Sunday, November 27, 2011

22 Billion Energy Slaves

Hubbert's Peak. Poster courtesy of
Welcome to my new blog. The title refers to the ex-oil geologist Colin Campbell's remark that the amount of work we get today from fossil fuels is the equivalent of having some 22 billion human slaves working for us round the clock 365 days a year. That's a lot of service we are getting but the shocking thing is that in the coming years and decades most, if not all, of these slaves are going to go away. What we are going to do as those slaves head off into retirement is the core theme of this blog.

Yes, Peak Oil. It's a term that is being bandied around increasingly these days and, basically, it refers to the fact that humanity has extracted around half of all known accessible reserves of oil and other liquid fossil fuels from the Earth's crust. Unfortunately, not many people take this fact too seriously - after all, if we've used up the first 150 years' worth doesn't that mean we don't have to worry about them running out for another 150 years?

If only. We are right now standing on the bumpy plateau of the oil production curve - or Hubbert's Peak as it's known - names after the late American geophysicist M. King Hubbert who sketched out a bell curve for US petroleum production, which posited that supply would peak in the late 60s or early 70s. His theory proved remarkably prescient, not just for the US but for all major oil fields, and the US did indeed experience a peak and has been in decline ever since. By the same reasoning Hubbert predicted that world oil supply would peak in 1995. He might have been off by a few years, and nobody can agree when or even if the peak was reached, but the International Energy Authority now states that conventional crude oil peaked in 2006.

A potted history of Peak Oil can be summarised as follows:

- In 1955 Hubbert predicted it but was ignored and even vilified.
- In the early 1970s oil shocks sent the industrial world into a panic and emergency measures were introduced to conserve energy
- In the 1980s people who were sick of energy rationing voted in politicians who promised a return of the good times - namely but not exclusively Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Raegan. These politicians pulled out all the stops and, combined with new (and very timely) discoveries in the North Sea and Alaska the industrial world was drowned in cheap oil ... for a time.
- Now, in 2011, with a peak having been reached we suddenly find ourselves in the position that emerging giant economies such as India and China, with a voracious appetite for fossil fuels, are demanding their share of the energy bonanza. That's why oil has gone up from around 10 dollars a barrel to the current price of over 100. Nobody knows how high the price will be in two, five or ten years, but 200 dollars a barrel does not seem unlikely.

Why should any of this matter?

Unfortunately it matters a great deal. Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that what we must face up to in the coming years will be the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced and there will not be a single one of us whose world will not be turned upside down. Those 22 billion energy slaves will be going away, and there aren't any other kinds waiting in the wings to take over. With a tiny handful of exceptions, every one of us alive in the rich world today was weaned on oil. Our food is grown with it, it powers the way we move around and everything from clothes and medicine is made with it. We might as well call ourselves Homo Petroleus.

It's normally at this point in a discussion that someone politely (or impolitely) points out to me that, don't I realise, the slack from oil will be taken up by renewable energy, nuclear power and other things, like coal.

One of the points of this blog is to detail why that won't be happening.

It's a difficult thing to acknowledge but what we face right now is nothing less than the end of the industrial age. Some people might say 'great' - but we shouldn't romanticise the pre industrial age. For the great majority of us the rest of our lives will consist of one crisis after another as political and financial institutions fall, energy crises rear their heads and ecological catastrophes loom. It won't be pretty and, given that several billion of the world's population rely on fossil fuels for their food production, we can count on there being a lot less of us around in the future.

While recognising these facts is likely the most important thing you can ever grasp, it is equally important not to equate it with some kind of apocalypse. Yes, things are going to get ugly, but it will be a long process. Civilisations generally take a couple of hundred years to die. Ours is unlikely to be exceptional - although we often think it is. But with the right preparation it will be perfectly possible to at least manage our energy descent in a way that keeps us alive and, if we're lucky, comfortable.

These are the kind of hard to stomach facts that I will be presenting in this blog. But one shouldn't despair. The kind of steps I am going to be suggesting generally involve taking charge of your affairs and thus empowering yourself. All of us have been bombarded with the psychological detritus of the industrial age since we were born and learning how to switch off its influence is like lifting a huge load off your shoulders.

A bit about me. I'm 40 years old, a father of two and although I am British I currently live in Denmark. I studied economics at university and went on to become an energy trader but then jacked in the corporate world to become a journalist in Spain, where I started my own environmental newspaper The Olive Press. Since then I have been the editor of a newspaper in Denmark and have been a freelance correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. I have also been an active participant in the Peak Oil blogosphere (so dispersed are its adherents at present that's the main forum for communication) and have studying the implications of what is in store for us for the past couple of years. There are a number of key figures in the Peak Oil scene and most of them are American. Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over and Peak Everything, is a favourite of mine, as is another hard hitter Dmitry Orlov, who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union firsthand.

There are other names of course but my principal influence, which I will fess up to right from the start, has been and continues to be the Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, John Michael Greer, whose book The Long Descent simply blew me away. His weekly Peak Oil blog The Archdruid Report has become an addictive cerebral dose of analysis and food for thought and is read by thousands. Incisive as his essays are, he has always maintained that his analysis springs purely from his own American perspective and acknowledges that other cultures may interpret his ideas in slightly different ways. It's in this spirit that I'm presenting this series of blog posts - or dispatches - from a British perspective. We have our own political system and ways of doing things that can, at times, be quite different to the US. It's going to be quite a journey because the one thing that becomes apparent as you start to explore Peak Oil is that immediately a host of other disciplines and subjects present themselves. Indeed, one might expect a contemplation of Peak Oil to be a never ending procession of production charts and geological analysis. It isn't.

To gain a thorough understanding of the challenges that are beginning to force themselves upon us it will be necessary to explore everything from economics and physics (especially the Laws of Thermodynamics), to religion, architecture, social theory, psychology and ancient history. There will also be large doses of philosophy, analysis of current affairs and DIY. It's going to be an interesting exploration and I hope that you, the reader, will share it with me. There is little time for preparation (that should have started 30 years ago) but I aim to produce one post per week, or more if time allows.

To round off this post I'll give you a little hint of the urgency of our situation. In 2009 the august and dry International Energy Agency failed to mention the term 'Peak Oil' anywhere in its 600 page annual report on the state of the world's energy supplies. In the 2010 report is casually mentioned Peak Oil for the first time and stated that it had already happened. In the 2011 report, which came out a few days ago, comes with a number of dire warnings suggesting that if we don't change our ways quickly then much of humankind will have been wiped out by the end of the century. If that sounds alarmist then that's because it is. If a report could have a flashing blue light on it and an air raid siren then you can guarantee that this one would.

But did you read that in the news? No, I thought not.


  1. No, i did not read it in the news or hear it either.

    The sad thing is that i sometimes wonder if the denial of such issues as peak oil is either hard wired into our nature or if the hard wiring is so focused on entertainment and joy-joy feelings that such issues are quite literally invisible

    i remember once reading about the first contact between Europeans and American natives - how they natives looked at the ships but could not "see" them - there was no experience, no wiring of their brains, that allowed them to recognise the strange new things in their waters - perhaps their brains tried to resolve them into islands or giant bats or something else or a flicking between many possible resolutions - but they simply could not "see" them

    cognitive dissonance

    i've noticed over that years that if i try and push peak oil understanding on people - past this dissonance - i am met with anger

    it is such a huge change we ask of people - so huge

    and perhaps it's pointless - perhaps it is better to let the whole world go on its day to day way and hope for emergence from the other end

    who knows eh



  2. ps

    i expect that most of your readers will already know about peak oil

    maybe you could explore issues based on that assumption


  3. Peak Oil Poet, it's true that maybe most of the people coming here will already know about PO, but starting this blog off I have to assume that most people don't. Most of the people I know have never heard of the concept so I will be spending the first few week/months outlining some basic concepts. Saying that, events are moving so quickly at present I can't restrain from butting in, so I'll aim for one informative post a week and one based on current events. This may seem a bit haphazard but there is so much to say and discuss!

    I agree there is a huge cognitive dissonance happening, I think a lot of people sense unease. Maybe it's true that currently they 'can't see the ships', especially if everyone else is insisting they are just mirages. I don't think this is hard-wired into us, I just think that as social primates it takes a large number of us to point out the ships before everyone else starts insisting they saw them all along but forgot to mention it.

    Regarding the change, yes, it's true that it is a huge change, but it's not 'we' asking it of the people, it's a case of butting up against ecological limits. As Bill McKibben said, planet earth doesn't negotiate, so people will have to accept the physical reality either sooner or later.

  4. "Civilisations generally take a couple of hundred years to die. Ours is unlikely to be exceptional - although we often think it is."

    I think on the contrary it will be exceptional. Rome was built with muscle and hand-forged iron. Our industrial civilization was built with far more energy intensive processes which are also needed to sustain the whole machine lest it rapidly fall apart, perhaps over the course of several decades, though that is still quick on the historical scale of things.

    This coupled with freak weather and ecological payback for our environmental transgressions, the crashing will be all the more painful.

  5. Hi Jeffrey - thanks for stopping by - it was inspiring to read about the way of life you have chosen!

    I think you're right if you are just talking about industrial 'civilization' (I was probably meaning something a bit broader - let's call it 'faith in progress'). This is just programmed to accelerate like a car being driven up a hill by a speed demon, and the moment he takes his foot is off the accelerator pedal the car grinds to halt and will start to roll backwards.

    It's not a good thing to be in a car rolling down a hill backwards - better to jump out when you're part way up the hill and the car hasn't stalled, I say.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.