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Peak Oil Matters

A fresh perspective on the concept of peak oil and the challenges we face


Archive for August, 2011

[NOTE: This series (first one here) spins off from a recent series of posts in which I’ve discussed the need for all of us to move in a new direction as we anticipate the challenges to be confronted as a result of declining oil production in the years to come. The impact will be felt by all of us in one degree or another (a separate series, which began here and was re-established more recently here, addresses some of the day-to-day impacts.) It’s time to turn our attention to what the New Direction might be….]


“We have designed and built the infrastructure of our transport, electricity, food, and heating systems to suit the unique characteristics of oil, natural gas, and coal; changing to different energy sources will require the redesign of many aspects of those systems.” [1]

Of the many great challenges to be faced as we enter a future with at best uncertain energy supplies, perhaps the most significant one of all is the one so clearly expressed by Richard Heinberg above. Nothing about that process of redesign—start to finish—will be easy, simple, quick, or inexpensive. But the statement encapsulates the full scope of what we face. Daunting to be sure, with prospects for success not guaranteed by any means. Only the most delusional will fail to recognize what’s at stake and what must be dealt with by all of us. If you depend in any way—as producer or consumer—on infrastructure, transportation, electricity, food, or heating, Peak Oil will touch your life.

We can give in to the fears that this is simply too overwhelming a task for us. That’s a choice. Another option is to recognize that these challenges afford us the most opportunity for progress, change, some semblance of continuing growth, and prosperity. Plan for a great deal of trial and error. The more of us who choose to become involved, the greater our chances of successfully meeting, overcoming, and adapting successfully to the changes Peak Oil will impose.


It should go without saying, but sadly does not, that curtailing investments in education and research and infrastructure, while doing all that we can to remove the federal government from playing any role in our lives going forward, is just about the dumbest choice we can make. Re-read the few paragraphs above once again if you think that there is some easy and quick solution for this, or any rational solution at all, that can or will be successfully implemented at any level without a greater emphasis on education and research and infrastructure spending, all and only made possible with the federal government supplying us with the framework to make any of this possible. Best of luck to you if you think so.

The onset of Peak Oil has been a long time coming. Not that we can afford to do so, but if we are looking for someone to blame, we all need to look inward. The warnings, ephemeral as they may have been, have been with us for decades. But we did not want to alter the pace of progress and prosperity in order to reflect on where we were going and how we were going to get there, and we have now traveled a good long way down a path of prosperity and progress that will not lead us to any good places at the end of the road.

The farther we continue to travel down that path which relies on fossil fuels to sustain us rather than on a new one marked “new future with new and necessary alternatives”, the longer and more difficult will our backtracking be. What supplied us on the front part of the journey will no longer be there for us on the ride back. We’re going to have to create entirely new systems and infrastructures and modes of production and transportation—or at the very least re-build extensively—in order to adapt to new sources of energy. So relying on current conditions and practices and customs and tinkering only along the edges simply won’t work because we are going to be dependent on entirely different energy resources.

And as I noted several months ago: “Just to keep things interesting, the transition from an oil-based industrial economy to Whatever-Plan-B-Will-Be will have to be achieved using that same declining measure of supply to design and construct and transport and put into place the infrastructure we’ll need to support and maintain this as yet unidentified and not-planned-for-yet Plan B, thus making less available to us for all of our ‘normal’ demands and needs, creating its own set of problems. We’re talking about using a lot of declining energy supplies that’s a lot more expensive, over the course of a lot of years to put into operation a lot of new industrial and economic and civic foundations to (we hope) enable us to maintain some semblance of growth and prosperity—all while using new energy resources that simply will not be as efficient or inexpensive or dependable as oil has been.”

Do we really want to wait even longer so that we make the transition that much more difficult and painful?

A few hundred thousand cities or towns, or several million businesses, or a few hundred million people trying to figure out what to do on their own … not such a good strategy. We cannot isolate bits and pieces of living and producing so as to improve this set of conditions or that lifestyle or this region or that interest group. Everyone and everything will be affected by the decline in conventional oil production and a reliance instead on less efficient unconventional or alternative resources. Without an overall strategy and purpose for what we need do, constrained as we will be going forward, we provide instead a certain recipe for failure.

If nothing else, we’ll need to recognize that, like climate change, Peak Oil is not some event looming on a distant horizon. Peak Oil is happening now. We may not be seeing its effects inside our own home—today—but the impact is being felt, and it will only get progressively more intense as time passes. Not next week or next month or even next year will its impact be obvious to all but the most rigidly delusional, but make no mistake, all the supply and demand factors which contribute to the slide down the other side of that peak in production rate are now in place. We may not notice a handful of snow as it begins its slide down the mountain, either, but we can’t miss it once it’s picked up unstoppable momentum farther down the slope.

So addressing concerns that will get us through just the next few years is not enough, either, and ultimately will be a greater waste of even fewer resources (Can you say “Drill, baby, drill?”). We will have limited resources as it is. Do we use them up in band-aid fashion to deal with what we have to deal with only in the moment, thus creating perhaps unsolvable problems in the years to come? Putting us that much further behind at a time when we will be least able to afford it is not a viable option. (Sounds better than the more direct: “… is an incredibly dumb option.”)

Leaders will need to lead, and so too will we need to pool our own talents and resources and creativity to make the process work. We can minimize the fear and panic that may well up for some who now feel so powerless, and the best antidote will be collective effort beginning at the national level and extending all the way to our own local communities. We’ll need to always maximize efficiencies and utilize economies of scale so that we’re not perpetuating ineffective policies and practices by lack of coordination and planning. The more we all participate and share in the vision for a better future, the better off we’ll all be.

We either take the lead and devote our massive abilities and talents to revitalizing our nation and what we’ll achieve and be in this century—predicated on new rules with new resources and new objectives and new adaptations—or we retrench and insist on business as usual because we’re exceptional….

Back in November and shortly after the mid-term elections, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an interesting piece on a “National Greatness Agenda.” His suggestions and inspirations then ring just as true today—perhaps more so:

“I’m optimistic right now. I’m optimistic because while our political system is a mess, the economic and social values of the   country remain sound. My optimism is also based on the conviction that serious, vibrant societies don’t sit by and do nothing    as their governments drive off a cliff….

“[Y]ou can organize [a movement] around a broad revitalization agenda, and, above all, love of country….

“It will take a revived patriotism to motivate Americans to do what needs to be done. It will take a revived patriotism to lift   people out of their partisan cliques. How can you love your country if you hate the other half of it?”

A good and important question. Let’s find our best answers. We’re going to need a lot of them.

[NOTE: on vacation next week. No postings]


[1]; Museletter [200]: Memo to the President-elect on Energy Realism and the Green New Deal; December 2008

[NOTE: This series (first one here) spins off from a recent series of posts in which I’ve discussed the need for all of us to move in a new direction as we anticipate the challenges to be confronted as a result of declining oil production in the years to come. The impact will be felt by all of us in one degree or another (a separate series, which began here and was re-established more recently here addresses some of the day-to-day impacts.) It’s time to turn our attention to what the New Direction might be….]


For those worried or lamenting that we are no longer exceptional, my simple message is that genuine “greatness” will be ours again if we recognize that we must do things differently now if for no other reason than we have no choice. The reality is that globalization and the proliferation of opportunities and technology and innovation and progress have likewise expanded the complexity of this world as well as the number of people and nations benefitting as a result. All of them are borrowing from the same pool of finite resources. Basic math suggests that problems loom on the horizon.

We cannot and will not go back to the means and methods of growth and prosperity that once were because the onset of Peak Oil will simply make that option unavailable to us—protests and whining and denials and delusions notwithstanding (facts continue to annoy)—but that does not equate to failure or decline or defeat unless that is what we choose by neglect or fear or passive and meek acceptance of our presumed powerlessness.

That we have to change and adapt—and yes, even sacrifice—is not a statement that we have failed, that current policies fail, or that we have indeed lost our exceptionalism. This can no longer be about wanting only what we want and nothing less. Everyone will be affected by the decline in the availability of conventional oil resources, and so everyone must recognize that “sacrifices” of one sort or another will simply be part of the mix—all the strenuous objections duly noted.

The truth is that life is all about change, and in this case, the cumulative effect of great achievements and progress over any decades here and around the world have lead us to a place where great change must take place once again. The scope may be daunting. Our capacity to meet the challenges will be limited only by the level of our commitment.

Failure will be defined by whether or not we meet the challenge to lead the way by active involvement, or if instead we insist on returning to the days of old as the rest of life passes us by, preferring instead that we either leave it to others or hope that some technology or discovery will appear and change all for us in the blink of an eye. A choice, to be sure, just not a very good one….We’re working too hard as it is to preserve what is or once was, and continuing to adopt that problem-solving strategy will do little more than create even more problems. Another choice … likewise not a very good one.

We live in a finite world with finite resources, and the simple truth is that we’ve now used up much of what we were given. What now remains (plentiful though it might still be), poses a challenge given not just the demands of so many more seeking a better life, but because of the basic factors of production: what’s left is now in more-difficult-to-access regions (be it for political or geological reasons); will cost more to produce and bring to market (and guess who pays?); it will be of inferior quality and efficiency; and it will take longer to bring to market—all while demand increases. A simple yet painful set of truths which must first be acknowledged. Step One….

“Preparing our communities for peak oil is no easy task. From local zoning codes to national highway bills, just about every policy and infrastructure decision made since World War II has prioritized driving over walking, bicycling and taking public  transportation. As a result, today most Americans and Canadians are powerless to meet even their most basic daily needs — whether going to work or buying food– without using a petroleum-powered car or truck.” [1]

We will have our work cut out for us. Our first step remains unchanged: we must all become more aware of the challenges to be faced. (This requires our leaders to likewise pay more attention to what matters … easier said than done.) We will then have to find the way and the means to decide on objectives and policies to best help us all adapt, and then with the assistance of local/regional governments and organizations, take the steps needed to adapt as we move forward.

I appreciate the urgent need now to avoid adding more to our plates, and fearing those added burdens. But the truth is that the burdens won’t go away. By embracing them, and making the decision to put forward the best of what we have to offer toward efforts at dealing with these looming challenges, we’ll then give ourselves the best options to manage the adaptations that will have to be made regardless of preferences or political ideologies. It’s the unknown we fear … the known tends to quickly lose much of its power.

If our majority decision is that we don’t or won’t accept and adapt to the changes that a warmer planet and an ever-declining supply of fossil fuels will surely impose upon—deciding against putting forth our best plans and strategies beginning now—then our futures will likely be little more than a succession of escalating mini and not so mini crises always being treated with short-term solutions and ever-diminishing resources with which to fashion increasingly hapless solutions. Our best choice?

I’m not convinced that applying one band-aid after another is our best alternative. Shooting oneself in the foot is no better a strategy than remaining clueless. We cannot continue to make plans for growth and renewal without recognizing that all of this will be done with less of what got us here.

Real courage—the demonstration of our exceptionalism—will come from admitting we now face new challenges and that we can be just as great and just as united in fashioning new ways of living, and leading. Let’s prove it to ourselves first and then demonstrate to the rest of the world that we’re still the greatest nation on earth, and in the face of these extreme challenges soon upon us, we can and will lead the way. In doing so, we’ll create the better future we still hope for, and leave our children a more secure, prosperous, and inspiring world in which to live and make their own contributions.

“Other people think we are losing our exceptionalism. But, the truth is, there’s just been a change in the shape of the world community. In a world of relative equals, the U.S. will have to learn to define itself not by its rank, but by its values. It will be important to have the right story to tell, the right purpose and the right aura. It will be more important to know who you are.” [2]

“We need an economy for the twenty-first century, one that is in sync with the earth and its natural support systems, not one that is destroying them. The fossil fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy that evolved in western industrial societies is no longer a viable model—not for the countries that shaped it or for those that are emulating them. In short, we need to build a new economy, one powered with carbon-free sources of energy—wind, solar, and geothermal—one that has a diversified transport system and that reuses and recycles everything. We can change course and move onto a path of sustainable progress, but it will take a massive mobilization—at wartime speed….

One of the questions I hear most frequently is, What can I do? People often expect me to suggest lifestyle changes, such as   recycling newspapers or changing light bulbs. These are essential, but they are not nearly enough. Restructuring the global economy means becoming politically active, working for the needed changes….Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.

“Inform yourself. Read about the issues….You might want to organize a small group of like-minded individuals to work on an issue that is of mutual concern. You can begin by talking with others to help select an issue to work on.” [3]

Do we want to play a part—however small it may seem to be—in helping to direct and shape our future? That choice is ours. The truth is that it will be difficult. A greater truth is that we are in fact up to the task and the challenge. It’s time to put that on display.

To be continued….


[1]; Showing leadership on peak oil – Daniel Lerch, Posted 8 October 2008

[2]; Ben Franklin’s Nation By David Brooks – Dec 14, 2010

[3]; Let No Man Say It Cannot Be Done by Lester R. Brown – April 19, 2011 [Adapted from Chapter 13, “Saving Civilization,” in Lester R. Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011)]