Q&A with John Mathom

This cartoon provoked a series of interesting questions from John Mathom. It provided a good opportunity for a good old fashioned rant, so I thought I’d clear out the cobwebs and treat his questions as a Q&A post. Cheers John!

Are we having the better world now?

Sadly, no. Suburban sprawl wastes tens of billions of dollars in traffic jams, lost productivity, and kills millions of people around the world in pointless car accidents and throat and lung cancers burnt into our bodies by fossil fuel exhaust. Our town planners designed a whole lifestyle based on the car, not walking and public transport. We’re eating ourselves to death and not getting enough exercise. People who move into New Urbanism lose weight. It’s a lifestyle thing. With oil fuelling suburban sprawl, we are NOT living the good life! It’s killing us, literally.

Health care? Lower poverty? Does spending all your money on things which have no useful benefit long term really “build a better world?”

You tell me? America loses $600 billion a year, every year, buying overseas oil. That’s $6 trillion a decade. (It could even be as high as $700 billion a year, depending on what oil prices do).

Obama recently ran a committee to investigate how to save a $trillion dollars a decade. It’s easy. Stop buying overseas oil! Mandate electric cars, and accelerate GE’s S-PRISM program to charge all those cars! Generation IV nuclear reactors like GE’s S-PRISM will be able to run the world for 500 years on today’s nuclear waste. As America already owns much of that waste, it could probably run America for the next few millennia! Nuclear waste is not a problem, it’s the solution. Global nuclear waste stocks are now worth $30 trillion dollars precisely because they could run the global economy for 500 years (or the American economy for the next thousand years. In other words, once you build S-PRISM reactors, your fuel is FREE for the next millennia. Close those uranium mines!)

Peak oil is coming. America is frighteningly vulvernable to the coming global oil shocks. I am truly scared for both America and my home country of Australia. It’s going to hurt, bad. And yet it’s avoidable. A legislative program of New Urbanism, clean and efficient public transport and electric cars all fuelled by S-PRISM nukes could both clean our air, save the local environment from suburban sprawl and restore it to local agriculture and forestry and parks, make our cities more attractive, increase public health, lower public health costs, and make us energy secure forever!

Imagine America was not addicted to oil. Imagine you did not have to be in Saudi Arabia, hypocritically backing a Monarchy of the Medieval kind against a possible democratic uprising in their own country. Now, and I’m treading carefully here — imagine the USA being in Saudi Arabia had not alienated Ossama Bin Laden. 9/11 might not have happened! It’s America’s presence in the Muslim holy lands of Saudi Arabia that really gets their goat. I’m not justifying terrorism — PLEASE don’t here me saying that. I’m just pointing out one geopolitical example of what energy security might mean. It’s about having no vulnerability to overseas suppliers, economic or cultural or military or imperial. It’s about being energy independent, and being immune to sudden oil price shocks and immune to further oil wars.

Capitalism is about the allocation of scarce capital among the most productive alternatives. Spending money on things which in the end prove worthless or even in the short term prove worthless leaves us impoverished and where all the poorer countries of the world have been.

America has 5% of the population of the world and yet consumes 25% of the oil. China’s on the rise and want’s their turn at the oil party. Yet peak oil is coming. Sooner or later, something’s gotta give. What gives America the right to keep consuming all that oil to the exclusion of others, especially when there are viable transport and energy alternatives?

in the end prove worthless

Why on earth do global warming Denialist’s also deny any alternatives to fossil fuels? This view is ultimately worse than those of us who take global warming seriously, because at least we think that with strong action to get off fossil fuels, we can do something about it. Your view? We’re stuffed. It might not happen immediately, but you seem to think that there is no alternative to fossil fuels. When the fossil fuels run out Industrial Civilisation and Industrial Agriculture that feeds us; it’s all going down. Big time. All because — as you said — investing in anything else will in the end prove worthless.

High minded bureaucrats and do-gooders don’t seem to understand that capital is scarce

Right-wing denialists don’t seem to understand that you need to do this because capital is scarce. Or do you like funding Middle Eastern types that don’t like you very much? Do you like sending $6 trillion dollars a decade overseas when it could be spent back in America, circulating through your own economy, raising your own local tax base, creating local energy and transport and building jobs? Capital is scarce. So why send it overseas?

and must be allocated by people who have proven to make money in the past, not based on moral arguments of do-gooders.

Local government authorities experimented with suburbia after WW2. The experiment has failed. This is an enormous waste of money! As James Howard Kunstler says, “The whole suburban project, I think, can be summarised pretty succinctly as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world! America took all of its post-war wealth and invested it in a living arrangement that has no future.”

Local governments interfered with how developers were making money in the past. Developers and architects and builders used to build according to a Urban code with its own beautiful semantics and syntax and language and understanding of walkable, dense and diverse and vibrant cities that humanity has used for 10 thousand years!

After WW2 we threw all that in the dumpster and created single purpose boxes that we have to DRIVE home from work to sleep in, and then get up and DRIVE back to work, then DRIVE to the shops, then DRIVE to pick up the kids from after-school-care because mum isn’t home because it takes 2 parents to pay off the over-sized mortgage that it takes to buy the over-sized McMansions everyone is buying today.

We can fix this. We have 10 thousand years of building dense and diverse and liveable cities that are trendy, beautiful, and built around moving PEOPLE, not cars. If I ran my home country of Australia we’d have a national conversation about the fastest way we could building cities to become more European than Europe. More walkable and trendy and diverse. Within a generation we would have everything we needed within a 7 minute walk outside our own front door! This is easy! And it makes money!

That’s why concentration of capital in the hands of the few can make sense. In the end we all benefit if Bill Gates invests his money well and makes a boatload because he builds 30,000 jobs that never existed before and millionaires that got money not from stealing it but out of thin air.

You seem to be under the impression that because I accept global warming, I am therefore a Communist. Have you even looked up my political stance? I really do believe in a free-market for most things. I do. I love the innovation of a free market. The surprises, the dynamics. I love iPad’s and everything Mac, designer jeans, and grabbing a coffee in a good bookstore. I love movies and hiring a DVD on a Friday night with some take away Chinese or Indian — especially Vindaloo Beef. It’s all good.

Why would anyone want to shove society towards North Korean poverty and industrial collapse purely on ideological grounds? Which is exactly my point, and is exactly what YOU are doing! We’re running out of fossil fuels, and the real science says we are also changing our climate! If we don’t get off the fossil fuels soon, we’re going to lose everything we love. If we take your Denialist ideology to its alternatives-denying extremes, we head towards the Book of Eli!

What happens when we invest a bunch of money in people who can’t pay their mortgages is an implosion of wealth and jobs.

This is totally off the subject now. But this is where good town planning like New Urbanism might have saved America from GFC1.0. New Urbanism guarantees good, affordable apartments and other accommodation — even some larger homes with their own backyards — right next to the stuff of life; the bookstores and shops and restaurants and cinema and churches and schools and universities and light industry that gives us employment and the local, circular, economy supporting circular flow of money. Good town planning (with sensible banking regulations) could have saved America from the GFC.

We cant afford to spend our precious capital on things which are fantasies.

If a mix of nuclear power and renewables CANNOT get us off fossil fuels, then you’re more of a Doomer than I am! You believe The Book of Eli is inevitable. Therefore, why not just live it up now and stuff the next generation? Yeah, makes me want to run out and buy a Hummer!

If global warming is a fantasy then anything we spent on it in the short term could have been spent better to create jobs which create more jobs. Instead the better world of the future can never come from misallocating resources to activities which have no payoff.

No payoff? Are you serious? Did you even read the chart above, or think it’s based on lies? We really are talking about:-

  • much improved public health with vast savings in public health spending,
  • better and trendier and more livable city designs that save lives and money lost in traffic accidents and traffic jams,
  • more local jobs as $6 trillion dollars a decade is invested in American nukes and trains and trams and trolley buses and jobs rather than being sent overseas to fund people who don’t like you very much,
  • less reason to invade other countries and waste all your money (and young lives) fighting unnecessary oil wars.

America should take the Nuclear New Urban option right now — even if global warming were a fantasy. Which it isn’t. Every National Science Academy on the planet says so.

This entry was posted in New Urbanism, Nuclear, Pollution. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Q&A with John Mathom

  1. whirlwind21 says:

    What do you think of Mike Ruppert who is predicting the collapse of industrial civilization due to peak oil, debt etc? He seems to fit that apocalyptic outsider you metioned in a previous article.

    • Eclipse Now says:

      He’s just a former cop caught up in the wonder of becoming an author and, well let’s face it, cult-leader. The cult of doom. He’s also a 9/11 “Troofer” and I have no time for that conspiracy theory junk.

      The risks of peak oil are very real; but are we doomed to Mad Max? From what the peer-reviewed nuclear experts I read are saying, no. Please keep in mind, I’m no scientist. Check it all out for yourself, and don’t take my word for it. Make up your own mind. At this stage, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a base on Mars in 20 years, or had nuked ourselves back to the Stone Age with the survivors living through a prolonged nuclear winter. We live in a world of exponential trends; some positive with computer AI, nano-tech and new energy systems on the horizon, others negative with peak oil and global warming and who knows what monstrous biohazard being cooked up in a lab. Which way will it play out? Who knows? I’m not God. But I do see the technical potential for us to make it through New Urbanism, clean nuclear power, good public transport, and many other clever toys coming our way. I’m convinced we already have the technology to live a sustainable life for hundreds of millions of years — the GenIV reactors just have to be commercialised. The experts know the physics works. We have 300 reactor years with breeder-reactors.

      So I blog about and encourage those memes.

  2. whirlwind21 says:

    Dont forget about those thorium reactors as well and what do you think about this E-cat reactor done in Italy? Unfortunately with the Fukushima disaster I think the anti nuclear loby is having a field day and that will stall efforts at building new plants. Even if the Fukushima plant is based on decades old technology and not current state of the art.

    And where will we get the money for all of this though with states and other municapalities strapped for cash?

  3. Eclipse Now says:

    E-cat? Tell me more? Is that one of those cold-fusion reactors?

    Yes, I agree with you on the public mood after Fukishima; banning nuclear power because of Fukishima is like banning aviation because of the Hindenberg!

    The money? Here’s the thing. We all pay for power; every day. We all pay for oil. Charging electric cars is HALF the cost of filling up our old gas guzzlers when measured in a per-kilometre basis. (According to the founder of Better Place electric cars). So there will be some savings here, some extra money spent there. The market for energy is only going up, so there’s money for nukes one way or another. And nukes are only going to come down in price. Big time! Think of all the older reactors and how they were built. They were one off projects built one at a time on site.

    Now they’re putting them on the production line, building them in a factory!

    That means no stoppages due to bad weather, and plenty of factory bonuses like a controlled environment, production line flow, maybe even some automation and robots. Older reactors were built like hand-crafted Rolls Royces, but these new guys will come off the line like so many Hyundais!

    • whirlwind21 says:


      There is a link right there for the ecat reactor, supposedly its a low energy reactor.

      You also have to deal with NIMBY ie, I want renewable energy just not here or my property values will go down.

      Peak oil still has me scared ****less though. I fear that we wont do anything until were up against the wall. Have you heard of Richard Duncan and his die off thesis talk about hopeless?

  4. Eclipse Now says:

    Yeah, I hear you. I nearly had a nervous breakdown about this in 2004, back when my kid had cancer and I was nearly delirious with hospital carer burnout. Not only that, but I know of a young 19 year old who committed suicide over this stuff. Dieoff.com was up there in his thinking. I even tried to share some hope with him, but he of course didn’t buy me as an authority. I’m not. I’m just a guy who’s read a fair bit and accepts the peer-reviewed stuff coming from various energy experts.

    But here’s the thing: given enough energy we can recycle metals indefinitely, desalinate ocean water, build New urbanism which is 5 to 10 times more land efficient, and enjoy technological progress. I’m an optimist. I think we *already* have the technology to survive this with society intact. Has Richard Duncan addressed GenIV reactors? Has lovely old Ted Trainer? Ted’s still investigating it because he wants there to be some fatal flaw so we’ll all have to adopt his ‘Simpler Way’. Professor Barry Brook of the Brave New Climate blog has met with Ted to discuss them. Ted says renewable energy can’t sustain the Industrial World, and that’s what had me so freaked out. It can’t, yet. I’d love to be wrong.

    But nukes can. Sure there will be NIMBY’s, that is until the word gets out about the problems with renewables. It’s already starting to happen. Property values can be protected by building the Nukes so far from cities that our major cities will be pretty safe. But I’d rather live next to a nuke than a coal plant! Lung cancer rates of the beautiful wine growing Hunter Valley are 3 times that of Sydney simply because of the coal plants.

    Incidentally, I’ve met Ted Trainer out at his Pigface Farm demonstration place. It’s inspiring stuff, all about retrofitting the suburbs for sustainability, extreme localism of lines of supply, all that jazz. It’s maybe a lower-tech way of considering ecocity living.

    But even though we have the technology to survive this, do we have the wisdom? Do we have the political guts to make the tough calls that we will have to make, and in time? I don’t know. We really could end up in awful oil wars, fighting over the last drops. Who knows? I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Why worry? I just try to lend DVD’s and get people thinking, and ready, to adopt bikes and tougher times should they arrive. It’s better than nagging and nagging and nagging in a panicked way like I did years ago. Like I wanted all my friends to become doomers or something? I guess I just wanted help getting the word out. Our group, Sydney Peak Oil, briefed politicians in 2005. I briefed Maxine McKew before she ousted John Howard. 3 days later she was briefed in a 50 minute talk by Dr Roger Bezdek. What did she say about it all? Nothing. She didn’t believe them.

    People won’t believe it until they see it, and then when the high oil prices really start to bite we’ll have a full scale Great Depression emergency. Sure, times could be tough. But there’s a VAST difference between a Great Depression and Mad Max. Huge. Law and order and food and fresh water and civilisation, these things exist in a Great Depression. Life can be good with a sandwich and a book and a sit under the tree. It’ll be OK. Civilisation will get a shock, but it will survive. Petrol rationing will hurt, but we’ll adapt. Trolley buses can be whipped up 5 times cheaper than trams, and are electric. Transport will gradually move to a mix of electric public transport, electric cars, and cycling and walking. Town plans will adapt, people will adapt. You won’t be on your own trying to make all the decisions. We’re a social species. We’ll get through this together.

    • whirlwind21 says:

      Im from the U.S. though so it’ll probably be different here. Im only 22 so Im worried about my future. But the question is where will we get the money to switch to renewables if we are in a Great Depression? Im cynical about everything these days. Hope you found that e cat website informative. Hopefully this is not just a bunch of hot air. Ive even had thoughts of suicide over this not immediate though just ones along the line of “what if all the doomer spiel is true, would life be worth living”. But then they say that Peak oil is the cause of everything these days ie the 2008 finincial meltdown, the high oil prices that occured then. Anyway sorry for rambling like this. Thanks for responding to my comments.

  5. Eclipse Now says:

    That’s cool. Feel free to ramble away, let of some steam, whatever it takes. I’ve been there. Please don’t do anything silly. I started raving on about this stuff back before the 2007 Federal inquiry into peak oil. When that happened I was all excited… but of course the existing societal patterns won out. Business is business, you know? They’re not going to do anything too drastic until they have to.

    But do check this page where I’ve gathered the most pertinent quotes from the inquiry. It tells me that they are willing to think outside the box when they have to; that even politicians can think radical thoughts; but in the end all these radical thoughts were shelved. But at least they are there. At least there’s a Plan B ready to implement … when we can be bothered. When we have to.

    Remember, poor people can be happy. If I’ve lost my house, but still have somewhere safe and warm to sleep, and my family have food in their belly, and I have access to a public library, I can be happy.

  6. John Mathon says:

    Bjorn Lomborg has done some good work with a group of nobel laureates, scientists, economic experts in analyzing the cost benefit ratio of investing in global warming or other things and found that among some 40 things we could invest in that global warming investment produces the least benefit for the dollar. Trying to protect against disasters 100 years from now when we don’t know what technology we will have then, when we don’t know what the effects really are or using dollars from the future is much cheaper than using money today that could be used to help people have a better life today.

    That may seem selfish but the fact is that our kids can only have a better future if we create the infrastructure and the products, the science and the capital that they can use to solve bigger problems. If we hurt ourselves to “save” our children by reducing our growth, investing in things before we can really solve them or they have benefit then we may make it impossible or much more difficult to actually solve the problems in the future.

    I am not saying I know the answer to what is best to invest in. It could very well be some form of alternative energy or roads and health care improvements. Time will only tell which is the right investment and whoever makes the right choice will win. The biggest advantage the US has had and seems to have going forward is that we are willing to change. When a clear winner emerges the US has been willing to make the tough economic decisions to change. That includes the job dislocations, the retraining and the cultural change necessary to adapt to new economic changes. An example I like to point out is WalMart. The Japanese and many European countries have been unwilling to change their retail systems to support the more efficient distribution and sales models the US has adopted. This has resulted in a lot of pain in america to local businessmen and transformation of some cities, lost jobs but in the end we gained jobs and we ended up with a much more efficient distribution system for retail which has resulted in a much lower cost of goods in america compared to many other countries. This may seem like a small point or that its bad because of the pain involved but on the whole america has benefited tremendously from this. We have been willing to adopt changes in technology, sometimes with moral changes that go with it. Our ability to adapt and change is our biggest advantage in this world. The other huge advantages are the transparency and the diversity of our economy. These things tend to leave the US on top over and over. We may appear to be losing to China or to individual countries here and there but in the end we somehow always end up on top and I believe it’s because of these reasons. Our adaptability and willingness to suffer through change, the transparency of our systems and the diveristy of our economy and skills.

    Can a government bureaucrat make the right choices? Sometimes. However, over time, any one group will end up making bad decisions and if the society can’t create those opportunities (our diversity), see those bad decisions (transparency), choose the right path and execute (our adaptability) then they will fail relatively to the more open, flexible and diverse economy. OVer time we can expect that different societies will learn these lessons and will compete effectively. This is good. The fact the US wont always be 40 times richer than China/person isn’t bad. It’s bad that we appear to be so far ahead but not because we “stole” from the chinese, but because the chinese were so poorly managed for centuries. Now that they have better management they will prosper but unless they accept all the points I’ve made then they will never be ahead of the US.

    As far as the environment it is hard to argue the US is the horrible citizen that others portray. Anyone with an objective look at what americans have done for the environment both here and around the world must be impressed with how the US has been the leader in almost every cause to protect the environment for hundreds of years. CO2 emissions are not clearly “evil.” It is not the pre-eminent bad thing someone can do to the environment. CO2 is a plant food. Warming climate does not imply death. Change doesn’t imply death. The year 1979 was not the optimal year for the world. We don’t know what the optimal temperature is nor do we know what the world is going to throw at us next. All we can do is study this as much as possible so we can make the changes needed at the right time that we know will be a good investment. I don’t think we know the answer to that now.

    • Eclipse Now says:

      “I am not saying I know the answer to what is best to invest in.”

      I am. I think there are clear solutions we need to start right now, that there are hundreds of real experts promoting real and achievable solutions that will benefit our economies as soon as we introduce them. According to the best peer-reviewed science I can see, nuclear + new urbanism + fast rail are doable now, and will only save us from a Greater Depression if we get cracking now. These would not only prevent global warming, which the best peer-reviewed science says is going to be very, very bad, but would also prepare America for running out of oil. World oil production starts to run down (at about 3-5% per year) from around 2015. The Joint Forces Command estimates the world could already be down 10 million barrels a day by 2015, but I think that could be a bit extreme. We’ll see. It’s only 4 years away. But the inescapable bottom line is that, give or take 5 years, we are on the top of world peak oil right now. We’re done climbing, and are at the peak. All that’s left is the journey back down, and it begins soon. We’re leaving increasing supplies of cheap oil and hitting decreasing supplies of ever more expensive oil. That’s the fact.

      Now, on modelling the sheer cost of global warming, I’d rather listen to the REAL economic modelling from peer-reviewed work like the Stern Report and Garnaut reports.

      The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change is a 700-page report released for the British government on October 30, 2006 by economist Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and also chair of the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) at Leeds University and LSE. The report discusses the effect of global warming on the world economy. Although not the first economic report on climate change, it is significant as the largest and most widely known and discussed report of its kind.[1]

      The Review states that climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen, presenting a unique challenge for economics.[2] The Review provides prescriptions including environmental taxes to minimize the economic and social disruptions. The Stern Review’s main conclusion is that the benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting.[3] The Review points to the potential impacts of climate change on water resources, food production, health, and the environment. According to the Review, without action, the overall costs of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global gross domestic product (GDP) each year, now and forever. Including a wider range of risks and impacts could increase this to 20% of GDP or more.


      But action only costs 1% of global GDP.

      Tell me something easy: would America be better off, or worse off, it if could stop sending $600 billion dollars a year overseas and instead spend this ($6 trillion a decade!) at home instead, on American jobs? Because that’s what you’ll get back once you wean off imported oil. And it’s going to happen anyway.

      “The other huge advantages are the transparency and the diversity of our economy.”

      In some areas, and some contexts, I might agree with that statement. But sadly, the terrible joke is on you. America’s economy is utterly addicted to a mono-culture of oil based transport. If only America had viable, competing systems that could take up the slack and save some of that $600 billion a year buying overseas oil.

      Give it just 5 to 10 years, and you’ll curse America’s mono-culture oil economy.

      “CO2 emissions are not clearly “evil.” It is not the pre-eminent bad thing someone can do to the environment. CO2 is a plant food. Warming climate does not imply death. Change doesn’t imply death. The year 1979 was not the optimal year for the world. We don’t know what the optimal temperature is nor do we know what the world is going to throw at us next. All we can do is study this as much as possible so we can make the changes needed at the right time that we know will be a good investment. I don’t think we know the answer to that now.”

      This is pure Denialism. Climatologits do know what the optimal climate for our civilisation is; it’s the one our civilisation evolved in. It’s the climate we had prior to the industrial revolution, the climate that has stable rainfall patterns that, more or less, guarantee regular crops. The climate that doesn’t flood and famine us to death. An atmosphere that doesn’t have 5% more water carrying capacity per degree of heat added. A world where the seas are not rising. You should read some paleo-climate anthropology. These guys have figured out how El Nino patterns got stuck in prehistory and ended some Egyptian civilisations and Southern American civilisations. Overnight. And that was just El Nino, not global warming El Nino.

      You don’t sound very informed about climate change at all, and just how deadly this beast really is. I suggest changing that. Buy this, and read it twice.

      “Co2 = plant food” is a particularly silly Denialist myth you’ve just quoted. I’m done for now. I’ll just copy and paste my usual Co2 = plant food reply.

      Till next time,

      Just saying “Co2 = plant food, therefore more plant food will be good for them and force them to grow bigger” is about as sensible as saying “Pizza is human food, therefore more Pizza will be good for them and FORCE them to grow bigger!”

      We might in truth get bigger. But the trite summary above ignores diabetes, heart disease, circulatory problems and … death. Plants are also vulnerable to various problems if they get too much ‘plant food’. It messes with their self-defence toxins. Some produce too little; others too much.

      Less toxic makes them more vulnerable to bug attacks.

      More toxic renders them inedible to us or livestock.

      Also, let’s not forget the carbon impacts on atmospheric temperatures and increased moisture movement. Every extra degree of temperature allows the atmosphere to carry 5% more moisture. That means increased evaporation and drought in drying areas, and increased precipitation in dumping areas. It means increased floods and famines.

      Co2 might be plant food, but do we really want to stuff our plants?

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