My Daughter

My Daughter
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Monday, December 07, 2009

Our Obsolete Playbook

I think it would be quite easy to make the case that our playbook has failed us quite badly. And to make matters worse, only a few are even aware of it. Energy and government experts are fudging the numbers on a daily basis, while our financial experts are groping in the dark. No one, and I mean no one that matters, is prepared to cope with scenarios not contained in the playbook. Our current world view, or “playbook”, is based upon classical, or “Newtonian mechanics” after Sir Isaac Newton and his laws of motion. Big thinkers of the time, like Rene Descartes, concluded that the world was one of mathematical precision, not confusion. Science and technology were seen as the tools to rearrange the stuff of nature in a way that best advanced the material self-interest of human beings.

Generations of economists have since proffered that an endless growth in material welfare is the economy’s long-run normal state and created a debt-based monetary system upon that ludicrous assumption. In a finite world of limits, constantly looking for expansion, for economic growth, for prosperity, and for solutions to a continuation of the unsustainable path we are on, will be the root cause of our inevitable downfall. Our hubris has fostered an increasingly objective view of nature; we admire its’ natural beauty in photographs, dissect it’s workings under a microscope, and then conquer it with technology.

As William R. Catton writes in his latest book; Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, “May future generations of people inhabiting this planet be descended from the most hubris-free members of each preceding generation.”

Any reasonably well-read person, unfettered by too much sit-com TV, should be able to recognize the unfolding trend; that limits to growth are manifesting, that our insolvent financial system and our global environmental sink issues are overwhelming, any and all, technical efforts to “fix’ them. And we won’t even discuss the elephant in the room—overpopulation.

The fundamental enabler of our industrialized American way of life has been a continuous access to enormous quantities of cheap, readily abundant non-renewable natural resources in the form of energy, metals, and minerals. That “access” is increasingly becoming problematic.

The problem lies with the fact that most of the remaining oil available in the world either has a very slow production rate, or is quite expensive to extract, or both. The production rate of any unconventional oil (such as tar sands or heavy crude) is never going to compete with conventional oil. In 1901, with gushers like Spindletop in Texas, the EROEI was something like, 100 to 1. Today, the EROEI of tar sands and deep water oil is 5 to 1 or less. When the EROEI becomes < style="margin-top: 0px; margin-right: 0px; margin-bottom: 0px; margin-left: 0px; padding-top: 0px; padding-right: 0px; padding-bottom: 0px; padding-left: 0px; ">
Thus, declining domestic and foreign sources of, primarily, energy, will force American society to powerdown all aspects of our economy, by either design or by default. We will have to learn to view the world differently, to a degree almost unimaginable to those who scarcely understand the concept just now. “The decades to come will see many things that are now done by machines handed back over to human beings, for the eminently pragmatic reason that it will again be cheaper to feed, house, clothe, and train a human being to do those things than it will be to make, fuel, and maintain a machine to do them.”

Many harbor an unquestioned assumption that it will be possible to just shift from the use of fossil fuels to alternative energies. The reality is that no basket of current alternatives can replace fossil fuels on the scale and in the manner we use them. People must realize that wind, direct solar, and other renewable technologies are all pretty marginal and take a lot of fossil fuel energy and time to construct the supporting infrastructure.

Our new playbook must be based upon an ecological world-view that recognizes limits; where nature’s renewable processes dictate the rate of resource consumption, not GDP, nor a desire for endless progress and growth.

And to reiterate the constant theme in my many posts over the years; peak oil is an economic crisis, not an energy crisis.

As James Kunstler recently wrote: “Both reality and history will probably take us out to some woodshed of the national soul and beat the crap out of us.”