It can now be said with absolute assurance that Hydrocarbon Man will be virtually extinct this Century. Homo sapiens stepped out of Africa some four million years ago, and was at first represented by a subspecies, Sustainable Man, whose numbers grew only slowly over the succeeding years to reach about one billion when Hydrocarbon Man was born in the middle of the 19th Century. Sustainable Man then declined as Hydrocarbon Man took his place, such that the overall population grew to its present level of 6.6 billion. It is calculated that current oil supply is equivalent in energy terms to 22 billion slaves working 24 hours a day. —The Association For The Study Of Peak Oil And Gas “ASPO” Newsletter No. 83 – November 2007
For years, the experts have been warning of the dangers of oil depletion. They have been accused of crying wolf. This time, the wolf really is at the door.
— Paul Thompson, The Wolf at the Door: A Beginner’s Guide to Peak Oil
We should acknowledge that our food production system and every other aspect of our lives are utterly dependent on fossil fuels. We should also remember that before World War II, this was not the case. We may even have relatives who remember those days. We should take a look at the children sitting around the table. They will not live in a world of cheap, abundant oil. . . . [C]heap oil has fueled a 50-year-long party in the industrialized West that has left us with an unsustainable economy that is wrecking the planet. . . . Now our eyes are being opened. Cheap oil is not infinite. It is not an American birthright. Now we can begin to cope with the consequences. It won't be easy, but it will be real. — Kelpie Wilson
Contemporary mainstream culture of over-consumption and unbridled growth, which we would so much like to change, to save ourselves, or to save the planet, or a little of each, is not now, and was never a rational proposition. It is the realization of dark, irrational, self-destructive urges, which were programmed into us through some evolutionary accident, and which are now, and for a short time longer, being given their fullest expression by the availability of cheap and abundant energy. -- Dmitry Orlov
The notion that our civilization will end in a sudden collapse is a piece of Christian mythology with the serial numbers filed off, not a plausible model for how the process of fossil fuel depletion will impact industrial society. – John Michael Greer
Waking Up to Geological Reality
Since I became seriously concerned about Peak Oil in early 2005 and started following the news about it on the internet, I have been fascinated by the relatively rapid increase in the number of books, articles, websites, blogs, and documentaries about the issue, on the one hand, and the silence about it in the mainstream media, on the other. Meanwhile, the debate about when the global peak in oil extraction would occur—which occupied a lot of the discussion in 2005—gradually died down and was replaced by expressions of dismay and frustration about denial that it is already happening.
In November 2007, Peak Oil showed signs of breaking through mainstream denial when oil executives began admitting that growth in annual oil production had ended, which is as good as saying that peak in oil extraction had either occurred or was occurring, without using the dreaded words Peak Oil. In July of 2009, Richard Heinberg argued that July 11, 2008 had been “Peak Oil Day”: “On July 11, 2008, the price of a barrel of oil hit a record $147.27 in daily trading. That same month, world crude oil production achieved a record 74.8 million barrels per day.” However, Peak Oil effectively remained the proverbial “elephant in the living room” among other publicly recognized issues such as Climate Change.
By late-2009, Climate Change had become a major international concern often discussed in the media (although governments of industrialized nations still equivocated), while Peak Oil still remained the elephant in the living room.
Why is Peak Oil such a big deal? First, it’s important to understand that liquid fossil fuels are the most potent source of energy known on Earth, and that they are non-renewable and limited. Once an oil field goes into decline, it’s harder and more expensive to get the oil out. When it can no longer be economically extracted, even if there is still some left in a field, it’s abandoned because it would cost more to get it than can be gotten for it. Many geologists and oil experts say that all the major oil fields in the world are in decline and no large fields that equal the former ones can be found. The industrial world as we know it has been created with the energy provided by cheap oil, and now cheap oil is over. Oil is not cheap anymore because it isn’t as easily accessible and abundant as it once was, and because demand is exceeding supply. This spells “energy depletion,” and it does have enormous implications for the global economy and the industrial world that depends upon it.
All economic activity is rooted in the energy economy, which means most of the current world economy depends upon the production and distribution of oil and gas. About 75% of the world’s oil use goes into the transportation of people and goods. About 88% of Americans commute to and from work in cars. When the price of oil goes up, the price of everything goes up. Because the price of oil is projected to continue rising, everybody is going to feel the squeeze economically. In an economy that depends on growth to prosper, rising prices curtail growth, and without growth the economy goes into recession or depression.
The food that most people in the industrialized world get from supermarkets is grown with oil used for fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, irrigation and harvesting, and then it is transported hundreds of miles with oil—an average of 1200 miles. Industrial, fossil-fueled agriculture using monocropping techniques was called the “green revolution.” Cheap, abundant oil provided cheap, abundant food, which resulted in a human population explosion that far exceeds the carrying capacity of the Earth. The expansion of agriculture to feed the expanding world population
has appropriated 40% of the photosynthetic capacity of the Earth—mostly by replacing forests and other natural ecosystems with farms. This is one of the major causes of the current, unprecedented extinction rate of nonhuman species, and the weakening of the ecological systems that keep climate in balance.
Meanwhile, intensive monocultures and the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides have depleted the soils of their fertility, causing a massive loss of topsoil. At the same time, ancient aquifers have been severely depleted by irrigation for agriculture.
In the United States, about ten calories of hydrocarbon energy are required to produce one calorie of food. Studies suggest that without
The Conversation ©Mark Bryan
fossil fuel based agriculture, the US could sustain only about two thirds of its present population, though that may be optimistic, considering the depletion of soil and water. For the planet as a whole, the sustainable number has been estimated to be no more than two billion—about what it was before the industrial revolution. However, taking climate change and the depletion of topsoil and water into account, some say that the planet will be able to sustain considerably less than two billion people when fossil fuels and industrial society are gone. (See Population Links)
Without a transition to a sustainable, relocalized agriculture, the effects of energy depletion are expected to be disastrous—so dire that it’s been difficult to get citizens to face them and policy makers to address them. However, without an understanding of Peak Oil, problems in the political and economic spheres cannot be properly understood and addressed. This is a predicament that the entire world is facing.
There is only one society (so far) that has made a successful transition to sustainable, non-hydrocarbon-based, localized agriculture due to energy depletion, and that is Cuba after the Soviet Union collapsed. So Cuba is the model for the ‘community solution’ that many peak oil activists and Dharmagaians advocate, and that is explored in the Sustainable Communities section of this website. See The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil to get an idea of the possibilities that Cuba discovered. It’s quite inspiring.
However, making the transition to an ecologically sustainable way of life takes time—years—to learn how to work with others and with the land to do what needs to be done. Most people in the industrialized world will need to learn an entirely new skill set. Nobody says it can be done easily and quickly, so there’s no time to lose.
Peak Oil is a complicated issue that requires study in order to fully comprehend its implications. Many qualified people have dedicated themselves to explaining it, so I will simply point readers to the resources that I’ve found most informative, reliable, and/or interesting.
For those who are new to the issue of Peak Oil, I recommend the following for a quick crash course:
Peak Oil Primer from Post Peak Living
Peak Oil Primer and links from Energy Bulletin
Wolf at the Door: A Beginner’s Guide to Peak Oil by Paul Thompson
Richard Heinberg: Powerdown - Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World -- 47-minute VIDEO discussion (2/16/05) of the main points in this book.
Richard Heinberg: ”The Energy Transition - Global Responses to Climate Change and Fossil Fuel Depletion” - 55 min. video (4/19/07)
Richard Heinberg: Two-part interview in which Richard encapsulates the message of Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Declines.
“Dick” © Mark Bryan
For those who are already familiar with the outlines of Peak Oil, recent developments and related issues can be found on the Peak Oil, Food Crisis, Economic Meltdown, Population, and Dark Side Links pages and The Cassandra Club.
© 2009 Suzanne Duarte