Blowing Green Smoke
by James Howard Kunstler
Tom Friedman, celebrated New York Times columnist and author of The World is Flat, riffed on (or around) the issues of climate change and energy in that newspaper’s Sunday Magazine this week (“The Power of Green”), and managed, in the process, to misunderstand just about every implication these conjoined problems present. Friedman’s specious thinking is symptomatic of exactly what is wrong with our public discussion of these matters generally, and their presentation in mainstream media in particular.
I’m fond of saying that if America could harness the power it wastes blowing smoke up its own butt, we could magically escape our energy-and-climate-change predicament. I say this repeatedly to counter the increasing volume of lies we tell ourselves in order to maintain the illusion that we can continue living the way we do. Like so many other commentators suffering from cranial-rectosis, Friedman believes that we can keep on running our Happy Motoring utopia if we just switch fuels.
Friedman gives no indication that he understands the fundamentals of the global oil situation. He writes:
“People change when they have to – not when we tell them – and falling oil prices make them have to. That is why if we are looking for a Plan B for Iraq – a way of pressing for political reform in the Middle East without going to war again – there is no better tool than bringing down the price of oil.”
This is a fascinating statement. It’s predicated on the idea that the US can achieve “energy independence,” which is itself predicated on the further idea that we can accomplish this by switching out gasoline for ethanol. This is such an elementary error in thinking that it would be funny if it wasn’t the lead story in the flagship of the mainstream media. As a Pennsylvania farmer put it to me in February: “It looks like we’re going to burn up the last remaining six inches of Midwest topsoil in our gas-tanks.” Friedman’s statement also ignores the facts that running cars on ethanol would make no material difference in the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, or that ethanol is 20 percent less efficient than gasoline, meaning we would have to produce and use that much more of the stuff just to stay where we are.
Where climate change is concerned, this is a variation of the “Red Queen syndrome” (from Alice in Wonderland) in which one has to run faster and faster to stay in place. It also fails to take into account the tragic ramifications of setting up competition between food for humans and crops for motor fuels just at the point when a growing scarcity of oil-and-gas-based soil “inputs” (as well increasing climate problems in the grain belt) will drastically lower American crop yields. The symptoms of this unintended consequence have already begun to present themselves – for instance, January’s food riots in Mexico, which resulted from Mexican corn being sold to American ethanol distillers rather than Mexican cornmeal millers, who couldn’t match their bids.
Friedman goes on to tout Wal-Mart’s mendacious campaign to “green” up its operations by, among other things, improving the mileage of its truck fleet from 6-mpg to 12-mpg. He writes:
“Take Wal-Mart. The world’s biggest retailer woke up several years ago, its CEO Lee Scott told me, and realized with regard to the environment its customers ‘had higher expectations for us than we had for ourselves.’ So Scott hired a sustainability expert, Jib Ellison, to tutor his company. The first lesson Ellison preached was that going green was a whole new way for Wal-Mart to cut costs and drive its profits.”
The smoke Mr. Scott blew up Friedman’s butt is leaking out of the columnist’s pie-hole here. I’ve been to dozens of permitting battles over Wal-Mart in the planning boards of America, writing on suburban sprawl, and I can assure you that the pro Wal-Mart factions in these fights uniformly couldn’t care less about anything except saving five bucks on a plastic salad shooter (“we want bargain shopping!!!”). Not to put too fine a point on it, but these are precisely the members of the American public who sold their own local economies down the river, who led their towns into destitution, and who believe with all their hearts that it is possible to get something for nothing (which is why this large cohort of citizens spends so much of its meager income on lottery tickets, trips to Las Vegas, and gets suckered into ruinous “miracle” mortgages).
Friedman’s invocation of Wal-Mart here offers another layer of misunderstanding from the work he is best-known for, his best-selling book, The World is Flat, which asserts that globalism is now a permanent feature of the human condition. I demur from this view. I think we will discover (probably painfully) that globalism was a set of transient economic relations made possible by a half century of cheap oil and relative peace between the great powers, and the enterprises that rely on these transient mechanisms – such as Wal-Mart, with its 12,000-mile merchandise supply chain to China, and its “warehouse on wheels” of tractor-trailor trucks circulating incessantly on America’s interstate highways – will be on their knees in a few years as we enter the export crisis phase of post-peak terminal oil depletion and the great powers of the world act with increasing desperation to compete over the remaining supplies.
For someone operating at the top of journalism’s food chain, Friedman is astoundingly ignorant. He asserts at another point in this article that climate change will require us to “[r]eplace 1,400 large coal-fired plants with gas-fired plants.” Earth to Tom: America’s natural gas supply is arguably more tenuous and problematic than its oil supply. To put it bluntly, over the next five years, we will fall off a cliff with natural gas. Apparently Friedman hasn’t heard. Nor are we going to make up for this loss by importing liquid natural gas from distant lands. Nor would it make any sense to burn expensive imported methane gas to run power generation turbines. So, you see, there is no chance whatsoever that we will do what Friedman suggests. In fact, the 17 percent of all electric power that we currently get from gas will be lost to us in the near future, which could leave us with Third World style electric service. (Incidentally, the terminal decline of our natural gas supply also means we will lose control of the crucial resource used for making nitrogenous fertilizers, with self-evident further implications for our crop yields and our ability to feed ourselves or manufacture alternative motor fuels.)
Friedman’s equations regarding continued industrial expansion in China and India are based on the assumption that they somehow will be immune to the global energy crisis and to the ecological catastrophes entailed by climate change. More likely: both nations will be overwhelmed by these things and the only question will be how desperate their political convulsions will be in response (or how rapidly they devolve back to twelfth century living standards).
At the heart of Friedman’s thesis is his notion that the current incarnation of “the American Dream” is a good thing and can continue. By American Dream he apparently means membership in the Happy Motoring Utopia, with all its accessories, furnishings, and usufructs – the system broadly known as suburban sprawl. Here’s the truth, Tom: suburban sprawl is a living arrangement with no future. It was a tragic mistake to squander the post World War Two wealth of our society to build it. It will come to represent an immense liability for this country’s future, as it loses both monetary and practical value. And we will have to make comprehensive arrangements for living differently, if we want to continue this project of American civilization.
A telling omission in this article, by the way, is any mention of public transit. It’s especially significant because the one thing we really could do right away to reduce our oil consumption would be to get passenger rail going again in this country. But this blind spot in Friedman’s vision is only the flip side to his stupid belief that we can just keep all the cars running by other means.
Tom Friedman has no idea what the implications are of all these things. His fatuous advice to the nation – served up by a confused and cowardly Times editorial staff – will only spur more delusional thinking, which is, of course, the last thing we need. The showcasing of Friedman’s article may represent an inflection point in the fate of the mainstream media – the moment when it demonstrates most clearly its failure to make current events comprehensible, the moment when its lost legitimacy is finally recognized. That legitimacy has been passing to the Internet, where commentators have no advertisers to pander to and no need to defend any status quo.
Editor’s Note: James Kunstler has worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975, he dropped out to write books on a full-time basis.
His latest nonfiction book, “The Long Emergency,” describes the changes that American society faces in the 21st century. Discerning an imminent future of protracted socioeconomic crisis, Kunstler foresees the progressive dilapidation of subdivisions and strip malls, the depopulation of the American Southwest, and, amid a world at war over oil, military invasions of the West Coast; when the convulsion subsides, Americans will live in smaller places and eat locally grown food.
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