Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Water Empires: Part II

Yesterday, in Part I of this post, I talked about what a water empire is, both Wittfogel's classic definition and what the term means today. And based on the modern definition, though I didn't out and out say it, I implied that the US is becoming a water empire in all but name.

The US isn't a true water empire - not yet.

But, we are moving, definitively, in that direction. Here's why.

As I said yesterday, the traditional definition of a water monopoly empire, or more properly a hydraulic empire, is a political structure which maintains power over it's population through the control and distribution of water. In the ancient agrarian societies, water was power. Water was, in fact, the entire basis for those civilizations. Water allowed nomadic tribes to settle in one place and develop agriculture, transportation, industry, commerce, military force, hygiene and urban sanitation.

Today, a couple thousand years later, it's not water that moves the gears of industry and commerce, powers our military forces, lights our cities, or provides all of the things that hold our civilization together - it's oil.

Sure, the energy that powers our civilization comes from a number of sources other than oil - just as slave labor and animal power and wind buttressed water in those ancient hydraulic empires - but today oil is what matters. Oil is the largest single source of energy in the United States, providing close to 40% of the nation's total power needs according to the US Department of Energy. What exactly does that mean? Nearly 100% of US transportation is powered by oil, this includes ground, air, and sea - both private and commercial. The percentage of transportation not powered by oil is so small as to be completely insignificant. Oil also heats a significant fraction of homes in the US, and powers the boilers that run a large sector of our industry. A fairly small percentage is used for electrical generation. And the remainder ends up in the chemical, plastics, medical, and similar industries.

Here's the funny thing, 40%. Oil makes up only 40% of our total energy budget. I suspect most Americans would place that figure significantly higher - and for good reason. Oil impacts all sectors of society, but it impacts the individual citizen's quality of life directly - through increased transportation costs, both personal transportation and through the cost of products and services that depend on transportation, which is basically everything the average citizen deals with on a daily basis, food, gas, heating, products, and etc. Because the increased cost of transportation, i.e. oil, so directly impacts, and therefor limits, each citizen's choices and because the population to large extent has no control whatsoever over the cost of the resource, oil has become a method of control over the population.

Which, of course, brings us back to water empires.

Now, here's the crux of the matter. Those ancient civilizations didn't start out as despotic empires, they began as agrarian communities near plentiful supplies of water. They begin because water and farming were cheaper and easier (in terms of energy) than the nomadic hunter/gatherer societies they replaced. It was only after those civilizations began to exceed the natural resources that water became a significant source of political power. And when it began to run out, for whatever reason, those civilizations often went insane.

Same with oil, for a long time oil has provided a relatively cheap and easy source of energy, but those days are over. So we are faced with the choices I mentioned yesterday, which can be summed up as: Go insane in an attempt to maintain the status quo - or - go sane, and chuck the status quo, and the water empire model.

It starts with a sane, sustainable, and practical energy policy.

In order to build a sane, sustainable, and practical energy policy - one that breaks the water monopoly trend - we first need to climb down off of the elephant.

Whenever our leaders talk about energy policy, they always start with same premise: How can we increase, maintain, and insure the supply of oil? Oh, they'll make speeches about 'weening America off foreign oil' and renewable energy, but it always comes back to oil. Why? Because oil is the source of political power. Because oil has been the source of power in this country for a long, long time. Because politicians as a rule think about maintaining power first and foremost. This is one of the primary signs that we are moving towards a water monopoly empire. Ask yourself this, what happens when there's not enough oil to maintain our standard of living? Or, at least not for the entire country? It's the classic lifeboat dilemma, you don't have enough resources for everybody to survive, but if you chuck a couple of folks over the side... When the government decides directly who gets access to power, heat, sanitation, food, and etc based on available energy - well then you're living in a water monopoly. If we persist in basing our energy policy on the question How can we increase, maintain, and insure the supply of oil then sooner or later we, or our children, are going to find ourselves in that situation. This is nearly inevitable, because the answer to the question is this: we can't. We can't significantly increase oil production and/or import, we cannot maintain the present levels of production, and it should be glaringly obvious that we cannot insure the supply. And eventually there's just not going to be enough for everybody.

So what do we do about it?

We start with something that should be obvious, but often is not: Oil is a means to an end, not the end in itself. In other words, energy is the real resource, not oil. Oil is only a means, one means, for making energy.

Next, the objectives:

1) Reduce the nation's use of oil to that sustainable by domestic production within fifteen years. Yeah, I know, but remember, 40% of our nation's total energy budget comes from oil, however that oil is almost entirely used by transportation and heating - and we have the means to effect this change with the technology, assets, and budget currently available. New technology, such as hydrogen or liquid fuel cells will help and may be the ultimate goal, but pie in the sky technology is not required to achieve this objective now.

2) Diversify the nation's energy sources, with the emphasis on small, local production. Use technologies currently available, use resources that we control. New energy sources must be sustainable and practical. No quick fixes, no massively expensive grandiose single solution fixes (i.e. the 'Hydrogen Economy') and require a total reworking of our infrastructure, because that just ain't going to happen. Neither we nor especially our politicians, have the will for that.

The Conditions:

1) The change must be gradual, but with a defined period of no greater than fifteen years. (There has to be limits, milestones, and goals - tough ones, significant ones - otherwise, nothing will get done. Think JFK and the manned moon landing goal he set, same thing. Set the bar high, galvanize the nation, rise to the challenge - Americans are good at this, with the right leadership).

2) Citizens must be able to maintain the standard of living they are accustomed to (Look, people are selfish, everybody wants to save the planet - but not if it means living in a communal yurt, raising pigs and eating organic yogurt, and riding a bicycle to work wearing hemp biker pants. You want their support? You better let them keep their SUV's).

3) The citizens must be rewarded, empowered, and encouraged to create local solutions, i.e. we must create conditions whereby people want to be involved.

4) Business and industry must be rewarded, empowered, encouraged, and if necessary regulated to implement solutions. If done correctly this will become self sustaining without government interference (example: take a look at how FEDEX powers their main distribution center in Memphis.)

5) One size does not fit all. There are many solutions, some that need to be implemented by government, and many that can be implemented by business and the individual.

6) Ultimately we want 'green' or at least not environment-destroying solutions. Ideally these solutions would both provide a significant source of renewable energy and reduce the effects of global climate change (STOP! If you're a neocon, don't starting lecturing me on how we don't actually know whether global climate change is natural or man made, it doesn't matter. It's happening, if it's man made we need to do something about it. If it's natural, we need to do something about it. So, shut the fuck up.) What we're talking about here, for example, is something that takes CO2 from an industrial process and converts into fuel to power transportation, say algae derived bio-diesel on an industrial scale.

7) The the nation's energy policy must be law. Period. It must be achieved by consensus, and signed into law. It cannot be implemented, changed, modified, ignored, or manipulated by the will of one man or woman, whenever they feel like it. It cannot be manipulated by leaders in the pocket of those who have vested interest in maintaining the status quo. If the our energy policy changes every time a new President takes office, it isn't going to work.

There's more, but I'm out of time for today. In part III, I'll talk about how we meet these objectives within the conditions specified. And address the comments under Part I and Part II (all of which were excellent and though provoking, thank you).


  1. When the government decides directly who gets access to power, heat, sanitation, food, and etc based on available energy - well then you're living in a water monopoly.

    I'll start by picking a nit with your premise. I don't think government is going to be making those decisions. The various fuel companies will decide that simply by pricing it beyond some people's means. Government will step in with some ineffectual but loudly proclaimed control measures.

    That said, I'm pretty much in agreement on your conclusions. Yes, we need to diversify.

    Yes, a "Moon-landing" style of effort probably would be the most effective. And it needs to be started yesterday (As if GWB has the cojones to ask people to sacrifice anything in the name of necessary action.)

    And I do think some level of sacrifice does need to be involved as a matter of policy. People just don't take this stuff seriously if it doesn't hurt a little.

    As for diversity. It really should be lots and lots and lots of little things that add up. NYC, for example has tax breaks for green construction (both final design and building process itself). There are thousands and thousands of waste-water treatment plants in America. Four of the ones in NYC now siphon off the CO2 and methane that is a natural byproduct of the treatment and then use it to power fuel cells. These four treatment plants produce all of their own energy and have enough steam and electricity left over to sell it back to Con Ed.

    At the end of this month, the city and State will vote on a Congestion Pricing plan for NYC that would impose an $8.00 fee on all vehicles coming into Manhattan below (I think) 59th Street.

    I'll shut up now.

  2. When the government decides directly who gets access to power, heat, sanitation, food, and etc based on available energy - well then you're living in a water monopoly.


    "You're at Urinetown!
    Your ticket should say Urinetown!
    No refunds, this is Urinetown!
    We'll keep that dough!"

    Sorry. You make some good points.

    We now return to your regularly scheduled programing.

    And, like Nathan, I think some level of sacrifice is required.

  3. Yes, diverse, diverse, diverse. We need stop relying on any single source of energy. It will breed competition too -- which is good.

    I worry that it just won't happen. I picture Mad Max, without the camera crew. :(

  4. Conceptually, you are right on. Unfortunately, we need more than concepts. Technically and economically you are in the ditch - at least on algae oil. Everyone wants to jump on the algae oil band wagon. Unfortunately, they haven't done the math and don't understand the total costs to produce usable fuel from algae. They just read the promotional press put out by the people looking for gov. grants, or selling stock - which lamely focuses on theoretical production per acre - none of which anyone has done at scale and not focusing on the cost of a storable and usable gallon of fuel.

    The only alternative fuels that are viable alternative fuels are the ones that are cheaper than petroleum based fuels. Note: There aren't any yet. Yes, I know Brazil is using ethanol - but who do you know that will work for a $1.00 day chopping cane. Either petroleum has to continue to go way up, or alternative fuel cost have to come waaaayyyy down. When economic alternative fuel happens - the energy crisis will be over - not until then. So, hold on to your wallet and wear your hard hat because its likely to be a very uncomfortable ride - maybe for a couple of generations.

  5. Do we have to let people keep their SUVs?

    The epidemic of SUVs is based on a number of market curiosities: the fact that auto manufacturers don't have to meet fuel standards for them (since, IIRC, they're "light trucks"), high profit margins for the manufacturers that has led to heavy marketing, and a resulting consumer demand that appears to be based on water-logged ground (consumers appear to believe SUVs are safer, despite contrary or ambiguous evidence; SUVs have mysteriously become a status symbol, etc.), combined with a decade of relatively low fuel prices... there may be other factors involved I'm leaving out.

    The small point being that current SUV supply and demand is a kind of artificial creation. Legislation requiring SUVs to meet fuel-economy standards (which is on the table, if it hasn't been passed), high prices at the pump, and sexier fuel-efficient vehicles would all alter the current scene. Make SUVs less profitable, and the auto companies will look for an alternative. Make more alternative vehicles like the Tesla, consumers will look at the alternative. (Yes, I have a hard-on for the Tesla: it's an electric car in a Lotus body--it triggers every gene on the Y-chromosome from the gearhead gene to the computer nerd gene.)

    The larger point being that there are ways to change habits that don't require everyone to go to sleep when the sun sets, recycle their poop, or even ride a bike. It isn't that hard to make light rail more attractive than sitting in six o'clock congestion, to make fuel-efficient vehicles palatable, or energy/eco-friendly architecture part of all new building. But it requires some effort to put the costs of the old ways up front and make them obvious, while making better choices cheaper and sexier at the outset.

    One component of that is legislative: there has to be a willingness on the part of elected officials to stand up to existing lobbies, to spend tax revenues on infrastructure and to give up tax revenues for incentives. Do our elected officials have the guts? Do we have the guts to elect people who will do whatever has to be done?

    Regrettably, the safe money is on cynicism.


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