Monday, April 16, 2007

Responsibility in Communicating the Peak Oil Message

I have a confession to make. From time to time I feel seriously insecure about continuing to write about peak oil. Added to the constant awareness that people simply do not want to hear the message, that becomes a conflict for me. You see, I am not, nor have I ever been, an oil expert, a geologist, geophysicist or even a professional energy analyst. Hell, I don't even have a college degree, of any type, ended my "formal" education in grade 12. Like Richard Heinberg and Matt Savinar I came to the peak oil issue as an outsider looking in. It seemed to fit in with much about which I was already passionate.

I brought with me a lifetime concern about our gradual but obvious destruction of the environment, some early activism in that regard, a deep concern about our exponentially growing population and the limits to the earth's carrying capacity, deep angst and confusion over our belief in our entitlement to the earth's resources exclusive of the needs of other species, a deep concern over our destruction of soil fertility through our modern agricultural practices, an inquiring mind, a high degree of Mensa-level intelligence, a deep-seated and long-held concern and anger about the insidious influence and control corporations are exerting over our everyday lives and, particularly, over our governments. More importantly I brought an ability to write well with a balance of effective research, well thought out and reasoned argument and a deep feeling of passion. But I often wonder if all of that is enough.

The crux of my concern is this. There are many good writers out there on the subject. To a large degree we are all writing the same thing, feeding off each other and on common data, all drawing the same logical conclusions from that data. They may not say things in exactly the way I would but, so what?

My uncertainty, derived from a lifelong battle with a never-overcome inferiority complex, develops generally when I read a highly technical piece from one of the peak oilers who is an oil geologist or geophysicist. Not only could I not write the piece they did, half the time I struggle to understand what the hell they are talking about. It would be no less understandable if it were written in Swahili. And then I get angry because I realize it is the same thing all over again that I encountered when I was twenty-one. So please bare with me and let me explain that incident in order to clarify.

At twenty-one I was a computer programmer analyst with two years experience under my belt already. Our IS department's office was an open design with individual cubicles. It also had very poor acoustic design. You could hear every conversation in the whole office. Overhearing those discussions I grew agitated because I was stuck working on simple jobs while those around me, based on what I was hearing, were getting all of the nice, complex problems to work on. Most were college graduates which I assumed, and reluctantly accepted, was the reason they were given the more challenging assignments. Finally I summoned the courage to confront my boss on the issue. I told him I could handle tougher assignments like my co-workers were getting and I felt they should start to assign me to some of them.

I was totally crushed when he laughed in my face. Until he explained why.

"Believe me," he said (forgive my paraphrasing but I don't remember the conversation exactly after forty years), "but you couldn't be more wrong. If I get something complex across my desk, something new that needs some ingenuity and innovation, it goes straight to your desk. Those guys you are referring to complicate the simplest jobs and hide behind jargon when they talk about it. They create complexity where none exists. You go straight to the heart and essence of it, take complexity and make it simple, and get on with the job, and do it in half the time they would. And you explain things in English, not computereze."

That was an incredible life-lesson for me. I realized then that there is a tremendous difference between communicating and communication. The responsibility for the recipient's ability to understand rests squarely with the person doing the communicating. Communication rests not on the act of communicating but the method. If the recipient cannot understand then communication has not taken place and, therefore, the act of communicating has been wasted. My ability to understand a complex problem is of absolutely no value if I cannot help others to understand what I have understood. A man with the intellect of Einstein is only important insofar as he can communicate to others what he knows and help them to understand it. It was a responsibility I willingly assumed for the rest of my life.

That having been said, that is the reason I keep writing about peak oil. The essence of the peak oil issue, which is constantly lost in discussion and arguments about field reserves and oil grades and rates of extraction, is this. Peak oil is not about the oil!!!! So many of those involved in the peak oil discussion have not grasped that simple truth. That is the forest that is hidden by the trees.

The peak oil discussion and debate too easily and too frequently degenerates into a discussion about the price and availability of gasoline for the family car. That gasoline is only one of over 300,000 products insidiously integrated into our everyday lives. Oil is not only the energy that sustains our society's mobility. It is the physical structure of our society, the raw material for all of the plastics in our homes and offices and the infrastructure of our communities, the synthetic fibers with which we clothe ourselves, the chemicals on which agriculture has become hopelessly dependent for growing the food that sustains us, the drugs and pharmaceuticals responsible for our health and our lives, the ubiquitous additives and preservatives in our processed foods, the cleaning products under the sink, the asphalt on our roads that lets us speed around aimlessly from place to place. It is not just the source of the fuel in your car, it is the raw material from which most of your car is built.

Life as we know it, as virtual and disconnected from the natural world as it is, exists only because of oil and the other fossil fuels. The obvious corollary is that life as we know it cannot exist without oil and the other fossil fuels. Put another way, and a message that no one wants to hear, the end of oil is the end of the world as we know it! People tend to react violently to the first part of that statement; "the end of the world," and completely miss the last part, "as we know it" and yet the first part is not true without the qualification of the second part. Put another more palatable way, the end of oil means that things are going to change..... big time.

Peak oil is not about the oil! It is about what we do with the oil. And primarily what we have done with the oil is build up a critical dependence on it in more ways than the average person can even see or understand. As you read this look around the room in which you are sitting. Ask yourself how many of the things in that room are not partially made from oil or derivatives of it. How many of those things could be made from other materials and function as they do? How many were made close enough to you that they could get to you without oil-dependent transportation? And most importantly, how seriously would it change your lifestyle if they were not there?

There was a TV commercial running over this past winter pushing the role the chemical industry plays in our everyday lives. During that commercial everything made from or dependent on chemicals in the fabrication were gradually removed from the house. What struck me about that commercial was that everything that disappeared was made from oil and its derivatives. The chemical industry of today is essentially a petrochemical industry. It was a perfect picture of our dependence on oil and the things that will begin to disappear from our lives as we pass peak oil. And the family car and the gasoline in its tank weren't even part of the picture.

That is why I continue to write about peak oil. I continue to hope that I can be a part, however small, of getting average people to understand the depth of their dependence on oil in order that they can begin to understand the depth and breadth of the changes that will occur in their lives when we pass peak oil and head down that downslope. I also hope to convince them that those changes are going to be critical enough that they need to view skeptically those who glibly promise them that there is no problem, that we've got enough oil to last for centuries, that the American way of life is not negotiable. As Richard Heinberg says, if your way of life is not negotiable you need a new negotiator.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Animal poop in a virtual world

God! We are such idiotic animals. It's like that old wrap-around theory that says genius is just one step away from insanity. Maybe it takes an animal with intellect to be as stupid as we. Perhaps we'll never know, unless we have visitors for dinner from Alpha Centauri.

How did we reach the point where everything that's good for the soil and contributes to its ability to support life is considered waste by our species, to be replaced with obviously superior, man-made crap, artificial fertilizers, chemical pesticides and herbicides, genetically modified plants designed by man? We cut the hay from the field, feed it to the cows in a barn, scoop up their shit and drop it on a big festering pile at the end of the barn for the rain to wash bits of it into the streams and rivers or to sink down through the soil into the aquifers.

For millions of years nature recycled all of the excretia from all of the animals and enriched and built up life-supporting top soil. Then we come along and strip it off the land to build a new sub-division of houses on the bare, sterile sub-soil and go out to a garden centre and buy a load of sod (which comes complete with a whole half inch or inch of top soil to replace the half-foot or foot we stripped away) to put over it and then fertilize it (because we've killed all the micro-organisms in it) with NPK because everybody knows that's all plants need.

Sorry about the rant.

The city council in my nearby city (Toronto) are debating a new by-law this week. It epitomizes the extent of stupidity in our modern society.

It is a very popular past-time in Toronto (I don't know about other cities but I assume it is the same) to take the doggy to the park for a run with all his other doggy friends. Toronto has a poop-and-scoop bylaw so owners are expected to pick up their doggy droppings or, as our politicians euphemistically call it, pet "waste".

Those politicians are now upset because 26% (not 25, not 27 but 26.... I wonder who counted) of the "waste" in park waste receptacles is "animal waste". The new bylaw will require pet owners to take their "pet waste" home and put it in their own garbage. This while the city has in the past year implemented a "green bin" recycling program where householders can put their compostable waste out at the curbside in a green bin (right next to their bag of grass clippings).

Does anybody else see a huge disconnect here? Is it any wonder that our soil fertility is shot when animal poop is considered "waste"?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Alternative Energy, Add-ons and Replacements

It seems one cannot deal with the subject of peak oil without getting drawn into the peripheral discussion of alternative energy. That whole discussion, however, is full of misunderstanding, misinformation, disinformation and the source of a significantly dangerous false sense of security. One of the most common counters to the characterization of peak oil as a global crisis is a cornucopean belief that as the oil declines we will bring on-stream alternative energy technologies to replace those pushed to the sideline by the oil decline. People point to hydrogen, nuclear, geothermal, wind energy, wave energy, tidal energy, solar energy, bio-fuels, garbage-fuels and more. One or some combination of them will fill the gap, the optimist declares, and business and life will go on as usual.

The average person, when they hear the term "alternative energy" interprets that to mean "replacement energy". The reality, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has been quite different. The reality has been that every new energy source "discovered" has been treated as an add-on to the existing energy portfolio, not as a replacement of it.

There is, to begin, a common misperception that the fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) were "discovered" in the past couple hundred years. That displays hubris akin to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible claiming God created the world during some week in 4004 B.C. There is archaeological evidence that coal was used in the Bronze Age over 5000 years ago. There is a debated theory, based on archaeological evidence, that coal was used as a fire fuel as long ago as the Stone Age. Natural gas was the fuel that fired the eternal flames in the Ancient Greek Temple of Rhodes and the Temple of Vesta in ancient Rome. Oil in the form of tar and asphalt was in use as much as 3000 years ago. In 4th century China there were oil wells as deep as 250 metres, that oil transported over considerable distances in bamboo pipelines and used to evaporate sea water to get salt. In ancient Japan oil was called "burning water". Even many of what we call alternative energies have been in use for centuries. Water power was the primary source of energy for much of "industry" during the middle ages.(1) Wind power in windmills and sails goes back thousands of years. Passive solar has been used extensively in many cultures for a variety of purposes. Geothermal energy was employed in Hawaii and by the Maori in New Zealand as long ago as biblical times. Ethanol and bio-diesel predate our modern day usage of both oil and natural gas. Various forms of oils derived from plants have been used for lighting, cooking and heating for thousands of years.(4)

What changed starting at the outset of the Industrial Revolution was the amount of energy being employed by society because of the growth of industrialization. Coal usage in Britain in 1700 before the Industrial Revolution was about 2.5 million tons per year. By 1900 it had grown by a factor of a hundred to over 250 million tons per year.(2) By 2000 global coal usage had risen to 4-billion metric tonnes a year. During the 20th century overall global energy consumption grew from 0.7 terrawatts to over 15 terrawatts in 2004, an increase in energy use of 2142% and an increase of over 640% energy use per capita.(3)

Coal usage in Britain, for example, did not replace the use of wood for fuel before the forests of Britain and Ireland were wiped out, though it could have been used to save what forests remained. In fact, though coal was already significantly in use when the forests were essentially depleted, British demand for wood as a fuel continued with demand being satisfied by expensive imports from the colonies and from continental Europe.

When oil, in the early twentieth century, began its rise to its position of dominance in the global fuel mix, polluting and less efficient coal was not abandoned. The growth in coal demand slowed for a while but over the course of the 20th century, while the population was quadrupling, global coal usage increased six-fold to about 4-billion metric tonnes per pear. And coal usage between 2000 and 2005 grew by over seven percent per year, a faster growth rate than either oil or natural gas. Coal today, despite oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, geothermal and other energy sources, still supplies over 25 percent of global energy demand and over 40 percent of global electricity.

Natural gas did not replace coal or oil as an energy source. It was simply added to the list of available energy sources. Nuclear for generating electricity did not replace electricity generated by coal, oil or natural gas. It was simply added to the list. Solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, hydrogen, bio-fuels are not replacing any of the current energy sources. The growth in all of these "alternatives" combined is not sufficient to cover overall increased energy demand or to offset declines in any of the primary energy sources. And because of the high energy demand in building out an infrastructure for any of these alternatives, that build-out itself adds to the energy demand that those primary energy sources must satisfy. Using solar power to run the plant that makes solar panels is not how this technology is being built out.

There is no attempt or intent to correct this common misperception that "alternatives" can and will replace the energy sources on which we currently rely. No one involved in government or the energy sector or in the financial sector has a vested interest in doing so. The makers of electric cars want to make electric cars. The last thing they want to tell the buyer of one of their cars is that the grid will probably fail before their car. With so much global capital invested in the current energy paradigm the last thing anyone in power wants to do is admit that it may soon collapse like a house of cards and that none of the "alternatives" in any combination can "replace" our current energy sources. They see "alternatives" as choices, not replacements, for as long as they can keep the wheels under the "business as usual" train.

Oil, natural gas, and coal are all headed for peaks sometime between now and 2020. Oil will probably be first, sometime within these next 3-5 years. But both natural gas and coal are very minor as commodities traded on a world market and transported around from country to country. Even with coal, ninety percent of all coal is used within the country of origin.

Words often disguise as much or more than they clarify. The term "alternative energy" is totally unsuited for giving the public a true picture of the global energy predicament. It is probably far too late to consider a change but clearly the use of "optional" or "additional" would be more appropriate to describe the way we have treated new energy sources. There really are no new energy sources that can be described as "replacement".
1. History of Energy - James C. Williams, Ph.D.
2. Coal Mines
3. World energy resources and consumption
4. Population and Energy - Graham Zabel