Sunday, June 10, 2012

What the Heck is Peak Oil?

An abandoned shopping mall in the US. If you want to know how this could happen then just follow the energy.
Photo by Brian Ulrich from his Dark Stores series

I have to say, I'm quite astonished by how many visitors I've been getting on this blog lately. When I look at the stats, back in October last year I had 18 visitors. Of course, I was thrilled to have 18 people looking at it, but ideally I wanted a few more. Well, by December that had shot up to about 800, so I was whooping aloud and punching the air. But it didn't stop there – last month I was up near 6,000 page views, and this month I'm on course to double that. Many of the hits this site is getting come by way of a link placed on somebody else's site – so if you're one of those people – thanks.

That's all very well, you might say, but so what? Well, my point is quite straightforward – at the top of this blog I have written a subtitle which says The end of the age of abundance and our response to it. My aim is quite simply to add another voice to the growing chorus of people who are concerned about peak oil and, hopefully, foster some useful discussions about what to do about it. It's not to earn me money or glory (I will never have syndicated ads on this site) but simply to be another voice in the wilderness. About half of the people dropping by here are from the US (howdy!) with most of the rest coming from the UK and Europe i.e. the places where peak oil has traditionally fallen under the radar.

But it occurs to me that, in my experience, only about one person in every hundred has any idea what peak oil is about and they may well have ended up on this page by accident (perhaps lured here by my nettle soup recipe) so – apologies to those who took their Peak Oil 101 module years back and know how to tell their ASPOs from their EROEIs – but this post is dedicated to the newbies.

So (deep breath), what exactly is peak oil?

Well, it's two things. Firstly - and this is the dull but necessary technical definition - it's the point on the supply curve where precisely half of the accessible oil in the Earth's crust has been extracted. It's widely thought that we've either reached that point or are at that point right now or are about to hit that point – you can take your pick depending on who you listen to. The point is that from now on there will be less and less oil available to us. This is called peak oil i.e. we are at the peak of oil extraction and it can only go downhill from here.

Okay, that was the dull bit. Now for the Earth-shattering part.

You might think that this sounds slightly boring, vaguely problematic and the kind of thing that someone somewhere should probably sort out. Wrong: it is the most important thing that has happened in our lifetimes and quite possibly the greatest challenge modern civilization has known. Peak oil means your life will change dramatically in the near future, probably for the worse.

Okay, so that sounded a bit dramatic. You might be thinking that I am probably some kind of conspiracy theorist and that I spend my time watching videos about shadowy elites spraying mind controlling poisons on civilian populations from air planes and dynamiting the World Trade Center. I don't. Neither do I believe we are being controlled by David Icke's Lizards or the Space Brothers or the Illuminati, or that supernaturally gifted Mayan astronomers were able to predict the apocalypse from hundreds of years in the past. If you're one of the many people who does then fine, there are lots of other websites you can go and look at because what I propose is that we are not being controlled by anyone at all. That's right - nobody is in charge at all - and that's even more scary when you think about it isn't it?

So now I have got that out of the way, what exactly is peak oil and why should it concern you? Well, you see, another uncomfortable thing is that we are pretty much all addicted to oil. We swim in it, we breathe it and we eat it. None of us alive knows what a life without oil is like – it's like trying to explain the concept of wetness to a fish. Our whole civilization is built on it and all of us, directly or indirectly, profit hugely from its cheapness and its availability.

When we first discovered oil we didn't think much of it. It came out of the ground in globules and got stuck to the soles of Romans' sandals. It wasn't until the industrial revolution that we found a use for fossil fuels - and then its extraction and use really got going. If we say that this took off in around 1800, we have had just over 200 years of use from it. That's not to say that we have 200 years left of use though. Our lifestyles assume that oil is practically limitless and our numbers are swelling and swelling, so the rate at which we are using it up is growing all the time.

But still, you might think: so what? You might think that we still have 100 years or so of good usage left (whatever the ramifications of burning up all that oil has on the climate). You might, indeed, think that it's a problem for your grand kids, rather than yourself. You'd be wrong. Here's why.

Economics teaches us that a market will always find the correct price for a commodity when supply and demand meet. Up until now, supply has always been able to meet demand as new oil wells are drilled and new technology has enabled us to exploit those wells more efficiently. This has led to a stable and low price – so low in fact that economists have hardly bothered factoring the price into their equations when they calculate how much economies will grow. In short, it has been assumed that supply will always be able to keep up with demand. In the unlikely event that it couldn't they assumed that substitution would occur, i.e. the market would find some other replacement for oil to take its place – like hydrogen or cheap nuclear power.

The only problem is, it hasn't.

So we have a situation now where for the first time ever, demand, driven not just by the traditional energy gobblers of the west but also by booming countries like China and India, is starting to outpace supply. Just as economists predicted, when such a situation occurs, the price of the commodity will rocket. At least they predicted something right, and in case you hadn't noticed, the price of oil has remained around ten times what it used to be for some time now.

And that's a big problem because, basically, our economies are geared for growth and they can't grow when oil prices are at these levels. Years ago some of the original peak oil thinkers saw what was likely to happen when demand outpaced supply. They used oil production charts from hundreds of oil wells with known reserves, and estimated the production curves of the others. There has been some debate about the accuracy of their timing i.e. exactly when they said things would occur, but that could be put down to a couple of major finds and some extra technological innovation that has helped to squeeze out a few more barrels. But what they predicted was an inevitable end to economic growth and a jump in the prices of basic commodities which would lead to depression in the economies geared to run on cheap energy and revolutions across the Middle East as the knock-on price of foodstuffs rose.

Sound familiar?

A few people listened to their warnings in the 1970s (a couple of oil shocks cleared people's minds for a while) but by the 1980s people decided to turn off en masse and elect the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and a host of other politicians who promised sudden growth in the short term while neglecting to mention that it was at the expense of our long term welfare. Looking back, it was an all-too-human thing to do; after all, nobody likes living in a state of depression.

We could, instead, have pumped all of our resources into renewable energy and conservation programmes that would have at least cushioned our energy descent. Jimmy Carter famously installed solar panels on the White House to make a statement about doing just that, and one of the first things Ronald Reagan did when he was elected to office was to take them down again. Americans, it seemed, didn't like a visual reminder that they live in a world of energy limits, especially one so prominently placed.

Jimmy Carter with his new White House solar panels in 1979.
They were taken off again by this man shortly afterwards.

By contrast Denmark, where I live, was one of the few places that chose to do something even approaching the correct course of action. Politicians here are kept on a short leash due to cultural reasons and are forced to do things in the country's long-term interest. Houses were super-insulated, car driving was banned on Sundays and the population took to their bikes in order to save fuel. But Denmark, with its five or six million people, was too small to be noticed and almost every other country hit the snooze button and went back to sleep.

It was a missed opportunity and now there is practically nothing we can do about it, which is too bad.

In the interim 30 years we have not just been snoozing though, we've been busy eliminating every last trace of the idea that we live in a world of finite resources and that all we have to do is elect the right politicians, print enough money or create the right business conditions for 'enterprise' to flourish and we'll be on the never-ending upward slope of economic prosperity. So ingrained became this idea that we lost all sense of perspective. Indeed it's probably not too much to say that for most people, the idea of economic growth and progress has become a religion. It's how they interpret the world and the prism through which they see everything. Ergo, no economic growth equals no point in living; end of story.

But it is a bad religion. One aspect of it is that the money economy in this world has grown like a vast tumour, feeding off the physical economy of goods and services. If economic growth could last forever, then banks could lend ever more money and charge interest forever and governments and individuals could keep increasing their borrowing because there would never come a time to pay the piper. The money economy could continue to grow by feeding off the secondary economy of goods and services which could grow by feeding off the primary economy of raw materials, such as water and land and air, all powered by that magic yet invisible ingredient called oil. If energy was assumed to be infinite, then our ambitions could also be infinite in size and scope.

The fly in the ointment of this unrealisable dream, of course, is that energy, for all practical purposes, is not infinitely available for our exclusive use. Rising energy prices have a knock-on effect on the cost of every other commodity that requires energy to extract, process and transport. I can't think of any commodities that don't fall into that category, unless you count wishful thinking as one. So it might be helpful to imagine the spike in oil prices as a gigantic needle pointing skywards to prick the immense balloon of inflated 'wealth' that is hovering over the world like a Zeppelin. The result, as evidenced by the Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the current round of financial shocks hitting European banks and American cities and states, is nothing short of a Hindenburg Disaster.

That means we are on the cusp of what the Chinese euphemistically call 'interesting times'. The less polite way of putting it would be 'cursed times'. The spike of peak oil popping the bubble of inflated wealth and ideologically driven economic theory is the most disastrous event of our times. Remember, this is not a conspiracy because nobody is in charge. I don't know if anyone reading this has heard of the Peter Principle, but it states that in any hierarchy people rise to the position of incompetence. Given that we live in hierarchical societies it's very hard to look back at the last 30 years of history and conclude that the people making the tough decisions about energy policy were anything but incompetent.

So the changes we are experiencing are systemic and not controlled by any one or bunch of individuals. It's comforting to think that there are some arch-villains out there and it would just be a case of finding them and hanging them from a lamppost – and indeed there are plenty who might fit this description – but it would be a mistake to think that this would have any real effect beyond the cathartic. Indeed, it would be impossible for a handful of individuals to control such a large and complex system as industrial civilization, although a few have tried and failed dramatically. We were all in this together, to some extent. And just like a rising tide floats all boats, the falling tide will lower all of us.

You might ask, why isn't this all over the media? That's a very good question and I addressed it here. The simple answer is probably that nobody wants to rock the boat. The mainstream media is also heavily invested in the head-in-the-sand growth model and is no more likely to start shouting about peak oil than the tablet scribes of the Roman Empire at the end of the third century AD were likely to start shouting about Christianity. To them it represented the end of an order and a growing threat that was not spoken of in polite company.

That's not to say it isn't in the media – it's all over it, hidden in plain view. You can take your pick from the headlines, with anything from crashed pension funds and share price plunges to Arctic exploration deals and riots in the streets of Cairo – you don't have to trace any of it back much before arriving at peak oil. In fact the phrase 'follow the money' [if you want to get a true explanation of why a particular thing occurred] might be more aptly replaced with 'follow the energy'.

So what happens next, might be your next question.

Lots, is the short answer.

In the short term we are likely to see a lot of politicians promising to restore the growth that we are used to and regard as 'normality'. Growth, growth, growth; it's on the lips of every politician and they'll do anything to restore it in the form of stimulus packages, quantitative easing or allowing banks to lend money to themselves. In actual fact, historically speaking, growth has not been the norm and in the past we have opted for 'stability'. Nevertheless history is assumed to be just that and growth will be the thing that everyone who is used to a middle class lifestyle will be expecting. Of course, electing politicians will not be able to deliver that growth any more than floating an old lady down a river on a golden boat will restore a lost empire (to use a recent example that springs to mind …), but that won't stop people trying, because at this point we will be beyond the rational and will be engaging in cargo cult behaviour.

A cargo cult, for those who do not know, is the observed actions of cultures obsessively enacting the rituals of some past age of prosperity in the hope that it will magically appear again. It was named as such after some Pacific island tribes, having observed the technologically superior Americans during WWII, attempted to bring them back again after the war had ended, by wearing sunglasses made from coconut shells and carrying sticks to represent guns, amongst other things. Every day they spoke into walkie talkies made of bricks and sat in tall bamboo towers that were meant to resemble the ATC towers they had seen the Americans build. But none of it did any good and the cargo that the American soldiers had brought with them had a stubborn habit of not turning up again as expected.

As far as we are concerned though, with prosperity not appearing, plenty of other things will similarly disappear. There's no point even making a list – you can just think of a thing that is part of modern day life and sooner or later it won't be there any more. Other forms of energy, be they high tech vaporwear projects like nuclear Thorium reactors, or mid tech things like windmills and solar panels can only ever make up a fraction of the slack that will be left when coal, oil and gas tail off. The reason for this is that oil has absolutely masses of energy in it compared to other energy sources and we have no realistic Plan B for replacing it. Some people say coal can and will replace oil, but they neglect the fact that coal receives a massive fossil fuel subsidy from oil, that is you need plenty of cheap oil in order to extract and transport coal, making it not such a viable proposition (and damn the climate … again).

This is seriously worrying because all of the things we have become used to will disappear from our lives. Modern medicine is one of those things. Cheap food is another. As is fossil fuel powered transport and anything that requires a highly energy intensive production process that relies of a tightly operating supply chain of hundreds or thousands of suppliers – like, say, the computer on which I am typing these words.

In the mid term we're likely to revert to scarcity capitalism, that is, a permanent state of depression with many of the structures of a functioning modern state spiralling into a state of dysfunction. This will be followed by and combined with a stage of self-cannibalising salvage in which we recycle the materials that were produced during the age of abundance. I doubt anyone alive now will outlive the salvage economy stage as it will take many decades to play out. At the end of it, when some degree of order returns, we'll be looking at much simpler forms of society with few people and fewer resources. Rinse and repeat this cycle several times and you'll get an idea of the long slow arc of collapse that James Kunstler calls 'the long emergency'.

Resource wars will loom as nation states try to grab whatever they can to stop their populaces rioting. Six out of the seven billion people alive on the planet today will discover sooner or later that their food is based on oil and gas production. You might even be one of them.

The modern religions of scientific materialism, economic growth and unlimited human progress will shatter to be replaced by … who knows? All bets are off because the world will revert again to something most of us would rather not think about – a dark and dangerous place where anything can happen to you. Of course, it's like that anyway for 80% of people currently alive, but the fact is that if you're reading this you're probably one of the 20% who are wealthy enough to be highly concerned about losing it. It's a certainty that the way people think 100 years from now will be 100% different to the way we think now.

And what's more, there is no escaping this brave new world. A handful of nations are turning up at the wild teenage party of fossil fuelled economic growth just as it is winding down. After causing a racket all night and acting as if there is no tomorrow the original guests are staggering out onto the front lawn to vomit over the marigolds just as the harsh light of a new day dawns. The parental booze cabinet has been well and truly raided and all that is left to do now is sleep off the hangover.

So how long have we got before a collapse? And what is a collapse anyway? Not surprisingly, people disagree on the first point. Everyone might agree that a huge collapse – defined as a massive loss of complexity within a society – is inevitable but they can't agree on the speed of it. John Michael Greer, for example, argues persuasively that industrial civilization has about 200 years before it passes into mythology, although there will be sudden downward lurches along the route, such as the one we are now starting to feel. Others, like Dmitry Orlov (there are many others, but these two spring to mind) think we may be about to plunge of Seneca's Cliff – and he uses his experience of witnessing the Soviet collapse to argue his point of view.

Money will become practically worthless in short order, and office jobs will disappear along with it. True value will be measured in access to productive land and skills. Viewed as such, our 200 year oil binge could be seen as a curse. It has been just long enough to de-skill us of everything that we truly need to know in order to survive. Before oil hit the scene we were becoming quite good at harnessing the Earth's natural cycles to live meaningful lives with at least some comforts. Now, our addiction to oil has taken away most of our abilities that we spent generations learning. It's safe to say that we'll make quite a few mistakes as we try to relearn those skills.

So how can we solve this problem?

Okay, the first step is to stop seeing it as a problem. It's bigger than that. Problems have solutions, and peak oil doesn't. It's more helpful to recognise our limitations and admit that we are dealing with a predicament. It's a predicament that one day the Earth will be consumed by the Sun, but you don't hear many people asking what can be done to prevent that. A more apt question, in that case, might be 'how do we make the most of the time we have left before our planet is consumed by the sun?' Now we're talking.

So how do we make the best of the energy predicament that we are staring at? Well, I could write a million words on that, but luckily I don't have to because others have. In any case, if I said 'This is the plan that we have to follow to get us out of this mess' I'd be talking out of my trousers. Nobody has a 'solution' to this, although there are plenty who have some very good ideas about what you can do make the ride less bumpy. You probably already know what they say is necessary, it includes things like:

  • Learning to grow some of your own food
  • Learning to make things that are not manufactured by oil dependent machines
  • Learning to be a part of the community
  • Learning to tune out from popular culture and develop your own sense of what is right and wrong
  • Learning to live without borrowing money
  • Learning to become energy literate
  • Learning to be more spiritual
  • Learning to take responsibility for your health

As you can see, the above involves a lot of learning and learning takes time. So the best piece of advice is to try and get away from all these things that eat up your valuable time and get learning and practising all of the things that you will need to know if you want to ride out the rest of years in some comfort. I'd also recommend reading up on what others are saying too. Stay away from the people who write about peak oil as an investment opportunity or discuss it in purely technological terms – there are the siren voices of the unstated religion of scientific materialism. Of course, read all about money and science – these are super important subjects to get to grips with – but at then end of the day it is not abstract concepts that will put food on your table.

Luckily for us in this stage of collapse (there's a clause with a limited shelf life) we are in a stage of hyper-connectivity in the form of computer communications. That means all the best peak oil writers have their own blogs and you can see the ones that I follow on the right hand side of this page. Read them week in and week out and learn what they are saying. They all have their own focus so you'll get a rounded picture from multiple viewpoints. One of the benefits of becoming learned in peak oil lore is that your understanding of the world will greatly increase. I can't even count the number of subjects I have begun to explore as a result of the peak oil key unlocking their mystique.

But reading and learning is one thing, doing something useful with it is crucial. That's what I talk about on this blog so, if you're new here and your interest has been pricked, please do continue to read and join in with any comments you might have. As I stated above, to borrow the UK Conservative Party's motif du jour 'We're all in this together' – although the difference is that I don't mean it in an ironic way.

Peak n'Oil band number #6

Neil Young and Crazy Horse

There are plenty of Neil Young tracks that I could pick from that represent in some form or another the long arc of descent that peak oil is a conceptual marker of. Some of his older tracks, such as Harvest Moon and Old Man evoke the kind of wistful feelings of weary wisdom that comes with considering our civilization's trajectory, but it's one of his newer albums that, for me, says the most.

I speak of Living With War, released in 2006 when the US and its allies were up to their eyeballs fighting wars of 'liberation' in Iraq and Afghanistan and the conception that it was 'all about oil' was a fringe one. Pretty much all the tracks on it resonate and can be listened to again and again (with the one black point on the album being in Lookin' for a Leader and predicting Obama as the one who could stand tall 'with great spirit on his side')

The first track, After the Garden, asks when we will do after we have destroyed our Garden of Eden.

The Flags of Freedom must be a particularly hard track for many Americans to acknowledge, with its Youngesque plaintive 'Do you think that you believe in yours more than they do theirs somehow?'.

And finally, Shock and Awe, for which I'll just display the entire lyric below, followed by the video:

Back in the days of shock and awe
We came to liberate them all
History was the cruel judge of overconfidence
Back in the days of shock and awe

Back in the days of "mission accomplished"
Our chief was landing on the deck
The sun was setting on a golden photo op
Back in the days of "mission accomplished"

Thousands of bodies in the ground
Brought home in boxes to a trumpet's sound
No one sees them coming home that way
Thousands buried in the ground

Thousands of children scarred for life
Millions of tears for a soldier's wife
Both sides are losing now
Heaven takes them in

Thousands of children scarred for life
We had a chance to change our mind
But somehow wisdom was hard to find

We went with what we knew and now we can't go back
But we had a chance to change our mind.


  1. Nice synopsis. Tight.

    The latest sign we have passed peak - falling oil prices. High oil prices destroy consumer demand, which in turn deflates oil prices, perhaps below the $80-90 threshold required to make fracking and Tar Sands salvation operations economic - which operations are the only thing preventing a collapse in supply, at this point.

    12,000 hits, this month? That's about how many I've had the last year. Though my numbers doubled last month too, which I imagine, you had something to do with in part, linking my site. Thanks.

    1. Yep, I noticed that too. I'd love to see some accurate figures on exactly how much less petrol/diesel is being bought in different countries. Just today I saw in a Danish newspaper that motorbike sales are rising because people are swapping them for their cars so as to save on fuel costs.

      Still, I'm sure the price of oil is only having a quick break below $100 until the next round of sabre rattling. I also think that speculators play quite a part in these swings, although not to the extent that some give them credit for.

      Let's see if I reach 12,000. Many of the hits in the past have also come via The Guardian website - but they banned me from posting, for some reason, and will now only let me do so if I don't mention my blog. Go figure!

    2. Go figure, nothing. I can comment on Huffpost, but about half of my comments are expunged. Why? I don't critique people, I critique arguments. By contrast, the replies I receive from many of my comments that are published, are often littered with the harshest vitriol I have ever received, in my life, in words. Which is apparently more ok with some Huffpost censors, than direct critiques of American imperialism.

    3. Ha. Yes, I got an email from the Guardian saying that "As a gesture of goodwill we are unblocking your IP address". Gesture of goodwill ... over what? I have never written anything offensive!

      I think I can consider myself well and truly fired as a Guardian contributor. And they still owe me money ...

  2. You should do the sticky or permanent link thing and direct new readers of your blog to this synopsis.

    The one thing I found to disagree with was your use of George W. Bush's phrase "addicted to oil", which I don't like because its sort of like saying "addicted to your salary". But the term "addiction" is one case of a word that has been stretched to cover so many things that its meaningless. Writers should avoid using it.

    I may also disagree with your comments on leadership. First, as your own example of Carter vs. Reagan shows, there is a strong case that since the 1980s that the political and business leadership in the (ex-) industrialized West have been less competent and more venal than normal. I think the leadership provided by the elites in the West is the worst its been since the 18th century. This is not the case with China, where the current Communist leadership is not just an improvement over Mao, but the warlords and the nineteenth century Qing regime and this is one reason China still seems to be growing.

    Second, there is some evidence, and Dmitri Orlov is good on this, that much of the Western elite knows perfectly well about the situation with peak world oil production, and even understands some of its implications, and have reacted by stealing as much from their own countries as they can. This is what the (ex) Soviet elites did around the time the Soviet Union collapsed. This is stupid on many levels, unless they have another planet lined up to go to where their credit is still good, but this possibility should be factored into the analysis because its speeding and deepening the collapse. Orlov switched from a "slow crash" to a "fast crash" perspective once he got a good look at the Western elites' response.

    One thing I like about the essay is that it highlights that the world is mainly dealing with an economic problem. Peak oil production effectively halts economic growth, and this stage of capitalism is very much organized around economic growth. The main effect of this at least in the near term is that everyone is going to be poorer. For a middle class person, the best "prep" I can think of doing is to learn how poor people in their area live and if their behavior seems strange to you, figure out why.

    But I worry about overpopulation in the longer term. During the industrial revolution, humans used the availability of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas to push past hard limits that had stopped the progress of pre-industrial civilizations. This sounds very dry, but think about the way the world has changed since 1800. Essentially, the world got a windfall, since the amount of fossil fuels are limited, which were used to "buy" various stuff. Sometimes windfalls can be used to invest in a new income stream, sometimes it can be converted into a valuable asset or memories, sometimes it goes to support a new lifestyle and its the latter use that is unsustainable. The use of the fossil fuel windfall was to increase the world population from just under one billion to seven billion. Now I've lumped coal and oil together, oil was the main form of the second industrial revolution and we are not close to peak coal yet. However, the world added three billion people just since peak oil production hit the US in the early 1970s. I'm worrying a great deal how exactly the reduction in world population will occur.

    1. Ed - I'd have to say that 'addicted' is probably the best word there is to describe our relationship to oil. I can't think of any other substance that we are willing to kill for, destroy the climate over and for which the withdrawal symptoms will likely be fatal for a lot of us. I had no idea George Bush said that though - maybe he has more sense than I gave him credit for!

      Yes, I agree that Chinese leadership of late has been better than Mao. Still you'd have to be some kind of hellish despot to be worse than him! Mao is reckoned to have been responsible for between 50 and 80 million deaths - but if China has a very hard landing economically then the figure could be even higher than that - say double.

      I've no doubt that many clever people are doing all they can to protect their riches and have been factoring peak oil in for years. Most militaries do. It's only in the political arena that it doesn't get mentioned. No point in upsetting the voters.

      As for it being an economic problem - that's the exact opposite of what I said. It might manifest itself through economics to start with, but at the end of the day it's far far bigger than that. Given that we have designed systems that run on cheap energy to keep us alive, economics is going to be the last of our worries as they break down. At root it's a spiritual malaise. And as for looking at poor people to see how they live - that'd be a route to slow suicide right where I live! Most 'poor' people (and I use the term guardedly) in western countries are actually just failures within the capitalism system - but they are still addicted to it and all the more powerless for being so.

      For real inspiration I look further afield, and often think of people I saw on my travels in India eking out a living with simple tools and with houses the size of a large closet.

      Still, at least we're agreed on one thing - getting back down to sustainable a level of humans isn't going to be pretty!

    2. My name is John Wheeler, and I am a petroholic....

      Quite frankly, I think the elites are very much aware of peak oil, and from the way they are acting, they have a "solution": massive die-off, where only the rich or well-connected can afford to survive. For example, the elite get to eat the expensive, healthy, organic food; the masses get irradiated, genetically-modified garbage pumped full of toxins.

  3. Jason,

    Great post this week! Your post will be useful when introducing the topic to people. One link and they're away. One thing you might have mentioned in your post is this: Half of the oil may still be left in the ground, but it's the hard-to-extract half. The low hanging fruit has already been taken. I guess you have to mention EROEI in discussing the remaining oil. If you merely say that half of the oil has been extracted and half remains, some people are liable to conclude that they can just party on because there's plenty left.

  4. My understanding is that the oil curve was always about readily accessible oil - about half of which still remains (but which is being extracted at maximum capacity). It's the new finds that are the low energy yielding ones or the ones that require massive amounts of capital expenditure because they are in difficult to get to places.

    I was thinking of getting into EROEI and all that but figured that if people really are new to this then it was already starting to get a bit long. Maybe I'll save that for another day!

  5. A link on a popular blog will drive a lot of traffic.

    A didn't think that Greer and Orlov were really on the same page as to timing. Since they were just at the same conference, I am sure they are polite to each other, but Orlov -a true believer in Seneca's cliff seems to be pretty close to the traditional Survivor-Prepper strategy, with his bug out vehicle being a sailboat, and Greer is more of a slow unwinding with a low energy in-place concept. Greer can get a little harsh when describing the tradition prepper strategy at times.

    1. I was at that conference, they seemed more than merely polite -- cordial, perhaps, maybe even comrades. I don't think either is so arrogant as to think that society will definitely collapse in one particular way, they just disagree on which is more likely. Don't forget, Greer already chose and moved to a place to prepare for collapse, so his life resembles a survivor - prepper lifestyle more than a mainstream one. I think Greer's main problem with the traditional prepper strategy (and I could easily be projecting, because it is my objection too) is that they are preparing for a certain short period of chaos with a return to normalcy, when that normalcy is never going to come.

    2. Yes, it's the six million dollar question, isn't it? I value both Greer and Orlov's insights, but I'm not sure which one I agree with most. From Orlov's perspective, he speaks with the experience of someone who has seen a brittle regime collapse - but then Greer is the big gun when it comes to knowing history and the general pattern these things unravel in.

      I can understand Greer's disdain for the survivalist, but I can't share it too enthusiastically because I've never met anyone who would fit in that category. Coming from an overcrowded island, survivalism would be a whole lot more difficult.

      I'd have to say though that my gut instinct wants to favour Orlov's outlook. Sometimes it feels like this great big machine we are all riding on is lurching out of control in a most dangerous way.

    3. Seems like everyone has their favorite fantasy about what the future will look like and prepares for it accordingly. Speaking of which, let's not forget to mention Jim Kunstler who favors reviving the railroads as an alternative to the automobile. Sounds like a desire to return to the 19th century. In any case, it seems like people like to imagine the collapse scenario that they would most like to live with and then prepare for it and be winners because they were smart enough to foresee it and get in on the ground floor of the new way of things.
      The hardest thing it seems for anyone who imagines imminent collapse and prepares for it would be to watch it go some way they didn't imagine and still end up being losers in spite of their preparation. How heart-breaking it would be to watch someone less virtuous than yourself come out on top because they were better than you at gaming the system, any system, the crass opportunists who are prospering in a world of abundance. What if they were the same people to prosper in a world of scarcity?

  6. You may have meant this for newbies, but I certainly find it useful to go back to the basics, if for no other reason than finding better ways to explain peak oil to people.

    This quote was particularly inspiring:

    "Indeed it's probably not too much to say that for most people, the idea of economic growth and progress has become a religion. It's how they interpret the world and the prism through which they see everything. Ergo, no economic growth equals no point in living; end of story."

    This worldview really is what I'm fighting, what I'm writing about in my blog. I've spent the past 30 years envisioning a post-consumer future that is better in so many ways, just not in terms of money, growth, or resource consumption. I doubt anyone alive will see this brighter future, but we still have time to bequeath it to those yet to be born.

    1. Thanks John, it was useful for me to write it too. When all is said and done, there are some fairly simple-to-grasp concepts that underlie peak oil - it's just that it is drowned out in everyday life by the blare of news which focuses only on one tiny aspect of the system at a time.

      I'm not sure how we got to the point of conflating economic growth with personal well-being. Still, there are encouraging signs that this particular idea is also teetering on the edge of collapse.

      If we manage to destroy ourselves and some kindly passing alien makes a tomb stone for us perhaps a fitting epitaph would be:

      Here lies humankind,
      Should have known not to cross the line,
      Still, without them, the world's just fine,
      Roaches and rats, now comes your time.

  7. I imagine you've read Joseph Tainter's work on the collapse of civilizations.

    At this stage in our civilization there is great stress due to growing shortages of energy, so the powers that be invest more in legitimization and policing. You can see this in most western countries as we speak. Untold numbers of freedoms are being erased as governments step up surveillance on their own citizens and pass legislation which makes it all quite legal. At the same time for the last few decades there has been plenty of propaganda from states which legitimize the current arrangements, such as unpopular military expenditures. Video games, movies and entertainment keep the populace placated.

    It recently occurred to me that one side effect of having less energy in the system is how our legal systems, energy hungry and resource heavy as they are (think how much energy goes into a single murder case from the apprehension of the suspect to their eventual release from jail or execution), will diminish in quality as well. The safeguards we have in place designed to prevent corruption will erode away, leaving rule of law a lot less genuine looking than it did in years past. Police corruption might go unchallenged for lack of a mechanism in place to address it.

    So, one other result of peak oil will be a decline in justice as well. Human rights and so on really only came to exist due to having a high EROI. In places without such EROI, justice and human rights either cannot be afforded, or simply cannot be established for lack of resources. Likewise, we won't have the resources to keep inmates in prison for the rest of their lives. That means old fashion justice where executions occur soon after sentencing. Just like in the old days, they didn't have the resources to keep people well-fed in jail for years on end.

    Call it "Peak Justice"!

  8. Hi Jeffrey,

    "Peak Justice" - ouch! You're quite right, I think. Once it becomes unprofitable to keep prisoners then I'm sure kangaroo courts and the like will make short work of a lot of supposed felons.

    A few stories in the UK have surfaced in recent weeks concerning prisoners being used for cheap labour(even Gordon Ramsay's new restaurant venture apparently uses inmates - it's called the Bad Boys' Bakery) and unemployed people being used as free labour to steward the Queen's diamond jubilee pageant. After all, why pay someone to work when you force them to do it for free?

    Corruption is inevitable. Here in Denmark the country is quite often top of the league in the least-corrupt-nation leader board, but my take on this is simply that they can afford to be straight - or at least to appear that way.

    I've never read Joseph Tainter - there are too many unread books on my bookshelf screaming out to me already!

  9. Honestly I imagine slavery will make a come back in the western world sooner or later. It will start with forcing debtors into repaying their debts with labour rather than allowing simple bankruptcy (like they did in the not too distant past). Prisoners will also be a source of cheap labour in a future where fossil fuel driven mechanization is too expensive or scarce. In a matter of time the whole thing will become institutionalized with private individuals buying and selling people with their offspring having uncertain social status (and no functioning justice system to really enforce any freedoms they're supposed to have).

    Throughout most civilizations slaves have existed with varying degrees of guaranteed welfare. Rome wasn't possible without slavery for example. China during their golden dynasties likewise had legal slavery. Our lack of (formal) human slavery now is just a result of 22 billion energy slaves!

    By the way, Tainter's work is worth the read. It is a rich tome of insight that I found difficult to follow at times, but really rewarding, especially as an academic (it is a scholarly work and it shows).

  10. It is good to know that they are cordial.

    Survivalism's more modern roots come from the nuclear war survival crowd. Needless to say, that was not a crowd that thought things would get back to normal. Many of the oddities of their scenario come from changing the scenario without changing the tactics: bugout vehicles/bags being an obvious case in point.

    Survivalims interconnects with a number of other groups - particularly the 1990s militia movement - that can bring an extreme political stance that particularly scares off people.

    The use of the term "prepper" has obvioulsy come from people who don't want to be associtated with the older image of a survivalist.

  11. Jason, thank you for very relevant information’s.

    And sadly, Denmark has surely taken a very opposite course the last couple of decades. Take a look at this site about "meaningless" electricity production.


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