Thursday, August 25, 2005

Four Corners

(Cross-posted at Battlepanda.)

Before we get in to the details and the scope of the energy problems we face, I'd like to start off with a parable, and apologies to Neal Stephenson, from whom I steal this literary device.

Imagine yourself at an intersection in a busy city. Every morning, people come through this intersection looking to wake themselves up.

On the first corner is Carbon Joe's Coffee. Carbon Joe has provided the city with cheap, highly-caffeinated coffee for generations. However, it also has the unfortunate side effect of making Joe's customers extremely gassy. It's gotten so bad that on some days you have to hold your breath to stand in line. Also, the once-cheap coffee has recently gotten more expensive, because of increasing consumption and turmoil in Colombia. Finally, there's the problem of litter - Joe's paper cups are showing up everywhere in the city, making the parks and steets increasingly unusable. Carbon Joe's management deny any involvement in the increasing litter problem, and a number of suspiciously well-funded think tanks have argued that there is no litter problem, or that increasing litter is a natural phenomena having to do with the cycle of the sun.

Fed up with the line-ups, litter and gas at Carbon Joe's, a few people have crossed the street to Glowing Hot Coffee. The original owner of Glowing Hot thought he had a great plan: Take a recipe originally developed by the US taxpayer for the military, and turn it to civilian uses. The first Glowing Hot franchise opened in Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1957. For a while, it looked like it might even work - one government official said Glowing Hot could make coffee "too cheap to meter." Then the problems started. A coffee machine in another Pennsylvania franchise nearly exploded. Always dependent on government aid, Glowing Hot has been unable to get any private franchises built since then.

On the other side of Main Street are stores of a different type. Instead of coffee, Bright & Breezy sells organic teas. But the business model is kind of funny - rather than charge you for each cup of tea, you make a one-time payment and get months worth of tea free after that. Of course, you can only get so much tea, and sometimes the shop closes without warning. Still, the one-time payments keep getting lower and lower, and Bright & Breezy has been growing quickly for the last decade.

On our last corner is a small herbal remedy cooperative. They don't want to sell you any tea, coffee, or any drink at all. Rather, among the sounds of the Dixie Chicks and the smell of incense, this shop wants to help you sleep better so you don't need caffeine at all. Most of their products are cheap - some are free. But before you can buy anything, they ask you a single simple question: "What do you want coffee for, anyway?"

Day after day, week after week, year after year, governments and markets shovel money at Carbon Joe's and Glowing Hot. 90% of people completely ignore the tea shops and the herbal remedy store. And all "reasonable" commentary on the national caffeine policy believes that "caffeine independence" can only be achieved by some combination of A) more intensive coffee growing, and B) massive building of new Glowing Hot franchises.

Meanwhile, the litter problem gets worse and worse. The price of coffee keeps getting more and more expensive. And families who have lived next to Glowing Hot stores for a few years are seeing a higher incidence of cancer and birth defects.

People begin to wonder: Is there another way? And then they remember those little shops across the street...

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