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Monday, January 21, 2013

Jeff Siegel's Electric Car UPDATE 2013

Will Nissan LEAF discounts spur a sales surge?

by Jeff Siegel, Energy & Capital

"It's the next big thing!"
That's what the PR guys and leggy models always tell you as they recite their boilerplate pitches in front of massive displays of cars, trucks, and guys in white lab coats. Then they hand you a pen or a mini-flashlight and move on to the next person in line. I'd say they're right about ten percent of the time.
Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't thoroughly enjoy checking out all the latest gadgets, technologies, and concepts the automakers roll out every year at the Detroit Auto Show... especially over the past few years, where hybrids and electric vehicles have taken center stage.
Of course, this year it was less about fuel economy and more about muscle; GM made a huge splash with its new 2014 Corvette Stingray.
Still, there were a number of new hybrids and electric vehicles on display that upped the ante on performance, design, and even price...
The Nissan LEAF has become the first household name in pure electric cars.
The all-electric vehicle debuted a couple of years ago and has sold about 50,000 units globally.
Although this may not sound like much, consider that the first year Toyota's hybrid superstar Prius came out, only 3,000 units were sold, and the following year, only 20,000.
Still, Nissan needs to get more units out of its factories and on the roads. And while sales have been relatively good, given the nature of the disruptive vehicle technology, the Japanese automaker has fallen short of sales goals.
So in an effort to improve sales, Nissan's 2013 LEAF will sell at an 18% discount. The company can actually pull this off, as its manufacturing costs are falling with its production moving from Japan to Tennessee.
The basic 2013 model will start at $28,800 before the $7,500 federal tax credit and any additional state tax credits.
At this price, California residents, who get a $2,500 tax credit, can get a brand-new Nissan LEAF for $18,800 — or about the same price of a size-comparable internal combustion vehicle. Of course, this one won't require you to spend a dime on 87 octane.
Now, I'm not saying the new price will definitely increase sales, but certainly this will put the vehicle's purchase price well within range of a few more car buyers who want the environmental and national security benefits that come with owning an electric vehicle, but until now just haven't been unable to come up with the cash.

Tesla Motors goes mainstream
Tesla brought some excitement to the Detroit Auto Show again this year as it showed off its electric SUV crossover, the Model X.
Due out in 2014, the Model X is Tesla's version of a family vehicle that can take you from 0 to 60 in five seconds.
This particular vehicle was actually unveiled last February, but the company used this year's Detroit Auto Show to show off its interior...
And while the interior is certainly impressive, I'm more interested in how far the vehicle can go on some homemade domestic electrons. Word is the model X is expected to deliver an all-electric range of between 250 and 300 miles (though it should be noted that no official numbers have been released by the company).
The all-electric SUV crossover is likely to run you about $58,000 before the federal tax credit. Certainly not a cheap vehicle, but at roughly the same price, Tesla has had little problem selling its Model S. And to be honest, Tesla's not a company I'd bet against.
No, they probably won't do the numbers that GM, Nissan, and Toyota will do over the next few years... but they don't have to.
And that's why I expect to see Tesla pumping out the cream of the crop in electric offerings for years to come.

General Motors electrifies the Caddy

Basing its powertrain on that of the Volt, GM's new Cadillac ELR was unveiled this week in Detroit.
This vehicle is intended to be the first luxury electric coupe in GM's lineup — and word is it's looking to position this vehicle as a competitor to Tesla's higher-end offerings.
Although I do think the Chevy Volt is one hell of a great car, I believe the company's going to be in for a tough ride with the ELR — unless the price is ridiculously low.
Looking at the vehicle, it just doesn't have the same modern look, sparkle, and shine that we see from Tesla. As well, it's really an apples-to-oranges comparison in that the ELR is an extended-range vehicle, while Tesla's offerings are pure electric.
Quite frankly, I think GM would be better off focusing on price reductions on the Volt or a cheaper extended-range vehicle that maybe wouldn't be as shiny as the Volt, but would deliver greater fuel economy at a cheaper price.
If you want to get these vehicles on the road, I don't think pumping out expensive, high-end vehicles is the way to do it — at least, not ones that look like the ELR.
The only reason Tesla can get away with it is because when it comes to vehicle design and performance, it's in a league of its own.

Toyota still pushing the envelope

This year Toyota showed off its second generation Toyota RAV4 electric and its second generation Scion iQ EV.
But the real star of Toyota's lineup was the NS4.
Some are calling it the Prius of the future, but Toyota insists it isn't part of the Prius family.
A dedicated plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), it's more fuel efficient, offers a longer all-electric range compared to the PHEV Prius, and comes with better acceleration as well. Charging times are also expected to be shorter.
But the real sell on the NS4 is that its really upping the ante on what consumers can expect from a PHEV...
First, the NS4 comes with a Human-Machine Interface (HMI) that provides a user interface built around a multi-touch screen.
It basically looks and feels like a smartphone. The multimedia and vehicle-controls of the HMI system can direct air conditioning, audio, battery charging, and navigation functions. It can also “learn” driver preferences and habits to anticipate driver responses in specific environments and situations.
Toyota is also using the NS4 to showcase its new glass technologies that are integrated into the windshield and front triangle, door, and rear windows. These new technologies allow for improved driver visibility, gas mileage and electric drive mode mileage efficiency.
This really is some next-generation stuff. And here's how Toyota is touting it:
  • Hydrophobic coating – Fluorine-coated glass causes rain drops to form into semispherical shapes for improved visibility and rain drop elimination. It's also used on the roof solar panel.
  • Anti-fog film – High performance resin material with anti-fogging characteristics and increased durability.
  • High ultraviolet absorbing inner-layer – Removes 99% of harmful UVA and UVB rays.
  • Anti-solar film with radio-wave transparency – Reduces the internal vehicle temperature and improves electronic device functionality.
And all of this is being integrated in a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. No glorified golf carts here, my friend!
President and COO of Toyota Sales USA told reporters that by the middle of the decade, the automaker plans to transfer its plug-in hybrid technology into other models — and also aims to launch a midsize sedan that runs on hydrogen fuel cells.
Change is coming, my friends... fast and furious.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Saudi Arabia plans photovoltaic future

By Angus McDowall and Reem Shamseddine
RIYADH/DAMMAM, May 23 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, may finally be getting serious about overcoming the technical and financial hurdles for tapping its other main resource: sunshine.

Thousands of solar power panels have sprung up across Europe over the past few years, thanks to generous subsidies that make the technology an attractive alternative to conventional energy.

Saudi Arabia too, wants to generate much more solar power as it lacks coal or enough natural gas output to meet rapidly rising power demand.

Doing so would allow it to slash the volume of oil it burns in power plants bankrolled by billions of dollars worth of saved oil earnings.

"At world market prices, solar is competitive if you use crude oil to generate electricity," said Maher al-Odan, a senior consultant at King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Research (KA-CARE) which was set up to plan Saudi Arabia's energy mix.

Saudi Arabia has said it wants to become a major solar producer before, but its investments amount to much less than 50 megawatts versus several countries which have added thousands of megawatts a year.

This month, KA-CARE set forth a much more ambitious plan, recommending that the kingdom aim to get more than a third of its peak-load power supply, or about 41 gigawatts (GW), from the sun within two decades at an estimated cost well over $100 billion.

Making the plan work economically rests on three assumptions: that technology improvements will cut costs, that a domestic solar industry will emerge and create jobs for a booming population, and that many billions of dollars worth of exportable oil will be saved.

An average of 700,000 barrels a day of crude were used in Saudi power stations during the peak air-conditioning demand period from May to September last year, according to official data supplied to the Joint Organisations Data Initiative (JODI).

Although a rise in gas production should temper crude burning this summer, it will likely rise substantially in years ahead unless alternatives are found, and fast.

"Domestic oil consumption is rising very rapidly and you get far more value for oil if it's exported than if it's consumed domestically," said Paul Gamble, chief economist at Jadwa Research in Riyadh.


KA-CARE said the first two solar plants, with combined capacity of 3 GW, might be put to tender in the first quarter of next year.

One of these will use concentrated solar power (CSP), which Riyadh says could supply an eventual 25 GW of the total 41 GW of planned solar capacity.

The other will use photovoltaic (PV), the technology expected to meet the rest of the overall goal.

CSP is relatively new and much more expensive than PV. But unlike PV, it can store solar energy for several hours, which is a big advantage in a country where air conditioning demand remains high in summer long after the sun has gone down.

Both technologies will suffer efficiency losses in Saudi Arabia's harsh, arid conditions, but long periods of intense sunshine should help compensate.

"High temperatures in situations with high direct solar irradiation can have a significant impact on the maximum possible power output," according to GFZ Potsdam, Germany's national research centre for Earth Sciences.

Another problem could stem from desert dust that can reduce solar energy by 10-20 percent in efficiency, according to King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals.

"We have losses due to high temperatures and so on," KA-CARE's Odan said in an interview, comparing the likely performance of solar power in Saudi Arabia with that of Germany, the world's leading solar power.

"But what we gain from high radiation (from increased sunshine) more than compensates for the loss of efficiency."


Paddy Padmanathan, chief executive of Acwa Power, which has developed eight fossil fuel power plants in Saudi Arabia and is bidding to build a large CSP plant in Morocco, said solar should be competitive for peak-time supply against gas and oil.

He said that at Saudi Arabia's heavily subsidized gas price of $0.75 per million British thermal units (mmbtu), utilities could provide electricity at a cost of 7.5 halalas ($0.02) per kilowatt hour (kWh).

However, if the gas was valued at $6 per mmbtu, closer to world market prices, the cost of electricity would rise to 34 halalas/kWh.

Yet oil-fired power costs around 12.5 halalas/kWh at the Saudi oil supply price of $4.40 a barrel, rising to 60 halalas/kWh with oil valued closer to world levels at $80 a barrel.

By comparison, PV could deliver electricity for 45 halalas/kWh and CSP for 70 halalas.

While those prices are uncompetitive against artificially low gas prices in Saudi Arabia, he said solar power should work out cheaper when the cost of keeping large oil and gas plants on standby for delivering peak-load power are factored in.

"It makes economic sense as a kilowatt hour produced from solar will be cheaper than that produced through traditional electricity production," said Christopher Burghardt, managing director at First Solar, which is opening a Gulf office.

But some industry experts say that while a recent slide in PV costs makes the maturing technology attractive, CSP costs need to fall further to guarantee swift payback on the Saudi investment plan.

"PV is highly competitive now against oil and against the higher cost gas the Saudis have available," Robin Mills, head of Manaar Energy Consulting, said.

"For CSP, would it be competitive against oil valued against international prices? I think it would be marginal," said Mills, who has published studies on the commercial viability of solar power in the Middle East.

KA-CARE's Odan said he anticipated the cost of CSP in particular would drop as the technology evolves and the market grows but Mills said there is more downside on PV costs.

Because Saudi Arabia wants to keep consumer electricity prices very low, solar power investments will need hefty state support.

But the economic benefits of saving hundreds of thousands of barrels a day of oil, the country's largest export earner, supports the economic case.

"We know well that the cost of generating power from these sources will be higher and we did a model that will help us bridge the gap," said Khalid al-Sulaiman, vice president for renewables at KA-CARE.

"You call it subsidies. I don't call it subsidies and many countries don't call it subsidies. They are incentives for the sector."


KA-CARE expects the aim of developing an indigenous solar industry to increase costs.

Yet this offers the benefit of hi-tech job creation and the prospect for developing new solar technologies in the country.

To that end, the kingdom will require bidders for big solar projects to offer jobs to Saudi nationals and technology transfers.

KA-CARE plans to pick the best technology currently available around the world and develop it further and sees most scope for this in the comparatively immature CSP market.

"They factor in an assumption about domestic value creation to the local economy from the creation of a new industry, and also for the export of new technology," said Gamble.

"I think to justify that level of money you would need to make some assumptions that both those factors would be significant." 

(Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein and Maha El Dahan, editing by Daniel Fineren and Jason Neely)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Downturn in China a matter of Hu and Wen

Xi and Li set to take stage, need to shine in 2013 and 2014

Think of sequential quarterly earnings reports and the pressure these put on senior executives to continually outperform the past, and then multiply that pressure by 10,000 times. Got it? That is China in transition to its 5th Generation of leaders, Xi and Li.

Consider avoiding commodity and resource funds for at least next six months

Expectations and economic performance are both down in 2012, and global investors should look for this trend to continue for at least another half year. Why? With the new leaders being appointed this October and taking full power in early 2013, this is an ideal time for a down year in China. The growth target is 7.5%, the lowest in years, but it may actually turn out to be a year of negative growth, for two main reasons.

One: Xi and Li will want to have decent year-over-year numbers, at least from mid-2013 and on, so between now and the end of the year, the current "lame duck" administration will be given plenty of incentives to let things slide, so that any rebound and turnaround can be credited to the next leaders. The legacy of the 4th Generation has already been firmly established, so a few months of sliding numbers will not tarnish their massive accomplishments.

Two: Commodity prices; any shoring up of the Chinese economy in the near-term will boost commodity prices, whereas it will be far more beneficial for Xi and Li if commodities happen to drop precipitously over the next year.

Summary: If you believe that China will loosen credit significantly in the coming weeks to avoid a severe downturn, keep an eye out for cosmetic moves that make it appear the government is dealing head-on with the situation, when in reality they will likely be conspiring to slow the rate of decline, but not the decline itself. That work will begin around November to February.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bombay Stock Exchange launches BSE Greenex sustainability index

Asia’s oldest bourse, the Bombay Stock Exchange launched its carbon index – the BSE Greenex – a new index of sustainability stocks that help investors looking for green companies. Green companies, or companies that have the best environmental practices to reduce their carbon footprint, are now increasingly seen as more sustainable in the long run.

Global investments in green energy grew by nearly a third to $211 billion in 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, according to data from the United Nations Environmental Program More than half of those were in developing countries.

Here are pointers on how this could benefit you:

• Greenex has 20 companies from the broader BSE 100 index that meet energy efficiency norms, allowing investors to derive benefit from the related cost savings. The company with the biggest weightage in this index is Tata Steel at 6.7 per cent. ICICI Bank, State Bank of India, HDFC, Sun Pharma and BHEL are the other major constituents of the Index. The exchange says that these companies are good in terms of carbon emissions, free-float market capitalization (non-promoter holding) and daily turnover.

• The index will allow investors to track companies that invest in energy efficient practices. Energy-saving practices allow companies to save money, thus improving profitability as well as having an environmental impact. "There are many socially aware investors willing to pay a premium to invest in green companies in the hope of getting better returns," said Ashishkumar Chauhan, BSE's deputy chief executive officer.

• The Greenex will allow asset managers to create products to help investors put their money in green enterprises.

• The Greenex is targeted at retail, as well as institutional investors such as pension funds looking for investments in companies with strong long-term prospects and develop green financial products.

• Investors can invest in a mutual fund that invests in companies that form this Greenex.

The Greenex index includes stocks that meet energy efficiency norms, allowing investors to bet on securities that are best placed to benefit from the related cost savings.

The index will have 20 companies selected from the BSE-100 index and will help institutional and retail investors evaluate a particular stock on the basis of the amount of money these firms save by being energy efficient, said a person involved with the matter.

Corporate affairs minister Veerappa Moily will on Wednesday make an announcement to this effect.

He confirmed that he will be part of the function at BSE.

The Greenex gauge has been developed by gTrade, a local firm working on financial innovations in energy efficiency, and BSE Ltd. While BSE provides the financial analytics, the carbon analytics are provided by gTrade.

“One of the parameters for measurement of efficiency performance used in Greenex calculation is emissions intensity, total emissions upon total revenue (which is assumed to be a close proxy for energy efficiency),” the person said on condition of anonymity. “Mandatory disclosures on energy usage by assessed companies make it possible to estimate these numbers for listed companies.”

Currently, groups such as the Confederation of Indian Industry collect and publicize voluntary disclosures made by companies of their environmental performance.

Several similar indices, such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, list companies based on their environmental peformance. However, the same person said that the Greenex will be different and will assess companies relative to others in its sector and not a generic set of performance indicators, “thus, if for example, one measures ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd) against other such firms, one can know the relative efficiency levels,” the person said.

The approach is in line with a relatively recent push by government to get companies to become less polluting by eschewing penalties for poor performance, and instead provide monetary incentives for outperformance.

“It’s certainly in the larger vision of how government intends to move forward on getting companies to be more energy efficient. But I can’t really comment on the specifics of this,” said Ajay Mathur, director-general, Bureau for Energy Efficiency (BEE). BEE is a nodal government wing that promotes energy efficiency schemes by government.

India, which has refused to adopt a legally-binding cap on its emissions, has announced a national action plan on climate change to tackle the challenge. One of these is a scheme called the perform, achieve and trade (PAT) mechanism by which industries that achieve energy-efficiency targets, over and above stipulated limits, can trade their surpluses with those that fail to meet targets using energy certificates.

As much as 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emission is expected to be curbed by this scheme, according to the government’s estimate.

Independent analysts say that this initiative could be helpful for PAT. “It could be very useful, however, it would require quality disclosures by companies on how well they’ve managed their emissions,” said Seema Arora, a top official in the environment unit of CII.

“This is a responsible form of doing business and adds to the brand image of the corporation,” said Arup Roy Choudhury, chairman and managing director of NTPC Ltd. “We as a company have been looking at ways and means to be environmentally sustainable, which is also a good way to do business.”

The power producer said it has improved the efficiency of its boilers and has brought it up to around 41% from 32%. This is because for every percentage improvement in boiler efficiency, the coal consumption and carbon dioxide emissions come down by 2.5%.

Similarly, India’s largest car maker Maruti Suzuki India Ltd has taken steps to save energy.

“We look at how can we conserve energy on producing a particular car,” said Ajay Seth, chief financial officer, Maruti Suzuki.

Maruti Suzuki has been able to reduce per vehicle electricity consumption by 32% and 38% at its Gurgaon and Manesar plants, respectively. Similarly, per vehicle water consumption has reduced by 62% and 61%, respectively.

Both facilities are zero water discharge outside factory premises.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

As China construction falls off, oil prices will follow

In January in China, the bulldozer sales volume is 460 sets, declines by 66.64% year-on-year and 18.73% month-on-month, becoming the worst since January 2010. The sales volume in domestic market is 226 sets, declining by 79.25% year-on-year. The export volume is 234 sets, declining by 19.31% year-on-year.

World crude steel production fell 7.8 percent to 117 million tonnes in January, compared with the same month last year, World Steel Association data showed. China's crude steel output fell 13 percent in the same period to 52.1 million tonnes.

China's four biggest state-owned banks extended about 70 billion yuan ($11.1 billion) in new local-currency loans from Feb. 1-19, suggesting a big drop in lending, the Shanghai Securities News reported on Wednesday.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is expected to target growth of less than 8 percent for the world's second-biggest economy in his report to the National People's Congress on March 5, according to 8 of 15 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. The government had an 8 percent goal from 2005 to 2011, however, even a return to that level of growth may be difficult in a real estate downturn.

Look for oil prices to peak in coming weeks and then retreat below $90.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Green Mutual Funds provide value to communities

The Value In Socially Responsible Investing

Marc L. Ross, Investopedia

Once considered a niche area of investment practice, socially responsible investment (SRI) now embraces a wide investment audience that includes individuals, high net worth and otherwise, and institutions such as pension plans, endowments and foundations. Religious tenets, political beliefs, specific events and the broad remit of corporate responsibility (i.e. green investing, social welfare) all drive this investment practice.

Indeed, the professional association USSIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, estimates in its "2010 Report on Socially Responsible Investing Trends" that around $3 trillion in assets under management subscribe to one or more of the aforementioned approaches to socially responsible investing.

$316 billion in socially responsible mutual funds alone

Over 250 mutual funds in the United States alone, utilize a social screening process, with assets of approximately $316 billion. There are hedge and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that adopt a socially conscious approach to investment, as well.

Socially responsible investing expresses the investor's value judgment of which several approaches may be used. One example is when an investor avoids companies or industries that offer products or services the investor perceives to be harmful. The tobacco, alcohol and defense industries are commonly avoided by people who try to be socially responsible investors.

In the 1980s, divestment of American companies doing business with South Africa was highly publicized. Another is a performance ranking in terms of how well a company achieves on not only financial metrics, but also on social, environmental, governance and ethical issues.

Yet another involves active engagement between the company's shareholders and its management. Finally, there is the activist tack that involves the investor advocating specific issues. Any one or a combination of these approaches is a critical driver in the process of portfolio management and fiduciary oversight.

Moreover, the practice is global, with different approaches emphasized in various countries as a function of their culture, government, business environment and their interrelationship. What obtains as socially responsible or not has led to differing opinions on whether these approaches yield competitive returns.

For Whose Benefit?

Socially conscious investors may assume a more holistic view of a company when making investment decisions, looking at how it serves its stakeholders, a rubric under which are subsumed not only shareholders, but also creditors, management, employees, the community, customers and suppliers. Within this context, socially responsible investment seeks to maximize welfare while earning a return on one's investment that is consistent with the investor's goals.

On the surface, these two notions may appear contradictory. For example, there may be an implicit cost of such an approach to the extent that it eschews profitable companies and sectors. Tobacco, alcohol, firearms and gambling have been lucrative industries.

However, to a socially conscious investor, their inclusion in a portfolio would fail to serve the investor's objectives of living in a world void of conflict and legal stimulants and depressants. As with any investment approach, the socially conscious investor needs to:

- Define his, her or its risk and return objectives and constraints.

- As to the latter, the investor needs to determine what its socially conscious constraints are. These may differ considerably, depending upon the investor. Muslims who wish to be compliant with Shari'a law would exclude any companies connected with the production, sale and distribution of alcohol, any financial institution that lends and any business that profits from gambling. Investors opposed to armed conflict as a means of dispute resolution may avoid any company or industry associated with defense, national security or firearms.

- Once the investor defines its constraints, it must decide upon an approach to implement them, be it the use of inclusionary or exclusionary screens, best practices criteria or advocacy. The type of investor may determine the most suitable approach. For example, advocacy and dialog with a company or industry would be better suited to a large public pension fund.

Consider the work of CalPERS or the Swiss billionaire activist Martin Ebner, the latter more an example of individual shareholder activism. By contrast, an individual investor working with an advisor would find the screening process more feasible.

- Social investing has implicit costs - the returns potentially foregone through the exclusion of companies with unacceptable products or business practices - and explicit costs.

For those considering an active approach, fees for exchange-traded and mutual funds tend to be a bit higher. For investors seeking a passive management, there are fewer indices to replicate and the funds that do typically bear higher costs.

- Diversification is always an important consideration. Screens may hamper this process, unintentionally or otherwise.
Utilizing this type of traditional investment framework would appear to make the process manageable, so long as the investor weighs the costs and benefits of this type of investment approach carefully.

However, there could appear to be a dilemma upon whose horns the investor invariably would be impaled. For example, if investment in such "vice" products as alcohol and tobacco is anathema to a socially conscious investor, what about the transport and energy industries?

After all, the products have to be shipped to the point of sale which requires various means of transport which, in turn, require fuel. These types of considerations make the precise definition of one's socially responsible investment goals all the more crucial. The practice is often a gray area.

Depending upon the perspective of the individual, companies may display characteristics that are both irresponsible and responsible.

The Bottom Line
Socially responsible investment reflects an investor's values. While the opportunities in this realm of investment management have grown considerably, one may not ignore best practices of investing.

The investor must clearly define their goals when undertaking this sort of approach, recognizing its potential trade-offs and clearly articulating a policy that considers all the variables when looking to maximize the good over the plentiful and abundant.

Risk management and attention to costs are essential. Research seems to indicate that results from socially conscious investing are not statistically significant from a more conventional approach.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why "Peak Nature" requires a collective consciousness bump

Capitalism has no soul, by Timothy Morton,

Nature is the featureless remainder at either end of the process of production. Either it’s exploitable stuff, or value-added stuff. Whatever: it’s basically featureless, abstract, gray. It has nothing to do with nematode worms and orangutans, organic chemicals in comets and rock strata. You can scour the Earth from mountaintop to Marianas Trench. You will never find Nature. That’s why I put it in capitals. I want the reader to see that it’s an empty category looking for something to fill it. Gray goo.

Capitalism did away with feudal and pre-feudal myths such as the divine hierarchy between classes of people. In so doing, however, it substituted one heck of a giant myth of its own: Nature. Nature is precisely the lump that preexists the capitalist labor process. Martin Heidegger has the best term for it: standing reserve, Bestand.

Bestand means “stuff,” as in the old ad from the 1990s, “Drink Pepsi: Get Stuff.” There is an ontology implicit in capitalist production, then, that is strictly materialism as defined by Aristotle. Funnily enough, however, this materialism is not fascinated with material objects in all their manifold specificity. It’s just stuff. This viewpoint is the basis of Aristotle’s problem with materialism. Have you ever seen or handled matter? Have you ever held a piece of “stuff”? Sure, I’ve seen lots of objects: Santa Claus in a department store, snowflakes and photographs of atoms. But have I ever seen matter or stuff as such? Aristotle says it’s a bit like searching through a zoo to find the “animal” rather than the various species such as monkeys and mynah birds. Marx says exactly the same thing regarding capital. “The ‘expanded’ form [of the commodity] passes into the ‘general’ form when some commodity is excluded, exempted from the collection of commodities, and thus appears as the general equivalent of all commodities, as the immediate embodiment of Commodity as such, as if, by the side of all real animals, there existed the Animal, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom – or as if, to use an example from commercial capitalism, by the side of all real spices, there existed the Spice.” As Nature goes, so goes matter. The two most progressive physical theories of our age, ecology and quantum theory, need have nothing to do with it.

What is bestand? Bestand is stockpiling. Gallon after gallon of oil waiting to be tapped. Row upon row of big box houses waiting to be inhabited. Terabyte after terabyte of memory waiting to be filled. Stockpiling is the art of the zeugma – the yoking of things you hear in phrases such as “wave upon wave” or “bumper to bumper.” Stockpiling is the dominant mode of social existence. Giant parking lots empty of cars, huge tables in restaurants across which you can’t hold hands, vast empty lawns. Nature is stockpiling. Range upon range of mountains, receding into the distance. The Rocky Flats nuclear bomb trigger factory was sited precisely to evoke this kind of mountainous stockpile. The eerie strangeness of this fact confronts us with the ways in which we still believe that Nature is “over there” – that it exists apart from technology, apart from history. Far from it. Nature is the stockpile of stockpiles.

So again, I ask, what exactly are we sustaining when we talk about sustainability? An intrinsically out of control system that sucks in gray goo at one end and pushes out gray value at the other. It’s Natural goo, Natural value. Result? Mountain ranges of inertia, piling higher every year, while humans boil away in the agony of uncertainty. Just take a look at Manufactured Landscapes: the ocean of telephone dials, dials as far as the eye can see, somewhere in China. A real ocean – it lies there at this very moment.

Societies embody philosophies. Actually, what we have in modernity is much, much worse than just instrumentality. Here we must depart from Heidegger. What’s worse is the location of essence in some beyond, away from any specific existence. To this extent, capitalism is itself Heideggerian! Whether we call it scientism, deconstruction, relationism or just good old-fashioned Platonic forms, there is no essence in what exists. Either the beyond is itself nonexistent (deconstruction, nihilism), or it’s some kind of real away from “here.” The problem, then, is not essentialism but this very notion of a beyond. Think of what Tony Hayward said. He said that the Gulf of Mexico was a huge ocean, and that the spill was tiny by comparison. Nature would absorb the industrial accident. I don’t want to quibble about the relative size of ocean and spill, as if an even larger spill would somehow have gotten it into Hayward’s thick head that it was bad news. I simply want to point out the metaphysics involved in Hayward’s assertion, which we could call capitalist essentialism. The essence of reality is capital and Nature. Both exist in an ethereal beyond. Over here, where we live, is an oil spill. But don’t worry. The beyond will take care of it.

Meanwhile, despite Nature, despite gray goo, real things writhe and smack into one another. Some leap out because industry malfunctions, or functions only too well. Oil bursts out of its ancient sinkhole and floods the Gulf of Mexico. Gamma rays shoot out of plutonium for 24,000 years. Hurricanes congeal out of massive storm systems, fed by the heat from the burning of fossil fuels. The ocean of telephone dials grows ever larger. Paradoxically, capitalism has unleashed myriad objects upon us, in their manifold horror and sparkling splendor. Two hundred years of idealism, two hundred years of seeing humans at the center of existence, and now the objects take revenge, terrifyingly huge, ancient, long-lived, threateningly minute, invading every cell in our body.

Modern life presents us with a choice:

1) The essence of things is elsewhere (in the deep structure of capital, the unconscious, Being).

2) There is no essence. (At present I believe that the restriction of rightness and coolness to this choice is one reason why planet Earth is in big trouble right now. And I believe that the choice resembles a choice between grayish brown and brownish gray). That’s why I believe in a third choice:

3) There is an essence, and it’s right here, in the object resplendent with its sensual qualities yet withdrawn.

And that’s why I believe we are entering a new era of academic work, where the point will not be to one-up each other by appealing to the trace of the givenness of the openness of the clearing of the lighting of the being of the pencil. Thinking past “meta mode” will at least bring us up to speed with the weirdness of things, a weirdness that evolution, ecology, relativity and quantum theory all speak about. This weirdness resides on the side of objects themselves, not our interpretation of them.

When we flush the toilet, we imagine that the U-bend takes the waste away into some ontologically alien realm. Ecology is now beginning to tell us of something very different: a flattened world without ontological U-bends. A world in which there is no “away.” Marx was partly wrong, then, when in The Communist Manifesto he claimed that in capitalism all that is solid melts into air. He didn’t see how a kind of hypersolidity oozes back into the emptied out space of capitalism, a hypersolidity I call here hyperobjects. This oozing real comes back and can no longer be ignored, so that even when the spill is supposedly “gone and forgotten,” there, look! There it is, mile upon mile of strands of oil just below the surface, square mile upon square mile of ooze floating at the bottom of the ocean. The cosmic U-bend is no more. It can’t be gone and forgotten – even ABC News knows that now.

When I hear the word “sustainability” I reach for my sunscreen.

The End of the World
When Neo touches a mirror in The Matrix it adheres to his hand, instantly changing from reflective surface to viscous substance. The very thing that we use to reflect becomes an object in its own right, liquid and dark like oil in the dim light of the room in which Neo has taken the red pill. The usual reading of this scene is that Neo’s reality is dissolving. If we stay on the level of the sticky, oily mirror, however, we obtain an equally powerful reading. It’s not reality that dissolves, but the subject, the very capacity to “mirror” things, to be separate from the world like someone looking at a reflection in a mirror – removed from it by an ontological sheet of reflective glass. The sticky mirror demonstrates the truth of what phenomenology calls ingenuousness or sincerity (I’m thinking here of the work of Ortega y Gasset, Levinas and Graham Harman). Objects are what they are, in the sense that no matter what we are aware of, or how, there it is, impossible to shake off. In the midst of irony, there you are, being ironic. Even mirrors are what they are, no matter what they reflect. In its ingenuous sincerity, reality envelops us like a film of oil. The mirror becomes a substance, an object. Hyperobjects push the reset button on sincerity, just as Neo discovers that the mirror no longer distances his image from him in a nice, aesthetically manageable way, but sticks to him.

The beautiful reversibility of the oily, melting mirror speaks to something that is happening in a global warming age, precisely because of hyperobjects: the simultaneous dissolution of reality and the overwhelming presence of hyperobjects, which stick to us, which are us. The Greeks called it miasma, the way blood-guilt sticks to you.

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