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Monday, January 31, 2005

Population, Resources, and Exponential Growth

It is a natural part of human nature to ignore the impact of events whose consequences fall far into the future. The here and now dominates the way most people naturally think. For the next half-century there will be just enough energy resources left to enable either a horrific and futile contest for the remaining spoils, or a heroic cooperative effort toward radical conservation and transition to a post-fossil-fuel energy regime. If our descendants are fortunate, the ultimate outcome will be a world of modest, bio-regionally organized communities living on received solar energy. Local rivalries will continue, as they have throughout human history, but hopefully, the hubris of geopolitical strategists threatening billions with extinction will be no more. In the future, perhaps we will measure prosperity by how few raw materials and energy has been used to create an end-use product or service, and productivity by the number of people who are working to make it happen.

We can hope to soften the shock, but unless there is a general awakening and decisions at the planetary scale to bring radical change in the domain of energy, civilization will confront the most acute and no doubt most violent upheaval in recent history. Possibly the single greatest obstacle to achieving this is exponential population growth.

Exponential growth is a sneaky phenomenon. The current world population is currently 6.5 billion and counting. At the current rate of world population growth, (1.3%) the world’s population will double in just over 53 years. However, recent United Nations projections are that the growth rate will decline steadily and stabilize the population at about 9 billion, still, a huge increase. What accounts for the worldwide plunge in fertility now underway? The honest and entirely unsatisfying answer is that nobody really knows—at least, with any degree of certitude and precision. The decline in the exponential growth rate of the human population in past years is most often credited to an increase in family planning services in the less developed countries, leading to a lower fertility rate. However, one might be hard pressed to find the shared, underlying determinants of fertility decline in such disparate countries as the United States, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Iran. Certainly, it would seem that the worldwide drop in childbearing reflects, and is driven by, dramatic changes in desired family size. But this only raises the question of why personal attitudes about these major life decisions should be changing so commonly in so many disparate and diverse locales around the world today.

The increase in infertility we're seeing today is largely attributed to people waiting longer to begin their families, but this only holds true for the developed countries. Furthermore, evidence is now accumulating that, among vertebrates, male fertility is declining. Several epidemiological studies have also shown that more people today are experiencing difficulty in becoming pregnant or inducing pregnancy, because of exposure to hormonally active substances as a result of environmental pollutants. Perhaps Mother Nature is also kicking in her feedback mechanisms to once again bring balance and sustainability to the world’s population.

China, with its growth rate (.59%) at currently about half that of the rest of the world, is a prime example of the exponential growth problem. This giant population pool is struggling to remove the shackles of poverty suffered throughout the 20th Century. Their economy is growing at over 9% a year, everyone striving to get their first car, TV, and refrigerator. If such a transformation were to take place, are the world's resources sufficient to support this new affluence?

In about 50 years, China will approach 2 billion people and represent 25% of the world’s population, all trying to live and consume like Americans who are less than 5% of the worlds’ population and consume 25% of the world’s oil. And this is just China, not to mention India or any of the other developing nations. This unavoidable prophecy is being universally ignored, denied, or underestimated—all in the face of declining energy and raw resources. Rare are those who realize exactly how close and how great is its advent.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Peak Oil and Internet Culture

Let us begin with the obvious statement that web media has been the delivery vehicle for most people's information about hydrocarbon depletion. Inherent in this medium is a danger of confusing the "theory" of peak oil with the "culture" of peak oil.

The features of perceived anonymity, instantaneous feedback, and proximity to simulacra can cause one to question the legitimacy of peak oil theories. For many people, their only source of information about peak oil is the internet; their empirical conclusion may be that oil depletion exists exclusively on the internet.

The danger of message boards, chat rooms, email, and blogs, is that these tools will trivialize the content they are supposed to be disseminating. To be emerged in such media is to risk the feeling that peak oil is at best a source of entertainment, and at worst a psychosomatic illness.

Even the term "Peak Oil" gives the illusion of unity to a loose association of geological, economic, social, and political theories. Instead the dictionary, or more precisely the text, we must use to define this term exists in temporal web media. Can the models of peak oil be separated from authors who expound these theories? And can these authors ever exist separate from the audience who consumes and reacts to these models?

We know from a message board discussion the most common MBTI Type of participants is INTJ. We also know that people concerned with this issue tend to be better educated than average. If I were to venture a guess at the demographic make up of "peakers" I would expect to find the predominantly Caucasian males age 18-45. Then again, the same demographics applies to all internet users in general.

Internet entertainment caters to, mirrors, and in true postmodern fashion, ultimately parodies these young Caucasian males who have made the medium possible. Manifestation includes a preoccupation with sex and violence against a backdrop of self-aware irony. Perhaps the disproportionate attention given to topics such as war, catastrophe, and die-off are merely a reflection of peak oil morphing to fit its internet audience.

The internet is also a commercial medium. Audience attention has, in many cases, been commoditized in the form of pageviews, click-throughs, and page-ranks. Perhaps this fact has led to the promotion and exaggeration of peak oil theories in order to be more appealing to an internet audience.

The rarely-state goal of peakoil.com is not to entertain, educate, or provoke discourse, but ultimately to change people's behavior. As the scientific and political debate takes form around the issues of hydrocarbon depletion, a parallel universe of peak oil internet culture is also forming. It is in the interest of people involved in both worlds not to ignore the impact that this medium has on shaping the content of the debate.

America’s Addiction to Oil

I am reminded of the story of a South American Indian tribe that devised an ingenious monkey trap. The Indians cut off the small end of a coconut and stuffed it with sweetmeats and rice. They tethered the other end to a stake and placed it in a clearing. Soon, a monkey smelled the treats inside and came to see what it is. It could just barely get its hand into the coconut but, stuffed with booty, it could not pull the hand back out. The Indians easily walked up to the monkey and captured it. Even as the Indians approached, the monkey screamed in horror, not only in fear of its captors, but equally as much, one imagines, in recognition of the tragedy of its own lethal but still unalterable greed. The monkey cannot properly evaluate the relative worth of a handful of food compared to its life. It chooses wrongly, catastrophically so, dooming itself by its own short-term fixation on a relatively paltry pleasure.

America has its own hand in a coconut, one that may doom it just as surely as the monkey. That coconut is its dependence on cheap oil in a world where oil will soon become quite expensive and harder to come by. This does not mean that the world is running out of oil—although almost half of all recoverable has been taken from the earth—it means that we are running out of the cheap easily accessible oil that has fueled the economic development of the 20th Century. To be fair, America’s addiction to oil is just the most grotesque; the rest of the world suffers as well, just not so pathetically.

The choice we face (whether to let the food go or hold onto it) is whether to wean ourselves off of oil—to quickly evolve a new economy and a new basis for civilization—or to continue to secure stable supplies from the rest of the world, perhaps by force. We're dealing with a cultural problem—200 years of exponential growth culture. Were we a rational society, a virtue of which we have rarely been accused, we would husband our remaining supplies and institute a “powerdown” program comparable to the Manhattan Project. We need small-scale economies, and small-scale technologies powered by renewable energy. We need smaller communities, structured to be self-sufficient, all tied together by efficient mass transit. We need gardens and parks in our cities instead of cars.

Lately we've been hearing a lot about competition from Chinese manufacturing and Indian call centers. But a different kind of competition—the scramble for oil and other resources—poses a much bigger threat to our way of life. Except for the Middle East and the Caspian Sea Basin, the rest of the world has already peaked, and most oil producing regions are now in decline.

With the passage of time, all countries will compete with each other for the oil of these regions, vying for the survival of their civilization. And whoever controls the oil production of the Middle East and Caspian Sea regions will control the world. The governments of Russia, China, Germany, France, and other countries are keenly aware of these factors—hence the shifting alliances, the veto threats, and the back-room negotiations at the UN leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Even the Saudis have a saying, "My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet-airplane. His son will ride a camel."

America's Gruesome Jewelry

Virtually limitless energy has made the US the most affluent country in the world for many years. American's are awash in a sea of wealth, and all the goodies that come with it.

Is there any doubt that this prosperity is ultimately behind the culture of consumerism that is the American dream?

The richest, most indulgent, over weight, consumers in the world are immersed in the economic opportunities offered in the US.

It's easy to see what the effect of poverty on various countries has been; just google African starvation.

If these economic assets were more evenly divided among countries, it stands to reason that currently poor nations would have fewer of the effects of poverty, like starvation for example.

Therefore, in a rather literal way, American's, (& other wealthy nations), are wearing the missing flesh of impoverished peoples, in the form of all the luxuries of American life. All the jewelry, the clothing, cars, homes etc... common in American life, are like an economic trophy awarded to the "winners" of the economic lottery; awards which are all but stripped from the flesh of the losers in this battle, and worn proudly by the victors.

After all, the wealth which is represented by our status symbols, could be used to feed the masses, putting muscle on the bones of starving people, instead of diamonds on the neck of our pampered elite.

Is the fat you see on American's bodies a grisly kind of jewelry, flaunted before the economic losers of our planet?

Are American's literally "wearing" the flesh taken from the world's poor?

Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Transition to Renewable Energy

As the treasure chest of fossil fuels declines and production is increasingly incapable of meeting demand, a viable replacement must be found. There are those with a blind faith in science who assure us that technology will come with an answer in time to avoid much of a fuss. The economists, staunchly rooted in the worship of supply/demand forces, are equally sanguine that all is well in hand.

For both of these camps, there is a fatal flaw in their thinking: Economist Kenneth Boulding is quoted as saying, "Anybody who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist." In 1958 he asked, “Are we to regard the world of nature simply as a storehouse to be robbed for the immediate benefit of man? . . . Does man have any responsibility for the preservation of a decent balance in nature, for the preservation of rare species, or even for the indefinite continuance of his race?”

The cost of energy limited the growth of technology until fossil fuels came into regular use just before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuels contained so much energy that they provided a remarkable return on investment even when used inefficiently. The abundant, cheap energy provided by fossil fuels has made it possible for humans to exploit a staggering variety of resources, effectively expanding their resource base.

From an ecological point of view, when any given species is introduced into a new habitat with abundant resources that accumulated before its arrival, the population expands rapidly until all the resources are used up. For us, this has resulted in a human population growth typical of an introduced species. Humans, having evolved long after the resource base of fossil fuels on which we now rely, are effectively an introduced species on our own planet.

To take over for fossil fuels as their production declines, an alternative energy source would have to be cheap and abundant, and the technology to exploit it would have to be mature and capable of being distributed all over the world in what may turn out to be a rather short time. No known energy source meets these requirements. While no single energy source is ready to take the place of fossil fuels, their diminishing availability may be offset by a regimen of conservation and a combination of alternative energy sources.

This will not solve the problem, however. As long as the population continues to grow, conservation is futile; at the present rate of growth (1.3% per year), even a 25% reduction in per capita resource use today would be obliterated in just over thirteen years. And the use of any combination of resources that permits continued population growth can only postpone the day of reckoning.

But not all agree. Here is a quote from an article by David Frum, a resident fellow at The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

“In this new era of expensive oil, the process of substitution will accelerate. It may reach too into growing markets such as India and China. As it does, oil in the ground may become less valuable. And we will move closer to the day when M.A. Adelman's ultimate prediction comes true: As consumers substitute other energy sources for oil, oil in the ground will gradually become less valuable and producers will gradually lose interest in searching for more. The world will never run out of oil. It will just stop using it. When that happens, the world will never know and never care how much oil remains in the Earth.”

Founded in 1943 and located in Washington, D.C., AEI is one of America's largest and most respected "think tanks."

God helps us all.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Jevon's Paradox

Jevon's Paradox


William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) is best known as a British economist who was one of the pioneers of contemporary neoclassical economic analysis, with its subjective value theory rooted in marginal utility.

Chapter Seven of The Coal Question was entitled "Of the Economy of Fuel." Here he argued that increased efficiency in using a natural resource, such as coal, only resulted in increased demand for that resource, not a reduction in demand. This was because such improvement in efficiency led to a rising scale of production. "It is wholly a confusion of ideas," Jevons wrote,

...to suppose that the economic use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth. As a rule, the new modes of economy will lead to an increase of consumption according to a principle recognized in many parallel instances?. The same principles apply, with even greater force and distinctiveness to the use of such a general agent as coal. It is the very economy of its use which leads to its extensive consumption?. Nor is it difficult to see how this paradox arises?. If the quantity of coal used in a blast-furnace, for instance, be diminished in comparison with the yield, the profits of the trade will increase, new capital will be attracted, the price of pig-iron will fall, but the demand for it increase; and eventually the greater number of furnaces will more than make up for the diminished consumption of each. And if such is not always the result within a single branch, it must be remembered that the progress of any branch of manufacture excites a new activity in most other branches and leads indirectly, if not directly, to increased inroads upon our seams of coal?. Civilization, says Baron Liebig, is the economy of power, and our power is coal. It is the very economy of the use of coal that makes our industry what it is; and the more we render it efficient and economical, the more will our industry thrive, and our works of civilization grow (140-142).

The contemporary significance of the Jevons paradox is seen with respect to the automobile in the United States. The introduction of more energy-efficient automobiles in this country in the 1970s did not curtail the demand for fuel because driving increased and the number of cars on the road soon doubled. Similarly, technological improvements in refrigeration simply led to more and larger refrigerators. The same tendencies are in effect within industry, independent of individual consumption.

What he is saying is, I think, that people will consume what is available, over time, to the limits of it's availability. So that by increasing the energy efficiency of oil use, we will actually stimulate the growth in oil consumption and accelerate depletion rates.

Alrighty then...

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Devil's Advocate

Disputing peak oil theory

First, let's assume for the sake of argument, that oil, and in fact all hydrocarbons, are an artifact of decaying biologic material exposed to geological conditions which eventually transforms this organic material into the class of minerals known as hydrocarbons. Either that, or let's assume that regardless of how oil is formed, what counts is how much we can harvest and use at the end of the day.

PO theory says that as hydrocarbon resources become more difficult to obtain, the cost of these commodities will increase to reflect how scarce they become. For peakoil theory to be meaningful, it asserts that the dwindling supply of hydrocarbons will continue to shrink over time, and never again grow.

As any capitalist can tell you, the concept of supply & demand governs the tangible value of a given commodity, so that products or services in abundant supply tend to carry less economic value than products or services which are less available. This process is the teeth of peakoil theory; that as energy resources become more scarce, the price of our energy will rise with it, until it's so expensive that the basic infrastructure dependent on this energy supply falter and finally fail.

The depletionist argument fails to recognize that it is this very process which has driven the solutions to similar challenges throughout history.

From our myopic point of view, nestled snuggly in the greatest period of economic expansion ever known, we measure our progress by the yardstick available to us. When you own a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

We would do well, to observe what history has to teach us about this world, and humanities role.

There is endless speculation to be had, on the downstream effects of a permanent and rising price index for energy worldwide. From a minor "correction", to flesh eating zombie hordes, there is a spectrum of branches into which humanity could stumble. We are left with only the known examples of history to guide us into this unknown future.

While there are notable examples of structural collapse of ordered systems caused by depletion of critical assets in human history, there is also an unbroken track record of humanity as a whole continuing to build upon the foundation of past accomplishments in new & inventive ways which were all but impossible to foresee, and greatly affected the nature of life on this planet. With case examples too numerous to mention, suffice to say that this very post is clear evidence of this undeniable fact... we are still here.

So while more expensive energy undeniably means unforeseeable economic & social consequences, no more so than previous challenges faced by humanity in it's past. Sometimes our solutions were pretty ugly... sometimes we did better. The point is that as a species, we have been forced by circumstance to reinvent ourselves, and what it means to be human many times before, and at great peril. And we have through tooth & claw, experiment & blunder, faced these obstacles, suffered the consequences, and emerged battle worn, but also wiser than before. With no evidence to the contrary, history says that we will simply reinvent ourselves yet again, and continue the experiment.

On a less esoteric scale, more expensive energy, means just that; more expensive energy.

So yes... if peak oil theory is correct, then mother nature is going to give us a spanking, and take away our dessert, but it will hardly be the first time. We forget the terrible sacrifices generations of people have made along the way, in order for us to enjoy this prosperous time. We may well be called upon to make similar sacrifices to those of our forefathers, and endure difficult times. And there is every reason to expect, based on the example of history, that we will not only survive this process, but emerge a little wiser and stronger.

So we might lose some of the "comforts" that a prosperous global economy can provide. But that's a far cry from "The sky is falling" predictions of the depletion crowd.

If we agree that higher prices will provide incentive for companies to produce energy products, then I say that to the extent that oil prices rise, so will this incentive. Therefore if depletion arguments are correct, and world production of oil is beginning an irreversible decline, then I postulate that this price incentive will also climb in correlation with rising prices. It is difficult to imagine what lengths we might go to in our race to solve this energy dilemma, but then it's always been difficult to predict what the solution would be.

So the only real question remaining, is will we have a "managed" transition between now and then, or a "fly by the seat of our pants" scenario, which has served us well to date. It at least seems clear, that given the incredible profit incentives which would be involved if peak theory is correct, there will be no shortage of clever people who jump to this challenge until it's solved.

Business goes where the profits are. So we have been coasting on cheap energy for 100 years, and have barely scratched the surface of the real physics behind thermodynamics and the physical sciences. If we are entering the time of declining hydrocarbons, (something which itself is not yet known), then we are also entering the age where the physical sciences will literally explode with the interest which higher prices have generated.

A difficult economic time?

Sure

But then, we have been there before.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

What is Peak Oil?

"Petroleum geologists have known for 50 years that global oil production would "peak" and begin its inevitable decline within a decade of the year 2000. Moreover, no renewable energy systems have the potential to generate more than a tiny fraction of the power now being generated by fossil fuels."

The Basics

Peak oil theory states: that any finite resource, (including oil), will have a beginning, middle, and an end of production, and at some point it will reach a level of maximum output.

Oil production typically follows a bell shaped curve when charted on a graph, with the peak of production occurring when approximately half of the oil has been extracted. With some exceptions, this holds true for a single well, a whole field, an entire region, and presumably the world.

The underlying reasons are many and beyond the scope of this primer, suffice to say that oil becomes more difficult and expensive to extract as a field ages past the mid-point of its life.

In the US for example, oil production grew steadily until 1970 and declined thereafter, regardless of market price or improved technologies.

In 1956 M. King Hubbert, a geologist for Shell Oil, predicted the peaking of US Oil production would occur in the late 1960s. Although derided by most in the industry he was correct. He was the first to assert that oil discovery, and therefore production, would follow a bell shaped curve over its life. After his success in forecasting the US peak, this analysis became known as the Hubberts Peak.

The amount of oil discovered in the US has dropped since the late 1930?s. 40 years later, US oil production had peaked, and has fallen ever since. World discovery of oil peaked in the 1960?s, and has declined since then. If the 40 year cycle seen in the US holds true for world oil production, that puts global peak oil production, right about now; after which oil becomes less available, and more expensive.

Today we consume around 4 times as much oil as we discover. If we apply Hubbert?s Peak to world oil production we estimate that approximately half of all oil that will be recovered, has been recovered, and oil production may reach a peak in the near future, or perhaps already has.

For more detail visit: http://peakoil.com

(Special thanks to pops @ peakoil.com for this primer)

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a community and collaboration blog exploring the issue of hydrocarbon depletion