Monday, February 4, 2013

One Region Forward, Sorta, Depending on Who You Are

World oil prices tend to be set by the quantity of oil available for export, and not the total amount produced. In many oil exporting countries (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Venezuela) domestic oil products are quite cheap compared to world oil prices. So when the amount available for export shrinks, higher prices tend to result in oil importing countries like the U.S. It's one of those "FYI's" not mentioned at the recent "One Region" session held last week... Note that the peak export years were 2005 to 2007. Oops.... Data from the US energy Information Agency. The relationship between the quantity of oil available for export and prices seems based on whether more oil will be available from one year to the next, or not...

Last Tuesday (1-29-13), about 200 people attended the "One Region Forward Community Congress" at Asbury Hall in downtown Buffalo. While there seemed to be a lot of effort put into this "One Region" effort, and while most of it apparently done with a lot of it well meaning intentions, there were a pair of "Voldemort's" - the ones who must not be named in the Harry Potter world - who more or less remained secrets and were not named in the official part of the presentation. And yet, these two specters are the drivers for much of the the malaises that were described - urban sprawl, increasing costs of governments/cost of living for most people while the regional population drops as do average incomes and accumulated wealth. But maybe there were not supposed to be any solutions to these identified problems - maybe that was the point. There is a concept in the R & D business called "researching it to death", and the presentation was thoroughly infused with that concept in "project life extension" and futility hybridization. However, that sort of thing does employ SOME people who obviously wish to remain employed and thus not go the way of the blast furnace operator in this part of America's North Coast…. And there has been lots of employment in the sprawl business, too - for many, sprawl has lead to fabulous riches, and amazing swindles (think HSBC and its HFC subsidiary…). Of course, the sprawl based profiteering extracts money and wealth from other parts of the region and country, to the eventual detriment of most, but as long as some influential "someones" profits handsomely and at a fast rate, isn't that what's important to our local "movers and shakers"……?

So what are these "Voldemorts"? One is racism - at least the variation on that theme where mostly richer and  employed people (mostly white people, too) flee to the suburbs and take their money and jobs with them, leaving behind concentrated poverty and effectively no access to a society's benefits that are mostly available on the basis of money. The other one is petroleum, and in particular the presently occurring phenomena called "Peak Oil". The society of sprawl is based on oil - remove the affordability of, access to oil and the suburbs have to fold like a cheap suit. But, there was no mention of the "Iron Triangle" of petroleum, oil based transportation (especially cars and trucks) and suburbs all held together with large quantities of incredibly cheap debt. And for many, debt, it turns out has grown faster than incomes, and is becoming more like a harsh master and less of a helper to facilitating a better life, so even that part of the triangle is also looking less desirable these days… And then there is the whole debt-oil price relationship, especially for a region more reliant on the Albany/NY City "sugar-daddy" arrangement because the manufacturing segment is kept in a profound sate of disrepair and disrespect.

And so, there were these interesting factoids told about population "un-densification", more roads, fewer people, and the fact that the average trip that food makes is 1500 miles from where it is grown to its consumption in Western NY. Oh yes, there was also mention of climate change/global warming going on (exacerbated by sprawl, of course), but no solutions offered of note, nor even a glimpse of how to employ people in dealing with these issues - though "climate adaptation" was mentioned. And then there were those hints that only the educated worthy would be the ones employed to study these problems, and possibly benefit from any solutions to this regional stagnation…..

And so this planning discussion session rapidly devolved into something similar to the musings of an alcoholic describing how booze has taken him down, as he cracks open the seal on the second fifth of whiskey to be consumed for the day. And since much of the presentation and all of the 160 reports that 64 municipalities and other organizations that produced this effort were generally written by upper class/upper middle class people more or less "cut from the same cloth", no wonder the things that might make them uncomfortable were never mentioned. In this analogy, maybe this diseased (with alcoholism) person will kick the habit one of these days, but there was no evidence that this is likely, or that all of the enabling accomplices will also get off this road to nowhere any time soon. Besides, it IS so much fun to talk about it, to "research the living beans" out of this experiment in regional asset destruction, impoverishment and extreme segregation in the "City of Good Neighbors", so evidently it will continue for a while….

Of course, everybody KNOWS about the fact the the wealthier 'burbs in Erie and Niagara Counties are incredibly segregated, and its inhabitants are pretty devoid of much melanin content. But it seems to be accepted as if it is the will of the divine, since only the worthy are entitled to live a good life, supposedly. As for why oil prices have increased by a factor of 6 since 1998…well, maybe that, too is divine providence, as it is SO UNQUESTIONED. But about a billion and a half dollars every year has to be exported from our region to pay for oil products imported into these two counties that allows us access to all petroleum can power up at present prices - and five years from now, that's apt to be at least $3 billion. What proverbial pound of flesh has to be lopped off to pay the rapidly escalating costs for the petro-fix? Might it be easier to start shedding the Iron Triangle's grip on the ways that we subliminally think and behave? Or is it all about "who gets tapped" for the pound of flesh that is important, which often translates into "the usual suspects" - ones who tend to be poorer and without significant means to communicate this inequity to those in the 'burbs who tend to now call the tunes, politically and economically speaking. Besides, maybe this profound inequality is an OK situation with most of the inhabitants in the 'burbs...

Maybe, but for a hard core alcoholic (like our society is about its oil "issue"), getting free of the addiction is often a long and difficult road. Sure, admitting there is a problem is a useful start, but continual drinking after admission of perhaps a problem does not "solve" the problem. It's quitting drinking that solves THAT problem - and odds are, there's more than one problem that needs solving to cut off the problem boozing - this  often involves changing behaviors, lifestyles and so much more. It is often possible to get on the wagon and off the booze, but not everyone can do it, does it or even wants to do it; some just like to complain about the habits they know aren't good for them while continuing to indulge in them. But for some, they see no alternative, or don't like the alternatives that do exist, and they are willing to "go down with the ship" before they will change their inequitable and unsustainable ways. Maybe in a society a lot less "oiled up" the extreme degree of socioeconomic and related segregation is no longer possible, just like "ex-urbs" are no longer possible except for the extremely wealthy. For some, essentially complete impoverishment from high oil products prices and the ever harsher recessions associated with quadrupling oil prices in a decade is what it will take to end the "separate and unequal" that also seems to be part and parcel of the Iron Triangle, at least for those rendered unworthy by lack of money. Unfortunately, we need to keep in mind that sometimes equalization via mutual poverty produces profoundly bad results - the "impoverish most everyone" approach really is something to be avoided if at all possible.

And so the planners of our "One Region" forgot to make sure there would be gasoline in the tank before starting on this new planning endeavor. And with no spare fuel tank, or extra money in case they are lucky enough to find any fuel, that tends to be similar to being stranded in the desert without any water, and definitely not a good situation. And now the car doesn't work, and there's no way to get to work, buy stuff and keep the economy moving along. What would you do for a bit of gas in a situation like that? It's not good at all to be so vulnerable for something you have no control over, and which was known for a long time to be coming, and which could have been prevented. The big warning came in a Scientific American article (March, 1998), and Peak Oil officially arrived in 2006, though it wasn't officially announced until 2011. You can see the trends (top graph) leading to the prediction below (bottom graphs). Maybe they might want to speak it's name and incorporate it into the plan. In fact, just plan on Peak Oil doing things no one really wants, and the way to avoid that fate is to plan on not really using petroleum at all, and really soon, not decades far off into the future…

The graphical approach to determining the average rate at which prices rise over a set length of time is to plot the logarithm of prices versus time; the slope of the best fit line is the average price rise rate. From 1983 to 1998, oil prices in the U.S. were pretty constant, reaching an all-time low in the late 1990's as the North Sea oil fields between England/Scotland and Norway reached their peak production. Those fields have been good for about 40 billion barrels so far (and lots of natural gas), but are "in decline", like most of the major oil fields in the world now in production mode. Maybe it's time to plan for when oil will get too darn pricey to run an economy and a society on oil products for the transportation energy needed to move people and goods around. Ya think? Or should it be ignored until it is just too darn late to do anything about it, and the next generations have to deal with the mess that has been kicked down the road for far too long.

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