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A Conversation with Richard Heinberg
Stuart Staniford, The Oil Drum
I caught up with Richard Heinberg, author of The Party’s Over, and Powerdown at the recent Peak Oil and Community Solutions Conference. Here’s the conversation.
…RH: …I see the energy problem, the problem with fossil fuel depletion, in the larger context of the ecological dilemma: the population pressure, resource depletion, habitat destruction. The only way to solve that ultimately is to scale down the human project. You can’t solve it by simply replacing one resource for another that’s becoming scarce – you can ameliorate the problem temporarily, but it will only come up in another guise. Maybe oil or natural gas is the first resource to be depleted, but what’s next? Will it be topsoil or fresh water or copper?
There’s a whole list that’s depleting quickly. The only answer is to reduce the per capita rate of consumption of resources and reduce the population. We can’t do that in an organized way, and I think we’ve shown that we can’t, with a few exceptions. China has experienced less population growth than it would have otherwise but the population is still growing. If we can’t do it in an organized, cooperative, deliberate way, then nature will do it for us.
…RH: There are a lot of lessons for the U.S. in the experience of Cuba. As dysfunctional as planned economies can be, and socialist governments can be, there was an advantage in this instance in that they were able to make decisions quickly and change their modes of agricultural production rapidly. One person could say, “This is the way we’re going to go,” and cause a whole chain of responses within the system. They could decide to pay agricultural workers better than urban engineers and that would happen overnight. It’s a very difficult scenario to imagine that happening in the U.S. with a diversified economy and a political class that is so deeply corrupt and dysfunctional. So, lessons from the U.S. will have to be learned by individuals and small groups who are willing to learn them. The U.S. government is not likely to learn many lessons from Cuba because I don’t think they’re paying attention. I wish it were otherwise.
SS: In history, when societies get into crisis, you sometimes see great people emerge as leaders that you might not have expected. For example, in the Great Depression we have FDR. Then on the other hand you can look at Weimar Germany, where they elected Adolf Hitler. Crisis will certainly bring out something different in us. What do you think it might be?
RH: In the U.S. I’m sad to say, the deep leadership, not the people we elect but the people who are actually making the decisions, are aware of the general trend of events. They see the American standard of living cannot be supported. Rather than informing the American people of this and asking for a national consensus based on a shared willingness to cooperatively reduce living standards, what they’re doing is to quietly put in place the mechanisms for an authoritarian regime. When the time comes they will enforce that on the American people. How that will come about, when, I don’t know.
(30 September 2005)
Sustainability of Supply?
Jeroen van der Veer, Royal Dutch Shell via peakoil.com
Speech by Shell’s CEO describes the challenges and remaining opportunities Shell sees for worldwide hydrocarbons (conventional and unconventional). I found two things interesting: 1) Despite an upbeat tone, title of speech contains the prominent question mark; 2) The admission (as with Chevron) that the era of cheap oil is over (buried in second-to-last paragraph):
We can continue to meet our growing demand for energy. However, developing future energy resources is becoming more challenging and more expensive. That means that stable investment conditions will be needed to secure funding to develop those resources. It also means the energy industry will need to continue to develop and deploy new technology and good project management. In particular, it will need to ensure that it recruits and retains the people with the skills and expertise to meet those demands. The industry will also need to look at sustainability in the broader sense, exploring ways to tackle the carbon problem as well as developing renewable forms of energy. All these present challenges to the energy industry but also provide the opportunity for it to play its part in driving continuing progress in our world.
Shell (196-KB PDF))
(30 September 2005)
The Peak Oil Crisis: Congressman Bartlett’s Conference
Tom Whipple. Falls Church News-Press (Virginia)
Of the 535 members of Congress, it seems that only one, Roscoe Bartlett of western Maryland , fully appreciates the nature and seriousness of the impending peak oil crisis. Bartlett has given a series of speeches on the House floor outlining the problems ahead and scheduled a meeting to discuss peak oil face-to-face with President Bush. On Monday, he participated in an energy conference in Frederick , MD organized by his office.
As the only peak oil Congressman— the rest presumably remember what happened to Jimmy Carter— Bartlett was able to attract an all-star panel consisting of: Kenneth Deffeyes, the geologist who reworked the original Hubbert calculations to determine that peak oil will occur on Thanksgiving Day 2005; Matthew Simmons, the Houston banker who recently published a book concluding that Saudi oil production has, or is about to peak: and Richard Heinberg, who has written extensively on life after oil depletion starts. Another set of panelists talked about actions we can take to soften the impending crash…
For those familiar with the tenets of peak oil, the message was familiar: It will start soon; it is already too late to mitigate the effects; and a global economic depression will only be one of the many hardships the world will face.
…One interesting note came during the questioning, when a member of the audience asked Congressman Bartlett about his meeting on peak oil with President Bush. Did the President understand?
Bartlett responded “Yes, the President understands” but it is the age-old problem of the urgent vs. the important. Apparently, the President believed that as of this summer he had more pressing issues to deal with than the possibility the world’s oil supply would one day start to decline.
On Monday, however, the President issued a call for Americans to conserve gas by driving less and directed all federal agencies to cut gasoline consumption. This is a major change in the administration’s position for many years has emphasizing production of additional oil over conservation and alternative energy.
(29 September – Oct 5 2005 issue)
Triple J Radio Australia covers peak oil (AUDIO)
Steve Cannane, triple j radio Hack special (Australia) via Global Public Media
Steve Cannane interviews James Howard Kunstler, Sonia Shah, Dr Karl, Alex Wadsley and Andrew McNamara, Labour MP from Queensland’s Hervey Bay
This Australian triple j radio Hack special looks at a topic that’s crucial to the future of the planet – the future of oil supplies. Peak oil is when the world’s oil supplies reach the peak of production. Many people are arguing we’re there now, and that production is in decline. This will have a major impact on the economies of the world. Some people argue that it could lead us into recession and political instability. Reporter Steve Cannane interviews James Howard Kunstler, Sonia Shah, Dr Karl, Alex Wadsley and Andrew McNamara, Labour MP from Queensland’s Hervey Bay. triple j is Australia’s national youth radio broadcaster, and Hack is triple j’s current affairs show.
(30 September 2005)
Significance will be lost on non-natives, JJJ is the broadly popular national ‘youth’ radio arm of the government funded ABC media network.-LJ
Petro-geologist Jack Zagar on Saudi oil production and peak
Dave Room, Global Public Media
Petroleum geologist Jack Zagar speaks with GPM’s Dave Room about Saudi Oil production, the impact of technological advances, and the prospects for future increases. He also talks about the oil depletion protocol and other responses to global oil peak.
Jack Zagar has twenty-five years experience in North Sea, Middle East, Gulf of Mexico, and onshore U.S.A. operations in petroleum reservoir engineering and reservoir management; economic evaluations of projects, property trades, and asset sales; and corporate planning. Twenty-two years were with Exxon Corporation and Exxon U.S.A. The last three years Mr. Zagar has been engaged as an independent engineering consultant.
Mr. Zagar is also an associate of Malkewicz-Hueni Associates of Golden, Colorado and is partnered with noted author and world oil reserve expert, Dr. Colin Campbell.
(30 September 2005)
A Nice Counterexample [of Hubbert Linearization]
Stuart Staniford, The Oil Drum
Nick Rouse kindly provided me with an Excel spreadsheet with a Hubbert linearization of UK oil production (the only thing I added was the yellow line). As you can see, there was a long period when the curve looked linear and yet it would have totally misled you had you simply extrapolated it to the axis. You would have thought there was going to be about 11gb, but now it’s headed for 28gb. So, things are more complex, and we must see if we can come up with some principle for dividing the Romanias (where this method seems to have worked with amazing success), from the UKs (where it would have been very misleading) before we can feel any confidence in our extrapolation of the Saudi graph or the world graph.
This is intriguing – generally the UK is the poster child for the scariness of peak oil because it has had such high depletion rates recently. But just when we were getting used to it as a reliable method of scaring disobedient children into compliance, here it is messing up our nice simple-minded Hubbert theory.
…So, here’s a new tentative working hypothesis:
Hubbert linearization is a decent approximate model for oil production unless production is interrupted by a societal collapse, or production is very closely following on the tails of a very noisy discovery curve.
(30 September 2005)
A gasoline alley that’s dark and dangerous
Liz Soares, Morning Sentinel
My husband, a connoisseur of classic comics, had suggested I read a collection of the earliest Gasoline Alley strips. So it was that I found myself simultaneously at the beginning of the automobile age and what might be the end of it.
The folks of Gasoline Alley are crazy about cars. It’s only the 1920s, and already they want to trade up every few years. They’re organizing auto tours of the Rockies. They’ve learned there’s no reason to walk if you can drive.
We were hooked from the start. But now change is in the wind — literally.
The two hurricanes in a row that threatened our modern version of Gasoline Alley — the Gulf of Mexico — have made it clear that a society centered around the car is unsustainable.
(1 October 2005)
Organizing Ecological Revolution
John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review
My subject—organizing ecological revolution—has as its initial premise that we are in the midst of a global environmental crisis of such enormity that the web of life of the entire planet is threatened and with it the future of civilization.
This is no longer a very controversial proposition. To be sure, there are different perceptions about the extent of the challenge that this raises. At one extreme there are those who believe that since these are human problems arising from human causes they are easily solvable. All we need are ingenuity and the will to act. At the other extreme there are those who believe that the world ecology is deteriorating on a scale and with a rapidity beyond our means to control, giving rise to the gloomiest forebodings.
Although often seen as polar opposites these views nonetheless share a common basis. As Paul Sweezy observed they each reflect “the belief that if present trends continue to operate, it is only a matter of time until the human species irredeemably fouls its own nest” (Monthly Review, June 1989).
The more we learn about current environmental trends the more the unsustainability of our present course is brought home to us. Among the warning signs: [global warming, water shortages, decline in fish stocks, species extinction, and peak oil]
It is now clear that the world is within a few years of its peak oil production (known as Hubbert’s Peak). The world economy is therefore confronting diminishing and ever more difficult to obtain oil supplies, despite a rapidly increasing demand (Ken Deffeyes, Hubbert’s Peak; David Goodstein, Out of Gas). All of this points to a growing world energy crisis and mounting resource wars.
… To the extent that [the ruling capitalist class] has a strategy, it is to rely on revolutionizing the forces of production, i.e., on technical change, while keeping the existing system of social relations intact. It was Karl Marx who first pointed in The Communist Manifesto to “the constant revolutionizing of production” as a distinguishing feature of capitalist society. Today’s vested interests are counting on this built-in process of revolutionary technological change coupled with the proverbial magic of the market to solve the environmental problem when and where this becomes necessary.
In stark contrast, many environmentalists now believe that technological revolution alone will be insufficient to solve the problem and that a more far-reaching social revolution aimed at transforming the present mode of production is required.
…Put simply, my argument is that a global ecological revolution worthy of the name can only occur as part of a larger social—and I would insist, socialist—revolution. Such a revolution, were it to generate the conditions of equality, sustainability, and human freedom worthy of a genuine Great Transition, would necessarily draw its major impetus from the struggles of working populations and communities at the bottom of the global capitalist hierarchy…
A Great Transition therefore must have the characteristics implied by the Global Scenario Group’s neglected scenario: Eco-communalism. It must take its inspiration from William Morris, one of the most original and ecological followers of Karl Marx, from Gandhi, and from other radical, revolutionary and materialist figures, including Marx himself, stretching as far back as Epicurus. The goal must be the creation of sustainable communities geared to the development of human needs and powers, removed from the all-consuming drive to accumulate wealth (capital).
…The creation of an ecological civilization requires a social revolution; one that, as Roy Morrison explains, needs to be organized democratically from below: “community by community…region by region” (Ecological Democracy). It must put the provision of basic human needs—clean air, unpolluted water, safe food, adequate sanitation, social transport, and universal health care and education, all of which require a sustainable relation to the earth—ahead of all other needs and wants. Such a revolutionary turn in human affairs may seem improbable. But the continuation of the present capitalist system for any length of time will prove impossible—if human civilization and the web of life as we know it are to be sustained.
(October 2005 issue)
The Monthly Review (MR) is one of the oldest and most respected Marxist journals in the world. The author of this essay, John Bellamy Foster, is an editor of MR and could be called an eco-Marxist for his emphasis on ecological themes.
The Marxist left, like the Right, does not have a consistent position on Peak Oil and sustainability. Some Marxists like Stan Goff and the late Mark Jones have written knowledgeably on the subject. Other Marxists scoff that Peak Oil is a public relations ploy by oil companies and capitalists.
Other pieces by John Bellamy Foster:
- Marx’s ecology in historical perspective
- Liebig, Marx, and the depletion of soil fertility: relevance for today’s agriculture
- Capitalism’s Environmental Crisis-Is Technology the Answer?
- Marx’s Ecological Value Analysis
- His book: Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature Review / Review2
Zimbabwe’s economic crisis drives it back into steam age
Andrew Meldrum, Guardian
Zimbabwe announced it was moving back into the steam age on Wednesday by recommissioning 10 coal-fired locomotives to cope with the country’s economic crisis. Further indications of shortages came from hospitals, which are turning away patients because they do not have basic medicines and surgical equipment. In the courts, state witnesses said they were too weak from hunger to testify.
The announcement that steam engines would be put back into service was made by Fanuel Masikati, a spokesperson for the state-owned National Railways of Zimbabwe, which has been plagued by breakdowns and cancellations due to fuel shortages.
Masikati told the government-controlled Herald newspaper that Zimbabwe’s lack of foreign currency prevented the railway from importing fuel and spare parts for the diesel engines.
The country has abundant coal and basic components to keep the steam engines running. About Z$2-billion (R497 000) is needed to refurbish the steam engines. Coal-loading machines required to run a fleet of steam engines are being checked. Many water towers, needed to fill the locomotives’ boilers, are still intact along railway lines.
In another example of reverting to old technology, Zimbabwe has begun using ambulances pulled by cattle in rural areas because there is no fuel for motor vehicles. The country’s hospitals admitted on Wednesday that they could not test patients for HIV infection because of a lack of laboratory chemicals.
(29 September 2005)
The Five Minute Guide: Oil
Robert Thompson, Esquire via KeepMedia
IT CAN BE FASHIONED into a Chewbacca action figure or the fuel that propels a stealth B-2 Spirit. One sixth of the world’s economy is devoted to exploiting it. Boiled by refineries into a phalanx of hydrocarbon products-gasoline, diesel, kerosene, you-burn-it-they’ll-make-it-crude oil has set us free. We’ve employed it to unlock the atom, explore outer space, map the human genome. It’s the most potent, important resource ever gifted to mankind. And it’s pretty much gone.
7 CRITICAL QUESTIONS
What’s “peak oil”?
Formulated by Shell Oil geophysicist M. King Hubbert, “peak oil” is the recognition that oil and gas are finite resources subject to depletion. All oil production will peak according to a bell curve, with increasingly negative repercussions after the peak, when supply plummets and demand increases. Hubbert, who died in 1989, was mostly ignored in 1956 when he predicted continental U. S. oil production would crest between 1965 and 1970. But when domestic production peaked in 1970, experts applied his suddenly portentous theory to world supplies. Various Hubbertites now predict that global oil production will peak within twenty years.
But we have reserves. Right?
(October 2005 issue)
The full article is not available online. See pages 134 and 136. It’s a concise (“Five-minute”) summary of peak oil, written so as to be accessible to a general audience. It would be a great article to give to a dubious spouse or friend.
The information is reasonably accurate — no surprises for peakniks. Quibbles would include the assertion that oil is “pretty much gone” (it’s the increasing difficulty of getting oil and the rising prices). Also, while Thompson rightly emphasizes the difficulty of developing alternatives to oil, he neglects the critical role of conservation and improving efficiency. But then there’s only so much you can cover in two magazine pages!
Esquire is known for its bizarre combination of cheesecake photos/articles together with some of the best writing and journalism in America. Brief comment on the magazine and the Peak Oil article here: Why I subscribe to Esquire…...