Thursday, August 24, 2006

Shirley's Hands

Hands of solace to my child-felt pain,
Hands with music to play my song,
Hands of tolerant wisdom to read my words,
Hands of laughter,
Hands of love,
Hands of velvet,
Hands of steel,
Hands of labour,
Hands of rest,
Hands to hold the self in strong silent anguish,
Shirley's hands have felt
The full pulse of life,
Could hands be asked to do more?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

An Argument Against Personal Peak-Oil Preparation

Most of those in the peak oil movement, and those not in the movement but who are aware of and "get" the serious implications of peak oil, are concerned with potential deterioration of society and potential anarchy and chaos on the other side of peak oil. It is a common situation that those who become aware of peak oil and understand the seriousness of it want to warn those close to them about the problems ahead. And it just as common that those same people, once rebuffed or labelled as a nut case, draw back and begin to quietly and unobtrusively focus on their own personal preparations. They do this in the belief, usually, that society won't wake up soon enough to prepare sufficiently to avoid the worst of what peak oil will have to offer.
I strongly believe that those personal preparations that people are making, even if they are correct for whatever peak oil scenario eventually unfolds, are not going to ensure their survival any more than making no preparations at all. In fact I strongly believe that the more successful their preparations appear to be in helping them survive the more visible a target they will become for those who have not prepared. Thieves don't invade the homes in poor neighbourhoods, they go up-town where the best pickings are.
That refocussing on personal preparations, that focussing on preparing yourself for survival regardless of what the community around you is or is not doing, is, I would argue, born of the same self-centredness that has broken down the fabric of our society and turned us all into cogs in the machinery of big business and big government. We no longer see ourselves as part of a community but rather simply residents within it. Our neighbours are neighbours by geographic proximity only.
There is a fairly simple split in the peak oil community regarding the method and model that people feel is best for surviving the fallout from peak oil. There is the live-off-the-land, lone-wolf, armed-to-the-hilt survivalist attitude of those who expect to be able to live in the wild by their wits alone, foraging and taking game as their sources of food, and satisfying all of their needs from nature. There is the go-it-alone homesteader attitude of those who think they can have a stand-alone, self-sufficient homestead on which they produce all of their food and satisfy all of their needs, very often assuming a nearby community from which to aquire those things they cannot produce themselves, that being a community, however, to which they feel no allegiance and for and to which they bear no responsibility. That community is there as a service to them.
Then there is the attitude of surviving within a community, a community that is interactive, inter-dependent, where all members contribute to that community and benefit from that community. It is this that is the closest to the normal psyche of the human animal. We are not lone wolves or individualistic wanderers. We are tribal, function best within a larger group, whether that is an extended family, a tribe, a village, a town, a bio-region or something larger (which I do not believe is ultimately workable in a post oil world). We are not all capable (if any are) of personally performing all of the tasks which ultimately are needed to ensure our long-term survival. Being part of a community allows different people to adopt certain skills and specialties in preference to others, specialization.
Community, the smaller the better, is, in my opinion, the only social modality that has long-term probability of survival success in a post-peak/post-oil world. Community is composed of people who know each other intimately and work together to satisfy their collective needs. It is a society of cooperation, not competition. It is a society of stewardship, not ownership. It is a society that collectively satisfies its combined needs, not one of building individual wealth. It is a society utterly foreign to the current North American mindset, a wholesale paradigm shift.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Hydrocarbon Generations

Everyone alive today was born into one of the just twelve hydrocarbon generations since the onset of the industrial revolution late in the eighteenth century. One generation, statistically, is twenty years, that time between birth and the beginning of giving birth to the next generation. But real generations are not neatly separated by twenty year intervals like statistical models portray them. Right now there are people living who individually represent six generations. All of those people collectively are the present global human population. Over the period since the industrial revolution began the statistical relationship between generations and overall population have changed dramatically. One very important and overriding statistic is that in those twelve generations since the industrial revolution began the human population has increased sevenfold........ in just twelve generations!

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution the total global population was, by best estimate, about one billion. For the purposes of this article that population of one billion will be used as a base. When the generation born at the start of the Industrial Revolution began to have children of their own twenty years later, their children were being born into a world with a little less than 10 percent more population than when they themselves were born. That generation increased the global by another 12 percent more than that at the time their parents were born. Each new generation being born today is increasing the global population by more than 1.5 times (150%) the base Industrial Revolution population. During the hundreds and thousands of generations before the Industrial Revolution and the advent of serious hydrocarbon use, the human population had been relatively stable or grew by fractions of a percent from one generation to the next.

At the beginning of the industrial revolution, just twelve, short generations ago, we began building a global human infrastructure not only geared to the use of hydrocarbons but increasingly and critically dependent on them. Just as each generation cannot imagine their parents having sex, each generation cannot imagine living without the benefits they derive from hydrocarbons that did not exist in their parents' time.

It is impossible to separate the current global population from the use of hydrocarbons such as oil, coal and natural gas, thus the reason I call the past twelve generations the Hydrocarbon Generations. The utter explosion of human numbers in these past twelve generations is, in fact, diretly a result of that increased usage of and dependence on hydrocarbon fuels. Our global infrastructure was not only built through the energy derived from hydrocarbon fuels but that infrastructure itself is increasingly composed of products derived from those hydrocarbons. There are today over 300,000 products in everyday use in our society that are made from oil or derivatives of oil.

The dramatic rise in human population since the industrial revolution began is not a result of an equivalent rise in the number of children a couple are producing. In fact the number of children given birth by the average woman of childbearing years today is less than half those that would have been produced by a woman before the industrial revolution. In the largely agrarian societies that existed before the industrial revolution it was common to have more children to serve as helpers and labourers on the family farm and to serve as a source of security in the parents' senior years. As industrial society grew, and particularly as it evolved into a high-tech society this past century, children increasingly became an economic liability and cost, rather than the benefit they had previously been. With these changes families opted for fewer children on each of whom much more economic benefits were lavished.

The sevenfold rise in human population over these past twelve generations has essentially been the result of one overriding factor, the improved health and medicine resulting from the increased benefits of hydrocarbon usage. Prior to the Industrial Revolution the average life expectancy was about forty years. It is now over seventy-two years. That means that at the outset of the Industrial Revolution the living human population consisted of 2 generations. Today it consists of more than 3.5 generations.

More importantly, people are on average not only living longer, but a far greater number of people born are living long enough to produce children. Prior to the Industrial Revolution child mortality rates were often as high as 75%. Globally, even in 1960, the child mortality rate was still 19.8%. By 2001 that had been brought down to just 8.3% globally. With an average rate of 6 live births per woman in pre-industrial agrarian society, possibly only two of those children would survive to child-bearing age. Of the 2-3 average live births per woman today, on average over 91% of those children will survive to child-bearing age. In pre-industrial times, however, a larger proportion of females born would end up married and/or producing children. Today, with improved medicine, high divorce rates, fertility medicines and procedures, and birth selectivity through which, in many nations, unwanted female children are aborted, the number of females born that will eventually produce children has increased signifigantly from pre-industrial times.

In these past twelve generations not only has the human population increased sevenfold but the per person hydrocarbon usage has increased even more dramatically, from virtually zero to an average of over five barrels per year per person of oil alone. At the same time that we are inexorably increasing our dependence on oil and other hydrocarbons we are dramatically increasing the rate at which we are using up these irreplaceable, very finite hydrocarbons.

Here is the ultimate, unavoidable, and disastrous implications of that increased consumption. It is reasonably, though arguably, estimated that the total global carrying capacity for the human species, without the availability of those hydrocarbons, is about 1-1.5 billion, roughly the population during the early decades of the Industrial Revolution. The increase in human population since then has been irrevocably a result of our use of hydrocarbon fuels. The infrastructure we have evolved over these past twelve generations has been built of and through the energy derived from those same hydrocarbons. The dramatically increased pace of consumption of these vital resources is pushing ever harder on the acelerator of the train that we are all riding toward the hydrocarbon cliff, the cliff beyond which nature will help us balance the books between population and real carrying capacity. I'll leave it to your imagination as to how we get from a global human population of nearly 7 billion to one of 1-1.5 billion that can be supported without those hydrocarbons.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Tar Sands Are Not A Solution

The closer we get to a global oil crunch the more longingly governments and oil companies are looking at tar sands, oil sands and oil shale deposits around the world. Many of those see such unconventional reserves as the hope of the future as conventional oil reserves slide further down the depletion slope on the far side of Hubbert's Peak. Canada, of course, has the Alberta tar sands. Venezuela has the Orinoco oil sands. The US, Australia, Russia and various other countries play host to large reserves of undeveloped oil shale.
The most extensive exploitation of any of these resources is in Canada's tar sands. Billions of dollars of investment have been pumped into the Northern Alberta economy in massive projects like Syncrude. But there are serious problems developing even here, and most certain to be repeated if similar exploitation of the world's other oil sand and shale reserves. Cost overruns on tar sands projects have ranged anywhere from 50% to 200-300% and more. Total have today announced a three year extension on their tar sands development, pushing the projected completion date out from 2010 to 2013, based on severe over-runs on anticipated development costs.
And what comes out of the tar sands is not oil! It is a precursor to oil which requires extensive and very expensive processing to even turn it into a low-grade crude which the majority of North American refineries cannot process. Tar sands processing, at this stage, depends very critically on natural gas as a processing energy source, natural gas which itself is in decline despite record investments in exploration and development. Various of those projects are looking at alternatives to the natural gas, including coal to liquid conversion and nuclear, as the depletion curve on our natural gas reserves accelerates.
The current rush of investment funds into Alberta's tar sands is being sunk into new projects that will, even by the most optimistic estimates, come on line anywhere from five to twelve years in the future. We have already passed the peak in global conventional oil production and are clearly on the downhill slide. Unless there is a tremendous global spate of new refinery development of the type of refinery that can handle heavy sour crude, a global peak in overall oil production becomes increasingly meaningless. If the world's oil producers are no longer capable of supplying the type of crude that the world's refineries can process, even a dramatic increase in production will mean nothing if it can't be turned into the gasoline, diesel and 300,000 other products that are today produced from oil and oil derivatives. We will, for all practical purposes, be well past "peak useable oil" long before the new tar sands projects come on line. Even if miraculously we can ramp up tar sands production to 5, 7, even 10 million barrels a day, it will be of the wrong grade of crude and will not come near offsetting the fall off in production of useable oil that will have occured by the time they do come on line.
Governments the world over are now finally starting to accept that we are facing a looming global oil supply crisis. That is a remarkable shift from the level of political awareness even 2-3 years ago. The problem is that all the political dialogue centres on where to turn for an alternative energy source to replace the energy lost as the global oil supply declines. Thus far governments are not daring to ask the only question that will prepare us for the energy deprived future ahead of us: "How to we reduce our energy consumption?" Alternatives are not the answer. They only buy us some time. We have known for at least a half a century that sooner or later the oil would run out. We have wasted that half century in an ever-increasing binge of oil usage. We have done nothing about a change of direction, developed and sold to the people any new paradigm, at least at the levels that would have any meaningful impact on the future problem. As long as governments continue the pursuit of a business-as-usual agenda, tar sands, oil sands, and oil shale will not be able to fill the void.