Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Land of Make-Believe

When I first started driving my own $150 car, gas was 26c a gallon. For all of us in postwar America, paved roads, cars and cheap fuel meant freedom of movement and choice -- things most of humanity never had. Good times. Except, the affordable and plentiful energy that thrilled us will kill us.
We assumed that growth (the baby boom, suburban sprawl, new technologies and jobs, and an expanded educated middle class) was the new permanent paradigm, our just reward for surviving fifteen years of depression and war. A population bouyed by optimism, freed by the interstates from the isolation of packed cities and forlorn countryside went on to improve civil rights, land humans on the moon, and exuberantly waste excess wealth on foreign wars, not realizing that all this was totally dependent on that huge amount of affordable fossil fuel, which allowed us to exploit finite resources as if they were infinite.
When in school, did you ever learn about Dr. Hubbert's 1956 prediction that U.S. domestic oil production would peak in 1970? Or have a discussion about how dependence on oil imports would affect our economy and leave us vulnerable to dangerous global entanglements?
After the OPEC oil embargo of the early '70s, exploration and production went off the charts, resulting in an oil glut and radically falling prices (remember the devastation of a formerly booming Houston?). Fuel efficiency (especially under the Reagan regime, which was fully paid for by the oil industry) was thrown out the window -- exemplified by Ronnie gleefully tearing Carter's solar panels off the White House roof. Giant SUVs and pickup trucks followed -- good times again. But look at the chart, above right, showing how worldwide availability of affordable fossil energy stimulated astonishingly rapid overpopulation. 1 billion to 7 billion in a century -- all consuming more and more of a diminishing resource, and in the industrialized part of the world, totally dependent on it.
With every product on our farms, industries and homes made from or powered by fossil fuel, what will happen when this huge, unnatural, unsustainable population has to compete for ever less, but ever more expensive energy? The endless growth paradigm the we, our economists and government believe in won't work any more. As with the boom-and-bust "bubble" cycles that are always in process (they are not just "market adjustments"), the descent will not be prepared for, and it will be steep and calamitous. We won't have the oil and gas to build the infrastructure of smart grids, wind farms, nuclear plants or remote solar farms. All this concrete, steel, cable, and a hundred thousand other things must be made and transported using gas and diesel. We won't have the resources to hold back worldwide rising water levels -- or even the finances, for that matter.
Growth becomes impossible to maintain when more "bads" are produced than goods.
The global economy has grown five times its size 50 years ago. That's amazingly good performance, isn't it? Since that is unprecedented in the history of life on Earth, does common sense tell you that it's an aberration, and like any "bubble," it's one that will be corrected just as quickly? Action/equal and opposite reaction, and all that. I wish people would take the Second Law of Thermodynamics more seriously than the ravings of John the Divine in Revelations. Just guess what a survey of our fellow citizens would reveal on that.
We used 1/2 our current level of energy in 1960 and did all right. France uses 1/2 what we do right now (and I can't agree with the conservative ignorati that life is obviously bad there). We believed that Thatcher's ideology saved the United Kingdom when it was really a large and temporary influx of money from North Sea oil production; similarly, it wasn't Reagan's brilliance but disastrously falling oil prices that destabilized and put paid to the Soviet Union (other than arms sales, their one cash cow). We believed in all that, and we believed in glorious unlimited growth, borrowing trillions to keep it going -- it was nothing more real than a Ponzi scheme.
The cost of one B-2 bomber could, instead, have provided 150,510 clean water wells, or 35.5 million chickens. What do 7 billion people need to survive the rapid depletion of the one thing the modern world runs on? Which would make us more friends in the scary decade to come? I would think food and water.
A civilization hell-bent on growth, when growth ends and reverses, will be like an individual going on an involuntary starvation crash diet. We refuse to believe that vast quantities of everything will not be available forever...until they aren't. Too late. We could have seen that the predictions about oil production peaking and declining (chart above left) conform almost exactly to the classic bell curve, a very reliable modeling device.
If we had started on a correction course after the 1973 oil embargo, and prepared for the inevitable decline of cheap energy, we could still have some reasonable level of prosperity to look forward to -- if we define that as quality of life instead of a wretched excess of material wealth.
Cassandra, none pay heed today either.

1 comment:

  1. Can you live by burning wood against the cold? Our president was in town today talking about the creation of the highway system when oil products were cheap, then stated we are the Saudi Arabia of coal, then talking about new innovations in energy. We can't seem to realize we need to pay-as-you-go and stop using ALL the resources.
    You brought out another story, so I have to go and blog.