Saturday, 17 May 2014

I've lost count of the number of times I've tried to write this post.

I am a hypocrite. Let's start there.

I've been aware of a very simple and obvious truth for a decade now, mainly due to being in contact with some intelligent and well informed people on Julian Cope's website.

Most of my blogroll is links to people on the green and red end of things. In particular, John Michael Greer and Richard Heinberg are well known figures in the Peak Oil arena, but see also Grufty Jim's blog, The Quiet Road. It was Jim that put me onto all this stuff in the first place.

That simple truth is that if you have a finite, non-renewable resource, and you use some of it up, there will be less of it. When you eat your cake, you no longer have it.

I've read up on this stuff fairly extensively over the last few years, and I have a good idea of the issues. I'm not going to try to explain Peak Oil in too much detail here, but here's a simple primer.

Fossil fuels are supplies of stored energy that formed over tens of millions of years. Humankind started to utilise first coal, then later, oil and gas over the last 200 years or so. They have powered an unprecedented revolution that has radically changed our way of life in just about every aspect. From our early days of extracting coal to generate steam, our use of them has risen exponentially, doubling, and redoubling time and again. This is not a sustainable situation. No matter how vast the stored deposits are, at some point, they are going to run out. Peak oil though, is not the point at which the oil runs out. It's the point at which we can't produce it any faster.

Individual oil wells tend to have a predictable life cycle. The output follows a bell shaped curve. Not much at first, then lots, then a gradual decline to almost nothing. The same curve also applies to oil fields, and to The Whole Damn World.

The first person to see that this would happen, and in happening, cause the shit to hit the fan was a petrogeologist called M King Hubbert. When applied to oil, the bell shaped curve is called the Hubbert Curve. The top of the curve is called the Hubbert Peak. Hubbert analysed the patterns of discovery and extraction of oil, and predicted that US domestic oil production would peak in around 1970. He was more or less correct, and the decline caused a serious energy crisis back in the 1970's. The US responded by importing more oil from outside it's borders. Since the turn of the 21st century, a growing number of people have pointed out that the world too has a point where things will peak and start to decline. From what I've read, world production  of conventional supplies peaked a few years ago, and is now in a plateau phase. Overall production of all sources is still rising slowly, but this is due to the utilisation of non-conventional sources such as tar sands and oil shales.

Ultimately, the energy required to extract usable hydrocarbons has to be deducted from the energy gained from burning them. This is a figure known as EROEI. Energy Return On Energy Invested. Nothing really comes close to the EREOI of sweet light crude. At some point, when so much energy is required to find and extract oil that it is no greater than the energy extracted from it, it becomes effectively useless as an energy source. And that's the way things are going. With fracking, with deep sea extraction, with heating and pulverising shale, a lot more energy is required to obtain a barrel of oil than with a pressurised oil well in an accessible area.

Why does this matter? Well it means far more than being more expensive to fill your car's tank with fuel. The human population has swelled to over 7 billion, mainly on the strength of the mechanisation (oil) of agriculture, and modern chemical NPK fertilisers (obtained through the Haber Bosch process - basically processing natural gas)

Further, the moral advances of the last couple of centuries, such as the abolition of slavery and equal rights for Women are not really due to morality at all. They're due to economics. Slavery ended when it became cheaper to use fossil fuel powered machinery to do the work than it was to use slaves. Without that, the Wilberforces of the world would be pissing in the wind.

On a more abstract level, order requires energy. Try not expending any energy on keeping your home clean and tidy, and see how long it takes before chaos starts to creep in. Our highly structured and regulated societies are only possible because of the energy surplus afforded by our use of fossil fuels.

When I first started to find out about this, my reaction was pretty typical. An assumption that some form of alternative would be found. As Heinberg points out,

"Peak Oil will be a fundamental cultural watershed, at least as important as the industrial revolution or the development of agriculture. Yet few mainstream commentators see it that way. They discuss the likelihood of energy price spikes and try to calculate how much economic havoc will result from them. Always the solution is technology: solar or wind and maybe a bit of hydrogen for green-tinged idealists; nuclear, tar sands, methane hydrates, and coal-to-liquids for hard-headed, pro-growth economists and engineers; Tesla free-energy magnetic generators for the gullible fringe dwellers."
But it seems like no matter how hard you look, there is no alternative that has the same versatility and energy density of oil.

Once the supply of this stuff starts to diminish, our entire political, economic, and cultural system, which is based upon permanent growth, will falter.

This will happen. Is happening. Started happening when the first coal was mined and the first well was drilled. I've known it would happen for a decade, and you can't realise something like that without it having a profound effect on your worldview.

Ten years ago, I'd say I was a Utopian Socialist. What I've found is that neither Capitalism or Socialism really addresses what amounts to a de-industrial revolution. They're really about how the surplus is divvied up. Socialism is materialistic too. Many of the left wing people I've spoken to about this are as much in denial as  those on the right. Yet Keynesian economics gets no further on this than Monetarist economics.

Some system of zero growth economic system will no doubt evolve from necessity over the forthcoming decades, one that perhaps owes little to either Karl Marx or Adam Smith. Socialism does not in itself require Growth.

But how to get from here to there?

Like I said, I'm a hypocrite. This is a pointer to how hard it will be to make societal change to fit rapidly changing circumstances. Nobody votes for austerity. Just ask Jimmy Carter. If someone like me insists upon doing the job I do, despite knowing what I know, it's unreasonable to suppose that anyone else will seek to face up to what lies ahead without really being forced to do so, either by the simple geological realities, or by some kind of political action, which isn't going to happen here any time soon.

It's difficult to think of a role that is better suited to making matters worse than that of Driving Instructor. Not only am I doing 30,000 miles a year, but I'm responsible for putting perhaps 30-50 more drivers on the road each year. Lets say I've helped 300 people to pass their tests in the 9 years I've been doing this job. If each of them does just 10,000 miles per annum, then I've played my part in causing the consumption of a quantity of fuel sufficient to get a car to travel 3 million miles.

Clearly, I should stop doing this, but I'm not going to do so.

There's no point. I'd just be tilting at windmills. I'm not idealistic enough to take the lead, and to do so would anyway make no difference to the bigger picture. I suspect that in the next few years, economic realities will start to make the ability to drive a less attractive proposition, and many instructors will fall by the wayside. To do what I wonder?

This is of course something I should be giving some thought to. My main marketable skill is that of a teacher. I'm teaching a non-academic skill, but I suppose with some retraining, I could apply the same skillset to something other than driving. My other main skill is that I'm a highly skilled driver. This is less useful. In a world where fuel is a serious cost, demand for professional drivers will be much lower.

To repeat myself though, if I'm not prepared to change my ways, despite being aware of the issues, it can hardly be any surprise that nobody else is either. I have been an armchair warrior for this cause in recent years, trying to raise awareness of the issue from the comfort of my fossil fuel heated room, through the medium of the fossil fueled internet, using a computer that was made from metal and plastic, and shipped half way around the world.

I will though, vote for any party that promises to take action to redesign our society along sustainable lines. Can't see too many other people doing so though. Much easier to blame the immigrants.

driving lessons in North Wirral? learn to drive in Hoylake? driving instructor in Birkenhead?


Jim Bliss said...

Good piece. I wouldn't disagree with any of it except perhaps the conclusion that you're guilty of hypocrisy. I don't believe you are. Not on this issue at least (we are all of us guilty of hypocrisy on some level in our daily lives I suspect).

I first started to think seriously about this issue back in 1997. That's 17 years ago.


Anyway, in '98 I attended a lecture by Dr Colin Campbell and had the good fortune to chat with him over a pint afterwards. He was rather matter-of-fact about his view that conventional crude oil production would peak before 2010 and total production would peak sometime over the following decade ("2015 plus or minus 5 years" was the exact phrase he used). In the 17 years since then I have consumed as much information on the subject as I've been able. And nothing I read since then has presented a convincing reason to revise that timetable.

At the same time though I have shifted my position on "what's to be done about it". Where once I was of the activist mindset, I have now pretty much concluded that the answer to the question "what's to be done?" is "absolutely nothing". There is nothing that we as individuals can do about this issue. It represents a fundamental discontinuity in human affairs. The consequences will be so profoundly unpredictable that there's nothing the average person can sensibly do to prepare themself. The very wealthy are in a position to build themselves metaphorical life-rafts. The rest of us, not so much.

James Lovelock suggests we should just party. And right now, I'm inclined to agree with him. There may well be moments as the crisis unfolds in which individual or collective action can effect real positive change. And should such an opportunity present itself to you, then make sure you take it by all means. But individual action cannot prevent this crisis. And until it enters mass consciousness and becomes the subject of collective action, there is literally nothing to be done aside - perhaps - from trying to tell others and bring forward the moment it enters our mass consciousness.

But I'm no longer even sure about the benefits of that, compared with the time spent doing it and the negativity received in return (of which there has been a lot). The Hirsch report suggested a 20 year concerted effort by all of society, acting as though it was on a war footing, might mitigate this problem. We've not even seriously discussed starting such a project. And we're at best 14 years too late. So hey, what's another year of over-consumption between collapsing civilisations?

The only possible way to deal with this issue effectively is to enforce radical cuts in global consumption. And the penalties for over-consuming would have to be severe. In other words, we're talking about an authoritarian, technocracy that enforces strict austerity worldwide. Ideally this could be done in such a way as to maximise the upsides (of which there would be some), but people are quite legitimately sceptical of the suggestion that their authoritarian technocracy will "maximise the upsides".

So, the only realistic solution I can think of involves setting up a global dictatorship. And let's just say the word "realistic" is being stretched to breaking point in that sentence. Getting the Chinese government to accept policies imposed on it by an outside supranational organisation? Or how about getting the Americans to agree to that? Or the Islamic theocracies? Or Putin? Or... ... it's not the kind of project that I see starting out as a grass-roots campaign.


Jim Bliss said...

[... continued from previous comment...]

But definitely don't feel hypocritical about living your life as an active and functional part of the society in which you live. To do otherwise is an entirely unrealistic expectation of yourself or others. More than that, I genuinely question whether it achieves anything substantial (aside from acting as a reminder of the issue, which is doubtlessly useful but not necessarily a significant enough end to justify self-imposed exile). Certainly it would be disastrous for the UK if millions of random people just dropped out tomorrow and tried to live off the land as small-hold farmers. It would almost certainly result in violence, ecological devastation and starvation.

These are things that are on their way anyway with peak oil (though for other nations before us) but I think it's interesting that the intuitive "power down and live off the land" solution would likely accelerate the chaos it hoped to alleviate. And as profane and politically incorrect as many find him, the comedian Bill Burr made a very incisive point about people who drop out and start growing their own food... "come the apocalypse, those guys will have basically gathered a bunch of supplies for the scariest psycho on the block".

I do actually have a "solution" that wouldn't require a massive grass-roots campaign; merely a handful of dedicated technical specialists willing to transgress all moral boundaries and a billionaire backer. No, I don't have those things lying around - but it would be orders of magnitude less complicated to secure those things than it would be to secure the agreement of all the world's governments.

Still, as solutions go, it's essentially horrific and I wouldn't actually like to see it implemented. I'd much rather trust in the unpredictable nature of a civilisation's collapse to provide as-yet unthought-of opportunities for redemption, than to prevent it through intentional barbarism.

I'm working on a novel about this "solution" of mine though - kind of Gregory Bateson meets Tom Clancy with a dash of William Gibson. No idea if it'll ever get done (the past three decades are littered with unfinished books).

PS apologies for the verbosity. I've had a few cups of tea tonight

Paul said...

Might as well work on becoming that billionaire then.

It does seem to me that I need to work hard now to get at least some protection from what's coming. Looking for mithril. Will probably manage cardboard.

Good luck with the book. If you ever finish it, let me know and I will buy a copy.