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Peak Oil Forever

The Hubbert Peak

The Hubbert Peak (from his 1956 paper)

This post has floundered in my drafts for some time, for many reasons. It’s a Big Post, meant as an essay and not an experience-based stream of consciousness. Even so I haven’t done much homework. The title shines out from the list of drafts and I write a few more notes and do something else. If nothing else I now recognize my pattern since high school of making things far bigger than they are.

Then the New York Times helpfully runs this story this morning: In Mobile World, Tech Giants Scramble to Get Up to Speed. On the surface, it’s the usual piffle about how mobile devices are changing the very foundation of the human experience; the big tech giants of long-ago 2002 struggle for relevance because nobody uses an uncool PC anymore. As is typical, and for which I am deeply grateful, comment writers see the deeper layers the journalists ignore, can’t talk about, or don’t understand: this is a story about the triumph of marketing and the sublime post-war American art of creating needs. People still use PCs plenty, but everyone who needs or wants one has one, and there are no compelling reasons to replace a hale Windows XP desktop or laptop, or for the alternate set, a Mac that can run OSX. (Linux is a special case, I believe, and the rules of marketing don’t apply.) Demand is falling because the PC market is mature, which is another way of saying exponential growth is flattening out. The gangly teenager has grown up.

PC maturity–both of the device and human relationships with them–our work with them and how it has altered how we relate to one another–panics our one true holiest of holies: The Market, The System, The Dominant Paradigm. If widget sales are not exponentially growing, managers won’t have nice rising graphs to show at meetings. Other managers will be unhappy, and the Top Manager will be very unhappy. The younger me never got the issue. If we sold a zillion widgets last year, and a zillion this year, a zillion widgets is the number necessary to keep everybody and everything humming along. Isn’t that enough?

Enough is key. I learned this startling and obvious fact about a dozen years ago, when my now-ex and I tested ideas of how to be financially independent. We read Your Money or Your Life and the Nearing’s beautiful The Good Life and wondered if these lessons could be made to work. These books–one’s comfortable, suburban voice, the other’s scratchy, Depression-Era earnest plain goodness–showed two paths. The first baldly stated what the second presumed as self-evident: you must realize you have enough, and stop.

The light bulb goes off, the kind lit by the right light. The two-pronged plan of accumulate a savings pile and reduce your consumer economy expenditures so you can live on its periphery is a great idea. We tracked our spending, saved. But we didn’t follow through for a variety of reasons.

Peak oil, in terms of the rise and fall of that idea in my mind, has the same trajectory as the financial independence idea, and for related reasons. It’s a simple thing that attempts to talk about something irreducibly complex. Both attempt to see the future, and for human beings this is a problematic proposition.

In 1956, M. King Hubbert, a petroleum geologist for Shell, presented a paper before oil industry bigwigs and eggheads. Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels predicted that oil production in the continental United States would reach its highest point in 1970 and decline inexorably thereafter. He was roundly criticized then and fault continues to be found, but his analysis was correct: 1970–my birth year–was the peak year of US oil production. The Eighties boost from Alaska and the current increase have only lessened the sharpness of the curve.

US oil production (Alaska too!)

US oil production (Alaska too!)

[Update 11/1/12: Graph and discussion up to the present, including the recent domestic crude oil boom, is described in The Big Deal About U.S. Energy Self-Sufficiency.]

How does this tie in with financial independence and iPads?

The inverse of enough is endlessness. In action, endlessness is growth–and not linear growth, but exponential growth. Interest on a savings account, or the increase in share price, is exponential: each increment of increase includes again all previous increase. Payment of interest and increase in accounts is exponential by design. It is a simple assumption with profound consequences: there will always be much, much more.

My disenchantment with the Your Money or Your Life prescription ultimately boiled down to it relying on the same idea of exponential growth as the larger economy. In advising to put your money in bonds and live off the interest, the authors weren’t really changing anything. You’d still be attached to The Economy and worried how it was doing. What would you do if interest rates went down–meaning, the curve of exponential growth was less steep? (And to say nothing of the moral quandary: investment in safe government bonds is de facto military funding, which the authors–once fulltime employees at military contractors–left their jobs to avoid.) Mobile devices like iPads and phones require massive injections of energy and materials, many of which are quite rare (and which the Chinese have currently cornered the market in).  You are expected to use the toy for a year, then dispose of it for a new one. This tiny device, an instrument of amazing precision and full of rare elements, can’t be recycled in any meaningful way–maybe a little plastic, some tin and other more common metals, but the rare earth elements used per device is so small recycling is almost counterproductive. So no matter where it ends up–a Chinese back alley, a dump, your drawer–the energy and materials that created it and passed through it are essentially thrown away. (The devices are created exponentially–what the NYT story is about–but they are intended to be discarded exponentially too. If the market filled up, all-important growth would stop, just like it has for PCs.)

This is why exponential growth, especially that of nonrenewable energy, is so critical. We always need more. Most importantly, we always need a little bit more than we had before. And, necessarily, we have to act a little faster and work a little harder, as the big technology companies (and, more importantly, the oil companies) are finding. That interest in your account has to come from somewhere. Ultimately, it comes out of the ground.

Enter Peak Oil. This is exactly what it sounds like: the moment in time when the greatest amount of oil is available. That there will always be less after is a clear implication. But, exponential growth requires that there will always be less faster on the way down. We always need a little bit more, and after peak oil, there is an ever-shrinking pile to take more from.

Autumn 1998 was when I first learned about peak oil and its implications. Work was mostly long periods of waiting for computers (those fusty old PCs) to finish, move a few things around, and set them working again. Work had the first dedicated high-speed web access I’d ever had. So much to look at, so much to read! And I stumbled upon the era’s peak oil websites and discussions.

The simple, uncomplicated reality dawned in my mind: it was simple math. The Earth is not a sphere containing oil, rich and juicy as an orange; even if it was, our exponential use of oil would have a completely full Earth running out in a few hundred years. Absolutely everything we touch, use, ingest, move, shelter in, and wear is enabled by oil, gas and coal: plastics, electronics, paints, oils and fluids, drugs, steel, rubber, engineered materials of every type. All are composed of or brought into being through oil, gas and coal. Nearly everything we eat is grown from land fertilized with and cultivated by machinery powered by and chemicals made from oil, gas, coal. Oil, gas, coal are the all-seething center, the modern world’s universal force. No wonder even supposed pacifist Jimmy Carter declared the Middle East all but American territory. Oil powers the modern world. We have made oil life.

The corollary, concluded the websites I ardently read then, was that the peak and inexorable decline would be the end of the modern world. Nothing we had come to expect as normal could function. Our complicated systems are very fragile: a few bumps in the inputs causes tremendous disruptions in the outputs. A loss of gasoline doesn’t mean trouble getting to work, it means no food in stores, stores which only contain a week’s inventory. Lights flicker. Society would disintegrate.

That is what peak oil is about. This post is about how that is too simple an answer.

Trust me when I say that I love doom. Despair is the foundation of wisdom and adulthood: so I concluded as an adolescent, like many others. I grew up in the Eighties when nuclear weapons were everywhere and there was no end of high- and low-budget movies depicting nuclear war and its aftermath. Mister Rogers soothed the nation’s nuke-terrified children. For a sixth-grade English project I wrote a novella about bombs turning my little town to glass; I think the protagonist avoided death by finding a well-stocked underground survival shelter. (Then aliens came, or the aliens were running the shelter, or something.) From the bullies that circled in tireless menace to the hulking, steroid-crazed and barely contained violence of high school football and its coaches, surely there was no hope. People are mean and stupid. The end is nigh.

Nuclear war didn’t happen. The Montreal Protocol, signed 1987 (the last year I was in high school) and entering into force in 1989, is saving the ozone layer. Despite what the TV keeps yammering, it is a fact that there is less war and conflict. Despite foreclosures and people who pay more attention to their phone than you and the rigmarole required to get on an airplane, important things are better.

History is a story, and story is nuance. Emotion is important. Most of the substance is the subtext, in what isn’t said or seen.

The end of cheap oil is nothing to be sanguine about. The American habit of panicking in gas lines and then, when gas is restored, promptly going back to sleep has done us no favors. We have put our faith (or, more honestly, been cajoled, tricked and forced into accepting) The Market, The System, The Dominant Paradigm that is unplanned, thoughtless and ravenous, and when the music stops it will surely drop us as the ugly date we are.

This trap is what the peak oil faithful see. They see the vast manufactured identical ugliness of our suburbs, of the cars required to get to and from them, of an entire physical world built for cars instead of people. They see irreplaceable fertile farmland covered with these houses and with malls that grow nothing but paper debt. They see dumps overflowing with our castoffs. To counter this they have reacted with a scientist’s most strident reserve: reasoned essays, recounting of their oilfield experiences, graphs and graphs and more graphs. Isn’t this obvious? The math is simple.

No question they are right. Yet we live in what is amazingly called a post-truth environment, but I shouldn’t be so amazed: advertisers have spent billions since I was a kid to create the truths their clients want. The peak oil adherents speak the truth…as far as that goes. In a very important sense, the truth doesn’t matter. The issue isn’t the issue.

It took me years to emerge from my peak oil sideline funk. I truly believe it’s not a matter of rationalization, a simple cop-out of finding my spiritual path or accepting Jesus. There really is a bigger picture than the obvious truth, and it lies in who the peak oil writers are. I realized they were me, or older versions of me: white, male, youngish-to-middle-aged, educated and trained, having been in long service to a powerful master. They have spent their lives in dutiful service, crunching their numbers. The numbers are their truth in the way science understands truth: the path is followed wherever it goes. These men are not of the financial or religious persuasion: numbers aren’t picked and arranged to get the right answer already known. They graph the numbers as they are and see the problem. Nobody listens.

But look at this graph should be the peak oil mantra (and the greenhouse gas one, too). Can you not see? From this downward curve all else follows. The System depends on oil, oil is running out, cannot be replaced–therefore, end of System. Like environmentalists, they write themselves blue, make more graphs. Both groups believe if enough science is patiently explained to people they can understand how bad things are. That nothing ‘better’ can be offered isn’t considered.

And here is the key point I think peak oil misses, just like the NYT misses the meaning of  iPads. Peak oil is a Truth. It can’t be argued with. It is this adherence to Truth where peak oil becomes like atheism, or the dogmatic portion of religion atheism is a reaction against. That peak oil is an objective scientific fact is irrelevant.

It is this idea of being Right–unassailable, axiomatic, outside the realm of argument–that limits and closes off. Just like religion/atheism, it attempts to reduce complexity. Like those nuclear war aftermath movies, the end is terrible and is coming. The big bang just starts the long, long end, and I think that long trail of endless suffering is ultimately the true interest of peak oil.

Think about all of human history, as I did a few years ago, stumbling out of the fog: all the rises, falls, collapses, sideways blunders, booms and famines. Yes, the entire world is part of The System now, and unlike some lucky Easter Islander who could escape collapse in the last canoe, no corner of the Earth will be untouched by the decline of fossil resources. Exponential growth must end by some means or another. And it is the complexity of  or another that matters. This doesn’t mean miracles that keep a greener, nicer System going. It doesn’t mean the dark, troubled future peak oil imagines isn’t out there. But what form that future takes cannot be determined. There are too many moving parts, all interacting with one another, all growing and changing. Fukuyama and Marx were wrong, and could only be wrong: history cannot have an end when nobody knows the future.

But lights out, mobs in the streets–how could it be anything but? say the peak oil faithful. I think this has more to do with those voicing the message. They want to be taken seriously but nobody really listens. Just like with climate change, it’s the world’s most pressing issue nobody does anything about. They keep making graphs, retreating up the mountaintop. They are getting older, stuck in their company cubes, and they want a way out of both traps. Peak oil becomes an allegory. They become the ants, enraged and incredulous at the idiot but happy grasshoppers. I can hear them up there, shouting down: fools, fools, if only you’d listened. 

Except if only we’d listened nothing would be any different. The best peak oil can offer is woolly websites about permaculture, some kind of small town existence, a lot of hand tools and handmade clothes and time with books. No room for cities, the moral debauchery religious types find there instead replaced with a declaration of inherent unsustainability. It sounds like the dream of someone tired of corporate suburbia but who has no idea what unending, relentless toil life on even a Nineteenth century farm was like. The grasshoppers don’t have a future, but the ants hardly have a compelling vision, and this has always struck me. The eschatological quality of the peak oil vision seems to be its defining characteristic. The expectation of coming mass death is openly stated, though tastefully–unlike religious types–without reveling in details. In the end, I see little difference between the peak oil vision and the nature of its warning than the evangelical Christian-Republican fusion I first encountered in high school. Both are focused on material excess, but the disgust comes from different wellsprings. In the end, both are ultimately moral judgments: both stand on the mountaintop looking down at the poor fools, superior from death.

I reject both these views: the evangelical Christian for its self-evident schizophrenic sadomasochism, and the peak oil for its lack of vision. That the peak oil factual conclusion is correct is irrelevant. Are we in a deep hole? Certainly. Are people easily misled, delusional, convinced to act against their best interest? Turn on your TV. Do we, as a species, have a long-term future? Who knows? Odds are probably not, but that’s always been true for every species.

Hope is passe for some Margaret Atwood characters, but it’s clearly essential for people wanting a reason to get up in the morning. I’m fine with things not getting “better”–thirty years of technological “better” have me wondering what the point was–but there’s no reason why they can’t be interesting and meaningful. Nobody wins life–we all end up in the same place. There’s something sick about reveling in that instead of the journey.

Hope is better. I can roll my eyes at activists tying themselves to trees and chaining themselves to bulldozers in East Texas as they try to slow down the giant and idiotic Keystone XL oil pipeline, or think maybe this is something that will break the defeatist, mass-marketed logjam. Things change very suddenly. What if the great destructive energy The System now uses to eat up the world was somehow reconfigured to build it up? All the new electrical generation added in the US in September was from wind and solar. That this isn’t much compared to the installed base is irrelevant. Exponential growth could solve that before you knew it was happening.

Peter Ward is a paleontologist at the UW and author of several popular science books. I met him twice when I worked at MSNBC.com, waiting with him in our little control room before his live shot to New Jersey. (Carl Sagan was a kind man, his death a great loss, he said.) His book Rare Earth should be read by anyone caught by Sagan’s message or who checks in on the Mars rovers. Ward gave the UW faculty lecture two years ago, and seven minutes in questioned the conventional meaning of ‘Earthlike’ planet. His slide showed eight different worlds: ocean worlds, ice balls, barren deserts. These have all been Earth at various points in its history! What we think of as normal–and possible–is a small and brief  sample.

This talk was an absolution. Even my utmost contribution could make no difference. Or, given complexity, it could be the one difference that matters. The future is far more wide open than we can guess. In the most grave and awesome sense, we never will understand just how lucky we have been with this planet. I don’t know what a future without oil or iPads holds, and that’s fine. Maybe we will get lucky again, somehow, in little steps, over and over, one solar panel at a time. Or not. We can’t know and that is a release that makes the future wide open again.


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