Archive for July, 2010

Peak Oil, Part Two

July 26, 2010

Most Americans—and I have to include myself here—tend to think of oil primarily as a source of fuel—gas for the car, heat for the house. Our food creation and delivery system (a more accurate depiction than “agriculture”) is completely dependent on oil and gas. They power the farm machinery and the trucks and planes that bring the food increasingly long distances to market. In the industrialized world, we use roughly 10 calories of energy for every calorie of food we eat. The way I’ve always received it, modern mechanized farming has blessed us with the possibility of feeding a constantly growing world population. But according to what I’m reading now, the tremendous growth in the planet’s population coincides precisely with our exploitation of fossil fuels. In other words, the increased availability of food has encouraged massive population growth, which is exactly what happens in nature.

Most people seem to have adopted the idea that “they” will figure out something with which to replace oil. Depending on your politics, you might support nuclear energy, or you support development of solar and wind. But petroleum is not replaceable by any single substance or energy source. We tend (I have tended) to not think much about the fact that it’s used for much more than just fuel. We use it to make fertilizer, pesticides, plastics, synthetic rubber, clothing fibers, asphalt, and more. It’s everywhere and it’s in everything. We’ve built our civilization upon it. It’s not really the Information Age. It’s the Age of Oil. And now, after years of the West pushing manic economic growth on the rest of the world, every nation needs petroleum to function. China and India with their billions are hooked on the idea of having the same standard of living that the West “enjoys.” If the Peak Oil hypotheses is correct, we’re entering an era of aggressive competition over a dwindling resource, which will mean higher prices and, of course, more wars. The food distribution system and our electrical systems (and, accordingly, our communication systems) will undergo great stress. Getting our apples from Chile will become a thing of the past.

It didn’t have to happen this way. There’s been no shortage of warnings. But they’ve all fallen on deaf ears. When Jimmy Carter tried to present the facts to the public, he was ridiculed. One of Ronald Reagan’s first official acts as president was to order the removal of the solar power units that Carter had had installed on the White House roof. It was a statement—a foolish one. And we’ve lived under that ever since. The people want to continue the party, and the politicians have learned not to say anything that suggests it’s neither possible nor desirable.

When most people read about Peak Oil they tend to get depressed. But that hasn’t been my reaction at all. Part Three will deal with my personal response.

Peak Oil, Part One (revised)

July 26, 2010

This is a lightly revised version of a previous post. I’ve cleaned up the sentence structure. Mostly, I just wanted to have Parts 1 and 2 next to each other.

When I first started seeing the term “Peak Oil,” I assumed that it simply referred to the fact that eventually we’re going to run out of oil. My usual response has been to worry that as the oil runs out, people will give in to those pushing nuclear power, which I deeply oppose. And I’ve left it that. I’ve never been particularly interested in the guts of economic or scientific issues. Anyone who has read about Peak Oil will recognize that my understanding of the issue was quite shallow. So Richard Heinberg’s book, The Party’s Over, was a huge revelation to me. It introduced me to what I now see as one of the most important issues of our time. And very few people know about it.

The Peak Oil hypotheses isn’t about running out of oil. It deals with the fact that we’ve sucked up all the easily obtainable oil, and that going after the rest is going to require greater effort, cost, and ingenuity. But we’ve developed a way of life that is dependent on a cheap and abundant supply of oil. We’ve been having a party with a substance that takes millions of years to create, and we’ve never considered the consequences of our profligacy.

The Peak Oil hypotheses first appeared in the 1950s when the American geophysicist Marion King Hubbert noticed that oil production in fields in the US followed a bell curve. First there was a sharp rise, then a peak, after which production dropped off and never recovered. He worked out a formula by which he calculated that the United States would hit “peak oil,” its maximum rate of production, in the early 1970s, after which oil production would decline permanently. He was ridiculed at the time, but, in fact, the United States did hit peak oil in 1971. We’ve been going overseas for most of our oil ever since. There’s been a growing awareness that oil production for the entire globe will hit a peak eventually, after which there will be a permanent, irreversible decline. The oil that remains will be more difficult and more expensive to extract and of lower quality.

There isn’t anything controversial in any of this. Even oil company executives understand the concept and accept it. (The only people who scoff at Peak Oil are those who believe that oil is actually created in the center of the earth and then sent to the surface by inner pressure. I was amazed that there was still any question about where oil comes from, until I found out who’s pushing the idea: the creationists, who insist that the earth isn’t old enough for oil to have originated from dead organic matter under pressure for millions of years.) So the only question now is when it’s going to happen. There are some students of the subject who believe that we’ve already reached global Peak Oil. Some believe that it occurred in 2008, while others give 2005 as the date. They point out that the disaster with the BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is symptomatic of Peak Oil. The oil companies are having to go to places where it’s more difficult to drill—deep ocean—because the easier-to-get-to oil in shallower waters has already been exploited. There are sunnier predictions, and from the sources you would expect. Shell Oil predicts 2025, for example. One of the most optimistic forecasts comes from the United States government, which says 2030. But if it agreed with the earlier dates, the US government would be forced to take drastic measures, which would upset the party-goers, the voters, the majority of whom believe, on principle, that we should have access to cheap energy for as long as we like. Actually, petroleum and its byproducts are much more than merely a source of energy. But more on that next time.

Progress Report #36

July 26, 2010

I finished work on the second draft’s chapter eighteen, which has the working title “You Never Give Me Your Money.” It came in at ten pages. I start work tomorrow on Chapter 19. In this chapter, which currently has no working title, I am pushed ever closer toward losing all security. It happens methodically, bit by bit. Even my last piece of identification expires. Then, just as I’m about to go under, there is a reprieve. In the midst of it all, I have an astonishing vision.

The Extraordinarily Keen Poetry of the Universe

July 19, 2010

From today’s New York Times:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney is recuperating from surgery to implant the kind of mechanical pump now being given to a small but growing number of people with heart failure so severe that they would most likely die within a few months without it.The pumps are partial artificial hearts known as ventricular assist devices, and they come in various models. Mr. Cheney’s kind is about the size of a D battery and leaves most recipients without a pulse because it pushes blood continuously instead of mimicking the heart’s own pulsatile beat. Most such pulse-less patients feel nothing unusual. But they are urged to wear bracelets or other identifications to alert emergency room doctors as to why they have no pulse.

Progress Report #35

July 16, 2010

I finished Chapter 17, the second in my new approach of writing short chapters. It came in at 12 pages. It’s working title is “Further On Up the Road.” Tomorrow I start Chapter 18, in which I have to deal with darkness and a very serious pest.

I’ve started Part 2 of Peak Oil, but it’s slow going right now. I have so much other work to do. I’ve been transcribing the interviews that Judy is doing for her new film, Pelican Dreams, and that’s taken up a lot of my energy. I’ve been using Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a voice transcription program that runs only in Windows. I have a Mac, so I run the program in a Boot Camp partition running Windows 7. I repeat what the interviewee says and the program transcribes what I say. It’s remarkably accurate. It’s still a lot of work, though. At least I don’t have to do so much typing. I’ll get Part 2 of Peak Oil done soon.

Peak Oil, Part 1

July 8, 2010

When I first started seeing the term “Peak Oil,” I assumed that it simply referred to the fact that one day we’re going to run out of oil. My usual response has been to worry that as the oil runs out, people will give in to those pushing nuclear power. And I’ve left it that. I’ve never been especially interested in the guts of economic or scientific issues. Anyone who has read about Peak Oil will recognize that my understanding was shallow. Richard Heinberg’s book, The Party’s Over, was a huge revelation to me. It introduced me to what I now see as one of the most, if not the most, important issues of our time. And it’s one that very few people know about.

The Peak Oil hypotheses doesn’t say that we’re running out of oil. What it says is that we’ve sucked up all the oil that was easy to get to, and going after the rest is going to require greater effort, cost, and ingenuity. In the last 150 years we’ve developed a way of life that’s entirely dependent on cheap, easily obtainable oil. And we’ve been profligate with oil, a substance that takes millions of years to create. We’ve been having a party and we’ve never seriously considered that there will be consequences for our profligacy.

The Peak Oil hypotheses first appeared in the 1950s when the American geophysicist Marion King Hubbert noticed that oil production in fields in the US followed a bell curve. First there was a sharp rise, then a peak, after which production dropped off and never recovered. He worked out a formula by which he calculated that the United States would hit “peak oil,” its maximum rate of production, in the early 1970s, after which oil production would decline permanently. He was ridiculed at the time, but, in fact, the United States did hit peak oil in 1971. We’ve been going overseas for most of our oil ever since. There’s been a growing awareness that oil production for the entire globe would hit a peak eventually, after which there would be permanent, irreversible decline. The oil that remains will become harder to extract and of lower quality.

There really isn’t anything controversial in any of this. Even oil company executives understand the concept and accept it now. The only people who scoff at peak oil are some who believe that oil is actually created in the center of the earth and sent to the surface by inner pressure. I was puzzled that there was still any question about where oil comes from, until I found out who’s pushing this idea: the creationists, who insist that the earth isn’t old enough for oil to have originated from dead organic matter under pressure for millions of years. So the only question is when it’s going to happen. There are experts who believe we’ve already reached global peak oil, that it occurred in 2008. A few others give 2005 as the date. They point out that the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is symptomatic of the peak oil condition. The oil companies are having to go to places where it’s more difficult to drill—deep ocean—because the easier-to-get-to oil in shallower waters has already been exploited. On the sunny side, Shell Oil’s public prediction is 2025. One of the most optimistic forecasts comes from the United States government, which says 2030. But the United States government would have to do something drastic if it agreed with any of the earlier predicted dates. Doing something drastic would upset the party-goers, the voters, the majority of whom seem to believe that we should be able to have access to cheap energy for as long as we like. Actually, oil is more than just a source of energy. But more on that next time.

Progress Report #34

July 5, 2010

I finished going through Chapter Sixteen, “You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine.” Today I start work on the outline to Chapter Seventeen. What is wisdom? Who has it? And more experiences with strange and/or interesting characters in mid-1970s North Beach. Working title: “Further On Up the Road.”

An Announcement

July 1, 2010

I saw a headline today:

NRA announces opposition to Supreme Court nominee

So I thought I’d take the opportunity to make a formal announcement of my opposition to the NRA.

Progress Report #33

July 1, 2010

I finished my first pass through Chapter Sixteen, Draft Two, “You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine.” It came in at a mere six pages. It’s the first of the shorter chapters. I think few will be as short as this one, though. Tomorrow I’ll go through it again to clean up and to clarify before moving on to Chapter Seventeen. I like the idea of shorter chapters. The longer chapters generally corresponded to particular time periods, where I was in a particular place and all that happened while I was there. The shorter chapters are more thematic. I’m in North Beach for the rest of the book.

I’ve started work on an essay about Peak Oil. I don’t like rambling, sprawling writing, I’m new to the subject, and I’ve been busy with a lot of other work. So it’s going to take me a while to get this one done.