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2010 Joint Operating Environment
April 7, 2010 3:16 AM   Subscribe

Chronic budget deficits, compounding debt and unfunded liabilities suggest the US financial situation will not be remedied, wiping out military funding. Surplus world oil production could disappear entirely by 2012, and reach a 10 million barrel a day shortfall by 2015. Coalition military operations would become essential to protecting US national interests. According to this year's remarkably candid United States Joint Forces Command Joint Operating Environment report (PDF), anyway.
posted by falcon (49 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
A significant component of the future operating environment will be the presence of major actors which are not states. A number of transnational networked organizations have already emerged as threats to order across the globe. These parasitic networks exist because communications networks around the world enable such groups to recruit, train, organize, and connect. A common desire to transcend the local, regional, and international order or challenge the traditional power of states characterizes their culture and politics. As such, established laws and conventions provide no barrier to their actions and activities. These organizations are also becoming increasingly sophisticated, well-connected, and well-armed. As they better integrate global media sophistication, lethal weaponry, and potentially greater cultural awareness and intelligence, they will pose a considerably greater threat than at present. Moreover, unburdened by bureaucratic processes, transnational groups are already showing themselves to be highly adaptive and agile.

Bin Laden farts in your general direction.
posted by three blind mice at 4:39 AM on April 7, 2010


What's that whole thing about reaping, sowing and whirlwhinds?
posted by nevercalm at 4:51 AM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


The whole idea that the US should use military force to protect its oil imports in a time of increasing scarcity is fundamentally wrong. It is more logical in every way (economically, politically, and militarily) for the US to alter its own economic practices so that it does not have to import oil. There are, after all, viable alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels in internal combustion engines. There are many ways to generate electricity, and there are electric cars. The US also does have its own domestic oil production, and even if that becomes depleted as well, it can obtain oil from agricultural sources for use in the petrochemical industry. Petroleum is replaceable.
The US was never really able to afford to take on the role of the world's policeman, and that role is becoming increasingly difficult. That era must end. International peace and cooperation should be obtained by diplomacy and by respecting the right of other countries to manage their own internal affairs (even when we don't like the way they do it). The US military should be reserved for protecting the US from invasion by a foreign power, not for intervening in the problems of other countries, and certainly not for securing oil supplies.
posted by grizzled at 4:57 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Petroleum is replaceable.

Except that it's not. Which is why the US government goes through all this trouble. Can you pour electricity in your gas tank? If not, then consider the cost of replacing the entire fleet of US cars with electric vehicles. Or any massive plan for energy independence.

The bottom line is that we can't produce nearly as much energy through renewables compared to non-renewables. It's pretty easy to see why: Solar and wind are very diffuse energy, and oil and coal are essentially solar energy in an extremely concentrated form. Think of it like this:

Imagine for a moment, then, that we’re discussing an experiment involving microbes in a petri dish. The culture medium in the dish contains 5% of a simple sugar that the microbes can eat, and 95% of a more complex sugar they don’t have the right enzymes to metabolize. We put a drop of fluid containing microbes into the dish, close the lid, and watch. Over the next few days, a colony of microbes spreads through the culture medium, feeding on the simple sugar.

Then a mutation happens, and one microbe starts producing an enzyme that lets it feed on the more abundant complex sugar. Drawing on this new food supply, the mutant microbe and its progeny spread rapidly, outcompeting the original strain, until finally the culture medium is full of mutant microbes. At this point, though, the growth of the microbes is within hailing distance of the limits of the supply of complex sugar. As we watch the microbes through our microscopes, we might begin to wonder whether they can produce a second mutation that will let them continue to thrive. Yet this obvious question misleads, because there is no third sugar in the culture medium for another mutation to exploit.

The point that has to be grasped here is as crucial as it is easy to miss. The mutation gave the microbes access to an existing supply of highly concentrated food; it didn’t create the food out of thin air. If the complex sugar hadn’t existed, the mutation would have yielded no benefit at all. As the complex sugar runs out, further mutations are possible – some microbes might end up living on microbial waste products; others might kill and eat other microbes; still others might develop some form of photosynthesis and start creating sugars from sunlight – but all these possibilities draw on resources much less concentrated and abundant than the complex sugar that made the first mutation succeed so spectacularly. Nothing available to the microbes will allow them to continue to flourish as they did in the heyday of the first mutation.
posted by symbollocks at 5:21 AM on April 7, 2010 [12 favorites]


Until Americans drop their addiction to war -- which is inextricably bound up with the widespread, bipartisan cult of exceptionalism -- there will be no stability, no security, no peace, no prosperity for ordinary people, neither at home or abroad. - Chris Floyd
posted by Joe Beese at 5:29 AM on April 7, 2010 [7 favorites]


Nothing available to the microbes will allow them to continue to flourish as they did in the heyday of the first mutation.

If you're going to use bacteria as a metaphor, I have an exponential death curve to show you, once the sweet crude sugar runs out.

Either we switch to sustainable energy sources, or humanity hits a brick wall and our way of life comes to a quick end. Nature is cold like that.

We can prolong the inevitable with military action, but that will only buy us so much time. The military itself runs on oil, so our democracy, such as it is, will come to end well before the military allows itself to end.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:45 AM on April 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Skimmed through it. Seems like a thoughtful document though I'm surprised they weren't exploring renewables and self sufficiency a little more. If you don't have supply lines they can't be attacked etc.
posted by Damienmce at 6:00 AM on April 7, 2010


We can prolong the inevitable with military action, but that will only buy us so much time.

I agree completely and I didn't mean to imply I was in favor of the strategy of resource imperialism. I did mean to imply that as ossified as our political system is now, big changes are not likely and the resultant death curve you mentioned may become a terrifying reality.

But it might not be as terrifying as we think it will be. It might not look like food riots and starving people and murderous hordes so much as a falling number of births, increasing mortality for the elderly, and a frustrated younger generation that increasingly escapes using drugs and alcohol to their own detriment... not to mention more rampant disease as the cost of health care continues to spiral out of control. Sadly, most of these things are occurring now on a small scale, and they can reduce population levels on a short time scale (Russia is a good example of this).
posted by symbollocks at 6:01 AM on April 7, 2010


Symbollocks has asked me to consider the cost of replacing the entire US fleet of vehicles with electric replacements. Obviously, that's very expensive. However, people replace vehicles every day. Vehicles wear out and get replaced. So if we start now (and we actually have started, atlhough not seriously enough) we can eventually replace the fleet with a better version. Meanwhile, have you considered the cost of going to war in oil producing nations all over the world in order to guarantee continued access to their oil? Even if we don't go to war, dependency on oil imports means that the US is vulnerable to any foreign oil producer who threatens to shut off the flow of oil. This is a ridiculous position for the US to be in, when it is completely unnecessary.
As for the diffuse nature of solar and wind energy, that is not necessarily a reason not to use them, but even if it was, there is still nuclear power. And if the US ever gets really serious about nuclear disarmament, nuclear power plants will be able to make good use of the recycled fissile material no longer needed in bombs.
posted by grizzled at 6:09 AM on April 7, 2010


symbollocks: do you have a link for your above quote? I'd be curious to read a bit further.
posted by slogger at 6:33 AM on April 7, 2010


As we watch the microbes through our microscopes, we might begin to wonder whether they can produce a second mutation that will let them continue to thrive. Yet this obvious question misleads, because there is no third sugar in the culture medium for another mutation to exploit.

Except we don't live in a system with a closed lid. Yes, fossil fuels are finite, but for all intents and purposes solar energy is not. To use your metaphor, these microorganisms can develop a new mutation that allows them to use photosynthesis and survive indefinitely.
posted by reformedjerk at 6:46 AM on April 7, 2010


the US is vulnerable to any foreign oil producer who threatens to shut off the flow of oil

I mean this more as an aside rather than a refutation of your point about electric vehicles, but even EVs don't solve the US's resource dependency. Rechargeable batteries use Rare Earth Elements, which China (the country with the biggest supply -- 95% of the world's supply) is banning the export of. Which means they get to manufacture products that use them and control the price on those products.

As for nuclear, well, there's a lot of debate going on as to whether or not it's return on investment is even positive. I'm not terribly familiar with any specific technologies. My understanding of the issues stem from articles like this.

There are so many concerns with nuclear. Where do we store the waste? I've said before that if we can't do it safely within the bounds of human settlements (aka cities) then it is completely irresponsible to use it and store the waste in non-human environments. You have the possibility that plants may need to be shut down early in their estimated life cycle, cutting their return on investment further. Then there's clean up costs. Nuclear requires stability: social, political, and natural... stability that seems less and less attainable every day. Nuclear is capital intensive and capital is less and less available these days. Nuclear (and all power plants for that matter) requires grid delivery, which is very inefficient. Can't find the link, but I've heard that we lose about 60 percent of electricity in the process of delivery. That's atrocious.

My gut says it's dead in the water. It's practically been on the drawing board for years and years. Useful technologies don't do that. They get built and used and then proliferate. Nuclear has hardly proliferated over the years, and the proliferation that has happened was done at the behest of governments.

do you have a link for your above quote?

Woops, forgot to link to that quote.

To use your metaphor, these microorganisms can develop a new mutation that allows them to use photosynthesis and survive indefinitely.

Absolutely, but I never implied that if they did develop photosynthesis there would be enough energy to go around, although there might be, but definitely not enough energy to fuel the kind of growth that the sugar did. And don't forget that the bacteria that don't develop that mutation are going to die off when the sugar is gone.
posted by symbollocks at 7:13 AM on April 7, 2010


2012: not the return of quetzalcoatl but actually the end of the age of oil.
posted by Freen at 7:23 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


So if we start now (and we actually have started, atlhough not seriously enough) we can eventually replace the fleet with a better version.

There are so many hurdles to overcome though. It's one thing to make some sweet demonstrator prototypes, it's another to produce billions of units. Do we even have enough of the right materials for, to take a particularly tricky example, the batteries? Can these be effectively recycled? How much energy does that take? Think about how many petrochemicals are used in electronics.
posted by phrontist at 7:34 AM on April 7, 2010


I'm sure, of course, that the U.S. Forces Joint Command would never overemphasize likely dangers in order to make military funding increase.

Combine this with the breathless "CYBERWAR OMG" series currently running on NPR, and I am getting that propagandized feeling.
posted by emjaybee at 7:36 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Except we don't live in a system with a closed lid. Yes, fossil fuels are finite, but for all intents and purposes solar energy is not.

It sure as hell is. Most of the sunlight striking earth can't be tapped by us right now - that doesn't make launching panels in to space an attractive proposition. We're sitting at the bottom of a fairly steep gravity well.
posted by phrontist at 7:38 AM on April 7, 2010


Rare earth elements are not rare, they can be mined anywhere, doing so cheaply implies toxic by products, China does this and so undercuts everyone so produces 95% of them. Doing so anywhere else, or treating toxic waste implies higher costs which cannot compete with China's low costs. previously, also US has 15% of world supply, congress acting to restart domestic mining, also "Rare Earth Metals: Not So Rare", also wikipedia "rare earth elements are found in relatively high concentrations in the earth's crust", also /..
posted by ecco at 7:47 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


oops, I forgot to mention that I was responding to symbolics, "Rechargeable batteries use Rare Earth Elements, which China ... is banning the export of. Which means they get to manufacture products that use them and control the price on those products."
posted by ecco at 7:50 AM on April 7, 2010


If the US needed to cut our oil consumption in half we could end up a third world country, like Austria, or Denmark, or the UK, or France. That's what this comparison of oil usage per capita seems to imply.
posted by dglynn at 7:59 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


My gut says it's dead in the water. It's practically been on the drawing board for years and years. Useful technologies don't do that. They get built and used and then proliferate. Nuclear has hardly proliferated over the years, and the proliferation that has happened was done at the behest of governments.

I'm not sure that's a particularly fair criticism. There are a number of reasons why nuclear never quite took off in the way people expected it to, and few of them have to do with underlying flaws in the technology itself.

Probably the first and biggest problem is that the industry was never allowed to develop organically, in response to market demands; it was always tied to and directed by the government, either via subsidization or regulation, which encouraged development of systems that couldn't compete on their merits. E.g., much of the U.S. nuclear industry's (and industry personnel's) manufacturing experience is focused around high-enriched naval reactors — while marvels of technology, they're hardly commercially marketable for power production. Also, a surplus of fissile material as a result of weapons production undercut the nascent interest in fuel reprocessing and breeder reactors, which anyone writing about the future of the nuclear-power industry in the 1950s or 60s assumed would play a major role.

In many ways the industry was built out too quickly, and too early. In retrospect, we never should have built as many BWRs and PWRs as we did, certainly not without the reprocessing infrastructure being in place. The current nuclear power industry is insanely wasteful compared to what it was supposed to have been and could be.

The underlying cause of all this, of course, is the low cost of competing fossil sources; nuclear plants and their associated infrastructure are indeed capital-intensive. It was a mistake to try to make them work during the postwar oil-glut decades, because what we got was a perversion. However, if energy prices due go up — and more importantly, stay up — in the future, there's no reason why we couldn't do things the right way.

Ultimately I'm not particularly concerned about the future of the nuclear industry; given that the technology exists, it will necessarily be employed when the demand exists and the economic climate is right — if not in the U.S., then elsewhere. There are a lot of countries with far less in the way of accessible fossil reserves than the U.S., so we can probably afford to take a wait-and-see approach on the nuclear issue.

That seems to be the strategy we're poised to adopt on energy in general: wait and see, and delay doing anything as long as possible until someone else has worked out all the problems. Then, do whatever they did, hopefully with fewer mistakes, and eat their lunch. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but that seems to be the path we're headed down.

Framed that way, the JOE report makes a bit more sense: the military is ready, if necessary, to secure the supplies of oil in order to buy the U.S. more time. Of course, one could easily argue that, far from giving us a strategic advantage by allowing a few more years of cheap oil, it's actually going to ensure other nations get ahead, but I can't really fault the military for planning in the event they're asked to do it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:01 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]



I wonder how much fossil energy we have used/wasted during one Afghani and two Iraqi wars so far.
posted by notreally at 8:03 AM on April 7, 2010


"If the US needed to cut our oil consumption in half we could end up a third world country, like Austria, or Denmark, or the UK, or France. That's what this comparison of oil usage per capita seems to imply.
posted by dglynn at 7:59 AM on April 7 "

Do you have any idea why the US is so low, at #23? I assumed it would have been near the very top ....
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 8:25 AM on April 7, 2010


Although sybollocks has raised several objections to my proposed alternatives to fossil fuels, none of these mean that the alternatives are impossible, only that there are difficulties to deal with (the point about China's dominance of the rare earth element supply has been very well dealt with by ecco). I can tell you that in the province of Ontario where I live, a third of our electrical supply comes from nuclear power (another third is hydroelectric and the remaining third is coal power). We consider nuclear power to be quite a viable option. The fact that there are environmental problems relating to nuclear waste does not mean that we can't use nuclear power, any more than the environmental problems relating to buring fossil fuel has prevented us from doing that. I will add that global warming from carbon dioxide emissions is likely to become a much bigger problem than any problem likely to result from nuclear waste. Of course, there are more environmentally benign power sources than either nuclear or fossil fuel, such as solar power which you criticise as being too diffuse. However, there is really a lot of solar energy available in outer space. We might be able to do a lot with solar power satellites. Possibly that would satisfy your requirements. In any event, planning an economy on the basis of massive oil imports is just not the right option. It has been a bad idea for a long time, and it is one of the reasons why the US is now in such a mess, both economically and militarily.
posted by grizzled at 8:28 AM on April 7, 2010


Interesting, but even then, why is extracting REEs the right way an expensive proposition? Is it because doing so is energy intensive? If that's the case then that further limits the benefits of said batteries. If the energy used in producing batteries is a lot more than the battery will ever use in it's lifetime, that's a ridiculous investment. China, by disregarding environmental concerns, lowers the amount of wasted energy.

The real question is, can batteries made from REEs be produced in an environmentally sound fashion and efficiently enough so that they are economically viable? I think the fact that they are not being produced in the US now and that these mines are dormant says a lot.
posted by symbollocks at 8:29 AM on April 7, 2010


I think the future is clearly something along the lines of Craig Venter's genetically engineered biofuel-producing algae. We have an abundance of solar energy raining down on the planet - the trick is going to be a cheap and compact way to harvest and store it. Oil is a good medium for storing energy, and programmed algae may be the missing link between solar and oil
posted by crayz at 8:42 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


If the US needed to cut our oil consumption in half we could end up a third world country, like Austria, or Denmark, or the UK, or France. That's what this comparison of oil usage per capita seems to imply.
posted by dglynn at 7:59 AM on April 7 "

Do you have any idea why the US is so low, at #23? I assumed it would have been near the very top ....
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 8:25 AM on April 7 [+] [!]


I don't know anything about this subject, so somebody please correct me if I'm wrong, but it looks like just about every country above the US on this list is an island, an extremely petroleum-rich oil producer, and/or a major shipping hub. (I'mnot sure how Canada fits into this scheme). The explanation on the site is short on details, but I assume most of the oil used to get goods and resources to consumers on the island nations shows up there somehow. And maybe they are also allocating all the oil used for any ultimate purpose by ships according to which nation the ships are flagged to. Just guessing.
posted by newmoistness at 8:54 AM on April 7, 2010


solar power which you criticise as being too diffuse

I don't mean to say that certain energy sources are too diffuse to use at all. I mean that they are too diffuse to use in the way we want to use them: in concentrated form, as electricity.

There are plenty of ways to harness diffuse energy other than to convert them into concentrated forms. Organic farming and permaculture practices are a great, efficient, humane way of utilizing solar energy. Same with passive solar heating, and solar water heaters. There are tons of ways to live without concentrated energy. See this post from a few months ago.

We're looking at a future where we have signifigantly less energy to go around, no matter how you look at it. Unless you look at it through the techno-utopian lense where untested (possibly non-existant -- beaming solar energy from space?) high complexity technologies miraculously save us. But I'm thinking realistically, on the level of proven technologies.

Be aware how a lack of oil will affect the materials industries. Less, more expensive plastic. Roads also use a lot of petroleum products, which is another cost to the transportation alternatives you brought up. Pesticides/herbicides, fertilizers used in farming will be more expensive. Also be aware how a lack of oil will affect economics and manufacturing. Expensive transportation costs. Economies of scale turned on their heads. The only benefit a factory that can turn out 1000000 thingymajigs a day has is dependent on if it can't get those thingymajigs to consumers, usually across an ocean.

Believe it or not we have all the technology we need to make the transition, it's a matter of putting them into practice... cleaning up long neglected canal systems, producing what we can in our homes, developing local manufacturing sources for what else we need, urban farming for local food security, not wasting anything, and reusing everything (did you know you can use an alternator from a vehicle as a wind, hydroelectric or hand-cranked generator?)

Oil is a good medium for storing energy, and programmed algae may be the missing link between solar and oil

Quite possibly, and even if it's not we can still use corn- and switchgrass-based fuel. It may not scale to the point where we can fuel all of the cars in America on it, but we might be able to fuel a tractor or a few buses, which is a lot better than nothing.
posted by symbollocks at 9:18 AM on April 7, 2010


Oh yes, symbollocks, I do believe that we have all the technology that we need to make the transition away from a petroleum based economy, and that's what I am suggesting that we do, so we agree.

Since you discuss the higher costs involved in some alternative technologies, I will also point out that we probably will need to have a less wasteful and more intelligently managed society - which definitely includes much less military expenses and fewer wars, not more.
posted by grizzled at 9:49 AM on April 7, 2010


we used to be willing to practically just pour money down the drain when it came to the national/public interest (railroad development, interstate development, the moon mission, the manhattan project, etc.). why aren't we simply willing to take the financial hit in the short term that it would take to implement a plan for fossil-fuel energy independence and sustainability, given that the longterm economic, environmental and strategic benefits would without a doubt eventually surpass those costs?
posted by saulgoodman at 10:03 AM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


I suspect the military consumes far more petroleum than it will ever capture.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:31 AM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


With 3 of the biggest, most permanent military bases and an embassy compound bigger than Vatican City being built, we're not leaving Iraq (willingly) in my lifetime.

Can't fight oil wars without someplace local to stage from. And you can't fight global resource wars without oil.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:51 AM on April 7, 2010


Yay! My dad worked on this!

I hate having political conversations with him, because he often says things like, "If you were allowed to know the things I know, you'd understand." It's really annoying.
posted by toekneebullard at 11:03 AM on April 7, 2010


less military expenses and fewer wars, not more

Definitely. Just don't expect it to happen. The US government is going to hold on to the bitter end. We've already passed the point of no return (the 70s) but Reagan decided to turn on the (foreign) oil spigots and give us another 40 years of relaxation. We're in for some hard times now. We could have reached energy independence consciously and solved our problem, but now we get to let nature/the invisible hand resolve it for us, and it won't be pretty.

why aren't we simply willing to take the financial hit in the short term that it would take to implement a plan for fossil-fuel energy independence and sustainability, given that the longterm economic, environmental and strategic benefits would without a doubt eventually surpass those costs?

Because then we would be transitioning to a society where we could not expect a large amount of growth with which to pay back said financial hit. Stable, sustainable economies rarely produce sizeable or sustained profits, especially when resources are scarce.

The other stuff you mentioned (well, at least the transportation networks) made sense for the government to sponsor because they increase profits. Trade in an age of cheap transportation is easier when you have those networks and especially when the people using them don't have to pay their fair share for them.
posted by symbollocks at 11:14 AM on April 7, 2010


Do you have any idea why the US is so low, at #23? I assumed it would have been near the very top ....
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 8:25 AM on April 7 [+] [!]


Well, for the small island nations, its because of diesel powered electrical generation. In the US, oil is generally used in transportation, and to a lesser extent for space heating, and almost negligibly for power generation (coal, hydro, gas and nuclear dominate, I think in that order). Canada is high because of transportation (US style cities, and big distances) and space heating (lots of older homes use fuel oil, not hydro or gas for heat).
posted by bumpkin at 11:16 AM on April 7, 2010


I am at least as pessimistic as you are (symbollocks) so no, I don't expect the US to reduce military spending and fight fewer wars. The advice that I give people most often is to enjoy civilization while we still have it. Time is running out.
posted by grizzled at 11:21 AM on April 7, 2010


Coalition military operations would become essential to protecting US national interests.

I.e. "We're gearing up for the "Scramble" rather than the "Blueprints" scenario.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:26 AM on April 7, 2010


Stable, sustainable economies rarely produce sizeable or sustained profits, especially when resources are scarce.

But the public didn't profit from its investment in any of the cases I mentioned above; the private sector did. If the government were to turn on its sustainable/alternative energy producing money spigots tomorrow, the private sector would still profit from developing and implementing those systems at the public sector's loss, the same way it did when we laid railroads, built the interstate system, and went to the moon.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:09 PM on April 7, 2010


The other stuff you mentioned (well, at least the transportation networks) made sense for the government to sponsor because they increase profits.

Lower energy consumption costs--which we could achieve easily over the longterm with widespread adoption of alternative energy technologies, through efficiencies of scale--would increase profits.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:11 PM on April 7, 2010


saulgoodman: “we used to be willing to practically just pour money down the drain when it came to the national/public interest (railroad development, interstate development, the moon mission, the manhattan project, etc.)

I'm in agreement with you on the general point, but I think the claim that we used to be willing to spend that much more is false.

The amount of political fighting that went on over funding something like the Erie Canal (to say nothing of the Panama Canal) is staggering. People were arguing back and forth over it for literally decades before anything got done, and even then the first attempts at funding were paltry and only for limited purposes like surveying, etc. (I'd argue that it really only got done because one guy, Dewitt Clinton, took it on as his personal legacy/ego-project.) And this was for a project that paid off its construction costs and started to pay off in just nine years.

Basically ditto for railroad projects — a whole lot of palms got greased during the New York Central's big buildout, which today sometimes gets used as an example of a successful public/private infrastructure venture. There was blunt extortion and bribery involved, judges were bought and sold, and there was much resistance from entrenched interests like the ferry and packet-boat operators ... it was not pretty, nor easy.*

The Manhattan Project, of course, got wartime funding, but it's still not as though they got a complete blank check. Had the people in charge of the project not been extremely good administrators and political operatives, in addition to delivering on their objectives, they might well have seen their resources siphoned off elsewhere. (Also, the widespread and erroneous belief that the Germans had a headstart on building a bomb probably helped. A lot.)

I don't pretend to know that much about the Interstate Highway system's funding, although I'd be willing to bet that securing it wasn't trivial either, and I've always been told that it was couched as a military/strategic project in order to win approval.

Overall: it's easy to look back on the various projects and think that we were just more willing to spend money, and in part that might be true — in the early 20th century the U.S. was in the position China is in now, one of a rapidly industrializing nation with a white-hot economy. But it's very easy to remember the accomplishment and forget the decades of political nastiness that preceded it and made it possible. Success has many fathers, after all.

If there is one lesson that I think you can take home from the history of Great Engineering Projects in the U.S., it's that the fastest way to get anything done is to frame it as some sort of arms race with an enemy, and be ready for a knock-down, drag-out fight with fiscal conservatives and entrenched interests if you can't. The only thing the American public has no problem paying for is war.

* A good book for anyone who is interested in this, or other aspects of early American rail history, is The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street. It's out of print but it's worth the work to find a used copy. The corruption involved was staggering.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:14 PM on April 7, 2010 [8 favorites]


those are great points, Kadin2048.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:16 PM on April 7, 2010


I don't pretend to know that much about the Interstate Highway system's funding, although I'd be willing to bet that securing it wasn't trivial either, and I've always been told that it was couched as a military/strategic project in order to win approval.

Well, a very good argument can be made that securing a stable and sustainable energy source and/or method for transportation and industry is possibly the most important issue from a national security standpoint. If the engine of the US economy runs on oil, and most of that oil comes from other countries and may run out soon or ruin the balance of life on earth, things don't look good for the continuation of the country itself if we fail to act. Of course, it may already be too late, but this is nothing if not a strategic project with global effects and major implications on our already taxed military and economy. We can't simply keep burning heavy crude to ferry cargo ships from China carrying ultimately worthless consumer crap in order to keep this thing going, and that's a major issue, but it's just part of it.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:18 PM on April 7, 2010


Working in shipping intelligence, I can tell you with 99% certainty that we're not going to run out of easy oil in the next 20 years. A modern ULCC costs half a billion dollars; hell a relatively small parcel tanker costs more than USD 150m. And the same people who brought you structured finance are financing newbuilding *fleets* of these things. As in 20 per company at a pop.

Working in shipping intelligence, I can tell you that we are definitely running out of oil in the long term. My clients are the major oil companies and the vertically integrated independents. They know this, which is why, if you look at where their CapEx dollars are going, you'll see that they are NOT investing upstream but rather squeezing everything they can can from downstream.

And the thing to keep in mind is that dollars (the currency of petroleum) or any other currency is merely an abstraction representing the work X amount of the currency can get done. The vast majority of work that gets done in the world is ultimately petroleum powered, e.g. fuel for cars, agriculture, nearly the entire CPG chain.

What all that means is that 1. the energy companies are going relatively short on the availability of petroleum and that 2. when it gets expensive it's really, really, really going to suck because our currency will not be able to do the work necessary to replace relatively cheap petroleum (the latter is a typical Peak Oil trope, but remains true until someone can demonstrate some other way to replicate the energy density of fossil fuels in general, and petroleum in particular).
posted by digitalprimate at 5:02 PM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]



I'm rather surprised by how well this is written.
posted by bukharin at 5:47 PM on April 7, 2010


The "You Are a British Military Planner in the Year 1910" bit, on page 9, with its ten-year snapshots, is rather morbidly funny.
posted by darth_tedious at 7:09 PM on April 7, 2010


krinklyfig: “[A] very good argument can be made that securing a stable and sustainable energy source and/or method for transportation and industry is possibly the most important issue from a national security standpoint. If the engine of the US economy runs on oil, and most of that oil comes from other countries and may run out soon or ruin the balance of life on earth, things don't look good for the continuation of the country itself if we fail to act. [...]

I quite heartily agree — you're preaching to the choir here. But nobody has successfully made that argument to the American public yet. Energy policy has generally been couched as a sort of environmental issue, rather than a national security / military one. And that seems like a terrible strategy to me: environmentalism has a shitty track record in the U.S. compared to militarism; if you want to get something important done, dress it up in BDUs, not tie dye.

Actually, I'd go further and say that by framing something as an "environmental" issue, you are instantly guaranteeing that it will be opposed, on principle, by a fairly large section of the population. Not because they care about the actual content, but because they're not going to support anything that smells like hippies.* It seems like it would be a lot easier to frame an issue in terms that work for that crowd, and then let the environmentalists and others in on the down low, than to try it the other way around.

* To say that I know a lot of people like this would be an understatement. It's difficult to explain, but they're the kind of people who are proudly vehement about not recycling, not because they have a problem with recycling per se, but because recycling is something that "liberals" do, and tossing that aluminum can in the trash is their way of sticking it to said "liberals." If that same recycling effort had been framed differently, perhaps in a more patriotic light — hearkening back to the scrap-metal drives during WWII, perhaps — you could have the very same people sorting their garbage like a religious duty. The way the issue is framed is incredibly important, and to often it's done in a really tone-deaf (if not openly hostile) way.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:49 PM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


> It seems like it would be a lot easier to frame an issue in terms that work for that crowd, and then let the environmentalists and others in on the down low, than to try it the other way around.

Yeah. Obviously, the smart thing to do, given U.S. culture, would be to present alternative energy research as the Ultimate Strategic Weapon-- and our Self-Sufficient Energy Dominance Rating as being dangerously behind that of the dubious Germans, the arrogant Icelanders, the nefarious French, the perfidious Australians, etc., etc.

Laughably, I think the annual federal outlay for alternative energy research is about $4 billion per year.
posted by darth_tedious at 11:35 PM on April 7, 2010


Working in shipping intelligence, I can tell you with 99% certainty that we're not going to run out of easy oil in the next 20 years.

But what do the prices and construction of ships have to do with not running out of cheap oil in the next 20 years?

But the public didn't profit from its investment in any of the cases I mentioned above

Sure they did. The prosperity of the past 50 years? Where did that come from? It came in the form of cheap consumer goods shipped via the interstate highway system. How about cheap electricity generated from coal? Transported via those rail networks.

I would argue that those projects are fundamentally different from programs like NASA and the Manhattan project because the transportation networks had a very visible, direct benefit to both the public and private sectors. If NASA and the Manhattan project benefited the public at all they did so in very indirect ways.

Lower energy consumption costs--which we could achieve easily over the longterm with widespread adoption of alternative energy technologies, through efficiencies of scale--would increase profits.

Even if that's true in the long term, politicians are a short sighted lot.

And then you have to consider if that's even true: if the financial benefit to being ultra-efficient was so great, then why aren't people doing it already? The bottom line is that energy is so cheap right now that investing in efficiency makes about zero sense. It makes perfect sense from a stability standpoint, but not from an economic standpoint.

Now, at this point we can throw up our hands and blame the market for being out of touch with reality. But the reality is that the US government heavily subsidizes the energy sector, making energy seem much cheaper than it would be without government aid. If it weren't for that aid we would see the problem from a more reality-based perspective.

European governments don't give energy nearly as big of a boost (that's a big part of why oil is traded in dollars) although I'm sure there's still some amount of tampering going on (government funded roads). That's why gas is so expensive over there, and people have adjusted their energy use accordingly.
posted by symbollocks at 5:23 AM on April 8, 2010


@symbollocks But what do the prices and construction of ships have to do with not running out of cheap oil in the next 20 years?

That statement of mine, I realize now, probably needs a little context. The shipping industry is one of the most capital intensive industries in the world. The institutions that fund shipbuilding base their investments on the future earning capacity of the vessels, which in turn depends upon petroleum production and demand (and for the sake of simplicity, I'm treating all petroleum markets as the same which they definitely are not).

Although many tanker operators work primarily in the "spot" market, i.e., just taking whatever cargoes they can hustle up at, generally speaking, a good markup above average rates, most large tanker operators work on varying types of long term contracts to energy companies or large trading houses. So when institutions invest in new vessels, they are doing so based to a large extent on what existing, long term contracts are out there, and the people who ship petroleum don't sign, for example, eight or nine figure, 10 year contracts if they don't think that they will both have the petroleum AND be able to sell it. This is of course an oversimplification of how that market works, but it's that portion of it that supports the supposition that the companies in a position to know and profit are still betting on us having relatively (to them) inexpensive oil for a while.

The 20 years figure has to do with both how ships are depreciated and the average useful lifespan of a highly specified tanker. At 20 years vessels undergo something called fourth special survey which often engenders upgrades or repairs too expensive to keep the vessel trading in the principal and most profitable petroleum routes.
posted by digitalprimate at 6:07 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the report:
Fossil fuels will still make up 80% of the energy mix in the 2030s, with oil and gas comprising upwards of 60%. The central problem for the coming decade will not be a lack of petroleum reserves, but rather a shortage of drilling platforms, engineers and refining capacity. Even were a concerted effort begun today to repair that shortage, it would be ten years before production could catch up with expected demand. [p.24, emphasis mine]
There's not a direct reference there, but most of the information in the report's energy section seems to be coming from the OECD/IEA Energy Outlook, so it ought to be easy to check.

But the general point seems to be that there are ample supplies in the ground, at least in the short term, but insufficient extraction capacity to meet increasing global demand. The obvious result will be increasing energy prices that will constrain growth, but probably not a catastrophic drop in supply below current levels, at least for a while.

The report does not say, but I assume, that much of the problem stems from depletion of easily-extractable major deposits like those in the Gulf and on the North Slope, where you can basically stick a pipe into the ground and suck oil vast quantities of oil from a single platform. The recent discoveries are smaller, and I would guess that this means they require far more platforms and other extraction equipment to achieve the same MBD output.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:22 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


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