Enron had the right Idea

Last night we watched a program called ‘Plan B’ on PBS, a lengthy documentary talking about the coming world catastrophe due to uncontrolled climate change. Enron was mentioned as a prime example of how deceptive practices and refusal to look at the entire balance sheet was bad. The assertion in the program was that this is what is happening with climate change — everyone agonizes publicly about how expensive making recommended changes to reduce greenhouse gasses was. The program asserted, probably rightly, that we are ignoring the consequences of not doing anything. No doubt true, but what Enron did was a very human thing and with a little thought one can see that the practice of selective inattention, what facts to praise and what to ignore, is surprisingly widespread at many levels in our global society. Perhaps a few examples will help:

When I filled up last week I noticed that the gas pumps had stickers announcing that there was up to 10% Ethanol in the fuel being sold. Now we have all seen the commercials about how ‘green’ it is to use a crop-based fuel rather than a gradually depleting fossil fuel. Gas modified with ethanol has been around for a long time. I remember putting a bit in my first car in the 1970’s. And because I have kept careful notes about fuel economy I can say with some confidence that overall the decrease in fuel economy is roughly proportional to the amount of ethanol adulterant. But what is even better is that the fossil fuel cost of producing the ethanol, ignoring other subsidies, is even higher than the energy content it represents. SO by adding this stuff to the gas we effectively have INCREASED our total consumption of fossil fuel per mile driven. But politicians still think this is a great idea and are pushing to increase it in the future.

Over the last few decades it has been fashionable in business to increase profits by outsourcing jobs to other countries. The labor costs over there are lower and even with the increased energy costs of shipping and communications the company still profits. But what is the societal picture? The people who were displaced may not have gotten equivalent work elsewhere but are still consuming social services in one form or another. If they are lucky they may be able to retrain to qualify. But the net net is that it it the taxpayer who picks up the cost. Fewer personal tax dollars are generated and government costs increase. But the corporation profits and the taxpayer picks up the tab. Sound familiar? And it is still considered a great idea.

On a more tragic note we have a number of wars being fought world wide. Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya come to mind. But there are many more that we fashionably ignore. The military, if pressed, will bemoan the lack of clarity about the objectives and paticularly a clear end game. i.e. what are we there to do and how do we get out. Wikileaks suggested that there were motives other than the public ones for why some of these battles and not others. But at a time of general public funding shortfalls due to the recent economic collapse (see previous paragraph for a hint) that we would agonize over education or healthcare or keeping our cities from collapsing from neglect but leap right in when there is a call to bomb the heck out of some other poor slob — suggests that lying to ourselves is alive and well.

And I can remember the oil embargo in the 1970’s and how enthusiastic everyone was for a while on energy conservation and improving fuel economy. But then the manufacturers stepped in and sold us SUVs to flatter our egos and up our consumption of many resources, not just fossil fuels. Guess the short term pain got in the way of the long term gain — so here we are again.

So I think that we are all doomed. Destructive climate change is inevitable. As is the social unrest that will accompany it — not only food riots but the border pressures from human migration to less blighted areas. Our civilization will collapse because we are too short-sighted to survive. As long as private profit (today) trumps investment in the future nothing will change until it is too late. My experience with doing disaster recovery planning tells me that only those who have survived a near death experience really appreciate the point of the exercise. But what will it take for our leaders(?) to get their heads out of the trough and look down the road? The process of selective inattention as demonstrated by Enron and in active use by government and big business continues to dominate our development. A pity.


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