Sunday, August 13, 2017

Oil Apocalypse: the Germ

Not just the germ for the Oil Apocalypse series of novels, but for my thinking about the collapse of civilization, sprouted decades ago, at university. There, I read various Club of Rome publications and Limits to Growth (which is entirely right in general, though people slam it for being wrong in a few specifics). Political science professors introduced to me to some fascinating principles that I absorbed. I didn’t think of this often as a young adult--I was busy getting laid and establishing a career like most people in their 20s--but it was percolating in the back of my mind. I wasn't yet a writer and didn't think people like me could be writers.


If you want to know more about Limits to Growth, an easy way to learn is to read this recent article.

I became interested in the topic of collapse--why and how civilizations fall--long before the Jared Diamond book on it. I should start with the 1988 book Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy, a seminal political science work that focuses largely on military power and how it first builds empires and then contributes to the collapse of them. I took some archeology courses in the 1990s and learned more about ancient civilizations that are naught but ruins now and why they may have ended. The Diamond book Collapse was released, and I read that. He speaks a lot of resource depletion due to overpopulation as a core cause of collapse. I’ve since read Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, which talks about complexity of systems being the cause of collapse, a sort of weight that accumulates until it breaks a society into smaller, more manageable pieces. I’m currently working my way through mathematician Peter Turchin’s writing on the topic which analyzes the matter in a slightly different way. I suspect none has THE answer, but I suspect each has a piece of an answer to the question “what makes complex societies collapse?”

If you wander over to youtube, you’ll find interviews and lectures by all these men, or you can go read the Wikipedia pages on each of the mentioned books and get this gist.

If you’re not in the mood to read or listen to lectures, the most important thing to know is this: because of various causes, civilizations always collapse. It’s an inescapable rule, just like “you will die” is a rule. Whatever nation-state you inhabit is not immune to ending, as you are not immune to death. Wave your flag harder in response to this statement all you want, but it won’t stop the inevitable collapse. Rome’s empire fell. Alexander the Great conquered a huge swath of land but you’ll notice most of those conquered people don’t speak Greek any longer. Persia fell. The Mongols became something less than Genghis might have hoped. The sun sets pretty quickly on the British Empire nowadays. Collapse happens.

Often, collapse is more like "contraction." Rome fell, but you know, there is still a Rome in Italy, and some of the people there are descended from Imperial Romans.

Here's something to ponder: because we are in part a global society now, quite intertwined, trading goods across vast distances, is it more likely that if, say, the United States collapses will it take Canada, Australia, Britain, Japan, and Saudi Arabia with it? In the not-too-remote past, this was not so. Portugal used to be an empire of great power. When it collapsed from that position and because a much less powerful nation, it was good for the rest of Europe, not bad. It probably would be a real problem if that happened today--and not just because of the EU.

Another interesting question is: what does collapse look like in the modern age? Does it happen boom, overnight? Preppers obviously think so and most post-apocalyptic novels, including mine, cater to that belief/fear/desire. Or does it happen slowly, in a stair-step fashion, and in such a way that only a few people understand that they are living in the midst of a collapse as it occurs?

Part of the problem with how the human mind works is that we want simple answers and we think better when contemplating the short term. Trying to think about the collapse of vast civilizations, including how our own will collapse, takes a disinterested perspective, and a broad view.

While my other post-apocalyptic novels are about a specific triggering event, the Oil Apocalypse series depended on my inventing imaginary answers to these more complicated questions of how and how quickly collapse occurs. There is no way to write an exciting novel while including all of this information I’ve learned. I tried to hint at some of the complexities of the slow collapse leading up to the catastrophic event of the destruction of the Ras Tanura port in book 1 of my series, and I hope I was neither too subtle about that, nor too dull and academic. Spoiler alert: there's a second series planned for a long, long time after this series. That's because I think people will survive collapse, and I make this belief into fictional reality in series 2.

So in books 2-4 of the first series, and in the second series, I’ll let the slow collapse continue....

Sunday, August 6, 2017

I have good news about Oil Apocalypse!

Because my imagination and fingers have been working overtime the past six weeks, the third book will be ready much sooner than I'd planned. I still must coordinate with cover artist and proofreader for this surprise change, but if Book 2 drops into your Kindle on October 6, it's quite possible Book 3 will appear in late November, which is fully six weeks earlier than I had original thought I could do it. Yay for all of us!

And those three books will comprise a sort of sub-series, a complete tale that comes to a resting point. After that, there will be a time gap (for the characters, not for me and you) and we'll come back to them in Book 4 several years later, when relationships, resources, and troubles will have changed.

I originally thought this first section would be one book, but that wasn't so. And then I thought it would be two books, but I got so many interesting ideas, I realized I couldn't fit them into a single volume. So three books it is for this sub-series.

There is every possibility that there will be six or seven books in the series. I know the final scenes of the series as clearly as if I witnessed them happening in real life, and I can tell that they aren't coming up in any book soon. So if you like the Oil Apocalypse series, this is good news indeed. It won't be a short series!

Next Sunday I'll return to my posts on the end of oil, the collapse of civilizations, and related matters.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Oil Apocalypse Blogs: 5

As you thought about all this over the past two years of research, what was the most troubling single fact you ran across?

Perhaps this: in the United States, a majority of lettuce is grown in Yuma, AZ. (A good deal of the other fertile green land of the US has either suburbs built over it or grows grains for cows to eat and to sweeten Coke--and no, that isn’t the troubling thing! Or, yes, it is troubling, but...) A popular food all over America is iceberg lettuce, which contains 63 calories per pound. A liter of diesel fuel represents 9 million calories. (Calories = heat = energy to do work, whether the work gets done by human power or internal combustion engines.) From Yuma to, say, the outskirts of Boston is 4500 km/2800 miles. Long-haul trucks get about 6 miles per gallon of diesel (for my international readers, I believe that’s 39 litres per 100 km--correct me if my maths failed me). One common size of truck carries 40,000 pounds of lettuce or 250,000 calories of food per truck load. Multiply all that out and you see we’re using 250 million calories of diesel to transport 250 thousand calories. (And half of that lettuce will end up thrown out, so really, only 125 thousand calories will be put back into the human energy system.) When our great-great-great-great grandchildren are spreading the manure with a rake and think of this insane waste, they are going to curse our names and go spit on our graves. (which they'll have probably raided for bones to grind into fertilizer, if they're smart.)

I have a really crazy idea to solve this: grow lettuce near Boston for the 220 growing days it has, and just don’t eat it the other 140 days of the year. I know, I’m mad, MAD, I tell you. [Insert evil laugh.]



Um, Lou? Should I panic?

Definitely not. It’s not nearly the time to panic, and even when it is time, what use is panic?

Should I conserve gas?

Nah. I've quit thinking this way. I do out of habit, and I use solar power, and a low-flow toilet because I’m in the desert where water is going to run out one day soon, but I do all this knowing it won’t help. You use a gallon of gasoline today, or some guy in China uses it in five years, doesn’t really matter, does it? Petroleum will run out either way. (And all my using a low-flow toilet does is to allow developers to justify building another golf course or mall in the desert, so that’s downright idiotic of me, a person could argue.)

What should I do?

Right now? Be prepared not for the end of the world but for minor natural disasters--you know which are likely to strike you--and even more importantly for power outages. Because those will become more frequent before oil depletion is an issue.

Can’t we work to switch over to a radically different way of living and make the transition bearable? Something like urban gardening might help ameliorate some of the food issues you've talked about.

Urban gardening without petrochemicals is a smart idea but probably not enough to save us, even putting aside for a moment human nature (including greed, laziness, unwillingness to change, short-term thinking, unwillingness to believe the facts smacking us right in the face, aversion to physical labor, the urge to steal ripe tomatoes out of someone’s yard if they aren't looking, and so on). Maybe back when Jimmy Carter realized what was what and got the US to drive 55 (remember that gas-saving idea, fellow oldsters? Lasted for an eyeblink), there was still a remote chance of doing that if we rapidly added other measures like nationwide electric trains (totally doable with today’s tech, and totally nowhere on any infrastructure plan), different sorts of farm subsidies that punish petrochemical use, monoculture farming, and reward growing edible foods to sell locally, a move to 50 mpg cars within five years, and so on. We didn’t do it then, and we know more now and are closer to the end of oil now, and we’re still not doing it! Admit it: we suck at this kind of thing.

Former President Carter
Conversions to a sustainable way of managing energy reserves require not just putting on a sweater in the winter and driving 55 but decades of innovation, engineering, and manufacturing (which will require petroleum to drive until the new way is profitable and probably it will require significant tax increases on gasoline in the US, which very few of us are willing to accept), and I think we’ve missed the window where we could have done that, and missed it by quite a few decades. Not only the end of gas, but an ugly end to gas has become inevitable, I fear.

Some people think the last possible time to act was the beginning of the industrial revolution. Thinking along those lines, I’d counter that perhaps the last moment to call a halt and reconsider would have even been the invention of grain agriculture, which put us on the road to here. But back then, they didn’t know diddly-squat about...well, anything they’d have needed to know that might have stopped them from taking that step onto the slippery slope. They thought the world was flat and ended 100 miles away, and I’m sure they saw some tar pits, but sensibly they thought those were things to avoid, not exploit. Having more of their children survive to adulthood via farming seemed a good thing (and why shouldn’t it have?) and not also the first step on the road to runaway overpopulation that would lead to population growth, the discovery of oil, and very bad results of the end of oil in the long term.

Do you have no hope about a sane, rapid transition away from oil that doesn’t involve eventual cannibalism and billions starving and so on?

Sure. Mother Nature could unleash a pandemic on us that kills 95% of the population and renders 95% of the remainder infertile. That would help quite a bit. But I’m not sure that’s exactly “optimistic” or hopeful in the way you might wish, though it might be a little better to die of a viral respiratory disease than to be eaten by cannibals. (Never having experienced either, I’m only guessing at their relative merits, of course.) And, even if that pandemic happened, gas would still run out in several centuries--but in that case we might have been given the time to create a more gentle transition to the post-oil world. Are humans capable of becoming anything but short-sighted and greedy so that after the pandemic the ones left would use that time wisely and in that way? History doesn’t make me an optimist, but we’ve done great things before (like democracy and the internet and getting to the moon) so who knows?

Ack! You’re a horrible person, Lou! Can’t you say one positive thing about anything?

Sure. I’m really quite a cheerful person. It’s a nice day, I’m healthy and in no physical pain, and I hope you can say that too. Pour yourself a margarita if you drink alcohol, and re-watch your favorite comedy movie, and if someone close at hand loves you, enjoy laughing with him or her. Kiss your dog or cat or parakeet. Any day we’re not being buried or cremated is a fine day. Be grateful, as I am, that your life is being lived in this amazing, brief window when petroleum drove all this technology and easy living. “Alexa? Give me a recipe for margaritas.”

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Oil Apocalypse Blogs: 4





Don’t you think prepping and having a bunker full of powdered butter and a case of Amoxicillin and seeds and lots of ammunition will save you in case of a total collapse and food riots and all that?

I honestly don’t, sorry. I know it's a big business, prepper products, and that people are passionate about this (and some only pretend to be passionate to make money off the true believers), but I don’t think prepping will work. Again, I really don’t believe that a violent collapse will happen in my or your lifetime, but let’s say against all odds that a SHTF scenario is coming in ten years. I think if you’re anywhere near a city, living in a normal home with a normal number of occupants who go to the shooting range, responsibly, twice a month to keep up their skills, you’ll die quickly if the hungry hordes arrive and see you have a garden and food stores. Maybe if you had a compound with 250 trained soldiers who kept in training daily, in a remote mountain site surrounded by barbed wire, you could make it...but then compounds like that, well off the beaten path, tend to quickly devolve into bizarre paranoid cult dictatorships where the teenage girls don’t fare so well, and that occurs long before the crisis comes (which it probably won’t in the lifetime of any cult out there today, so you're risking a lot for no gain). So personally? I’m not moving to one of those compounds and would suggest you keep your daughters away from them.

Isn’t it possible we’ll figure out a way to use something common as fuel? Like air or salt water?

No, because again of the pesky laws of physics. But let’s say we could magically turn regular old air into fuel--into energy as amazing and cheap as petroleum was in 1930, plus some form of waste product (aka pollution). Fast forward. This could not possibly turn out well. (“Honey, you want to drive the air-car to the store while I suffocate to death, or vice versa?”)  Petroleum was probably our one chance, and ... well ... we kinda blew it. I’m not excepting myself from the blame, nor am I excepting myself from the evolutionary psychology truth about people that drives us to behave like this. We are short-term thinkers, and we weigh present benefits as many times more important than future ones. Our New Year’s resolutions about food and exercise mostly fail because a chocolate bar and resting after work appeal more than the long-term benefit. And we use up a finite gift like petroleum now rather than doling it out at a more responsible rate.

Can’t we colonize the galaxy and find new energy sources?

No. We can’t even begin to repair the damage we’ve done to this planet, much less terraform Mars to be habitable for humans, a place that has zero biomass, no protective magnetosphere, dead soil, and no oil to drill for anyway. Rocket fuel, which is not petroleum-based, nevertheless requires petroleum to manufacture. So that’s how you want to spent the last 2% of it? Going to a planet that can’t possibly support human life? (sigh.) We’ve never found any sign of so much as algae on another planet. Oil may be unique in the galaxy, even if intelligent life is not.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Oil Apocalypse Blogs: 3

Can solar power, hybrid cars, turbines, biodiesel, and nuclear power save our easy suburban life?

Not a chance. Solar, wind, and even nukes will provide electricity after coal and natural gas run out. And I’ve been reading up on how fragile the US grid for electricity is, and there’s horrible news there too. A lot of expensive infrastructure has to change fast for renewables to provide all our electricity.



But in any case, electricity isn’t food. It isn’t delivery of goods across oceans. Electricity isn’t putting tires on a vehicle that will rush your kid to the hospital in an ambulance (where, without plastics, I have not a clue what kind of equipment the doctors will be using anyway). Electricity is nice, mind you. It lets Siri and Alexa tell you knock-knock jokes, and it helps me write my novels and get them to your device. It keeps people in Yellow Knife from freezing to death and people in Adelaide from dying of heat stroke. I like electricity a good deal, though I’ve lived without hardly any myself over many years (one 85-watt solar panel, two batteries, DC power, and no other electricity served me fine for a decade, though that was in no way a typical suburban lifestyle).

Oil does so much more than drive us around; an astonishing amount of stuff we rely on is petroleum-based. (Glancing around... My eyeglasses, computer, shoes, carpet, electrical cords, Kindle, some clothing, some furniture bits. The driveway surface outside my front door. The tires on my car, and at least half the stuff under its hood that keeps it running. And I didn’t even have to stretch my neck to see all that!)

Renewables alone won’t give us the electricity we (think we) need. One day, I suspect, electricity will have to be coming mostly from nuke plants, many more plants than now exist, built (because oil is required to do that too) before oil runs entirely out. I will jump on the nutcase forecasting bandwagon to say this much. When/if that happens, no matter what assurances there are, expect a Chernobyl or Fukashima every three to five years or so. So, you know, buy property UPwind, not downwind of your local nuke plant. (I’m downwind of one. Do as I say and not as I do!) Um, also? We’re at peak uranium already. So unless the technology of nuclear reactors takes a massive leap forward in a shockingly short time, that phase won’t last long either. Then our descendants might be part of a great human migration away from extreme climates, the locations of which will likely be different than today’s, because while we can live without electricity for most things (as I found out when living without more than one 85-watt solar panel gave me), we can’t survive 130 degree days and 100 degree nights without it, which is where Phoenix is headed, and soon. Whoever is around after oil can live in temperate climes and with little to no electricity. We hominids did that for hundreds of thousands of years; we will again.

Some people will say we humans are great inventors and we’ll invent our way out of the inevitable end of oil. Perhaps, but I don’t believe we will because you cannot invent your way out of the rules of physics and biology, and nothing on the horizon looks able to replace most uses of oil. Minor new technologies will create minor improvements (as when electric car batteries can be manufactured more cheaply or to weigh much less, or when solar panels may one day not require almost as much electricity to manufacture as they’ll put out over their lives, which is the current state of affairs).

Of course and on the other hand...people used to living life one way will resist change. Look up all the brouhaha about smart electric meters. To keep the electrical grid going and to avoid blackouts, in many communities (mine is one of them), they remotely control things like your thermostat temp, no matter what you'd like. This way, everyone has some cooling or heating, and they avoid week-long blackouts that would literally kill people. But people are very against this! So, invent all you like, but you can't invent around greed and a sense of entitlement. (Entitlement to air conditioning? What a bizarre concept.)

I believe the great-great-great-(maybe another great or two)-grandchildren of people now being born may be living something like an 18th century agrarian life again (though surrounded by plastic trash from the petroleum age). Instead of spraying petrochemicals on their crops to increase the yield, they’ll once again spread manure. Yes, manure smells bad, but compared to death by starvation, guiding the manure-spreader around the farm once a year doesn’t sound like a terrible future.

So I’m an optimist about the distant future.

It’s just getting from this point to that point, particularly in how that excess 15 billion humans gets culled, that I’m afraid will be ugly and scary.