Dreaming in Petrocolour: The End of Oil Dependency?

Fig. 1: Projected global production of petroleum and natural gas.

Fig. 2: Theoretical projected US petroleum use if Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute proposals were fully implemented. Global use is about 4-5x these amounts. Projected global use in 2020 is hence about 120 Mbbl/d or 44 Gbbl/a; compare that to the projected global production of 25 Gbbl/a that year, in Fig. 1. Even with 100% compliance with Lovins’ proposals, globally, use would be about 32 Gbbl/a, or about 130% of production.

If you don’t know who to believe about the End of Oil, you’re not alone. On the one hand, we have terrifying scenarios about civil unrest and civilizational collapse like that in James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency. On the other hand, we have scenarios of quick and profitable transition to alternative fuels like that in Amory Lovins’ free e-book Winning the Oil Endgame.

This week, Salon’s Katharine Mieszkowski provides a scorecard of the players, while carefully avoiding taking sides. Just as well. Both sides have teams of geologists and economists arguing their position, and the differences are technical, speculative, and dramatic. The technophiles, like Lovins, tend to believe that the End of Oil is wishful thinking by those opposed to the existing power structure, the market economy, and civilization’s excesses in general — a neosurvivalist, secular version of the Rapture for socialists and environmentalists wanting to reboot human endeavor in a more responsible way. The alarmists, like Kunstler, tend to think the technophiles have adopted the ‘free’ market and technology innovation as their own, man-made theology to will save us from ourselves, and are denying the terrible realities of our economic and political systems, humanity’s resistance to and inability to change, and even the laws of thermodynamics.

I have enormous respect for both perspectives, and specifically for Kunstler and Lovins. I don’t claim to be an expert in any of the subjects that support either scenario, or might support a third alternative somewhere in the middle. I know a little bit about a lot of subjects, I read a lot, including the lessons of history, and I trust my instincts. As a result, my sense is that Kunstler’s scenario is much more likely than Lovins’, for these reasons:

  • The Efficiency Myth: Winning the Oil Endgame’s scenario expects to get more than half of its projected reductions in oil demand through conservation — overwhelmingly from more efficient use and consumption of oil and natural gas rather than from voluntary absolute reductions in use. While I think it’s wise not to expect altruism from billions of people, I think it’s very unwise to assume that, just because large efficiency gains in hydrocarbon use are possible, that we will, starting tomorrow, work feverishly towards such efficiency gains, even if there’s a promise of profit in it. Achieving such gains assumes a willingness to take great risks in pursuit of possible fortunes. It is human nature, however, only to take such risks when the alternative is intolerable. By the time the alternative is intolerable, it will almost certainly be too late. Also, our economic system is risk-averse: Neither shareholders nor creditors will be anxious to make such investments, and will instead hope that someone else (the government, or entrepreneurs) will do so, and then let them run the system when the ROI is high and guaranteed. Nature is effective, not efficient. Efficiency brings with it enormous vulnerability, and is inherently unsustainable and prone to decay and breakdown. When you’re working at 100% efficiency, there’s nowhere to go but down.
  • The Myth of Government Leadership: Lovins’ scenario also assumes an unprecedented willingness of governments to take a bold, courageous and highly interventionist role in transforming the mainstay of the entire economy. Unless FDR is resurrected, this seems to me highly unlikely, at least until we’re into the next Great Depression that will precede any of the more direct effects of the End of Oil. What I’ve read suggests that could easily be two decades off — again far too late even for a motivated, heroic government to turn the economy around before oil shortages overwhelm us. We live in an era where everyone hates government, remember: Conservatives because they think people should look after themselves (and, begrudgingly, each other), and liberals because they equate (with some recent justification) government with Big Brother. So even if the right political hero came along, he or she probably would never be elected.
  • The Myth that Someone is In Control: It doesn’t matter where in the political spectrum you look, there always seems to be a view that ‘those in control’ can, if they are so inclined, change the world very quickly and extensively. It’s hard to know where this myth arose, or why it is so appealing. All I know is that it’s wrong. Look at what enormously powerful oligopolies have accomplished — all they can and will do is constrain the market until people and competitors find workarounds, and then the oligopolies collapse (to be replaced, often, with new oligopolies). The big automobile companies don’t have enough money to pay their retiree pensions, let along radical innovation. It’s taken them a decade to get a few, tepid hybrids onstream, and no major car company, even the Japanese, has yet embraced this modest new technology fully. Or look at the world’s one remaining superpower, mired in a trillion dollar and growing war that has accomplished less than nothing, impotent and incompetent at dealing with its own immediate security crisis, health care crisis, education crisis, financial crisis, and utterly unprepared for new crises as mundane as hurricanes and disease epidemics that everyone agrees are certain to recur. Sorry, Amory, no one is in control. Even if there is a will, there is no way.
  • The Myth of Rapid Commercialization of New Technologies: Most technologies take decades, generations to reach levels of successful commercialization. This is partly because it takes companies a long time to ‘get them right’, partly because new technologies rely on support infrastructure (like millions of cellular communication towers) that is enormously expensive and time-consuming to finance and build, and partly because people naturally resist change (fax technology was introduced fifty years before it achieved its ten years of commercial success) and will not tolerate having it imposed on them, even if it is good for them. Lovins’ plan entails massive changes to US agriculture, to all the furnaces, automobiles and everything else that currently consumes oil, and to public attitudes, to enable the rapid introduction of biofuels, to be produced by a wholesale transition of millions of square miles of US land to monoculture switchgrass, willow and poplar ‘plantations’ and giant fermentation areas that would subject these ‘natural’ substances to genetically engineered bacteria. Know anyone who might take issue with any of that?
  • The Myth of 100% Compliance: One of the things the ‘market’ tells us is that if people are told to do something they don’t want to do, they will find a way to get around it. Some struggling nations have wonderful, model social and environmental laws — but not enough people to enforce them, and a lot of people with an interest in non-compliance and the ingenuity to cheat, bribe, steal, smuggle or do whatever they need to do to get around the laws. The destruction of Brazil’s rainforest is illegal under Brazilian law, but it is happening very quickly anyway. If people want to use gasoline instead of methanol, because retrofitting is too expensive or for any of a million other reasons, they’ll find a way to get it. If people don’t like anti-pollution devices because they reduce performance, they’ll find a way to circumvent them. If the new oil-free economy requires a big jump in taxes, people will pay lawyers to help them cheat the system. People hate change, and won’t comply with it unless and until they’re ready to do so.

So, ideally, Lovins’ prescription is a good one. So are many other suggestions for reinventing the economic, social, political, legal and educational systems, to make them more efficient and to achieve the greater human good. But, for the above reasons, ain’t gonna happen. That’s not pessimism or defeatism, it’s understanding the lessons of history, the way human systems work, and human nature.

What really tilts the balance of credibility in favour of Kunstler, in my view, is Kunstler’s willingness to address the contrary arguments. Kunstler painstakingly deconstructs the arguments that energy salvation could come from natural gas, tar sands, hydrogen, coal, hydroelectricity, solar and wind power, biomass, nuclear, and six other forms of energy I hadn’t even heard of, raising some serious questions about the technical viability of some of the alternatives Lovins proposes. Lovins’ model would be more persuasive if he had addressed some of Kunstler’s arguments with comparable thoroughness.

If you want to prepare for the End of Oil, no matter which scenario prevails, as I’ve said before, you don’t need to buy farmland and hand tools (though your grandchildren might): Instead, get out of debt, spend less, learn to be more self-sufficient (including not depending on The Man for an income), buy local and renewable, eat and live healthier, be informed, acquire practical skills, build good networks and intentional communities, and have contingency plans that will work when infrastructure breaks down. And be good to yourself and those you love.

And take everything you read with a grain of salt.

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7 Responses to Dreaming in Petrocolour: The End of Oil Dependency?

  1. kerry says:

    Love the headline, DaveThing is, it seems to me that whether there is a real oil crisis or not, that is the perception that “someone” is trying to create and it results in a feverish rush to invest more in coal energy! And its the burning of these fossil fuels (coal) that generates global warming. BHP Billiton plans to invest billions in new coal mines here in SA and justify it by citing the possible “oil crisis”. If we have to wait until its too late, then surely those who *know* should adopt a more revolutionary attitude towards the financial system that currently runs the world?

  2. Dale Asberry says:

    A significant problem associated with the Efficiency argument is that rather than save the conserved fuel, corporations and businesses are likely to instead increase their output and continue consuming at the same rate.

  3. I don’t see the efficiency argument playing out, though it’s a commendable aspiration that I would like to see work. It think it’s a bit idealistic, considering the past behavior of both coporations and consumers. Most people will continue doing what’s most convenient, until it’s too late, unless something or someone convinces them what a bad idea that is for them. Nothing will convince corporations, who simply see dollar signs. They’re not, after all, people but mechanisms designed to earn money without any concern for people except as the law requires, if that.I think someone is in charge (moneyed interests), but they’re not organized except to make money. They’re not to be trusted with people’s or the planet’s best interests, yet we continue to funnel most money toward them.I think in order for the human race to survive the coming oil depletion we have to put the planet and future generations first. I say for the human race to survive, because I don’t see the entire population surviving. There are too many people to feed without oil. We’ve created agribusiness that relies on oil to produce what it does and ship it where it’s needed. There may be isolated pockets in the world where people don’t rely on oil to feed themselves, and those will be the most likely to survive.

  4. medaille says:

    I think its easiest to look at the whole scenario thats unfolding before us in its components. It helps to prevent the feeling of being swamped from occuring when you can isolate what you’re looking at. The most critical thing as far as humans are concerned is that they get enough energy and resources to survive (excluding social needs). We each need some amount of food and some amount of electricity and some amount of property to have a shelter on and some amount of water/air, etc. You could also break it down into we need some amount of oil to help facilitate those more primal needs. Another layer is that of our capitalistic system. Capitalism is a method of distributing resources usually towards those who have the most money already. Whereas capitalism acts as a filter towards access of resources, technology is seperate and can affect both and can affect the system little or a lot depending on its influence.Its important to know how much resources are needed per person to live a quality life. This can be done without taking distribution into account. Then you can see how good the economic system is at providing people with what they need. Then you can see if technology or policy is needed to increase the total amount of resources or if the problem lies in the distribution of the resources.Society (as a self-contained entity) has the goal of persisting. It is run by the social elite. It doesn’t care about poverty. It doesn’t care about hospitals, medicine, or health care. It cares only about perpetuating itself into the future (meaning that those in power stay in power). Society only cares about distributing resources enough to ensure that the system won’t collapse. This begs the question, “How far can society inhibit adequate resource distribution until the system collapses?” That’s the goal of the social elite, take as much as you can but prevent the system from crashing. If the system collapses, will the social elite be ruinedor will they still be able to maintain their power? If they are ruined than they have some incentive to care. If they don’t have to worry about losing the power that they’ve gained, then they have less incentive to worry about maintaining our current economic system from crashing. I was inspired to start thinking that way by Bush’s policies and how they seem to be completely ignorant of how they are weakening our position as the dominant super power. One might say that we are being steered towards economic collapse (but who really knows).I tend to believe that capitalism is the link most responsible and also the easiest to adjust to provide desired results. If we continue to have a monetary system that is based on the need to grow in order to not fade into poverty, we promote greed and selfishness amongst ourselves because greed and selfishness become necessary for survival. Also inherent in this system is desire for producers to make profits not happiness or necessities. I think its unwise to link technology blindly with the economic system, because they are two different issues, but its pretty obvious that so many people are confused about the issue, because the situation gets polarized into [technology promoters/capitalism promoters] vs [anti-technology /anti-capitalism] but instead its more [technology promoters] vs [anti-capitalism]. Why do people think that a societal revolution towards sustainability means going backwards? I think it’s because they aren’t breaking technology and resource distribution apart. Changing capitalism to something more sustainable does not affect technology or its progress directly. The change in technology is dependent more on how many resources are devoted towards its progress, rather than our economic system. A lot of your “myths” can be better clarified by making the separtion and seeing how they influence each portion separately.Just my two cents.

  5. Joe Deely says:

    Sorry Dave, but you are way off on this one – the problem is not too little oil but too much oil… and way too much coal !!The US and the world have become tremendously more efficient in $GDP per energy used and we are just at the start of this curve. We can easily become much more efficient. Even if you don’t believe this there are plenty of substitutes for oil. Kunstler’s scenarios are just silly.The real problem – as Kerry alludes to above is that many of these substitutes are worse than oil when it comes to CO2 and global warming. What we need is a very large carbon tax and we need it soon.

  6. dave davison says:

    your last line of this piece is especially appropriate when reading Kunstler, Lovins AND Pollard. For a boost in the direction of world changing on the oil front you should be encouraged by the critical success and public awareness and action generated by Jeff Skoll’s Participant Productions’ SYRIANA. If you haven’t seen this version of Jeff’s mission of ‘changing the world -one story at a time” you should visit http://participate.net/oilchangeand take the time to explore how the activist process Jeff has coupled with his award-winning movie may gain some traction with the general movie-going public.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Some interesting discussion here, everyone, thanks. Medaille, the problem with a ‘needs analysis’ approach is that the current economic system rewards what people are able and willing to pay for, not what they need. The people of New Orleans (and Darfur) have enormous needs, but nothing to pay for them, so those needs will be ignored by the economic system. The economic/capitalistic system is inherently short-sighted: It will not become more sustainable because there is a positive reinforcing feedback loop encouraging it to be wasteful and greedy, and let the externalities (costs it does not have to pay for now) look after themselves.Joe. I agree with your prescription but can’t see how it will be achieved when the vested interests who own the US government are opposed to it — it would be bad for their shareholders’ short-term ROI and that is all they care about.

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