Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Jumping Off The Fence

There's a huge psychological tipping point that many people fear to cross when discussing peak oil. That point comes when you realize that, if you are going to plan for a future of any kind, you must choose between believing that the "system" (good and bad, all of it) will survive or not survive. When I say "system", I do not mean anything necessarily derogatory but rather that our entire modern world is a system that must function in order for us to live within its boundaries, to reap its benefits, and to suffer its limitations whatever they may be. If you believe that this system will survive the coming of peak oil and remain mostly intact, any plans you make would be colored by this assumption. But if you believed the system would not survive, your plans would undoubtedly be different.

Personally, I don't believe the system will make it yet paradoxically, I hope that it does. Technological society saved my life, cured my cancer, and has allowed me many more years than I would have otherwise had. I don't find it all bad and actually find it mostly pleasant. But my personal experiences with people, both inside and outside the United States, leads me to believe that not enough of them will react to the problem until it's too late to change the ultimate outcome.

And we really are a "global" system these days, international borders notwithstanding. A recent discussion on Yahoo looked at how fragile microprocessor production actually is and the Financial Times of London talked about how many single points of failure now exist in the global economy. These are just small bits of the overall picture of a global system that is increasingly fragile and subject to both natural and man-made interruptions. Things like this are why I insist that the system has to survive as a whole, around the entire planet, or else we'll see a collapse. Collapse does not necessarily mean a "mad max" world, either, despite the impressions that some movie goers may have. Collapse in this context means movement from a higher level of organization using higher energy levels to a lower level of organization using lower energy levels.

One way to improve energy usage, and to get more from even lower levels of energy, is to live in higher density locations. The negative side of this would be trending towards a cyberpunk world of megacities consisting of tens of millions of people each. But maybe we don't need to go that far and just need to improve energy density to a level somewhat better than the diffuse suburban situation and more like traditional urban areas. No one has really examined that problem in detail so it's very hard to say what we need. What we know is that the current suburban lifestyle cannot continue.

And yes, I know about biodiesel. But it's not scalable, at least not yet. Right now the most common biodiesel plants are soybeans, which produce 40 to 50 gallons per US acre, and rapeseed, which produce 110 to 145 gallons per US acre. The highest yield biodiesel actually being produced is from palm oil, at 650 gallons per US acre (15.5 barrels). Let's assume for a moment that we could plant the entire 400,000,000 acres of United States arable land and harvest palm oil from all of it. (This assumes we don't eat but ignore that little problem for a moment and bear with me.) In one year we could get 6,200,000,000 barrels of biodiesel from the entirety of US arable farm land. That sounds big until you realize that we use over 7,665,000,000 barrels of oil in the US per year right now. And then you realize that we've grown no food at all either, which is impossible to sustain. The real production of biodiesel, short of finding another plant more than an order of magnitude more efficient, means that we need to cut oil use by 90% or more. So biodiesel is useful but not useful for continuing the current way we live.

And that is part of the crux of the psychological aspects of the problem - the unwillingness of the American people to consider living a different way, such as in higher concentration urban settings. Political leaders have loudly proclaimed that our way of life is "non-negotiable" without considering that the universe doesn't negotiate anyway. You live within the constraints the universe establishes or you die. It's this observation, the unwillingness of Americans to do anything but want more of the same that makes me believe we are headed towards a social collapse.

We've had the technical know-how to migrate to a sustainable culture for decades. It's not the technical question that stops us. It's ourselves.

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