Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Great article on the energy conundrum
Read the whole thing--long excerpts below the link
*Joy Ride to Global Collapse*
Reflections on Kunstler's/ Home from Nowhere/
No one is talking to us about giving up cars today - even though there
is hard scientific evidence that the freewheeling automotive world we
know today will have totally vanished within the lifetime of most of us
now living. A few idealists are talking about maybe getting us to
constrain our use a little bit. None of them are running for any
position of political influence in this country. They would be lucky to
get their family's vote. We don't want to hear it.
Auto mania is not confined to Americans. The love affair is
international and now grows fastest in the nations of the Second and
Third World. Humanity burns 70 million barrels of oil a day. At the
present rate of increase, it is projected we'll be burning 100 million
in 20 years. But we'll never get there. We are close to that peak of
global production which was foreseen almost half a century ago by Dr. M.
King Hubbert, the foremost petroleum geologist of his day. (See link at
the end of this column.) The descent from that peak only takes a few
decades. We know that petroleum is a finite resource. But even as
gasoline prices begin to creep upward some time in the not-too-distant
future we won't curtail our driving until real supply shortages
absolutely force the issue.
Take a look at an ugly future scenario:
*The sudden, agonizing death of the private automobile is a wall that
global society will hit full speed, pedal to the metal when a global
petroleum crisis finally catches up with us. We will not accept any
solutions that will soften the impact until the real shortage hits us at
some time (early) in the next century. If we continue to fail to take
any reasonable steps to prepare for it, and it comes upon us thus, the
constriction of the petroleum base of our global economy is quite likely
to begin a plunging, bucking, gasping downward spiral towards a deep and
lasting depression-with-inflation that could virtually end modern times
as we now know them.*
I will explain the combination of hard science and human hard-headedness
which backs the liklihood of this future. But first, let's examine where
Even if we believe that we are joyriding toward the abyss, few of us
will volunteer to be first to quit driving. I've tried it twice. Once in
Tallahassee as Florida's "Energy Czar," and once as a freelance
investigative reporter in Washington, D.C. What a royal pain it was to
be carless in Florida's sprawled-out, little, old capital city. What a
joy it was not to have to fool with parking in our nation's capital.
Cabs there were plentiful and cheap. Walking was a pleasure. The
excellent subway and bus lines were just a hop from my little flat three
blocks from the Library of Congress. But that urban experience is the
exception. For most Americans life without a car is unthinkable - even
in Washington, D.C. It is too late to talk about rational restraint.
As James Howard Kunstler's new book/ Home from Nowhere/ makes clear, the
entire complex of the American civilization and infrastructure that we
have built since World War II is almost unworkable without our massive
herd of private autos. We can't get along without them, although
Kunstler would clearly like to tame them. Kunstler's first best seller,/
The Geography of Nowhere/, was described by a Wall Street Journal
reviewer as "a sharp polemic." The language of/ Home from Nowhere/ is
just as crisp and creative as he continues his positive indictment of
America's post-World-War-II built environment.
I say "positive," because in/ Home from Nowhere/ Kunstler tries to focus
on curing the blight - what we are already beginning to do in a few
places, and what more we can and must do.* "we have the knowledge to do
the right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing"* I,
however, turned immediately to the chapter entitled "Car Crazy." The
book's dust jacket says it "offers real hope to a nation yearning to
live in authentic places worth caring about." Not only does the car
chapter not deliver hope, Kunstler's auto jeremiad is almost as bleak as
my post-petroleum scenario. After a splendidly concise and eloquent
damning of what American car craziness is doing to our built
environment, he concludes his chapter, "We have the knowledge to do the
right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing. The
inescapable conclusion is that our behavior is wicked, and that we are
liable to pay a heavy price for our wickedness by losing the things we
love, including our beautiful country and our democratic republic."
What makes the decline of the Petroleum Age so relentlessly damaging is
that there is no fuel that is going to substitute for it. I know the
technological optimists, with a lot of cynical hype from the
auto/petroleum industrial axis and a lot of naive wishing by the Greens,
vaguely promise a clean, beautiful, driving world on "a mixed fuel
economy." It is this promise that keeps us tranquilly driving along
burning it up for "a few more years" without feeling at all wicked. Some
cabal of scientists in white coats is going unmask the Second Law of
Thermodynamics as an oldthink fraud.* NONE of the promised alternatives
will replace petroleum* It ain't gonna happen. None (let me get way out
on the limb and repeat that: NONE) of the promised alternatives will
replace petroleum - not even vast stores of natural gas, which is the
closest potential substitute, but is also finite.
Nor will liquified and "scrubbed-up" coal juice. Nor (again disregarding
for the moment the environmental and safety questions) will the scores
of new nuclear plants needed to charge up electric cars be economically
supportable in a Post-Petroleum Age. Why? That was explained to us by an
almost forgotten scientist at the University of Florida over 20 years
ago. It is the concept of "net energy." If it takes one barrel of oil to
produce every ten barrels of oil, you have nine barrels of oil left to
run the rest of society. As oil becomes more difficult to find and
transport, the net yield decreases. There is less to run society. Oil
All other costs that are touched by oil (everything) also rise.
Eventually, you creep into recession-with-inflation, which economists
said wasn't supposed to happen - until it did happen after the 1973 oil
embargo. This is where economists display their ignorance of physics.
Many economists, people who should know better, say at that point people
go out and explore for more oil. (We're still finding new oil, but not
at the rate we're burning it. And there are a steadily diminishing
number of places on the planet where we haven't poked holes.) Or,
economists chirp, we'll find other energy sources and drive prices back
down. That is what happens for every other commodity, they say, and
energy is no different from any other commodity.
Energy is not just another commodity in our modern economic system.
Energy is the underlying power that carries the burden and makes our
modern economic infrastructure "more productive" (less labor intensive).
Petroleum is the dominant energy source for the transportation network
that undergirds the global economy, and the planet's most plentiful,
most versatile, most transportable and most efficient energy source. In
a very real and measurable sense the price of every other energy source
we have floats on a "subsidy" of cheap petroleum. In other words every
other energy form we use, including all of the "solar" energies are as
cheap and usable as they are because they are "underwritten" by cheap
oil. (Cheap petroleum and natural gas produce and transport those
silicon PV cells. When the oil is gone, the price of "solar" will
skyrocket, along with every other "alternative energy source," in direct
proportion to the petroleum used in every step of its production and
delivery.)* we would quickly turn our planet into a desert trying to run
our current automobile fleet on biomass*
"Gasohol" is another ideal example of an "alternative fuel" that floats
on a cheap petroleum subsidy. It takes cheap oil for each step of
planting, tending, fertilizing, spraying, harvesting, transporting and
processing corn into alcohol. It takes more cheap oil to blend that
alcohol into something that will (still imperfectly, compared to
gasoline) power your car. Gasohol from corn, sugar, peat, beets,
sawdust, tropical rain forest, or any other "biomass" is not going to
run our present global auto world, let alone the expanding auto world
glowingly predicted by the car industry for the future. Ignore, for a
second the fact that such massive use would quickly begin cannibalizing
the biomass that supports all life and supplies such basics as food and
"Biomass" is not a long-term massive source of global energy because
many of our current agricultural and forestry practices "mine the soil,"
and are, in the long run, neither "renewable," nor "sustainable." Ignore
the environmental concerns about CO2, ozone, etc. Ignore the shrinking
global biomass and arable land that will be needed in ever greater
amounts to feed, clothe and house a swelling human population. There
isn't enough biomass on earth to run our petroleum economy at its
present level if we are insane enough to try it. (And we are.) We would
quickly turn the planet into a desert trying to run our current
automobile fleet on biomass.
And so the real "Catch 22" for alternative fuels is that when the
petroleum economy begins to stumble over shortage, all of the
"alternative fuels" that are supposed to be waiting in the wings, are
going to rise in price dramatically. It is going to be an ugly,
cost-pushed, escalating thing that is going to cripple the global
economy and impoverish global society.* Congress can't print oil and
they can't repeal the second law of thermodynamics* Cleaned-up coal and
natural gas and perhaps even some nuclear will provide our electricity
for a period of time. And some niche-market transportation, too. Wind
power can be a real electric winner for many places on the planet (not
much wind here in Florida and cloud cover makes solar PV a marginally
expensive source on much of the planet).
But none of these sources, along with their electric cars, will run our
present automotive economy at the level of wealth and consumption we
enjoy in this glorious sunset of our Petroleum Age. Trans-continental
economies that are most strung-out on automobiles and trucks (the United
States, Canada, Australia, etc.) are likely to be hardest hit first. So
just when we need to make the transition to other fuels we will discover
that everything we do is much more expensive and we seem to have less
than we anticipated. It will puzzle economists. The economy will slow
down but the prices of everything will keep on rising. We will then
rediscover the age-old truth: money is not a real thing; it is only an
accounting device. Congress can't print oil and they can't repeal the
Second Law of Thermodynamics.
So after we have ritually fired the then-current crop of politicians and
the new ones haven't changed anything, we won't know who to blame. What
will be going on? Now pay attention economists. Here are three dicta
that may sound heretical.
First is Minter's Little Observation:* Neither capital nor labor can
Growing out of this observation is Minter's Little Law of Energy
Subsidy:* The shortage of a more efficient energy source in an economy
will always make the remaining sources of less efficient energy more
expensive and even less efficient.*
Will humanity belatedly begin to use all energy more efficiently when we
finally hear those sucking sounds in the petroleum barrel? Of course. We
will have to. But such efficiencies will not make us more prosperous (as
they do today). By that time they will only slow the rate at which we
get poorer. Why?
Heed Minter's Little Maxim:* A society's transition from a more
efficient energy source to a less efficient energy source will always
and invariably decrease the wealth, flexibility and options available to
that society.* In other words, just when we most need the wealth and
flexibility of cheap petroleum energy to make the transition to a less
energy-intensive infrastructure, everything is going to cost much, much
more. We will be poorer.
If this is all true, what should we be doing?
I do not have many answers. We should at least take off the rose colored
alternative fuel glasses that are blinding the Greens and providing a
smoke screen for short-sighted governments and industries. Until we do
that we can't accurately begin envisioning what a post-petroleum society
is really going to look like. Possibly we should stop sinking so much
money into long-term expansions of infrastructure to support
automobiles. Maybe a few advanced thinkers will begin considering
post-petroleum cities with electric-only cars, or without
private-passenger cars altogether. You tell me.
One thing that seems obvious is that we need to begin an honest net
energy analysis of all of the proposed alternative fuels, and just what
their/ true net/ is/ after all of the present petroleum subsidies are
worked out of the formula./ That is not going to be as easy as it
sounds. Petroleum subsidizes everything we make and do. But it is vital
if we are to make rational judgements not based upon the partisan
polemics of vested interests or true believers. Just what we will do
with this knowledge once we get it is another matter. The Western World
is run by corporate leaders who think quarter-to-quarter, politicians
who think election-to-election, and a public that is hostile to bad news
about their lifestyle (especially our beloved cars). The Pacific Rim
countries are enslaved to automobile exports (and petroleum poor).
The oil exporters are already exaggerating their reserves to get loans
and the global financial community is making those loans. Is there
anyone out there who isn't heavily vested in a continuation of the
existing myopia?* we probably don't have as much time as we think*
In an earlier column, I said that since we obviously are going to do
nothing about transportation until it is way too late, America's only
energy policy option is to work for efficiency in our buildings and
built environment. Certainly that is the focus of Kunstler's two books.
That is the focus of what we have been calling "Sustainable Design."
What is crucial for the design professions to realize is that we
probably don't have as much time as we think before we will not be as
rich as we once were.
To me that spells building for quality and endurance. It means an end to
"consumable" buildings. It means building for ourselves and posterity.
It means the old-fashioned conservative virtues of thrift and
investment, not burn-up and squander. To be Biblical, it means using the
remaining fat years to prepare for the coming lean years. Without
considering the decline of petroleum, Kunstler already thinks we are
wicked to be trashing our lives, our cities, and our infrastructure in
our mad romance with the automobile. Would he think us diabolic if he
understood we are really racing towards a post-petroleum economy that
stands to impoverish our posterity?
If so, he would probably be right. Morally what we are doing is very
much akin to burning the children's lifeboats on the Titanic to keep the
partying adults warm for another half an hour.
In the very humane, final chapter of Kunstler's book, he reflects on the
fine life that the success of his previous book,/ The Geography of
Nowhere/, has given him in a small town in New York. It's an idyllic
world of writing and painting in an almost car-free cocoon. He should
enjoy it with a clear conscience. He, at least, has jousted with the
beast and urged reform.
But we are unreformable, and it seems certain that any such modest
reforms as humanity would swallow will only delay the inevitable by a
few years. And so, as I understand it, a global economic crunch of epic
proportions, one that stands to debase much of our current wealth and
render much of our current infrastructure valueless, lies just over the
horizon sometime in the next century. The economic tremor of the early
'70s was but a mild hint of the times to come. Once again humanity is
going to demonstrate Voltaire's little maxim: "History teaches us that
history teaches us nothing."/ Jim Minter, Editor/