[NOTE: This is the fourth and final in a subset of posts (see the first one here) in a new PeakOilMatters series (which began here). It’s about finding a new and better vision to get to, through, and beyond Peak Oil and its widespread impact on what we produce, how we produce, and how we live. We won’t be falling off a cliff tomorrow, and the full brunt of Peak Oil’s effects won’t be experienced all at once, either. Gas and oil do not have to disappear entirely, nor do gas prices have to rise into the stratosphere before Peak Oil’s impact is felt.

Gradually, but inexorably, changes will be in the offing, however. We need to come to a better understanding of this, and start preparing ourselves now for the lengthy transition and just as lengthy ongoing impact of Peak Oil on all of us. Many issues must of necessity be considered, and I hope to make a contribution to the public dialogue we need to have. I hope you’ll find these objectives enjoyable as well as beneficial. We have more of a voice than we think we do. Finding that voice just might be our best hope.]

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I’ll admit that my last few posts have been decidedly more political than has been the norm. I think it’s been fairly obvious on which side of the divide my ideology and political sensibilities reside, but in view of the work I’ve been doing with the concept of Peak Oil, I firmly believe that the challenges we’ll be faced with necessitate a much more active involvement by government. Consistent with that viewpoint is my equally firm belief that the budget cuts being envisioned by the GOP are without doubt the worst approach to our long term hopes and prospects—recognizing that added spending and deficit increases are not exactly a fiscal panacea in their own right. Easy decisions would have been made months ago.

This series on A New Direction is designed to explain the evolution of thought and my contribution to the dialogue and the planning I’ve been consistently urging. It was necessary to articulate at least some of the foundational assessments I’m relying upon to explore this New Direction.

As I’ve stated in other posts, we must begin having serious adult conversations that deal with facts. Turning science and geology and related evidence-based fields of study into ideologies is absurd! Oil is a finite resource. We’ve been using a lot of it for a lot of decades. Our own national production levels peaked forty years ago, and the U.S. is by no means unique in that regard. Oil shale and tar sand productions will never replace the quality of crude oil we’ve been using for more than a hundred years. Oil production is becoming more challenging by the day: more expensive, more time-consuming, more difficult to locate and produce, and usually results in lesser quality finds and more rapidly-declining fields.

Those are some of the primary relevant facts. Not philosophy, not a guess, not a hope. Those are the realities that Planet Earth is dealing with in 2011 and for the remainder of fossil fuel’s lifespan. To pretend or wish or hope otherwise is a fool’s pursuit.

The hard truth is that we must—individually and as a nation—accept that we cannot go back to “the good old days.” Despite the inclination of some to assess that observation negatively, it is not defeatist nor does it represent a condemnation of America and/or American ingenuity and that magic word of the day: America’s exceptionalism. This is instead an acceptance of the reality that change happens and that great change is soon in the offing for all of us.

It may not only be entirely un-dramatic at first, changes resulting from declining oil production may be barely noticeable for an extended period of time aside from the rather steady uptick of prices at your local gas station. Adapting to change and leading others into a future no longer able to rely on fossil fuels is of ultimately greater benefit than resistance to change or an insistence on the shortsighted strategy of putting things off until “later.” It is simply absurd to think that encouraging greater problems in the future, requiring far more extensive and expensive adaptations with far fewer resources at the ready—all in the face of increasing demand for what does remain—is actually a strategy to be considered.

As I have alluded to quite often, a major challenge I and peers face in trying to persuade … well, everyone … that the problem of Peak Oil is already upon us, that the decades-long transitions needed cannot be postponed any longer, and that only a truly national effort regardless of ideology is our only legitimate recourse, is that right now this effort is all the more difficult because (like global warming in most instances) Peak Oil is not really impacting each and every one us in a visible, obvious or tangible manner all the time. Those few cents’ increases now and then at the local gas station are at least so far not really such a big problem. We’re like the proverbial frogs in the simmering pot of hot water: the relentless march to that point of no return is a slow and barely perceptible one. By the time the water in the Peak Oil pot boils, we’re “cooked”….

We would do well to do all that we can to find and implement a different approach. The challenge is (painfully) obvious:

“‘There’s a reality out there people don’t want to recognize,’ concludes [Robert Kaufmann, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University]. ‘Clearly technology has improved. Oil prices are higher. We deregulated the industry. We’ve done almost everything. There are a few areas offshore that are closed off. It’s not going to make a difference. “‘The sooner people realize that and stop dreaming about energy independence or one huge undiscovered field that’s going to solve all our problems, the better off we’ll be.’” [1]

“There are a lot of things that we could do in terms of rebuilding our cities and our transportation system, and so forth. The problem is that that all takes time, and by the way, it takes liquid transportation fuel to build things and move things around. It’s going to take a tremendous effort and a tremendous amount of money and a tremendous amount of time to cut back on the suburbs and to move people closer in or to reconfigure the suburbs into business centers and then connect by, say, electric transportation of some sort. All of those things are possible. I would not have any doubts that longer term, that’s what will happen in the United States and elsewhere in the world. But those things take time, take money, and simply cannot be done overnight.” [2]

Adding emphasis to those observations is a recent, terrific piece by Fabius Maximus (here), whose pointed observations need to be understood—more accurately, accepted—as the truths with which we must contend:

“Optimists about energy give glowing forecasts of new technologies, often with wildly underestimated estimates of when these can generate substantial fractions of our energy. In the real world technologies take decades to evolve from the laboratory to commercialization. And then building new energy sources on a large scale takes decades.”

Wishful thinking that the alternative technologies now considered as our best hopes (wind, solar, oil shale, etc) will in fact be scaled up to the same levels and quality and quantity and availability as are current fossil fuels just in the nick of time aren’t even in the same ballpark as wishful thinking. We are woefully underinvested—financially, technologically, and philosophically. The GOP’s aims to reduce investments in research to even lower levels borders on the insane in light of these factors.

Fabius Maximus’s post offered a very sobering take on the evolution of idea to full-scale production and usage by referencing the ubiquitous microwave oven. This now so-common-we-don’t-even-think-about-it appliance began its commercial life in 1947 as a 750 pound behemoth about the size of a refrigerator, and took nearly four more decades before finding its way into even 25% of U.S. households. Anyone want to hazard a guess as to how long it’s going to take before fully commercially viable alternative energy sources find their way into hundreds of millions of automobiles and trucks and machinery and infrastructure support? I’m also thinking we’re looking at more than a few thousand dollars worth of investment, and probably more than a handful of hours and workers … ya think?

“What we really need is a new system that will work for the long-term. But such a system is so far away from us now, it is hard to even think about how it would work, and how we would get from our current system to the new system….

“We clearly will eventually need a new plan, but we haven’t even given a thought to what it might be. It is relatively easy to come up with a proposed component of the plan, but even this may not work out in practice.” [3]

The scope of our needed individual, community, regional, state, and federal economic, industrial, and political contributions are so vast as to appear entirely inconceivable. We can’t get our leaders to agree that the sky is blue, and we’re asking—demanding, actually—that they set aside grievances and ideologies and constituencies and put together a comprehensive vision for re-structuring just about every facet of our industrial and personal lifestyles to accommodate the changes declining oil production will impose. What brave soul wants to jump into that pool head-first?

The truth is that we don’t have much of a choice now, and even less of an option later on. Compounding the efforts, costs, time, difficulties, varieties, and planning by waiting for some undefined future date is every bit as narrow-minded, shortsighted, and purely insane as curtailing the investment needed now to begin the entire process of transitioning everything away from fossil fuel dependency.

There is no comfort in recognizing that we’re not “running out” of oil for many more decades. (We’re not.)

There is no oil faucet turned on and locked to “full” for these next few decades. The flow is going to continue its inexorable slow down while the number of glasses fighting to be filled increases exponentially. There is no way to make the math work (unless of course you subscribe to the nutty legislative efforts of two congressmen mentioned in the above-referenced first post of this Clueless Is Not A Strategy mini-series, and even their ludicrous flights into delusional problem-solving might not be enough.)

“Clearly, then a considered and gradual transition is likely to be less costly, but this does not avoid the problem that we might be eating into the world’s endowment of fossil fuels at a rate that could ultimately prevent the smooth transition to a sustainable way of producing and using energy. The fact that the entire global system relies on plentiful and cheap energy for food production and almost every other form of economic activity, coupled with the fact that global GDP growth requires exponential growth in energy consumption means that we have a moral and pressing need to resolve this situation, both for our own benefit, but also that for future generations.” [4]

Tick-tock.

[A NOTE to my readers: I’m traveling from this Saturday through most of next week, and expect that I will post just once during that time. I should be back to the usual two per week posting schedule beginning on March 14th]

Sources:

[1] http://www.peterdizikes.com/articles/2008/08/myths_of_oil.php; ALASKA HAS MORE OIL THAN THE MIDDLE EAST? By Peter Dizikes [Salon.com] – Aug. 18, 2008

[2] http://globalpublicmedia.com/transcripts/2459; Robert Hirsch on peak oil mitigation (transcript) – Transcribed by Miranda Huey. NOTE: this link, via The Energy Bulletin, may no longer be valid.

[3] http://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/What-Can-we-do-Now-About-Peak-Oil.html; What Can we do Now About Peak Oil? by Gail Tverberg – December 29, 2010

[4] http://www.ifandp.com/article/009633.html; Is time running out? by Dr Samuel Fenwick – February 14, 2011