Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Oil Peak? Uh-Oh

by Clay Evans

Daily Camera of Boulder, Colorado (May 08 2005)

"Uh-oh". That was my persistent response as I read James Howard Kunstler's new book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century (Grove/Atlantic, 2005)

I'm an old science-fiction fan, and I take perverse pleasure in a good, old-fashioned doomsday novel, from Ward Moore's funny Greener Than You Think (Ballantine, 1947) to George R Stewart's moving Earth Abides (Fawcett, reissue edition, 1986).

But Kunstler says his tome is no mere story: He believes we are barreling toward the end of civilization as we know it, and it's probably too late to do much about it.

As the world faces the imminent "global peak" in oil production - experts, including retired CU prof Albert Bartlett, believe that will occur sometime between now and about 2010, based on indisputable, backward-looking data on oil discoveries, which began to steadily decline in the 1960s - and demand continues to rise, we finally may be forced to accept that our American way of life, which Dick Cheney has gruffly declared is "not negotiable", isn't even in our hands.

Or so Kunstler argues, with persuasive pessimism.

Throughout the oil age, just a tiny fraction of human history, we have been able to delude ourselves that nothing is beyond reach, and that technology, aided by the marketplace and our vaunted "can do" attitude, will always magically find a solution to looming problems. We've banked our entire suburban, energy-hogging culture on such naive hopes.

The problem with optimism in the face of the coming oil crisis - which will catalyze wars, disease, starvation, and a collapse of governments, Kunstler argues - is that every aspect of our comfy American lives is umbilically tied to petroleum. And oil, eons' worth of solar energy neatly stored in the pressure-baked detritus of past ages, is a finite resource.

Jimmy Carter, much derided by the ascendant Right, tried to get us to see all this coming, way back when the first "Star Wars" movie came out:

"The world has not prepared for the future", he said, laying out an ambitious energy plan that would have staved off, but not solved, the problem posed by the looming peak. "During the 1950s, people used twice as much oil as during the 1940s. During the 1960s, we used twice as much as during the 1950s. And in each of those decades, more oil was consumed than in all of mankind's previous history."

Yes, we've got about half of all the earth's oil left, but some of it will take more energy to extract than energy produced - a net loss - and we're burning through it exponentially.

Won't ingenuity ride in to save the day? "Nope", Kunstler says. Every known alternative, from nuclear to hydrogen, solar to wind, natural gas (America passed peak gas production in 1973) to coal, is utterly dependent on ... oil.

"No combination of alternative fuels will even permit us to operate a substantial fraction of the systems we currently run on", he writes. And: "The belief that 'market' will automatically deliver a replacement for fossil fuels is a type of magical thinking like that of the cargo cults of the South Pacific".

And this from a guy who supports the Iraq war and flatly declares, "it was about oil".


Is Kunstler just our era's Paul Ehrlich, whose dire 1968 prediction of a "population bomb" hasn't gone off yet? Maybe. But Kunstler has that covered, too: Cheap oil has staved off the worst effects of overpopulation, he says, and without it ... uh-oh.

So, what to do? Kunstler thinks we're toast, and boldly predicts we'll have to return to concentrated towns surrounded by intensive local agriculture (minus petro-fertilizers); no more sushi, or tomatoes in January. If we survive at all, that is.

Still, common sense dictates that even if it is too late, we must pursue energy policies - improved fuel efficiency, less blind consumption, et cetera - that will, perhaps, stretch those decomposed dinos just a tad further.

Then again, maybe this is exactly the "apocalypse" our "non-negotiable" political leadership expects, and longing for Rapture is the only, if irrational, response they can now muster.

Contact Clay Evans

Bill Totten


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