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The Get-Ready Men (Kunstler review)
The cheap oil will end one day. What about civilization?
Bryant Urstadt, MIT Technology Review
We will run out of cheap oil, either now or later. The most pessimistic disciples of the late geologist M. King Hubbert believe that production will peak somewhere between 2000 and 2010. Others suggest that production may top out a few decades after that.
What will happen next is unknown, but an increasing number of the peak-oil handicappers share the dark beliefs of James Howard Kunstler, who predicts that alternative energy sources will never meet our needs and that we are in for a “rough ride through uncharted territory,” which will take us “off the edge of a cliff” and thence into “an abyss of economic and political disorder on a scale that no one has ever seen before.” The sprawl of metaphors is characteristic of Kunstler, who in The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century adds a relentless, scary, and entertaining voice to the rising alarm about life after the cheap oil is gone.
…Overall, Kunstler’s tapestry of destruction assumes a race of much more limited flexibility and creativity than history shows humanity to be. He could be right, of course; and given our behavior in the past hundred years, there may be a perverse satisfaction in agreeing with his assessments of our capabilities and our future. But more likely we will muddle through as we almost always have, flourishing here, waning there, and surprising ourselves, perhaps undeservedly.
It seems more realistic to assume that as the price of oil continues to rise, rather than focusing myopically on oil technology, we will try a number of other options at once, looking with our usual expediency for an easy solution that does not kill us, at least for the moment. We may end up with inefficient solar panels on our roofs, kicking electricity back in to the grid in a trickle; a somewhat more efficient biomass plant at the end of the block; and a transportation system running on fuel cells charged with electricity from nuclear plants. Las Vegas may even get off the hook, harnessing the geothermal resources of the West. And none of this takes into consideration improvements in how efficiently we consume energy.
Most of all, despite its urgency, Kunstler’s book reminds us how modern man is scared by his own inventions. We’ve been expecting to die by our own hand at least since Hiroshima, and even younger readers may share relief at having somehow escaped the ravages of a nuclear winter, a homemade dirty bomb, and a world-destroying clerical error in January 2000.
In My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber describes a citizen in his childhood town of Columbus, OH: the Get-Ready Man. The Get-Ready Man drove a car with a door in the back and liked to shout at people as he drove, using a megaphone. His warning was always the same: “Get Ready! Get read-y…! The worllld is coming to an End!” Kunstler and the others may join the Get-Ready Man in the annals of doomsday prophets, and the Peak Oil Apocalypse may get filed along with Y2K under “false alarms and other diversions.” Even now, it may be dismissed by some with laughter. But it ought to be nervous laughter.
Bryant Urstadt, the author of this piece, also wrote the long article on the peak oil movement (“Imagine There’s No Oil — Scenes from a Liberal Apocalypse,”) just published in the August 2006 issue of Harper’s (not online).
Another of Urstadt’s articles appeared July 18 at MIT’s Technology Review.: The Oil Frontier.
Urstadt is good on cultural history. Unfortunately, one can’t assess peak oil adequately without getting into numbers: depletion curves and quantitative estimates of alternatives.
Plans begin in Maryland for looming peak oil crisis
James Fisher, Delmarva Daily Times (Maryland)
…A small group of Lower Shore residents are interested in having Salisbury’s or Wicomico County’s governing councils take up the issue [of peak oil] in symbolic resolutions, pointing toward Bloomington, Ind., as an example, where the Town Council passed a resolution this month holding that “the city of Bloomington must prepare for the inevitability of oil peak” and “supports the adoption of a global depletion protocol that will reduce petroleum use, conserving what remains.”
The movement also has a booster in Maryland Congressman Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from the 6th Congressional District, who spent about an hour this February discussing the problems a dwindling world oil supply will impose on American consumers and the world from the floor of Congress. He described a time “when the age of oil is finished and there is no more oil that can be gotten without paying more for the oil than you get out of it. … What will life be like then?” He was joined by another Republican Maryland congressman, the Eastern Shore’s Wayne Gilchrest, and several colleagues in establishing a peak oil caucus.
It’s heady stuff for chemical engineers, much less the average American, but Wicomico County retiree Shelton Lankford says he’s trying to wrap his head around the problem and prod people into preparing for a post-oil world.
“If the experts I listen to can be believed, it’s one of the biggest calamities to hit the human race,” Lankford said Wednesday in an interview at his home. On a wall behind him, a tautly designed poster shows a graph of world oil production, ramping up to a peak at around 2007 and then sliding back down.
“It’s going to be a bumpy ride down this slope,” Lankford said. “We have built our suburban lifestyle around cheap oil, and at some point our lifestyle doesn’t work anymore.” He expects that, when the effects of dwindling oil production really hit home, people will drive much less and have much less driven to them, instead relying on nearby people and businesses to produce much of what they consume. For that reason, Lankford says, small family farms and energy production facilities, like the biodiesel plant just built in Worcester County, will be needed.
(30 July 2006)
Oil ‘addicts’ face painful withdrawal symptoms
Tom Stevenson, Daily Telegraph
What is the most important number in the world? Fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will know that the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42, but that is not what I mean.
The most important number in the world was 73.39 yesterday lunchtime. Last month it reached 79.86, while in the run-up to Christmas 1998 it was just 10.75. Lord Browne thinks it will be 40 again while Goldman Sachs believes it will hit 100. It is, of course, the price in dollars of a barrel of oil.
The value of the world’s most significant commodity is important because, as George Bush noted recently, we are “addicted to oil” and there are no areas of our economic life that are not affected by its cost.
Michael Meacher, the former environment secretary, wrote in these pages a few weeks ago that “oil is the fundamental underpinning of our civilisation”. If ever there were a case of putting all our eggs in one basket, our dependence on the black stuff is it.
From the petrol in your car to the fuel that heats our homes to the plastic all around us, the tarmac on the roads and the fertilisers on the fields, oil is the lifeblood of our world.
It hardly needs pointing out, therefore, that the seven-fold rise in the price of oil in eight years is a problem. Not least because the last time the oil price traded at this level in inflation-adjusted terms the world economy tanked.
After the second oil shock of 1979, the price rose to something like $80 in today’s money and the developed world keeled over.
(1 August 2006)
Contributor Richard writes
The UK’s leading conservative paper, the Daily Telegraph, in its Business section, has an article on Peak Oil today.
Very understated – but nevertheless quite clear.
“There is considerable debate about how close we are to a peak in the global production of oil but there is a wealth of expert opinion that suggests we are close to that tipping point today. Even if demand were flat that would be a problem, but it is rising fast.”
1. High energy prices are here to stay.
2. Alternative energy such as wind power & biofuel will become more mainsteam.
3. Global economic growth will slow down.
4. Global political instability will continue, as the US fights over oil.
5. Urban planning and transport will chnage to refelct the new realities.
Finally: Invest in energy producers rather than energy consumers.
It seems clear that at least some investors must quietly be making changes to their portfolios as Peak Oil emerges from the shadows.
Along with Peak Oil, Peak Grain and Peak Water, the world enters crisis overload
Mathew Maavak, Korea Herald
A deadly combination of heat and drought is slowly wreaking a trail of devastation across much of the globe, and the full extend of this scourge will only be felt as winter nears.
The current phenomenon took meteorologists by surprise as it was unusually global in its reach. Like Murphy’s Law, everything that could go wrong did.
Nourishment for winter burnt up under an unusually fiery weather, along a food chain that progressed from withered wheat crops to cattle that were hastily sold off for lack of grazing grounds.
Crops that survived wilted under the sun, yielding produce of lowered quality and quantity; leading ultimately to higher prices. Alarmingly, these were scorched in the surplus granaries of the United States, Europe and Australia…
Imagine a world when peak oil meets peak grain and peak water at a confluence called peak mayhem?
(1 August 2006)
A thirsty world is running dry
Paul Sheehan, Sydney Morning Herald
Australia could profit hugely from the imminent end of world oil supplies, writes Paul Sheehan.
…”Our society is in a state of collective denial that has no precedent in history, in terms of its scale and implication,” writes scientist Jeremy Leggett in a book, Half Gone (2005), about the imminent arrival of “peak oil”, when global oil reserves begin to run down. Half Gone argues that “peak oil” has already arrived, and we are not prepared for the consequences.
Even if Leggett has overstated his case, innumerable scientific reports have urged the need for a move away from oil dependence. In 2004 a unit of the United States Department of Energy warned: “A serious supply-demand discontinuity [shortage] could lead to worldwide economic chaos.”…
All this leaves Australia at a very significant crossroads. The world is clearly running out of oil, running out of time, and running into global warming. Every feasible alternative for generating energy has to be considered – bio-fuels (ethanol), geothermal energy, solar energy, coastal wave energy, wind farming, liquid natural gas and nuclear power.
For a long time, most people, including me, believed the best thing to do with yellowcake was to leave it in the ground so it couldn’t be turned into something that creates toxic waste for a thousand years. But events have conspired to make uranium, which produces about 6 per cent of the world’s energy output, appear less evil than the oil-coal status quo.
This is what puts Australia at a moral and economic crossroads. When it comes to nuclear power, Australia is to uranium reserves what Saudi Arabia is to oil. Just three countries, Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan, control 60 per cent of the world’s viable uranium reserves.
With so much demand for energy, led, as usual, by China, which plans an unprecedented expansion in nuclear power plant construction, what is being debated at the highest diplomatic levels is an international system for the production, sale and storage of uranium. In effect, a benign cartel which would oversee the supply and production of enriched uranium to meet energy demands and prevent rogue elements from getting their hands on dangerous material.
Australia would be the No. 1 player in such an arrangement. It would require the creation of a vertically integrated industry which mines and processes a value-added product.
The enriched uranium would then be leased to users on long-term contracts, before being returned to Australia for safe disposal (which may appear an oxymoron when it comes to radioactive waste). In other words, we mine it, manufacture it, sell it, and monitor it for the duration of the life-cycle.
For this Australia would charge a premium, and pay an environmental price.
We become the world’s leading uranium cop. All in the name of addressing two greater evils – global warming and global terrorism – while expanding economic growth.
That’s why the Prime Minister wants a debate on uranium. I think that’s what John Howard means when he says Australia could become “an energy superpower”.
(31 July 2006)
The energetic scale of uranium resources (assuming a once through fuel cycle) is insignificant compared to fossil fuels. There is only enough high grade uranium ore globally to power the entire world economy for about one year. In financial terms, this is of course enormous, however in terms of significant benefits to the global energy picture, it is a rather small pile of mycotoxin covered peanuts. Considering the array of other concerns regarding uranium technology, from proliferation to accident risk, (and in Australia, socially divisive indigenous land rights issues) it is surely bad policy for consuming nations to be making nuclear investments. While Sheehan invokes peak oil to make his case, he does not say how nuclear addresses what is primarily a liquid fuel problem.
Notes from Peak Speak 2
We have our first report of our mini-Peak Oil conference, Peak Speak 2 in, from Mandy Meikle of Depletion Scotland. So for those of you that missed it, here is your chance to catch up on the event, before we get the audio and video up and running.
(1 August 2006)
Looks like it was a good and diverse conference. I was particularly interested in the reports of Donnachadh McCarthy’s success in radically reducing his consumption and waste, Chris Vernon’s facts on the UK energy picture and notes from Chris Cook’s talk on the Iranian oil bourse.