Monday, April 28, 2008

Sorry, no more presentations

I have had several requests in recent months to make peak oil presentations. I regret that I have had to turn them down and that, further, I can not commit to any future presentations at this time. I have had serious health issues this past year and, considering the nature of those issues, do not see any point on the near term horizon when I will again be in a position to make presentations.

I have a condition called cardiomyopathy. Specifically two of my three heart arteries are completely collapsed, but the good news is that my circulatory system has rerouted itself successfully meaning that the cardiologists say there is no point in a bypass operation which would only duplicate what my body has already done for itself. The down side of my condition, however, is that I only have thirty percent heart function, which means my energy level is low, I tire easily, and long drives and air travel are definitely not recommended by my doctors.

All of that is further complicated by the fact that I have progressive arthritis in my hips, high blood pressure, and have, as a result of the heart condition, developed type 2 diabetes. All in all I am physically a mess at the moment
The good news is that none of this has interfered with my research and my writing on peak oil, of which this blog is a major component. Nor do I intend to let my condition interfere with that, other than concessions to my easily tiring.

I thank all of those who are regular readers of my blog and hope that it is contributing to your awareness of peak oil and its serious societal implications.

Monday, April 21, 2008

People Starting to see the Light on Oil Supply

In a recent poll (just released on April 20, 2008) conducted in 16 nations collectively containing 58 percent of the world's population, a majority of the 14,896 poll respondents believe "that governments should assume that oil is running out". That is the good news. The bad news is that they also believe "it is necessary for governments to make a major effort to replace oil as a primary source of energy." "Only 22 percent on average believe that enough new oil will be found so that it can remain a primary source of energy for the foreseeable future.” according to the poll. There does not appear to be a belief, however - there were no questions in the poll by which one could get an accurate reading - that this is a cause to change our lifestyle. The onus in the questions as posed in the poll is on governments to find replacement energy sources to allow life to carry on as is, for business as usual. It is not clear whether this was predicated on a pre-existing belief that that would be the position of the majority of people. It does, however, limit the utility of the poll.

Although it is heartening that a significant majority of people polled (the number of poll respondents is too low to be statistically accurate) appear to now understand that global oil supplies are running out, it is very disheartening that they have not made the connection that this is going to require any changes on their part. That connection has to be made before there is any chance of a realistic move toward a post-fossil-fuel society. Small steps, nonetheless, are better than no steps at all.

According to Steven Kull, director of, in fact, “The widespread consensus that oil needs to be replaced as an energy source may be prompted by concerns about the effect of oil on climate change as well as the belief that oil will run out.” That suggests that there is, as yet, little understanding, even though the majority of people believe that global oil supplies are running out, of the serious implications for global society when they do. It suggests they see global warming as a threat to global society but do not make the same connection for depleting oil supplies. This may be based on the apparent belief or expectation that governments will find that elusive replacement for oil that will allow things to carry on as usual. The energy fairy would seem to be alive and well. Clearly much more work has to be done to get people to see the full picture.

What this poll does do, in a limited way, is help define the nature of the myopia in public opinion as regards the approaching global energy crisis. It gives us a little better picture of where the major efforts are going to be required to raise public awareness to a level where meaningful action can be undertaken. It also clarifies what the general public perception is of government's awareness of the energy situation. Whether that perception is realistic is irrelevant; perception is reality. Clearly if government continues down the road of assuring the people there is no problem, that technology will solve the energy problem, they are going to be in dire straits when that public perception catches up with reality, when people finally realize that there is no viable replacement for oil. Having now finally realized that oil is running out, when that final shoe drops (that there is no viable substitute) it will be devastating to society. Clearly as the public starts to make that connection there is going to be a strong need for very clear and meaningful leadership and direction of what society needs to do to powerdown to a non-fossil-fuel lifestyle. That's when things are going to get really interesting.


World publics say oil needs to be replaced as energy source by World Public Opinion
World Publics Say Oil Needs to Be Replaced as Energy Source

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Wherefore Art the Widgets?

This article deals with the issue of whether nations need a National Infrastructure Database to prepare for the possibly severe infrastructure management challenges that will manifest themselves as we move past peak oil and head down the post-peak downslope. It was suggested by Geoff Holman of Australia, for which I thank him. Ah, the wonders of the worldwide web. May it last long and prosper. It has made this peak oil dialogue truly global, which it needs to be but which would have been very difficult to accomplish without the internet.

Also see my other articles in this blog on infrastructure;

Peak Oil and the Three Sisters of Social Collapse
Peak oil and overpasses
The myth of permanence: post-peak infrastructure maintenance
Post Peak Dam Maintenance, or Lack Thereof
Our Dangerous Infrastructure
Cascade Failure in River Systems with Multiple Dams
Our Dangerous Infrastructure II

Infrastructure is generally seen as - and loudly proclaimed by politicians and the captains of industry as being - a societal facilitator. In it is described thus; "The term infrastructure has been used since 1927 to refer collectively to the roads, bridges, rail lines, and similar public works that are required for an industrial economy, or a portion of it, to function."[6] And defines it as "The basic physical systems of a country's or community's population, including roads, utilities, water, sewage, etc. These systems are considered essential for enabling productivity in the economy."[7]

But what happens when the ability to maintain that infrastructure disappears and the infrastructure becomes a hindrance rather than a facilitator, such as it will do during the probable long, grinding economic decline accompanying peak oil? When the current infrastructure maintenance professionals begin retiring or dying and aren't being replaced because of ever-tighter budget constraints, who will even know in a broad context what all is included in "infrastructure", where it is, what condition it is in, when it was built, how old it is, how long it should last, what maintenance it needs and when?

Will the same politicians who built their election campaigns around throwing up new feel-good infrastructure be as quick to accept the responsibility for ensuring it's maintenance as the global economy falls into serious, terminal decline? The paper, Deconstructing the Manifest has this take, "of course, maintenance of these "public" projects is left to the public. politician could ever successfully run on a platform of "maintenance" or status quo. The public will is not swayed by the mundane. And so we see our roads and bridges decay, slowly, inexorably,..... Truly comprehensive maintenance is simply too expensive....."[12]

The reality is, as well as facilitating an economy, infrastructure is also a limiting factor for that economy, a constraint. The infrastructure defines the limits within which an economy can effectively function and, more importantly, evolve, adapt and change. For the economy to shift direction, as it must surely do on the peak oil downslope, it suddenly finds that its infrastructure is an impediment. The walls that enclosed and secured the fortified cities of medieval Europe, for example, were a serious constraint as those cities sought to expand and open up as the Industrial Revolution swept across the continent. The established infrastructure of any city suddenly becomes an impediment when that city wants to install rail lines or highways or subways linking the city center with the suburbs and areas beyond. The destruction of the infrastructure of so many European and Asian cities during two world wars, in reality, facilitated the rebirth of those cities around new infrastructure, saved those cities the agonizing decisions and complications of replacing and upgrading their infrastructure to satisfy and facilitate the drastically changed needs of a technology-oriented, growth-driven, post-war society.

The strong probability is that the infrastructure needed and maintainable by a post-fossil-fuel or seriously fossil-fuel-deficient society will be as different from today as today's infrastructure is different from that which existed in pre-industrial Europe. In the past, however, the impediment imposed by seriously outdated and unmaintainable infrastructure was handled by demolishing and replacing that old infrastructure with new. But will this be an option still open to us if we wait until we are on the peak-oil downslope before we start to address the infrastructure needs of the future? We will no longer have the exploitable energy, technology, finances and vast quantities of raw materials needed for wholesale replacement of that infrastructure. The only options left open to us if we sleepwalk into peak oil may narrow down to trying to somehow maintain that crumbling infrastructure in perpetuity or simply doing without as it falls apart. But infrastructure doesn't just shrivel up benignly in the sun like a tomato dropped from the vine. As infrastructure crumbles through age and lack of maintenance it can impose very serious risks on society that could, collectively, jeopardize millions of lives over the balance of this century and beyond.

Geoff Holman, a reader of this blog from Australia, as noted above, graciously suggested an article on the question of building a national infrastructure database to serve as the basis for dealing with the massive infrastructure inventory during the declining economy that will likely occur beginning with peak oil and the downslope beyond. Not surprisingly, various attempts at building national infrastructure databases have been made in the past.

One of the first projects, for example, of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, formed following the terrorist attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, was the establishment of a Critical Infrastructure Database. This database was intended as a reference source of all U.S. infrastructure considered critical and susceptible to terrorist attack, infrastructure like nuclear power plants, major dams, water systems of large urban centers like New York, airports, and so on.

Like so many projects begun in the bowels of bureaucracy, the design of this database and the data collected for it was, at best, fuzzy and incomplete. An assessment report issued by the U.S. Inspector General's office in July, 2006 turned out to be a blistering critique. The Inspector General's report cited several deep flaws in the database that underlies the plan, including: "The database’s failure to distinguish the criticality of the approximately 77,000 assets it includes; The database's failure to provide a comprehensive picture of national assets; The need to develop more sophisticated tools to assess risks associated with various assets; The need for substantial additional work to complete the database. ..... The IG report specified multiple flaws that arose in the process of building the database, such as missing ZIP codes, missing facility names and language translation problems. At one point, “officials estimated that on average each [critical infrastructure/key asset] record they researched was missing information for about seven fields,” according to the report. Department officials progressively improved the methods of gathering and processing the data over the past three years, the report added. The IG analysts predicted that the database could eventually grow to hundreds of thousands of records."[11] Another report notes, "Among the critical assets in the database are Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo, a Kangaroo Conservation Center, Jay’s Sporting Goods, several Wal-Mart stores, Amish Country Popcorn, and the Sweetwater Flea Market."[9] Partly as a result of the criticisms the database has been morphed into a National Asset Database but the fuzzy design, structure and data-gathering procedures still persist[8].

Whether or not the failings and criticism of the Critical Infrastructure Database/National Asset Database are responsible, the U.S. congress has recently introduced legislation taking another shot at a National Infrastructure Database. "The Dodd-Hagel National Infrastructure Bank Act of 2007 is a bipartisan measure that addresses the critical needs of our nation’s major infrastructure systems. The legislation establishes a new method through which the Federal government can finance infrastructure projects of substantial regional or national significance more effectively with public and private capital. ..... Infrastructure projects that come under the Bank’s consideration are publicly-owned mass transit systems, housing properties, roads, bridges, drinking water systems, and wastewater systems." The focus here, however, is still largely that of future infrastructure projects rather than maintenance of that already in place. Analysts and critics of this new bill, such as the American Society of Civil Engineers, note that "the current condition of our nation’s major infrastructure systems earns a grade point average of D and jeopardizes the prosperity and quality of life of all Americans." According to the Environmental Protection Agency, "$151 billion and $390 billion is needed respectively every year over the next 20 years to repair obsolete drinking water and wastewater systems. Drinking water and wastewater systems range in age from 50 to 100 years in age."[1] One wonders whether any database resulting from this effort will prove any more successful than that of the Department of Homeland Security.

A long, thirty-year career of designing and building information systems, almost always incorporating a database, has taught me that any database is as good as the ingenuity built into the design. Going back after the fact and trying to resurrect a poorly-designed, disfunctional database through retrofitting patches simply further exacerbates the problems and leads to the almost certain demise of the database, like retrofitting new extraction technology to a played-out oil well. Databases, unlike living organisms, do not evolve well. Any database, especially one as potentially complex as a national infrastructure database, needs to have considered in it's design; the motivation behind the database's existence, the breadth of data to be included, the depth of data the database can support, the data relationships to be incorporated which seriously impacts the flexibility, the controls on the purity and veracity of the data gathered, the uses the database is intended to satisfy, the ownership of and responsibility for the data contained, and much, much more. The fuzzy thinking and lack of clarity of potential use of the database that has characterized various government efforts at national infrastructure databases (not just that elaborated above) is and will, in my view, continue to be a drawback of institutional and bureaucratic control over the design and operational management of such databases. And yet I am not, for a moment, suggesting that any such national infrastructure database be privatized and handed over to business and industry. That, in my opinion, would burden such an effort with a purely business-centric, economic motivation rather than gearing it to the societal need it should serve.

For any nation to set out on a course of developing a national infrastructure database designed to help manage the infrastructure inventory on the peak oil downslope and transition into a post-peak, post-fossil-fuel age they must surely first recognize peak oil and the impact it will have on infrastructure maintenance. And considering the amount of feeding from the public trough that will be involved in the design and construction of such a database and the massive drain on public finances that will be involved in mitigating the impact of that decaying infrastructure while the national and global economy implodes, that is going to be an extremely difficult sell. It is an impossible sell when that government will not even utter the words peak oil but insists on perpetuating the myth of the steady growth economy.

There is no question, in my mind at least, that the massive, technology-dependent infrastructure on which our modern society is built is going to be a tremendous and dangerous liability on the peak oil downslope. I simply do not believe, however, and I hope that I am wrong, that any workable database could be developed at this late stage in the game, even if the political will were there to develop it, that could help mitigate the problem. Any such database is itself going to be dependent on a technology and infrastructure that may not survive long enough for the database to be a viable tool during the developing criticality of infrastructure decline. I for one, therefore, will not be joining and grassroots movement to demand that government build such a database. Sorry.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd and Senator Chuck Hagel
2) User Friendly Electronic Database Management System for Infrastructure Maintenance in Small Cities
3) British Virgin Islands Infrastructure and Utilities Broad Policy
4) The Age of Infrastructure
5) Definitions of Infrastructure on the Web:
6) Infrastructure
7) infrastructure
8) Critical Infrastructure: The National Asset Database
9) Critical infrastructure database full of useless junk
10) National Infrastructure Coordinating Center INSight Application
11) DHS asset database can't support vaunted infrastructure protection plan
12) Deconstructing the Manifest

Monday, April 14, 2008

Peak Oil and the Three Sisters of Social Collapse

Three of the fundamental and basic human needs - food, water and shelter - have in the past century all become critically and increasingly dependent on technology and the fossil fuels that power it - at least in the developed world but also to a lesser and growing extent in the underdeveloped and developing world. These three needs will, as we pass peak oil, become the three sisters of global but uneven social collapse. Peak oil alone would make that a serious problem but they are also each going to be heavily impacted by the progression of anthropogenic or man-made global warming. Both of these serious global problems, it now appears, will occur at roughly the same time, seriously increasing the risk in these three critical areas. The whole in this case is definitely greater than the sum of the parts.

The predominant focus of debate around the peak oil issue is still, unfortunately, centered on energy itself; endless debate over when oil will peak; obfuscation over sweet versus sour versus synthetic crude, debate over the minutiae of various alternative energy options; the price of gasoline/petrol, etc. That is as much a form of denial within the peak oil community as that practiced by energy executives, politicians and the mainstream media. Peak oil is not about the oil! Focusing on the energy itself is safe, makes one appear to be aware and involved while successfully avoiding dealing with the disastrous implications of that peak and decline. Keeping the focus on energy is a self-perpetuating debate by setting up easy deniability for energy executives and their paid-for politicians, allowing them to attack the variability and imprecision in the various peak oil estimates. That in turn facilitates their continuing the climate of endless disinformation that easily serves as a smokescreen and a roadblock to beginning the increasingly critical process of preparing for the transition away from fossil fuels, a process that should have begun with the 1970s oil shocks if not earlier when the concept of peak oil was first introduced by M. King Hubbert in the 1950s.

But that transition is not or should not simply be a question of finding a workable alternative for our profligate use of oil and the other fossil fuels to power our modern society in the style to which we have become accustomed. That is, or should be, an impossible dream. Put simply, how could we move a world consisting of 6.6+billion people, 1+billion automobiles, hundreds of millions of trucks, buses, trains, planes, ships and heavy equipment, trillions of dollars of energy-dependant infrastructure and 300,000+ products at least partially made from or derived from oil and other fossil fuels into an era of declining fossil fuels that will be effectively devoid of those fossil fuels (from an EROEI perspective) within a century without impacting that society? The answer? We can't. As we approach peak oil, however (if we have not already arrived there and moved beyond it, as I believe we have), rather than dealing with that question and getting on with the transition and the massive and sometimes traumatic changes it will entail, we continue to increase our reliance on fossil energy and technology in these three areas of basic need.

The bulk of the food produced in the world today (and the foundation of the artificial carrying capacity, created as part of the Green Revolution, on which our massive surplus population survives) is very much dependant on heavy duty agricultural machinery driven by fossil fuels, massive applications of artificial fertilizers and pesticides produced from fossil fuels, on energy-intensive GMO seeds (as much as 70% of the crops we eat are now produced using GMO seeds), on the major, energy-intensive global distribution network that gets them to the farmers and the food they produce to your table, and on irrigation facilitated through powerful, fossil-energy-dependant pumps extracting water from both surface water (lakes and rivers) and groundwater (aquifers) sources (globally 70-75% of our freshwater usage is for agricultural irrigation). The building global food crisis - food riots have already occurred in several countries such as Egypt and Haiti and are probable in many more as this year progresses, and in many of the world's poorest nations food purchases already consume 50-90% of the average person's meagre income - is not so much a problem of insufficient food or even insufficient land on which to grow it. The problem is rapidly decreasing global agricultural productivity, a result of a staggering annual global loss of topsoil from erosion, toxification and salinity and a rapidly growing deficiency in soil fertility, largely a result of industrialized, petrochemical-intensive agriculture and decades of serious overcropping.

Soil fertility is produced by millions of soil micro-organisms which are all being decimated by our profligate and dangerous overuse of agrochemicals. Soil erosion and other forms of land degradation, in fact, now rob the world of 70-140,000 square kilometers per year of farm land. The total world availability of topsoil is estimated at 7,000 gigatonnes - about seventy years of topsoil at current rates of destruction and loss according to a U.N. estimate. The peak slaughter of these critical soil organisms will occur concurrent with peak oil and at the same time, therefore, that our global need for natural soil fertility will begin a dramatic increase. Globally, food availability, especially for the poor - the global emergency food grain reserve, as I detailed in my article Biofuels: Recipe for Artificially-Induced Overshoot of Earth's Carrying Capacity, has shrunk over this past decade from a marginal 120 day supply to a sub-critical 53-55 day supply [5] - is further exacerbated by the rapid increase in meat consumption in the world's major developing nations like India and China and in the frantic push toward biofuels in the rich, western nations, biofuels being produced from those already diminishing global stocks of food grains.

The vast majority of new water and irrigation projects in this past half century have been reliant on the use of powerful pumps to extract water from underground aquifers (many of which are non-replenishable, like the heavily-exploited Ogallala Aquifer in the U.S. midwest, and the majority of which are being drawn down at levels well above their replenishment rate - many of the world's major aquifers, both replenishable and non-replenishable, are declining by more than twenty feet per year), desalination plants heavily dependant on fossil fuels (this same desalination technology may soon have to be used on water drawn from coastal aquifers, like those in many nations in the middle east, which are becoming increasingly contaminated from saltwater intrusion because of excessive drawdown), powerful, energy-intensive irrigation equipment for irrigating large monoculture fields, desperate increases in agricultural development in arid areas, marginal lands and even deserts. It is a common fallacy, particularly in most of Europe and North America, to think that our supplies of fresh water are somewhat infinite. The reality is, as the report UN Highlights World Water Crisis outlines, "Despite the fact that 75 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh water, and three-quarters of that is locked up in glaciers and permanent snow cover. Only 0.3 percent of the water is surface water, found in rivers and lakes. The rest is buried deep in the ground."[6] The general lack of awareness of the limits of earth's easily-accessible freshwater resources leads to dangerous over-exploitation and abuse. Imagine the energy crisis we would be looking at if only 2.5% or 0.3% of the oil in the world were accessible, recoverable and usable and the cornucopean energy executives had been reassuring us for decades that it was all recoverable. It wouldn't much matter if there were people saying this wasn't true and that a crisis is coming. There is an unfortunate tendency for people to believe - and even go out of their way to find - those who are telling them what they want to hear, that there is no problem.

The infrastructure (using the broadest, social definition of infrastructure) on which our modern societies are so dependant (including the homes in which we live) has primarily been constructed in the past half century, most of it with a designed life span of fifty to seventy-five years (will all of those mass-produced McMansions really last that long?), built of materials that are derived from or dependant on fossil fuels, and requiring heavy fossil fuel inputs in their maintenance, upkeep and demolition. "There's a tremendous need," said Larry Roth, a professional engineer who is deputy executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers. "Not only are we not keeping pace with growth, but we're not keeping pace with the maintenance that's required. As a result, our infrastructure is simply crumbling."[1] Most of this infrastructure will achieve and surpass its designed life span just as we pass peak oil when the natural resources (Mike Stasse, owner and moderator of ROEOZ, in his excellent paper, What Went Wrong, calls it natural capital) to replace it will no longer be available, when the energy, materials, finances, trained people resources and technology required to maintain it will no longer be available, and even when the technology and resources to decommission or demolish it are becoming increasingly unavailable (how do you tear down a fifty storey steel and glass tower before it falls down, or decommission a massive dam before it collapses and possibly kills hundreds of thousands or even millions of people?). The costs of infrastructure maintenance, always underestimated, are sobering. “We have a major infrastructure problem in this country,” said Maureen L. McAvey, an executive vice president with the Urban Land Institute, which recently published a report on global infrastructure issues. “The civil engineers have estimated that we have a $1.7 trillion shortfall in this country [U.S.A.] alone”[2]. And the growth of this deficit is very likely to accelerate as the growth economy grinds to a halt. Maintenance is almost invariably the first place that budget managers look for cuts when finances get tight.

Much of the money that needs to be spent on preparing our society for life beyond fossil fuels in the areas of food production, water usage and infrastructure maintenance, replacement, decommissioning and rebuilding, is being drained off paying for the increasing cost of supporting our car-centric mobility and our energy-dependant lifestyle. Oil prices - as well as the cost of other fossil fuels and the cost of almost everything as everything is at least partially dependent on the cost of oil and other fossil fuels - have increased dramatically over these past several years as we are increasingly dependent on more expensive and more technologically-challenging sources of energy. Shawn McCarthy, in his Toronto Globe & Mail Report on Business article, Oil peak theorist warns of chaos, war, writes, "The average cost of producing a barrel of oil has more than doubled in the past eight years, with most of that increase occurring in the past four, he[Matt Simmons] said."[3] The fossil-energy story doesn't end at oil, however. Natural gas is also fast approaching peak and prices are increasing in lockstep with the price of oil. And Richard Heinberg reports, in his article Burning the Furniture, "A soon-to-be-released study by the Energy Watch Group in Germany [the report has now been released] on the future of global coal supplies has implications so surprising and far-reaching that energy policymakers may take years to digest it. ..... The report’s central conclusion is that minable global coal reserves are much smaller than is commonly thought, and that a peak in world coal production is likely within only ten to fifteen years."[4]

Much of the misinformation and disinformation surrounding these three primary issues centers on the complexity of quantity versus quality. GMO crops, despite constant claims otherwise, produced with massive applications of artificial fertilizers and bombarded with herbicides and pesticides simply do not have either the taste or nutritional value of natural foods produced with non-chemical, organic methods. GMO seeds, particularly with the boost of global climate change, may produce larger plants and higher yields per acre but the result is like sugar- and salt-laden snack foods. The bulk is there but they are devoid of nutritional value. Like those snack foods, the more you eat the hungrier you get. The world is also lapsing into a global food allergy crisis as our digestive and immune systems struggle to adapt to relying on these unnatural foods for our nutrition.

Over one fifth of the global population today do not have access to clean drinking water. As many as a quarter of the deaths in poor third world countries is caused by water borne diseases, most commonly and crtically dehydration from diahrea caused by contaminated water. Another one fifth of the world's population only have access to one quarter to one tenth the amount of drinking water that the U.N. has established as the daily minimum requirement, and not enough water for basic hygienne. This problem worsens with each passing year. It is estimated that the majority of the global population increase over the next half century will be in areas already struggling with critical water shortages.

The glut of infrastructure development over this past half century has neglected durability and survivability in favour of speed, ease and cost reduction of construction. Sprawling suburbs of cookie-cutter houses and strip malls have grown like a cancer outward from established urban centers which are all expanding outward toward each other, gobbling up the low-density rural spaces between them. Cities have rapidly evolved over this past century into morbidly obese mega-cities covering thousands of square kilometers of concrete entombment.

It is difficult for many to understand why and how food, water and infrastructure can form the foundation of global social collapse without first gaining an understanding of the individual contributors to that collapse, the small details and problems which by themselves may seem meaningless but when combined together do build to a monumental crisis that can and will engulf the entirety of global society. This is further complicated by a general and understandable uncertainty as to the relative timing of peak oil and the subsequent decline in oil and other fossil fuels and the progression of global waming/climate change. But variability in timing ultimately affects only the severity of the challenges at any point in time. The following is by no means intended as a complete list of these problem areas but rather a representative sample.

....Over this past half century the vast majority of small, regional seed companies (many specializing in maintaining rare varieties of crop seeds) have disappeared, gobbled up by multinational companies like Monsanto, Cargill, Dupont and others. This has resulted in a rapid decline in genetic diversity as these large multinationals focus on their favourite varieties on the basis of business economics. It has also, however, made seed production a centralized industry dependent on the global distribution system, often with global seed production concentrated in either the northern or southern hemisphere, out of sync with the seasonal seed needs of the other hemsphere. This has made global agriculture and the seeds on which it relies a handmaiden of the global economy and, with centralized production and global distribution, the global energy situation. It's not just a question of reactivating and regrowing the small regional seed companies. The biodiversity of the available seed line will not be sufficient to accomodate the needs of regional climate and soil diversity. The risk and impact of crop loss with an increasingly limited global emergency food reserves is often discussed. Rarely considered, however, is the globalization of that risk if the crops being lost are the seed production of these centralized seed production companies. A major crop loss in one area, without redundancy built into the global seed production system, could suddenly wipe out the needed seed supply of much of the world. Similarly, with the drastic reduction of crop biodiversity under the control of multinational seed companies, the risk of a sudden susceptibility of a particular, widely-used variety of crop could leave much of the world with no usable fall-back variety.

....Global demand for food crops continues to rise. This is due to continued increases in the global population (more mouths to feed), global changes in food and nutrition requirements (more people turning to meat as their source of protein), more and more food crops being diverted to the production of biofuels. The problem arises from the fact that the demand for the resources required to grow that food do not rise at the same rate. While the population has tripled over the past century the usage of fresh water ras risen over six fold and the water for agriculture over eight fold. In the past twenty five years alone global use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides has grown by an amazing thirty-three times. The amount of energy involved in food production has grown exponentially over this past century to the point that for every calorie of food energy produced and consumed more than ten calories or energy input Are required. Food miles traveled by food produced has gone through the stratosphere this past half century with food travelling now more thasn 1500 miles between field and table. Topsoil loss has grown dramatically over this past have century because of serious overcropping, erosion from irrigation and bare-field tillage, losses due to chemical toxicity and salination. Resource consumption and depletion involved in producing those ever greater quantities of food, therefore, is dramatically greater than the additional food produced.

....There was a time not that long ago when for practically ever farmer, regardless of the crop produced, saving and storing his own seed was still standard practice, and more recently still was in the underdeveloped and developing world. This localised, cultural practice of seed saving was a key component of food crop biodiversity around the world, with local varieties of the same crop genetically evolving independent of the same crop in other parts of the world. With the insidious spread of GMO seeds this critical component of biodiversity is disappearing. Everyone in agriculture knows the tremendous cost and complexity of taking on the big multinational seed companies when their seed cops invade your property and accuse you of saving seeds from their crop when your own crop has been cross-contaminated from crops of neighbouring farmers using their patented seeds. The use of GMO seeds is so ubiquitous that the ability to prevent cross-contamination of your own crop, a product of generation after generation of careful seed saving, is very slim. Often their own carefully-saved seed turns out to be sterile after cross-contamination from a GMO containing a terminator gene, a gene inserted to prevent the plant from producing seed or to cause it to produce a sterile seed so the plant can't be reproduced from its own seed, this securing the dependence of the farmer on the seed company. Even those farmers who are trying to hold out against the seed giants are finding their crops contaminated and the courts consistently come down in favour of the big multinational seed giants.

....With the bulk of modern agricultural crops being produced from GMO seeds restrictively produced in one area of the world and shipped all around the world from that one point, the production of the world's food is becoming rapidly and increasingly dependent on the health of the global economic system. This will make the next depression, when it happens, so much different from any past depression. In severe economic downturns of the past, or in times of war and heavy civil unrest, people would quickly revert to producing their own food and this was very often the key to surviving the hard times. Even if you have a crop today, the chances of your continuing to produce a crop in the event of a severe economic downturn or social chaos are extremely slim because your crop probably will not produce a usable seed and the seed company will very likely have fallen on hard times as the economy implodes. Where is the food to come from if no one is saving seeds, the small regional seed companies no longer exist, and the multinational seed companies that produce all the seed and the global distribution system that gets them to the farmer go out of business in an economic downturn?

....The bulk of the commercially produced food crops in the world (as opposed to the personal garden) are produced with the use of specialized, heavy farm equipment. With the exception of some of the equipment available in some third world nations, the equipment needed for small scale farming, the equipment meant to be used with human or animal power alone, the equipment that our ancestors used a century ago simply no longer exists, nor do the companies and the manufacturing equipment to produce it. Most of us have seen a piece or two of such equipment rusting beside a barn or planted with flowers on a suburban lawn. If the coming energy-decline economic downturn is very slow and very gradual and business, industry and government act with foresight, and the raw resources to do so are available, it is possible that the production of such equipment can be revitalized and ramped up in time to prevent an economic recession or depression turning into a critical global food crisis. That is a lot of ifs that are extremely unlikely to all come together in the right way and at the right time.

....There is an old and, at one time, frequently used expression that somewhat pinpoints the agricultural crisis that awaits us on the other side of peak oil: dirt farmer. Today's farmers are mostly chemical farmers and machine operators (I apologize to any legitimate dirt farmers who take umbrage with that generalization). When the fertilizers and pesticides are no longer available and the tractor and combine and electric milking system no longer function most of today's farmers will be as ill-equipped for farming as the person born, raised, and having spent their entire lives in the inner city. It is a common fallacy to think that when the machinery stops running we'll revert to labour-intensive manual farming as more and more people get involved, as workers, in the production of the food they consume. But who is to teach them what to do? Who is to teach them how to work a field of crops without the aid of machinery? Who is to show them the difference between a seedling of a food plant and the sprout of a weed? At the beginning of the last century as much as 50% of the population were involved in the production of food. Today that is less than 2%. Getting from here to non-chemical, non-mechanized, non-industrial, labour-intensive farming is going to take decades of rebuilding the skills and knowledge bases that will be needed. Trying to do this on the other side of peak oil, when the ability to absorb years or decades of non-productive trial and error doesn't exist, could be truly devestating.

....Along with the disappearance of local seed companies this last half century has also seen a wholesale collapse of the local grain storage and milling business. There was a time that virtually every small agricultural community had a small-scale miller where local farmers would take their seed to; be stored; turned into animal feed; turned into flour; pooled and shipped to centralized grain terminals, stored (and often mixed with that of other local producers) as seed for next year's grain crop. Local bakers would get the flour they used from the local miller. Often the miller, generally a grain farmer himself, would take as payment a set amount of the grain he was given to mill or the product he produced from that milling. Often miller and baker were one in the same. My small town had such a mill until twenty years ago. Now all of the grain produced goes into the impersonal national and global distribution system. The chance of the grain produced in an area even ending up on the tables of local residents is extremely slim. Once the distribution system begins to break down and the large, centralized milling companies begin to falter because of operating costs, lack of feed stock and lack of markets, how are small scale grain producers to have their grain processed into flour and seed? It could take a decade or more to revitalize and rebuild the local milling industry.

....Tomatoes in February. Ice-cream in July. New Zealand spring lamb and kiwi fruit in Toronto. Canadian maple syrup and bacon in Sydney Australia. Our food and our food tastes are a biproduct of a global food distribution system that is critically dependent on high-volume, long-distance shipping and energy-intensive refrigeration both in shipping and in general storage. When I was a child we had a root cellar for over-winter cold storage of root crops, nuts, grains and certain other fruit and vegetable crops. In addition we had an extensive food storage cellar that got restocked every fall with preserves and canned (meaning bottled) vegetables and fruits, dehydrated vegetable fruits, and a host of other preserved foods. Much of the food preserved we grew ourselves but that which wasn't was purchased locally and grown locally. When the global food distribution system begins to break down on the other side of peak oil, when energy-intensive refrigeration is no longer available for storing food after the harvest, when the materials such as mason jars, crocks, sterilizing equipment critical to canning food, when the supermarkets can no longer be looked upon as the primary source of the family's food, how will people manage? How will you manage? It could take a decade or longer to reaquire the skills and equipment and storage facilities necessary to ensure your family has food to eat at any time of the year.

....Over the last half century while much of the world has become increasingly dependent on groundwater from aquifers (97% of the world's liquid freshwater) for drinking water, industry, agricultural irrigation, and frivolous usage such as golf courses and casino fountains, the would's fresh surface water resources (lakes and rivers) have become increasingly contaminated with chemical toxins and aghricultural runoff. Although surface water is part of the global hydro-cycle and the water in the surface water systems turns over in a matter of days (water in aquifers is trapped there for, on average, 1400 years) the toxins in those systems build up in bottom sediments and continue to keep the water above toxic. It could take decades or even centuries for nature to remove the toxins that have built up in contaminated surface water systems. This is a matter of critical importance as we pass peak oil. Our ability to rely on deep aquifers for our fresh water (most shallow aquifers have already been sucked dry or have become contaminated in the same way and at the same rate as surface water), most of which are already heavilly over-exploited and declining by twenty feet or more per year, will disappear as the electricity and fossil fuels to run the massive pumps that are needed to draw water from these deep aquifers gets increasingly scarce and unreliable. Hand pumps - there were four of them within 200 yards of the home in which I grew up on which we relied for water in our plumbing-void house - are genrally not powerful enough to draw water from deep aquifers. Hand pumps are also a very scarce commodity in our industrialized society. This could place much of the world in the same position as one fifth of the world's people already are, having to rely on contaminated, chemically-toxic, disease-laden surface water and shallow aquifers for not just agricultural irrigation but for industrial use, basic hygienne and drinking water. The rate of incidence of death from water-borne diseases, which already claims millions every year, will most certainly increase exponentially.

....Vast tracts of homes have been constructed over this past half century in our industrial society. They are built to standards that assume there will be sufficient fossil-fuel and electrical energy to maintain heat to a level of 70F degrees or higher in winter and cool them to a comfortable 70F or lower in the heat of summer. Without this high-energy input those homes, more and more with sealed windows, do not have the insulation and thermal mass levels needed to maintain a home within livable standards. When the seriously-aging and materially-crumbling grids fail, even sporadically, and the fossil fuels are not available, sporadic, or priced beyond the reach of the average household, the vast majority of our modern homes will become increasingly problematic. To upgrade them all (hundreds of millions of them) to a thermal standard able to cope with the coming declines in fossil fuels will not only prove very expensive but will probably run up against increasing material shortages as available resources decline. And we most certainly aren't going to be able to think in terms of buldozing he suburbs and starting over again with housing suitable to a world of steadilly decreasing energy.

In what has become known as The Hirsch Report (commissioned by the U.S. congress and co-authored by Hirsch) [7] Robert Hirsch adamantly makes the point that it would take a minimum of 1-2 decades to prepare for the energy crisis presented by peak oil, if that effort were begun before peak oil arrived. That may already have become a moot point as we may already have passed that point with no such preparation having yet been done. But the energy crisis represented by peak oil, as I have tried to show here, is a small portion of the problems that peak oil will create or seriously exacerbate. Where preparation for the energy crisis may take 1-2 decades preparing for the parallel food, water and infrastructure crises could take many times that, could be 1-2 centuries rather than 1-2 decades with the same qualifier, that the effort is begun before peak oil, and with the additional qualifier that priority usage of the world's remaining fossil energy reserves be given to this effort. We spent the first half of the world's fossil fuel reserves creating the world as it is. It will take the other half to recreate the world as it will need to be to be workable without those fossil fuels.
1) Is aging infrastructure slowing the U.S.?
2) Engineers See Dangers in Aging Infrastructure
3) Oil peak theorist warns of chaos, war - Shawn McCarthy, Globe & Mail - Report on Business
4) Burning the furniture by Richard Heinberg
5) Biofuels: Recipe for Artificially-Induced Overshoot of Earth's Carrying Capacity
6) UN Highlights World Water Crisis
7) Peaking Of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management