Peak Oil News: Fueling disaster with confused thinking

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Fueling disaster with confused thinking

By Staff, Bangor Daily News

Everywhere I go these days, talking about the global energy predicament on the college lecture circuit or at environmental conferences, I hear an increasingly shrill cry for "solutions." This is just another symptom of the delusional thinking that now grips the nation, especially among the educated and well-intentioned.

I say this because I detect in this strident plea the desperate wish to keep our "Happy Motoring" utopia running by means other than oil and its byproducts. But the truth is that no combination of solar, wind and nuclear power, ethanol, biodiesel, tar sands and used french-fry oil will allow us to power Wal-Mart, Disney World and the interstate highway system — or even a fraction of these things — in the future. We have to make other arrangements.

The public, and especially the mainstream media, misunderstands the "peak oil" story. It’s not about running out of oil. It’s about the instabilities that will shake the complex systems of daily life as soon as the global demand for oil exceeds the global supply. These systems can be listed concisely:
*The way we produce food
*The way we conduct commerce and trade
*The way we travel
*The way we occupy the land
*The way we acquire and spend capital

And there are others: governance, health care, education and more.

As the world passes the all-time oil production high and watches as the price of a barrel of oil busts another record, these systems will run into trouble. Instability in one sector will bleed into another. Shocks to the oil markets will hurt trucking, which will slow commerce and food distribution, manufacturing and the tourist industry in a chain of cascading effects. Problems in finance will squeeze any enterprise that requires capital, including oil exploration and production, as well as government spending. These systems are all interrelated. They all face a crisis. What’s more, the stress induced by the failure of these systems will only increase the wishful thinking across our nation.

And that’s the worst part of our quandary: the American public’s narrow focus on keeping all our cars running at any cost. Even the environmental community is hung up on this. The Rocky Mountain Institute has been pushing for the development of a "Hypercar" for years — inadvertently promoting the idea that we really don’t need to change.

Years ago, U.S. negotiators at a U.N. environmental conference told their interlocutors that the American lifestyle is "not up for negotiation." This stance is, unfortunately, related to two pernicious beliefs that have become common in the United States in recent decades. The first is the idea that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.

The companion belief to "wishing upon a star" is the idea that one can get something for nothing. This derives from America’s new favorite religion: not evangelical Christianity but the worship of unearned riches. When you combine these two beliefs, the result is the notion that when you wish upon a star, you’ll get something for nothing.

These beliefs explain why the presidential campaign is devoid of meaningful discussion about our energy predicament and its implications. The idea that we can become "energy independent" and maintain our current lifestyle is absurd. The pie-in-the-sky plan to turn grain into fuel came to grief when we saw its disruptive effect on global grain prices and the food shortages around the world, even in the United States. In recent weeks, the rice and cooking-oil shelves in my upstate New York supermarket have been stripped clean.

We’ll also have to occupy the landscape differently. Our giant metroplexes are not going to make it, and the successful places will be ones that encourage local farming.

Fixing the U.S. passenger railroad system is probably the one project we could undertake right away that would have the greatest effect on the country’s oil consumption. The airline industry is disintegrating under the enormous pressure of fuel costs. If we don’t get the passenger trains running again, Americans will be going nowhere five years from now.

We don’t have time to be crybabies about this. The talk on the presidential campaign trail about "hope" has its purpose. We cannot afford to remain befuddled and demoralized. But we must understand that hope is not something applied externally. Real hope resides within us. We generate it — by proving that we are competent, earnest individuals who can discern between wishing and doing, who don’t figure on getting something for nothing and who can be honest about the way the universe really works.

James Howard Kunstler is the author, most recently, of "World Made by Hand," a novel about America’s post-oil future.


At 11:41 AM, June 08, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In order to end confused thinking, I will give you a well-known secret at the end of the following story.

From 1945 to about 2005, our world has been able to 1° produce energy at low cost, 2° sell it generally at low price and 3° satisfy at the same time a growing demand from solvent consumers. And thanks to such capability our food was also produced in year-after-year-growing amounts while at the same time sold cheap; the average distance travelled by grocery goods (from producers to consumers) increased tremendously; and we could in this way nourish most of a world population growing by a never-seen-before rhythm.
Economic growth, population growth and other growths (in the fields of knowledge, technology, transport, …) co-evolved at fast rates, propped up by high synergic effects. And thus our whole world got much more powerful and prosperous than ever before.

But this bright medal has a dark reverse: our world became also extremely dependant on 1° high mechanization operated by a dwindling number of workers and 2° cheap energy produced and distributed in ever-growing annual amounts. Fast general growth got integrated as one of the normal parameters driving a world economic system that became in this way dangerously addicted to it. And now the exchange mechanisms between the system’s components rest on the existence of a financial bubble kept under pressure as long as expanding markets allow investors to make profits re-injected into the bubble, so that our economies are constrained, in order to remain viable, to maintain themselves in a fast-enough state of growth.
Knowing that such a state feeds itself from energies distributed and finally sold cheap enough, and knowing too that such a production cannot go on increasing indefinitely, many of us have concluded that such a system cannot survive eternally.

For those who have correctly analysed the problem, it comes as no surprise to observe that a crisis involving energy, food and finance has precisely emerged a short time after our world had lost its capability to sell energy at low price while simultaneously satisfying a growing demand.
In this new conjuncture, using soils for producing energy has become competitive with their utilization for making food.
Thus the logic of a system ruled by market laws leads a lot of farmers to produce biofuels (the so-called “first generation” ones) intended to feeding their own engines or being sold to consumers that can buy them, instead of produce food for poor people that cannot pay.
Such a behaviour comes as no surprise: everything living on our planet is very often led to favour its immediate survival, and the present economic system behaves in such a manner.
Its preoccupation with survival prevails over its preoccupation with nourishing the poor when the managers of its highest components perceive themselves compelled to choose between the two of them; and it seems very likely, today, that that same policy will persist as long as the system remains viable.

Though we have now passed the threshold beyond which the energy offer can no longer satisfy a fast-growing demand, that offer nevertheless goes on growing (although less rapidly than the demand) thanks to the development of alternatives to conventional oil (coal, tar sands and bituminous shales, nuclear, renewables, …).
For the time being, most of the energy consumed in the world is produced at low cost. A substantial proportion of the profits gathered from high selling prices supports the numerical growth of the populations living in the producing countries and of the ones they provide assistance to, allowing those populations to buy consumer goods and doing so sustaining the world economic growth. A second part allows the wealthy elites ruling those countries to acquire profitable capital, then connecting their interests with the ones of the capitalistic world thriving in western and emergent countries alike. And a third one is invested in the development of alternate energies, feeding in this way the required growth allowing the system to be kept afloat.
This is what some people call “sustainable development”, confusing “sustainable” with “permanent” and their desires with reality. But those who want to face the true reality know that such a development is just “prolonged growth”; and pondering how long will the prolongation last, they have anticipated (as described in the following lines) what will happen if our world goes on evolving until it reaches its growth’s ultimate limits:

1° The energy part produced at low cost will considerably decrease over the decades ahead, while the part produced at high cost will therefore have to increase not only in order to replace the growing missing amount but also in order to nourish the growth.

2° The average cost of production will rise (perhaps rapidly, within the scale of a few years, perhaps slowly, within the scale of a few decades, but inexorably) from the present value (still low) to a high value.

3° The pace at which our many growths mutually amplify themselves (by synergic effects) will get slower and slower as the average energy-production cost becomes higher and higher, progressively reducing the investment capabilities of world economies. At some point a threshold will be reached beyond which the synergic effects reverse from positive to negative, destroying all further investment capabilities. We will then reach, or have already reached Peak Energy (the energy-production peak), together with Peak Food and Peak Humanity. And our species will in this way meet the ultimate limits of an extraordinary expansion begun about ten thousand years ago when our ancestors (a thousand less numerous than us) started to produce their own food and proliferate.

4° With expansion being reversed into contraction, the financial bubble built at the heart of our world economic system will have ceased to be viable.

5° The continuation of our history lies beyond our horizon of predictability.

Our world's smartest politicians or economists have also anticipated all that. They know as well as we do that governments accustomed to solve problems by perpetuating economic growth will become more and more incompetent and powerless as growth gets closer and closer to its ultimate limits. But they also know, as well, that they cannot publicly recognize such incompetence and powerlessness, for the time being, without triggering shocks on the Stock Exchange places and then being accused of irresponsibility.
Therefore, compelled to shut up for state reasons originating from short-term-interest pressures, they persist in keeping deaf and dumb about this topic. What would happen, for instance, if José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero were the first head of state in the world to break such diplomatic silence and publicly recognize a reality that a lot of ordinary citizens already know very well thanks to credible explanations spread all over the world on numerous books and WEB pages ?
Juan Carlos Primero, king of Spain would immediately intervene in order to stop him: “ ¿Por qué no te callas?” (“Why don’t you shut up?”), would he admonish.
But would such interruption be sufficient to prevent a premature financial collapse ?

In the meantime, observing the televised show, a lot of ordinary citizens would say nothing but would think : “We really live in a preposterous world.”

André Sautou


The original text was published in Spanish by the diario del Decrecimiento (May 14, 2008)

under the title

Los límites del crecimiento y el secreto de Polichinela

A translation in French followed (May 20, 2008), published by Imago , titled

Les limites de la croissance et le secret de Polichinelle

And finally a translation in English was published by Peak Energy News (May 26, 2008), titled

The limits to growth and the well-known secret


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