doesn't help much to add in other fossil fuel sources: Venezuela's
very heavy oil, the Athabasca oil sands of northern Alberta, the gas
hydrates or clathrates off the coast of North Carolina, coal deposits
everywhere, and the oil shales of western Colorado and eastern Utah. For
example, the petroleum geologist Walter Youngquist pointed out that for oil
shale the net energy costs of mining, transporting, refining, and disposing
of waste are probably greater than the energy recovered. Similar objections
apply to every other source of non-petroleum hydrocarbon energy, including
biomass energy from corn and garbage. It is true that we will not soon run
out of fossil fuels, but the cheap, oil-based energy upon which global
industrialization is based is going fast.

As we in America are using more and more energy, the rest of the world is
making do with less. The energy expert Richard Duncan has pointed out that
global energy production per capita reached its peak in 1979 and has been
falling at an average rate of 0.33 percent per year ever since. There is
now less energy available for each person on Earth than there was in 1979.
Duncan has predicted that world oil production will peak in 2006, and then
begin to fall rapidly, even as much of the less developed world is
industrializing, and its population growing. This prediction is roughly in
accord with those of other prominent oil geologists. If it is correct,
Duncan claims, "energy production per capita will fall to its 1930 [level]
by 2030."

This is industrial civilization as we know it, a fast-driving, heavily
consuming, self-indulgent civilization that lacks inherent braking
mechanisms. If Duncan and other energy analysts are right (they seem fairly
conservative), we can expect widespread electricity blackouts in a decade
or so, followed by the rapid unraveling of our highly complex, highly
interlinked, highly unstable, and highly unpredictable globalized system.

At some point, as the price of energy goes up and the net assets and
purchasing power of most Americans continue to wane, it will no longer be
feasible to ship large quantities of green peppers from Mexico to Boston in
January, or send steel for heavy construction from China to Atlanta.
Economists will then wonder how we could have squandered our energy
resources with such abandon. As industrial civilization starts to come
apart, social and economic failure will lower energy consumption, but not
in a way that most of us would find tolerable.

There are elements of industrial civilization that few would want to lose
-- advances in understanding and treating human diseases, research on
conservation and habitat restoration, improved ways of communicating over
great distances and of processing information, among others. Can we save
these elements by changing the system now before it disintegrates? This is,
I think, a possibility, unless it turns out that for social as well as
economic reasons the system is so dependent on consumption and waste, on
sheer volume of buying and selling, that it cannot survive moderation.  But
assuming the worst case will only cause paralysis of action. And we have a
moral obligation to act, because we in the First World have created this
system, which includes not ourselves alone, but those people in Third World
nations who have toiled and have polluted and depleted their own resources
to feed our consumption.

We are well into the unfolding energy emergency -- our dependence on oil
from the Middle East, where we have imposed our military and political
presence and culture, has spawned increasing terrorism and tumultuous
unrest. As we dangle from an oil-soaked lifeline, thousands of people in
the Islamic world are struggling to apply a lighted match. Terrorism
against a vast, complex, interlinked industrial society such as ours is
very cheap and relatively easy to accomplish; defense against terrorism is
fabulously expensive, compromises our civil liberties, and is not very
effective.  The best way to minimize the threat of terrorism is to
eliminate our most vulnerable and provocative activities, the first of
which is our heavy use of imported oil.

One thing is certain: If we are to reduce energy consumption in a way that
preserves the best parts of industrial civilization, we have to start now.
Now, while we are still sufficiently energy-rich and material-rich to
afford the high costs of technological development and to buy time for the
changes we need in public attitudes toward energy use. In other words, the
Joseph Strategy.

THERE ARE THREE QUITE DIFFERENT COURSES of action that might be taken, 
each with its advantages and drawbacks.

The first approach is a combination of stockpiling and rationing, a
"top-down" tactic that is roughly similar to the one that Joseph used.  The
energy stockpile most directly analogous to Joseph's huge granaries in the
cities is the national Strategic Petroleum Reserve, in existence since
1977.  The capacity of the petroleum reserve is seven hundred million
barrels of oil; it is not yet filled completely.

The U.S. consumption of oil is now approximately twenty million barrels per
day, a little more than half of which is provided by foreign oil. Thus the
reserve could hold a thirty-five-day supply. If the reserve were used to
replace only the foreign oil we consume, it would last a little less than
seventy days -- the slower the drawdown, the longer the supply would last.
By no stretch of the imagination, however, could the reserve make a
significant contribution to our energy needs for more than a year or two,
so stockpiling is not a factor in any long-term energy strategy.

Rationing is a different matter. Joseph kept strict control of the
stockpiled grain that was sold to the hungry Egyptians. A rough counterpart
was our government's rationing of gasoline during the Second World War.
When voluntary gas rationing proved ineffective, mandatory gas rationing
was put in place throughout the country by December 1942. Cars used for
"nonessential driving," the majority, had yellow A stickers on their
windshields, and received three to four gallons of gas per week. The
sticker hardest to come by, good for unlimited fuel, was the X sticker,
offered to VIPs such as members of Congress. In Washington, twelve percent
of the city's population applied for X stickers. Eleanor Roosevelt, the
First Lady, conspicuously applied for an A sticker. Leon Henderson
(Joseph's equivalent), the head of the Office of Price Administration, the
notorious OPA which administered rationing, also had an A sticker, and when
he made public the names of X sticker holders, several hundred changed
their minds and surrendered them.

Gas rationing worked fairly well; people understood that it was necessary,
and an exercise in effective patriotism, though cars were far less
important in the daily lives of Americans in the 1940s than they are today.
It seems likely that some form of mandatory energy rationing will be needed
again in twenty-first-century America. But in the absence of a national
energy catastrophe, the only politically acceptable forms of rationing are
likely to be indirect. Imposing strict gas mileage standards on all new
vehicles could be a viable equivalent of rationing. Strict regulation of
electricity consumption by outdoor advertising, refrigerators, and lighting
fixtures would do the same, as would the mandating of ecological design
criteria to reduce energy consumption in new buildings. With such
equivalents of rationing in place, we would have the time and money to
implement further improvements in our use of energy, and to devote more
attention to our many other environmental and social problems.

THE SECOND TACTIC for the precautionary avoidance of energy shortage is
technological innovation -- like rationing, a top-down approach.
Energy-saving technologies are already commercially available and more 
are being developed.

Obviously it would be ideal to couple the new energy-use and
energy-generating technologies: for instance, a hydrogen fuel cell-powered
car whose hydrogen is provided by energy from photovoltaic cells or wind
generators. But it seems doubtful that truly renewable sources can ever
provide even close to enough energy to run all the vehicular and other fuel
cells in an industrialized world at the current rate of use. In the
foreseeable future, we will still be powered primarily by fossil fuel.  For
example, in the case of hydrogen-powered fuel cells, pollution and fossil
fuel consumption still exist at the original point of hydrogen production.

Therefore, however much energy we save through our inventiveness, we will
sooner or later have to reduce our consumption. But in the meantime,
technological innovation that increases the efficiency of energy use and
provides more renewable energy is a great improvement over the wastefulness
of traditional practices. It is a crime that our government is only paying
lip service to most of this technology, when it should be supporting a
research and production effort on the scale of the World War II Manhattan
Project, which created the atomic bomb. We should be grateful that a few
developments -- the compact fluorescent bulb, wind power, and the hybrid
car -- are moving forward rapidly without much governmental assistance.
And perhaps, as profits from energy-saving technologies grow, our
government will belatedly join the parade. We can hope so, because
technological innovation is the second, necessary part of the Joseph

THERE IS ONE SERIOUS PROBLEM with both rationing and the new energy
technologies. In this regard, the Joseph story has more to tell us. In
chapter 47 of Genesis we learn what happened in Egypt after the famine

The famine was very severe.... Joseph gathered in all the money that was to
be found in the land of Egypt... and brought the money into Pharaoh's
palace. And when the money gave out... Joseph said, "Bring your livestock
and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone...."
And the next year [they] said to him..."With all the money and animal
stocks consigned to my lord, nothing is left.... Take us and our land in
exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide
the seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a
waste." So Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt for
Pharaoh....  And he removed the population [to cities] from one end of
Egypt's border to the other.... Then Joseph said to the people, "... here
is seed for you to sow the land. And when harvest comes, you shall give
one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be yours." And they said, "You
have saved our lives!  We are grateful to my lord and we shall be serfs to
Pharaoh." (Jewish Publication Society translation)

Joseph averted overwhelming famine and death, but at a price. In some
respects, the social consequences -- landless economic serfdom -- are
reminiscent of the changes that took place in Britain at the time of the
Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in modern
Mexico among the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples.

The net results of Joseph's actions were not only the avoidance of terrible
famine but the centralization of power in a country where it had previously
been dispersed, as well as the loss of liberty for most of its inhabitants.
Paradoxically, he also set the stage for the creation of a powerful regime
which eventually enslaved his own descendants.

Both rationing on the one hand and technological change on the other leave
us vulnerable to this side effect of the Joseph Strategy. In the case of
rationing of energy sources and uses, the danger is obvious. In any
rationing scheme, some people get more, others less. There is always a
potential for favoritism and manipulation.

Technological innovation, like rationing, also leaves us subject to
top-down control. With a few exceptions, such as the solar oven, modern
technological innovation in this field requires large amounts of capital
and large research establishments; and the kinds of organizations that can
carry out this research -- the federal government and multinational
corporations -- are not disposed to give up power. This research and
development is not a job for enterprising young beginners. The great
majority of people will have little or no opportunity to create any of the
modern, energy-saving devices themselves, or to make innovations,
improvements, or even repairs to the ones they buy. One has only to think
of the sealed components of today's automobiles and appliances. Some
readers of this article may thoroughly understand the physics and
engineering of hydrogen fuel cells, but there is probably not one of you
who can build a working, useful fuel cell from scratch in your basement
workshop and economically and safely generate the hydrogen to run it. Your
familiar power company, or its surrogate, will still be selling and
servicing your high-tech power generator. You are likely to be connected
forever to the company by an umbilical cord that you cannot cut.

Mandatory rationing and technological innovation are critically necessary
but we have to remember that these are top-down approaches. In times of
crisis, people tend to accept strong central authority (as after the
bombing of the Reichstag in 1933, or after September 11), and often find
themselves sacrificing their liberty. In the face of a severe energy
shortage, how much of our freedom will we be willing to lose to preserve
our current lifestyle?  Or can that lifestyle change?

THE THIRD PROACTIVE TACTIC for dealing with energy shortage is a largely
"bottom-up" approach that does not put us at the mercy of centralized power
structures or compromise our freedom. We consume far more than we need to
of almost everything: food, space, material goods, and, underlying all
other consumption, energy. A popular movement to lower consumption would
defuse the energy crisis quickly, at little or no direct cost. Unlike
rationing and most technological advances, it would reduce rather than
increase centralized control and our indebtedness to energy-giving

Such a movement already exists and is growing, as more and more people take
themselves off the consumption treadmill. Consuming less, including much
less energy, doesn't have to mean shutting down. But an energy-sparing life
of quality does not come without effort. A thousand economic and cultural
obstacles, created by government in league with transnational corporations,
make it hard to operate a farm, small business, or a professional practice
in a low-consumption way. The spend-and-discard, mall-dwelling lifestyle is
easier and more convenient, and requires much less knowledge and
commitment.  This is why we should not expect a widespread, dramatic
conversion until the true costs of our obscene energy (and other)
consumption begin to hit home with skyrocketing gasoline prices, scattered
blackouts, increasing unemployment, and possibly more terrorist attacks.
When this point comes, our hope must be that enough people have pioneered
low-consumption ways of living to teach survival skills to the refugees who
cannot imagine life without low-priced gas, cheap imports, and the produce
of factory farms.

Then we will discover that the ability to reduce our own consumption will
give us enormous power that cannot be taken away by higher authority.
True, military-related contracts, paid by the taxpayers, can be handed out
by the government, but the great bulk of buying is under our control. The
power not to spend, at least on nonessential goods and services, has not
yet been exploited to pressure our political leaders to look beyond
materialism for the public good.

We can only be sold what we want to buy. Europeans have demonstrated this
truth with their boycott of "genetically modified" (GM) food, which has in
turn spelled deep financial trouble for Monsanto, its largest purveyor.
Monsanto has been a major contributor to both Republican and Democratic
parties, and few would say that this has not affected national policy.  But
if Monsanto is weakened by popular lack of demand for its products and by
the opposition of other commercial interests damaged by the GM food wars,
will this not reduce its political influence as well?

A voluntary lowering of consumption -- the end of gross materialism --
would bring about many beneficial changes in our society. It would improve
our health by breaking the stressful spiral of working more to buy more --
and to pay the ever-ballooning interest on credit card debt. It would
increase our need and concern for each other as we rediscover that
neighbors can share goods and exchange services at great savings and with
much joy.

Lowering consumption would also have dramatic effects beyond the industrial
world. It would reduce exploitation of children and semi-slave laborers in
Third World countries, and would slow depletion of global resources.  These
countries could then promote a healthy, equitable commerce among themselves
by forming regional trading blocs, free of the negative economic and social
consequences of depending on Western markets. This in turn would lower the
risk of war and international terrorism, and would narrow the now-widening
gap between rich and poor everywhere.

Yet ending our consumption habit, both voluntarily and as a result of a
growing energy crisis, may also cause widespread and profound commercial
failures and economic disruption -- possibly economic chaos. This is
especially likely if the change is abrupt. A few examples will suffice.
The demise of the energy-sponging, automobile-dependent suburbs without
adequate provision for the people who live there, and the disappearance of
giant malls without replacement of the useful services they provide and the
retail jobs they generate, will bring about much suffering. We should also
anticipate the loss of the sales-generated surpluses that now pay for the
arts, much environmental protection, special education, and many other
necessary amenities. Moreover, if local communities revive at the expense
of centralized authority, we should be ready to deal with a resurgence of
parochialism, prejudice, and intolerance -- implementing the transition
from excess to moderation will challenge both our ingenuity and our
humanity, if the best of modernity is to survive the end of materialism.

THE TIME TO START DEALING with the energy crisis is now, while we still
have the resources and wealth that allow us to act. This is the Joseph
Strategy.  A modern approach will have the three components, each with
advantages and drawbacks. A judicious mix of all three -- rationing,
investment in technological change, and the voluntary reduction of
consumption -- will serve us best and do the least harm. These components
can work well together -- for example, in a less materialistic society,
wise rationing of energy would not be onerous. And our willingness to
jettison gross materialism may well evoke the kind of adroit and farseeing
leadership that Joseph provided, but leadership now more by example than by

Perhaps our model should not be Joseph in his royal chariot, but Eleanor
Roosevelt in her car with the yellow A sticker on the windshield.

URL: http://www.oriononline.org/pages/om/03-5om/Ehrenfeld.html

DAVID EHRENFELD is a professor of Biology at Rutgers University. His books
include: The Arrogance of Humanism, Beginning Again: People and Nature in
the New Millennium, and most recently, Swimming Lessons: Keeping Afloat in
the Age of Technology. He lectures widely and has written many magazine
articles, including the former Orion column Raritan Letter.

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