My friend Ken had just arrived from India, where he was a guest of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The Fund is working with the Wildlife Trust of India, working to save the Asian Elephants from poaching and abuse.
He told a story that is disturbing, both for what it says about the poachers and what it says about ourselves.
Most of us have seen elephants at the zoo or the circus. If we travel to India or Thailand we might ride atop one.
These elephants are tame, or at least they appear to be. But as Ken says, “There is no such thing as a tame elephant. It is never tame. It is only just afraid because it has been beaten and tortured.”
If you get squeamish about these things, don’t read on.
Elephants, Ken says, are taken at four years old from their mothers. That is the age when they are no bigger than we are and can be fed with a milk bottle.
“They are tied alongside other working elephants, attached to a wooden frame between two tree trunks, unable to move,” he goes on. “For a week, they are beaten with baseball bats and a device called an elephant hook.”
When the calf, driven by fear and thirst, gives up hope he is taken to the river and allowed to eat and bathe. But he is still tied tightly to another working elephant. Only after weeks of this torture is the animal allowed to move alone, still shackled but thoroughly passive.
Now the elephant is ready to be sent to the zoos or circuses or tourist meccas that have ordered them. Here he may be subjected to still further cruelty, learning to stand on his hind legs, for example, probably after being beaten with the elephant hook.
In the wild, elephants live to 60-70 years old. In captivity, they are lucky to reach 40. In European zoos, half of all elephants die before 20. Disease or muscular degeneration claims them before their time. Their numbers are dwindling. 30,000 Asian elephants survive from a total of 200,000 a quarter century ago.
The groups Ken has been working with are trying to protect the animals from their fiercest predators: mankind. He visited a rescue center in India where the animals are reintroduced into the wild.
But is it effective to punish the poachers who are simply responding to demand? Or should the focus be on the ultimate customers: the zoos and the circuses that order the beaten animals in the first place, for our enjoyment?
I can hear the zookeepers protesting.
“Look,” they say, trumpeting in unison like a herd of elephants, “We are providing an educational experience for our visitors. Think of the children who get to observe the animals. How elitist to limit the joy of seeing these great creatures to wealthy tourists who can afford to travel to Africa or Asia on expensive safaris.”
No doubt we have all been enriched by seeing animals in captivity. Since the London zoo in Regent’s Park was first established for scientific research and later opened to the public in 1847, millions of people have been able to experience first hand some of nature’s most astonishing creatures. And not just in London: Thousands of cities around the globe introduced their own zoos.
But the first zoos were created in a different age. Just as animals were captured and dragged back to the great cities, so were people enslaved. The mentally ill were hidden from sight. Prisoners were routinely starved and tortured. Children were exploited in factories. Women were denied the vote and in many places abused with no legal recourse.
How can we observe wild animals in captivity and not be a party to the outrageous abuse that brought them here?
Views change. Cultures evolve. The commonplace becomes rare and the accepted becomes unacceptable.
Sure our lives are enriched by watching tame elephants through the bars of a zoo. But imagine how much more we might be enriched if we were to stand outside an empty cage and read this inscription:
“Here stood an example of the species Elephas maximus, of the family Elephantidae, known popularly as an Asian Elephant. Members of the species can now be found roaming from India to Borneo.
“For many years your zoo displayed an Asian Elephant for your enjoyment. However, in 2012, as visitors boycotted the zoo to protest the inhumane treatment of elephants both before and during their tenure here, the trustees returned the Asian Elephant to the wild and determined never to condone the torture of animals for the sake of public display.
“We trust you will take a moment to watch videos of the Asian Elephant in the wild and take comfort in the knowledge that members of the species are living out their years in the environment in which they were born.”
April 1, 2012 — In a rare weekend session, Florida’s legislature unanimously adopted the country’s most stringent solar power law, requiring 100% solar electricity within a year. If the Governor signs the act today, as expected, the law will become effective on its first anniversary or April 1, 2013.
“The Sunshine State is leading the way to energy independence,” said Apollo deSol, the sponsor of the bill. “Why burn dirty fuel oil when we have unlimited clean energy from the sun?”
State Senator deSol said the new law will take advantage of a new technology that turns suntan into electricity. All Floridians will be required to lie in the sun for 3 hours each day while attached to a tanvoltaic machine or TV. Suntan lotion with an SPF greater than 5 will be prohibited.
Violators will be subject to a fine of $250/day or the average cost of a hotel room on South Beach, whichever is higher.
Opponents of the legislation, principally funded by the tanning lotion industry, raised constitutional objections, saying that the individual mandate of daily sun tanning was impermissible under the Commerce Clause.
But deSol and the bill’s proponents prevailed, citing the federal health care legislation and the arguments before the Supreme Court last week.
“The justices in the Obamacare case clearly wanted to see that commerce was being effected,” deSol said. “The generation of electricity is the biggest marketplace in the US, by far,” he said. “If we let our citizens stay indoors and avoid generating electricity they simply drive up the costs for everybody else.”
Over the next year utilities will be required to shut down all fuel oil and nuclear generating plants and direct their resources to collecting TV power from all Floridians.
Rumors that tourists will be required to sunbathe for 3 hours a day are untrue, according to a spokeswoman for the Governor’s office. “As long as tourists spend 7 days or less in our state, they will not be required to produce TV power,” said Pallas Athena.
“However, snowbirds coming down from New York and other northern states will have to share the burden with other Floridians if they stay longer than a week,” she said. “It simply would not be fair for them to sit inside enjoying the air conditioning while full-time citizens pitch in.”
Studies show that if 12 million Floridians tan for 3 hours a day they will generate surplus electricity that can be exported to Georgia and other neighboring states.
“With additional revenue from power production, we expect this law to reduce state and local taxes within a year,” said Athena.
Reached on vacation on Miami Beach, Governor Pataki of New York said, “What is this, some kind of April Fool’s joke?!”
deSol assured the Governor that as long as he kept his vacation short and did not use over 5 SPF he could enjoy his vacation without interruption.
I have a friend, Harold Levine, a dynamo of a man who at 90 has more energy than his many friends at 50. He lives on a diet of ideas and visions. Years ago, Harold formed an advertising firm in New York with the venerable newscaster Chet Huntley. The firm was sold in 1985 and Harold now devotes himself to the revival of Bridgeport, Connecticut, pursuing dreams that probably will not be realized until just before his 125th birthday.
Harold would be a suitable subject in his own right for a half dozen blog entries at least. But I think Harold will forgive me if I highlight a little incident in which he plays only a supporting role.
First, a word on Bridgeport.
Bridgeport is one of those American cities that, like Detroit, once thrived with heavy industry employing hundreds of thousands of people. Sprawling factory complexes manufactured ammunition, sewing machines (Elias Howe started his company here), and even cars. Its immaculate boulevards were lined with tall trees and Victorian mansions.
Today the city languishes. The factories are abandoned. The old mansions are in disrepair. The grass medians are overgrown. Unemployment is just under 15%.
Years ago, when Harold was on the Board of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in Manhattan, he helped launch a series of summer camps around the country for young dancers. Bridgeport became the home to one such camp. Today, that camp is sponsored by a marvelous organization called the Neighborhood Studios. For over 30 years it has provided music education for creative kids that love performing.
For the kids growing up here, the Neighborhood Studios is an oasis in the desert, a refuge from the hardships of growing up poor in an affluent country.
One of the school’s champions is Harold Levine. Every year Harold and the Neighborhood Studios throw a benefit to raise money. Because the Studio hosts an Alvin Ailey Summer Camp – Harold once chaired the board of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company – the benefit always features dancers from the Studios. This year was no exception and the crowd at the Westport Country Playhouse enjoyed a marvelous show.
Just think of what it means for kids anywhere to stand on a stage, any stage, under bright lights, in front of an audience. Imagine what it meant for these kids, under these hot lights, in front of this adoring audience.
As he has for many years, Harold took the microphone and introduced some of the performers and a few of the event’s big sponsors. “And there’s one person I want to recognize in particular,” Harold continued. “Can I have the lights turned up please? Chris Shays? Where are you?”
The lights in the playhouse came up and Chris Shays, the former Congressman from Connecticut’s 4th District and a resident of Bridgeport, raised his hand and stood in the orchestra to applause.
“Years ago,” Harold said, “Chris Shays came to one of our benefits and after he saw the kids dance he came up and hugged me. ‘Harold,’ he said, ‘what can I do to help you?”
“So I said, ‘We need a new building. We’ve outgrown our current rehearsal space and there are more kids that want to join us but we just can’t handle them.’”
Harold went on: “A few months later Chris called me. He told me that he got one of those earmarks that we love to criticize Congress for. $800,000. But this wasn’t a Bridge to Nowhere. This was for the Neighborhood Studios. And last month we moved into our new building, and we can now accept 250 more students each year in our programs.”
“Thank you, Chris. Thank you for our new building!”
Chris Shays stood up. I thought he was going to do one of those politician things: Waving his arms like Dick Nixon, thanking his admirers.
No. He didn’t say, “Thank you.” Rather, when the applause died down, he yelled up to Harold on the stage,
“It’s their money!”
Of course, I thought, looking down from the balcony. He’s right. It’s our money, the taxpayers of Connecticut, the taxpayers of this great country.
Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society.” They are also the price we pay for many of the benefits we enjoy.
I will not opine on whether the arts are a worthwhile expenditure. Perhaps, as the Libertarians will argue, the arts should be left to their own devices to seek support. Indeed, I am sympathetic to the argument that government should limit itself to funding matters that individuals and states cannot take on such as the national defense.
But when government does lend a hand – as it did here – it is worth remembering that it is not some faceless bureaucracy that is bestowing its beneficence on us, but we ourselves.
“It’s their money!” Chris Shays said. He reminded us humbly that he may have played a role in seeking the funds, but the funds themselves were not his to give. They were ours.
This election season, when I hear a candidate complain about earmarks, I think I’ll remember those young dancers from Bridgeport, standing on the stage of the Playhouse, squinting into the bright lights, enriching their lives and our own.
I am writing to you, the Crown Princes of the digital universe, the royal majesties of the magical kingdoms founded or co-founded by Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, and Bill Gates.
I realize that you did not create email any more than Al Gore invented the internet.
But as the CEOs of Apple, Google and Microsoft, you are the guardians at the gate. As the defenders of your respective realms, you must bear some accountability for
the welfare of the humble peasants like myself that toil away in your fertile fields of gigabytes.
And so it is to you that I bring my plea. On behalf of myself and all those who have
shared my suffering, I beg you, I implore you:
Eliminate, once and for all eternity, “Reply All” from your email programs.
That’s right. Erase it. Backspace through it. Highlight it and hit delete. Expunge
it. Eradicate it. Obliterate it. Send “Reply All” to the dustbin of history, along with
buggy whips and britches and white out.
Gentlemen: “Reply All” is a scourge on humanity, a pestilence that threatens to
consume the earth like a plague of locusts. It must be stopped now before it is too
At first, “Reply All” seemed innocuous enough. It almost seemed convenient, in fact.
You got a brief email from a colleague. You opened it up and read it, You filed it
away, or you deleted it.
Of course, you may have noticed there were a few “cc”s. You suspected that half
of the recipients had been added to impress a boss, or to show off the writer’s
knowledge to colleagues, or to cover the sender’s rear end. You ignored the
silly “cc”s, however, because the email did its job. It communicated the way a
written letter used to, albeit in a fraction of the time.
Now, in the old days of written communication – that is, the period that stretched
from the age of papyrus to a decade or so ago – most letters did not call for a
response. They were informational. The writer expected the recipient to read it and
then file it or throw it away. Responding to a letter was the exception, not the rule:
After all, writing letter was a time consuming and laborious activity, and sending the
letter entailed a cost.
But email is so easy. Email is cost free. And perhaps because email is virtually
instantaneous we often reply to the sender to acknowledge receipt. If we send an
email we appreciate the acknowledgement. And if we receive an email, we suspect
the sender would like to know that the email has been read and so we oblige by
sending a reply.
You have done a great job of making these replies easy. Press “Reply” and the
sender’s name appears in the place for recipients. How easy. How smooth. How
But wait. Look here. There’s another option to reply. “Reply all.” With this one
click, I can list everybody who sent or received the first email. I can reach the
sender and all of the “cc”s.
It all sounds innocuous enough. Yet it so facile that before long my email is crowded
with recipients acknowledging the email. My mailbox quickly fills with messages
both trite and weighty, redundant and novel.
Somebody sends happy birthday greetings and the recipients need to wish more
happy returns of the day. Pretty soon the birthday boy or girl’s fifth cousin twice
removed is weighing in with glad tidings for someone they never met and the rest of
us are wishing the birthday honoree had not been born.
Or worse. Somebody sends a condolence message. Others are compelled to share
their own personal grief. The cacophony of heart felt wailing reverberates and rises
to such a fever pitch that one longs to join the departed to be spared further torture.
As if that were not bad enough, the lucky recipients of these “Reply All” messages
are compelled themselves to join the chorus of “Reply All”. Still more waves of
flotsam come crashing over my screen. And if, perchance, some of these recipients
decide to add “cc”s from their address lists, and these “cc”s choose to reply, the
waves grow into a tsunami of Biblical proportions.
Imagine for a moment what would happen if each recipient of an email replied to all
and added his or her email address. And each of those recipients replied to all and
added their own email addresses. Pretty soon the entire population of the planet
would appear in my “To” bar.
Or should I say, Messrs. Cook, Page and Ballmer, your “To” bar? For you would have
unwittingly unleashed on the face of the earth a chain letter-like virus that would
consume all of the matter in the digital universe within minutes.
We must act swiftly. We cannot delay while the future of mankind lies in the
balance. Armageddon is staring at us in the form of a little “Reply All” button.
Someone could hit it by mistake and bring on an unstoppable chain reaction like nuclear fission. We could all be treated to an email with a subject line of “Fw: Fw:
Fw:” to the nth power!
Mr. Cook, Mr. Page, and Mr. Ballmer: Assert your sovereign powers and deliver us
from imminent doom. Eliminate “Reply All” today.
And please, whatever you do, do not “Reply All” to this message.
Recently I sat helpless in the back of a cab. I was in Houston and couldn’t remember the address of my destination.
Was it the corner of McKinney and Travis? Or Louisiana and Texas?
I felt in the front pocket of my jeans and pulled out my Blackberry. Dead. I reached into my jacket pocket for my iPhone. Dead.
My computer was in the trunk in my suitcase. Flummoxed again.
I am old enough to remember carrying an address book. (Guess that means I was born before 1990 or so.). A little, well-thumbed black book with red-lettered tabs. If one held the binding one could run a finger down the letters and they would fan up like a … Well, like an address book.
On the inside cover were some scribbled numbers, probably taken down hurriedly while standing in a phone booth. Inside, organized by last name, were the scribbled details of my personal and professional life including the incidental characters met along the way, a gathering as unique as a genetic code or a retinal scan.
On the first leaf was my name and address and phone number, in case of loss. That came in handy a couple times. My address book found it’s way back from Vancouver when I dropped it in the back of a cab. From Paris where I left it under the desk at the Hotel Bristol. I’m one of those people whose mother used to say, “You’d lose your head if it weren’t screwed on!”
There wasn’t just one book. There were many over the years. When one book became crowded with names of casual acquaintances whom I had forgotten, I would start a new one, painstakingly copying the names of the friends I wanted to remember and omitting the ones that had passed on. It was a kind of “unfriending” before Facebook.
Sometimes I’d copy into my new address book names of people I didn’t want to forget, although perhaps I had not seen them in years. They were neither unfriended or befriended. They were remembered. Old college friends (“Need to look him up”). Old girl friends (“Gotta see where she is now”). Distant cousins (“Remember to send a holiday card this year”).
I always kept the old books. I have a shoebox for them. They are a wikidpedia of my personal history, the people, addresses, phone numbers of my own Odyssey.
In the late 80s a software program came out called Addressbook and it helped me create a printed book of numbers. I updated my directory religiously until I was ultimately worn down by fighting with successive updates of computer operating systems and software upgrades.
Today my life is online, neat, clear, updated. No thumbing for names and stumbling past old forgotten pals. No deciphering scribbled faded pencil scratches under dim street lamps.
When someone changes jobs I change the entry: unsentimental, oblivious to history. My only homage to the past: I cannot bring myself to delete the names of relatives and friends who have passed on. Their names bring a smile when I come across them, a brief and fleeting memory that won’t be extinguished. My address book is a kind of living memorial. A book of names. My unique menagerie.
At least until the battery dies. And then my book of names dies too.
Or does it. As I sat confused in the back of my cab, I had this subtle sense in the tip of my thumb, this ever-so-delicate sense, like detecting the faint scent of honeysuckle in the spring air. I felt like I was thumbing through my little black book. And that I was about to find what I was looking for.
Every four years the US public is entertained with a perverse, Edward Albee kind of psycho-drama, like a couple that has been married for 50 years but bickers over everything from choosing a channel on the TV to choosing a gas station to fill up.
“Herbie, what are you doing pulling into the Exxon, the Shell on Highland is 2 cents cheaper, what’s the matter with you?”
“Marge, it’s on the other side of the street and you know I can’t stand the way they streak the windshield when they clean it, how many times do I have to tell you?”
“You never were very good at finding a bargain, Herbie!” she goes on. “Remember, the condo in Miami Beach? I told you that was a steal, but no, you had to save your pennies.”
“Marge, that was 40 years ago, what do you want from my life?”
It’s no different with the Republicans and Democrats. Like Herbie and Marge, they bicker over countless imagined slights, dredge up ancient battles and grievances, torment each other with new and petty annoyances.
Yet they still co-exist. Maybe it’s too strong to say they love each other. But they stay together. They work together. They play together.
They realize that ultimately they need each other. Nothing can get done – none of those clever ideas they come up with every four years can get accomplished – without a consensus. And so despite the smirking and heckling and pesky whining they ultimately realize that living together beats the alternative.
More importantly, they agree on so much more than they disagree.
Their goals are the same: safety, security, economic prosperity, educational opportunity.
Their values are the same: integrity, honesty, openness, a free marketplace of ideas.
More jobs? Absolutely. A fairer and simpler tax code? No problem. Better schools? You got it.
History provides hundreds of examples of disagreeing partners fighting each other. Or else living in an illusory state of universal agreement. Egypt under Mubarak, for example, or Syria today under Assad: Strongmen repressing disagreement, claiming there is a consensus when there is none. And when tyranny is challenged, it erupts into civil unrest: Witness the Arab Awakening.
Our own history has a horrific scar where consensus broke down, where the bickering resulted in a divorce and violence. But for the most part we disagree civilly. We debate graciously. We fight passionately for our beliefs but with words, not swords.
Candidates attack TARP, the stimulus package that rescued our economy in 2008-09. How quickly we forget. It was the Bush administration that introduced it, and the Obama administration that continued it. Consensus. Bi-partisan agreement. And it worked.
Or the health care debate. The leading Republican presidential contender proposed an identical plan when he was Governor of Massachusetts. Obama-care is a mere tweaking of Romney-care. Consensus. Bi-partisan agreement. And so far – ask the people who are no longer being denied medical insurance because of pre-existing conditions – it’s working.
Or foreign policy. With the exception of Ron Paul, the only Republican candidate for president who calls for isolationism, both parties are in broad agreement on all but a few minor tactics. Indeed, Republicans were surprised when Obama ratified almost every significant decision of the prior administration. His Secretary of Defense was a Bush holdover. And countless foreign policy professionals served both administrations. It’s an ugly world out there. But we’re doing the best we can.
In any event, every voter knows that no candidate can anticipate what history will throw at them once in office. We elect them not for what they say but for how they share our values. And, if truth be told, whoever gets through the nomination process will share our values, whatever his or her party affiliation.
Some may be better than others, but if our guy loses it’s not a reason to pack our bags or pack heat.
Suppose that the presidential campaigns were celebrations of what we share in common instead of quadrennial verbal jousts.
“Herbie, you made a good decision to buy this car, it gets good mileage.”
“But Marge, you were the one who gave up your convertible for the hybrid. I couldn’t believe when you agreed to do that.
“Herbie, when the kids come back for Thanksgiving, you think we could drive up to that park where we took our first walk? We’ve never shown them where you first kissed me.”
“I’d love to, dear. And maybe we can also stop at that restaurant on the way back where we had our first fight.”
“That would be nice, Herb.”
Perhaps somebody has just defended the Keystone Pipeline and the fisherman or birdwatcher at the end of the table asks if anyone has ever cleaned an oil soaked pelican.
Or a talkative guest – forgetting for a moment that one never talks about religion or movies to strangers — has just observed that George Clooney is a terrible actor. The young woman who sniffled through three packages of Kleenex during the Descendants emerges from her corner and flattens the detractor.
In our case the excitement came from a case of violent agreement, NOT disagreement: Too many people are acting like the rules don’t apply to them.
One example after another was thrown on the table like so many dinner napkins.
- The guest at the fundraiser who piles his plate high with sandwiches without regard for the people at the end of the line.
- The pet owner who lets his dog run off the leash when park or beach rules prohibit it.
- The drivers who race down back country roads at twice the speed limit, or the ones that race to beat the red light.
- The SUV that hogs the handicap spot outside the school to pick up her daughter while the parent of a kid in a wheelchair can’t get to the front door.
- The homeowner who pretends to be a decorator to get a discount on that carpet.
- The drivers that takes up two spots in the parking lot, or dent the door of the car next to them, or speed down the ramp to the exit.
And don’t get me started on cell phone etiquette: The ring tones in the theater, the texting in the movies, the drivers oblivious to the people around them.
Some rules deserve being ignored. Jean Valjean did not deserve five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister, or 14 more for trying to escape. The protesters at Tahrir Square did not deserve being mowed down by armed men on charging camels.
Ironically it’s not the big things that got our dander up.
By and large Americans obey those parts of the decalogue that keep anarchy at bay: Thou shalt not murder. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s house. (Of course I’ve ignored the part about adultery and coveting they neighbor’s wife – modernity has somehow managed to adapt to non-violent dishonorable behavior!)
Rather, it’s the little things. The petty violations of the rules of a civilized society. The rules of behavior that function like a Xanax to get us through the day without periodic acts of road rage.
Is this the new normal?
The other day I returned to a shop that had undercharged me the day before. I asked to pay the difference. The clerk looked at me like I had three heads. He looked for the old receipt. He looked upset at the inconvenience I was causing. It took me longer to pay my fair share than it took to buy the item in the first place.
Imagine if we slowed down to the speed limit, waited our turn at the cash register, took one sandwich instead of two. We’d be happier, less stressed, healthier.
What a radical idea.
To paraphrase the Billy Joel song, I’m feeling in a Miami state of mind.
That’s right. With temperatures dropping and the sun setting before 5, I’m feeling a warm glow up here in the Northeast.
Funny how solar panels can change the way you look at things.
Just when I’m starting to envy those birds heading south for the winter, I learn that the sun shines in New York a mere 25% less than in Orlando.
In other words, the average Florida house with rooftop solar may generate enough additional juice to light a 200 watt bulb for 6 hours.
So Mickey Mouse might be able to fry an egg on his panels in the summer time. But I can run my toaster almost as long as he can. And I don’t have to fly south for the winter to do it.
I’m thinking that with solar panels on my roof, it’s the next best thing to being there!
Zone 1 6 hours
Zone 2 5.5 hours
Zone 3 5 hours
Zone 4 4.5 hours
Zone 5 4.2 hours
Zone 6 3.5 hours
This post was initially published March 4th, 2011 on MXpressions
Crude oil over $100/barrel. Gasoline at the pump averaging over $3.40/gallon. Natural gas over $15/mmbtu and electricity prices at an all time high.
It seems like we are heading back to the nose bleed prices of June 2008, when energy production had trouble keeping up with demand from China and the developing world. The result: record high energy prices, across the board.
But today is different. Turmoil in the Mideast and North Africa is driving prices to their historic highs. At the same time, natural gas and electricity prices are down, close to their 10-year lows.
Why the disconnect between oil and gas (and by gas I mean natural gas, not gasoline which is a refined by-product of oil)?
Oil and its byproducts are first and foremost transportation fuels, helping to run cars, ships, airplanes, locomotives. As the economy recovers and the developing world expands, demand for transport fuels increases and so do prices. Oil is also used to run boilers, for homes and industry.
Natural gas, by contrast, is first and foremost the principal feedstock for electric generation. It is also used for heating as well as for some products like ammonia which is used in the manufacture of fertilizer. If the economy is sizzling, electricity demand is up and natural gas prices can be expected to be strong.
Another important distinction between oil and gas is in the way it is transported. Oil can be shipped, trucked, and piped. Gas is generally piped although it can be shipped, in liquefied form, at enormous cost. As a result, the oil industry is much more global. Oil production can be moved throughout the world, before or after it is refined.
Natural gas, on the other hand, is generally consumed close to where it is produced and shipped by pipeline. For our purposes, it is a North American commodity, produced and consumed here, between the oceans.
Two factors have weighed on natural gas prices and kept them low over the past couple years. These factors, in turn, have also affected electricity prices since much electricity is generated from natural gas, second only to coal as a fuel for power stations. First, the economy has been weak and so demand for gas has been down. Second, over the past few years new supplies of natural gas have become available through a new technology known as hydrofracturing or “fracking.”
It is worth spending some time to understand this new source of supply. If it lasts, it could keep prices down for many years. If it is curtailed in any way, we could see natural gas prices jump back up to where they used to be.
Hydraulic fracturing has been used in recent years to transform natural gas production. Our country has reserves of gas that rival the oil reserves of the Middle East. With “fracking,” as it’s called, these reserves can be released from the shale in which natural gas molecules have been trapped for billions of years.
Fracking has been hugely successful and this has pleased many environmentalists who would rather see natural gas used for electricity generation than coal. After all, burning coal gives off noxious fumes like sulphur dioxide whereas natural gas is considered more “clean-burning.” It still emits carbon dioxide but it does not emit sulphur dioxide.
Here is where things get a little more complicated. I’m sure you have heard the warning: “Beware of the law of unintended consequences.” Natural gas may be clean when it is burned. But there may not be so clean when it is produced.
Most fracking uses high pressure water mixed with chemicals. And this water has to go some place. It turns out that the water used in fracking is coming to the surface with thousands of times the levels of radioactive radium and other elements deemed safe for humans. Yes, thousands.
This water is discharged into rivers or sewage treatment plants. Often those plants are not equipped to screen the radioactive elements. Some say that the volume of water flowing through the rivers is not enough to dilute the concentration of these elements.
Thus far the demand for new energy, as well as the pressure to create new jobs and tax revenues in states like Pennsylvania, has resisted the demand for more stringent environmental regulations. This could change.
Just as we watched the growth in natural gas production put downward pressure on gas prices, we must now watch for a potential curtailment in this production. Unless a new technology is found to extract gas without using so much water, environmental concerns could pose a threat. And any curtailment of production could drive prices higher.
MXenergy’s business is designed to help consumers control their utility bills. Our customers rely on us to take on the risks that they would otherwise face. Fortunately, we do a good job at this because of the constant attention that we pay to energy supply.
But one thing we can guarantee: The future continues to be risky and uncertain. Prices are low because of the weak economy and the emergence of huge new supplies of natural gas. But if the economy strengthens and environmental concerns result in a curtailment of these supplies, today’s low prices could quickly become a distant memory.
This post was initially published March 1st, 2011
Years ago a new Sherlock Holmes-inspired novel was published. Called The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, it didn’t compare to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterpieces. But as an old Holmesian who still bristles at the name Moriarty, it held my attention.
I was reminded of the doppelgänger Holmes’ mystery while chatting with a friend at one of my favorite watering holes in Houston. Jim is a philosopher in the tradition of Socrates, holding forth in the public square, so to speak – in this case the Main Street lounge called Notsuoh, or Houston spelled backward – and speaking truth to whomever will listen.
On this particular night, on the stage of Notsuoh a poet held forth at the microphone with his unique blend of Whitman and Ginsburg. An appreciative crowd listened attentively or played chess on ancient card tables.
It was a couple days into the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, a largely peaceful event that a week later would hasten the departure of the country’s 30 year autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Jim was not caught up with the rapturous rejoicing in Tahir Square. We were soon to learn that the celebration masked some ugliness such as the assaults on the correspondent Lara Logan. No, Jim was more taken with the arc of history.
“What are the chances,” he asked, “that a poor fruit peddler in Tunisia could light a spark – both literally and figuratively – that would change the world?” He was referring to Muhammad Bouazizi, the fruit vendor who poured gasoline over himself and lit a match to protest the arbitrary police abuses that made it difficult for him to make a living. He died on January 4 and his death led to spontaneous riots in Tunisia which soon ignited similar protests across the Arab world.
“We all live within a band of, say, 99% normalcy,” Jim went on. “Every day presents us with a predictable set of variables and expected outcomes. But then, every once in a while, our comfortable cocoons are shattered by the abnormal, the unexpected, the outlier event.”
“I’m not speaking of death, earthquakes, tornadoes,” he said. “Those are within the realm of the expected, unless of course there were an earthquake that toppled Manhattan or a tsunami in Toledo. No. I’m speaking of the perfect storm, the unplanned szyzegy, the confluence of events each one of which is remote and together are virtually unimaginable.”
We debated whether the Great Crunch in 2008 qualified as an outlier, or the Great Crash of 29, or the eruption of Krakatoa. Global warming was out, we agreed. The discovery of penicillin was in. The Russian revolution was out. Too predictable. But Moses and the 10 Commandments, the births of Christ and the vision of Mohammed, were all in. The ratio of chance over impact was just too small. The first single cell replication that signaled the dawn of life was in.
Jim was on to his next Socratic observation. “The Chinese say, ‘May you live in interesting times.”. I say, ‘We live for the 1% chance, the unexpected moment that will change reality and make us stop and marvel. It is what gives our lives meaning.
“These are what legends and myths are born from: The peasant that discovers a precious diamond, the medieval palace besieged by Grendel, a St. Francis that has an epiphany and sacrifices all.
“Our legends and myths are our collective memories or dreams of the ‘what can be’ and the ‘what we are capable of.’ They are a statement of our special humanity, our capacity for greatness, our wish to be better than we are.
“The 1% is outside the normal but it is where we long to be, challenged, threatened maybe, but ultimately hopeful, triumphant and exalted.”
Jim stopped his musing. Even he can give it a rest sometimes. Maybe 1% of the time. His silences can be as provocative as his speeches.
But he made me think. A Tunisian fruit vendor and a world turned upside down. Chances? A fraction of 1%. Impact? Infinite. Feelings? Hope for newly freed peoples, and fear of a violent and unstable future.