Wednesday, January 9, 2019

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

Repost: Oil Apocalypse Blogs #2

A continuing series. I answer more questions about the books and the research behind them.

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 absent petroleum. 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 potential 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 working toward food self-sufficiency myself, and if a lot of people do this--including urban gardeners, who can use abandoned lots, roof gardens, median strips, and much more--that will mitigate the problem. Kudos to those who are doing just that. But of course, sufficient people will not do the work, and certain arid places (Phoenix, Las Vegas) are not in climates where that much food can be grown, and we'll end up in a bad situation at some future point.

I don't think I'll live to see it, honestly, but if I had grandkids, I would be working to teach them how to grow their own food and fish--that's for sure.

A foreign war triggers the end of oil in your books. But don’t Iran and Saudi Arabia get along really well?

Not according to what I read. I read several foreign 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 in the real world. 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.

However, much more of the US's oil comes from Canada than from the Middle East at this point, so in our real world, this wouldn't be so much of a crisis.

more next week

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Repost: 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.It was a three-year research process to come to the series, and some of my reading goes back to my university undergrad days.

I’ll start the series 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 far too much 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 unreliable sources. 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. (lol.)

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, though for now it takes more energy to extract it than it gives in return. (same is true of corn-based ethanol.) 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 to be pumped up, 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 beyond that 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

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Repost: some of what I read as research for the Oil Apocalypse series

1) Anything I could find on small ground-unit tactics, including parts of the US Army field manuals and after-action reports from Australian, US, and British ground troops going back to the 1950s. In a few cases, the reports had a few lines about what it felt like to be there and vivid descriptions that helped me imagine (though I’ve never been in combat myself) what that might be like. Many thanks to those authors.

2) I admit that I’m no expert on weapons (I’ve fired a half-dozen, but that’s about it), so online manuals and discussions have helped me appear (I hope) something other than a fool on the topic. Friends help, and I’ll continue to use my friends for just that purpose as I write the rest of the series. A big thank you goes out to them for this help.

3) Though it’s a subtle part of the setting at first, there is a warming trend in the deserts of the southwest US right now and I’ve extrapolated worse in the near future setting of my novels so that the snow level is higher, the mid-altitudes hotter, and the animal populations are shifting. I’ve read paleoclimatology edited for the non-professional reader, including The West Without Water, Ingram and Malamud-Roan. I’ve read climate change books that focus specifically on Arizona and New Mexico, including the beautifully written A Great Aridness by William DeBuys. I revisited some of the ruins of Sinagua and Hohokam people in Arizona where drought and heat drove them away from their home (and which also drove other cultural changes that led to the abandonment of many Indian cities in the 1400s in the southwestern US.) Brian Fagan’s books on water and climate and the history of human civilization provided some additional help. As the series progresses, it becomes more of a cli-fi series.

4) Over the past three years, I’ve read probably everything written for the general audience on peak oil since 1990, including many blogs and debates in comments, ones from the wackdoodle (and the topic seems to attract some of that!) to the sober. I’ve interviewed a petroleum engineer, viewed every documentary movie on the topic I could find, and if I’ve missed a single popular book, I’d be shocked. (Thanks to the public library and the concept of free inter-library loans for much of this.) For a quick overview, I might suggest (though it is not without its problems) the film A Crude Awakening.

5) Wikipedia has become a sine qua non for most authors. I probably look at some page there five times a day. WokFI is just one page I looked at one day (for a scene that lasts barely 25 words), but hardly an hour passes that I don’t look up something like that. I remember the days when you had to drive to the library and look in books and Periodical Indexes and ask reference librarians (who are terrific people) and call around to find friends of friends of friends in order to find such facts. I donate every year (often twice!) to Wikimedia Foundation because they save me a lot of time and effort.

People tell me I spend too much time and effort on research, but as a reader of novels, I like to think the author is telling me truth about the real world rather than nonsense, and so to me it's a worthwhile use of my time. Besides, I like learning, so it's no chore.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Simple tech ain't so simple

My new series is going to be set long after the apocalypse, and the world (or at least continent) as we know it will have fallen back to a 17th or 16th century world. Wheels, for instance, will be carved, wooden, and "tires" will be of salvaged metal strips. Someone has to do the salvage work. Someone has to carve the wheels.

Not that there will be gasoline engines to pull the contraptions the wheels are on, mind you. Horses or people! Or people just drag the plow or ard themselves, roped into it, rather than like this guy who apparently has some deer-dalmation hybrid pulling his. (Egypt. interesting place. 😏)

My book is partly set in a wooden windmill, where grain is ground for the community. I've been educating myself on the history of windmills, and how complex they grew with people adapting them using nothing but quite simple tools. Lubricated by bee's wax, these machines sawed wood, ground grain, made Holland habitable, made paint, and all sorts of other items for use or trade. I enjoyed musing about the innovations, who came up with them, how long it took to get it "right," and the sort of person who could innovate. Honestly, it took me a week of studying them to figure out the basics!

Consider the design of a millstone, carved by a stone carver or millwright by hand. They must have started with just two stones, millennia ago, and came to this point.The more you think about the design--and read up a little on it--you see what an astonishing bit of technology the design is. It grind the grain, it pushes the grain out, and it doesn't pulverize the grain. The stones are further apart near the center and closer at the edge. The design controls the movement of the grain (eventually down into a hopper.) Most rotate about 2 times per second. Here's one design, but most look something like this.

I'm reading widely, not quite knowing what will be of use. And some of this is based on TV shows I watched years ago, like "Life After People," where they explained how the buildings, bridges, and monuments of our culture will fall apart quickly in the absence of our keeping them up (and having the petroleum to do so). Articles I've been bookmarking for over a year might apply--like the "fruit walls of the 16th century" article I found that shows how to grow fruit by using the heat-storing capacity of southern-facing clay or brick walls to create a warmer microclimate that ripens the fruit sooner and allows you to grow figs in Montreal. (I may not need this, but it's the sort of thing I bookmark and may or may not use.)

My writing process is, as I do this research, it starts to come together for me, characters begin to pop into my mind (Who does the windsmith interact with most often? What is her role in the community? What kind of person could carve millstones for a living?) I simultaneously gain the knowledge I need to make details correct and (I hope) vivid and get to know my cast of characters. When it feels ripe I begin to outline a series or book, though I also have self-imposed deadlines, so it darned well better ripen up on time! :D

Jan 1, I plan to type the words "Chapter 1" and get going on the new series. It's a little unusual for indie post-apocalyptic, as the apocalypse will be rather far in the past, but there are similarities in how it's a survival adventure, and new sort of apocalyptic events will spring up for the characters to deal with. As a minor point, climate change may have been nasty for the Oil Apocalypse characters, but when it changes back for their descendants to a colder world, a new kind of climate change will be just as difficult to adapt to. There are other problems they'll face, but I won't spoil it for you. It's coming in 2019.