Two interviews on this page. After The Sun, see Dirt Rag and Leapfrog below.
Road to Ruin:
An Interview with Jan Lundberg
By Derrick Jensen
Published in The Sun - February 2001
Anti-road activist and publisher Jan Lundberg hasn't owned a car in eleven years. In 1997, he tore up his driveway and planted a garden on the spot - hardly the behavior one would expect from a former oil-industry insider who once drove a Mercedes.
For Lundberg, the convenience and freedom cars offer are just bribes that don't even come close to balancing the costs - not just in gas, service, and insurance, but in loss of life, damage to the environment, and enormous government subsidies to oil and automobile companies. One of the largest of these subsidies is the public expense of building roads. By calling for an end to new road-building, Lundberg hopes to "[rip] the rug right out from under the car" and force people to explore other alternatives for getting around.
Lundberg grew up around the oil industry. His father ran Lundberg Survey, Inc., a company that collected statistics on gasoline prices and industry trends. In 1973, just before the oil crisis, father and son began publishing the Lundberg Letter, which became the number-one trade journal for the oil industry and went on to predict the second oil shock of 1979.
After his father's death in the mid-eighties, Lundberg quit the family business and directed his efforts toward energy conservation. (His sister Trilby now runs Lundberg Survey.) By that point, Jan had realized that our "waste economy," as he calls it, is unsustainable and the cause of massive environmental damage and species extinctions worldwide. We are laboring, he says, under the false impression that we can "have it all": the physical comfort of our current way of living and a livable planet.
In 1988, Lundberg founded the Fossil Fuels Policy Action Institute, which soon spawned the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium, a diverse movement of grass-roots community groups, individuals, and businesses with the common goal of halting road-building (P.O. Box 3387, Santa Cruz, CA 95063, www.culturechange.org). In the Alliance's view, a paving moratorium would limit the spread of population, redirect investment from suburbs to inner cities, and free up funding for mass transportation and maintenance of existing roads. The Alliance helps road fighters all over the world and publishes its own journal: the quarterly Auto-Free Times.
But for Lundberg, the battle against new roads is about more than just sprawl, traffic, pollution, and other car-related ills. Our entire economy is oil based, he points out, and oil is a limited resource - perhaps more limited than we realize. Phasing out massive fossil-fuel use, Lundberg says, is crucial not only to saving the earth's climate, but to lessening the impact of the crisis that will occur when the world's oil supply begins to run out. "The challenge before us all," he writes, "is to survive an ecological correction unprecedented for our species. The correction will likely include an economic collapse and a conversion to subsistence activities and trading."
Lundberg lives in Arcata, California, where he works as director of the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium. He also plays guitar in a band called the Depavers, featuring his twenty-year-old daughter Spring on vocals. Lundberg has lobbied successfully against road-building projects in his area. He's helped convince the city of Arcata to "depave" one street and close another to traffic.
I talked to Lundberg in his small downtown office, where the walls are covered with protest posters and broadsides. A middle-aged man with graying hair, dressed in a t-shirt, he displayed an impressive knowledge of the facts and figures and a passionate concern for the future of the planet and human society. When we took a break to go to the market, we walked.
Jensen: Why stop building roads?
Lundberg: We've got too many of them already. In this country, close to half of all urban space is paved to accommodate the automobile; more land is devoted to cars than to housing. Every year, nearly one hundred thousand people are displaced by new highway construction. Every minute, we lose three acres of productive farmland to road-building. That's 1.5 million acres per year. Since the first Earth Day in 1970, we've paved over more than 40 million acres of farmland. In Lodi, California, for example, rich soil forty feet deep was recently covered by a Wal-Mart parking lot. Pavement now covers more than sixty thousand square miles of the United States. That's 2 percent of the nation's surface area and 10 percent of the arable land.
And all of these roads cost money. State and federal expenditures on highways and major roads total more than $160 million a day. The Cyprus Freeway in Oakland, for example, cost taxpayers thirty-five hundred dollars per inch. Simply to maintain U.S. roads in their current poor state would cost taxpayers about $25 billion per year. Yet we typically spend only $16 billion per year on maintenance, thus assuring that existing roads will deteriorate. Meanwhile, we spend more than $60 billion per year to widen existing roads and build new ones. Even from a strictly fiscal standpoint, it makes no sense to build more roads when we're not maintaining the ones we've got.
All told, the U.S. subsidizes roads and cars by more than $300 billion per year, and our dependence on them is increasing. While the U.S. population increased by about 40 percent between 1960 and 1990, the number of licensed drivers nearly doubled, the number of vehicles did double, fuel consumption more than doubled, and the number of miles driven almost tripled. Over the same period, the proportion of U.S. citizens who commuted by car went from about 70 percent to 87 percent; the percentage of people commuting by public transit dropped by well more than half; and those walking to work decreased from 10 to 4 percent. In the 1960s, 60 percent of children walked or rode their bikes to school. Now it's down to 10 percent.
All of this adds up to more traffic jams. The way to measure road congestion is by figuring the percentage of roads near or at capacity during rush hour. Between 1975 and 1993, that number went from about 40 percent to 70 percent. The average vehicle speed for cross-town traffic in New York City is less than six miles per hour - slower than it was in the days of horse-drawn buggies.
Jensen: Some people would say congestion is a reason to build more roads.
Lundberg: But the U.S. General Accounting Office predicts that even if this country's road capacity increases by 20 percent over the next fifteen years - a very unrealistic goal - congestion will triple. If you think road rage is bad now, just wait a few years. Driving delays are expected to waste more than 7 million gallons of fuel per year over the next two decades, increasing travelers' costs by $41 billion and adding 73 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Motor vehicles are the largest single source of atmospheric pollution worldwide. Sixty-five percent of all carbon monoxide emitted into the environment comes from road vehicles. Carbon monoxide, besides being poisonous, contributes to global warming by promoting the buildup of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. In addition, automotive fuels account for 17 percent of global carbon-dioxide increases, two-thirds as much as rain-forest destruction. And motor-vehicle air conditioners in the U.S. are the world's single largest source of atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons, which also destroy the ozone layer.
Jensen: Can't we just make cars that pollute less?
Lundberg: First of all, I don't think that's going to happen, given the power and size of the oil and auto industries. For the time being, any policies that would curtail their massive government subsidies or in any way impede their profitability will never be enacted. And automobile pollution is not just what we see coming out of the tailpipe. Germany's Environmental Forecasting Institute has revealed that most of the air pollution associated with cars is caused by mining and manufacturing. So switching fuels doesn't do it.
It's too late to try to modify the system or somehow bring it under control. To reverse the deadly trends, the car has to be targeted for extinction. In a world threatened by global warming and a cancer epidemic, it's not enough at this point to declare progress when emissions go down. Pollution accumulates. We need to stop emitting pollution.
Even if they didn't pollute, cars would still kill people. In the U.S. alone, about forty-two thousand people die each year because of auto collisions. Worldwide traffic fatalities number close to 1 million. Everybody knows of someone who has died or been seriously injured in a car crash, yet we somehow accept these deaths as inevitable, rather than seeing them for what they are: a direct and predictable result of choosing to base our economic and social systems on a particular technology.
Cars kill animals, too: by paving over or fragmenting their habitat, by giving humans access to their territories, by changing the weather, and simply by running them down. Approximately 1 million animals are killed on U.S. roads every day, including endangered species like the Florida panther. In southern California, cars are the leading cause of death for mountain lions.
We have become slaves to these machines. If a group of aliens came to this planet and said they would give us - or, at least, the richest of us - goodies like jet skis, tomatoes in January, computers, and so on, but only on the condition that we offered up a yearly sacrifice of a million human lives, changed our planet's climate, and devoted ever increasing amounts of time and resources to serving them, we would turn the offer down in a flash. Or, at least, I hope we would.
But that's the reality we accept. And we don't even talk about it. More U.S. teenagers are killed by cars every afternoon than were gunned down in Littleton. Everybody says that living in the inner city is dangerous, but the truth is that, if you take car crashes into account, the suburbs are statistically far more dangerous places to live. I've proven this to people who refuse to walk with me in parts of downtown Seattle, yet they're still perfectly happy to get in a car, because it's "normal."
Social critic Ivan Illich performed calculations that further reveal the absurdity of our whole car culture: if you divide the distance we travel by the number of hours we spend not just behind the wheel but also working to pay for our cars or doing other things in some way associated with the car, our net speed comes to around five miles per hour. But when you show this to people, they still say, "I've got to have a car, because I'm in a hurry." It's crazy. Cars kill; they're stressful; they're inefficient. We can't afford them: as a society, as a planet, as individuals. Why not save all the money you spend on a car? Why not get some exercise? Why not live longer?
Jensen: You say driving is stressful, but what about the freedom of the open road: window open, music blaring, wind in your hair?
Lundberg: If driving weren't stressful, would we have road rage? Just the noise is stressful. Studies have found that nighttime traffic noise deprives people of dream-rich sleep, encourages psychosomatic illness, and may cause cardiovascular problems. Other studies have found that people living on streets with less traffic are more friendly, pleasant, and cooperative.
More fundamentally, driving is a kind of violation of the spirit. When you drive, you're not connected to the earth. You're traveling at inhuman speeds, but all the while you're not moving your body at all. If I run, I at least have the physical sensation of speed. In cars, you get somewhere with no energy expenditure of your own, no physical effort.
Jensen: I see what you mean. I got in the car this morning in Crescent City and got out in Arcata. On the way, I passed through several squalls, but I didn't experience any of them. There is something existentially odd about that.
Lundberg: The faster we go, the more we shrink the world. The world was once incomprehensibly big, but we're destroying that perception. And when we drive, we're cheating ourselves out of the details. You see more of the world when you are walking.
Jensen: What do you tell someone who says, "Look, I need a car to get to work. The mass-transit system doesn't take me where I want to go"?
Lundberg: First off, mass-transit systems are as bad as they are because they were demolished by the auto industry. Back in the 1930s, the electric-railway systems that served most big cities were a major threat to the profits of big oil and automobile companies. So General Motors, Firestone, Standard Oil of California, and others bought out more than a hundred systems in forty-five cities, then ripped up the tracks and paved them over. These companies were eventually convicted of criminal conspiracy. For this, our government fined them five thousand dollars apiece, and the guilty individuals were fined a whole dollar each.
Jensen: Be that as it may, people still have to get to work.
Lundberg: Maybe you can find a job closer to where you live, or move closer to your job. Some people work out of their homes.
Another thing we can do is ask ourselves what we really need: Can we get by more cheaply, so that we don't have to work so many hours? How much sense does it make to work extra hours to pay for a car that we use to drive us to a job whose higher salary we need in order to pay for the car? Or here's another thought: We all need love, which of course money can't buy. Maybe it's easier to find love - not just romantic love, but love of ourselves and our communities - if we're not stuck all day in an automobile or an office.
When people talk to me about needing a car to get to work, I urge them to change the terms of the debate; to think in terms of personal liberation and maybe living better without spending so much money. If you don't have a car, you have more free time, and you have better health, which means you're better able to enjoy the time you have. I've met many people who live well and are happy without a lot of material possessions. By and large, these people are young, but there are a lot of older people who - although they're not so flexible that they can sleep any old place - have learned how to benefit from intelligent choices. It all boils down to what you value.
Jensen: How did you get started doing this work?
Lundberg: I came to it as a budding transportation-policy analyst. When I first got the job, I didn't know anything about forests and trees. Bob Mueller, a NASA geologist, advised me about the damage that logging roads were - and still are - doing. The more I learned, the more I grew to understand some basic environmental principles, and the more I saw that a moratorium on new roads was the best solution.
Jensen: Is there any reason for continued road-building?
Lundberg: You want to get from here to there directly, without going around. That means you've got to have another road. That's basically it. Now, there was a time when I would've agreed with that argument. I used to think more roads were good because they'd allow me to cross the San Fernando Valley at a more convenient angle, instead of going slightly out of my way.
Jensen: Don't roads provide economic activity and job opportunities?
Lundberg: Fixing potholes would create far more jobs than running the earth-moving equipment they use to build new roads. And that brings up another powerful reason why road-building continues, even when it makes no fiscal or ecological sense: those earth-moving machines cost a lot of money, and their owners are not going to let them rust. They've got to keep destroying the planet for profit.
Jensen: What would a road-building moratorium do for communities?
Lundberg: Money would immediately become available for public transportation and making cities more walkable. It could also go toward refurbishing existing downtown buildings so that people could live in them. Parking lots could be depaved to make gardens and parks. Cities can be pleasant places, you know.
The controversy around roads has been building for a long time. Think of Joni Mitchell's song about paving over paradise and putting up a parking lot. But only recently have road fighters from all over the world begun to work together and think through all the reasons to stop building roads. The trouble with the big environmental groups, however, is that whenever they get involved in fighting roads, their stance is "Don't put the road here; put it over there." But what about the rights of the species over there? We've got to not build the road at all.
Jensen: Do you think we'll ever stop building roads?
Lundberg: We'll have to when the oil runs out, but we need to do it before then. The more we decrease our dependence on cars and roads now, the less catastrophic the coming oil crisis will be.
Jensen: Realistically, how much oil do we have left?
Lundberg: M. King Hubbert, a geologist who died several years ago, became famous for charting the life of an oil field. According to his model, production rises as new wells are put in, reaches a maximum when about half of the "estimated ultimately recoverable," or eur, oil has been extracted, and then tails off as wells begin to run dry. During the decline, technologies such as water flooding and gas injection may be introduced to stave off the inevitable, but they don't increase the amount of oil. This pattern holds true for geological basins as well: production rises as new oil fields are found and then tails off as the larger and more accessible fields are depleted. The pattern can be extended to entire nations and, ultimately, the planet.
For the U.S., production in the lower forty-eight states peaked about 1970 - as Hubbert predicted - and has been on the decline ever since.
Jensen: When will world oil production peak?
Lundberg: Global oil production could peak as early as this year. The geologists not beholden to oil-company paychecks, but who understand petroleum, have given a range of 2000 to 2015. But on the downslope, we'll have a drastically different experience than we did with the easy extraction leading to the peak. When supply grows tight - more so than we saw in the year 2000 - this will reflect higher energy and cost challenges to extraction, which will only worsen.
Now, when U.S. production peaked, that wasn't the end, since we could still import oil. But when global production peaks, as it will shortly, it will mean the beginning of the end of the economy as we know it. Five Middle East countries will regain control of the world supply. It will make the oil crisis of the 1970s seem like nothing, because, unlike then, there won't be plenty of new oil and gas fields to bring onstream. Discovery of oil and gas fields peaked in the 1960s, and the world now consumes more than three times as much oil each year as is discovered.
A report written for oil-industry insiders and priced at thirty-two thousand dollars a copy concludes that world oil production and supply will peak this year and decline to half by 2025. The report predicts large and permanent increases in oil prices for the very near future. This will demolish our economy, which has been driven by an abundant supply of cheap energy for a century. As one analyst puts it, we're going to live through an "economic and political discontinuity of historic proportions." Or, in the language of oil-industry geologist Walter Youngquist: "My observations in some seventy countries over about fifty years of travel and work tell me that we are clearly already over the cliff. The momentum of population growth and resource consumption is so great that a collision course with disaster is inevitable. Large problems lie not very far ahead."
Jensen: But I've seen industry and government figures showing that we have enough oil for forty-three years at current rates of production.
Lundberg: I see two immediate problems with this. First, for political reasons, proven oil reserves are consistently overestimated. It's in the interest of oil-producing nations to overestimate the remaining oil, because their agreements limit them to pumping a certain quota. They can make a lot more money, a lot more quickly, if they simply lie about their proven reserves.
The second problem with the forty-three-year figure is that it is based on "current rates of production." At one time, I thought that the decline in production might be at least slightly gradual, but in recent years, production has accelerated to unanticipatedly high levels, and I've come to believe that the decline will be extremely steep. We're using up the oil far faster than anyone anticipated, so the crash will come sooner and be harder than even environmentalists predict.
Jensen: But as oil becomes increasingly rare, it will become increasingly expensive, which will provide financial incentives to develop other forms of energy: tar sands, for example, or oil shale.
Lundberg: Economists like to argue that scarcity results in price increases, making it more profitable to access poorer deposits. But they're confusing dollars with calories. You need to compare the energy cost to the total amount of energy extracted to get what's called an energy-profit ratio. The early oil wells, for example, had a ridiculously high energy-profit ratio because you had almost zero energy input. The oil gushed to the surface. You just had to scoop it up and burn it. But as an oil field ages, it takes an increasing amount of energy to pump out the remaining oil.
Now the average energy-profit ratio for newly discovered oil in the U.S. has fallen to 1:1, meaning that the energy required to find and extract a barrel of oil is equal to the energy contained in that barrel. At some point, the cost will exceed the profit, and it will no longer make sense to use oil for energy, no matter how much you can sell it for. And the ratios for alternative fuels are much lower. Ethanol, for example, has an energy-profit ratio of less than 1:1, meaning that it takes more energy to make it than you get out of it.
Jensen: But the government already subsidizes the oil industry in ways that make no fiscal, ecological, or economic sense. Why wouldn't it just continue handing over money until, from the perspective of the corporation, tar sands are profitable?
Lundberg: That's a good point, because it's already happening. Our entire economic system is based on these subsidies, from agriculture to manufacturing to energy. That's why oil is so cheap right now, even at thirty dollars a barrel. Just including the cost of the Persian Gulf military presence - for which taxpayers foot the bill - would at least double the price of oil. And that's not even mentioning the hidden costs that can never be truly counted. Can you put a price on global warming? On a pristine lake or river? The economic view of our planet is antilife, but so long as we cling to it, we will be able to maintain the illusion of cheap oil for just a little longer, while we pay for the oil in ways that we don't necessarily feel.
But we will feel it when the oil runs out, because everything in our economy is based on petroleum. It's not just cars. It's tires and asphalt. It's the food we eat, which is fertilized with petroleum products and transported by petroleum-powered vehicles. It's the plastics we surround ourselves with. Oil is everywhere. It wasn't very long ago that we supported ourselves on a plant-based economy. Canvas, for example, came from hemp. Now it comes from DuPont. One reason the government outlawed hemp was that DuPont made a substitute.
Jensen: What about natural gas and coal gasification? Or coal itself?
Lundberg: Natural gas is just a form of petroleum, and coal gasification is another one of those inefficient processes in which you put a lot of energy in and don't get that much out. Now, there's plenty of coal, if we're willing to destroy the surface of the planet to get it out and pump all the mine wastes into our rivers and the soot into our air. I'm not certain that even our culture is crazy enough to do that.
Jensen: Do you think we'll see the end of car culture in our lifetime?
Lundberg: Yes, and it may ultimately be a liberating event, as we try to remember how to live with what the land gives us. Unfortunately, the land won't give enough for all of us, because our reliance on fossil fuels has allowed us to overshoot the planet's carrying capacity.
Jensen: What's that?
Lundberg: An environment's carrying capacity is the number of creatures it can support permanently: for example, the number of deer that can live on a certain island without overgrazing and damaging the island's ability to grow food for them. Permanently is really the key word here, because it's possible temporarily to overshoot the carrying capacity - to have more creatures than the land can support - but doing so damages the land and lowers its future carrying capacity. Think about it this way: A few thousand people could probably live in the nearby forests forever, eating salmon, clams, crabs, and deer. But if you have so many people - and so much technology - that you kill off the salmon, clams, crabs, and deer, then the land won't be able to support the same number as it did before. Our dependence on oil has allowed us to grossly overshoot the earth's carrying capacity as a whole, so we are grossly reducing the capacity of the earth to support human beings.
Another problem is that we've been cut off from the land for so long that we don't know how to live off it. Pavement cuts us off from the land directly. When the land is paved over, we're literally separated from it by this layer of asphalt, this layer of petroleum product. And when you don't have access to land, you've really got nothing. It's your food, your freedom, your means of survival.
Jensen: The internal-combustion engine is such a recent invention. It's amazing how quickly our lives have changed because of it. Whenever I'm on an airplane, I think about how we're among the very few humans who will ever see the planet from twenty thousand feet.
Lundberg: M. King Hubbert called fossil-fuel production a "pip." When you look at human history, it's just a snap of the finger. It's all so recent. But people get used to their conditions quickly. After only fifty years of using petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, farmers consider organic methods weird.
Jensen: What can be done to lessen the impact of the crash?
Lundberg: Raising the price of gas would encourage a more gradual decline in production, but in my years serving the petroleum industry and the government, I learned that you cannot get the price of gasoline up with good-faith legislation or policy analysis and good ideas. The system is too corrupt.
Oil companies want to see high prices - for different reasons - but they don't want to see super high prices. They want to keep the price just low enough to allow them to maintain their huge volume, and to ensure that alternative energy sources don't make any inroads. So the price of gasoline will never go up high enough to reflect its real cost, no matter how strong a case can be made. Even in Europe, where gasoline taxes have brought the price up, it hasn't stopped the degradation. They're still building roads over there, and they've still got loads of cars. The cars may be a little smaller, but that's about it.
So it seems to me that, since you can't have more traffic without more roads, stopping road-building is a much more fundamental objective. It rips the rug right out from under the car.
Jensen: But roads alone, minus the car, are good things because they connect places, right?
Lundberg: Actually, roads created a problem long before the invention of cars, because villages lost their self-sufficiency when they became dependent on trade and travel. In more recent times, roads are the precursor to so-called development, leading to all the ills of the modern industrial economy, from oil and gas exploration, to mining, to "ranchettes" and gentlemen's farms. Time and again, roads trash the Garden of Eden. They cut through communities. Kids can't play on them; the elderly can't cross them; trees are taken out; property is seized by eminent domain - and by the full force of the state when people resist.
Jensen: Like at Minnehaha. Could you tell us what happened there?
Lundberg: The Minnesota Department of Transportation wanted to lay a six-lane highway through the oak forest south of Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, against tremendous local resistance: the land was home to four ancient oaks sacred to the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota tribe. Several years ago, protesters occupied homes that were to be razed and created an encampment known as the Minnehaha Free State.
In December 1998, the police struck. They brought 130 police cars, three city buses, seven rented trucks, bulldozers, cherry pickers, ladders, backhoes, ambulances, and fire trucks. It was the largest police action in Minnesota history. Six hundred armored cops armed with assault rifles bombarded the place with tear gas, then invaded. They applied pepper spray directly into the eyes, noses, and mouths of nonresisting, nonviolent protesters. They burned personal items like sleeping bags and damaged or destroyed tepees, traditional quilts, and a sacred ceremonial fire that had been blessed by Dakota spiritual leaders. Shortly after the raid, which cost at least $1 million, several of the officers were given medals of valor. The road, of course, went through.
Jensen: What can we do - those of us who care?
Lundberg: Honestly, I think we all care. We care about our health and about our loved ones. None of us really hate nature. We all like to see a seal pop up out of the water. We all like trees.
Perhaps the people you're asking about are those of us who are not too deep in denial. What we can do is seek out the truth, be honest, and take action. Now, we all have different ways of discovering the truth and acting upon it. Some folks are more inward oriented and believe in changing people on a one-to-one basis, or a spiritual basis, or an educational basis. My original approach was through national policy, but that became unrealistic. So I and other like-minded activists decided that a grass-roots movement was the way to go - fighting new roads here and there, and linking with other groups to form a national movement. A road moratorium would meet most of the goals espoused by a wide range of environmental groups. You can't build a nuclear-waste dump, for example, if you can't build a road to it.
More recently, we've developed projects demonstrating other alternatives to petroleum use, such as Pedal Power Produce - where local growers use bike carts to bring organic foods to market - or the Sail Transport Network. We're trying to demonstrate that we don't need petroleum to transport things, and that we're better served by local trade and self-sufficiency.
Jensen: What is the Sail Transport Network?
Lundberg: It's a project that links land and sea, using wind-powered vessels to move goods, people, and information from community to community in Puget Sound.
I realize that one small project is a drop in the bucket, but we all have to recognize that we're involuntarily going to get back to using renewable energy soon. We also need to recognize that global trade isn't a necessity, but just a scam for some people to make a lot of profit. The Sail Transport Network is about self-determination for people and communities. It's saying that we don't need complicated, bureaucratic systems run by distant authorities who are not accountable. It's demonstrating that it's better not to be too dependent on nonrenewable resources, and to be closer to nature. Boats require greater awareness of your interaction with, and dependence on, nature. On land, if the wind changes direction, you don't have to take immediate notice. With the Sail Transport Network, we're loving and enjoying nature and our own power instead of hooking into a system for the sake of dollars and false security.
Jensen: I agree that it's important to learn these skills while oil-based alternatives are still available. That's why I've taught myself how to raise my own food.
Lundberg: We desperately need to develop skills for the time when we can't rely on petroleum and computers and friendly government agencies. Ultimately, we have to face the fact that cheap, abundant oil is gone. There's still oil coming from Saudi Arabia, but even that isn't going to continue for more than three decades.
The plan now being sold to the public by green activists and industrial schemers alike is that we can revamp consumer society and keep doing the same thing, only using smaller amounts of energy. It's true that there's plenty of room for energy conservation and greater energy efficiency, and renewable resources can make great inroads. But oil is not fully replaceable, because it's so cheap and versatile. Activists who push renewable energy as "the solution" are deceiving themselves and the public into thinking that the system can keep going the way it is.
For this reason, our organization doesn't jump on the bandwagon of clean cars, alternative power sources, and so on. It's not that we're against these reforms, but we don't see them as real solutions. To think they are is neither realistic nor honest.
Jensen: What about moving out of cities, getting back to the land? A lot of people seem to be doing that.
Lundberg: But most people who live farther out don't stay there and grow all their own food; they drive back and forth to buy it. I recently gave a talk at Yosemite to people who were concerned about road-building there, but they themselves hadn't given up their vehicles. I'm not saying they're hypocrites. They're more aware and self-sufficient than most. If you can grow 10 percent of your food, that's 10 percent better. But the fact remains that when rural people do drive, they drive farther than if they lived in urban situations.
Now, I don't mean to come across as some sort of hard-ass. There are many ways that people can help, and you don't need to take on some big environmental cause far from home to do it. You can be aware of paving projects in your own area, because if you live in Pennsylvania, you can make a lot more difference there than you can worrying about the punching of roads into the Amazon or the redwoods. Fight the road schemers locally and promote alternatives.
You can participate in "reclaim the streets" parties. These haven't taken off here the way they have in England, but they're happening with increasing frequency over there.
Jensen: How do they work?
Lundberg: I think they sometimes start with people intentionally crashing a couple of cars together, followed by a fake altercation. Then, in the chaos, people start a street party. They bring in sound systems and so many revelers that police can't remove them all. They tie up traffic and take back the roads from cars.
Jensen: Do you find that you have an image problem with the general public?
Lundberg: Our organization is often misunderstood. People think we're zealots who feel that any car travel is evil, and that we never use cars. Wrong. I used a friend's car big-time over the holidays. Most of our directors and supporters and advisors depend on cars almost every day. But that doesn't alter our belief that stopping road-building is the key to bigger change.
We want people to support us to whatever extent they can. We have taken on the most powerful institutions in the world - the oil and auto industries - and have come to oppose the direction of civilization, to redefine progress, and to demonstrate positive alternatives with visionary projects. If people want to help, they can start by tearing out their own driveway and putting in a garden. That is a very important act for our survival as a species.
Even though we at the Alliance don't believe in compromise, we have no problem with people who are less radical, so long as they're heading in the right direction. The truth is that we need to respect each other and work together. We can and must be part of a massive change - one that encompasses not only the end of petroleum-based civilization, but also the opportunity for self-liberation. When the oil economy is no longer around, we will all have to work together. And that might turn out to be a wonderful experience. Let's hope the world remains clean enough that we will be able to benefit from what the land and air and water can still provide.
Derrick Jensen's website, which includes his interviews (such as the one with philosopher/theologian Thomas Berry), is www.derrickjensen.org
Leapfrog is a bike zine based in Indianapolis, which published the following interview on energy. Editor Scott Spitz conducted the interview from Portland, Oregon, in winter 2001-2002. This interview was reprinted in Dirt Rag, the mountain biking magazine based in Pittsburgh, PA, online at www.dirtragmag.com
Leapfrog: How does the oil industry shape and justify its policies in the face of unbiased statistics showing oil resources depleting?
Lundberg: The oil industry hasn't
any policies on resource depletion, compared to the old timber company, for
example, Pacific Lumber, that saved some old growth redwoods for future
generations (before being taken over by Maxxam Corp.) Lack of a resource-depletion
policy for most resources of the nation is one of the biggest flaws in 'our
system' of government and economic/environmental policy. Self-interested
and unaccountable organizations can determine what happens to the rest of us,
even when matters are seemingly regulated. Fisheries are protected from
over-fishing sometimes, but road building goes on so as to destroy salmon
habitat in streams, for example. The profit motive and free market
ideology make convenient sense for those interested mainly in making a killing
That's another key to understanding the oil industry; short-term thinking. Five years is a hell of a long way off, when their needs and obligations are only for the next quarter or next year. As to why they don't see the writing on the wall as made clear by the oil industry's Hubbert curve on production line, chalk it up partly to our culture of specialization: oil guys don't want to crawl around on the roofs installing solar panels. Sometimes a more forward-thinking company such as BP will take long-term considerations into account (partly for mere P.R.), but they can't let up competing with the less visionary players.
OPEC countries are part of the oil industries, and their need to conserve is not exercised at all, so as to maximize through output and revenue. Meanwhile, oil prices are subsidized by U.S. government programs and policies which has the intended effect of suppressing alternative energy (the Saudi goal, as well, of course).
Leapfrog: Are you aware of any changes that either government or oil companies are making to switch to sustainable energy sources?
Lundberg: In general, government and
the petroleum industry are not switching to "sustainable" energy
sources. There is too much profit in the present set-up. But even if
the government and industry tried to, they cannot provide the power and products
that petroleum does, from renewable or other alternative sources. This is
because of the lesser energy content of non-petroleum energy. Petroleum is
a uniquely flexible substance that has no comparable substitutes.
Therefore, the right question is more like, "What energy usage needs to be
cut massively first?" If such a cut were implemented, then we could
see what the result would mean for a realistic energy mix.
Enron, undergoing bankruptcy, reportedly owns one of the biggest Wind-power generating companies. Arco owned a big solar outfit but sold it to Germans.
Leapfrog: Wouldn't it be in the oil companies economical interests to switch to alternative energy sources as soon as possible?
Lundberg: No, it would drive them out of business or cause firings of the executives responsible as profits fell.
Leapfrog: What effects would total oil depletion have on individuals daily activities?
Lundberg: There will not be total oil depletion because the global economic system will crank to a halt first. (Conversely, a depression can also stop this petroleum economy.) The peak of global oil production is occurring right about now, and the downslope of the curve will be fraught with greater difficulty of extraction and poorer quality of crude oil (E.G., thicker and more sulfurous). So, as soon as economic growth as we know it cannot be accommodated forever by cheap-enough oil, to keep up all the shipping and consumerism, you will see the collapse of the global economy.
Individuals will experience severe shortages, and suddenly for the most part, and my thinking is that the utility services will not just "turn back on" like after a storm blows over. Driving, especially one person in a car for some daily errand, will become a thing of the past, perhaps in the next ten years. Food shortage will be severe and almost universal due to the entirely petroleum-dependent nature of modern mechanized/chemical agriculture (even organic, as we explore in Culture Change magazine's Late Fall 2001 Issue).
But, a sustainable society in balance with nature will have to come about, if humans are to survive. I'd like to think it will be a convivial society without shortages, due to better values we take on individually and culturally.
Leapfrog: How helpful to sustainability are efforts like "green" cars or similar "green" products?
Lundberg: Green cars are an oxymoron and are just part of a technofix fantasy for those who cannot think outside the box of consumerism and materialism in our overpopulated world. This does not mean that our organization is against incremental improvements in energy use. But, cars of alternative propulsion still use massive amounts of energy, and therefore generate much pollution, just from their manufacture and original mining requirements. Remember that tires, asphalt and plastic are made from petroleum. And how would you like to be run over by a 'green' car? And, green cars don't address sprawl. The contraptions will not be affordable or energy-efficient just as today's cars aren't. The average North American motorist is really going around five (5) miles per hour, when all of the time associated with earning money for car purchase, repair, insurance, gasoline, etc., is taken into account.
Leapfrog: With even organic products being tied up in the system of transportation by oil-consuming vehicles, how far does one have to go to remove oneself from these unsustainable living practices?
Lundberg: Today, one cannot remove oneself 100% from unsustainable living practices, as we are surrounded by the dominant system and its effects on the environment and on remaining traditional cultures. Even organic-farming homesteaders who also hunt, utilizing renewable energy, out in the hills, can't seem to get more than 80% self-sufficient in food production or food gathering. The implications of this reality are sobering.
Leapfrog: I've heard that even solar power runs on unsustainable sources like copper... what energy alternatives have no unsustainable products linked to their functioning?
Lundberg: Human power is truly sustainable. For other forms of energy besides animal, one must consider the population size in question. 10,000 Rolls Royces, as the only vehicles on the planet, would probably be sustainable.
Leapfrog: How connected is the auto industry to big oil, compared to another industry that is oil consuming in part?
Lundberg: The auto industry is actually more influential than the oil industry in some respect. For example, when I was still helping the oil industry, we could not win before the U.S. EPA when the argument over vapor recovery was raging in 1987: gas stations could either capture some fumes at the pump, or cars could gather them inboard. The car industry won, and did not have to install anything, even though much more vapor and pollution could be gathered inboard than at the pump (a poor system that depends on good customer participation).
The auto industry does not care what propulsion is used, although you can assume there might be interlocking directorates or investors who want things to stay as they are between the oil and car industries.
Leapfrog: How much of that does the U.S. consume?
Lundberg: The U.S. passed its peak crude production in 1970, and today imports over 50% of its oil consumed. The U.S. burns and spills 120 billion gallons of gasoline a year, and this is perhaps 40% of the world's gasoline use. Meanwhile, the speed limit should be about 40 mph for optimum efficiency (source: California Air Resources board). For all oil use, in January 2002, 18.83 million barrels a day were distributed from refineries, storage terminals and imports, a 5.4 percent decline compared to a year earlier (source: American Petroleum Institute).
Leapfrog: How safe are our protected nature reserves that hold oil, once our current sources we use run out?
Lundberg: Maybe the nature preserves are safe if the oil extraction stops when economic collapse hits. We shall see. But, remember that global warming and climate change can fry the forests, including "protected" ones. So, Have a global warming day, as The Depavers song goes.
For more information on statistics and the workings of petroleum dependency and some solutions, see our website www.culturechange.org. We'll be glad to mail someone a sample copy of Culture Change magazine, formerly Auto-Free Times. And if we get some serious support--difficult when foundations basically fund the status quo instead of supporting fundamental change--we can revive the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium. Our nonprofit, tax-deductible organization is Sustainable Energy Institute, and our address is P.O. BOX 3387, Santa Cruz, California, 95063, USA.
Scott Spitz and LEAPFROG can be reached at email address firstname.lastname@example.org