Sunday, January 31, 2010

"A thousand barrels a second" by Tertzakian (2007)

Peter Tertzakian has a double education in geophysics and economics and is "Chief Energy Economist" at a Canadian energy investment company. His book "A Thousand Barrels a Second: The Coming Oil Breakpoint and Challenges facing an energy dependent world" was published in 2007, but was, based on the contents of the book, presumably written up around 2005. The book's title, "A Thousand Barrels a Second" refers to the rate at which we globally extract and consume oil today; a thousand barrels is equivalent to 159 000 liters of oil per second - or 86 million barrels of oil (more than 13 000 000 000 liters) per day. Of these incredibly high volumes of oil, nearly half ends up in a gas tank close to you.

Peter does not talk about "Peak Oil" but about "the coming oil break point”. Exactly how these terms differ from one another is not easy to know, and one may speculate about the reason(s) for Tertzakian to avoid the more conventional/well-known term. My guess is that it is not easy for someone who works in the energy industry - and is richly rewarded for his efforts - to undermine or create too much suspicion about the sustainability of the current system. You may discuss the challenges ahead in terms of "enormous changes", but you must also strive to find the right tone and a balance between your concerns and your utmost confidence that we can and will cope with these problems.

It is a bit strange though, because Peter describes exactly the same grim picture as more conventional oil peak advocates do when he talks about today's energy realities: that oil production in the United States peaked in 1970, that our oil thirst is unquenchable and unsustainable, that all the major oilfields in the world have been discovered and that the trend is that we find less and less oil each year. Today, a newly discovered "large" oil field satisfies the global need for oil only for a few days or weeks. One example is the Hibernia oil field off Newfoundland, Canada. It is one of the major oilfields discovered during the past 30 years, but the total (estimated) amount of oil there is equal to only 11 days of global consumption.

The "break point" that Tertzakian referers to is one of four phases in a cycle that each dominant source of energy passes through: Pressure buildup, Break point, Rebalance and Growth and Dependency. The oil crisis of the 1970s marked a break point which caused a nearly fifteen year long period of rebalancing. We are now, since 2001, in the pressure buildup phase, and this time the break point and rebalancing phase will be more dramatic, longer and more difficult, since there are no easy solutions, no new technologies and no suitable energy substitutes that can solve our current problems.

A recurrent theme in Tertzakian’s book is that changes in our energy infrastructure take time. The size and shape of our infrastructure and of the energy industry today is the result of decisions made one or more generations ago. He compares this with the "abrupt" and smooth transition from whale oil to kerosene, a shift that took "only" 20 years during the second half of the 1800s:

"Changes in the world of energy are measured not in months, not in years, but often in decades. The abrupt transition from whale oil to kerosene took less than two decades. In the history of energy substitutions, that’s a duration of time akin to an eye blink."

This "quick" shift can be compared to the transition from wood to coal, a shift that took 75 years (1825-1900) despite the fact that coal is in many ways superior to wood (it contains more energy per unit volume, burns hotter and does not rot). The more we build on and refine our current solutions (the "Growth and Dependency" phase), the more difficult the transition to some other form(s) of energy:

Recasting consumer habits is a large undertaking, but the primary obstacle to real change comes from the inflexibility of the technological standards and physical infrastructure that are placed up and down the energy supply chain. For example, our oil-fed energy supply chains have developed over a 145-year-old growth cycle […] We are dependent on this multitrillion dollar global infrastructure as much as we are dependent on the petroleum that feeds the entire supply chain.”

Since the development of new energy sources and technologies in the energy field takes decades from experiments to scalable applications, Tertzakian emphasizes that during the next 10-20 years, there is no radical new technology ("no magic bullet") that will solve the problems we face today.

On the contrary, oil has many attractive properties that no other energy source has. Oil for example contains a lot of energy per unit volume, is easy to store, easy to transport and easy to scale up. Unlike previous transitions, the coming transition will be a switch "down" to energy sources that in some respects are "not as good" than oil. This makes the problem of finding replacements even more challenging, and the transition more difficult, longer and harder to get going. Exactly because oil is such a flexible and powerful energy source, we have found so many uses for it, and at the same time made ourselves completely dependent on it. According to Tertzakian, gasoline and diesel are nothing less than "the Microsoft Windows operating system of the transportation world."

The better and more robust a fuel is, the more we put it to work in our daily lives. In turn, the more successful a fuel is, the more necessary it becomes to the well-being of the overall economy. This creates a dependency that grows deeply rooted over time.

Tertzakian reproduces an imperialistic quote in the spirit of harsh realpolitik that Richard Nixon uttered in the midst of the oil crisis of 1973. Nixon pinpoints the positive aspects of increased energy usage (which goes hand in hand with increased economic growth), but completely misses the negative aspects of increased dependency and increased vulnerability:

There are only seven percent of the people of the world living in the United States, and we use thirty percent of all the energy. That isn’t bad; that is good. That means we are the richest, strongest people in the world and that we have the highest standard of living in the world. That is why we need so much energy, and may it always be that way.”

The only thing Nixon forgot for the quote to be “perfect” - completely updated and adapted to Bush-speak - was to ask God to bless the United States... In the early 1970s, the U.S. imported 10% of its oil, but 35 years later that figure has risen to over 65%, and the country is now so stuck in that trap that it has to go to war (Iraq) in order to secure its oil imports.

How many new sources of energy have been introduced over the past 100 years, Tertzakian asks rhetorically. The answer is one (1) and that power source is nuclear energy which currently accounts for approximately 6% of the world's total energy production (about one-sixth of the oil's share). Renewable energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal, wave energy) are this far insignificant and associated with theoretical and practical problems that make it difficult for them to play a major role in the industrialized countries' energy mix for at least the next 10 years. Tertzakian claims that they may be useful in the rebalancing process after a break point, but they will not in any meaningful way replace oil or avert the coming break point (energy crisis). Another example of the long lead times to develop new energy sources is Canada's oil sands. To my surprise I learned that the history of mining oil sand in Alberta started already 40 years ago – and only recently reached substantial volumes.

In the book's first chapter, Tertzakian tells the story of our hunt for whales. In 1751, it was discovered that spermaceti oil from Sperm whales (and later whale oil) was valuable. Every Sperm whale may carry up to two tons of spermaceti oil in its skull and the function of this oil is still not completely understood. But humans know what the oil may be used for - namely to produce candles. Since these candles were better than any comparable alternative, the whaling industry expanded in the subsequent decades. 100 years later, whales had become scarce and you had to go to the ends of the earth and back again on trips that lasted up to four years in order to find the whales (a chapter in the book is actually called "To The Ends of the Earth"). Just in time before the whales got extinct in the mid 1800s, the fossil fuel kerosene took over the task of illuminating our homes and our growing cities.

Tertzakian makes a point of the observation that our quest for oil today is just as desperate as the hunt for whales was a few decades into the 1800s. Today we hunt for oil in every corner of the world and we head off to the most inhospitable environments, the deepest oceans and the most politically corrupt and unstable countries in our quest for more oil. Unfortunately, the good oil -- "light sweet crude" – is becoming harder and harder to obtain:

For light sweet crude, the evidence strongly suggests that we are very close to Hubbert’s peak, and that we have reached the stage […] where we must start exploiting secondary and synthetic sources to prolong the onset of the overall oil peak.

It is impossible to get any closer to the theory of peak oil without actually embracing it. As the "good" oil is running out, we must now turn to the worse, "sour" oil that contains more sulfur, costs more to refine and is more harmful for the environment. Other alternatives are even worse, for example Canada's oil sands - a source of energy that no one would have considered if the better options had still been easy to exploit. After the lowest hanging fruit has been picked, we should from now anticipate more expensive oil. This has implications far beyond more expensive transportation, since our entire society and everything we consume directly or indirectly depend on oil and petroleum products (for example plastics).

Thus, it is obvious to Tertzakian that we approach the mother of all break points and that the effects will reach into every household and every home. The four phases of the break point are 1) complaining and paying up, 2) conserving and being more efficient, 3) adopting alternative energy sources and 4) making societal, business, and lifestyle changes. This process could easily last for decades. Regarding the fact that we currently do nothing or very little to prepare for the coming break point, Tertzakian writes:

At a break point […] lifestyle changes can seem like painful sacrifices until we readjust. It is the pain of those sacrifices that makes any political administraion reluctant to tell the whole truth about our energy situation. Until the evidence of the need for change is more obvious to all citizens, it will be difficult politically to make the necessary tough choices.”

Tertzakian soberly notes that today's politicians have nothing to gain, but much to lose by trying to act proactively. Since there are no quick solutions with immediate positive effects and no political gain in making decisions which make sense only in the long term, politicians prefer the (non-)strategy of “wait-and-see”.

An example is the issue of raising taxes on gasoline in the United States. Such a decision would be very wise in the sense that it would "encourage" people to make the "right" personal financial decisions. But it would also be political suicide. In the United States, the individual's right to buy the car (or SUV) he or she wants is just as holy as the right to own a gun - and there are a lot more car owners than gun owners in the U.S… There are also many practical problems with a high petrol tax. In order for such a tax to be efficient, there must be functioning alternatives to using a car in the form of public transport. In addition to high costs for expanding public transport, it is also exceedingly difficult to make it work in the United States after 20+ years of emigration to suburbs which have been spreading in all directions around American cities.

At the end of the book, Tertzakian paints himself into a corner in his attempts to propose solutions that on one hand will have some effect, and on the other hand will be "lifestyle neutral". There are big savings to be done regarding personal transports (cars), but it all ends up in a few weak proposals about smaller and lighter cars, lower speed on the roads and other bits and pieces of plaster on these open wounds. On the whole, however, the book is a nice read. Its main merit is to give an understanding of how difficult, challenging and time consuming it is to switch away from the oil infrastructure we have been building piece by piece for more than 100 years. The author’s analysis is good, but the concluding recommendations are a bit too weak to stand on par with the size of the problem. A review of the book which draws attention to completely different aspects can be found here.

Since I bought this book, Tertzakian has published another book: “The end of energy obesity: Breaking today's energy addiction for a prosperous and secure tomorrow".

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Effects of the Crisis - Part 6


This is part six in a set of articles about the losers of the American economical crisis. The first article set out to describe the background to the following texts (including the connection to Peak Oil). In the previous text I wrote about those who desperately try to enter the labor market after substantially lowering their demands. In this text I go on to those who risk going hungry unless they receive support from state authorities and/or NGO’s. Sensitive readers who think that all stories (may) have happy endings are warned.

After the summer, in August, the number of evictions in the US exceeded 300 000 for the sixth consecutive month. The desert state of Nevada had the highest numbers of all states - in August every 1 out of 62 households received an eviction note. Half of the state’s population live in Las Vegas with surroundings. The reason behind these evictions is of course the state's outstanding unemployment numbers reaching the highest level in 26 years. “As long as 15 million Americans are unemployed, record foreclosures will continue.”

Let us remember that many of those who are now losing their homes did not have the vilified sub-prime loans, but the less risky prime loans. The difference is, to put it simply, that those who got sub-prime loans in hindsight should never have been given any loans at all, but by now, also ”ordinary” people are affected. When house prices have lost 30-40% of their peak values, many find themselves in a position where they can not sell their houses without losing (a lot of) money. Losing you job on top of that quickly becomes a recipe for being foreclosured.

The situation is sad, but since the number of evictions decreased marginally with 0,5% from July to August (from 360 000 to 358 500), there must have be a non-marginal number of economy journalist who positively but misleading stated that ”the bottom has been reached”, and ”we are turning a corner now”. I'm sure you recognize the chirpy chatter of those who always report on bad news with phrases such as "no-one could have foreseen that...". Some things really have to be believed to be seen, and nothing is more alluring than seeing (or inducing that there just have to be) a light at the end of the tunnel. But the light at the end of the tunnel has unfortunately been turn off due to budget cutbacks...

In reality there seems to be few lights at the end of tunnels - only more tunnel ahead. The question is not any longer what parts of society are affected, but what parts, if any are not? After the previous years’ shopping spree and a hangover that saw the middle class’ savings decrease with 40% in value, unemployment can be followed by a quick leap into the captive arms of poverty. Where American poverty was previously associated with the countryside or run-down inner city areas, it is now spreading to suburbia, including the most luxuriuos suburbs.

“The crisis is also making itself felt in posh Georgetown, a historic residential neighborhood in Washington D.C. which is home to many politicians, lobbyists and attorneys. Anyone who forgets to lock his car at night can expect to see unwanted guests sleeping in it by the next morning. When one local woman, who works at a Middle Eastern embassy in Washington, opened her car door one morning, she was astonished to find a woman holding a purse and wearing a pearl necklace sitting on the seat. The humiliated woman covered her face, apologized politely and quickly left her sleeping quarters.”

Sergio Gallardo, a 33 years old Californian ex-construction worker is perhaps a more representative victim of the economic crisis. He belongs to the formerly middle class and lived in a four room apartment together with his wife, his five children (between 3 and 13 years old) and the family’s German Shepherd. He has now lost his flat, his wife, his car and has had to pay almost 1000 USD a month to live together with his children in a 10 square meter big (small!) room in a cheap motel for the last six months. Dogs were not allowed there so he was forced to leave his dog at an animal shelter. As if this was not enough, the Gallardo family are living right in the middle of, and can look straight into a world of luxury that has now become utterly unattainable for them:

“The Costa Mesa Motor Inn is in Orange County, an upscale area not far from Los Angeles, familiar to many TV viewers as the setting of "The O.C.," a series about the glamorous love lives of spoiled teenagers. The motel is next to an exceedingly green golf course, and a new shopping center across the street offers lattes for adults and play zones for children. But there is nothing glamorous about the Costa Mesa Motor Inn […] Toy cars lined up on a windowsill in room 1108 serve as a reminder of better days. "We were able to take the toy cars with us, but I had to throw most of the toys into the dumpster," says Sergio Gallardo.”

The only comfort they have is that they are not alone. Being forced to move to a motel is a fate they share with many others, and at least there are many kids in the motel for Sergio’s children to play with. But we can expect the childrens’ school performance to suffer from the cramped new circumstances; children that are crammed together in a tiny motel room are probably not excelling when it comes to homework, or perhaps even when it comes to getting to school in the first place

Several examples of the effects of the crisis come from California, a state with so many problems that "California is on the verge of becoming the first failed state in America". The quote is remarkable as the term ”failed state” usually refers not to American states, but to the world’s poorest and most chaotic countries; places like Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe or Afghanistan.

On the other side of the continent, in one of the US’ most impoverished states - West Virginia, we find a more traditional picture of poverty. A wooden house with white paint flaking and located in the outskirts of a town with less than 1000 inhabitants, is home to a family who never thought they would have to ask for help. The father of the family works in a fast food restaurant and makes 6 dollars an hour, but he has to drive almost 100 km to get to work. He says that he went down for count last year when gas prices spiked and were then followed by a drastic increases in food prices. Even the town mayor blames the oil price for impoverishing his citizens:

“‘I blame everything on the price of gasoline. When it went up to $4 a gallon 18 months ago it affected everybody. It forced up the cost of food and utilities. People were working all day and they still weren't earning enough to pay all the bills,’ he said. ‘Food prices you can combat a bit because people can grow their own gardens. They can kill deer, fox. You can eat 'coon. But gasoline affects everybody. They just can't make it.’“

Most recipients of social benefits like food stamps or social welfare payouts in West Virginia do have a job, they just don't make enough money to make ends meet in order to pay for gas, food and the utility bills. Many food stamp recipients need more and have to ask for food packages from food banks (food pantries) or visit soup kitchens. Soup kitchens which used to mainly serve single homeless men now see entire families with children lining up to get themselves a hot meal.

In West Virginia's schools, teachers look out for children from families they know have a hard time - children that might not get enough food at home. Without telling neither the children, nor the parents, the teachers slip ”backpack snack packs” with peanut butter, fruit and energy bars into the childrens' packpacks on Fridays to ensure that they will not go hungry over the weekend. The teachers try to be discreet since parents are often ashamed to admit that they must accept help in front of neighbors and friends.

Judging from the high unemployment numbers and the picture I draw above, it is not very surprising that the numbers of people receiving food stamps in the US is reaching new heights. After the seventh consecutive month of increase, the number of needy exceeded 35 Million individuals in June (more than 10% of the entire population and the highest numbers since the food stamp program started 40 years ago). We are here talking about ”the (supposedly) richest country in the world”... Nevada, where the number of needy increased by 45% year on year, is again ahead of the pack.

"In a year, despite food stamps and other resources, the USDA reports that 17 million Americans went hungry. One out of every *FIVE* children went hungry last year – a jump from one in six last year. Child hunger is increasing dramatically, much faster than adult hunger. In some states in the Midwest, including Ohio and Illinois, the numbers were one out of three. Think about that – about the fact that in the middle of the densest stands of calories in the world, one out of every three kids in a classroom goes hungry. Half a million children are frequently hungry."

The Food Research and Action Center asserts that the high numbers do not only reflect the high unemployment figures, but also a combination of other factors such as low salaries and the fact that many Americans have been forced to work fewer hours as a result of the economical crisis. As I have highlighted above, some who actually do have jobs still don't make enough to buy food and other neccessities.

When you receive food stamps, you do not actually get vouchers any longer, but a kind of credit card which can only be used to buy food in stores that are associated with the program (and you can not buy alcohol, tobacco, cat food, soap, dental paste, toilet paper or medicine). A single person on average gets around 125 USD a month, and a family with four members get around 275 USD. Almost 80% goes to households with children (these numbers are a few years old though).

There are also many private initiatives in the US beyond the state-financed system. When I search the internet for Swedish soup kitchens the results are scarce. The Salvation Army’s soup kitchen in Norrköping had to close when a zealous civil servant recently deemed their premises to be too small and difficult to keep clean. The Sundbyberg Salvation Army’s soup kitchen serve food two days a week. I am sure there are other soup kitchens out there, but they are either few or difficult to find online.

In the US there are 63 000 soup kitchens and food pantries handing out food packages to those in need. They are currently flooded by visitors and are under pressure because of he overwhelming need. According to Feeding America, ”The nation's largest domestic hunger-relief charity”, the demand has increased by 30% since the beginning of 2009 and until mid-year. On Manhattan, The Church of the Holy Apostles serve 1250 meals a day, but that is not enough and many who turn up are forced to leave without receiving anything. While the demand has increased, in these times of crisis, corporations and individuals are cutting down on donations to soup kitchens, shelters and other initiatives for very poor.

In the last example, we move back to California, but this time not to the great cities, but to the heartland of Californian agriculture - Central Valley. Central Valley is as large as quarter of Sweden and has a population of around 6.5 Million people. Agriculture is the main industry, and Central Valley is one of the most high-yielding regions in the world. In spite of this, a combination of disasters have put this granary in a dire situation.

“The Central Valley […] has suffered in the recession amid low demand for products like milk and almonds as well as a collapse in its once-booming housing market. At the same time, the region is grappling with drought and federal environmental rulings that have reduced water shipments to local farmers to as little as 10% of their normal allotments.”

For these reasons, many farmers have decided to only use a part of their land, and thus the demand for workers to harvest and package the agricultural products have diminished. Unemployment in Central Valley is now higher than in the rest of California, and it is higher in California than in most other American states (Michigan with its former car industry and Nevada have higher unemployment numbers). The result is that authorities find themselves forced to distribute food to poor agricultural workers who live in one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world! In some communities around 80% of the inhabitants need food support!

“At the recent food distribution in Selma, 46-year-old Leticia Reyes waited to load food in her car. Laid off a few weeks ago from her $1,200-a-month job at a fruit-packing plant, the mother of four said the family is left to pay its $600 monthly rent and other bills on her husband's $900-a-month pay as an auto mechanic and her $600 in monthly unemployment benefits. "We're really struggling, so this food helps a lot," said Mrs. Reyes.”

This text has been about those who are unemployed or under-payed and struggle to pay for the bare necessities of life - including food. In spite of terrible living conditions they at least have a roof above their heads. In the next text - the last in this series, I will continue to those who live on the very bottom; those who were poor already before the crisis, and also those who weren't, but now have slipped and landed hard in shelters, on camping grounds and in tent camps.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Extreme commuting

I have myself commuted 350 kilometers by rail on both a weekly and daily basis for a period of more than a year. It was tough. It is possible to justify in various ways, but it is still exhausting in the long run. I had an agreement with my employer to work 80% (4 days per week), of which I worked from home one day per week, so in reality I “only” performed my daily commute three days per week. It was tiring enough. The train left the central station at 7.15 and came back 18.45. Add a 30 minute trip to this to get to and from the central train station. That means I came home at 19.15 on a Tuesday evening and had to leave home 6.45 the next day. When you come home relatively late and know that you have to get up early the next day, you are not so keen to do things or meet friends in the evenings (what’s left of it after you have had dinner that is). 

During this period, I had one child in kindergarten. My wife had to leave and pick him up during the three days I was gone every week (short days at a demanding job for her part). I did the same thing during the two days I was in Stockholm every week. I mostly used the two-hour train journey to sleep or to work. During that period of my life, I fit the category of "extreme commuters" - a category (defined by the U.S. Census Bureau) referring to those who travel at least 90 minutes to get to work (and thus spend at least 3 hours per day commuting). 

The average time it takes to travel to your work in the U.S. is 25 minutes. One in six (19 million persons) need more than 45 minutes to get to work and nearly 3.5 million Americans are extreme commuters (3% of the workforce). Most of those live near a handful of mega-cities (if you can use the term "near" when you daily travel for hours to get to and from your workplace). Paradoxically, the states in the U.S. where people spend the least time commuting to work are also some of the most sparsely populated states (South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana). In New York, people spend twice as much time to get to their jobs as in South Dakota - a state in which 800 000 persons live in an area that is almost as big as half of Sweden. (Sweden is by European standards a relatively large and sparsely populated country, but there are still more than 9 million people living here.) Similarly, it is possible that people on average spend less time getting to their jobs far up in sparsly populated northern Sweden than around Stockholm. 

From 1990 an on, extreme commuters have been the fastest growing segment of commuters in the U.S., and the number of extreme commuters doubled between 1990 and 2005. What were the driving forces behind this development? Do remember that extreme commuters travel no less than three hours per day, but some can spend four, five or six hours traveling to and from their jobs. 

A 2006 competition for "America’s longest commute" was won by a man who had driven 600 km to and from his job as an engineer at Cisco in San Jose (California) daily since 1989. He left home at 4.30 every morning and the trip took at best three hours. The return trip could take four or five hours (more traffic) and he was usually home between 20.00 and 20.30 in the evenings. His commute was bearable thanks to ad-free satellite radio and audio books. And thanks to coffee we may assume, as he drank "about nine" cups on each trip, and squeezed in a total of 30 cups of coffee each day. Winning the competition was an eye-opener, but he was on the whole satisfied with living on a horse ranch next to the beautiful Yosemite National Park. A woman who had taken the same decision and made the same trade-offs was portrayed in a longer (highly recommended) story in The New Yorker. She lives in a nice house, but the quality of her everyday life is by most standards poor:

“She gave up cooking some years ago. Now she gets home, feeds her dogs, then heats up soup or pizza she buys at a pizzeria on weekends. She takes a shower and goes to bed, maybe watching a taped episode of "CSI". ”

Then there is also this story of 42 commuters who sit down together on the 5 a.m. bus and arrive to New York City two hours later. There is of course always someone who is more extreme, such as Greg Wixted who commutes between London and Dubai each week (if you can call it communing?). 

There are several more or less good reasons to commute long distances. Perhaps your spouse works closer to home, but your job is far away? Maybe you've always yearned for a rural lifestyle? But the strongest driving force behind extreme commuting in the United States has been a desire for better quality of life (!) and the wish to have your own little piece of the American dream; to buy a nice house with a big lawn in a nice area with good schools, low crime, clean and decent neighbors and soccer practice for the kids on Saturday mornings. The payoff is alluring to many, but the costs are high: 

" ‘Drive until you qualify’ is a phrase that real-estate agents use to describe a central tenet of the commuting life: you travel away from the workplace until you reach an exit where you can afford to buy a house that meets your standards. The size of the wallet determines that of the mortgage, and therefore the length of the commute. [..] in this equation you're trading time for space, miles for square feet. " 

For each exit I pass on the highway, and for every mile I drive away from the city, the price of houses decrease by several thousands of dollars. Fewer cars around the neighborhood (think of the children!) is ironically another reason to move far away from the city - even if the most mundane errand then requires a trip by car, and even though each of my trips contribute to more cars in the neighborhood. Eventually I reach the point where even my modest income is enough to realize my dreams of home ownership. If I do not earn enough, I drive a bit further, and if I want a bigger house, I drive a bit further again. Some can not afford to live near their jobs and look for housing in the exurbs, "the suburbs of the suburbs". For others the allure is "big city salary, small town living". Regardless of the reasons, nothing has until recently been able to stop this trend of moving further and further away from the city center (see for example the report “Communing in America” (2006) by the Transportation Research Board). 

Many of those who have made the decision to live far away from the city have taken this decision primarily based on economic grounds. Unfortunately, many have put themselves in a quandary by buying the biggest and nicest house they can afford, instead of something more modest, a bit smaller and with a more affordable price tag. Once you've bought the most expensive house you can afford, you can no longer afford to resign from your distant and (relatively) well-paid job. Even if there are jobs available closer to home, the salary would not be enough to cover the costs of your big house. Nearby small-town jobs offer small-town salaries. Regardless of how tough the commute is, you will no longer have the choice not to spend hours each day commuting to and from your job. The basic problem I describe here is of course not unique to extreme commuters - anyone can overspend on an apartment or a house - which down the road can limit job and life choices. It doesn’t even have to be a house, it can just as easily be a car, boat, summer cottage or many small purchases that add up on your credit card. 

Everyone can understand that it is not good to financially overextend yourself, thereby painting yourself into a corner, but other effects of extreme commuting are more difficult to predict. Studies indicate that people overestimate what they get from their commute (money, gadgets, luxury - material wealth) and underestimate what they lose (social contacts, hobbies, health - social welfare). Negative effects on mental and physical health ("Commuting is also associated with raised blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders, increased hostility, lateness, absenteeism, and adverse effects on cognitive performance") could perhaps be guessed at (although many believe that it of course doesn’t apply to them).

Really shocking to me however is the fact that the American sociologist Robert Putnam believes that your social contacts decrease by 10% for each extra 10 minutes of communing. A person who walks for a few minutes to get to her job would thus have almost twice as many social contact as someone who spends an hour getting to her job. When commuting continues year in and year out, the many long hours away from home can also lead to family and marital problems. 

If we move on to the psychological consequences, I’m sure few have given them any thought before they decide to take on the extreme commute. People often say they appreciate the time alone in the car. It is possible to gather your thoughts, listen to music, radio, or an audiobook. But the driver's seat is a lonely place. People behave the same way in a car as if they were alone in a room or as if they were socially isolated. One symptom is the extremely aggressive behavior that some drivers fall into ("road rage"). 

"Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. [...] When you are commuting by car [...] You are not spending time with other people. [...] Two hours or more of leisure time [...] are now passed in solitude. " 

I wrote above that "regardless of the reasons, nothing has until recently been able to stop this trend." Several of the texts I link to are a few years old. But as of two years ago, you suddenly see a variety of reasons for why the trend to move further and further away, and to travel longer and longer distances, has reached the end of the road (sic!). The housing market has collapsed in the U.S. and the conditions for getting a loan have toughened up. Gasoline prices shot through the roof in 2008 and will go up again. Unemployment is high. It has become much more difficult to finance a new car. Some have begun to see the benefits of living more densely and to be able to perform everyday errands on foot. And climate change can set tough new standards on cars and emissions in the future. All of this - and more generally the effects of the economic crisis – acts in concert to now suppress extreme commuting in the United States. It is naturally the houses that are the farthest away (from everything) that have lost most in value when prices start to fall: 

"houses priced the same in 2006 [...] but in different parts of a city were selling for dramatically different amounts a year later depending on their distance from the center of town" 

The dream of owning your own house has gone to pieces for the Discianno family. It turned out that the family had overextended themselves financially and had to leave their house - but the daily four-hour commute remains. More dreary stories can be found in "Long-distance commuters' trip to nowhere." To live far, far away has gone from being affordable to expensive due to several interacting factors. The effects of last summer's oil price shock is summarized by the caption "Fuel prices shift math for life in far suburbs": 

"Suddenly, the economics of American suburban life are under assault as skyrocketing energy prices inflate the costs of reaching, heating and cooling homes on the distant edges of metropolitan areas. [...] The rising cost of energy is now a primary factor pushing home prices down in the suburbs, particularly in the outer rings." 

Much of what is written above can gently be adapted to Swedish conditions. Many cities an hour away from Stockholm by train have become "possible to live in" as the X2000 high-speed train network has extended its reach during the last two decades. But what is interesting about the United States is that it is possible to find so much that from a Swedish perspective seems extreme. In the U.S. 90% of all people travel to their jobs by car and 85% or those commuters drive alone. Three out of four Americans thus travel to their jobs alone in a car. Or take the "city" of Phoenix in Arizona. "The city alone covers 517 square miles. Surrounding it is 14.000 square miles of desert dotted by seas of rooftops." All of Sweden is only 12 times larger than Phoenix and its suburbs. In fact, the whole of the Netherlands (14 200 square miles and with a population of over 16 million inhabitants) is on par with Phoenix-plus-suburbs. Extreme. Grotesque. Untenable. 

At this point I however have to confess that I've written about two different phenomena in this text. The first is the phenomenon of extreme commuting – no matter if it is being conducted by car, bus, train or plane. To travel for hours each day has an effect on the individual and on society. But the question of the environmental and economical sustainability of extreme commuting is a different question. It may be that the long distance train commute can continue for a long time after trips of similar length by car (in distance or time) has become an impossibility for most people. Many long-distance commuters in the Stockholm region travel by rail. They may suffer the same effects on physical and mental health as extreme car commuters in the U.S., but their commute is less unsustainable than driving a gas-guzzling car (or worse, a SUV or pick-up truck) alone and for hours on end every day. 

This blog is called "Life after oil". It is obvious to me (but not apparent in most texts about extreme commuting), that if gasoline becomes significantly more expensive after the oil peak, it will be far too expensive to commute alone by car for hours on a daily basis. If/when the flow of oil starts to dry up just a little, the gas prices will hit the roof again and many will suffer – and Americans are more vulnerable than Europeans.

What many may not think of is that the suburbs as a phenomenon - the very idea of working in, but living outside of the city - was an impossibility before we started to build light rail in the second half of the 1800s. To begin with, this was an option only available for the wealthiest of businessmen. Llewellyn Park outside New York was the first modern suburb (1853). Small residential communities grew up along the new railroad tracks that snaked their way out of the city in different directions. With the widespread adoption of the car, it was suddenly possible to "fill the gaps" and develop the city in all directions (regardless of direction of the diverging rail tracks).

If it becomes significantly more expensive to own and drive a car in the future, areas far away from the city, and especially those with poor access to public transportation, will be considerably less attractive, or atrophy. I believe that extreme commuting by car will become a rarity in Sweden and the United States in a not too distant future. The future of extreme commuting by bus and train is harder to predict, but well worth keeping an eye on (I might come back to this topic in a future blog post).

Changes start in the periphery. One can get glimpses of the future by looking for isolated observations, thoughts and trends that may at first seem insignificant or sometimes bizarre - but that is part of a larger puzzle. It is a pity that mainstream media rarely writes about such issues, but rather heavily covers current events in detail but often without placing them in a comprehensible context.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Great Reskilling

Rob Hopkins has founded and popularaized the Transition Town movement. One of his ideas is The Great Reskilling. The basic idea is simple - the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change mean that society will change fundamentally, and this will in turn force each one of us to acquire new knowledge and skills. These "new" skills are often old skills; knowledge of how to do things in a world of drastically reduced access to energy, and incidentally leading to a much lower environmental impact. They include old craft skills, resource management and farming -- knowledge that was alive and widely distributed in society only two generations ago:

"Re-learning the skills that our grandparents took for granted, such as how to use hand tools, how to build our own structures, how to mend and make clothing, how to make our own medicine, how to forage, grow, preserve and store our food."

To some extent, The Great Reskilling is about turning the clock back. Not for dogmatic reasons ("technology is evil") or for romantic reasons ("everything was better in ye olde times"), but because the required direction of action - given coming (energy) resource scarcity and climate change concerns - is so obvious. And it is thus better to start acting now, rather than to wait until we have no other choice than to learn everything all at once. However, we should of course hold on to any and every technology that we can possible manage to maintain. From this perspective, it is clear that cars are not a sustainable transportation technology, and that resources for transporting people (in cities) already today should focus on rail traffic and bicycles, rather than wasting resources on building brand new roads.

A good text about the kinds of knowledge we all need to acquire outlines a long list which includes cultivation and storage of (part of) your own food, husbandry, sewing, carpentry, basic mechanical skills and much more. One could add many more things to such a list, for example basic medical knowledge. However, ultimately you end up with a long list of things which - until now - we have not had to concern ourselves with, becuase it has been so easy to go to the supermarket to buy our food, to buy a cheap (and fashionable) shirt if we get tired of the old one, and to buy a new tool as soon as the old on breaks (or we can't find it).

The problem with such a list is that it might feel overwhelming for an individual to get started. Indeed, you must have a strong will to take the first, and second, and the tenth step, when it is so easy to throw-away-and-buy-a-new, when there are so many "must-haves" and when popular culture distract us and steals our time. But reskilling is not just about the skills you need, but also about how to acquire them. Hopkins writes about "reskilling events" and the benefits of organizing or participting in such activities. Reskilling events:

- Teach people new (old) skills
- Bring people together, helping them to build networks
- Give strenght and convey a sense of "can do it myself" (as opposed to powerlessness)
- Create links between the generations when old skills are being taught to the young (or middle-aged)
- may result in physical manifestations which act as "advertisement" for the newly acquired knowledge

Hopkins' guess is that these events will initially be short courses, and that the ambition and the length of the courses may increase over time. Of course, many people could participate in these events/courses without having any deeper thoughts about potential/future needs for the knowledge they acquire - they just do it simply because they think it is fun and because they want to immerse themselves and learn something new. From these observations, I will make a detour to the ecovillage-to-be that I am involved in and then return to the topic of reskilling.

Since the beginning of May 2009, I am one of six co-owner of a farm with 22 hectares of land in Sörmland (just south-west of Stockholm). Much has happened since then and more will happen in the future. There are one hundred issues on various levels to discuss, decide on and implement (who fixes a broadband connection and who copies the keys, how do we keep track of which co-owner has been spending how much money on what and how much of which plants we should grow where, what policy should we have regarding land use etc.)

One thing we did during the summer was to arrange courses. These courses were about things we wanted to learn, and they were all in line with the push to reskill ourselves. Our thought was that if we have our own farm and want to learn practical skills, then why not carry out activities in the form of courses at the farm where others are also welcome to participate? We decided to organize three courses on our farm last summer. They were all open to the public and as it so happend, they all turned out to be successful:

- Building with natural materials (including clay, rammed earth, strawbales etc.)
- Permaculture Design
- Local Economic Regeneration

Here are brief summaries of the courses, from the most practical to the most theoretical:

"Building with natural materials" was about building with natural and locally occurring materials (clay, sand, straw, sawdust, cow dung). The course was practical, offering a hands-on experience of different building techniques. The goal of this three-days course was for the participants to build something concrete, but even more important, to learn about and try a variety of building techniques.

"Permaculture Design" was about creating/designing ecosystems for human benefit. The idea is not complicated, but the term permaculture (permanent agriculture) is most likely unfamiliar to most people. In permaculture, natural ecosystems are the model, and the goal is to "design" new ecosystems so that they produce food and other goods that are of benefit for humans. The basic ideas are well summarized here:

"Imagine a natural forest. At the top is a roof of tree crowns, beneath it small trees, large and small shrubs, herbs and land covering plants, as well as plants that primarily exist below ground level and climbing plants that occupy all levels. The production of organic material is surprisingly high in comparison with, for example, a wheat field, which consists of a single layer of about half a meter. Imagine what an abundance this forest would contain if it consisted of edible plants! It would greatly surpass the yield of the wheat field!"

[I don't have the original text, this is a translation back to English from the Swedish edition]

Unlike the other two courses, "Local Economic Regenertaion" was a theoretical course. The premise was that current economic theories have brought the capitalist economic system to the brink of a systemic collapse. As we pass peak oil, the period of cheap energy will end. Less energy means reduced production and the end of globalization and long transports. The trend will be towards local (regional, national) production of goods and services.

Based on this, how can we create local economic regeneration in an economy beyond growth? What should we switch to, and how? What can you produce that is profitable both today and after the coming changes? How can you initiate, finance and be a successful entrepreneur even if it becomes increasingly difficult to show a bank how you will be able to repay your loans (because of economic turbulence and questioning of old economic "truths")?

This brings the text back to where it started - to the ideas underlying the Transition Town Movement and the Great Reskilling. We, in our ecovillage-to-be, feel that we have done some of our share by arranging courses, and feel confident about continuing to organize other courses in the future (in fact, we organized another course two months ago, I might come back to that later). And there are many suggestions for new course topics: food conservation, building a root cellar, building houses with timber and stone, foraging for edible plants and herbs, brewing beer, beekeeping, aquaculture and so on. The list could easily become very long since there are lots of things that we would like to know more about.

Today, people participate in courses like these because they find them interesting and fun. Tomorrow, the kind of practical knowledge such courses provide may become a hard currency. As a bonus, you meet interesting people and extend you social network when you attend these courses!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Death of rationalization

Image: People are cheap and machines are expensive in India. The opposite is true in Sweden.

Many naturally occurring phenomena follow a normal distribution and are therefore well described by a "bell curve". Since the average length of men in Sweden is 180 cm, a high proportion of Swedish men are in the range of 175-185 cm. Some are shorter or longer, but most are in any case between 170-190 cm. If we broaden the span further to 165-195 cm, not many men at all are outside of that range. The same principle of course also applies to women and children (e.g. “weight curves” for newborn babies) and many other characteristics where there is a random natural variation.

The road network of Sweden is in a similar manner more or less "normally distributed". On a map of Sweden's road network (below), most medium-sized cities have a handful of roads leading to and from the city. Some have only three, more cities have four or five roads and a few cities are nodes that have six or more roads leading to/from them. The number of roads is thus fairly evenly distributed and there is only a difference of a factor of two between having three roads (which are few) and having six roads (which are many).

The "opposite" of a normal distribution is a "power law" distribution. With a power law distribution, it is no longer meaningful to try to locate an average and the difference between “few” and “many” will differ with a factor much greater than two. If we look at the network tying together Europe’s airways, we see a very different pattern compared to the road network, with a small number of very well-connected airline hubs and a large number of "feeder lines" that connect smaller cities/airports to a single or a few hubs. Large hubs in the European airspace - Frankfurt, Amsterdam, London and Madrid - link together a large number of destinations near and far. In Sweden, Arlanda airport outside of Stockholm is just about the only hub where people transfer between international and domestic routes. 

Just as the normal distribution appears all around us, so does power laws. Every year there are innumerable small earthquakes, hundreds of medium-sized, but on average only one major earthquake (more than 8 on the Richter scale). Sales of cultural "perishables" such as published books, music, computer games and box office (cinema) tickets also follow a power law distribution. A small number of computer games (books, movies, artists) account for the majority of all computer games sold, and of all copies of a specific computer game that are sold, a disproportionate number are sold the first weeks and the first months - after which the numbers taper off into a trickle.

The business literature does not talk about power laws, but about the 80-20-rule; 20% of all X account for 80% of all Y:

- 20% of those who call customer service account for 80% of all complaints

- 20% of all salespersons account for 80% of all sales

- 20% of all criminals account for 80% of all crime

- 20% of the population own 80% of all resources 

- 20% of all software bugs in a computer program account for 80% of the problems 

- 20% of all websites account for 80% of all traffic 

It is moreover in the nature of power laws that 20% of 20% of all X account for 80% of 80% of all Y – that 4% of landowners own 64% of all land and 4% of all software bugs account for 64% of all problems. The bottom line is that the differences between "much" and "little" can be huge - even if it doesn’t always follow that the distribution is precisely 80-20 - sometimes it can just as well be 70-30 - but it is primarily the principle of uneven distribution that is of interest here. 

The structures of these two types of networks (the highway network as described by the normal distribution and the air network as described by power laws) are thus very different. Which brings us to the concept of peak oil, centralization and localization. In former times, slaughterhouses, bakeries, breweries and dairies were small, numerous and more or less evenly distributed across the country (just like roads are). Now they are big and they are located to only to a few places. According to the Swedish National Food Administration there exist (only) 25 “large-scale slaughterhouses” in Sweden that they oversee (and some of these slaughterhouses are – in line with the power laws - very much larger than others).

Six of these 25 Swedish slaughterhouses are run by Scan, one of northern Europe's largest food companies (working mainly with meat). As if by coincidence, I read in a Swedish trade journal (“Agriculture News”) that one of Scan’s six facilities (in Uppsala) will be closed and that most of the activities at another facility (in Skara) will disappear in the near future. "The slaughter and butchering of cattle and sheep [will] be centralized to Linköping and the slaughtering and butchering of pigs will mainly be located to Kristianstad. [...] Total headcount will be reduced from 3 000 to around 2 500. Some of the employees may be offered jobs at one of the locations where activities will be centralized." In a column in the same issue of Agriculture News, the journalist Erik Brink writes appreciatively about Scan’s plans for restructuring their business:

"closure of all slaughter in Skara is just the next step in Scan's crusade to get the Swedish meat producers to better adapt to market conditions. All old emotional trash will be cleared out and only that which makes business sense will remain."

"Adapt to market conditions" is in this context equivalent to going big and "large-scale". If you follow the transports going to and from these (currently) 25 large-scale slaughterhouses you will see that they are hubs with many long transports going to and from them (similar to the air network). There has been a push to rationalize and scale up the size of plants for decades, always moving towards an equilibrium that basically depends on the relationship between the cost of energy and the cost of labor. Energy has been cheap and labor has been expensive. In the search for higher profits, the tune has been to scale up operations by rationalizing, streamlining, concentrating, consolidating and slashing jobs - despite the fact that increased concentration also leads to increased vulnerability and longer transports. As energy has been cheap and the supply has been stable for decades, there has been little reason for any afterthoughts... until now. 

Because what will happen if energy becomes more expensive in the future? What if the relationship between labor and energy will change radically (albeit gradually) after peak oil? I do not mean that gasoline prices (or the price of electricity) will go up with 10 – 20 – 50 – 100 percent, but that the relationship between labor and energy will change fundamentally. Human ecologist Folke Günther has made a graph that shows how many seconds a Swedish industrial worker has had to work in order to buy a kilowatt-hour of energy in the form of gasoline at the gas pump:

Two interesting things become apparent in this picture. The first is that "we" (an average Swedish worker) have had to work less than a minute to buy a kilowatt-hour of energy in the form of gasoline since the 1950’s. The second is that the relationship between work and energy changed by a factor of 10 in less than fifty years (between 1920 and 1970) and subsequently has remained at a low and stable level since then. In parallel with this drop in absolute prices, the use of fossil fuels increased by 1000% (a factor of 10) in Sweden during just the second half of these fifty years (from 1945 to 1970) when the welfare state was built. Energy Engineer Bengt Randers has collected the equivalent information regarding the cost of energy in the form of electricity and has a data set that goes back all the way to the 1890s:

Without violating his figures too much, it is possible to state that the cost of one kilowatt-hour of electricity in terms of time spent working in order to buy it was slashed by half in just one decade from the mid-1890s (from two hours to one hour). And the cost was halved again over the next 10 years (30 minutes in the mid-1910s). And the cost was halved again over the next 10 years (15 minutes in the mid-1920s). And the cost was halved again over the next 10 years (8 minutes in the mid-1930s). And the cost was halved again over the next 10 years (4 minutes in the mid-1940s). And the cost was halved again over the next 10 years (2 minutes in the mid-1950s). And the cost was halved again over the next 10 years (less than 1 minute in the mid-1960s). 

From one kilowatt-hour of electricity “costing” 120 minutes of work in the 1890s, the same amount of electricity has during the last 45 years cost less than a minute of work - a difference of more than a factor of 100! In a picture showing the same trend on a logarithmic scale it is easier to see how the fast drop in prices ended in the 1960’s and how the price has remained exceedingly low since then. 

How much then is a kilowatt-hour of energy? A man working hard physically and taxing his muscles can generate 75 Watts (Pimentel and Pimentel, "Food, Energy and Society", 1979) and thus has to provide almost 13 hours of hard physical labor (no breaks) in order to generate a kilowatt-hour of energy. To exchange less than a minute of work for a kilowatt-hour of energy has thus been a very good deal (thank you oil!). To say that energy has been free for half a century is only a marginal exaggeration. In a previously published blog text [not yet translated to English], I refer to studies showing that a tractor can do in one hour what it took 19 days of agricultural/physical work (150 to 225 hours?) to do 200 years ago. 

During the last fifty years, the cost (in time) of energy (gasoline and electricity) has thus been both extremely low and stable - but that will no longer be the case after the effects of peak oil assert themselves. It is probably correct to say that "everything" will change after peak oil. The energy-consuming hubs that I have described above (airports, slaughterhouses etc.) will become difficult to maintain if energy becomes too expensive. They will then shrink in size and be replaced by many smaller local businesses that are built on a business model that requires less energy and less transportation. In an ideal world, we would support such a shift already today:

"[We should give] support to small, local organic farms where the labor is largely provided by humans and animals, products are marketed to nearby communities, the plants and animals are raised in diverse polycultures that deter pests and preventable diseases, the animals feed the soil with their composted wastes, the soil feeds the plants, and the plants in turn feed the animals in a tight recycling of wastes and nutrients." 

If energy and transportation becomes 2, 5 or 10 times more expensive compared to the costs of labor, then much more work would be done locally solely because of economic pressures in that direction. (A piece of advice for those thinking about post-peak oil careers: in addition to local food production, local small-scale food processing that enhances the value of the raw agricultural produce will become a growth industry in the future!) 

Just as rationalization has mechanized agriculture and depopulated rural areas, so will more labor intensive (food) production methods exert pressure in the opposite direction - away from (especially the largest) cities and towards a more evenly dispersed population living in smaller towns and in the countryside. The population will thus not be so concentrated to a few big cities (power laws), but will be more evenly spread out across the country (normally distributed). If just a fraction of tasks now done by machines will once again be performed by humans, this will require many more people to live in rural areas in order to produce the food we need.

Up until this point in time, human labor has gradually been replaced by highly efficient machinery, large-scale facilities and long-distance transportation. An underlying driving force has been that people/labor is expensive because energy (and hence production and machinery and capital) has been cheap. In each situation where it has been possible to save money by cutting the workforce, it has been rational to replace yet another person with yet another (energy-consuming and capital-binding) machine. This is obviously true not just for big machinery in industry and agriculture, but also in the service sector. As each and every person has become a "knowledge worker" equipped with a computer, that person has also to a greater extent been forced to handle his/her own administration - because all secretaries have been fired. 

Where rationalization for decades has been equivalent to labor rationalization, we will in the future be forced to rationalize based on entirely different criteria. Labor rationalization will be replaced by energy rationalization in all activities and at all levels. While this text is called "the death of rationalization", the title actually refers only to a specific kind of rationalization - labor rationalization. Where labor was previously rationalized away and replaced by energy-wasting habits, the pendulum will start to swing in the other direction when the costs of energy starts to rise. 

When the consequences of peak oil start to make themselves known, it will become cheaper to hire an extra person if that reduces the energy consumption or the capital tied up in machinery. If not sooner, then it will eventually no longer be profitable to replace a machine that (finally) breaks down with a new machine instead of having an extra person at hand. If I try to think of some oil-powered "luxury machines" that can easily be replaced by strong arms and legs, I for example think of lawn mowers. At Husqvarna's website, a hand-powered lawn mower costs 135 USD, a motorized lawn mower costs between 400 and 800 USD and a lawnmower that you sit in and drive costs between 3400 and 8800 USD (prices and models are from the Swedish market/homepage and may differ elsewhere). 

A perhaps even more challenged gadget is the leaf blower that Americans in particular have a fondness for. It is a (noisy) gasoline-powered "backpack" that acts as an inverted vacuum cleaner that blows away leaves and debris from the sidewalk. At some point in time it will be more sensible to hire an additional (flexible, teachable, versatile) person and "invest" in an extra rake or broom instead of buying a new leaf blower (that needs to be refueled, serviced and repaired regularly). Moreover, it is already now possible to question the efficiency of leaf blowers (see text “Grandmother proves rake and broom as fast as leaf blowers”).

Some tasks, on the margin, will no longer be sensible to perform at all. At what point will it no longer be possible to direct an armada of vehicles to plow away newly fallen snow from all streets and roads in Sweden? And let's not even talk about gasoline-powered toys such as jet skis, snowmobiles and off-road motorcycles

With a shift in the labor/energy equation, other tasks (professions) will be added to the labor pool. I think you can get a glimpse of the future of Sweden/Europe if you look for all the tasks that are (still) performed by people in less affluent countries (elevator boy, doorman, concierge, guardian of parked cars) - but that in Sweden nowadays are performed by a machine (dishwasher, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, car wash) or by yourself (polishing your shoes, sewing up a pair of trousers, cleaning, cooking). 

The author Agatha Christie have summarized both my text above and developments throughout the 20th century when she wrote in her autobiography that "When I was young I never expected to be so poor that I could not afford a servant, or so rich that I could afford a motor car". 

One blog asked what will correspond to Christie’s car and servant 100 years from now. Some took for granted that business-as-usual will continue and that energy and production will become even cheaper relative to labor in the future:

"I never thought I would be wealthy enough to own a holo-deck [or "a private jet"], nor so poor I could not pay someone to cut my hair [or "to go to a restaurant"]." 

Others (fewer) drew the same conclusions I draw - that the direction will change, that work (services) will become cheaper in relation to gadgets, and that we will see more servants and fewer cars in the future. But there are also those who believe that everyone will own a robot servants of their own in the future ... I do not think we will have any robot servant at all, because there will be an abundance of human servants to choose from in the future - just as when Agatha Christie was young. But since all of these predictions (including my own musings above) are based on more-or-less intelligent guesses about the future, my favorite prediction was this one:

"I won’t be rich enough to own a varnox. But I will won’t be so poor that I can not afford a glip-thorp."

Doctor Seuss could not have said it better!

This text is dedicated to Oscar Kjellberg who has thought about issues relating to energy, economics and labor for a long time. 

PS. From one of the largest daily Swedish newspapers, November 17, 2009: "Arla builds record dairy”
The dairy group Arla will build the world's largest dairy outside of London. Arla Foods UK's dairy will be four times larger than the largest dairies in Denmark and is planned to have a capacity of one billion liters of milk a year, the group informs. The plans form part of Arla's strategy to significantly expand UK operations. The dairy will be finished by 2012 and will then have about 500 employees "