Monday, March 31, 2008

Biofuels: A Final Nail in the Green Revolution Coffin

In the middle of the last century, with a steadily rising world population and a similar steady shrinking of global food productivity due to over exploited and stressed soils and increasingly polluted water sources, the world was on the verge of perhaps the greatest humanitarian disaster in recorded history. Hundreds of millions of people were at constant risk of starvation and tens of thousands were dying of starvation and nutrition related diseases daily. Then, like the cavalry riding in on galloping steeds, under the command of Doctor Norman Borlaug the Green Revolution came to the rescue and millions were saved from starvation.

Let us be clear. The problem that we are talking about in the biofuels versus food debate did not begin with the construction of the first ethanol plant. It really began and grew with the Green Revolution over the last half of the twentieth century and is being brought to a head by peak oil which is the prime driver behind the frantic rush to biofuels. Prior to the Green Revolution it was becoming abundantly clear that the global human population of about 2.5 billion was too great for the finite carrying capacity of the earth. We could not produce and distribute enough food to feed ourselves. People were dying every day by the tens of thousands of starvation and other nutrition-related diseases. Population experts were warning of mass starvation in Africa and Asia that could claim the lives of hundreds of millions.

In fact the problem actually has its roots in the much earlier Industrial Revolution and the resulting twin, resource-gobbling scourges of overproduction and consumerism. But going back that far requires too long a lens to serve as a useful focal point. The Green Revolution is recent enough in our history, and still very much with us and contributing to the problem, that it is the appropriate place to begin.

Doctor Norman Borlaug, in response to the threat of global famine, proposed what we have come to know as the Green Revolution. The keys to this proposed solution were; a dramatic increase in agricultural irrigation largely facilitated by the exploitation of vast reserves of groundwater in deep aquifers (approximately 97% of the world's liquid freshwater is contained in these underground aquifers) using powerful mechanical pumps; the efficient, mechanized cultivation of vast tracts of hybrid (subsequently GMO) high-yield crops of feed grains like corn, wheat, soy, millet, rice and others; the development of an efficient global food distribution system to get the food from where it could be grown to where it was needed; vastly increased yields and crop security, especially on increasingly exploited marginal lands, through the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides; the establishment of a global emergency food grain reserve to serve as a buffer against crop losses in vulnerable third world nations (that reserve has shrunk from a marginal 120 day supply to a critical 57 day supply over the past several years[37], [78]); and the development of emergency food aid NGOs to get food to those poor and malnourished most in need of it in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

All in all, the Green Revolution seemed to most like a good and humanitarian thing to do at the time. Few other programs, after all, could claim to be responsible for saving hundreds of millions of lives. The end result, however, was far more than the millions of lives saved. The Green Revolution resulted in the fastest doubling of the human population in history, from 2.5 to five billion in less than forty years, from 2.5 to 6.5 billion in just over fifty years. Considering that the Green Revolution came about because the carrying capacity of earth could not support our then population of 2.5 billion, doubling and, now, nearly tripling those numbers could hardly be considered a success. That entire surplus of four billion people since added to the global population is living on an artificial carrying capacity that is totally dependent on finite and now rapidly diminishing fossil fuels. Whether we are already at or about to reach peak oil the situation can only worsen as our artificial carrying capacity gradually disappears.

Concurrent with the unfolding of the Green Revolution there grew a new psychology of plenty and, subsequently, affluence. We forgot that finite systems have limits and came to believe that anything was possible and that we could continue to grow forever. The previously unimaginable levels of exploitation of energy to support this growth also seemed to have no limits, a belief fostered by governments, industry and the mainstream media for the past several decades.

But all of that is changing. Despite the impressive accomplishments of the Green Revolution, despite a half century of unimaginable global economic growth, despite wondrous new technological advances, despite the first real globalization of human society, the limits that gave rise to the Green Revolution are still there, waiting like the overly-patient creditor for the loan on which we have been living for the past half century to be repaid, with interest. Like the debt-laden, third world country that pays the interest on its outstanding loans by taking on new loans, the longer we continue to live above our means, the longer we continue to survive on this artificial carrying capacity we have created through the massive over-exploitation of great reserves of energy, the greater and more devastating will be the collapse when it can no longer be avoided. We are living in a fool's paradise.

Over the past couple months I must have read over three hundred articles, columns, papers and reports from all over the world on the link between biofuels and increasing global hunger and poverty. It makes this writing of yet another article on the subject seem like kicking a dead horse. But as long as we continue our infatuation with biofuels the problem is going to continue to worsen and efforts, big and small, are still going to be needed to put the brakes on this insidious and ultimately dangerous new energy fairy.

Much of the debate over whether the production of biofuels is contributing to world poverty and hunger is an apples and oranges affair. Proponents of biofuels claim that the production of biofuel crops in third world countries can actually improve conditions in those countries by giving them another lucrative cash crop ([1], [12], [24], [59]), I guess to go along with the bananas, coffee, tea, cotton and millet that they now produce for export. But for every piece extolling the virtues of biofuels there are a hundred articles warning how they will contribute to the already existing crisis of global hunger (for example; Biofuels and world hunger[10], Will Agro fuels Usher Famine? [16], The Globalization of Hunger[21], Starving for Fuel: How Ethanol Production Contributes to Global Hunger[35] and many, many more). The benefits of the production and export of exportable cash crops, though it may increase the foreign cash influx for a third world country, do not accrue to the people most in need, those grappling with starvation and poverty. It benefits the large-scale, fat-cat industrial farmers who may, or may not, employ some of those living in poverty at a wage that is guaranteed to keep them there, and keep them barely alive nutritionally (see, for example, Neither biofuels nor biotechnology will benefit African smallholder farmers[39], Small farmers speak out against globalisation[57]).

The impact of biofuels on global food prices and global emergency food aid is not on those large farmers who grow and export biofuel crops. The impact is on the poor and starving, urban and rural. The impact is on those small farmers who have been priced off their own small piece of land because of the globalization of food prices and the fact that their small-scale production has to compete in a global market against the output from a highly-mechanized 50,000 acre farm in the U.S. heartland. The impact is on the small farmer who is forced into growing a crop he cannot afford to buy, and can't eat, in order to try to buy food at a market, food that has increased in price by 25-50% over this past year alone[26]. The impact is on the hundreds of thousands of destitute and starving refugees crowded into barely survivable refugee camps, people who have lost everything and have little prospect of ever having anything again. The impact is on the dozens of emergency food aid NGOs that are having to plead to increasingly reluctant western governments ([59], [71], [76]) for much more funding because of the skyrocketing prices of the food grains they rely on to feed starving millions in Africa and Asia ([14], [48], [52], [60], [65], [68], [71], [74]).

The biofuels debate is badly confused because of the many different, and highly variable, biofuels that are lumped under that single banner. The basic grouping of bio-diesel and ethanol/methanol is not even sufficient to lend clarity. The cost and impact of ethanol on the environment and on global hunger depends very much on what type of ethanol/methanol (distilled ethanol, celulosic ethanol, etc) and on the specific feedstock you are discussing (sugar cane, sugar beet, corn, wheat, palm oil, jatropha, cassava, rice, switchgrass, algae, etc.).

I am not a chemist so please forgive me if I oversimplify. Producing ethanol is essentially a task of turning plant sugars into alcohol through a process of esterization and fermentation. Regardless of the feedstock, this final stage is relatively similar in process, technology and cost. Where the tremendous variability occurs in both process and cost is in converting the feedstock into the required sugars, in getting the feedstock to release its sugars. This generally has to be accomplished with the aid of different enzymes that convert the carbohydrates in the organic material into sugars. But not all enzymes are created the same and different feedstocks need different enzymes. Some enzymes are very efficient, others not. The carbohydrates that the enzymes convert into sugars may be very different in molecular structure, and vary considerably in concentration within the organic matter.

The environmental impact and the contribution to soil destruction and, most importantly, to world hunger is very much dependent on that feedstock. To lump together the ethanol produced relatively efficiently from sugar cane in Brazil and the heavily-subsidized corn ethanol produced in a plant in Kansas is to completely cloud the argument. They are as different as night and day. Take away the ludicrous subsidies enjoyed by America's corn ethanol producers and you have an industry operating in the red. The EROEI on corn ethanol is negative, that of sugar cane ethanol slightly above one. In fact the majority of ethanol processes could not survive without government subsidies. Yet any suggestion that those subsidies should be removed meets with a flurry of objections ([6], [8], [9], [20], [22], [49], [51], [59]). You can't just offer the subsidies then take them away. Companies are going to suffer. Many of those companies could fail.

Well that's an argument I would very, very much like to turn around. The green revolution promised the people of the world, especially the impoverished and hungry of the third world, that food would no longer be a problem, that they could be confident of being able to put food in front of their children today and tomorrow, led them to believe that food was an inalienable right and that the world would take care of it's poor and hungry. They could bring children into the world without the risk of having to watch their bellies bloat up from hunger and have them die in their arms because there was no food. To the poor and starving that promise of food, even the most basic of food, was as important as the guarantee of lifetime employment to a factory employee in the industrial heartland. The food aid distributed by the food aid organizations to the most hungry and destitute among us was the equivalent of the corn ethanol subsidy that many governments are reconsidering. Through the surpluses produced starting with the Green Revolution we assumed the role of subsidizing global overpopulation. The end result, like corn ethanol plants sprouting up in Kansas, was that the population continued to climb. Everyday the world had to subsidize more and more excess population.

To take away that subsidy, to now begin diverting that food on which the world's poor are so dependent for their very lives away into the production of ethanol and other biofuels, to now begin to cut back on the national contributions to the emergency food aid agencies that distribute that food, to now start pressuring those poor third world countries into using their increasingly impoverished agricultural land to produce crops to produce ethanol, is going to spread unimaginable additional suffering among the world's poor and hungry. They are going to be paying the real price for our ethanol mania. Removing the corn subsidies from ethanol producers may cause many companies to fail. What we are doing in our pursuit of biofuels will cause untold additional deaths.

I must apologize for the long list of articles and other references below. This is, however, just a small sampling of the massive amount of material available. I urge you to read at least some of them.

1) Biofuels Will Help Fight Hunger
2) Biofuel industry says oil hike driving food prices
3) A balanced contribution
4) AGRICULTURE: Costly Prosperity
5) GSPI States: Some Biofuels Add Significant Food to Your Table
6) Screwing the poor to secure votes
7) Biofuels: Is corn ethanol the way to go?
8) Repeal "Biofuels" Requirements
9) Hell hath no fury like a special interest questioned
10) Biofuels and world hunger
11) Corn prices raise the specter of hunger
12) Ethanol leaders urge U.N. to review biofuel report
13) A clean, green machine?
14) Biofuels eating into food security--Golez
15) Are commodities a bubble ready to burst?
16) Will Agro fuels Usher Famine?
17) Zimbabwe: Myths of Agro-Fuels Boom
18) The Buzz on Biofuels: Worse Than Dickensian
19) Saving and Restoring Forests Saves Far More Carbon Emissions than Biofuels
20) What Is The Real Cost Of Corn Ethanol?
21) The Globalization of Hunger
22) Subsidizing Hunger On Borrowed Cash
23) NCSU researchers re-engineer sweet potato for efficient ethanol production
24) Biofuels "Will Not Lead to Hunger"
25) Zimbabwe: Biofuels - Promote Research On Non Food Crops
26) Global food prices rise 40% in 2007 to new record
27) Biofuels, the Biggest Scam Going
28) The Last Word (for 2007) on Biofuels and Hunger
29) False Solution to Climate Change
30) How Global warming is creating global hunger
31) Eating MEAT and using BIOFUELS becomes an international disaster
32) Three Billion Dead: The Future of Biofuels and the Future of Resistance
33) It's time to wake up to the danger of this infatuation with biofuels
34) Defra scientist: second generation biofuels need investment
35) Starving for Fuel: How Ethanol Production Contributes to Global Hunger
36) Africa: Controversial Proposals Expected At WEF Gathering
37) The world has only 11 weeks of consumable corn reserves - the lowest level ever
38) World Economic Forum to look at Africa's Green Revolution and energy
39) Neither biofuels nor biotechnology will benefit African smallholder farmers
40) Ethanol
41) Ethanol The Road to a Greener Future
42) Methanol
43) Biodiesel
44) Jatropha
45) Biofuels could generate extensive food shortages
46) CLIMATE CHANGE: EU Persists With Biofuels
47) INSIGHTS: Why Ethanol Production Will Drive World Food Prices Even Higher in 2008
48) Food supplies too scarce to meet relief needs
49) DEVELOPMENT: Biofuels a Lose-Lose Strategy, Critics Say
50) The Choice Between Food And Fuel
51) Groups call for moratorium on government biofuels incentives
52) UN aid chief worried by food inflation, weather
53) Impoverished Areas Of Africa And Asia Face Severe Crop Losses From Climate Change In 20 Years
54) Nine Billion Little Feet on the Highway of the Damned
55) Studies conclude that biofuels are not so green
56) Genetically modified (GM) crops ‘failing to keep promises’
57) Small farmers speak out against globalisation
58) The ravages of ethanol
59) CLIMATE CHANGE: Lula Calls for Flexibility from Rich Countries
60) African NGOs call for moratorium on biofuels
61) Canadians Bemoan the Lack of Availability of Biofuels
62) The Future is Famine
63) A recipe for inflation
64) The Great Agrofuel Swindle
65) World Food Program issues 'emergency appeal' for funds,1,6674660.story
66) "We knew we were poor before, but now it's worse than poverty."
67) Hot air on biofuel
68) Food Agencies Are Starting to ask for Extra
69) EU's biofuels target could be amended amid concerns
70) Biofuel: The fake solution to climate change
71) Soaring Food Prices Putting U.S. Emergency Aid in Peril
72) Ethanol Is Not The Answer
73) NYT Hits Small Mark, Misses Big One
74) Higher grain prices putting squeeze on world food aid,0,2800064.story
75) 2008: The year of global food crisis
76) Economies face the prospect of mass migration, fear, famine and disorder
77) World Bank to Increase Africa Agriculture Loans,,date:2008-03-11~menuPK:34461~pagePK:34392~piPK:64256810~theSitePK:4607,00.html
78) Hunger is set to grow as global food stocks fall
79) World Bank Loan To Complement Agricultural Reform In Kazakhstan$file/X_554592.DOC
80) China: Third Irrigated Agriculture Intensification Loan Project
81) Results For "agriculture development"
82) World Bank Support of Agricultural Development Projects in Romania
83) Agriculture & The World Bank

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Solving the World's Problems

We collectively in society have a pervasive belief that big problems are someone else's to solve. When someone points out a problem to us our general reaction is to ask what they intend to do about it. I am not sure when it became that he who recognizes a problem has the responsibility to fix it. Where is the responsibility of the person(s) who created the problem in the first place? To me the first responsibility of someone who recognizes a large systemic problem that they cannot fix themselves, especially one not of their own making, is to make others aware of it so they can collectively fix it, or avoid it if it can't be fixed.

I have a confession to make. I cannot fix global warming and climate change. I cannot prevent peak oil. I can not solve resource nationalism. I cannot correct the global freshwater crisis. I cannot rebuild the planet's lost soil fertility. All of these problems are beyond my meagre talents to rectify. All of them will affect me as much as the next person so I very much want to see them corrected but I am powerless, on my own, to do anything significant about them. Does that mean, therefore, that I should just accept them (like the old quote from Anonymous suggests, "Accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.") and wait for someone else to recognize them, speak about them and offer solutions? I am personally very skeptical of anyone promising solutions to large global problems. They are generally simplistic and focused on the symptoms, not the underlying cause. And I do not believe you can effectively solve any problem unless you correct the underlying cause. Fixing the symptoms without fixing the underlying cause just sets up a return visit to fix other symptoms, and then others. The symptoms may change but the problems will persist.

Why do I write about global problems without proposing solutions? The problem with proposing solutions to large problems, especially systemic global problems, is this. What is the next response when you tell someone a solution to a problem? "That's great. Now go do it and don't bother me about it anymore."

Let me illustrate. I could tell you that the underlying cause of peak oil is that we are using far too much oil and have become too dependent on it and have no other alternatives to fall back on when it can no longer satisfy our needs. The solution? Reduce our oil dependence, reduce our oil consumption through greatly improved efficiencies, develop and ramp up the alternatives for us to fall back on so we are ready as the oil supply diminishes. "Great. Now go away and do it and don't bug me." See how it works?

The solutions to our global problems are not simple. They are as complex as the intricate web of underlying causes of the problems. No one can tell you "in seventy-five words or less" how to solve peak oil, global warming or any of the other serious global problems on the horizon. If the primary requirements for any proposed solution are simplicity, brevity and the ability to be done (by someone else, of course) without affecting people's lifestyles then no workable solutions can be put on the table. Period!

Why do peak-oilers wallow in despair? Because people do want brief, simplistic solutions that will not affect their lifestyle. Well, how about this. That lifestyle is the underlying cause of peak oil, global warming, resource depletion, soil contamination, the freshwater crisis, pollution and the rest of the whole long list of global problems we are facing. This planet cannot sustain a massive population of a single parasitic species at the very top of the food chain (we 6.6 billion humans) in the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. For starters we have to drastically change and simplify our lifestyles, stop globalization, eliminate our obsession with and dependence on the personal auto, abandon the perpetual growth economy, re-orient our consumption to satisfying needs not wants, oh, and reduce our population to one billion by the the middle of this century. But that does not fit within the criteria that acceptable solutions must satisfy - brevity, simplicity and no changes.

Because there are no solutions that can satisfy those criteria!

Of course there are solutions! But they are complex, intricate, they are going to be painful, and they are going to involve massive changes. At this late stage there is no other option. The time for simple, easy solutions was centuries ago when the contributors to the problems we have created were simple and easy. But the layers of complexity that we have added to those problems are going to require similar layers of complexity in the solutions. And governments and politicians, industry and the media continually telling people what they want to hear - that there are no problems, that life is good, that the American way of life is not negotiable, and that people living beyond their means is acceptable (nay, required) - simply serves to make the proposal of "real" solutions that much more difficult and to be viewed as that much more unacceptable.

Peak-oilers are seen as pessimists and doom-n-gloomers because they won't share in the false euphoria that permeates mainstream society. We wont sing Kumbaya and validate the cornucopean proclamations of society's cheerleaders. Most importantly, and very mistakenly, we are accused of wishing for the collapse of human society. Nothing could be further from the truth. Don't shoot the messenger.

Every peak-oiler I know hopes beyond hope to be able to head off some of the disasters they see coming by alerting unaware people to those disasters in hope they will collectively take action and make the necessary changes and sacrifices to prevent them or reduce their impact. The pessimism comes from the constant confirmation that that is unlikely to happen. People do not seem to be interested in saving themselves, their children and their grandchildren if it means giving up or changing anything. So be it! At least we try. You can't force people to unplug themselves from the matrix. All you can do is try to make them aware that they are part of it. If they like it in there and feel comfortable and secure and don't want to come out, all you can do is move on and try to save those that you can. It's very lonely and often times it seems like the easiest course of action is to just give up and re-insert the plug and rejoin the matrix. After all, your chances of survival on your own, while the matrix is still there, are very remote. Why not enjoy it while it lasts?

But enjoy what exactly? What benefits are there to be derived from blissful ignorance of the problems we have created and continue to make worse? It's a little like marching knowingly into the Auschwitz gas chambers blithely joining in the celebration of the wonderfully cleansing shower they have told us we are about to have. You know you are about to be gassed to death but you go along with the pretense and put on your best, silk bathrobe.

How do we solve all of the problems I talk about? With a universal change in attitude. We have to collectively start treating the earth and the environment like we are part of it, like we belong to it rather than it belonging to us. How we achieve that, I do not know. Maybe we need massive, penalizing luxury taxes on all non-essential goods. Maybe we need to build into every item the true environmental cost and compel both the manufacturers and users of those products to invest that money in correcting the environmental damage done by their manufacture and use. I don't know what the answers are. But I do know there are answers. I may know some of them. You may know some of them. Charlie on the next block may know some. But if we never talk about the problems, if we continue to act like they don't exist, we will never solve them.

The solution to any problem starts with the understanding and acceptance that there is a problem that needs solving. And I don't think we have collectively reached that point yet. I believe the majority of people still think everything is fine and life is great. And why wouldn't they? Every mountain of a problem is reduced by the media and politicians to a molehill and every tiny molehill of a solution is built up as a Mount Everest. Black is white, red is green and pigs fly.

I am as guilty as the next person and as much a part of the problem, perhaps more guilty because I already know the things I should be doing but am not. Others can at least plead ignorance, even if selective and voluntary. I can only plead advancing age and ill health. But we do have to fix the problems, if the human race is to have any long-term survivability as a viable species, and the time to do so is rapidly running out. Fixing the problems will not involve more of the same. We cannot continue on with human society as it is presently constituted. There must be a serious change in direction. There simply are not sufficient resources - be that oil, natural gas, coal, water, soil, a wide variety of metals and minerals, or any other resources - to continue on the way we have, especially for these past few hundred years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

One of the most controversial and painful subjects of discussion among peak-oilers is the so-called die-off. This is the theory (strongly held belief?) that when we pass peak oil the massive global human population, which has virtually exploded since the Industrial Revolution but, most particularly, since the beginning of the oil age in which time it has more than tripled, will begin to diminish rapidly back to a level, it is believed, approximating global population before the Industrial Revolution. That population was about one billion. This theory or belief is based on an analysis of the amount of energy (most derived from oil and other fossil fuels) required to produce the food and other life essentials needed by a human population, and the close co-relation between population and energy use. (See my article in this blog, Energy as the Catalyst in the Punctuated Equilibrium of Human Population Growth).

It is reasonably estimated, for example, that in western industrialized societies it takes about ten calories of energy, again mostly from fossil fuels, to produce every calorie of food. That, to me, despite being a shocking ratio, is a very low, conservative estimate. Why? Because it does not take into account the massive amount of topsoil loss caused by so much human agriculture and the effort, time and energy that will be required to revitalize that soil to the level needed to produce the food needed by the population without modern agricultural machinery, chemicals and practices (See my article in this blog, Post-Peak Agricultural Capacity). It does not take into account the damage done to our lakes, rivers and oceans from agricultural run-off and the effort and energy it will require to recover them. It does not account for the massive depletion and toxification of the planet's underground aquifers, especially non-replenishable fossil aquifers like the Ogallala aquifer in Western U.S. (See my water articles in this blog; The Emerging Global Freshwater Crisis, Peak Water, and Mining Water), and the effort, energy and time that will be involved in bringing them back to health. It does not account for the spent and wasted energy that will be involved in crop losses in storage without modern storage techniques. In other words, it is an estimate that has little applicability to human society on the other side of peak oil where, one way or another, the food needed by the population will have to be produced without today's prodigious energy inputs.

Whatever level of population exists on the other side of peak oil, and regardless of all the other "things" that population produces and consumes and surrounds itself with, that population is going to require the same quantities of food per person as today's population. If every calorie of that food requires ten calories of energy to produce where is that energy to come from without those fossil fuels? Obviously if it is to be produced from human power, manual labour, human energy, we will not survive long as a species if we are expending ten calories of human energy for every calorie of food we produce and consume. Food production in our modern, globalized society is perhaps one of the most inefficient uses of energy we are guilty of. There is absolutely no choice but to find greater efficiencies in food production on the other side of peak oil. But we are constantly told, and very incorrectly so, that food production using fossil energy and the practices instituted with the Green Revolution are the most efficient in history. They are the most efficient in one respect only, the reduction of the amount of human labour involved in that food production. We use so much energy in food production because we have replaced human energy with machines, massive, energy-gobbling machines. We produce more food with fewer man-hours of effort than at any time in human history. But we do so, and can do, only because of the massive amount of energy fossil fuels have allowed us to exploit. The practices we use today simply are not applicable to a post-fossil-fuel world. We are going to have to relearn agriculture and food production, and we need to begin now.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Mining Water

(See also my articles Peak Water and The Emerging Global Freshwater Crisis in this blog.)

The term "mining water" is increasingly used to refer to the extraction of groundwater, usually by pumps, from underground aquifers. Get used to the term. At the rate we are polluting our surface water in lakes and rivers and the rate at which freshwater sources are drying up under the assault of global warming and human development it may soon be the only potential source of clean drinking water we or our children and grandchildren have left. It is an appropriate term in many ways.

Water is a finite resource that is constantly recycled - like the metal in beer cans - and many of the underground aquifers from which we extract it are non-replenishable, meaning once it is gone, like a vein of ore, it's time to shut off the pumps and go home or move on to another aqua-motherlode. Even those aquifers that are replenishable, however, have a long-established, generally-low rate at which they will replenish ("Water that enters an aquifer remains there for an average of 1,400 years, compared to only 16 days for rivers."[5]. Extract more water than the rate at which it will refill and you start the process of depleting, and possibly irreversibly damaging, the reservoir. The land over many aquifers that have been over-exploited shows clear signs of sinking and compression due to the underground void left as the water is extracted.

Changing weather patterns generally, and the more pronounced changes being brought on by global warming, and the persistent human habit of draining marshes and wetlands for development, many of which are the source of replenishment for underground aquifers, are also changing the rate at which many aquifers replenish, usually negatively. Unless aquifer replenishment rates are tracked with changes in the climate and local development ("The Yellow river in China, Colorado River in North America, and the Murray River in Australia are amongst the Earth's major rivers that are regularly sucked dry.")[1], those dependent on an aquifer for water may find their wells suddenly going dry even though they have not increased their water extraction.

There is another aspect to the term "mining water" that is particularly worrisome for the future. Water rights to surface water in most areas today require a water rights license, even if the water runs through or touches your property. That license spells out what source of water you have access to and how much water from that source you are permitted to use. If the term and concept of "mining water" works its way into government bureaucratic lexicon you may also need a license to access the groundwater beneath your own property - some jurisdictions already require it - a license that similarly specifies how much of that water you have a right to use. In international trade agreements, and in the conditions attached to IMF and Worldbank loans to developing countries, water services and water rights are a commodity that is increasingly required to be open for commercial trade. It is possible, as clean surface water sources become increasingly scarce, that your groundwater may become an important tradeable commodity for which you are going to have to compete against the highest commercial bidder. With the majority of aquifers already under pressure from over exploitation governments everywhere may decide that growing demand for commercial groundwater access is exactly why there is a need of government control and private access restriction.

For me, in addition, the term also has a strong personal meaning which, I believe, clearly illustrates a broader issue. The southeastern Ontario community I grew up in was a mining town. A mile southeast of home, the constantly-growing, flat-top mountain of slag clearly visible from anywhere in town and the surrounding area, there was a large, open-pit iron ore mine that was the town's main employer during my growing-up years. When they had tapped out the economically-recoverable iron - there was still plenty of iron but they would have had to go underground to get it - the mining company shut off the pumps that kept the pit from flooding and walked away. They even ripped up their rail line that once delivered tons of crude ore to Lake Ontario for shipping across the lake to a Pennsylvania processing facility. They left behind a massive hole in the ground over 600 feet deep and a mile across.

For the past forty years that "hole" has been filling up with clear, blue water, draining every aquifer in the area. Whether they are replenishable I don't know since no appropriate survey of local aquifers has ever been conducted, though they are currently being studied as part of a broader, provincial groundwater survey. There isn't a well within miles, nonetheless, that still has water in it. The community, fortunately, takes its municipal water from the river that runs through town but the water mains end at the town limits. The farmers and other rural residents in the area over aquifers that are draining into the mine, being all those south and east of the town, have been left without a water supply. Perhaps, in another hundred years or so, when the water level in the "mine" comes up to the level of what was the local water table, those wells may produce water again, if they are replenishable and the flow characteristics of the aquifers haven't been irreversibly damaged. The periodic tremors in the area since the mine closure are a sign, unfortunately, that some such damage may be occurring as the aquifers drain, or may have occurred as a result of the tremendous blasts while the mine was in operation.

A full two thirds of the world's people already rely almost exclusively on underground aquifers for their drinking water and over half of global agricultural irrigation uses groundwater. But a third of the world's population lives in areas that are already seriously water-stressed. Where the UN established minimum daily requirement is 10 gallons of water per person these areas have an availability of only 1-3 gallons per day and much of the daily challenge and activity revolves around how to acquire water. Water for sanitation and basic hygiene is one of the greatest challenges in these areas and thousands die every day from infections and water-borne diseases. "One child dies every eight seconds from a waterborne disease; 15 million children a year."[4]

Overall as many as half the world's aquifers are already over-exploited, being drawn upon at a rate greater than they can be or are replenished. Too often a slowly-replenishing aquifer that has served the needs of local farmers and residents for centuries comes under pressure from high volume extraction for commercial use. This, for example, was the case for one aquifer in India where a well-known soft drink company built a plant in the area and drew on the aquifer for the water to make their soft drinks. Hundreds of wells in the area went dry, wells that had been in continuous use for hundreds of years, because the replenishment rate on the aquifer could not keep up with the traditional demand plus the high volume extraction by the software company. Repeated law suits consistently came down on the side of the soft drink company. The rapidly growing global demand for clean bottled water is also putting major pressure on many aquifers, most of them deep, pristine non-replenishable fossil aquifers.

Water in an aquifer, like oil in a reservoir, generally does not exist as a unified body like a vast underground lake. But it can. More commonly, it may saturate a layer of sand underground, like the Alberta tar sands, or it may trickle slowly through cracks and cavities in a rock formation. Look at the face of any rock cliff and you will generally see the telltale vertical dark streaks where water is oozing out of these cracks in the stone. Aquifers may be vast in terms of their overall size, like the Ogallala aquifer - a non-replenishable, fossil aquifer - which covers most of the U.S. midwest. Or they may cover only a few thousand square meters or less. And they may be just a few feet below the surface or a mile or more down.

Our romantic image of a water well is the picturesque round bricked well with the peaked roof and a pull-up rope wound round a hand-cranked pulley. The vast majority of wells, however, and most of those developed over the past half-century, are drilled wells with a pump, sometimes a hand pump, sometimes a windmill, but most often a mechanical pump run by electricity or a gasoline engine. It is these powerful electrical and gasoline-driven pumps that have allowed us to exploit ever deeper aquifers, some over a mile deep, in ever greater volumes (while global population has tripled in the past century global water usage has grown more than six-fold, most of that growth from underground aquifers).

Under China's arid north plain, where much of the country's vast quantities of wheat and other grains are grown, there is a shallow aquifer that has been relied upon for centuries to supply water to mostly hand-dug wells. The replenishment rate is slow but for many centuries the amount of water being used from it was below that recharge rate. Now that aquifer has been seriously over-exploited and has been, effectively, sucked dry. But there is also a deeper aquifer under the north plain that is now being tapped thanks to powerful new mechanical pumps. The problem is this deep reservoir is a non-replenishable aquifer, the fossil water in it having been sequestered there for thousands of years. With more and more wells sunk down to this deep aquifer it too may be sucked dry within a few decades leaving China's breadbasket that feeds much of her 1.6-billion people without a source of much-needed irrigation. China's grain production, in fact, has already fallen while half a billion people have been added to the population from its "peak of 392 million tons in 1998 to an estimated 358 million tons in 2005. For perspective, this drop of 34 million tons exceeds the annual Canadian wheat harvest."[2]

An aquifer, like an oil reservoir, covers a large enough area that multiple wells can draw from it at the same time. In India, for example, the relatively few aquifers in the country are being tapped into by more than 22-million wells. And like oil, each additional well drilled into an aquifer increases the depletion rate and has the potential and often does decrease the water available to the other wells. This becomes seriously apparent when the extraction rate of all the wells exceeds the replenishment rate of the aquifer. This vast mining of aquifers in India, for example, is taking its toll and is "lowering water tables in most of the country. In North Gujarat, the water table is falling by 6 meters (20 feet) per year."[2]

There are literally thousands of legal agreements worldwide covering the right of use of surface water in lakes and rivers. But as much as 97% of the world's liquid freshwater is not in these lakes and rivers but rather in underground aquifers. There are essentially no existing agreements covering the use of groundwater, even though many aquifers cross national borders and their over-exploitation on one side of the border is a strong potential source of conflict and even war. Those few agreements that even mention groundwater cover it as an aside and something to be dealt with in the future. But that future is now, if there is to be a future for the world's aquifers and drinkable water for future human generations.

We are taking our underground water sources for granted and treating them with the same reckless abandon that we treat our lakes, rivers and the oceans. "Toxic chemicals are contaminating groundwater on every inhabited continent, endangering the world's most valuable supplies of freshwater, reports a new study from the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based research organization."[3] Just a few U.S. examples, which are similar to examples from other continents, will illustrate the depth and breadth of the problem.

* "Water utilities in the midwestern United States, a region that is highly dependent on groundwater, spend $400 million each year to treat water for just one chemical, the pesticide atrazine. According to the U.S. National Research Council, initial cleanup of contaminated groundwater at some 300,000 sites in the United States could cost up to $1 trillion over the next 30 years."[3]
* "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 100,000 gasoline storage tanks are leaking chemicals into groundwater. In Santa Monica, California, wells supplying half the city's water have been closed because of dangerously high levels of the gasoline additive MTBE."[3]
* "Sixty percent of the most hazardous liquid waste in the United States - 34 billion liters per year of solvents, heavy metals, and radioactive materials - is injected directly into deep groundwater via thousands of "injection wells." Although the EPA requires that these effluents be injected below the deepest source of drinking water, some have entered underground water supplies in Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Oklahoma."[3]

Man is the only species on this planet able to and in the practice of exploiting earth's sequestered resources like oil, natural gas, coal, minerals, and water. Apart from the fact we claim an exclusivity that excludes other species with whom we reluctantly share this planet we also, particularly in this past century, seem to have no sense of responsibility for sharing them with future generations of humans, our own children and grandchildren. The resources they will need for their very survival are being voraciously gobbled up and discarded as an assumed birthright in our greedy demands for support of our increasingly decadent lifestyle. If this robbing from future generations were accidental because we did not understand the long-term implications of over-exploitation it would be bad enough. But it is not accidental. We do understand. Our governments and industry organizations pump out reams of statistics every day detailing our crime. And yet we continue on, as if to say to our grandchildren, "To hell with you. I'm going to have a good time as long as I can and it's your problem to figure out how to survive on what's left when our party is over."


Additional reading material:

1) A Global Water Crisis
2) Aquifer Depletion
3) The Hidden Freshwater Crisis
4) UN Highlights World Water Crisis
5) The Hidden Freshwater Crisis

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Peak Water

(See previous article "The Emerging Global Freshwater Crisis"[10] in the blog.)

The real impact of the peaking of any finite resource is that long-established demand continues to rise while the supply goes into terminal decline. This is the nexus of a crisis. In our growth-addicted global society to it means that growth of whatever sectors of the economy and society rely on that resource must cease. There is much discussion and debate about peak oil and the broad impact it will have on our energy-hungry global society. But we are facing another peak which will ultimately have even more devastating consequences.

Peak water!

There is a not unreasonable tendency to think of water as a renewable resource. Seventy-five percent of the earth's surface, after all, is covered with it. And the planet has a very efficient hydro-cycle where water is constantly recycled and recirculated. The rain that falls on a field of Kansas corn rose as water vapour from the vast warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean. But salt water is largely unusable and the surface freshwater contained in lakes and rivers is only a minuscule 0.3 percent of the water on the planet and about ten percent of the total freshwater which is only 2.5% of the planet's total water supply. Ninety percent of the world's freshwater is locked up in ice caps and glaciers or sequestered in deep underground aquifers. In fact, according to the Worldwatch Institute "Some 97 percent of the planet's liquid freshwater is stored in underground aquifers."[9]

Over half the freshwater usage in the world (estimates are as high as 75% and growing) comes from these underground aquifers, water that is replenished, if at all, over slow geological time frames, not seasonal replenishment like surface water. "Water that enters an aquifer remains there for an average of 1,400 years, compared to only 16 days for rivers."[9] Many of the world's major aquifers that are heavily relied upon for agriculture, like the Ogallala Aquifer in the western U.S. (about 400-million cubic meters of drawdown per year)[1], the Arabian Aquifer and the deep aquifer under the North China Plain (the shallow aquifer is replenishable but has largely been sucked dry)[7], are non-replenishable, fossil aquifers mostly formed during and after various ice ages. Once such an aquifer is depleted it is gone, forever. With replenishable aquifers there is generally at least the potential for aquifer recovery if the aquifer has not been contaminated and the rate of drawdown is reduced to below the replenishment rate. Coastal aquifers, however, can become increasingly contaminated, not surprisingly, from salt-water intrusion if the drawdown exceeds the natural replenishment rate. Once that happens, as is the case in much of the middle east and central Asia, the aquifer, though it may be full of water, is no longer usable.

But there is increasing concern that vital aquifers everywhere are becoming contaminated with toxins. A new study from the Worldwatch Institute reveals that "this first global survey of groundwater pollution shows that a toxic brew of pesticides, nitrogen fertilizers, industrial chemicals, and heavy metals is fouling groundwater everywhere, and that the damage is often worst in the very places where people most need water."[9] "Sixty percent of the most hazardous liquid waste in the United States-34 billion liters per year of solvents, heavy metals, and radioactive materials-is injected directly into deep groundwater via thousands of "injection wells." Although the EPA requires that these effluents be injected below the deepest source of drinking water, some have entered underground water supplies in Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Oklahoma."[9] And the U.S. EPA estimates "that about 100,000 gasoline storage tanks are leaking chemicals into groundwater. In Santa Monica, California, wells supplying half the city's water have been closed because of dangerously high levels of the gasoline additive MTBE."[9] A close personal friend in Australia with a permaculture farm found the groundwater below their property contaminated from just such a source, a petrol station just up the road with leaky storage tanks.

Over the last century while the world population has tripled global freshwater usage has increased more than six-fold with the bulk of that increase being ground water from deep aquifers. And it is estimated that as much as 90% of the global population increase to the middle of this century will be in areas that are already facing critical freshwater supply constraints[5] either as a result of surface water contamination ("Some two million tons of waste per day are disposed of within receiving waters, including industrial wastes and chemicals, human waste and agricultural waste" according to the UN)[1] or aquifer depletion[9].

Where the minimum daily water availability per person established by the United Nations is ten gallons, these water-challenged areas have daily water availability now of less than three gallons per person, many of them 1.5 gallons or less. "Unless population growth can be slowed quickly by investing heavily in female literacy and family planning services, there may not be a humane solution to the emerging world water shortage." states the report Water Shortages May Cause Food Shortages.[5] Nearly 1.7 billion people do not have access to sufficient water for basic personal hygiene. "Infectious waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid, and cholera are responsible for 80 percent of illnesses and deaths in the developing world, many of them children. One child dies every eight seconds from a waterborne disease; 15 million children a year."[1]

On average agriculture is responsible for over seventy percent of the freshwater a nation consumes. It is reliably estimated that with current agricultural irrigation practices every ton of wheat or corn produced, for example, consumes 1000 tons of freshwater. About sixty percent of that usage, however, is wasted through losses from leaky irrigation ditches, run off and field evaporation.[1]

When nations begin to run into serious water constraints they have to make up lost agricultural production with imports, particularly of grains. "This can be seen with Iran and Egypt, both of which now import more wheat than Japan, traditionally the world's leading importer. Imports supply 40 percent or more of the total consumption of grain--wheat, rice, and feedgrains--in both countries. Numerous other water-short countries also import much of their grain. Morocco brings in half of its grain. For Algeria and Saudi Arabia, the figure is over 70 percent. Yemen imports nearly 80 percent of its grain, and Israel, more than 90 percent."[5] As the report Water Shortages May Cause Food Shortages says, "Since a ton of grain equals 1,000 tons of water, importing grain is the most efficient way to import water. World grain futures will soon in effect become world water futures."[5]

But grain imports are already becoming increasingly problematic. The numbers involved are massive. According to the report, Aquifer Depletion, "Overall, China’s grain production has fallen from its historical peak of 392 million tons in 1998 to an estimated 358 million tons in 2005. For perspective, this drop of 34 million tons exceeds the annual Canadian wheat harvest."[7] With the combined impact of global warming, surface water pollution, aquifer depletion and continuing population increases the ability to make up agricultural shortfalls in the world market is diminishing. The global emergency food grain reserves, on which the poorest of the world's poor are dependant, have over these past several years fallen from a marginal 119-day supply to a critical 53-day supply and those reserves are still declining. In fact, with the increased demand for seed grains driven by the rush for biofuels that decline is accelerating.

Agriculture, of course, is not the only use we make of fresh water. Industry consumes 20% and residential consumption accounts for ten percent. In the arid nations currently experiencing or facing near-term critical freshwater shortages, however, agriculture is responsible for ninety percent of all freshwater usage. With the combination of demand for agriculture and that of domestic and industrial use in growing cities, the aquifers - many of them non-replenishable - underlying the larger cities in many developing countries - on which those cities are totally dependant - are depleting at rates of 3-8 meters per year and may be totally exhausted within the next 20-25 years.[5] "Nearly one third of all humanity relies almost exclusively on groundwater for drinking, including the residents of some of the largest cities in the developing world, such as Jakarta, Dhaka, Lima, and Mexico City."[9]

As surface water in lakes and rivers becomes increasingly polluted and as surface water sources dry up under the impact of global warming future generations may have to increasingly rely on groundwater sources for their very survival. It is our responsibility to protect it for both those future generations and ourselves. "Groundwater contamination is an irreversible act that will deprive future generations of one of life's basic resources," said Payal Sampat, author of Deep Trouble: The Hidden Threat of Groundwater Pollution. "In the next 50 years, an additional 3 billion people are expected to inhabit the Earth, creating even more demand for water for drinking, irrigation, and industry. But we're polluting our cheapest and most easily accessible supply of water. Most groundwater is still pristine, but unless we take immediate action, clean groundwater will not be there when we need it."[9]

The following were important sources of material and research for this article.

1) UN Highlights World Water Crisis
2) A Global Water Crisis
3) Water Crisis - World Water Council
4) Water Deficits Growing In Many Countries
5) Water Shortages May Cause Food Shortages
6) The Ogallala Aquifer Depletion
7) Aquifer depletion
8) Report: Water crisis hits rich countries
9) The Hidden Freshwater Crisis
10) The Emerging Global Freshwater Crisis

Monday, March 17, 2008

"No Wolf! No Wolf!"

If recent events haven't convinced you that we are headed for a meltdown and you need to start preparing for a rocky future, then you are definitely living in an impenetrable state of denial. I was fascinated watching and listening to a group of talking heads on CNN filling time waiting for President Bush to take the podium for his March 14, 2008 speech to the Economic Club of New York. They were discussing how he couldn't be too up-beat because it would scare people but he couldn't sound too down because it would scare people and he couldn't use the "R" word (recession) because it would panic people. Essentially they were trying to decide the words to convince people the economy is still in great shape when clearly it is headed into the tank.

During the same newscast they talked about how the chief executive at Bear Stearns kept responding to people's queries about the company's health by saying things were great, then "suddenly", on the morning of the 14th (was it just happenstance the timing of this coincided with the President's speech before the Economics Club?) the company says things have changed dramatically in the past 24 hours (Yeh, Right!) and the company - the 4th or 5th largest investment bank in the U.S. and considered too large to fail - had to be bailed out by a competitor (J.P.Morgan who, on the morning of the 17th announced they were buying Bear Stearns for $2.00 a share, shares that had cost $173.00 only a year earlier) and the Federal Reserve, this just a week after the Federal Reserve already pumped $200-billion into the market in an ultimately failed attempt to maintain market liquidity as the markets simply continued their downward slide, closing the week under the 12,000 mark where not long ago they were over 14,000.

And on the same day there is news that the nation's largest petroleum refiner, Valero, has put up a third of its refineries for sale - which will likely ultimately result in their closure - further decreasing the number of operating refineries in the U.S. (now a third of the number they were twenty years ago) where a new refinery hasn't been built in thirty years. And all this week oil has held steady around $110. a barrel and gasoline in two states has topped $4.00 a gallon, many weeks before the summer driving season, while Dick Cheney is going to the middle east, cap-in-hand, after Bush failing in his recent trip, to beg OPEC to pump more oil (they claim they are already pumping more than their customers are ordering) to bring the price of oil down on the world markets, and oil majors are busily announcing two-year-old, geologically-questionable oil discoveries trying to convince people that fantastic new oil discoveries continue to be made. And the U.S. dollar has fallen to all-time lows against the Euro and the Yen over the same period - and possibly a bunch of other currencies that no one pays any attention to - while gold climbed over $1,000. an ounce (interestingly the price of oil in gold has remained relatively steady these last couple of years). And over 63,000 jobs were lost from the U.S. economy in the past week. And the experts say we have only reached the end of the beginning of the U.S. mortgage meltdown while in the same week there was an announcement that the overall, multi-trillion-dollar American mortgage debt now exceeds total American home equity. In several states the foreclosure rate is in excess of five percent and people find it better to cut their losses by simply walking away from their house and leaving it to the banks. Is this the American way of life that is not negotiable, Mister Cheney? If the mortgage industry today began a margin call requiring home-owners to make up the difference between their mortgage and their home equity the collapse would be complete.

All of this in the same week?! I guess the question the CNN people were pondering is a valid one. How, in the midst of all this, do you somehow convince people that the economy is strong and healthy? How about the truth? That would be innovative! If the economy isn't strong and healthy, if it is going in the tank, why are they debating how to convince people it is healthy? People are not idiots, despite consistent attempts to treat them that way. They can see what is happening. What? Are all CNN viewers non-English-speaking who don't understand the lies and deception they are discussing? Isn't continuing to tell them the economy is healthy when it is not the negative equivalent of crying wolf? Excuse my mixed fairy tales but isn't it like the three little piggies covering their eyes and crying "No wolf! No wolf!" when the huffing and puffing is already done and the damned thing is breaking through the door? How are people ever to believe you when you then say the economy is healthy and it really is? If that ever happens again.

We peak-oilers - and I proudly wear that label - are consistently derided as pessimistic doom-n-gloomers. We dare point to the harsh realty that the world's finite supply of oil is about to go into irreversible terminal decline (conventional crude has already done so). Is a pessimist simply anyone who has abandoned their rose-coloured glasses - or orange-tinted, or yellow, or green or blue - and chosen instead to look at this imperfect world as it really is? In my mind optimism, not religion, is the opiate of the masses. And far easier to sell.

I am now convinced more than ever before that the global economy is soon to come crashing down about our ears. It is a house of cards and we are currently engaged in a game of Russian Roulette removing card after card from the supporting levels. Whether it collapses from the bottom, as with the mortgage meltdown, or comes crashing down from the top with the collapse of Bear Stearns, Northern Rock and other banks, and the Federal Reserve itself taking on unrecoverable debt trying to keep the financial market afloat, it doesn't really matter. As we saw with the World Trade Center, a monolith that begins to collapse from the top makes just a messy a pile of rubble in the end as one that starts at the bottom.

Two years ago, long before all of this began, I wrote an article (available on my blog) entitled Why There Will be a Fast Crash and not a Slow Decline. In that article I focused on trust and faith being the underpinning of an economy, especially a debt/growth-based economy as most modern, globalized economies are, and how an erosion of that trust, especially a rapid erosion, results in a crashing down of that economy, whether that be a company like Enron or Worldcom, a nation, or the entire global economy. We are now witnessing that rapid erosion of trust and faith in the U.S. and global economy.

It gets really messy from here on. All modern economies are based on growth and debt-based expansion of the money supply. But more importantly the underpinning of the economy, the fuel if you will, is energy, especially energy derived from cheap, abundant supplies of oil. Modern economic expansion is fueled by cheap oil!

It appears that the growth in conventional oil ended in 1999-2000. It further appears, though this is still uncertain and hotly debated, that the growth in global crude production/supply may have ended in 2005, perhaps early 2006. The continuing growth in liquid fuel supplies since then (government industry departments and industry reporting agencies increasingly shift to reporting "all liquids" to mask this) has been a function of alternatives like tar sands (which, despite the fact it is bitumen and not oil, the U.S. DoE now wants to classify as "conventional" crude), CTL (coal to liquid), GTL (natural gas and methane to liquid), biofuels, and steadily dipping into SPRs (strategic petroleum reserves). Similarly growth in electricity supplies has been increasing dependant on alternatives like solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, and, in many nations, nuclear, but also increasingly from coal and, increasingly, lower, dirtier grades of coal.

The energy support for the rate of economic growth required - with a debt-based growth of the money supply - to keep the economy from going into terminal contraction, however, is greater than can continue to be made up by costly alternatives to oil and conventional electricity generation. As their application expands alternatives are running into their own resource limitations (e.g. natural gas, copper, zinc, silicon, uranium, cadmium, potassium, lithium, selenium, nickel, et al) and the rate of expansion of those alternatives (still only representing a very small fraction of overall energy generation) is already beginning to slow. They simply are not scalable to the point that they can replace even a significant portion of the current energy options.

It is popular in the oil patch, and to an increasing extent in economics, to blame tree-huggers, greenies and environmentalists for the lack of access to those "vast" untapped reserves of oil that must surely lie under ANWR and the Arctic Ocean and off the east coast and in Antarctica and under Central Park and a thousand other off-limits places. Of course there is plenty of oil, if those greenies would just let the oil companies drill for it. It's a catchy tune, as long as you don't have to deliver on your cornucopean "belief" in those vast reserves.

And it is equally popular to claim that advances in technology will dramatically increase the recovery rate from reserves. But every instance of the use of new technology in recent years (in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Mexico's Cantarell, the North Sea, the North Slope, et al) has simply increased, often dramatically, the rate of decline once the field passes peak which, of course, is reached sooner than it otherwise would have been because of the higher rate of extraction achieved with the new technology. That new technology has not increased the total recovery (often decreasing it by damaging the reservoir), just the speed of extraction. Over the past couple of decades, partly the result of reservoir damage from new technology, and despite continuous advances in extraction technology, the average rate of production per well has, in fact, steadily declined.

There is no odd coincidence in the timing of the surge in oil prices, in all energy prices, the surge in gold prices, the carry-on impact on all other prices, the rapid decline in the value of the hegemonic U.S. dollar, the frantic rush to biofuels that threatens to dramatically increase world hunger, the first wave of the total collapse of the housing market, and the collapse of two major banks in the past year. A fuzzy look in the rearview mirror suggests that global crude oil production peaked in 2005. The "unexpected" events that have occurred since that time are the first indicators of an energy-decline-induced global economic collapse from which we will not recover.

What is the alternative to money?