Disclaimer: This post is not about food, this is one of my 'other random musings', if you are looking for food, scroll down to the next post. This is also a really long post, and it could have been much longer, but I figured I was pushing my luck in getting anyone to read this anyway. You have been warned. :-)
Second, the title for this piece, The End of Suburbia, is taken from a documentary by the same name. The film was highly influential in my life, and I would recommend anyone interested in the topic below watch the film.
Without further fanfare, enjoy yourself a 'J-Style Rant.'
So, if any of you knew me, you would probably be surprised that I haven’t written about the concept of ‘peak oil’ and its implications until now. Well, I have been reluctant, as peak oil is a complex topic and I’ve still barely been able to wrap my head around what it all means. I will spare the scientific explanation and instead refer you to others more knowledgeable and eloquent on the technical aspect of it than I am. For a more technical overview, I would recommend reading Kenneth Deffeyes, Colin J. Campbell, Jeremy Leggett, or M. King Hubbert himself (who came up with the theory of peak oil and illustrating oil reserves using the bell curve).
The purpose of this post is to lay out a ‘laymen’s’ summary of the concept of peak oil and what that means to, well, you and I really. The concept and what it implies is very important to me, as I feel it has the potential to change the way we do pretty much everything, and thus it has been one of the primary factors behind my recent lifestyle changes.
Let’s start with a brief overview of oil:
Oil is the driving force behind western civilization; it is hands down the most important aspect of our society and is what has allowed us, especially in the United States, to ‘party it up’ as we have been for last couple hundred years. Oil is involved in pretty much everything either directly or indirectly. I have challenged others before, and challenge you all again to find something in your homes that isn’t there directly or indirectly as a result of oil. We are oil; we wear it (synthetic fibers), eat it (petroleum based pesticides and fertilizers), and drive it (cars, obviously); our houses would not be as they are without it; the gadgets we have wouldn’t be here without it; the trinkets we have in our houses wouldn’t be here without it; I could go on and on.
I liken oil to an addiction, as many others do in the sense that we are unable to live without it and generally unwilling to accept the negative consequences our dependence on this ‘black gold’ has leveled upon us.
Brief Intro to the Concept of Peak Oil:
The United States was, not too long ago, the world’s oil producer; we had it coming out the wazoo! Business was booming and our society was progressing technologically by leaps and bounds – the standard of living for the average person rose significantly. Many thought the oil here would never run out. Well, except a geophysicist named M. King Hubbert. Hubbert realized that oil, being a finite (limited) resource would eventually run out, and he wanted to determine when that would occur. In the mid 1950s, Hubbert asserted that the United States’ oil production would peak sometime around 1970. He was looked at, as most are when they are the bearers of bad news, as a bit of a loon, and he wasn’t taken all that seriously. Turns out though, he was right. The United States peaked in oil production in 1971. Of course, nobody had an ‘aha!’ moment in 1971 when they realized that we peaked and that Hubbert was, in fact, right; it’s something that we saw in hindsight as we noticed the decline in domestic oil production.
What does this mean though, that the US peaked? Imagine a bell-shaped curve. Basically, in the United States’ oil producing heyday, we were quickly traveling up the steep part of the curve, meaning that each year, more and more oil was extracted from the ground. That is, until 1971, after that, our production leveled out and then went into terminal decline. This led us to becoming a net oil importer rather than exporter. This made for tricky foreign policy on the part of the US government as we now have to rely on others for our ‘fix’.
Well, When Will The World Peak Then?
This is a tough question that I, and really nobody else, have a solid answer to. There are many factors that go into calculating when the world will peak and many problems with the information we have to go on. Hubbert asserted later in his life that the world would reach its peak oil production in the late twentieth century, though the oil embargo of the 1970s and the resulting efficiency measures have likely pushed that off a bit. OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), in a move that some say was to increase their revenues from the oil they export, changed their reported reserves in the late 1980s, even though no more new oil reserves had been discovered. Why did they do this? Well, I personally don’t know, but many theorize, and I agree, that it had to do with quotas. Basically, the amount of oil they were ‘allowed’ to pump was in relation to the amount of oil they had in reserve. The more oil in reserves the more one could pump and thus the more petrodollars that could be obtained, so why not inflate the numbers? We must remember long-term thinking isn’t something that many humans are all that great at.
How about new discoveries? The discovery of new oil fields peaked back in the late 1960s. This means that each year, as more and more oil is pumped from the ground to keep up with ever increasing demand, oil discoveries are on the decline. Not to mention, the fields they have discovered since then are ‘small’ in relation to say, Saudi Arabia’s massive Ghawar oil field.
Many of the world’s largest oil fields are aging. And the technology used to extract the oil at first wasn’t the most efficient and thus much oil was wasted, not to mention natural gas (another natural resource that is peaking in many areas), which is generally ‘flared off’, or essentially left to burn. The remaining oil – well, all that has been discovered – it’s in many of the regions of the world that aren’t very fond of us Westerners coveting their natural resources.
So when will we peak? Well, some claim that we already have, other, more conservative estimates say it could still be 10-20 years off. Basically though, many feel that we will peak in our lifetime.
What Does This Mean?
I think many, when they hear of the concept of peak oil, imagine it as this definitive moment when the world will end. It’s not like that. All peak oil says it that oil production will eventually peak, level off, and then go into decline. No biggie, right? We’ll still have half the oil left after all.
Well, not exactly. Things aren’t going to change overnight, this happens more gradually but there are still issues. The problem is three-fold: first is our level of reliance on the substance and that there is no silver bullet alternative to it (especially given all its applications, but more on that in a moment); the second is the growing world demand for a substance in decline; and third, most of the ‘easy’ oil (light sweet crude) has already been used up. So now we have to try to access countries’ ‘more difficult’ oil reserves such as the tar sands, shale, or heavy oil in Venezuela. Other oil, say in the Middle East, that’s politically difficult and beyond the scope of this piece.
On a large scale, this could mean major resource wars, when we realize that OPEC can’t up its production because the oil simply isn’t there, and that others are willing to fight for the remaining reserves in the less friendly places. On a more human level, it could mean a lot of hunger in parts of the world that have already experienced their fair share, as well as the possibility of our own affluent populations going hungry.
The End of Suburbia?
How is the decline in oil going to affect most of us? Well, probably in more of the same ways it already has, the prices of everything will continue to rise, and could to a point where many of the things we enjoy today are a thing of the past.
Most troublesome though is the literal infrastructure of America. America was built on the assumption of a never ending supply of cheap, abundant oil. If you live in America and have never been elsewhere, you probably don’t realize just how unique our country is and why. We have the most sprawling, inefficiently planned society in the history of industrial civilization. Many of us live so far from where we work that getting there any other way than driving is simply not an option. We live in unnatural suburbs, that mimic the ‘country life’, except as James Howard Kunstler notes, we get all the negative aspects of city and the country but none of the positive ones. People don’t know their neighbors, don’t want to talk to them, the ‘nature’ around them is in the form of cars, cars, and more cars, sitting outside of cookie cutter houses on streets named after the trees that once lived there. We don’t have access to fresh, local food, or decent public transportation, and the idea that we can change that overnight is laughable.
So what happens to those suburbanites when gas is $20 a gallon and they can no longer afford to drive to work? What happens when the grocery stores can no longer stock strawberries in February, at least not at a price that you or I could afford? More basically, how will we feed ourselves if we no longer have ready access to mass quantities of fertilizer and pesticides/herbicides? Our soil in most places now is dead for all intents and purposes and has merely turned into a medium with which we turn oil and natural gas into food. These are questions I grapple with everyday.
I think the title of James Howard Kunstler’s truly riveting book The Long Emergency is very illustrative. This is what we may see, in short a depression that doesn’t end, at least not while we’re still around. How could it be otherwise? The price of everything is inextricably linked to the price of oil, as it should be; it’s what makes this all possible.
Many quickly point their fingers to the alternatives: hydrogen powered cars, ethanol, nuclear, and so on. The problem here is these ‘solutions’ only touch on part of the energy shortage. These alternatives could provide much in the way of transportation and electrical power generation, but nukes can’t feed us. That is a big problem. Nor do I think any of these alternatives will really be viable in the near future. Many will point to organic agriculture in response to the food issue, but there are two problems with that. First, there is a lot of knowledge about actual farming that has been lost, the ability to understand the soil, climate, rainfall and how that will affect the crops, and so on. The second problem is that land that has been industrially farmed cannot just be switched over to organic agriculture. The soil is essentially dead and takes time to build back up, a long time if you are talking top soil, hundreds of years, which is time that we don’t have.
I wish I could end this post with a ‘Here’s what to do’ plan, but unfortunately, I don’t have a crystal ball, nor do I see any solutions that will take care of these problems without creating their own set of problems. This is why I truly feel that our stupidity is intimately tied to our intelligence. We seem to have so many of these ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ moments, where we achieve an amazing feat only to find out that many of the problems that the ‘solution’ caused were not worth the ones ‘solved’.
Where I diverge from many people in my thinking is that I do not think we will go ‘backwards’, meaning, some tend to paint this picture that the post-petroleum world is going to look like times of old: no running water, people in horses and buggies, you get the idea. I don’t think that is what is going to happen here. Humans don’t go backwards, that’s not how we work. Technology is not all bad and definitely has its place. I still think we will have electricity, running water, the internet, and so on, but feel that our local communities will become much more vital to our survival, as we can’t just go buy bottled water or food from elsewhere if there is something wrong with ours. So in some ways a scaling back of society could be good for communities and humans in general. I really feel the robotic way most of us live now is not human.
What I can say is this, I have no idea what is going to happen, whether or not we will make the ‘right’ decisions, or how any of this will affect us – if at all, but at the very least, learning to live with a little less and in ways that don’t require oil is highly rewarding, even if done just for the sake of doing so. Our lives are so cluttered with stuff, work, etc., that most of us never stop to live. If our money is no longer worth anything or there is not much worth buying beyond our basic necessities, we will have to find other ways to spend our time, such as enriching our minds and connecting with others. Learning to live in ways that don’t require oil or at least not nearly as much, such as organic gardening, cooking and preserving your own food, getting around by food or bike, is good for the mind and body. And taking ourselves out of the ‘global stuff chain’ as much as we can will allow us to, well as a wonderful quote says ‘live simply so that others may simply live.’
In spite of all of this, I am a cautious optimist. I’ve seen what humans can accomplish when they are in a bind. We are highly ingenious, it’s just sad that, to this point, most of our ingenuity has been used to come up with more sophisticated ways of killing people. That aside, I do see some very positive things, mainstream individuals are starting to understand that things are not as they should be. And I don’t believe that humans are naturally selfish individuals, it wouldn’t have been in our evolutionary interest to be so – I think we were ‘programmed’ to be this way as a result of how our society has been shaped. With that said, once people understand, and then begin to accept what is happening, I think we will see progress. I just hope it comes soon enough.
Thanks as always for taking the time to read this novella. I could have gone into much more detail and I left many things out for the sake of not writing an entire book about the topic (though I probably could). I also don’t mention that this isn’t the only resource we rely upon that is getting to be in short demand, there is also talk of our running out of natural gas, potable water, arable land, and so on, but I focused on oil as I feel that, for most of the people who read this blog, this is going to be what affects you the most.
If you want to know more about the topic, I highly suggest reading The Long Emergency by James Howard Kuntsler, anything by Richard Heinberg, Michael Ruppert, Matthew Simmons (Simmons is an energy investor, he has a vested interest in knowing when supplies are going to run out), or Michael T. Klare, just to name a few, as well as those authors I noted earlier if you are interested in a more technical look at the topic. Also, if anyone questions any of the assertions made in this piece, or wants to know specific sources used, please just email me or leave a comment, I'd be happy to dialogue and provide my sources.
Update: A commenter, David, provided a link to an excellent source of information, which I thank him very much for sharing. This is an excellent 'crash course' as to the current state of things. It provides a comprehensive, though brief background on many complex topics, all interrelated, in an easy to understand manner. If any of you have the time, I highly recommend checking it out.
'Til next time!