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June 21, 2010

Robert J. Samuelson: Why Is He So Incredibly Awful?

Last year Mark Jacobson, an extremely non-crazy engineering professor at Stanford, wrote an article (pdf) making the case that 100% of the world's energy needs could be produced from renewable sources (mostly solar and wind) by 2030. Obviously that's not going to happen, but it is useful as a description of what's physically and economically feasible. If you want to know more, an interview with him is here.

Now here's Robert Samuelson, part of the team of op-ed writers who work assiduously every day to destroy the Washington Post:

Energy Pipe Dreams

Obama held out a gleaming vision of an America that would convert to the "clean" energy of, presumably, wind, solar and biomass. It isn't going to happen for many, many decades, if ever...There are physical limits on new energy sources...wind turbines have limited potential...It's not industry lobbyists who sustain fossil fuels but the reality that they're economically and socially necessary.

I don't think Samuelson is literally in the pay of the oil and coal industries (at least not directly). Yet without addressing any of the many serious people who've studied this, he simply pronounces that significant change isn't possible. Why?

The reason, I'm certain, is he's just the kind of person who in every situation has a deep emotional attachment to the status quo. Everything is already the best it can be. If he'd been alive in 1870, he would have been writing about how we could never switch off of a whale blubber-powered economy. If we followed Mark Jacobson's recommendations, in 40 years Samuelson would be writing about how we could never switch from solar and wind power.

This is a strange but powerful instinct in many humans. Lots of people HATE change, even if it would make the world better and them happier. Here's Richard Feynman describing how he learned this lesson:

I must have been seventeen or eighteen when I worked one summer in a hotel run by my aunt...

I used to cut vegetables in the kitchen. String beans had to be cut into one-inch pieces. The way you were supposed to do it was: You hold two beans in one hand, the knife in the other, and you press the knife against the beans and your thumb, almost cutting yourself. It was a slow process. So I put my mind to it, and I got a pretty good idea. I sat down at the wooden table outside the kitchen, put a bowl in my lap, and stuck a very sharp knife into the table at a forty-five-degree angle away from me. Then I put apile of the string beans on each side, and I'd pick out a bean, one in each hand, and bring it towards me with enough speed that it would slice, and the pieces would slide into the bowl that was in my lap.

So I'm slicing beans one after the other -- chig, chig, chig, chig, chig -- and everybody's giving me the beans, and I'm going like sixty when the boss comes by and says, "What are you doing??
I say, "Look at the way I have of cutting beans!" -- and just at that moment I put a finger through instead of a bean. Blood came out and went on the beans, and there was a big excitement: "Look at how many beans you spoiled! What a stupid way to do things!" and so on. So I was never able to make any improvement, which would have been easy -- with a guard, or something -- but no, there was no chance for improvement...

I tried to explain -- it was my own aunt -- that there was no reason not to do that, but you can't say that to anybody who's smart, who runs a hotel! I learned there that innovation is a very difficult thing in the real world.


BONUS AWFUL: In July, 2008, Robert Samuelson shared these insights with us: "the banking system seems fairly strong" and "the paradoxical thing about today's economy is its strength."

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at June 21, 2010 11:25 AM

I disagree. This sort of conservative mindset is new to America. In previous decades we did things like build transcontinental railroads, power generation and distribution networks, fly to the moon, etc. Adventure and daring was quintessentially American. Then all those adventures resulted in some people accumulating vast treasures, and suddenly they became a lot less daring.

Posted by: saurabh at June 21, 2010 11:43 AM

I think the conservative mindset isn't new, it's just more prevalent. There was the same resistance to previous innovations, but it wasn't as powerful. The psychology of an empire on the rise rather than in decline.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at June 21, 2010 12:03 PM

Great post! Given what's happening in the Gulf, I think it's a perfect time to swing from the rafters screaming, "We don't need BP, or any of the rest of 'em!"

I'm fascinated by saurabh's comment. As an engineer and an educator, it's something I think about a lot. I think I agree that it's pretty new.

It seems to me - and it's a broad generalization, but it holds pretty well in my experiences with individual humans - that Americans began their now decades-long descent into fantasy when most of them quit working with their hands. It's that acquaintance with reality which is lacking.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at June 21, 2010 12:33 PM

You're overanalyzing. He's is a hack, he knows what's expected from him and he delivers.

Posted by: abb1 at June 21, 2010 12:58 PM

I can be very tiresome about this, but this is not a conservative thing. Conservatives are very much about process improvement.

What you've just written about is the fear instilled by a top-down system in which those furthest removed from the actual work make the key decisions. Stupidity is not a left-right thing, but it is deeply ingrained into the bogus MBA-driven form capitalism we now suffer under.

Samuelson doesn't suck because he's conservative. He sucks because he's not very effing bright. Wingnuts would disparage him as an elite if he ever dared disagree with them.

Posted by: Mark Gisleson at June 21, 2010 02:01 PM

Aaron - I'm not so sure. There are plenty of brilliant engineers I know, extremely capable with their hands, who wind up doing very little, simply because the days of individual effort producing fantastic change have faded, and now the great conglomerations of human industry (that suck up a lot of talent) are devoted to producing very little - a slightly better cell-phone, maybe. There's probably plenty of people still capable and interested in doing daring stuff, but there's no one enabling them. I blame the growth of finance as an industry - now that capital has so many less-risky ways of producing super-profits, there's no reason to invest in things that might not work, and certainly no reason to invest in things that won't pay out for the next ten years at the expense of something that generates profit every quarter.

Posted by: saurabh at June 21, 2010 02:02 PM

Mark - I didn't mean to use "conservative" to imply "right-wing", i meant it in the primitive sense, i.e., least inclined to change.

Posted by: saurabh at June 21, 2010 02:09 PM

I don't doubt he's a hack, but.

From the article: "We have assumed that most fossil-fuel heating (as well as ovens and stoves) can be replaced by electric systems and that most fossil-fuel transportation can be replaced by battery and fuel-cell vehicles."

That latter is a big and, I suspect, dubious assumption. Electric commuter cars are difficult enough to engineer. Is anyone even proposing electric big rigs?

Aren't there tons of industrial processes that rely specifically on fossil fuel? Fertilizer? Plastics?

There is always plenty of energy, of course. Hundreds of watts per square meter in sunlight. Getting it to do useful work — the real trick.

In short, I agree that a prosperous post-fossil fuel civilization is physically possible, but I'm skeptical that it could look at all like ours — with centralized agriculture, trains and jet planes and trucks, and (elephant in the room) billions of people on the planet.

Posted by: Cloud at June 21, 2010 02:17 PM

That latter is a big and, I suspect, dubious assumption. Electric commuter cars are difficult enough to engineer. Is anyone even proposing electric big rigs?

I think the "and fuel-cell" part is doing a lot of work here.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at June 21, 2010 02:28 PM

Electric commuter cars are NOT that difficult to engineer. In fact the engineering is a lot simpler than internal-combustion cars, which require tons (literally) of parts that electric cars don't require - carefully-timed fuel injection systems, ignition systems, starter motors, catalytic converters, mufflers, etc. By contrast, electric cars require: four electric motors and a bunch of batteries. It's true that energy storage systems are pretty primitive right now, but they've seen nowhere near as much investment of time and energy as the engineering of the internal combustion engine.

It's pretty astonishing that people have managed to produce cars able to travel 200 miles on a charge in about a decade, at much greater energy efficiency than an entire century's worth of engineering has managed on the internal combustion engine.

Posted by: saurabh at June 21, 2010 02:39 PM

Saurabh - You and I agree, I just didn't express myself plainly.

One of my oddest and favoritest possessions is a copy of the Yale College yearbook from 1908. It's fantastic to see where Yale grads headed off to in that era - the Wanocheatague Button Factory, Imperial Screw Thread, etc. I'm only being slightly facetious. They worked for industrial concerns and, broadly, contributed to making useful things.

This suggests to me that the upper class - which decides things for the rest of us, generally for the worse - used to be accustomed to grappling with reality. The situation is much different today, and not at all better.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at June 21, 2010 03:03 PM

Cloud raised the point I was gonna raise. It is true that we need to begin the switch to renewables, but we also need to do a fundamental restructuring of the way we live, otherwise we will fail to wean ourselves off of petroleum products. Agriculture is an especially big culprit here.

Posted by: Rojo at June 21, 2010 03:06 PM

I read the article and I think it is doable. I also think with conservation we can reduce our usage by 50% which means we wouldn't need to build that many power plants. I think we need to focus on the following: rails for commuters and cargo, solar power heat pumps for heating and cooling, led lighting.

Posted by: Peter John at June 21, 2010 03:20 PM

root cause :

> (elephant in the room) billions of people on the planet.


Posted by: joel hanes at June 21, 2010 03:26 PM


"We" didn't do those things. Those things were done to us.

Big deal difference.

Posted by: Jack Crow at June 21, 2010 03:54 PM

Aaron Datesman

That's an interesting hypothesis--that the descent into fantasy began when most Americans quit working with their hands. I have never thought of that.

Personally I have thought that it was The Jetsons. Or Star Trek and those damn food replicators and dilythium crystals and such, because when I think of departures from reality, television and movies come to mind. But maybe you're on to something there.

I won't ridicule Larry Summers' Uncle Paulie just for saying fossil fuels are socially necessary right now, though like his nephew he does have a good bio in the 'awful' category. (Hey, you have to admit that 'economic strength' sure was 'paradoxical'!) Richard Heinberg has been shouting from the rooftops that the end is near for quite a few years because our society is unsustainably dependent on hydrocarbons, and to me Heinberg's arguments have seemed persuasive. I'm curious what he'd think of Jacobson's paper. I haven't read the paper, but I have a hard time believing that wind and water and solar power could meet all or even most the world's energy needs by 2030. I'm certainly no engineer, but for 1% of the land surface of the earth to be covered by "farms" of wind turbines for this to happen under Jacobson's plan seems awfully ambitious to me.

Posted by: N E at June 21, 2010 04:08 PM

Here's an article, NOT from the "everything is OK right now" perspective, that argues that renewable power is further away than many would like to think

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at June 21, 2010 04:41 PM

Yeah, mistah.

"Renewables" have to be built using the existing oil platform.

As in, they won't be built.

Full stop.

Posted by: Jack Crow at June 21, 2010 04:57 PM

Since every one seems to be ignoring it, I'll point out that agriculture is not some distraction from the issue at hand. Sure it'll be nice to wean, if it is possible, agriculture off oil on the transport end, but I haven't seen a very credible discussion anywhere about how we're going to wean agriculture off oil on the input end, upon which it is currently heavily dependent. If some is aware of works that do credibly address this, links would be appreciated.

Posted by: Rojo at June 21, 2010 08:01 PM


It will be done. When the State has reshaped itself for a new constituency (those Creatives we keep hearing about). As in, when it no longer needs to bother with preserving the lumpenproles.

The oil inputs will be used to maintain whatever size platform is essential to their power - their food.

Not ours.

Unless, of course, they need a whole lot of bodies to hold ground taken in Central and South America.

Posted by: Jack Crow at June 21, 2010 08:41 PM


Heinberg says Wes Jackson is a legitimate expert on that, but I don't know a damn thing about it so I'll just give you a link to an interview:

Posted by: N E at June 21, 2010 11:11 PM

Wes Jackson is doing the right things at The Land Institute -- but he thinks its a thirty-year research program. Contributions can help with that, but it's a long process.

I think that will we or nil we, climate change, war, ecological collapes, famine, and disease will sharply reduce the human population of the planet before thirty years pass. I wish I knew how to prepare my kids.

Posted by: joel hanes at June 22, 2010 03:23 AM

NE, thanks, that's an interesting interview. It certainly raises many of the issues that I think are being woefully ignored by many who think "peak oil" and are limited to thinking "no more cars" and not much beyond that...

Joel Hanes, thanks as well, I'll have to look over that site a bit more before I offer any encomiums, but I will check it out.

Posted by: Rojo at June 22, 2010 08:09 AM

"I wish I knew how to prepare my kids."


Posted by: N E at June 22, 2010 09:24 AM

Those are both stupid ways to cut beans.

Posted by: Dunc at June 22, 2010 09:31 AM

First, a large part of the agricultural use of fossil is from natural gas to produce fertilizer, not oil. It's true gas supplies are pretty closely constrained, but the process suffers from far fewer bumps on the way to replacement - especially public indifference.

Second, transportation constitutes a significant fraction of petroleum consumption - 70% - so getting rid of cars will basically entirely mitigate the problem of peak oil - though not of global warming.


On a separate note, I'd like to take a moment to castigate people wailing and gnashing their teeth about the billions of people on the planet, a "problem" I always find casually racist, fear of the teeming brown hordes out to overwhelm this beautiful earth that white people have been despoiling so unabashedly for centuries.

I don't believe that this is a matter of mere arithmetic. First, the three hundred millions in the US consume far more resources than several of those billions. Second, I'm a big fan of Peter Kropotkin, who in "Fields, Factories and Workshops for Tomorrow" asserts that our world suffers from underproduction as a result of capitalism. Kropotkin, a geographer by training, believed that productivity could be much higher and far more efficient, if it was not driven by the market instead of by actual human need. Third, every demographer will tell you that population growth is a temporary problem. Look up "demographic transition".

Posted by: saurabh at June 22, 2010 02:31 PM

Electric commuter cars? SERIOUSLY?

That's an improvement HOW, exactly?

Posted by: CF Oxtrot at June 22, 2010 03:08 PM


It's an improvement for the Creatives, is how. They still get to consume hydrocarbons by the metric ton per hour, but the knowledge and awareness is pushed even further back, by placing a layer of mediation between them and their consumption.

The car may use no fuel - but the electric generators do and will. And there's the lubrication. And the support systems. And the hydrocarbons in the ground, for the food supply.

And so on. And so on.

It's a "fix" for the managerial class, only.

Fuck 'em. Fuck the lot of them.

Let them starve.

Posted by: Jack Crow at June 22, 2010 03:53 PM


One doesn't have to have a single racist sentiment to recognize that a planet can have a carrying capacity.

Look at the world's population, until oil.

Fairly stable at a billion persons for two thousand years. And taking eight thousand years to go from 50 millions to that billion.

Another six billion petro-people between 1850 and 2030.

What's "racist" about that fact?

Posted by: Jack Crow at June 22, 2010 03:56 PM

Jack Crow,

The idea of Malthusian collapse was, simply, wrong. Maybe there is such a thing as carrying capacity, but I don't believe we have the foresight to prove a number. Malthus's ideas about carrying capacity were destroyed by the Green Revolution, which proved that it WAS possible to feed billions of people. It's conceivable that we can continue to feed even more billions of people with some changes in diet and farming techniques.

I find the discussion of "billions" racist because it pretends that an individual in India is equivalent to an individual in the US, when we know that the American consumes way, way more resources than the Indian. The number of people consuming is not the problem, and never was - it's the manner of consumption that's at issue.

Posted by: saurabh at June 22, 2010 04:36 PM

Electric commuter cars are better, first, because they are far more efficient. Tesla's Roadster (not exactly a commuter car, but on the way to one) gets about 120 mpg, equivalent, which means about 1/6th of the total amount of carbon being injected into the atmosphere. That is a huge improvement, methinks.

You could also argue that pushing the energy production problem to a single point also makes things easier on us (fewer technologies to implement to replace hydrocarbon use). I'm not a big fan of the grid, and since most of the power generation is probably going to be through coal, I don't really buy this argument. Still, even switching from oil to coal to drive cars is, I think, a net boon on the basis of the amount of CO2 reduced.

Posted by: saurabh at June 22, 2010 04:44 PM

The idea of Malthusian collapse was, simply, wrong. Maybe there is such a thing as carrying capacity, but I don't believe we have the foresight to prove a number. Malthus's ideas about carrying capacity were destroyed by the Green Revolution...

The whole point of the woe-sayers is that the six billions are sustained on the oil economy, and the oil will run out. We timidly suggest it may have been better not to do the population explosion at all, than to do it and have the mass starvation down the road.

Or as E.F. Schumacher put it, y'all Green Revolutionaries are treating oil as if it were income, when in fact it is capital. Not a sound business practice.

And as for the 'racist' appellation, screw that. It was the white people who did the population explosion first, in western Europe.

Posted by: Cloud at June 22, 2010 05:33 PM

I never mentioned Malthus, Saurabh. I guess if you respond to arguments people don't make, you can always have a win.

Good for you.

My argument is about oil. And the population which grew on oil inputs.

Population had a native stability which was broken by oil.

That has jack all to do with Malthus, which is why I never used his work to make my case.

Posted by: Jack Crow at June 22, 2010 10:48 PM

Thank you, cloud. That was my follow up point. Population explosions follow on oil inputs - and they happened in Western Europe and the US first.

Posted by: Jack Crow at June 22, 2010 10:50 PM

"Population had a native stability which was broken by oil."

It's been broken by other things too, like diseases and invasions and other technological advances (See Guns, Germs, and Steel).

But oil sure has been the giant piece of birthday cake able to give the birthday boy a fatal heart attack.

Posted by: N E at June 23, 2010 02:09 PM

"Well, someone only has to give me the principle, and I get the idea. All during the next day I built up my psychology differently: I adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren't worth anything, and all they're in there for is to get you to buy them a drink, and they're not going to give you a goddamn thing; I'm not going to be a gentleman to such worthless bitches, and so on. I learned it till it was automatic."

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at June 23, 2010 11:45 PM

The population started growing before the Green Revolution - industrialization was what changed the curve, not oil. The Green Revolution accelerated growth, but it was already increasing exponentially.

In any case, you guys all seem to treat peak oil as some sort of cataclysm, when I don't think that's accurate. The oil inputs to agriculture are actually pretty low. It's a tiny fraction of our consumption. We massively overproduce food; we regularly pay people NOT to grow food in order to keep the price up. I can't really anticipate a scenario in which the reduced availability of oil is going to result in mass starvation. No driving to the beach, yes. Economy in the shitter, yes. No more farming? Unlikely in the extreme. The fact is, it is just not that hard for us to feed ourselves any more, and it probably never will be.

Posted by: saurabh at June 24, 2010 02:26 AM

but we already have mass starvation, don't we? and lack of clean drinking water and septic systems?

Posted by: kwren at June 25, 2010 08:45 AM