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


denisaf said...

This is an admirable and realistic statement of the holistic problem that society should be addressing. However, it does not explain what civilization has done wrong. Simply, the build up and operation of civilization invariably entails the irreversible consumption of irreplaceable natural capital. The fossil fuels are a major element in this capital but so are fertile soil, aquifer and ground water together with a familiar climate. The natural capital is being used up at a very high rate because of the exuberance in the developed, and now developing, countries combined with unsustainable population and consumption growth. So the limited natural capital is becoming scarce. Peak oil, and climate change are two symptoms of this global malaise. The emerging food production crisis is another one. Widespread understanding of what went wrong would facilitate a degree of mitigation of the inevitable powering down.

Greg said...

Shorten your article! If it is so missleading for readers to read the word oil, leave it out as long as you can! Try doing it in the Albert Bartlet (exponential grouth)style instead.

A preacher tells the congrugation the answer. A teacher gets the students to figure out the answer. Right now, you are preaching, not teaching. Right now, you are either preaching to the quire, or the readers probably never even read much past the title of the article.

On a more general note, I guess we are all acting like the Jews did in the 1930s in Europe...even the ones that know the sh*t is gonna hit the fan are doing little to prepare for what is coming. Forget helping the masses, it`s too late. Help yourself, and maybe then you can help a FEW others!

Richard Embleton said...

If I were trying to explain something as simple as "To find out how long it takes something to double at a certain rate of growth divide that rate of growth into 70" then I would take 23 words to do it. Getting people to look beyond their gas tank to the true implications of peak oil is a little more complex.