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The End of Ancient Sunlight

Would you send your child to war to fight over the last barrels of oil? Would you go yourself? Or pay taxes to support such a war? What will you do when oil is no longer “cheap” and abundant? What will you do if climate change becomes climate chaos? We have no choice about the end of the petroleum age. But we can choose how gracefully we make the transition.

In a very real sense, we’re all made out of sunlight. Sunlight is the source of almost all life on Earth. Many people I meet believe that plants are made up of the soil in which they grow. That’s a common mistake. A tree, for example, is mostly made up of one of the gases in our air (carbon dioxide) and water (hydrogen and oxygen). Trees are solidified air and sunlight.

Animals, including humans, cannot create tissues directly from sunlight, water, and air, as plants can. Thus the human population of the planet has always been limited by the amount of readily available plant food (and the supply of animals that eat plants).

Something important happened about 40,000 years ago: humans discovered they could domesticate ruminant (grazing) animals like goats, sheep, and cows that convert daily sunlight captured by scrub and wild plants on “useless” land into animal flesh, which humans could eat.

About this time, we also figured out that we could replace forests with farmland. Because we had discovered and begun to use herding and agriculture to convert the sun’s energy into human food more efficiently, our food supply grew and the human population started growing faster.

Within a few thousand years we also discovered how to extract mineral ores from the Earth, to smelt pure metals from them, and to build tools, such as plows and scythes, that made us much more productive farmers. So the period from 8,000 B.C. until around the time of Christ saw the human population of the world increase from 5 million people to 250 million people. But we were still only using about one year’s worth of sunlight-energy per year, and our impact on the planet remained minimal. We weren’t “dipping into our savings” to supply our needs, yet.

Then, in the Middle Ages we discovered a new source of sunlight that had been captured by plants nearly 400 million years ago: coal. This represents a critical moment in human history, for this is when our ancestors started living off our planet’s sunlight savings. Because our ancestors could consume sunlight that had been stored by plants millions of years ago, they began for the first time to consume more resources—in food, heat, and other materials—than the daily amount of sunlight falling locally on our planet had historically been able to provide.

Had our ancestors run out of coal, nature would have taken over and limited their population. Instead, our ancestors discovered another reserve of ancient sunlight: plant matter that, hundreds of millions of years ago, had trapped the atmosphere’s rich carbon dioxide and sunk to the floor of the oceans, and had then been trapped below ground and compressed into what we refer to as oil.

Oil was first widely used around 1850 in Romania, where it was found in pools in crevices and caves. The first oil well was tapped in 1858 in Canada, but major production began in 1859, when oil was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and the 19th century drilling boom began in earnest. The discovery of abundant supplies of oil kicked open the door to a truly massive store of ancient sunlight. By using this ancient sunlight as a heating source and energy source, and by replacing farm animals with tractors, our ancestors dramatically increased their ability to produce food.

It turned out that people could use oil for far more than just fuel. Oil is used to make synthetic fabrics (nylon, rayon, polyester), resins, plastics, and fertilizers. Because we could make clothes from oil, we needed less sheep-grazing land and cotton-growing land, thus allowing us to convert even more non-food croplands to food production.

It took just 14 years, from 1960 to 1974, for us to grow from 3 to 4 billion humans worldwide. The human population hit 6 billion in 1999. By the fifth billion, in 1987, humans became the most numerous species on Earth in terms of total biomass. We now consume more than 40 percent of the world’s total “net primary productivity,” the sum total of sunlight-generated food and energy available to all species on Earth. This means that every other species of plant and animal must now compete against each other for what little we have left them.

How much is left?

How long will our savings of ancient sunlight hold out? How much fossil fuel do we have left?

Since the discovery of oil in Titusville in 1859, humans have extracted 742 billion barrels of oil from the Earth. Currently, world oil reserves are estimated at about 1,000 billion barrels.

Most oil company executives, however, don’t seem to think this is a problem. In an upbeat and optimistic speech presented to the Economic Club of Columbus, Ohio, in 1996, an Ashland Chemical Company executive pointed out that world oil reserves should last “almost” 45 years, assuming that consumption doesn’t increase at all from current-day levels. But according to data furnished by the Geneva–based international petroleum-industry consulting firm, Petroconsultants (among others), world consumption of oil today is increasing at about 2.8 percent per year. If we project that out into the future, our 45-year oil-supply figure drops into the range of just over 30 years. And current (2004) industry information (such as from the British Petroleum website and other industry sources) indicates that we have between 25 and 45 years worth of oil left.

Other experts in the oil industry are less optimistic about the supply of oil left in the ground. Petroconsultants notes that North American production of oil peaked in 1974. The Petroconsultants study points out that even if consumption was dampened by worldwide reductions in oil usage because of increased price (and the probable worldwide depression that this would cause), declining supplies will lower oil production in 2050 to levels similar to those of the 1960s, when the global population was 3 billion. But most demographers expect that in 2050 the world population will exceed 10 billion.

Then again, other experts suggest that the oil-industry estimate of 45 years is wildly inflated, meaning the situation is even worse than just described.

Scientist M. King Hubbert first pointed this out in 1956, when he developed the well-known “Hubbert Peak,” defining the moment when oil supplies have peaked and then begun a downhill slide. In 1956, he projected a Hubbert Peak for the U.S. in 1970 (he was four years off: the oil peaked in 1974), and in 1975, Hubbert predicted a worldwide Peak for 1999 or 2000. Although Hubbert died in 1989, his work was carried on by J. Colin Campbell, author of The Golden Century of Oil: 1950–2050: The Depletion of a Resource, a book that originated as part of a study of worldwide oil supplies and consumption commissioned by the Norwegian government in 1989.

Campbell and other scientists point out that oil producing countries often inflate their estimated oil reserves to qualify for higher OPEC production quotas and so they can borrow money from the World Bank using their supposed oil supplies as collateral. He and other experts estimate that we are already atop the halfway mark in the world’s total oil supply, and that there may be far fewer than 700 billion barrels still in the ground.

It’s worth noting that it’s unlikely that we’ll be soon be finding easily accessible new pools of oil. Most of the world has now been digitally “X-rayed” using satellites, seismic data, and computers, in the process of locating 41,000 oil fields. 641,000 exploratory wells have been drilled, and almost all fields that show any promise are well known and factored into the 1 trillion barrel estimate the oil industry uses for world oil reserves.

When about half the oil has been removed from an underground oil field, it starts to get much harder (and thus more expensive) to extract the remaining half. The last third to quarter can be excruciatingly expensive to extract.

At the same time, China, India, Mexico, and the rest of the Third World are industrializing—adding factories, cars, building highways, and constructing oil-fueled power plants—at a growth rate that’s faster than both the United States’ or Europe’s over the past century. According to an exhaustive scientific study by the British power company PowerGen, reported by the Associated Press in September, 1997, “Global energy demand is forecast to double by 2020.”

Climate changes

One recent July afternoon we had an electrical storm here in central Vermont that was so severe it took out two of my computers and blew circuit breakers throughout the house.
Larry, a fellow we’d hired to do some repair work on our half-mile-long driveway, stood atop a hill with me a week after the storm and told how his wife had been thrown across the room from an electric shock she received touching their screen door during the storm. “It’s not normal weather here,” he said. “The last few years have been like nothing before.”

The insurance industry agrees with Larry.

The decade of 1980–1989 was the costliest in history for insurance claims caused by “acts of God” with total claims of over $50 billion. But just the first half of the 1990s saw claims of over $162 billion, prompting the insurance industry to issue an unprecedented call for a decrease in carbon dioxide emissions from industry. Claims have steadily climbed since then, causing many insurance com-panies to re-write their policies to exclude weather–related or “act of God” events from coverage.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that we are facing a crisis that may well be of Biblical proportions as a result of global warming produced by increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Each year, we’re pumping more than 6 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into our thin layer of atmosphere—so much that in just the past 20 years the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million to over 370 parts per million, the highest level in 420,000 years. Within a few more decades, CO2 levels are projected to exceed 500 parts per million, thus dramatically warming the planet.

But how warm? According to the IPCC scientists, at least 3–4 degrees Celsius, and possibly as much as 7 degrees.

“What’s so bad about that?” many people ask. “Three degrees is nothing, and if that warms up the climate of Michigan or Maine, wouldn’t that be better for the growing season, recreation, and everything else?”

Climate change driven by increasing carbon dioxide levels already appears to be producing huge swings in weather all over the planet, because heat is energy, and increased heat in the atmosphere means increased energy in the atmosphere. This increased energy makes for less stable and more violent weather worldwide.

The April 26, 2003, issue of Britain’s New Scientist magazine arrived at my home the same week in May that the worst tornadoes in U.S. history were taking apart big chunks of the American Midwest. The article titled “Here Comes The Rain” opened with, “As the world gets warmer, it is getting wetter.” The article pointed out that as the overall temperature of the atmosphere increases, so, too, does its ability to hold ever-larger quantities of water. This increase in moisture and air density drives ever-more-powerful storms, and when the water is dropped from the skies it results in record-breaking floods. (Because water vapor also traps heat, this initial seeding of moisture also begins a small but significant positive-feedback cycle amplifying the problems of global warming. But we digress...)

When I was in Australia, as wildfires were ravaging New South Wales and licking up against Sydney, nearly every newscast reported that the fires were caused by drought that climate scientists had previously predicted would be the unstoppable result of global warming. However, not a single news report in the U.S.—on radio, TV, newspapers, or the Internet—mentioned how the flooding in the Midwestern U.S. had been predicted just months earlier at a conference of European global warming experts.

Neo-conservative front men for the fossil fuel industry have effectively cowed news reporters in all sectors of American reporting.

A new ice age?

In the context of all this discussion about global warming, it may seem odd to bring the conversation around to a new ice age. An ice age, caused by global warming, is the setting for the disaster film, The Day After Tomorrow, which stretches credulity for dramatic purposes, but nonetheless, suggests the seriousness of the issue. Climate change may well be the greatest threat the world faces today.

If you look at a globe, you’ll see that the latitude of much of Europe and Scandinavia is the same as that of Alaska and permafrost-locked parts of northern Canada and central Siberia. Yet Europe has a climate more similar to that of the United States than northern Canada or Siberia. Why?

It turns out that our warmth is the result of ocean currents that bring warm surface water up from the equator into northern regions that would otherwise be so cold that even in summer they’d be covered with ice. The current is often referred to as “The Great Conveyor Belt.”

If the Great Conveyor Belt, which includes the Gulf Stream, were to stop flowing, the result would be sudden and dramatic. Winter would set in for the eastern half of North America and all of Europe and Siberia, and never go away. Within a few years, those regions would become uninhabitable and nearly 2 billion humans would starve, freeze to death, or have to relocate. Civilization as we know it probably couldn’t withstand the impact of such a crushing blow.

Prior to the last decades, it was thought that the periods between glaciations and warmer times in North America, Europe, and North Asia were gradual, lasting dozens to hundreds of years. Looking at the ice cores, however, scientists were shocked to discover that the transitions from ice age-like weather to contemporary-type weather usually took only two or three years.

Most scientists involved in this research agree that the melting of the icebergs on Greenland and the Arctic ice pack, currently underway as a result of global warming, and the flushing of cold, fresh water down into the Greenland Sea from the north, could reduce salinity sufficiently to switch off the Great Conveyor Belt. When this critical threshold is reached, the climate could suddenly switch to an ice age that could last a few hundred years, or hundreds of thousands of years.

And when might that threshold be reached? Nobody knows—the action of the Great Conveyor Belt in defining ice ages was discovered only in the last decade. Preliminary computer models and scientists willing to speculate suggest the switch could flip as early as next year, or it may be generations from now. As William Calvin documents in his book on this topic, A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change, “In the Labrador Sea, flushing failed during the 1970s, was strong again in the 1980s, and then declined. In the Greenland Sea over the 1980s salt sinking, which drives the Great Conveyor Belt, declined by 80 percent.”

Energy and the rise and fall of empires

This isn’t the first time, of course, that changes in the climate have threatened humans. One of the first empires of Western civilization is the Sumerian kingdom of Uruk, in Mesopotamia, which is now known as Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

According to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written story in the world, one of the first kings of the earliest Sumerian civilization (the Uruks) was a man named Gilgamesh. He was the first mortal to defy the forest god, Humbaba, who had been entrusted by the chief Sumerian deity, Enlil, to protect the cedar forests of Lebanon from mankind.

King Gilgamesh wanted to build a great city, Uruk, to immortalize his contribution to Sumerian civilization. So he and his loggers rebelled against Humbaba and began to cut the forests, which then stretched from Jordan to the sea in Lebanon. The story ends with Gilgamesh decapitating the forest god, Humbaba, and infuriating the god of gods, Enlil. Enlil then avenges the death of Humbaba by making the water in his kingdom undrinkable and the fields barren—thus killing off Gilgamesh and his people.

Along with its other distinctive qualities, the Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest recorded story of desertification caused by the extensive destruction of forestlands. Lebanon went from more than 90 percent forest (the famous Cedars of Lebanon) to less than 7 percent over a 1,500-year period. Trees and their roots are an important part of the water cycle, so rainfall downwind of deforested areas decreased by 80 percent. Over time, millions of acres of land in the Fertile Crescent area turned to desert or scrubland, and remain relatively barren to this day.

Because of the destruction of the forests, wood became a precious commodity equal in value to some gem and mineral ores. Neighboring countries were conquered for their wood supplies, as well as to get fertile land to grow barley. Vast areas of timber-land along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers were cut bare, increasing the siltation of their irrigation canals and cropland and further decreasing downwind rainfall.

The result of this local climatic change more than 5000 years ago was widespread famine. The collapse of the last Mesopotamian empire happened around 4,000 years ago, and the records they left behind show that only at the very end of their empire did they realize how they had destroyed their precious source of food and fuel by razing their forests and despoiling the rest of their environment. For thousands of years they “knew” that their way of life was fine. But it worked only as long as they had other people’s lands to conquer. Once they ran out of neighbors, their decline was sudden and devastating, just like a Ponzi scheme.

When fuel runs low, fighting starts

Every company in the industrialized world today, regardless of their product or service, is in some way selling goods created using repackaged oil. They’re using oil and other fossil fuels to heat buildings, ship their raw materials and products, power factories, and as a raw material for products ranging from plastics to fertilizers. Lacking oil, we’d be back to the level of productivity we had in 1800 when there were one-sixth as many humans on the planet and our fuel sources were vegetable oil, whale oil, coal, and wood.

Even a small dislocation in the availability of a primary fuel source can throw an entire nation into disarray. When oil becomes scarce in the next few decades, its price will rise. We in the West, being on top of the energy pyramid, may be the last to feel the pinch, if we use our armies to force Arab and South American countries to continue selling us their oil when supplies begin to dwindle. (Although there is the question of how we’ll power the planes and tanks if fuel oil is running low.) When the Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Romans ran low on wood, they too went to war.

But even if the First World is able to use military force to guarantee access to Third World oil supplies, the dwindling worldwide fuel supply will have widespread and devastating ripple effects. Every “modern” civilization over the past 7,000 years has been crippled and then destroyed by a shortfall in their primary fuel supply. Our civilization may or may not elude the same fate.

A choice

And so we face some very clear choices about whether we’ll innovate and reinvent our lifestyle to be gentler on the Earth, or risk painful and perhaps devastating natural consequences.

The last U.S. president to confront issues of carbon-based fuel was Jimmy Carter. He signed into law policies that helped birth an alternative energy industry and encouraged millions of Americans to make their homes more fuel efficient.

John Kerry has declared the need for America to become “independent of Middle East Oil”—a huge job, and a dramatic departure from George H.W. Bush’s declaration that “America’s lifestyle is not negotiable,” and his son’s pushing through a tax deduction for SUV owners.

While there is much we can all do in our own lives to reduce our oil consumption, on the larger level it’s likely that true, systemic change will only come when we again have political leadership that sees the problem and addresses it clearly and unambiguously. And that sort of leadership comes to power only when you and I participate in the political process, take back America from the corporate special interests, and return it to We the People.

From The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thom Hartmann, copyright (c) 1998, 1999, 2004 by Mythical Research, Inc. Used by permission of Harmony Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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