It’s the End of the World As We Know It

February 28, 2004 at 6:50 pm
Contributed by:

Folks,


After a
week of taking a break from GRL, I’m ready to bring you up to date. But it’s not
like the world has been standing still. Indeed, the news of the last week has
been breathtakingly, crushingly bad, from every direction, and that’s in part
why I haven’t written about it. It’s very demoralizing. Still, I wish I had the
energy to bring you the key points of all that I have read about it, but it’s
just not feasible for one guy, with no budget, no staff, a life to lead and an
income to make. I know that some of you rely on GRL for most of your world news (gulp!),
but I can’t promise you that it will be a reliable source. You should subscribe
to Truthout, the Progress Report, From the Wilderness, MoveOn, The Daily
Misleader, and a few other sites that can do that for you (I read all of those
and more, myself). See a list of great newsletters sites here.


But I
can try to bring you up to date on the most important story of all: the
impending oil crash. AKA, the end of the world as we know it. This is the story
that renders all else–including all the politics that I have written about in
GRL–utterly trivial.


Lately, I can think about little but the oil crashIt’s putting every future plan, and every conception I had about my life, in a
new light. I’m looking at everything
differently now. I look around at new cars, computers, everything that runs on electricity, and think:
all of this could be pointless and useless in 10 years. Imagine not being able to afford to board an airplane,
watch TV, buy fresh fruit, or drive to the store. Imagine everything that you
take for granted about life to be about to vanish. Imagine violent and hungry
hordes evacuating the major cities. Imagine yourself trying to eke out a living
in subsistence farming, and living like the Amish. Imagine your children growing
up in a world with precious little energy. Imagine 5 billion of the world’s 6
billion people dying off in the next 70 years or so. Because that could be
exactly what we’re headed for. In fact, it seems unavoidable.


I wonder every day how, and where, I
would try to make my last stand. And it’s
driving me absolutely crazy
that I can’t get more people to wake up and look at this problem! A friend recently described it as “a planeload of people on steep crash descent, with nobody in the cockpit, and a cocktail party going on in the cabin.”


I know
what you want now. You want me to digest this mass of information and just lay
it out for you with dates and milestones. But I’m not going to attempt that,
because for one, it’s a complex assessment, and a success of approximation, so
the task just isn’t that easy. But for another, I think it’s important that
everyone understand the dynamics of the problem and get a grasp of the possible
solutions and their various limitations, so that you can argue it out for
yourself. You won’t be able to nitpick one assertion and go to bed with sweet
dreams. No, this is one case where you really don’t want the Cliff Notes; you
want the whole semester of classes.


Here is
a compilation of some of the best material I have found on the subject. I have
read much more on it than this, as I suggest you do, and there is much more to
be found beyond these articles. But this is a good collection to get you
started.


First, here’s one resource that gives you the basics, cheat-sheet style. This is as close to the Cliff Notes version as you’re going
to find.
Running on
Empty


More links and a good simple overview:


Oil
depletion: Overview, links and resources

Another very good overview site, with some of the most relevant charts:
Wolf at the Door


A
thorough review of the problem and the possible solutions by the founder of
dieoff.org, Jay Hansen:
Oil Crash Synopsis

by Jay Hanson, Mar, 8, 2001 —
http://www.dieoff.org


A very
good article about the denials of our reality and what might be done about it,
with endorsement from Richard Heinberg, author of The Party’s Over:

Unpopular
Science



Some
suggestions about what you can do:



Hubbert’s Peak by Kenneth S. Deffeyes

One excellent resource that I highly recommend is Hubbert’s Peak – The
Impending World Oil Shortage
by Kenneth S. Deffeyes
(
2001 Princeton University Press). Deffeyes was a Shell geologist and
consultant, a Princeton
professor (now Professor
Emeritus)
, and colleague of M.
King Hubbert, who proposed the theory now known as Hubbert’s Peak. Packed with
hard scientific data and information on geology, how fossil fuels are formed,
how oil and gas exploration is done, and the mathematical analysis of Hubbert’s
Peak, it’s a great book that gets the job done in under 200 pages. I learned a
lot from this book.


You can read Chapter 1 of the book
here (PDF file). If you scroll
down to page 7, you’ll see a startling little graph, showing a line going
horizontally across the page with a little peak in it that’s about half an inch
high and a quarter of an inch wide. The caption:


The 100-year period when
most of the world’s oil will be produced is known as “Hubbert’s peak.” On this scale, the geologic
time needed to form the oil resources can
be visualized by extending the line five miles to the
left.


Really puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? We have
burned our geologic capital at an unbelievable pace. All that we have known,
growing up in the age of cheap and “abundant” oil and gas, our entire
industrialized way of life, is but a blip in the history of man, and not even a
speck in geologic time. The first major oil wells were drilled in the late
1920s. And at current rates of consumption (which are predicted to rise
precipitously), the oil will be effectively gone by 2050. Our entire oil-and-gas
fueled reality will come and go in a mere 150 years. My father grew up on a
subsistence farm that didn’t have electricity or running water until the 40s.
And I could find myself right back there by the end of my life. The whole story
come and gone in two generations. Astonishing!


Another oft-quoted way of seeing the problem is to
realize that, given the amount of energy each Westerner consumes each day,
compared with the amount of energy each of us could expend in hard physical
labor each day, we each have the equivalent of 50 slaves working for us
exclusively. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand that the extra
energy has to come from somewhere, and that this is not a sustainable way of
life.


Here are some quotes from the book that I thought worth
retyping for your benefit:


This
much is certain: no initiative put in place starting today can have a
substantial effect on the peak production year. No Caspian Sea exploration, no
drilling in the South China Sea, no SUV replacements, no renewable energy
projects can be brought on at a sufficient rate to avoid a bidding war for the
remaining oil. At least, let’s hope that the war is waged with cash instead of
with nuclear warheads.

[...]


Discussions about increasing the supply of crude oil
get sidetracked into debates about whether government action is needed or
whether the invisible hand of economics will guide us to bigger and better oil
fields. We can argue endlessly about the details without asking first whether
searching for additional crude oil would be worth the effort…
The finite supply of world oil is, in my opinion,
written in stone. It’s not engraved on the facade of the Treasury Building. It’s
written in the reservoir rocks, in the source rocks, and in the cap rocks. No
amount of fancy fishing tackle is going to satisfy our appetite for
oil.

[...]


Awareness is important. Of course, the economic squeeze will get
everyone’s attention. The experience that raised my awareness was a bicycle
frame hitched to an electric generator wired to a light bulb. You could switch
on a 50-watt bulb, pedal the bicycle, and keep the light lit. Change to a
100-watt bulb and it took a sustained serious effort to keep the bulb glowing. I
couldn’t light up a 200-watt bulb. It put a real scale on energy
conservation.

[...]


Aluminum metal costs about $200 per ton, but that is $3 for the aluminum
ore and $197 for electricity. The motivation for recycling aluminum is energy
conservation.

[...]


During
the 2000 presidential campaign, Democrats and Republicans debated about how to
use the new surplus in the federal budget: pay off the national debt, fix Social
Security, improve Medicare, or reduce taxes. There is another option: gift wrap
the entire surplus and present it to the Saudi royal family. We could go happily
on, pretending that either (1) a
permanent decline in world oil production won’t happen or (2) it doesn’t matter.
Ask anyone who remember the 1980 crisis; it happens and it matters. In 1980 it
was a problem in distribution; the oil was there, but it wasn’t getting to the
corner gas station. In 2008, the oil won’t be there. The psychological
realization that the change is permanent may be as devastating as the shortage
itself.

[...]

First,
beware of any salesman peddling just one brand of snake oil. There will be
numerous voices claiming to have the new, new thing to solve the energy problem.
They are not necessarily con artists. Some of them convince themselves first,
then they try to con the rest of us. They are their own first victims. We should
make good use of each innovation where it fits best. Use geothermal energy where
it is most effective; don’t try to find a geothermal solution for the entire
U.S. energy needs.


Second, beware of the salesman peddling an enormous variety of snake
oils. His message is, “There are so many possibilities, some of them are bound
to come through in time to save us.” Usually a long list of innovations,
including gas hydrates, subsalt seismic reflections, coal bed methane, and
deep-water drilling, give the impression that doomsday won’t arrive in our
lifetime. We’ll muddle through. Unfortunately, the items in that list were
already identified 20 years ago. It may be a painful muddle.


There
are some possibilities for doing a better job than we did in 1980. Rather than
have the crisis sneak up on us, we can see it coming and initiate some of the
long lead-time projects in advance. “Forewarned is forearmed.”

Peak Oil and Iraq


This article brings the oil shortage problem up to date specifically with
respect to Iraq, the Caspian, our renewed interests in West Africa, what Cheney
knows, and more. Definitely worth reading:

Iraq and the Problem of Peak
Oil

by F. William
Engdahl



Quotes from the above article:

The era of cheap, abundant oil, which has supported world economic growth for
more than three quarters of a century, is most probably at or past its absolute
peak, according to leading independent oil geologists. If this analysis is
accurate, the economic and social consequences will be staggering. This reality
is being hidden from general discussion by the oil multinationals and major
government agencies, above all by the United States government. Oil companies
have a vested interest in hiding the truth in order to keep the price of getting
new oil as low as possible. The US government has a strategic interest in
keeping the rest of the world from realising how critical the problem has
become.


If the peak oil analysis is accurate, it suggests why Washington may be
willing to risk so much to control Iraq and through its bases there, the five
oil-rich countries. It suggests Washington is acting from a fundamental
strategic weakness, not from absolute strength as is often thought. A full and
open debate on the problem of peak energy is urgently needed.


In a speech to the International Petroleum Institute in London in late 1999, Dick Cheney, then chairman of the world’s
largest oil services company, Halliburton, presented the picture of world oil
supply and demand to industry insiders. ‘By some estimates,’ Cheney stated,
‘there will be an average of two percent annual growth in global oil demand over
the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a three percent natural decline in
production from existing reserves.’ Cheney ended on an alarming note: ‘That
means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a
day.’ This is equivalent to more than six Saudi Arabia’s of today’s size.


The burning question is where will we get such a huge increase of oil? In the
decade from 1990 to 2000, a total of 42 billion barrels of new oil reserves were
discovered worldwide. In the same period, the world consumed 250 billion
barrels. In the past two decades only three giant fields with more than one
billion barrels each have been discovered. One in Norway, in Columbia and
Brazil. None of these produce more than 200,000 barrels a day. This is far from
50 million barrels a day which the world will need.

Clearly,
Dick Cheney, onetime CEO of the world’s largest oil services company, does
not believe that we are yet to discover the equivalent of six Saudi
Arabias’ worth of oil. The data are very clear on this. Global discovery peaked
in the 60s and has been on the decline ever since. More than 50% of today’s oil
comes from a few super-giant oil fields, and we aren’t going to discover
any more of those. After 100 years of exploration, the planet is pretty well
explored, and all of the obvious features have been tested.


Maybe
this explains his closed-door energy task force, his stonewalling of the
investigation of same, his dismissal of conservation, and his handouts to the
peculiar “pebble-bed” nuclear reactor design peddled by his friends.


It’s also clear that the oil industry, and US politicians for
generations–except, bless his heart, the poor maligned Jimmy Carter–have
conspired to keep this ugly reality as hidden as possible. There is little to be
gained for them, in the short term, by making it public. In fact, they’re still
running in the other direction, as fast as they can. The Bush administration
just recently issued a proposal that would actually lower fuel economy
standards for heavier vehicles. How wrong can they get?
See:


More Jobs to the
Gallon

The New
York Times
February 18, 2004
By: Carl Pope and Ron
Gettelfinger


Finally,
there is the macroeconomic angle, which holds that the war in Iraq was largely
about keeping Iraq’s oil priced in US dollars, rather than euros:


Revisited –
The Real Reasons for the Upcoming War With Iraq

A Macroeconomic
and Geostrategic Analysis of the Unspoken Truth
by William
Clark


Climate Change


Then
there is the problem of climate change. As reported here
earlier, the Pentagon, among many others in the scientific community, has
acknowledged that climate change is a very real possibility. (Meanwhile, just
across the Potomac, the White House continues to deny that global warming is
even a problem we should address, presumably writing off the Pentagon as a bunch
of tree-loving hippies.) The biggest risk here is that the melting of the polar
ice caps (which we know is occurring at a rapid rate right now, as evidenced by
their shrinking and whole chunks of the ice shelf breaking off) will lead to a
reduction of the salinity of the ocean water in the north, which in turn could
shut down the Gulf Stream and lead to a new ice age. For more on that, see:

We’re
Closer to the Edge Than We Think

By Kelpie
Wilson


And this earlier GRL article: “Global
warming, Peak Oil, and energy industry
propaganda


The
writing is on the wall: we’re on our own here, people. We cannot wait for “them”
to bail us out. Especially since their big idea is to evolve us into a “hydrogen
economy,” an idea that simply cannot
work
. If we are to address our energy problems effectively, we must take the
responsibility for finding solutions into our own hands. Industry and government
aren’t going to touch the hot potato.


Once
you’ve read all this stuff, you’ll probably be just as shocked and fearful as I
was. But maybe there is some comfort in my horoscope this week from The Onion:


Cancer: (June 22—July
22)
Everyone worries about what Fate has in store for them, but don’t fret.
You won’t feel a thing.


Yeah,
right.


Ultimately, what we have here is a crying need to remake our vision of
humanity, and its proper place in the world. As I wrote for my online magazine,
Better World ‘Zine, in 1996:

What all of this really comes down to
is the same thing that got us here in the first place, those great intangibles
known as vision and will. It was the vision of Manifest Destiny
and of man’s “dominion” over the earth that led us down this straight-line
consumptive path. Our will has made over the face of the planet.

And if we are to find our ecological
salvation, it is a new vision and a renewed will that will obtain it. We must
envision a cyclical, restorative economy; one where products are designed with a
plan for their reabsorption into the cycle; one in which manufacturers think of
their products cradle to cradle, not cradle to grave.


[From
Envisioning a
Sustainable Future
“, Dec. 1996)

This
will take a massive shift in perspective, yes, even a “paradigm shift.” We must
get away from the consumptive, dominionist
policies that got us here–which our current leadership still espouses–and
reorganize all of our activities to work with the natural cycles, and within the
carrying capacity of our own local areas. Put another way, we must destroy the
concept of man as master of his domain, and rebuild around the concept
of man as a good steward who is part of his domain. This will take some
reworking of the theological underpinnings of our culture, as well.


For a
perspective that encompasses
both the oil crash and global warming, check out this
review
of David Goodstein’s new book,
Out of Gas –
The End of the Age of Oil
. Here’s a tasty quote: “Civilization
as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a
way to live without fossil fuels.”


Here are
some additional resources you can explore. I think all of them are worthwhile.


Authoritative, no-nonsense, completely scientific books to read:



  1. Heinberg, Richard, The Party’s Over: Oil, War
    and the Fate of Industrial Societies
    ,
    New Society Publishers (2003)
  2. Deffeyes, Kenneth S, Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending
    World Oil Shortage
    ,

    Princeton University Press (2001)

  3. Goodstein, David, Out
    of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil
    ,
    W.W. Norton & Company (February 2004)


Sites about the oil crash:













And
finally, a plug for one of the few serious projects to get us on the right track
with energy policy. They have a good and informative site, and backing from some
of the most sincere scientific and environmental organizations
around:



“The Apollo Alliance is building a broad
coalition within the labor, environmental, business, urban, and faith
communities in support of good jobs and energy independence.”


Folks, I strongly encourage–no, I beg
you–to bring yourselves up to speed on this topic, and think about your
futures. How will you live sustainably, with whom, and where? If you’re in a
major city, chances are that it won’t be there. Remember Deffeyes’ admonishment:
“Forewarned is forearmed.”


And I encourage your feedback. Please write
me or post your comments here. If you don’t think the situation is so dire, then
why not? Believe me, if there’s any factual, scientific basis for hope, I’m all
ears. But if you’re just inclined to block this all out, and blithely assert
that “somebody will figure something out,” then you’re fooling yourself, and
possibly signing up to be one of the 5 (out of 6) people expected to die off
when the oil crash occurs. When your head’s on the block and the ax is falling,
only a fool would lay there whistling and waiting for some unseen force to stop
the blow.


There is nothing more important to
get real about. If you want a hand in your own destiny, then please, put on your
specs and start educating yourself.


–C

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