Ralph Nader:
Thank you very much Jim and ASPO for this invitation and my condolences to Mr. Simmons. I want to cover a lot of ground in a very short period of time because that’s all we have. So, if I don’t qualify a lot of things, rest assured, if you want to ask, I’ll try to respond.

Over the years, I’ve been to my share of technical conferences the way you have, starting with the auto safety engineers before the department of transportation had the authority to mandate standards in 1966. I noticed something very interesting that… brought me to the conclusion that the main form of censorship is self-censorship. And, it is remarkable. Everybody, everybody, self-censors themselves to some degree. That’s the way we get along. If you ever met anybody who doesn’t self-censor themselves, (you can) be sure that person’s a visiting Martian. But it is a matter of degree when people know better, when they believe better and they don’t say it. Why do people self-censor themselves? It doesn’t matter how specialized, it doesn’t matter if they have a Nobel Prize. It’s a common theme of humanity.

And, self-censorship, in our technological culture, is often due to career concerns. It is often a reflection of one’s personality. (I mean Jim doesn’t self-censor himself as some other people.) And, it is also a reflection of overspecialization. Where, for example, I once spent a summer at Oak Ridge National Lab, and I talked to a lot of biologists there and a lot of nuclear physicists and engineers and it was fascinating to watch them just exempt themselves from commenting on anything by saying “well, I am just a biologist, or I can’t talk about radiation effects I am just a physicist.” When you combine all of these, you help nourish a stagnant society, a society that is unable to confront problems, a society that defers recognized problems endlessly, and a society that allows the exact opposite of what a progressive political economy should be doing – and that is displacing the old, the harmful, the inefficient, the wasteful, the destructive, the corrupt, the greed.

Displacement is a very important word in my dictionary. And, I want to give you a story about Alvin Wienberg who as the head of the Oak Ridge National Lab for many years once told me when I asked him about nuclear power and solar energy and so on. He was very candid in saying that if solar energy ever reached a point of being less than two and a half times as expensive as nuclear, he would advocate solar. This was in the 60’s – 1960s. But he also confessed that if you are in the nuclear industry, and you are a scientist, you are going to resist being displaced because you spent your entire career learning about nuclear physics, nuclear engineering, and it was a natural resistance against even a better alternative. He was the advocate of nuclear power but he believed it should be run by a nuclear priesthood in huge clusters of nuclear plants together because of its multiple exposures, vulnerabilities, and dangers.

So, that was really interesting because years later I went up to the Hanford reservation for a raucous session with the people there. The room was full of scientists and engineers but you wouldn’t have figured it out by how wild and unruly it was. And, I was debating it with Ralph Lapp. And, I told them, I said, “that they better get ready to become solar engineers because it’s over.” They didn’t like that. One of them came up to me and said, “We’re never going to be interested in solar because that’s just a lot of sophisticated plumbing. It is not an adequate intellectual challenge, like the atom.” So, you know, that sounds like a flip remark, but it’s a career remark. And it is very hard when you are working ten, twenty, thirty years in a specialty and you’re confronting the possibility of curtailment or displacement.

So, beyond self-censorship we have one of its bitter fruits which is mindsets, specific mindsets that you have encountered where you just can’t get through to anybody. And, what’s interesting is the saying by Alfred North Whitehead who defined the scientific method as quote “keeping options open for revision” end-quote. And, mindsets, they bring certain perspective, obviously, but they often don’t keep options open for revision. And Secretary Steve Chu, the secretary of energy, gave us an example of that over the last year and a half. An unabashed promoter of nuclear energy, he’s met with the nuclear industry on more than several occasions, and he has written an article in the Wall Street Journal touting nuclear power, but has refused repeated requests by the major scientific and advocacy groups in this country critical of nuclear power led by such groups as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club. And, I intervened on their behalf all the way to the White House, and he still wouldn’t meet. He would assign it to some assistant secretary. He’s a Nobel Prize winning physicist who does not want to expose himself to possible options for revision.

The interesting aspect of the mindset is the categorical statements that we all hear. Like, here’s one that says “Wind, solar cells and biomass will never amount to hardly anything” (end-quote). This is by a rather prominent writer in the field.

Mindsets also are vested economic interests. The principle opposition to fuel efficiency standards through the US Congress and DOT comes from the aversion to reduce sales of petroleum. Why should companies support more fuel efficient vehicles if they’re going to end up selling less fuel?

Another bizarre mindset infected the entire economic profession until about the mid-70s. This one was a real mindblower from these economists who fancy themselves as pseudo mathematicians – and this was an iron correlation between economic growth and energy growth. That if you did not have energy growth, you could not have economic growth. I don’t know how many economists who would still take that position.  But think of how many millions of students were taught that in the 20s, 30s 40s, 50s in universities and 60s. It’s good to go back to these issues because the mindset is still here. And, it’s among us and you can spot it if you are willing to shed whatever vested interest of career or profits for a more robust discussion.

Now, Peak Oil, of course – I’ve always viewed the Peak Oil movement as a provocateur for better discussion because sometimes you have to jolt people and that’s one way you jolt people. I don’t know why people are jolted by it but that is one way that you jolt them. Perhaps they think that there is no difference between conventional oil and unconventional oil. But we now know from the Tar Sand’s devastation in Alberta and what it does in all directions – water, waste of natural gas, climate change, etc, net energy disaster – that there is a considerable difference between unconventional oil and conventional oil. I don’t hear that phrase much anymore “net energy”. I heard it a lot in the 70s and it seems to me a pretty important factor in the choice of energy sources.

I happen to think that our diagnostic period in this discussion over the years is over. That doesn’t mean that more diagnosis is not needed. We have far more diagnosis than we have prescription and action, and we’ve got to balance that sequence out a little bit. And, it seems to me that in all the materials written on energy, the path can be reduced to basically one or two sentences. And, I want to recommend someone… Some of you may know the Ayers brothers, Robert Ayers, Edward Ayers they worked in physics and science and economics energy for forty-five years. This is like their Hail Mary, last book. It’s called Crossing the Energy Divide, Moving from Fossil Fuel Dependence to a Clean Energy Future. And, what the summary basically is is that “our assessment suggests that we can accomplish significant parts of the transition strategy at a negative cost, simultaneously reducing energy cost, fuel usage and greenhouse emissions. Other parts of the bridge will involve low net costs that the nation can fund by shifting government support from currently unproductive products to ones that are demonstratively productive.” Basically, it’s a full throttle to energy conservation and efficiency to give us the time to crank in every more significant sources of renewable energy, not just wind – solar energy, geothermal, cellulosic biomass, etc.

But just think of the gap! Here’s a Scientific American November 2009 that had the cover story A Plan For a Sustainable Future: How to Get All Energy From Wind, Water and Solar Power by 2030. I showed this to Jim and he said “bullshit”. Okay, so, I said, “How about 2050?” He didn’t quite repeat the word – maybe 2060? It’s written by reputable, experienced, co-authors. But unless we develop a national mission for massive energy conservation efficiency and renewables, the piecemeal dealing with this will take far too long. And, what do I mean by conservation efficiencies is what we all know, we have to move very rapidly for motor vehicle efficiencies by mandates. We have to move to change our building stock which takes half of our energy: weatherization, and more fuel efficiency in appliances and everything that consumes energy in buildings, commercial and residential. And, we have to connect those to jobs programs. That’s a great public works program because a lot of people are unemployed. These jobs cannot be exported to China. They are decentralized in every community where there are buildings. And, this is a good time to do it because you can borrow money at extremely low, to put it mildly, interest rates. So, there is a nice mesh that way.

We also need to shake up Detroit. I often fantasize, in fact in this book, Only the Super Rich, they are fantasizing. One of the characters was fantasizing buying GM because at that time the stock was fairly low. Well, now the government owns 61% of GM. The Canadian government owns another 10%. And, they are about to let it go. Why let it go? We’re in a real crisis here. If you don’t think this energy situation is a consumer crisis or an environmental crisis talk to the people at the Department of Defense. Talk to the Homeland Security People in their better moments when they are not overcome by jingoistic commentators and provocateurs, they see this as a national security issue. And, now we have this biggest auto company until very recently in the world with 24,000 scientists and engineers, lying fallow, right dumped into Uncle Sam’s lap, pursuant to a bailout. And we’re about to give it up. In fact, GM now has started a PAC, and they are funding candidates that are inimical to the Obama Administration’s positions. And, they are in the trade association, the Automobile Manufacturer’s Association, which is lobbying with the same old head-in-the-sand approach against modest auto safety improvements for NITSA and for the kind of energy future that many people think we should be pursuing more rapidly, even though the government, we, the taxpayer, own 61%. So, given that, we’re talking about displacement.

Now the horse and buggy industry was displaced by the motor vehicle industry. And, it was not entirely the free market displacing it. People didn’t like all the manure in the cities and along came this horseless carriage. Just for that reason alone, you can’t believe the stink and the flies and so forth. I mean, nobody here was around then but we all read the histories. And many industries are displaced but the motor vehicle industry displaced the horse and buggy industry with huge infusions of tax dollars to build the highway and road and bridge infrastructure among other assistances. And, we have to basically say to the fossil fuel industry that if only for patriotic and global survival reasons you have to prepare yourself for as rapid a displacement as possible so that oil can be used as Jim says and a lot of you say, for other things, including to manufacture solar energy materials instead of burning them.

I once had a small meeting with the head of a client of Atlantic Richfield and this was in, I’d say, the mid 70s. And he said something that really startled me and he directed it to me because I was there around this table and he said, “Mr. Nader, you have to realize that Atlantic Richfield and other companies are in a self-liquidating mode.” Well how could he have thought anything other than… confronting the country as they zero in on three or four issues: the deficit, and taxation and back and forth. I hear these things on the radio, on CSPAN radio. I don’t watch them on TV. Therefore, I could hardly tell the difference who was speaking, whether it was the republican candidate or the democratic candidate. And, look at the presidential campaigns, how totally impoverished they are. How they zero in on three or four so called hot button issues. And, many of them, the so called social issues, and they ignore a whole continuum that a serious society has to pay attention to if it’s going to hold its head high when it bequeaths it to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

One of the things that motivates the super-rich people in this book is that they are all in their 70s, 80s and 90s and they’re thinking of their legacy. They don’t want our country to go over the cliff or to continue to decline. 81% of people in a recent poll think America is in decline. That’s pretty hard to say when you are called up on the phone by a pollster. 81% think America is in decline. And, they also want to look their great-grandchildren in the eye. So, there’s a patriotic, in the best sense of the term, factor here that we should hurl at each other so that we can transcend some of the very short term myopic, some would say avaricious, commercial interests.

The problem here is what I have said all along. Our country is full of problems it doesn’t deserve and solutions it doesn’t apply. And, that gap is the democracy gap. That gap is the result of the few deciding for the many. Call it a Plutocracy an Oligarchy, whatever you call it, the concentration of political and economic power is exceptionally deep in our country.

It reflects itself in so many ways. The stupefying nature of what is transmitted over the mass media. Just think, it’s our airways. We own it. We’re the landlord. The TV and radio stations are the tenants. They pay nothing for their license to the FCC. And, they decide who says what 24 a day on their piece of the spectrum. And 90% of what is on that spectrum (are) entertainment and ads. There’s very little serious discussion. We have three or four hundred cable channels. They can’t find enough necklaces, bracelets, and rerun material to fill them. I understand they are proposing now a chimpanzee channel where they dress them up in our clothes, and they prance around. We don’t even have a channel like that. They are going to give the chimps a channel. So, we really have to… I was thinking once of starting a group called The Serious Society because they are entertaining us to death…apropos the title of a book that came out years ago. 24/7 entertainment! And, they are bringing the young in so they spend half their time text messaging and speaking over their cell phones. Teenagers have bragged about 600 text messages a day. One teenager, 600 text messages a day. To which I observed – what was the urgency? So, their raising the children electronically in virtual reality, estranging themselves from nature around them, just immediate nature, you know: lawns, woods, streams, hills, and so on, and, from their own families. They now text message each other from the second floor to the first floor. You know, they get up in the morning, 10 minutes late. They text message mom to get the breakfast ready. This thing is just beginning. I mean if you think it’s funny now, just wait and see. And, so they’re raised in virtual reality so their vocabulary is shrunken beyond belief. They don’t need to study Esperanto anymore. Two-hundred words are enough: you know, kinda, sorta, cool, like like like, kinda, sorta, cool. And, I mean, what are we doing here? What’s happening to us? What’s happening to us?

We have so many brains in this country, so many innovations, so many ways of doing things, ways to make bureaucracies accountable, – How is that one for discussing in political campaigns? – ways to get the best out of the civil servants, instead of running against the bureaucrats. And, then they go to Washington, and then they don’t know how to deal with the civil service. They’re smart people in the civil service. And, they basically press them down so that they go to work every day to get along. You know, you get along by going along. And they suppress their ideas, and what’s wrong and what can be right. So, we have to take control of our society … apropos, we the people, the preamble of the Constitution, in a deliberative and informed way.

The Tea Party is angry. What are you angry about “oh, I hate, we hate Washington. We, we, you know” You get them to step two, maybe they will start using their brains instead of lashing out. And, you get them to step three, maybe they’ll start applying their own experience a little more rationally from where they live. But there is no chance to get them to two or three because now they’re being looked at as manipulative fodder to win an election here or an election there before they’re sent packing because the corporate government is the permanent government in Washington D.C. And, that’s one reason why almost everything Bush did like the war on terror, and Afghanistan and the FBI and the CIA is just continuing unabated under Obama.

It’s the permanent government. It’s all in the press. It’s the permanent government that’s going on. And, the permanent government has its own agenda. And its agenda is hegemony of a few giant multi-national corporations. And the tragedy is that they don’t even have any allegiance to our country anymore because of globalization. They’re looking for the most malleable country that keeps its workers in place at a very low wage and allows pollution and bribery to go on. And so, whole industries are being exported abroad. And here’s the way it plays out on the solar industry. Several large US solar companies started plants here, right? Okay, a lot of the R&D is here. Right? In the 70s we were way ahead of the world. The world was nowhere close to us in terms of solar and every index you can take, although it was minor quantitatively. And, now we’re behind Germany. We’re behind in wind power. We’re behind China.

But, here’s how it plays out. There’s a company called Evergreen Solar in Massachusetts, started a plant to produce some of the components. He had 800 employees and he started losing out because his competitors in this country built the first plant and then they said, “we gotta go to China, we can’t compete.” So, they started building plants in China, 70, 80 cents an hour, hardworking, modern equipment. And, so he’s holding firm. He told me he was an Ayn Rand guy. He was a nationalist. He hated to go to China. He wanted to create jobs in Massachusetts. He said, “But the Chinese are giving the store away – free land and building and full loans at cheap interest rates. So now he’s about to open up a plant in China, so now he’s laid off 200 workers here and the pattern is quite clear: we’ll still produce some good R&D, minimal production. It will move to China and other countries. Who would ever have dreamt that back 30, 40, 50 years ago? So, we can have all the start-ups we can imagine and brag about them. But the manufacturing moves to China. And, so we’re losing what could be one of the largest industries in the country in the future which is the multiple faceted solar industry and all its infrastructure.

Alright, so, lastly, what… how do we get this done? Most people just, you know, how do you get it done? You read a 400 page book and you get all persuaded and then it wimps out at the end because very few people know how to get something done in terms of public policy and all the rest. There are all kinds of good ideas. There are great pilot projects. There’s nothing better than pilot projects that meet a payroll because that’s the most persuasive thing. My best pilot project example is Interface Corporation of Atlanta, Georgia, Ray Anderson CEO, started in 1994-95 after he heard a lecture from Paul Hawkin that he was going to turn that company into – just imagine this goal – zero pollution, 100% recycling. And, every year, he reduces corporate expenses. He gets great job gratification for the employees and the staff. And, improves his bottom-line and some of the figures are quite impressive in terms of his reduction in the use of energy, how much more work he gets out of a unit of energy. He’s very meticulous about it. He’s got a great crew, great council of advisors. And why isn’t that diffusing? I mean this is the largest tile/carpet manufacturer in the US with 6 plants abroad. Why isn’t it diffusing? First of all, he doesn’t get any publicity. It’s all Bill Gates and all the others, you know. He doesn’t get any publicity. He’s not seen as a heroic figure for young people coming out of engineering school – he’s an engineer – and other graduate schools.

So, here are my brief recommendations on how to get things done. This is number one: You have to deal with public sentiment. Abraham Lincoln once said, “With public sentiment, you can do anything. Without public sentiment, you can’t do anything.” And, unfortunately, you got a situation where about half the people in this country don’t believe in global warming. And, these are the people that listen, day in and day out to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, all the others at the local level of similar persuasion, talk show hosts, the weeping histrionic Glen Beck. And, these people are soliloquists. They are soliloquists with monetized minds. They are not stupid. They have monetized minds. When you make 38 million a year, like Limbaugh does, you can have a monetized mind. Just think of that, 38 million, break it down by the month, by the week, by the howl, by the bellow. Okay? And that’s what they hear, day after day after day. And, this conference should be on CSPAN. This conference… we should have a cable devoted to these conferences. We own the public airways. So, there is no CSPAN. There’s no Washington Post. There’s no New York Times. It’s the weekend. They don’t like to work weekends. And, as a result, you know, in 2 minutes more people hear the nonsense out of Rush Limbaugh’s mouth than everything that has been going on here for 3 days, by far. This is not a serious society! We’re not a society. We’re two networks. We now have hundreds of cable stations and radio and Sirius radio and HDTV, etc and it’s not coming across. So, this whole idea about we are now in the information age. We are on the Internet. We are in a knowledge society. What does it mean? Are we actually getting a better society out of it? Are we getting things done out of it? It doesn’t mean anything because the concentration of power in the hands of the few over the many is the key blockage.

Now, most people in their normal lives would never behave like these large corporations behave. These corporations who brought us the Wall Street collapse. Most people would never do that to their neighbors. They would never say neighbors, I’ll take care of your pension money and then get the fees and loot it and then escape. You don’t deal that way with your neighbors. Most neighbors would not pollute their neighbors’ lungs and then dump all kinds of stuff next door. And, we’re not taking the standards by which we evaluate ourselves as human-to-human to the institutions that govern us, corporate and government. We don’t apply those, those standards. If we did, we would anthropomorphize them. We would bring them down to scale, and we’d evaluate them for right or wrong, etc, within our frame of reference, instead of all the jargon and all the abstraction that these corporations and agencies surround themselves with. So, we have to change public sentiment. We have to infuse it with information and possibilities and pilot projects and we have to do it with sensual concreteness. By that I mean, we can’t just do it with statistics. We can just do it with good solid arguments. We have to do it in terms of the health, safety and wellbeing right where the people work and live.  That’s what I mean by sensual concreteness. Nobody does it better than Madison Avenue, by the way, in terms of selling their goods.

The importance of the public sentiment comes to the forefront when you connect it with the goal of displacement, and you focus it on Congress. If there’s one institution that can turn this whole energy thing around, it’s a purposeful Congress that keeps its options open for revision and allows the streaming of intelligent practical information through to it in a deliberative manner which is publicized, dramatized around the country. There are 535 members of Congress who put their shoes on everyday like you and I.  They control the appropriations process, the tax process, the technology forcing process, the standards process, you name it. It’s the most powerful force of government except that it doesn’t like to use its power. It likes to send it to the White House. Constitutionally, it’s the most powerful.

And, so I would suggest that you ask yourself the following question: If you think that this country has a brighter energy future in terms of conservation, efficiency, and renewables that can be accelerated all together into an agenda of displacement for us here and around the world in military/foreign policy as well as the health of the planet, ask yourself, Is there a lobby for Congress focused on that which has a budget of a billion dollar? 2 billion dollars? 3 billion dollars? Why is that? Look at what’s at stake here. Someone like George Soros alone, or Warren Buffet alone, could do that, Ted Turner, who’s quite conversant with environmental issues on a global stage. And that’s why this book I wrote which is one of political imagination is so compelling in my judgment, because it’s a matter of resources. It’s a matter of resources to counteract the huge resources that are arrayed on the other side. And, we don’t look at it that way. We just look at it as “well these are really good policies and some people are actually putting them on the ground. And it’s great. And why isn’t it moving? It’s not moving because the subsidies and the credits and the deregulation and the lack of even talking about a carbon tax, by the way – which Exxon is even for. Talking about a carbon tax is taboo on Capitol Hill. Just like you complain Peak Oil is taboo on Capitol Hill. So, I would suggest the trigger for all of this comes with a focus on Congress both in terms of getting things underway and clearing the deck of things that are obstructing and giving visibility like no one can do except Congress, and turning the Executive Branch around, infusing the Pentagon with even more sense of urgency, for example, for renewable energy, and the adequate resources behind it.

We live in an era of an enormous number of super billionaires. And, they don’t know what to do with their money. I’ve had them tell me that. I said, “Are you sure you want to ask me that question?” I’ve had billionaires… I had one of the richest men in the country tell me the other day, “You know Ralph, we’re very good about making money but we don’t really know how to use it, including me,” he said. You know, even him. So, how many do you have to persuade to bring all this together into a focus and start moving this process forward? If we don’t do this, the fifteenth conference of Peak Oil here will occur and we’ll be discussing the same things, a little bit different amplitude, a little bit different examples. We’ll be discussing the same thing as in 1974 we held a conference and I’ll end on this note, on energy conservation and it was full of engineers who were working in the area. And, I introduced the conference by saying, “I think half our energy’s wasted.” This was a time when a coal plant, 70% was waste heat. 70% main function was to heat the heavens. And, after the conference, during the break, some of the engineers came up and said, “Where’d you get that figure?” And, I said, I told them where I got it. He said, “That’s just for starters.” That was in 1970s, mid 70s. This is the potential.

And when you read the arguments of Amory Lovins, who I think should be set up for a debate with anyone who wants to debate pro-nuclear, pro-fossil, pro-anything, I find him very, very persuasive, a little bit too optimistic, but very persuasive. And, he says that climate change is a great jobs and profit opportunity. It should not be viewed as a cost. It should be viewed as a profit and jobs innovation opportunity. When he says that we are now twice as efficient as we were in 1975 – how many times have you heard that? He says since 1975, America has doubled the productivity of using oil and energy and tripled the productivity of directly using natural gas. And, that’s just the beginning of what we can do in terms of efficient resource use, for not just fuel but other natural resources as well.

So, we must entertain any multi-billionaires who want to step up to the plate in your increasing circle of friends. And, show them how they can attain a significance of themselves in planetary history that they never dreamed would be the case while they amassed their billions. Everything else really is in place except the resources and the advocacy infrastructure, always keeping open options for revision.

Thank you.

3 thoughts on “Ralph Nader on Energy and Policy”

  1. I largely agree with the premises and content of Mr. Nader’s presentation. However, it was poorly structured in that it was not focused. It was rambling and diffuse. At many times he seemed to descend into a sort of rant on topics, which while loosely related to his topic, did not serve to support the key points I think he intended to make. The major points he was driving at should have been clearly expressed and he should have structured his argument to support them. I do not believe he did this. I think this reduced the effectiveness of his presentation and its usefulness to the audience as a basis for making decisions and allocating resources. In short, for contributing to solving some of the problems he described. Of course my comments are irrelevant if the presentation was intended primarily to be entertaining.

  2. Same old Ralph, ¨the government helped make this problem¨ and we will need many billions to fix it. Sorry. There is really only one *real* way to fix this on a personal level. You have to walk away. The Amish maybe a lot of things Americans do not want to be, but they are self sufficient. They will survive the end of cheap oil better than the rest of us because they do not use it.

    What is the way to fix it on the community level? You know the answer or rather a community of Amish do. Everyone knows the answer, no more babies for about 40 years and everyone move back to farms.

    Not going to happen? Well I am more than anything else a product of evolution, and what do you think evolution would tell us in this case?

  3. Here is what I think it would tell us ¨Hope for the best, Plan for the worst¨

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