Ignoring the signs

Imagine a world like ours (let’s call it Thera), with intelligent life forms, opposable thumbs and extractable fossil fuels. After some time, the top predator developed a complex global society and ran the show for its own ends. Yes, there were wars and inequality but when a group of leading scientists published a paper entitled, ‘The peak production of non-renewable natural resources’, everything changed. These beings had an economic system much like ours but unlike ours, it had never been decoupled from their environment. There was no writing out blank IOUs to Mother Nature here. They had never lost the knowledge that everything comes from nature – natural resources were priced in accordance to environmental impact and pollution only occurred by accident as the penalty was to close the business, discredit and bankrupt the bosses and return to the local community those assets not used in the clean up. “Eco-fascist”, I hear some shout. Maybe I am, if eco-fascist means finding it indescribably stupid to damage the natural resources which sustain us. Here on Earth, if someone questions the loss of biodiversity due to intensive farming, they’re accused of genocidal tendencies. And GM food? Hell, we need that to feed the starving millions! Really?

Anyway, least I digress, back on Thera the news that many important natural resources were, in fact, not limitless resulted in the ratification of a global treaty on resource use within 10 years of the paper’s publication. It was obvious to global leaders that if the current systems of trade and travel relied on a resource which would not be available 100 years into the future then the sooner the change started, the cheaper it would be. Yes, cheaper. These weren’t a bunch of tree huggers like me, who marvel at the beauty of moss and those tiny shiny beetles, who get excited mid-April when the swallows will return, who recycle fervently despite not really believing it will make a difference – it’s the principle. Thera’s global treaty defined a 100-year timeline for the switch away from all non-renewable natural resources. By the time the 100 years was up, they had used a quarter of their available fossil fuels to build resilient local infrastructure for energy and food provision – the remainder was left in the ground. They had realised that most goods would have to be produced locally, with international trade for essentials which could not be. Transport was radically altered – the personal vehicle was almost a thing of the past and while people travelled relatively little, mass transit ran regularly but rarely. These beings knew that future generations are as important as those living today.

Meanwhile, here on Earth, over 50 years have passed since M. King Hubbert gave a talk in San Antonio in which he predicted that US oil production would start to decline by the early 1970s. Up until minutes before Hubbert began, executives at the head office of Shell Oil (his employer) were on the phone asking him to cancel the talk. Hubbert’s presentation is widely regarded as the opening of the great debate about the finiteness of our oil supply yet are we using less fossil fuels? No. Are we planning how to use what’s left of the cheap (affordable) oil to invest in a future infrastructure which might conceivably work in a world without cheap energy (remember folks, every renewable device other than those carved by hand from freshly hand-sawn timber and dragged to site by horse or human has a fossil fuel input)? No. We’re going to more desperate measures to keep the oil flowing.

Net energy and growth
When I caught on to the significance of ‘net energy’ in the energy crisis (not that I’ve posted on it much), I suppose I thought that if more people understood the basics of energy, and realised that we’ve had an unprecedented abundance of cheap energy for the last 150 years, then there might be a shift in attitudes. I’m not sure why I thought that. Most people don’t want to talk about carrying capacity and human population growth; in fact, some get quite irate should the subject dare to be mentioned. It seems that we’d rather delude ourselves into believing that everyone can have a better standard of living, without our own standard of living decreasing, and with no acknowledgement that our standards of living have come about from centuries of exploiting natural resources. I don’t doubt that we could run human affairs in a ‘fair-for-all-species’ way – of course we could, if that’s what we all chose to do.

However, most of us don’t really get to choose much. We didn’t choose the system we’re in now, did we? That was dreamed up by various economists over the last two centuries and remains embedded in the fiction of rational markets. How can markets be rational when they are run by and for people with money to invest and dollars in their eyes? People mostly dislike risk, which is why we buy insurance or pray for deities to keep us safe; it’s also why economists pretend that they can model the market, the rational market kept on the straight and narrow by an “invisible hand”  which will create the best possible outcome for the most people. C’mon, Adam Smith said it in 1776, it must be true! We do not like risk but if the stakes are high enough we might be prepared to take a greater risk than normal.

The reason we are in the mess we’re in is not because people don’t understand energy and where it comes from. It’s because people don’t take responsibility for their ecological impact. Before this sounds like some misanthropic rant, it’s not.  Most people simply do not understand ecological impacts because they are not economic impacts – they don’t affect people directly, therefore they can be forgotten about or at least put way down the priority list. If you stood to make millions from exploiting natural resources, would you do it? If you’d been unemployed for 3 years and got offered a job driving a dump truck in a local quarry, would you take it? There are many reasons why people destroy the planet.

We can’t believe that globalised industrial civilisation, which provides so much comfort and convenience, might come crashing down. “Don’t say that, you’ll scare/annoy/disempower* people” (*delete as necessary). Well, it’s gonna get pretty scary when we hit the inevitable ‘limits to growth’ (there’s another seminal report which we could have used as a wake-up call – published 40 years ago come 2012 and yet it’s still a concept few can bear to contemplate). Which is worse – a disaster totally out of the blue or one which you knew was coming and at least had some time to prepare for? I think we all should ask ourselves, “at what point will I struggle to make ends meet – how dear must food and fuel get before I am forced to give up things I like? At what point will I work and eat locally – when it’s the cheapest option or the only option?” For most people, behavioural changes which benefit the environment only happen when there is no other choice. It’s the same for fossil fuels – my fear is that we will only leave them in the ground when their extraction is no longer profitable and by that point, who knows what state the economy will be in or how many tipping points will have been passed. Even if the economy imploded suddenly and completely, ending global trade altogether, I’d bet those living locally would work out how to use whatever remaining fossil fuel reserves they could access. We’re talking life and death here. Would you die of cold rather than burn some gloopy goo you’d found oozing from the ground? Yeah, maybe, if you didn’t have a match or Ray Mears to rub some sticks together.

The anti-growth message is the hardest of all to get across because we have set our economic system up in such a way that it can’t function without growth – growth is essential to repay debt. Really considering the implications of zero or negative economic growth means radically altering the way we view the Earth’s resources, each other and all species. Gone would be the days of one percent of the world’s adults owning 40 percent of all global assets (or whatever the figure really is).

The fervour with which some cling to their beliefs crosses all divides: religious vs. atheist, pro-nuclear vs. anti-nuclear, leave it in the ground vs. drill baby drill. The trick is to know when not to waste one’s time or effort in trying to change the opinion of others. Yes, the planet’s a-burning and there are lots of (often conflicting) solutions out there from the ‘will-we-ever-learn’ geo-engineering schemes to more in tune with nature permaculture, which while being much more ecologically convincing leaves me with an amusing mental image of unlikely suspects tending their gardens and a whole new meaning to ‘drill baby drill’.

As ecological economist Herman Daly pointed out, ‘since the earth itself is developing without growing, it follows that a subsystem of the earth (i.e. the economy) must eventually conform to the same behavioural mode of development without growth’. Apparently this sensible statement is in his book ‘Beyond Growth’ but I can’t access the book online and the quote seems to originate from Andrew Simms, which is good enough for me!

Energy and water
Some of those who believe peak oil to be a distraction are the ‘gigawatt guys’ – you know, the ones who spout forth about the number of gigawatts which hit the Earth each day – if only we could harness just a fraction of that energy, we’d be OK although they sometimes seem to forget that the required infrastructure demands considerable investment of money, energy and raw materials. A big part of the solar future is to come from concentrating solar power (CSP), large solar devices built in deserts across the world. It makes sense – deserts are not usually used for agriculture given the lack of water so there should be no ‘food not fuel’-type conflicts. But, wait, what exactly is CSP? While some systems focus sunlight onto photovoltaic cells to generate electricity directly, most are solar thermal devices. What all thermal-based energy production has in common, whether involving solar concentrators, fossil fuels or nuclear is that they all use heat to boil water and produce super heated steam. The steam then rotates a large turbine activating a generator that produces electricity. Hmm, so where will the water come from? Previously untapped underground aquifers? Like we haven’t screwed enough of them up! Or perhaps irrigated desert lands, replacing crops which themselves require a lot of water?

According to a 2006 report to Congress on the interdependency of energy and water (see table on page 65), a coal fired plant consumes 300–480 gallons of water per megawatt hour (not including cooling water which is returned to the source warm – I’m sure that alters the local ecosystem but for better or worse I don’t know); a nuclear plant uses between 400 – 720 gallons/MWh; and a solar parabolic trough plant uses 760 – 920 gallons/MWh. Considering the large number of solar plants being proposed (e.g. in Arizona) the question of the amount of water needed to produce solar energy is an important one. Efforts to increase water efficiency in solar energy operations involve modifying the conventional cooling tower, which would greatly increase building costs and could decrease the efficiency of the plant. So, once again, I would like to see people restrain their excitement at ‘the next green solution’ and consider all the arguments, not just the energy, not just the land, not just the water, not just the raw materials involved but the whole system.

Peak everything
I’ve probably spent more time than I should have trying to come up with the perfect argument for those who still see peak oil as a mere distraction compared to its limelight-hogging twin, climate change. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: they are intrinsically linked, not just to our use of fossil fuels but also to our attitude to natural resource use in general. We exploit, we use, we profit, we waste and we assume that something better will come along – it always has before, right?

With respect to climate change, our attitude has been to maximise fossil fuel production and consumption, while also destroying forests, peatlands and other natural carbon ‘sinks’ which might have stood a chance of absorbing a good chunk of the resultant CO2 had they been left intact. But they weren’t and now we even talk about making artificial trees  (various types). As for peak oil, it’s only posing a problem because of our short-termism – inhabitants of Thera were open to the idea that they’d miscalculated how to live and they changed. They heeded the signs.

So, why is peak oil important? Because peak oil is about the end of cheap oil, which means the end of cheap everything – transport, food, goods, everything which requires oil as an energy source or a raw material will become more expensive. Oil used to return almost 100 units of energy for every unit invested in its production – you’d poke a stick in Texas or Saudi Arabia and the stuff would come a-gushing. Not anymore. Now it’s all hi-tech, semi-submersible ‘accidents-waiting-to-happen’ operating deep offshore and tar sands (don’t get me started on that one!) Oil is the single most valuable source of energy, particularly transport energy. Without cheap and plentiful liquid fuel, global trade grinds to a halt. I do not believe that ‘we’ don’t know this. If we can’t wake up to what peak oil means, we won’t wake up to peak anything. We’ll live in hope of electric cars and biofuelled aeroplanes, of some hydrogen economy, of a sustainable world which will never happen. We have to end growth economics and I think that’s the biggest ask of all.

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About The Cheery Pessimist

Waiting for some sign that we will change our ways before it all comes tumbling down...still, you've got to laugh
This entry was posted in Growth, net energy, peak oil. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Ignoring the signs

  1. Jan Steinman says:

    Thanks for this, Mandy. I just discovered your blog from a link you posted elsewhere.

    “We didn’t choose the system we’re in now, did we? That was dreamed up by various economists over the last two centuries and remains embedded in the fiction of rational markets.”

    But isn’t it collective delusional self-interest that created this system? Economists only try to explain what evolved quite naturally and organically as a result of seemingly endless growth.

    After all, Malthus has been telling us this — and being laughed at — for centuries. Malthus wasn’t wrong, he just didn’t foresee fossil sunlight entering the scene. Perhaps next will be aliens from Alpha Centauri bringing us the secret of zero-point energy, or perfection of cold fusion. Then, as Garret Hardin noted, the problem of the acquisition of energy will be the problem of its dissipation.

    I think the future will be powered by organic solar panels that actually reproduce themselves. Imagine that! I’m sure scientists are working on it right now…

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