“[The President] shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
The United States Constitution, Article II, Section 3
Members of Congress, madame Speaker, distinguished guests, my fellow Americans…as many who have come before me, I stand before you this evening to fulfill a constitutional obligation. The first State of the Union address was delivered in straight forward manner to a newly formed congress by George Washington on January 8th, 1790. However, some two century’s latter, this time honored tradition has in devolved into political theatre with standing ovations predictably limited to one side of the aisle and political points cynically won from guests planted in the gallery. The American people deserve better, so this evening I will depart from my prepared remarks and tell the people of America and of the world what they need to hear rather than what they either want or expect to hear. Many will not like what I have to say, but this union and the world stand at a cross roads and there is no better forum than this to address this critical moment in history.
When George Washington delivered the first address in 1790 the population of the world stood at approximately 1 billion and the population of our new fledgling country was less than 4 million. Our nation’s borders had yet to reach the Pacific and many parts of the earth, including our great western states were still unexplored. Mankind’s footprint on this world was still relatively small. At the beginning of our nation’s life, it was just and reasonable to limit the focus of this address to our new and fragile union. However, today we cannot understand the state of our union without first putting it in both its historical context and in the context of the state of our planet. To do otherwise, would be to put us in grave danger.
In contrast to the time of Washington’s address, the population of the earth today exceeds 6.6 billion and our country’s population stands at nearly 304 million. As a result of that growth, mankind’s footprint on this world has in many ways begun to exceed the limits of the earth’s carrying capacity. We see the effects of these limits manifested in record high natural gas and heating oil prices, $200/barrel oil, $10/gallon gasoline, climate change, a persistent and prolonged state of financial crisis, the ongoing military conflicts in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, and in the continuing food shortages and riots in both our country and around the world. But these issues, as serious and troubling as them may seem, are merely symptoms, not the root cause of the problems we face today.
When America’s space program provided us with the first photos of our planet from the perspective of space, we were awed not only by the beauty of our planet, but by it’s lonely isolation. One small planet providing an island oasis for humanity in an infinite universe. We can easily grasp the limitations of an island, but we have naively thought of the earth as an infinite source of life nurturing resources. The truth however, is that every planet like every island has a limited supply of natural resources and our planet is no different. As the world’s population and economy has grown, our natural resources have been systematically exhausted to the point were we can no longer depend on their increasing supply to fuel our economic growth and standards of living. Our undeniable reality is that we will have to accept and adjust to the limits imposed by the closed system we call Earth.
The challenge these natural limits will impose on our nation and the world will exceed any that we have faced either as a nation or as a community of nations. Our state of the world is that we have outgrown and exceeded the capacity of the earth to sustain the current level of population at current levels of consumption. Every other problem we face today is but a symptom of this one undeniable fact. Our choice is simple, we can either chase after symptoms and descend into a death spiral of conflict over dwindling resources, or we can use what remains of the earth’s resources to create a sustainable world for thousands of future generations. As a community of nations, we will have one chance and one chance only to accomplish this transition and the time is now. This is our moment to fail or succeed. If we fail to use what remains of our fossil fuel and other resources to successfully make this transition, the consequences will be dire and the world will return to a pre-industrial existence capable of sustaining only a fraction of the world’s existing population. Time is not on our side and we have only two, perhaps three decades to complete the task. It is incumbent upon this union, and the people of this nation to lead the world in this transition.
Our union began with a simple declaration penned by Thomas Jefferson.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
Historically, as we pursued these simple Rights, we have much we can hold with pride and much we must hold with shame. As a country we have been both a shinning beacon of hope, opportunity, freedom, and prosperity; and we have also practiced slavery, committed genocide against our native populations, and covertly and overtly meddled in the affairs of other sovereign nations. We have won wars justly fought in the name of freedom and lost wars with murkier political and moral aims. Today we are no longer the the republic our founding fathers envisioned. We have become the most powerful nation in the history of the world….a virtual empire with over 800 foreign military posts and bases and a military budget exceeding the next 46 countries combined. If you add all of the money spent to maintain and support our worldwide empire by the DOD, the CIA, the Treasury, the FBI the State Department, Homeland Security, the Veterans Administration, and the interest we pay on past military expenditures, it amounts to well over $1-trillion per year and growing. This figure does even include the “supplemental” funds being spent on our current middle east conflicts. These expenditures are not sustainable, and the slow creeping growth of this overreaching empire has turned us into the world’s largest debtor nation and moved us far from the founding principles and ideals of our nation.
The economic success we experienced for the better part of the last century has given us the highest standard of consumption in the world, but by many measures, not the highest quality of life. For many of us, our pursuit of happiness has become a frantic, costly, and unsatisfying pursuit of the trivial and meaningless. In just a few decades we have managed to transform the strongest, most dynamic manufacturing economy in the world into a economy completely dependent on consumerism and debt. In a country with a negative savings rate, record high credit card debt, and declining home values, our consumer led economy is long past sustainable.
Yet it is from this point in our history that we must face our greatest challenge. If we continue to look at symptoms, our situation to many will seem hopeless and out of desperation and fear we will be tempted to blame others for our problems. Demagogues have and will call for pre-emptive military action against those that control what remains of the world’s rapidly depleting natural resources. But there can be no peace in the context of scarcity and no pursuit of happiness without peace. The root cause of our problems will not and cannot be solved by military action.
No other resource defines our current state than the world’s declining reserves of oil. Beginning with the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1865, our country rapidly became the world’s first oil economy and this cheap and abundant energy resource would be the fuel and engine of growth that enabled us to become the world’s greatest economic power. However, U.S. production of oil peaked in 1971 and the petroleum power center quickly moved to middle east. Today it is painfully evident that oil production has peaked world wide and at current rates of consumption and depletion only half of what the world uses today will be available in just two decades. We will face similar “peaks” and painful declines in the production of coal, natural gas, and even uranium in the not so distant future.
Transitioning to a post fossil fuel world will not be easy. It will require sacrifice, high levels of cooperation, leadership, and the personal effort of every citizen of both this nation and of our community of nations. The last time our nation and much of the world was called upon to truly join together for a common cause was during WWII. That generation met it’s challenge and now it is our turn. The stakes have never been higher and the future of humanity literally hangs in the balance.
There will be some that say that “the market” will naturally adjust to the decline in fossil fuel resources and that all we have to do is stand back and trust in the magic of free markets. There is an element of truth is that view and one could point to recent growth in the renewable energy segment as proof of the validity of that position. However, like it or not, government is an integral part of the “market” and decades worth of federal and state laws, tax codes, and zoning and building regulations have been erected in direct or indirect support of our fossil fuel dependent economy. These laws, codes, and regulations will have to be rapidly deconstructed and rewritten to support a new sustainable, steady state economy fueled by renewable energy sources.
I have referenced population size several times in this address, and now I must return to this difficult and sensitive topic. The topics of human life and family size in this country have always been sacred, however as a nation and as a community of nations, we must face the very real limits of our planet to sustain life. The earth has a limited carrying capacity and can only support a reasonable standard of living for a given population size, and this capacity has already been exceeded. The world’s population can now only grow at the expense of our collective living standards and at the risk of increased and severe suffering. The only rational and humane course of action, is to limit and then reverse population growth in both the U.S. and the world.
The political, economic, and technical challenges we are facing are unprecedented and nothing we have faced in the past has prepared us for this moment. For the first time in human history we cannot meet these challenges and expect to succeed merely as individuals, or political parties, or as religious groups, or as nation states or as blocks of nations. To meet this challenge at this time, the entire world of nations must all join together in order to succeed or risk the catastrophic collapse of civilization.
Over the coming days I will be outlining a broad range of programs to meet this challenge. There will be no time for the usual political posturing or distractions, or for the interference of vested interests. Reason and events tell us that we all share the same vested interest and that our very survival is at stake. The american people will expect Congress to act boldly and decisively. The world will be watching.
First, to free up the required capital and additional engineering and R&D talent required to make the transition, I am proposing that we begin to aggressively reduce the expenditures of our military empire. A reduction in our current defense budget by 50% would still leave us spending as much as the next 5 countries combined. We can no longer afford to have our military robbing us of the nation’s industrial capital and technical talent. We must and will create a new manufacturing economy in America based on renewable energy and other sustainable technologies.
This new economy will be powered by electricity derived from solar and wind for our peak power demands, and most importantly by geothermal energy for our base load demand. In order to meet the challenge of making the transition to a post fossil fuel economy, I am proposing a government funded and fast tracked “Manhattan Project” to replace all of our coal fired power plants with geothermal energy by the year 2030.
Since we can only meet our future energy needs by addressing both the demand and supply sides of the equation, we must aggressively revise our tax codes to provide both credits and write-offs for a much broader array of energy conservation technologies and products. For example, we currently provide no incentives for solar hot water heating and rather than leading the world, as we must and should, the U.S. ranks behind both Solvenia and Albania in the the application of this technology.
The challenge of transforming our food supply may be one of our greatest. Food in U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to table and we are dangerously dependent on oil and natural gas which supply the feedstocks for the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers on which our centralized and mechanized industrial food system depends. As evidenced by our growing food crisis, this system is rapidly becoming unsustainable and to help bridge the transition to a more localized food delivery system we will reinstitute the “victory garden” program of WWII and create millions of citizen farmers to secure our nations food supply.
Our residential, commercial, and industrial buildings consume 73% of our electricity and 20% of our natural gas. Easy and cheap energy has made building designer’s environmentally complacent and for the last 100 years we have relied on brute force heating and cooling solutions to prop up building designs totally inadequate for their environment. That practice must end and I am proposing that all new buildings in this country be designed to a zero energy standard and that tax incentives be put in place to help convert our existing building stock into some semblance of energy efficiency.
The pattern of our homes, cities, and transportation systems was created in a time of cheap and abundant fossil fuels. As oil and natural gas become increasingly scarce we will have to reshape our patterns and style of living. The new plug-in hybrids that are just appearing on the market will help to replace our use of liquid fuels for driving, but this new technology will soon cause us to exceed our electrical generation capacity. Our one car, one person pattern of commuting from isolated suburbs to work and shopping centers will have to be transformed. As a start, I am proposing that all knowledge workers be allowed the right to telecommute and to write off the the use of their home offices on their individual tax returns. We must also divert much of our unproductive defense budget and aggressively invest in light rail transportation systems and in our national rail system. In addition, our residential zoning laws will have to eased so that our pattern of suburban sprawl can naturally evolve new centers and nodes of commerce within walking and bicycling distance of our population.
However difficult, we must begin to face the limited carrying capacity of earth with regard to population. As a beginning, I am proposing that our tax codes be revised to support and reflect a stable and sustainable population, and that the tax credit for dependents be limited to one child. Out of fairness this new policy will not be retroactive nor apply to adopted children.
Lastly, we must change the way we keep score. One of the reasons we are in this mess is that classical economics assumes that natural resources like oil are infinite and makes no accounting of their depletion nor of the negative environmental effects of their use. We can no longer count the clean up of a super fund site as having the same positive impact to our gross national product as the building of a 747. To make matters worse, for decades our government has cooked the books to make things look considerably better than they appear. If we were held to the same accounting standards as our fortune 500 companies our annual deficits would actually be about ten times what is normally reported and we would have had to declare bankruptcy long ago. If we are to successfully transition to a sustainable way of life in the next 20 years then we must be able to accurately and reliably measure our progress and to that end I am proposing that we upgrade our national accounting practices to comply with a more realistic and accurate ecological economics standard.
The next two decades will be extremely disruptive and difficult and it is unlikely that any of us will emerge without great hardship and sacrifice. If there was ever a time for courage, for hard work, for faith, for strength of character, now is that time. I am counting on the people of this nation, on the people of the world, and on our community of nations to meet these challenges for the benefit of our children and grandchildren and for a thousand generations to come.
Thank you all and may God bless our nation and this planet.
This “address” is obviously a fiction and although much of what I say is factual even today, I doubt that any politician would have the courage the be this honest until things were well beyond the point of no return.
The market has begun to respond and it is not by accident that plug-in hybrids will begin to appear just as the general public is becoming aware of “peak oil”. The basic story line will run its course and we may just muddle through and make the transition in time to prevent a significant die-off of the world’s population. My guess is that it will be a messy transition with much political posturing, great suffering, and considerable military mischief.
Whether or not we do manage to muddle through, in the end, the world will no longer resemble the one we know today.