“Iceburg Dead Ahead, Captain!” — Saudi’s 8% Oil Decline is the Iceburg in the Titanic Disaster
Over the last couple of weeks, I have been reading a trickle of articles, that more and more are being backed up with fact, about the declining oil production in Saudi Arabia over the past 8 months, long before the OPEC cuts took hold. I began to understand what the last hours of the Titanic may have been like, because I began to feel like someone who was on that great ship some 95 years ago. I started pondering what I was to do in light of this troubling discovery happening a half a world away in an almost featureless part of the planet. I began to see this with many similarities to the Titanic disaster nearly a century ago. I can’t think of a better term for peak oil than “Titanic Disaster.”
So what similarities can we draw from the Titanic’s voyage? First of all, the Captain was warned well in advance that icebergs lay in their path of travel a half a day before they met up with them. Even though the peak oil theory has been around for 50 years, it has only been in the last 6 or 7 years that petroleum geologists have stepped up and said there’s an “iceberg” in our future with enough volume that we could hear. Still there was time to start taking evasive action…… The Titanic’s radio room had received reports of large icebergs directly in their path a couple of hours ahead, but they were too busy sending and receiving commercial radio messages for the wealthy passengers aboard, and failed to pass what was a critical message to the officers of the ship. Ships that had shut down in the ice field as darkness approached tried to warn the Titanic, only to be told by the Titanic’s radio room to quit bothering them, they were interfering with the “paying” traffic. Similarly, the voice of those warning of peak oil has been ignored by the media, lest it interfere with the paying traffic concerned with where Anna Nicole Smith was to be buried, or what Britney Spears was doing. Another opportunity lost……..
The Titanic’s captain posted the watch in the crow’s nest to watch for icebergs, but a dark night on the ocean makes them difficult to spot until you are very close to them. After all 9/10 of them are underwater and unseen. The part you see isn’t as worrisome as what you don’t see. Sort of like us trying to guess what is ahead with peak oil, when the darkness of the lack of data out of some of the largest oil producers, hides the magnitude of what is ahead, and underground.
The lookouts are vigilant, but there are only two of them to warn of impending disaster in the crow’s nest. Like the brave few who have stood up to let us know of what is about to appear in our path on the sea of fossil fuels. There were conflicting priorities that the Captain and crew had, his company and shareholders wanted to make sure the Titanic was a success, and what better way to do that than making the Atlantic crossing in record time. Slowing down to safely navigate the icepack was at odds with the orders from the people who didn’t know, and frankly were more concerned with the large profits to be made from a ship that could beat everything else on the seas. Our government and President are really like the crew on board the Titanic. They are sort of in charge, but their orders are conflicting with the reality that is quickly coming upon them. The politician that doesn’t keep pouring on the coal, delivering more growth, keeping more people employed, more profits to the companies, more comforts to the masses, will soon be a forgotten part of history. No person likes to be considered useless and worthless. So lets keep the economy speeding along as fast as we can possibly push it, throwing a little more money in the boiler to keep up a full head of steam, lest we be called ineffective. The opposing political party can always find ways to distract the leader, pushing their own agenda. Of course they don’t want to slow things down, they just want a slightly different compass heading. Still peril is ahead……..
Late at night, the lookouts pick up the latest technology of the day in their crow’s nest, a telephone headset and call back to the bridge, “Iceberg dead ahead Captain”. Ooops, this isn’t what we planned 4 days ago when we laid out our course, or last year or 8 years ago. Our options now are down to three or four, none of which are good; hard port, hard starboard, full astern, or keep going like we were. First we go hard starboard, the hydrogen solution will save us and our way of life. Nope, the iceberg appears larger on that side. Hard port, the biofuels will save us and our way of life. Lets throw the engines into full astern to slow us up so the crash won’t be as hard. Lots of activity going on with the Titanic’s crew. From an observer on the stern, it looks like everything is being done that can be to mitigate the impending disaster. The water is certainly violently boiling behind the reversed props, something positive is certainly to come of that. Except there was a fatal flaw and a fatal miscalculation done at the last minute with the propulsion machinery. Of the three engines on the Titanic only two could be reversed, the center engine was essentially wind-milling since it was not reversible. Secondly, all the churning water from the two reversed engines, while impressive to an uninformed observer, was essentially rendering the rudder somewhat useless in the turbulent water. What is the fatal flaw with industrialized society? It is the insane dependence on something with a finite life of availability. What will be the fatal miscalculations that we will make as industrialized societies? Who knows? One of things people used to ask back in my flying days was whether I considered it dangerous, and I usually replied it was if you ran out of ideas and time at the same instant. We have a limited amount of time like the Titanic to make our choices. Like the Titanic, the shear mass of the ship prevented it from changing course quickly or smoothly, the same applies to our industrialized world, quick changes will hurt many people. Plus we have many hands on the ship of state’s wheel all trying to shout their course changes on nightly TV trying to drown out the Captain’s voice and direction.
At the last moment, it looked like the Titanic might just escape with some paint scraped off and a few dents in the steel hull plates. After all this ship, like our ships of state, was full of the latest technology, the latest conveniences, everybody was well fed, even the lowest class passengers and crew had enough to eat. The passenger’s and crew thought it to be unsinkable. After all, they had the media of the day telling them that, the companies building it said that, the people crewing it said that, so therefore it must be unsinkable. Except all of the parties had an intrinsic interest in making it appear that way. Sort of like some of the oil companies today and their PR departments, saying “Peak oil?? How preposterous, it is way off on the other side of the fossil sea” Maybe they have an intrinsic interest too????
The Titanic struck a glancing blow on the product of Mother Nature. The Captain ordered all watertight doors closed. Surely this will just be a brief inconvenience in an otherwise perfect voyage. The wealthy continued dancing and drinking the night away in the grand ballroom as the band played on…….. The hole in Titanic’s hull was not impressively large, just 36 square feet, about the size of a king size mattress. A single hole like that was not a crisis problem—-if it was a single hole in a single compartment. The problem was that it was a single narrow long hole crossing many compartments. Peak oil is like that, it is a single event, but it crosses many compartments of society. If it was just gasoline that wouldn’t be available, it would be terribly inconvenient, and certainly impact the economies of the industrialized world, but probably survivable for all of us in some different form, limping along until a solution appeared on the horizon.
After striking the iceberg the Titanic slowed to a stop some distance away from the berg. The crew began to realize that this was not going to be a normal voyage with a normal conclusion, and started going around to wake up the passengers as calmly as possible so as to not trigger a panic. The passengers were told it was a routine drill. At first the Titanic appeared to be holding her own, not settling too much in the water at first. The lights were on, heat was still in the cabins, and the band played on……… Some of the passengers on the Titanic quickly recognized the gravity of the situation and put on their life jackets and went to the boat deck. Many of the passengers kept believing the media hype and company PR, she is unsinkable, so go away and leave us alone while we party or sleep. Their options were narrowing down too, they just refused to acknowledge it. After all, their safety was in the hands of the Captain and crew, why should they do anything? Plus they were just individuals, what could they do on a mighty ship like this? I find myself at times wanting to throw up my hands and say what can I do, I’m just one individual out of 6.4 billion, plus our government is responsible for us and our safety and comfort. Then I come to my senses!! Our Captain said to the crew two Januaries ago, “We are addicted to oil, we have to find other ways.” Not radical enough to cause panic in the populace or the economy, but enough to alert us to the fact something is different. So what did the crew do when presented with this pronouncement? Rise up and take decisive action? No, they sat there and doodled on note pads, chuckled to one another over the joke of the day, stared at the ceiling, looked for who the TV camera was focused on in the gallery, and basically said, “Aw, this is just another drill.” And this is the group I want to entrust my future security to?? I think not.
As the Titanic began to settle bow first deeper and deeper into the water, then everybody began to realize that something was direly amiss. The Captain and the crew knew that there were not enough resources to save everybody until a solution arrived. Soon the passengers began to realize the same thing, and started scrambling for the available lifeboats. The scramble quickly became disorganized and as a consequence some lifeboats were launched maybe filled to 20 percent of their capacity. Will our scrambling after the reality of peak oil is globally recognized, become so chaotic and disorganized, causing us to misuse and squander our remaining resources, making the “Titanic disaster” worse than it should have been? Only time will tell. Past history gives me no comfort in this area. The Titanic of peak oil will begin to slide under probably after my wife and I are long gone from this planet, but unfortunately our children and grandchildren will have to deal with it. What do I tell them? What kind of life jacket do I tell them to put on, what lifeboat has the best chance of surviving, in what direction lies a potential solution?
I feel like I am watching as the side of the Titanic has just started brushing an iceberg. On one side is the fear and dread of what is just ahead, the other is for me to start taking some action to prepare my heirs to chart their course to survive the aftermath. The one thing going for me is that the iceberg is just starting to brush the side of the ship of state, so I have some time yet. How much? Who knows? Two hundred days, two thousand days, five thousand days? It is anybody’s guess at this point. After all, I was thinking the Saudi iceberg was a couple of years ahead. What if this berg isn’t a small one that just scraped some paint off, but was the big one?