INDEX - ENERGY ID# 0707-05



POSTED: 25 JUNE 2007 - 4:30am HST

Peak Suburbia

image above is comparative graph by nation of retail space per person from Shopping Center Today

by James Kunstler on 25 June 2007

I get lots of letters from people in various corners of the nation who are hysterically disturbed by the continuing spectacle of suburban development. But instead of joining in their hand-wringing, I reply by stating my serene conviction that we are at the end of the cycle -- and by that I mean the grand meta-cycle of the suburban project as a whole. It's over. Whatever you see out there now is pretty much what we're going to be stuck with. The remaining things under construction are the last twitchings of a dying organism.

It is not an accident that the housing bubble coincided with the phenomenon of Peak Oil. First of all, the housing bubble should more properly be called the suburban bubble, because most of the activity came in the form of "greenfield" housing subdivisions, and included all the additional crap-o-la accessories required by them -- strip malls, power centers, Outback steak houses, car washes, et cetera. The suburban expansion has been based entirely on cheap-and-abundant supplies of oil. Similarly, it was not an accident that the suburban project faltered briefly in the 1970s, when America's oil production entered its long decline, OPEC seized the moment, and oil prices shot up. Notice that the final suburban blowout occurred after 1990, when the North Sea and Prudhoe Bay oil strikes came into full production, disabling OPEC, and a world oil glut finally drove prices as low as ten dollars a barrel in 1999. That ushered in the climactic phase of suburbia, as represented by things like the standard 4000-square-foot Toll Brother's McMansion and the heyday of the super-gigantic SUV to go with it.

The American public has no idea how over all that is. The bottom is falling out under not only the housing market (as in houses up for sale) but on the whole apparatus for delivering future houses, and the car-oriented crap associated with it. The production home-builders, such as Toll Brothers, Hovanian, Pulte, et cetera are going down and they will not be coming back. There will be a great deal of wishing that they might come back, but they won't. Likewise, the commercial builders of all the various forms of suburban retail will be waiting to "turn the corner." But they will discover that the wall they have hit has no corner. It's just a wall. For anyone who wonders how much we do not need anymore retail space in America, have a look at this chart (above) showing the comparative amount of retail square-footage allotted for citizens of each nation.

Those of you considering the purchase of more WalMart stock, take note.
Some years back, when those watching the oil scene began to coalesce in their recognition that a worldwide production peak was imminent and hugely significant, the concept developed that this peak would take the form of a "bumpy plateau," meaning that supply-and-demand would teeter in an uncomfortable relationship for a period of time as markets and economies adjusted to the new reality by oscillating from higher prices to "demand destruction" to recession to recovery to higher prices, and so forth. This was expected to go on for quite a while before the world really headed into a slow permanent decline.

The latest statistical work by Dallas geologist Jeffrey Brown over at The Oil, suggests that something else is happening, something that was not anticipated: an imminent oil export crisis. This Export Land Theory states that exporting nations will have far less oil available for export than was previously assumed under older models. The theory states that export rates will drop by a far greater percentage than net production decline rates in any given exporting country. For example, The UK's portion of the North Sea oil fields may be showing a nine percent annual decline for the past couple of years. But it's export capacity has declined 60 percent. Something similar is in store for Saudi Arabia, Russia, Mexico, Venezuela -- in short, the whole cast of characters in the export world. They are all producing less and they are all using more of their own oil, and have less to send elsewhere.

Brown's math suggests that world oil exports will drop by 50 percent within the next five years, certainly enough to trigger a systemic breakdown in market allocation, meaning serious supply shortages among the importing nations. That's us. We import two-thirds of all the oil we use.

The implication in all this is that the activities that have become "normal" for us during the post World War Two era will very shortly become untenable. An economy based on suburban expansion and incessant motoring is on the top of the list of supposedly "normal" activities that will not be able to continue. I would maintain that even if we had 20 years, no combination of bio-fuels and other alternatives would enable us to keep suburbia running. But this latest work indicates that we have much less time to adjust.
This new information is consistent with my view that we had better prepare to make other arrangements for living in this country, by which I mean specifically re-localizing, de-globalizing, with an emphasis on local agriculture wherever possible, the emergency restoration of passenger railroad service and related modes of public transit, the rebuilding of local commercial infrastructures, and a radical rethinking of how we inhabit the landscape under New Urbanist lines.

Perhaps the most imminent danger is that the financial markets, which have been driving our insane, hollowed-out economy, will soon recognize what's in store and implode, creating a crisis of capital that will leave us with no ability to make any emergency investments, such as would be required to rebuild the railroad system. The equity markets sure blinked last week when two hedge funds based on phony-baloney collateralized debt obligations tanked. The collateral underlying this load of hallucinated "wealth" is comprised of contracts made by the insolvent for suburban houses worth far less than the value stated on the contracts -- with every indication that the real value will keep dropping.

In any case, those who keep wringing their hands over the bulldozers leveling the plots of prairie, or cornfield, or desert -- those distressed folks can direct their anxiety elsewhere. Worry less whether one final strip mall will tilt up out in gloaming, and think harder about how you are going to feed yourself and your family in a couple of years when the stupendous motorized moloch of American life begins to sputter, and the Cheez Doodle shipments can no longer make it to your supermarket shelves, and all that is "normal" melts into air.




POSTED: 18 JUNE 2007 - 6:30am HST

cartoon by Ben Sargent on 18 Nov 2000, See moreof his work at

Having it Both Ways

by James Kunstler on 18 June 2007 on

     It seems to me you can call the situation in Iraq a lot of things, but it's not a war. Not at this point, anyway. Call it an unsuccessful nation-building project, a failed occupation, a botched policing job, a monkey-in-the-middle clusterfuck. All the US political factions, from left to right, do the public a disservice by calling it a war, because it misrepresents what we're doing there.

      We're involved in Iraq because we don't want to begin thinking about modifying our behavior at home. We are desperate to preserve our access to Middle East oil because that is the only way we can keep running our society the way we're used to running it. Mostly, we don't want to face the tragic misinvestments we've made in the infrastructure of happy motoring, and we don't want to face the inconvenient truth that there really isn't any combination of alt.fuels that will permit us to keep running all the cars the way we like to run them. Either we keep getting the oil or say goodbye to the American Dream Version 2.K.

     The public has now decided that this nation's primary mission is to find some magic way to keep the cars running on a fuel other than gasoline. Everyone from the greenest greenies to the most medieval-minded Kansas Republican senator has joined in this collective wish. They are certain to be disappointed. All the Priuses in the world will not avail to save the Drive-In Utopia. The public will learn painfully what Iraq is all about.

     Every time somebody blames the politicians for this predicament, I'm reminded that the politicians are actually doing a fine job of representing what their constituents want. What they want is to not change their behavior. Not even the science and technology folks want to think about changing our behavior. They just want to find new ways to continue the old behavior. They're invested in the triumphal effort to come up with a happy motoring rescue remedy. Their techno-cred is on the line. They all want to be the first kid in their housing subdivision to run a car on dark matter.

     So, we've gone to Iraq on the quixotic mission to stabilize-and-pacify this key territory in the greater region of the Middle East, so we can keep getting oil imports out of there in a reliable and orderly way, so we can keep on driving all our cars. And the whole thing has turned out rather badly.

      Now there is another consensus forming. Across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right, elected officials are now clamoring to "stop the war in Iraq." By this they mean get US troops out. What cracks me up is their juvenile belief that being there is somehow optional for us, that we can keep on running Wal Mart and Walt Disney World without paying any price for it in the costs of policing the Middle East.
     If we don't maintain a military presence in Iraq, it is perfectly plain what will happen: Iran will instantly gain control of the southern Iraq oil fields. Iraq doesn't have an army anymore. It is incapable of preventing Iran from acquiring control of its territory. From that vantage, Iran would also effectively threaten the sovereign existence of Kuwait. Then there is the question of how much instability Iran could generate next door in the Shia-dominated Persian Gulf shoreline region of Saudi Arabia, where most of that nation's oil lies. (Meanwhile, there will be plenty more Iran-inspired mayhem in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.)

     It seems to me the answer to all this is clear: the first thing the US has to do is reach a different consensus about our behavior here at home, starting with the proposition that the happy motoring era must end. If we're not willing to do that, we're eventually going to lose both at home and in our struggles abroad. You can be sure that coming disturbances in the oil markets will make suburban life untenable while exhaustion and bankruptcy breaks our military.

     The air waves and internet sites are full of blather now about ending the "war" and bringing the troops home. The presidential candidates are agonizing over their various positions on the Iraq adventure. I'd like to hear one of them tell me how Atlanta is going to function without Middle Eastern oil, or how Wal Mart will move its merchandise from San Pedro to Lansing without a "warehouse on wheels," or how the thousands of yellow school bus fleets will carry on next September.

     Actually, instead, I'd like to hear talk about drastically reforming our zoning laws to discourage any more suburban development or a pitch to allow some of our tax money to fund a US passenger rail revival. I'd like to see a candidate refuse to attend a Nascar race on the grounds that it's an unconscionably stupid fucking waste of energy resources. I'm waiting for one of these birds to tell the American people the truth: you can't have it both ways. you can't get our military out of the Middle East without changing the way we live.




POSTED: 29 MAY 2007 - 8:30pm HST

Record gasoline cost, hyperconsumption & slaughter

by Jan Lundberg on 28 May 2007 in Culture Change Letter #160

For someone who professionally analyzed gasoline prices and the petroleum industry from 1972-1987, maybe it's a bit surprising I’ve not had much to say about May's record gasoline prices. For many years I've not been one to often make a prediction on the price of gasoline or oil. This is because I’m much more interested in bigger issues that cover more than prices and particular fuels.

With that sense of priorities, I'm much less desirable as a most-quoted U.S. energy analyst, as I once was. Up until two decades ago I spouted many a market pronouncement taken seriously by those interested in short-term economics, whether for a household or to serve corporate power. When I gave it all up to fight pollution and perhaps help improve the way people live in this country, I was freed from the data-gathering and analysis of price changes that increasingly struck me as trivial. This was partly because I became a non-driver.

Mainstream news media are nowadays a little more prepared to hear oil analysis that's more ecological, and price changes can occasionally be discussed in dollars-per-gallon changes than cents-per-gallon. So it's time for a look at gasoline prices with a whole-system approach.

I do agree that oil-industry factors in price run-ups have recently included strained refining capacity and high demand. I don’t believe the price of oil and gasoline are really driven by a control-Iraq conspiracy aimed at the world oil market, although the Middle East is a playground for such appetites. Nor do I subscribe to the perennial notion that oil companies are "keeping full tankers off shore" to deprive consumers of the cheaper gasoline that many believe they have a right to burn to no end.

But the most basic reasons for high gasoline and crude oil prices are seldom-heard because they are about bigger trends: (1) geologically rather than geographically determined supply, and (2) infrastructure-investment in a system that has no future. First, Peak Oil implies a survey of the landscape for extraction trends, interpreting sketchy reserves data, and, usually neglected, an understanding of market-driven supply dynamics -- all allowing us to acknowledge that cheap oil is gone forever and a new world is opening up. In the context of history's fossil-fueled fling, global Peak Oil is here now.

We have strung ourselves out so far with the car-oriented economy that it wrecks local economies, and it suppresses national reorientation toward more efficient, less deadly transport and land use. Subsidies -- hidden and direct -- to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year nearly the size of the Pentagon budget, keep us on oil and gasoline and in cars, even as fuels and vehicles rise in price.

Meanwhile, workers must work harder and harder to afford energy and to travel the daily distance to and from work and for needed services. The price at the gasoline pump may really be $15 per gallon because of subsidies, according to the International Center for Technology Assessment's study ten years ago. That figure does not include environmental or health costs.

The USA clings to an illusion of post-World War II cheap oil and the one-worker per suburban household "American dream," when oil came out of the ground at up to 100 barrels extracted per one barrel expended to drill. The toxic petrochemical nightmare inherent in consumerism was barely known then. Recent efforts, e.g., oil wars, election fraud, propaganda, cannot reverse geologic trends and "mistakes" such as the General Motors/oil industry criminal destruction of several dozen urban rail trolley systems.

I was interviewed on Chicago-area radio on May 12, and when pressed, I made a prediction of gasoline reaching at least $4 per gallon this summer. Most interesting about the show (WKRS 1220AM, Waukegan, Illinois) was that almost all discussion during the nearly two-hours, including callers' questions, centered around cars somehow getting all the desired alternative fuels (or not getting them, as I repeatedly explained). Some of the same callers were dubious of global warming and Peak Oil. The experience made me wonder if I’d been wrong to disagree with those who’ve said the West Coast is a different culture. It’s "all about consciousness," and it's on the rise in many quarters, more so on the West Coast.

A question I’m asked frequently, but seldom by mainstream reporters, is "When will petrocollapse hit?" It can happen anytime now or within a few years. This analysis is based in part on seeing the nine percent shortfall for U.S. gasoline deliveries in 1979 that triggered our Second Oil Shock, that my then-family business forecast. Picture another such shortfall today, but on the grander scale with the same percentage, due to three decades of unwise growth of the extractive economy and of the population of humans and cars. Perhaps this summer there will be one or more global-warming-charged hurricanes hitting petroleum facilities.

This could mean too tight a market for EU countries to fill in the supply gap, as happened in 2005 after the U.S. Gulf Coast hurricanes. Throw in a major interruption of oil flow from an oil exporter, and we have a situation that gets quickly and terminally out of control for millions of drivers and other users of oil. How can one predict prices when in Nigeria the "main insurgent group, the MEND, who recently announced they were through with kidnappings of foreigners and were about to embark on a program to destroy more of the country’s oil infrastructure"? [Peak Oil Review, May 28, 2007]

Another possibility is that an energy crisis will be masked by a global financial development, or war involving China perhaps, that spells massive disruption and oil supply breakdown.
When people cannot get to their jobs or get the foods and services they require daily, any significant breakdown can escalate into violent chaos with no floor, toward complete socioeconomic collapse and failure of government. Big government will not be able (or interested in?) helping you, especially in cities as large as and larger than New Orleans. I believe the national and state governments will retrench under stress and choose to favor saving and supplying the rural areas; they are productive, whereas consuming-centers of huge cities may be written off and become die-off zones.

Climate-change induced drought can also have a major effect and boost fuel demand at a sensitive time. If natural gas were absolutely unlimited and plentiful, there would be a much less harsh energy scenario to offer. But gas has already peaked in extraction in North America. So called solutions such as liquified natural gas, and other technological fixes, are not ready on a massive scale and will not be ready to stave off petrocollapse.

When SUV sales have not been as hurt as much as the car-industry average in recent months, it’s a heavy reality-check on our collective awareness that suggests "people are hopelessly unconscious." And when car travel is not being forgone for summer vacation-planning, despite nearly $4 a gallon gasoline, we are in La-la Land -- one of the more fitting nicknames for L.A., the biggest gasoline market and the originator of freeways and self-service gasoline.

Death from war versus car
There’s a major, awful story in "Americans have opened nearly 1,000 new graves to bury U.S. troops killed in Iraq since Memorial Day a year ago. The figure is telling -- and expected to rise in coming months." [Associated Press, May 26, 2007.] Why so many people who are affected by this thoroughly discredited war are putting up with it is an interesting question. To get to the heart of it, we must look at culture and conditioning:

Record gasoline usage, which as we may discover is occurring (when the figures are in), means more deaths on the road and in the cancer wards. This is a holocaust surpassing 100,000 U.S. residents each year. It could be drastically reduced if our society really valued life over greed. Looking at the actual number of deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq (aside from the far greater Iraqi civilian casualties), the 3,440-plus figure is but a fraction of ongoing car slaughter and lethal exhaust-caused diseases in this country. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. drivers also die from unhealthy hearts caused by the sedentary lifestyle.

We have to keep hammering that we are experiencing -- hello! -- 7,500 car-related and unnecessary deaths every month in the U.S. The Dept. of Transportation changed terminology from "accidents" to "crashes" in the mid 1990s, perhaps because they know that in general predictable numbers of crack-ups are not truly accidental. Drunk driving explains 40% of the fatalities from crashes, and faulty cars and roads account for more, so all in all it’s not accidental; it can be numerically anticipated. This slaughter (of also a million animals daily on U.S. roads) is allowed especially when more roads are built or widened, and even maintained.

The top speed limits are so far above safety levels and optimum efficiency -- which would be approximately 45 miles per hour -- that society is apparently not "ready" for conservation of fuel or of lives. But the government would not go so far as to say it is "policy" that 100,000 U.S. residents die annually from crashes and exhaust-fume related diseases. The Iraq war has cost almost as many Iraqi civilian lives as the U.S. has lost domestically during the same period from car and oil dependence. So, it may be that U.S. citizens’ tolerance for the war -- not stopping it somehow -- may be related to being inured to death by violence and government "policy" decade after decade. It certainly is industry policy.

I was at a policy meeting of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation in or around 1990 for a small public meeting on car and traffic issues. What struck me there was that lobbyists from industry got away with saying for the feds, "So, the car and its traffic and infrastructure work well most of the time, except two times a day (rush hours)." That’s the way they want to frame any debate: cars are fine, although they can stand a little tinkering. During that same meeting, when I said I worked toward a national paving moratorium, one jaded old car-industry lobbyist grinned at me like he relished the extremely unlikely consideration due my concept.

One reason that gasoline price musings leave me cold is that it's horrifying to think that the car madness carries on year after year. For many of us it has been forty years of observing the highly questionable, unbridled consumption of toxic fuels and non-renewable resources. This year's motor gasoline consumption in the U.S. can easily be over 140 billion gallons and become a new record. I was astonished at the mere 90 + billion gallons I tracked for 1971, brand by brand, state by state, month by month. If such quantities of gasoline burned and spilled appeared crazy to some of us way back then, it’s even more absurd today due to the cumulative effects of pollution. Society as nutty and ecocidal is the real issue, not the amount of price movement of gasoline and crude oil -- even though plenty of consumers want to know about prices of "essential" commodities. They are also "naturally" interested in interest rates, school tuitions, and the possibility of more jobs available that help trash the planet and harm public health. The dominant pattern is actually unnatural when system breakdown and climate chaos are guaranteed.

With the car so troublesome and a waste of money -- one can be liberated enough to live without a car -- it is tragic that so much effort goes into fiddling with the technology to clean up only the propulsion. We are hearing more and more about hybrid cars not being the energy savers, overall, compared to gas-guzzling cars, when all the energy involved at every step is taken into account (first reported in Culture Change a year ago). If only dealing with the exhaust were enough to clean up the car and its total effect on the environment, on economics, on health, and military urges. So we must put flies in the ointment (petrochemical, no doubt), showing biofuels and hydrogen to be unlikely on a major scale, as because these systems would not be sensible or sustainable. Additionally, as this column repeats, the average speed of the U.S. motorist is only about 5 miles per hour, as Ivan Illich found, when all the hours going into supporting the car are taken into account. But society continues to tolerate and reward charlatans catering to the driving habit and the economic forces that also reach into the funded environmental movement.

Piston heads, thinkers and lemmings
Could it be a sign that the times are a’ changin’? The former automobile industry honcho who was Bush II’s chief of staff was loudly booed at the University of Massachusetts on Friday. Former White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card was verbally confronted by hundreds of students and faculty members as he rose to accept an honorary degree. The boos and catcalls -- including those from faculty members who stood on stage with Card -- drowned out Provost Charlena Seymour's remarks as she awarded the honorary doctorate in public service. Card was, until 2000, president and CEO of American Automobile Manufacturers Association.

It was most likely the war that soured people on Card and his former boss in the White House, and not the fact that cars by the millions kept being forced on us by corrupt corporate influence of government. Meanwhile, trains and better land-use are not forced on us. The lowly bus is superior to the car safety-wise, by a factor of ten. If sane transport and land use had been policy since the mid-century years when freeways and cars took over, gasoline might be a luxury item today and not a staple for hapless commuters -- they barely have a chance to get jobs in walking- or biking-distance to home. Or have a chance to get housing near work.

"If America had a bigger passenger train system, of course, more travelers would have an alternative to high gasoline prices that heavily benefit overseas oil companies, which are increasingly government-controlled, and a way to travel that leaves a smaller carbon footprint." - Ross Capon, Executive Director, National Association of Railway Passengers

We hear the "blameless" oil Industry claiming the biofuel push may hurt at the pump. The New York Times reported recently that as

"Gas prices are spiking again -- to an average of $3.22 a gallon, and close to $4 a gallon in many areas… some oil executives are now warning that the current shortages of fuel could become a long-term problem, leading to stubbornly higher prices at the pump. They point to a surprising culprit: uncertainty created by the government's push to increase the supply of biofuels like ethanol in coming years."

"$7-Gallon Gasoline" is a concept that Dave Pollard explores as part of his ongoing, online How to Save the World (May 23, 2007):

"...The bottom line is that, while $3.50/gallon gasoline was a cakewalk (just a catch-up after decades of after-inflation price decreases), $7-gallon gasoline will be nightmarish. Not because we can't afford to pay $140 to fill our gas tank, but because we can't afford to pay twice as much for the oil we eat, the oil we wear, the oil that drives our entire economy. And our economy is stretched so tight, and is so over-extended and over-leveraged, we have no room to maneuver.

This is the incredible bind we've gotten ourselves into: Coping with global warming and the End of Oil (before the nightmare outlined in The Long Emergency befalls us) demands a large increase is the price of energy to dampen our appetite for it. But that large increase could easily plunge the world into another Great Depression.

...So the real problem is not that gasoline prices are too high, or that they are too low, it's that we think the price of gasoline is the real problem, and that changing that price will solve it."

In a petty analysis that would have been mortifying to me if I were still running Lundberg Survey, the U.S. Energy Information Administration

"took issue yesterday with a private survey that concluded Americans are paying more per gallon than at any time in history when inflation is factored in, [saying] the average price of a gallon of unleaded regular stands at $3.22. The agency pegs the inflation-adjusted record high at $3.29, set in March 1981...

The Lundberg Survey, which is conducted every two weeks, said the inflation-adjusted price of a gallon of regular unleaded was $3.18. According to Lundberg, that price beats the 1981 record of $1.35 - or $3.15 in today's dollars." [The Journal News, and Lower Hudson Online, May 24, 2007]

Future generations or future intelligent species will deem humans and their industrial society to have become "too intelligent" for their own good. Much will be judged by the immense amount of useless crap left behind, if we can put climate distortion aside for a moment. However, it’s worth remembering that humans managed cleanly and at a reasonable population size for untold millennia before the recent frenzy of consumption and fouling of our nest -- Earth.

The motorized lemmings are still at it, the USA Today made clear with its top story on May 26:

"Soaring gas prices did not appear to be deterring Americans from hitting the road and airports this Memorial Day weekend for what many expect will be record holiday travel... One in eight Americans will travel more than 50 miles from home this weekend, the Travel Industry Association and AAA said. That represents 38 million travelers, 2% more than last year's record. More than 32 million of them will travel by car, truck or RV, the groups say."



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