Wednesday, May 30, 2007

peak oil in 600 words or less

i’m not an oil man or scientist or phd or anything like that. i’m merely a humble musician, a computer geek and father of young kids. i’ve spent much of my free time in the last year reading everything i can about resource depletion, the effects of our modern lifestyle on our planet, and related issues. (actually ALL issues are related to this, but that’s a topic for another post.) most of what i could say about peak oil / global warming / relocalization / etc has been said elsewhere by the great brains of these movements.

i write this because i know some people may read this blog who have never thought about these issues, or they tuned it out because it was presented in a way that was too-technical (read: boring) or too-alarmist (read: we’re all gonna die, and nothing can be done!). so, hopefully without being too boring or hopeless, here’s peak oil in 600 words or less:

i’ll start with money, since that's something most people care about: let's say i have a coin-operated atm. instead of inserting a bank card, you insert a dollar. in return the atm spits out 20 dollars. feed it another dollar and it gives you 20 more. holy crap, you’d think, this is the greatest atm ever! if you keep feeding it ones and getting twenties back round the clock, you’d be pretty rich by the end of the week. the next week you discover the payoff has declined – you feed it 1 dollar and only get 10 back - but hey, that’s still a good deal so you keep at it. the next week you feed it 1 and only get 5 back, then 2, then 1.50… once the payoff hits 1 to 1 you'd be wasting your time, and unless you are reality-challenged you’d definitely stop before the atm turns your dollar into 50 cents. it doesn't matter how much money is left sitting in the atm, you’d have to abandon it while you’re still ahead.

replace dollars with oil barrels in the example above and i've just described EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). oil is cheap, but it isn't free - it takes energy to get energy. all over the world there are abandoned oil wells rusting in the sun that are sitting on top of lots of oil – sometimes half the oil that could be produced from them - because it would take more energy to get the oil out than the oil would provide.

the oil problem arrives not when we've harvested the very last drop of oil (which none of us will ever see), but when we've harvested all we can from an oil field without losing energy. take an aggregate of all the world’s oil fields and sooner or later EROEI will guarantee that global oil production will taper off and begin a terminal decline. at that point we’ve passed peak oil.

lots of smart people studying this believe we will reach peak in the next 5 to 10 years. some think we're already there.

“ok,” you say, “but who cares – oil is just about driving, right? i’ll just get a hybrid and be ok.”

there’s much more to it than that. our entire modern way of life is built on abundant cheap oil. everything from our most basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) to the high-tech gadgets we play with (to kill the boredom caused by having our most basic needs being so easily met) wouldn’t be possible in current form without oil to make and package and distribute these things.

oil is the closest thing to magic that humans have ever seen. each drop contains millions of years worth of solar energy. no other energy source is close to being so powerful, so portable or so profitable for those who use it. it’s also a finite, non-renewable resource – this is the tacit understanding behind all the discussions of (and oil company propaganda about) renewable energy - discussions which don’t mention oil. renewable energy discussions also don't mention anything nearly as powerful, portable or profitable as oil either.

once we pass peak oil, production will fall below global demand and the price of oil will rise. and then the price of everything currently made possible by oil (from high-tech gadgets to food, shelter, clothing) will rise too.

and then some of these things may not be “made possible” anymore.

but how bad will things get, really? more on that next time…

Friday, May 25, 2007

how i became a peak oiler.

i started where most folks in the last couple of years did - with kunstler's long emergency.

my god, were the things he was saying true? it was such a bleak vision of the future, but the way he laid it all out seemed pretty reasonable to me. i had to find out more, get other points of view. specifically, i needed someone to logically defeat the peak oil argument to my satisfaction so i could roll over and go back to "sleepwalking into the future."

so i hit the internets. every day i read whatever google could give me on the subject. soon i had a few new sites added to my favorites, with names that sounded both scary and boring at the same time:,,

most people writing about the subject seemed to think some version of the long emergency was going to happen, it was just a question of when and how bad it would be. opinions ranged from pessimistic to slightly-less-pessimistic.

i found plenty of peak oil "debunkers" too, but couldn't find many reasons to buy their arguments and found lots of reasons not to. the arguments against peak oil came in 3 basic flavors:

1) quibbling over the timing: “you told me i was going to die, but i keep waking up alive every day; therefore, i will never die.”

2) economists who weren’t taught in business school what “finite” means: “you don’t understand supply and demand – shortages of this finite resource will drive up the price, which in turn will pay for new discoveries and extraction methods of this finite resource.”

3) american technology will save us: “we’re the greatest god-blessed country in human history, and when we roll up our sleeves to make cars that run on water, then by gum, we’re gonna do it!”

each of these contain pretty obvious mistakes in reasoning, and it turned out many of the loudest “debunkers” were employed by oil companies or think tanks funded by oil companies.

to be at all persuasive, a writer only has to do 3 things: write well, be logical, and don’t be a paid propagandist / press release writer / think tanker. most writers on peak oil (and related topics) that did this for me tended to be on the bleak end of the scale, even as they offered survival tips and cheerful sarcasm. over time i began recognizing names and knew who i wanted to read - richard heinberg, bill mckibben, dmitry orlov, dale allen pfeiffer, jeffrey brown. there were even “regular” people with blogs & websites that had enough interesting and well written things to say that they became part of my weekly reading diet too -
sharon astyk, john michael greer, matt savinar. i liked kunstler’s clusterfuck nation blog so much that i’d sometimes even skim through the flame-war comments section.

over the next few months i put a whole new world of unhappy concepts into my brain – the olduvai theory, overshoot, die-off. i learned more than i ever thought i would care to about oil discovery and production. i stared at hundreds of graphs on the
oil drum until some of them actually started to make sense.

one day i had read enough to start recognizing the clich├ęs – movies with the word “crude” in the title, oil spokesmen saying “the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones” – and i knew something had changed.

i understood the inside jokes. that meant i was “in.”

i kept reading, and i came to my own theory-of-everything which i refine daily.

more about that later…