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.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Say It Ain't So!

Peak oil is a difficult issue psychologically for many people. Basically we're being told that everything we ever knew may go away and the life that comes after this will be very, very different. It could be very, very different in a good way or very, very different in a bad way but there's not much now to tell us how it will all turn out. There's a natural desire to reject notions like that, even when there is a great deal of science behind them. It was that rejection factor that drove the bulk of the nation to reject both the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth report as well as Jimmy Carter's call to the citizens of the United States that it was time to chart a new course. The US didn't want a new course. We were high on success and wealth from the 1950s and 1960s and believed that anything was possible. We didn't want to accept the notion of limits to anything. So we didn't and on we charged as a nation.

We tried to recreate the 1950s in the 1980s but failed in distinct ways. We, as a nation, tried to attribute these to various factors but nobody paid attention to the fact that 1979 was the per capita peak in expenditure of energy worldwide. We've produced more energy since then but we've produced people at a faster rate than energy. So down we've spiraled. Part of this is the unease that many people have about the world around them. Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter to Ronald Reagan, recently lamented that we've all made A Separate Peace, aware that the system is broken but are unable to fix it and resigned to whatever fate awaits us. She, and others, sense that something is very wrong compared to yesterday and all our attempts to restore yesterday have gone for naught.

That's happening still today even as the entire global petrochemical industry on which our very lives depend starts to experience upheaval. People don't want to accept the notion that we may face decades or centuries of economic (and biological) contraction. Yet respected scientists are concluding exactly that and making predictions such as lower birth rates based on lower energy availability.

Despite all this the first reaction of most people is rejection. They don't want to be told that The Party's Over or that their dreams of wealth, power, and self-indulgence may have to give way to austerity, humbleness, and even poverty. All this is natural and arguing with such people will simply serve to anger them further. Human beings are stubborn cusses and trying to tell them much of anything doesn't usually work well, especially when it's a negative message. Remember the old adage about shooting the messenger!

However, if someone hears this message and then starts to evaluate it, even if they reject it at first, often their position will begin to change. Slowly, you may find people accepting the idea yet they still may not be willing to do anything about it. Often they will proclaim that some undiscovered technology will save us. Sure, it might, but can we count on that? Or they will agree with the idea but conclude that your timing is wrong and it's not their problem. This is passing it off on their own children or grandchildren but that's better (for the rejecter) than facing the issue directly.

Even further along the line, people begin to accept and realize they need to do something for both themselves and those they love. Often though, fate ties hands and one person may recognize the issue but the other rejects it. This can result in paralysis of decision. If you find yourself in such a situation, rather than argue about it, see if you can negotiate some concessions. Maybe you can negotiate a preparedness budget in exchange for not bringing up such gloomy topics at the dinner table. Yes, I jest, sort of, but the idea of negotiating with a significant other in a way that allows you to begin preparing is not crazy. It lets you get started. And if your significant other sees you are really serious about the issue, then they may decide to pitch in as well. At that point your battle is mostly won.

So, if, after all this mental vacillation, you are finally ready to do something to prepare, just what is it that you can do? You can start by preparing yourself physically and mentally. This is common advice and I just reiterate it here because it's true - good health and a well informed mind are the two best tools when you are forced to survive on your own.

Beyond that you have to consider where you live. If you live in the typical suburban area, your first thought might be to start a garden. That's a good thought - except that many suburbs are divided up with loads and loads of pressure treated lumber to build fences and decks, lumber that has been treated with arsenic. Getting clear facts about arsenic leaching can be difficult but generally, unless your entire backyard was fertilized with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) based sawdust, you won't have many issues. Just be observant and if worried, consider having your soil tested. Also, be sure to plant several inches away from the pressure treated lumber. Leaching that does occur appears to be minimal and stays near the wood.

Getting a garden started is good but then you have to provide water for it and tend to it. Tending to it might not be hard if your company no longer exists but then you begin to wonder how long the banks will let you stay in that house too unless you own it outright. These sorts of issues have led me personally to consider searching for and acquiring a few to several (2 to maybe 20) acres of arable land within a few hours of the city where I live. If I can find and obtain such land for typical agricultural land prices ($600-$1800 per acre) then I can have a personal place not subject to seizure by a foreclosing bank. Locating and acquiring such a block of land thus becomes my first personal concern. I'd like a bit more land because ideally I'd like to be able to support not just myself and my wife, but my children, their spouses and children, and some of my friends as well.

Once acquired though, you're still without shelter. My recommendation here is acquiring a good tent for starters. Again, you can buy it outright so that it can't be taken away from you. You can even buy a couple if need be. These would only be temporary shelter but at least it's something. But with what do you replace temporary shelter? Permanent shelter, of course! Our problem in a collapse/depression scenario is that we're not likely to have the finances to build a traditional structure. So what can you do?

The best solution may be to start studying earthships and their design. Earthships are intended to be self-contained living units that need no external connections to an outside power, water, or sewage network to function. Earthships recycle all waste and have extensive natural lighting via their greenhouses, which can provide the bulk of your food when tended properly. I've seen a few examples of earthships such as this one built near Durango, Colorado and this one in San Juan County, Colorado as well.

Earthships are built using recycled tires, bottles, aluminum cans, and even straw bales. There are also other homes built with straw bales and such materials but earthships seem, to me at least, to be the most complete designs I've encountered so far for living "off the grid", so to speak. And that leads to my next decision - after acquiring the land I want, I plan to begin the process of building a small earthship or similar structure fully targeted to be off the grid.

These decisions are not excessively expensive for me and I can begin to move in this direction right now. It will still take me a few years and if we somehow muddle through peak oil and find a new energy source plus replace all the surrounding infrastructure, I will have lost nothing but still gained a rural retreat and even a possible retirement home someday.

You too can find a way to do something for yourself. All it takes is the decision to do so.