Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Peak Oil Crisis: The Transition

by Tom Whipple

Falls Church News-Press (April 03 2008)

While waiting for the price of gasoline to get so high that we can't afford to drive anymore, there is still some time to ponder just how the great paradigm shift of the 21st century is going to work out.

What will life be like forty or fifty years from now? How many of the 6.6 billion of us will still be around? Will lifestyles be an all-electric version of the 20th Century or will inability to recover from rapidly falling supplies of fossil fuels leave us with qualitatively different lifestyles?

Among the handful of people that (a) know we are on the verge of a very big problem, and (b) ponder about it in print or on the internet, there are a wide range of opinions as to what the future will be like. Opinions run from the "doomers", who are convinced that only a few of the 300 million Americans and 6.3 billion foreigners are going to survive by moving to small self-sufficient rural communities and hunkering down through the anarchy. At the other end of the scale are those who are convinced that as soon as the Congress drops all this environmental nonsense and gives the oil companies unrestricted access to those billions of barrels of oil just off the coast, we will be set for centuries.

There are several important principles to keep in mind as we contemplate what is going to happen to us in the next few decades. The first is that as long as the earth is still habitable, there are likely to be some of us around. There are, of course, concerns what an "over the tipping point" run-away climate, super volcano, or a really virulent germ could, in fact, do in the higher forms of life. Should any of these misfortunes occur, however, history suggests we will be back within a few million or tens of millions of years so there really is nothing to worry about.

The story of man is to a large extent one of his technology - ranging from the club and spear to the space craft and manipulating DNA. Just because fossil fuels and other natural resources start running short of demand does not mean that technology is going away. As long as higher life forms are around and have access to knowledge of the past, technology, and probably a continuing stream of new technical discoveries, will be with us.

All energy comes from the sun, either directly or through the molten core of the earth. As long as the sun is in good shape, there are numerous ways to capture and exploit its energy on a sustainable basis - solar, wind, wave, tides, biomass, and geothermal. The technology to exploit most of these resources is already well understood and new innovations, some of which just might turn out to be important, are being announced each week.

Currently the political will and the economic incentives to exploit renewable energy sources on a crash basis is still lacking in the US and China, but Europe seems to be making more of an effort. Every time the cost of fossil fuel ratchets up another notch, the era of renewables energy draws that much closer.

As has been discussed for many years, the key to our collective futures is whether or not the decline in the availability of fossil fuels, particularly oil, will come upon us so fast that the earth will not have the resources - fuel, minerals, food, organizational coherence - to effect a worldwide change from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

In itself, this is a difficult and complicated question for we really have no appreciation as to how fast the availability of liquid fuels will decline and just what impact efficiency and conservation measures will have. The question is becoming even murkier because of climate change and the advisability of continuing to produce greenhouse gases at anywhere near the current pace. It will likely take some sort of mega-disaster to convince America and China that increases in greenhouse gas production need to be halted and reversed despite whatever economic damage might occur.

In any event, the role of the remaining fossil fuels, particularly coal, in the transition to a world of renewable energy is one of the great unknowns, for it will take considerable political will to reverse voluntarily the penchant for economic growth-at-all-costs that has been rooted in America for many years and is now besetting China.

The other great unknown is the extent that financial troubles are starting to beset America and parts of Europe. Some hold to the notion that the current setback will be over in a few months while others are concerned that the problems are so deep that they will take decades to work out.

In sum, life in future decades is going to be determined by an amalgam of the rate at which the availability of fossil fuels decline, national and world policies towards the continuing or increasing release of greenhouse gases, and the depth and duration of the burgeoning financial crisis.

The necessary technology to keep the world, or at least parts of it, functioning with minimal use of fossil fuels is clearly available or in sight. Whether the resources and the necessary political will to embark on crash transition programs, possibly at the expense of economic growth, is unknowable.

There are as yet other factors such as militant Islam and growing world food shortages that seem destined to play an important part in the years of transition which are just ahead. The problems with most of the world's oil reserves sitting under Islamic states is well known, but many are starting to raise concerns about what rapidly increasing food costs and possibility of shortages will do to the political and economic stability of many countries - perhaps even our own.

Bill Totten


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