The Post-Oil Economy: After The Techno-Fix
By Peter Goodchild
"Even when grappling with the idea of economic disintegration, Americans attempt to cast it in terms of technological or economic progress: eco-villages, sustainable development, energy efficiency and so on. Under the circumstances, such compulsive techno-optimism seems maladaptive."
— Dmitry Orlov, "Our Village"
The path beyond petroleum begins by considering five principles: that alternative sources of energy are insufficient; that hydrocarbons, metals, and electricity are inseparable; that advanced technology is part of the problem, not part of the solution; that post-oil agriculture means a smaller population; and that the basis of the problem is psychological, not technological.
Everything in modern industrial society is dependent on oil and other hydrocarbons. From these we get gasoline, heating fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, lubricants, plastic, paint, synthetic fabrics, asphalt, pharmaceuticals, and many other things. Speaking in more general terms, we can say that we are dependent on hydrocarbons for manufacture, for transportation, for agriculture, for mining, and for electricity. The peak of world oil production is (or was) about 30 billion barrels a year, supporting a human population of nearly 7 billion. In the entire world, there are perhaps a trillion barrels of oil left to extract — which may sound like a lot, but isn’t. By 2030, annual oil production will be less than half of what it was at its peak.
1: Alternative Sources of Energy Are Insufficient
Alternative sources of energy will never be of much use, mainly because of the problem of "net energy": the amount of energy output from alternative sources is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input (which is hydrocarbons). Alternative sources are not sufficient to supply the annual needs of "industrial society" as the term is generally understood.
The use of unconventional oil (tar sands, shale deposits, heavy oil) poses several problems. The first is that of insufficient net energy. The second is that of extreme pollution. The third is that is even if we optimistically assume that about 700 billion barrels of unconventional oil could be produced, that amount would equal only about 15 years of global oil demand.
Fuel cells cannot be made practical, because such devices require hydrogen derived from hydrocarbons. Biofuels (e.g., from corn) require enormous amounts of land and still result in insufficient quantities of net energy. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their practical limits. Nuclear power will soon be suffering from a lack of fuel and is already creating serious environmental dangers.
Solar, wind, and geothermal power are only effective in certain areas and for certain purposes. Such types of power, in any case, are of significant value only when converted into electrical energy, requiring the use of disposable batteries and some very rare metals. In terms of ecology (i.e. the relationship between population and resources), these types of power are therefore no better than the hydrocarbon-based power they are intended to replace.
The world uses 15 terawatts of power every year. It’s hard to imagine how much energy that is; it’s more than "a lot." By 2030 the world’s oil supply will be so depleted that the Industrial Age will be over, for all practical purposes. Yet proponents of "alternative energy" hope to transform the entire planet in a time frame that would be implausible even in a work of science fiction.
The quest for alternative sources of energy is not merely illusory; it is actually harmful. By daydreaming of a noiseless and odorless utopia of windmills and solar panels, we are reducing the effectiveness of whatever serious information is now being published. When news articles claim that there are simple painless solutions to the oil crisis, the reader’s response is not awareness but drowsiness. We are rapidly heading toward what has been described as the greatest disaster in history, but we are indulging in escapist fantasies.
2: Hydrocarbons, Metals, and Electricity Are Inseparable
Iron ore of the sort that can be processed with primitive equipment is becoming scarce, and only the less-tractable forms will be available when the oil-powered machinery is no longer available — a chicken-and-egg problem. Copper, aluminum, and other metals are also rapidly vanishing. Metals were useful to mankind only because they could once be found in concentrated pockets in the earth’s crust; now they are irretrievably scattered among the world’s garbage dumps.
Electricity is not a source of energy; it is only a carrier of energy. That energy comes mainly from coal, natural gas, nuclear power plants, or hydroelectric dams. Coal is terribly inefficient; only a third of its energy is transferred as it is converted to electricity. At the same time, the electrical grids are perpetually operating at maximum load, chronically in need of better maintenance and expensive upgrading. The first clearly marked sign of "the end" may be the failure of electricity.
Hydrocarbons, metals, and electricity are all intricately connected. Each is inaccessible — on the modern scale — only when the other two are present. Any two will vanish without the third. If we imagine a world without hydrocarbons, we must imagine a world without metals or electricity. There is no way of breaking that "triangle."
3: Advanced Technology Is Part of the Problem, Not Part of the Solution
Whatever choices may be available in the future, they will not be found in advanced technology, in "high-tech" solutions. There are three reasons why that is so. In the first place, any "alternative-energy" devices would have to be created from plastics and metals. Secondly, they would have to be controlled by electricity. Finally, they would have to be created by large and sophisticated machines and transported over long distances. But the whole point in speculating about "alternative energy" in the first place is to find an answer to that particular crisis — the fact that none of those three factors will exist in future years.
In addition, all that we think of as "modern industrial society" has its "sociological" components: intricate division of labor, large-scale government, and high-level education. Without hydrocarbons, metals, and electricity, we will find ourselves in a pre-industrial world in which there is no material infrastructure allowing those "sociological" components to exist.
Advanced technology is part of the problem to be solved, not the solution itself. There may be some form of technology that can save us from the depletion of hydrocarbons, but it is certainly not "high." To speak of "high-tech methods" as if they were largely synonymous with "methods employing alternative sources of energy" is ultimately self-contradictory and self-defeating.
We cannot enter a "post-carbon" world. Life on Earth has been "carbon" for at least half a billion years. It will not change in the next decade or so.
4: Post-Oil Agriculture Means a Smaller Population
Modern agriculture is dependent on hydrocarbons for fertilizers (the Haber-Bosch process combines natural gas with atmospheric nitrogen to produce nitrogen fertilizer), pesticides, and the operation of machines for harvesting, processing, and transporting. The Green Revolution was the invention of a way to turn petroleum and natural gas into food. Without hydrocarbons, modern methods of food production will disappear. Food production will be greatly reduced, and there will be no practical means of transporting food over long distances.
The starting point is to think in terms of a smaller radius of activity. The globalized economy has to be replaced by the localized economy. In the post-oil world, most food will be produced at a local level. The catch, however, is that most of the world’s surface is permanently unsuitable for growing food: the climate is too severe, or the land is too barren.
Nevertheless, a small human population might survive on agriculture, at least if it reverted to some primitive methods. Some Asian cultures brought wild plant material from the mountains and used it as fertilizer, thereby making use of the N-P-K (etc.) of the wilderness. Many other cultures used wood ashes. The nutrient "source" of the wilderness fed the nutrient "sink" of the farmland. (This is one of the basic principles behind all "organic gardening," although few practitioners would admit it or even know it.)
Using primitive technology, it will not be possible to feed a world population that has anywhere near the present size. Even the "alternative" catch-phrases harbor a number of misconceptions. "Intensive gardening," for example, is possible only with a garden hose and an unlimited supply of water. "Organic gardening" relies on sources of potassium, phosphorus, and other elements that will not be available without modern techniques of mining and transport. The maximum population that can be supported, therefore, is about four people per hectare of arable land.
5: The Basis of the Problem Is Psychological, Not Technological
As the oil crisis worsens there will be various forms of aberrant behavior: denial, anger, mental paralysis. There will be an increase in crime, there will be strange religious cults or extremist political movements. The reason for such behavior is that fundamentally the peak-oil problem is not about technology, and it is not about economics, and it is not about politics. It is partly about humanity’s attempt to defy geology. But it is mainly about psychology: most people cannot grasp what William Catton refers to as "overshoot."
We cannot come to terms with the fact that as a species we have gone beyond the ability of the planet to accommodate us. We have bred ourselves beyond the limits. We have consumed, polluted, and expanded beyond our means, and after several thousand years of superficial technological solutions we are now running short of answers. Biologists explain such expansion in terms of "carrying capacity": lemmings and snowshoe hares — and a great many other species — have the same problem; overpopulation and over-consumption lead to die-off. But humans cannot come to terms with the concept. It goes against the grain of all our religious and philosophical beliefs.
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Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org