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May 28, 2006

The Suburban Fantasy Peak Oil

James Howard Kunstler on TomPaine.com:

It's actually kind of funny to hear Americans complain these days about the cost of gasoline and how it is affecting their lives. What did they expect after setting up an easy-motoring utopia of suburban metroplexes that make incessant driving inevitable? And how did they fail to register the basic facts of the world oil situation, which have been available to us for decades?

Those facts are as follows: oil fields follow a simple pattern of production and depletion along a bell curve. Universally, when an oil field gets close to half the amount of oil it originally possessed, production peaks and then declines. This is true for all oil fields in the aggregate, for a nation and even the world.

In the United States, oil production peaked in 1970 and has been declining ever since. We extracted about 10 million barrels a day in 1970 and just under 5 million barrels a day now. Because our consumption has only increased steadily, we’ve made up for the shortfall by importing oil from other countries.

There is now powerful evidence in the production figures worldwide that we have reached global peak oil production. The collective nations of the earth will not make up for this by importing oil from other planets.

Contrary to a faction of wishful thinkers, the earth does not have a creamy nougat center of oil. Oil fields do not replenish themselves. Also contrary to the prevailing wish, no combination of alternative fuels will allow us to keep running the interstate highway system, Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World and the other furnishings of what Dick Cheney called our "non-negotiable way of life."

People who refuse to negotiate with the circumstances that the world throws at them automatically get assigned a new negotiating partner: reality. Reality then requires you to change your behavior, whether you like it or not. With global oil production peaking, we are now subject to rising oil prices, as markets are forced to contend with allocating a resource heading in the direction of scarcity. Oil prices are only likely to go higher — though there is apt to be a ratcheting effect as high oil prices depress economic activity and thus dampen demand for oil which will depress prices leading to increased consumption which will then kick prices back up, and so on. The prospects for more geopolitical friction over oil also self-evidently increase, as industrial nations desperately maneuver for supplies.

Mainly though, the danger lies in the resulting instability of the super-sized complex systems that we depend on daily.

Trouble with oil will spell huge problems with how we grow our food, how we conduct trade, how we move around and how we inhabit the terrain of North America. These systems are going to wobble and eventually fail unless some effort is made to reform their scale and their procedures. For example, Wal-Mart's profit margins will disappear as higher diesel fuel prices hit its "warehouse-on-wheels."

Now, in the face of this, you'd think that the national leadership in politics, business and science would prepare the public for substantial necessary changes in the way we do things. What we are seeing across the board, though, is merely a desperate wish to keep the cars running by any conceivable means, at all costs. That is the sole target of our focus. Our leaders don't get it. We citizens have to make other arrangements.

We simply cannot face the fact that time has run out — that our lease is expiring — for the easy-motoring utopia. But we must. We have to live differently. We're going to have to re-inhabit and reconstruct our civic places — especially our small towns — and we're going to have to use the remaining rural places for growing food locally, wherever possible. Our big cities will probably contract, while they densify at their centers and along their waterfronts. Our suburbs will enter a shocking state of economic and practical failure.

We cannot imagine this scenario because we have invested so much of our collective wealth the past 50 years in the infrastructure for a way of life that simply has no future.

We'd better start paying attention to the signals that reality is sending or we will be living in a very violent, impoverished and demoralized nation. And we have to begin somewhere, which is why I suggest we start by rebuilding the national passenger railroad system. It would have a significant impact on our oil use. It would put a lot of people to work on something meaningful and beneficial to all ranks of American society. The equipment is lying out there rusting in the rain, waiting to be fixed. We don't have to re-invent anything to do it.

The fact that we are not even talking about such solutions shows how unserious we are. [Emphasis added]

It really is remarkable how little grownup discussion there is of these issues by our national leadership. Are we a nation of children, after all?

Posted by Jonathan at May 28, 2006 11:43 AM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

Comments

We're not addicted to oil; we're dependant on it to feed our real addictions, namely a lifestyle that isn't sustainable. We're all dreaming the wrong dreams. Excellent article.

As James Howard Kunstler points out, transportation is not sustainable at the scale it is today. This should give everyone pause. If Jonathan's recent post titled Peak Food is anywhere close to accurate (that most of the usable farm land on the planet is already being used) then Mr. Kunstler is correct when he says we're not going to be able to "grow" our way out of this transportation problem. There just isn’t enough land to grow both food and fuel.

What will the world look like in 50 years when, for all practical purposes, oil for transportation is gone? For many of us reading this, that's going to happen in our lifetime.

Oil was first used to heat homes in the US around 1860. The first gasoline powered automobile plant started operations in France in about 1890. That's only 117 years ago, approx. 43,000 days or about one million hours ago. History books 400 years from now are going to look back at the "days of petroleum" as a flash in the pan. Those history books will also include what's about to unfold in the next five decades.

That section might start something like this.

"At the turn of the 21st century, elite ultra-conservatives running the United States of America under the guise of democracy were more concerned with ruling the world than they were with addressing and solving the problems facing their nation. This led to, among other things...."

Posted by: Jeff at May 28, 2006 08:57 PM

Although I will reserve judgement on exactly how serious Peak Oil is, I will say one thing.
If I were you, I wouldn't put too much stock in anything Kunstler says. When I first started with
my reading on the Peak Oil issue, I felt a strange type of Deja-Vu. As a programmer, I remembered Y2K
and one of the famous doomers, Gary North. I then felt that same feeling reading Kunstler et al.
The following articles, one at peakoil.com and the
other at the Peak Oil Debunked blog, tell the story:

http://www.peakoil.com/fortopic20581.html

http://peakoildebunked.blogspot.com/2006/05/305-kunstler-thought-y2k-was-end-of.html

Make sure you read the comments on the post at
peakoil.com especially, where a couple of former
Y2K-affected programmers note the similarities.

I would guess Kunstler and others like him are motivated by two things:

1. Profit - These guys all have a book to push, like Ed Yourdon and others did for Y2K.

2. They are dissociated luddites, who hate the current "evil order" and wish for its demise.

It is ironic that Kunstler seems to dismiss religious believers in his rants, he is one.
At the Debunked site is an article with a title along the lines of "Where does apocalyptic
thinking come from?". You should give it a look. I don't totally dismiss the possibility of Peak Oil
being a real issue, but I recall the Y2K hype all too well. For a more balanced view of *all* sides
of Peak Oil, I suggest http://peakoil.blogspot.com
which is more balanced, though the host does still
give Kunstler too much airtime.

In conclusion, I am still open-minded and uncommitted on Peak Oil. As for Kunstler, he is a
Luddite, an iconoclast, and a fool who should not be taken seriously. Try Matthew Simmons for someone not so far out in the Ozone.

Thank you for your time.

Posted by: Timelord at June 13, 2006 06:08 PM