Monday, November 20, 2006

Even Kurt Cobb Fools Himself

Kurt Cobb's recent Attitude adjustment: Facing our ecological predicament piece is irrational denial of his own. Here is a classic example of this irrational insistence that humans are somehow magically special and exempt from the consequences of things like our own population growth.

That curve cannot be refuted and for anyone to expect the results of that curve to be anything other than what has happened with every other group of mammals to overshoot in the same way is simply irrational. Thus the logical conclusion is that global civilization as we currently know it is doomed. However, once you get past that tidbit, you are still left with a realization that civilization itself, at least on more local terms, does not have to be doomed. In most places the probability is death on a wide scale but some locations might actually manage to implement a working "ELP" renaissance that can act as the lynchpin for local civilization to continue in some form.

Quite honestly, mainly due to lower population density than many other continents, North America would seem to have a good shot at pulling this off on a large scale. Australia is constrained by too many environmental factors. South America is going to be hit hard both by current poverty, which will slow any chance at mitigating such problems and by population density. Europe is stuck in the midst of a cultural tsunami that will largely wash away Western civilization as we know it while at the same time raising birth rates to levels that will make the already tired continent even less sustainable. Plus Europe is directly physically connected to Asia, which also means physically connected to Africa. Asia is far too densely populated and will suffer accordingly from that. And Africa is already dying. We are already seeing people trying to flee Africa for Europe. If a dieoff really begins there will be a migration of homo sapiens as never before envisioned.

So if I had to rank continents as a whole with the best chances of sustaining some form of civilization after a crash, it would be North America first and probably South America second. Europe would be a distant third largely because of the presence of land routes to Asia and Africa. Now I do not mean to suggest that North America has a good chance of pulling this off. Quite the contrary. I think North America's chances are extremely poor, just that the other continents are in even worse condition.

Cobb's problem is that he does not accept the above overshoot population curve. In his mind some combination of actions still must exist that can save all those still living, if we all just agree to a somewhat (undefined) lower standard of living.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

We Fool Ourselves

Many people today still believe we can mitigate the impact of the biological overshoot event going on around us. I do not. Africa is already a dead continent. Bangladesh is already a dead nation. Not driving your SUV now won't change that. What not driving the SUV now might do is save North America from ending up a dead continent.

In 1500 the world's population was 600-700 million, total. 430 years later, in 1930, the world's population was 2.0 billion. Now, a mere 76 years later, world population is closing on 7 billion, more than a 350% increase in the span of one human life. You are living inside the context of a massive biological overshoot event. That's why this doesn't seem odd to you naturally. This is all you have ever known. Likewise, homo sapiens evolved inside the context of an extinction event that began about 3 million years ago with the rise of the Central American isthmus due to volcanic activity. Biologists have commented that we, today, would be overwhelmed by the density and diversity of biological activity before the Central American isthmus rose from the sea floor. Likewise, we, today, would be overwhelmed at how utterly "wild" the world would have seemed a mere 500 years ago, even in Europe or China which were both at fairly high populations for that time. For us, the current situation is "normal" but is it really "normal" for our species? Is growing up in war-torn Lebanon in the 1975-1995 period normal? No, yet children grew to adulthood there taking with the severely skewed views into their adult mindset. Likewise, because we have all been born and grown up inside the context of an overshoot event, we can't see it unless we deliberately step back and assess it in the light of cold, hard factual data.

Look really hard at the graph to the right. That's a case of classic biological exponential growth way past the limits of the surrounding environment, way into overshoot. People who argue that maybe we can support 5 billion or 2 billion people don't "get it" at all. Our biosphere was degrading when population was a mere half billion.

So we're into overshoot by a country mile. All of the rest of the resource issues are side effects from this root cause that no one wants to discuss seriously. No one wants to even discuss the side effects seriously, such as oil depletion, freshwater aquifer depletion, topsoil erosion, fishery collapse, etc. If we can't even approach the side effects seriously, how can we be expected to address the core issue?

And the answer to that is obvious but painfully traumatic - we cannot and will not address any of this in a manner that helps until it is too late. This is why major figures in various sciences related to the biosphere have looked around and simply given up. They've retired from public debate because they realize they cannot save the bulk of homo sapiens.

I say the above in light of absurd pronouncements like Cambridge Energy Research Associates latest release: Why the "Peak Oil" Theory Falls Down — Myths, Legends and the Future of Oil Resources by Peter M. Jackson. In this piece of pseudo scientific hogwash they posit a future of nearly limitless oil supplies running to nearly the end of this century. They do this with degrees in, for example, English, while serious geologists and physicists who disagree with this nonsense are dismissed as cultists.

I am not personally wealthy enough to drive such a project but somewhere I do hope that someone is building a "lifeboat" that will carry some fragment of what is good about our current civilization through to the future. I hope that scientific information can be transcribed to a form that will withstand the passage of thousands of years and a variable environment. And hopefully someone will be left alive to read those transcriptions to perhaps build a better and saner society than we've done. What makes this truly sad is that this outcome is probably the best that we can hope for given human nature and our obsession with the extremely short term perspective.

Monday, July 10, 2006

We're Orcs So Of Course We Chose Saruman

In his wonderful essay titled "A Hobbit's Choice: Saruman or Sam", Alex Macsporan argues that we have a choice to make at this point in our history. However, the more I think about it, the more I am certain the choice was made years ago, when Tolkien was writing or even before, and that choice was Saruman because we are orcs, not elves. We have multiplied relentlessly, thrown morality to the winds, destroyed any and all that stood in our paths, and now act surprised as we come to the edge of a world staring at its own death. What exactly should orcs have expected from orcish behavior anyway?

And mind you, we're not done yet either. When things get really bad, our really bad side will come out for all to see. Homo sapiens will slay homo sapiens. I daresay we might even hear of cannibalism as our species makes its last mad dash for superstitious nonsense like "infinite growth" as presented by economists. Of course, I do credit Macsporan with identifying the modern day Grima Wormtongues of our own era - growth-centric economists who glibly go on assuming that the pseudo-science they constructed out of whole cloth will continue uninterrupted even as it attempts to violate the laws of physics.

However, Macsporan's call for a "different way" falls on mostly deaf ears. It does so because that is just not what we are, nor how nature selected us to be. We are prolific killer-scavengers (hunter-gatherers by another name) and we will continue killing and scavenging because that is our nature. We are neither the dwarves nor the elves of Tolkien's Middle Earth. We are not even the hobbits, but rather, we are the orcs - those ugly, greedy, selfish, murderous thugs of beings who focus solely on their immediate self-interest to the exclusion of all else.

I occasionally see damnedfools thinking we will all become hunter-gatherers and return to an Eden-like existence. But as Jared Diamond and others have documented, the life of the primitive hunter-gatherer is not the peaceful, idyllic existence assumed by so many romanticists. While we decry the death rates in our own societies, the violent death rates amongst primitive hunter-gatherers were orders of magnitude higher, ranging from several dozen per hundred thousand population to literally hundreds per hundred thousand population on an annual basis.

And despite the romantic wishful thinking of the would-be hunter-gatherers over at sites like Anthropik, every time hunter-gatherers have come up against agrarian cultures, they have lost. It doesn't matter that most of the arable land today is trashed - there is still some small fraction more to be trashed after the coming crash and that means more agrarian societies. Further, in the interim, it is likely that some of the arable areas will recover ecologically, again spurring further agrarian societies. Our future is unlikely to be wandering tribes of hunter-gatherers, though some such tribes may exist. No, our future is more likely to be a few feudal lords with most of the rest of us as agrarian serfs eternally bound to the land over which we will slave, and die. A lucky few might be born as children of craftsman or other specialists supported by the agrarian masses.

No, there is no way out of this mess by hoping and wishing for a pseudo-elvish lifestyle to suddenly become the goal of most humans. It's not going to happen. So what can we do? We could begin to deliberately plan for the agrarian era to come, creating the modern equivalent of the monasteries of the Dark Ages that carried some fraction of the knowledge of Rome and Greece forward to another era. Yes, the only viable strategy is to begin building "arks" or survival compounds intended to house both knowledge and the personnel necessary to carry that knowledge forward as well as the personnel and equipment necessary to defend that knowledge from destruction. I don't expect us (homo sapiens) to do this on any wide scale because it's an open admission of defeat. But perhaps some wise and wealthy benefactor will take this notion under his or her wing and nurture it, with an eye towards the coming collapse and what must inevitably come afterwards.

Friday, June 23, 2006

A Status Report for June, 2006

So consider where we stand in June, 2006.

First, realize that the major international oil companies (IOCs) have finally admitted that there are not many new reserves left to find. They try to obscure what this means by claiming they are going to develop existing unconventional sources but the cost of doing this is far from trivial, both economically and environmentally. Just wait til you Canadians see the disaster that tar sands are going to make of your country.

Elsewhere, Stuart Staniford has been tracking the current plateau of world oil production that started in July 2004. His latest update covers recently released figures and shows how recent releases have had to be subsequently downgraded later. So every time the world thinks it has hit 85 million barrels per day of production, a month or two later the admission comes out that, oops, guess we didn't. As Stuart notes, while there have been peaks before in world production, each prior peak was preceded by a decrease in demand due to other factors. This time there has been no drop in demand only inability to meet demand with more oil. This is the first time ever in the history of human oil production and consumption that this has occurred. And it's occurring in exactly the time frame predicted by Dr. M. King Hubbert more than half a century ago.

At the same time we see that oil now hovers near $70 per barrel give or take a dollar or two depending on geopolitical factors. It is now generally acknowledged that oil will never drop significantly without a major global economic recession or depression to reduce demand on such a scale that there is a (temporary) surplus. We also see that Toyota has had to increase Prius production multiple times and has passed 500,000 Priuses sold worldwide so far. And that car just gets better and better with a rumored 94mpg turbocharged optional plug-in hybrid version coming in the next few years.

Meanwhile we have firm denial from the IOCs about peak oil still, this time in the form of Lord Brown, of British Petroleum, ascribing the entire price increase from $20 per barrel to around $70 per barrel now to military and geopolitical issues. Not one word admitting that his company has been unable to replace existing oil reserves as fast as they are being used. Not one word that other companies are in the same bind. Yes, he plays the "it's the Ay-Rabs fault!" card rather than discussing geologic realities. He doesn't say it directly but he comes close enough and he totally dodges the geologic issues. Unfortunately, while Lord Brown might fool some of the people some of the time, he's not going to fool mother nature ever.

When I look at where we stand certain facts stand out:
1. Despite steadily rising prices, production has remained flat.
2. The IOCs have been dead wrong on every major oil field in the world as to when it would peak.
3. The Hubbert Linearization approach to field analysis has been right almost every time about when a field would peak.
4. The Hubbert Linearization method says the world is near the 50% mark of production.
5. The Hubbert Linearization method says Saudi Arabia is at 58% of production and should begin declining.
6. Saudi Arabian production declined yet again this last month continuing several consecutive months of falling production.
7. Global production remains basically flat for the last 23 months, despite increasing demand.

When I see these data items, plus the complete refusal to address these items by mainstream media or even the president of the US, I see no reason to alter my fundamental pessimism about the future of industrial civilization as it currently exists.

And just for grins, here are more news headlines recently that can give one something to ponder:

Ford admits they may not return to profitability before 2008.

GM slips further into junk status as they are downgraded yet again.

Relevant (and interesting) quote from the above:
More major American auto plants are closing and set to close over 2006-08, than in the previous three decades.
My reply to that is: "Welcome to globalization. Kiss your middle class lifestyle goodbye, America."

Stuart Staniford shreds the EIA's piss poor oil forecasts and shows the underlying false political assumptions that drive such blatantly false estimates.

A long technical explanation about why tar sands in Canada are NOT going to save our backsides. (But you Canadians still get a destroyed environment as they rape the area anyway trying to squeeze every last ounce of profit from the sands.)

Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) are pushing the Ten-in-Ten Fuel Economy Act, which will raise the CAFE standards from 25 mpg to 35 mpg by 2017.

Public transit use is rising with poor people being the worst hit first (of course).

Google provides seed money for the construction of the world's largest solar cell factory. Interestingly, someone noted that this factory will use more than half of all the galium currently mined in the entire world. (The thin film is Copper-Indium-Galium-diSelenide alloy.) I hope these investors have considered from where the galium is coming, or this may be a short-lived investment.

Weekly EIA Petroleum Supply Report

Of relevance:
  • Total Net Imports are UP 3.6%
  • Domestic Production is DOWN -7.1%
  • Total Prod Supplied is UP 0.2% at 20.887 Mbpd

Saudi ambassador warns oil prices could triple if Bush uses military force against Iran. Just stop and try to imagine the economic catastrophe that 6 months of $210 per barrel oil would cause. You'd get a first hand look at what a "great depression" looks like and it would be years recovering from it, if we ever did (we almost didn't recover from the last one).

Oil prices are making road repairs too costly to carry out so someone tell me why we are driving cars again?

Someone tackles the truth about ethanol - no, ethanol is not going to save us, Virginia.

Russia moves to strengthen government control over all oil, gas, and minerals. Think the Russians see the multinational corporations for what they really are?

And, when you get past peak oil, you see people really talking about The Most Powerful Force on Earth, and what it is doing to all of us and how it will ultimately destroy everything we hold dear.

Like I said above, my pessimism remains intact if this is how humanity is reacting while it has the resources available. I can only cringe at how it will behave when the resources are not available.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Peak Oil Plateau Continues

Nervousness about the dollar's stability is spreading to east Asia. Meanwhile the price of oil climbs slowly back towards last year's peak of $70 without any external driver like hurricanes. And the actual production numbers are not good either as the IEA revised February production down yet again from 84.6 mbpd to 84.1 mbpd, which means that the bumpy plateau since July 2004 continues unabated. Meawhile, Venezuela threatens to boot ExxonMobil out of the country if they don't share like nice boys and girls while Iran seems to have delayed the opening of the Iranian Oil Bourse for several months at least and possibly a year or more. GM continues to flirt with bankruptcy on a scale unimagineable in our lifetimes and the Congress demonstrates just how clueless they are about both peak oil and economics in general. But the talking heads try to make it seem as though our energy future has never been brighter or more secure. Talk about disconnects from reality!

At the same time though, we're getting more and more bad climate news and it's getting worse faster and faster than expected. There is now solid evidence of serious and unexpected warming in Antarctica while sea ice has failed to form during winter for the second consecutive year in the arctic.

All that comes as backdrop to the US facing unprecedented balance of trade issues, deliberately masked inflation that is twice the official reported rate, unemployment that is over 12.5% but masked via statistical juggling, and a federal deficit that apparently is far larger than even the monster being reported by the government. Is it no wonder that gold has hit 25 year highs, last matched during the stagflationary disaster of the Carter era?

At the other end are those who say we have no chance at all and have to actively begin killing off other human beings right now in large numbers. Eric Pianka, a professor at University of Texas, advocates killing 90% of humanity with the ebola virus as a way to alleviate population pressures. My suggestion to Professor Pianka is to show us the way and do yourself in first.

As I watch all this unfold, I see little realization of peak oil and its impact in the mainstream yet. Instead I see efforts to demonize oil producing nations for various reasons, efforts which I fear are prelude to using military force to get what we want. The United States as empire is not behaving very well facing its first serious resource crisis. And the crisis shows no signs of getting better, only worse. I guess we're living in "interesting times", as the Chinese curse goes.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Something wicked this way comes

January and February didn't show much improvement in the world's energy situation. In fact, it got worse, with serious winter weather in Europe, natural gas shortages, violence in Nigeria cutting global oil production, and looming war with Iran. People are also examining Saudi Arabia's future ability to continue oil exports against rising population and concluding that their export total will drop dramatically, even faster than their decline rate. Then add to the mix the violent reaction of Muslims worldwide to offensive cartoons of Muhammed (some fabricated by Islamic extremists), coupled with the bombing of a sacred mosque in Iraq, and we have the makings of an ugly spring coming. Oil hovers between $60-$65 per barrel lately, afraid to go lower on near daily negative news but not churning higher just yet either.

Then we start adding in the wonderful news of positive feedback loops in global warming effects coupled with 80% krill dieoff rates and things look just peachy, don't they? We've also learned that the upper half mile of ocean water around the world has warmed dramatically in the last 40 years. This is more bad news on warming, as it portends significant climate change. We've even got climatologists and metoerologists warning that the hotter Atlantic may portend a new "dust bowl" in the central US as prairie land turns to desert. Note that scientists also just discovered that greenhouse gas emissions are now accelerating due to widespread melting of previously frozen tundras at rates nearly 30 times previously expected.

And water? It's in short supply in China, creating concern over availability in the United Kingdom, and already in short supply in the US great plains, which as we saw earlier are now facing long term dust bowl potential conditions. There have even been reports from some petroleum engineers that they are having to suspend further oil drilling in Oklahoma and Texas due to lack of water to pump into the fields - water which is used to achieve enough pressure to extract the measly remaining oil. (Water cuts in Texas can be as high as 99% these days in some places.)

Into this messy mix we have rising inflation, weak employment (Addison Wiggins was quoted as saying under the old unemployment system it would be 12.5%), a soft dollar, massive federal deficits, massive trade deficits, and negative savings by US consumers. President Bush has suggested that the US is "addicted" to oil, but has made no real proposals to do anything about it, and even is letting the NREL cut staff at the very time when we should be ramping up research into energy alternatives. We even have the unthinkable - declining family incomes in America - and this is even after taking into account inflation! Add inflation to the mix and the declines are worse.

Something wicked this way comes, and I don't think we'll be waiting much longer for it to arrive.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Slip-Sliding Away!

It's been an interesting week for peak oil watchers. Russia has played its energy card against the Ukraine and impacted Western Europe in the process. Forbes trumpets the goodness of consolidation in the energy industry while From The Wilderness predicts gloom from the same events and decries the deregulation of the electric grid (with good historical reason, I might add).

Meanwhile we have Stuart Staniford over at The Oil Drum pondering the plateau in world oil production since July 2004. He's followed that up with an assessment of the IEA's "corrected" production numbers. Then he dismantled Freddy Hutter's suggestion that it was a refinery bottleneck that has caused this plateau. And today he went further and examined the year over year changes in refining capacity over the last 40 years to see if the last few years represent much of an aberration or not. His conclusion is that they were not that much of an aberration, and further, they can be explained only one of two ways - either a global oil cartel (which does not fit all the facts) or the imminent peak of global oil production. The evidence comes down nicely in favor or the global peak, despite Freddy's insistence otherwise.

Energy prices across the board are also spiking and generally showing high volatility, something to expect as we approach peak as previously predicted by Professor Kenneth Deffeyes.

So where do we stand as we enter 2006? We see a Europe in fear of its future because lack of energy means no future. We see catastrophic production decline rates in many major oil fields worldwide. And we still see the major governments of the world focusing on getting more oil even when the last 18 months have sent the economic message that there's not much more to get. This all makes me considered "Agric's Law", which was the observation that, for 2001-2005, the average price of oil for any year was within 5% of the peak price of the previous year. If this holds true for 2006, then the average price should be between $67 and $75 per barrel this year. And indeed, as we watch oil prices spike up towards $63 per barrel already early in the year, this might come to pass. It certainly seems unlikely that the constant predictions of oil returning to $30 per barrel will happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile the US stock market was flat for all of 2005, ending at roughly the same point it began the year. Add inflation to that mix, and the stock market was a general loss, though some stocks did gain, obviously. Add in the softening housing market, the huge current levels of consumer credit, the balance of trade deficits, and the federal deficit, and you have the makings of a less than healthy economy. What happens when that economy gets bludgeoned by $70 per barrel oil for a year?

It doesn't look like 2006 is going to be a good year. I think we're going to continue to slide in a generally downward direction and that Richard Duncan may yet have the last laugh.