More drilling won’t help

Even if Dick Cheney sinks exploratory drills in every single playground in America, there will never be enough oil to slake the SUVs’ unending thirst for tar:

bq. “SUVs alone burn half the total for all passenger cars, far more than their fair share and more petroleum than our entire country produces in a year.” — Mark Morford, writing in the SF Chronicle

And since we’re dealing with an nonrenewable resource, faster consumption now merely hastens “the inevitable decline and fall”: :

bq. “We believe oil markets may have entered the early stages of what we have referred to as a ‘super spike’ period — a multi-year trading band of oil prices high enough to meaningfully reduce energy consumption and recreate a spare capacity cushion only after which will lower energy prices return… Perhaps the ultimate answer to high how oil prices need to go before demand destruction occurs is derived from knowing when American consumers will stop buying gas guzzling sport utility vehicles and instead seek fuel efficient alternatives… Based on our analysis of gasoline spending and the economy noted above, we estimate that U.S. gasoline prices may need to exceed $4 per gallon.” [Goldman Sachs analyst report, quoted at “Energy Bulletin”:

or this, from “the Financial Times”: (reported by Kevin Morrison and Javier Blas):

bq. “The rapid rise in global oil demand should lead the industrialised world to promote alternatives to oil as well as energy conservation, the International Energy Agency said on Friday. The warning, from the West’s energy policy adviser, signals a sharp turnaround by the IEA, which has previously tried to cool oil markets by blaming prices on speculators and short-term supply disruptions…. The agency also plans to release a report next month entitled _Saving Oil In A Hurry_, which will cover among other issues the topic of energy efficiency in consuming nations. Energy analysts said a new drive on energy efficiency could be difficult because most of the increase in oil consumption is in transportation, where there are few economic alternatives.”

At a new year’s party, the conversation turned at one point to survivalist techniques for dealing with the forthcoming civil war between Red and Blue — with the assumption that we Blues are in trouble since the Reds obviously have a better armed populace. (And no, I’m not a good shot.) At the rate we’re going, we may very well end up in armed conflict, but I’m a bit more optimistic. Even in the event of a peak-oil situation or currency crisis (both of which some pessimists predict will happen this year), I’m encouraged by the natural resilience of diverse ecosystems — human in the city and natural in the countryside — to absorb shock.

Toby Hemenway, formerly a permaculture farmer in rural Oregon, came to different conclusion than most of the pessimists–the socially denuded countryside, completely stripped of social capital by capitalism, would implode during a crash while the socially diverse cities would maintain their resilience. It’s worth reading in its entirety; an excerpt follows the jump.

I started to wonder whether, if the Big Crash came, I was really in the right place. We had the best garden for miles around, and everyone knew it. If law broke down, wasn’t there more than a chance that my next door neighbor, a gun-selling meth dealer and felon, might just shoot me for all that food?… Unlike earlier self-reliant country folk, these are simply city people with really big yards. And there are millions of them.

We have the technical means to feed, clothe, and house all humanity. But legions starve because we have not learned to tolerate and support one another. People’s real problems are not technical, they are social and political. Down in Douglas County, I’d solved most of the technical problems for our own personal survival, but the social hurdles to true security were staring me in the face… [W]e were still tethered to the fossil-fuel beast, just by a much longer lifeline of wire, pipe, and pavement. That the beast looked smaller by being farther away no longer fooled us…

In the Depression, farmers initially had the advantage of being able to feed themselves. But they soon ran out of other supplies: coal to run forges to fix machinery, fertilizer, medicine, clothing, and almost every other non-food item. Without those, they couldn’t grow food. Farmers who could still do business with cities survived. Those too remote or obstinate blew away with the Kansas dust.

Today the situation for farmers has worsened. Few farmers grow their own food. Agribusiness has made them utterly dependent on chemicals and other shipped-in products. The main lack of cities compared to farms is food-growing, but farms lack nearly everything else—and most of that comes from cities. Setting aside for the moment the all-important issue of social and political cohesion, for cities to survive a peak-oil crash, the critical necessity is for them to learn to grow food. For country people to survive, inhabitants will need to provide nearly every single other essential good for themselves. And since many country people are simply transplanted urbanites lacking gardening or other land skills, but having the isolation that makes social cohesion unnecessary to learn (for now), their survival is even more doubtful. If catastrophe comes, the cities may be unpleasant, but I fear the countryside may be far worse off…

[A]s ecosystems mature, the aftermath of environmental tumult such as storm or drought depends more on the richness of the ecosystem than on the nature of the disturbance. A drought that withers a weedlot doesn’t faze an old-growth forest—the forest has learned what to do with drought. It has grown structures, cycles, and patterns that convert nearly any outside influence into more forest, and that protect key cycles during bad times. It has become wise.

More recently, Hemenway wrote “a follow-up”: to that article:

bq. I’m not a believer in the Peak Oil “end of the world” scenario, where decreasing oil production somehow mutates into the sudden, permanent shutoff of urban water supplies, and contented suburbanites are transformed overnight into looting gangs. Yes, fossil fuels surely will become much more expensive in the next decades, and scarce soon after. I don’t doubt that several tipping points will be broached along the way, with rapid and unexpected changes cascading through society. But civilization won’t end…

In fact, civilization didn’t end before and it won’t end now. Peak oil (or, as a recent Harper’s piece called it, “the liberal ‘Left Behind’ “) won’t satisfy our nihilistic urge to kill off the rest of society. Hemenway again:

Many Peak Oil disaster scenarios are premised on an overnight catastrophe, as if suddenly all over America we’ll flip the light switch or turn the tap and nothing will happen. Yes, that would result in riots, martial law, and chaos. But Peak Oil almost certainly won’t look like that. We won’t drop from today’s production of 80 million barrels per day to nothing overnight, or even in 20 years. We’ll go to three-dollar-a-gallon gas, then four, then six, with increasing conservation steps along the way. Comparisons to major power outages or massive storms are wrong. Acute and chronic problems wreak very different results.

The US economy has gone from $1.50 per gallon gas to near $3 with nary a hiccup. A group of 60 economists predicted that gas prices will have to pass $4 per gallon before the economy even begins to slow perceptibly. So where is this magic trigger point that will spark the end of civilization?

Cities of a million or so existed before fossil fuels — ancient Rome [and, I might add, X’ian and Kyoto] proper held roughly a million people — thus they are clearly possible in a limited-oil era.


One thought on “More drilling won’t help

  1. Mr. Hemenway’s point, echoed in a Times article by Steven Kurutz about backyard fruit growers.

    Ms. Hall, the graduate student, says: “I have several friends in the neighborhood with established home orchards and we kind of share.”

    “You get more fruit than you know what to do with,” she continued. “A neighborhood where people know each other and share food—how un-big city is that?”

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