Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Cascade Failure in River Systems with Multiple Dams

It is time once again to speak of dams and things. It is not that I'm becoming paranoid about dams. At least I don't think I am. It is simply that the more I see and read and hear the more I believe dams, and their other attendant water control/management infrastructure, to be perhaps the greatest infrastructure risk for society during the long, painful implosion of the global economy, and our individual national economies, that will follow peak oil. It is not the greatest overall risk, of course.

The greatest risk to our bloated human population will be the collapse of our industrialized agriculture system and our inability to produce and distribute sufficient food for our global numbers, especially with the collapse of the global distribution system with the steady decline of oil and natural gas availability, on which modern agriculture and food processing are critically dependant. Death by starvation is a slow, tortuous process, taking the young, the old and the ill first. But the collapse of a large dam, or a series of dams of various sizes in a common watershed in a cascade failure, represents a sudden and inescapable catastrophe for all of those in harm's way downstream from the collapse.

There are over 45,000 large dams (defined as having a height of more than 15 metres (48.75 feet), or above 5 metres holding a reservoir volume of more than 3 million cubic metres (87.75 million cubic feet)) around the world[6]. The majority of these are, you may be surprised to learn, in developing or underdeveloped nations. Although new dam starts have slowed in the past decade, according to the report 17 Large Dams Under Construction by Basin - Watersheds of the World, "As of 1998, there were 349 dams over 60 meters high under construction (IJHD 1998). The countries with the largest number of dams under construction were Turkey, China, Japan, Iraq, Iran, Greece, Romania, and Spain, as well as the Paraná basin in South America. The river basins with the most, large dams under construction were the Yangtze in China, with 38 dams under construction, the Tigris and Euphrates with 19, and the Danube with 11."[7]

Virtually every large river system in the world has numerous dams on both the main course and the various tributaries flowing into it. Even the mighty Amazon, viewed by most as one of the world's last, great unspoiled rivers, will soon have dozens of dams throughout it's watershed. The Brazilian government plans to build 31 new dams in the Amazon region by 2010. The largest of Brazil's planned hydro projects will "convert the Tocantins River into a series of lakes and hydro-electric dams, stretching for 1,200 miles and consisting of eight large dams and 19 smaller ones."[8]

The greatest risk is not simply that these large rivers have dams. It is the fact that they have multiple dams, most numbering in the dozens. There is great risk of a catastrophic cascade failure initiated by the collapse of a single upstream dam. Like a chain, a multi-dam water management system is as strong as its weakest link. And when that weakest dam is far upstream - which it usually is, generally in a remote and sparsely populated area, far from critical eyes - the downstream risk is magnified.

This is not an unprecedented risk, or even an unusual risk. Cascade failures have happened on numerous occasions over the last couple of centuries. The greatest was perhaps the collapse of the Henan Province dams in China in 1975. "As many as 230,000 people died in this domino-effect collapse of dams on the Huai River, some 85,000 in the flood waves and the rest from resulting epidemics and famine. The disaster began with the failure of the large Banqiao Dam in a typhoon, which resulted in the collapse of as many as 62 dams downstream."[6] The flood that was released in the collapse "created a wall of water 6 meters high and 12 kilometers wide ..... moving wall of water was 600 million cubic meters of more water." "The flood spread over more than a million hectares of farm land throughout 29 counties and municipalities."[9]

Consider the numbers. If a river system, like that above, has fifty, sixty or more dams on it, and each of those is, on average, holding back just the minimum large dam reservoir volume of three million cubic meters of water (the Banqiao Dam alone was designed to hold 492 million cubic meters), that entire system is holding back an amount of water equivalent to 3-million cubic meters times the number of dams. Fifty dams, one-hundred-fifty million cubic meters. In a cascade failure such as this, a person or community downstream is not at risk of inundation by the 3 million cubic meters in the dam nearest upriver from them. They are at risk from a cascade failure starting far upstream releasing a massive torrent of one-hundred-fifty million cubic meters of water. If that person/community is downstream from the dam lowest on the river - large population centres are more common at a river's mouth than along its course - that whole mass of water will come at them all at the same time in a wave that could be hundreds of feet high. Every dam downstream from the initial collapse, remember, has a design capacity of only 3-million cubic meters. It has a wave of water coming at it of 3-million cubic meters times the number of upstream dams already collapsed.

Of course, it is not just the massive volume of water behind a dam that rushes downstream as a dam collapses. The catchment area behind every dam gradually has an accumulated build-up of silt and debris. Over time any dam will completely silt-up. Some accumulate silt faster than others, largely a factor of geology and human activity upstream such as farming, lumbering and mining. When a dam collapses all of this silt and debris is also released. In addition the massive rush of water and debris scours the river banks and downstream river bottom and picks up even more debris as it progresses downstream. In floods it is usually the debris, not the water, that does the most damage. Flood water can carry boulders weighing many tons along as though they were pebbles.

Dams are not designed to withstand the pressures or the speed from the sudden influx of millions of cubic meters of water and debris such as this. They are designed to handle the build-up of water following heavy rainfall, or with the spring snowmelt, or the occasional collapse of a small bit of upstream river bank, or other normal events. As the report And The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Dam Safety Concerns Grow in Wake of Failures, Changing Climate says, "Building a totally safe dam is simply not possible. US dam-safety expert Robert Jansen says that dams “require defensive engineering, which means listing every imaginable force that might be imposed, examination of every possible set of circumstances, and incorporation of protective elements to cope with each and every condition.” This is clearly an unattainable target. In the real world, the degree of “defensive engineering” applied to the design of a dam will be decided by economics. ..... There will always therefore be pressure for dam builders to cut corners on safety."[6]

When a dam is designed to handle flood control (either alone or in conjunction with irrigation and/or hydro-electric generation) it must be designed with appropriate excess capacity (the Banqiao Dam was designed to accommodate 375 million cubic meters of flood storage)[8] and flood gates to handle the containment and controlled release of flood waters. "Flood gates are an expensive component of a dam's construction so engineers must consider a trade-off between the cost of the dam and the security it will provide. ..... The dam authorities must decide the proper excess capacity to maintain based on the trade-off they see between the value of stored water versus the value of flood control."[8]

There is another important component, as well, that has not been factored into the design of dams, most of which have been constructed in this past half century. Even dams currently being designed and built, however, share this shortcoming. That factor is global warming. As the above report notes, "Engineers design dams and their spillways to cope with the extreme floods that they predict using past records of streamflow and precipitation. It is vital that spillways are adequately sized – if a spillway is overwhelmed there is a high risk of a dam break. ..... But the assumption that we live in a stable climate no longer holds. Streamflow patterns are changing and are almost certain to continue to change, and at an accelerating rate, over the lifetime of the world’s dams. As noted in a World Commission on Dams’ background paper: “The major implications of climate change for dams and reservoirs are firstly that the future can no longer be assumed to be like the past, and secondly that the future is uncertain.”."[6]

As it looks at the moment, allowance for climate change is not likely to be built into the design of new dams anytime soon, let alone upgrading the existing dam inventory. There seems to be a large dose of denial amongst those involved in the dam designing/building industry. "While the climatic future is indeed filled with uncertainties, one trend upon which climatologists almost universally agree is that we will see (and indeed are already seeing) more extreme storms and increasingly severe floods. And yet, alarmingly, the vast majority of dam proponents and operators deny that climate change is even relevant for dam safety. The president of a major dam engineering firm told this author last year that climate change is "a problem for dams in 20 or 30 years, but not now."."[6] Even were that the case, that 20 to 30 years is exactly the time when the combined impact of global warming and oil depletion will severely hamper our ability and desire to upgrade dams to a safe level. Even to bring the world's dams up to levels currently considered safe that investment would be sizable. "But if securing US dams would cost $30 billion [some estimates, in fact, exceed $100 billion for U.S. dams] and the US has an estimated 10% of the world’s dams, a ballpark figure for the global under-investment in dam safety would be $300 billion."[6]

That state of denial also manifests itself at government levels, sometimes in the extreme. The most common and obvious form of this government denial, of course, is in insufficient budget allocations to maintain the dam inventory at safe levels. Following the catastrophic Henan Province cascade dam failure that killed an estimated 230,000 people in 1975, however, "The Chinese government kept the incident secret for about 20 years, but information on the disaster was eventually leaked to the outside world."[6] If this was possible, even in a closed totalitarian state, in an age of instant global communication, what might happen with those catastrophes in 20 to 30 years time in a very changed, power-reduced world?

Few countries have, or can even afford, comprehensive dam inspection/maintenance safety programs. Most, especially in underdeveloped countries, were built with inordinately expensive borrowed funds, monies which are not sufficient to cover future maintenance which may not be needed for 20-30 years after the dam's completion. "Despite the massive risk to human life and property posed by large dams, few countries have comprehensive dam safety legislation. Such laws should cover the engineering criteria that new dams must meet; the regular inspection and repair of old dams; and the preparation of emergency evacuation plans for people living downstream. ..... Studies in the US have shown that where early warning systems and evacuation plans are in place, the fatalities caused by dam bursts are on average reduced by a factor of more than 100. However, such plans have been made for only a handful of the world's dams, mostly in the US, Canada and Australia...."[6]

Even where safety legislation and programs exist, however, it generally treats dams on a one by one basis. Each dam is designed, built, inspected, maintained as though it were a structure in isolation. But most large river systems have, as noted earlier, multiple dams along their course. The excess capacity of any dam is designed to accommodate a particular volume of water from floods or other designed-for events. But they are designed assuming that all other conditions are normal and that the combined infrastructure of dams on the river will remain intact through the event (If I did not already know it instinctively, thirty years of system design experience would have taught me that you never design a system with the assumption it will work perfectly). In other words, a dam designed with a flood containment capacity of 300 million cubic meters assumes that that volume will be delivered by nature. The fact that there is a dam upstream with a capacity of 500 million cubic meters, or a series of dams with a total capacity of a billion cubic meters, is irrelevant in the design.

As we pass peak oil and the budgets and abilities to properly maintain our massive dam inventory diminish over time (time in which those dams continue to age and require increased, not decreased, maintenance) this design shortcoming will become critical for those water courses with multiple dams, which includes most of our large river systems. The risk to any dam on such systems is not the once-in-a-hundred-years or once-in-a-thousand-years flood that the dam is designed to accommodate but rather the combined capacity of all of the dams upstream from that dam plus the hundred-year or thousand-year flood. No one, especially those living along the banks of such river systems, should take any solace from the fact that such events may be twenty or thirty years in the future. That should, in fact, be more a cause for serious concern than solace. That future in which those failures increase in probability is a future of declining energy and infrastructure maintenance budgets and increased climatic extremes, a potentially deadly combination.


Additional reading:

1) Fragmentation Of Riparian Floras In Rivers With Multiple Dams
2) Simulation of Dam Failures in Multidike Reservoirs Arranged in Cascade
3) NOTE: The following emails are reproduced in chronological order ...
4) Federal Guidelines for Dam Safety
5) Revised Criteria for Assigning Hazard Potential Ratings to BLM Dams
6) And The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Dam Safety Concerns Grow in Wake of Failures, Changing Climate
7) 17 Large Dams Under Construction by Basin - Watersheds of the World
8) The Amazon Rainforest
9) The Catastrophic Dam Failures in China in August 1975

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Approaching Peak Export of Everything

Over the past half century we have become a truly global society. To those responsible, and perhaps millions or even billions of others, it seemed a good idea at the time. Many others, and steadily more through the benefit of hindsight, think otherwise.

There are no nations that are wholly disconnected from the global trade system, even among the most impoverished of third world countries. The whole concept of national self-sufficiency and self-reliance seems, in fact, to temporarily have been largely abandoned, at least in the developed, industrialized nations. The collateral damage in civilian lives in even the most minor of skirmishes, when long supply lines get disrupted, increases daily.

As we approach Peak Oil, if in fact we have not already arrived there as of May 2005, this has increasingly serious implications. The ongoing state of denial in the halls of government, business and industry, aided and abetted by the institutionalized apathy and outright disinformation in corporate-controlled mainstream media, is even more serious still.

Of late, those in the Peak Oil movement have begun to realize that peak oil is not going to be the defining watershed they had anticipated. That watershed, it is now realized, will precede peak oil, if it is still in the future, by a crisis in the global reduction of oil exports, peak oil exports. Whether or not we are yet arrived at peak oil, in fact, we very much appear to have already passed peak exports.

With increased oil revenues in the producing/exporting nations like those in the middle east comes an increased level of affluence for their citizens. That greater affluence means increased energy consumption at home with growing demand for automobiles and energy-consuming durable goods, but often dramatically increased with ventures like massive, year-round, 24-hour-a-day, indoor snow-ski facilities in the middle of the scorching desert.

No one in the developed countries - we are, after all, the primary importers and consumers of that oil - should begrudge those people their increased affluence, especially as it generally still does not approach the level of affluence in those western nations. But they do. That is partly, it appears, based on the sense of entitlement that has developed in western nations concerning the world's oil. We see it as ours. We are happy to buy it from the producing nations, seemingly irregardless of price, but are not willing to share it with them, even though it comes out of the ground in their country. So it is not the increased affluence that bothers people in developed nations, though it well could if that were to rival our own, but rather the increased energy consumption, particularly of oil, that goes along with it.

The wealth and affluence of western nations, we are constantly reminded through incessantly repeated phrases like good old American ingenuity, was built on the innovative use of the energy in oil to invent and develop the wondrous and complex new technologies on which the developed world is based. The energy from oil drives our technological societies, fuels that continued innovation, propels man out into space, to the depths of the oceans and to the frigid regions of the poles. The energy from oil has made western nations, in our own collective minds at least, not just rulers of the world but masters of the universe.

The expensive cars and home entertainment systems and heated indoor pools are perks, rewards for each of our roles in building that complex, technological society. They are not, as they appear to be in the developing world, their own raison d'etre. They are not the goal but simply the rewards for achieving it. The rising affluence in those oil-exporting nations is being purchased, not earned. The money with which it is being purchased derives from the same technological development of those first world nations in which the affluence is earned through innovation. In those first world nations energy from oil is being invested to build and power a society and culture. In those oil exporting nations the money paid by those first world nations for that oil is being squandered building decadent toys. So believes the populace of those oil-consuming, first-world nations.

This may not be a conscious belief or even a belief of our own choosing. It is a belief fostered largely by the corporate-controlled news media. We are constantly bombarded with images of the massive contradictions in those oil-exporting nations, the brutal suppression of women's rights, the abject poverty and virtual slavery of the lower classes, the constant violence and brutality in the streets, the wars, the terrorism, the roadside bombs, the suicide bombers, the beheadings. These are all contrasted against the indoor ski hills, the fifty storey, sail-shaped, climate-controlled hotels with helicopter pads on the roof, the private golf courses, the wealthy enclaves of new homes on land expensively reclaimed from the sea. There is no middle ground, just squalor and opulence, paupers and kings, sons of paupers and princes.

This is further contrasted against the constant images from our own society of our technology, our innovation, our ventures into space, our unending scientific achievements, our application of our innovative technology, and bolstered by the constant reminder of our reinvestment of the wealth accrued from our achievements in further research and development to assure an even better tomorrow. With our wealth we are building the future. With theirs they are building toys for their present, decadent gratification.

All of this media focus on the extreme contrasts in those oil producing/exporting countries and between those countries and our own serves two aims. It builds begrudging public sympathy for the constant whining by the corporate oil majors about the increasing number of state-owned oil companies in the still-exporting nations and how their increasing resource nationalism blocks access to those reserves by those oil majors and their claimed superior development and extraction technology. It also builds that public belief in our oil entitlement and assuages our apathy and acceptance for our governments doing whatever is necessary to ensure ongoing access to our oil.

The borderline between decadent competitor and evil enemy is kept very thin through these caricatured methods of portraying the people and leadership of these oil producing/exporting nations. It perpetuates the us and them mentality. The angst that it builds in the populace of our own nations over the constantly escalating price of gasoline and other commodities can very easily and quickly be parlayed into an acceptance of the need to wage war if our access to our oil is in any way diminished or threatened.

Let us be clear what it is that is being demonized as resource nationalism. It is somewhat akin to someone of middle age becoming suddenly conscious of their own mortality and deciding to take a little better care of their health. The government and leadership of those oil producing/exporting nations are becoming aware of their own nation's mortality, or at lease that of their goose that lays the golden eggs. They are suddenly becoming conscious of the finiteness and approaching decline of their only tradeable resource. And they are becoming increasingly aware of their country's own future needs for that same resource. More importantly, the general populace of those nations is becoming increasingly aware of their future need of that resource. The affluence they are now becoming accustomed to, they realize, is dependent on not the sale but the consumption of that resource.

That realization by the people increases the tenuousness of the control the leadership has over their people. Ultimately control through government is only workable when the people are prepared to accept that control. The more aware they become of their collective power the more they expect/demand in return for accepting that control.

This all amasses as a delicate quandary for the leadership of those oil-producing/ exporting nations. Do they continue to supply oil to the developed nations as fast as they ask, in return for further increasing their own personal wealth, and risk losing control of their own people? Or do they ensure the ongoing support of their people and their submission to authority and control by withholding enough of that resource from the market to continue to build the affluence of their own people for the foreseeable future, thus risking the ire of the importing nations? I believe the answer has been selected. They fear their own people more than the rich western nations, especially since they have control of the energy that powers the technology that makes those nations powerful.

What is happening in the oil industry and the geopolitics that swirl around it almost certainly will not be going unnoticed in other critical industries built around globally traded resources and commodities like food, mineral resources, and others. Any resource or commodity moved about on the conveyor belt of global trade that is important or critical to the future survivability of the source nation must, in the wake of what is happening with oil, be looked at by those nations in the same critical light. The same basic quandary will exist for all. What is more important; the short term building of elitist wealth and affluence that cannot be sustained or the long term survivability of the nation and its people? The closer any resource gets to depletion the more critical that issue becomes.

It has become increasingly difficult in our modern world for even the most dictatorial and authoritarian leadership to withhold and hide information from its nation's determined citizenry. The internet has been an astoundingly important tool in bringing that situation about. In those nations where the leadership tries to maintain even the veneer of social freedoms keeping the people from that information is impossible.

As we have proven throughout our history, it does not require that the whole population be rocket scientists for the rocket to be invented. It likewise does not require that everyone understand the concept of finiteness or the geology of oil fields or the molecular biology and nutrient-absorption of plants for there to develop an understanding of the limits to our growth, a stark realization that infinite growth is not possible. That is the power of ideas and knowledge. Once they have sprung into being as a meme from the mind of even a single individual they are accessible by all, shareable by all, and can potentially be propagated through the entire human population. That is the power of the human intellect. Biological evolution, the dispersal of a new gene through even the local population of one species happens slowly over geological time. The dispersal of a new meme through the entire human population can happen very quickly, even instantaneously through mass, global communications.

Through the ongoing focus on and debate over a single resource in the peak oil dialogue more and more people throughout the world are becoming intensely aware of resource finiteness, of resource depletion, and of the implications for the users of that resource as depletion and exhaustion of that resource nears. Oil is critical to the structure and functioning of our modern society. As such, the potential of its depletion, the implications to that modern society of it eventually running out, the impact on our global, perpetual-growth economy of even a developing and growing insufficiency of it to meet our societal needs, is becoming increasingly worrisome and even frightening.

But that focus on oil's finiteness is causing more and more people to consider the finiteness of other resources and the impact that their depletion, individually or collectively, will have on our society as well. In addition, and perhaps far more importantly, the widespread use of oil, the awareness of the thousands of products derived from it, the critical importance of it in our modern agriculture and our ability to produce the food needed by our 6.6 billion population, has caused people to become increasingly conscious of the depth and breadth to which a resource is used, the applications of it, the depth of our society's dependence on it.

I have written several articles for the blog (Peak Oil is not About Running Out of Oil!!!! , Post-Peak Agricultural Capacity, Plant stomachs and animal stomachs: the differences and similarities, Plants with stomachs - Peak oil implications, Ethanol/bio-diesel vs food and Soil fertility and carrying capacity) discussing the implications of oil depletion on our ability to produce the food required by our massive and excessive human population. The crux of the problem is that our ability to feed ourselves, at our current population, has become critically dependent on oil and its close cousin, natural gas.

The fertilizers that sustain the artificial fertility and productivity in over-cropped, nutrient-depleted, organically-dead soils is produced from natural gas. The pesticides that have to be employed in ever-greater volumes to fight off the increasingly pesticide-resistant insects and pests that prey on our crops and the herbicides used in ever-increasing amounts to fight off the encroachment of adaptive, herbicide-resistant weeds are both derived from oil. The more we use pesticides and herbicides the more resistant the rapidly-evolving organisms become that we use them against. The species that are most seriously impacted over the long-term, in fact, are the slowly evolving species, such as ourselves and other mammals. We are creating an increasingly toxic world with our constant release of our agrochemicals into an environment that has not evolved to break them down and recycle them. Our chemicals simply continue to accumulate in the soil, in the water, in the atmosphere, and in the tissue of living creatures, including ourselves. The higher up the food chain a species is the more saturated their cells become with our toxic chemicals.

The energy to build the increasingly colossal farm machinery and irrigation systems and the fuel to run those machines is derived from oil. And the fuel that drives the global food distribution system - the food on your table travels an estimated average of 1,500 miles to get there - that powers the refrigeration critical to long-distance shipping and long-term storage is derived from oil. The energy that drives the food processing industry, that keeps the food fresh at 24-hour, air-conditioned supermarkets, is all driven by fossil fuels. It is reasonably estimated that ten calories of fossil fuel energy are consumed in the production, preparation and distribution of every single calorie of food.

But the consumption of fossil fuel energy in feeding the human population is not the issue, nor the point of this article. It is estimated that as much as fifty percent of the food consumed globally originates in a country other than that in which it is being consumed. Put another way, fifty percent of the food being produced in countries around the world is leaving the country where it is produced to feed other people. Even that food consumed within the country of origin may have traveled a considerable distance before being consumed, often exiting the country and subsequently returning after a circuitous trip through the global distribution system.

As the global population continues to rise, and the population within nations, the demand for resources by a nation's growing population increases. If there is an increase in affluence in the nation, such as is happening in oil-exporting countries, resource demands grow even faster. If it is a natural human tendency to share one's bounty with others less fortunate, others in need - and I do not accept, at least in the modern industrialized world, that it is - any desire to share diminishes drastically when that to be shared is critical to one's personal survival and is in short supply.

That sentiment also manifests at the national level. It is what is being observed in the so-called resource nationalism that is the current cause of concern in the energy field. Most nations are quite prepared to sell their resources and commodities, even donate some of them to nations and people in need. When that country does not have enough of that resource to satisfy its internal needs, however, that willingness to sell or share diminishes or, as will increasingly be the case, disappears. As the prospect rises of the potential depletion of that resource, and particular as that point nears, the future needs of the nation and its people becomes the focus as much as current needs.

There is no resource more critical to the survival of a nation or its people than food. But food is more than just..... food. It is the land on which it is grown, the water for irrigation, the labour/energy to plant, manage, harvest, and process the food, the seeds from which the crop is grown, the distribution system to get the product to market, the weather and climatic conditions needed for growing the crop, any equipment needed at whatever level of technology to produce the crop, and more. The sufficiency of all of these resources must be factored into any consideration of a nation's future ability to feed its own people.

When a person or a nation reaches that critical point of consciousness of the needs for a resource tomorrow as well as today the result can be a dramatic shift in the attitude of the sale or trading of that resource. It can also be a point of major confusion, as former recipients/purchasers of that commodity wonder at the cause of the change in attitude, especially so if their focus is strictly on today. It can also, whether on a local, personal level, or an international level when it involves nations and the global trade system, be the source of considerable conflict, even wars.

As is obvious by the concerns in the energy field over resource nationalism by certain nations, all people and nations are not going to reach this critical juncture with regard to all resources at the same time. They should. What applies to one resource for one nation applies to all resources for all nations. It is far more likely, however, that the development of these flashpoints will be piecemeal. One nation at a time will become conscious of its own future needs for a particular resource, nationalize it and cut back on the sale and export of that resource/ commodity.

From this point forward, however, we should begin to see an increasing pattern of such shifts in trade policy, an increased incidence of export curbs to protect a nation's future access to an important domestic resource/commodity. As we are approaching near-simultaneous peaks in so many widely used resources (most mineral resources, water, wood and other non-food agricultural products, etc.) the frequency of these events should definitely be on the increase over these next several years as we pass the peak of global oil and fossil fuel production and head down the downslope. We have built our modern world, and the global trade system, on the back of cheap and plentiful fossil fuels. We will all ride the downslope together.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Growing Global Export Crisis not restricted to Oil

It is only recently that people have started to wake up to the realization that peak oil - the point where global oil production reaches a peak and goes into a terminal decline - will be preceded by a global oil export peak. Until recently those in the developed nations of the first world had blithely assumed that all oil production in producing countries outside their own borders was available for export and available on the market for their import and purchase.

This, of course, failed to take into account the domestic needs for that oil in those producing/exporting countries. Domestic oil demand and consumption in those producing countries, such as those in OPEC - largely a function of increased affluence because of those very oil revenues - is growing faster than the growth in the rate of production. This means that not only will their exports decline as a result of peak oil, when they reach it, but also as a result of their rapidly increasing domestic consumption.

Internal demand, needless to say, will not diminish with declining production. Not only has the level of affluence in those producing/exporting nations risen but so has the population as citizens feel more confident about their children's futures as the level of affluence and job security rise. In many of those producing/exporting nations over 50 percent of the population is now under twenty years of age. This sets those nations up for a serious demand crunch just at the time their oil production and exports begin to diminish.

The steepness of the oil supply downslope on the other side of peak-oil/peak-exports will, in fact, be significantly greater than previously considered - as many presenters at the recent ASPO-USA conference in Houston stressed - and greater than the rate built into the majority of the oil depletion models. The rate of decline of oil availability will be a combination of the rate of production decline plus the rate of increased consumption in exporting countries. In the end, of course, it means that oil could cease to be available for purchase by major oil consuming nations long before the eventual point of oil depletion. The potential for wars to ensure a greater proportion of the remaining oil for importing nations increases markedly with this scenario.

But oil is not the only resource traded on the global market that will, in the near-term, experience an export crisis and serve as a potential source of conflict and wars. We live in an increasingly globalized society where there is a growing geographical separation between producer and consumer. Every tradeable commodity is ceaselessly moved around the globe, millions of tons of goods on the high seas and in the air and moving over land by rail and road transport every day. Sooner rather than later, as the global transportation/distribution system begins to break down for lack of fuel, that globalized movement of goods will run into serious problems. Demand will cease to be the driver of trade. Nor will it be driven by the rate at which production can be managed. Trade will be limited by the ability to get goods from producer to consumer, a limitation that will grow as fossil fuel supplies, particularly oil, go into decline and highly-indebted global shipping companies begin to collapse under the burden of fuel costs and shortages of fuel.

Relatively speaking, how big a problem is Peak Oil? Minor really, when you consider the implications of global Peak Food. Of the 194 food producing countries on the planet all but about fifteen are past or at Peak Food. Over 95-percent of all food producing countries are now net importers of food. In reality there is not one among the 194 nations on the planet that internally produces all of the food that its citizens consume. The citizens of net food importing nations are dependent for much of their primary nutritional needs on the dwindling agricultural excesses of that minuscule handful of fifteen net food exporters. This is particularly the case with global grain production and reserves. Grain and seeds are, after all, the most nutritionally-concentrated form of food that we eat.

Over the past several years the global emergency food grain reserves - established as part of the Green Revolution in the last century - have shrunk from a marginal 120-day supply to a critically low level of just 57 days. This level of reserve is deficient for offsetting any significant and widespread grain crop loss in areas such as Africa, South Asia, Eastern Europe and South America. All of these areas are not only the location of the largest proportion of food importing countries but also the areas where the earliest and most extreme impact of global warming will occur. Their risk of widespread local crop losses is extreme and getting moreso with each passing year. It is also not sufficient to cover any surge in demand from natural or man-made disasters during the Northern Hemisphere dormant season, the Northern Hemisphere being the source of the bulk of the world's food grains.

There is, however, an additional complication for the bulk of these food importing countries. Many, perhaps most of them, are net agricultural exporters. This may seem like a paradox but is not. The primary use of agricultural land in most of these countries is for the production of non-food cash crops. The land those nations need to produce their own food is tied up - usually by wealthy multi-national corporations, either directly or indirectly - producing cash crops like cotton, coffee, tea, rubber, cocoa, sugar, etc., or for the support of food animals for the production of export meat and dairy products. Much of the food agriculture in those nations is also committed for export (e.g. rice, nuts, dates, figs, wheat, corn and other grains, etc.), often under the control of or under contract to those same multinational food companies. Many of those nations are simultaneously agriculture rich and food poor. Despite a large base of agricultural land they cannot and do not produce enough food to feed their own people.

There is, of course, a strong an unbreakable link between peak oil, peak natural gas and peak food. And they will all occur at the same time. The artificial fertilizers that have allowed us to push our food production towards a peak, that we started climbing with the Green Revolution, is produced from natural gas. The herbicides and pesticides that have allowed us to protect our food crops from weeds, insect pests, and other plant diseases, are produced from oil. And the whole global food production and distribution system that transfers those food crop surpluses from the fifteen net food exporters to the 180 net food importers is critically dependent on the fuels produced from oil.

Many people take comfort in the belief and expectation that when things begin to deteriorate the government's first priority will focus on feeding it's citizens. That comfort may be misplaced as it does not bear out in the historical record. The majority of the worst famines of the twentieth century in which many millions of people have died, including current and recent ones such as that in Darfur, have been as much or more a function of government policy and geopolitics as they have been a matter of food shortages and crop losses. Food, unfortunately, is one of the first and preferred weapons of war, particularly internal and civil wars. Far more likely than a focus on ensuring food supplies, in fact, is that a government's first priority in hard times is security, particularly its own security and that of its elite and business leaders.

The fact that many of the agriculture exporting nations of the third and developing world have large proportions of their land under cultivation for exportable cash crops is, of course, a double edge sword. On the surface that would seem to suggest that those nations have large tracts of land that, when the global food distribution system begins to break down, can be turned to the production of food for the citizens of those nations. But those land holdings are in the hands of multinational companies or wealthy land owners. Without a focused program of nationalization and redistribution of those lands there is little likelihood that it will be voluntarily converted to local food production. But that land has generally been raped of its natural soil fertility by being bombarded with an annual systematic application of toxic agrochemicals and through consistent overproduction, and been subjected to a build up of soil salts through over irrigation. Turning it into productive food-producing soil will be a long-term process, too long to respond to a food emergency exacerbated by poor planning. In addition, the seeds and root stocks from which to produce the needed food will probably not be locally available and difficult to obtain externally with a faltering global distribution system.

If governments continue to bury their heads in the sand about peak oil and the implications for global transport and distribution the greatest crisis on our near term horizon will, in my opinion, be the reduction in the export of food and the inability to move food from producer to a growing mass of starving and malnourished people throughout the world. This is not and will not be a problem restricted to the third world. In developed nations like ours the grocery and food distribution system is built on just-in-time (JIT) principles. Our food travels an average of over 1500 miles from producer to consumer. Any serious disruption of the food distribution system could see our well-stocked supermarket shelves bare within a matter of days. We are, at the same time, in no better position than third world countries to gear up localized food production in response to a global food distribution emergency. We are, in general, even less skilled in producing food than those in third world nations and will, in fact, have a longer ramp up time than they will.

Politicians do not like publicly talking about problems unless they can offer solutions, especially problems that may not arise in the current election cycle. But the time and effort that will be needed to respond to a global food production and distribution crisis doesn't fit nicely into an election cycle. Our politicians, if they are to be of any use at all, must be prepared and have the courage to take a longer view, must be prepared to head off future crises rather than wait until they happen and respond to them. Unfortunately they see far more votes from fixing a problem than preventing it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Golden Zone

A new report titled Simplifying oil and gas exploration confidently claims "The Golden Zone is about to become a key concept in the petroleum and gas industry." The report details the theory developed over a period of ten years based on a database covering 120,000 productive oil fields. The report is the effort of researchers in Stavanger, Norway - former senior researcher, now dean, Per Arne Bjørkum at the Faculty of Technology and Science at the University of Stavanger, and the researchers Paul Nadeau and Olav Walderhaug at Statoil. That project has determined that 90% of all oil and gas deposits on earth occur in the so-called Golden Zone, a zone in the earth's crust where temperatures are in the range 60-120C.[1]

The depth of this zone varies considerably from one location to another around the world. In some locations this is at depths of 1-2km. These are called warm reservoirs. In cold reservoirs the golden zone is at depths of 4-8km. The differing depths are largely a function of historic plate tectonic activity, cold reservoirs being closely associated with subduction zones. Warm reservoirs are most likely to occur in conjunction with, but not exclusive to, tectonic spreading zones such as rift valleys and sub-oceanic spreading ridges like the mid-Atlantic ridge.[7]

The temperature zone associated with the Golden Zone occurs commonly throughout the world. This does not, however, mean that all parts of the Golden Zone will contain oil and natural gas deposits. It just means there is a greater probability which should reduce the cost and risk associated with oil and gas exploration, especially for deep water reserves. Capitalizing on this theory and reducing exploration costs, however, will require the development of new and improved technology for sensing and measuring the geothermal gradient (the rate of increase in temperature per unit depth in the earth).[5]

This new theory does not preclude the discovery of oil or natural gas in zones where the temperature is outside the 60-120C range. Oil does occur in lower temperature zones but this oil is generally heavier and of poorer quality. At the moment there is not a great deal of refining capacity around the world for handling this heavier oil.[1] The theory also does not negate the occurrence of tar-sands/oil-sands. These deposits are not really oil, however, but rather a type of bitumen which must be processed into synthetic oil.

At first glance it would appear that this study and theory should usher in a new era of more efficient, less costly oil and natural gas exploration that should result in the discovery of vast new hydrocarbon reserves. One analysts suggests, "This new understanding represents perhaps one of the main advances in petroleum geology."[5] This would clearly be bad news from a global warming perspective. Over-exuberance, however would be misplaced. What this theory does is effectively obliterate one of the cornucopian hopes of the oil and gas industry that to find more oil all they have to do is drill deeper.

Essentially this theory says that oil will not occur at depths below the Golden Zone which contains almost all of today's oil fields. According to the research team, "Reservoirs within geologic traps which occur in this zone contain an exceptional number of the discovered giant and super giant accumulations."[2] As the report suggests, "The hope of finding much more oil the deeper we drilled into the basement of the sedimentary basins, is about to fade." It would also seem to nullify the abiotic oil theory which suggests that oil is being perpetually generated at the earth's mantle, the layer of the earth's crust immediately above the outer core.

Where the theory will have the greatest positive impact for the oil and gas industry is in the exploration for sub-oceanic - particularly deep water - reserves. Deep water exploration is tremendously difficult and expensive and anything that helps reduce the exploration risk is a bonus for the oil industry. The theory is unlikely to result in the discovery of many new giant or super-giant fields on land, however. New land-based fields are becoming extremely rare.

Certainly the oil and gas industry, and politicians in every developed and developing nation, will probably latch onto this new theory. Cautionary notes in the research papers will be ignored as the theory is touted as proof that we are about to enter a new golden age of oil discovery and that peak oil proponents are out to lunch. That will be the front page news. The reality that the theory does not allow business as usual to be prolonged will be buried on the back page, if it appears as well. My perception is that this theory is little more than an explanation of the location and occurrence of existing fields, not the road map to tomorrow's fields.
1) Simplifying oil and gas exploration
2) Golden Zone Implications for Global Exploration
3) New Theory Predicts Location Of Oil And Gas Reserves
4) New Theory Predicts Location Of Oil And Gas Reserves
5) The Golden Zone
6) Geothermal gradient
7) Geothermal Gradient

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Unteaching Survival Skills

In my last blog article, Making the Grade: Up the Peak Oil Downslope, I made the mistake of suggesting that we need to teach our children creativity, innovation, adaptability, logic and analysis in order to prepare them for the dramatically changing world that awaits them. That is not to say that those are not skills that our children will need in the post-peak-oil era in which they will spend their adult lives. Those skills will be critical to their ability to survive the massive changes that will be taking place in the world around them.

The mistake I made was in saying we have to teach our children those skills. Our children already have those schools on that first day that they walk through the schoolhouse door. We don't need to teach them those skills. We have to stop unteaching those skills. We need to stop educating those skills out of them. We need to develop ways of strengthening those survival skills that our children already possess. I realized this when I read the comment submitted on the above article by Phil Plasma, for which I thank him. In that comment he wondered how we would teach those skills to our children.

The process of not unteaching those skills and strengthening them instead will not, of course, be an easy one. It is somewhat akin to strengthening our immune systems by not taking antibiotics. Those antibiotics may help us fight off an infection today but they weaken our immune systems in the process and our natural ability to fight off the next infection tomorrow. The education we supply for our children helps our children to cope with the world as it exists today but weakens their ability to cope with the world as it will exist tomorrow, the world in which they will spend their lives. The use of antibiotics makes us dependent on those antibiotics. The current process of educating our children makes our children dependant on the industrialized, globalized world as it is today, a world that will disappear around them during their adult lives.

How do we help our children to strengthen those survival skills which they already naturally possess? I do not claim to know the answer to that. The following, therefore, is just thinking out loud. We stress the value of their questions and challenge them to develop their own answers. We do not punish them for answers that are "wrong" according to our worldview and mindset. We learn what abilities our children possess not with the intent of limiting or restricting them to a specific set of abilities but with the intent of determining where we can help them strengthen all of their abilities. We learn what is that child's greatest strength, their strongest skill and ability, and continue to help them strengthen it more while bringing up the level of proficiency in their other skills. If there is a needed survival skill in which a child is clearly deficient we should not deepen that deficiency by ignoring and avoiding it but rather we should help the child use their other stronger skills to strengthen that one.

I won't go any further on this right now. Clearly this whole concept needs a great deal of creative thought and innovation. Off-the-cuff answers are not answers at all but a simple mechanism for avoiding the deeper thinking needed to develop an appropriate response. My intent in the previous article and this one is to challenge others to give some serious thought as to how this can be accomplished. How can we ensure that in the process of educating our children we do not strip them of their important existing set of survival skills? In the current methods we are, in my opinion, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In attempting to mould our children to fit nicely into our world we are destroying their ability to adapt to and live in their own. That has to change.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Making the Grade: Up the Peak Oil Downslope

For some time now I have wanted to do a follow-up article on education to accompany my previous articles Mud Pies and Dunce Caps and Give Me A Child Until...... It was not until recently that I solidified the theme of that article in my mind. That theme is the cost/benefit of education. What does it cost to educate our children and what benefit - for them, for us, for society, the nation and the world - will be derived from that education over the course of their lives? Put simply, shouldn't the true value of education be the ability to apply what has been learned in and to our everyday lives? Shouldn't it constantly contribute to our ability to support ourselves, to make our way in the world?

To many defining the cost/benefit of education may seem a trivial or pointless goal. Education, after all, is compulsory in most western nations. What is the point in worrying over the cost? Yet education is probably the biggest social cost, often ahead of health care, that has to be born by most western tax jurisdictions. We may personally decide not to concern ourselves with that "invisible" cost but there are many people who expend a great deal of their time and energy worrying about it for us.

It can cost more than $10,000 a year to educate a child in many parts of the United States and other developed countries. That is no trivial sum. That same miracle is achieved for less than $100 a year in many parts of Africa, South America and Asia. The disparity, however, is far greater than it at first appears. In the developed world children stay in school for an average of over ten years at a total cost that generally will exceed $100,000 per student. In the third world children stay in school for an average of only four years for a total cost more-or-less of $400 per student. An average education in the developed world, therefore, costs 250 times the average education in the third world. Is the benefit derived from that western education 250 times the benefit derived from that education given a student in the third world? Will that western student accomplish 250 times what that third world student will in a lifetime?

Much of the cost of that western education, of course, is incurred training the student in order that they can cope with the complexity of the modern world. That same degree of technological complexity does not exist for most of those students in the third world. Their lives are much simpler - technologically speaking - much more basic. They concern themselves with finding enough food to eat, a bit of fuel to cook it with, and how not to be killed by roving death squads at night.

Obviously, to me at any rate, one of the primary questions that should be asked, but never seems to be, is should our children's education be compulsory? Does everyone need or benefit from an education, or at least an education as long as they receive? It is not compulsory in many nations. Many of the people who built this nation of which we are so proud had only a rudimentary education if they had any at all. Many could not read or write, signed their name with an X. My mother taught my step father to write his name when he was forty-seven so he could get a seasonal job on a highway construction road gang. The company only paid by cheque. And the pogey that sustained us through the winter months was paid by cheque. Despite having spent eight years in school the only education my step father got that benefited him or anyone else was gained in the half hour it took my mother to teach him to write his name. Until the wonders of The Lone Ranger and Wild Bill Hickock came into our living room via our first television his entertainment consisted of me reading to him in the evening (at least on those evenings when there wasn't enough money for him and my mother to go drinking at the hotel) from penny-western paperbacks given to him by a mate on the road gang.


When one is considering what a school curriculum for the post peak world should be composed of one needs to take into account the need to prepare students for a world very different than today, a world very different than anyone they know, including their own grandparents, has ever experienced. One must accept the probability that some very basic questions about education will be asked and need to be answered all over again.

What will be the purpose of education in the post peak world? Indeed, what is the purpose of education today? Increasingly it has seemed to be to turn out standardized clones and emotionless robots for the business/industrial complex. The focus in education has been far more concerned with forming in the student the right type of character to take their place in the globalized industrial world and play their part in keeping the machinery of global commerce running smoothly.

The simplest and simultaneously most complex question that will be asked is, why do children need a quarter million dollar education if that is to be their lot in life? In many societies still children are not educated. In some societies only males are educated. In still others only a rudimentary education is given to children - the three R's - beyond which a child is expected to gain his/her own education in whatever way possible. Many young girls in schools in Africa carry a dress in their back pack. After school they put it on in place of their school uniform in order to look attractive when they go out in the street to sell their bodies to make enough money to pay for their education or buy a bit of food for their brothers and sisters. Many of the young boys carry semi-automatic weapons in their back pack - they spend much of their class time sleeping - so they can go straight from school to join their rebel band for their nightly duties in the death squads. Many students attend infrequently, when they can which isn't often. They are needed to work in the fields or help out in other ways at home. Priorities.

The harsh realities that fill the lives of most third world students have no connection with the lessons they are learning in school each day. Those lessons were, after all, designed in Germany or France, Britain, Spain or the United States, often taught in a language the students do not understand by a teacher who does not understand their local dialect. In many of those classrooms the only books present are on the teacher's desk. That doesn't matter though. The students memorize the lessons as they hear them, often graduating never having learned to read or write. Oral examinations would be more accurately described as precise recitations.

That is not to say that the education third world children receive does not benefit them, at least some of them. Some will use the certificate they receive to get themselves a job in the mines or the oil fields or on the oil rigs. Many will spend a life as servants in the rich houses. Some will earn a living building those houses. Many will earn their living working in the plantation fields. Many will parlay their school certificate and the skills they have learned outside the school into jobs in the craft shops and small factories. Many will just go home and work the fields that they will take over when their parents are no longer able to work them themselves.

Even in those third world schools, however, the curricula used are geared to the modern world as it exists today in developed western nations. Alteration through exclusion is the only thing that brings it near relevancy. The link to western industrialization may not be so obvious in these curricula but Dick and Jane are probably still encouraged to play with their dog Spot on the front lawn of their suburban American home.

The curricula, the text books, the teaching methods, the subjects taught, the schools themselves are all geared to teaching students about the complexities of the modern, industrialized, globalized, homogenized nation state. They are designed to prepare the student to take their place in that world, foreverland as it has existed for the past half century and will, if one can judge by the curricula, continue to exist at least for the duration of this millennium.

Not only is that clearly wrong for the current schools in impoverished third world nations, it is wrong for schools in the wealthy industrialized nations. The school system is supposed to prepare students for the future in which they will have to live their lives. Here and now, at the twilight of the age of cheap energy, at the probable dawn of the collapse of technological/industrial society, to design the school curricula around the default, business-as-usual model prepares them for nothing. That world around which the school curricula are built will not exist when they graduate and enter the workforce, or if it still does it will be in its final death throes. They will be spending their time trying to adjust to their place in a world that will be totally changed by the time they have adjusted.

Then they will have to run to keep up with everyone else who is busy trying to adapt to a rapidly changing world, but not changing in the manner in which they expect and are prepared to deal with. This changing world will not be adding new layers of complexity to a base with which they are already familiar and comfortable. It will be shedding all of those layers of complexity that they have been trained to deal with and evolving into a simpler, low-energy model, a manual model, a model that requires them to become hands on, a model in which all of the integrated automatic controls have been shed requiring them to take control.

What is the cost/benefit of the modern education? The cost we know. It is the bet we lay down in anticipation of the win, the benefit which will be achieved in the future. We are spending on average $100,000 and up to a quarter million dollars to prepare students for a future that will never be. James Howard Kunstler talks about suburbia being the greatest misallocation of resources in human history. I would challenge that assertion. The education we are currently giving our children, in light of the future they will face, is the greatest misallocation of resources, the greatest waste of human capital in peacetime history.

How do we change course? How do we begin the process of preparing our children for their future, the one in which they will live their lives? Isn't that, after all, what education is for? Training our children to take their place in a world that will no longer exist when they are ready accomplishes nothing.

We must begin, of course, by recognizing and admitting that the future in which our children will live their adult lives will not be like the present. That is a radical departure from our present methods of school curriculum design. Repeat after me: The future will be different than the present. With that one simple statement, a principle if you will, we would totally change the course of education.

Rather than training our children for life in a world we assume, by that training, will not change, we instead teach them to deal with a world that will change radically. We teach them to welcome and manage change. We must take the emphasis off mechanical and technological training and switch it to teaching creativity, logic, innovation, adaptability, analysis. Yes, we need to teach the three Rs. They are the foundation of education, whether that be training or teaching. In my experience, however, most children have acquired the rudiments of the three Rs even before they enter the school system. The school system must be prepared to build on that rough beginning rather than replace it.

In the area where I live first grade school teachers do not like children coming into their class that have been taught the rudiments of the three Rs in nursery school. I'm not sure but I suspect this is common everywhere. They prefer a clean slate where they can start from scratch and build that knowledge in their students their way. They want things standardized. But the differences in those children, the rough edges of their rudimentary knowledge are a very important asset in understanding how each of those children will learn, what special attention they will need. It is the beginning of the development of their individuality, their unique personality. I can understand why teachers would look upon that as an unnecessary burden. Live with it!

It should not take several years to teach the three Rs. To refine them, perhaps. But not to teach them. And even that refinement does not have to monopolize class time. The only students who need to use the classroom to refine their skills in the three Rs are those whose parents and families cannot or will not assume part of the burden of educating their children. But other, more advanced students can help their peers build their skill level in the basics far more effectively than any teacher can, and acquire additional interaction skills in the bargain. To suggest that students helping other students with lessons slows the progress of the more advanced student is, to me, a rationalization to support the role of authority.


What is the role of a teacher in the classroom? It's an honest question. Dictator? Facilitator? Leader? Partner? Seer? Coordinator? If, in fact, you take away the first (dictator), all of the others apply. But it isn't my intent here to tell teachers how to teach but rather to suggest what they should be teaching.

Should children in inner city schools be taught how to grow carrots or wheat? Should they be taught how to build a root cellar? Milk a cow? Contour plow a field? Should they be taught how to manage a forest and harvest fuel from it by culling? Should they be taught trickle irrigation? Should they be taught how to build a wooden bridge over a stream? How to cut ice out of a frozen lake in February and store it in an ice house? Should they be taught how to build a bicycle? Make harness for a horse or a yolk for oxen? How to build a wagon or a wagon wheel? All of that, of course, makes as much sense as teaching the children of farmers how to conduct marketing surveys or negotiate a union contract or design business clothing or haute couture or how to run an accounting tabulator or use a business photocopier. The educational needs of different children, even within a single classroom, are as disparate as those examples. Each child is unique, if we let them be. To suggest they do not know what they want to do with their lives until they have lived in an adult's shoes is a misguided fallacy. Children are adaptable, flexible. We beat it out of them. If they are prepared to identify a life ambition in childhood we should be prepared to work with them through their childhood to achieve it.

Admittedly creativity, innovation, adaptability, logic, analysis are difficult subjects to teach. Damned difficult. And it is going to require very different teachers than those who stand in front of today's classrooms and guide children through the memorization of meaningless lists, tables and historical data. The teachers, in fact, are going to need to be as creative, adaptable, innovative, logical and analytic as they want the students under them to become. That is asking a lot. Teachers tend to teach what they have learned. The system is designed that way. How can we expect teachers who have come through a process of ordered acquisition of highly defined rules and formulas and information to suddenly teach what must to them seem to be chaos?

To date education has been a process of instilling discipline and order in children, teaching them rules by which to live their lives. Now we want teachers to teach them to be undisciplined? Disorderly? To break the rules? We want them to participate in a free-for-all? What the hell kind of a school system would that be? What would those children learn? What sort of graduates would we turn out? How would we measure their progress?

Ah, there it is, the measuring of progress. Testing. Grading. Measuring. Standardizing. No child left behind. That's what education is, measurement! Creating standardized clones and drones for an unchanging world! Every child should graduate school having learned exactly what every other child has learned! That is the mindset that has been drummed into the current crop of teachers. How can we expect them to accept and foster a chaotic environment which stresses individuality and uniqueness in the students, one in which we develop each student to his/her optimum potential rather than train them to conform to a standard? A ridiculous concept, to be sure, developing each student to their own potential. Everyone will want to be a lawyer or a doctor. Who the hell is going to collect the garbage? We have (but seem reluctant to admit it) an ordered, class-based society. We must determine/decide who will be lawyers and who will be garbage collectors. That decision is too important to be left to the students.

The recent shift in the focus of the school curriculum has been a good one in principle. It has somewhat taken the emphasis off the sciences and mechanical aptitudes and placed it on the development of the character of the students. Looks good on paper. But, like communism, it fails miserably in practice. It has been interpreted - whether by dictate or choice I am not certain - to mean that the character of the student has to be developed to some sort of standard, moulded into a tightly defined pattern. The intent may have been to develop each student to their maximum potential - I am not suggesting that it was, in fact there is considerable documentation to suggest that it wasn't - but the result in practice has been to turn out standardized, sanitized drones. The system does not develop the student's innate abilities but rather defines the abilities the student will be allowed to develop. You see, the purpose of that testing and grading and measuring is to decide what the child's limitations are, in order to prevent the frustration for them of trying to grow beyond those limitations. Individuality cannot be tolerated in such a system. It distorts the reality that the students are coerced into embracing, that being a business-as-usual model of the current business, industrial, globalized world.

I am engaged, I realize, in a never-ending circular argument here to try to convince you that our current teaching methods are ill-equipped to prepare our children to deal with the world they will face as adults. We are training them to take their place in the world as it is now on the assumption that it will still be thus when they are adults. But it will not. It never is. Our children learn about the real world after school, not in it. That is fine, if they have been prepared to do that. But they have not. Nor can they be, with our present teaching methods. Until we change how we teach and educate our children we are unable to change what we teach our children. Until we change what we teach our children we cannot prepare them for the future that awaits them as adults.

Okay. So what is it that we have to teach our children? Questions! Until we teach them how to question, to challenge, to analyze, how to think, we have taught them nothing. The answers to whatever the questions are must come from their own minds, not from text books, not from the teacher's mouth. They must be taught to question and to answer their own questions.

If a child asks, "what does God look like?" why the hell should you tell them the answer? The answer must come from within them. Ask them what they think God looks like. Ask them to draw a picture of God. If they ask why the grass is green ask them why they think it is? Or why the sky is blue. There is no one right answer to any of those questions. There is generally one right scientific answer. But that is not the only right answer. It is more important that a wrong answer come out of their mind than the right answer going in. We learn much more from our mistakes than from our successes. It is critically important that "wrong" answers not be punished, centered out, corrected. They can be debated with their peers, argued, analyzed. That is learning. That opens doors rather than closing them.

When we teach a child to be a passive receiver of knowledge imparted by others in authority, especially if that knowledge is not open for debate, we are not teaching that child to think. We are teaching them to memorize. I can still recite the list of the twenty-four townships of my home county, a list I memorized over fifty years ago. We are not teaching them to analyze and challenge. we are teaching them to accept. We may as well sit them down in front of the television and let PBS do the job for us. There is the ultimate efficiency: one teacher on TV teaching all the children in the nation the same lessons in the same way. Why not? It would be just as effective, if the role is standardization rather than individual student development. United Nations Agenda 21, in fact, is aiming at global standardization of school curricula. The language thing might be a bit of a problem but I am sure we can overcome that.

The world into which our children will be thrust upon leaving school will be one characterized by potentially dramatic changes from that day until the end of their lives. Possibly moreso than any generation before them they are going to have to constantly adapt to change or that change will swallow them up. It will be, by all definitions to which we are accustomed, a bitter, cruel world. It will be competitive on a scale unimaginable in our experience, on a life and death level. It will be a very hard world, a very hard, demanding life where exhaustion, both physical and mental, will be a normal state. Am I exagerating? I could be totally wrong about what is going to happen over the balance of this century, but I don't believe so. If anything I may be seriously underestimating the hardships our children will have to endure.

The very best gift of education that we can give our children is the freedom to think, create, innovate, adapt, change, evolve. We need to take that child entering the school system and free them from traditional academic constraints. We need to let them find their own way, unleash their own raw talent. Yes, we can and must help them to develop what talent they have, but it must be so. We can't decide for them what talent they will be allowed to have or develop. We must allow them to find their own way.

I don't think that is such a huge thing to ask. What is the point in educating our children for life in a world that will no longer exist when they leave school? We do not know what is in their future, what specific challenges they will face as adults, what they will do with their lives. Nor do they. But we can build in them an ability to cope with change, with uncertainty, with chaos. With that ability, whatever their future consists of, whatever hurdles and obstacles are thrown in their way, they will be better prepared to deal with them.

Returning to the question that was the premise of this article, what benefit do our children receive from the expensive education we expose them to in their formative years? In today's dollars the education of the American population of 300-million alone would exceed $30-trillion. Has the U.S., or the world for that matter, received enough benefit from the current U.S. population to justify a $30-trillion expenditure? The $400, four year education received by the average student in the third world develops in those students the basic foundations or reading, writing and basic mathematics. That equips them to be able to continue learning and developing their knowledge as they proceed through life. It gives them the basic tools to deal with the world in which they live and even to deal with changes as they take place in their world. Considering the radical changes that lie ahead of our children through the course of their lives and the lack of suitability of the advanced education they have received to the world that will result, has the education they have received beyond those basics been of any value? Will it benefit them as they cope with the changes in the world around them? Or will the 3-4 years of basic education that allows them to continue learning as the changes take place end up being the only part of that education that has any enduring value?

I question whether the massive cost of the technology-based education that our children receive is justified in view of the world in which they will probably live their adult lives. We must, I believe, radically re-evaluate the role of education in preparing our children for their futures. Considering the massive education price tag we are incurring, at what age is it appropriate to begin to identify a student's unique, personal interests, abilities and aptitudes and begin personalizing that student's education to fit those skills? A student should receive all of the education he/she will make the best use of, no more, no less. But that education must develop that child's abilities, not reform the child to fit into the mould we wish for them.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Are we There Yet? - A Peak Oil Snapshot

Where are we currently relative to peak oil? I do not like to track the progress of peak oil on a daily basis. I do, however, like to take a snapshot such as this every few months. That allows time to differentiate between anomalies and trends, time for the trends to develop, time for the euphoria over new discoveries and new technological developments to calm down in the cold light of reality.

This has been an interesting summer from a peak oil perspective. The hurricane season in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico did not materialize as expected and the disruption of Gulf of Mexico oil supply and the U.S. oil import infrastructure on the Gulf was minimal. This should have meant plenty of supply for the North American summer driving season and helped to disguise the current reality of supply shortages. It did not do that.

* Refined gasoline imports were up. Crude availability is of the type not suited to most western refineries.
* Oil-producing countries have begun investing heavily in local refineries to process crude oil not suited to established refineries, selling more finished product instead.
* We continue to have no new refinery capacity in North America and every news item talking about planned new refinery capacity have has a follow-up where that new capacity is delivered. They projects are often stopped because of poor economic outlooks and the reality of future shortages in crude oil supplies.
* Oil corporation reserves are steadily declining as a percentage of global reserves. Most reserves are now being held by national petroleum companies such as Saudi Aramco and Pemex.
* Strategic reserves are steadily declining as they are dipped into to make up input and production shortfalls. Increasingly the drawdowns are not replenished due to the high spot market price for crude oil.
* Saudi Arabian exports are still down, as they have been for two years, despite incessant promises to increase production in response to pleas and demands from oil-importing countries.
* Exports from oil-exporting countries are declining as those countries scramble to satisfy their own oil needs.
* Economists don't seem yet to allow for the reality that oil is like no other product in that all of the production is not for sale because producers are also consumers of their own product. The more they use, the less they have for sale.
* Increasing affluence in petroleum exporting countries due to the inflow of petroleum money, coupled with the increasing energy demands of extraction and processing, increases the hold-back to satisfy internal needs.
* Most production growth over the past three years has been made up from alternative sources like tar sands, oil sands, bio-fuels and synthetics from CTL and GTL.
* China and India, the two most populous nations on the planet, both continue to increase their oil imports by double digit rates each year. China, though very skeptical of western motivation behind globalization, continue to ride a tremendous wave of economic expansion that is rapidly pushing them toward becoming the world's largest economy.
* Russia, supposedly with the world's second largest oil reserves behind Saudi Arabia, despite their continued belief in the Abiotic oil theory, are having consistent problems maintaining production rates and may soon slip into irreversible decline.
* Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America, are already satisfying the bulk of their liquid fuel needs through bio-fuels made from sugar cane, thus effectively reducing global crude oil demand by the amount of their bio-fuel usage.
* Official oil statistics have been increasingly broadened to include alternative sources. Peak oil has always referred to peaking of conventional crude oil. Alternatives cannot keep up with demand.
* Lack of oilfield equipment and experienced workers is claimed to be holding back reserve expansion. Whether this is reality or a smoke-screen to hide declining reserves is unclear.
* Lack of oilfield workers grows as fewer people go into the business because they see no future in it. Many seasoned oilfield veterans were driven out of the business in oil production cutbacks in the 1990s.
* Official rhetoric in North America and Europe is increasingly leaning toward bio-fuels. This makes oil companies nervous (publicly) but they are all quietly diversifying into bio-fuels, wind and solar.
* The push for bio-fuels is already creating a global food crisis as global emergency food-grain reserves shrink to their lowest level in decades (53 days from 129 days in the past eight years) and poor nations and people are being priced out of the global food-grain markets.
* The supposed vast reserves of alternative fuels such as coal, natural gas, methane, uranium and even bio-fuels are increasingly seen as illusory as they are revealed to be incapable of replacing any more than a small portion of our oil consumption.
* Huge tracts of virgin forest continue to be cleared to make room to plant corn, soy, sugar cane, palm oil trees and anything else that can be turned into bio-fuel.
* Politicians continue to push the hydrogen economy and electric cars while the electricity infrastructure falls further into disrepair and runs steadily close to operating capacity. The majority of new power plants being constructed in countries like China and India employ old, dirty-coal technology, despite new technology being available. New technology power plants cannot be delivered fast enough to keep pace with rapidly increasing demand, nor at a price that governments are willing to pay.
* The government and corporate world have revitalized the nuclear rhetoric despite no new North American plants having been built in three decades. The rhetoric continues to ignore the yet-to-be-solved problem of safe, long-term disposal and storage of nuclear waste.
* There is a growing scarcity of the higher grades of uranium needed for nuclear power plants.
* More and more oil industry executives have recently been conceding the reality of peak oil but continue to claim it is decades in the future. At the same time they increasingly lump alternative sources into claimed reserves and push for new rules for reserve reporting to allow them to claim questionable reserves in their proven reserve numbers.
* Government commitments for decommissioning coal-fired power plants have been back off because of a lack of alternative fuel stocks like natural gas and "clean" coal.
May 2005 continues to be the month of highest global oil production and may very well prove to have been the point of peak oil.
* Mexico's oil production has fallen off a cliff over these past two years, largely due to production declines in their Cantarell field, with no apparent hope of recovery.
* Production in two of the three largest oil fields in the world - Burgan in Kuwait and Cantarell in Mexico - are now officially admitted to be past their peak of production and declining in production at double-digit rates.
* The largest oil field in the world - Gahwar in Saudi Arabia - relies on such heavy injections of water to maintain wellhead pressure that water-cut rates of more than 75% are being experienced, all of which suggests that that aging field is past its natural peak in production.
* Project after project in Canada's tar sands is being cut back, delayed or cancelled due to massive cost increases and overruns. They are now being beset by aggressive new environmental legislation that may, in time, cause tar sands production to be abandoned unless vastly superior and environmentally-friendly processing technology can be developed. This is being hidden behind the debate over aggressive new royalty demands from the Alberta government which has a bad habit of squandering royalties on buying votes rather than on environmental protection. Tar sands operators are now also having to look at new sources other than natural gas for the energy used in processing. The best option, nuclear, will be a hard sell.
* Fields and oil provinces that have peaked in recent years - North Sea, Indonesia, Alaska's North Slope for example - are experiencing double-digit production decline rates well in excess of those of 3-5% used in peak oil models. This suggests that the post-peak downslope will be much steeper than previously thought.
* Because of lack of transparency, production numbers for OPEC countries has generally been estimated based on shipments. The gap between production and shipments. because of internal use of their own oil to satisfy rising affluence, is growing year by year.
* The amount of oil available for export by producing countries and for import by importing countries is beginning to decline at a faster rate than production and is going to force rethinking of global oil markets. Production will need to increase at a rate faster than previously estimated just to keep import levels steady.

Has peak oil arrived yet? I would say so. The pattern in all of the above strongly supports that view.

Are we starting to feel it yet? The price of oil continues to hover around or above US$80. a barrel, despite no significant supply disruption, hurricane or other factors. The world price of food grains has increased as much as 60% and more over these past two years as more and more of those crops are being diverted into bio-fuels. Transport costs are rising steadily as carriers are forced to seek survival by passing on fuel costs to their customers. These and a thousand other signs say we are definitely beginning to feel it, and will feel it ever more over the coming years.

Has the average person on the street realized that we are at peak oil and started adjusting their life and their expectations accordingly? Of course not! As long as the official party line continues to be, "Don't worry, be happy and consume!" Why should they? Those who do recognize peak oil and have given consideration to the implications of what will follow still have a decided advantage and head start over their neighbours who continue to buy into the consumer/credit culture.