Posts Tagged ‘Peak Oil’

The Future of Tech

May 30, 2011

In my previous post, I wrote about the extent of my involvement with computers. It’s not that I’m a tech enthusiast. I’m not. In fact, I believe that the modern world’s devotion to technology has gotten way out of hand and is causing great harm. I wrote that post so that readers would know that I’m not simply some Luddite writing from my cave.

A lot of people believe that humanity is merely at the beginning of a period of great advancement, and it’s all due to the glories of technology. The age of science and industry goes back something like 150 years, and I think we’re actually nearer its end than its beginning. I have two reasons for believing this. One  is that we’ve entered an era of resource and energy depletion (not to mention climate change), which is due to our profligate use of those resources. It’s going to make it impossible to continue with the fantasy. The other reason is spiritual, or, if you prefer, psychological. The world is rapidly approaching the point of nervous breakdown.

As for the first reason—I’ve written about the Peak Oil theory elsewhere on this blog. Everything the theory describes seems to be coming true. There is no question as to whether or not we’re going to run out of oil one day. There’s only so much. The question has always been when. But Peak Oil says that it isn’t so much a matter of running out of oil as it is the growing expense (both financially and ecologically) of extracting the harder-to-get oil. Our economy is built on the assumption that there will always be cheap oil, which is impossible. And when resources become truly scarce, where will we put them? Into information technology and consumer gadgets? Or into the growth and transportation of food? You can’t eat information. Current agricultural practices use petroleum products to run farm machinery, make fertilizer, build and maintain the roads that transport the food, fuel the trucks that haul it, create the electricity for refrigeration, and more. At the moment, we have enough electrical power to maintain the enormous grid of servers that keeps the Internet running. But we’re not going to be able to maintain that situation indefinitely. From what I read, even if we could solve the safety and waste issues, nuclear power can’t really do what its supporters say it does. A lot of people believe that the free market can solve the issue. But the faith in free markets is wishful thinking. The old game—constant economic growth—was a bubble, and it’s gone forever.

When I was growing up I used to see articles on how the coming revolution in automation was going to create a huge problem for us: What to do with all that leisure time? But, of course, that’s not what happened. The leisure time bit was just a selling point. They’ve been piling on the work, and the pace of daily life has been sped up to a point that it far exceeds anything that’s natural and healthy. That which is unnatural and unhealthy is unsustainable. They keep making more gadgets that we don’t really need whose ultimate affect is diversion—diversion from boredom. None of these devices really satisfy. We have not become smarter, healthier, kinder, or closer on account of it. No machine can bring about a greater sense of well-being. I know that perfectly well from experience. Anybody who pushes this idea, if he really believes it, is out of touch with reality.

I often hear people describe some new gadget as “magical.” But they are not magic. Magic is where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. With machines, the whole exactly equals the sum of the parts. An example: You can program a machine to play a piece of music exactly in tempo, no missed notes, etc., but the resulting music will not be magic. When I was a musician I would occasionally reach a place where something extra came into play. It was like the music was playing me rather me playing the music. It always astonished me, and it was something the audience could feel as well. That’s magic, and it comes from a place that no machine can access. It’s the place that makes life worth living.

The tech trip is a knowledge trip. But there’s something more important than knowledge: wisdom. And that’s what we’re here to find. Most people doubt this, I think. We’ve become so involved with gaining knowledge (or information) and money that we don’t see anything else. We don’t even know what wisdom is. Technically, it’s seeing cause and effect on down to the most subtle levels in the here and now. The only way to see with that kind of clarity is to take the inner journey. But a culture that believes that the only thing you’ll find within yourself is blood vessels, bone, and nerve endings won’t take the trip. Still, technology cannot continue to be the dominant force in our lives. We’ll die of boredom. It’s starting to break down, though, and as it does, we’ll have no choice but to look for that which goes deep. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing.

Two last things: I’m not saying we drop technology entirely. We have such a dualistic mindset that whenever you criticize tech there will be someone who says, “What do you want to do? Go back to the Stone Age?” We should integrate what is truly useful and makes sense to keep. But in a sane world, there wouldn’t be that much. I think it was Gary Snyder who responded to someone’s “What do you want to do? Go back to the Stone Age?” remark with “No, but I wouldn’t mind going back to, say, the 1950s.” He was joking. But it makes the point. And for those who will say, “You’re here using a computer and the Internet. Aren’t you being kind of hypocritical?” I’m here because this is where the camp fire is right now and I want to speak to people. But I intend to make my way back to reality as soon as the way is clear. It’s healthier and it’s where you meet your real friends.

Peak Oil, Part Three

August 19, 2010

Here is my response to Peak Oil theory:

From its beginnings, America has been torn between idealist and materialist urges. I came of age in the late-1960s and early-1970s, the most recent era in which idealism carried any weight within American culture. It was an exciting time. Millions of people, to varying degrees of sincerity, were actively seeking answers to questions about the nature of existence and the right way to live. I was convinced that the nation had taken a turn from which it could never retreat. But I was wrong. Americans got tired of the constant questioning and upheaval. So we elected Ronald Reagan, who told us that it was okay to go after money again. He spoke as if it were a moral virtue. And people responded. Thirty years later, we live in the most materialistic age that humankind has ever seen. I’ve lived through this period with increasing dismay. With the growth in our level of material comfort, there has been a simultaneous, requisite decay in our ideals and spiritual vitality. I’ve tried for years to picture what might reverse the trend, but I’ve seen nothing that will do the trick. The economic system has seemed immune to stock market crashes, bubbles, massive debt, scams, and corruption. But I believe I see now what’s going to stop the machine: It’s going to run out of gas. I think we’ve already entered the era of decline. A lot of people feel it. And just as the last 150 years–the era of fossil fuels–has represented a tremendous historical change, so will the period we’re entering. I have to say that I welcome it. And I know I’m not alone. I’ve talked to others who see the same thing and feel the same way.

The thing is, it’s impossible for us to turn things around so long as the money machine remains at the center of our day-to-day life. “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” That’s an uncompromising statement, and it’s a truth, a universal truth. The money machine depends on people not questioning the frantic lives they’ve been leading. Keep up! Keep up! Otherwise you’re gonna get thrown under the wheels! It’s nuts. As the machine continues to break down, we are going to be facing huge issues on how we survive. We can work it out, though. There are people working on it now at a grassroots level. The good part in all this is that, regardless of the difficulty, life will at least be real again. We live in an age of tremendous delusion, propaganda, and shallow thought. All the stands of the so-called conservatives and liberals have hardened into a mindset that is dysfunctional. I don’t mean to frighten people. It doesn’t frighten me. I see it as a great opportunity—the only one we have. The alternative is to go over the cliff with the current system.

This is just a tiny scratching of the surface. For a more thorough introduction to Peak Oil, I recommend Richard Heinberg’s book The Party’s Over. Also his website. The Post Carbon Institute’s website is another good source of information and links. I’m seeing in the mainstream media more and more references to Peak Oil, as well as a constant stream of articles that, while not mentioning them, bear out its theories. It’s going to be a common topic in the near future. People need to educate themselves about it. Finally, I should add that there are issues of greater importance to me than Peak Oil. I’m not a “Peak Oilist.” Since I was a young boy, my primary concern has been enlightenment. But we can’t be enlightened so long as we’re chasing after money–there is no such thing as “enlightened self-interest”–so I see Peak Oil as a great ally on the path.

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.

Preface to Peak Oil

June 21, 2010

I came across an interesting quote from Barack Obama today. Addressing the oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, he said: “If we’re honest with ourselves, we must recognize that the days of of cheap and easily accessible oil are numbered.” This is the crux of the Peak Oil argument, something that few politicians dare mention by name.

I first stumbled on the topic last year, and it turned out to be quite electrifying, so to speak. I want to start writing about it, but before I do, I feel I should explain how I came to the subject. Otherwise, my interest could be misconstrued.

Five years ago, I received an e-mail from a man named Richard Heinberg. He’d written a review of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and was sending it out in his newsletter, called Museletter. He thought I’d like to read the review. I did, and I enjoyed it. It was well-written, thoughtful, and complimentary. I saw on his web site that he’s known mostly for his writings on the subject of Peak Oil. I’d heard the term before, but had never read anything about it. I assumed it was about the world eventually running out of oil and how the pressure would be on then to go nuclear. Not something I wanted to read about. About a year later, I again heard from Heinberg, who wrote to tell me that he was including the essay in a new book, Peak Everything. I never bought the book and soon forgot all about it.

Then, last June, while killing some time waiting for a ferry, I picked up a copy of the North Bay Bohemian, an alternative newspaper, and read an article about something called “transition communities.” Again, the topic was Peak Oil and how it’s going to change, or is changing now, our entire way of life. Reading the article, it all sounded quite real. The article quoted Heinberg and referenced his book The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies. It sounded fascinating, and I bought a copy of the book that very evening. But before I could start reading, Judy picked it up and got so locked in that she couldn’t let go. I had to wait for her to finish. It’s that good. Since then I’ve discovered that there are many others who have had their own mind-changing “The Party’s Over” experience. I want to start writing about Peak Oil, but before I do, I want to make sure people understand that my interest is not the result of somebody writing about my book in his book.

More soon.

The Tea Party

February 6, 2010

Conventional wisdom says that Jimmy Carter was a weak president who led the nation into a state of malaise, and then Ronald Reagan came along and made us believe in ourselves again. The conventional wisdom is firmly ensconced. Journalists, politicians, and mainstream historians all spout it. But it’s not the truth.

During the Carter presidency there was a brief moment when the window was open to the possibility of making some much needed change. Vietnam had left the country in bad shape—politically, economically, and psychologically. We were down, but it had nothing to do with Carter. That was already the situation when he came into office. He’s been the only president in my lifetime who said openly that the country ran on some false assumptions. One of the most egregious is the idea that we can constantly raise our standard of living, that there can be endless economic growth. This is an impossibility logically, and he seems to have known it. Carter made some effort to get the country to understand that we were entering an era of limits. He tried to get people to take the energy situation seriously. He was vilified for telling the truth. Reagan came along and undid any progress Carter may have made toward opening up a discussion about reality. One of Reagan’s first acts as president was to take down the solar panels that Carter had had installed on the White House roof—one of the most foolish symbolic moves any American president has ever made. He liked to say that “conservation just means we all freeze in the dark.” It says a great deal about the man. He gave people simple answers and resold the people on the fantasy aspects of the American Dream. The prosperity that followed was all done on credit. As somebody  once said, “we borrowed money from the Japanese and threw a party.” There wasn’t any new era of production, and in the end that’s what creates real wealth. We’ve been living in Reagan’s dream world ever since.

It’s very clear to me that we’ve already reached the end of our ability to raise our standard of living. We’re failing economically. We don’t produce anything anymore. We live in a service economy—a dead end—and we’re never going to get that old economy back. (Personally, I’m fine with it. I see immense wealth as a bar to good character.) There’s a lot of stuff coming down the road that the media and the politicians are paying zero attention to— “peak oil,” for one. Most people I talk to have never even heard of it. It’s probably the most important economic/material plane issue of our time. I’ll be writing about it at some point. I’m still learning.

I know I’ve said much of this before, but I’m bringing it up again because of the Tea Party convention in Nashville. I had an exchange with one of them recently, and I realized that they’re not really bad people. But they do live in a delusion—the Reagan fantasy—and they don’t spend much time being thoughtful. This guy had quite a few hatreds, and he was willing to give up most of them when pressed. But he demanded simple answers. The Tea Party wants the old America back, the America of a constantly increasing standard of living. They seem to see money as the only real pleasure in life. They’re going to be getting angrier and angrier as time goes on. Regardless of what happens in the future—which political party is in charge and so on—that dream is over.