Monday, June 14, 2010

Archival Revival: Crude and Unusual Punishment

(Now that oil is once again in the news, I've decided to rerun something I wrote back in the summer of 2008. Back then it was nothing as dramatic as a spill, just skyrocketing prices, which may have had some people even more outraged. The first couple of paragraphs may seem a bit puzzling if you don't recall that some people were blaming energy traders and speculators for the sudden spike in prices. Nothing was ever proven, and prices eventually came back down. About halfway through my essay I move from high prices to talking about our country's dependence on oil in general, how we got that way, and how difficult it's going to be for us to be any other way. I believe that part of the essay is still relevant--KJ)

If you're too young to remember the Energy Crises of the 1970s, or are old enough but have blocked that traumatic event from your mind, here's a brief recap. OPEC, long lines at the pump, thermostats turned down, sweaters over sweaters, diesel cars, siphoned gas, siphoned gas poisoning, moral equivalent of war. Things were bad. Then things got worse, and worse, and WORSE , and WORSE , until...it was the 1980s, and the Energy Crises had gone the way of pet rocks and Leo Sayer.

The new fad was the oil glut. People now drove more, mowed more, flew more, snowmobiled more, motor boated more, and even accidentally spilled more at the pump. It was cheap; why be careful? Cars beget minivans, minivans beget SUVs, SUVs beget Hummers. Things got better, and better, and BETTER, and BETTER, until...well, until now.

As soon as he took office, President George W. Bush appointed an energy task force, with Dick Cheney in charge. This energy task force's task was to force energy to be more, um, plentiful? Cheap? Energizing? Among the groups this task force met with was, well, we don't know. Dick Cheney won't tell us. He's claiming Executive Privilege. Isn't having your own chauffeur, and your own bodyguards, and your very own hiding place in case of another terrorist attack privilege enough? No, he also wants the privilege of dancing up and down Pennsylvania Avenue singing, "I know a secret and you don't. Ha, ha, ha," Word did get out that the task force included several Enron executives. It was later revealed that Enron was doing all it could to make energy less plentiful. At least in California. Off the record, but on a recording (like Nixon, they taped themselves), Enron executives joked about engineering blackouts that left little old ladies in the dark. A year later, when their company collapsed, they themselves were left in the dark. A dark jail cell.

I bring this up because there's been speculation that speculators are behind the spectacular rise in gas prices. This didn't make sense to me at first. Why speculate about oil? What do you think that black, gooey substance is, syrup of ipecac? Then I did a little research. See, there's something called a "futures market" What kind of futures are they marketing? Star Trek? The Jetsons? Nope. Those were fiction. This is real. A future is what a commodity, such as oil, will cost in the future, assuming you buy it in the, uh, present. Mathematically, this is expressed as F={S-PV (Div) (1+r)(T-t) (let's see THAT on the Jetsons!) Apparently, what you do--"you" being either a humongous financial institution that buys and sells a commodity, such as oil, or a humongous financial institution that buys and sells pieces of paper that represents a commodity, such as oil--is agree to buy the future sometimes in the future, and hope that the future in the future is more expensive than the future was in the past, and then resell that future in the present, which was the future in the past, and that's how you make your profit (come to think of it, maybe this is like an episode of Star Trek. Remember the one with Joan Collins?) Now, all this buying and selling the future use to be regulated. You could buy only so much of the future. You only could buy the future with the money you had in the present. You couldn't pretend you had less future than you did. These regulations were repealed because--well, I've searched the Internet for some other explanation than "political favor", but to no avail. Enron first took advantage of this new freedom. Boldly going where no humongous financial institution had gone before, they bought a lot of the future (electricity) with money they didn't have in the present, and then pretended they had less of the future, now the present, than they did. In short, they shut down a few power plants, causing the aforementioned blackouts. Are oil speculators the new Enrons, leaving old ladies, if not in the dark, than in the red? (No, it's not like Star Trek, after all. Captain Kirk let Joan Collins get hit by a truck so as to keep Hitler from winning World War Two, and he didn't even make any money off it!)

That's just one theory on the current spike in gas prices. There are others. Ones that don't involve the future. Such as, oil executives, in the present, are screwing us over, in the present, in order to make a big pile of money, in the present.

You may get the impression from reading all of the above that I don't believe there's an actual shortage of oil. You'd be wrong. I genuinely believe that overpopulation, combined with mass consumerism, combined with globalization, combined with our corporate masters' need for this quarter's profit to be bigger than last quarter's profit which were bigger than the quarter before, will eventually cause us to run out of everything from oil to food to water to the very ground beneath us, and we'll all have to walk, hungry and thirsty, on the Earth's molten core.

But what I just don't get is this twenty year lull between energy crises. It's like some one's on their death bed, surrounded by his loved ones, with a priest delivering the Last Rites. The guy doesn't die, however. The very next day, he plays a couple rounds of golf, takes in a game of tennis, goes jogging, shoots a couple of hoops, does some laps around the pool, plays horseshoes, and, at night, goes bowling. The day after that he's back on his death bed, his loved ones are all looking at their watches, and the priest is reminding everyone he gets paid by the hour.

Then there's that other problem--global warming. It made all the headlines last year, but lately it's been pushed toward the back of the paper somewhere between Goren Bridge and the crossword puzzle. It'll come back. In fact, during that twenty year lull (and this is why I think the shortage can't be entirely fake), we had the two hottest decades in history. Until this decade, that is. We shouldn't be surprised that energy shortages and environmental destruction should coincide with each other. They're both caused by the same thing: using too much fuel. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, the two problems go together like a horse and carriage (which may soon become our principle means of transportation.)

While we're pointing fingers at oil speculators and oil executives, how about We, The People? Are we to blame? Well, Pogo's dictum still holds: "We have met the enemy and he is us!" First, though, we have to be introduced.

You may have heard it said that Americans are addicted to oil. Well, let's compare it to other addictions. Most addicts don't start out as addicts. You don't smoke, then you have that first cigarette. You don't drink, then you have that first beer. You don't do drugs, then you have that first toke, snort, or fix. Where petroleum's concerned, you have to go back almost 100 years, to the horse-and-buggy era. At first, that was all people knew. It was all they ever knew. Then came the automobile. In the beginning it was intimidating. As intimidating as the personal computer was to a later generation (at least this particular blogger.) Then they got behind the wheel. Goodbye, horse. Goodbye, carriage. It was their first smoke, first drink, first toke, first snort, first fix.

Those people are all most likely gone by now, but they left behind their addiction, the car culture we all grew up in. We, The People are not just addicts, we're crack babies.

Actually, I may be jumping ahead a bit. If you watch old movies from the '30s and '40s, yes, there are cars, but they also take trains and buses. And they walk. Even in the big city. Especially in the big city. At all hours of the night, in the poorest neighborhoods, without the slightest fear of getting mugged (even in the gangster films it's safe, as long as you stay the hell away from Edgar G. Robinson.) Then came the suburbs, and that's where we get to the crux of the problem.

No trains came to the suburbs. Buses came maybe twice a day, not twice a minute like in the big city. You could walk in the suburbs, but where? One development led to another, identical development. You'd find yourself walking in circles, or in cul-de-sacs. You needed a car. It's a lot easier driving in circles than walking.

I grew up in the suburbs, but my parents didn't. They grew up in the big city. So did the parents of the kids next door. And the kids across the street. And all the kids on the block. And all the kids at school. I never met a single kid whose parents grew up in the suburbs. How could they? There was no suburbs for them to grow up in. We kids were first generation suburbanites.

Lo, these many years later, it's quite different. Not only have the average suburban kid's parents also grown up in the suburbs, but in some cases, so have their grandparents . Not always the same suburbs, of course. First, there were just suburbs, which we now call inner ring suburbs. Followed, naturally, by outer ring suburbs. Now, there's exurbs. What's next? Inner and outer ring exurbs, I suppose. After that, who knows? Extraexurbs? Meanwhile, the abandoned big city is turning into Greenfield Village, but without the tour guides.

Suburbs, superhighways, shopping centers, and parking lots. It's all we know. It's all we've ever known. Not only are We, The People crack babies, but crack babies abandoned on the doorstep of the Columbia drug cartel. And who abandoned us? Just our politicians, business leaders, advertisers, developers, editorial writers, even our educators, when they all sold us on the Good Life. Of course, we bought it. What do you want, a Bad Death?

Please don't think from reading all this that I'm anti-car or anti-driving. Nope. I absolutely, positively love to drive. Or I did until I got into one wreck too many. Still, it beats walking 20 miles to work in the morning. And it's a way of getting out of the house on a Saturday night. What I absolutely, positively don't like, however, is being sold a bill of goods.

But that's all in the past. We've got the future (but not the kind you buy and sell) to think about. We need to free ourselves from foreign oil. Maybe oil, period. We need green technologies (see Kermit? That color's in now.) We need to develop alternative (punk? grunge? new wave?) sources of fuel. We need renewables, such as wind or solar (I hope the sun's renewable. I'd hate to see two moons in a permanently dark sky.) We need an Apollo-like program for energy independence ("One small spin around the block for man, one giant cross-country trip to the Grand Canyon for mankind!")

Do all that, or even begin to do all that, and we'll see which drops faster: the price of gas, or an oil executive's shit.

4 comments:

  1. Amen! You said it perfectly. Sadly, it's still just as relevant as ever. What are the chances we are going to get good energy legislation that addresses greenhouse gases in a serious way? There are so many alternatives out there just waiting for the right signals (market) to take off. We are like the last generation of whale oilers. Refusing to see what is right before our faces.

    ps I remember walking the halls of 7th grade IN THE DARK b/c of the power crunch. We felt noble! (plus it was easier to hold hands that way without being caught.)

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  2. Thanks, Dreamfarm. I'm glad you liked it.

    I have to be honest and say environmentalism doesn't always come easy to me. My liberalism tends to revolve around social justice, looking out for the little guy, the underdog. Where environmentalism and conservation's concerned, I'm always afraid, perhaps paranoid, that it's the little guys and underdogs that are going to have to make all the sacrifices for the good of the planet, while the ruling class gets to live as they please.

    Still, facts are facts. Environmental destruction/energy shortages keep appearing, than disappearing, than reappearing. You can look at that two ways. Either the environmental destruction/shortages are phoney, or it's the DISAPPEARANCE of those problems that's the charade. Pessimist that I am, I think it's the latter. What posssible incentive does any scientist have to lie about either harm to the environment or finate fuel sources? On the other hand, theres plenty of reason$$$ for some in very high places to pretend, either to themselves or to us, that those problems don't exist.

    I hope you're right about the alternatives.

    Liked your story about the 7th grade. I seem to remember similar things like that in my school during the '70s. Unfortunately, lights on or off, I wasn't lucky enough to get my hands held.

    Now, to all you suburbanites out there who might have took umbrage at my laying the blame at your doorstep. I live in the suburbs myself, and don't plan on moving anytime soon. I just don't think we should be building anymore of those things. We've got so many suburbs as it is, it getting hard to find the original city that suburbs sprung from in the first place!

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  3. Maybe we should recycle oil executives shit into fuel.

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  4. @Kass-There's certainly enough of it to fullfill our energy needs for centuries.

    And then there's that Congressman Barton from Texas...

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