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15 August 2005

The End Of Your Lifestyle

A few days ago I was going thru some old magazines and newspapers so that I could recycle them. While I was doing so, an article in an issue of Metro Pulse caught my eye (for non-Southerners and other aliens, Metro Pulse is the alternative weekly newsrag of Knoxville, Tennessee).

It seems that Congress is considering making several additions to our Interstate highway system. One of the proposed Interstate highways would be Interstate 3. Also known as the Third Infantry Division Highway, the I-3 would run from Savannah, Georgia, to Knoxville.

Given, this isn’t the only Interstate being mulled over by our leaders. Other additions to the Interstate system that were also part of the 2005 highway funding bill include Interstate 9 (a central California road that would go from the I-5 north split to Stockton) and Interstate 14 (initially to run from Natchez, Mississippi, east to Augusta, Georgia, although further extensions might take it west to Austin, Texas, and east to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina).

I have a couple of basic problems with this. The first is that Knoxville needs another Interstate like George Bush needs a third presidential term. Knoxville is already a key link in both I-75 and I-40, two major Interstate highways. These two Interstates intersect in Knoxville, to create a sprawling mess of congestion. My wife and I live in Chicagoland now. Knoxville’s Interstate traffic is easily just as bad as Chicago’s. Maybe even worse. In terms of air pollution, scruffy little Knoxville is also consistently among the top ten most polluted cities in the nation. These days the Smoky Mountains are more aptly the smoggy mountains.

The bigger problem with this, though, is that it shows just how short sighted our leadership really is. And how completely out of touch with reality our elected officials are. We are running out of oil and gas. Although it’s debatable whether oil production has peaked, it’s looking like it won’t be long until it does.

As James Howard Kunstler notes in his book The Long Emergency:

A few weeks ago, the price of oil ratcheted above fifty-five dollars a barrel, which is about twenty dollars a barrel more than a year ago. The next day, the oil story was buried on page six of the New York Times business section. Apparently, the price of oil is not considered significant news, even when it goes up five bucks a barrel in the span of ten days. That same day, the stock market shot up more than a hundred points because, CNN said, government data showed no signs of inflation. Note to clueless nation: Call planet Earth.

Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychology, famously remarked that "people cannot stand too much reality." What you're about to read may challenge your assumptions about the kind of world we live in, and especially the kind of world into which events are propelling us. We are in for a rough ride through uncharted territory.

It has been very hard for Americans -- lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring -- to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America is still sleepwalking into the future. I call this coming time the Long Emergency.

Most immediately we face the end of the cheap-fossil-fuel era. It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of modern life -- not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries: central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defense -- you name it.

The few Americans who are even aware that there is a gathering global-energy predicament usually misunderstand the core of the argument. That argument states that we don't have to run out of oil to start having severe problems with industrial civilization and its dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time production peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady depletion.

The term "global oil-production peak" means that a turning point will come when the world produces the most oil it will ever produce in a given year and, after that, yearly production will inexorably decline. It is usually represented graphically in a bell curve. The peak is the top of the curve, the halfway point of the world's all-time total endowment, meaning half the world's oil will be left. That seems like a lot of oil, and it is, but there's a big catch: It's the half that is much more difficult to extract, far more costly to get, of much poorer quality and located mostly in places where the people hate us. A substantial amount of it will never be extracted.

The United States passed its own oil peak -- about 11 million barrels a day -- in 1970, and since then production has dropped steadily. In 2004 it ran just above 5 million barrels a day (we get a tad more from natural-gas condensates). Yet we consume roughly 20 million barrels a day now. That means we have to import about two-thirds of our oil, and the ratio will continue to worsen.

The U.S. peak in 1970 brought on a portentous change in geoeconomic power. Within a few years, foreign producers, chiefly OPEC, were setting the price of oil, and this in turn led to the oil crises of the 1970s. In response, frantic development of non-OPEC oil, especially the North Sea fields of England and Norway, essentially saved the West's ass for about two decades. Since 1999, these fields have entered depletion. Meanwhile, worldwide discovery of new oil has steadily declined to insignificant levels in 2003 and 2004.

Some "cornucopians" claim that the Earth has something like a creamy nougat center of "abiotic" oil that will naturally replenish the great oil fields of the world. The facts speak differently. There has been no replacement whatsoever of oil already extracted from the fields of America or any other place.
Kunstler goes on to paint a pretty scary future, one in which life is we know it may be no more.

The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our work. Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are. Anything organized on the large scale, whether it is government or a corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away. The turbulence of the Long Emergency will produce a lot of economic losers, and many of these will be members of an angry and aggrieved former middle class.

Food production is going to be an enormous problem in the Long Emergency. As industrial agriculture fails due to a scarcity of oil- and gas-based inputs, we will certainly have to grow more of our food closer to where we live, and do it on a smaller scale. The American economy of the mid-twenty-first century may actually center on agriculture, not information, not high tech, not "services" like real estate sales or hawking cheeseburgers to tourists. Farming. This is no doubt a startling, radical idea, and it raises extremely difficult questions about the reallocation of land and the nature of work. The relentless subdividing of land in the late twentieth century has destroyed the contiguity and integrity of the rural landscape in most places. The process of readjustment is apt to be disorderly and improvisational. Food production will necessarily be much more labor-intensive than it has been for decades. We can anticipate the re-formation of a native-born American farm-laboring class. It will be composed largely of the aforementioned economic losers who had to relinquish their grip on the American dream. These masses of disentitled people may enter into quasi-feudal social relations with those who own land in exchange for food and physical security. But their sense of grievance will remain fresh, and if mistreated they may simply seize that land.

The way that commerce is currently organized in America will not survive far into the Long Emergency. Wal-Mart's "warehouse on wheels" won't be such a bargain in a non-cheap-oil economy. The national chain stores' 12,000-mile manufacturing supply lines could easily be interrupted by military contests over oil and by internal conflict in the nations that have been supplying us with ultra-cheap manufactured goods, because they, too, will be struggling with similar issues of energy famine and all the disorders that go with it.

As these things occur, America will have to make other arrangements for the manufacture, distribution and sale of ordinary goods. They will probably be made on a "cottage industry" basis rather than the factory system we once had, since the scale of available energy will be much lower -- and we are not going to replay the twentieth century. Tens of thousands of the common products we enjoy today, from paints to pharmaceuticals, are made out of oil. They will become increasingly scarce or unavailable. The selling of things will have to be reorganized at the local scale. It will have to be based on moving merchandise shorter distances. It is almost certain to result in higher costs for the things we buy and far fewer choices.
Of course, it’s easy to see Kunstler’s vision as nothing more than hype. History is filled with prophets who have been utterly wrong about the course of the future. Y2K was hardly the only unrealised disaster scenario painted for the turn of the millenium. One cannot underestimate humanity’s resiliance in situations like this one. We’re addicted to oil. And, as the current Presidential administration continues to show, addicts will do whatever it takes to get another fix.

And yet, I don’t see how we can keep going on like this. Today the average gas price in this country is $2.61. Two years ago at about this time it was $1.62. The year before, gas was nearly 24 cents per gallon cheaper than that. And don't be fooled. What you're paying at the pump is cheap. Europeans pay between six and seven U.S. dollars per gallon. Who knows what we'll all be paying in a decade or two. At that point, cars could easily be an unaffordable luxury.

This has me wondering why we aren’t doing more to free ourselves of our oil and gas dependency. Iraq has the world's second largest oil supply. Iran has the fourth largest. So it’s no surprise what our policy is going to be in the near future. But given that our public transportation system is a joke, that most of us couldn’t survive for more than a week without Wal-Mart, and that we have no foreseeable replacement for oil and gas, shouldn’t Congress be pursuing interstate railroads and solar-powered buildings, instead of building roads that can’t possibly sustain automobiles in the future?

Comments on "The End Of Your Lifestyle"


Anonymous zalm said ... (8/15/2005 09:59:00 PM) : 

This drives me crazy, too. I read an article today about a guy who suped up his hybrid with extra batteries and now gets 250mpg on short trips. We've certainly got the technology now, but demand drives supply, and demand won't change until it's dangerously late in the game. Car companies are actually starting to use the hybrid technology to increase power, not to increase fuel efficiency. Just look at the hybrid Accord.

One thing the bit you quote from Kunstler doesn't mention is that at the very same time that supply starts to wane, demand is about to ramp up like crazy as China and India modernize and more and more people are able to afford cars. Things could get ugly fast.

As you say, I'm optimistic about humanity's resilience and ingenuity. But I think there will be a generation that is going to suffer because our leaders don't have enough foresight to be ahead of this curve. I'm really, really afraid that it's going to be ours.


Blogger hipchickmamma said ... (8/16/2005 08:13:00 AM) : 

do you know what percentage of the world's oil we, the US, has consumed?

my hubby and i were talking about the extraction process of oil on sunday. it was totally disturbing. of course it led us to a discussion about what we could/should be doing (pure selfishness, admittedly out of the need which this has created). we live no where close to a busline (additionally it totally sucks and is unreliable--i keep hoping that will change as more people will hopefully be using it) and if we were to sell and move close to one, we'd likely not be able to afford a home with a plot big enough for a small garden and i do see that as neccessary.

i know it sounds like doomdealing, but i think it's reality--those with land and ability or willingness to farm will be fine, but what about all those in the cities without homes, living in apts and high rises? unfortunately the wealthiest will be unchanged--i used to have hope that if we do have this crisis then perhaps it would be a great equalizer, but looking back through history tells me that this is a pipe dream.


Blogger Wasp Jerky said ... (8/16/2005 09:42:00 AM) : 

And what really doesn't make sense is that there are literally billions of dollars to be made here. Converting the country from oil and gas to wind, solar, and other forms of energy would be a gold mine. And if this country doesn't get started on it, some other country is going to be the new superpower on the block. I'm pretty sure Japan is already making some significant strides here, although I could be wrong.

No, hipchickmamma, I don't know what percentage of the world's oil we've consumed. We're obviously using more than our share. According to Wikipedia, "the US currently consumes 7.5 billion barrels (1.2 km³) of oil per year, while the world consumes 30 billion barrels (4.8 km³) per year." It's not really clear from that whether the US is included in the 30 billion barrels a year (i.e. 7.5 billion for us, 22.5 billion for everyone else), or whether 37.5 billion barrels are consumed each year (i.e. 7.5 billion for us, 30 billion for everyone else).

I know what you mean about bus lines. Effective public transportation is one of the things I miss so much about Europe. I always use the train when going into Chicago, but we live in the suburbs. Out here it's either drive, walk or ride a bike (although if you know what you're doing you can use the trains to hop from burb to burb, provided they're on the same line). I don't have a bike right now, but I really ought to get one very soon.


Blogger Black Sheep said ... (8/16/2005 11:29:00 AM) : 

It's already starting . . . Wal-mart is taking a hit.


Blogger Nicole said ... (8/17/2005 09:12:00 PM) : 

Yeah, well...Walmart going down in the process might be the only positive..


Blogger Jessica said ... (8/18/2005 11:29:00 AM) : 

Bill Maher said once in an interview: "We've got all the technology to do these amazing things yet we still fuel our car with that gooey black stuff that comes out of the earth"

Great Blog, thanks for visiting....I'll bookmark you


Blogger Sierra said ... (8/18/2005 11:40:00 AM) : 

Hey thanks for you comment..

couple things to add to your comments... you mentioned that there are billions of dollars to be made for companies forward thinking enough to take advantage... well Working the the Energy efficiency sector of my company I can assure you my company. (and 2 or 3 others big ones I can think of) are VERY aware of the potential to make money there... Governments are clueless but I can tell you the big international energy corporations are not.. (well ExxonMobil is clueless but they're a dinosaur anyway...) Susutainable and future energy sources are very much a part of my long term business strategy discussions on a daily basis. There is quite a bit of strategy going on behind the scenes on how to take advantage of new and emerging energy sources to increase market share in certain areas by strategicly offering new products. the new hybrids are just the tip of whats iceberg going on out there...

Most companies just aren't quite ready to start publicly annoucing what they're doing as they are hoping to do a little more development first...

forcasts from Shell and BP state that oil production will likely peak around 2025~2050... (lot of uncertaintly there, but thats a pretty complicated guess) sometime between now and then an explosion in renewable energy is expected to happen. (Shell and BP if you notice are positioning themselves now to take advantage of that when it starts...) ersonally with what I see going on... I expect that explosion to happen sooner rather than later.. especially if oil price stays where it is.. (something I doubt)


Blogger Charlie Swanson said ... (8/18/2005 06:18:00 PM) : 

Thanks for stopping by and posting...i am pro choice...i just dont think a person can claim to be both a christian and pro choice...thats hypocritical...that was my point...but ill check up on your blog when i get time and post


Blogger Wasp Jerky said ... (8/18/2005 10:39:00 PM) : 

Thanks for the insights, Sierra. Just out of curiosity, since you probably know a little more about this than the average joe, what do you think will be the way to go in the future (or can you talk about that without killing me?)? Is hydrogen going to be a viable option? Cars powered on vegetable oil? Solar? Wind? The power of poop? Or something else?

Thanks for stopping by also, Charlie. I'll probably reply to your thoughts as a seperate post, since anything I have on that subject is far too involved for the comments section.


Blogger Sierra said ... (8/18/2005 11:17:00 PM) : 

hard to say kevin...

no-one can really predict the future. at one point at the turn of the century the "experts" all thought that the new invention of Automobiles were most likely to be steam powered engines not some recent upstart of an invention such as the internal combustion engine.

But based on current technology and ideas Fuel cells using Hydrogen appears to have the most potenial, However Fuel cell technology is likely 10~20 years away from commercial viability as well as the current cheapest source of Hydorgen gas is reformed hydrocarbon... not much help.. for Hydrogen to be sustainable there needs to be a huge renewable elecrical generation capacity to cleanly create hydrogen from seawater using electrolosys.

Wind has the most potential at the moment as far as developed technology however the investment to replace 2 centuries of hydrocarbon based infrastructure is.... scary...

Solar has massive energy potential but still needs some R&D work to make it more efficienct... no-one is sure how long that will take but after computer circuits it's one of the fastest changing technologies at the moment.

Geothermal, Biofuel (poop), and tidal power are all technically possible but still at higher cost than other options except in special circumstances.

Veggie fuel is a waste of time and effort as the laws of physics won't allow it to every become an effective efficient fuel.

Really no-one knows what the eventual solution will be... it could be either one of the above or something totally different. Who knows... scientists may find a way to control a fusion reaction which would easily blow everything else including hydrocarbon based fuel into obselesance. However I have some faith in human ingenuity and before things get to bad we'll find another Einstien, Ford or Newton who will have the solution that will take our society.. Hopefully a more efficient one.. into the next century.


Blogger Wasp Jerky said ... (8/24/2005 06:48:00 PM) : 

Thanks for taking the time to expound on that, Sierra. My only worry is that a lot of alternative fuel systems will require a lot of oil and gas to set up. Makes sense to start sooner than later. But it's good to know someone is thinking ahead.


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