Path Home Shows 2009 Show Archive December 2009 Show 0952 Interview with Lowell Catlett

Interview with Lowell Catlett

We visit with noted economist and futurist, Dr. Lowell Catlett, about the greening of America and how it affects every industry from energy to food.
Interview with Lowell Catlett

Lowell Catlett

Show Dates

Show 0952: Interview with Lowell Catlett

Air date: December 27, 2009



Rob:  Well among his many talents, Dr Lowell Catlett is a professor, advisor, lecturer, and above all, a futurist.  Now his expertise on how emerging technologies affect daily life has been sought by such prestigious institutions as M-I-T, Harvard, and Cornell.  Now I caught up with Dr Catlett at this year’s Revolution Wind Conference in Oklahoma City to get his view on the future of an environmentally sustainable economy.

Rob:  Dr Catlett, how much has environmental impact, how much is it impacting our economy?

Lowell Catlett:  Probably more so than just about anything right now, simply because we have three full generations in the workforce now that grew up in an environment where the economy was predicated upon environment being part of that economy.  So those generations know that you have to have clean water to get by.  So we all grew up cleaning up rivers, cleaning up the atmosphere, and now we’re taking it to the next level where we are saying you know, there’s a lot of sustainable energy, biodiesel, solar, wind in the Great Plains, so it’s a generational thing.  My father’s generation was basically trying to get by and build a world.  And we’re now coming back and saying, okay, let’s make it a better world.   And so it’s got great legs.

Rob:  Anyway could this be a double edged sword from, in terms of maybe regulation to the cost benefit factor?

Catlett:  Well, there’s no question, and I also tell people to understand there’s no substitute for big infrastructures, and I don’t know about you, but I can remember the first science class I had where I was told that by 1980 there would be no more fossil fuel, you know.  And I’m thinking, gee, and I don’t even have a driver’s license and we’re going to run out of gasoline.  But guess what, every year we find more provable reserves, and it’s not because we can’t intellectually know that there’s a finite amount of oil, it’s just technology and a lot of infrastructure in the petroleum industry will find those.  So, we will have a major use of energy in the petroleum complex, simply because of the price tradeoff, because they can do it very efficiently.  And the alternative energies may have to have, in the case of ethanol, subsidies for a while to get the technology, because when the price of oil is thirty bucks a barrel, you can’t make ethanol out of corn, it’s got a better use in animal feed.  But at sixty dollars a barrel for petroleum, then you can have other alternatives compete.  So it’s that tradeoff, but the thing that forces the tradeoff, either by subsidies or by people just saying, you know what, I’ll pay a little bit more if I know my utility is getting wind, a green energy source, in Oklahoma and helping the environment; so because we have those generations that value it, and are willing to pay for it.

Rob:  From an economic standpoint, can our society afford not to invest in this new green energy?

Catlett:  I don’t think we cannot afford to do it, simply because as we found out, if you don’t take advantage of these things, it’s like waste.  You can only throw so much plastic and glass and stuff in a landfill, and then at some point the cost of those landfills, to maintain them, becomes so high that it becomes economically advantageous to start a recycling program to keep the amount of refuse in a landfill down.  So you have to reach that cusp, to where you understand that everything we do has a tradeoff, and energy is one of those.  If you are going to have nuclear, you have a tradeoff.  If you’re going to have petroleum based energy, you have a tradeoff.  And if you’re going to have green energy, it has to compete with the others; so the tradeoff may be, you have no residual, but you may have to subsidize it for a period of time, until it becomes cost effective.  But you really can’t, in the long run, afford not to, because you simply.  We have a saying in agriculture that not even pigs eat and defecate in the same place.  And as humans, we’re finding that out.  You have to, you can only move the waste products away so long, and get it out-of-sight-out-of-mind until it comes back; and you have to basically understand, we all live, and you have to have clean air and clean water, and you have to have renewable energy to the extent that, we, as a species, will live longer; so it’s economically important to maintain those.

Rob:  As a futurist do you see these changes happening sooner than later?

Catlett:  I see them happening as quick as people will understand the tradeoff, of the cost.  And I think that you’ll find the generation now, that we call the ‘Y’ generation, is probably the most philanthropic generation since my parent’s generation which was called, by Tom Brokaw, ‘the greatest generation.’  They’re very philanthropic in causes, and they are very willing to put their money on causes.  As I use the example, my generation, we earned money so we could go to Mazatlan for spring break or fundraisers at college so we could have a beer party.  Thirty-eight percent of that generation, spring break is to go to work in Habitat for Humanity, or for humanitarian causes; and any fundraisers they have at universities, the vast majority of them are for philanthropic causes.  It is engrained in their soul and in their being, that we’re all in this environment together, and we can’t separate us out.

Rob:  So which comes first, attitude or the investment?

Catlett:  Well in our society, where we’ve got several generations, we have to take both of them.  We have to have those investments to give a business, ethanol.  I use the example of ethanol and corn.  If we didn’t subsidize ethanol, we’re now on our eighth generation of new fermentation technology, that if we hadn’t been subsidizing ethanol, we would be that far behind in developing the next level of ethanol which will be cellulosic based ethanol.  But if we hadn’t subsidized it for twenty years, then we wouldn’t have the ability to make that leapfrog into the next generation.  So it takes part of that and it takes the attitude to do it too; some generations, some people (whines) recycling (whines).  But when it’s an attitude, and it’s engrained in you, it’s just second nature.

Rob:  At the same time, it does seem that a lot of things we talk about when we talk about renewable energy are just over the horizon.  And it seems like, for a long time, they’ve just been over the horizon.

Catlett:  Yeah and probably the one that is always just over the horizon, more than anything, is fusion and the nuclear arena.  It just seems like there’s a promise that we’ll get fusion someday.  This free energy; and you know it’s just, that’s, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t keep working on it, but that one.  Wind, we had wind, we had a wind generator.  I’m 60 years of age; we had a wind generator for our electricity for the first five years on the ranch before rural electrification got the powerline, we had and old wind generator.  So certain technologies aren’t on the horizon, and in fact many have been used for a long time.  Solar just keeps moving along; each new year we get a more efficient solar cell; so that over the horizon moves us to a point now, and we just signed an agreement on our college ranch in New Mexico to do a test of a new technology in solar panels which is a direct conversion of thermal to electricity, and we have a lot of geothermal wells in southern New Mexico.  And they’re taking hot water, just has to be 140 degrees.  At 140 degrees, the hot water moving over a film, this new solar panel, and it doesn’t create steam, it creates electricity at 140 degrees; it’s called thermo electric coupling, and it’s done.  And we just signed a new agreement to put it in, because we have a twenty thousand foot geothermal well that’s 400 degrees.  So those are the next generation of them.  But each one brings another efficiency, a better, cheaper alternative to this movement.

Rob:  What’s your best advice for America?

Catlett:  I think to not lose sight of the fact that we have had 13 recessions; we may be in one right now; and I’m not making light of it.  But we naturally go through them.  And don’t lose sight of the fact that we go through recessions.  And after each recession, Americans come back stronger than before the recession.  Recessions are when people get creative.  It’s kind of a time when we have to do something different.  I always use the expression that bull markets make idiots out of all of us, because we get fat, we get lazy when things are good.  And when things get a little bit tight, patents go up; new business starts go up; and in this whole alternative green arena, there are so many opportunities.  Especially in a state that is rich in natural resources of all kinds, solar; phenomenal agriculture base in Oklahoma; phenomenal wind base in all, in almost all arenas; phenomenal water base.  You’ve got the natural resources, in every arena, to have a phenomenal export of energy like you’ve never dreamed possible.