Saturday, 6 September 2014

Ten years on

An anniversary passed without my remembering; it’s been ten years since I wrote my first article on the phenomenon of peak oil, rather a turning point for me. The magazine I originally wrote it for died long ago, but it has been reprinted in several other places, including in

The article described the basic idea of “peak oil” – that oil in any field reaches a peak and then slowly declines, and by estimating the amount of oil you can predict when it would begin to decline.

It explained that geologist M. King Hubbert predicted in 1956 that the USA would peak around 1970, and it did – and has been declining ever since. In writing it I mentioned Hubbert’s next prediction, that the planet would peak around 2000 – I was writing the article in 2004, and it hadn’t peaked yet.

As far as we can tell, the world oil supply peaked the next year, in 2005 – but it’s basically in a plateau since 2004.

At the time, I wrote: 

It is difficult to overstate how a permanent oil crisis would change our lives. Such a change would have been profound in 1956, when Hubbert made his prediction and the oil economy had existed for almost a century. But that same year also saw the opening of the federal highway system. That same decade saw the destruction of most of our cities’ streetcar systems, and the explosion of suburban sprawl.

From 1960 to 1990, the United States’ population increased 40 percent, but the number of drivers doubled, fuel consumption doubled and the number of miles driven tripled, according to Jan Lundberg, whose Lundberg Letter was the top-rated oil industry publication in the late 1970s.

Like Deffeyes, Lundberg left the oil industry, taking the additional step of selling his car and founding the anti-car Alliance for a Paving Moratorium. He has not owned a car in years, and recently turned his driveway into a garden.

“Each decade in the U.S., approximately one and a half million people are killed by cars and their fumes, and millions more from diseases caused by the sedentary lifestyle of commuting,” he said. Nor, he added, has the flow of cheap oil made our lives much cheaper or faster. “The average speed of the U.S. motorist is only about five miles per hour when time is factored in to earn money to buy the car, maintain it, pay for gasoline, and insurance, etc.”

Even after decades of environmentalism, Americans are not conserving more than in Hubbert’s day; some cars then could get 40 miles to the gallon; now SUVs get about 18 miles to the gallon, and the Ford Excursion gets about 4.6 miles in the city.

There is now almost one car for every American, and our society is built around that fact. Having transportation is having a car, a crucial factor in getting a job. Half of all urban space exists for cars, the other half for people. Ten percent of all arable land in the United States has been paved over.

Many newer suburbs don’t have sidewalks, since the expectation is that people will leave their homes mainly to get inside cars. Many new minivans have televisions, a feature that assumes children will spend a hefty chunk of their childhood in the back seat.

Nor does the problem stop at vehicles, which consume only about half the oil produced. America, and to a lesser extent the rest of the world, has largely abandoned plant-based products for oil-based ones; polyester instead of cotton, GoreTex instead of canvas. Plastics are so ubiquitous – keyboards, gelcaps, furniture, business suits, the lid of a coffee-to-go — that they are largely invisible. But these, too, are oil, wealth from another era, a tapping into our trust fund of liquefied dinosaur biomass.
Finally, there is the underappreciated use of oil as the basis for fertilizer. Around the time of Hubbert’s prediction, almost all arable land had been taken and world grain yields had hit their limits in production, notes author Richard Manning in his book, “Against the Grain.” In the 50 years since, yields have tripled in a so-called “Green Revolution” that has allowed the world’s population to double; a revolution due almost entirely to oil.

“The common assumption these days is that we muster our weapons to secure oil, not food,” wrote Manning. “There’s a little joke in this. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel it used. By 1974 (the last year anybody looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1.”

Aside from any issues surrounding chemicals in our food, these agricultural turbochargers add a new dimension to any potential oil crunch. Two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus proposed a now-famous calculation: Food production increases mathematically (two, three, four …) but population increases geometrically (two, four, sixteen …). Thus, he said, if humans do not control their reproduction, there would be massive famine.

Today, Malthus is often held up as an early Chicken Little, for the years since then have seen humanity grow far beyond what he thought possible. But much of that increase is due oil-powered machines and oil-fertilized crops. Take out those, and Malthus is back in the game.
Of course, most predictions of peak oil I read at the time – and climate change, and economic crash, and anything else – assumed that everything would crash overnight, leaving survivors to crawl out of the rubble the next morning. Many unhappy souls seem to take refuge in that idea, perhaps thinking that one day everyone will see they were right all along.

I was pleased to find people to inject some temperance into the article, and their predictions have pretty much described the last decade. They didn’t deny that fossil fuels were limited, and that we have some difficult decades ahead -- but they understood that the world is not an eggshell that disintegrates at a touch.  

David Morris of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance said that, while oil will become more expensive in the coming years, it will be 50 to 100 years before the world actually runs out of fossil fuels, “and as the price of oil goes up, alternatives become cost competitive.”

“For example, oil shale is competitive at about $50 per barrel,” he said. “Bio-fuels are competitive at about $45 per barrel. Of course, improved efficiency is competitive at about $5 per barrel, but institutional restraints stop us from taking advantage of that.

And the United States will feel the crunch least, as we will have the money to pay for higher prices and be able to create alternative sources if necessary.”

In fact, analysts last year at the University of Uppsala in Sweden predicted that the oil crunch could be good news for the world, removing a major source of pollution soon enough to prevent the doomsday scenarios popularized in movies like Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow.

“There is a ‘die-off’ crowd that takes a certain amount of delight in thinking that we are about to be punished for our sinful ways,” said Ken Avidor, who illustrated this story and whose comics often focus on the unsustainability of our car culture. “They are actually very similar to fundamentalist groups that believe we are living in the End Times and look forward to the Rapture. I sometimes find myself agreeing with their dire predictions, but their kind of thinking isn’t helpful.”

Actually, that’s precisely what happened – the USA turned to more difficult sources of oil that had been previously unprofitable, like shale and tar sands. That might keep us going, too – for a little while longer.
Looking back, though, neither I nor my interview subjects gave sufficient thought to the economy; we did not anticipate that skyrocketing oil prices would help crash the economy, plunge during the crash, and start to climb again.

At the end of the piece I mentioned that my daughter had just been born, and that I wondered what kind of world she would see. I said that I saw no reason to dismiss the opinions of so many experts who have been proven right before, but also no reason to assume that peak oil meant the world would collapse overnight. I offered that the future would be somewhere in the middle, with a crash slow enough to not be noticed – and which might even be beneficial, with a revival of an older set of traditions and values.

Ten years into the future, I’ve been right about the first part – people are struggling more than they used to be, and the world is more unstable, but the Apocalypse never happened, and will probably continue to not happen. That last part, about reviving old skills and learning to be self-reliant, has also happened – for us, and a few other people we know. 

The rest of the world, we’ll have to see.  


P.M.Lawrence said...

That should have been "arithmetically", not "mathematically".

Brian Kaller said...

P.M., thank you --- funny thing is, the original said "arithmatically." I don't know where "mathematically" came from.