Monday, April 30, 2007

Making Other Arrangements
A wake-up call to a citizenry in the shadow of oil scarcity
by James Howard Kunstler
photographs by David Maisel
Published in the January/February 2007 issue of Orion magazine

AS THE AMERICAN PUBLIC CONTINUES sleepwalking into a future of energy scarcity, climate change, and geopolitical turmoil, we have also continued dreaming. Our collective dream is one of those super-vivid ones people have just before awakening. It is a particularly American dream on a particularly American theme: how to keep all the cars running by some other means than gasoline. We’ll run them on ethanol! We’ll run them on biodiesel, on synthesized coal liquids, on hydrogen, on methane gas, on electricity, on used French-fry oil . . . !

The dream goes around in fevered circles as each gasoline replacement is examined and found to be inadequate. But the wish to keep the cars going is so powerful that round and round the dream goes. Ethanol! Biodiesel! Coal liquids . . .

And a harsh reality indeed awaits us as the full scope of the permanent energy crisis unfolds. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil production peaked in December 2005 at just over 85 million barrels a day. Since then, it has trended absolutely flat at around 84 million. Yet world oil consumption rose consistently from 77 million barrels a day in 2001 to above 85 million so far this year. A clear picture emerges: demand now exceeds world supply. Or, put another way, oil production has not increased despite the ardent wish that it would by all involved, and despite the overwhelming incentive of prices having nearly quadrupled since 2001.

There is no question that we are in trouble with oil. The natural gas situation is comparably ominous, with some differences in the technical details—and by the way, I am referring here to methane gas (CH4), the stuff that fuels kitchen stoves and home furnaces, not cars and trucks. Natural gas doesn’t deplete slowly like oil, following a predictable bell-curve pattern; it simply stops coming out of the ground when a particular gas well is played out. You also tend to get your gas from the continent you are on. To import natural gas from overseas, it has to be liquefied, loaded in a special kind of expensive-to-build-and-operate tanker, and then offloaded at a specialized marine terminal.

Half the homes in America are heated with gas furnaces and about 16 percent of our electricity is made with it. Industry uses natural gas as the primary ingredient in fertilizer, plastics, ink, glue, paint, laundry detergent, insect repellent, and many other common household necessities. Synthetic rubber and man-made fibers like nylon could not be made without the chemicals derived from natural gas. In North America, natural gas production peaked in 1973. We are drilling as fast as we can to keep the air conditioners and furnaces running.

What’s more, the problems of climate change are amplifying, ramifying, and mutually reinforcing the problems associated with rapidly vanishing oil and gas reserves. This was illustrated vividly in 2005, when slightly higher ocean temperatures sent Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slamming into the U.S. Gulf Coast. Almost a year later, roughly 12 percent of oil production and 9.5 percent of natural gas production in the gulf was still out, probably for good. Many of these production platforms may never be rebuilt, because the amounts of oil and gas left beneath them would not justify the cost. If there is $50 million worth of oil down there, why spend $100 million replacing a wrecked platform to get it?

Climate change will also ramify the formidable problems associated with alternative fuels. As I write, the American grain belt is locked in a fierce summer drought. Corn and soybean crops are withering from Minnesota to Illinois; wheat is burning up in the Dakotas and Kansas. Meanwhile, the costs of agricultural “inputs”—from diesel fuel to fertilizers made from natural gas to oil-derived pesticides—have been ramping up steadily since 2003 to the great distress of farmers. Both weather and oil costs are driving our crop yields down, while the industrial mode of farming that has evolved since the Second World War becomes increasingly impractical. We are going to have trouble feeding ourselves in the years ahead, not to mention the many nations who depend for survival on American grain exports. So the idea that we can simply shift millions of acres from food crops to ethanol or biodiesel crops to make fuels for cars represents a staggering misunderstanding of reality.

Still, the widespread wish persists that some combination of alternative fuels will rescue us from this oil and gas predicament and allow us to continue enjoying by some other means what Vice-President Cheney has called the “non-negotiable” American way of life. The truth is that no combination of alternative fuels or systems for using them will allow us to continue running America, or even a substantial fraction of it, the way we have been. We are not going to run Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, Monsanto, and the Interstate Highway System on any combination of solar or wind energy, hydrogen, ethanol, tar sands, oil shale, methane hydrates, nuclear power, thermal depolymerization, “zero-point” energy, or anything else you can name. We will desperately use many of these things in many ways, but we are likely to be disappointed in what they can actually do for us.

The key to understanding the challenge we face is admitting that we have to comprehensively make other arrangements for all the normal activities of everyday life. I will return to this theme shortly, but first it is important to try to account for the extraordinary amount of delusional thinking that currently dogs our collective ability to think about these problems.

The widespread wish to just uncouple from oil and gas and plug all our complex systems into other energy sources is an interesting and troubling enough phenomenon in its own right to merit some discussion. Perhaps the leading delusion is the notion that energy and technology are one and the same thing, interchangeable. The popular idea, expressed incessantly in the news media, is that if you run out of energy, you just go out and find some “new technology” to keep things running. We’ll learn that this doesn’t comport with reality. For example, commercial airplanes are either going to run on cheap liquid hydrocarbon fuels or we’re not going to have commercial aviation as we have known it. No other energy source is concentrated enough by weight, affordable enough by volume, and abundant enough in supply to do the necessary work to overcome gravity in a loaded airplane, repeated thousands of times each day by airlines around the world. No other way of delivering that energy source besides refined liquid hydrocarbons will allow that commercial system to operate at the scale we are accustomed to. The only reason this system exists is that until now such fuels have been cheap and abundant. We are not going to replace the existing worldwide fleet of airplanes either, and besides, there is no other type of airplane we have yet devised that can work differently.

There may be other ways of moving things above the ground, for instance balloons, blimps, or zeppelin-type airships. But they will move much more slowly and carry far less cargo and human passengers than the airplanes we’ve been enjoying for the past sixty years or so. The most likely scenario in the years ahead is that aviation will become an increasingly expensive, elite activity as the oil age dribbles to a close, and then it will not exist at all.

Another major mistake made by those who fail to pay attention is overlooking the unanticipated consequences of new technology, which more often than not add additional layers of problems to existing ones. In the energy sector, one of the most vivid examples is seen in the short history of the world’s last truly great oil discovery, the North Sea fields between Norway and the UK. They were found in the ‘60s, got into production in the late ‘70s, and were pumping at full blast in the early ‘90s. Then, around 1999, they peaked and are now in extremely steep decline—up to 50 percent a year in the case of some UK fields. The fact that they were drilled with the latest and best new technology turns out to mean that they were drained with stunning efficiency. “New technology” only hastened Britain’s descent into energy poverty. Now, after a twenty-year-long North Sea bonanza in which it enjoyed an orgy of suburbanization, Great Britain is again a net energy importer. Soon the Brits will have no North Sea oil whatsoever and will find themselves below their energy diet of the grim 1950s.

If you really want to understand the U.S. public’s penchant for wishful thinking, consider this: We invested most of our late twentieth-century wealth in a living arrangement with no future. American suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. The far-flung housing subdivisions, commercial highway strips, big-box stores, and all the other furnishings and accessories of extreme car dependence will function poorly, if at all, in an oil-scarce future. Period. This dilemma now entails a powerful psychology of previous investment, which is prompting us to defend our misinvestments desperately, or, at least, preventing us from letting go of our assumptions about their future value. Compounding the disaster is the unfortunate fact that the manic construction of ever more futureless suburbs (a.k.a. the “housing bubble") has insidiously replaced manufacturing as the basis of our economy.

Meanwhile, the outsourcing of manufacturing to other nations has spurred the development of a “global economy,” which media opinion-leaders such as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (author of The World Is Flat) say is a permanent state of affairs that we had better get used to. It is probably more accurate to say that the global economy is a set of transient economic relations that have come about because of two fundamental (and transient) conditions: a half century of relative peace between great powers and a half century of cheap and abundant fossil-fuel energy. These two mutually dependent conditions are now liable to come to an end as the great powers enter a bitter contest over the world’s remaining energy resources, and the world is actually apt to become a lot larger and less flat as these economic relations unravel.

This is approximately the state of the nation right now. It is deeply and tragically ironic that the more information that bombards us, the less we seem to understand. There are cable TV news networks and Internet news sites beyond counting, yet we are unable to process this deluge of information into a coherent public discussion about the fundamental challenges that our civilization faces—not to mention a sensible agenda for meeting these hardships. Meanwhile, CBS News tells millions of viewers that the tar sands of Alberta will solve all our problems, or (two weeks later) that the coal beds under Montana and Wyoming will sustain business as usual, and CNN tells another several million viewers that we can run everything here on ethanol, just like they do in Brazil.

Of course, the single worst impediment to clear thinking among most individuals and organizations in America today is the obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs. Even the environmental community is guilty of this. The esteemed Rocky Mountain Institute ran a project for a decade to design and develop a “hyper-car” capable of getting supernaturally fabulous mileage, in the belief that this would be an ecological benefit. The short-sightedness of this venture? It only promoted the idea that we could continue to be a car-dependent society; the project barely gave nodding recognition to the value of walkable communities and public transit.

The most arrant case of collective cluelessness now on view is our failure to even begin a public discussion about fixing the U.S. passenger railroad system, which has become so decrepit that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of it. It’s the one thing we could do right away that would have a substantial impact on our oil use. The infrastructure is still out there, rusting in the rain, waiting to be fixed. The restoration of it would employ hundreds of thousands of Americans at all levels of meaningful work. The fact that we are hardly even talking about it—at any point along the political spectrum, left, right, or center—shows how fundamentally un-serious we are.

This is just not good enough. It is not worthy of our history, our heritage, or the sacrifices that our ancestors made. It is wholly incompatible with anything describable as our collective responsibility to the future.

We have to do better. We have to start right away making those other arrangements. We have to begin the transition to some mode of living that will allow us to carry on the project of civilization—and I would argue against the notion advanced by Daniel Quinn and others that civilization itself is our enemy and should not be continued. The agenda for facing our problems squarely can, in fact, be described with some precision. We have to make other arrangements for the basic activities of everyday life.

In general, the circumstances we face with energy and climate change will require us to live much more locally, probably profoundly and intensely so. We have to grow more of our food locally, on a smaller scale than we do now, with fewer artificial “inputs,” and probably with more human and animal labor. Farming may come closer to the center of our national economic life than it has been within the memory of anyone alive now. These changes are also likely to revive a menu of social and class conflicts that we also thought we had left behind.

We’ll have to reorganize retail trade by rebuilding networks of local economic interdependence. The rise of national chain retail business was an emergent, self-organizing response to the conditions of the late twentieth century. Those conditions are now coming to an end, and the Wal-Mart way of doing business will come to an end with them: the twelve-thousand-mile merchandise supply line to Asian factories; the “warehouse on wheels” made up of thousands of tractor-trailer trucks circulating endlessly between the container-ship ports and the big-box store loading docks. The damage to local economies that the “superstores” leave behind is massive. Not only have they destroyed multilayered local networks for making and selling things, they destroyed the middle classes that ran them, and in so doing they destroyed the cultural and economic fabric of the communities themselves. This is a lot to overcome. We will have to resume making some things for ourselves again, and moving them through smaller-scale trade networks. We may have fewer things to buy overall. The retail frenzy of recent decades will subside as we struggle to produce things of value and necessarily consume less.

We’ll have to make other arrangements for transporting people and goods. Not only do we desperately need to rebuild the railroad system, but electrifying it—as virtually all other advanced nations have done—will bring added advantages, since we will be able to run it on a range of things other than fossil fuels. We should anticipate a revival of maritime trade on the regional scale, with more use of boats on rivers, canals, and waterways within the U.S. Many of our derelict riverfronts and the dying ports of the Great Lakes may come back to life. If we use trucks at all to move things, it will be for the very last leg of the journey. The automobile will be a diminishing presence in our lives and, increasingly, a luxury that will be resented by those who can no longer afford to participate in the “happy motoring” utopia. The interstate highways themselves will require more resources to maintain than we will be able to muster. For many of us, the twenty-first century will be less about incessant mobility than about staying where we are.

We have to inhabit the terrain of North America differently, meaning a return to traditional cities, towns, neighborhoods, and a productive rural landscape that is more than just strictly scenic or recreational. We will probably see a reversal of the two-hundred-year-long trend of people moving from the country and small towns to the big cities. In fact, our big cities will probably contract substantially, even while they re-densify at their centers and along their waterfronts. The work of the New Urbanists will be crucial in rebuilding human habitats that have a future. Their achievement so far has been not so much in building “new towns” like Seaside, Florida, or Kentlands, Maryland, but in retrieving a body of knowledge, principle, and methodology for urban design that had been thrown away in our mad effort to build the drive-in suburbs.

It is harder to predict exactly what may happen with education and medicine, except to say that neither can continue to operate as rackets much longer, and that they, like everything else, will have to become smaller in scale and much more local. Our centralized school districts, utterly dependent on the countless daily trips of fleets of yellow buses and oppressive property taxes, have poor prospects for carrying on successfully in an energy-scarce economy. However, we will be a less affluent nation in the post-oil age, and therefore may be hard-pressed to replace them. A new, more locally based education system may arise instead out of home-schooling, as household classes aggregate into new, small, neighborhood schools. College will cease to be a mass-consumer activity, and may only be available to social elites—if it continues to exist at all. Meanwhile, we’re in for a pretty stark era of triage as the vast resources of the “medical industry” contract. Even without a global energy crisis bearing down on us, the federal Medicaid and Medicare systems would not survive the future as currently funded.

As a matter of fact, you can state categorically that anything organized on a gigantic scale, whether it is a federal government or the Acme Corporation or the University of Michigan, will probably falter in the energy-scarce future. Therefore, don’t pin your hopes on multinational corporations, international NGOs, or any other giant organizations or institutions.

Recent events have caused many of us to fear that we are headed toward a Big Brother kind of governmental tyranny. I think we will be lucky if the federal government can answer the phones, let alone regulate anyone’s life, in the post-oil era. As power devolves to the local and regional level, the very purpose of our federal arrangements may come into question. The state governments, with their enormous bureaucracies, may not be better off. Further along in this century, the real political action will likely shift down to the local level, as reconstructed neighborly associations allow people to tackle problems locally with local solutions.

It’s a daunting agenda, all right. And some of you are probably wondering how you are supposed to remain hopeful in the face of these enormous tasks. Here’s the plain truth, folks: Hope is not a consumer product. You have to generate your own hope. You do that by demonstrating to yourself that you are brave enough to face reality and competent enough to deal with the circumstances that it presents. How we will manage to uphold a decent society in the face of extraordinary change will depend on our creativity, our generosity, and our kindness, and I am confident that we can find these resources within our own hearts, and collectively in our communities.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER is the author of The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere, as well as the novel Maggie Darling: A Modern Romance. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Predictions of the Year 2000
from The Ladies Home Journal of December 1900

The Ladies Home Journal from December 1900, which contained a fascinating article by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years”.

Mr. Watkins wrote: “These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible. Yet, they have come from the most learned and conservative minds in America. To the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning I have gone, asking each in his turn to forecast for me what, in his opinion, will have been wrought in his own field of investigation before the dawn of 2001 - a century from now. These opinions I have carefully transcribed.”

During the Year 2000, we included Mr. Watkins research in our feature articles. We invite you to comment on these predictions, whether they have been realized in some way or how they can never be accomplished! In any event, we know you’ll enjoy these entries.

Prediction #1: There will probably be from 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in America and its possessions by the lapse of another century. Nicaragua will ask for admission to our Union after the completion of the great canal. Mexico will be next. Europe, seeking more territory to the south of us, will cause many of the South and Central American republics to be voted into the Union by their own people.”

Prediction #2: The American will be taller by from one to two inches. His increase of stature will result from better health, due to vast reforms in medicine, sanitation, food and athletics. He will live fifty years instead of thirty-five as at present – for he will reside in the suburbs. The city house will practically be no more. Building in blocks will be illegal. The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only. A penny will pay the fare.

Prediction #3: Gymnastics will begin in the nursery, where toys and games will be designed to strengthen the muscles. Exercise will be compulsory in the schools. Every school, college and community will have a complete gymnasium. All cities will have public gymnasiums. A man or woman unable to walk ten miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling.

Prediction #4: There Will Be No Street Cars in Our Large Cities. All hurry traffic will be below or high above ground when brought within city limits. In most cities it will be confined to broad subways or tunnels, well lighted and well ventilated, or to high trestles with “moving-sidewalk” stairways leading to the top. These underground or overhead streets will teem with capacious automobile passenger coaches and freight with cushioned wheels. Subways or trestles will be reserved for express trains. Cities, therefore, will be free from all noises.

Prediction #5: Trains will run two miles a minute, normally; express trains one hundred and fifty miles an hour. To go from New York to San Francisco will take a day and a night by fast express. There will be cigar-shaped electric locomotives hauling long trains of cars. Cars will, like houses, be artificially cooled. Along the railroads there will be no smoke, no cinders, because coal will neither be carried nor burned. There will be no stops for water. Passengers will travel through hot or dusty country regions with windows down.

Prediction #6: Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are today. Farmers will own automobile hay-wagons, automobile truck-wagons, plows, harrows and hay-rakes. A one-pound motor in one of these vehicles will do the work of a pair of horses or more. Children will ride in automobile sleighs in winter. Automobiles will have been substituted for every horse vehicle now known. There will be, as already exist today, automobile hearses, automobile police patrols, automobile ambulances, automobile street sweepers. The horse in harness will be as scarce, if, indeed, not even scarcer, then as the yoked ox is today.

Prediction #7: There will be air-ships, but they will not successfully compete with surface cars and water vessels for passenger or freight traffic. They will be maintained as deadly war-vessels by all military nations. Some will transport men and goods. Others will be used by scientists making observations at great heights above the earth.

Prediction #8: Aerial War-Ships and Forts on Wheels. Giant guns will shoot twenty-five miles or more, and will hurl anywhere within such a radius shells exploding and destroying whole cities. Such guns will be armed by aid of compasses when used on land or sea, and telescopes when directed from great heights. Fleets of air-ships, hiding themselves with dense, smoky mists, thrown off by themselves as they move, will float over cities, fortifications, camps or fleets. They will surprise foes below by hurling upon them deadly thunderbolts. These aerial war-ships will necessitate bomb-proof forts, protected by great steel plates over their tops as well as at their sides. Huge forts on wheels will dash across open spaces at the speed of express trains of to-day. They will make what are now known as cavalry charges. Great automobile plows will dig deep entrenchments as fast as soldiers can occupy them. Rifles will use silent cartridges. Submarine boats submerged for days will be capable of wiping a whole navy off the face of the deep. Balloons and flying machines will carry telescopes of one-hundred-mile vision with camera attachments, photographing an enemy within that radius. These photographs as distinct and large as if taken from across the street, will be lowered to the commanding officer in charge of troops below.

Prediction #9: Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later. Even to-day photographs are being telegraphed over short distances. Photographs will reproduce all of Nature’s colors.

Prediction #10: Man will See Around the World. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span. American audiences in their theatres will view upon huge curtains before them the coronations of kings in Europe or the progress of battles in the Orient. The instrument bringing these distant scenes to the very doors of people will be connected with a giant telephone apparatus transmitting each incidental sound in its appropriate place. Thus the guns of a distant battle will be heard to boom when seen to blaze, and thus the lips of a remote actor or singer will be heard to utter words or music when seen to move.

Prediction #11: No Mosquitoes nor Flies. Insect screens will be unnecessary. Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated. Boards of health will have destroyed all mosquito haunts and breeding-grounds, drained all stagnant pools, filled in all swamp-lands, and chemically treated all still-water streams. The extermination of the horse and its stable will reduce the house-fly.

Prediction #12: Peas as Large as Beets. Peas and beans will be as large as beets are to-day. Sugar cane will produce twice as much sugar as the sugar beet now does. Cane will once more be the chief source of our sugar supply. The milkweed will have been developed into a rubber plant. Cheap native rubber will be harvested by machinery all over this country. Plants will be made proof against disease microbes just as readily as man is to-day against smallpox. The soil will be kept enriched by plants which take their nutrition from the air and give fertility to the earth.

Prediction #13: Strawberries as Large as Apples will be eaten by our great-great-grandchildren for their Christmas dinners a hundred years hence. Raspberries and blackberries will be as large. One will suffice for the fruit course of each person. Strawberries and cranberries will be grown upon tall bushes. Cranberries, gooseberries and currants will be as large as oranges. One cantaloupe will supply an entire family. Melons, cherries, grapes, plums, apples, pears, peaches and all berries will be seedless. Figs will be cultivated over the entire United States.

Prediction #14: Black, Blue and Green Roses. Roses will be as large as cabbage heads. Violets will grow to the size of orchids. A pansy will be as large in diameter as a sunflower. A century ago the pansy measured but half an inch across its face. There will be black, blue and green roses. It will be possible to grow any flower in any color and to transfer the perfume of a scented flower to another which is odorless. Then may the pansy be given the perfume of the violet.

Prediction #15: No Foods will be Exposed. Storekeepers who expose food to air breathed out by patrons or to the atmosphere of the busy streets will be arrested with those who sell stale or adulterated produce. Liquid-air refrigerators will keep great quantities of food fresh for long intervals.

Prediction #16: There will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other. Russian will rank second.

Prediction #17: How Children will be Taught. A university education will be free to every man and woman. Several great national universities will have been established. Children will study a simple English grammar adapted to simplified English, and not copied after the Latin. Time will be saved by grouping like studies. Poor students will be given free board, free clothing and free books if ambitious and actually unable to meet their school and college expenses. Medical inspectors regularly visiting the public schools will furnish poor children free eyeglasses, free dentistry and free medical attention of every kind. The very poor will, when necessary, get free rides to and from school and free lunches between sessions. In vacation time poor children will be taken on trips to various parts of the world. Etiquette and housekeeping will be important studies in the public schools.

Prediction #18: Telephones Around the World. Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn. By an automatic signal they will connect with any circuit in their locality without the intervention of a “hello girl”.

Prediction #19: Grand Opera will be telephoned to private homes, and will sound as harmonious as though enjoyed from a theatre box. Automatic instruments reproducing original airs exactly will bring the best music to the families of the untalented. Great musicians gathered in one enclosure in New York will, by manipulating electric keys, produce at the same time music from instruments arranged in theatres or halls in San Francisco or New Orleans, for instance. Thus will great bands and orchestras give long-distance concerts. In great cities there will be public opera-houses whose singers and musicians are paid from funds endowed by philanthropists and by the government. The piano will be capable of changing its tone from cheerful to sad. Many devises will add to the emotional effect of music.

Prediction #20: Coal will not be used for heating or cooking. It will be scarce, but not entirely exhausted. The earth’s hard coal will last until the year 2050 or 2100; its soft-coal mines until 2200 or 2300. Meanwhile both kinds of coal will have become more and more expensive. Man will have found electricity manufactured by waterpower to be much cheaper. Every river or creek with any suitable fall will be equipped with water-motors, turning dynamos, making electricity. Along the seacoast will be numerous reservoirs continually filled by waves and tides washing in. Out of these the water will be constantly falling over revolving wheels. All of our restless waters, fresh and salt, will thus be harnessed to do the work which Niagara is doing today: making electricity for heat, light and fuel.

Prediction #21: Hot and Cold Air from Spigots. Hot or cold air will be turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house as we now turn on hot or cold water from spigots to regulate the temperature of the bath. Central plants will supply this cool air and heat to city houses in the same way as now our gas or electricity is furnished. Rising early to build the furnace fire will be a task of the olden times. Homes will have no chimneys, because no smoke will be created within their walls.

Prediction #22: Store Purchases by Tube. Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles. These tubes will collect, deliver and transport mail over certain distances, perhaps for hundreds of miles. They will at first connect with the private houses of the wealthy; then with all homes. Great business establishments will extend them to stations, similar to our branch post-offices of today, whence fast automobile vehicles will distribute purchases from house to house.

Prediction #23: Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of today. They will purchase materials in tremendous wholesale quantities and sell the cooked foods at a price much lower than the cost of individual cooking. Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes or automobile wagons. The meal being over, the dishes used will be packed and returned to the cooking establishments where they will be washed. Such wholesale cookery will be done in electric laboratories rather than in kitchens. These laboratories will be equipped with electric stoves, and all sorts of electric devices, such as coffee-grinders, egg-beaters, stirrers, shakers, parers, meat-choppers, meat-saws, potato-mashers, lemon-squeezers, dish-washers, dish-dryers and the like. All such utensils will be washed in chemicals fatal to disease microbes. Having one’s own cook and purchasing one’s own food will be an extravagance.

Prediction #24: Vegetables Grown by Electricity. Winter will be turned into summer and night into day by the farmer. In cold weather he will place heat-conducting electric wires under the soil of his garden and thus warm his growing plants. He will also grow large gardens under glass. At night his vegetables will be bathed in powerful electric light, serving, like sunlight, to hasten their growth. Electric currents applied to the soil will make valuable plants grow larger and faster, and will kill troublesome weeds. Rays of colored light will hasten the growth of many plants. Electricity applied to garden seeds will make them sprout and develop unusually early.

Prediction #25: Oranges will grow in Philadelphia. Fast-flying refrigerators on land and sea will bring delicious fruits from the tropics and southern temperate zone within a few days. The farmers of South America, South Africa, Australia and the South Sea Islands, whose seasons are directly opposite to ours, will thus supply us in winter with fresh summer foods, which cannot be grown here. Scientist will have discovered how to raise here many fruits now confined to much hotter or colder climates. Delicious oranges will be grown in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Cantaloupes and other summer fruits will be of such a hardy nature that they can be stored through the winter as potatoes are now.

Prediction #26: Strawberries as large as apples will be eaten by our great great grandchildren for their Christmas dinners a hundred years hence. Raspberries and blackberries will be as large. One will suffice for the fruit course of each person. Strawberries and cranberries will be grown upon tall bushes. Cranberries, gooseberries and currants will be as large as oranges. One cantaloupe will supply an entire family. Melons, cherries, grapes, plums, apples, pears, peaches and all berries will be seedless. Figs will be cultivated over the entire United States.

Prediction #27: Few drugs will be swallowed or taken into the stomach unless needed for the direct treatment of that organ itself. Drugs needed by the lungs, for instance, will be applied directly to those organs through the skin and flesh. They will be carried with the electric current applied without pain to the outside skin of the body. Microscopes will lay bare the vital organs, through the living flesh, of men and animals. The living body will to all medical purposes be transparent. Not only will it be possible for a physician to actually see a living, throbbing heart inside the chest, but he will be able to magnify and photograph any part of it. This work will be done with rays of invisible light.

Prediction #28: There will be no wild animals except in menageries. Rats and mice will have been exterminated. The horse will have become practically extinct. A few of high breed will be kept by the rich for racing, hunting and exercise. The automobile will have driven out the horse. Cattle and sheep will have no horns. They will be unable to run faster than the fattened hog of today. A century ago the wild hog could outrun a horse. Food animals will be bred to expend practically all of their life energy in producing meat, milk, wool and other by-products. Horns, bones, muscles and lungs will have been neglected.

Prediction #29: To England in Two Days. Fast electric ships, crossing the ocean at more than a mile a minute, will go from New York to Liverpool in two days. The bodies of these ships will be built above the waves. They will be supported upon runners, somewhat like those of the sleigh. These runners will be very buoyant. Upon their under sides will be apertures expelling jets of air. In this way a film of air will be kept between them and the water’s surface. This film, together with the small surface of the runners, will reduce friction against the waves to the smallest possible degree. Propellers turned by electricity will screw themselves through both the water beneath and the air above. Ships with cabins artificially cooled will be entirely fireproof. In storm they will dive below the water and there await fair weather.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Apr 24, 2007

Why oil chiefs are feelin' groovy
By Julian Delasantellis

In 1980, Paul Simon sang of a "One Trick Pony", an animal that "does one trick only - it's the principal source of his revenue". These days, the world's major oil companies are a lot like this animal. They do one thing - engineering price rises by restricting gasoline supply through manipulation of oil-refinery output - really, really well and, much like the pony, they make lots and lots of revenue from this activity.

In my April 4 article in Asia Times Online, Crude: Barrels of fun to crack you up, I explained how the rise in prices of world oil products going on at that time was not, as the popular media were then proclaiming, the result of tensions over the 15 British sailors then being held by Iran; it was more the result of the lack of any spare capacity worldwide to refine oil, a condition that, at the very least, the oil companies found serendipitous. Now that the sailors are home, safe and sound in the warm, loving bosoms of their literary agents, you might have expected oil and gasoline prices, if only just for show, to give back some of their March gains.

Not on your life, as all US drivers know. Like vampires, they now fear each new rising of the sun, for it is then they will learn just how much retail gasoline prices have risen overnight. According to the US Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA), average US retail gasoline prices have risen every week since early February. The national retail average of US$2.876 for a gallon of regular gasoline (75.98 cents per liter), as of the April 16 report, is the highest price since the historical twin peaks of just under $3.10 early last summer and just after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the early autumn 2005. The national average masks wide regional disparities; lower in the Midwest, but on the west coast, the average is already at $3.195 (84.4 cents a liter).

But like those of a bad magician at a child's birthday party, the oil companies' tricks are showing. Government-released oil-industry data, along with the oil futures markets, are showing the world just exactly how this trick works - lucky for them the world, as usual, is looking elsewhere.

When the US media report on what's happening in the oil markets, what they are really reporting on is a commodity called West Texas Intermediate. WTI is what is called a commodity benchmark - it's the basis for the crude-oil futures contracts traded at the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX).

When a trader commits to buy, say, 10,000 oil futures contracts, and does not then sell or roll over the contracts prior to one of their monthly expirations, the trader has no intention of having 420,000 gallon pitchers filled with oil delivered to the trading floor in Lower Manhattan. Instead, written into the specifications of the futures contract is a proviso that the seller of the oil must deliver the commodity to the nexus of oil-pipeline connections at Cushing, Oklahoma - from there, the owner of the crude oil can make arrangements for the product to be delivered to and refined at one of the many nearby Gulf of Mexico Coast and Midwest refineries. Europe has its own oil benchmark, Brent Crude, originating out of the oil-drilling platforms in the North Sea, and traded at London's International Petroleum Exchange.

WTI can be refined into a less polluting, "cleaner" fuel than Brent, so it normally trades at a premium of about $1 above what Brent is trading at. However, this year, the reverse is happening, and is happening rather dramatically. On April 10, the premium for Brent over WTI widened to a historical high of more than $6 a barrel.

What's happening here, in the fall-off in demand for WTI and the accompanying surge in Brent, is that the oil companies are becoming so brazen in their attempts to manipulate the markets for petroleum products that it's becoming very, very obvious.

As I noted in my April 4 article, crude oil, by itself, has very little utility. It must be processed, refined, into its usable component products of gasoline, diesel fuel, home heating oil, and jet fuel. The reason WTI is losing relative value to Brent is that it's becoming harder and harder to do that at the traditional networks of refiners that service Cushing. The oil companies have recently shut down so much US refining capacity that there is no place for the crude oil at Cushing to go, no refinery with spare capacity to process it. The massive network of underground oil-storage tanks at Cushing is full, and oil being stored in tanks makes money for no one except the owner of the storage facilities. If you can't refine WTI, there's no reason to buy WTI.

In my April 4 article I demonstrated how oil companies were not building the new refining capacity necessary to meet surging world oil demand; figures from the EIA indicate that they're not even adequately using the US refinery production capability that they already have.

US oil refineries operated at less than 87% of capacity for the first three months of 2007. With the exception of 2006, when production was inhibited by the continuing effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the recession year of 2002, that's the lowest average capacity-utilization rate for the first three months of the year since 1992. (Oil companies defend their low early-in-the-year refinery-utilization rates by claiming that they use these months for repairs, for maintenance, and to shift their production mix from winter home-heating-oil blend to summer gasoline blend; be that as it may, it did not prevent US refineries from operating at more than 93% capacity during the first three months of 1998, 92% in 1999, and 91% in 2005.) The refinery capacity-utilization rate reported on February 16 of this year, 85.2%, was one of the lowest weekly rates not affected by Katrina and Rita since the early 1990s.

You could see the workings of the oil companies' trick as it developed. In early January, refinery capacity utilization stood at a healthy 91.5%, and the gasoline crack spread, the crude-oil-to-gasoline price ratio (the crack spread is explored in depth in my April 4 article) that defines the profit to be made from refining crude oil into gasoline, stood at a fairly low $7.154. NYMEX gasoline futures were then trading for less than $1.45 a gallon, the lowest prices for more than a year. It was then, with US gasoline demand still very strong, that the reduction in refinery capacity utilization began; all of a sudden the financial press was full of stories related to various and sundry "accidents" and "repairs" that were causing US refineries to shut down and/or limit production.

By late March, as the Iran/UK crisis began, and as crude-oil supplies at Cushing began to build, NYMEX gasoline futures had risen to $1.95, and the crack spread was near $19, meaning that oil companies were making just under two and two-thirds times the profit on every gallon of gasoline sold that they had in early January. On April 13, gasoline futures topped out at more than $2.20, up more than 75 cents since January. On that day, the crack spread stood at just under $28, meaning that the business of refining oil into gasoline was now four times as profitable as it was just three months previously.

Therefore, is it any surprise that the oil companies have now decided that all those needed "repairs" and "maintenance" can be put off for a while? The most recent report released by the EIA shows that oil refinery capacity utilization now stands at 90.4%, up 5 percentage points from two months previously.

Now that it's so much more profitable to sell the stuff, they might as well make some of the stuff.

With refineries producing this now much more valuable commodity flat-out, it's possible that the worst of the motorists' short-term pain has already been afflicted, but in the longer term, there is no cause for sanguinity. The first of the three big US summer driving holidays, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day, is still weeks away (May 28); many analysts see a real possibility of mid-to-late-summer US gasoline prices averaging in the mid-$3 range nationally, and closer to $4 a gallon ($1.05 a liter) on the west coast. Until the root cause of these price spikes, the oligarchic nature of the oil distribution and refinery system allowing oil companies to engineer and sustain supply restrictions virtually at will, is addressed, you'll always be reading about something, somewhere, be it Iran, Nigeria, Canada, or Cushing, Oklahoma, that is causing gasoline prices to skyrocket.

Imagine what it must be like to be some young eager-beaver oil-refinery manager seeking to rush his facility back into service before corporate headquarters thinks the time is right. This is the response he might get from the head office, sung to the tune of Paul Simon's and Art Garfunkel's 1966 hit "The 59th Street Bridge Song" (more commonly known as "Feelin' Groovy":

Slow down, you move too fast
You've got to make this shortage last
Hear the consumers' whines and moans
The oil business - it's just so groovy!

Julian Delasantellis is a management consultant, private investor and educator in international business in the US state of Washington. He can be reached at

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Swiss View (WES in Davos)

With apologies for the group email... I thought this was interesting enough
to pass along. These are the notes from a friend of a friend who writes for

Adam Davis
Director, EPRIsolutions Environment Division

1299 4th Street, Suite 307
San Rafael, CA 94901
Main Office:415-454-8800
Cell: 415-305-4786

Hi Guys.

OK, hard to believe, but true. Yours truely has been hobnobbing with the
ruling class.

I spent a week in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum. I was
awarded a special pass which allowed me full access to not only the
entire official meeting, but also private dinners with the likes the
head of the Saudi Secret Police, presidents of various insundry
countries, your Fortune 500 CEOS and the leaders of the most important
NGOs in the world. This was not typical press access. It was full-on,
unfettered, class A hobnobbing.

Davos, I discovered, is a breathtakingly beautiful spot, unlike anything
I'd ever experienced. Nestled high in the Swiss Alps, it's a three hours
train ride from Zurich that finds you climbing steadily through
snow-laden mountains that bring to mind Heidi and Audrey Hepburn (as in
the opening scenes of "Charade"). The EXTREMELY powerful arrive by
helicopter. The moderately powerful take the first class train. The NGOs
and we mere mortals reach heaven via coach train or a conference bus.
Once in Europe's bit of heaven conferees are scattered in hotels that
range from B&B to ultra luxury 5-stars, all of which are located along
one of only three streets that bisect the idyllic village of some 13,000
permanent residents.

Local Davos folks are fanatic about skiing, and the slopes are literally
a 5-15 minute bus ride away, depending on which astounding downhill you
care to try. I don't know how, so rather than come home in a full body
cast I merely watched.

This sweet little chalet village was during the WEF packed with about
3000 delegates and press, some 1000 Swiss police, another 400 Swiss
soldiers, numerous tanks and armored personnel carriers, gigantic rolls
of coiled barbed wire that gracefully cascaded down snow-covered
hillsides, missile launchers and assorted other tools of the national
security trade. The security precautions did not, of course, stop there.
Every single person who planned to enter the conference site had special
electronic badges which, upon being swiped across a reading pad,
produced a computer screen filled color portrait of the attendee, along
with his/her vital statistics. These were swiped and scrutinized by
soldiers and police every few minutes -- any time one passed through a
door, basically. The whole system was connected to handheld wireless
communication devices made by HP, which were issued to all VIPs. I got
one. Very cool, except when they crashed. Which, of course, they did
frequently. These devices supplied every imagineable piece of
information one could want about the conference, your fellow delegates,
Davos, the world news, etc. And they were emailing devices --- all
emails being monitored, of course, by Swiss cops.

Antiglobalization folks didn't stand a chance. Nor did Al Qaeda. After
all, if someone managed to take out Davos during WEF week the world
would basically lose a fair chunk of its ruling and governing class
POOF, just like that. So security was the name of the game. Metal
detectors, X-ray machines, shivering soldiers standing in blizzards,

Overall, here is what I learned about the state of our world:

- I was in a dinner with heads of Saudi and German FBI, plus the
foreign minister of Afghanistan. They all said that at its peak Al Qaeda
had 70,000 members. Only 10% of them were trained in terrorism -- the
rest were military recruits. Of that 7000, they say all but about 200
are dead or in jail.

- But Al Qaeda, they say, is like a brand which has been heavily
franchised. And nobody knows how many unofficial franchises have been
spawned since 9/11.

- The global economy is in very very very very bad shape. Last year
when WEF met here in New York all I heard was, "Yeah, it's bad, but
recovery is right around the corner". This year "recovery" was a word
never uttered. Fear was palpable -- fear of enormous fiscal hysteria.
The watchwords were "deflation", "long term stagnation" and "collapse of
the dollar". All of this is without war.

- If the U.S. unilaterally goes to war, and it is anything short of a
quick surgical strike (lasting less than 30 days), the economists were
all predicting extreme economic gloom: falling dollar value, rising spot
market oil prices, the Fed pushing interest rates down towards zero with
resulting increase in national debt, severe trouble in all countries
whose currency is guaranteed agains the dollar (which is just about
everybody except the EU), a near cessation of all development and
humanitarian programs for poor countries. Very few economists or
ministers of finance predicted the world getting out of that economic
funk for minimally five-10 years, once the downward spiral ensues.

- Not surprisingly, the business community was in no mood to hear about
a war in Iraq. Except for diehard American Republicans, a few Brit
Tories and some Middle East folks the WEF was in a foul, angry
anti-American mood. Last year the WEF was a lovefest for America. This
year the mood was so ugly that it reminded me of what it felt like to be
an American overseas in the Reagan years. The rich -- whether they are
French or Chinese or just about anybody -- are livid about the Iraq
crisis primarily because they believe it will sink their financial

- Plenty are also infuriated because they disagree on policy grounds. I
learned a great deal. It goes FAR beyond the sorts of questions one
hears raised by demonstrators and in UN debates. For example:

- If Al Qaeda is down to merely 200 terrorists cadres and a
handful of wannabe franchises, what's all the fuss?

- The Middle East situation has never been worse. All hope for a
settlement between Israel and Palestine seems to have evaporated. The
energy should be focused on placing painful financial pressure on all
sides in that fight, forcing them to the negotiating table. Otherwise,
the ME may well explode. The war in Iraq is at best a distraction from
that core issue, at worst may aggravate it. Jordan's Queen Rania spoke
of the "desperate search for hope".

- Serious Islamic leaders (e.g. the King of Jordan, the Prime
Minster of Malaysia, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia) believe that the Islamic
world must recapture the glory days of 12-13th C Islam. That means
finding tolerance and building great education institutions and places
of learning. The King was passionate on the subject. It also means
freedom of movement and speech within and among the Islamic nations.
And, most importantly to the WEF, it means flourishing free trade and
support for entrepeneurs with minimal state regulation. (However, there
were also several Middle East respresentatives who argued precisely the
opposite. They believe bringing down Saddam Hussein and then pushing the
Israel/Palestine issue could actually result in a Golden Age for Arab

- US unilateralism is seen as arrogant, bullyish. If the U.S.
cannot behave in partnership with its allies -- especially the Europeans
-- it risks not only political alliance but BUSINESS, as well. Company
leaders argued that they would rather not have to deal with US
government attitudes about all sorts of multilateral treaties (climate
change, intellectual property, rights of children, etc.) -- it's easier
to just do business in countries whose governments agree with yours. And
it's cheaper, in the long run, because the regulatory envornments match.
War against Iraq is seen as just another example of the unilateralism.

- For a minority of the participants there was another layer of
AntiAmericanism that focused on moralisms and religion. I often heard
delegates complain that the US "opposes the rights of children", because
we block all treaties and UN efforts that would support sex education
and condom access for children and teens. They spoke of sex education as
a "right". Similarly, there was a decidedly mixed feeling about
Ashcroft, who addressed the conference. I attended a small lunch with
Ashcroft, and observed Ralph Reed and other prominent Christian
fundamentalists working the room and bowing their heads before eating.
The rest of the world's elite finds this American Christian behavior at
least as uncomfortable as it does Moslem or Hindu fundamentalist
behavior. They find it awkward every time a US representative refers to
"faith-based" programs. It's different from how it makes non-Christian
Americans feel -- these folks experience it as downright embarrassing.

- When Colin Powell gave the speech of his life, trying to win
over the nonAmerican delegates, the sharpest attack on his comments came
not from Amnesty International or some Islamic representative -- it came
from the head of the largest bank in the Netherlands!

I learned that the only economy about which there is much enthusiasm is
China, which was responsible for 77% of the global GDP growth in 2002.
But the honcho of the Bank of China, Zhu Min, said that fantastic growth
could slow to a crawl if China cannot solve its rural/urban problem.
Currently 400 million Chinese are urbanites, and their average income is
16 times that of the 900 million rural residents. Zhu argued China must
urbanize nearly a billion people in ten years!

I learned that the US economy is the primary drag on the global economy,
and only a handful of nations have sufficient internal growth to thrive
when the US is stagnating.

The WEF was overwhelmed by talk of security, with fears of terrorism,
computer and copyright theft, assassination and global instability
dominating almost every discussion.

I learned from American security and military speakers that, "We need
to attack Iraq not to punish it for what it might have, but
preemptively, as part of a global war. Iraq is just one piece of a
campaign that will last years, taking out states, cleansing the planet."

The mood was very grim. Almost no parties, little fun. If it hadn't been
for the South Africans -- party animals every one of them -- I'd never
have danced. Thankfully, the South Africans staged a helluva party, with
Jimmy Dludlu's band rocking until 3am and Stellenbosch wines pouring
freely, glass after glass after glass....

These WEF folks are freaked out. They see very bad economics ahead, war,
and more terrorism. About 10% of the sessions were about terrorism, and
it's heavy stuff. One session costed out what another 9/11-type attack
would do to global markets, predicting a far, far worse impact due to
the "second hit" effect -- a second hit that would prove all the world's
post-9/11 security efforts had failed. Another costed out in detail what
this, or that, war scenario
Would do to spot oil prices. Russian speakers argued that "failed
nations" were spawning terrorists --- code for saying, "we hate
Chechnya". Entire sessions were devoted to arguing which poses the
greater asymmetric threat: nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

Finally, who are these guys? I actually enjoyed a lot of my
conversations, and found many of the leaders and rich quite charming and
remarkably candid. Some dressed elegantly, no matter how bitter cold and
snowy it was, but most seemed quite happy in ski clothes or casual
attire. Women wearing pants was perfectly acceptable, and the elite is
Multicultural that even the suit and tie lacks a sense of dominance.
Watching Bill Clinton address the conference while sitting in the hotel
room of the President of Mozambique -- we were viewing it on closed
circuit TV -- I got juicy blow-by=blow analysis of US foreign policy
from a remarkably candid head of state. A day spent with Bill Gates
turned out to be fascinating and fun. I found the CEO of Heinekin
hilarious, and George Soros proved quite earnest about confronting AIDS.
Vicente Fox -- who I had breakfast with -- proved sexy and smart like a
--- well, a fox. David Stern (Chair of the NBA) ran up and gave me a

The world isn't run by a clever cabal. It's run by about 5,000
bickering, sometimes charming, usually arrogant, mostly male people who
are accustomed to living in either phenomenal wealth, or great personal
power. A few have both. Many of them turn out to be remarkably naive --
especially about science and technology. All of them are financially
wise, though their ranks have thinned due to unwise tech-stock
investing. They pay close heed to politics, though most would be happy
if the global political system behaved far more rationally -- better for
the bottom line. They work very hard, attending sessions from dawn to
nearly midnight, but expect the standards of intelligence and analysis
to be the best available in the entire world. They are impatient. They
have a hard time reconciling long term issues (global wearming, AIDS
pandemic, resource scarcity) with their daily bottomline foci. They are
comfortable working across languages, cultures and gender, though white
caucasian males still outnumber all other categories. They adore hi-tech
gadgets and are glued to their cell phones.

Welcome to Earth: meet the leaders.


Monday, April 23, 2007

Exxon = oil, g*dammit!
Unlike its rivals, Exxon Mobil doesn't much care about alternative fuels and doesn't try to please the greens. Is CEO Rex Tillerson nuts - or shrewd?
By Geoff Colvin, Fortune senior editor-at-large
April 23 2007: 6:36 AM EDT

(Fortune Magazine) -- Rex Tillerson is way out of line, and he knows it. "They want us to join the parade," he says, referring to assorted environmentalists, scientists, politicians, investors and others who've been lambasting him and the company he heads, Exxon Mobil. He knows what they're saying about him, and he repeats it: "Get in line. You're outta line right now - get in line."

Why Tillerson refuses to run Exxon (Charts, Fortune 500) the way other CEOs are running other giant oil companies is for many people the most baffling and even infuriating question about the world's most profitable corporation.

The basic model for managing an oil company in this eco-conscious age became clear a few years ago when Britain's BP (Charts) loudly declared itself to be "beyond petroleum." The other supermajors are all proclaiming their greenness and investing in biofuels, wind power and solar power. Exxon isn't. It only recently acknowledged publicly that - brace yourself - the world is warming. Beyond petroleum? At Exxon it's all petroleum.

It does seem strange that such a high-profile corporation could be so egregiously not with the program. The pressure to conform arguably increases because Exxon is doing so well. In 2006 it earned higher profits than any company in history: $39.5 billion. That's more than the GDP of Yemen and Bahrain combined.

A year to remember in financial terms, but in other ways Exxon had to endure some truly miserable moments. Reports of former CEO Lee Raymond's exit package, worth some $400 million, stoked outrage across the political spectrum. Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) sent Tillerson a long letter berating the company for funding groups dubious of global warming. (The irony of a Rockefeller attacking Exxon ensured extra attention for the story: Exxon is a descendant of Standard Oil, source of the Rockefeller family fortune.) Legislators in Washington, D.C., and several states proposed windfall-profit taxes on oil companies; the notion stood little chance of becoming law but signaled powerful hostility. Through it all, Tillerson remained defiantly, even proudly, out of line.

And maybe he's not nuts.

His company is shaped above all by a rigorous analytical culture. "Exxon Mobil is not a fun place to work," says Fadel Gheit, the Oppenheimer & Co. oil industry analyst widely considered Wall Street's best. "They're not in the fun business," he explains. "They're in the profit business."

Remember that. It means that Exxon understands the essence of capitalism: earning a return on capital that exceeds the cost of that capital. At this supremely important job, it is a world champion. All the major oil companies bear about the same capital cost, just over 6%. But Exxon earns a return that trounces its competitors.

The reasons are many. Partly it's the portfolio of locations - some acquired in the Middle East decades ago - at which Exxon can pump oil for less than $1 a barrel. Partly it's wise business bets on building refineries and petrochemical plants as vast single units that achieve tremendous efficiencies; most other big oil companies separate refineries from chemical plants. Partly it's that intensely focused corporate culture.

Gheit, who worked for Mobil long before the companies merged, recalls being mystified by Exxon's X factor. "We [Mobil] could be pumping oil from the same platform, and they'd make more money on it than us," he says. "It was like taking the same train to work, but they got to the office first."

Exxon not only earns better returns on capital than its competitors, but also deploys more capital than any of them (although Royal Dutch Shell (Charts) is close). That combination - higher returns on more capital - yields Exxon way more money than its competitors that it can use to invest in future projects or reward shareholders directly by paying dividends and buying back stock. And it is why Exxon has become the most valuable company on earth, with a current market cap of about $440 billion.

As a financial picture, it's a thing of beauty. Alas, it is one that needs constant attention: Investors expect Exxon to keep performing at that level. The price of any stock is based on an evaluation of the future. Exxon's high price (about $77, up almost 30% in the past year) means the market is counting on it to continue its run. If Exxon even hints that it might stumble, the stock could collapse. As Tillerson says during an interview in his Houston office, "We're only going to invest our shareholders' money where we think they can get the kind of returns they expected when they invested their money with Exxon Mobil."

Which brings us to the biggest beef Exxon's critics have: Why isn't the company investing in less polluting energy sources like biofuels, wind, and solar? Remembering that Exxon is above all in the profit business, we know where to look for the answer. As a place to earn knockout returns on capital, alternative energy looks wobbly. For example, the darling of the moment, ethanol, is nowhere near economically competitive with gasoline (and may not be better environmentally, because it is fuel- and land-intensive to produce). Take out the 51-cents-a-gallon federal subsidy, and the true cost of U.S.-produced ethanol is equivalent to paying $6 a gallon for the same energy as gasoline, calculates Michael B. McElroy, Harvard professor of environmental studies. Even subsidies granted for national security reasons can come and go. To a disciplined investor, such a product is not especially attractive. "I don't have a lot of technology to add to moonshine," says Tillerson of ethanol.

It's a similar story for alternative fuels for power generation. Solar-generated electricity is still way costlier than juice from traditional coal- and gas-fueled plants. Wind power is narrowing the gap but is difficult to scale up. Hydro and biomass are clean and fully competitive on cost - but Exxon just doesn't know much about building dams or burning agricultural waste. Its expertise is in oil and gas, as exemplified by its world-class Upstream Research Center in Houston; the company is happy to leave the alternative stuff to others.

"What are we going to bring to this area to create value for our shareholders that's differentiating?" asks Tillerson. "Because to just go in and invest like everybody else - well, why would a shareholder want to own Exxon Mobil?"

At least one group of investors thinks Tillerson is missing the bigger picture. By not investing in new energy technologies, Exxon "lags far behind its competitors in developing a strategy to plan for and manage" the potential impact of climate change, argued a group of pension fund chiefs in a letter to the board. If governments around the world begin to bear down on Exxon's oil-based business - through heavier regulation or taxation - then the company's return-on-investment calculations get turned upside down. Its whole future would be in jeopardy.

That will not happen, says Exxon, because it cannot happen. Exxon is certain that oil, gas and coal will remain the world's dominant energy sources for decades to come.

That belief drives the company's critics crazy. But Exxon's projections are not radical. A forthcoming report from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program cites three of the most widely used models for climate change analysis: one from MIT, another developed jointly by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland, and a third created by Stanford University and the Electric Power Research Institute. The studies do not agree on everything but they do agree on this: Fossil fuels will remain the planet's No. 1 energy source through the 21st century, supplying 70% to 80% of the total by 2100, vs. about 90% today. Exxon forecasts only as far as 2030; in that year, it projects, primary energy sources such as coal, oil and gas will account for 81% of global demand.

That's another reason Exxon isn't investing in alternative energy sources: They don't look big enough. For a company Exxon's size - No. 2 on the Fortune 500 - businesses of less than mammoth scale don't merit troubling with because they can't nudge the bottom line.

It's worth noting that the company carries no genetic hatred of alternative energy. In the wake of the 1970s oil shocks, it conducted major research in solar energy, and it holds dozens of patents in the field. But it couldn't see how to earn a profit, and shut the program down. That experience also thickened the company's skin. While greens today vilify Exxon for not investing in solar power, back then they attacked the company for investing in it. The theory was that oil companies would monopolize solar and then withhold its benefits from the public to sell more oil.

Exxon avoids investment in alternative energy sources for yet another reason, one that reaches deep into the company's experience: Much depends on the future price of oil, and no one knows what it will be. Consider two scenarios. If oil dropped to $25 a barrel - about what it was (in today's dollars) just before 9/11 - alternative energy would look even less attractive economically. Exxon's decision not to invest would look all the wiser, but its oil-related profits would shrink. Conversely, if oil rose to $100, its profits would rise but many alternative energy sources would become economically viable - and Exxon wouldn't be able to capitalize on them.

The company considers low-price oil the greater risk. Experience has shown that when oil prices rise, customers are slow to cut back. Alternative energy may sell better in a high-oil-price world, but Exxon wouldn't care, since it believes those sources are destined to be small-scale - and it would be making huge profits in its traditional business.

Of course, no one knows the future price of oil. Says Tillerson: "We tell the organization, 'Folks, we really don't have a clue what the price of oil is going to be, and so given that, how should we run this business?' "

The answer is spelled out in a recent SEC filing: "Investment opportunities are tested against a variety of market conditions, including low-price scenarios. As a result, investments that would succeed only in highly favorable price environments are screened out of the investment plan." Alternative energy sources are precisely such investments.

Exxon does have a strategy for a carbon-constrained world; it just has nothing to do with alternative energy. The company's scientists are researching how to reduce CO2 emissions from oil and gas, and working with auto companies to make engines more efficient. Unlike, say, biomass or windmills, those are fields in which Exxon commands formidable expertise.

The whole process of Exxon's investment choices - the extraordinary returns on capital, the disciplined analysis, the spurning of alternative energy, the focus on the core business - hasn't changed in 20 years. One important thing, however, has changed: Exxon's public stance on global warming. Substantively, that's nothing compared with how the company directs its $20 billion of annual investment, and it doesn't make it one bit greener. But the company clearly realizes that it took a shellacking for no good reason and is trying, in its unique, Exxonish way, to do something about it.

The most important change is simply admitting the world is heating up. Ken Cohen, the company's communications chief, insists there is nothing new here: "Lee Raymond has said for many years that this is a serious issue." But Raymond never said, as far as we can tell, the simple words Rex Tillerson uttered at an energy conference in February: "We know our climate is changing, the average temperature of the earth is rising, and greenhouse-gas emissions are increasing."

That sentence would be a great big "duh" coming from anyone but the CEO of Exxon. For him, it signals a new corporate public relations strategy: The reality of warming is no longer debatable, and it's time to move on. That's a significant change.

Exxon's most stinging critics, such as Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists, have charged for years that the company has funded a range of global-warming doubters and deniers, and it's true. Public documents show that Exxon has long given money to organizations that publish papers, run websites, and write letters contending that global warming isn't happening, or isn't proven, or isn't connected to human activity. The company recently stopped funding some of those outfits - "about a half-dozen," says Cohen - though it may still be financing others. (Disclosure filings for 2006 are not available yet.) But at least publicly, Exxon accepts that the risk that human activity is warming the earth is great enough to warrant a response.

Exxon officials who once wouldn't acknowledge warming now publicly discuss the merits of, say, a carbon-cap-and-trade system vs. a carbon tax (they seem to favor the latter). They are even initiating meeting with critics they once shunned, including environmentalists and religious investors. Cohen has held a number of conference calls with bloggers on energy and climate. "I'm still fairly dubious," wrote blogger Stuart Staniford of the Oil Drum in a typical response, "but I also appreciate that they have been courteous and willing to sit through a couple of very frank exchanges of views."

Not that any of this has quieted Exxon's many critics. "I'm not sure I know what we're ever going to do that's going to cause them to have a different opinion about us," says Tillerson. "We may serve some other useful purpose." But Greenpeace research director Kert Davies says his organization doesn't need Exxon as an evil opponent. "I would love nothing more than for them to change their position and help us fix global warming," he says.

An alliance with Greenpeace is hardly imminent, but relations are more likely to warm under Tillerson than under his predecessor, the notoriously grumpy Lee Raymond. Tillerson, a native Texan and Exxon lifer who made his mark managing successful production deals in Yemen and Russia, has a softer edge. He often lets a grin break through his sober engineer's demeanor. If not exactly a barrel of laughs, Tillerson is much more likely to make friends. "He can disagree with you, but he does it with a smile," says Oppenheimer's Gheit. "He can tell you you're an idiot, but he doesn't make you feel like an idiot. That's the difference from Raymond."

Exxon's new attitude, though, still doesn't feel like much. With environmental news making headlines daily, with major competitors celebrating their work on alternative fuels, and with government leaders banging the green drum, Exxon's public stance seems somewhat oblivious. In truth, the company could say much more.

It could, for example, play up its $100 million in funding, over ten years, of Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Project, which conducts research into alternative fuels, including cellulosic ethanol. Or talk about its carbon-capture research with the EU. Or brag about how its operational improvements have reduced emissions. Or publish splashy ads, with lots of green ink, about its research into emissions-cutting technology and fuel efficiency. Why not out-BP BP - particularly since BP's image is looking rather frayed, given its now well-known operational issues?

Rex Tillerson answers before the question is even finished. "Intellectually, it's just not us," he says. "It's just not me, it's not Exxon Mobil. It's not the people of Exxon Mobil. We just don't take a view that we should try to paint a picture of something other than what we are." In other words, we're comfortable with ourselves and our actions, and you may make of us what you like.

Risky business
Thus, Exxon steams serenely forward on a course all its own, maddening critics, puzzling competitors, and gratifying investors. To adversaries like shareholder advocate Robert Monks, that's a sign of its arrogance and unmatched power. "Exxon is the single enterprise least accountable in any effective way to anybody outside itself," he says. "Vladimir Putin has more accountability than they do." To admirers like Fadel Gheit, it's a mark of Exxon's rigorous culture and a key to its success. "Exxon Mobil is not like other companies," he says. "They never take a day off." Both men have a point.

Maybe Tillerson will be proved wrong. Maybe wind or solar or "moonshine" will turn into huge businesses in which Exxon will lag far behind. Maybe retail customers will abandon its products out of irritation. But Tillerson is convinced that his judgments, which may seem out of line today, are not risky at all. And when you do the analysis from the perspective of a company in the profit business, it's hard to say he's wrong.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

"George Carlin's "The Planet Is Fine"
We're so self-important. So self-important. Everybody's going to save something now. "Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails." And the greatest arrogance of all: save the planet. What? Are these fucking people kidding me? Save the planet, we don't even know how to take care of ourselves yet. We haven't learned how to care for one another, we're gonna save the fucking planet?

I'm getting tired of that shit. Tired of that shit. I'm tired of fucking Earth Day, I'm tired of these self-righteous environmentalists, these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is there aren't enough bicycle paths. People trying to make the world save for their Volvos. Besides, environmentalists don't give a shit about the planet. They don't care about the planet. Not in the abstract they don't. Not in the abstract they don't. You know what they're interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They're worried that some day in the future, they might be personally inconvenienced. Narrow, unenlightened self-interest doesn't impress me.

Besides, there is nothing wrong with the planet. Nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The PEOPLE are fucked. Difference. Difference. The planet is fine. Compared to the people, the planet is doing great. Been here four and a half billion years. Did you ever think about the arithmetic? The planet has been here four and a half billion years. We've been here, what, a hundred thousand? Maybe two hundred thousand? And we've only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over two hundred years. Two hundred years versus four and a half billion. And we have the CONCEIT to think that somehow we're a threat? That somehow we're gonna put in jeopardy this beautiful little blue-green ball that's just a-floatin' around the sun?

The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles...hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worlwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages...And we think some plastic bags, and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet...the planet...the planet isn't going anywhere. WE ARE!

We're going away. Pack your shit, folks. We're going away. And we won't leave much of a trace, either. Thank God for that. Maybe a little styrofoam. Maybe. A little styrofoam. The planet'll be here and we'll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet'll shake us off like a bad case of fleas. A surface nuisance.

You wanna know how the planet's doing? Ask those people at Pompeii, who are frozen into position from volcanic ash, how the planet's doing. You wanna know if the planet's all right, ask those people in Mexico City or Armenia or a hundred other places buried under thousands of tons of earthquake rubble, if they feel like a threat to the planet this week. Or how about those people in Kilowaia, Hawaii, who built their homes right next to an active volcano, and then wonder why they have lava in the living room.

The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we're gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, 'cause that's what it does. It's a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed, and if it's true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new pardigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn't share our prejudice towards plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn't know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, "Why are we here?" Plastic...asshole.

So, the plastic is here, our job is done, we can be phased out now. And I think that's begun. Don't you think that's already started? I think, to be fair, the planet sees us as a mild threat. Something to be dealt with. And the planet can defend itself in an organized, collective way, the way a beehive or an ant colony can. A collective defense mechanism. The planet will think of something. What would you do if you were the planet? How would you defend yourself against this troublesome, pesky species? Let's see... Viruses. Viruses might be good. They seem vulnerable to viruses. And, uh...viruses are tricky, always mutating and forming new strains whenever a vaccine is developed. Perhaps, this first virus could be one that compromises the immune system of these creatures. Perhaps a human immunodeficiency virus, making them vulnerable to all sorts of other diseases and infections that might come along. And maybe it could be spread sexually, making them a little reluctant to engage in the act of reproduction.

Well, that's a poetic note. And it's a start. And I can dream, can't I? See I don't worry about the little things: bees, trees, whales, snails. I think we're part of a greater wisdom than we will ever understand. A higher order. Call it what you want. Know what I call it? The Big Electron. The Big Electron...whoooa. Whoooa. Whoooa. It doesn't punish, it doesn't reward, it doesn't judge at all. It just is. And so are we. For a little while."

Friday, April 20, 2007

Slowing Down As Fast As We Can

Plan for Disaster, Prepare for Beauty: Eugene Tsui
by Michael Kosacki


Visionary international architect Eugene Tsui designs buildings using natural forms that have proven sustainable for millennia. He is the author of The Urgency of Change and Evolutionary Architecture: Nature as a Basis for Design. In the coming year, he will start an intentional community called Telos, including a laboratory and a school, at the base of Mount Shasta.

Building sustainably—including planning for disasters—has been a long-term interest for Tsui. In 1994 he built a 2,000-square-foot, two-story house for his parents in Berkeley. The house is designed to withstand an 8.0 + earthquake, fire, flooding, and lesser plagues such as termites and urban noise. Its constant indoor temperature is maintained with passive solar heating and integrated ventilation. I met with Tsui at his office in Emeryville.

If you could come upon the Bay Area as it was in the early 1800s, how would you plan human habitation to be safe from disasters?

We must first try to understand the natural forces that exist here. We need to understand weather conditions, water conditions, the flora, fauna, winds, and the sunlight. We have a kind of blind spot about how to intelligently respond to disaster. We need to understand how other forms of life deal with these conditions. How does nature use plant life, the patterns of erosion, soil, hills, and natural wetlands to protect from disaster?

Nature is an incredibly intelligent force that's been around for five billion years. If you put five billion years into one year, human beings would have existed for about a minute and half. Are we so intelligent that a minute and a half could be equivalent to a whole year of nature's trial and error? It's absolutely silly to think that we have some intellectual advantage over nature.

What are some of the potential disasters that can occur in the Bay Area?

Earthquake, flooding, fires, and tsunami. The levee system in the Bay Area is sadly outdated. The levees are made out of peat soil that is easily maneuvered and disturbed. In 2004 we had some heavy rains, and 12,000 acres were flooded from just heavy rains. Just think if a tsunami hit the Bay Area. The devastation would be unheard of. One hit could destroy all the Delta's levees and create a vast wasteland in the entire area. It would be a disaster many, many times greater than Hurricane Katrina. What can we do? First we have to realize the problem exists, and as a first choice, avoid building in areas exposed to these conditions. If you do build there, people who have influence over what we build must start to understand what better forms and structures we can create to respond to disaster.

Would you give an example of how architecture could respond to one of these problems?

Let's take fire. Given our weather conditions and vegetation, is it intelligent to build wooden structures in the hills? No. Is it intelligent to build in areas susceptible to wind and fire? No, it isn't. The first thing nature does is build in areas that aren't as susceptible to fire hazard. That means near the water, in areas that don't have a prevalence of wind to feed flames. These are the kind of things that we are not using in our decision-making, now dictated by economics and availability of purchasing space.

Another question I'd ask is "How do you develop a building form that lets wind accelerate around it, not trap it?" The ubiquitous box is the worst for a fire-prone building. Fire usually expands and intensifies in the presence of wind. When wind blows fire against a flat surface, a vacuum pocket is formed that draws fire to the flat surface, causing it to burn more readily than any other shape. In the hills, which are dry and have a high prevalence of wind, you only have the box shape. So we are taking the most dangerous approach to architecture by creating wood-frame, box-shape buildings in a high-risk area. We don't seek out alternatives that are every bit as viable. We can live in something much more aerodynamic. As soon as you introduce the curve or more aerodynamic shapes, you allow wind to blow away from the building, accelerating around it. Fire has the potential to bypass the building. Why don't we practice these things?

If the architecture of the Bay Area were redesigned for disaster using nature as inspiration, what would we be seeing?

You would be seeing buildings that are curvilinear because of aerodynamics. It's obvious that anything that has to deal with wind is sculptural and elegant—like a wing, shell, or fish. These shapes and forms are very strong so that in an earthquake, tsunami, or flood they would withstand the stresses of disaster. A snail shell can take nine thousand times its own weight in pressure before it cracks. We tested this at my office. You would have curvilinear forms and forms that are use lightweight materials in very strong ways.

The buildings might be made out of stressed wood in tension, aluminum, recycled styrene, and various forms of concrete. You use materials that are available natively in the most economical and aerodynamic way possible, in a way that will handle the most amount of strain and use the least amount of materials. You end up with buildings that are curvilinear and look as though nature created them.

As I began to study this 25 years ago people said, "You're just imitating nature. Your buildings look like sea shells, ants, or termites." When you ask yourself, "What is the ultimate form to withstand stress and strain?" you end up reaching for the same kind of shapes and forms that nature has created, because nature has a five-billion-year head start. All we can do is catch up.

Should planning for disaster be a priority in architecture?

In the Bay Area, we should address safety from disaster as the first level of preparedness in design. We need to start to design buildings that aren't going to destroy themselves by these extreme forces. After safety has been addressed, we need to ask, "How do we make these buildings beautiful? How do we make them adequately work with these forces and make them beautiful and intelligent to human beings?" To me this means we have to radically rethink the way we approach architecture and have the courage to practice it.

I don't see people rethinking and practicing architecture. They are simply reiterating and repeating the same old-fashioned images from the past. Why are we building Victorian boxes in this day and age? We know so much more about earthquakes, fire, flooding, and tsunamis. We also have new materials, technology and know-how so our architecture should be expressions appropriate to our time and place. To just replicate Victorian boxes would be an embarrassment to our own intelligence. We should not be just copying what happened 120 years ago—that would be like demanding to take a steamship to Japan instead of a jet or to use telegraph instead of email or telephone. Usually we demand the most advanced technologies possible, and yet when it comes to our own homes and workplaces we're looking back 120 years. It doesn't make any sense.

I can understand why people look to Victorian architecture when a lot of modern architecture is aesthetically cold or alienating. Victorians have a warmth and charm not common in modern architecture.

That's the fault of the architects. The designers of today are not taking the care, concern for beauty, comfort of living, and the sense of craftsmanship that went into those old homes. It's the architect's fault that that same kind of detail and hand workmanship is not present in today's buildings—it ought to be. I'm the first one to say we must work in that manner and I do. I don't rely on the computer at all—everything I detail out is done by hand. Let's bring the care and beauty and timeliness of the Victorian house to the 21st century.

Knowing all of the materials and methods of construction we have now, how can we create the same kind of beauty and character that those homes had? It is the architect's failings that have made the concrete block, sterile, stark, alienating buildings you see around us. People are going to run for the Victorians, and they have every right to. We have to bring humanity back to architecture. The humane-ness of design has to return. Part of that humane-ness is to design for disaster.

What is the architectural response to overpopulation? We can't all live in single-family homes, no matter how well designed.

Architecture will not solve the root of the problem. We must educate people and create change on a social level. If we do not start on a social level with this issue, architecture will merely accommodate the problem.

In regards to a city designed to hold large numbers of persons while protecting and preserving the natural environment, my design for the two-mile-high Ultima Tower could house one million people with a small footprint on the landscape. Conceptually, the idea behind such a city is to maximize the density of human development and reduce the impact on the natural environment. The Ultima Tower is a structure that allows nature to grow upwards. The supporting structure of the city is a giant tensegrity mast about 100 meters in diameter and two miles high. The tensegrity mast is the strongest, lightest support structure known to humanity and it is the only sensible way to support weight reaching two miles in the air. It is like a giant maypole with a vast number of overlapping, intersecting cables that are connected to each other so that any force placed on the cables is transferred and shared throughout the entire structure. This allows the building to have flexibility and to dissipate weight and forces—like wind, earthquakes, tsunamis, and even 747 jets. If a plane were to crash against the Ultima Tower, the plane would break apart, but the tower would flex and absorb the shock—like a giant spider web hit by a fly.

In order to be sustainable, the city must produce its own energy and climate control. The surface of the tower is a combination of photovoltaic solar panels, glass, and specially designed wind cowls that produce electricity and allow air and heat to ventilate throughout the structure—the same way a termite nest "breathes" and maintains its interior temperature to within two degrees year-round—with no mechanical parts.

The base of Ultima Tower is one mile in diameter and it forms a shape like a trumpet bell that dissipates and directs forces along its surface in all directions so the entire structure shares any loads placed upon it. The building's surface area produces more than enough renewable energy to power the entire city pollution-free. This project is proposed for an area outside Beijing, China where population growth is very high. Given our present-day understanding of materials, technology, and methods of construction, the Ultima Tower stands at the apex of our capabilties.

. . . .

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How Advanced Could They Be?

The Physics of Extra-Terrestrial Civilizations
To consider habitable worlds, advanced civilizations, and how to find and classify them, Astrobiology Magazine had the chance to discover from Dr. Michio Kaku that the laws of physics has much to say about such possibilities--at least much more than where you might expect speculation to lead you from our tiny corner of the universe.

Dr. Michio Kaku graduated from Harvard in 1968 with highest honors, and number one in his physics class. He went on to the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory at the University of California in 1972, and in 1973 Dr. Kaku held a lectureship at Princeton University. Today, he holds the Henry Semat Professorship in Theoretical Physics at the City University of New York (CUNY) , where he has taught for over 25 years.

Dr. Kaku is an internationally recognized authority in theoretical physics and the environment. His most popular and best selling books include "Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the Tenth Dimension" and "Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century", which have been widely translated in different languages. Every week, he hosts an hour-long program, "Explorations in Science", which covers topics in science, technology, war, and politics.
Astrobiology Magazine (AM): Can you comment on how physics has steadily moved Earth's place from one of uniqueness (or anthropomorphism) to viewing our position as one tiny corner among possibly billions of habitable worlds available for evolving complex life?

Michio Kaku (MK): This question is no longer a matter of idle speculation. Soon, humanity may face an existential shock as the current list of a dozen Jupiter-sized extra-solar planets swells to hundreds of earth-sized planets, almost identical twins of our celestial homeland. This may usher in a new era in our relationship with the universe: we will never see the night sky in the same way ever again, realizing that scientists may eventually compile an encyclopedia identifying the precise co-ordinates of perhaps hundreds of earth-like planets.

Today, every few weeks brings news of a new Jupiter-sized extra-solar planet being discovered, the latest being about 15 light years away orbiting around the star Gliese 876. The most spectacular of these findings was photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, which captured breathtaking photos of a planet 450 light years away being sling-shot into space by a double-star system.

But the best is yet to come. Early in the next decade, scientists will launch a new kind of telescope, the interferometry space telescope, which uses the interference of light beams to enhance the resolving power of telescopes.

For example, the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), to be launched early in the next decade, consists of multiple telescopes placed along a 30 foot structure. With an unprecedented resolution approaching the physical limits of optics, the SIM is so sensitive that it almost defies belief: orbiting the earth, it can detect the motion of a lantern being waved by an astronaut on Mars!

The SIM, in turn, will pave the way for the Terrestrial Planet Finder, to be launched late in the next decade, which should identify even more earth-like planets. It will scan the brightest 1,000 stars within 50 light years of the earth and will focus on the 50 to 100 brightest planetary systems.

All this, in turn, will stimulate an active effort to determine if any of them harbor life, perhaps some with civilizations more advanced than ours.

AM: How does one begin to consider these prospects scientifically?

MK: Although it is impossible to predict the precise features of such advanced civilizations, their broad outlines can be analyzed using the laws of physics. No matter how many millions of years separate us from them, they still must obey the iron laws of physics, which are now advanced enough to explain everything from sub-atomic particles to the large-scale structure of the universe, through a staggering 43 orders of magnitude.

Specifically, we can rank civilizations by their energy consumption, using the following principles:

1) The laws of thermodynamics. Even an advanced civilization is bound by the laws of thermodynamics, especially the Second Law, and can hence be ranked by the energy at their disposal.

2) The laws of stable matter. Baryonic matter (e.g. based on protons and neutrons) tends to clump into three large groupings: planets, stars and galaxies. (This is a well-defined by product of stellar and galactic evolution, thermonuclear fusion, etc.) Thus, their energy will also be based on three distinct types, and this places upper limits on their rate of energy consumption.

3) The laws of planetary evolution. Any advanced civilization must grow in energy consumption faster than the frequency of life-threatening catastrophes (e.g. meteor impacts, ice ages, supernovas, etc.). If they grow any slower, they are doomed to extinction. This places mathematical lower limits on the rate of growth of these civilizations.

In a seminal paper published in 1964 in the Journal of Soviet Astronomy, Russian astrophysicist Nicolai Kardashev theorized that advanced civilizations must therefore be grouped according to three types: Type I, II, and III, which have mastered planetary, stellar and galactic forms of energy, respectively. He calculated that the energy consumption of these three types of civilization would be separated by a factor of many billions.

AM: How long will it take for a civilization to reach Type II and III status?

MK: Berkeley astronomer Don Goldsmith reminds us that the earth receives about one billionth of the suns energy, and that humans utilize about one millionth of that. So we consume about one million billionth of the suns total energy. At present, our entire planetary energy production is about 10 billion billion ergs per second. But our energy growth is rising exponentially, and hence we can calculate how long it will take to rise to Type II or III status.

Goldsmith says, "Look how far we have come in energy uses once we figured out how to manipulate energy, how to get fossil fuels really going, and how to create electrical power from hydropower, and so forth; we've come up in energy uses in a remarkable amount in just a couple of centuries compared to billions of years our planet has been here ... and this same sort of thing may apply to other civilizations."

Physicist Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study estimates that, within 200 years or so, we should attain Type I status. In fact, growing at a modest rate of 1% per year, Kardashev estimated that it would take only 3,200 years to reach Type II status, and 5,800 years to reach Type III status. Living in a Type I,II, or III civilization.

For example, a Type I civilization is a truly planetary one, which has mastered most forms of planetary energy. Their energy output may be on the order of thousands to millions of times our current planetary output. Mark Twain once said, "Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it." This may change with a Type I civilization, which has enough energy to modify the weather. They also have enough energy to alter the course of earthquakes, volcanoes, and build cities on their oceans.

Currently, our energy output qualifies us for Type 0 status. We derive our energy not from harnessing global forces, but by burning dead plants (e.g. oil and coal). But already, we can see the seeds of a Type I civilization. We see the beginning of a planetary language (English), a planetary communication system (the Internet), a planetary economy (the forging of the European Union), and even the beginnings of a planetary culture (via mass media, TV, rock music, and Hollywood films).

By definition, an advanced civilization must grow faster than the frequency of life-threatening catastrophes. Since large meteor and comet impacts take place once every few thousand years, a Type I civilization must master space travel to deflect space debris within that time frame, which should not be much of a problem. Ice ages may take place on a time scale of tens of thousands of years, so a Type I civilization must learn to modify the weather within that time frame.

AM: If followed to its conclusion, does this imply that any technologically advanced civilization that is bounded geographically (or terrestrially) must collapse after a few thousand years just on the cusp of its Type I classification?

MK: Artificial and internal catastrophes must also be negotiated. But the problem of global pollution is only a mortal threat for a Type 0 civilization; a Type I civilization has lived for several millennia as a planetary civilization, necessarily achieving ecological planetary balance. Internal problems like wars do pose a serious recurring threat, but they have thousands of years in which to solve racial, national, and sectarian conflicts.

Eventually, after several thousand years, a Type I civilization will exhaust the power of a planet, and will derive their energy by consuming the entire output of their suns energy, or roughly a billion trillion trillion ergs per second.

With their energy output comparable to that of a small star, they should be visible from space. Dyson has proposed that a Type II civilization may even build a gigantic sphere around their star to more efficiently utilize its total energy output. Even if they try to conceal their existence, they must, by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, emit waste heat. From outer space, their planet may glow like a Christmas tree ornament. Dyson has even proposed looking specifically for infrared emissions (rather than radio and TV) to identify these Type II civilizations.

Perhaps the only serious threat to a Type II civilization would be a nearby supernova explosion, whose sudden eruption could scorch their planet in a withering blast of X-rays, killing all life forms. Thus, perhaps the most interesting civilization is a Type III civilization, for it is truly immortal. They have exhausted the power of a single star, and have reached for other star systems. No natural catastrophe known to science is capable of destroying a Type III civilization.

Faced with a neighboring supernova, it would have several alternatives, such as altering the evolution of dying red giant star which is about to explode, or leaving this particular star system and terraforming a nearby planetary system.

AM: Frank Drake, in formulating the probability for civilizations to reach the maturity for interstellar communication, has commented that the survivability factor is the hardest one to evaluate or predict. Would you conclude that this uncertainty is maximum as well, or does another unknown dominate your considerations?

MK: There are roadblocks to an emerging Type III civilization. Eventually, it bumps up against another iron law of physics, the theory of relativity. Dyson estimates that this may delay the transition to a Type III civilization by perhaps millions of years.

But even with the light barrier, there are a number of ways of expanding at near-light velocities. For example, the ultimate measure of a rockets capability is measured by something called "specific impulse" (defined as the product of the thrust and the duration, measured in units of seconds). Chemical rockets can attain specific impulses of several hundred to several thousand seconds. Ion engines can attain specific impulses of tens of thousands of seconds. But to attain near-light speed velocity, one has to achieve specific impulse of about 30 million seconds, which is far beyond our current capability, but not that of a Type III civilization. A variety of propulsion systems would be available for sub-light speed probes (such as ram-jet fusion engines, photonic engines, etc.)

AM: To reach Type III classification, a civilization has to cross the light barrier in some way not understood today in physics-- that is, if the galaxy is their 'home'. Since relativity imposes time dilation in ways that are catastrophic to most forms of biology we can imagine, does this imply the inevitable rise of machines as favored for exploration on the path to Type III status?

MK: In science fiction, the search for inhabitable worlds has been immortalized on TV by heroic captains boldly commanding a lone star ship, or as the murderous Borg, a Type III civilization which absorbs lower Type II civilization (such as the Federation). However, the most mathematically efficient method to explore space is far less glamorous: to send fleets of "Von Neumann probes" throughout the galaxy (named after John Von Neumann, who established the mathematical laws of self-replicating systems).

A Von Neumann probe is a robot designed to reach distant star systems and create factories which will reproduce copies themselves by the thousands. A dead moon rather than a planet makes the ideal destination for Von Neumann probes, since they can easily land and take off from these moons, and also because these moons have no erosion. These probes would live off the land, using naturally occurring deposits of iron, nickel, etc. to create the raw ingredients to build a robot factory. They would create thousands of copies of themselves, which would then scatter and search for other star systems.

Similar to a virus colonizing a body many times its size, eventually there would be a sphere of trillions of Von Neumann probes expanding in all directions, increasing at a fraction of the speed of light. In this fashion, even a galaxy 100,000 light years across may be completely analyzed within, say, a half million years.

If a Von Neumann probe only finds evidence of primitive life (such as an unstable, savage Type 0 civilization) they might simply lie dormant on the moon, silently waiting for the Type 0 civilization to evolve into a stable Type I civilization. After waiting quietly for several millennia, they may be activated when the emerging Type I civilization is advanced enough to set up a lunar colony. Physicist Paul Davies of the University of Adelaide has even raised the possibility of a Von Neumann probe resting on our own moon, left over from a previous visitation in our system aeons ago.

(If this sounds a bit familiar, that's because it was the basis of the film, 2001. Originally, Stanley Kubrick began the film with a series of scientists explaining how probes like these would be the most efficient method of exploring outer space. Unfortunately, at the last minute, Kubrick cut the opening segment from his film, and these monoliths became almost mystical entities)

AM: When we interviewed superstring theorist, Brian Greene, he was somewhat philosophical about harnessing Planck-scale energies, or whether even cutting edge physics could offer a means of ever manipulating space in a way that allows for a Type III civilization to emerge. Like planetary survival seems a hurdle for Type I, is the Type III civilization's crisis something comparable to learning to manipulate space itself in ways not imaginable yet?

MK: There is also the possibility that a Type II or Type III civilization might be able to reach the fabled Planck energy with their machines (10^19 billion electron volts). This is energy is a quadrillion times larger than our most powerful atom smasher. This energy, as fantastic as it may seem, is (by definition) within the range of a Type II or III civilization.

The Planck energy only occurs at the center of black holes and the instant of the Big Bang. But with recent advances in quantum gravity and superstring theory, there is renewed interest among physicists about energies so vast that quantum effects rip apart the fabric of space and time. Although it is by no means certain that quantum physics allows for stable wormholes, this raises the remote possibility that a sufficiently advanced civilizations may be able to move via holes in space, like Alice's Looking Glass. And if these civilizations can successfully navigate through stable wormholes, then attaining a specific impulse of a million seconds is no longer a problem. They merely take a short-cut through the galaxy. This would greatly cut down the transition between a Type II and Type III civilization.

Second, the ability to tear holes in space and time may come in handy one day. Astronomers, analyzing light from distant supernovas, have concluded recently that the universe may be accelerating, rather than slowing down. If this is true, there may be an anti-gravity force (perhaps Einstein's cosmological constant) which is counteracting the gravitational attraction of distant galaxies. But this also means that the universe might expand forever in a Big Chill, until temperatures approach near-absolute zero. Several papers have recently laid out what such a dismal universe may look like. It will be a pitiful sight: any civilization which survives will be desperately huddled next to the dying embers of fading neutron stars and black holes. All intelligent life must die when the universe dies.

AM: So is there is kind of inevitable end for intelligent life, no matter how advanced the particular civilization may become?

MK: Astronomer John Barrows of the University of Sussex writes, "Suppose that we extend the classification upwards. Members of these hypothetical civilizations of Type IV, V, VI, ... and so on, would be able to manipulate the structures in the universe on larger and larger scales, encompassing groups of galaxies, clusters, and superclusters of galaxies." Civilizations beyond Type III may have enough energy to escape our dying universe via holes in space.

Lastly, physicist Alan Guth of MIT, one of the originators of the inflationary universe theory, has even computed the energy necessary to create a baby universe in the laboratory (the temperature is 1,000 trillion degrees, which is within the range of these hypothetical civilizations).