A Theory Of Market Power  

Posted by Big Gav

Jeff Vail has an interesting look at why free markets are failing to produce truly sustainable energy solutions.

Let’s start off with an assumption: humanity must rapidly replace our reliance on non-renewable energy sources with truly sustainable alternatives. The conventional wisdom—at least that advanced by corporate “Main-Stream Media”—is that free markets are the best source of innovation. Now a question: is free-market innovation the best way to develop viable, sustainable energy alternatives?

The free market will ignore solutions that can’t turn a profit. Any firm that fails to follow this simple maxim won’t be in business for long. The corollary to this maxim is that the free market will ignore any solution that cannot be controlled, either through property interests (enforceable intellectual property, monopoly licenses, etc.) or because economies of scale demand centralized operation. This means that free market innovation is structurally incompatible with a huge portion of the universe of possible energy solutions.

Free markets love non-renewable energy sources because they are readily controlled. In countries where mineral rights are privately owned (only the US and Canada), these resources can be controlled via property rights. In the rest of the world, they can be controlled equally easily through exclusive contracts with governments. But renewable energy presents a serious control challenge to the free market’s need to profit.

When confronted with this challenge, the free market attempts to adapt its usual tool, property, to the problem. Take ethanol and other biofuels, for example. This attempted solution to our energy problems can be controlled both through real property (ownership of the farm land that produces the raw materials) and through intellectual property (proprietary distilling processes, patented microbes that convert things to sugars, etc.). Never mind that biofuels provide a suspiciously poor energy return on investment and often require government subsidies, slave labor, or fossil fuel inputs, or that they don’t address more fundamental problems like the world’s ongoing growth in energy demand, topsoil depletion, or competition between food and energy. They can make money. Is this the best that free-market innovation can provide?

What about solar? The free market is investing huge resources into innovation in this field. Virtually all of it, however, is being invested in proprietary technology for photovoltaics. In other words, property, which can be controlled to produce a profit. Never mind that, while photovoltaics are a great way to produce electricity, they are a very poor way to produce energy (see my discussion on this point). Why does the free market almost entirely ignore the potentially rich conceptual space of passive solar design? Precisely because the obvious value in this area—that of refining and implementing vernacular technologies—cannot be effectively controlled through existing intellectual property mechanisms. If it can’t be controlled to produce a profit, then free market innovation is blind to its potential. Never mind that, in my opinion, passive solar design is the single most promising way to meet our future energy needs?

What about conservation? No very sexy, I know, but certainly an effective way to reduce our energy demand. The problem, again, is that the free market has a difficult time profiting off of it. Sure, the free market can innovate something to sell you that will help you conserve, but the actual act of conservation kills profits. I’m not talking about increased efficiency of our energy use (which, as classical economics tells us, lowers cost and frees up the consumer to expend the money saved in consumption elsewhere, thereby increasing the total standard of living—at least when measured as a function of consumption). No, I’m talking about actual conservation—just plain using less. This is anathema to free market economics. The idea that we could use less energy in total, and then invest the savings in non-economic goods such as leisure time or security-through-self-sufficiency, is highly problematic because it causes a cumulative decrease in GDP (leisure time doesn’t count as a “product”!). Imagine: “Here’s my business plan… I’m not going to sell anything, and when all is said and done, people will us less. We’ll get rich!” Sure, the free-market can provide the service of helping people conserve, but that’s a bit like a virus that kills its host before it can reproduce…

So, if free market innovation fails in the entire sphere of vernacular-design-based solution, and can’t even contemplate conservation-based solutions, then is it really the pinnacle of sustainable energy innovation? There is only one guaranteed result of relying on the free market to solve our energy problems in a world where production from fossil supplies is peaking: its solutions will never free us from energy dependency or energy scarcity. The free market will never produce a solution to this problem where consumers aren’t dependent on firms for the product they purchase, because to do so would fail to produce a profit. Similarly, the free market will never have the economic motivation to make energy cheaper (over the long-term)—it would be, by definition, irrational economic behavior to produce energy so cheaply that the total value of the world market for energy goes down.

If that’s what you’re looking for—depending on someone else for energy that is always getting more expensive—then the free market is your innovation engine of choice. If, however, you’d prefer secure and inexpensive energy, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. Conservation and vernacular-design-based solutions are a good place to start… just don't expect to find much support for this argument, or ideas for conservation or vernacular-design-based solutions, in Main-Stream Media outlets. They have a profit motive, too, and if they can't sell your viewership to others who want to sell you a profit-oriented product, then the story is of no value.

I'm not sure I agree with the conclusions - I tend to see the energy industry as a controlled market rather than a free one, with endless political interference and anti-competitive activity keeping the fossil fuel gorillas on our backs. It is possible I could be accused of living in an abstract world where energy utopia is possible, while Jeff is describing grim political reality, of course. I'd also view the income freed up by people spending less on energy as money that could be spent on other products or services - not necessarily more leisure time - and thus not a drag on the economy in any perceivable way.

The "free energy" world is rife with stories of suppressed energy technologies and the like. When I first came across these I thought this area of study was strictly for crackpots, but the ultracapacitor conspiracy seemed to provide one fairly tangible potential example, and there is an endless list of similar stories out there if you brave some of the stranger corners of the internet.

"Reform Judaism" magazine has an interview called "Oil Junkies" with Edwin Black about his book "Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives", which considers "How corruption and greed led America from "green" electric trolleys to polluting, petroleum-powered automobiles--and what we can do now". Black is a rather fervent advocate of the hydrogen economy, something I've been highly dubious about - though yesterday's tale from Wired about a guy building his own home grown hydrogen system coupled with a fuel cell to power his home makes me wonder if I've been too skeptical. Either way his arguments apply just as well to clean energy / electric vehicles as they do to hydrogen.
According to your book, there was a time in America when we as a nation were not dependent on oil to power our cars.

Yes. In the 1890s, most of the original automobiles were smooth-running, quiet, environmentally friendly electric vehicles powered by lead batteries. Thousands of such vehicles traversed our city streets and even the back roads of rural America. How we regressed from electric to oil is a complex story rooted in corruption and control. Here's the short version: During the first years of the 20th century, the electric vehicle people were "the bad guys" in America. The key players were the Pope Manufacturing Company in Hartford--which had secured a monopoly on the bicycle industry; the Electric Vehicle Company in New York and Philadelphia, which controlled a monopoly on batteries; and a small group of powerful carmakers such as Olds and Packard. Together, they created an automobile cartel that tried to dictate who could and could not buy and sell a car in America--and what kind of car. These monopolists acquired a primitive automobile patent called the "Selden Patent," designed from the outset to be used as a patent litigation weapon. Armed with this patent, the cartel threatened to file an expensive patent infringement case and injunction against every American who purchased an inexpensive internal combustion car that the "Selden Trust" did not authorize. At the same time, the cartel allowed its own technologically superior electric vehicles to falter in the marketplace in favor of high-priced, extremely profitable gasoline-burning cars designed for the moneyed elite. Remember, this was before mass production; each car was hand-built. Oil, especially oil from the Mideast, was very cheap, much cheaper than a lead battery. What's more, supply and demand of oil could be manipulated, yielding billion-dollar profits.

Soon, production of electric vehicles became limited to a few dozen small, independent car companies that could barely keep the flame of clean auto-making alive.

Didn't Henry Ford play a major role in popularizing internal combustion automobiles?

Yes, but that's only the end of the story. The beginning is fascinating. In 1903, Ford introduced a cheap, mass-produced internal combustion machine for the average man that revolutionized the car industry. The Model T became the "everyman" car. This was also a time when electric vehicles and battery makers--even decent independent ones--were perceived by the masses as scoundrels, crooks, and liars. For decades, imperfect, broken electric-battery technology had been used by devious financiers to launch stock swindles and monopolistic trusts based on exaggerated technology and capability. Thus, for many Americans, purchasing a Model T petroleum car over an electric car became an act of popular defiance against the rich, powerful, and corrupt transportation tycoons who were attempting to control the people's freedom of choice and movement.

In 1914, however, Ford saw the light, so to speak, and joined his lifelong idol Thomas Edison in a project to replace gas-driven internal combustion machines with cheap electric cars powered by revolutionary lightweight nickel batteries that could power a car or truck about 75 miles on a single charge and last for 40,000 miles--which could be the life of the vehicle in those days. Ford and Edison envisioned that all home and automotive energy would eventually be generated by wind-powered backyard and basement generators. Together, the two men invested years and millions of dollars to perfect a new generation of battery-run vehicles and to create a national infrastructure of charging stations and even curbside charging hydrants--remember, this was before gas stations were even invented. Their creative research and planning coalesced in 1914, when they were ready to launch mass production. America once again stood at the crossroads. Would we drive vehicles powered by electricity or oil?

Obviously oil triumphed. What happened?

The Ford-Edison electric vehicle was mysteriously subverted by an inexplicable and suspect series of events. Edison's batteries worked perfectly in Orange, New Jersey when Edison shipped them--yet when they were tested at Ford's facilities in Detroit, they inexplicably failed to work. Before Edison could recover, his laboratory and facilities were struck by a mysterious flash fire that burned everything. Ford eventually abandoned the project. The story is heart-breaking. I call 1914 the beginning of the end of clean electric in this country.

Yet at the time, much of America's mass transit ran on electricity. What happened to those systems?

In the 1930s and '40s, General Motors, the Firestone Tire Company, Mack Truck, Phillips Petroleum, and Standard Oil of California--all operating through a front company called National City Lines (NCL)--bought up dozens of local mass-transit systems that were operating the popular electric streetcars. Their plan was to control virtually all the leading mass-transit systems in America, and replace electric trolleys with smoky, gas-guzzling buses. In many cases, these trolley transit companies had previously been financially looted by their financier owners and fallen into disrepair, which only made them easier targets for acquisition. Once NCL purchased the trolley lines with "borrowed" money from GM and others, the tracks were torn up and the trolleys sold or destroyed, replaced by petroleum-powered GM buses running on tires and oil supplied by the NCL companies.

NCL started with small cities in Illinois and Texas. Within several years, the company managed to devastate or destroy the trolley systems in some 40 cities, including Baltimore, Tampa, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Salt Lake City. Then, in the years that followed, the badly managed NCL bus companies disappeared as well, leaving no mass transit and, in many cases, no alternative means of transportation other than individual automobiles.

How could such a scam go undetected for so long?

GM and its conspirators operated through National City Lines and numerous other Enronesque subsidiaries and affiliates, substantially under the radar. Yet once the NCL conspirators seized a transit system, so many citizens complained that ultimately the FBI launched a massive nationwide investigation to connect the dots. It began October 2, 1946 when the Department of Justice sent a memo to J. Edgar Hoover regarding "numerous complaints concerning the activities of National City Lines, Inc., and various associated companies in connection with the acquisition and operation of local transit systems acquired by those companies in various cities throughout the country. Through a series of contracts, manufacturers of buses, tires, and petroleum products have become important stockholders in the National City Lines. Investigation of the complaints disclosed the probable existence of a systematic campaign by National City Lines, acting with its manufacturing stockholders, to secure control over local transportation systems in various cities." The Justice Department memo continued: "It appears that National City Lines and its manufacturing associates have entered into a plan to secure control over local transportation systems in important cities of the United States.... One result of the plan for integrated control over local transportation has been the elimination of electric railway cars in city transportation controlled by these companies."

Then what happened?

FBI agents in blue suits fanned out across America interviewing executives, transit experts, community leaders, and local officials. Subpoenas for masses of documents were served. On April 9, 1947, NCL, GM, Mack Truck, Firestone, Phillips Petroleum, Standard Oil of California, and a group of their key executives were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to monopolize. Count 1 alleged a conspiracy to control mass transit through systematic acquisition and in so doing exclude all competition for motor buses, including electric trolleys. Count 2 alleged a "conspiracy to monopolize" the bus business by creating a network of transit companies that were forbidden to "use products other than the products sold by supplier defendants." This was a first-of-its-kind prosecution--the first antitrust action against companies that were using exclusivity contracts and "required purchase" contracts in another industry, effectively creating a monopoly. All of the defendants were found not guilty on the first count, and guilty on the second. On April 1, 1949 the judge handed down his sentence: a mere $5,000 fine to each corporate defendant, except Standard Oil, which was fined $1,000. As for the individual co-conspirators, they too were fined. Each was ordered to pay "one dollar." The conviction withstood appeals all the way to the Supreme Court.

By the time of the guilty verdict, GM, Firestone Tires, Mack Truck, Phillips Petroleum, and Standard Oil had succeeded in irrevocably changing mass transit in America--42 cities in 16 states were converted from trolley to motor bus--a trend that ultimately converted our country from clean, electric transportation systems to polluting petroleum-powered buses. America has never recovered. ...

Is America in danger of running out of oil before we find an affordable replacement?

Oil reserves are expected to last from 15 to 30 years, but much depends on the voracious usage in China, India, and other emerging economies. However, oil reserves are hardly as important as oil refinery capacity. If hurricanes or terrorism damage our refining capacity, we can swim in a sea of oil that won't drive an automobile. Moreover, if the price of the remaining oil is vastly escalated, it will simply become a punitive expense, out of reach or economically crippling. As non-Gulf sources deplete, the day is coming when most of the world's remaining oil comes from the Persian Gulf. Petropolitics is the most dangerous aspect of all future oil. That is why America must break its addiction to oil now.

So what's the answer?

The answer is hydrogen--everywhere abundant, and it can be produced in our back yards in small, inexpensive boxes.

How soon can we harness hydrogen?

Within three to four years, Honda and BMW are both planning to roll out production models of hydrogen-fueled vehicles. Honda's FX hydrogen vehicle comes with a home refueling dispenser that creates the hydrogen and also powers the entire house. Say goodbye to gas stations and electric company bills. Understand, these vehicles exist today. I have driven them and they are slick. While Honda uses a hydrogen fuel cell, which creates electric energy from hydrogen gas without internal combustion, BMW utilizes liquid hydrogen to drive its fuel cell; its vehicles can be refueled from public hydrogen pumps. Both GM and Ford have developed experimental hydrogen cars, but they are jolting, sluggish. I have driven them as well and consider them technologic tokenism.

How much will hydrogen vehicles cost?

Senior sources at Honda have told me that the cost will be "affordable" for the average person.

What does the future hold?

Within a few years, hydrogen will be able to power our homes and factories, and fuel our vehicles. Our government has adopted a so-called "Hydrogen Road Map" to a full hydrogen economy. The technology is available today. But the government and commercial interests are arranging for this hydrogen to come online in about a decade--thereby allowing the oil companies to squeeze every last drop out of their Mideast oil supplies, regardless of the political or economic price, wealth transfer, or terrorist potential.

Can GM and Ford compete?

GM is staving off bankruptcy now; Ford is not far from that. Both companies are hoping that corn ethanol can save their gas guzzlers. It won't. It can't. But remember, this is a problem that GM and other big U.S. automakers consciously created when, after the 1973 oil shock, they aggressively marketed massive, fuel-inefficient vehicles, from Ford's Navigator to GM's Hummers and Cadillac Esplanades.

Will Israel be safer if the world is no longer so dependent on Arab oil?

Not just Israel, but the world as a whole will be a safer place. The sooner we stop the transfer of Western wealth to Arab and Islamic states that fund terrorism, the better for everyone. As for Israel, the sooner we can neutralize the power of the oil weapon, the less likely we are to see European and American acquiescence to Arab demands at Israel's expense. We witnessed this in 1973 when President Nixon initially held back weapons during the Yom Kippur War.

Black also has a book called "Banking on Baghdad".
In Banking on Baghdad, New York Times and international bestselling author Edwin Black chronicles the dramatic and tragic history of a land long the center of world commerce and conflict. Tracing the involvement of Western governments and militaries, as well as oil, banking, and other corporate interests, Black pinpoints why today, just as throughout modern history, the world needs Iraq's resources-and remains determined to acquire and protect them. Banking on Baghdad almost painfully documents the many ways Iraq's recent history mirrors its tumultuous past.

Banking on Baghdad is the first history of Iraq presented in a global context. Woven through the boardrooms and war rooms of London, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, Washington, and the other centers that set the agenda for its tragic history, Black has pieced together the corporate hegemony, oil politics, religious extremism, Nazi alliances, and intersecting global upheaval--all with a compelling, contemporary perspective.

Now, with foreign troops once more occupying the "cradle of civilization," Banking on Baghdad gives us the opportunity to consider the present and future of Iraq through the lens of its complicated and turbulent history. While demonstrating that Iraq's tribal, religious, and political turmoil has combined to punish the nation, Black does not shy away from the uncomfortable truth that foreign governments--including our own--have played a defining role in creating the Iraq we know today. With his trademark mix of deeply mined history and investigative journalism, Black documents a long record of war profiteering in Iraq and takes a hard look at the corporations currently doing business there. With access to numerous oil company archives, the papers of a half dozen governments, and numerous other primary sources yielding some 50,000 documents gathered by an international team of some 30 researchers, Banking on Baghdad promises to tell a monumental story 7,000 years in the making. Banking on Baghdad has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Vivid characters bring Banking on Baghdad to life. The followers of Islam consumed Iraq as the epicenter of a struggle between the minority Shiites and the Sunnis. The Mongol chieftain Hulagu utterly destroyed Iraq, but its remnant later came back to life. Winston Churchill solidly set the course of British petropolitics and military oil dependence on a collision course with Iraq and Iran, as the government-controlled company that became British Petroleum literally invented the geopolitical Middle East. During World War I, the British invaded Iraq for the oil they knew one day would be indispensable to all industry and militaries. C. S. Gulbenkian, the legendary Mr. Five Percent, through intrigue and high-drama created the Red Line Agreement monopoly, dividing Iraq's fabulous oil wealth between British, American, and French cartels. The Hashemites, from Sharif Hussein and King Faisal to his brutally-murdered progeny, fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia to achieve independence in Syria, but were given Iraq instead; in consequence the Arabs aborted a planned peaceful co-existence with Israel. The Mufti of Jerusalem, in his war against Zionism, using Iraq's oil and strategic location as bait, sealed an alliance with Hitler during World War II and lead a pro-Reich coup in Baghdad met by a British invasion to oust it. The post-World War II Ba'ath predecessors of Saddam Hussein ravaged Iraq's minorities and paved the way for the recently-deposed tyrant.

After Banking on Baghdad, no reader will ever see Iraq the same.

Tom Konrad has a post showing a visual comparison of electricity generation technologies.
I just put together a couple graphs for a talk I’m giving on Monday to give people a visual feel of the various technologies for generating electricity. These come with a gigantic caveat: the numbers are far from precise.

With changing technologies, it’s impossible to represent any of this with a single number anyway. I’m trying to show how the technologies compare to each other, and I used four parameters:

* Cost ($/MWh),
* Availability (better the closer the profile of the technology matches a normal demand curve (wind is bad, baseload is okay, dispatchable is best, solar),
* Emissions (and I count waste storage when it comes to nuclear),
* Bubble sizes represent the size and durability of the resource (I’ve tried to combine in one number how much power we can get from the resource, but also how long supplies of fuel will last.)

In both charts, the “best” technologies are in the upper left (low cost, low emissions, and available when we need them.)

Tom also has an excellent post on The Psychology of Energy Efficiency.
Efficiency is unquestionably the largest, cheapest, and cleanest wedge among the many we need decarbonize our energy economy. Energy efficiency tends to cost just 1 to 3 cents per kWh saved, far less than even coal-fired generation. Every renewable technology, from wind to solar, to biomass, has trade-offs. At the very least, we have to decide if the energy we are using for one purpose is not better used for something else.

Energy efficiency is the exception to this rule: you can not use a kilowatt-hour or a BTU over and over again. Given these advantages over generation, it’s amazing that energy efficiency is nevertheless so extremely cheap. Given an even moderately efficient [pun intended] market, you would expect that all the cheap energy efficiency measures would long ago have been taken until the marginal price of the next efficiency measure was above the marginal price of added electricity generation.

So why hasn’t it?

Why is TXU trying to build a half dozen coal fired power plants in the face of broad opposition from the community when, for a fraction of the cost, they could instead pay to help people insulate their homes, change to more efficient air conditioners, and replace energy efficient lighting and save as much power as they plan to generate with the coal plants without any cost for fuel and harm to the environment from mining and emissions?

For that matter, why don’t TXU’s customers (and the rest of us) take these steps ourselves, when the internal return on investment is many time what we can rationally hope to achieve in the financial markets, and in many cases is even higher than the interest borrowers with the worst credit ratings pay on their credit cards. (Like most financial advisors, I hate debt, especially credit card debt, but even if you’re drowning in $30,000 of credit card debt at 25% APR, it still makes sense for you to buy a pack of CFL’s at $3 each on that high-interest credit card, and replace every incandescent light bulb in your house that you use more than 2 hours a day.)

Here’s a blog which does a good job outlining the usual answers: lack of financing, perverse incentives, and disinterest on the part of people for whom energy is only a tiny part of the budget (all of which are true.) He goes on to outline perscriptions that will undoubtably help to break down the barriers to the adoption of many Energy Efficiency measures.

I see other barriers that lie behind these. Not just a failure of normal market forces, but conceptual problems. While energy in general is a fuzzy concept to most people, using less energy is even less tangible. You just can’t drop energy efficiency on your foot. You’re not even at risk of electricution from it.

The pernicious consequence of systems of measurement is always that things we can’t measure go unnoticed. If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, but even more insidiously, things that will never look like nails no matter how hard you squint dissappear from your vision altogether. It is this psychological quirk that makes energy efficiency go unnoticed.

What image comes to your mind when I say “wind power”? If you’re anything like me, you probably had a image of a forest of giant wind turbine blades turning gracefully on the horizon like ballet dancers. Or, you might be like my wife, who would also have an image of a wind farm, but thinks they are ugly (although not so ugly as the haze from a distant coal plant) despite recognizing their necessity. She wishes they were painted to camouflage them into the background. Whatever your attitude towards wind power, you probably saw an image.

Now try “energy efficiency.” It’s a lot trickier, isn’t it? I think about energy efficiency all the time, the way a teenage boy thinks about sex (okay, maybe not quite that much), and even I can’t settle on an image. My mind flashes from the act of replacing an incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) to an industrial scale combined heat and power facility, to closing the blinds at night to keep the heat in.

Not only is energy efficiency hard to picture, it’s also hard to measure. To compute the energy savings from any activity, you have to establish a baseline: how much energy would you have used if you had not changed your methods. Even in the simplest case of replacing a CFL, we don’t really know that the bulb we replace would really have stayed in the socket until the CFL breaks: A CFL can easily last 10 years, and by that time, we may be replacing all our bulbs with LEDs. And that does not even begin to account for the effects on our HVAC systems.

Is your mind spinning? That’s my point. It can be so hard to get our minds around all the impacts of energy efficiency that, for most people, the most people, it may actually be rational to waste a little energy in order to avoid the headache that trying to get their mind around efficiency may entail.

The problem is, that decades of conserving brain power has left us as a society that wastes energy egregiously.

My prescriptions, designed to make thinking about efficiency easier:

1. Measure energy use at every opportunity. Many Prius drivers report that the real-time MPG gauge on the dash causes them to change their driving habits to grive more efficiently. Getting a Kill-a-Watt energy meter makes us think more about our next electronics purchase. Getting to know your electric meter can also motivate you to track down wasted energy. A radical idea: on new homes, the electric meter should be inside, along with the circuit breakers. New meters can be read (and even turned on and off) remotely, so there is no reason any longer to have them on the side of the house where we never see them.
2. Another thing we need to measure is when we use our electricity, not just how much. Wholesale electricity prices can vary from a few cents per kWh to 30 cents or more during peak consumption. As we move to a grid based on renewable energy supplies, most of which are intermittent and non-dispatchable, we need to get used to paying the real-time price of the energy we’re using. Wide-spread adoption of time of use metering will drive the invention and adoption of appliances that can adapt themselves to changing prices. There are direct, immediate benefits to the system by shaving peak loads, but the real benefits will come when people adopt new ways of doing things and new devices that will cause our appliances to run and our devices to charge when electricity is plentiful, and runonly the most essential uses of electricity when it is scarce. Xcel is currently doing a pilot study on Time of Use Pricing in Colorado. The preliminary result are that the right pricing scheme encourages customers to change their energy use much more than they had anticipated… but it still would not be “economic” to change out meters for more sophitocated models capable of handling this sort of billing. Their definition of “economic” almost certainly does not include the benefits of the creativity which realistic pricing would unleash.
3. Allowing utilities to profit from selling less rather than more. This concept, known as decoupling, is covered well here. It’s important to remove (or even reverse) the incentive of utilites to sell us more electrons when we really want them to help us use less.

Finally, I do call this blog EE/RE Investing, so here are the sectors that I see benefiting from these recommendations as they are adopted:

1. Companies selling advanced metering devices, and control systems that adapt to changing electric rates.
2. Companies that sell building management systems.
3. Energy storage technologies, such as as advanced batteries, flow batteries, and compressed air energy storage.
4. Broadband over power lines technology, to handle the increased flow of information.

After Gutenberg has a mammoth post (only partly excerpted below) wondering if it is time for a carbon tax. Of course it is !
A carbon tax would seem to be the most controversial policy issue relative to Hansen’s recommendations and to be most resisted by special interests. On the other hand, we are risking dangerous consequences for our economy, natural heritage and every citizen by continuing to ignore the fact that our nation continues to emit more global warming pollution than any other country in the world. Furthermore, our nation, already a global pariah, faces the risk of increasingly more severe consequences fueled by the increasing number of reports citing the callousness of the United States toward greenhouse gas emssions.

WC commentator Dan agreed with idea of a predictable, steady carbon tax.
Because a carbon tax provides a certain price signal, preferably increasing at a steady rate, business and individual consumers will be able to make rational financial decisions to reduce their carbon emissions through increased efficiency or use of lower-carbon energy.

E-Blog commentator Engineer-Poet is unsure that a ban on coal plants is the most efficient way to go, yet notes that a stiff carbon tax would be a de facto ban on un-sequesterable coal-steam plants. With even a modest carbon tax of $25 a ton, notes E-Blog commentator Ronald Brak, renewable energy sources become must more competitive.

Rather than a ban, I suggest a ceiling on coal-fired generation combined with the carbon tax to encourage power generation companies to de-commission their worst polluting plants. I would disagree with the courageous climatologist as to an outright ban since it would seem impractical to halt the replacement of old plants with better plants, especially where coal is an important source of energy.

I also would quibble with two other points made within the recommendation: 1) the issue of carbon sequestration and 2) carbon trading

Whereas he seems to distrust the potential for clean coal power plants, Hansen would seem to be optimistic about the promise for carbon capture and sequestration technologies. Yet a primary reason for banning even cleaner, more efficient coal power plants is that generation of electricity from coal plants is, after the transportation sector, the greatest source of greenhouse gases and Old King Coal has a poor track record when it comes to protecting the environment. This is a trend that must be reduced significantly.

As to a cap-and-trade system, WC commentator Dan argued that it will lead to volatile prices as the cost of carbon allowances fluctuates with changes in demand for energy caused by unpredictable weather and economic growth. He saw a carbon tax as less detrimental to the U.S. economy. Also, as previously noted in this blog, there is well-founded concern that a carbon trading scheme would slow “social and technological change needed to cope with global warming by unnecessarily prolonging the world’s dependence on oil, coal and gas.”

Other commentary focused upon conservation. Yet what I understand Hansen to be advocating is what some other global analysts say, use “less fuel” rather than “less energy”. Rather than privation or discomfort, use smarter technology. Yet, in the United States, we are finding it difficult to proceed with even the easiest challenge.

The Energy Blog is somewhat less enthused about the recent TXU deal than Bruce was.
The New and Improved TXU
The Texas Observer, February 28, 2007

During a House committee hearing yesterday afternoon, legislators grilled parties to the TXU buyout for more details on the deal. ...

-The 10 percent rate reduction the new owners are promising to some TXU consumers is in fact mostly a repackaging of two pre-existing $25 “customer appreciation bonuses.” ...

-It appears that the promise to not build eight of TXU’s 11 proposed coal-fired power plants does not constitute a future ban on all coal plants. “We did not commit for any time period to a complete moratorium on coal plants,” said the private equity rep. ...

The Energy Blog is also hoping for The End of the Incandescent Light Bulb.
In yet another story on the wastes of the incandescent light bulb, The Christian Science Monitor reported:

Thanks to global warming, the ban-the-bulb movement is gaining strength. Australian officials and European lighting manufacturers have announced phase-outs of the energy-draining bulb. A California legislator has proposed a ban. Now, in a move that could speed the move away from the 128-year-old invention, some of the world's largest bulbmakers have joined environmental groups and the California Energy Commission in talks that could lead to a phase-out in the U.S. within a decade, sources say. ...

Some of the recent actions are:
* On Monday in Paris, the European Lamp Companies Federation, a trade group of lighting manufacturers in the European Union, unveiled a pact to phase out incandescent bulbs, without specifying a deadline.
* Last week, Australians officials announced a phase-out of incandescents bulbs by 2009.
* In California, state lawmaker Lloyd Levine in January introduced a bill that would ban the sale of incandescent bulbs statewide by 2012. ...

If all homes and businesses used bulbs that are 35 to 75 percent more efficient — such as CFLs and advanced halogen lamps — they would collectively save almost $10 billion a year in energy bills. The switch would also cut energy demand enough to eliminate the need to build dozens of coal-fired power plants, says the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. ...

But the venerable incandescent may have life in it yet. General Electric Co. said Friday that by 2010 it would make an incandescent bulb twice as efficient as today's – and by 2012 produce one that is four times more efficient, on par with CFLs.
"Banning any specific technology is absolutely unnecessary," says Kim Freeman, a spokeswoman for GE's Consumer & Industrial division in Louisville, Ky., which includes lighting. "GE supports national policy that will drive improved energy standards for all lighting products, regardless of the technologies."

It looks like this idea is gaining momentum, with the big three of the light bulb world, Phillips, Sylvania and GE, involved in the talks. We do not need to ban the bulb, just phase in efficiency standards. This is the easiest way for all of us to get involved with saving energy and reducing global warming--get with it!

I glad to see Monkeygrinder has survived a bout of Spanish flu (or suchlike) and has managed to gather together enough energy to rail against biofuels. I'm not quite as bearish about all biofuels as the northenr branch of Peak Energy, though I remain bemused by anyone who thinks that corn ethanol is anything other than a boondoggle.
Biofuels growth hit by soaring price of grain

High grain prices are threatening the nascent biofuels industry, raising input costs and making the fuel less economic compared with oil. Agricultural commodity prices have reached long-term highs in recent days, based on forecasts of hot and dry weather conditions this year in the US which could result in lower grain yields. This comes after oil prices have fallen by a quarter from their record peaks last year.
Corn prices reached another 10-year high for the second successive day when it touched $4.31 a bushel, up five cents on the day. But the doubling of corn, a main feedstock for US ethanol producers, over the past year at a time when oil prices are at the same level they were 12 months ago has raised questions over the viability of the biofuels industry without heavy government support.

Take warning, right?

"“If you’re on the right side of the issue, just keep driving until you hear breaking glass. Don’t quit.”" - T. Boone Pickens.

Bio-Fuels are viable when recycling previously processed fuel stock, like fryer grease or methane decomposing from garbage heaps.

Other than that, and in particular, when using corn as a feedstock, Bio-Fuels are completely bonkers and doomed to fail, like every other half-witted perpetual motion machine that has come down the pike.

And now, the evidence is coming in to support the arithmetic, on account of all the fools who ignored the arithmetic. The dead metaphor being, this stuff ain't rocket science. Go ahead. Pour what is left of the midwestern topsoil into a six cylinder energy sink. Jerk.

Also re-iterated here is the fact that money is irrelevant when energy runs to depletion. Energy defines money, not the other way around. The capacity existing to achieve industrial goals, like laundering useful energy into corn, and then back out again, is dependant not on government "subsidies" but rather government "energy".

For now, you can still buy gasoline for 3 dollars a gallon or less in the U.S., but watch the markets this week. The shift underway might well be seismic. China just threw down on our t-bills.

Past Peak is riffing on a variation of the theme that the movie "Goodfellas" was a metaphor for the mafia like nature of the US government.
The still-missing body armor. The billions in cash "missing" in Iraq. No-bid contracts for Halliburton and the rest. A complete failure to even attempt reconstruction in Iraq or the Gulf Coast. And now Walter Reed and the rest of the military medical system.

It's tempting to chalk it up to incompetence. They want us to. And Dubya is nothing if not a poster child for the incompetence defense. But incompetence is way too passive an explanation. They're ravenous, vicious vultures, picking the bones clean. Tax cuts for the rich, private contracts for their cronies, and the rest of us can go screw ourselves.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the scene in Goodfellas where the owner of the Bamboo Lounge takes mobster Paulie as a "partner." Ray Liotta's character says in voiceover:
Now the guy's got Paulie as a partner. Any problems, he goes to Paulie. Trouble with a bill, he can go to Paulie. Trouble with the cops, deliveries, Tommy, he can call Paulie. But now the guy's got to come up with Paulie's money every week. No matter what. Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? Fuck you, pay me. The place got hit by lightning, huh? Fuck you, pay me. Also, Paulie could do anything. Especially run up bills on the joint's credit. And why not? Nobody's gonna pay for it anyway. And as soon as the deliveries are made in the front door, you move the stuff out the back and sell it at a discount. You take a two hundred dollar case of booze and you sell it for a hundred. It doesn't matter. It's all profit. And then finally, when there's nothing left, when you can't borrow another buck from the bank or buy another case of booze, you bust the joint out. You light a match.

That's America today. They're busting the joint out. Trillions in debt? So what, they're not going to pay for it. Sociopaths and pirates, no scruples, no conscience. And that's their edge over the rest of us. We think they've got to be at least a little like us: wanting to do the right thing, caring about what other people think. So we struggle for an explanation. It's got to be incompetence. But it's not. It's criminality on a scale so vast that the rest of us can't even begin to get our heads around it.

As I've noted before, I'm not a fan of the far fringes of the eco-anarchist / anti-civilisation crowd, but I found this interview of John Zerzan by Derrick Jensen interesting, particularly because it enlightened me as to why Jensen hates civilisation so much.
Jensen: If things were so great before, then why did agriculture begin?

Zerzan: That's a difficult question, one that's long been a source of frustration for anthropologists and archeologists. For many hundreds of thousands of years - the whole Lower and Middle Paleolithic - there was little change. Then suddenly, in the Upper Paleolithic, there's this explosion, seemingly out of nowhere: all at once there is art, and, on the heels of that, agriculture, then religion.

Some have theorized that the sudden change was due to a growth in intelligence, but we now know that human intelligence a million years ago was equal to what it is today. A recent piece in Nature magazine, for example, suggests that humans have been sailing and navigating around Micronesia, a widespread group of tiny Pacific islands, for some eight hundred thousand years. So the reason civilization didn't arise earlier had nothing to do with intelligence. The intelligence theory has always been a comforting and racist rationalization, anyway: comforting because it implies that anyone intelligent enough will necessarily build a lifestyle like ours, and racist because it implies that those humans who live primitive lifestyles today are simply too stupid to do otherwise. If they were just smart enough, the reasoning goes, they would invent asphalt, chain saws, and penitentiaries.

We also know that the transitions to agriculture didn't come in response to population pressures. Population has always been another big puzzle: how did foragers keep their populations so low when they didn't have birth-control technologies? Historically, it's been assumed they used infanticide, but that theory has been called into question. I believe that, in addition to using various plants as contraceptives, they were also much more in tune with their bodies.

Jensen: So why was the human way of life stable for so long, and why did it change so quickly?

Zerzan: I think it was stable because it worked, and I don't think it changed entirely at once. For many millennia there was, perhaps, a slow slippage into division of labor. It would have to have happened so slowly - almost imperceptibly - that people didn't see what they were in danger of losing. The alienation brought about by division of labor - alienation from each other, from the natural world, from our bodies - eventually reached critical mass, giving sudden rise to what we call civilization. As to how civilization itself took hold, I think Sigmund Freud got it right when he said, "Civilization is something which was imposed on a resisting majority by a minority which understood how to obtain possession of the means of power and coercion." We see this happening today, and there's no reason to believe it was any different at the start.

Jensen: What's wrong with division of labor?

Zerzan: If your primary goal in life is mass production, then nothing at all. Division of labor is central to our way of life. Each person must perform as a tiny cog in a big machine. If, on the other hand, your primary goal is wholeness, egalitarianism, autonomy, and an intact world, then there's quite a lot wrong with it.

Division of labor is generally seen - when it is noticed at all - as a "given" of modern life. All that we see around us would be completely impossible without it. And that's the trouble: undoing the mess civilization has made will mean undoing division of labor.

I think that, at base, a person is not complete or free insofar as that person's life depends on his or her being just some aspect of a process, some fraction of it. A divided life mirrors the basic divisions in society. Hierarchy, alienation - it all starts there. I don't think anyone would deny that specialists and experts exert effective control in the contemporary world, or that this control is increas- ing with ever-greater acceleration.

Jensen: Such as in food production. Every year, fewer corporations control a greater percentage of our food resources. This is possible only because so many of us don't know how to raise our own food.

Zerzan: And it's not just food. Not too long ago, you could make your own radio set. People did it all the time. Ten years ago, you could still work on your own car, but even that's becoming increasingly difficult. So we become more and more hostage to people with specialized skills, and to people who control specialized technologies. When you have to rely too much on others, when you don't have the skills to do what's needed on a day-to-day basis, you are diminished.

Jensen: But isn't it necessary for us to rely on each other?

Zerzan: Of course. The goal of anarchism is not to turn people into islands with no connection to others - quite the opposite. But it's important to understand the difference between the healthy interdependence of a functioning community and the one-way dependence of relying on others with specialized skills for your most basic needs. In the latter case, the specialists have power over you. Whether they are "benevolent" is beside the point.
To stay in control, those who have specialized skills must guard and mystify those skills. The idea is that, without specialists, you'd be completely lost; you wouldn't know how to do the simplest thing, such as feed yourself. Well, humans have been feeding themselves for the past couple of million years, and doing it a lot more successfully and efficiently than we do now. The global food system is insane, inhumane, and inefficient. We destroy the world with pesticides, herbicides, and fossil-fuel emissions, and still billions of people go their entire lives never having enough to eat. Yet few things are simpler than growing or gathering your own food.

Jensen: I interviewed a member of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, the group that last year took over the Japanese ambassador's house in Peru. I asked him what his movement wanted. He replied, "We want to grow and distribute our own food. We already know how to do it; we merely need to be allowed to do so."

Zerzan: Exactly.

Jensen: In your writing, you've proposed a relationship between time and domination.

Zerzan: Time is an invention of culture. It has no existence outside of culture. The degree to which a culture is ruled by time is a pretty exact measure of its alienation. Look at us. Everything in our lives is measured by time. Time has never been as palpable, as material as it is now.

Jensen: The tick, tick, tick, of a clock is just about as tangible as you can get.

Zerzan: Yes, it makes time concrete; it reifies it. Reification is when an abstract concept is treated as a material thing. A second of time is nothing, and to grant it independent existence runs counter to our experience of life. Anthro- pologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl wrote: "Our idea of time seems to be a natural attribute of the human mind, but that is a delusion. Such an idea scarcely exists where primitive mentality is concerned."

"Primitive" people live in the present, as we all do when we're having fun. It has been said that the Mbuti of southern Africa believe that "by a correct fulfillment of the present, the past and the future will take care of themselves."
For the North American Pawnee, life has a rhythm but not a progression. Primitive peoples generally have no interest in birthdays or measuring their ages. As for the future, they have little desire to control what does not yet exist, just as they have little desire to control nature. They keep track of the seasons, but this in no way robs them of the present. This point of view is hard for us to grasp, because the notion of time has been so deeply imbedded that it's nearly impossible to imagine it not existing.

Jensen: So you're talking about more than just not counting seconds.

Zerzan: I'm talking about time not existing. Time as a continuing thread that unravels in an endless progression, linking all events together while remaining independent of them - that doesn't exist. Sequence exists. Rhythm exists. But not time. This reification of time is related to the notion of mass production and division of labor. Tick, tick, tick, as you said: Identical seconds. Identical people. Identical chores repeated endlessly. But when you realize that no two occurrences are identical, and that each moment is different from the moment before, time simply disappears. If events are always novel, then not only is routine impossible, but the notion of time is meaningless.

Jensen: And the opposite would be true as well.

Zerzan: Exactly. Without the imposition of time, we can't impose routine. Freud repeatedly pointed out that in order for civilization to take hold, it first had to break the early hold of timeless and nonproductive gratification.
This happened, I believe, in two stages. First, the rise of agriculture magnified the importance of time specifically, cyclical time, with its periods of intense labor associated with sowing or reaping, and with the surplus of the harvest allocated to the priests who kept the calendars. This was true of the Babylonians and Mayans. Then, with the rise of civilization, cyclical time which at least gave a nod toward the natural world, with it's connection to the rhythms of the seasons gave way to linear time. Once you have linear time, you have history, then Progress, then idolatry of the future. Now we're prepared to sacrifice species, cultures, and quite possibly the entire natural world on the alter of some imagined future. Once, it was at least a utopian future, but as a society we don't even have that to believe in anymore.

The same transformation occurs in our personal lives; we give up living in the moment in the hope of being happy at some point in the future -- perhaps after we retire, or maybe even after we die and go to heaven. The emphasis on heaven itself emerges from the unpleasantness of living in linear time.

Jensen: It seems to me that linear time not only leads to habitat degrad- ation, but also springs from it. When I was young, there were many frogs. Now there are fewer. There were many songbirds. Now there are fewer. That's linear time.

Zerzan: Yes, and with the introduction of the lock, linear time was transformed into mechanical time. The Christian Church was central to this endeavor. The Benedictines, who ruled forty thousand monasteries at the height in the Middle Ages, helped yoke human endeavor to the unnatural collective rhythm of the machine by forcing people to work "on the clock."
The fourteenth century saw the first public clocks, as well as the division of hours into minutes and minutes into seconds.
At every step of the way, however, time has been met with resistance. In France's July Revolution of 1830, for example, people all across Paris began spontaneously to shoot at public clocks. In the 1960's, many people (including me) quit wearing watches. Even today, children must be broken of their resistance to time. This was one of the primary reasons for the imposition of a mandatory school system on a largely unwilling public: school teaches you to be at a certain place at a certain time, and thus prepares you for life on the job. Raoul Vaneigem, member of the radical group Situationist International, has a wonderful quote about this: "The child's days escape adult time; their time is swollen by subjectivity, passion, dreams haunted by reality. Outside, the educators look on, waiting, watch in hand, till the child joins and fits the cycle of the hours."
Jensen: You've also said that numbers themselves alienate us.

Zerzan: When members of a large family sit down to dinner, they know immediately, without counting, whether someone is missing. Counting becomes necessary only when things become homogenized. Not all peoples use number systems. The Yanomamo, for example, do not count past two. Obviously, they are not too stupid to count further; they simply have a different relationship with the world.

The first number system was almost undoubtedly developed to count domesticated animals, as wild creatures were enslaved and harvested. We next see mathematics being used in Sumer about five thousand years ago, to facilitate business. Later, Euclid developed geometry literally, "land measuring" to measure fields for purposes of ownership, taxation, and the assignment of slave labor. Today the same imperative drives science, only now it is the entire universe we are trying to measure and enslave. Once again, this isn't obscure anarchist theory. Rene' Descartes, considered by many to be the father of modern science, declared that the aim of science is "to make us as masters and possessors of nature." He also declared the universe a giant clockwork, neatly tying these two forms of domination numbers and time together.

Jensen: But isn't growth of new technology driven by simple curiosity?

Zerzan: You hear people say that all the time: "You can't put the genie back in the bottle"; "you're asking people to forget." But that's just another attempt to rationalize craziness by calling it human nature. And it's a variant of the old raacist intelligence theory: because the Hopi didn't invent backhoes, they must not be curious. Sure, people are naturally curious but about what? Would you or I aspire to create the neutron bomb? Of course not. But the fact that I don't want to create a neutron bomb doesn't mean I'm not curious. Curiosity is not value-free. Certain types of curiosity arise from certain mindsets, and our culture's curiosity follows the logic of alienation not simple wonder, or the desire to learn.

Jensen: What does alienation mean to you?

Zerzan: Karl Marx defined alienation as being separated from the means of production; instead of us producing things for our own use, the products of our labor are used against us by the system. I would take it a step further and say that alienation means being estranged from our own experiences, dislodged from our natural mode of being. The more technologized and artificial the world becomes, the more the natural world is evacuated, and the more
alienated we become.

I think predomesticated people were in touch with themselves in ways we can't even comprehend on the level of the senses, for example. Laurens Van der Post gives accounts of the San, a tribal people in southern Africa, hearing a single engine plane seventy miles away, and seeing four of the moons of Jupiter with the unaided eye. He also says that the San seemed to know what it actually felt like to be an elephant, a lion, or an antelope. What's more, this understanding was apparently reciprocated by the animal. There are scores of accounts by early European explorers describing the lack of fear wild animals showed toward humans.

Jensen: Just last year I came across something written by eighteenth- centuryexplorer Samuel Hearne, the first white man to explore northern Canada. He described Indian children playing with wolf pups. The children would paint the pups' faces with vermilion or red ocher, and, when they were done playing with them, return them unhurt to the den. Neither the pups nor the adult wolves seemed to mind at all.

Zerzan: Now we gun them down from airplanes. That's progress for you.

Jensen: More broadly, what has progress meant?

Zerzan: Progress has meant ecological collapse and the near complete dehumanization of the individual. I think there are fewer people now than ever who believe in progress, but many still perceive it to be inevitable. We're certainly conditioned to accept its inevitability; we're held hostage to it, even. The idea of progress now is make everybody increasingly dependent on technology. We need high-tech medicine to keep us well, for example, but we're supposed to forget that technology created our health problems in the first place. Not just cancers caused by chemicals, but nearly all diseases are a result of either civilization, alienation, or gross habitat destruction.

Jensen: I have Crohn's disease, a chronic digestive ailment that is virtually unheard-of in nonindustrialized nations, becoming common only as those nations industrialize. Industrial civilization is literally eating away at my guts.

Zerzan: I think many people are beginning to understand how hollow the progress myth is. In fact, those in charge of the system don't even use the word progress much anymore. They talk about inertia, meaning, "This is it. Deal with it or get screwed." These days you don't hear about the American Dream or the "glorious new tomorrow." Now it's a global race to the bottom, as transnational corporations compete to see which can exploit workers and degrade the environment the most. Competition at the individual level works the same way. If you don't understand computers, you won't get a job. That's where progress has brought us.

In spite of all this, I'm optomistic, because never before has our whole lifestyle been revealed at least, to those willing to see it for the sham that it is.

Jensen: Even if we do see through the lies, what is there for us to do?

Zerzan: The first thing is to question the status quo, to make certain that public discourse deals with these life-and-death issues, rather than avoiding and denying them. This denial can't hold up much longer, because there's such a jarring contrast between reality and what we're being told, especially in this country.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we can go on living with that contrast forever. The Unabomber posited in his manifesto that people could wind up so conditioned they won't even notice there's no natural world anymore, no freedom, no fulfillment. They'll just take their Prozac every day, limp along, dyspeptic and neurotic, and figure that's all there is.

The Unabomber is a perfect example of why we need to redefine acceptable discourse in this society. His point of view was so supressed that he thought he had to kill people to bring it up. That says something about the level of denial and repression in our public discussion. This denial is not going to be changed by little reforms, any more than the planet is going to be saved by recycling. To think it will is not just silly, it's criminal. We have to face what's going on. Once we've faced reality, then together we can figure out how to change it.

Personally, I'm betting that demonstrable impoverisment on every level will goad people into questioning the system and mustering the will to confront it. Perhaps, right now, we're in the dark before the dawn. I remember Herbert Marcuse's One Dimentional Man was published, around 1964. In it, he was saying that people were so manipulated by modern consumerist society that there could be no hope for change. And then, within a couple of years, people woke up.

The sixties helped shape my own optimism. I was in the right place at the right time: in college at Stanford, then living in Haight-Ashbury, with Berkley just across the bay. I agree with people who say the sixties didn't even scratch the surface of what needed to be done, but you could get a sense of possibility then, a sense that if things kept going the way they were, there was a chance of society finding a different path.

Things didn't keep going that way, of course, but thirty years later I still carry that sense of possibility, and it warms me, even though the situation is frozen and awful. Sometimes I'm amazed that young people today can have any hope, because I'm not sure they've seen any movement succeed even partially.

Jensen: Some say that the sixties were the last big burst of social change, and from then on it's been downhill.

Zerzan: I sometimes think of it that way, as if it was the big bang, and everything's been cooling ever since. The punk explosion in 1976 was very exciting, but there was no sense that it would kick-start a new round of change.

I think we're coming up on something much bigger than the sixties, however -- not only because we have to in order to survive, but because we have fewer illusions now. Back then we had a tremendously high level of idealism, much of it misplaced. We believed it wouldn't take a lot of effort to make a change. We had an unwarranted faith in institutions and didn't think things through. We weren't grounded in reality. If that revolutionary energy comes back now, it's going to be far more effective.

Jensen: In Elements of Refusal you describe how, in the early part of this century, there was a tremendous amount of revolutionary energy in the air. In many ways, you say, World War I was a state-sponsored attempt to destroy that energy through violence.

Zerzan: War, of course, always requires a good excuse -- especially when the state's real enemies are its own citizenry. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand suited the needs of a dying Austro-Hungarian regime, but it by no means caused the war.

The real reason for the war, I believe, was the tremendous unrest in all of Europe. In 1913 and 1914 there had been immense strikes throughout Russia. Austria-Hungary was on the verge of civil war. Revolutionary movements and radical unions were on the rise in the United States, Germany, France, Italy, and England. Even King George V of England acknowledged this when he said, in the summer of 1914, just before the war, "The cry of civil war is on the lips of the most responsible and sober-minded of my people." Things had to explode, but how, and at whom would the explosion be directed? What better way to control the release of this energy than a long and pointless war?

And it worked. Most unions and left-wing parties backed the war, and those that didn't like the Wobblies here in the U.S. the state simply destroyed. After the war, few people had the heart to pursue revolution, and those who did, like Mussolini and the Bolsheviks, were not true revolutionaries but opportunists who turned the postwar power vacuums to their own advantage.

Jensen: Where do you think all this alienation today is going to go? Will it explode?

Zerzan: I don't know. I definitely know we aren't the happy, mindless consumers we're supposed to be. We may think we are, but our bodies know better. I recently reviewed Elaine Showalter's book Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture. In it, she talks about the "hysterias" of the nineties: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome, recovered memory, satanic cults, and so on. Some people are offended by her book, because it sounds as if she's saying these problems are all in people's heads. It seems to me, however, that she's proposing something more profound: she's saying that these crisis arise with or without physical causes. You might argue, for example, that in the vcase of Gulf War Syndrome her point of view lets the government off the hook. But, in fact, her theory is more radical than the theory that the government poisoned Americans -- which it's done so many times as to be almost clich'e. To say that modern life is so crippling, alienated, and bizarre that it spawns psychogenic disorders indicts not just the government but the whole system.

Jensen: But what does it mean that our own government would poison us? It's a problem we've not yet addressed: that even if we do learn -- or relearn -- how to live sustainably, we may lhabve to deal with forces out to destroy our new way of life. We all know what would happen if we developed sustainable communities and the dominant culture wanted our resources: our communities would be destroyed, and our resources would be stolen.

Zerzan: That's the reality. We'd like to think that violence isn't a necessary response, but I'm not sure. Of course, if the upheavals are large enough, there doesn't have to be much violence. In May 1968, ten million French workers -- astronomers, factory workers, you name it -- went on a wildcat strike and began to occupy their workplaces. Student demonstrations provided the trigger, but once it started, all these greivances came out in a rush. The police and the army were completely helpless, because nearly the whole country was involved. For a time the government considered sending in NATO forces. Unfortunately, the uprising was brought under control, mainly by the leftists and unions who wanted to co-opt the revolutionary energy for their own less radical agendas. But for a time the people really had control of the entire country. And it was totally nonviolent.

Jensen: But the uprising acheived no long-term change.

Zerzan: No, but it did expose how really fragile the state's powers of coercion are. Against that kind of mass uprising, the state is helpless. We saw it happen again with the collaple of state capitalism in the Soviet Union and The Eastern bloc. There wasn't a lot of violence. It all just fell apart. I'm not saying the collapse led to any sort of radical shift, just pointing out that there have been bloodless upheavals in history -- even in our own time.

One of my favourite writers (and speakers) about the environment and related matters is Wade Davis - I was listening to this podcast of a TED Talk from a few years ago, which touches on his concept of the "ethnosphere" and the ongoing destruction of most of the world's cultures, which he calls "ethnocide" - recommended.
n this stunning talk, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis celebrates the extraordinary diversity of the world's indigenous cultures, many of which are disappearing, as ancestral land is lost and languages die. (50 percent of the world's 6000 languages are no longer taught to children.) Against a backdrop of extraordinary photos and stories that ignite the imagination, Davis argues that we should be concerned not only for preserving the biosphere, but also the "ethnosphere," which he describes as "the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness." An anthropologist and botanist by training, Davis has traveled the world, living among indigenous cultures. He's written several books, including The Serpent and the Rainbow and Light at the Edge of the World.

Having started with Jeff Vail, I'll also close with one of his posts, this one a parable from Idries Shah called "The Islanders", which reinforced my dislike of cabbages.
Once upon a time there lived an ideal community in a far-off land. Its members had no fears as we now know them. Instead of uncertainty and vacillation, they had a purposefulness and a fuller means of expressing themselves. Although there were none of its stresses and tensions which mankind now considers essential to its progress, their lives were richer, because other, better elements replaced these things. Theirs, therefore, was a slightly different mode of existence. We could almost say that our present perceptions are a crude, makeshift version of the real ones that this community possessed.

They had real lives, not semi-lives.

They had a leader, who discovered that their country was to become uninhabitable for a period of, shall we say, 20,000 years. He planned their escape, realizing that their descendants would be able to return home successfully, only after many trials.

He found for them a place of refuge, an island whose features were only roughly similar to those of the original homeland. Because of the difference in climate and situation, the immigrants had to undergo a transformation. This made them more physically and mentally adapted to the new circumstances: coarse perceptions, for instance, were substituted for finer ones, as when the manual laborer becomes toughened in response to the needs of his calling.

In order to reduce the pain which a comparison between the old and new states would bring, they were made to forget the past almost entirely. Only the most shadowy recollection of it remained, yet it was sufficient to be awakened when the time came.

The system was very complicated, but well arranged. The organs by means of which the people survived on the island were also made the organs of enjoyment, physical and mental. The organs which were really constructive in the old homeland were placed in a special form of abeyance, and linked with the shadowy memory, in preparation for its eventual activation.

Slowly and painfully the immigrants settled down, adjusting themselves to the local conditions. The resources of the island were such that, coupled with effort and a certain form of guidance, people would be able to escape to a further island on the way back to their original home. This was the first of a succession of islands upon which gradual acclimatization took place.

The responsibility of this “evolution” was vested in those individuals who could sustain it. These were necessarily only a few, because for the mass of the people the effort of keeping both sets of knowledge in their consciousness was virtually impossible. One of them seemed to conflict with the other. Certain specialists guarded the “special science.”

This “secret,” the method of effecting the transition, was nothing more or less than the knowledge of maritime skills and their application. The escape needed an instructor, raw materials, people, effort and understanding. Given these, people could learn to swim, and also to build ships.

The people who were originally in charge of the escape operation made it clear to everyone that a certain preparation was necessary before anyone could learn to swim or even take part in building a ship. For a time the process continued satisfactorily.

Then a man who had been found, for the time being, lacking in the necessary qualities rebelled against this order and managed to develop a masterly idea. He had observed that the effort to escape placed a heavy and often seemingly unwelcome burden upon the people. At the same time they were disposed to believe things which they were told about the escape operation. He realized that he could acquire power, and also revenge himself upon those who had undervalued him, as he though, by a simple exploitation of these two sets of facts.

He would merely offer to take away the burden, by affirming that there was no burden.

He made his announcement: “There is no need for man to integrate his mind and train it in the way which has been described to you. The human mind is already a stable and continuous, consistent thing. You have been told that you have to become a craftsman in order to build a ship. I say, not only do you not need to be a craftsman – you do not need a ship at all! An islander needs only to observe a few simple rules to survive and remain integrated into society. By the exercise of common sense, born into everyone, he can attain anything upon this island, our home, the common property and heritage of all.”

The tonguester, having gained a great deal of interest among the people, now “proved his message by saying: “If there is any reality in ships and swimming, show us ships which have made the journey, and swimmers who have come back!”

This was a challenge to the instructors which they could not meet. It was based upon an assumption of which the bemused herd could not now see the fallacy. You see, ships never returned from the other land. Swimmers, when they did come back, had undergone a fresh adaptation which made them invisible to the crowd.

The mob pressed for demonstrative proof.

“Shipbuilding,” said the escapers, in an attempt to reason with the revolt, “is an art and a craft. The learning and the exercise of this lore depends upon special techniques. These together make up a total activity, which cannot be examined piecemeal, as you demand. This activity has an impalpable element, called ‘baraka,’ from which the work ‘barque’ –a ship – is derived. This word means ‘the Subtlety,’ and cannot be shown to you.”

“Art, craft, total, baraka, nonsense!” shouted the revolutionaries.

And so they hanged as many shipbuilding craftsmen as they could find.

The new gospel was welcomed on all sides as one of liberation. Man had discovered that he was already mature! He felt, for the time at least, as if he had been released from responsibility.

Most other ways of thinking were soon swamped by the simplicity and comfort of the revolutionary concept. Soon it was considered to be a basic fact, which had never been challenged by any rational person. Rational, of course, meant anyone who harmonized with the general theory itself, upon which society was now based.

Ideas which opposed the new one were easily called irrational. Anything irrational was bad. Thereafter, even if he had doubts, the individual had to suppress them or divert them, because he must at all costs be thought rational.

It was not very difficult to be rational. One had only to adhere to the values of society. Further, evidence of the truth of rationality abounded—providing that one did not think beyond the life of the island.

Society had now temporarily equilibrated itself within the island, and seemed to provide a plausible completeness, if viewed by means of itself. It was based upon reason plus emotion, making both seem plausible. Cannibalism, for instance, was permitted on rational grounds. The human body was found to be edible. Edibility was a characteristic of food. Therefore the human body was food. In order to compensate for the shortcomings of this reasoning, a makeshift was arranged. Cannibalism was controlled, in the interests of society. Compromise was the trademark of temporary balance. Every now and again someone pointed out a new compromise, and the struggle between reason, ambition, and community produced some fresh social norm.

Since the skills of boatbuilding had no obvious application within this society, the effort could easily be considered absurd. Boats were not needed—there was nowhere to go. The consequences of certain assumptions can be made to “prove” those assumptions. This is what is called a pseudocertainty, the substitute for real certainty. It is what we deal in every day, when we assume that we will live another day. But our islanders applied it to everything.

The words “displeasing” and “unpleasant” were used on the island to indicate anything which conflicted with the new gospel, which was itself known as “Please.” The idea behind this was that people would now please themselves, within the general need to please the State. The State was taken to mean all the people.

It is hardly surprising that from quite early times the very thought of leaving the island filled most people with terror. Similarly, very real fear is to be seen in long-term prisoners who are about to be released. “Outside” the place of captivity is a vague, unknown, threatening world.

The island was not a prison. But it was a cage with invisible bars, more effective than obvious ones ever could be.

The insular society became more and more complex, and we can look at only a few of its outstanding features. Its literature was a rich one. In addition to cultural compositions, there were numerous books which explained the values and achievements of the nation. There was also a system of allegorical fiction, which portrayed how terrible life might have been, had society not arranged itself in the present reassuring pattern.

From time to time instructors tried to help the whole community to escape. Captains sacrificed themselves for the reestablishment of a climate in which the now concealed shipbuilders could continue their work. All these efforts were interpreted by historians and sociologists with reference to conditions on the island, without thought for any contact outside this closed society. Plausible explanations of almost anything were comparatively easy to produce. No principle of ethics was involved, because scholars continued to study with genuine dedication what seemed to be true. “What more can we do?” they asked, implying by the word “more” that the alternative might be an effort of quantity. Or they asked each other, “What else can we do?” assuming that the answer might be “else”—something different. Their real problem was that they assumed themselves able to formulate the questions, and ignored the fact that the questions were every bit as important as the answers.

Of course the islanders had plenty of scope for thought and action within their own small domain. The variations of ideas and differences of opinion gave the impression of freedom of thought. Thought was encouraged, providing that it was not “absurd.”

Freedom of speech was allowed. It was of little use without the development of understanding, which was not pursued.

The work and the emphasis of the navigators had to take on different aspects in accordance with the changes in the community. This made their reality even more baffling to the students who tried to follow them from the island point of view.

Amid all the confusion, even the capacity to remember the possibility of escape could at times become an obstacle. The stirring consciousness of escape potential was not very discriminating. More often than not the eager would-be escapers settled for any kind of substitute. A vague concept of navigation cannot become useful without orientation. Even the most eager potential shipbuilders had been trained to believe that they already had that orientation. They were already mature. They hated anyone who pointed out that they might need a preparation.

Bizarre versions of swimming or shipbuilding often crowded out possibilities of real progress. Very much to blame were the advocates of pseudoswimming or allegorical ships, mere hucksters, who offered lessons to those as yet too weak to swim, or passages on ships which they could not build.

They needs of the society had originally made necessary certain forms of efficiency and thinking which developed into what was known as science. This admirable approach, so essential in the fields where it had application, finally outran its real meaning. The approach called “scientific,” soon after the “Please” revolution, became stretched until it covered all manner of ideas. Eventually things which could not be brought within its bounds became known as “unscientific,” another convenient synonym for “bad.” Words were unknowingly taken prisoner and then automatically enslaved.

In the absence of a suitable attitude, like people who, thrown upon their own resources in a waiting room, feverishly read magazines, the islanders absorbed themselves in finding substitutes for the fulfillment which was the original (and indeed the final) purpose of this community’s exile.

Some were able to diver their attention more or less successfully into mainly emotional commitments. There were different ranges of emotion, but no adequate scale for measuring them. All emotion was considered to be “deep” or “profound”—at any rate more profound than non-emotion. Emotion, which was seen to move people to the most extreme physical and mental acts known, was automatically termed “deep.”

The majority of people set themselves targets, or allowed others to set them for them. They might pursue one cult after another, or money, or social prominence. Some worshipped some things and felt themselves superior to all the rest. Some, by repudiating what they thought worship was, thought that they had no idols, and could therefore safely sneer at all the rest.

As the centuries passed, the island was littered with the debris of these cults. Worse than ordinary debris, it was self-perpetuating. Well-meaning and other people combined the cults and recombined them, and they spread anew. For the amateur and intellectual, this constituted a mine of academic or “initiatory” material, giving a comforting sense of variety. Magnificent facilities for the indulging of limited “satisfactions” proliferated. Palaces and monuments, museums and universities, institutes of learning, theater and sports stadiums almost filled the island. The people naturally prided themselves on these endowments, many of which they considered to be linked in a general way with ultimate truth, though exactly how this was so escaped almost all of them.

Shipbuilding was connected with some dimensions of this activity, but in a way unknown to almost everyone.

Clandestinely the ships raised their sails, the swimmers continued to teach swimming…

The conditions on the island did not entirely fill these dedicated people with dismay. After all, they too had originated in the very same community, and had indissoluble bonds with it, and with its destiny.

But they very often had to preserve themselves from the attentions of their fellow citizens. Some “normal” islanders tried to save them from themselves. Others tried to kill them, for an equally sublime reason. Some even sought their help eagerly, but could not find them.

All these reactions to the existence of the swimmers were the result of the same cause, filtered through different kinds of minds. This cause was that hardly anyone now knew what a swimmer really was, what he was doing, or where he could be found.

As the life of the island became more and more civilized, a strange but logical industry grew up. It was devoted to ascribing doubts to the validity of the system under which the society lived. It succeeded in absorbing doubts about social values by laughing at them or satirizing them. The activity could wear a sad or happy face, but it really became a repetitious ritual. A potentially valuable industry, it was often prevented from exercising its really creative function.

People felt that, having allowed their doubts to have temporary expression, they would in some way assuage them, exorcise them, almost propitiate them. Satire passed for meaningful allegory; allegory was accepted but not digested. Plays, books, films, poems, lampoons were the usual media for this development, though there was a strong section o it in more academic fields. For many islanders it seemed more emancipated, more modern or progressive, to follows this cult rather than the older ones.

Here and there a candidate still represented himself to a swimming instructor, to make his bargain. Usually what amounted to a stereotyped conversation took place.

“I want to learn to swim.”

“Do you want to make a bargain about it?”

“No. I only have to take my ton of cabbage.”

“What cabbage?”

“The food which I will need on the other island.”

“There is better food there.”

“I don’t know what you mean. I cannot be sure. I must take my cabbage.”

“You cannot swim, for one thing, with a ton of cabbage.”

“Then I cannot go. You call it a load. I call it my essential nutrition.”

“Suppose, as an allegory, we say not ‘cabbage’ but ‘assumptions,’ or ‘destructive ideas’?”

“I am going to take my cabbage to some instructor who understands my needs.”


I have to agree with Jeff Vail and free markets, especially when it comes to energy efficiency and conservation, which is (as your later link states) "unquestionably the largest, cheapest, and cleanest wedge among the many we need decarbonize our energy economy".

How does an electricity utility profit from selling less electricity? Sure you can use taxes and cap-and-trade schemes to encourage lower carbon emissions, but it will always be in their interests to sell *more* electricity.

Anonymous   says 1:52 PM

G'Day Big Gav thanks for including the Wade Davis presentation my quest (for enlightenment or whatever) had been loosing steam.
Did you hear the Aussie's (diplomates) left East Timor because their compound was built partially on land earmarked for a future presidential palace and the Chinese have offered to knock ours down and build a palace for them. (in exchange for some oil & gas i guess). I still think there is something fishy over there.
Big Cahuna

Dave - Energy utilities don't profit from selling less electricity.

Neither do they control how energy efficient the appliances you choose to buy are, or how many of them you choose to have, or how long you run them each day.

So I don't think the "free market" (which I think means different things to different people) is to blame for people (or companies) not choosing to become more energy efficient.

Tom Konrad's post on the psychology of energy efficiency seemed to be a different way of looking at the problem that made more sense.

its not like there aren't lots of energy efficient solutions out there.

On the other hand, sometimes energy providers and "appliance" makers do collude to keep energy consumption high - with the example being the car companies and the oil companies in the US - hence the links on that topic. I don't view this as a "free market" operating - just an outright case of corruption and anti-competitive behaviour that should be punished...

Big Cahuna - glad you liked the Wade Davis talk - he's a very interesting guy - I've got most of his books and they're excellent.

I hadn't heard the tale of the East Timorese embassy but it wouldn't surprise me if it were true. If you take the imperialist exploiter point of view, it kind of makes sense for us (and the american oil companies we host) to carve up Timorese resources with China rather than fighting over them.

Poor buggers.

Very nice post, Big Gav. Edwin Black's history of control of the energy and transportation "markets" puts Jeff Vail's assessment of the freeness of those markets into into sharp historical focus. For the finishing touch, the capstone of this argument, all you need now is Andrew Mount's Fear of Free Energy essay at New Energy Movement, where you'll also find news of legislative efforts to address alternative energy in Energy Innovation Act of 2007 (draft). And now, if it's alright, here's Mount's The Fear of Free Energy essay:

As human beings, we seek certainty. Due to the limitations of the conceptual mind, only concrete ideas can generally provide this certainty. Yet the more spiritual truths of love, faith, and the Divine Mystery, suffer from diminution when they encounter our analytical brains. They are indeed difficult to 'grasp' and must be perceived by another, more subtle faculty.

Similarly, the ego, or limited idea of self, often holds dominant sway over our lives. We cling to our assumed roles and, in the most extreme examples, will destroy all threats to the ego-centric character structure. Whether by reinforcing delusion and denial, or actually eliminating the objects of our fear, the ego is intent on self-preservation.

When a society becomes comfortable with its own self-destruction due to the collective fear of transcendence, there is an odd parallel with the death of the ego. We see our species struggling to shed the pre-occupations of its past, simultaneously risking an era of stillborn possibilities. Petroleum politics are a perfect example of this fear-based attachment to what is familiar. It appears we might rather live in the prison of ecological suicide and artificially imposed poverty than admit the old order must die.

The concept of Free Energy, an idea whose time has come, will bring with its introduction a collective 'ego death'. Society can be considered the aggregate psyche of humanity. Based upon the mere shadow of abundance that fossil fuels represent, the human economic sphere currently identifies itself with scarcity. This inspires competition over generosity, the pursuit of private gain over the greater good. The earth itself is considered expendable, as are the innocents and indigenous peoples who stand in the way of our modern appetite for destruction.

Free Energy is an expression of the Generative Principle in nature. It is viewed as the primordial force behind all energy of celestial, chemical, geological and biological origin. Often referred to as the Quantum Vacuum or Zero Point Energy, its properties are only partially understood by Physics. As one is asked to embrace the existence of this field of virtually unlimited potential, those schooled in the conventional view of nature cannot escape the sense that it is as much a religious quantity as a scientific one.

Recent experiments have demonstrated that consciousness itself has a measurable effect upon physical reality. Thus, we should not wonder that the discovery of Free Energy has a commensurate effect upon consciousness. We must ask, "What is it that so inspires fear in the face of such knowledge."

Could it be that we are loath to accept our true adulthood in the knowledge that individuated souls are utterly fused together by the field of infinite potential? We may find that to invite Heaven to earth we would have to relinquish cherished beliefs and the ego's sense of 'who we are'.

It is this author's conviction that every ordinary person's greatest fear is dissolution of the conceptual framework that informs our existence. Death has associated with it all manner of conceptual overlays, and so it is often considered in terms of our projections. If the Petroleum magnates were to find themselves disenfranchised, would they not have experienced a form of conceptual death? Were the Physics authorities to have to admit Science had discovered God and yet could not explain Him, would they still perceive themselves knowledgeable?

If Free Energy becomes the order of the day, perhaps love could triumph over division. The society is headed for an ego-death nonetheless. We have been measured in the balance of the Ages and found wanting. What is missing is our willingness to surrender to the inevitable gravity of human need. And Free Energy, the equally abundant availability of resources to all, is the pre-requisite to our transcendence as a species.

It may come as a thief in the night. Or it may come on angel's wings. Yet the liberation from false economic hierarchy that Free Energy brings will be accompanied by our growth into Divine Awareness -- the end of fear and the covenant of Grace.


That, in turn, brings us to the logical conclusion of Wade Davis' presentation, which is to be found in the writings of a guy named Dan Moonhawk Alford who explains the deepest significance of the world's dying indigenous languages, especially, perhaps, in The Great Whorf Hypothesis Hoax: Sin, Suffering and Redemption in Academe.(Chapter Seven from The Secret Life of Language), from which I won't quote anything, since I've already spilled so much ink in your comment fields, but it's well worth the read, as it provides even more context, even greater depth.

Most impressive how you've tied these threads together, Gav. Thanks again!

Zero Point Energy is probably the next big thing that will be exploited by corporations,
using magnet motors already people experimenting in this technology,
have a look at http://topmagneticgenerator.com/Blog/magnetic-generator-videos.html
and see a step by step guide how to build magnetic generator

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