Peak Oil News: Earth Day Special: Energy and Food in a World of Limited Natural Resources

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Earth Day Special: Energy and Food in a World of Limited Natural Resources

The world is running out of oil and the evidence is mounting. The term most commonly used in the discussions surrounding first the ceiling in oil discoveries and now more recently the ceiling of oil production is Peak Oil. Peak Oil since the mid 1950s has been argued as theory but their are more convincing arguments than just $4 a gallon gasoline (last summer) that support what should now be deemed as fact. The chances of finding another large oil reserve fall dramatically each day. Another fact that augments this point is that the largest reserves should be the easiest to find and still a major discovery hasn’t happened since Prudhoe Bay in 1969, 40 years ago. Not finding more oil would be well and fine if we simply didn’t use it at all but that’s currently not the case.

A shortlist of items made from oil (not just energy inputs or transportation inputs) include computer chips, dishwashing liquid, insecticides, antiseptics, tires, clothing, food preservatives, disposable diapers, vitamin capsules, fertilizers, water pipes, artificial limbs, aspirin and many other applications. It would be easy to substitute our energy gained from oil and oil based transportation as wind and solar come onto the grid. Unfortunately though the loss of the petroleum based household items and agricultural fertilizer (that is essential to higher crop yields) could significantly change the way we live.

Amazingly many have pointed to technological advances and rightly so. It becomes tough science though as most of the technological breakthroughs in the past have occurred thanks to petroleum. One solution that has been raised has been using biochemicals as replacements to existing petroleum products. I think many of us have seen corn-based plastics in cups and even corn-based fuels for ethanol but this only works as long as agricultural output remains high. This brings us to our problem. By using food as plastics and without the aid of petroleum-based fertilizers we still need a lot more oil to sustain consumption or we need to change our way of life.

One of the world’s foremost thinkers on this subject, Jay Forrester, actually created a systems dynamics model on resource depletion and its effects on population. A popular book “Limits to Growth” published in 1972 outlines the changes. The figure included in the link below is the original limits-to-growth model. It charts resources, births (b), services (s), population, pollution, deaths, food, and industrial output. While it is important to look at any future predictions with a little skepticism it is also clear that if we don’t make any more major discoveries in oil we must fundamentally change the way we get energy and how we use our resources.

With the suggestion of this model and the daily reduction in oil production, Richard Heinberg, an outspoken Peak Oil expert, sees no other way to tackle this problem other than a reinstatement of a communal agricultural society in the next 20 to 30 years. This would represent a drastic shift from our current vocational allocation of 1% to farming. But their still remain questions regarding one of the few factors under human control, our behavior. If we can cut back on consumption of natural resources, mainly those tied to oil, we may be able to ween ourselves off of what has been our economical life-blood and find other solutions. Is it realistic though for a generation and a people to change their entire system of life? While it could go as far as every family having a victory garden, it is the capitalist in me that calls out for a third way.

Sources and Further Reading:

The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse, Richard Heinberg, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada, 2006.

Fifty Million Farmers

Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil, Charles Hall and John Day, American Scientist, May-June 2009.


At 11:32 PM, April 23, 2009, Blogger Lindsay said...

All of Richard Heinberg's books are worth a read, and some of his lectures are on YouTube. Another good read is The Long Descent by John Michael Greer. A lot of folks think technology will save us, but we're going to have to learn to live less wasteful lives no matter what science brings us.

At 12:29 AM, May 14, 2009, Blogger Robin Datta said...

The capitalist wa would be to secure the remaining resources for oneself and to eliminate all the competition for the resources. Instead of a natural die-off as in, one can engineer a widespread nuclear exchange to reduce the populatin. Or perhaps pray for Kurzweil's singularity!


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