Category Archives: Economics

Save Lake Mead, Save America

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Lake Mead was established as America’s first National Recreation Area.

If we can save Lake Mead, we can save America. The issues that face Lake Mead, formed by Hoover Dam in 1935, are emblematic of the issues that face America. Water from the Colorado River, like the federal budget, is over-allocated. The deficit isn’t so much a lack of water coming in to the lake, but too much going out to water users in California, Arizona, and locally at Las Vegas, Nevada. The result is a permanent white bathtub ring 150 feet above the remaining lake, leaving an oversized dam, and decaying infrastructure throughout Lake Mead National Recreation Area. There is a potential solution to this slow-motion crisis, which can be found three hundred miles to the West.

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Lake Mead is the closest place to Montana with palm trees, where a person can comfortably pitch a tent and camp in the middle of winter.

Lake Mead was established as America’s first National Recreation Area in 1936, originally named the Boulder Dam Recreation Area. Measured by capacity, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States, but water levels have fallen to 37 percent of capacity. Lake Mead National Recreation Area is administered by the National Park Service, similar to a national park, but with greater emphasis as an outdoor play area than on natural preservation.

Lake Mead has been slowly drying up since 1983. I first discovered the lake in the early 1990s on a winter trip from my home in Montana south to Arizona. Lake Mead is the closest place to home with palm trees, where one can comfortably pitch a tent and enjoy camping in mid-winter. If need be, I can drive the 822 miles from home to the campground at Echo Bay in one long day on the road.  Back then it still looked mostly full, as if the white rim around the lake was due to seasonal fluctuations, rather than a cumulative drop.

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Touring Hoover Dam with my boys back in 2008. The white bathtub ring in the background is much larger now.

For better or worse, Hoover Dam was constructed when America still had the vision and balls to dream big and tackle the impossible, in this case, the most challenging engineering project ever undertaken, temporarily diverting the Colorado and building a 726-foot dam to restrain the mighty river. 660 feet thick at the top and 45 feet thick at the bottom, the Hoover Dam required so much concrete that the core of is still cooling down from the chemical reaction of cement and water nearly a century later. The entire job was completed in just five years with the aid of 5,000 workers.

Throughout American history, we were a nation of dreamers, from the founding of democracy to construction of the transcontinental railroads and the founding of Yellowstone as the first national park in our country and in the world. Inspired by the dream of America, oppressed peoples in the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Poland, and around the world rebelled against autocratic governments and founded democracies of their own, spreading freedom without American intervention beyond the inspiration of our existence.

Ditto for America’s parks. Author Wallace Stegner described our national parks as “America’s best idea,” an idea that inspired other nations to form similar parks to preserve their own national treasures for future generations. As part of our national parks system, Lake Mead is effectively one of our ambassadors to the world.

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Every city should be surrounded by wilderness!

Lake Mead and Las Vegas is also a model for the interface between urban centers and wildlands. The city is uniquely surrounded by vast public lands and outdoor recreation opportunities, what former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt described as a “city in the wilderness.” Every person in Vegas is about a half hour drive from the middle of nowhere, where hiking, camping, and boating opportunities abound. Wouldn’t it be great if every city shared similar opportunities?

Despite proximity to town, Lake Mead is strangely deserted in winter. High temperatures hover from the mid-50s to the mid-60s in December and January, sometimes dipping down to the 40s, chilly, but not unlike camping in the mountains of Montana in summer. By February, temperatures often reach the mid-70s and the cottonwoods leaf out three full months ahead of spring at home. Still, the campgrounds are largely deserted as Las Vegans consider this winter.

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Lake Mead is a great winter getaway, especially coming south from Montana.

The lake doesn’t get busy until spring break or later, when urbanites from Vegas to Phoenix to Los Angeles begin flocking to the lake to cool off and play in the water. That suits me just fine. I’m content to paddle around the lake in a canoe, enjoying the lack of noisy motorboats and the waves they leave in their wake that could potentially swamp a canoe.

I also enjoy hiking the park’s rugged backcountry before it gets too hot. Lake Mead is rich with wildlife from bighorn sheep and burrows to jackrabbits, roadrunners, and Wile E. Coyote. Unfortunately, the recreation area has taken on an increasingly apocalyptic look as water levels have dropped and facilities have deteriorated or been completely abandoned, mirroring a general decline across America.

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As water levels fell, the National Park Service poured more concrete to extend the Echo Bay boat ramp, eventually becoming a one-third mile boat ramp to nowhere.

The Echo Bay Hotel was still a waterfront resort when I first visited Lake Mead. I savored ripe dates below a date palm on the west side of the building, wishing I could scale the tree to pick more. The boat ramp in front of the hotel provided easy access to the lake. Each time I returned, the lake was a little farther from the hotel, and the Park Service had poured more concrete, extending the initial board ramp downhill to catch up with the receding lake, ultimately becoming a one-third mile boat ramp to nowhere, terminating far from the present lakeshore.

The marina was also pushed farther out into the lake, requiring constant re-engineering of the facilities and ever-longer water pipes, electrical lines, and anchor cables. A quarter mile beyond the boat ramp, the marina was abandoned, and the Park Service plowed a mile-long dirt road from the hotel to access the remaining lake.

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The Echo Bay hotel and marina were abandoned, contributing to a post-apocalyptic aura.

Not surprisingly, the hotel soon went out of business. Vandals broke the windows and destroyed the interior. Ditto for the abandoned marina. Yet neither place has found room in the budget for demolition and removal, presumably because the Park Service has prioritized chasing the lake to keep facilities functional, rather than cleaning up old messes. The race to migrate the marinas with the receding lake has left behind a litter trail of old docks, parts, cables, concrete blocks and tire anchors. Abandoned boats are surprisingly common in the old dead stands of tamarisk far above the present lake.

Some of my anti-establishment friends see the decline of Lake Mead as prophetic to the inevitable abandonment of Las Vegas and Phoenix, desert cities that shouldn’t exist, sustained by water restrained by a dam that shouldn’t have been built. We should blow up the damn dam and every other dam to allow rivers to flow wild and free and restore the healthy ecology and natural fisheries, they exclaim. This article isn’t about whether or not Hoover Dam should have been built, but as long as it exists, I believe we might as well use it. Besides, if the lake ceased to exist and Las Vegas dried up, all those people might move to Montana.

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There are many abandoned boats in the dead and dying tamarisk around Lake Mead.

There are also people who cheer the decline of America. Civilization as we know it is not sustainable. We’ve paved over paradise, fracked the planet for consumable resources, and terrorized the world with warfare. They see the collapse of our nation as a necessary step in the path to sustainability, to restoring balance with nature. I see it a bit differently, since there are enough guns and ammo to turn our country into Syria and to wipe out all remaining wildlife for food. All our toxic chemicals would spill unchecked into surface and groundwaters—and best of all—our untended nuclear reactors would melt down and irradiate all life on the planet. Collapse is no longer a viable option. Saving America, and saving Lake Mead, seems like a much better plan.

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Vandals broke windows and destroyed the inside of the inside of the Echo Bay hotel before it was boarded up to prevent further access.

The doomsayers do have a point though. America has overreached and become a world terror. Gone are the days when we were the most respected and admired nation on earth. Somewhere we transitioned from inspiring other nations to bombing them in the name of peace and democracy. In the latest round of democracy-or-else, we invested $5 trillion dollars a) to remove Saddam Hussein (whom we previously supported and armed against Iran), b) to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (after originally arming and training Afghans to fight the Soviets), and c) to destroy ISIS (which was born in our own Army prisons and armed with American weapons left behind from tasks a and b). In terms of bang for the buck, we don’t have much to show for the investment. Invested differently, $5 trillion could have saved Lake Mead as well as most of America.

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Being landlocked in the desert, Las Vegas is dependent on water from Lake Mead.

American infrastructure is declining, and Lake Mead is drying up. Due to falling water levels, Las Vegas invested $817 million to construct a new intake pipe to reach deeper into the lake, yet it too is in danger of becoming a straw to nowhere as lake levels continue to drop. The problem is that downstream water users claim too much of the Colorado’s flow, such that experts forecast that Lake Mead will never rise to capacity again. At this point, I haven’t heard of a plan, a vision, or apparently even a discussion on how to remedy the problem. As a country, we lack the dream or the initiative to tackle our most basic problems.

Being landlocked in the desert, Las Vegas and Phoenix depend on the Colorado for their very survival. Farmers in California’s Central Valley also depend on the river to grow much of the nation’s produce. Los Angeles and San Diego, however, are situated adjacent to the world’s biggest bowl of water, the Pacific Ocean, three hundred miles west of Lake Mead. If these urban centers obtained their water from the ocean and left Colorado water in Lake Mead, the lake would refill at the rate of about 4 percent per year, enough to eventually fill the lake to capacity and potentially restore partial flows across the Mexico border to the Gulf of California.

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Investing in desalinization to provide water to Los Angeles and San Diego from the Pacific Ocean could save enough Colorado River water to refill Lake Mead.

At present, desalinization is considered energy-intensive and cost prohibitive, about $2.20 to $5.00 per thousand cubic feet of treated water, compared to $2.00 to purify river water. Yet, the cost of desalinization is falling as other countries, notably Israel, invest heavily in the technology. The cost of wind, solar, and wave power are also falling, making desalinization a realistic possibility, if not now, then in the near future. The federal government and all water users would have to work together to determine who would pay for construction and operation of the desalinization plants.

Notably, Carlsbad, California has recently completed a desalinization plant to augment their water supply, and other plants are being discussed in the state, but apparently not towards the goal of restoring Lake Mead or guaranteeing future water supplies to Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Due to the 1922 Colorado River Compact governing water use, any water saved on the California coast would likely be utilized by other entities to fulfill their own claims. This is not an insurmountable problem. The effort required to renegotiate the water compact and build desalinization plants is far less than the bold action initially required to build the dam and create the lake.

Lake Mead needs what America needs, a bold vision for a better future and the balls to commit to making it happen. If we can save Lake Mead, we can just as easily save America and once again become an inspiration and positive role model to the world.

Elpel.info logo. Thomas J. Elpel is the director of Green University, LLC in Pony, Montana and the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and sustainable living. In 2006, Thomas Elpel and friends paddled the Virgin River from Mesquite, Nevada downstream to Lake Mead… dragging canoes ten miles through the sand. Read the full story.

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Filed under Conservation, Economics, Politics, Public Access, Sustainability, Wildlife

Save The Planet ‐ 12 Cents

Guest blog by Marc Elpel, September 27, 2014

Written by Marc Elpel. Marc has studies in engineering and finance, and has been a key contributor in management and design development for companies in the fields of renewable energy devices, bio-technology, and medical devices.

Written by Marc Elpel. Marc has studies in engineering and finance, and has been a key contributor in management and design development for companies in the fields of renewable energy devices, bio-technology, and medical devices.

      The Climate Change argument has shifted from theory to reality, and we are now facing the initial impacts of increasingly erratic storms, floods, droughts, and forest fires. We are responding to the crisis with united apathy, as if saving ourselves isn’t worth the trouble. Sometimes the problem seems too big to tackle. We are so dependent on fossil fuel vehicles, for example, that it seems nearly impossible to do anything about it in any meaningful timeframe. Most of us cannot afford a $75,000 Tesla to commute to work, nor can we cover the upfront financial commitment to “go solar” at home. We wait for the promise of high-efficiency cars and cheap solar power, but we otherwise do nothing while news reports grow more dire every day. And yet, we can offset all carbon emissions from automobiles at a ridiculously affordable price. It is really a question of priorities:  would you pay 12¢ to change the course of global warming?

      As a country we are set in our ways.  We have our cars, and our lifestyles are based on commuting and travel. Climate change reports inform us of the problem, but we still need to commute to work, so we continue pumping gas, and the climate issues continue to compound.  Since we have not stopped driving, I set out to answer the question ‘What is the “carbon cost” of a gallon of gasoline?’ In other words, if we have to use gas until we have a better option, what is the environmental impact of the carbon in the gas, and can I do something about it?

One gallon of gasoline.

A gallon of gasoline weighs about 6.3 pounds, consisting mostly of carbon, plus a small amount of hydrogen and a few impurities. Through combustion each carbon atom combines with two atoms of heavier oxygen atoms, resulting about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

      Through miracles in chemistry, each gallon of gas (weighing about 6.3 pounds) creates approximately 20 pounds of carbon, and 7 pounds of water[1][2]. The carbon numbers change depending on various factors, including type of fuel, octane rating, and calculation approximations.  For calculations we will use 20 pounds of carbon per gallon.

      Carbon cost as represented by web sites selling carbon offsets run approximately $5 to 6 per thousand pounds of carbon [4][5]. Using $6.00 per thousand pounds, we find the cost per gallon is 20 pounds carbon times $6.00 per 1000 pounds, or $0.12 per gallon. At 12 cents per gallon of gas we offset the carbon burned driving “carbon neutral.” With a national average gas price of $3.65 per gallon, 12 cents represents 3% of the cost per gallon.

      In 2012, USA annual gas usage was 133 billion (133,000,000,000!) gallons. At 12 cents surcharge per gallon, we would have $16 billion in carbon offset money available for reforestation and purchasing renewable energy. While this money could be applied to all forms of carbon reduction, we can look at applying all of that amount to solar installations to see how far it goes. Note that this analysis can be performed for wind or hydroelectric… the numbers shift slightly but conclusions remain the same.

Solar panels.

Applied to solar power, a 12¢ gallon carbon offset surcharge would cover the cost to install clean solar power on 1.2 million homes every year.

      Utility scale installed solar power cost has dropped to $2.10 per watt [8]. Using $16 billion annually from a 12 cent surcharge on fuel, we could purchase 7,600,000 KW of installed solar, for an annual production of 13,832,000,000 KWH of power! (See reference [9] for calculations between installed watts and kilowatts per year.) The average household power usage in the US is 10,837 KWH, so in one year we can switch over 1.2 million homes to clean solar energy.  Each year, we could switch another 1.2 million homes to solar if the $16 billion in revenue stayed constant. If we leverage the money by paying half of the install cost for utility companies we can expand that number to 2.4 million households per year or approximately 2% of the homes in the USA converted to solar each year. Within 10 years, with no other actions taken, we will have converted ~20% of the entire country’s residential power needs to solar (or wind, or hydroelectric…)! 

Car tire.

“Offsetting a 3% surcharge means going from 29 to 30 MPG… an almost undetectable change in driving habits.”

      As we try to deal with climate change, politicians debate whether we “can afford” the costs of the environmental impact. They argue we will lose our competitive edge in world markets if we go green. And while they debate the important issues of more efficient vehicle  standards and new power regulations, we continue down the road to our demise. So what about the 12 cent cost? Can we afford the 12 cents? For individuals who fear the extra gas cost, this 3% can be made up (and more!) by slowing down 5 MPH.  The fueleconomy.gov web site states: “You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 50 mph is like paying an additional $0.24 per gallon for gas”[10]. If you can’t slow down, then carpool once per month and you offset the usage as well. Combine trips to the store, or commute off hours when traffic is less. Offsetting a 3% surcharge means going from 29 to 30 MPG… an almost undetectable change in driving habits.

      The economic impacts of offsetting our gas usage will lower our dependence on foreign oil and will generate jobs in building and maintaining renewable energy utilities. Funds can also support private solar installations and help individuals bring their power bills to zero. Funds used in planting trees will enhance open space and parks used by all, while lowering summer temperatures in our towns and cities, further reducing climate change caused by coal fired electric generation. One might even argue that lowering our oil needs by installation of more renewable energy will ultimately lower the price per gallon, making fuel less expensive in the future. And ultimately, back to where we started, immediately responding to global warming will reduce the enormous financial cost otherwise required to respond to climate change impacts.

Dying forest.

“Solving the climate change impact from transportation does not require waiting for better cars – we have a solution available today to immediately mitigate the real time impact of our gasoline addiction.”

      Solving the climate change impact from transportation does not require waiting for better cars – we have a solution available today to immediately mitigate the real time impact of our gasoline addiction.

      Place a carbon surcharge of 12 cents on each gallon and use the proceeds to invest in renewable energy.  As a country, tying the environmental cost of gas to its use allows us to react today and reinvest in a greener future. Cities (such as Los Angeles) can implement this ahead of the federal government, immediately using their transportation challenges to solve their local power and environmental needs.

      We may not all be able to trade in our vehicles for clean transportation today, but as a society we can take this simple action and dramatically change our future.

      America has some of the cleanest cities in the world as we as individuals, and as a society, clean‐up after ourselves. We have recycling policies and incentives, and core charges to ensure old batteries stay out of landfills. Yet while we would not consider dropping garbage as we go, when faced with the largest manmade ecological disaster of human history, we spew our carbon without regard to the pollution we leave behind. Initially we did not know – or did not understand – the impact and consequences of our emissions. Now that we do, is it not worth twelve cents to save the planet?

[1] http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/contentIncludes/co2_inc.htm
[2] http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=307&t=11
[3] http://jg2090.newsvine.com/_news/2009/09/02/3216613‐burning‐1‐gallon‐of‐gasoline‐produces‐20‐pounds‐of‐co2
[4] http://www.carbonfund.org/
[5] http://www.terrapass.com/
[6] http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=23&t=10
[7] http://www.pv‐tech.org/editors_blog/we_need_to_talk_about_utility_scale_solar
[8] http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/Is‐Utility‐Scale‐Solar‐Really‐Cheaper‐Than‐Rooftop‐Solar
[9] http://www.solar‐estimate.org/?page=solar‐calculations
[10] http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/driveHabits.jsp

See also these related posts:

Frack this Planet
Too Many Jobs?

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Filed under Conservation, Economics, Energy Issues / Policy, Sustainability

Profiting from Gun Violence

Corporate Greed and the American Bloodbath

Advertisement for the Bushmaster AR-15. It isn’t difficult for the gun industry to capitalize on the natural insecurities of young men who want to feel more powerful.

Advertisement for the Bushmaster AR-15. It isn’t difficult for the gun industry to capitalize on the natural insecurities of young men who want to feel more powerful.

Like sweeping sand in a sandstorm, gun control efforts are well intentioned but futile, even if enacted. Gun control advocates propose outlawing specific types of guns and increasing background checks for the people who buy them. They might as well try to outlaw sand or try to regulate where the wind takes it. Real reform cannot happen until we sequester the storm at its source. Gun manufacturers make and market millions of guns, and like all corporations, their purpose for existence is to expand markets and attain the highest possible rate of return for their shareholders. It isn’t a gun rights issue at all. The issue that matters is corporate greed. Like the tobacco industry, the gun industry will exploit consumers and profit from death as long as it is economical to do so.
Guns were traditionally marketed as tools for hunting, but sales waned as Americans migrated into the cities and suburbs and lost interest in hunting. With guns no longer needed as tools, gun manufacturers adapted to the changing demographics and began manufacturing new guns and cultivating new markets. These guns are not like your grandfather’s hunting rifle. To increase the appeal of guns, the industry began manufacturing civilian models of military and police guns, promoting gun use as symbols of power and masculinity. These guns are marketed to young men to make them feel more powerful, and then to homeowners and women to protect them from people who shouldn’t have guns, and even to children for “recreation.” It is a successful strategy. This market has ballooned at a 27 percent annual rate in just the last five years.1
One study commissioned by the shooting sports industry suggested recruiting children ages 8 to 17 years old, who already have shooting experience, to serve as “peer ambassadors” to entice other kids into the sport. The industry-supported Junior Shooters magazine has featured the Bushmaster AR-15 as a great weapon for target shooting. Children were encouraged to share the story with their parents, enticing them with this teaser, “Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a Bushmaster AR-15 under your tree some frosty Christmas morning!” According to the editor, Andy Fink, semiautomatic firearms are not weapons unless they are used against other people, and there is no legitimate reason why children shouldn’t learn how to safely use an AR-15 for recreation.2 The AR-15 is the assault rifle used by Adam Lanza to gun down twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012.

Boys-becoming-men grow up on the couch, spending thousands of hours immersed in simulated warfare and murder, learning how to blow people away without remorse or emotion. [Photo credit, Get Gaming Now]

Boys-becoming-men grow up on the couch, spending thousands of hours immersed in simulated warfare and murder, learning how to blow people away without remorse or emotion. [Photo credit, Get Gaming Now]

      Urbanization has made men like Lanza increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by savvy marketing firms. Young men do not have the opportunity to build rippling muscles and self esteem by doing traditional work – building fences, swinging an axe, or taming a wild horse. Instead, boys-becoming-men grow up on the couch, shooting people in video games, using virtual guns that are often the same or similar to actual models pushed by gun manufacturers. They spend thousands of hours immersed in simulated warfare and murder, learning how to blow people away without remorse or emotion. I have met young men with that background, and they often talk of becoming Army Rangers. They want to go to war so they can use their “skills” in the real world.

"Alexa." An "ex-girlfriend turned zombie" on display as a target at the NRA convention. Source: New York Daily News

“Alexa.” An “ex-girlfriend turned zombie” on display as a target at the NRA convention. Source: New York Daily News

Adam Lanza had no prior criminal record. But he spent a great deal of time alone in his basement immersed in Call of Duty, scoring points for kills. Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, quickly and publicly blamed the video game industry for the Sandy Hook tragedy. But behind the scenes, the gun and video game industries are often in bed together. Gun manufacturers have allowed video game producers to portray real-life gun models in video games, and video warfare gaming sites have featured advertising for gun and ammo manufacturers. Restless young men, having spent hundreds of hours immersed in simulated warfare, were tempted by advertisements to buy real weapons. The direct advertising was discontinued after complaints, but video games still feature authentic gun models and condition users to kill.
Even without marketing, men are susceptible to the false sense of power that comes with a gun. I still remember listening to the stories in the boys’ locker room in junior high. Kids bragged about how they blew away some coyote or varmint with a gun. The bigger the gun and the more they decimated the creature, the bigger the brag, as if there is something profoundly manly about being able to squeeze a trigger. Hunting to feed one’s family is one thing, but guns can distort a user’s personality, contributing to a fundamental disrepect for life. As a hiker, I often encounter “sportsmen” who go out in the woods to drink beer and blast away at the trees, rocks, and wildlife for entertainment.
The gun industry knows how to capitalize on the natural insecurities of young men who want to feel more powerful. Fortunately, most young men, confined to the cities, don’t have the opportunity to exercise their manliness on the local wildlife. Unfortunately, the gun industry is flooding our cities and towns with weapons and ammunition, putting them in the hands of testosterone-hyped young men with no outlet to use them, except against other people.

For the gun industry, it is a win-win marketing situation. By aiding and abetting gun violence, the gun industry (and it's non-profit affiliates) bolsters the market for yet more gun sales, but now on the pretext of security.

For the gun industry, it is a win-win marketing situation. By aiding and abetting gun violence, the gun industry (and it’s non-profit affiliates) bolsters the market for yet more gun sales, but now on the pretext of security.

For the gun industry, it is a win-win marketing situation. By aiding and abetting gun violence, the gun industry bolsters the market for yet more gun sales, but now on the pretext of security. As Wayne LaPierre, vice president for the National Rifle Association, said after the Sandy Hook massacre, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”3 What the gun industry wants is for every law-abiding citizen to own a gun, or better yet, a whole gun collection. Be trained and prepared for self-defense. Keep one behind the counter to defend your business. Keep a gun in your car, or get a permit to carry a concealed weapon and keep it on you at all times. Arm our pilots, our teachers, and our taxicab drivers. Legalize guns on college campuses, and make sure everyone has one for self-defense. Because a world that is awash with guns requires that everyone be armed to defend themselves against people with guns.
There are already an estimated 310 million guns in the United States,4 approximately one gun for every man, woman, and child in the country. The problem with the gun industry, as with all corporations, is that there isn’t an end to it. It wouldn’t matter if there were 310 billion or 310 trillion guns in the country. The nature of corporations is to expand and sell more products this year than they did last year. A banner sales year for guns only requires newer and better marketing schemes to con people into buying yet more guns the following year. But more guns will never make us safer, and gun violence doesn’t necessarily turn people against gun ownership.

Mass murder is good for business. Sales of guns and ammunition spiked after the Sandy Hook massacre, even before the bloody corpses of the children were laid to rest.  Top row: (L-R) Ana Marquez-Greene, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Emilie Parker, Noah Pozner. Second row: (L-R) Jesse Lewis, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Charlotte Bacon, Chase Kowalski. Third row: (L-R) Daniel Barden, Jack Pinto, Catherine Hubbard, Dylan Hockley, Benjamin Wheeler. Fourth row: (L-R) Grace McDonnell, James Mattioli, Avielle Richman, Madeleine Hsu, Allison Wyatt.Image source: MercuryNews.com Original source: REUTERS/Handout

Mass murder is good for business. Sales of guns and ammunition spiked after the Sandy Hook massacre, even before the bloody corpses of the children were laid to rest.

Top row: (L-R) Ana Marquez-Greene, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Emilie Parker, Noah Pozner. Second row: (L-R) Jesse Lewis, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Charlotte Bacon, Chase Kowalski. Third row: (L-R) Daniel Barden, Jack Pinto, Catherine Hubbard, Dylan Hockley, Benjamin Wheeler. Fourth row: (L-R) Grace McDonnell, James Mattioli, Avielle Richman, Madeleine Hsu, Allison Wyatt.
Image source: MercuryNews.com Original source: REUTERS/Handout

One would think that gun violence and massacres like Sandy Hook would be bad for the gun industry. Publicly, industry representatives lament such tragedies, and privately, they must worry about the impact on the corporate bottom line. But strangely, even mass murder is good for business. Sales of guns and ammunition spiked immediately after the massacre, before the children’s bloody corpses were laid to rest. Presumably, consumers buy additional guns and stock up on ammunition because they fear new gun control legislation.
Fear of gun control is perhaps the gun industry’s best marketing tool of all. The NRA fans these flames of fear, manipulating gun owners until people wildly exclaim that, “The government is going to take our guns away!” even though no such legislation has been proposed. I’ts absurd.
As one fed-up gun-toting Wyoming mother lamented, “I am tired of going to the local ammo supplier and finding out that every bullet they had sold out as quickly as they put them on the shelves. I am tired of listening to hateful rhetoric about how the President is coming to take everything down to our pea shooter away. It’s ridiculous. We know that the only people who stand to profit from this are the ones who sell guns and bullets. They have motive, means and opportunity. All they want is our money.”5
Keeping gun control in the news as much as possible is good for business. And fortunately for the gun industry, it’s a win-win situation, whether or not gun control legislation is enacted. If defeated, the battle continues. If approved in some miniscule way, the battle continues. And even if specific gun models and clip sizes are banned and background checks required, the impact to gun sales and gun violence won’t be significant.

Adam Lanza wasn’t an outlaw, and his mother had a permit for the gun he used to kill her and everyone else.

Adam Lanza wasn’t an outlaw, and his mother had a permit for the gun he used to kill her and everyone else.

As gun advocates like to say, “If you outlaw guns, then only outlaws will have guns.” But Adam Lanza wasn’t an outlaw, and his mother had a permit for the gun he used to kill her and everyone else.
Nancy Lanza was not a bad person for buying a semiautomatic rifle. She never could have predicted how the weapon would ultimately be used. And that’s the problem. Merely buying and owning the AR-15 made the Sandy Hook massacre possible. And it will happen again. The gun used in the next massacre may be properly locked away in someone’s gun safe right now. No person can absolutely gaurantee that their gun won’t be used to commit murder, any more than they can guarantee that they themselves won’t one day suffer from severe emotional stress and mental illness. Even well-trained and properly certified police officers and soldiers go rogue now and then and start killing people.
As long as our society is awash in guns, we will be plagued by gun violence. An estimated half million guns are lost or stolen every year in this country.6 By merely owning guns, well-intentioned gun owners are unintentionally putting guns in the hands of criminals. Ultimately, we are not suffering from a lack of gun control, we are suffering from an excess supply of guns. Out of 12,664 homicides in the U.S. in 2011, 8,583 were committed with guns. Guns were also used in 19,392 suicides in 2010, accounting for about half of the total.7
In response to gun violence, Chicago enacted the nation’s strictest gun control laws, but to little avail. Guns can be purchased legally only by properly trained and certified, permit-carrying, law-abiding citizens. Everyone else buys guns through the black market, imported from elsewhere or sometimes stolen from law-abiding gun owners. A handgun can be purchased on the streets of Chicago for $40 or $50, or a semiautomatic for $100.8
Twenty-nine students from Chicago’s Harper High School were shot in just one year, eight of them fatally, which prompted Public Radio International to do an in-depth story for This American Life. Three reporters spent a semester in the community, interviewing students, staff, and parents. For the students, just walking home from school each day required strategy to stay alive. They often walked down the center of the street, blocking traffic, to avoid close quarters with trees or other obstacles along sidewalks where gunmen might be hiding. They walked close enough to each other to benefit from group security, but far enough apart to avoid implying any affiliations that might get them knocked off by one gang or another.9 This is daily life in Chicago, USA, and it is a potential harbinger of things to come as gun manufacturers flood our cities and towns with millions upon millions of new guns. As noted in the story, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida has attended funerals for forty-four slain children in just four and a half years.10

More than 60,000 people have died in the drug war in Mexico, yet American gun makers have done nothing to prevent the flow of guns into the country, nor expressed any concern. Why should they? It is all profit for them. Illustration by Matt  Wuerker

More than 60,000 people have died in the drug war in Mexico, yet American gun makers have done nothing to prevent the flow of guns into the country, nor expressed any concern. Why should they? It is all profit for them. Illustration by Matt Wuerker

The gun industry, like the tobacco industry, is driven by profit, and both profit from death. The drug war in Mexico, for example, is partly fueled by American-made guns flowing across the border. Between government agents, rival drug cartels, and innocent civilians caught in the cross-fire, more than 60,000 people have died in the battle.11 Murder has become so commonplace in places like Juarez, that residents have been known to yawn while passing by yet another murder scene. Young children routinely witness the mopping up of blood on the street. The American gun industry quietly profits from the bloodbath and has done nothing to stem the flow of guns and ammunition to Mexico. Every bullet fired ultimately translates to more profit for corporate shareholders.
Mexicans have responded by glorifying the drug cartels on television, glamorizing a lifestyle of guns, drugs, sex, and money, which ultimately recruits yet more gullible young men into a life of violence. As the violence spills across the border, our southern states are becoming increasingly ghettoized and everyone is in prison. Those with limited means put bars on their own windows. People with more money lock themselves into gated communities, but no one is free.

A .50 Caliber Flintlock Pirate Pistol purchased by the author.  The manufacture of traditional hunting rifles is not the concern, nor the cottage industry of small-time, custom gun makers.

A .50 Caliber Flintlock Pirate Pistol purchased by the author.
The manufacture of traditional hunting rifles is not the concern, nor the cottage industry of small-time, custom gun makers.

It is a stark contrast to the world I grew up in here in Montana, where many people didn’t bother to lock their doors at night. Some didn’t bother to lock their doors when they went away on vacation. But the world out there is steadily encroaching, making Montanans live in fear like everyone else.
If we are to reverse the trend and regain our security, we must deal with the superstorm at its source. To have any hope of reducing gun violence, we must first stop flooding the marketplace with cheap, mass-produced guns. The manufacture of traditional hunting rifles is not the concern, nor the cottage industry of small-time, custom gun makers. But any type of gun that regularly shows up at crime scenes needs to be addressed. What would happen if we were to apply a crime tax to problem gun types, both real and virtual?

Gun manufacturers make and market millions of guns, and like all corporations, their purpose for existence is to expand markets and attain the highest possible rate of return for their shareholders.

Gun manufacturers make and market millions of guns, and like all corporations, their purpose for existence is to expand markets and attain the highest possible rate of return for their shareholders.

For example, placing a significant crime tax on handgun sales could reduce demand enough to eventually make them scarce. How much tax would be required on legitimate handgun sales to raise the black market price of a handgun from $40 to $400 in Chicago? Would there be less gun violence if cheap guns were not being passed around the neighborhood? Would there still be an incentive to rob a convenience store if it necessitated a $400 investment instead of a $40 investment? And what if this crime tax were used by law enforcement to aid gun buy-back programs? At what price would gang members be more interested in cashing out gun collections for quick, easy, and legitimate cash? What would happen if we also taxed violent video games and included the revenue in the gun buy-back program?
Alternately, what would happen if the gun industry were held accountable for crimes committed by their products? If a particular type of gun were implicated regularly in crime scenes, then perhaps the manufacturer should re-examine the gun style, marketing campaign, and/or customer screening associated with that model. If a corporation fails to address the issues, then it should be held indirectly accountable for the resulting crimes. How might a gun or ammunition manufacturer adjust its product lines, consumer screening, education, and tracking, if the company were fined a million dollars for each person murdered by their brand of gun?

Although he sometimes uses guns, Thomas J. Elpel prefers to hunt with sticks, rocks, and bows and arrows, which engenders deeper respect for one’s quarry.

Although he sometimes uses guns, Thomas J. Elpel prefers to hunt with sticks, rocks, and bows and arrows, which engenders deeper respect for one’s quarry.

I don’t know the best answers for reducing gun violence. What I do know is that the best-intentioned gun control laws won’t make much difference as long as the gun industry retains the incentive to flood the marketplace with millions upon millions of cheap new guns. If we are going to make meaningful change, we must shift the debate from the end user to the true source of the problem: corporate greed. We will never be safe as long as there is profit to be made by conning people into believing they need more guns.

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of six books and the founder of Green University® LLC. Tom is admittedly not a big fan of guns, but he does use them as needed. Tom kills only what he will eat, and he prefers hunting with sticks, rocks, and bows & arrows, which engenders deeper respect for one’s quarry.

Learn about nature. Respect nature.
Check out Tom’s book:


Participating in Nature:
Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills


Footnotes
1. Jonathan Thompson. “Which way will the West go on guns?” High Country News. February 04, 2013. http://www.hcn.org/issues/45.2/which-way-will-the-west-go-on-guns.
2. Mike McIntire. “Selling a New Generation on Guns.” The New York Times. January 26, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/us/selling-a-new-generation-on-guns.html?
3. Wayne Lapierre. NRA Press Conference. December 21, 2012. http://home.nra.org/pdf/Transcript_PDF.pdf.
4. Jonathan Stray. “Gun Violence in America: The 13 Key Questions (With 13 Concise Answers).” The Atlantic. February 4, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/gun-violence-in-america-the-13-key-questions-with-13-concise-answers/272727/.
5. Sarah Zacharias. “Gun Owner Holsters Her Weapon, Challenges NRA.” The Big Slice. April 16, 2013. http://thebigslice.org/gun-owner-holsters-her-weapon-challenges-nra/.
6. “Fact Sheet: Stolen Guns.” The John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-gun-policy-and-research/publications/guns_theft_fs.pdf
7. Jonathan Stray. “Gun Violence in America: The 13 Key Questions (With 13 Concise Answers).” The Atlantic. February 4, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/gun-violence-in-america-the-13-key-questions-with-13-concise-answers/272727/.
8. Ira Glass. “488: Harper High School, Part Two.” This American Life. Public Radio International. Originally aired 02.22.2013. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/488/transcript.
9. Ira Glass. “487: Harper High School, Part One.” This American Life. Public Radio International. Originally aired 02.15.2013. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/487/transcript.
10. Ira Glass. “488: Harper High School, Part Two.” This American Life. Public Radio International. Originally aired 02.22.2013. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/488/transcript.
11. “Q&A: Mexico’s drug-related violence.” BBC News. December 24, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-10681249.

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Filed under Economics, Gun Policy, Politics

Frack this Planet

Whatever Happened to Peak Oil and the End of Civilization?

It’s one thing when environmentalists predict the end of civilization. It is quite another when bankers, geologists, oil drillers, and the military agree with them, as was the case with “peak oil” as recently as 2011.

It’s one thing when environmentalists predict the end of civilization. It is quite another when bankers, geologists, oil drillers, and the military agree with them.

It’s one thing when environmentalists predict the end of civilization. It is quite another when bankers, geologists, oil drillers, and the military agree with them, as was the case with “peak oil” as recently as 2011. The best information available indicated that world oil production would climax by about 2015 and start declining every year thereafter. Meanwhile, demand would keep climbing, leading to spiking oil prices that would drastically impact our economy and our way of life. On the positive side, it was believed that high oil prices would necessitate a rapid transition to a more sustainable way of living. We would be forced to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, thus halting climate change and saving the planet from global warming.

A new forecast predicts that the United States will eventually become the world’s biggest oil producer and a net oil exporter.

A new forecast predicts that the United States will eventually become the world’s biggest oil producer and a net oil exporter.

But in 2012 a completely different picture emerged. Oil production surged, oil prices started falling again, and a new forecast predicts that the United States will eventually become the world’s biggest oil producer and a net oil exporter. The American economy is expected to boom, our way of life will continue as usual, and nobody seems to care that climate change is happening faster than even worst case scenarios predicted.  That is a staggering discrepancy between forecasts from one year to the next. How could the experts be so wrong?

The Peak Oil saga is the latest round in a two hundred-year-old debate between Malthusians and Cornucopian beliefs. The overly pessimistic Malthusian perspective perceives natural resources as being like a pie. There is only so much to go around. The overly optimistic Cornucopian belief, on the other hand, is that humans are creative, and we shouldn’t worry about things like over population and resource consumption, because new technologies will produce more pies, and increase prosperity for all.  Neither viewpoint accurately models reality.

The Malthusian perspective originated with Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834), a British economist and philosopher. Being a citizen of an island nation, Malthus naturally predicted that the burgeoning population would continue to expand exponentially, while resource production, especially food, would eventually plateau, leading to inevitable mass die-offs to balance the population with the available resources. The Brits have successfully dodged fate thus far, along with the rest of the industrial world, largely by expanding the resource pie beyond national boundaries, to efficiently exploit natural resources from pole to pole around the globe.

The Cornucopian perspective takes its name from the "horn of plenty" in Greek mythology, which magically provided an endless supply of food and drink.

The Cornucopian perspective takes its name from the “horn of plenty” in Greek mythology, which magically provided an endless supply of food and drink.

On the surface, the Cornucopian perspective seems blindly dependent on faith that technology will save us from ourselves. To Cornucopians, however, it isn’t blind faith, but rather proven faith in the dynamic interplay of supply and demand. Rising demand initially raises prices, which triggers more investment in production and alternative substitutes, which ultimately expands supply, lowers prices, and leads to increased prosperity.

For example, the price for a gallon of gasoline rose from $1.60 per gallon when George Bush took office as President in 2001, to more than $4.00 per gallon in the summer of 2008, just before the economy faltered.  The shocking rise in fuel costs seemed to presage the vastly higher prices that were anticipated when worldwide production peaked and started declining, as was forecast to happen in the near future. But the relationship between supply and demand is vastly more complicated than that.

In the short term, high fuel prices were a contributing factor to the financial crises of 2008 and the resulting recession, which slowed the economy and reduced global oil consumption.  That alone helped stabilize oil prices. In addition, rising fuel prices impact everyone. Job or no job, just about everyone reacted to higher prices one way or another. Many people re-evaluated every potential trip and simply drove less than before. Gasoline consumption dropped by 3.2 percent in 2008, stayed about the same in 2009 and 2010, then dropped another 2.9 percent as fuel prices rose again in 2011. Driving less helped to reduce demand and stabilize prices. But it didn’t end there. Consumers also bought more fuel-efficient vehicles, driving more miles on less fuel.

This PCV condenser is an after-market add-on that can slightly increase fuel efficiency.

People embraced new technologies, such as hybrid and electric vehicles, or unconventional alternatives. This PCV condenser is an after-market add-on that can slightly increase fuel efficiency.

People also embraced new technologies, such as hybrid and electric vehicles, or unconventional alternatives. For example, my brother Alan built a biodiesel processing unit and started making his own fuel from used vegetable oil (basically French fry grease) obtained free from restaurants. My brother Nick experimented with wood gas, driving his truck around on firewood for a while, before switching to a diesel truck with a straight vegetable oil (SVO) system. Across America, people experimented with all kinds of crazy new innovations, looking for ways to squeeze out a few more miles per gallon. Millions of people adapted to higher prices, each in their own way. The result is that fuel consumption has dropped to 2000 levels, even though there are 31 million more people in our country now, and just as many more new cars and light trucks on the road.

Higher oil prices make the oil business more lucrative, stimulating yet more extraction.

Higher oil prices make the oil business more lucrative, stimulating yet more extraction.

The other impact of higher oil prices is that it makes the oil business more lucrative, rewarding anyone who can increase the supply by conventional or innovative new means. Setting aside the issue of fracking for the moment, there are tremendous reserves of oil shale and coal buried underneath this country, enough to fuel the economy for several hundred years, as noted in my book Direct Pointing to Real Wealth (Fifth Edition, 2000). Converting oil shale or coal to gasoline is more expensive than just pumping oil out of the ground, but higher prices make these alternatives more lucrative, thereby increasing production and further stabilizing oil prices. Oil prices may or may not go down, but each rise in price results in lower consumption and greater production, which helps stabilize prices over the long haul.

These checks and balances in the price of oil cost Texas banking executive Matthew R. Simmons a $10,000 bet. Malthusian in his perspective, Simmons wagered ten grand against New York Times columnist John Tierney in 2005 that the average daily price of crude oil would exceed $200 per barrel in 2010. Oil rose from $65/barrel in 2005 to $145/barrel in 2008, then dropped to $50/barrel in the aftermath of the global financial crises, and back up to $80/barrel in 2010 (or $71/barrel when adjusted for inflation). Simmons died before the wager ended on January 1, 2011, but his estate paid up on the debt. Even then, lay persons and analysts alike were forecasting peak oil and the decline of civilization in just a few short years.

The biggest factor in stabilizing oil prices for the foreseeable future is fracking, which is short for hydraulic fracturing. Oil companies pump a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals into the ground under intense pressure to fracture the rock and force residual oil or natural gas back to the wellhead for extraction. Fracking is a comically appropriate term, given that “frack” and “fracking” has been used as a television-friendly expletive in the show Battlestar Galactica since 1978. We are indeed fracking the planet.

Some of the chemicals utilized include hydrochloric acid, polyacrylamide, ethylene glycol, sodium chloride, borate salts, sodium and potassium carbonates, glutaraldehyde, isopropanol, and methanol. There is a little hope and a lot of denial that these toxins won’t somehow contaminate the groundwater now or in the distant future.

Burning off natural gas as a waste product from oil wells in North Dakota.

Burning off natural gas as a waste product from oil wells in North Dakota.

The incentive to live in denial is huge. Fracking allows us to increase oil production, stabilize or lower prices, expand the American economy, and avoid dealing with realty for another day. And the reality is that our economy places zero value on the future.

In terms of resources, anything that can be extracted and profited from today has value. Anything left behind for future generations has no value.  For example, oil wells often produce a great deal of natural gas, but often too far away from any pipelines that can get it to market. The problem is easily remedied by venting the natural gas into the atmosphere and setting it on fire, called flaring.  OPEC countries previously burned off enough natural gas to supply world needs for several hundred years, because it had zero value to them at the time. The same thing is happening now on a smaller scale in the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. As an alternative fuel, natural gas is relatively clean and low in carbon content, but as a waste product, we are presently adding as much carbon to the atmosphere as 70 million cars, but with nothing to show for it.

Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, wagered against economist Julian Simon of the University of Maryland that resource scarcity would lead to a rise in the cost of copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten from 1980 to 1990.

Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, wagered against economist Julian Simon of the University of Maryland that resource scarcity would lead to a rise in the cost of copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten from 1980 to 1990.

In another famous bet, Malthusian Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968), wagered against economist Julian Simon of the University of Maryland that resource scarcity would lead to a rise in the cost of copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten from 1980 to 1990. On paper, they invested an imaginary $1,000 ($200 in each metal) and waited ten years to see happened. If prices went up (adjusted for inflation), Simon would pay Ehrlich the value in excess of the original $1,000, and vice versa. Ehrlich lost the bet and paid Simon $576.07 for the difference between the original imaginary investment and the final price. This story has become part of the Cornucopian mythology, in spite of the fact that four out of the five metals have since increased in their inflation-adjusted prices.

Resource extraction used to be as easy as it was for Jed Clampett of the Beverly Hill Billies: “Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed. A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed, then one day he was shootin’ at some food, and up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude. Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea.”  Our descendants will never have it so easy. Speculators are only interested in the easiest, most accessible resources to extract. Past investments made it possible to go all over the globe skimming the cream off the top. There is still plenty of everything to be extracted, but the deposits are of lesser and lesser quality.

How would the world be different today if we had long ago taxed fossil fuels and given people an incentive to invest in energy efficiency?

How would the world be different today if we had long ago taxed fossil fuels and given people an incentive to invest in energy efficiency?

In the case of fracking, investors are drilling more than 15,000 wells a year in the U.S., but unlike oil fields in the Middle East, these are small volume, short-lived wells. In the Bakken shales, production can decline by 80 percent within the first two years. Some experts believe that the new oil boom will be shockingly short-lived.

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if we had long ago raised the price of fossil fuels with “green taxes.”  Instead of paying income taxes, what if the cost of oil, gas, and coal were several times higher and that funded our government? What if we had a tax system where citizens could reduce their tax burden by investing in energy efficiency, rather than merely looking for loopholes on paper? How would the world be different today? It is likely we would be driving 100-mpg cars, live in much more efficient houses, and have a stable climate. But we didn’t do that. Instead, we used up all the easy oil in an orgy of inefficiency. Rather than making conservation profitable, we facilitated yet more resource exploitation.

The problem is that the next generation cannot bid against us for the resources we use. Investors and speculators comb the planet for every marketable resource, trying to make a quick buck. As a society, we leave nothing behind for future generations, except for toxic mining sites, toxic fracking sites, and a destabilized global climate.

The more damage we do to the environment, the more dependent we become on additional energy consumption and resource extraction.

The more damage we do to the environment, the more dependent we become on additional energy consumption and resource extraction.

Ironically, the more damage we do to the environment, the more dependent we become on additional energy consumption and resource extraction.  Is the climate too hot? Turn on the air conditioner and burn up more fossil fuels. Are the crops dying from lack of rain? Build pipelines, pumps, and perhaps desalination facilities to get water to the fields. Are superstorms destroying our cities and infrastructure? Consume more energy and resources to repair the damage or build levees for protection. Our children and our grandchildren face not only the challenge of depleted resources, but also the challenge of living on a fracked planet with a fracked climate and a fracked government with trillions of dollars in federal deficits to pay off.

The Malthusians were wrong about Peak Oil because they failed to grasp the complex system of checks and balances that work to stabilize supply and demand. But the Cornucopians were also wrong, because we have not expanded the resource pie. We have merely increased our efficiency at exploiting whatever worthwhile resources remain. We are fracking the planet to save ourselves.

The tragedy is that we could have invested in energy efficiency decades ago. We could have built more fuel-efficient vehicles and better insulated houses to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels at a profit, increasing our prosperity and keeping prices lower in the short-term, while ensuring a supply of resources for the future. Instead, history may remember us as the most irresponsible people in all of human history.

 My home state of Montana has especially high oil consumption.

My home state of Montana has especially high oil consumption.

My home state of Montana has especially high oil consumption, the sixth highest in the country measured on a per capita basis, while being thirty-eighth in the nation for median household income. Between those two factors, Montanans spend a bigger chunk of their income on oil than most other Americans. As a matter of necessity, people here drive big, heavy-duty trucks for pulling horse trailers, hauling supplies, or driving up into the mountains to cut firewood. Being a mostly rural state, a trip to the grocery store often exceeds 100 miles of driving. Just getting a 40-pound kindergartener to school can entail a thirty-mile drive twice a day, often achieved with a full-size pickup truck, capable of carrying a one-ton payload!

Personally, I really appreciate fossil fuels. I appreciate being able to drive to town and back (120 miles) twice a week with my son for fencing lessons. I appreciate that my neighbor plows my very long driveway for me. I appreciate the fact that a small amount of gasoline in my truck and chainsaw enables me to bring home a much larger supply of firewood to stay warm through the winter. I would hate to do all that work with handsaws and a team of horses.

I value fossil fuels enough to want to conserve them for future generations. It is for this reason that I built an energy-efficient passive solar home and installed solar panels to generate electricity. Likewise, I drive the most fuel-efficient truck I could find on the market, which happened to be a 38-mpg, 1982 diesel Toyota truck. My “green vehicle” belches black smoke and doesn’t go more than 35 miles per hour up a hill, but it gets noticed at the gas stations. I get compliments from every guy with a monster truck as they watch their dial roll past $100 to fill up the gas tank. If a company built a better truck today, I would be the first to buy it. I value fossil fuels, our climate, and all our natural resources enough to do whatever I reasonably can to make a positive difference for the next generation.

I value fossil fuels enough to want to conserve them for future generations.

I value fossil fuels enough to want to conserve them for future generations.

In the short term, we have enough oil to keep the economy rolling. In the long term, we might wean ourselves off of fossil fuels before we run out. Solar power and other alternative energy technologies are increasing in efficiency and dropping in price, just as computers did. We can look forward to the day when virtually every human-made object becomes a source of energy, from solar panels blanketing every roof to windows that generate electricity. Even the paint on our houses and cars will one day generate electricity.  The Cornucopians will prevail, and we will inevitably build a sustainable economy… but not before we destabilize the climate, toxify the planet, and wipe out half of all life on earth! We will ultimately succeed in building a green economy on a dead planet.

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of Roadmap to Reality, Direct Pointing to Real Wealth, Living Homes, Participating in Nature, and Botany in a Day.

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Filed under Conservation, Economics, Energy Issues / Policy, Sustainability

Too Many Jobs?

What if the path to prosperity called for less work and fewer jobs?

If "Recovery and Reinvestment" signs are beneficial for the economy, why don't we install a million times as many and grow the economy that much faster?

If “Recovery and Reinvestment” signs are beneficial for the economy, why don’t we install a million times as many and grow the economy that much faster?

Nearly every politician campaigns on the promise of strengthening the economy, creating jobs, and putting people back to work. Jobs are a big issue in the best of times and in the worst of times. In fact, jobs are often the only issue we hear about in the news. But what if job creation actually makes us poorer instead of richer? And what if the path to prosperity called for less work and fewer jobs?
Consider those green “Recovery and Reinvestment” signs that sprouted up in every community as part of the federal government’s effort to create jobs and get the economy rolling in 2009. How many people were employed mining and refining the metal for all the steel posts and aluminum signs? How many people were employed printing and distributing those signs, or mixing the concrete and mounting the signs in place? If these signs were so beneficial to our economy, why don’t we install a million times as many and grow the economy that much faster?
The answer should be obvious. Building signs contributes absolutely nothing towards our standard of living, our quality of life, or the health of our environment. On the contrary, essential natural resources were mined, processed, and used for no net benefit. At the end of the day we are left with fewer natural resources and ultimately higher prices for those resources.
Similarly, consider something as ubiquitous as junk mail. How many tens of thousands of people are employed to cut down trees, mill them into paper, produce ink, do graphic artwork for catalogs and political campaign brochures, address them, mail them, ship them across the country, and sort them into boxes, only to have most of them discarded and recycled or landfilled without even being looked at? Everyone along the way, from the graphic artist to the accountants and the janitors, are glad to have the work, a chance to earn money and keep food on the table, without anyone seeming to notice that they are functionally employed to do nothing more than consume and dispose of our natural resources.
But burning up billions of barrels of oil permanently depletes the resource, devastates the landscape and pollutes the water, contributes to global warming, and results in higher prices at the pump. If we have nothing tangible to show for the investment, then we literally make ourselves poorer by working too much, leaving less wealth to pass along to the next generation.

What if you were offered a job whose sole purpose was to use up our natural resources to ensure that there will be none left for the next generation? Would you take such a job to feed your family? And how would that be different from the work you are doing now?

"Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back."  --Henry David Thoreau, 1863

“Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back.” –Henry David Thoreau, 1863

As Henry David Thoreau pointed out in Life Without Principle in 1863, “Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.” In fact, our situation is far worse, because throwing stones over a wall is utterly harmless. But we have millions of people employed directly or indirectly in extracting and processing our remaining natural resources for no other purpose than to dispose of them.
Junk mail is only one example among thousands. Worldwide, millions of people are employed to convert raw wealth into garbage destined for landfills. Consider the ubiquitous plastic products at the ‘big box’ store. How many hundreds of thousands of people are employed to extract and refine the raw materials, design and make molds, build factories, manufacture, ship overseas, and distribute utterly useless products that we then hire more people to transport to a landfill and bury underground for eternity? That is the fate of any product that is neither biodegradable nor recyclable. If you walk into any big box store like a Wal-Mart or a Target, you will find that virtually every shelf in every isle is filled with cheap plastic crap that was made in China, designed to break or wear out quickly, and is destined to be permanently buried in the ground after a few weeks, months, or at best years. Almost nothing on the shelves will last more than a decade.

How many millions of people are employed extracting and processing, natural resources for products destined for landfills?

How many millions of people are employed extracting and processing natural resources for products destined for landfills?

It’s not just plastic crap, either. It is also the appliances that break down within a few months or a few years. From freezers to blenders to food processors, the consumer is better off looking for well-used, forty-year-old American-made appliances, rather than buying brand new appliances that are likely to fail in short order. It is also our disposable tools, the drills, saws, wrenches, and shovels that often break the first or second time you use them, including my all-time favorite, the hammer that bends backwards when you try to drive in a nail!
The Chinese must think that Americans are the stupidest people on the planet. In an unprecedented transfer of resources, we converted one of the poorest nations on earth into a budding superpower. Our infrastructure is falling apart, and our country is practically bankrupt. The Chinese are literally selling us garbage to bury in our landfills, while diverting profits towards constructing bullet trains, installing solar power, launching a space program more ambitious than our own, buying American companies, and loaning operating funds to our federal government while we dig yet a deeper hole for ourselves.
At the heart of this problem is not junk mail, big box stores, or the Chinese, but the perceived economic benefits of “planned obsolescence.” In essence, a company that builds a product that is too good is ultimately destined to saturate the market with that product and run itself out of business. If all products were made to last, then people wouldn’t need to buy anything, factories would shut down, employees would be laid off, and nobody would have any money to buy anything, even if they wanted to. Making products that are designed to fail is believed to be good for business, and a sure means to keep the economy rolling.

Long-lived light bulbs were not good for sustained business, and so a cartel of light bulb manufacturers created a pact and set standards to invent more fragile bulbs. The industry standard systematically fell from 2,500 hours to 1,500 hours, before the 1,000-hour light bulb was perfected.

Long-lived light bulbs were not good for sustained business, and so a cartel of light bulb manufacturers created a pact and set standards to invent more fragile bulbs. The industry standard systematically fell from 2,500 hours to 1,500 hours, before the 1,000-hour light bulb was perfected.

We all know the story of Thomas Edison, and how he tried thousands of different filaments to make a long-lasting incandescent light bulb. Less commonly known is that early light bulbs lasted too long, so long that one bulb has been in continuous use for more than a 100 years in a fire department in Livermore, California. But long-lived light bulbs were not good for sustained business, and so a cartel of light bulb manufacturers created a pact and set standards to invent more fragile bulbs. The industry standard systematically fell from 2,500 hours to 1,500 hours, before the 1,000-hour light bulb was perfected, as detailed in the documentary Pyramids of Waste (also known as The Light Bulb Conspiracy).
The documentary details economic theory about the need to make short-lived products to maintain consumer demand and keep the economy rolling. For instance, Dupont chemists were pretty proud of nylons, first created back in the 1950s. But they were sent back to the lab to rework the formula, because the original stockings were too durable to wear out efficiently. The documentary takes the viewer into the university classroom to see how engineers are formally trained to satisfy employers by dumbing-down products to ensure failure. This is the American way to achieve prosperity. Millions of people are gainfully employed mindlessly cranking out and distributing useless or inferior products. Money flows around and around the loop, and we work our entire lives to keep ahead of engineered entropy. Advertisers encourage disposability by seducing consumers to want newer, glitzy products, even if they haven’t worn out older models.

"every time we discard an electrical cord in the trash instead of recycling it, we effectively raise the cost of copper products everywhere."

“every time we discard an electrical cord in the trash instead of recycling it, we effectively raise the cost of copper products everywhere.”

This inverted logic might have made sense when markets were finite and our natural resources seemed infinite, but now the reverse is largely true. Resources are limited, and anything tossed in the trash raises the price of our remaining natural resources. For example, copper is becoming increasingly expensive, and every time we discard an electrical cord in the trash instead of recycling it, we effectively raise the cost of copper products everywhere. Meanwhile, the sheer size of the global marketplace is hard to fathom. It might be possible to saturate one market, but there are always new markets to reach out to. For example, the Skil Corporation manufactures a quality worm-drive Skilsaw, used primarily in wood construction work. Unlike other tools, a Skilsaw doesn’t break and get tossed in the trash. It is built to last and almost infinitely repairable. It is a successful product because of its durability, and that is a successful strategy for the company, rather than making an inferior product. Unfortunately, durable products are an exception to the rule.

Most houses require an army of maintenance workers just to keep the structures habitable long enough to pay off the mortgage.

Most houses require an army of maintenance workers just to keep the structures habitable long enough to pay off the mortgage.

We have built not only a disposable economy, but also a disposable country. Even the houses that shelter us from the elements are little more than temporary shanties, dressed up on the surface. Most houses are designed so poorly that they require a constant influx of fossil fuel energy to keep them cool in summer and to prevent the pipes from freezing in winter. Most houses are so flimsy that you could punch a hole in the wall with a fist. From leaky water heaters to failing asphalt shingles, from carpets that must be replaced and bathrooms that rot out, houses require an army of maintenance workers just to keep the structures habitable long enough to pay off the mortgage. Look around you at the millions upon millions of houses, and consider that almost none of them were engineered to last more than a few decades without major repairs. But all that work is supposedly good for the economy. It keeps people gainfully employed converting raw wealth into more garbage for the landfills.
By the same reasoning, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters are often considered good for the economy, because people find work cleaning up the mess, rebuilding infrastructure, and replacing merchandise. Every major oil spill is recorded as a positive economic entry in our national accounts due to the jobs and income “created,” while completely ignoring resource loss or damage. According to this kind of logic, America would be richer than ever if we just burned down every house, office, and factory and demolished all our possessions!
Never mind that carbon emissions are spiking upward when they should be tapering off. Never mind that global warming is happening faster than predicted, or that cumulative factors could potentially lead to a runaway greenhouse effect. With the economy in the doldrums and unemployment levels high, all other concerns are secondary. It is imperative that we keep everyone gainfully employed doing important work, like making plastic toys to go with our Happy Meals.

Only a few percent of the labor force is employed producing essential goods and services.

Only a few percent of the labor force is employed producing essential goods and services.

We are arguably victims of our own success, and our cultural customs are not unlike the historic potlatch ceremonies of Northwestern Native American tribes, where chiefs demonstrated their great wealth and prestige by giving away their possessions, or better yet, destroying them. In a highly productive tribal economy, where material wealth is functionally meaningless, what better way to flaunt your status than by tearing up blankets, punching holes in canoes, burning down your house, or killing your own slaves in front of honored guests? At the very least, it kept the economy rolling.
Our industrial economy is so incredibly productive that it only takes a few percent of the population to supply all of our needs, and everyone else therefore must be employed doing alternative, often meaningless work to pretend they are contributing to society.

In a hunter-gatherer society people made their own clothes, and it could take a couple weeks of dedicated effort to tan hides and make one shirt.

In a hunter-gatherer society people made their own clothes, and it could take a couple weeks of dedicated effort to tan hides and make one shirt… Every increase in efficiency means that fewer people are needed to make shirts, which translates to higher unemployment and a need to create alternative work for people to earn money.

In a hunter-gatherer society people made their own clothes, and it could take a couple weeks of dedicated effort to tan hides and make one shirt. Advancing to the technology of a livestock-driven agricultural society, a specialist might tan hides or spin fibers to make a shirt every day or two. In an industrial society, a worker may crank out a new shirt in an hour or two, and with today’s automation, it becomes possible to press a button and spit out a whole pile of shirts. Every increase in efficiency means that fewer people are needed to make shirts, which translates to higher unemployment and a need to create alternative work for people to earn money so they can afford to buy those shirts. As a society, we unconsciously create meaningless work to keep people busy doing work that doesn’t actually produce anything; it effectively redistributes wealth from those who produce it to those who don’t.
For example, H&R Block, Inc. has approximately 11,000 company-owned and franchised retail locations in the United States, employing a great many people to help American citizens pay – or avoid paying – their taxes. This is just one company out of hundreds involved in the tax industry. We might be glad to pay a little money for an accountant or a do-it-yourself software package, but that expense is effectively a tax. We could easily invest that money towards something useful, such as paying off the federal deficit, investing in education or the environment, or in a better space program. But instead we redistribute the money to pay for office buildings, desks, computers, lava lamps, cleaning supplies, and employee wages for an army of people who don’t actually contribute to the economy. Most of that work would be unnecessary if we scaled back the IRS, greatly simplified the tax code, and collected “green” taxes against products that are harmful to the planet.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, as a result of the collective human effort to exploit all remaining marketable resources before our grandchildren reach adulthood.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, as a result of the collective human effort to exploit all remaining marketable resources before our grandchildren reach adulthood.

The irony is that job creation is intended to sustain the economy, but there is nothing remotely sustainable about employing people to decimate life on earth. There have been five past mass extinctions in the history of life on earth. From asteroid impacts to massive volcanic eruptions that smothered the planet, each event permanently wiped out half or more of all species on the planet. In each case it took tens of millions of years for the surviving species to diversify and fill the ecological voids. Now we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, as a result of the collective human effort to exploit all remaining marketable resources before our grandchildren reach adulthood. We have destabilized the climate, with the forecast calling for more ‘job-building’ natural disasters ranging from floods to droughts, heat waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, rising sea levels, and now even “superstorms.” Meanwhile, grasslands are turning to deserts, tropical forests are being logged to oblivion, the Arctic ice sheet is rapidly melting away, coral reefs are dying, and the oceans are predicted to be fished out by the middle of the century. We are expected to wipe out half of all life on earth this century, and politicians everywhere are worried about the unemployment rate.
But the reality is that committing labor and natural resources towards work that doesn’t produce anything ultimately results in a net drag on the economy. It raises costs and makes us poorer. And that is the sad reality of our present economic situation: the faster the economy grows, the more impoverished we ultimately become!
Conversely, the path to building a sustainable and prosperous economy is to eliminate extraneous work and dedicate our resources towards investments that make a tangible, positive difference in our world. Call it “green prosperity.” The more we invest in conservation and eliminating waste, the wealthier we become.
Prosperity in the twenty-first century will be created by those who seek profit by making the world a better place. Ecopreneurs will out-compete inefficient, abusive industries by starting green businesses that close the loop on wasted materials, energy, time, money and labor. They will heal wasted ecosystems and restore biodiversity at a profit while delivering useful goods and services to the public. Homeowners too, will profit by seeking ways to eliminate everything from high energy bills to mortgage payments–even eliminating the need for a regular job. But there is no need to wait for such a future to come, for the revolution has already started. The door is wide open, and anyone can walk the path to green prosperity, changing the world every step along the way.
Taking one small step, an individual can install a solar water heater or hire a contractor to install it for them. The solar water heater reduces a household’s dependence on fossil fuels, lowers the utility bill, and brings a timely return for the investment. By making similar investments and upgrades in a house, a person can trim the utility bill down to almost nothing, and even install photovoltaic panels to run the meter backwards and wipe out the utility bill entirely. In fact, it is a whole lot easier to avoid expenses and debt in the first place than it is to earn a fat paycheck and spend one’s way out of debt.

There is no greater feeling of security than having a durable and efficient home with no mortgage and no utility bill. The greatest job security is not needing a job at all.

There is no greater feeling of security than having a durable and efficient home with no mortgage and no utility bill. The greatest job security is not needing a job at all.

As a young adult, I hated the idea of getting a job and paying bills. I abhorred the idea of spending my entire life working to pay a mortgage, rent, utilities, car payments, school loans, or any other kind of bills. I didn’t mind working, but I wanted it to count for something. I have succeeded in life by avoiding extraneous work, rather than creating it. I successfully avoided paying rent or a home mortgage, college loans, car payments, big utility bills, or any other substantial recurring expenses. Indeed, there is no greater feeling of security than having a durable and efficient home with no mortgage and no utility bill. The greatest job security is not needing a job at all, and it was that freedom that allowed me to indulge in my writing until I turned it into a successful career.
While there are many pathways to eliminating expenses, debt, and the need for jobs, as described in my article Escaping the Job Trap, the reality is that most people will never walk that path on their own. As it is, shockingly few people install solar water heaters or properly insulate their homes, even though the economics are already good, and tax incentives often make it even better. But it takes a certain amount of know-how to install one’s own solar water heater, and a certain amount of knowledge just to competently hire a contractor to do it for you. As a result, there are disappointingly few solar water heaters in operation in our country.
It would be far better to provide incentives for utilities to install and maintain solar water heaters themselves. For example, if a utility pays for and installs a solar water heater on a home, then the utility should profit from most of the energy savings. The customer could get a small reduction on their gas or electric bill, while the utility would continue to charge the customer as if they were using almost as much power as before. But the energy saved would be sold elsewhere, so that the utility would get paid twice for the same energy. It would be in the utility’s best interest to install identical, durable solar water heaters on every house, in order to reduce maintenance costs.

We can build a green economy, end poverty, and conserve resources for future generations. But first we have to stop creating meaningless work and consider what kind of world we really want to bring into existence.

We can build a green economy, end poverty, and conserve resources for future generations. But first we have to stop creating meaningless work and consider what kind of world we really want to bring into existence.

With the right incentives to spur investment in conservation and alternative energies, we could create real jobs and put millions of people to work weaning our civilization off of fossil fuels once and for all. In fact, with appropriate incentives for companies to manufacture long-lasting products and recycle everything, it wouldn’t take long to create a futuristic world where everyone has everything they need, and nobody really has to work any more.
That might be a little hard to imagine, but it wouldn’t be that hard to achieve with a little commonsense. I know from experience that it is possible to break free from the rat race, live in prosperity with minimal bills, and choose whether or not you work. It is the freedom to pursue your own Dreams and make yourself a better person and the world a better place. We can build a green economy, end poverty, and conserve resources for future generations. But first we have to stop creating meaningless work and consider what kind of world we really want to bring into existence. Indeed, re-envisioning the meaning of work is the only chance we have of saving the planet and leaving something for the next generation.

Thomas J. Elpel founded Green University®LLC in Pony, Montana. He is the author of Direct Pointing to Real Wealth, Roadmap to Reality, and Living Homes.

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Would you Vote for a Guy Who Eats Dumpster Food?

I spent my entire life polishing my public image and resume so that I could get into politics and make a positive difference in the world. But that ended when my twenty-year marriage went down in flames, along with pretty much everything I ever worked for, believed in, and cared about. The experience radicalized my worldviews, and reduced me to scraping by, scavenging for food in dumpsters. Well, not really. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy dumpster diving, and I treat it as a sport. Screw public perception. I will live my life however I want, and if I ever do get into politics, I will proudly put “dumpster diver” on my public resume. But would you vote for a guy who eats dumpster food?

These are some of the goodies we picked up from grocery store dumpsters on our latest run.

Dumpster diving is a sport I primarily engage in on road trips, especially along regular routes, where I already know a few good stops along the way. It’s kind of like bargain shopping, except that everything is free, and you have no idea what you are going to get. One dumpster can be empty, but the next a bonanza with hundreds of dollars worth of groceries. Driving home from Washington through Idaho to Montana this week, we hit up six dumpsters en route, and came home with less than usual, but still with more value than what we spent on gasoline getting home. Actually, we only hit two good dumpsters this time, but this is what we got:

4 – 7 oz jars of almond stuffed olives
7 – 6 oz containers of Greek yogurt
1 – 24 oz tub of Greek yogurt
3 – 32 oz chocolate soymilk boxed drinks
1 – 16 oz Synergy kombuchia drink
5 – 32 oz jars of Knudsen blueberry juice
1 – 20 oz ranch dressing
1 – 12 oz organic ranch dressing
6 – 12 oz boxes of granola
2 – boxes of 6 chocolate biscotti
1 – 4 oz apple pie snack
12 – jumbo chocolate cookies
12 – jumbo peanut butter cookies
12 – loaves mixed breads and buns
24 – 16 oz containers of caramel dip

Everything else we left behind, due to lack of space in the car. But we also picked a nice supply of apricots from feral trees along the way, plus 2 ½ gallons of blackberries. All in all, foraging turns a tedious drive into a fun adventure!

One time we arrived home from a five-hundred mile trip with more than $500 worth of groceries and goodies. We don’t go out of our way to do this. We only stop at dumpsters along the way to other places.

What we find varies tremendously every time. Sometimes we bring home lots of dairy, such as cheese, yogurt, and milk. Sometimes we bring home lots of fruits and vegetables that are just slightly overripe. Sometimes we find a dumpster full of perfectly fresh meat, and have to go in the grocery store to buy ice to keep it cool until we get home. Sometimes we come home with a bunch of cookies, cakes, cream cheese platters, and other junk food that we really don’t need, but eat ourselves silly before giving the rest of it to the chickens. In one record-breaking run, we finished the five-hundred mile trip with more than $500 worth of groceries and goodies. One time I even found several dozen roses for the new love of my life, and she was thrilled that they came from a dumpster!

“One time I even found several dozen roses for the new love of my life, and she was thrilled that they came from a dumpster!”

In general, big grocery stores in big towns usually have trash compactors, making them the least likely targets for dumpster diving. But once in awhile you will find a grocery store or bakery that still uses an open dumpster. Really small towns with Mom and Pop grocery stores typically have open dumpsters, but seldom waste anything. Medium-sized towns are more likely to have grocery stores with rich dumpsters and no trash compactors. My friends and I try to be minimally stealthy, not so much because we fear being chased away, but because grocery stores are more likely to put locks on their dumpsters if they perceive a problem. We are very careful to avoid making a mess, and sometimes even clean up trash around the dumpsters.
The groceries we bring home are perfectly good, just discarded because they reached the “sell by” date stamped on the products. This food could and should be donated to local food banks, but isn’t. Back in the 1990s, President Clinton signed the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act to encourage grocery stores to donate surplus groceries to food banks and other non-profit organizations for distribution to needy individuals. The law acknowledges that foods can be safe for human consumption after the sell by date and protects grocery stores from liability in the unlikely case that someone should get sick from donated foods.

“It’s kind of like bargain shopping, except that everything is free, and you have no idea what you are going to get.”

The need for donated foods is great. According to the Foodbank Network, 30 percent of the population here in Montana is at risk of food insecurity, especially the poor, the elderly, and children. According to their website, food insecurity is “The inability to access food in a consistent and socially acceptable manner to meet the family’s nutritional needs. Food insecurity is characterized by not having the financial means to buy food or grow food, the need for emergency food assistance, and adults skipping meals. Food insecurity exists when the availability of nutritionally adequate food or the ability to access it on a consistent basis is uncertain or limited.” In the face of that, grocery stores still discard hundreds of tons of perfectly good food in trash compactors and garbage cans. It seems like a crime!

I typically get about half of my winter heating wood for free, already cut to length, without having to start my chainsaw, just by picking it up at the dump.

My own interest in dumpster diving is rooted in the pragmatism of my grandmother. Shaped by the Great Depression of the 1930s as a teenager and young adult, she didn’t believe in wasting anything. She taught me how to skin and butcher road-killed deer. She ardently believed in recycling and reusing materials and refinishing old furniture. I doubt that Grandma ever dug in a grocery store dumpster, but one of our favorite pastimes together was going to the town dump to dig through everyone else’s garbage for treasures to bring home.
The individual town dumps around here have all been shut down since then and replaced with big dumpsters that are hauled to a regional landfill, but the principal is the same. I stop and check the county dumpsters any time I have an excuse to drive by one. Every year I haul home hundreds of dollars worth of good lumber, insulation, PVC plumbing, garden hoses for my irrigation system, fence posts and wire, bales of straw and hay for mulch, uprooted flowers, free firewood, cleaning supplies, as well as scrap metal for recycling.

“By clipping the copper electrical cords off appliances in the dumpsters, it doesn’t take long to accumulate a five-gallon bucket full, worth about $25 bucks at the local recycling center.”

Part of my interest in dumpster diving stems from my interest in sensible resource management and policy. Copper, for example, is quickly becoming a precious metal as demand soars and resources dwindle. Every electrical cord tossed in the dumpster effectively makes copper more scarce and raises the cost we all pay for new copper wiring and plumbing. By clipping the copper electrical cords off appliances in the dumpsters, it doesn’t take long to accumulate a five-gallon bucket full, worth about $25 bucks at the local recycling center. By recycling assorted scrap copper, brass, aluminum, and scrap iron, I earned more than $500 last year – and only engaged in the hobby when I happened to be driving by a dumpster anyway. Add in the value of free food from grocery store dumpsters and the building materials obtained from scrap piles at local factories, and my total take in freebies adds up to thousands of dollars per year. By being thrifty, I have managed to live a successful and prosperous life, without being dependent on a regular job. And although I may be a packrat, I am also a neat freak, so I actually put all those treasures to use. Frankly, I think my thriftiness would look pretty dang good on a political resume, and if I were ever elected to office, I would definitely be serious about cutting costs and waste.

These hoses and soaker hoses found in a dumpster were mostly new or only needed simple repairs.

Implementing an effective recycling program is definitely a bigger challenge in rural areas than in cities. Collecting the recyclables is only one challenge. Shipping recyclables hundreds of miles to a processing center is another. The gas and labor can far exceed the value of the recycled materials. Therefore, recycling rates are typically much higher in urban areas. San Francisco, for example, achieved a record-breaking 77 percent diversion rate by 2010, diverting that much of the city’s trash to recycling, composting and re-use – all while saving money and creating local jobs.

Bread baked from bagel dough scavenged from a bakery dumpster.

Our local recycling rate might be closer to 7 percent. We do have recycle bins for such things as aluminum and tin cans, scrap metal, glass jars, and mixed paper. Yet many people drive right past the bins to throw their recyclables in the dumpster. Tragically and comically, some people even sort their recyclables before tossing them out with the trash. It is not uncommon to find a whole garbage bag full of nothing but beer cans, as if the drinker wants to recycle, but doesn’t quite have enough brain cells left to figure it out!
Insofar as policy goes, what I have learned from digging in dumpsters is that most people are basically brain dead and utterly unaware of resource issues and depletion. Sorting cans, bottles, and plastic requires too much thought and effort. Sadly, most people are willing to use up everything on the planet in this generation and leave nothing for the next. It would take a huge rise in social consciousness to significantly boost recycling rates around here. It might be far more simple to mandate that all plastic or paper food packaging sold here be manufactured from 100 percent compostable and biodegradable materials. Instead of asking people to sort out seven different types of plastic for example, they could just brainlessly discard the packaging with their food waste, and yet it would all be compostable. People would still need to learn to separate out cans and glass bottles, but less is definitely more attainable. We could conceivably reach a point where most of our trash is composted and then screened afterwards to separate out any remaining garbage. I also wonder if it would be sensible to employ minimum security prison inmates to help dismantle electronic waste for recycling. It is something to consider.

“I don’t know if I will ever get into politics or not. But if I did, I think I would put on a suit and tie and film a commercial in a dumpster about cutting government waste and making better use of our resources.”

As far as food waste goes, I don’t believe in penalties, rules, and regulations. Yes, it seems like a crime for grocery stores to discard perfectly good food when good citizens are going hungry. But rather than penalize them, it would be better to create a competition to see which stores can donate the most food to food banks and to publicly acknowledge and reward them for their actions.
I don’t know if I will ever get into politics or not. But if I did, I think I would put on a suit and tie and film a commercial in a dumpster about cutting government waste and making better use of our resources. I might even tell the viewer that they are brain dead if they can’t separate out their recyclables from their trash. I’m just not sure if I could really get elected that way. What do you think? Would you vote for a guy who eats dumpster food?

Interesting Stuff? Dumpster diving is included in the culture and curriculum at Thomas J. Elpel’s Green University® LLC. Learn more about Tom’s efforts to create a better world at www.Elpel.info.

Also be sure to watch this news clip about the growing popularity of dumpster diving:

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Déjà vu: NorthWestern Energy’s Risky Investment

NorthWestern Energy's actions resemble those that destroyed the Montana Power Company

“For nearly 90 years, the Montana Power Company exemplified the very best of American capitalism. It provided cheap, reliable electricity for the people of Montana, excellent benefits for thousands of employees and generous, reliable dividends for its stockholders.”

So begins the narrative from the 2003 CBS News/60 Minutes expose, Who Killed Montana Power? Reading the narrative online, it is difficult to shake the sense of déjà vu, that we are witnessing the same tragic story all over again, through NorthWestern Energy’s risky investment in the proposed Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI).

Quoting again from the 60 Minutes report, “Everyone was happy, except for the corporate officers and their Wall Street investment banking firm who decided there was more money to be made in the more glamorous and profitable world of telecommunications. The result exemplified the worst of American capitalism… [The demise of Montana Power] may not be the biggest scandal of our time, but to its stockholders, it shows how greed and outright stupidity destroyed one of the oldest and proudest companies in America.”

In parallel with Montana Power, NorthWestern Energy is betting the company on a risky investment that offers nothing for its customer base here in Montana. MSTI’s sole purpose is to satisfy corporate greed by exporting electricity from Montana to potential customers in Las Vegas and southern California. MSTI will not provide electricity to Montanans. It will not provide jobs for Montanans. And there is nothing green about industrializing the Montana landscape with fourteen-story tall transmission towers. What MSTI will do is give out-of-state customers the opportunity to bid against Montanans for our hydroelectric, wind, and coal-fired electricity, driving up rates instate.

In the pursuit of profit, NorthWestern Energy is openly waging war against Montanans, trying to ramrod this monstrosity across farms and ranches and right through some of our most scenic valleys. NorthWestern lobbyists pressured state legislators into passing HB 198, giving corporations the power of eminent domain. It enables companies like NorthWestern to take private property for profit-making ventures. But what kind of a company wages war on its own customers?

Quoting again from the 60 Minutes expose, Montana Power “was going to join the dot.com revolution by transforming itself into a high-tech telecommunications company called Touch America. The decision was made on the advice of its New York investment banker, Goldman Sachs, without consulting the stockholders.”

Montana Power lobbied the legislature to push through a bill that deregulated the price of electricity, and opened the markets up to competition – even though Montana had some of the lowest utility rates in the country. Deregulation inflated the value of Montana Power, at which point the company began selling off its assets to invest in Touch America, following the advice of Goldman Sachs. The result was that, “Electricity prices in Montana doubled, then redoubled, and doubled again – refineries, lumber mills, and the last working copper mine in Butte was forced to suspend operations because they couldn’t afford their electricity bills.”

Any corporation that wages war on its own customers in the pursuit of profit is at risk of implosion. Good investing begins here at home, not on market speculation. We lost a great power company when the executives at Montana Power got greedy. It is unfortunate to see NorthWestern Energy following the same path, gambling on risky investments at the expense of its customer base. It is going to take a long time for NorthWestern to heal these wounds. The company could start by canceling MSTI and offering a big apology for its actions.

Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation (www.JeffersonRiver.org), PO Box 697, Pony, MT 59747. This guest editorial was published in The Madisonian September 22, 2011.

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