Monday, May 14, 2007

Ecotopia? Or Armageddon?

Green has suddenly become the "in" color for this summer and the coming fall season, and while your neighbor's Toyota Prius may be black or silver, everybody knows that underneath it's as green as a gas-burning car can get. "Going green" is both a fashion statement and a serious crusade that proponents believe will save the planet, save the American economy, and restore people-friendly communities and lifestyles, free of the alienation and ugliness that characterizes so much of American life today.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford implies, but does not say directly, that the green movement we see all around us will be our salvation. In his May 2 article "The Hippies Were Right!" Morford cites " light foods going mainstream...chemical-free cleaning products widely available at Target...saving the whales and protecting the dolphins studios flourishing in every small town..." and adds, "Look around: we have entire industries devoted to recycled paper, a new generation of cheap solar-power technology and an Oscar for 'An Inconvenient Truth' and even the soulless corporate monsters over at famously heartless joints like Wal-Mart are now claiming that they really, really care about saving the environment..."

Morford seems to be saying that the Green Movement which began with the hippies in the late 60's will save the planet and the soul of America because the decision to go green is economically unavoidable. What "consumers" demand, Wal-Mart and Target must deliver, according to his cheery and optimistic analysis.

There are some, however, who think greenies like Morford are naive and shallow, and believe that instead of heading for a green renaissance, the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world are on a collision course with economic collapse, environmental disaster, and a period of intensified warfare in which the most powerful countries fight to the death over the world's few remaining resources, especially oil. The most pessemistic and well-spoken representative of the "Armageddon" faction is James Howard Kunstler.

Kunstler believes "alternative" fuels, hybrid cars and the green movement generally are manifestations of self-indulgent, adolescent fantasies, and entirely inadequate as solutions to the disasters to come. In today's weekly essay at his blog Clusterfuck Nation, he predicts a catastrophic, sudden collapse of "the car-crazy infrastructure for everyday life, and all the activities supporting it, that most Americans now living regard as the natural and normal medium for human existence, as salt water is the natural and normal medium for squid. The public brings no critical reflection to being in it, and so its failure will eventually come as a deadly surprise -- as a red tide surprises the denizens of a tropical sea. When it occurs, the public will not be able to escape from their investments in this way of life. Some may feel swindled, but they will not lose their sense of having been entitled to a happier destiny, so the chances for the acting-out of massive political grievance are high.

"It's a tragic irony that we got so good at the advertising game," Kunstler continues, "...because in doing so we rigged a sub-system dedicated to reinforcing all our false entitlements. So when the dreadful moment of recognition comes that we can't possibly continue being a nation of happy motorists shuttling between the strip malls and subdivisions, the bewilderment will be monumental. Nobody will believe that it is happening, or have a clue how we got ourselves into such a fix."

Difficult as it may seem, I believe both Kunstler and Morford are right. The collapse Kunstler forecasts will certainly come, but not as suddenly or catastrophically as he predicts. Kenneth S. Deffeyes*, perhaps the world's best-qualified authority on the future of oil, tells us that "World oil production has ceased growing, and by the year 2019 production will be down to 90 percent of the peak level.**" This means that the catastrophe Kunstler sees coming for suburbia will be more like a slow slide than a sudden collapse. Year by year, the suburbs and strip mall complexes farthest away from the central cities will slowly die and be abandoned, but the process will be gradual and incremental, not sudden. The prices of gasoline and other fuels will follow the same pattern, gradually increasing from three, to four, to five dollars a gallon, rather than suddenly spiking to ten.

And as the present-day, unsustainable American lifestyle slowly dies, the green revolution Morford predicts will slowly but inexorably supplant and replace the petroleum-based, car-centered existence we've come to think of as normal.

But it won't be an easy transition, and Deffeyes believes that "On a fifteen-year time scale, I have no doubt that human ingenuity will find adequate energy sources with nice adjectives like 'renewable,' 'nonpolluting,' 'sustainable,' 'alternative,' 'organic,' and 'natural.' For the five-year time scale, we have a shortage of good adjectives. 'Diesel,' 'coal,' 'nuclear,' don't sound warm and fuzzy."

I believe we will be able to make the changes Morford sees in store, but it's going to be a bumpy ride. Get ready for a nuclear power plant next door to your organic vegetable patch.

*Kenneth S. Deffeyes is Professor Emeritus of geology at Princeton. Prior to becoming a university professor he spent 30 years in the oil business as an engineer, specializing in exploration and development.

**The quotes are from Deffeyes's book, "Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak," Hill and Wang, 2005, pages 7 and 8.

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