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Blog item: Will We Be China? Will We Be Denmark? You Decide.

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10 comments, last: Sep-28-2008   Add a comment   Author:  PT (Sep-19-2008)    Play a Video
Categories: Economic/Financial, Peak Oil/Gas & Energy Demand, Philosophical & Quality of Life, Renewable Energy Sources

The dream of pleasant suburban livingFor those who live in the pleasant bubble (suffocating though it sometimes is) of America's wealthy society, whether urban, suburban, or rural, it often seems that our way of life will endure for the foreseeable future, and beyond.  Perhaps there will be flying cars instead of ground-based cars, maybe we will be able to teleport, but those are just the natural illusions and delusions of how a traditionally strong society and economy such as the United States' will persist and improve forever, into an endless future, limited only by the power of our imaginations.  Yes, sure.

I am speaking of the United States' unconscious sense of security, even in the face of more and more worrying information that is hard to ignore.  The great majority of Americans do not realize the dangers inherent in our slash-and-burn approach to living, although many have heard that the planet may warm up a bit.  A better analogy than slash-and-burn might be sitting on the highest branch of a tree, and slowly sawing through that branch, close to the trunk.  That branch does not show any signs of distress, and all is well, until it begins to crack, and falls with us on it.

The title of this article indicates a choice we have.  Just a bit earlier news appeared of the fact the Beijing is in a deep water shortage - so bad that the government has now ordered imports of massive amounts of stored emergency water that was originally allocated for their surrounding province, Hebei, which is also in a long-term drought.  Meanwhile, the death rates of Chinese from air pollution is a well-known problem, and the desertification (transformation from farmable land into desert) of large areas of northern China has also been widely publicized.

Air and water pollution threaten health and economy in ChinaWhat does that have to do with the USA?  Well, aside from the great human and economic turmoil that might occur if China can not solve its own problems, and that might spill over to the rest of the world, it could also be a warning for the direction that we in the United States are heading.  It is not so well publicized that US topsoil is at its lowest level ever, having fallen from its original 50 feet in depth in the Midwest to under 1 foot.  Water levels in non-replenishing (in human time scale) aquifers such as the Ogallala Aquifer, and in the Great Lakes we share with Canada, continue to drop.  As noted elsewhere, "because the rate of extraction exceeds the rate of recharge, [Ogallala] water level elevations are decreasing. At some places the water table was measured to drop more than five feet (1.5 m) per year at the time of maximum extraction. In extreme cases, the deepening of wells was required to reach the steadily falling water table; and it has even been drained (dewatered) in some places such as Northern Texas."

And the population of our country continues to increase, gradually.  Even that is not required for a crisis to arise - we are already living well beyond the capacity of our land to create and store new topsoil and water, while fossil fuels are likely at their peak of production, and will only get scarcer from here on, whether that requires 5 years or 15 years to become apparent.

Will the United States be able to produce enough food to eat in 2050 when fertilizer costs rise dramatically due to shortages of natural gas (used to make chemical fertilizers)?  Will the persistent water shortages in our Southwest spread to more of the country, including to the breadbasket of the Midwest? Will fish still populate the ocean ecosystems or will the only remaining fish be those too small to catch and eat economically?

Middelgrunden Wind Farm, near Copenhagen, DenmarkOr will we, and the world, resemble Denmark, which is currently benefiting greatly by the insight shown in Denmark in the 1970s, after the oil and gasoline shortage brought on by the first Middle East oil stoppage?  Let me share a couple of paragraphs about Denmark (from in July 2001):

Arriving in Copenhagen by sea, the first thing travelers see of Denmark is a row of 20 enormous wind turbines gently spinning above the waves nearly two miles from shore. Completed last December, the Middelgrunden Wind Farm is the world's largest offshore wind power facility. Its wind machines, each with blades 100 feet long, together generate 40 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 32,000 households in Denmark's bustling capital. It produces no pollution or greenhouse gasses and was designed to have minimal environmental impact on the marine life of the Oresund, the chilly sound connecting the Baltic and North Seas.

Middelgrunden is a fitting symbol for Denmark, a nation of five million that has emerged as a world leader not only in wind power, but also in the effort to create a more sustainable society. Well-maintained bicycle paths complete with road signs and traffic lights connect towns and cities, often running parallel to rural highways.

The full article also reveals that Denmark is now moving in the direction of tearing down massive central power plants and replacing them with distributed, community-focused power generation, having determined that it is more efficient and less prone to failures.

Renewable energy (although they do continue to burn fossil fuel, that is being reduced gradually), strong use of bicycles, recycling and burning of waste rather than landfilling, as well as creating an economic and jobs boom (current unemployment: 1.6%) by selling wind power equipment and expertise to the rest of the world, these are part of a long-term vision that will allow Denmark to be self-sufficient, and in a word, sustainable.

What has the United States done in this regard?  Anyone?

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Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Sep-28-2008)   Web site
I hope you are right, Joe, and that the change is fast enough. I have doubts that there has been much change overall. If the government slapped on a $5 tax on gasoline and used the money wisely, that could make a difference in driving habits plus be used to develop alternative energy sources.
Comment by: Joe (Sep-27-2008)   Web site

Well, if Obama gets elected, he has pledged over and over to focus on improving renewable energy extraction. Hopefully this will happen, and we can slowly stop sending billions of dollars to countries that don't like us (Venezuela, Iran),

I think the recent gas price spike did a lot for making people think about how much they drive. Many people I know cut down on their driving, and tried to carpool to save money. Overall, I think the U.S. is slowly but surely moving in the right direction.
Comment by:  stevehinton (Stephen Hinton) (Sep-20-2008)   Web site

Europe uses less fossil fuel per capita than the US (nearly 3 gallons / day in the US compared to nearly 1.5 gallons / day in Europe).

However, with sales tax, carbon dioxide tax and energy tax slapped on top, these revenues represent a large chunk of income to the state. Only a fraction of these revenues are being channelled back into renewables and energy conservation. On the contrary, to take Sweden as an example, they are going to invest three times as much into new roads as into the railway system.

So whilst it is true more is going on in Europe to create an infrastructure that promotes a sustainable lifestyle, any large investment that reduces fossil fuel consumption will severely cripple the nation's finances. No European nation is prepared to do that. Yet. The US can STILL lead the way.
Comment by:  Susan (Susan) (Sep-19-2008)   

So, I'm still a novice with most of this information, but it seems to me that without some sort of coordinated effort on behalf of our government, change is going to continue to be slow in coming. There are many people who just do not take this seriously.

Why are we importing water from Fiji or clay flower pots that are made in China, when there's water here, and clay to make flower pots? How stupid is all of this? I recently heard about someone who is now marketing "tap water" and selling it for $1.50 per bottle...ok, so they're at least using tap water, but there's still a plastic bottle involved.

It still amazes me how many people give no thought whatsoever to this huge issue, or worse yet, don't believe it's happening at all. Where does one start when the problem is looming so large, and people continue on their merry way, ignoring it all?

I'm open to suggestions.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Sep-19-2008)   

The details can be found at

The general gist is that it is a sales tax to replace all income taxes, with a rebate for the amount up to the poverty level. In other words, if you only consume what you need, then you get the tax back. (actually, I think they call it a 'prebate', and you get it up front).

The scientific minds who analyzed the situation decided that it would take approximately a 23% sales tax to be revenue neutral for the fed income tax. That is without the prediction that prices for goods would be dropped by about that same amount when companies realize the savings of not having to deal with payroll taxes and tax avoidance schemes.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Sep-19-2008)   Web site

Absolutely, AG. As far as a consumption tax, that is an excellent concept. Of course it requires major political mindset change. If I knew more about Europe, I bet we could find several countries there doing just that. The tax on gasoline which most (all?) European countries have had for many years is in that direction, but I don't know the overall policies in taxation as a strategy, in Europe.

For our readers and for me, do you want to explain a bit more about what the Fair Tax bill is and does? Thanks.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Sep-19-2008)   

David: Though I agree with the sentiment about government incentives, I think that we shouldn't allow the discussions to separate all of the 'stuff' we purchase from the oil. Consumption in today's world almost always leads back to petroleum as a source of materials or transportation, so if we do move toward a tax, it should be a blanket consumption tax. Economists will argue against it until they are blue from lack of oxygen in the atmosphere because it goes against their ingrained hocus pocus of Perpetual Business Growth.

If government could do something useful, it would be to adopt the FairTax bill, and if the Democrats don't like the plan, they should just double it.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Sep-19-2008)   Web site

John, I agree that the rate of wind power growth is encouraging. The problem is, at least until now, that the Federal government does not provide incentives for wind power development. I believe the last incentives were allowed to expire, weren't they? In Denmark, one measure taken was raising the tax on gasoline to a total of $10/gallon (equivalent), intentionally making the cost of automobile travel much higher so as to spur the development of alternatives patterns of energy use and transportation, from the grass roots and up.

The US seems to be -- maybe -- moving grudgingly in the right direction, but the question remains whether it will be enough to protect the USA's own economic interests, and more important, the trends throughout the developing world that sometimes follows our lead. Ultimately it is the pattern that will determine the health of the planet in 10, 30, 50 years.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Sep-19-2008)   

I think one of the major problems is the scale perspective with which we look at nature. Humans seem to be pushing toward the picture where we 'keep' some piece of nature alive in a park or a box, and that we have the ultimate say over how much of the world is 'natural' and the rest belongs to whomever has the strength to grab it and turn it into Cheez Doodles.

We have to realize our place next to the ants and bacteria before we can make sustainable plans for the future. As long as there is any debate over becoming 'good' at conquering nature or 'bad' at conquering nature, then we are still losing our planet's future, whether slow or fast. All of our energy systems and machinery and social structures are designed for the purpose of cancer-like perpetual growth to some point which we don't want to consider until we pass it.

We have passed the runaway global warming point already, according to science, but nothing has changed in people's attitudes. That means that no matter what we do, it's only for our immediate satisfaction and self-congratulatory ego boosting, not for the planet.
Comment by:  jfheinrichs (John Heinrichs) (Sep-19-2008)   Web site

To be fair, the US is doing pretty well on wind power. We have the highest growth rate for wind energy in the world (up 45% in 2007). Of course, that's partially because we lagged behind for so long...

That said, however, efforts in the US to develop alternative energy are piecemeal - not part of a coordinated strategy combining public and private investments. We could and should be doing a lot more.

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About author/contributor Member: PT (David Alexander) PT (David Alexander)
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Member: PT (David Alexander) My lifelong pursuit, since age 18, has been to live more fully and find wisdom. This has involved studies with Zen masters, Tai Chi masters, and great psychotherapists while achieving my license as a gestalt therapist and psychoanalyst.

Along the way, I became aware of how the planet is under great stress due to the driven nature of human activity on this planet.

I believe that the advancement of human well-being will reduce societies addictive behaviors, and will thus also help preserve the environment and perhaps slow down the effects of global warming and other major threats to the health of human societies.

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