The war at home: Energy crisis and risk in America

Here are two myths you need to let go of:

The solution to high gas prices is more oil.

Climate change is something that happens to polar bears and people from Kiribati.

The truth is that fossil fuels are extremely useful and valuable. And, by their very nature, the supplies are limited. Likewise, climate change isn't just something that's going happen—it's already taking place, and you can see the effects in your own backyard.

Too often, I think, we talk about the risks of fossil fuel dependence and climate change in ways that make them seem abstract to the very people who use the most fossil fuels and create the most greenhouse gases. That's a problem. There are lots of reasons to care about energy. But I think that fossil fuel limits and climate change are the most pressing reasons. And I think it's incredibly important to discuss those very real risks in a way that actually feels very real.

This isn't about morality, or lifestyle choices, or maintaining populations of cute, fuzzy animals. (Or, rather, it's not just about those things.) Instead, we have to consider what will happen to us and how much money we will have to spend if we choose to do nothing to change the way we make and use energy.

Over at Scientific American, you can read an excerpt from my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out. In it, you'll read about the energy risks hanging over the Kansas City metro area—a place that, in many ways, resembles the places and lifestyles shared by a majority of Americans. You've probably never been to Merriam, Kansas. But you can look at Merriam and see what could happen in your hometown.

Merriam isn't a small town. There's nothing really recognizable as a small town central business district. Instead, Merriam's stores and offices are mostly concentrated along two major thoroughfares—Shawnee Mission Parkway and Johnson Drive. These wide, multilane roads are dotted with clusters of shopping centers and big box stores, like necklaces strung with fat pearls. The municipal building and the police station are a couple of nondescript offices that sit off the frontage of Shawnee Mission Parkway, on a ridge overlooking the Interstate. Nothing about that says, "Classic Americana."

Yet Merriam isn't a suburb, either—or an urban city. It's too dense to be the first and not dense enough to be the latter. Merriam has a mixture of house styles. Drive down one street, and you'll see a 1930s bungalow standing shoulder to shoulder with a spare little 1950s Cape Cod. Next to that, there's a 1980s split-level with windows on the front and the back but none on the sides. More than three generations of the American Dream are living here.

It's ironic that Merriam doesn't really fit any of the classic American paradigms, because, quite frankly, most of us have already left those paradigms behind. We talk about this country as if it's full of neatly defined small towns, big cities, and tidy suburbs. In reality, the places where we live are lot mushier than that. Merriam isn't the exception. Merriam is the rule.

Read the rest of this excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out at Scientific American.

Image: Kansas City Photos, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from publicworksgroup's photostream


  1. There is no problem of climate change at Kiribati to speak of. The one thing that has changed is its population:

    A year that would have been remarkably dry 60 years ago, becomes a catastrophic drought today not because the climate has changed, but because there are three times as many people needing the limited supply of water.

    When people insist to keep living in places with huge unchecked population growth that can’t sustain them, they should not blame climate change for their changing (and growing) problems.

      1. So, the patient has a heart attack and a sore throat. Those are not mutually exclusive, but what should you be worried about?

        1. Kiribati’s problem in the context of climate change is rising sea levels, not drought. Unless you’re suggesting that all those Kiribati are making the islands sink.

          1. Try to get a sense of scale here. Problem one is having three times as many people on the same area. Problem two is a miniscule loss of land area, if any at all.

            And strangely enough, Kiribati wants to move its people precisely because they suffered a drought that showed them that they have surpassed the level at which they could sustain their population. And not Noah’s flood setting the place under water.

          2. @boingboing-e23b16e83342d08d0d3ef4eeed9d3299:disqus 

            The main reason that Kiribati has a drought problem is because the rising sea level is tainting freshwater supplies. So you can continue to argue that climate change has nothing to do with Kiribati’s problems, but you’re wrong.

          3. Go to google and inform yourself about freshwater lenses under islands before you make such claims.

            The freshwater is on top of salt water. There is only a limited amount of freshwater in the lens that is replenished during rainfalls, when freshwater is pushing the heavier saltwater downwards.

            When you take more freshwater out of the lens than rain is replenishing, the lens will disappear because it is made up of fresh water and only salt water is left. When it rains again, the freshwater lens will reestablish itself. That would be impossible if all this was down to “seawater poisoning from rising sea levels”.

            The media are just a bunch of idiots who don’t do any research at all these days. Don’t believe what you see on the news or read in the newspaper. Do your own research.

          4. @boingboing-e23b16e83342d08d0d3ef4eeed9d3299:disqus 

            It’s almost as if you think you know what Kiribati’s problem is better than the people on Kiribati.

            If it was about drought, they’d go out and buy water, and Kiribati’s president wouldn’t say things like, “Our people will have to move as the tides have reached our homes and villages.”

            You keep saying they want to move “precisely” because of drought, but nobody else is. Certainly not anybody actually in Kiribati.

        2. So, the patient has a heart attack and a sore throat. Those are not mutually exclusive, but what should you be worried about?

          Well, if you’re stupid, you can just worry about one or the other.

          But if you plan to actually heal the patient you need to deal with both.

          I don’t go to stupid doctors, personally.

  2. Well done getting into Scientific American. Speaking of CC, also in the SA blog, a reprint from Science as to how to stave off climate change – a question that bedevils me. The answer from a group of scientists: establish a global government with transnational enforcement powers to control planetary stewardship.

    As a scientist, do you agree with this solution? (if it’s in the book, you can tell me to read the damn book.)

    1. I hereby volunteer to be this “global government with transnational enforcement powers”.

      Now, bring me the head of Dick Cheney.

  3. If you pay attention to the North at all, you know the “climate change debate” is a farce. There’s hardly any industry, development, or even people living here, and yet the drastic warming that’s clear in the winter months is undeniable. The story is in something a temperature chart won’t tell you: the ice.

    The people who claim the arctic ice isn’t really melting are literally the same crowd jockeying to secure the newly opening “arctic passages” that weren’t possible before the ice started melting. It’s clear that this denialism is “just business,” and reminiscent of the stalling tactics cigarette companies used to convince the addicted that their product isn’t really going to kill them someday.

    And even from a more personal level, I can tell you I spent an entire childhood playing on a river that froze over every winter. It’s where people cleared off snow to play hockey, go cross-country skiing, or race their snowmobiles. Now a young adulthood later, the river freezes late in the year, and the ice is too thin by the time it does. The river is completely silent in winter now, too treacherous to consider using. There’s still cold days, and snow, and everything else, but there just isn’t as much of a consistent freeze anymore… and not just for one winter, but all of them. A temperature chart can’t tell you that kids aren’t able to play winter sports anymore, and it’s so easy to hide behind the numbers even as a way of life is disappearing.

    1. “reminiscent of the stalling tactics cigarette companies used”

      Actually, it’s not “reminiscent”: it’s exactly the same stalling tactics used by exactly the same PR firms that ran the lies about cigarette smoking. You see the same innumerate nonsense being recycled over and over again.

      “This ‘smoking is bad’ propaganda is just based on complicated computer models that can’t even predict exactly when one person is going to drop dead.  So how can they predict what will happen in large groups of smokers?  Not one person has ever been proved to have been killed by cigarettes with 100% certainty!!”

      1. I’m a bit more fatalistic than just ascribing the whole problem as an ideological one. Even if you could convince everyone in Canada and the U.S. to cease their industrial and automobile pollution tomorrow, you’d still have China and India taking up the slack, among others.

        It’s not to say that you shouldn’t fight the good fight of environmental awareness, but I see it more as treating a terminal patient. You do what you can to ease the suffering, but inevitably, we’re going to have to deal with the consequences of a changed climate. The economic conditions which are ruining planet will cease when it’s no longer economically viable to continue (and that’s probably going to be a very desperate time for the survivors).

        But, from a detached scientific view, the Earth’s climate has changed in the past, and it’s been very rapid when it has, with huge die-offs and eventual recovery. It’s probably very easy to guess that at least 99% of every type of life that has ever lived on this planet is now extinct. This is a hostile world with no shortage of end-game scenarios and you might be surprised there is anything left alive even today what with all the huge rocks that have slammed into planet and monster volcanoes that have erupted.

        You might say the current climate change is an entirely preventable one, that somehow it is unnatural. But humans are a part of nature and we are on this course because we are doing what comes natural to us.

        1.  “But humans are a part of nature and we are on this course because we are doing what comes natural to us.”

          What an incredible cop-out.

          The perennial problems of living in disease and squalor, child molestation, and rule by tyrannical bullies may “come natural to us,” but we’re capable to rising above that. We form societies and set standards and come up with rules to deal with stuff like that.

  4. I know that the article is meant to give everyone more of a local to the reader feel to a global problem, but as a KC metro resident, it’s a bit more literal of an effect.   It’s interesting.

    Now, part way through the article, a question crops up – so, what is that favorite Chinese restaurant in OP?  

      1. This the same as the Dragon Inn in old downtown OP? 
        Wife and I ended up going there that night (behold the power of suggestion) since it had been awhile since our last visit.  I’ll definitely have to try the soup next time. 

      1.  We’ll have to give it a try.  I’d also recommend Jen jen’s, at 91st and Quivera, NW corner (shares parking lot with a Wal-Mart Neighborhood grocery).   It’s one of those small, hole in the wall places with 2 menus – a small English menu, and a larger menu in English and Chinese full of more authentic items you don’t get at most places. 

  5. Here in Toronto we’re dealing with the Climate Change issues by pretending that they don’t exist.  This is no longer a city that experiences particularly cold weather and won’t be so again in our lifetimes.

    For example, every year a fixed amount is set aside for snow removal.  Any  money not spent is put into a kitty to even out the expenditures from year to year.  This year we dumped another $5,000,000 into the piggy bank: bringing the total to $80,000,000.  The battalions of snow removal machines are just rusting away in storage.  The machines themselves are worthless but a lot could be done with the storage facilities.   We also have no plans to deal with the hordes of unemployed seasonal snow removal workers who are in the dole queues along with the ice-fishing, winter apparel, and skiing crowds.

    Best guesses at our new climate include a *lot* more rain: much more at peak times than our sewage systems can handle.  Tornadoes are a good bet too.  About these issues we are doing nothing.

      1.  Yeah, those patterns are amazing. I live in part of upstate NY that was devastated by tropical storms last fall (we saturated with rain all summer, then got finished off by a very moist, very large storm – more or less what we’re predicted to have a lot more of.) The ski town over the mountain from me rebuilt in record time (many inside what we used to call the “500 year flood line”). Then winter ended – too warm in January, they made snow like crazy and revived in Feb – but now it’s the warmest March on record. So I talk to folks up here about future plans – as in, maybe being a ski town a few hours north of New York ain’t a viable plan anymore – and I find that even people who believe in AGW believe that it’s  going to happen… sometime. They had a transition plan for Windham that got shelved about 5 years ago – that plan was made in the late 90’s – and people keep forgetting that this was to plan for say, 2020, and that’s 8 years from now. Even when you believe it, it’s hard to believe it is now reality. It is no longer “this is going to happen if” – it’s now “this is happening.”

  6. Is there any phenomenon in the US that’s not associated with war? Terror, Drugs – now energy? 
    Perhaps there is a constant need to fuel the superiority complex – war on everything means everyone fights against something so everyone is a hero.

    1. Well, think about it. War is just about the only damn thing our society does that we do “together.”

      Market forces could reduce consumption and development of alternatives, but by the time they do it will be too . . . frigging* . . . late. To late to prevent catastrophic climactic change, too late for a soft and gradual approach that doesn’t result in a bitter division between “winners” and “losers.” (Losers: People in those sprawling exurbs. People in cities downstream from cities who’ve decided to keep the water in the river. Pretty much everyone in the USA Southwest.)

      Being at “war” means you can convince people to make sacrifices, pay higher taxes, and . . . oh, wait, that was the old kind of war. Yeah, I guess we’re fucked.

      *Hey, cool, “frigging” is a legitimate word according to Firefox’s autocorrection daemon. But “autocorrection” is not.

    2.  War is the only time traditional US ideologies allow the violent suppression of dissent by the state.

  7. I’m not sure if I’ve been to Merriam KS, but I’ve certainly been to nearby parts of Kansas City.  My mother grew up in the Missouri side of Kansas City, and back then she could get just about anywhere in the city by streetcar, which scaled well for the population’s travel needs.  Today there are busses which are less convenient, and far more cars without much more parking. 

  8. Maggie, everything apart, did you ever have that Meetup in Minneapolis? This is a subject I’d love to discuss with a climate change denier. We had one in the Twin Cities Science-y meetup group, and that made me aware to the usual denial arguments. The person concerned was a very smart person otherwise, but he just couldn’t put 2 & 2 together when it came to this. So, I’ve become a lot more aware since then and would like to take on a denier in person. I’m out of the country for another six months, so you better have a Meetup when I get back. Sea Salt Eatery probably won’t be an option by then, but we’ll find an alternative, right? ;)

  9. Not to be pretentious dick, but are most BB readers likely to assume that flooding the markets with oil is a good idea or that climate change is something that happens elsewhere?

    I think we (meaning anyone who isn’t a head-in-the-sand dumbass) all know by now that the causes of climate change are extremely varied and often odd and subtle, that it doesn’t necessarily mean everything gets hotter or that the unusual snowfall this winter means it isn’t happening, and that the solutions are just as varied as the causes and that there are no quick fixes but that they don’t necessarily have to be terribly expensive or hard.

    I personally would just like to know two things:  the single best thing a regular person or family can do to have a real and positive if exceedingly minuscule effect …and what the very latest is in efficient/green tech is that isn’t the result of destroying a forest in Canada or the newest “World’s Largest Strip Mine” somewhere (China).

    1.  Not having kids would be a good start. Solving the population problem (or at least slowing it) would have profoundly positive effects on the environment. Of course, there’s always the argument that the people who are most uneducated or irresponsible will keep right on breeding and the only people who care will gradually, voluntarily become more and more of a minority… but children don’t always adhere to their parents’ beliefs, and anyway, you could always adopt.

      1. Kids are as likely to be the solution as the problem.
        It’s the kids growing up today who will make the necessary decisions about these issues when we’re being spoon-fed in assisted living facilities.  Raise them to be educated and ethical and they’ll be able to fix the problems we’ve created.

        1. Yeah, that’s what my father-in-law keeps telling me from his air conditioned house in Arizona, “It’s a huge problem. Your generation will have to figure this out.” And then he goes back to watching Fox News. 

          It’s up to us. Now.

      2. “Not having kids”, if sufficiently adopted, will also crash the state pension systems of most first world countries (including the USA).  On balance reducing the population would still not be a Bad Thing.  Let’s just remember the “on balance” part of that sentence.

    2. My advice would be, live as healthily as you can. Do what you can to reduce your exposure to pollutants and toxins (for example, given the choice between going to Philadelphia from Delaware on I-95, I go through Wilmington rather than the faster, shorter route where all the chemical plants are). Aim to live for as long as possible until the time you can upload your mind in 2045, if you believe in the Singularity. But even if not, it’s still a good idea.

      Try to reduce your own energy usage. Spend more to have things that last and that are more efficient. Learn maker skills so that you can fix your own stuff. Don’t buy stuff you don’t, strictly speaking, need — I’m not talking about entertainment, because everyone needs entertaining. I’m talking about the shit that clutters up your closets and drawers. What clutter you have, give away.

      Keep a clean living space. Don’t put off going to the doctor. Get your shots every year.

      Can’t think of anything else yet, but those are just off the top of my head.

    3. It’s understood by hopefully most of us, but it should be more common knowledge.   “Drilling for an increasingly scarce resource and then promptly setting that scarce resource on fire will not help with the supply problem.” is more true, but sadly less popular then “Drill, Baby, Drill”.
      My three guesses:
      Bike/walk more, drive less.  Eat local, eat fruits and vegetables, less meat.  Eat local venison if you won’t give up meat.

    4. I personally would just like to know two things:  the single best thing a regular person or family can do to have a real and positive if exceedingly minuscule effect 

      I strongly recommend educating yourself and becoming aware of amounts of energy that you use in your daily life, in terms of Joules or Kilowatt-hours (or whatever units you prefer).   Do a survey of your home: what is the largest consumer of power – i.e. the refrigerator?  the clothes dryer?  Ask yourself if you can do anything about them, or if you really need them at all? (personally, I prefer a clothes line to a dryer).    The US DOE has lots of information pages along these lines

      (see “Life of Brian’s” very good comment below)
      There’s about 1.3e8 Joules (J) in a gallon of gasoline,
      close to 2 billion J in a 15-gallon tank of gas.  If one burns through than in a week (7*24*3600 seconds) that works out to around 3200 J/sec or the equivalent of 3.2 kilowatts, just driving.

  10. I heard… somewhere… NPR, maybe… that even if the entire world were to stop using fossil fuels, climate change would keep on coming because it’s too late to turn it around. So my opinion has been based on that assumption: we should move to alternative energy because fossil fuels can’t last. I don’t worry about China and India crudding up the atmosphere because it would happen anyway, only later rather than sooner.

    Then again, I also think we’ll all be simulated on computers by 2045, so take my opinion for what it’s worth!

    1. Most experts talk of reductions of some 20-30% now to prevent the worse consequences… however we are increasing.
      The worse is that only the poorest parts of the world will suffer the consequences first, so usually the worse polluters will care less… may even like it at first. While in hundreds of areas, millions will have to migrate causes frictions among peoples. Ironically, with higher temps, here our first response will be to cramp up our ACs.

      1. Climate change is something we are committed to, but it’s not a discrete state, it’s a variable condition. We’re now “above worst case” when they made the models years ago. So do you want to leave the oven on 500 or turn it down to “Warm”?…

  11. I have one small but significant quibble: I believe that phrasing it as “making” energy is somewhat unhelpful. I’m not just being pedantic about the laws of thermodynamics, either. In a very real and practical sense, we are not making energy, but rather collecting free energy that we’ve found laying around.

    I think one of the greatest causes of our unsustainable consumption patterns is that very few of us have a good sense of the scale involved. The amount of energy required to get three tons of plastic and steel across town for a cup of coffee is simply enormous, and I would wager that less than 5% of us truly grok the amount of free labor that’s being extracted from the ground on our behalf.

    I like to ask people to think of it this way: If I had a couple tons of sandbags in my front yard and I asked you to move them across town, how long would that take you and how much would you expect to be paid to perform this service? Now compare that to the amount you’d spend on gasoline to move the same total weight the same distance in the form of a Ford Entitlement rather than a pile of sandbags. The difference between those two dollar amounts represents, in grossly oversimplified terms, the amount of free labor we are using up for the privilege of sitting in traffic.

    Which is the only reason I would bitch about a single verb choice in otherwise excellent science writing.

    1. I’d like to second this excellent point.  I’ts important for people to understand how much energy is spent moving a multi-ton car, compared to moving only the person (and maybe their groceries).   Consider the weight or mass ratio of the car (thousands of pounds) to a person (a few hundred pounds).  If you can make the same trip on a bike (typically much less massive than the rider), the energy savings is incredible. And its healthy exercise, and even carbon-neutral since the fuel (food) consists of carbon that was recently sequestered from the atmosphere.

      People should also be aware of the enormous energy density of gasoline (one can find numbers on wikipedia and do the calculations).  A 15-gallon tank full of gasoline is the equivalent of something like half a ton of TNT!  And many people burn through that in a typicalweek!

    2. Can I like this multiple times?  Pretty please?  Some responses deserve more than the measly one “like” we’re allowed to designate.

  12. In the headline photo, what are those streaks in the top center of the picture?
    Is the city being bombarded by meteorites?

  13. I’m posting this comment from Tarawa, Kiribati at the moment. Seriously.  I’ve been living here for about 3 weeks with my family helping build capacity. Trying to separate out the differences that population and climate change are making here on Kiribati is a stretch. Both are definitively issues. But then so is a history of colonialism, a present of diplomatically masked colonialism, and let’s face it, outright theft of fish stocks, and an uncertain future due to a rising sea level – which affects both the amount of fresh water available and the amount of land available.

    There *is* fresh water being bought in on container ships fairly regularly (every six weeks or so) and there are both desal and purification systems in place – how well they work is another story.

    There are *plenty* of issues in Kiribati – especially if you keep your Western or developed nation perspective. But when taking the local perspective a lot of those issues don’t make any sense. Sure, shitting in a picturesque lagoon increases the e-coli level and means that foreigners can’t eat the fish caught in it, but what else is there? The island of Tarawa basically has one road – where would they put a sewage system if they could afford one, or building one made sense?

    The increase in population has also lead to a decrease in fish stock – not terribly noticeable at the moment but I have been told by the locals that they’ve not seen a crab over a hand span for a few years. That’s just as troubling as the fresh water issue.

    But you can’t expect them to have a rational, developed nation perspective on that when so few have jobs. The CIA World Fact Book gives the population as roughly 100,000; as the number of employed as “7,870 economically active, not including subsistence farmers (2001 est.)” and yet the *unemployment* level is 2% – the 11th lowest in the world.

    They are rich on fish and bananas – sustainable affluent.

    Anyway, just my 2c.  I tell you what though, I’d kill for a fresh salad.

    1.  In case you’re wondering, at least one person (me) is reading the comments on this two-day-old article. Thanks for your first-hand input, great comment! Liked :)

  14. For the record, I’m sharing a 256 Kbps connection with a dozen others so typos will have to be excused. It took me 25 minutes from loading the page to posting as it was….

  15. I liked the excerpt of the book, a lot of what was presented seemed pretty balanced.  Where the article lost me was around page 7 with the assumption that peak oil would mean the end of car culture and sprawling suburbs. Assuming oil gets very expensive, yes I can see a severe recession worse than in the 1970s.  However, there is tremendous inertia behind the current system and you can bet it would kick back hard with improved public transport, better electric cars, motorized bikes, etc.  These technologies are around today and if there were a strong price incentive they would come forward much faster.  There are energy efficient ways to maintain spread out cities and before that radically changed I would expect to see much more radical adoption of energy sources like nuclear and renewable power.  I dislike the end where the article drifts into wishful political activism / fending off an imagined future disaster.  I think that if a sustained energy price spike comes, the financial incentives to create alternatives will be huge enough for rapid progress.

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