Saturday, June 30, 2007

McMansions, SUVs, Mega-Churches and the Baghdad Embassy
Life Among Dim and Brutal Giants

by Phil Rockstroh / June 28th, 2007

In microcosmic mimicry of the plight of the besieged middle and laboring classes, my parent’s Atlanta neighborhood, as is the case with many others in the vicinity, is being destroyed, in reality — disappeared — by a blight of upper-class arrogance. The modest, post-war homes of the area are being “scraped” from the landscape as an infestation of bloated McMansions rises from the tortured soil. These particleboard and Tyvek-choked monstrosities loom over the remaining smaller houses of the area, as oversized and ugly as mindless bullies, as banal as the dreams of petty tyrants.

In the surrounding suburbs, in a similar manner as McMansions eclipse sunlight, throwing the adjacent houses into half-light, mega-churches eclipse the light of reason, leaving their congregations in an ignorant half-light of dogma and superstition. Of course, these true believer lunatics are wrong about everything, except, perhaps, for their elliptical apprehension regarding the arrival of proliferate cataclysms in the years to come. Oddly, although they promulgate dire warnings on the subject, they seem gleeful at the prospect of wide-spread suffering.

How could they not be? They’ve seized upon a fantasy that allows them to escape from the tyranny of their own life-suffocating belief system. Attempting to subdue the suffocating dread of their corporately circumscribed lives, they wish for the destruction of the entire planet. Hence, their escapist fantasy, by the necessity of narrative, is huge, outrageous — apocalyptic. The progenitor of their End Time tale is this: The believer’s emotional inflexibility begets a form of ontological giantism — a phenomenon that arises when one’s worldview is too small to explain the larger world. Therefore, a story must be created that contains violence and terror on such a massive scale that its unfolding would kill off the entire, problematic world. “That’s right world, there’s not enough room on this planet for both you and my beliefs. One of us has to go.”

Upon the nation’s roadways and interstate highways, the overgrown clown cars of the apocalypse, SUVs, Humvees, and oversized pickup trucks also evince hugeness to compensate for the feelings of those folks inside the grotesque vehicles of being crushed down by alienation and isolation — not only while on the road — but by the realities of an existence within a hapless, oil-dependent empire which is itself powerless against the changing realities of the larger world.

In the ranks of the exploiter class, the fat salaries of CEOs separate them further from the general population of the consumer state (that they take every opportunity to bamboozle) as the American public itself grows fatter and fatter in body mass, vainly attempting to sate an inner emptiness borne of their perceived helplessness before the predation of corporate culture.

Concurrently, in Baghdad, the U.S. embassy, which, when completed, will be the largest “diplomatic” compound on the planet is, in fact, an inadvertent monument to the mindless colossus the U.S.A. has become. The structure is as accurate as the art of architecture can be in its depiction of the spirit of a nation’s people. As big and bloated as our national sense of exceptionalism, it stands in the so-called Green Zone of Baghdad, shielding those who will be bunkered down within it — not only from the murderous madness unfolding outside its highly fortified walls — but from reality itself. A massive emblem of the arrogance of power, the embassy is a testament to how the noxious vapors of cultural self-deception can be made manifest in re-inforced concrete, armed watchtowers and razor wire.

Through it all, like some eternally slumbering Hindu deity, we Americans dream these things into existence. Far from blameless, we continue to allow the elites to exploit us; therefore, we enable and sustain their titanic sense of entitlement. In turn, we accept their paltry bribes and, as a result, our banal, selfish dreams have conjured forth George Bush from the zeitgeist. Ergo, Bush is a man whose impenetrable narcissism is so grotesque and ringed with fortifications, that all on his own he constitutes a walking analog of the American embassy in Baghdad.

In addition, we Americans continue to believe our fables of righteous power: Big is good, goes our John Wayne jack-off fantasy. Our leaders must be large: Only McMansion-like men, such as Mitt Romney, are acceptable. We believe Dennis Kucinich is too diminutive in physical stature to be president — with the length of his body being roughly the size of Romney’s head.

In turn, our national landscape is stretched to the breaking point: Cluttered upon it, gigantic islands of garish light torment the night, scouring away the stars, estranging us from imagination, empathy, and eros, and leaving us only with the insatiable appetites of consumerism. Thus, around the clock, inside enormous, under-inspected, industrial slaughterhouses and meat processing plants, underpaid, benefit-bereft workers ply their gruesome, monstrously cruel trade, then the butchered wares are transported by way of brutal, double and triple-axle trailer, diesel trucks over Stygian interstate highways to sepulchral supermarkets and charnel house restaurant chains. Insuring we flesh-eating zombies are provided with all the water-bloated, steroid-ridden meat and industrially farmed, pesticide-laquered vegetables and starches — The Cuisines Of The Living Dead — we could ever crave … uum, uum, it’s the Thanatotic yumminess of empire’s end. Try our convenient drive through window. Would you like us to super-size your order of commodified death?

Hyperbolic ravings, you say. America is not a culture in love with death.

Let’s see. Drawing upon just one example: The corpses of well over half a million dead Iraqis testify otherwise. Moreover, the continuing Iraqi resistance to our occupation speaks volumes as well. Yet still, most of us cannot hear their elegy of outrage over the din created by the parade of killer clowns that we have mistaken for the pageantry of nationhood.

How does one slow this juggernaut of psychosis and curb these acts of murder/suicide being perpetrated on a global scale? Truth is, we might not be able to stop it because this is what lies beneath our unlimited sense of entitlement and self-defeating arrogance: a death-wish that manifests itself as exceptionalism and may well destroy the nation by means of imperial overreach — which is, of course, the time-established method by which empires dispose of themselves.

Further, this state of affairs is exacerbated by the narcissistic insularity of our media elite. At the end of the day, it’s their tumescent egos that are distorting our societal discourse; their vanities and attendant self-serving pronouncements are little more than steaming cargoes of horseshit, carried and delivered by one-trick-jackasses — jackasses endowed with the singular skill of being able to read a teleprompter … Fred Thompson, your agent is calling: You have an important call from Washington, DC.

Notice this: The more permeating the rot becomes within the system’s structure the more huge and pervasive the edifice of media imagery will grow — and the more trivial its content will become. The closer we come to systemic collapse the more we will hear about celebrity contretemps. Cretinous heiresses and shit-wit starlets, with shoddy mechanisms of self-restraint, people the public imagination, because they carry our infantilism, embody our collective carelessness, and, in turn, suffer public humiliation, as we desperately attempt to displace, upon them, the humiliation of our own daily existence within the oppressive authoritarianism of the corporate state.

Correspondingly, there is a well-known (by those who care to look) link between fascism and corporatism. To Mussolini, the two terms were interchangeable. According to rumor, we defeated fascism, during the first half of the 20th century. Yet, at present, we spend our days sustaining a liberty-loathing, soul-enervating corpocracy. To live under corporatism is, in ways large and small, to be a fascist-in-training. Everyday, hour by hour, the exploitive, neo-liberal concept of work devours more and more of our lives. As a consequence, the true self within is crushed to dust and what remains rises as cultural squalls of low-level fear, with its concomitant need for constant distraction. As all the while, the psyches of the well-off (financially, that is) become inflated, gaudy and ugly; in short, internally, they become human versions of McMansions.

Freedom is a microcosm of the forces of evolution engendered by living in the midst of life — a mode of being that apprehends and is transformed by the beauty, sorrow, and wit of the world. Conversely, authoritarian societies are collectives of accomplished liars and lickspittle ciphers, where one must conceal one’s essential self at all costs and the soul falls into atrophy.

To what extent does authoritarian rule diminish both the individual and a nation? Simply, take a look around you and witness the keening wasteland our nation has become. Furthermore, our emptiness cannot be filled by any amount of wealth or power. This is the reason the obscene amounts of mammon acquired by the privileged classes is never — can never be — enough to satisfy them, for their inner abyss is boundless. In a similar vein, no amount of killing can sate a psychopath’s emptiness. Dick Cheney will scowl all the way to the boneyard, hoping he can ascend to heaven by scaling the mountainous pile of corpses he’s responsible for placing there.

In folk stories, when giants are about, drought and famine withers the land and starvation stalks its people. Accordingly, the ruthless giantism inherent to the Corporate-Military-Mass Media state has withered our inner lives, blighted our landscape, and left us powerless before a huge, demeaning system that devours our time, health and humanity.

The bone-grinding giants of the American corporate and political classes have shot the Golden Goose full of growth hormones, enclosed her in an industrial coop, and hoarded her voluminous output of eggs. Yet, nothing satisfies them.

Meanwhile, online, we struggle in a Jack in the Beanstalk Insurgency, hoping that from things as tiny and seemingly trivial as mere beans — our postings, exchanges and periodic meet-ups — the fall of tyrannical giants might begin.

Phil Rockstroh, a self-described, auto-didactic, gasbag monologist, is a poet, lyricist and philosopher bard living in New York City. He may be contacted at

Friday, June 15, 2007

Polymers Are Forever

Alarming tales of a most prevalent and problematic substance

by Alan Weisman

Orion magazine (May / June 2007 issue)

THE PORT OF PLYMOUTH in southwestern England is no longer listed among the scenic towns of the British Isles, although prior to World War II it would have qualified. During six nights of March and April 1941, Nazi bombs destroyed seventy-five thousand buildings in what is remembered as the Plymouth Blitz. When the annihilated city center was rebuilt, a modern concrete grid was superimposed on Plymouth's crooked cobbled lanes, burying its medieval past in memory.

But the main history of Plymouth lies at its edge, in the natural harbor formed at the confluence of two rivers, the Plym and the Tamar, where they join the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. This is the Plymouth from which the Pilgrims departed; they named their American landfall across the sea in its honor. All three of Captain Cook's Pacific expeditions began here, as did Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the globe. And, on December 27 1831, HMS Beagle set sail from Plymouth Harbor, with twenty-two-year-old Charles Darwin aboard.

University of Plymouth marine biologist Richard Thompson spends a lot of time pacing Plymouth's historic edge. He especially goes in winter, when the beaches along the harbor's estuaries are empty - a tall man in jeans, boots, blue windbreaker, and zippered fleece sweater, his bald pate hatless, his long fingers gloveless as he bends to probe the sand. Thompson's doctoral study was on slimy stuff that mollusks such as limpets and winkles like to eat: diatoms, cyanobacteria, algae, and tiny plants that cling to seaweed. What he's now known for, however, has less to do with marine life than with the growing presence of things in the ocean that have never been alive at all.

Although he didn't realize it at the time, what has dominated his life's work began when he was still an undergraduate in the 1980s, spending autumn weekends organizing the Liverpool contingent of Great Britain's national beach cleanup. In his final year, he had 170 teammates amassing metric tons of rubbish along eighty-five miles of shoreline. Apart from items that apparently had dropped from boats, such as Greek salt boxes and Italian oil cruets, from the labels he could see that most debris was blowing east from Ireland. In turn, Sweden's shores were the receptacles for trash from England. Any packaging that trapped enough air to protrude from the water seemed to obey the wind currents, which in these latitudes are easterly.

Smaller, lower-profile fragments, however, were apparently controlled by currents in the water. Each year, as he compiled the team's annual reports, Thompson noticed more and more garbage that was smaller and smaller amid the usual bottles and automobile tires. He and another student began collecting sand samples along beach strand lines. They sieved the tiniest particles of whatever appeared unnatural, and tried to identify them under a microscope. This proved tricky. Their subjects were usually too small to allow them to pinpoint the bottles, toys, or appliances from which they sprang.

He continued working the annual cleanup during graduate studies at Newcastle. Once he completed his PhD and began teaching at Plymouth, his department acquired a Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer, a device that passes a microbeam through a substance, then compares its infrared spectrum to a database of known material. Now he could know what he was looking at, which only deepened his concern.

"Any idea what these are?" Thompson is guiding a visitor along the shore of the Plym River estuary, near where it joins the sea. With a full moonrise just a few hours off, the tide is out nearly two hundred meters, exposing a sandy flat scattered with bladderwrack and cockle shells. A breeze skims the tidal pools, shivering rows of reflected hillside housing projects. Thompson bends over the strand line of detritus left by the forward edge of waves lapping the shore, looking for anything recognizable: hunks of nylon rope, syringes, topless plastic food containers, half a ship's float, pebbled remains of polystyrene packaging, and a rainbow of assorted bottle caps. Most plentiful of all are multicolored plastic shafts of cotton ear-swabs. But there are also the odd little uniform shapes he challenges people to identify. Among twigs and seaweed fibers in his fistful of sand are a couple dozen blue and green plastic cylinders about two millimeters high.

"They're called nurdles. They're the raw materials of plastic production. They melt these down to make all kinds of things." He walks a little farther, then scoops up another handful. It contains more of the same plastic bits: pale blue ones, greens, reds, and tans. Each handful, he calculates, is about twenty percent plastic, and each holds at least thirty pellets.

"You find these things on virtually every beach these days. Obviously they are from some factory."

However, there is no plastic manufacturing anywhere nearby. The pellets have ridden some current over a great distance until they were deposited here - collected and sized by the wind and tide.

IN THOMPSON'S LABORATORY AT THE UNIVERSITY of Plymouth, graduate student Mark Browne unpacks foil-wrapped beach samples that arrive in clear zip-lock bags sent by an international network of colleagues. He transfers these to a glass separating funnel, filled with a concentrated solution of sea salt to float off the plastic particles. He filters out some he thinks he recognizes, such as pieces of the ubiquitous colored ear-swab shafts - to check under the microscope. Anything really unusual goes to the FTIR Spectrometer.

Each takes more than an hour to identify. About one-third turn out to be natural fibers such as seaweed, another third are plastic, and another third are unknown - meaning that they haven't found a match in their polymer database, or that the particle has been in the water so long its color has degraded, or that it's too small for their machine, which analyzes fragments only to twenty microns - slightly thinner than a human hair.

"That means we're underestimating the amount of plastic that we're finding. The true answer is we just don't know how much is out there."

What they do know is that there's much more than ever before. During the early twentieth century, Plymouth marine biologist Alistair Hardy developed an apparatus that could be towed behind an Antarctic expedition boat, ten meters below the surface, to sample krill - the ant-sized, shrimplike invertebrate on which much of the planet's food chain rests. In the 1930s, he modified it to measure even smaller plankton. It employed an impeller to turn a moving band of silk, similar to how a dispenser in a public lavatory moves cloth towels. As the silk passed over an opening, it filtered plankton from water passing through it. Each band of silk had a sampling capacity of five hundred nautical miles. Hardy was able to convince English merchant vessels using commercial shipping lanes throughout the North Atlantic to drag his Continuous Plankton Recorder for several decades, amassing a database so valuable he was eventually knighted for his contributions to marine science.

He took so many samples from around the British Isles that only every second one was analyzed. Decades later, Richard Thompson realized that the ones that remained stored in a climate- controlled Plymouth warehouse were a time capsule containing a record of growing contamination. He picked two routes out of northern Scotland that had been sampled regularly: one to Iceland, one to the Shetland Islands. His team pored over rolls of silk reeking of chemical preservative, looking for old plastic. There was no reason to examine years prior to World War II because until then plastic barely existed, except for the Bakelite used in telephones and radios, appliances so durable they had yet to enter the waste chain. Disposable plastic packaging hadn't yet been invented.

By the 1960s, however, they were seeing increasing numbers of increasing kinds of plastic particles. By the 1990s, the samples were flecked with triple the amount of acrylic, polyester, and crumbs of other synthetic polymers than had been present three decades earlier. Especially troubling was that Hardy's plankton recorder had trapped all this plastic ten meters below the surface, suspended in the water. Since plastic mostly floats, that meant they were seeing just a fraction of what was actually there. Not only was the amount of plastic in the ocean increasing, but ever smaller bits of it were appearing - small enough to ride global sea currents.

Thompson's team realized that slow mechanical action - waves and tides that grind against shorelines, turning rocks into beaches - were now doing the same to plastics. The largest, most conspicuous items bobbing in the surf were slowly getting smaller. At the same time, there was no sign that any of the plastic was biodegrading, even when reduced to tiny fragments.

"We imagined it was being ground down smaller and smaller, into a kind of powder. And we realized that smaller and smaller could lead to bigger and bigger problems."

He knew the terrible tales of sea otters choking on poly-ethylene rings from beer six-packs; of swans and gulls strangled by nylon nets and fishing lines; of a green sea turtle in Hawaii dead with a pocket comb, a foot of nylon rope, and a toy truck wheel lodged in its gut. His personal worst was a study on fulmar carcasses washed ashore on North Sea coastlines. Ninety-five percent had plastic in their stomachs - an average of forty-four pieces per bird. A proportional amount in a human being would weigh nearly five pounds.

There was no way of knowing if the plastic had killed them, although it was a safe bet that, in many, chunks of indigestible plastic had blocked their intestines. Thompson reasoned that if larger plastic pieces were breaking down into smaller particles, smaller organisms would likely be consuming them. He devised an aquarium experiment, using bottom-feeding lugworms that live on organic sediments, barnacles that filter organic matter suspended in water, and sand fleas that eat beach detritus. In the experiment, plastic particles and fibers were provided in proportionately bite-sized quantities. Each creature promptly ingested them.

When the particles lodged in their intestines, the resulting constipation was terminal. But if the pieces were small enough, they passed through the invertebrates' digestive tracts and emerged, seemingly harmlessly, out the other end. Did that mean that plastics were so stable that they weren't toxic? At what point would they start to naturally break down - and when they did, would they release some fearful chemicals that would endanger organisms some time far in the future?

Richard Thompson didn't know. Nobody did, because plastics haven't been around long enough for us to know how long they'll last or what will happen to them. His team had identified nine different kinds in the sea so far, varieties of acrylic, nylon, polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyvinyl chloride. All he knew was that soon everything alive would be eating them.

"When they get as small as powder, even zooplankton will swallow them".

TWO SOURCES OF TINY PLASTIC PARTICLES hadn't before occurred to Thompson. Plastic bags clog everything from sewer drains to the gullets of sea turtles that mistake them for jellyfish. Increasingly, purportedly biodegradable versions were available. Thompson's team tried them. Most turned out to be just a mixture of cellulose and polymers. After the cellulose starch broke down, thousands of clear, nearly invisible plastic particles remained.

Some bags were advertised to degrade in compost piles as heat generated by decaying organic garbage rises past one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. "Maybe they do. But that doesn't happen on a beach, or in salt water.. He'd learned that after they tied plastic produce bags to moorings in Plymouth Harbor. "A year later you could still carry groceries in them".

Even more exasperating was what his PhD student Mark Browne had discovered while shopping in a pharmacy. Browne pulls open the top drawer of a laboratory cabinet. Inside is a cornucopia of feminine beauty aids: shower massage creams, body scrubs, and hand cleaners. Several are by boutique labels: Neova Body Smoother, SkinCeuticals Body Polish, and DDF Strawberry Almond Body Polish. Others are international name brands: Neutrogena, Clearasil, Pond's Fresh Start, even a tube of Colgate Icy Blast toothpaste. Some are available in the United States, others only in the United Kingdom. But all have one thing in common.

"Exfoliants: little granules that massage you as you bathe". He selects a peach-colored tube of St Ives Apricot Scrub; its label reads: 100% natural exfoliants. "This stuff is okay. The granules are actually chunks of ground-up jojoba seeds and walnut shells". Other natural brands use grape seeds, apricot hulls, coarse sugar, or sea salt. "The rest of them", he says, with a sweep of his hand, "have all gone to plastic".

On each, listed among the ingredients are "micro-fine polyethylene granules", or "polyethylene micro-spheres", or "polyethylene beads". Or just polyethylene.

"Can you believe it?" Richard Thompson demands of no one in particular, loud enough that faces bent over microscopes rise to look at him. "They're selling plastic meant to go right down the drain, into the sewers, into the rivers, right into the ocean. Bite-sized pieces of plastic to be swallowed by little sea creatures."

Plastic bits are also increasingly used to scour paint from boats and aircraft. Thompson shudders. "One wonders where plastic beads laden with paint are disposed. It would be difficult to contain them on a windy day. But even if they're contained, there's no filter in any sewage works for material that small. It's inevitable. They end up in the environment."

He peers into Browne's microscope at a sample from Finland. A lone green fiber, probably from a plant, lies across three bright blue threads that probably aren't. He perches on the countertop, hooking his hiking boots around a lab stool. "Think of it this way. Suppose all human activity ceased tomorrow, and suddenly there's no one to produce plastic anymore. Just from what's already present, given how we see it fragmenting, organisms will be dealing with this stuff indefinitely. Thousands of years, possibly. Or more."

IN ONE SENSE, PLASTICS HAVE BEEN AROUND for millions of years. Plastics are polymers: simple molecular configurations of carbon and hydrogen atoms that link together repeatedly to form chains. Spiders have been spinning polymer fibers called silk since before the Carboniferous Age, whereupon trees appeared and started making cellulose and lignin, also natural polymers. Cotton and rubber are polymers, and we make the stuff ourselves, too, in the form of collagen that comprises, among other things, our fingernails.

Another natural, moldable polymer that closely fits our idea of plastics is the secretion from an Asian scale beetle that we know as shellac. It was the search for an artificial shellac substitute that one day led chemist Leo Baekeland to mix tarry carbolic acid - phenol - with formaldehyde in his garage in Yonkers, New York. Until then, shellac was the only coating available for electric wires and connections. The moldable result became Bakelite. Baekeland became very wealthy, and the world became a very different place.

Chemists were soon busy cracking long hydrocarbon chain molecules of crude petroleum into smaller ones, and mixing these fractionates to see what variations on Baekeland's first man-made plastic they could produce. Adding chlorine yielded a strong, hardy polymer unlike anything in nature, known today as PVC. Blowing gas into another polymer as it formed created tough, linked bubbles called polystyrene, often known by the brand name Styrofoam. And the continual quest for an artificial silk led to nylon. Sheer nylon stockings revolutionized the apparel industry and helped to drive acceptance of plastic as a defining achievement of modern life. The intercession of World War II, which diverted most nylon and plastic to the war effort, only made people desire them more.

After 1945, a torrent of products the world had never seen roared into general consumption: acrylic textiles, Plexiglass, polyethylene bottles, polypropylene containers, and "foam rubber" polyurethane toys. Most world-changing of all was transparent packaging, including self-clinging wraps of polyvinyl chloride and polyethylene, which let us see the foods wrapped inside them and kept them preserved longer than ever before.

Within ten years, the downside to this wonder substance was apparent. In 1955, Life magazine coined the term "throwaway society". However, Stanford archaeologist William Rathje, who has made a career of studying garbage in America, finds himself continually disabusing waste management officials and the general public of what he deems a myth: that plastic is responsible for overflowing landfills across the country. Rathje's decades-long Garbage Project, wherein students weighed and measured weeks' worth of residential waste, reported during the 1980s that, contrary to popular belief, plastic accounts for less than twenty percent by volume of buried wastes, in part because it can be compressed more tightly than other refuse. Although increasingly higher percentages of plastic items have been produced since then, Rathje doesn't expect the proportions to change, because improved manufacturing uses less plastic per soda bottle or disposable wrapper.

The bulk of what's in landfills, he says, is construction debris and paper products. Newspapers, he claims, again belying a common assumption, don't biodegrade when buried away from air and water. "That's why we have three-thousand-year-old papyrus scrolls from Egypt. We pull perfectly readable newspapers out of landfills from the 1930s. They'll be down there for ten thousand years."

He agrees, though, that plastic embodies our collective guilt over trashing the environment. Something about plastic feels uneasily permanent. The difference may have to do with what happens outside landfills, where a newspaper gets shredded by wind, cracks in sunlight, and dissolves in rain - if it doesn't burn first.

What happens to plastic, however, can be seen most vividly in places where trash is never collected. Humans have continuously inhabited the Hopi Indian Reservation in northern Arizona since AD 1000 - longer than any other site in today's United States. The principal Hopi villages sit atop three mesas with 360-degree views of the surrounding desert. For centuries, the Hopis simply threw their garbage, consisting of food scraps and broken ceramic, over the sides of the mesas. Coyotes and vultures took care of the food wastes, and the pottery sherds blended back into the ground they came from.

That worked fine until the mid-twentieth century. Then, the garbage tossed over the side stopped going away. The Hopis were visibly surrounded by a rising pile of a new, nature-proof kind of trash. The only way it disappeared was by being blown across the desert. But it was still there, stuck to sage and mesquite branches, impaled on cactus spines.

SOUTH OF THE HOPI MESAS rise the 12,500-foot San Francisco Peaks; east of the peaks are the even taller Rockies; and to their west are the Sierra Madres, whose volcanic summits are higher still. Impossible as it is for us to fathom, all these colossal mountains will one day erode to the sea - every boulder, outcrop, saddle, spire, and canyon wall. Every massive uplift will pulverize, their minerals dissolving to keep the oceans salted, the plume of nutrients in their soils nourishing a new marine biological age even as the previous one disappears beneath their sediments.

Long before that, however, these deposits will have been preceded by a substance far lighter and more easily carried seaward than rocks or even grains of silt.

Captain Charles Moore of Long Beach, California, learned this one day in 1997 when, sailing out of Honolulu, he steered his aluminum-hulled catamaran into a part of the western Pacific he'd always avoided. Sometimes known as the Horse Latitudes, it is a Texas-sized span of ocean between Hawai'i and California rarely plied by sailors because of a perennial, slowly rotating high-pressure vortex of hot equatorial air that inhales wind and never gives it back. Beneath it, the water describes lazy, clockwise whorls toward a depression at the center.

Its correct name is the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, though Moore soon learned that oceanographers had another label for it: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Captain Moore had wandered into a sump where nearly everything that blows into the water from half the Pacific Rim eventually ends up, spiraling slowly toward a widening horror of industrial excretion. For a week, Moore and his crew found themselves crossing a sea the size of a small continent, covered with floating refuse. It was not unlike an Arctic vessel pushing through chunks of brash ice, except what was bobbing around them was a fright of cups, bottle caps, tangles of fish netting and monofilament line, bits of polystyrene packaging, six-pack rings, spent balloons, filmy scraps of sandwich wrap, and limp plastic bags that defied counting.

Just two years earlier, Moore had retired from his wood-furniture-finishing business. A lifelong surfer, his hair still ungrayed, he'd built himself a boat and settled into what he planned to be a stimulating young retirement. Raised by a sailing father and certified as a captain by the US Coast Guard, he started a volunteer marine environmental-monitoring group. After his hellish mid-Pacific encounter with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, his group ballooned into what is now the Algita Marine Research Foundation, devoted to confronting the flotsam of a half century, since ninety percent of the junk he was seeing was plastic.

What stunned Charles Moore most was learning where it came from. In 1975, the US National Academy of Sciences had estimated that all oceangoing vessels together dumped eight million pounds of plastic annually. More recent research showed the world's merchant fleet alone shamelessly tossing around 639,000 plastic containers every day. But littering by all the commercial ships and navies, Moore discovered, amounted to mere polymer crumbs in the ocean compared to what was pouring from the shore.

The real reason that the world's landfills weren't overflowing with plastic, he found, was because most of it ends up in an ocean-fill. After a few years of sampling the North Pacific gyre, Moore concluded that eighty percent of mid-ocean flotsam had originally been discarded on land. It had blown off garbage trucks or out of landfills, spilled from railroad shipping containers and washed down storm drains, sailed down rivers or wafted on the wind, and found its way to this widening gyre.

"This", Captain Moore tells his passengers, "is where all the things end up that flow down rivers to the sea". It is the same phrase the geologists have uttered to students since the beginning of science. However, what Moore refers to is a type of runoff and sedimentation that the Earth had hitherto never known in five billion years of geologic time-but likely will henceforth.

DURING HIS FIRST THOUSAND-MILE CROSSING of the gyre, Moore calculated half a pound for every one hundred square meters of debris on the surface, and arrived at three million tons of plastic. His estimate, it turned out, was corroborated by US Navy calculations. It was the first of many staggering figures he would encounter. And it only represented visible plastic: an indeterminate amount of larger fragments get fouled by enough algae and barnacles to sink. In 1998, Moore returned with a trawling device, such as Sir Alistair Hardy had employed to sample krill, and found, incredibly, more plastic by weight than plankton on the ocean's surface.

In fact, it wasn't even close: six times as much.

When he sampled near the mouths of Los Angeles creeks that emptied into the Pacific, the numbers rose by a factor of one hundred, and kept rising every year. By now he was comparing data with University of Plymouth marine biologist Richard Thompson. Like Thompson, what especially shocked him were plastic bags and the ubiquitous little raw plastic pellets. In India alone, five thousand processing plants were producing plastic bags. Kenya was churning out four thousand tons of bags a month, with no potential for recycling.

As for the little pellets known as nurdles, 5.5 quadrillion - about 250 billion pounds - were manufactured annually. Not only was Moore finding them everywhere, but he was unmistakably seeing the plastic resin bits trapped inside the transparent bodies of jellyfish and salps, the ocean's most prolific and widely distributed filter feeders. Like seabirds, they'd mistaken brightly colored pellets for fish eggs, and tan ones for krill. And now God-knows-how-many quadrillion little pieces more, coated in body-scrub chemicals and perfectly bite-sized for the little creatures that bigger creatures eat, were being flushed seaward.

What did this mean for the ocean, the ecosystem, the future? All this plastic had appeared in barely more than fifty years. Would its chemical constituents or additives - for instance, colorants such as metallic copper - concentrate as they ascended the food chain, and alter evolution? Would it last long enough to enter the fossil record? Would geologists millions of years hence find Barbie doll parts imbedded in conglomerates formed in seabed depositions? Would they be intact enough to be pieced together like dinosaur bones? Or would they decompose first, expelling hydrocarbons that would seep out of a vast plastic Neptune's graveyard for eons to come, leaving fossilized imprints of Barbie and Ken hardened in stone for eons beyond?

MOORE AND THOMPSON BEGAN consulting materials experts. Tokyo University geochemist Hideshige Takada, who specialized in EDCs - endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or "gender benders" - had been on a gruesome mission to personally research exactly what evils were leaching from garbage dumps all around Southeast Asia. Now he was examining plastic pulled from the Sea of Japan and Tokyo Bay. He reported that in the sea, nurdles and other plastic fragments acted both as magnets and as sponges for resilient poisons like DDT and PCBs.

The use of aggressively toxic polychlorinated biphenyls - PCBs - to make plastics more pliable had been banned since 1970; among other hazards, PCBs were known to promote hormonal havoc such as hermaphroditic fish and polar bears. Like time-release capsules, pre-1970 plastic flotsam will gradually leak PCBs into the ocean for centuries. But, as Takada also discovered, free-floating toxins from all kinds of sources - copy paper, automobile grease, coolant fluids, old fluorescent tubes, and infamous discharges by General Electric and Monsanto plants directly into streams and rivers - readily stick to the surfaces of free-floating plastic.

One study directly correlated ingested plastics with PCBs in the fat tissue of puffins. The astonishing part was the amount. Takada and his colleagues found that the plastic pellets eaten by the birds concentrated poisons to levels as high as one million times their normal occurrence in seawater.

By 2005, Moore was referring to the gyrating Pacific dump as ten million square miles - nearly the size of Africa. It wasn't the only one: the planet has six other major tropical oceanic gyres, all of them swirling with ugly debris. It was as if plastic exploded upon the world from a tiny seed after World War II and, like the Big Bang, was still expanding. Even if all production suddenly ceased, an astounding amount of the astoundingly durable stuff was already out there. Plastic debris, Moore believed, was now the most common surface feature of the world's oceans. How long would it last? Were there any benign, less-immortal substitutes that civilization could convert to, lest the world be plastic-wrapped evermore?

THAT FALL, MOORE, THOMPSON, AND TAKADA convened at a marine plastic summit in Los Angeles with Dr Anthony Andrady. A senior research scientist at North Carolina's Research Triangle, Andrady is from Sri Lanka, one of South Asia's rubber-producing powers. While studying polymer science in graduate school, he was distracted from a career in rubber by the surging plastics industry. An eight-hundred-page tome he eventually compiled, Plastics in the Environment, won him acclaim from the industry and environmentalists alike as the oracle on its subject.

The long-term prognosis for plastic, Andrady told assembled marine scientists, is exactly that: long term. It's no surprise that plastics have made an enduring mess in the oceans, he explained. Their elasticity, versatility (they can either sink or float), near invisibility in water, durability, and superior strength were exactly why net and fishing line manufacturers had abandoned natural fibers for synthetics such as nylon and polyethylene. In time, the former disintegrate; the latter, even when torn and lost, continue "ghost fishing". As a result, virtually every marine species, including whales, is in danger of being snared by great tangles of nylon loose in the oceans.

Like any hydrocarbon, Andrady said, even plastics "inevitably must biodegrade, but at such a slow rate that it is of little practical consequence. They can, however, photodegrade in a meaningful time frame."

He explained: When hydrocarbons biodegrade, their polymer molecules are disassembled into the parts that originally combined to create them - carbon dioxide and water. When they photodegrade, ultraviolet solar radiation weakens plastic's tensile strength by breaking its long, chainlike polymer molecules into shorter segments. Since the strength of plastics depends on the length of their intertwined polymer chains, as the ultraviolet rays snap them, the plastic starts to decompose.

Everyone has seen polyethylene and other plastics turn yellow and brittle and start to flake in sunlight. Often, plastics are treated with additives to make them more ultraviolet-resistant; other additives can make them more ultraviolet-sensitive. Using the latter for six-pack rings, Andrady suggested, might save the lives of many sea creatures.

However, there are two problems. For one, plastic takes much longer to photodegrade in water. On land, plastic left in the sun absorbs infrared heat, and is soon much hotter than the surrounding air. In the ocean, not only does it stay cooled by water, but fouling algae shield it from sunlight.

The other hitch is that even though a ghost fishnet made from photodegradable plastic might disintegrate before it drowns any dolphins, its chemical nature will not change for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.

"Plastic is still plastic. The material still remains a polymer. Polyethylene is not biodegraded in any practical time scale. There is no mechanism in the marine environment to biodegrade that long a molecule." Even if photodegradable nets help marine mammals live, he concluded, their powdery residue remains in the sea, where the filter feeders will find it.

"EXCEPT FOR A SMALL AMOUNT that's been incinerated", says Tony Andrady the oracle, "every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last fifty years or so still remains. It's somewhere in the environment."

That half century's total production now surpasses one billion tons. It includes hundreds of different plastics, with untold permutations involving added plasticizers, opacifiers, colors, fillers, strengtheners, and light stabilizers. The longevity of each can vary enormously. Thus far, none has disappeared. Researchers have attempted to find out how long it will take polyethylene to biodegrade by incubating a sample in a live bacteria culture. A year later, less than one percent was gone.

"And that's under the best controlled laboratory conditions. That's not what you will find in real life", says Tony Andrady. "Plastics haven't been around long enough for microbes to develop the enzymes to handle it, so they can only biodegrade the very-low-molecular-weight part of the plastic" - meaning, the smallest, already broken polymer chains. Although truly biodegradable plastics derived from natural plant sugars have appeared, as well as biodegradable polyester made from bacteria, the chances of them replacing the petroleum-based originals aren't great.

"Since the idea of packaging is to protect food from bacteria", Andrady observes, "wrapping leftovers in plastic that encourages microbes to eat it may not be the smartest thing to do".

But even if it worked, or even if humans were gone and never produced another nurdle, all the plastic already produced would remain - how long?

"Egyptian pyramids have preserved corn, seeds, and even human parts such as hair because they were sealed away from sunlight with little oxygen or moisture", says Andrady, a mild, precise man with a broad face and a clipped, persuasively reasonable voice. "Our waste dumps are somewhat like that. Plastic buried where there's little water, sun, or oxygen will stay intact a long time. That is also true if it is sunk in the ocean, covered with sediment. At the bottom of the sea, there's no oxygen, and it's very cold."

He gives a clipped little laugh. "Of course", he adds, "we don't know much about microbiology at those depths. Possibly anaerobic organisms there can biodegrade it. It's not inconceivable. But no one's taken a submersible down to check. Based on our observations, it's unlikely. So we expect much-slower degradation at the sea bottom. Many times longer. Even an order of magnitude longer."

An order of magnitude - that's ten times - longer than what? One thousand years? Ten thousand?

No one knows, because no plastic has died a natural death yet. It took today's microbes that break hydrocarbons down to their building blocks a long time after plants appeared to learn to eat lignin and cellulose. More recently, they've even learned to eat oil. None can digest plastic yet, because fifty years is too short a time for evolution to develop the necessary biochemistry.

"But give it a hundred thousand years", says Andrady the optimist - he was in his native Sri Lanka when the Christmas 2004 tsunami hit, and even there, after those apocalyptic waters struck, people found reason to hope. "I'm sure you'll find many species of microbes whose genes will let them do this tremendously advantageous thing, so that their numbers will grow and prosper. Today's amount of plastic will take hundreds of thousands of years to consume, but, eventually, it will all biodegrade. Lignin is far more complex, and it biodegrades. It's just a matter of waiting for evolution to catch up with the materials we are making."

And should biologic time run out and some plastics remain?

"The upheavals and pressure will change it into something else. Just like trees buried in bogs a long time ago - the geologic process, not biodegradation, changed them into oil and coal. Maybe high concentrations of plastics will turn into something like that. Eventually, they will change. Change is the hallmark of nature. Nothing remains the same."


Alan Weisman's article in this issue is an abridged excerpt from his book The World Without Us, published by St Martin's Press in July 2007 and used by permission. He lives in Tucson and teaches at the University of Arizona.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Thoughts on Long-Term Energy Supplies: Scientists and the Silent Lie
The world's population continues to grow. Shouldn't physicists care?
Albert A. Bartlett

The most sacred icon in the "religion" of the US economic scene is steady growth of
the gross national product, enterprises, sales, and profits. Many people believe that
such economic growth requires steady population growth. Although physicists
address the problems that result from a ballooning population—such as energy
shortages, congestion, pollution, and dwindling resources—their solutions are starkly
deficient. Often, they fail to recognize that the solutions must involve stopping
population growth.

Physicists understand the arithmetic of steady, exponential growth. Yet they ignore
its consequences, including the first law of sustainability: "Population growth or
growth in the rate of consumption of resources cannot be [indefinitely] sustained."
(See Ben Zuckerman's letter to the editor, Physics Today, July 1992, page 14.)
Sustainability requires solutions that will be effective over time periods much longer than a human lifespan. Indeed, Paul Weisz makes a case on page 47 of this issue that many time-honored 20th-century energy sources, such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal, have been reduced to the point that their longevities are now expected to be of the order of a human lifespan.

Physicists and energy
Among physicists, there is a growing recognition that we have a responsibility to
become more directly involved in the scientific aspects of problems facing society. As an example, consider the April 2002 special issue of Physics Today, which addressed specific energy problems. Let's focus on two of the articles in that issue: Stephen Benka's introductory essay, "The Energy Challenge" (page 38), and Ernest J. Moniz and Melanie A. Kenderdine's lead article, "Meeting Energy Challenges: Technology and Policy" (page 40). The titles alone convey a common commitment to society. In his essay, Benka outlined the magnitude of the challenge by citing projections from the US Department of Energy: Between 1999 and 2020, the world's total annual energy consumption will rise 59% and the annual carbon dioxide emissions will rise by 60%, while the world population increases from 6.0 to 7.5 billion people.

But here's the rub: Scientists may call for solutions to meet the rising demands of
population growth, but as long as we postulate the continuation of that growth, the
attendant problems of energy consumption and increasing CO emissions cannot have long-range solutions. The two articles in Physics Today fail to identify stopping
growth as a necessary condition for the success of any proposed long-range solutions
to the problems caused by population growth.

Scientists have occasionally acknowledged that population growth is the major cause
of our problems. But I wonder whether their general reticence stems from the fact
that it is politically incorrect or unpopular to argue for stabilization of population — at least in the US. Or perhaps scientists are simply uncomfortable stepping outside their specialized areas of expertise.

Unchecked population growth as a source of problems is not news. More than 200
years ago, mathematician Robert Malthus (1766-1834) addressed the issue in his
famous essay. He understood that populations had the biological potential for
steady growth and that food production did not. Today, energy production does not
have the capability of steady growth.

Nevertheless, we are all aware of nonscientists with academic credentials who
proclaim that our modern technology has proven Malthus wrong. The most egregious
of the high priests of endless growth was the late Julian Simon, professor of
economics and business administration at the University of Illinois and later at the
University of Maryland. In 1995, he wrote:
Technology exists now to produce in virtually inexhaustible quantities
just about all the products made by nature. . . . We have in our hands
now . . . the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an evergrowing
population for the next seven billion years.4

In the eyes of the general public, the silence of scientists on the problems of
population growth seems to validate the messages of the politically appealing and
influential Julian Simons of the world.

Supply shortages
In addressing the problems, Benka noted that "most of the growth in all three areas
[energy consumption, CO , and population] will take place in rapidly developing
parts of the world." It is expedient to blame others, but because the US consumes so
large a fraction of the world's energy resources, we Americans are effectively the
worst offenders in those areas. Our population growth rate of more than 1% per year
is the highest of any industrial nation. The US can't preach that other countries
should limit their population growth unless we are willing to set an example and do
so first.

Benka later argued, "It seems certain that the world will continue to rely heavily on
hydrocarbon combustion for the foreseeable future. . . . However we must develop
alternative energy sources." To be fair, Benka was not sanguine about the problem of
energy shortages. His essay is partly a call to arms. But the evidence (see Weisz's
article) indicates that some fossil-fuel resources may be in trouble within the next
few decades. When physicists suggest that the US has resources and technological
potential to meet the needs of an ever-growing economy, it's like inviting the public
to dinner without having checked to see if there is sufficient food in the cupboard.
Most educated people understand that populations can't grow forever. But forever
isn't really the issue. Already, population increases and consumer demand are taking
big bites out of our energy resources. Of natural gas, Moniz and Kenderdine wrote
that "US consumption represents roughly half of that for the industrialized world. . . .

Developing Asia, Central America, and South America . . . are each expected to triple
their demand over the next twenty years." A geological study published in 2003
reports that per capita annual production of natural gas is decreasing in Canada,
Mexico, and the US. Production of natural gas in North America may be near the
start of its terminal decline.

Of petroleum, Moniz and Kenderdine reported that world oil consumption is
expected to grow by 60% in the first two decades of the 21st century and that China
expects a five-fold increase in vehicles by 2020. Some optimistic researchers include
in their tabulation of world reserves the oil shales of western Colorado (about 500
billion barrels); the Athabasca Oil Sands of Alberta, Canada (about 300 billion
barrels, potentially); and the heavy oil under Venezuela (about 2 trillion barrels).
Those quantities are huge compared to the US annual consumption of approximately 6 billion barrels, but the important question to ask is, What is the net energy gained after investing the energy it would take to recover those very hard-toextract
resources? Physicists must include the net energy in any recommendations that we make to use those fuels in the future.

Moniz and Kenderdine also wrote about "products derived from gas-to-liquid conversion [meaning natural gas], gasification of coal, and biomass." But if natural
gas in North America is near the start of its terminal decline, there won't be much
left to convert into other potential uses. They argued that CO emissions can be
reduced by switching to "less carbon-intensive fossil fuels—for example, natural gas
instead of coal for electricity generation—[this is an] economical way to reduce
carbon intensity and meet growing demand." But the switch from coal to natural gas
to generate electricity in the US was made a decade or so ago and the predictable
effects are now evident: declining production, imminent shortages, and the rapid
price increases of natural gas.

Researchers continue to debate when the peak of world petroleum production will be
reached. Analytical estimates range from 2004 to about 2025. But from a per
capita perspective, world petroleum production reached a peak in the 1970s (see the ). I believe future historians may identify this peak as one of the most important events in all of human history.

In the Physics Today essay and article, population growth is given as a cause of the
problems identified, but eliminating the cause is not mentioned as a solution. We
are prescribing aspirin for cancer. Indeed, the solutions outlined in the articles
would only make the problems worse. To appreciate what I mean, consider the
"theorems" of economist Kenneth Boulding.10

The Dismal Theorem:
If the only ultimate check on the growth of populations is misery, then
the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.

The Utterly Dismal Theorem:
Any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for so
long as misery is the only check on population, the [technical] improvement will enable the population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of [technical] improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population, which is to increase the sum total of human misery.

The Moderately Cheerful Form of the Dismal Theorem:
If something else, other than misery and starvation, can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check, the population does not have to grow until it is miserable or starves; it can be stably prosperous. In 1970, the CBS broadcaster Eric Sevareid rephrased the theorems even more bluntly: "The chief source of problems is solutions."11

Physicists develop solutions to problems, but when the underlying cause of those
problems remains neglected, we are effectively perpetuating a lie—what Mark Twain
has called the silent lie:
Almost all lies are acts, and speech has no part in them. . . . I am speaking
of the lie of silent assertion; we can tell it without saying a word. . . .
For instance: It would not be possible for a humane and intelligent
person to invent a rational excuse for slavery; yet you will remember that
in the early days of emancipation agitation in the North, the agitators got
but small help or countenance from any one. Argue and plead and pray as
they might, they could not break the universal stillness that reigned, from
pulpit and press all the way down to the bottom of society—the clammy
stillness created and maintained by the lie of silent assertion—the silent
assertion that there wasn't anything going on in which humane and
intelligent people were interested.

The universal conspiracy of the silent-assertion lie is hard at work always
and everywhere, and always in the interest of a stupidity or a sham,
never in the interest of a thing fine or respectable. It is the most timid
and shabby of all lies . . . the silent assertion that nothing is going on
which fair and intelligent men [and women] are aware of and are
engaged by their duty to try to stop.12

What do we do?
Here is a list with which to start:
1. Acknowledge population growth as a major cause of societal problems.
2. Debate the question, Which approach leads to greater general good: working to
stabilize populations or working to spread ever-dwindling resources among
ever-growing populations?
3. Research, speak, and write about energy consumption, CO emissions, and
populations, with an understanding that stabilizing population is a necessary
condition for solving these problems.
4. Alter the message given to students in the classroom and to the public. It is
important they recognize that these energy and related problems cannot be
solved without stopping population growth.

The physics community cannot launch a major campaign aimed at stabilizing the US
population. That's not physics. But when physicists assume authoritative roles to
solve the societal problems caused by population growth, professional responsibility
requires that we stress the importance of stopping population growth as a central
part of all solutions. We are not telling lies of silent assertion in the interest of the tyrannies and shams that Twain cites. Rather, we are tiptoeing around the issue in the name of political correctness. We can't be proud of that. As Mark Twain wrote, "[It] is the most timid and shabby of all lies."12

Albert A. Bartlett is an emeritus professor of physics at the University of
Colorado at Boulder.
1. A. A. Bartlett, Am. J. Phys. 46, 876 (1978).
2. A. A. Bartlett, ,
5 (1994). Reprinted in , 6 (Winter 1997ˇ98).
Population and Environment 16
Renewable Resour. J. 15
3. See T. R. Malthus, in
" P. Appleman, ed., W. W. Norton, New York (1976).
An Essay on the Principle of Population: Text, Sources and
Background, Criticism
4. J. M. Simon, , CATO Policy Rep. vol.
17, no. 5, Cato Institute, Washington, DC (Sept.ˇOct. 1995), p. 131. For a
critique, see A. A. Bartlett, , 342 (1996).
The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving
Phys. Teach. 34
5. W. Youngquist, R. C. Duncan, Nat. Resour. Res. 12, 229 (2003).
6. W. L. Youngquist,
, National Book, Portland, OR (1997), p. 215.
GeoDestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources Over
Nations and Individuals
7. A. A. Bartlett, Math. Geol. 32, 1 (2000).
8. K. S. Deffeyes, , Princeton
U. Press, Princeton, NJ (2001).
Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage
9. J. D. Edwards, Am. Assoc. Pet. Geol. Bull. 81, 1292 (1997).
10. K. Boulding, in , Vol. 2, Colorado
Associated U. Press, Boulder, CO (1971), p. 137.
Collected Papers [by] Kenneth E. Boulding
11. E. Sevareid, CBS News, 29 December 1970, quoted in T. L. Martin,
, McGraw-Hill, New York (1973), p. 23.
Malice in Blunderland
12. M. Twain, ,Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY (2002), p. 159.
The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Short Works

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Rainwater Prophecy
Richard Rainwater made billions by knowing how to PROFIT FROM A CRISIS. Now he foresees the biggest one yet.

December 26, 2005
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Richard Rainwater doesn't want to sound like a kook. But he's about as worried as a happily married guy with more than $2 billion and a home in Pebble Beach can get. Americans are "in the kind of trouble people shouldn't find themselves in," he says. He's just wary about being the one to sound the alarm.

Rainwater is something of a behind-the-scenes type--at least as far as alpha-male billionaires go. He counts President Bush as a personal friend but dislikes politics, and frankly, when he gets worked up, he says some pretty far-out things that could easily be taken out of context. Such as: An economic tsunami is about to hit the global economy as the world runs out of oil. Or a coalition of communist and Islamic states may decide to stop selling their precious crude to Americans any day now. Or food shortages may soon hit the U.S. Or he read on a blog last night that there's this one gargantuan chunk of ice sitting on a precipice in Antarctica that, if it falls off, will raise sea levels worldwide by two feet--and it's getting closer to the edge.... And then he'll interrupt himself: "Look, I'm not predicting anything," he'll say. "That's when you get a little kooky-sounding."

Rainwater is no crackpot. But you don't get to be a multibillionaire investor--one who's more than doubled his net worth in a decade--through incremental gains on little stock trades. You have to push way past conventional thinking, test the boundaries of chaos, see events in a bigger context. You have to look at all the scenarios, from "A to friggin' Z," as he says, and not be afraid to focus on Z. Only when you've vacuumed up as much information as possible and you know the world is at a major inflection point do you put a hell of a lot of money behind your conviction.

Such insights have allowed Rainwater to turn moments of cataclysm into gigantic paydays before. In the mid-1990s he saw panic selling in Houston real estate and bought some 15 million square feet; now the properties are selling for three times his purchase price. In the late '90s, when oil seemed plentiful and its price had fallen to the low teens, he bet hundreds of millions--by investing in oil stocks and futures--that it would rise. A billion dollars later, that move is still paying off. "Most people invest and then sit around worrying what the next blowup will be," he says. "I do the opposite. I wait for the blowup, then invest."

The next blowup, however, looms so large that it scares and confuses him. For the past few months he's been holed up in hard-core research mode--reading books, academic studies, and, yes, blogs. Every morning he rises before dawn at one of his houses in Texas or South Carolina or California (he actually owns a piece of Pebble Beach Resorts) and spends four or five hours reading sites like or, obsessively following links and sifting through data. How worried is he? He has some $500 million of his $2.5 billion fortune in cash, more than ever before. "I'm long oil and I'm liquid," he says. "I've put myself in a position that if the end of the world came tomorrow I'd kind of be prepared." He's also ready to move fast if he spots an opening.

His instincts tell him that another enormous moneymaking opportunity is about to present itself, what he calls a "slow pitch down the middle." But, at 61, wealthier and happier than ever before, Rainwater finds himself reacting differently this time. He's focused more on staying rich than on getting richer. But there's something else too: a sort of billionaire-style civic duty he feels to get a conversation started. Why couldn't energy prices skyrocket, with grave repercussions, not just economic but political? As industry analysts debate whether the world's oil production is destined to decline, the prospect makes him itchy.

"This is a nonrecurring event," he says. "The 100-year flood in Houston real estate was one, the ability to buy oil and gas really cheap was another, and now there's the opportunity to do something based on a shortage of natural resources. Can you make money? Well, yeah. One way is to just stay long domestic oil. But there may be something more important than making money. This is the first scenario I've seen where I question the survivability of mankind. I don't want the world to wake up one day and say, 'How come some doofus billionaire in Texas made all this money by being aware of this, and why didn't someone tell us?'"


It feels like the last place you'd go looking for a rich man. Lake City, S.C., is a town of 6,500 in the low country two hours northwest of Charleston. Once the bustling home to small, independent tobacco farmers, now it's mostly a collection of abandoned gas stations, roadside churches, and fading brick walls with TRUST JESUS painted on them in big black letters. Unemployment hovers around 10% and would be worse if the Taiwanese plastics manufacturer Nan Ya hadn't opened up a sprawling factory on the edge of town.

Rainwater spends a lot of time in Lake City because of his wife, Darla Moore. A former star in bankruptcy financing at Chemical Bank who was once dubbed the "toughest babe in business" by FORTUNE, Moore, 51, grew up here. Her grandfather was one of the small tobacco farmers. Nowadays she lives on her grandparents' old farm. (Moore and Rainwater also own a lavish home in Charleston.) Rainwater calls Lake City the "middle of bum-fuck nowhere." But the truth is he's got everything he needs here: cable TV, a telephone, an automatic coffeemaker, a decent golf course up the road, and a fast Internet connection.

Measured against the languid pace of the surroundings, Rainwater's usual surplus of physical energy seems even more pronounced in Lake City. Tall, tan, and sturdily built, he has a hard time sitting still. He's run four marathons and offers that, when he was 40, he unexpectedly set the record in his age group on something called a "modified Balke protocol" treadmill test, a measure of the body's efficiency in absorbing oxygen. Rainwater bounces around the farm in shorts, a polo shirt, and a baseball cap, maintaining a running dialogue with Moore (whom he calls "Precious"), his staff, and anyone else who happens to be within earshot or on his speed dial. "He's maternal," says Moore. "And I'm paternal."

In the ongoing Richard and Darla show, Moore supplies the dry one-liners to his constant chatter. Lately she's been affectionately calling him "Dr. Doom." But she's not dismissing his concerns. Or harboring any illusions that she can talk him out of making a big investment once he settles on a theme. As president of Rainwater Inc. in the '90s, she was his partner in his last two big bets. And though she's at a stage in life where she might prefer to simplify her affairs rather than go off on another wild ride, she knows that soon he'll have to act. "We've been married for 15 years," she says. "This is the third time I've seen this. The massive intake of information has been complete. Now he's agonizing. We're in what I refer to as the raving mode--the latter stages of rave. This is the refinement stage. Then we're going to make decisions."

"It's not raving," he says. "I promise I am not a kook."

"You're kooking out a little. But I've seen the process before. I saw you go from zero to 100 miles per hour in real estate."

"And you saw me get into oil ten years ago," he says, then protests, "But I'm on the edge of being so old that it doesn't matter anymore. I've won the heavyweight championship before. Instead of taking one more swing, maybe I should just retire a winner." Moore's not buying it. "Buckwheat," she says, using her nickname for him, "There's not a chance in a million you won't swing. He can't not. It's the nature of the animal."


"Rainwater," the voice on the phone announces. "Now, type L-A-T-O-C into Yahoo, and scroll down to the seventh item." Rainwater doesn't use e-mail. Rather, he uses rapid-fire phone calls to spread the gospel he discovers every morning on the web. One day it might be the decline of arable land in Malaysia. The next it could be the Olduvai theory of per capita energy consumption. "L-A-T-O-C" stands for, a blog edited by Matt Savinar, 27, of Santa Rosa, Calif. (which Rainwater calls "a hotbed for survivalist types"), who was on his way to being a lawyer when his side project began climbing up Google's rankings. The site is now the No. 2 result of a search on "oil." Savinar keeps a running diary of all manner of news and information relating to "peak oil," a once-wonkish geological debate that has recently crossed over not only to late-night talk shows but even onto the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Peak oil" theorists posit that global production is at or near its historic ceiling and will begin a long, inexorable decline. They worry that America is not ready for the downturn, for skyrocketing prices and even shortages. Savinar's site's opening line is, "Civilization as we know it is coming to an end." Rainwater has been checking it every morning since September, when his personal anxiety alert level moved to orange. "I can almost pinpoint the date," says Moore. "It was right after he read that book."

In August a friend gave Rainwater a copy of The Long Emergency, a dystopic view of the future written by ex-Rolling Stone writer James Kunstler, otherwise known for his passionate dislike of suburbia. Taking peak oil as a given, Kunstler argues that Americans have been "sleepwalking" through the end of a "100-year fossil fuel fiesta." The problem, he points out, is not that the world will run out of oil tomorrow, but rather that the lack of growth in oil production will wreak havoc on a global economic system predicated on perpetual expansion. Kunstler's "long emergency" is a decidedly unpleasant interval during which the world--and Americans in particular--must adapt to a post-oil regime of scarce energy and economic stagnation, a time of likely wars and the disappearance of all-American things like Wal-Mart and cul-de-sac homes 45 minutes by minivan from the office.

Rainwater doesn't completely buy into Kunstler's doom and gloom. "It's the Z scenario," he says. But at the same time, he worries that Kunstler isn't wrong enough, and he's been buying extra copies of the book and passing them around to the many titans of capitalism who are his protégés. It's not the first doomsday book in Rainwater's life: His big bet on oil in the late '90s was kicked off by a work called Beyond the Limits, the sequel to a '70s sensation called The Limits of Growth. Written by three professors armed with an MIT-bred computer called World3, the Limits books projected that, left unchecked, human population would, within 100 years, overshoot the capacity of the planet to serve up sufficient vitamins and minerals--let alone absorb all the waste and pollution--to keep everyone healthy. Rainwater took the book to heart. "Right after I read it, I said, 'They've figured it out, I'm going to follow this thing.' "

His ensuing oil bet was only the latest triumph for the grandson of a Lebanese immigrant (on his mother's side) who, according to family lore, picked up his last name from a Cherokee ancestor. His mother had worked at J.C. Penney to put him and his brother through the University of Texas. In 1970, after a short stint at Goldman Sachs, he joined Stanford Business School pal Sid Bass in managing the Bass family money in Fort Worth. Over the next decade and a half, he helped turn the family's modest $50 million fortune into one worth upwards of $5 billion.

In the process Rainwater's investing style emerged: analytically rigorous but opportunistic and Texas-sized in its audacity. He'd buy public companies or private. He'd use futures and leverage, sometimes 20 to 1. He even started companies. If he thought an idea was right, he put capital behind it. With the Basses, he resurrected the likes of Disney--recruiting Michael Eisner to be CEO--and bet early on cellphones. Later, when he went out on his own in 1986, his office drew a who's who of hard-charging capitalists to Fort Worth. In the heyday of Rainwater Inc., Eddie Lampert, the hedge fund tycoon turned head of Sears Holdings, had a desk, as did Daniel Stern, now of $3 billion Reservoir Capital. Ken Hersh, who has compounded money at 31% annually for 17 years at Natural Gas Partners, started there. With Rick Scott, Rainwater founded Columbia Healthcare, which merged with HCA and became the country's biggest for-profit hospital company (Scott was later forced out as CEO amid a federal fraud investigation). Even George W. Bush kept an office, when he and Rainwater were putting together the Texas Rangers stadium deal.


On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-November, Rainwater and Moore are holding court in the 14th-floor conference room of Reservoir Capital in Midtown Manhattan, where he camps out when he's in New York (he has money invested with the fund). He has gathered Reservoir's Stern, Goldman alum and Crestview Partners co-founder Barry Volpert, and a couple of guests, and he is expounding on the implications of the peak-oil theory: "I believe in Hubbert's Peak. I came out of Texas. I watched oil fields reach peak and go over, and I've watched how people would do all they could, put whatever amount of money into the field, and they couldn't do anything about it."

In the 1940s and 1950s, a Shell geologist named M. King Hubbert observed that the production from any given oil field follows a bell curve, with annual volumes increasing until half the oil in the field is depleted, and declining thereafter. Basically, the bottom oil is harder to extract. King reasoned that production from all U.S. fields would follow a similar curve and predicted in 1956 that total U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. His analysis caused a furor and was widely disparaged, but proved correct. "Hubbert's Peak" entered the lexicon of oil analysis--one of the great geological I-told-you-so's. Forty-nine years later, a growing number of noted geologists and industry analysts suggest that the global oil supply may now be topping out, a claim that has been met by skepticism from yet other geologists and economists who say higher prices will spawn both more discovery and improved recovery from existing fields.

Rainwater sides with the imminent peak crowd, and can rattle off facts to back up his argument. "In 1988 there were 15 million barrels a day of shut-in production"--meaning surplus that could be tapped--"and the world was using about 55 million barrels of oil. Today the world is using over 80 million, and there's no shut-in production left. We've used it up, through the combination of depletion and growth." In other words, the spigot can't be opened any wider.

What concerns him most is the conflict that he thinks an oil shortage will precipitate. What happens when people get blindsided by prices rocketing past any level they have contemplated--especially when you factor in other challenges America faces? "We've got a lot of things going on simultaneously," he says. "The world as we know it is unwinding with respect to Social Security, pensions, Medicare. We're going to have dramatically increased taxes in the U.S. I believe we're going into a world where there's going to be more hostility. More people are going to be asking, 'Why did God do this to us?' Whatever God they worship. Alfred Sloan said it a long time ago at General Motors, that we're giving these things during good times. What happens in bad times? We're going to have to take them back, and then everybody will riot.' And he's right."


Part of Rainwater's routine when he's down on the farm is to go for gizzards at Allison's, a no-frills truck stop up the road. Driving in a red BMW SUV on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, he points out who lives where: the local doctor, the Taiwanese Nan Ya workers. He chokes up momentarily passing the home of a woman who worked at the farm, whose son has just returned from serving in Iraq. The sheer incongruity of his wealth in Lake City is not lost on him. But at Allison's he seems right at home, lathering the deep-fried gizzards with hot sauce and self-serving a large coffee which he spices at the hot chocolate machine.

Back on the farm that night, he and Moore discuss future projects with their landscaper, Jenks Farmer, over a glass of wine. Farmer, who has a master's in horticulture and lives on the property, maintains Moore's extensive gardens, including vegetable beds that produce all year round. That morning Rainwater had been surfing the web, researching greenhouses in his quest to further ensure a steady flow of food through the winter. At his prodding, Moore has installed an emergency generator and 500-gallon storage tanks for diesel fuel and water. When Rainwater says that he's thinking about opening a for-profit survivability center, it's not entirely clear that he's joking.

Later in the night Rainwater returns to musing on how different his lot is from the residents of Lake City. And then, returning to the debate in his head, he gets a serious look on his face and says: "This is going to get a little religious. I ask why I was blessed with this insightfulness. Everyone who has achieved something, scientists, ballplayers, thinks they were given their talent for a reason. Why me? Was I given this insightfulness at this particular time? Or was I just given this insightfulness?" He pauses. "I just want people to look out. 'Cause it could be bad." FEEDBACK
The oil is going, the oil is going!
Today's Paul Reveres of "peak oil" aren't waiting for Washington to save us from apocalypse. They're already planting gardens and drafting city plans for the days when oil is gone.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

March 22, 2006 | SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Matt Savinar, 27, once aspired to own a Hummer. He studied poli sci at the University of California, Davis, before going on to get his law degree at U.C. Hastings in San Francisco. He was into bodybuilding. Today, Savinar doesn't own any car, much less a Hummer, and he doesn't practice law, although he's licensed to do so. Frankly, he doesn't think that driving or the legal profession, with the exception of maybe bankruptcy law, have much of a future. Instead of buying a car, Savinar walks, takes the bus and catches rides with friends, but not because he's trying to save the world, he assures me.

Savinar doesn't drive because he's saving the money he'd spend on a used car to buy land; he's not sure exactly where yet, but somewhere with a supply of fresh water, arable soil, low population density and that's far from military bases. He's starting to get back into bodybuilding again, too, all the better to be healthy and in shape to till the earth and grow food, when the time comes. "I happen to think that we're going straight to hell, and I'm trying to figure out how to be in the least hot place of hell," he told me recently on an incongruously balmy 72 degree February afternoon in sunny Santa Rosa, Calif., at a restaurant just a few blocks from the apartment where he lives.

For a young, quick-witted, able-bodied man with an advanced degree, living in the most prosperous country in the world, Savinar has a pretty dim view of his -- and all the rest of our -- prospects. He believes that many if not most of the trappings of modern American life are endangered species and he's trying to figure out how not to become one of them. So Savinar has become a full-time prophet of "peak oil," spreading the word about how the world's oil production will soon peak and global demand will outstrip supply.

When that happens, he imagines that all the ways Americans now depend on oil will become rudely apparent, as the price of everything from filling up at the pump to fruits and vegetables in the supermarket shoots up. Cities and towns will start to struggle to provide basic services like police, firefighting, school buses, water and road repair. Office workers will lose jobs because they can't afford to commute to work from their suburban homes. Even if they could get to the office, there'll be fewer white-collar jobs, as businesses flounder under the strain of a flailing global economy. Yet suburbanites will be grateful for those big backyards to support vegetable gardens, if they can just keep their hungry neighbors from sneaking in at night and stealing their harvest. All that is before we even consider the possibility of an oil war with the likes of China, where, incidentally, so many of those cheap goods that we've come to depend on are manufactured.

But here's what really drives Savinar crazy. As our whole world is about to go hurtling, sickeningly, down the other side of peak oil, we cling to the vain hope that better fuel efficiency, more conservation and alternative energy will step in to save the day. He can't believe our ignorance. Just look at his lunch: chicken fajitas with red and green peppers, brown rice and green salad. Sound wholesome and healthy? No, Savinar reminds me, it's brought here courtesy of cheap energy.

"It's fossil fuels -- petroleum, coal, natural gas -- that have been converted into food," he says. Then, there's the wooden table he's eating it on, which was built god-knows-where and likely shipped here inexpensively courtesy of fossil fuels. Then, there's the financial system underpinning the bank loan that the owner of this restaurant likely got to open the joint, which is predicated on the idea that the economy will grow in the future, not shrink precipitously when oil prices spike. Then there's the asphalt on the four-lane of traffic outside, and the cars, trucks and, oh yes, SUVs zipping along on top of its smooth surface, as well as the concrete of the sidewalk bordering the mall across the street, where Ann Taylor and Talbots sell clothes surely imported from halfway around the world.

But Savinar isn't rollerblading while the oil burns. From his modest apartment, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, he parses the latest energy news and fulminates on his Web site, Life After the Oil Crash. "Dear Reader," he welcomes visitors to his site, "Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon. This is not the wacky proclamation of a doomsday cult, apocalypse bible prophecy sect, or conspiracy theory society. Rather, it is the scientific conclusion of the best paid, most widely-respected geologists, physicists and investment bankers in the world. These are rational, professional, conservative individuals who are absolutely terrified by a phenomenon known as global 'Peak Oil.'"

Far from being ignored or dismissed as the hyperbolic rantings of an underemployed twentysomething California attorney, his Web site (which has about 6,000 visitors a day, and which sells books, DVDs and soon solar-powered ovens) has been quoted in the U.S. House of Representatives by members of the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus, like Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett from Maryland. He's been name-checked in Fortune magazine in a recent profile of one of Bush's billionaire buddies, who claims to have read Savinar's site every day since last September, and is keeping $500 million of his fortune in cash just in case Savinar and other peak oil doomsayers, like James Howard Kunstler, are right.

Savinar has given public speeches about peak oil but he says he prefers to do his Paul Revere-ing virtually so he doesn't have to see the look in people's eyes when they get it. "This is like the worst news that people have ever heard, other than maybe a death in the family, because you're basically finding out that your entire model of the world is based on bullshit," he says. He does not relish being the bearer of bad news: "People who want the Hummer or the three-bedroom home, or they want their kid to go to college, and grow up to be an attorney or a doctor -- all that, everything that they've based their lives on -- you're telling them that that's all out the window."

Critics debate the degree of doom to attach to peak oil, but Savinar is right: Scientists don't deny it's coming. The only question is when. Some geologists say we're already on the downslope while others put the peak at around mid-century. Regardless, thousands of people of various professions aren't waiting for the exact date of the bad news to be pinned down. They've seen the polemical documentary "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream," shown at countless house parties, community centers and city halls across the country. Or, maybe they've been frightened by truly alarmist Web sites, such as Die Off, that predict billions -- yes, that's right, billions -- of deaths globally because of peak oil. Or they've read the Hirsch report, a paper commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, in which professional energy analysts found that it would take at least a decade to prepare for peak oil, yet they don't see their government exactly leaping into action.

The peak oilers believe that by the time we know for sure that peak oil has come and gone it will be much too late to prepare to live without the 21 million barrels of oil a day that the U.S. is now accustomed to consuming. They aren't leaving anything to chance, let alone to the federal government, particularly with George W. Bush at the helm. To them, real change begins at home, where they're taking matters into their own hands. They're planning and preparing, and even lobbying their local governments to envision life with less oil. Some are hopeful they can make changes now in their own communities to mitigate the impact of the oil shocks to come.

To David Fridley, a scientist who works on energy efficiency at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and who worked in the oil industry for 15 years, the increasing concern about peak oil tells us a lot about the shape of people's assumptions. "Those who come from an environmental point of view see peak oil as an opportunity to disrupt the never-ending growth of our reliance of fossil fuels," he says. "Then there are those who see our ultra-consumerist society as flawed, and peak oil is the disruption that will bring an end to that. Then there are the people who believe technology can save us, who are delving more into what solar and water power can do." It's a pretty motley crew all trying to get a bead on the future at once. What about him? Is he part of the peak-oil movement? The mustachioed, bespectacled scientist says, "The facts are too compelling not to be involved."

A posh conference room on the 33rd floor of a skyscraper in downtown San Francisco is an elegant if ironic perch from which to ponder the uncertain future of life as we know it. One entire wall of the room is made of glass, a giant window offering a sweeping nighttime view of the Bay Bridge all lit up, sparkling with the orderly lights of the post-rush hour cars and trucks streaming across the bay into San Francisco. Yet the 20 people assembled around the golden conference table for the February monthly meeting of the San Francisco Post Carbon group believe that sooner rather than later that stream of cars and trucks will falter, if not actually stop, altogether. And as the geopolitical and economic dominoes start to fall in the wake of climbing oil prices, some wonder with macabre humor how long it will be before they'll have to climb 33 flights of stairs if they want to make it to this room.

Meeting in plush digs donated by a foundation for the occasion, San Francisco Post Carbon is a kind of combination study group, support group and citizens' action committee. Among their accomplishments is having produced a slick poster that depicts the history -- and possible future -- of the oil age, which they've distributed to every member of Congress. At least the lawmakers won't be able to say that they weren't warned! This post-carbon group is one of six such groups that meet regularly in the Bay Area. But it's hardly just a California obsession. There are groups around the world affiliated with the Vancouver, B.C., Post Carbon Institute, most of them in North America.

Over red wine and a potluck dinner of hummus and salads, the peak oilers, who tonight include a computer programmer, a consultant, a teacher, a retired engineer and a recent college grad, listen intently to the first speaker: Alice Friedemann, a systems analyst for a large transportation company. She's been studying the history of agriculture in California and learning sustainable farming techniques.

"As energy gets more expensive, food will get more expensive," Friedemann says, citing a stat that's often mentioned in peak-oil circles: In our era of industrial agriculture, it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel inputs for fertilizers, pesticides, farm equipment and transportation from natural gas, oil and coal to produce one calorie of food. The fear is that the rising price of oil will drive us to rely on other fossil fuels, draining those as well, and destroying the atmosphere in the process.

Friedemann remarks that there are home-court advantages to being so close to California's fertile Central Valley. "The good news is we're near the food," she says. "But the bad news is people are likely to come here not just because of the food but because it will be too hot or cold where they live." Grapes of wrath, anyone?

Still, the prospects for growing a lot of food locally, à la the victory gardens during World War II, in these parts don't look good to her, given the built environment and population density. Even assuming "bio-intensive" farming methods, where just 4,000 square feet of land can produce enough food to feed a vegetarian diet to one person, there's nowhere near enough land in Oakland, where she lives, that's not in the shade of homes or buildings, covered in concrete, or on steep parkland with poor topsoil.

How bad does Friedemann really believe things are going to get? "I believe that we're going back to the 13th century at some point," she tells me. Her grandfather was a geologist who knew the geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who first posited the theory of peak oil, predicting the peak of U.S. production in the '70s. Having studied alternative energy for years, Friedemann says she just doesn't believe that there is anything that's going to replace oil, or even come close. "We won't appreciate what oil really did for us until we have to go back to muscle power," she says. The question that clearly both appalls and fascinates her is what happens next?

"How do you reengineer society to go backward? How do you carve up container ships and turn them into sailboats? We can't go back to steam engines burning wood because we burned all that wood when we were clearing the fields for farms," she says. And even going back to beasts of burden, using the muscle power of horses for transportation, isn't straightforward, not when horses and people are competing for local, arable land.

"On average, a horse needs six acres of pasture," she says. "So you can't use that for food if you're growing the food to feed the horses." At an upcoming meeting of the East Bay peak oil group, she'll be teaching a class on milling your own grain and cooking it. "These are skills that would be useful to have. I suspect that there'll be oil shocks and food shortages but grain is something that keeps for years and years and years. It's something that you can have at home as the grocery store shelves empty. It's going to be more Third World-like and people are going to need to cope."

At the meeting, it's time for a report on efforts to lobby the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to consider what impact peak oil might have in the city. Last year, a formal request to hold a hearing on peak oil died in committee. In the past few weeks, some of the post-carbon members have met with staffers from several supes' offices, some of whom were more sympathetic to their issue than others. "They looked at us and smiled," says Dennis Brumm, 53, a former middle manager at a produce company, now retired on disability, who devotes himself to activism. "Most of them didn't smile," chimes in Allyse Heartwell, 24, a recent college grad, drawing knowing chuckles from the rest of the group. The post-carbon group realizes that theirs is a very tough problem to get politicians excited about, given they can't in good conscience suggest an obvious way to fix it. "It's very difficult to go and say, 'We have a problem that has no real solution, and we are trying to mitigate what will happen to culture,'" says Brumm.

The group wants San Francisco to undertake a study to gauge what peak oil will mean to the city's economy, food distribution, transportation and tourism. "I want to see Golden Gate Park planted with community gardens," Heartwell tells me later. Heartwell, who studied international environmental issues in college, says that she's never been an activist but she's recently become obsessed with peak oil and reads sites like Energy Bulletin and the Oil Drum religiously. "Honestly, I don't think that it's likely that we're going to make smart choices in the next 10 or 20 years. It's hard but I personally don't see anything to be done but keeping at it," she says of the lobbying efforts. "Five years down the road, 10 years down the road, I would be kicking myself if I didn't do something, unless I'm starving, in which case, I would probably be kicking myself even more."

Some members of the group are trying to lower their personal energy consumption -- in the peak-oil vernacular, "powering down." One man has cut his gas consumption in half on his daily commute by buying a hybrid car. Several don't own cars. Some have solar panels on their homes and sensors so that the lights turn off when they leave the room. One chose to travel by train rather than plane on a trip to visit family in Texas over the holidays. But while they support the idea of taking individual action, they're aware that their own efforts are drops in the global bucket, and while they believe in setting a good example about a lower-energy lifestyle, they know just how hard it is to get anyone to listen when you're sounding this kind of alarm.

"The public doesn't understand how integrated oil is into every aspect of our lives," says Richard Katz, 55, who is fond of bringing oil industry newspaper ads to group meetings and giving a gallows-humor take on them. "The American spin on the world is that there is always some new technology or new answer that's around the corner. Standard economics says that there is always something to replace whatever is rare. But what we're talking about here -- oil -- is the product of millions and millions of years of distilled sunlight. How do you get people excited about living with less?"

Fridley of the Lawrence Lab rises out of his seat to tell us about "the myth of biofuels." He argues that the likes of ethanol, fuel drawn from crops like corn or plants like switchgrass, are not going to save the day. "Once you get past the media hype about ethanol, the reality scares you," he says. Fridley fears that in the search for cheap liquid fuel to replace oil we'll end up overmining the soil. By his calculations, the long-term potential of biofuels is low, yet it's draining federal dollars from wind and solar, about which he's more optimistic.

Finally, a documentary filmmaker working on a project called "Everybody Loves Oil" shows a preview and makes a plea for funds, while everyone passes around a glass mason jar, decorated with an apple, grapes and a pear, and filled with oil that was pumped out of a well in Bakersfield. It's a reminder that the slimy gunk that brought us together tonight is about to tear our whole world apart.

Plenty of social critics see the peak oilers as the latest horsemen of the environmental apocalypse. Take "J.D." (the only name he would give me), a 44-year-old American living in Japan who runs the blog Peak Oil Debunked. "Clearly, the radical environmentalists and primativists love peak oil," he writes in an e-mail. "It's like a dream come true for them." To the "doomers," peak oil is the "deus ex machina that will fulfill their long-cherished dream of bringing down 'growth' and modern, globalized, corporate, industrial society."

The fact is, though, the Cassandras of peak oil are not all wearing fleece and Birkenstocks, and using peak oil as a convenient reason to rekindle back-to-the-land fantasies. They are geologists and energy experts in governments, universities and think tanks. And many of them echo the core conviction of the activists: Oil-drunk America has to go on the wagon or it will soon be heading into a dauntingly thirsty future.

Experts point out that U.S. domestic oil production peaked in the early '70s. The world is expected to consume 85 million barrels of oil per day this year, with the U.S. guzzling some 21 million of that. Even Chevron admits that the era of oil that's easy to extract -- "the easy oil" -- is over. The question of when exactly global production will peak and then slide down the bell curve, with demand outstripping supply, is disputed by geologists, but some believe that it's already here and the world is already experiencing the fallout.

"The World Trade Center, the first Iraq war, the second Iraq war, high gasoline prices and enormous volatility in price," reels off Kenneth S. Deffeyes, an emeritus Princeton professor who calculates that the world passed peak last December -- Dec. 16, 2005, to be exact. "When supply and demand are closely matched, something as small as two hurricanes makes the price go wild; we saw gasoline go up almost a dollar. Political troubles in Venezuela, labor strikes in Nigeria make the oil price flap."

If Deffeyes turns out to be anywhere close to right, this is prescient news indeed. Even strategic advisors to the Bush administration's Department of Energy believe it would take a good 20 years and trillions of dollars of investment in infrastructure for the nation to avoid liquid fuel shortages, when peak passes. A 91-page report released in February 2005 by Science Applications International Corp. played out three scenarios for the Department of Energy. Titled "Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management," it's come to be known as the Hirsch report, after one of its authors. Those three scenarios: Wait until the peak occurs to transition to other fuels, plan for the transition a decade in advance, plan for the transition 20 years in advance. In the first case, they predict significant fuel shortages globally and economic upheaval. Only in the third scenario do the report's writers conclude that major liquid fuel shortages could be avoided.

The report predicts that peaking will result in much higher oil prices, which will cause "protracted economic hardship in the United States and around the world." Yet it argues that impact can be mitigated if efforts are made on both the "supply and demands sides."

Deffeyes concurs. He believes that our short-term energy future would have been different, if we'd, oh, say, listened to Jimmy Carter and started preparing decades ago. "We'd be in great shape now. But we didn't. We've driven off the cliff without anyone putting their foot on the brake."

But even if Deffeyes is wrong, and peak is still 20 or 30 years off, peak oilers are skeptical that an orderly transition to alternative energies can be made. They worry that the alternatives to oil will not scale up to provide the amount of energy that we're used to consuming, and only by changing our consumption habits can we adjust. Some believe that making the transition won't just take a rough five or 10 years, but that it will mean a meaningful permanent decline in how much energy we use.

Richard Heinberg, author of "Power Down: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World," one of the peak-oil gurus, runs down a list of possible alternatives: coal to liquids, gas to liquids, ethanol, methanol, bio-diesel, not to mention getting oil from tar sands, shale oil and heavy oil from Venezuela. "Each of those alternatives has inherent constraints in supply," he says. "You can't increase the amount that you can produce to any arbitrary level by throwing money at the problem. There are practical constraints."

The fear is that even if the U.S. were throwing all the billions that we're spending on things like fighting the war in Iraq into a moon-shot-like effort to transition to alternatives, which we're obviously not doing now, despite the president's recent lip service to ethanol, we would not be able to produce the amount of energy that we now get from 21 million barrels of oil a day.

Like Fridley, Heinberg asserts that biofuels are not the answer. He notes that they appeal to environmentalists because they could be produced in a carbon-neutral way, as well as to patriotic conservatives because American farmers can help solve the problem, while lessening our dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East. "We don't have oodles and oodles of agricultural land that's not being used for growing biofuels, and the energy payoff is very low compared to what we're used to from oil," he says. "The net energy being produced is going to be very costly."

Of course, there are always techno-optimists, and in this case they are led by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, co-author of "Winning the Oil Endgame." Lovins argues that ethanol, for instance, can be produced without using cropland, but from woody, weedy plants, like switchgrass, on currently idle conservation reserve land. He quotes Sheikh Yamani, a leading figure in OPEC for 25 years, who said, "The Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and the Oil Age will not end because the world runs out of oil."

Lovins thinks that oil will go the way of whale oil as alternatives are perfected. Besides, he contends, nobody knows who is right about peak oil, given that 94 percent of oil reserves are held by sovereign governments that have no incentive to reveal how much recoverable oil they actually have, even if they know themselves. He says an oil shortage is far more likely to be caused by an attack on a Saudi oil processing plant, or a natural disaster demolishing a key refinery. Ultimately, Lovins says, we will get much more out of the remaining oil by tripling the efficiency of cars, trucks and planes. "The rest of the oil," he states, "can then be displaced by a combination of saved natural gas and advanced biofuels." So, pessimists, chill out.

At a gathering at Berkeley Ecology Center, there's a vision of Utopia over the door. It's a painting, in which the rays of a huge sun beam down on a dark-skinned woman on her hands and knees gardening while a yellow butterfly flutters above her hands. A child holding a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables looks directly out from the painting. Over this pastoral tableau looms the slogan "Another World Is Possible."

This is a kind of community center where visitors can buy reusable hemp coffee filters, get info on local seed swaps and learn about the best source of worms for composting. From the magazine rack, the cover lines on Permaculture magazine shout: "Prepare for Life Without Oil. Find Your Own Wild Winter Food."

At the front of the room, David Room, director of municipal response for the Post-Carbon Institute, holds up his 3-year-old daughter to a microphone, and asks her to repeat the first word she learned to read: "Organic!" she proclaims, drawing appreciative laughs from the crowd of 80. Later, Aaron Lehmer, another post-carboner, asks the assembled: "How many people believe in the next couple of years that we are at the threshold of peak oil?" Half the hands in the room go up. The purpose of this meeting is to recruit volunteers and raise money for an effort called Bay Area Relocalize.

The goal is to do a citizen's assessment of West Oakland and a to-be-determined neighborhood in San Francisco to see how much of the energy and goods used there are produced locally. Likely answer: not very much. Then, to try to determine what could be produced locally if it had to be from food to energy to goods. Using Google Earth, and by walking around neighborhoods, the group wants to determine: How big are backyards? What roofs could be turned into rooftop gardens? What resources does this community have? Bethany Schroeder, a former Berkeley resident, who has relocated to Ithaca, N.Y., and speaks about a similar effort there, explains that everyone must understand Ithaca is way to the left of Berkeley. "You can't get into Ithaca and buy a house without a copy of 'The End of Suburbia' in your DVD file," she says. The Ecology Center event draws pledges of $1,100, and signs up 30 volunteers.

Room, who studied electrical engineering at Stanford as an undergrad and has a master's degree in engineering economic systems, used to do risk analysis and assessment for a consulting firm. Now he's in the nonprofit world where he believes he can help people reduce the great risks facing them from peak oil by making their local communities less dependent on the rest of the world.

"We believe that we're on a treadmill to tragedy," Room says. "We're headed for disaster but we're not there yet. We don't have time to lament about it, or to panic about it, we just need to act," he says. To him, that means each community taking steps to reduce its own vulnerability by "relocalizing." (He and others from the Post-Carbon Institute have written a forthcoming book called "Relocalize Now! Getting Ready for Climate Change and the End of Cheap Oil.")

An example of a community that's on its way is Willits, Calif., where Jason Bradford, 36, armed with a copy of "The End of Suburbia," launched a movement. Willits is a small town in Mendocino County, where just 5,100 people live within the city limits of 2.8 square miles. Yet there are about 13,500 people in the surrounding area of 322 square miles. Bradford, 36, a professional biologist, was so galvanized when he started to learn about peak oil in early 2002 that he and his wife, a doctor, moved to Willits with their twins in July 2004.

"I essentially wanted to find a small town where I could try to transform it politically and the infrastructure," Bradford says. He showed "The End of Suburbia" at the local library, at the high school cafeteria, at the charter school. He showed it for eight months, twice a month, at city council chambers. Thus was born the Willits Economic Localization Project, an effort to make the whole ZIP code as energy and food self-reliant as possible.

"We're just trying to do as much as we can as fast as we can and hope for the best," says Bradford. Citizens have already done the kind of assessment that the San Francisco post-carbon group is lobbying its government to undertake, and the Bay Area Relocalize group is just beginning. The city has put out a request for proposals asking contractors to bid to supply all its electricity with renewables. Bradford is leading an effort to convert one acre of the backyard of his children's elementary school into a farm, in hopes of bringing healthy food to the cafeteria. There are plans to put a three-acre farm next to a proposed hospital. A gleaning club is working with local orchardists to take the fruit that isn't market-worthy to food banks, and divide it among themselves.

Bradford is optimistic about finding local sources for electricity, like solar, biomass such as wood, and even hydropower from creeks in the local hills. Yet, like most of the rest of the United States, the area consumes much of its energy in transportation. "Over 50 percent of the energy consumed in the Willits area is in transportation -- oil and diesel for people's cars and trucks," Bradford says. "That's a common percentage around the country. It's very hard to replace that." And right now the ecologist says he does not see any easy, long-term solution for our car-mad consumption of oil.

South of Willits, the slightly larger city of Sebastopol, population 7,800, is also taking official government action to try to grapple with the post-peak future. Already, the city gets about a sixth of its energy from solar energy, and the majority of the members of its city council are affiliated with the Green Party. So, last October, a town-hall meeting starring "Power Down" author Heinberg, discussing peak oil and energy vulnerability, drew 200 citizens, and led to the formation of an official 11-member Citizen's Advisory Group on Energy Vulnerability.

Gas in the area is currently selling for about $2.40 a gallon but the group, which includes an economist and alternative energy experts, is now trying to imagine what will happen to city services if gas goes to $5 a gallon, $8 a gallon, $12 a gallon, as well as what if electricity went to 25 cents a kilowatt hour, 50 cents a kilowatt hour and so on. "We could see $5 a gallon gasoline within a year or two, or it could be 10 years off," says Larry Robinson, the former Green Party mayor of Sebastopol, who sits on the city council. "I want to be prepared for that, not saying: 'Oh my god, how are we going to pump water to provide for all these households.'"

The group is working on contingency plans so that the city will be able to maintain public safety, public facilities, streets, parks, water delivery and sewer services should the spikes in energy prices come. It's also exploring how the same energy increases would affect citizens, from transportation to education, food supply and even social cohesion, and it's arranging a meeting with pols from the four surrounding counties -- Marin, Napa, Lake and Mendocino -- to formulate a regional response to energy vulnerability.

"I think that a lot of people have their head in the sand about this," says Robinson. "Some believe that the market will solve the problem, and ultimately, it will, but markets aren't anticipatory. They're more reactive. If we wait for a market solution, it's going to come probably in the midst of a lot of disruption and unnecessary suffering."

But the Sebastopol City Council member also sees some silver linings in the slide down Hubbert's Peak. First, he believes that savvy local entrepreneurs will be able to create new businesses and local jobs, manufacturing shoes and clothes, when transportation costs make it prohibitively expensive to import them from halfway around the world. Beyond that, he sees peak oil as providing a kind of wholesale referendum on the American way of life.

"I think that we can adapt, but our adapting may not be so much technological, as sociological, and maybe even spiritual," Robinson says. "It really comes down to the question of the place that we see for ourselves in the world and what we need in order to live a meaningful life. For quite a while now, a meaningful life in America has meant acquisition of things and cheap energy, and we associate that with freedom. We do not see that it's really a form of dependence and slavery. So, I see the potential for a much greater level of freedom and spiritual fulfillment and social cohesion, and restoration of balance with the natural world. This is one of the great possibilities that I see on the other side of the crisis, and whether we get to that is a question of the choices that we make now."