Friday, December 29, 2006

Of leeches & midwives?

What will be the implications for medicine and health care following peak oil as we slide down the oil and energy downslope into a low-tech/no-tech world?

The leap forward in health care and medicine in Europe and North America as we moved into the then high-tech world of the industrial revolution and the Victorian era was earth-shaking. Medicine came of age, became a science and a profession and an industry driven by methodical research and development aided by amazing new advances
in chemistry, diagnostic procedures and instrument technology. It was still, by our modern standards, crude and seemingly barbaric in many ways. But those new developments opened the door to the modern high-tech medicine that has become such a vital driver to the improvements in general health we enjoy today.

The impact in the last fifty years that modern medicine has had on saving and extending lives has been little short of miraculous. The incidence of infant deaths in this country has dropped from twenty-six per thousand live births as recently as 1960 to under five today. The average life expectancy has climbed from sixty-eight to over eighty-one years in the same time. Procedures such as bypass surgery and organ transplants have saved countless thousands of lives over the past few decades. New medicines and gene therapies have given us life-extension control of many formerly terminal conditions. In these past fifty years decreased infant deaths, improved medical survival rates and increased life expectancy rates have helped the human population triple to over six and a half billion people. And all of this has been achieved in the developed nations with a piddling 278,000% increase in the cost of providing health care since the end of WWII. That is two-hundred-seventy-eight-thousand percent.

Data released by the Canadian province of British Columbia show that in 1947 the province expended 1.2% of its annual budget on providing health care at a cost of $4.6-million. Fifty- eight years later in 2005 providing health care services was consuming 35% of the province's annual budget for a total outlay of over $12-billion. ( Even with a tripling of the province's population that is nearly a 1000-fold increase in the cost of health care services per person. Health care budgets have mushroomed by 400-1000% every ten years over this interval.

And yet there seems to be no end in sight, no suggestion of cutting back or slowing down. There are always new diseases to conquer, new disabilities to overcome, new medical conditions to bring under control, new surgical procedures developed around emerging technology, new surgical justifications based on newer and better diagnostic capabilities. A recent medical technology article suggested that if we totally eradicated arthritis, which the article suggested was possible, we could add another 35 years to the average life expectancy. That's a little over four months. But at what cost? And to what benefit?

The dozen or so most developed countries in North America and Western Europe expend more directly and indirectly each year on health care and medicine than the combined GDP of the fifty poorest nations on the planet. Clearly these expenditures do not benefit all peoples equally, and seemingly never will. While the average life expectancy in these wealthy nations is increasing by about 1 year every five years the life expectancy in the poorest third world nations is steadily declining. The medical technology of which we are so proud and on which we are so dependent has not yet become the medicine of the people. It remains the medicine of the wealthy.

But how much of our general improvements in health are due to these miracles of medicine? It is widely acknowledged and proclaimed that the greatest impact to human health and longevity since the Victorian era has been in the areas of hygiene and nutrition. This would seem to be born out by the wide disparity between rich and poor nations in life expectancy and infant mortality rates. This pattern is also borne out in the wealthy developed nations with the disparities in infant mortality and life expectancy between the poorest and richest in our own society. This, of course, begs the question that if our improved longevity has been so critically dependent on hygiene and nutrition why have health care budgets exploded by over 250,000 percent in the past fifty-eight years with only very marginal improvements (and in many cases declines) in general health?

One of the clear though debatable answers is that our affluent lifestyle is killing us, offsetting some of the gains that would have been made by those grotesque budget increases. Obesity, and especially childhood obesity, and the health risks associated with it has reached epidemic proportions. Health problems associated with chemical toxicity, such as the alarming increase in childhood asthma, childhood diabetes, childhood arthritis, and more, are increasingly a major contributor to our skyrocketing rises in health care costs. The costs continue to rise for treating diseases and medical conditions due to smoking, drugs and alcohol and other substance abuse. And the preponderance of our health care efforts and costs continue to be directed toward cures rather than focusing on or even encouraging prevention and mitigation.

What has all of this to do with peak oil? Simply this. As we pass peak oil and peak energy all of that medical technology will at first get increasingly more expensive and then start to go away, become increasingly unavailable. The health care disparity between rich and poor nations and rich and poor people will begin to narrow until, eventually, there will be no gap at all. Our modern medicine is critically dependent on high technology and that technology is critically and still increasingly dependent on the high consumption of energy from research to application. The energy on which it depends is becoming increasingly expensive and soon will become increasingly unreliable and increasingly unavailable. We saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit how useless that technology becomes when the energy supply goes away. We saw how poorly trained and hard pressed the medical practitioners were to adapt to the reality of having to practice medicine without the support of that energy hungry technology. If we look at the state of health care in poor third world nations today, and if we remember the realities of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, we get a glimpse of the level of health care we will over time be sliding toward on the energy downslope. When the grid goes away emergency generators kick in. When the emergency generators go away reality kicks in.

The impact on medicine of the approaching decline in oil, other fossil fuels and other sources of energy goes far beyond the visible and obvious things like MRI machines, CAT scans, X-ray equipment and laser surgery equipment. It will affect the cost and availability of energy to separate air into its component parts like medical grade oxygen, the availability and production of the plastics and the high purity metals from which medical implements are manufactured, the equipment for screening blood supplies, the ubiquitous electronic equipment that monitors patients' vital signs, the air ambulances that shorten that critical time to get seriously injured and ill patients to treatment facilities, the high tech ambulances that are never more than a few minutes away, the home treatment and support equipment that allows patients to get the treatment they need in the home environment, the anaesthetics, the antibiotics and sterilization products that are so critical to disease management in hospitals, the EKGs and other equipment in your family doctor's office. All of these things and so much more are critically dependent on that steady, reliable flow of energy that we have come to take so much for granted in our modern world.

The impact on all of these things won't have the immediacy of flipping off a switch. We won't suddenly wake up one day and find ourselves in the hands of witch-doctors treating our medical problems with leeches, potions and incantations. We won't suddenly have to call on a midwife when the baby is due, though an increasing number of women are choosing that approach today. Society will, for some time, continue to try to absorb the escalating costs of health and medical care. In peak oil discussions, however, it has long been suggested that among the first casualties
on the other side of peak oil will be those who are medically dependent, those dependent on medical technology and on high-tech medications. When escalating cost is replaced with increasing scarcity, however, when dependability gives way to an increasing decline in reliability and availability, the impact will begin to be felt across the totality of our society. At some point even the rich will no longer be able to get the best health care because money will not be able to get what is no longer available at any price.

We are beginning to see the leading edge of these problems even today. It is getting beyond just the horrendous escalation in cost. Wait times are increasing for surgery, much of it critical, and even for getting an appointment to see the family doctor. An increasing number of smaller communities no longer have resident
doctors, patients having to travel ever-increasing distances to doctors in other communities, many relying on the services of circuit doctors who visit their community at ever-widening intervals as these doctors must serve an ever-growing number of communities. Medical and surgical electives are no longer as readily offered or approved as they were even ten years ago. Doctors and nurses are increasingly having to work longer hours, see and deal with more patients, and more and more mistakes are happening as a result. The cost of medical malpractice insurance is skyrocketing beyond the reach of many doctors. The shortage of doctors continues to grow as older doctors retire and fewer and fewer young people choose to pursue medical careers in the face of the workloads and the cost of malpractice insurance and lawsuits. This is all indicative of a situation that will deteriorate ever more rapidly over the coming decades.

Consistently in election after election when polls are taken health care is at or near the top of people's lists of concerns. We no longer view good health as an aberration but rather as a right. If we are to continue to enjoy good health into and beyond the energy decline we are going to have to refocus on those areas of prevention that were so key to health improvements in the Victorian era, hygiene and nutrition. An ounce of prevention, says the old saying, is worth a pound of cure. When that pound of cure is no longer available that ounce of prevention may be the only road to good health still open to us.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Methane Hydrates: the next great energy source?

Methane hydrates, research has proven, are common in nature, in Arctic regions (most commonly in permafrost) and in marine sediments. Methane hydrates are crystaline solids that look very much like ice where gas molecules have been trapped in a cage of water molecules in the form of ice. The big difference is, this ice burns if exposed to a flame and will continue to support that flame on its own. Methane hydrates occur in stable ocean floor sediments resembling concrete below 300 meters down to about 500 meters (the Gas Hydrate Stability Zone or GHSZ). Above and below that zone hydrates to not form effectively as geothermal temperatures are too high for them to stabilize. That stability, however, is dependent on two primary factors, one being pressure and the other being temperature. It is believed that relatively small drops in ocean depth during the ice ages sufficiently reduces the pressure above methane hydrate deposits that the formations destabilize and release large volumes of trapped methane. Large scale sediment scarring in methane hydrate zones on the slopes of the continental shelf suggest frequent methane releases over the years as a contributing factor in underwater landslides. There is also a growing belief that large methane releases may be responsible for unexplained ship sinkings in areas like the Bermuda Triangle and the Devil's Triangle south of
Japan. These factors and the potential instability of the methane hydrates raises concerns about exploiting them as an energy resource with the potential of "losing" platforms in sudden methane releases. In addition, methane hydrates generally become unstable at temperatures above 18C even at pressure. At sea level they become unstable at even lower temperatures, possibly as low as 2C.

There has been considerable excitement and interest in methane hydrates as an energy and fuel source since the 1970s. Some have estimated that there is as much gas in the form of methane hydrates equivalent to twice the amount of all fossil fuel reserves on earth, or more. Estmiates over the last few decades, however, have steadilly declined by magnitudes. Where once methane hydrates were assumed to underly all the world's ocean bottoms it is now understood that they occur only in limited zones generally on continental shelves. It was also erroneously believed that because of the crystaline structure of the formations the gas would be concentrated much more densely than in conventional gas deposits. It is now believed that, in fact, the concentrations of methane hydrates in any area is generally much lower than originally estimated. In fact in most sites it is believed that the hydrates are too dispersed for economic extraction.

One of the serious problems about methane hydrates is that methane is more than ten times as effective as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide. The suspected positive feedback processes that occur with global warming can cause massive releases of sequestered methane which then further increases atmospheric temperatures which causes further releases of methane in a viscious spiral that can end in a rapid onset of a new ice age. This is, in fact, one of the primary concerns with the increase in ocean temperatures, particularly in cold polar oceans that host large concentrations of methane hydrates, that is occuring in the current phase of global warming. Since it is believed that the earth contains 3,000 times the methane in hydrate form than is currently in the atmosphere the risk involved in initiating a large-scale destabilization and release of these gases is very worrying. More visible and equally concerning is the ongoing release of methane from hydrates in Arctic permafrost that is resulting from global warming. Temperature increases from global warming are, in fact, greater in the polar regions than in equatorial and temperate regions. The potential of a positive feedback mechanism in these polar regions due to permafrost methane releases is very high as is the risk of destabilizing global climate.

Energy companies, despite frequent and ubiquitous press releases to the contrary, do not have a good track record of concern for the impact of their operations on the environment. The risk of very large releases of potent greenhouse gasses while attempting to exploit these methane hydrate deposits is sufficiently high that we should demand a full long-term understanding of the nature and characteristics of these deposits before any consideration of granting exploration and development licenses. The concern is, with declining economically viable natural gas reserves, that the "need" for energy will preclude environmental concerns. Thus far there appears to be no imminent rush to exploit these reserves. Seemingly careful testing is being conducted both in the arctic and in select oceanic reserves. Once we go into rapid natural gas decline, however, coupled with an increasing North American social infrastructure dependent on gas, will such care continue to be taken? Or will we yet again compromise on environmental protection for the sake of satisfying our growing energy lust? Only time will tell.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The debate over viable community size in a post-fossil-fuel age

The vast majority of people who become aware of the peak oil issue soon begin to consider the question of what type and size of community they want to be part of beyond peak oil, which communities will be the most sustainable, self-sufficient, self-reliant and survivable in the future. The answer to that question is tremendously variable for a number of factors such as climate but most particularly depending on how far into the future one is thinking. The difference between community survivability at the moment of peak oil and fifty or a hundred years later will be considerable. And if one is considering long term survivability not only for themselves but for their children and grandchildren then one has to look well beyond peak oil which is likely to occur sometime in the next one or two decades.

For most people pondering community survivability their thoughts turn to how to make the community in which they live, whether village or city, workable as energy resources decline. This, however, seems for most people to be done without any understanding of a historical perspective. Most ancient communities that we today identify as cities, such as Athens, Rome and others, were generally between 20 and 80 thousand in size, with as much as half the population or more being slaves. The first city larger than a million population, for example, didn't occur until well into the fossil-fuel era and that was in Asia (Beijing, population 1.1 million, 1800). The largest European cities at the time were; London, 861,000; Paris, 547,000; Constantinople (Istanbul); 570,000; and Naples, 430,000. The development of cities in Europe, in fact, largely began only in the late Middle Ages as a means of defending against frequent Norse invasions and sacking of coastal communities. The majority of early European cities were, in fact, walled cities because of the constant battles between competing feudal states that developed following the collapse of the Roman Empire. But even these European cities of the early industrial age were disease-plagued, festering with crime, and becoming seriously polluted from the heavy use of coal for both industrial and domestic needs. The large cities of more than a million population with which we have become so familiar in our lifetime simply did not exist before the fossil-fuel era for the simple reason that they were not sustainable without the availability of a tremendous amount of energy. The few large cities of ancient times were supported through the use of extensive slave labour as a form of energy. It is estimated that the slave population of ancient Athens, for example, actually exceeded the free population.

The obvious question is; are large cities going to be sustainable through the energy downslope and into the post fossil-fuel age? Will large cities be a viable, sustainable community structure a hundred years or more into the future?

Village life, on the other hand, has not been a picture of pastoral bliss. Prior to the industrial revolution village the life of all communities, especially villages, and the majority of people who lived in them largely revolved around agriculture with villagers working the fields that surrounded the village. Most European villages through the middle ages and up until the peasant revolts following the Black Death came into being as part of large feudal estates. In general, the villages were where the fiefs, "villeins" and serfs (realistically one small step above slaves) lived. These serfs were, in effect, indentured to the lord of the estate. They did not and could not own land but were allowed to occupy and work land on and for the estate. They were, in most instances, even restricted by the lord to marrying within the village, the source of a lot of genetic abnormalities by intermarrying within shared blood lines. The serfs paid for their right of land possession and occupancy with labour for the lord of the estate (generally three days a week) and with taxes paid to the lord, often in the form of a specified proportion of what they produced on the land. Their offspring were also beholden to the lord and tied to the same piece of land on which their parents livedtheir lives. After the peasant revolts following the Black Death this form of indenturing largely disappeared and villages for the most part became free villages.

I have focussed on life in communities before the industrial revolution and the serious onset of the fossil-fuel age for a reason. The factors and forces that originally led to the development of communities and stood in the way of them growing beyond a limited size are the same forces that will affect ongoing survivability of communities throughout the world during the global decline of fossil fuel reserves and thereafter. The reality that caused these earlier communities and societies to be largely focused on agriculture and the land on which it was practiced is the same reality that will beset us as the world's fossil-fuel supplies disappear. This is a finite world. The only source of input to this planet is the steady flow of energy that we receive from our sun. Prior to the invention of the windmill and the solar cell, the primary effective means of converting that incoming solar energy into useable form was through plant photosynthesis, the basis of support for all life on this planet. we do have the potential, which they did not before the industrial revolution, of using other forms of energy when our fossil fuel reserves have been depleted. As well as the wind energy and solar energy mentioned above we have nuclear energy, tidal energy, hydro-electricity, geo-thermal energy and the possibility of long-term use of bio-fuels. The long-term potential for continued use of these energy sources, however, depends on the long-term survival of an organized society and viable community structures through which to maintain these energy infrastructures.

All of these alternatives essentially are based on the generation and distribution of electricity. Though electricity is a key part of the ability for our modern world to function, the most important aspect of energy in our world is that of various transportation fuels and other products such as fertilizers and pesticides produced from fossil fuels. The primary underpinning of our transportation has been and continues to be oil. The simple reality is that there is no source of energy that we can turn to that can effectively substitute for the fuels that we derive from oil. Once global oil production peaks and as we begin the slide toward depletion of these global oil reserves the impact on the functionality of our global society will be unquestionably severe. The ability to continue to service large cities and their burgeoning suburbs without the transportation fuels derived from oil will be severely impacted. If food production all occurs outside our cities, as it does for most cities around the world today, then the ability to deliver those foods into a city to feed millions of people and the ability to return waste nutrients to the land on which the food is grown in order to maintain the fertility of that land, will be severely hampered if not impossible. The necessary substitute of human and animal power for the energy derived from fossil fuels in the production of that food will severely impact the ability and the desire of those working the land to put in the vastly greater quantity of effort needed to produce sufficient surplus food to feed the huge populations of large cities. The relationship between cities and rural areas today is largely based on mutual benefit, rural areas producing food surpluses for the city and the city producing goods destined for use in the rural areas. Those relationships are likely to break down as fossil fuel reserves decline.

The changes that took place in Cuba following their loss of access to needed oil and other products in the collapse of the Soviet Union does show that large urban areas can be reoriented to the production of large volumes of their needed food within their boundaries. Whether this could be accomplished in most North American and European cities is questionable. Much of our urban soil is toxic, has been denuded of vitasl topsoil in the construction process, has been bombarded year after year with chemicals, has been leached of vital mineral nutrients through constant irrigation, has been denuded of critical organic nutrients through constant mowing, etc. And even in Cuba, much of the adjustment following the collapse of the Soviet Union involved the relocation of large numbers of people out of cities like Havana into rural areas as a source of labour for food production.

So what size community will be viable as we approach and pass the effective depletion of our fossil fuel reserves? Essentially that will predicated on the ability of each community to produce most, if not all, of its own food through the labour and effort of its own people. I believe the fact that the majority of ancient cities were of the order of 20-80,000, and that the vast majority of ancient communities were villages or agricultural communities, strongly suggests that the smaller communities are going to be the most survivable in a post fossil-fuel age.
It suggests that the primary orientation of any community is going to have to production of the food needed by that community. In northern climates, such as we endure here in Canada, access to some form of energy, like wood from a sustainably managed forest, for home heating is going to be equally critical. I believe networks of smaller communities, possibly with each community also specializing in tradeable goods such as tools and household articles, with these communities centered on a common bio-region, will probably become the predominant societal structure over time.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Reverse Engineering Industry for a Post-Peak World

I look at the simple lamp on my desk and realize that it has over thirty parts to it. Each of those parts had to be manufactured, hopefully to precise standards, and then brought together and assembled into that lamp. How many "industries" were involved in making that lamp from the extraction of the raw materials involved through to the magical appearance of that lamp on the shelf in the store in which I bought it? Literally dozens! And between each of those extraction/process/maufacture/assembly industry components there is the involvement of the global transportation/distribution industry. All to put a $20 lamp on my desk!

Every stage in the process of turning those raw materials into that twenty-dollar desk lamp involves the use of often-subsidized energy in some form. As we pass beyond global peak oil and the peak availability of other forms of exogenic energy, how does that twenty-dollar lamp end up on a shelf near me?

Under the current structure of globalization the different raw materials involved and the manufacture of the different parts that eventually are assembled into that lamp could have occured on every continent on the planet, in dozens of different
countries, could have involved literally thousands of different people. All to put a $20 lamp on my desk!

In a more general sense, as we begin to slide down the downslope of energy decline into that post-peak world how will manufacturing have to change in order for manufactured items to be available in all the markets in which they are available today? More importantly what manufactured items will be available? Will those items important to sustainable living in a post-peak world survive the collapse of globalized manufacturing? Where and how will they be made? What materials will they be made of? Where will those materials come from?

These are very important questions that are too easilly drowned out in the discussion/debate over fuel issues. Ultimately the fuel to run the family car is a non-issue. Once people come to grips with reality that we are moving into a new world devoid of the multitude of energy sources and choices we have today they will then find themselves staring into the face of the most important of all issues of energy decline: how they ensure long-term survivability for themselves, their children, their grandchildren and their grandchildren's grandchildren. Like it or not, the generations alive today have before them the task of determining the long-term survivability of our species in a post-peak and ultimately post-oil, post-energy world.

I am not one who believes that survival, other than for a very few, consists of rugged individual survivalism on an isolated homestead in the midst of the wilderness or in reverting to a hunter-gatherer existence. We are social beings. Long-term survivability after energy decline must center on community, whatever form that community might take. The survivability of communities well past peak-oil, however, is far more than a case of self-sufficiency. It is also a matter of self-reliance, of having within the community the full measure of skills needed for survivability, of being able to produce or locally acquire everything that that community needs to function.

In general, but not always, the prototype and initial manufacturing of a "new" product began in somebody's basement or garage, in a small workshop, in a barn or converted chicken coop. Each of the components of that new product had to be made by the original "manufacturer" (the meaning of which, by the way, is to make by hand), unless it was a stock item that could be adapted and incorporated into the
product. Only after that, when demand for the product developed or when an industrial manufacturer became involved, did integrated mechanized processes get developed to allow the production to become "efficient". But almost always the product and the manual processes to produce it existed before the industrial manufacturing processes were developed. The manual processes were engineered up into high-tech, high-energy mechanized manufacturing and assembly operations capable of turning out large volume replicas of that original hand-made product.

As our slide down the energy downslope accelerates those highly-complex, integrated manufacturing processes are going to have to be reverse-engineered into those discrete, manual processes from which they began. It will no longer be possible or practical or economically feasible to produce those products in one factory in the suburbs of Seoul or Shanghai and ship them to markets all over the world. As transportation energy becomes increasingly expensive and, ultimately, increasingly unavailable at any price, the manufacture of the items to be used in a particular market is going to have to be moved to or near to the market in which they will be used. The materials from which those items are made may have to vary from location to location, dictated by the local availability of raw materials (as goes oil so goes plastics). Planned obsolescence designed to facilitate the frequent introduction of new, slightly-altered models is going to have to give way to functional simplicity and durability; products are going to have to be made to last. The number of component parts in a product is going to have to be minimized and simplified by orders of magnitude.

Manufacturers are going to have to adapt to this new reality or perish. Size very definitely is no guarantee of survivability. When times get as rough as they are going to get it is the small and flexible that survive. In the great extinction the dinosaurs disappeared but small mammals lived on and gave rise to the great diversity of mammals on earth today.

Obviously very few of the manufactured items with which we surround ourselves today are going to have a place in the world that awaits us on the other side of the energy decline. Pretty soon we've got to start thinking seriously about what products will be needed and plan for their survival or re-introduction (so many items from the past that will be needed again have disappeared and exist only in museums and coffee-table books) during this transition period in which we currently find ourselves. All too soon the time for preparation and transition is going to give way to a new reality. We better be ready for it or it is going to get very ugly.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Right to Pursue Powerdown: Seeking alternative lifestyles post-peak

Throughout history most societies have spawned groups within them that chose not to follow the norms and dictates of the mainstream society of which they were a part. Very often it is religious differences of some type that set these groups apart, e.g. Quakers, Shakers, Mennonites, Amish, Doukhobors, Acadians, Huguenots, Mormons, Christians in the Roman Empire and more. Mainstream cultures have never been very
tolerant of such so-called "dissidents". Such groups have been subjected to harassment, persecution, legal persecution and prosecution, even attacks and mass murder such as was the case with the Huguenots in France and the Doukhabors in Russia. Rules and laws are often ignored in the zeal to persecute such groups. Very often rules and laws are specifically altered to target such groups, to make it illegal for them to adhere to their own non-mainstream beliefs. In most cases large segments of those religious groups saw no option open to them other than leaving those societies and countries in which they were being persecuted.

Such harassment and persecution, of course, have not been limited to large groups of dissenters. Very often an individual who pursues a belief or practice contrary to the established mainstream will be similarly hounded, harassed and persecuted. Some of these in recent news in Canada include; Michael Schmidt for supplying raw unprocessed milk at the request of his several hundred customers; Percy Schmeiser for his seed saving practices that ran afoul of Monsanto when his crops became contaminated from nearby Monsanto crops; Ghislaine Lanctot for her constant campaigns against the medical establishment and her book The Medical Mafia; Doctor Krop of Toronto who had the audacity to practice environmental medicine and identify household chemicals as the source of patient illnesses and counsel his patients to get the chemical products out of their homes; and many more.

Those unwilling to adhere to the practices and tenets of mainstream society seem invariably to be considered a threat to that society, a threat that must be dealt with harshly. The presumed threat, however, generally exists only in the collective mindset of the mainstream society. Most often the splinter group seeks only to follow their own beliefs and practices in freedom. And almost invariably the mainstream society around them will not accept their right to do so. If existing laws are insufficient to stop such groups from pursuing their beliefs then very often the laws will be changed as required to stop them.

As we approach the global peak in oil production, and most certainly when we have gone beyond that point and start our slide down the depletion downslope, there is a
rapidly growing group of people who want to begin the process of preparing themselves, their homes, their neighbourhoods and communities for the self-sufficient and self-reliant lifestyle that will be necessary when energy decline has torn asunder our heavily energy-dependent global society. They recognize that achieving the required level of post-peak self-sufficiency may take decades and that waiting until we are already past peak and on the downslope means having waited too long. They recognition that such preparation needs to be started now while there is still the resources and energy to do the job.

People who are attempting to do such preparation now, however, are finding in their way roadblocks, hurdles and obstacles just as severe as the groups mentioned above. Many of the past practices that would have been consistent with that preparation are no longer permitted in "developed" societies such as in North America and Europe. One can no longer keep chickens and other food animals within municipal boundaries in most western cities, for example. You cannot turn your front lawn into a vegetable garden. You cannot produce, sell or buy raw milk. In markets of any type in most North American cities one can neither sell nor buy "live" food such as chickens. You cannot put manure on your lawn or urban garden, or even keep manure unless it is in a plastic bag labelled zoo-poo. In most urban jurisdictions in North America you are not allowed to have an outdoor clothesline, maintain a root cellar, put up a wind generator, use grey-water for crop irrigation, keep an open compost, etc. In most municipal jurisdictions you are not allowed to keep or graze large animals like horses, cows, bullocks, or even goats or sheep or geese or ducks or pigs.

All of these things and practices that will be critical for self-sufficiency when we get well down the energy decline slope are viewed today as threats to the aesthetic enjoyment urbanites have for their chemical lawns and GMO flower gardens. If you have ever run afoul of a neighbourhood committee you will have seen this conflict in glorious action.

How are those who have the courage to look ahead to the problems awaiting us ever to benefit from that foresight if they are not allowed to get started on preparation? When the masses begin to wake up to the problems when it becomes impossible to ignore them, who will they turn to for guidance in their preparation? The same politicians and bureaucrats and neighbourhood nazis that are standing in the way of that preparation today? Why is it that some people peacefully exercising a freedom of choice is a threat to mainstream society? Is freedom of choice only permitted when the choices you are allowed to pick come only from a select list of "approved" choices?

You may not be at the stage of wanting to begin your preparation yet. Just as well. You would find far too many roadblocks in the way. But if the majority of people continue to insist on those roadblocks and there are no dissenting voices
forcing politicians to awaken to the fact that we must begin to change municipal laws to not only allow but facilitate and foster this type of preparation, you will find when you are ready that the roadblocks are still there. Public pressure for change must begin now.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Welcome to my world

I own and moderate my own interactive peak oil on Yahoo, co-moderate two more and am actively involved in a half-dozen others. Collectively these various forums represent one of the largest active peak oil dialogues available to either those new to the issue of peak oil or established peak oil veterans. But they are, indeed, dialogues, albeit with collectively thousands of people talking.

I am becoming painfully aware of the vast differences between that forum and this blog. The greatest single difference is one of feedback. In those interactive forums people explore new ideas, throw out a new concept for discussion, discuss ideas initiated by others. It is a marvelous venue for testing out ideas, one which I find particularly valuable as a peak oil writer. This blog, however, is distinctly different. Other than my books, my greatest peak oil writing efforts are focused right here. Although I get more visitors to this blog than we get visitors to many of those interactive groups I participate in, I do not get that all important feedback and dialogue here that I get in those interactive forums. The only indications I get, in fact, that people see value in what I write for this blog is the number of "repeat customers" I have, the length of time people stay when they do come for a visit, and the number of visitors I have for a particular article.

For those who may not be aware, you can post comments on any of the articles you read in this blog, or comments on any of the comments posted. And I would certainly welcome any comments anyone would like to post here. I do read comments and have set up the blog to require my approval of any comments. This is less for the purpose of editing or rejecting (something I have not yet done for any comment) but rather to make sure I am aware of the comment posted in case it needs a reply. I may respond to the comment, or I may not. Certainly the more people who do comment and the more this blog can take on the character of a dialogue, the more actively I will respond.

I appreciate all the people who have visited my blog. The number of visitors has grown significantly each moth and I hope will continue to rise. So welcome, and do check the index while you are here. You may find several articles of interest to you. And please, please, please feel free to add your comments. Since I must approve all comments, if you wish to make a comment to me but don't want it posted, just indicate this when you post your comment.

Thank you.

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.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Who will Preserve Knowledge Post-peak?

Knowledge is, by its very nature, transient and ephemeral. It exists as memory in the intricate synaptic paths of the brain. The conveyance of that knowledge down through generations can be accomplished by word of mouth and be compromised through layers of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Or that knowledge can be captured and recorded in a form that others no longer need physical access to the person with the knowledge but can get access to the knowledge through the recorded version of that knowledge, through books, papers and digitized media.

The preservation of recorded knowledge, however, requires a tremendous amount of energy, dedication and commitment by those who assume the resposibility of preserving it, protecting it and disseminating it to others, especially those others in future generations. The problem arises from the fact that the media in/on which that information is recorded, though more permanent than synaptic networks, are only permanent relative to human longevity. Paper and the various magnetic and other information-recording media are sensitive to deterioration over time. In order for that knowledge and information recorded using such media to persist down through time they must be regularly transcribed and recorded - always with the risk of error, misinterpretation or misrecording. There must be an ongoing use of energy in order for that knowledge and information to survive over time.

Today we must be forgiven for the impression that knowledge is permanent. Our generations are committed to its preservation, to the discovery and restoration of the knowledge from ages past. And yet even much of that ancient knowledge has been understood and restored and preserved only because of the fortuitous discovery of the rosetta stone that allowed scholors to understand the ancient languages in which much of that knowledge was written.

Today we rely very heavilly upon magnetic and other digitized media to help us preserve much of that ancient knowledge and, indeed, our own contemporary knowledge. Paper, even of the very highest quality, is very sensitive to deterioration without exceptional environmental controls. Virtually all written media in human society is rapidly being preserved onto digital media with the intent that such media can more readilly and accurately be preserved and transfered and re-recorded in the future.

But such digital recording requires modern technology to be workable. The recording for preservation of all of that written information involves, and requires, millions of computers throughout the world. Data is recorded on millions upon millions of disks, CDs, tapes and other recording medium which is also subject to deterioration over time.

Simple question..... What happens when the technology fails? When the electricity grids go away? When the information networks go offline... permanently? What happens to all of that information and knowledge in those computers that no longer exists in written media, is no longer recorded on paper or some other medium than those computers and their digital storage devices?

There has been a virtual explosion of information and knowledge over the past century. Knowledge grows, like the population, exponentially, only faster. There has been more new knowledge developed in the past century than in all the previous history of man on earth. And it is all being uploaded to computers as fast as we can manage. And if our society were to be able to continue for the next century in the same way as the past century we would double human knowledge again. If, as many expect, especially we in the peak oil movement, we are approaching a global peak in oil production, in energy production, in energy availability, our high-tech society will not continue unchecked for the next century.

Do we record it all back on paper? On clay tablets? On papyrus? If our high-tech information storage abilities are about to disappear or become severely degraded, what other alternative recording media do we have or will we have in order to save all of that accumulation of human knowledge? More importantly, from where will come the commitment and dedication to do so? Who will shoulder the responsibility, as did so many cloistered monks in the middle ages, of preserving that knowledge? And what criteria will they use if they must be selective because it is impossible to preserve all knowledge? What will they decide to salvage and preserve? Who among us has the right to make such decisions?

Think about it.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Myth of Permanence: Post-Peak Infrastructure Maintenance

As we pass peak oil and then peak energy what will happen to the massive infrastructure and engineering marvels of our global society when we no longer have the energy, resources and technology to maintain them? All we need do is look to the past for answers. What happened to the infrastructure of past civilizations; Egypt, Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, the Mayan, Incan, Aztec empires? Nature reclaimed them, and was not particularly kind in the process. The wonders of Egypt had to be dug out of an ever-expanding desert. The massive temples and creations of the past empires of the Americas had to be resurrected from the overgrowth of encroaching jungle. The remains of the Roman Empire and ancient Greece had to be exumed from beneath the natural landscape of Europe.

Nature does not lovingly or dutifully maintain our creations for us. She doesn't give a damn how much effort we put into them, how important they were to us. Nature is dynamic, constantly changing. Permanence is a human myth totally at odds with nature's reality.

Infrastructure is the hard wiring of our society. Much of it is invisible. To those living within the embrace of that infrastructure it is taken for granted, is seen as permanent, the foundation of that society and of their individual lives. But it seems so because there is an army of people and a kalaidescope of technology that is constantly working to keep it maintained. While past empires were alive and vibrant similar efforts and energies and armies of people, many of them slaves, were maintaining their infrastructure, maintaining the impression of permanence by keeping it clean and safe and polished and in working order. When those empires fell and all of that constant maintenance ceased that impression and myth of permanence fell apart and the inevitable reality of deterioration set in.

There was a major difference in those past empires, a serious contrast to our current global society. They were built to last, designed for permanence, strong, durable, bold. They were built of stone. And that intent of durability and the materials they used are the only reason there was anything left of those empires for our modern day archeologists to dig up, uncover, retrieve, resurrect. But even this was but an abstract impression of what that civilization was. What was left to recover was bits and pieces of the puzzle that had enormous holes from the missing pieces. They were haunting images of what was that gave little clues as to how those past great civilizations functioned on a day to day basis.

With these clues from history should we expect anything different of our own dangerously impermanent infrastructure when our desire, commitment and ability to maintain it begin to falter? Even without catastrophes like New Orleans, Banda Ache, floods, hurricanes, landslides, earthquakes, et al, that infrastructure will continue to deteriorate long after the maintenance has ceased. Much of that infrastructure will be increasingly dangerous as it deteriorates.

Think about the impact of deterioration on the components of our infrastructure;
bridges, overpasses, underpasses, tunnels, elevated highways, canals, water diversions, levees, dykes, dams, aquaducts, reservoirs, sewer systems, water systems, cable systems, underground power lines, airports, supertankers, weapons silos, reservoirs, nuclear power plants, zoos, river channels, steel and glass skyscrapers, apartment towers, prisoners, passenger jets, munitions depots, the chunnel, flood control systems, arenas, stadiums, coliseums,race tracks, elevator, underground service corridors, subways, elevated transit systems, race tracks, amusement parks, communication towers, space junk, theaters and concert halls, wharves, marinas, parking lots, rail yards, dry docks, storm barriers, irrigation channels, transmission lines, highway service centers, warehouses, agricultural terraces, walls and barriers, grain silos, multi-level car parks, pressurized storage tanks, toxic waste depots, settling ponds, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

It is not just an issue of deterioration. It is an issue of increasing threats to safety and security as that infrastructure deteriorates. One of the sad lessons of the past century is that one of the first cost-saving measures that is turned to when things get tough is infrastructure maintenance. Maintenance does not make money. Too often it is done at all only because there is legislation and laws that demand it.

Look around you. Look at your community. Make a mental note of all of the infrastructure on which your community depends for its smooth functioning. Think about the maintenance that keeps that infrastructure functioning. Think about where the funds for that maintenance comes from. Think about what will happen to that source of funds when we pass peak oil or the economy falls apart or any of the other serious scenarios that may befall us in the near term future. Ask yourself if you are comfortable with that.