My Daughter

My Daughter
Remember when you learned how to do this?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Reflections on Thanksgiving morning, 2006

For many – perhaps most – Americans, the last twelve months have been pleasant, prosperous, and abundant. We had a brief excursion to $3.00 per gallon gasoline, but the lack of hurricanes and the prospect of a mild winter let us enjoy a respite from high energy costs. The housing industry is having its trouble – perhaps due to the spike in energy mentioned above – but few care to believe the downward move will continue. Now, the Christmas shopping season will begin in earnest as we celebrate our religious or secular convictions with increased consumption.

I found myself on the expressway one recent evening at 6:00 PM. There were three lanes of cars in front of me, and the traffic had no gaps but was moving well. On the opposite side, a similar stream existed, moving less quickly. On either side of the road countless business of every description plied their wares and services. Within those businesses, employees waited on customers from the cars that filled the highway; owners depended on the profits generated by those same motorists.

Every one of those motorists was generating economic activity. Even if one was going to the library, or to visit a friend, they were burning fuel – fuel that cost money, fuel that generated jobs for the gasoline station attendant. Most would do more, purchasing meals, toys, tools, are amusements. This generated a realization; there can be no gentle powering down, no humane transition to a lower energy future. Our society depends on the activities fueled by cheap energy as surely as a living body depends on blood. Our economic body cannot survive on a reduced flow of energy.

Some argue that a silver bullet will be found to solve the incipient energy crises. More contend that some combination of silver bb’s will fill that role. We might reframe these as the great miracle camp, and the family of small miracles camp. In either instance, we must depend on a miraculous and unprecedented event. The faith of the proponents of such events is as devout as any religious zealot’s. The angry reaction to questions directed at their faith is equivalent to the fanatic’s. Neither camp is prepared to address the possibility that the miracle will not occur.

Different analysts project a variety of dates for global peak oil. Some like Thanksgiving of 2005; others prefer 2007 or 2008. Some project the event for 2010, and a few expect it to occur shortly thereafter. In any case, we are doing little to mitigate the problem. As a society, we hardly mention it. Perhaps our leaders know that they and we are powerless to change the awaiting destiny. That destiny will be upon us soon. Perhaps in the upcoming twelve months.

Of this I am certain – shortly after peak oil occurs, economic activity will begin a sharp, protracted, and irreversible decline. The economic suffering will be profound; it will segue into still deeper trouble that will end with the death of billions. Some of those will be our neighbors. Some will be readers of this posting. And there is nothing that can stop it.

So, on this Thanksgiving Day, slow down a bit. Savor the day. Taste – really, truly, taste – the food. If you’re with people you care about, enjoy their companionship. Focus on the present, on the now. Commit the day to memory.

Because, good reader – the time grows short.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Failed Gods, Easter Island, and Peak Oil

On Easter Island, the inhabitants used much of their forest in a project to build and place great stone figures – images, we may suppose, of Gods. More formally, they invested labor and resources in a project they thought would produce a return of some sort. Did they think their gods would save them as they cut down the last tree? Did they suppose some miracle would bring the fish closer to the island, removing the need for large boats? What could they have been thinking as they squandered their remaining resources erecting ever bigger, ever costlier stone statues?

Could we fall into the same trap? When the subject of Peak Oil comes up, the common response is “Oh, they’ll think of something”. One might be inclined to wonder whom this “they” might be. The thought process is remarkably similar to what an islander might have thought had he said, “Oh, the gods will do something”. Arguably, science and technology are our civilization’s new gods, complete with an extensive priesthood of scientists and great temples, also known as research universities.

As Peak Oil develops, will our society become more frenzied in our worship? Will we sacrifice more resources to persuade the gods of research to bless us with a discovery that will solve our woes? Is our faith in exponentially growing technology misplaced? What if there are limits to technology?

Mr. Jonathan Huebner, in his paper titled “A possible declining trend for worldwide innovation”, available as a PDF at considers the possibility that innovation is slowing. Further, there are limits to what we can discover. One of Dr. Huebner’s considerations is there may be economic limits. This becomes problematic if GDP shrinks because of energy shortages. Another possibility considered is that we may be approaching the limits of the human mind. Dr. Huebner estimates that we may have already discovered 85% of the innovations we will ever discover.

What are the implications for our future? If innovation fails us, we will have no technological salvation from the effects of Peak Oil. Still worse, one of the primary drivers of economic growth will have failed – perhaps concurrently with Peak Oil.

Will future historians look back at our efforts to create fusion reactors and nanotech in the same way we view the Easter Islander’s gods? No one can say for sure; but the implications give one pause.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Canaries, singing, twittering, and silent

One of the continuing themes in Peak Oil is trying to predict the moment when peak oil hits. While arguably a pointless exercise, there is some intellectual pride involved in naming the instant when we transition from growing to dwindling energy availability. So, even though we cannot know when peak oil has occurred except in retrospect, let us consider whether we hear the twittering of birds.

I propose we can hear three species of canary. The first has foresight and is predictive – call it a leading indicator. The second type is concurrent. The last is reactive, and thus is a trailing indicator. Each species of canary adds its song, finally heralding in a new era of expensive energy.

Leading indicators might include cessation of construction of new oil refineries, or consistent failure to discover new oil reserves sufficient to offset extraction. These canaries are in full throat, singing their little hearts out. Concurrent indicators are spending on tourism, airline earnings, and current energy prices. Arguably, there is a small lag between the actuality of peak oil and the report these indicators provide. The latency will be on the order of months, and – perhaps – weeks. Presently, our concurrent canaries are twittering, warming themselves up for a proper aria. We see airline earnings down and heavy deficits; however, the companies continue with existing models. They conserve fuel by carrying less water in the galleys. They avoid carrying blankets. Energy prices are high from a historical perspective; however, fuel remains plentiful. People are adapting by shifting spending patterns; they continue to travel as before. Tourism and the hospitality industry appear strong. This canary seems reticent to sing, noting people’s determination to travel on business and enjoy vacations. Given the large numbers employed in the tourism and hospitality industries, this bird may signal a deep economic shift. It would be well to keep an eye on this particular canary.

The lagging indicators will confirm conclusions gained from the leading and concurrent birds. These include auto industry sales and earnings, and the average mileage of cars bought. Demographic trends, with people moving inward from exurbia and beyond is another. Average house size might be one. The greatest lag would be in large government programs, since these typically need years of planning and multiyear contracts. We can expect to see massive new highway programs even as people cut short journeys and abandon tourism. Although the U.S. auto industry does not enjoy robust earnings, the global industry is doing better. Toyota’s earnings remain strong. The news media mention commutes and some discussion of declining house size, but the trend is not yet in place. Government building and highway projects continue, the NAFTA highway being a case in point. Our lagging canaries are determinedly silent, as we might expect.

What shall we infer? With lagging canaries singing, concurrent canaries beginning to make a less than unanimous noise, and lagging canaries silent, we are close to but not at the peak. When we hear more of disastrous earnings by hotels and other travel and tourism oriented industries, we will know the canary is getting ready. When we see increased unemployment, especially from these industries, we’ll know the canary has taken a deep breath. When we witness extensive ad campaigns importuning us to travel, with reports of the failure of the tourist industry, we can safely say the canary is singing.

It will take a time, probably several years, before the lagging canaries sing their lugubrious dirge. Mass cancellation of government highway programs because of expected travel declines will give full and final confirmation to the peak oil symphony. Given the likely attempts to use hybrid and electric vehicles, along with more fuel-efficient vehicles of every sort, we may expect at least two, and more likely 5 years will pass.

Only after the final canary begins his song will the world unite in efforts to mitigate the outcomes of peak oil. From this, much will follow; but that is a subject for another time.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Peak Oil – The Linchpin for Everything

The discussion of Peak Oil mitigation often assumes that other technologies will offset the flow of energy from oil. Unfortunately, inexpensive energy has masked trends that may create a multiplier effect for peak oil problems.

Earth’s expanding population of 6.5 billion seems headed to 9 billion, and the existing population does not enjoy a universally pleasant life. The rise of China and India, and the resultant impact of 2.3 billion aspiring consumers, has caused commodity prices of every sort to increase with energy prices. The demand for resources of every sort is increasing, and shows every sign of continuing to do so.

So far, we’ve used energy cover the shortages. If food is scarce, we can build pipelines that carry water hundreds of miles uphill, dig boreholes half a mile deep, and move riverbeds. We can build desalinization plants. If metals are in short supply, we can gather and process scrap or dig for poorer ores. Should an area lack supplies, we can move supplies in from other areas. Within this great dance, the common factor is convenient, plentiful, inexpensive energy.

What happens when the peak hits?

We will no longer have the energy to keep the mechanism going. We cannot grow enough food – not just because of a lack of fertilizer and pesticide, but because we cannot transport the seed to the farm, cannot bring water to the fields, and cannot move the crops to consumers. A decline of energy availability means more than not going out for pizza – it means death for a growing number of people. In addition, as people fight for life, they will also fight for energy; first in the figurative sense, with money. Later, they will fight for life in a literal sense.

Some will argue that shared sacrifice could prevent a mass die-off. Large societies don’t embrace such behavior for long. Expectations for the world to unite in sacrifice are baseless and absurd.

We must recognize the broad implications of peak oil. We may well need to conduct triage, deciding who survives and who does not. It is significant that energy availability will decline each year. Therefore, each year, we must conduct a new round of triage.

Eventually, energy income will match energy expenditure. We must prepare ourselves, as individuals and as nations, for the dangerous transition period between that future time and today. We will battle for survival, with no reward for second place.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Relativity Dogma & Truth

Relativity - The doctrine that measurements and perceptions are true
only in relation to a given observer at a given place and

Dogma - A generally held set of formulated beliefs.

Truth - The actual state of things.

"If you own a hammer... every problem looks like a nail."

So what?

Of course reality is objective; That is a trite truism.

What am I supposed to do about the things I don't know I'm not aware of?

Magically become aware of them somehow?

Of course not...

But our relative perceptions of truth, and the expression of these beliefs as dogma in our lives, have an insidious and dangerous potential to pigeon-hole our critical thinking in subtle ways. It is this conundrum which is at the root of our struggle to make good choices.

What you are doing today, is most likely what you will be doing tomorrow.

Our default positions, developed through our lives, describe a set of assumptions about ourselves & our world. We coalesce meaning from the vapor of nuance, deriving a set of values based on our experiences. Absent new information, we assume our core values to be correct; that is to say consistent with objective reality.

But the very nature of objective reality itself implies that all our acknowledged truths, are subject to the vagaries of perception.

As with the story of the 3 blind men & the elephant, each will perceive a different aspect of the same larger reality, glimpsing only this small fraction of truth upon which their own objective reality is based.

And this is precisely the problem.

It is the common assumptions we make, which blind us to the bigger picture.

We are all slaves to our own version of truth, held captive in a prison we can neither see, nor feel...

The worst part of this captivity, is that it replicates itself, and grows stronger over time. We hijack those elements which fit our existing worldview, further entrenching & hardening our positions.

Everyone who can read this blog, is firmly entrenched in the western values & dogma, which tells you that we can overcome the terrible challenges of life on Earth. We have all but conquered hunger, disease & illness, slavery, poverty... the list is almost endless.

But this is only an illusion of our relative perception of truth.

The larger reality says that in spite of, (or perhaps even because of), modern agriculture more starve today than ever before. The highest standard of living ever known to man, is accompanied by unprecedented poverty in never before seen numbers. Unparalleled advances in energy efficiency have propelled our consumption of energy to unseen heights.

The freedom our ancestors provided for us through great sacrifice does not make you free.

Freedom is something you do... not something you have.

The truth is that none of these"modern advances" we cherish have delivered on their promises of a better tomorrow.

Instead, they have ushered in an era of unprecedented poverty, misery, suffering and death which shows no sign of retreating.

The problem dear Brutus, lies not within our stars... but within ourselves.

The punchline here is that actual reality does not respect our dogmatic beliefs... or even know of such nonsense.

As the impoverished, huddled masses are discovering as I write this...

Coming soon to a theater near you.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Devil's Advocate II

Sure oil production will peak... so what?
by Aaron Dunlap

There are two basic reasons why peak oil is quite irrelevant... & here they are:

I'm a big fan of deductive reasoning... For those of you who don't know about deductive reasoning, it's that "scientific method" stuff you missed while flirting with during science class in school.

Here's how it works...

All pregnancies end. You are pregnant. Therefore: Your pregnancy will end. I don't need to know about your specific pregnancy, to know yours will end.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from William of Occam, many years ago. Willy said: "All things being equal, the simplest explanation, tends to be the right one."

Sounds reasonable... So...

Reason #1 - The GrandPa Factor

My grandfather was born in 1902 in Indian Territory, Oklahoma. He taught me many things during our time together... how to fish the lake with a cane pole... how to bet the inside straight... & how to live a fulfilling life.

But he taught me something even more important than the tiny treasures of a 6 year old boy... without even knowing he did it.

Through listening to his stories, & seeing his long life in a complete arch, one thing seems obvious... That for all our faults... people can be clever little buggers. Imagine watching your world go from horse, to steam, to cars... to the moon! Who could have predicted, back in ole '02, that men would play golf on the moon one day... the very idea would get you laughed right out the door back then.

And yet that is exactly what happened...

In fact, if I look back on our collective human history, I can see the same pattern... over & over again.

What seemed fantasy at the time, eventually came to pass. So let's go back & see what our friend Willy might say about this.

What seems more reasonable?

1) Humanity will hit a brick wall called peak oil, and suffer terrible, if not permanent destruction, because there isn't any viable energy alternative?


2) Humanity will repeat the same pattern it has for countless generations. Innovating in the face of crisis beyond the imagination of current thinking.

My own grandfather's life demonstrates this concept nicely.

While I can't tell you specifically what will replace oil... logic says I don't need to.

I only need to understand that if humanity fails to innovate our way out from under oil depletion, it would be the first such human failure in our history!

It's more reasonable to project that unforeseen developments, spurred by the pressure of rising energy prices, will meet our energy challenge in unpredictable ways... solved!

#2 - The M. Lynch Equation

The more complex any issue has become, the more difficult it is to predict the outcome. It's because the initial conditions are all but impossible to quantify accurately, and these specifics vastly affect the outcome. A tiny difference in beginning conditions, will radically alter the equation and how things play out.

This makes efforts at predicting peak oil, an exercise in futility. Given the vastly complex nature of the energy issue, efforts in prediction are of little use... the crystal ball has a crack in it.

So you can live in peak oil fantasy-land as long as you like, but given my two observations, you will be waiting a very long time indeed. In fact you may need to pass on your myopic belief to your descendants to carry on the charade.

The facts speak for themselves. Peak Oil simply cannot be predicted with any accuracy. So you might as well predict it will rain beer tomorrow.

And my grandfather's wisdom shows that all things being equal... we will innovate and prosper...

Always have...

Monday, January 30, 2006

Death by Innovation

What we need is a synthesis of the core values of opposing camps.

The "get stuff done" attitude of the business community & the "sense of civic responsibility" of the academic community.

In their zeal to "get stuff done", the business community all but abandons the wisdom of carefully considering the consequences of success.

Likewise, our academics focus on the details of process, often at the expense of "getting stuff done".

We should preserve the insights gained in the microcosm of individual studies, and apply these concepts to real-time macro issues.

And we should mitigate the excesses of purely competition-based solutions, as well as the "detached" apathy of purely academic focus.

To accomplish this, we should begin the process of a new synthesis in education & thinking. We should integrate the best aspects of these different viewpoints beginning with primary, & later secondary schools. This effort will become a renaissance in modern thinking which will dominate older, less flexible models replacing them with more robust & realistic thinking.

Within a few generations, our society will be dominated by centered, realistic thinkers well equipped to face the enormous challenges which surely face mankind.

In fact I believe that eventually we will reach such an equilibrium.

The only real question is will we embrace this development in our evolution voluntarily, or will nature drag us kicking & screaming?

If I was a betting man... I'd have to go with "kickin & screamin".

I have difficulty imagining that enough people will volunteer themselves in this venture to make any difference.

In a world where our population continues to grow exponentially, and small groups of people, (& indeed even individuals), can vastly influence the decisions which are acted upon, it would seem pretty obvious that we are in trouble.

Past events dictate future occurrences.

Kickin & screamin I'm afraid.

Oooh! Ahhh! That's how it always starts. Then later there's running and screaming.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Thursday, January 12, 2006

David Goodstein lecture at MIT

I just heard David Goodstein give a lecture at MIT. It's a good thing I got there early because the snack table and all available classroom seats were both quickly depleted.
I mean it was packed. People covered all available floor space and stood out in the hallway.

The MIT physics dean read a bio and Goodstein made some joke about the CalTech/MIT school rivalry, which is still a big thing in Cambridge. They also gave a plug for the New Energy Council at MIT.

The main event was an hour lecture and PowerPoint aid by David Goodstein, also titled Out of Gas.

Goodstein tried to be provocative by listing "energy myths"

$2.40 is too much to pay for gasoline
-well duh
oil companies produce oil
-technically, carbon, time, and pressure produce oil
we must conserve or well have energy crisis
-we're going to have one anyway
when we run out of oil, the marketplace will assure that it is replaced
-not fast enough to save us
there's enough fossil fuel to last for hundreds of years
-but hubbert's peak is the problem
nuclear energy is dangerous
-long-term it's safer oil, gas, and coal
the greenhouse effect and global warming are bad
-not intrinsically bad, but humans could soon make earth uninhabitable

Goodstein then gave a brief history of energy.

the caloric theory
law of conservation of energy
potential energy, kinetic energy,
thermal radiation
Count Rumford
Jame Prescott Joule

Goodstein then gave a brief on the Earth's Climate

The Sun Earth System
Tilted Axis
4 Seasons
the El Nino Cycle
The Therohaline Flow

It was like an intro-to-science course and a church-of-reason sermon to the academics.
into the greenhouse effect, etc..

Goodstein then talked about the industrial revolution.

Watt's steam engine started it
Whale oil was popular
blah blah blah

Finally, he got to the good stuff.
"We can no longer live on light from the sun."

He spoke about oil reserves.
"Nobody else counts, only the middle east matters."

He spoke about M King Hubbert and put some curves up. Goodstein then shored up his argument by stating some obvious truths from BP's public data.

"we are using oil faster than we are discovering it"

Then this little old professor dropped the bomb. He put Colin Campbell's famous prediction curve. Peak is here. 2005-2010!

I could tell this made some people in the audience uncomfortable, including the froshman sitting next to me.

Goodstein then proceeded to frighten us.
"mile long lines at the gas station, misery, end of our way of life"

Then he got realistic again. He casually explained the Colin Campbell prediction assumes there is 1.8 trillion barrels in the ground. He says, in recent year we're seeing more like 2 trillion total. That could stretch it off a couple more years.

Then he reminds us it doesn't matter. 10 or 20 years is very little in a historical sense. You have to believe it, coming from a super-old dude like him.

He points out that Kenneth Deffeyes realized M King Hubbert was correct when he saw the 1971 SF Chron headline:

"The Texas Railroad Commission announces a 100% allowable for next month"

And looks what's going on now:

"Saudi Oil is in decline"
New York Time: Feb 24, 2004

Then, in a very deliberate manner, Goodstein explains what this means. Plastics. Medicines. The Green Revolution. And he says: "transportation is the most important application of oil"

He gently reminds us that there are 6.4 Billion to feed. And 5% in America consume a quarter of all energy. He explains the current state-of-the-union of fossil fuels and then spends the remainder of the time talking about what to do about it.

The tar sands are now called oil sands because it attracts more investment.

2 tons of oil sands and a lot of hydrogen are needed to make 1 barrel of oil.
shale oil = not oil = sucks
methane hydrate= nobody knows
you would have to increase the rate of coal production by 5x offset depletion
world's population is increasing
people like to drive cars...

What does the future hold = "There will be an oil crisis very soon"
in 10 or 20 years...

Anthony Lovins, Rocky Mountain inst.
switchgrass, poplar, sugar cane in brazil
ethanol from corn is an energy looser
feebates = you charge a fee to people who burn a lot

Since this is MIT, it wouldn't be complete without technofixes. And the mother of all technofixes is Nuclear Fusion. In David Goodstein opinion "Nuclear is the best."

Goodstein gave a pretty thorough rundown of all the major technofixes and their associated "challenges." The most common "challenge" was simply scale.

we would need 200,000 square Kilometers of photovoltaic
it takes 3-6 gallons of fuel to make equivalent 1 gallon of hydrogen gas
We would need 10,000 gigawat nuclear plants

But we can do these thing. "We understand the basic principles."

What we really need to do is Fusion. Goodstein says "Fusion is our best hope."

And the head of the MIT fusion team gets up and says, not a chance with the current federal funding situation. Goodstein give props to the $250 million Stanford energy program.

Goodstein wrapped up his presentation with a happy thought. Scientists are supposed to make predictions I have a prediction.

"Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in the century, when the fuel runs out."

You know I stuck around for Q&A. I wanted to ask about MEOR, but earlier he had said with kind of a groan, "People send me solutions all the time." He seemed like he had heard it all, so I just listened.

The first comment was optimistic. 10,000 new nuclear plants. That's not out of reach. All it would take a couple hundred million per plant. USA got plenty of money.

Then some liberal guy gets uppity with the next question. You are assuming it would be a good idea to keep going with our wasteful lifestyle. blah blah blah I ride a bike blah blah current administration...

All Goodstein had to say to that is "awareness has grown in the last year,
as it becomes more and more true people will conserve fuel."

Finally some guy asks Goodstein do you have a prediction on when a policy shift might occur?

Goodstein says, "I have no prediction, but $2.40 per gallon is not enough."