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Monday, February 18, 2008

Saying Goodbye To The Oil Age

by Peter Goodchild (January 29 2008)

The first practical oil drill was developed in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, by Edwin L Drake. Now, only a short while later, the planet Earth is running out of oil, without which almost nothing in modern civilization can function. A number of scientists and engineers have pointed out that the world's oil production will peak early in the twenty-first century; it has probably already done so. At the beginning of the century, the human race was using about thirty billion barrels of oil per year. By 2030, production will be down to about half of that level.

In the entire world, there are perhaps a trillion barrels of oil left to extract - which may sound like a lot, but isn't. When newspapers announce the discovery of a deposit of a billion barrels, readers are no doubt amazed, but they are not told that such a find is only twelve days' supply. Nor are they told that all the big discoveries are far in the past. American production peaked in 1970, and even Saudi oil won't last much longer. The production of oil is beginning a perpetual decline, while demand will continue to increase. The only event that could reduce demand for oil would be a global depression; reduced oil consumption would then be part of the overall collapse of the world's economy.

As the years go by, new oil wells have to be drilled deeper than the old, because newly discovered deposits are deeper. Those new deposits are therefore less accessible. But oil is used as a fuel for the oil drills themselves. When it takes an entire barrel of oil to get one barrel of oil out of the ground, as is increasingly the case, it is a waste of time to continue drilling such a well.

Coal and natural gas are also disappearing, although coal will be available for a while after oil is gone. Coal, however, is highly polluting and cannot be used as a fuel for most forms of transportation; the last industrial society will be a bizarre, crowded, dirty, impoverished world. Natural gas is not easily transported, and it is not suitable for most equipment.

Alternative sources of energy will never be very useful, for several reasons, but mainly because of a problem of "net energy": the amount of energy output is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input. All alternative forms of energy are so dependent on the very petroleum that they are intended to replace that the use of them is largely self-defeating and irrational. Alternative sources ultimately don't have enough "bang" to replace thirty billion annual barrels of oil - or even to replace more than the tiniest fraction of that amount.

Petroleum is required to extract, process, and transport almost any other form of energy; a coal mine is not operated by coal-powered equipment. It takes "oil energy" to make "alternative energy".

The use of unconventional oil (shale deposits, tar sands, heavy oil) poses several problems besides that of net energy. In the first place, even if we optimistically assume that about 700 billion barrels of unconventional oil could be produced, that amount would equal only about fifteen years of global oil demand. Secondly, the pollution problems are considerable, and it is not certain how much environmental damage the human race is willing to endure. Thirdly, since conventional oil is still cheap and profitable, government and industry will not be motivated to begin serious work on the development of unconventional oil until conventional oil is no longer available - at which point any effort will be too little, too late. In fact, at the moment, unconventional oil is only a tiny fraction of the world's petroleum production, and there are no major technological breakthroughs in sight. With unconventional oil we are, quite literally, scraping the bottom of the barrel.

More-exotic forms of alternative energy are plagued with even greater problems. Fuel cells cannot be made practical, because such devices require hydrogen derived from fossil fuels. Biomass energy (perhaps from corn, wood, or switchgrass) requires impossibly large amounts of land and still results in insufficient quantities of net energy, sometimes even negative quantities. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their practical limits. Wind and geothermal power are only effective in certain areas and for certain purposes. Nuclear power will soon be suffering from a lack of fuel and is already creating serious environmental dangers.

The present favorite for alternative energy is solar power, but proponents must close their eyes to all questions of scale. Solar photovoltaics provide only 1/2500 of the world's energy usage, and there are no signs of an adequate escalation. To meet the world's present energy needs, we would need a photovoltaic array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) with a size of almost 200,000 square kilometers - twice the size of Iceland. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials - a self-defeating process.

Time itself is unkind to any alternative-energy scheme. That fact can be illustrated by a down-to-earth example of energy conservation. Trains are far more efficient than cars in terms of fuel per passenger. If more trains were built, and if cars were forbidden, there could be amazing results in energy conservation. The problems, however, are obvious: lack of legislation, lack of public interest, and lack of funding. (These problems are intensified by the Orwellian nature of modern news-media.) But more importantly, there would be a race against time: with every year that goes by, the world's systemic collapse becomes more serious: this is not only the age of peak oil, but also of peak food, peak fresh water, peak metals, and peak electricity - and therefore also peak money. The possibility of building such railways thereby becomes ever more remote. When the need for trains becomes most desperate, the ability to make them will have vanished.

Another unrealistically optimistic thought is that we are shifting from an oil-based culture to an information-based one: computers, we are told, will soon replace trucks. To say that high technology reduces mankind's need for petroleum, however, is an act of faith that is not born out by the figures on world consumption of oil.

Modern agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides, and the operation of machines for harvesting, processing, and transporting. The Green Revolution was the invention of a way to turn petroleum into food. Without fossil fuels, modern methods of food production will disappear. As food supplies dwindle, famine and death will follow.

Petroleum is the lifeblood of our civilization. Even a bicycle, that ultimate symbol of an "alternate lifestyle", requires petroleum for lubrication, for paint, and for plastic components. The vehicle that delivers the bicycle runs on petroleum, over asphalt that is made of petroleum. "Rubber" tires are often made of petroleum.

The problem of the world's diminishing supply of oil is a problem of energy, not a problem of money. The old bromide that "higher prices will eventually make [for example] shale oil economically feasible" is meaningless. This planet has only a finite amount of fossil fuel. When that fuel starts to vanish, "higher prices" will be quite unable to stop the event from taking place. At most, the later twenty-first century will be an age of coal, and a portrait of that future era can be found in any story by Charles Dickens.

Oil is not the only mineral that will be in short supply in the twenty-first century. Industrial civilization has always been dependent on metals, but hematite, for example, is no longer sufficiently common, and mining companies now look for other sources of iron, which can be processed only with modern machinery.

The technology of one century builds the technology of the next. The technology of the past - the hammer, anvil, forge, and bellows of the ancient blacksmith - made it possible for later generations to extract the low-grade ores of the present. Very low-grade iron ores can now be worked, but only because there were once better, more accessible ores. This "mechanical evolution" is, of course, liable to collapse: when Rome fell, so did literacy, education, technology. But after many centuries, the Classical world returned. The western world experienced its Renaissance, its rebirth, after the Dark Ages because the natural world was fundamentally unchanged.

In the future, however, after the collapse of the present civilization, the necessary fuels and ores will not be available for that gradual rebuilding of technology. The loss of both petroleum and accessible ores means that history will no longer be a cycle of empires.

Most of modern warfare is about oil, in spite of all the pious and hypocritical rhetoric about the forces of good and the forces of evil. The real forces are those trying to control the oil wells and the fragile pipelines that carry that oil. A map of recent American military ventures is a map of petroleum deposits. When the "oil wars" began is largely a matter of definition, though perhaps 1973 would be a good date, when the Yom Kippur War led to the OPEC oil embargo.

Roughly six thousand years ago, the New Stone Age gave way to an era of large, settled communities, which evolved into about a dozen empires, rising and falling, bubbling and collapsing. America is the final empire. After that, there can be no other. Human beings will find a way to live - quite happily, perhaps - but it won't resemble what we now know. The next hundred years can perhaps be envisioned, but the distant future is unimaginable.

The loss of petroleum will be received in the same manner as other large-scale disasters: widespread denial, followed by a rather catatonic apathy. The western world has long believed that bigger is better, and that material wealth is an unquestionable blessing. We have had great faith in an ever-expanding, ever-devouring "progress". And now that religion is failing us. For many people, the shock will be hard to bear.

The litany of "bigger, faster, and more complex", mega-this and mega-that, as a cure for the initial problem of "bigger, faster, and more complex" is self-evidently ludicrous, so ludicrous that we cannot see it. It is sheer bigness - overpopulation, resource-consumption, and environmental destruction - that has led us to the first days of systemic collapse. Dragging images out of science-fiction movies to create "bigger, faster, and more complex" machines will not do the trick. The paradigm is elusive but real: the worship of technology creates a chain reaction, a spiral, a thermostat set to zero tolerance. The technophile is a junkie with a need for an ever-larger fix, a millionaire with an ever-greater fear of poverty, a Uriah Heep who creates his own enemies.

"Yes, but what can we do?" is the usual response, although the speaker rarely waits for an answer, since the question is merely rhetorical. The non-rhetorical reply to that would be, "Well, what have you done so far?" (Answer: nothing.) A slightly lengthier - if still incomplete - reply would be: return to pre-modern technology. The resultant skipped heartbeat is unjustified: the technology of the past certainly got us into far less trouble. For that matter, modern technology is in many ways overrated; the twentieth century was essentially a blank. Several scholars have pointed out that the nineteenth century was far more inventive than the next. The twentieth century was an age of bigger and faster, but not an age of true innovation. It might be worth adding that the great thinkers who gave us our present knowledge of the universe and of human life were all born in the nineteenth century: Darwin, Marx, Freud, Einstein. The average person even now has barely assimilated their thought; we may "know" what they said, but we rarely bother to check.

What matters is not to wait unthinkingly for the onslaught of hunger and cold, but to form communities that can build houses and plant crops. Like the phoenix, we must rise from the ashes - the ashes of the Age of Excess. We must learn to step outside our plastic-and-metal cocoons and see what is happening with our neighbors, and with all the rest of dirty, sweaty humanity. North Americans in particular have an individualistic mentality that includes taking far more pride in having an opinion than in having an education. But that irascibility, that self-destructive clinging to one's "rights", must be put aside. Loners will have slim chances of survival. The mentality of the future will be closer to a sort of Asian collectivism: modesty rather than braggadocio, altruism rather than egotism, seeking harmony rather than confrontation.

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. He can be reached at

Bill Totten


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