Friday, January 28, 2011

The Downside of Abstraction

Many years ago—and I mean many—I was actively involved supporting a project to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Arzew in Algeria to the American East Coast. My employer then, an engineering firm, had pioneered a novel way of containing huge masses of LNG in excavations in the ground employing cryogenic equipment to keep suitable clay frozen as it held this strange but valuable substance. Back in those days, in the oil fields of Algeria, natural gas was a waste product and simply flared to the skies in order to get rid of it—and this project intended to capture this waste, concentrate it by freezing and compression, and getting it to a market where it was in demand. A story on the New York Times business page today therefore drew my attention. This is a case of an entrepreneur hoping to export natural gas from the United States to Europe and to Asia—where prices for the gas are twice what they are here.

My mind then, as I pondered this situation in the light of recent economic and resource events, produced an observation. “The downside of abstraction”—I found myself spontaneously thinking. It took me a moment to unwrap this thought. Gas and energy were obviously in the background—but so was China’s recent curtailment of its exports—namely of rare earths, vital, as these are, for the coming post-petroleum age. Also present behind this incomplete slogan was President Obama’s promotion of exports at the State of the Union—and the fact that the U.S. Department of Energy had already approved the entrepreneur’s intention to export natural gas from these shores. And then I’d finally parsed the thought. What my unconscious had produced was an insight. In this country we’ve become so accustomed to valuing the abstraction of money that we’ve become blind to the concrete character and value of natural resources. Therefore the Department of Energy—which should be principally concerned about our energy future but which, like every other institution, reflexively worships abstraction, had approved shipping away resources we need right here to see us through the gigantic transformation into a fossil-free age.

Money is certainly a valuable tool—but its ultimate meaning resides in what it denominates concretely. If we don’t maintain this distinction—as the Chinese certainly do—we’re bound to make mistakes we’ll later regret.

On the same page of the paper Brigitte also highlighted a story about investor millions rushing into funding social networking sites. This story talked about LinkedIn hoping to go public. “All this eager investment in ephemera?” she jotted in the margin. And then, using a huge curved arrow, she pointed to the natural gas story by way of contrast. I saw the paper after she had read it. Hence my spontaneous production of that headline contains within it the linkage between these two stories—and shows you that socially networking with your mate will produce blog posts. But nobody is sending me any money.

1 comment:

  1. It is, as you have pointed out in many different way through many posts, an amazing thing to see how blind a society can be to its own vulnerabilities. The fact that we continue to treat energy as just another commodity is quite remarkable when you consider, even lightly, just how much of modern life depends upon inexpensive energy.

    To one-on-one social networking!