[R-G] [BillTottenWeblog] Saying Goodbye To The Oil Age
shimogamo at attglobal.net
Mon Feb 18 06:21:45 MST 2008
by Peter Goodchild
Countercurrents.org (January 29 2008)
The first practical oil drill was developed in Titusville, Pennsylvania,
in 1859, by Edwin L Drake. Now, only a short while later, the planet
Earth is running out of oil, without which almost nothing in modern
civilization can function. A number of scientists and engineers have
pointed out that the world's oil production will peak early in the
twenty-first century; it has probably already done so. At the beginning
of the century, the human race was using about thirty billion barrels of
oil per year. By 2030, production will be down to about half of that level.
In the entire world, there are perhaps a trillion barrels of oil left to
extract - which may sound like a lot, but isn't. When newspapers
announce the discovery of a deposit of a billion barrels, readers are no
doubt amazed, but they are not told that such a find is only twelve
days' supply. Nor are they told that all the big discoveries are far in
the past. American production peaked in 1970, and even Saudi oil won't
last much longer. The production of oil is beginning a perpetual
decline, while demand will continue to increase. The only event that
could reduce demand for oil would be a global depression; reduced oil
consumption would then be part of the overall collapse of the world's
As the years go by, new oil wells have to be drilled deeper than the
old, because newly discovered deposits are deeper. Those new deposits
are therefore less accessible. But oil is used as a fuel for the oil
drills themselves. When it takes an entire barrel of oil to get one
barrel of oil out of the ground, as is increasingly the case, it is a
waste of time to continue drilling such a well.
Coal and natural gas are also disappearing, although coal will be
available for a while after oil is gone. Coal, however, is highly
polluting and cannot be used as a fuel for most forms of transportation;
the last industrial society will be a bizarre, crowded, dirty,
impoverished world. Natural gas is not easily transported, and it is not
suitable for most equipment.
Alternative sources of energy will never be very useful, for several
reasons, but mainly because of a problem of "net energy": the amount of
energy output is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy
input. All alternative forms of energy are so dependent on the very
petroleum that they are intended to replace that the use of them is
largely self-defeating and irrational. Alternative sources ultimately
don't have enough "bang" to replace thirty billion annual barrels of oil
- or even to replace more than the tiniest fraction of that amount.
Petroleum is required to extract, process, and transport almost any
other form of energy; a coal mine is not operated by coal-powered
equipment. It takes "oil energy" to make "alternative energy".
The use of unconventional oil (shale deposits, tar sands, heavy oil)
poses several problems besides that of net energy. In the first place,
even if we optimistically assume that about 700 billion barrels of
unconventional oil could be produced, that amount would equal only about
fifteen years of global oil demand. Secondly, the pollution problems are
considerable, and it is not certain how much environmental damage the
human race is willing to endure. Thirdly, since conventional oil is
still cheap and profitable, government and industry will not be
motivated to begin serious work on the development of unconventional oil
until conventional oil is no longer available - at which point any
effort will be too little, too late. In fact, at the moment,
unconventional oil is only a tiny fraction of the world's petroleum
production, and there are no major technological breakthroughs in sight.
With unconventional oil we are, quite literally, scraping the bottom of
More-exotic forms of alternative energy are plagued with even greater
problems. Fuel cells cannot be made practical, because such devices
require hydrogen derived from fossil fuels. Biomass energy (perhaps from
corn, wood, or switchgrass) requires impossibly large amounts of land
and still results in insufficient quantities of net energy, sometimes
even negative quantities. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their
practical limits. Wind and geothermal power are only effective in
certain areas and for certain purposes. Nuclear power will soon be
suffering from a lack of fuel and is already creating serious
The present favorite for alternative energy is solar power, but
proponents must close their eyes to all questions of scale. Solar
photovoltaics provide only 1/2500 of the world's energy usage, and there
are no signs of an adequate escalation. To meet the world's present
energy needs, we would need a photovoltaic array (or an equivalent
number of smaller ones) with a size of almost 200,000 square kilometers
- twice the size of Iceland. The production and maintenance of this
array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other
materials - a self-defeating process.
Time itself is unkind to any alternative-energy scheme. That fact can be
illustrated by a down-to-earth example of energy conservation. Trains
are far more efficient than cars in terms of fuel per passenger. If more
trains were built, and if cars were forbidden, there could be amazing
results in energy conservation. The problems, however, are obvious: lack
of legislation, lack of public interest, and lack of funding. (These
problems are intensified by the Orwellian nature of modern news-media.)
But more importantly, there would be a race against time: with every
year that goes by, the world's systemic collapse becomes more serious:
this is not only the age of peak oil, but also of peak food, peak fresh
water, peak metals, and peak electricity - and therefore also peak
money. The possibility of building such railways thereby becomes ever
more remote. When the need for trains becomes most desperate, the
ability to make them will have vanished.
Another unrealistically optimistic thought is that we are shifting from
an oil-based culture to an information-based one: computers, we are
told, will soon replace trucks. To say that high technology reduces
mankind's need for petroleum, however, is an act of faith that is not
born out by the figures on world consumption of oil.
Modern agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers,
pesticides, and the operation of machines for harvesting, processing,
and transporting. The Green Revolution was the invention of a way to
turn petroleum into food. Without fossil fuels, modern methods of food
production will disappear. As food supplies dwindle, famine and death
Petroleum is the lifeblood of our civilization. Even a bicycle, that
ultimate symbol of an "alternate lifestyle", requires petroleum for
lubrication, for paint, and for plastic components. The vehicle that
delivers the bicycle runs on petroleum, over asphalt that is made of
petroleum. "Rubber" tires are often made of petroleum.
The problem of the world's diminishing supply of oil is a problem of
energy, not a problem of money. The old bromide that "higher prices will
eventually make [for example] shale oil economically feasible" is
meaningless. This planet has only a finite amount of fossil fuel. When
that fuel starts to vanish, "higher prices" will be quite unable to stop
the event from taking place. At most, the later twenty-first century
will be an age of coal, and a portrait of that future era can be found
in any story by Charles Dickens.
Oil is not the only mineral that will be in short supply in the
twenty-first century. Industrial civilization has always been dependent
on metals, but hematite, for example, is no longer sufficiently common,
and mining companies now look for other sources of iron, which can be
processed only with modern machinery.
The technology of one century builds the technology of the next. The
technology of the past - the hammer, anvil, forge, and bellows of the
ancient blacksmith - made it possible for later generations to extract
the low-grade ores of the present. Very low-grade iron ores can now be
worked, but only because there were once better, more accessible ores.
This "mechanical evolution" is, of course, liable to collapse: when Rome
fell, so did literacy, education, technology. But after many centuries,
the Classical world returned. The western world experienced its
Renaissance, its rebirth, after the Dark Ages because the natural world
was fundamentally unchanged.
In the future, however, after the collapse of the present civilization,
the necessary fuels and ores will not be available for that gradual
rebuilding of technology. The loss of both petroleum and accessible ores
means that history will no longer be a cycle of empires.
Most of modern warfare is about oil, in spite of all the pious and
hypocritical rhetoric about the forces of good and the forces of evil.
The real forces are those trying to control the oil wells and the
fragile pipelines that carry that oil. A map of recent American military
ventures is a map of petroleum deposits. When the "oil wars" began is
largely a matter of definition, though perhaps 1973 would be a good
date, when the Yom Kippur War led to the OPEC oil embargo.
Roughly six thousand years ago, the New Stone Age gave way to an era of
large, settled communities, which evolved into about a dozen empires,
rising and falling, bubbling and collapsing. America is the final
empire. After that, there can be no other. Human beings will find a way
to live - quite happily, perhaps - but it won't resemble what we now
know. The next hundred years can perhaps be envisioned, but the distant
future is unimaginable.
The loss of petroleum will be received in the same manner as other
large-scale disasters: widespread denial, followed by a rather catatonic
apathy. The western world has long believed that bigger is better, and
that material wealth is an unquestionable blessing. We have had great
faith in an ever-expanding, ever-devouring "progress". And now that
religion is failing us. For many people, the shock will be hard to bear.
The litany of "bigger, faster, and more complex", mega-this and
mega-that, as a cure for the initial problem of "bigger, faster, and
more complex" is self-evidently ludicrous, so ludicrous that we cannot
see it. It is sheer bigness - overpopulation, resource-consumption, and
environmental destruction - that has led us to the first days of
systemic collapse. Dragging images out of science-fiction movies to
create "bigger, faster, and more complex" machines will not do the
trick. The paradigm is elusive but real: the worship of technology
creates a chain reaction, a spiral, a thermostat set to zero tolerance.
The technophile is a junkie with a need for an ever-larger fix, a
millionaire with an ever-greater fear of poverty, a Uriah Heep who
creates his own enemies.
"Yes, but what can we do?" is the usual response, although the speaker
rarely waits for an answer, since the question is merely rhetorical. The
non-rhetorical reply to that would be, "Well, what have you done so
far?" (Answer: nothing.) A slightly lengthier - if still incomplete -
reply would be: return to pre-modern technology. The resultant skipped
heartbeat is unjustified: the technology of the past certainly got us
into far less trouble. For that matter, modern technology is in many
ways overrated; the twentieth century was essentially a blank. Several
scholars have pointed out that the nineteenth century was far more
inventive than the next. The twentieth century was an age of bigger and
faster, but not an age of true innovation. It might be worth adding that
the great thinkers who gave us our present knowledge of the universe and
of human life were all born in the nineteenth century: Darwin, Marx,
Freud, Einstein. The average person even now has barely assimilated
their thought; we may "know" what they said, but we rarely bother to check.
What matters is not to wait unthinkingly for the onslaught of hunger and
cold, but to form communities that can build houses and plant crops.
Like the phoenix, we must rise from the ashes - the ashes of the Age of
Excess. We must learn to step outside our plastic-and-metal cocoons and
see what is happening with our neighbors, and with all the rest of
dirty, sweaty humanity. North Americans in particular have an
individualistic mentality that includes taking far more pride in having
an opinion than in having an education. But that irascibility, that
self-destructive clinging to one's "rights", must be put aside. Loners
will have slim chances of survival. The mentality of the future will be
closer to a sort of Asian collectivism: modesty rather than braggadocio,
altruism rather than egotism, seeking harmony rather than confrontation.
Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American
Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. He can be reached at
petergoodchild at interhop.net.
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