Keynote speech by Robert Waldrop to the 2006 OSN Conference

“It’s All About Us”
September 15, 2006, Tulsa, Oklahoma

I knew I was in Tulsa when I woke up this morning and my hotel had a scenic view of the oil refinery. I got a whiff of those hydrocarbons last night heading to the hotel.

I am going to preach to the choir this morning. I am a choir director, and so I have a right to do this. I think it is important to preach to choirs, I preach to mine all the time. If you don’t preach to the choir, the choir might forget why they are doing what they are doing.

Let us therefore begin with a reading from the works of Wendell Berry, a part of one of his poems – “Some Further Words”.

 

Let me be plain with you, dear reader.

I am an old-fashioned man. I like

the world of nature despite its mortal

dangers. I like the domestic world

of humans, so long as it pays its debts

to the natural world, and keeps its bounds.

I like the promise of Heaven. My purpose

is a language that can repay just thanks

and honor for those gifts, a tongue

set free from fashionable lies.

 

Neither this world nor any of its places

is an “environment.” And a house

for sale is not a “home.” Economics

is not “science,” nor “information” knowledge.

A knave with a degree is a knave. A fool

in a public office is not a “leader.”

A rich thief is a thief. And the ghost

of Arthur Moore, who taught me Chaucer,

returns in the night to say again:

“Let me tell you something, boy.

An intellectual whore is a whore.”

 

The world is babbled to pieces after

the divorce of things from their names.

Ceaseless preparation for war

is not peace. Health is not procured

by sale of medication, or purity

by the addition of poison. Science

at the bidding of the corporations

is knowledge reduced to merchandise;

it is a whoredom of the mind,

and so is the art that calls this “progress.”

So is the cowardice that calls it “inevitable.”

I think the issues of “identity” mostly

are poppycock. We are what we have done,

which includes our promises, includes

our hopes, but promises first.

. . .

I don’t like machines,

which are neither mortal nor immortal,

though I am constrained to use them.

(Thus the age perfects its clench.)

Some day they will be gone, and that

will be a glad and a holy day.

I mean the dire machines that run

by burning the world’s body and

its breath. When I see an airplane

fuming through the once-pure sky

or a vehicle of the outer space

with its little inner space

imitating a star at night, I say,

“Get out of there!” as I would speak

to a fox or a thief in the henhouse.

When I hear the stock market has fallen,

I say, “Long live gravity! Long live

stupidity, error, and greed in the palaces

of fantasy capitalism!” I think

an economy should be based on thrift,

on taking care of things, not on theft,

usury, seduction, waste, and ruin.

My purpose is a language that can make us whole,

though mortal, ignorant, and small.

. . .

Each one who speaks speaks

as a convocation. We live as councils

of ghosts. It is not “human genius”

that makes us human, but an old love,

an old intelligence of the heart

we gather to us from the world,

from the creatures, from the angels

of inspiration, from the dead–

an intelligence merely nonexistent

to those who do not have it, but —

to those who have it more dear than life.

And just as tenderly to be known

are the affections that make a woman and a man

their household and their homeland one.

These too, though known, cannot be told

to those who do not know them, and fewer

of us learn them, year by year.

These affections are leaving the world

like the colors of extinct birds,

like the songs of a dead language.

Think of the genius of the animals,

every one truly what it is:

gnat, fox, minnow, swallow, each made

of light and luminous within itself.

They know (better than we do) how

to live in the places where they live.

And so I would like to be a true

human being, dear reader-a choice

not altogether possible now.

But this is what I’m for, the side

I’m on. And this is what you should

expect of me, as I expect it of

myself, though for realization we

may wait a thousand or a million years.

To those wise words of Wendell Berry, I would like to add this deep thought: Never trust a skinny president of a food cooperative.

What a wonderful group is gathered here today. It’s good that we’re here. Let me personalize that a bit. It’s good that YOU are here. Or maybe since we are in Oklahoma I should say, it’s good that all y’all are here. Whatever, the important thing is that we are gathered here today because this is all about US! That is more than a catchy slogan. It is a fact of our journey towards sustainability. If you have been sitting around waiting for some kind of wondrous charismatic environmentalist leader to pop up and say “follow me to a very green nirvana”, you wait in vain. If you want to see the new generation of environmentalist leadership, just look at the man or woman who looks back at you each morning in your mirror. We are the leaders we have been waiting for.

There is no time to waste. Every day the clouds above Mordor grow darker and more noxious and polluting. Every day the storm of climate change gathers and people cry in vain for help. Every day rain forests die. Across the globe, there are refugees from of environmental catastrophes, and thousands perish every day in agony and sorrow from hunger, pestilential disease, war and economic chaos. These are real people, as real as anyone here. They have – or rather, they had — hopes, dreams, fears. People loved them and they loved people. But now they’re dead. They were in the way. There wasn’t enough to go around. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Everywhere on earth, resource scarcity drives war and violence. When it comes to conflict the media focuses on religion and ideology, but scratch the surface of these wars and you find violence over land, water, minerals, oil, and other resources. More people using more stuff require even more stuff and more stuff requires more energy and more resources to manufacture. If there is a crowd pushing to get access to something, the weak and the poor will be the first to be shoved out of the way. The rise in the price of oil, and the continued increase in petroleum consumption by rich countries, means that we are outbidding the poor in the energy marketplaces. Because we are taking more, there is less for them. And so it comes to pass that everywhere the margins of the poorest of the poor are being squeezed to the point of collapse. People are dying because of our greed.

Let us not underestimate the unfolding situation. We who live in Oklahoma, more than anybody else on the planet, should understand oil depletion. We used to be Saudi Arabia. Tulsa was the Oil Capital of the World. Well, Oklahoma City argued about that, so maybe we were the Twin Cities of Planetary Oil. Oklahoma City sits on top of what was once the nation’s largest oil field. Tulsa is right next door to the Glenn Pool. In 27 of the 35 years, 1900-1935, Oklahoma was Number 1 in US oil production. Phillips 66, Conoco, and Sinclair, all got their start here. If you look at a graph of Oklahoma oil production, you can clearly see Hubbert’s Peak.

Sure, we still produce oil and gas. In 2004, there were 83,000 oil wells pumping oil in the state of Oklahoma. But the average production per well was only 2.1 barrels of oil per day. And we were the number 6 state in the nation for total oil production that year. So nobody here should doubt the reality – and the finality – of oil depletion. If the nation’s sixth largest oil producer is averaging 2 barrels of oil per day per well, then that is a statement about the future of oil production in the United States.

This is a problem, because with 6 percent of world population, we consume 25% of world oil production, and our thirst for oil increases every year. Sooner or later, that increasing thirst runs into the rock solid wall of peak oil, and if you think gasoline has been expensive this year, just wait.

My first car was a 1960 Ford Falcon and I paid 25 cents a gallon back in 1968 when I would fill up the tank and head over to Lawton to hang out in “Old Downtown” which was a delightfully seedy area with wooden sidewalks that was packed with bars and pinball arcades and establishments that were euphemistically referred to as “hotels”, located in the second stories of those bars. That’s been the story of America. We fill our tanks with cheap gasoline and we go where-ever we want to go, and we have all the fun we want to have, and we don’t even think about the consequences. Not for a minute.

But it seems as though its last call, and the party may be about over. This shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is . Adam Smith would tell us that markets need accurate information for people to make accurate choices. The most important information markets can give us is price and price must reflect all costs involved. If the price is high, that tells us that the demand is high relative to the supply and we should adjust our usage accordingly. If the price is low, that tells us that there is plenty of supply, and so we can use a lot of it without causing problems.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but markets are human constructions, and the politicians can rarely restrain themselves from finagling them in order to please the crowd and benefit their friends and penalize their not-friends, and this is as true of energy markets as it is anyplace else. For decades, governments around the world have finagled energy prices. Generally, in the United States, the effort has been to politically lower the price of energy. In the Middle East, since the 1970s anyway, they have tried to increase oil prices.

That’s also fine, everybody wants cheap energy, but let’s go back to Adam Smith for a minute and remember our need for accurate price information so we can judge the relative scarcity of a product. If the government has been finagling the price of energy to lower it in the past, that means its actual price, its true market price, is not being accurately reported. Some costs are externalized, and generally the mechanism for that was politics. So throughout the 20th century, we made energy decisions based on inaccurate and incomplete price information. Energy prices reported that “oil and gas are cheap and plentiful, use all you want”, whereas the geological reality is that oil and gas are finite resources, and when they are gone, they are gone.

The thing about finagling marketplaces, however, is that sooner or later the real price cannot be distorted any more, and it breaks through into reality with a series of price shocks. This is what peak oil will bring us to – the true market price for petroleum, all externalities included, and we will discover that the true price is much higher than what we paid in the past. There are 1.6 billion Chinese, and every family there wants a car, they want two cars, and they want a garage for them too. There are a billion people in India, and they all want two cars and a garage too. and the law of supply and demand cannot be evaded forever.

There are some who continue to insist that there is plenty of oil and when all these difficulties in the Middle East are worked out and new production comes on line, the price will decline. Many of these people were quick to say “See we told you so”, when Chevron and Devon announced their big play in the Gulf. This was their deepest successful well test drilled to date, at a total depth of 28,175 feet.

Chevron is paying $216,000 PER DAY to lease the drilling rig and platform for that well. That’s $80 million a year. The rent for that platform rises to $460,000/day in 2007. That’s about $170 million a year. Obviously, I need to go into the deep water oil well platform bidness. And then there are the geologists, geophysicists, petroleum engineers, rig workers, drill bits, pipe, mud, wireline services, helicopter rides, room and board, and I am surely missing other expenses. It’s not pocket change. This is not the only well to be drilled, it is the first of many if the area does turn out to have a lot of oil.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, Chevron has another project, the “Tahiti”, it will begin producing in 2008 and it cost $3.5 billion. It will produce an estimated 125,000 barrels per day, so there is a capital cost for that well of $28,000 per barrel of oil daily production capacity. A second Chevron project, known as “Blind Faith”, cost an estimated one billion dollars and will produce 30,000 barrels per day, for an up front capital cost of $33,000 per barrel of oil daily production capacity.

Historically, the inflation adjusted figure for Gulf oil production was $1,000 per barrel of oil daily production capacity. And although I don’t have the figures handy, I bet the price per barrel of daily production capacity on land was and is a lot cheaper than that.

Anyone who thinks we aren’t running out of cheap oil hasn’t looked at these figures. Why would Chevron spend tens of thousands of dollars for each and every barrel of daily production capacity in the Gulf of Mexico if there really is “plenty of oil”? Why would they go for the deep water play when any number of politicians and economists have confidently assured us that there are no problems with world oil production?

Chevron and Devon Energy aren’t spending billions of dollars drilling for oil in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico because they are generous and want to leave the cheap and easy oil for others to find. The expensive oil is what is left.

Meanwhile, back here in 21st century Oklahoma, what are we doing? We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build more roads. We are destroying already paid for heritage rail infrastructure that could be used today for fuel efficient cost effective passenger rail. We live in a place where our entire constructed environment – buildings, businesses, homes, schools, transportation systems, land use policies — is based on the economic lie of cheap energy. As the days of cheap energy fade into the sunset, it won’t be “happy trails to you”, it will require hard and smart work to discern a way forward.

Nowhere is the economic lie of cheap energy more evident than in our land use patterns and the transportation systems that result. I don’t know enough about Tulsa geography to comment intelligently, but Oklahoma City has long prided itself on being the largest city in land area in the nation. The urban central city, which was developed in the era of trolley cars, remains a human scale place to live. But the rest of the area is sprawl city. Northwest Expressway, six lanes of traffic, one of our major streets, does not have one pedestrian crosswalk anywhere along its dozen or so miles before it leaves the city limits. There isn’t one foot of sidewalk either. If you call the Oklahoma City Council, they will tell you, “It’s not our responsibility, it’s a state highway.” If you call the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, they will tell you, “We don’t want people walking along that highway or crossing it on foot.” Folks, I am not making this up.

But wait, there’s more. Politicians use eminent domain to destroy neighborhoods to transform land use patterns, and in every case, land is taken mostly from the blue collars and given to the white collars, and thus there are questions of social justice here that must also be addressed in our journey towards sustainability. Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.

In the 1960s, as integration came to Oklahoma City schools, many white people left the central city area and moved to far suburbs and Edmond. To make it easy and quick for them to get back to Oklahoma City to work, the Broadway Extension/I-235 freeway was constructed. This required the destruction of the Deep Deuce area and the relocation of thousands of people. They were nearly all African Americans. They were paid pennies on the dollar for the value of their properties and most had to go into debt to purchase new places to live. Some were moved two more times to accommodate the urban planners.

Across the nation, governments have used eminent domain to almost completely destroy the traditional housing of last resort for the poor – the “Single Room Occupancy hotel”, sometimes referred to as a “flop house” or a “boarding house”. I have no idea why people wonder why the homeless population has grown so much in the last 30 years. The answer is simple. We destroyed or gentrified the places they used to live. What were we thinking of?

Peak oil will certainly change our land use patterns. The urge to sprawl will go away. In fact, our present sprawled out suburbs may become the slums of the future. Population and money will flow to those areas where workers can get to work, and shoppers to shop, irrespective of the price of gasoline. Property values in areas served by public transportation will soar, while property values in areas not served by public transportation may collapse. If people in the suburbs don’t want to see their neighborhoods become slums, they better get on the public transportation train right away. What will happen is that those big houses are going to be chopped up into little low rent apartments, and 50 people may live in one of those big suburban houses.

In the 20th century, upper income people moved out of the inner cities into the suburbs. In the 21stcentury, that process will reverse, and upper income people will want to come back to the inner cities. We deliver four tons of food every month to people in need who don’t have transportation, and most of them are in the inner city. What happens to them when this happens?

One danger of this reversal of 20th century land use patterns is the use of eminent domain powers to politically hasten this process, in a reverse Robin Hood program that takes land from the poor and gives land to the not poor. That was the pattern in the 20th century, we must ensure that it does not continue into the 21st.

ODOT is changing land use patterns for miles across the south side of downtown Oklahoma City, as it continues its 400 million dollar I-40 Crosstown relocation program, they have almost completely destroyed the Walnut Grove neighborhood, and have severely impacted the Riverside neighborhood, and they are about to destroy the rail yard at Union Station. I know there are some people who are tired of hearing about this, but destroying the rail yard at Union Station is a historic mistake. That rail interchange provides the nucleus for a cost effective commuter and inter city rail system, using existing tracks, that could serve all parts of Oklahoma City and extend throughout the state and act as a magnet to encourage development south from the present downtown. Yet, the best thing that ODOT, the Oklahoma City Council, Mayor Mick Cornet, Governor Brad Henry, Congressman Ernest Istook, and Senators Inhofe and Coburn can think to do with this priceless treasure is to tear it up to make way for 3 miles of mega-million dollar highway that will be finished about the time gasoline hits six bucks a gallon, and which could (and should!) have gone elsewhere anyway, IF it is even necessary in the first place.

We could have daily rail service between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Lawton, Muskogee, Enid, Ardmore. Such a network would jump start development and investment wherever it went. That’s what’s happening in Dallas right now. But blinded by the light of cheap energy, ODOT continues to focus on highways and trucks. They aren’t interested in cost effective, fuel efficient, passenger rail. The blind are leading the blind when it comes to transportation and land use policy in Oklahoma, and we are all in danger of falling into the ditch of economic stagnation and population decline because of decisions being made right now.

So what do we do? How shall we then live? We do what we can, with what we have, where we are. Sustainability, like charity, begins at home. If the leaders refuse to lead, We the People must become the leaders.

We make many individual economic and lifestyle choices every day, and every election we make political choices. Sometimes we inflict cruelty and injustice upon others and rape and exploit the natural environment. Sometimes we act with beauty, grace, justice, and conservation. The practical details of how we live, shop, travel, and spend our money may have deadly or blessed consequences for ourselves and for the natural environment in which we live. We may not have an understanding of the consequences, some may not want to know about the consequences, for good or for ill. Such alienation is deadly.

Our politicians , however, do pay some attention to how we spend our money and how we organize our lifestyles, and they provide the infrastructure that supports the present situation. “This is what people want”, they say, and that is true as far as it goes, but in reality it is a half truth. When people are set on a path to danger, there is a duty for leaders to get out front and wave their hands and shout warnings – “YOO HOO – BRIDGE OUT AHEAD! Take another road!”

How each person and household lives therefore makes a real difference for good or for evil in this world. So it really is all about us. If we want a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world, we must contribute to justice, peace, and sustainability by radically reducing our personal greed and gluttony and our consequent demands on the natural and human environments, this in turn reduces our demands on the political system for more war and more violence and more unsustainable land use, economic, and transportation policies.

When we take the bus, walk, or ride a bicycle instead of driving. . . when we vote for adequate mass transit systems, when we drive 55 on the freeway. . . we call our government and our neighbors to justice and sustainability.

When we push the speed limits, race between stop lights, and buy gas guzzling cars, we call our government to injustice and violence to secure access to cheap resources. And so it comes to pass, every day, in a hundred ways, some big, some small, by the way we spend (or don’t spend) our money, we lead our government and our neighbors to war or peace, life or death, hope or despair, sustainability or environmental catastrophe.

If we want to journey towards sustainability, we must be the change we want to see. We must not spend so much money, not buy so much stuff, not store so much stuff, not live with so much stuff, not haul around so much stuff, not use so much stuff, and then, ultimately, not throw away so much stuff and not bury so much stuff in the ground, where it becomes useless waste. This addiction to the mindless consumption of stuff is a manifestation of disordered priorities and decadence, not of strength and hard work.

Waste not, want not, our grandfathers and grandmothers once advised us; now people snicker and roll their eyes when they hear such quaint speech. The structures of environmental evil which contribute so much to the problems of this era are fed, one little bite at a time, by the voluntary choices of myriads of people. In like manner, the structures of beauty and wisdom and justice that should replace these evils are created by the voluntary choices of people who decide that they will make a positive contribution to their communities. We got into this one bad decision at a time. We will get out of it one good decision at a time. And if we want our politics to change, the place to begin is with the man or the woman who looks back at us each morning in the mirror. I am not saying this is easy, I am saying this is what these times require of us. And i am saying that the future is worth the effort now.

What do we want out of this? What are we looking for? While I hesitate to speak for any movement, I know that I look forward to a time when our land use, economic, industrial, and transportation systems protect and enhance life and the entire natural biosphere. I see a time and a place of sustainability and security, where there is hope, peace, and justice. And as there is more hope, peace, justice, and sustainability, there will be less violence, less greed, less arrogance, and more life, love, beauty, and wisdom. Such a place will have a politics that protects and defends the common good.

It will take work to get there, but the goal is worth the journey, and the journey itself has its own delights and joys. Does it look like I am suffering much because I get most of my food from Oklahoma farmers or my own gardens? Do I look deprived because I made a few simple changes to my house and radically lowered my household’s energy consumption while at the same time enhancing our comfort in summer and in winter? Did I do these things because I thought they would degrade the quality of my life and make me miserable? No I did not. I do what I do because my life is immeasurably enriched by taking personal responsibility to do what I can, with what I have, where I am, to walk the journey of sustainability.

It is our duty as citizens to speak truth to our government. But this speaking of truth is not only a matter of writing letters, it is a matter of how we live, because nine times out of ten, our actions will speak louder than our words.

And so it is time for another reading from Wendell Berry, the Mad Farmers Liberation Front –

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay. Want more

of everything ready-made. Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something

they will call you. When they want you

to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear

close, and hear the faint chattering

of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap

for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy

a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep

of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie down in the shade. Rest your head

in her lap. Swear allegiance

to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

Like Wendell Berry and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, we should all have a dream. We should be able to see clearly and without ambiguity the future of justice and sustainability which is our common goal. We have to know where we are going or we will never get there. And inspired by that vision, we go to do what needs to be done, here and now, to bring that vision into reality with deeds of grace, wisdom, beauty, and justice.

This indeed is all about us, and how we respond to the challenges laid before us. Procrastination is not only the thief of time, it is the destroyer of future hopes. There is nothing so powerful as a people strengthened by an idea whose time has come.

Let us therefore be grateful for this opportunity of service to others.

Let us be faithful to the common good we seek for all.

And may we see with our own eyes the self-fulfilling prophecy of hope that we create today.

Thank you for this opportunity to share these thoughts with you.