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The Joseph Strategy

As the energy emergency unfolds, is the blackout of 2003 a preview of what's to come?

by David Ehrenfeld

Published in the September/October 2003 issue of Orion magazine



Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco, used with permission
Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco, used with permission
Photograph by Edward Burtynsky, Oil Fields #1, Belridge, California 2002

WHEN PEOPLE THINK OF THE DRAMATIC STORY of Joseph and his brothers, told in the Book of Genesis, they think first of the Canaanite family drama—of a brother abused and brought low by his siblings—ending in one of the most moving family reconciliations in all literature. Less often considered is the subplot of the story: Joseph’s accurate prediction of impending environmental catastrophe—drought and famine—and his masterful strategy for avoiding disaster by taking steps while resources were still abundant.

Sold into slavery, Joseph becomes known as a skilled interpreter of dreams, a talent that comes to the ears of Pharaoh, who has been troubled by two dreams that his advisors cannot explain. The dreams are similar: in one, seven fat cows emerge from the Nile to graze, followed by seven emaciated cows which swallow them up; in the other, seven full, healthy heads of grain are eaten up by seven thin, shriveled ones. The repetition of the theme in two dreams was believed a sign that God was about to bring these events to pass. Pharaoh sends for Joseph.

Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams is that there will be seven years of abundant harvest, followed by seven years of famine.

Therefore, he suggests to Pharaoh with breathtaking boldness, you should appoint a wise and discreet man who will oversee Egypt, and who will organize the collecting of one-fifth of the grain during the years of plenty, to be stored in granaries in the cities and doled out during the years of famine.

AT THE HEART OF JOSEPH’S STRATEGY was a simple lesson: In a world of changing fortunes, long-term survival of an individual or a country can often be achieved by saving during the good years. This is a profoundly conservative strategy, one that must have evolved along with the development of agriculture, which from the early days was largely based on the planting of annual grain crops.

This lesson has been ignored in more recent history. In the 1920s, times were good; during the postwar boom many people believed prosperity would last forever, and they spent lavishly on every kind of luxury. Then, in 1929, came the crash, followed by the Great Depression, a shattering experience for millions. Personal and corporate bankruptcies were legion, and survivors lived the rest of their lives obsessed by the need for savings and insurance.

In 2003, a new generation is repeating the mistakes of the ‘20s. We have an administration that calls itself conservative, yet countenances with equanimity a rising tide of bankruptcies and unemployment, and a deficit of more than six trillion dollars. We are allowing our state and federal legislators to borrow against pension plans and Social Security funds as if tomorrow will never come. This fiscal nonchalance shows how little we remember the Depression and its grim teaching: All parties sooner or later come to an end, as many who put their life savings into high-tech stocks have realized.

Our party, like the revels of the carefree summer of 1929, is ending, too. Grave troubles concerning the environment, health, security, food, and water have already begun to arrive. But the mother of them all is the dwindling global supply of cheap energy, upon which modern civilization and global commerce utterly depend. Here is a fundamental problem that will not go away. All of the oil in Iraq, all of the oil in the Caspian region, all of the oil in Russia, all of the oil that may be under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and all of the potential supplies that have yet to be discovered and developed anywhere will not be enough to meet the increasingly ravenous demand of industry, transportation, agribusiness, consumerism, and other modern sinkholes for cheap energy, even in the short term.

And it doesn’t help much to add in other fossil fuel sources: Venezuela’s very heavy oil, the Athabasca oil sands of northern Alberta, the gas hydrates or clathrates off the coast of North Carolina, coal deposits everywhere, and the oil shales of western Colorado and eastern Utah. For example, the petroleum geologist Walter Youngquist pointed out that for oil shale the net energy costs of mining, transporting, refining, and disposing of waste are probably greater than the energy recovered. Similar objections apply to every other source of non-petroleum hydrocarbon energy, including biomass energy from corn and garbage. It is true that we will not soon run out of fossil fuels, but the cheap, oil-based energy upon which global industrialization is based is going fast.

As we in America are using more and more energy, the rest of the world is making do with less. The energy expert Richard Duncan has pointed out that global energy production per capita reached its peak in 1979 and has been falling at an average rate of 0.33 percent per year ever since. There is now less energy available for each person on Earth than there was in 1979. Duncan has predicted that world oil production will peak in 2006, and then begin to fall rapidly, even as much of the less developed world is industrializing, and its population growing. This prediction is roughly in accord with those of other prominent oil geologists. If it is correct, Duncan claims, “energy production per capita will fall to its 1930 [level] by 2030.”

This is industrial civilization as we know it, a fast-driving, heavily consuming, self-indulgent civilization that lacks inherent braking mechanisms. If Duncan and other energy analysts are right (they seem fairly conservative), we can expect widespread electricity blackouts in a decade or so, followed by the rapid unraveling of our highly complex, highly interlinked, highly unstable, and highly unpredictable globalized system.

At some point, as the price of energy goes up and the net assets and purchasing power of most Americans continue to wane, it will no longer be feasible to ship large quantities of green peppers from Mexico to Boston in January, or send steel for heavy construction from China to Atlanta. Economists will then wonder how we could have squandered our energy resources with such abandon. As industrial civilization starts to come apart, social and economic failure will lower energy consumption, but not in a way that most of us would find tolerable.

There are elements of industrial civilization that few would want to lose—advances in understanding and treating human diseases, research on conservation and habitat restoration, improved ways of communicating over great distances and of processing information, among others. Can we save these elements by changing the system now before it disintegrates? This is, I think, a possibility, unless it turns out that for social as well as economic reasons the system is so dependent on consumption and waste, on sheer volume of buying and selling, that it cannot survive moderation. But assuming the worst case will only cause paralysis of action. And we have a moral obligation to act, because we in the First World have created this system, which includes not ourselves alone, but those people in Third World nations who have toiled and have polluted and depleted their own resources to feed our consumption.

We are well into the unfolding energy emergency—our dependence on oil from the Middle East, where we have imposed our military and political presence and culture, has spawned increasing terrorism and tumultuous unrest. As we dangle from an oil-soaked lifeline, thousands of people in the Islamic world are struggling to apply a lighted match. Terrorism against a vast, complex, interlinked industrial society such as ours is very cheap and relatively easy to accomplish; defense against terrorism is fabulously expensive, compromises our civil liberties, and is not very effective. The best way to minimize the threat of terrorism is to eliminate our most vulnerable and provocative activities, the first of which is our heavy use of imported oil.

One thing is certain: If we are to reduce energy consumption in a way that preserves the best parts of industrial civilization, we have to start now. Now, while we are still sufficiently energy-rich and material-rich to afford the high costs of technological development and to buy time for the changes we need in public attitudes toward energy use. In other words, the Joseph Strategy.

THERE ARE THREE QUITE DIFFERENT COURSES of action that might be taken, each with its advantages and drawbacks.

The first approach is a combination of stockpiling and rationing, a “top-down” tactic that is roughly similar to the one that Joseph used. The energy stockpile most directly analogous to Joseph’s huge granaries in the cities is the national Strategic Petroleum Reserve, in existence since 1977. The capacity of the petroleum reserve is seven hundred million barrels of oil; it is not yet filled completely.

The U.S. consumption of oil is now approximately twenty million barrels per day, a little more than half of which is provided by foreign oil. Thus the reserve could hold a thirty-five-day supply. If the reserve were used to replace only the foreign oil we consume, it would last a little less than seventy days—the slower the drawdown, the longer the supply would last. By no stretch of the imagination, however, could the reserve make a significant contribution to our energy needs for more than a year or two, so stockpiling is not a factor in any long-term energy strategy.

Rationing is a different matter. Joseph kept strict control of the stockpiled grain that was sold to the hungry Egyptians. A rough counterpart was our government’s rationing of gasoline during the Second World War. When voluntary gas rationing proved ineffective, mandatory gas rationing was put in place throughout the country by December 1942. Cars used for “nonessential driving,” the majority, had yellow A stickers on their windshields, and received three to four gallons of gas per week. The sticker hardest to come by, good for unlimited fuel, was the X sticker, offered to VIPs such as members of Congress. In Washington, twelve percent of the city’s population applied for X stickers. Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady, conspicuously applied for an A sticker. Leon Henderson (Joseph’s equivalent), the head of the Office of Price Administration, the notorious OPA which administered rationing, also had an A sticker, and when he made public the names of X sticker holders, several hundred changed their minds and surrendered them.

Gas rationing worked fairly well; people understood that it was necessary, and an exercise in effective patriotism, though cars were far less important in the daily lives of Americans in the 1940s than they are today. It seems likely that some form of mandatory energy rationing will be needed again in twenty-first-century America. But in the absence of a national energy catastrophe, the only politically acceptable forms of rationing are likely to be indirect. Imposing strict gas mileage standards on all new vehicles could be a viable equivalent of rationing. Strict regulation of electricity consumption by outdoor advertising, refrigerators, and lighting fixtures would do the same, as would the mandating of ecological design criteria to reduce energy consumption in new buildings. With such equivalents of rationing in place, we would have the time and money to implement further improvements in our use of energy, and to devote more attention to our many other environmental and social problems.

THE SECOND TACTIC for the precautionary avoidance of energy shortage is technological innovation—like rationing, a top-down approach. Energy-saving technologies are already commercially available and more are being developed.

Obviously it would be ideal to couple the new energy-use and energy-generating technologies: for instance, a hydrogen fuel cell-powered car whose hydrogen is provided by energy from photovoltaic cells or wind generators. But it seems doubtful that truly renewable sources can ever provide even close to enough energy to run all the vehicular and other fuel cells in an industrialized world at the current rate of use. In the foreseeable future, we will still be powered primarily by fossil fuel. For example, in the case of hydrogen-powered fuel cells, pollution and fossil fuel consumption still exist at the original point of hydrogen production.

Therefore, however much energy we save through our inventiveness, we will sooner or later have to reduce our consumption. But in the meantime, technological innovation that increases the efficiency of energy use and provides more renewable energy is a great improvement over the wastefulness of traditional practices. It is a crime that our government is only paying lip service to most of this technology, when it should be supporting a research and production effort on the scale of the World War II Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bomb. We should be grateful that a few developments—the compact fluorescent bulb, wind power, and the hybrid car—are moving forward rapidly without much governmental assistance. And perhaps, as profits from energy-saving technologies grow, our government will belatedly join the parade. We can hope so, because technological innovation is the second, necessary part of the Joseph Strategy.

THERE IS ONE SERIOUS PROBLEM with both rationing and the new energy technologies. In this regard, the Joseph story has more to tell us. In chapter 47 of Genesis we learn what happened in Egypt after the famine began:

The famine was very severe…. Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt… and brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace. And when the money gave out… Joseph said, “Bring your livestock and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone….” And the next year [they] said to him…“With all the money and animal stocks consigned to my lord, nothing is left…. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide the seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.” So Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt for Pharaoh…. And he removed the population [to cities] from one end of Egypt’s border to the other…. Then Joseph said to the people, “... here is seed for you to sow the land. And when harvest comes, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be yours.” And they said, “You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.” (Jewish Publication Society translation)

Joseph averted overwhelming famine and death, but at a price. In some respects, the social consequences—landless economic serfdom—are reminiscent of the changes that took place in Britain at the time of the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in modern Mexico among the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples.

The net results of Joseph’s actions were not only the avoidance of terrible famine but the centralization of power in a country where it had previously been dispersed, as well as the loss of liberty for most of its inhabitants. Paradoxically, he also set the stage for the creation of a powerful regime which eventually enslaved his own descendants.

Both rationing on the one hand and technological change on the other leave us vulnerable to this side effect of the Joseph Strategy. In the case of rationing of energy sources and uses, the danger is obvious. In any rationing scheme, some people get more, others less. There is always a potential for favoritism and manipulation.

Technological innovation, like rationing, also leaves us subject to top-down control. With a few exceptions, such as the solar oven, modern technological innovation in this field requires large amounts of capital and large research establishments; and the kinds of organizations that can carry out this research—the federal government and multinational corporations—are not disposed to give up power. This research and development is not a job for enterprising young beginners. The great majority of people will have little or no opportunity to create any of the modern, energy-saving devices themselves, or to make innovations, improvements, or even repairs to the ones they buy. One has only to think of the sealed components of today’s automobiles and appliances. Some readers of this article may thoroughly understand the physics and engineering of hydrogen fuel cells, but there is probably not one of you who can build a working, useful fuel cell from scratch in your basement workshop and economically and safely generate the hydrogen to run it. Your familiar power company, or its surrogate, will still be selling and servicing your high-tech power generator. You are likely to be connected forever to the company by an umbilical cord that you cannot cut.

Mandatory rationing and technological innovation are critically necessary but we have to remember that these are top-down approaches. In times of crisis, people tend to accept strong central authority (as after the bombing of the Reichstag in 1933, or after September 11), and often find themselves sacrificing their liberty. In the face of a severe energy shortage, how much of our freedom will we be willing to lose to preserve our current lifestyle? Or can that lifestyle change?

THE THIRD PROACTIVE TACTIC for dealing with energy shortage is a largely “bottom-up” approach that does not put us at the mercy of centralized power structures or compromise our freedom. We consume far more than we need to of almost everything: food, space, material goods, and, underlying all other consumption, energy. A popular movement to lower consumption would defuse the energy crisis quickly, at little or no direct cost. Unlike rationing and most technological advances, it would reduce rather than increase centralized control and our indebtedness to energy-giving authority.

Such a movement already exists and is growing, as more and more people take themselves off the consumption treadmill. Consuming less, including much less energy, doesn’t have to mean shutting down. But an energy-sparing life of quality does not come without effort. A thousand economic and cultural obstacles, created by government in league with transnational corporations, make it hard to operate a farm, small business, or a professional practice in a low-consumption way. The spend-and-discard, mall-dwelling lifestyle is easier and more convenient, and requires much less knowledge and commitment. This is why we should not expect a widespread, dramatic conversion until the true costs of our obscene energy (and other) consumption begin to hit home with skyrocketing gasoline prices, scattered blackouts, increasing unemployment, and possibly more terrorist attacks. When this point comes, our hope must be that enough people have pioneered low-consumption ways of living to teach survival skills to the refugees who cannot imagine life without low-priced gas, cheap imports, and the produce of factory farms.

Then we will discover that the ability to reduce our own consumption will give us enormous power that cannot be taken away by higher authority. True, military-related contracts, paid by the taxpayers, can be handed out by the government, but the great bulk of buying is under our control. The power not to spend, at least on nonessential goods and services, has not yet been exploited to pressure our political leaders to look beyond materialism for the public good.

We can only be sold what we want to buy. Europeans have demonstrated this truth with their boycott of “genetically modified” (GM) food, which has in turn spelled deep financial trouble for Monsanto, its largest purveyor. Monsanto has been a major contributor to both Republican and Democratic parties, and few would say that this has not affected national policy. But if Monsanto is weakened by popular lack of demand for its products and by the opposition of other commercial interests damaged by the GM food wars, will this not reduce its political influence as well?

A voluntary lowering of consumption—the end of gross materialism—would bring about many beneficial changes in our society. It would improve our health by breaking the stressful spiral of working more to buy more—and to pay the ever-ballooning interest on credit card debt. It would increase our need and concern for each other as we rediscover that neighbors can share goods and exchange services at great savings and with much joy.

Lowering consumption would also have dramatic effects beyond the industrial world. It would reduce exploitation of children and semi-slave laborers in Third World countries, and would slow depletion of global resources. These countries could then promote a healthy, equitable commerce among themselves by forming regional trading blocs, free of the negative economic and social consequences of depending on Western markets. This in turn would lower the risk of war and international terrorism, and would narrow the now-widening gap between rich and poor everywhere.

Yet ending our consumption habit, both voluntarily and as a result of a growing energy crisis, may also cause widespread and profound commercial failures and economic disruption—possibly economic chaos. This is especially likely if the change is abrupt. A few examples will suffice. The demise of the energy-sponging, automobile-dependent suburbs without adequate provision for the people who live there, and the disappearance of giant malls without replacement of the useful services they provide and the retail jobs they generate, will bring about much suffering. We should also anticipate the loss of the sales-generated surpluses that now pay for the arts, much environmental protection, special education, and many other necessary amenities. Moreover, if local communities revive at the expense of centralized authority, we should be ready to deal with a resurgence of parochialism, prejudice, and intolerance—implementing the transition from excess to moderation will challenge both our ingenuity and our humanity, if the best of modernity is to survive the end of materialism.

THE TIME TO START DEALING with the energy crisis is now, while we still have the resources and wealth that allow us to act. This is the Joseph Strategy. A modern approach will have the three components, each with advantages and drawbacks. A judicious mix of all three—rationing, investment in technological change, and the voluntary reduction of consumption—will serve us best and do the least harm. These components can work well together—for example, in a less materialistic society, wise rationing of energy would not be onerous. And our willingness to jettison gross materialism may well evoke the kind of adroit and farseeing leadership that Joseph provided, but leadership now more by example than by command.

Perhaps our model should not be Joseph in his royal chariot, but Eleanor Roosevelt in her car with the yellow A sticker on the windshield.

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This article has been abridged for the web.

DAVID EHRENFELD is a professor of Biology at Rutgers University. His books include: The Arrogance of Humanism, Beginning Again: People and Nature in the New Millennium, and in 2003, Swimming Lessons: Keeping Afloat in the Age of Technology. He lectures widely and has written many magazine articles, including the former Orion column Raritan Letter.

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