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.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Oil Apocalypse Blogs: 2

What is the scariest aspect of the end of oil?

In my opinion? Food. Our just-in-time food delivery system depends entirely on petroleum. Starving people may not remain pleasant people, especially not when they live in the concentrations of today’s urban centers. England’s little glitch back 10 years ago that resulted in the “nine meals from anarchy” talk gave us a hint of what may well happen at the start of such an event.

Daniel Chase photo via Wikimedia. Before Hurricane Sandy

But food delivery isn’t the only facet of the food system that requires petroleum. Tractors and other farm machinery, tractor tires, insecticides, fertilizers...all require petroleum. Indeed, it was the industrial revolution and petroleum products as applied to farming that resulted in crop yields that caused the world population to explode from 500 million to over 7 billion in just a couple hundred years.

We need to pause from time to time and think about that. 500 million people is probably the carrying capacity of the earth sans oil. That is, this lovely, diverse, rare planet can support/feed only a half a billion homo sapiens. So when oil is gone, there will be at least 7 billion extra starving people (probably 15 billion or more by the time it happens, though drought or disease may have killed several billion first because we have other problems that stem from overpopulation).

So imagine: Fertile land and deer and fish for half a billion, with 15 billion clamoring for food. You can see what’s going to happen. People are going to starve to death...but a few will not do it quietly and politely, darn them. They will kill you to get your food, and if your food is gone, some will kill you to use you as food.

(I’m glad I won’t live to see it.)

Don’t Iran and Saudi Arabia get along really well?

Not according to what I read. I read several policy papers (rather boring research for me, I confess), and of all the local neighbors who might attack Saudi Arabia for its oil in the future, Iran seemed the most likely. Again, I can’t guess at a date, but one day, surely current tensions will come to that. Its impact on oil exports? That I would not begin to try and predict. Worst case scenario for the reader more than likely, is Russia backing Iran (as they likely would) and winning and gaining control over the Saudi Arabian oil fields. The British/US invasion of Iraq was ill-considered and wasteful and got us almost no oil. Our entering this hypothetical Iran-Saudi war, if Russia is a major player, to protect our access to Saudi oil? Absolutely necessary. It’ll probably be couched in some typical lie to appease the masses--WMDs or religion or “evil” leaders or whatever--but it will be entirely about oil and, if we want to keep living as we do, if we want to keep eating, not so much a choice as an imperative.

more next week

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Oil Apocalypse Blogs: 1

As I begin to blog about the topics that I’ve researched and that led me to situate this novel series at the end of petroleum, I hardly know where to begin.

I’ll start with answering general questions friends and readers have already asked me and imaginary questions that other people might ask in the future.

Do you believe that oil is coming to an end?

Without a doubt.

It’s a finite resource. The world population increases daily by almost a quarter of a million people, India and China, the most populous nations, become bigger users of fossil fuels every day, and it takes tens of millions of years for new oil to be made via geological processes. So yes, absolutely, it’s coming to an end. I don’t need to “believe” it, no more than I need to “believe” in gravity or molybdenum or the planet Mercury. Oil will run out.

But I’ve read in the newspaper there is plenty. Don’t you believe the official measures of available oil and predictions of how long it will last?

Not for a second. These figures come from the oil industry itself (remember, the folks you brought you Deep Horizon and the Exxon Valdez?), which is fixated on short-term profit, not the long-term health of civilization, and from the same governments who have lied about everything they can lie about for my entire life. Obviously none is to be trusted and all have their own vested economic interests that make lying advantageous to them. They aren’t wholly on my side and have plenty of incentive to lie, so I don’t believe them.

So who do you believe?

Sorry, but I have no one reliable to offer you in exchange for those liars. I’ve read every peak oil/post oil book there is out there, watched all the documentaries, read hundreds of blog posts by everyone from social scientists to actuaries to economists to “recovering oil executives,” to the Grand Archdruid, to back-to-the-earth small organic farmers who use horses and hoes instead of tractors, and there is so much panic-mongering and so many unlikely claims, so many crazy cults that don’t allow dissent or questions if you wish to clarify the source of their claims, it’s hard to know whom to believe. So I don’t believe any of them either.

Sure, that’s because some are clearly nutty, but also because the most rational and well-read of them are predicting details about a future that is unpredictable. I don’t know the future, and they don’t know. Some (not much) new oil could be discovered. New technologies might emerge to get oil out of tar sands more efficiently. Nobody knows the shape of the future, and while someone out there (probably a few gas executives and intelligence agencies) is certain how much gasoline is truly left, they aren’t sharing that info.

We do all know this: oil is a finite resource and more than half that ever was has already been burned.

Wikimedia. Oil production and use. Hubbert's Peak in action to 2003

When will oil entirely run out?

Not a clue. After I’m dead and gone, no doubt, and probably before 100 years has passed, but other than that, without someone first telling us the truth about how much there is, I would not hazard a guess. (Okay, I did hazard a guess in writing this novel series, but Slashed is set about a generation from now, and that seems far too soon for us living in the real, non-fictional world. I didn’t want the world unrecognizable, so I chose that time frame and a world political arrangement that had the US dependent on one foreign source that gets shut off in an instant. Artistic license.)

more to come next week