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A Midwinter's Nightmare

Some nights when cold wind whistles through dead thistles on it's frigid lonely quest, warmed in deep December's darkness in the belly of my nest, I awaken, startled stifled, heaving silent screams, wrested from the clutches of dissolving winter dreams, Unreturning despite my yearning for the sweet embrace of sleep, down my hallway quietly creeping I read of something deep; but all too often, surf'n and blog'n, only despair invades my keep ... The vision that m'live'n is not the mare I'd choose to face; the more I see, the more I crave the bed'n grave of sleep'n's sweet embrace...

I'm normally proud of the four-billion year long slog our lineage has made out of the Archeaen depths, into the Devonian shallows, onto the Permian wilderness and beyond, and I'm all too often self-congratulatory for my unearned status as the current living legacy of one of evolution's many winners. But as of late, when I'm caught in the delirium between sleep and consciousness at 3: 00 AM, I'm haunted with a darker moment of dreamlike clarity: It's then that I realize how little we, as a species, have changed. Can I invite you to keep me company for a few minutes in my dark vision? Let me show you my midwinter night's mare ...

We are naked talking chimpanzees who stand upright and no longer live in the forest. My bed, the latest incarnation of the ancestral tree top nest; my bedroom, the cave of my era; the hallway, a remote descendant of the well traveled jungle trail; the softly glowing flat screen monitor stands in for the campfire; the Internet it beams into my home is the communal hearth around which my global tribe virtually huddles in the ancient circle of our kind. And more often than not what I see lately when peering through the Internet portal in the middle of a lonely December's darkness is deeply disturbing; even filtered through a mind numbed with sleep, or perhaps because of it.

Assemble the right bits of data buttressed with several disciplines of science and eco-politics, and what emerges is a vision so terrifying I hope it is nothing but a dark dream. And in my winter somnolence I despair. The short term does not look promising. The trends are all there, the information easy to assimilate, the darkdream may turn real. Geology and economics have conspired with our behavioral shortcomings to take our complex interdependent culture apart at the petroleum stained seams. The Collapse of the Mighty Oil Empire. The Fall of Petro-Rome. No one can stop Hubbert's Peak. But I digress ...

Deep under the once pristine deserts of the Middle East, now littered with the industrial wreckage and chemical poisons of a century of energy mining and warfare, crude oil and ancient sea water are locked in mortal combat for dominance. There is no doubt which will prevail; the fossil water will, absolutely, inevitably, verifiably, win. And when it does, our petro-civilization will unravel, with the US leading the pack. The house of cards is set to collapse.

Deep under the once pristine deserts of the Middle East, now littered with the industrial wreckage and chemical poisons of a century of energy mining and warfare, crude oil and ancient sea water are locked in mortal combat for dominance. There is no doubt which will prevail; the fossil water will, absolutely, inevitably, verifiably, win. And when it does, our petro-civilization will unravel, with the US leading the pack. The house of cards is set to collapse.

Below those Arabian sands, the oil sat patiently on top of water, sealed in natural rocky bottles under high pressure with caps of gas holding guard above. The dinosaurs came and went without disturbing it. Meteor impacts did not affect it. Mass extinctions, shield volcanoes, and tectonic upheaval went unnoticed by the caramelized algae. But a hundred years ago some more recent arrivals, clever walking chimpanzees from the African Savannah, figured out it was good to burn. So they pierced the desert vault with slender steel pipes like the termite mounds they once fished with twigs, and they are sucking it dry. In my darker moments the only question I ask is, how soon will we succeed?

Ghawar in Saudi Arabia is the largest single oil reservoir on the planet, pumping out an estimated 5 million plus barrels a day. It took millions of years for cyano-bacteria to convert and store the solar radiation, settle to the sea floor, form thick mats, slowly transform into a rich organic syrup, and migrate into high pressure reserves. Ghawar is the crown jewel in our energy treasure chest, the king of them all. But it is dying, we are killing it, and as goes Ghawar, so goes world production.

When looking at how fast oil can be pumped from a given find, the reservoir manager has to carefully consider the geology of the formation, the viscosity of the crude, permeability, and many other factors, to establish a safe, maximum rate of 'pull'. If pulled to the surface too hard, lower viscosity water sitting underneath will sneak past the oil in the tiny interstitial spaces between the tightly packed sand grains and eventually foul the reserve, forever.

But the grinning primates are greedy and shortsighted. They're driven by ancient desires of status manifested as modern profit margins. They're compelled by vestigial urges they cannot control and barely recognize to bolster their rank in the troop hierarchy, attract the most desirable mates, and intimidate their peers with artifacts of power and prestige. They're riddled with dangerously hostile evolutionary baggage transformed by technology into devastatingly effective predatory behavior. No other species on the planet is safe from the talking chimpanzee; the only thing they have to fear is each other and their own nature. So they power their war machines on the very black gold they defend with their oil burning tanks and bombers. It's a vicious, fatal, and unsustainable, cycle.

In a few short decades the clever jabbering hominids cracked open the primeval reserves of stored sunlight, freed the trapped gas, sunk their steel snouts into the thick bubbling crude like it was a frosty chocolate soda, and began gulping it down. They dynamited the rocky seals and dredged off the protective layers of earth, which had withstood so much for so long, to satiate their petty thirst for wealth and control, to power their machines of luxury, and to drive their contraptions of war. And not being satisfied even with this wasteful act, the grinning primates pulled too hard on the precious sludge and sucked the water past the oil; now half the fluid pumped out of Ghawar is briny water and much of the remainder crude will never see the light of day. How long before production begins to decline steeply and irreversibly no matter how much extra pressure we pump into the sandy refuge, or how many metal straws we drop into the ground to sip the last recoverable drops? How long before the fossil sea water claims it's inevitable victory in the subterranean tug-of-war? A few years ago when petro-geologists still had easy access to reservoir data on Ghawar, they were guessing maybe ten to fifteen years. Then oil started increasing in price, western oil expertise was diverted into Iraq and then chased out of the entire region altogether under threat of terror attacks. Meanwhile our crack White House Chimpanzee Team fearing poor election results from angry voters experiencing fuel cost shock filling their cars and trucks for the weekend and who would exact revenge on the sitting alpha males, convinced the corrupt House of Saud to over-pull those already abused wellheads. Not that it would've mattered who ruled the meanest troop of talking chimps; this is our nature. But we hastened the day of judgment. We may be seeing the peak right now. Happy New Year, 2005.

Over fifty percent of the almost 100 million barrels of oil the world uses every day comes from a handful of irreplaceable fields in five tiny regions of the world. And the story is the same in every one of them. Greed, profit motive, impatience, arrogance, and out and out ignorance, have deprived future generations of what could have been while saddling them with the debt for what was. Saddam cranked his wells past recommended production limits as a result of years of UN Sanctions and to generate badly needed cash, ironically, and perhaps fittingly, leaving the US move to grab the energy reserves little to show for the endless procession of dead and maimed bodies. Our blood-soaked gory prizes in Rumulia and Kirkuk are sandy formations saturated with brine coughing up smelly, water-tainted crude, half of which is lost through cracking pipes and rusted pump stations targeted for destruction by furious insurgents. Kuwaiti fields are in about the same shape as Ghawar, same for the fields in the UAE. We know little about the state of Awiz these days, the largest reserve in Iran, but it's a pretty safe guess that since all these fields have been operating as long as Ghawar and managed by the same inept corrupt chimpanzee conglomerates who managed Saudi Arabia's only treasure, that the story is the same. Outside of the Middle East, Mexico's Cantarell field has recently just peaked and is now in decline, and the Venezuelan fields are likely to be at or near peak. Despite new finds in the North Sea the UK is now a net importer and the same goes for Norway. China has a large producing field but they use every liter of it and no one expects them to start sharing. Russia is nearing that same limit. No matter how many new finds you read about, if the country of origin uses more than they produce, it doesn't do the US a damn bit of good.

Looking at what are called 'oil reserves' gives a false sense of comfort as, at best, no more than half of the oil shown can be recovered, and in practice it's far less. The only thing that matters is how much we can bring to market and at what pace. In some cases, none of the oil presented is recoverable at meaningful rates, as is the case in the trillion barrel Orinoco Tar Belts. Sounds pretty good, right? It's nonsense; we cannot produce significant crude with current methods or foreseeable technology from these deposits. The tar is nothing but natural asphalt, way too thick to pump and far too deep to mine. Domestic Reserves in the Arctic and elsewhere sound like a lot, but even if we could extract the ideal quantity possible, the most we could get after subtracting the energy investment to run the machinery needed to harvest the oil is only enough to power our nation for a few months, maybe a year or two, tops. And that production would be spread over a decade.

This is the first part of my darkdream; half the oil in the world comes from a score of large fields which have been producing for more than fifty years. They're in bad shape. No comparable reserves have been found, and we've looked everywhere there is to look. New finds are almost meaningless in terms of world consumption, they're peanuts compared to what is needed. Nuclear fusion is a dream and fission too expensive, and besides, we're too far behind the construction curve to start now; grain ethanol takes more oil invested than it produces; solar panels would have to cover 10% of the country and manufacturing them takes oil, exotic materials, and produces toxic chemical byproducts; hydrogen fuel cells are offered as a solution only by those who lack the basic physics to understand their limitations.

We use oil because it is by far the cheapest and most convenient form of stored energy many times over... and production is peaking while consumption climbs. The consensus among those in the Petrology Community is that global oil production will peak within five years or so, maybe less, while world oil consumption, fueled largely by the insatiable US addiction and the burgeoning economies in Asia-India, continues to grow steadily. Production Vs consumption. Those lines will cross next year. What happens then?

What happens then is that the price of oil begins a sustained long term move to record levels, and where it will stop nobody knows. The surge in oil prices seen in the middle of this year was the first leg of that.

Most of the time I trust primate ingenuity. I'm an optimist. Our ancestors survived many threats in the past and I think we will prevail over this as well, in the long run anyway. And it bears pointing out that we do have enough coal, oil, natural gas, alternative energy resources, and (hopefully) brain power in the US to at least keep the electricity on, the trucks, ships, and trains full of food and supplies moving, the farms churning out produce, and the water flowing, for a few decades more. If we're careful we can bridge this shortfall until we find a solution and keep ourselves afloat.

But are we that smart? Are we willing to give up our SUV's, air conditioning, and winter grapefruit, right now, so that we can have the barest essentials for a few decades? Or will we bury our heads in the sand with what is left of the oil and scream "IS NOT" until the shit hits the fan so hard it splatters us with economic collapse and starvation? Normally I'm a positive thinker. But late at night, unable to sleep, the darkdream takes over ...

As oil rises, self serving chimpanzee politicians, the most persuasive among us, will be quick to groom our ever fraying nerves with polished, empty rhetoric. Easy scapegoats will be offered to absorb the blame; Arab-Americans, homosexuals, atheists, Jews, even scientists perhaps; the unfortunate archetypical gamma. They will take the full fury of the pack. References will be made to the 1970s and parallels will be drawn to the chicken littles of that time to ridicule the geoscientists who inform us of the reality. Petro-geologist who try to warn us will be expertly targeted for contempt. A myriad of excuses will pour out of Washington, echoed mostly on winger Blogs and news shows as the White House bears the brunt of the criticism; but make no mistake, this disturbing vision is not the GOP's sole doing any more than DNC or anyone else. It's been in the mail for years. This is everyone's fault, not just a few ... But still, certain types are about the last ones you want in power when it happens. Some folks don't like the inconveniences that reality brings. The darkdream quickens ...

In the current US political climate, accurate bad news is punished and false good news rewarded. Noted economists will keep their heads planted firmly in the ground by way of books and data bases rippling with theoretical models reciting a dizzying array of differential equations and colorful graphs, which will 'prove' that the price 'spike' is temporary, blithely ignoring that oil is a finite resource unimpressed with calculus using assumptions of infinite elasticity. Wall Street pundits will project impressive power point presentations onto the darkened walls of board rooms and committees using fancy technical analysis showing why the price of a barrel will 'trend down' any day now, to the sound of applause. The professionals who play ball will be promoted to high political advisory positions and congratulated. Those who tell us the truth will be fired, then marginalized, then ultimately exiled from credibility. Speculators will dip in and out of the futures market, adding wildly jagged price fluctuations as surely as they enrich their investor-class clients. And each significant speculative price bottom produced on the way to a thousand dollars a barrel will be presented as the end of the crises to an increasingly anxious public, who will so want to believe it they won't care about facts. Welcome to the darkdream ...

Sooner, rather than later, the cost increase in crude will be too noticeable in the price and scarcity of everyday items to pretend away. Our economy will slip first into mild recession, and then tumble into deep recession. Stagflation will set in. Interest rates will rise. The bond market will teeter and fall precipitously, adding more interest to our already staggering debt, compounded by the unwillingness or inability of our Chinese bankers, who are too beset with their own host of problems over rising oil prices, to absorb more of our paper IOU's. The refusal of our Neo-conservative Alphas to take action, or even acknowledge the risk, will undercut any remaining confidence, and the era of massive deficit financing will draw to an economically violent close in the US. The government will have to cut back basic services across the board. Programs once thought politically immune from the budget ax will fall. Those countries who share our lifestyle and use the most oil per capita, the most wasteful nations, will suffer the first and the loudest. Those that are more frugal will benefit from the shifting fortunes. The reign of the US super power is ending, but my darkdream is just getting wound up ...

Wouldn't it be nice to think that government pork, lucrative corporate welfare, tax cuts for the richest Americans, futile military projects sucking down gas by the megaton, and frivolous spending, will be the first to fall? One can dream that our priorities will make sense, but the dream turns dark given the grotesqueries of our brutish primate nature and in light of the track record of the clowning apes who currently run both parties. As the crises loom, sharp operators endorsed by reality challenged leaders, will move in to protect their sacred cows. Social programs, police, schools, libraries, prisons, medical benefits, health care for the indigent, postal services, infrastructure repair and maintenance, etc., will be the first to feel the pain. These programs will be demonized, Satanized, portrayed as unpatriotic, their beneficiaries will be persecuted, hated, perhaps even a few will be lynched. In short, in my darkdream, I see not the rise of reason in face of challenge ; quite the opposite. The light of reason will be expertly shot out with rhetorical sniping. Appeals to prejudice and ignorance will occupy the masses while the powerful and wealthy steal what's left in the cover of darkness. The scary fact is that none of this is new, except for the scope and the details. It happened to the Maya, the Egyptians, the people of Easter Island. This is SOP for bands of talking chimpanzees since they learned to make markings in clay tablets. We'd like to think we're at our best when things are at their worst. But history tells us the opposite.

As in any economic upheaval, the poor, infirm, and young, will bear the brunt of it at first. But this is a global problem, there is no escape. The well off and connected will correctly see that it's time to grab whatever they can. They will collect their winnings from the rest of us and entrench themselves behind fortress walls of privilege bristling with hired guns like war lords of yore. Corruption will go from a cottage industry to the backbone of the economy. Unscrupulous political shills looking out for their corporate feudal Masters will emerge and deftly play on the chaos using religion, patriotism, and fear, to manipulate public opinion to their employer's ends. Spooky new pre-millennialist factions of Christian extremists, Islamic Jihadists, and bizarre New Age Religions will bud off, gain followers by preaching Armageddon is finally at hand, and beam the joyous news of the end of the world from sea to shining sea. Who knows how many self-proclaimed messiahs will clamor to claim the title of Savior, and how many will be marked as The Beast by rivals.

It gets worse, much worse, as the dream inexorably builds to it's crescendo. Throw in a terrorist nuclear strike, or two, or ten, and the obligatory responses. First Israel and then the whole Middle East gets fused into radioactive glass as the US becomes the most reviled Police State on earth; these dollars in our wallets and the data stores in our bank accounts are petro-dollars. When foreign oil and easy credit get cut off, the US dollar will completely collapse, like the Confederate currency one now sees adorning the walls of bars in the Old South. And if no one can get paid, there is no incentive to work, so even thoughtfully utilizing remaining energy sources to run the essentials might be so racked by logistical bottlenecks that basic electrical power becomes intermittently available; a tipping point is reached, mechanized agriculture freezes up, farms and transportation shut down. Our entire industrial base disintegrates. Waves of mass panic sweep the nation, transforming it into an unrecognizable state in a few short years. Fundamentalists of every stripe triumphantly proclaim the Prophecy of Revelations fulfilled. States secede, the US splinters as each region blames the other in blue-state Vs red-state guerrilla wars; north Vs south, family against family. Fifty million US citizens starve to death, die of disease, freeze in their homes, or fall victim to violence. In the panic and confusion I see the remaining survivors making a calculated life and death decision to unleash the horror of preemptive nuclear strikes, not just on foreign nations, but on their own domestic rivals. I warned you; darkdreams. Nightmares.

The worst of the dream is over. My eyes feel the first sign of blessed heaviness. I close out the news Blogs, extinguish the virtual campfire, put down my Stephen Baxter novel, and return my tattered, worn copy of The Demon Haunted World to the bookcase. Anticipating some measure of peace, I retrace my steps down the hallway trail, dimly lit in lunar nightlite, to find my modern cave and the awaiting nest within. But Hubbert's unwelcome apparition follows me for just a few minutes more, and a cacophony of nightmarish memes ricochet 'round my psyche as I crawl into bed.

In the blink of a cosmic eye, one species of ape came down out of Miocene treetops to forested Pliocene floors, and walked onto Pleistocene plains. They learned to make stone tools, usurp the kills of others, and hunt their own. They domesticated The Flame, overtook their less fortunate bipedal cousins with luck and evolution, eradicated them forever from the planet, and spread all over the globe. They soon turned their swollen brains onto domesticating the flora and fauna and focused their new found wealth on waging their wars to defend it, or steal it. They enlisted their most trusted ally, fire, to melt rocks into metal, pound metal into molds, contrive massive mechanical devices belching black smoke driven by fire's generous sibling, heat, and learned to turn the wheels of industry powered with the fluids and condensates from putrefied bacterial mats. Armed with these inventions, the gibbering self aggrandizing hominids, glibly slaughtered ever-greater numbers as each respective herd proclaimed themselves the pinnacle of creation, unaware or uncaring that the beasts created from their own Id now on the prowl was tracking them all. The newest camouflaged predator padding silently behind them through their metal and concrete rain forests is no mere ice age mega-predator stalking nomadic Paleolithic apes intent on filling it's belly with the tender meat of talking chimpanzees. It is a monster of their own making and one they're nurturing with reckless, unstoppable, abandon.

What will our descendants think of us? Will they view us as barbaric decadent savages, who madly consumed our most precious resource until we finally incinerated what was left with nuclear fire? Will they condemn our glaring stupidity for wasting our energy endowment, and theirs, on winter strawberries and Stealth Bombers? Or will they recognize in themselves stirrings of those same ancestral weaknesses we fell pray to and forgive us, maybe even thank us, for educating future civilizations on yet one more hidden danger facing the talking chimpanzee and his clever tools?

Before finding the sweet black embrace of sleep, I sometimes lie awake in the dark musing. The dichotomy of a sweeping intelligence helplessly overruled by mindless instinct is tragic, is it not? Time and time again we're smart enough to see disaster coming, yet too burdened with the shadows of our ancestors to stop it. Maybe it would be better not to know. Maybe the last T-rex gorging on a duckbill carcass was better off not comprehending the portent of those brilliant meteor showers lighting the very last Cretaceous sky. But we traded the option of blissful ignorance for lucidity with every stone tool knapped, every fire kindled, and with every novel technology teased out of nature. The tragic irony is that individually we talking chimps sport the most prodigious intellect on the planet, but collectively we barely surpass the intelligence of those ancient algal blooms whose metamorphosed corpses have led us into this latest inescapable trap. The die for this generation has already been cast. The fate of our mechanized petrol world is as set in stone as the oil we harvest to run it. The last conscious thought I have before my self awareness dissolves in the forgiving mist is the time table; this isn't a long range forecast of doom our children's children will face. The fun and games begin in less than five years: And nothing will stop it.

Thank you for keeping me company through my haunted vision. Soon the dawn skies will blaze and the morrow will chase away my dark dreams with morning sun's reflection. Thoughts of billions dying from exposure, starvation, epidemic, and nuclear annihilation, will appear remote and deranged in the sobering light of a bright new day. But this day, too, will end. Again my eyes will grow heavy; again I'll crave the bed'n grave; again I'll be awakened by Hubbert's spectral passing. I'll creep silently down my hallway painted in artificial moonlight; again I'll start tapping and rapping from behind my glowing new hearth, peer out at the world we've created, and be visited, once again, by my Midwinter Night's Mare.

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