Friday, December 08, 2006

The Foundations of Peak-Oil Doomerism


New arrivals to the peak oil discussion/issue are often quickly confused and frustrated by the depth and intensity of the debate between the opposing camps. It is very difficult for people to find the calm, rational middle-ground amid the incessant background noise of extremism. That, unfortunately, is human nature. The more extreme the view is that opposes your own the more extreme you feel you must go in the other direction to counter and balance it. In order for an observer or listener to find the balance between the two extremes it is necessary to understand the motivation behind those extremes. The paradox is that both extremes are, at least partially, motivated by a shared fear of the same event: the approaching decline of oil and other energy resources.

How can both sides fear the same event and, as a result, gravitate toward such extreme opposites? It's a fair question. The simplified answer, in my opinion, rests in how those in the opposing camps view our current global society. Both sides, I believe, are arguing from the perspective of the type of society they want or believe will emerge on the other side of that energy decline. The peak oil optimists argue from a desire and/or belief that our current society is essentially good and that we will do what is necessary to keep it going into the future. The peak oil pessimists largely believe that the technology on which our current society is based is unsustainable, that we do not act to prevent catastrophes but, instead, wait until they happen and then react to them, and most importantly that there are so many converging potential catastrophes that if one doesn't get us another will. Those are, I admit, very, very simplified interpretations of the two extremes but to deal with them properly would take a great deal more space and realistically needs a book, which this is not. Substitute whatever motivation helps you understand the two extremes. And keep in mind that both extremes, generally, honestly believe in the position they adhere to.

I am most often identified with the doomer camp, though I do try to find balance in my arguments. Being in that camp, therefore, I will attempt to use my own motivations to help others understand that pervasive doom-and-gloom that peak-oil optimists like to attack. After all, if you can't shoot down the message then do your best to shoot down the messenger.

Oil is finite! There may be arguments over how much oil there was/is but, regardless of what that number is it is finite, absolute. That being the case, therefore, every barrel of oil we use is one less barrel left for the future. Every barrel we use takes us one barrel closer to eventual depletion. And we are using about 85-million barrels of it every single day. That is a pretty big step every day toward eventual depletion.

Our global society is inextricably bound to and dependent on that flow of oil. It's not just gasoline. There are over 300,000 products in every day use around the world that are made from or derived from oil. The more oil we use the closer we move to the day that those 300,000 products will no longer be available. As soon as the amount of oil produced is no longer enough to satisfy all that demand some of those 300,000 products are going to begin to disappear.

The arguments that we survived without oil before oil was discovered and will do so after the oil is gone are spurious and dangerous. The global human population before the discovery of oil was about 1-billion. Today it is 6.5-billion and rising. That Pre-oil population of 1-billion had and would have a wide variety of energy sources to support them and facilitate continued growth. We are headed into a period of terminal oil and energy decline with a population that cannot be sustained adequately today. The UN estimates that 1-billion people or more today are undernourished. Every day more than 40,000 people die of starvation or nutrition related diseases. We have, over the past century, so damaged this planet's natural soil fertility that once the artificial fertility derived from oil (herbicides, insecticides, pesticides) and natural gas (artificial fertilizer) can no longer be maintained our ability to produce food and feed our massive overpopulation will be severely impacted for generations.

One of the most critical impacts of our high-energy era is human-induced global warming (more appropriately named climate change) resulting from over a century of our burning of fossil fuels. All species have evolved to live in very narrow climate bands. Climate change is already severely impacting species by pushing local climates outside the range in which those local species thrive. And climate change is still accelerating.

Global pollution, most of it derived from fossil-fuel burning and the totally unnatural lifestyle we have developed around those fossil fuels, has so devastated all parts of the biosphere (air, water, soil) is having such a severe cumulative impact that it could take the planet centuries to recover from our impact. And one of the species being so heavily impacted by that is ourselves. There is a strange poetic justice in that, I suppose. We are destroying the life-support capability of the planet but may succeed in destroying ourselves in the process. The alarming rise in childhood diseases is one of the clearest indications that we are destroying our immune systems with our own man-made toxins and pollutants.

The potential for a decimating global pandemic are increasing every year. We have unleashed through our own activity a wide array of new killer diseases in the past half century; SIV/HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Lassa Fever, Mad Cow, Hanta virus, Marburg, Legionnaire's Disease, SARS, Bird Flu, West Nile Virus, and more. This is partly as a result of; our increasing incursion with development into areas where these diseases exist, the ease of spreading these diseases through our ease of global travel, the weakening of our immune systems through the overuse of antibiotics and other modern medicines, increasing urban concentration and more.

And the list goes on. My doomerism, and that of many others in the peak-oil debate, is based not just on the approach of peak oil. It is based on the convergence of so many potential global catastrophes any one of which on its own could be totally devastating to our human population. To have them all on the horizon at the same time, to me, leaves no room for optimism. The denial embedded in the optimistic arguments that are so pervasive in our governments, our media, our industry leadership, strongly suggest to peak oil doomers that we are going to sleep walk right into at least one of those disasters. As I said in the opening line of my book Oilephant Down, "To solve any problem you must first be prepared to admit that there is a problem that needs solving." The denial that supports that optimistic point of view means that an unwillingness to admit there is a problem that needs solving is well entrenched among our leaders. Optimism based in action is one thing. Optimism based in denial and inaction is quite another.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good points but please run the spell checker on your stuff before you post. Bad spelling is an embarrassment, impacts your credibility and is completely avoidable.

rdberg said...

I detected one spelling error. Imbedded is a variant upon embedded. Embedded is more commonly used, but imbedded is not incorrect. Accelerate requires two c's. I think the content is sufficiently important and the spelling error so minor that one might consider paying attention to the content.

Anonymous said...

Glad to have found your blog, Richard.

I have followed the "doomer" debate, but have found it full of passion but not very useful. For one thing, the concepts aren't especially well defined.

Some of the questions that might be useful to debate:

1. Fatalism vs activism. Is our future foreordained? To what extent? The term "doom" implies fatalism, but many doomers (such as yourself and Jan Lundberg) are not passive fatalists.

2. With how much confidence can we make predictions about the future? Most historians and social scientists are very skeptical about our ability to foretell the direction of society. In my experience, about 90% of even the best predictions turn out to be completely wrong.

3. What are examples of societies powering down? Cuba and North Korea are two countries frequently cited. Many other countries have powered down temporarily during wartime or disasters. What can we learn from them?

4. What are the positive and negative trends? It seems much more worthwhile to study these with an open mind, rather than to start from an a priori position of optimism or pessimism.

Best of luck with the blog,
Bart (Energy Bulletin)

Richard Embleton said...

One can either wait for the future to happen and then respond to it or one can create a viable future taking into account what we do know. Uncertainty should never be an excuse for inaction. It is that very uncertainty that should compel us to begin the process of shaping a future. If we wait until the future is upon us it will be too late. Great leaders of the past have created very different futures than a laissez-faire approach would have evolved. We do not have this type of leadership today. Our leaders are all puppets to industry and finance and industry and finance are certainly not going to provide such leadership. I don't know where that leadership will come from. I only know that without it the future will overwhelm us. With 6.5 billion people this can not be done from the ground up. What we can and must do is carefully re-examine our concept of leadership, decide what type of leadership can get the job done, get involved and force our leadership to lead rather than follow the dictates of their election financiers. I just don't have much optimism that that will ever happen.