Monday October 23rd 2017

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This is all you need to know. (Between a Rock and a Hard Place)

Here it is.  This all you really all you really need to know:

Humanity is facing two megatrends, the impacts of Peak Oil, and the limits imposed by Exponential Growth on a finite planet.  How we respond to these challenges during the next 20 years will define the quality of life for your family tree over the next millennium. 

Peak Oil

Within the next ten years the world as we know will change forever.

Such a statement doesn’t carry much of a punch these days in our era of 24 hour news cycles where we hear bombastic headlines on a daily basis.  Real issues, like this one are rarely discussed and when they are they slip under the surface quietly, drowned out amongst the din and clamor of banality (American Idol update, anyone?). 

Why should you care?

If you are reading this blog you, like me, have existed during the unique era of human history defined by cheap oil.  We have never experienced a day when the supply of oil was insufficient to meet the demand.  For the last 150 years we have acted as if we had an infinite supply of the stuff.  It took hundreds of millions of years for the planet to produce the oil that is in the ground — it has taken humanity less than two hundred years to use up 1/2 of that amount.  (try graphing that statistic if you want to get a sense of the magnitude of that last sentence)

Cheap oil defines every fiber of the American society.  We created a transportation system based on the privately-owned automobile — thousands of pounds of steel to move, typically, one person around.  We built suburbs further and further from where people work.  We passed zoning laws that separate our homes from where we work, from our schools, and from our stores.  You must drive to do everything.  On average Americans drive about 1 hour a day  back and forth to work (does this article ring true?).  The shopping malls are far from where we live.  We created a network of large department stores with acres of parking lots that can only be reached by car.  How will people in the suburbs survive when it costs $10/gallon for gasoline?

Our industrial food system is drenched in oil — we burn about 10 calories of energy in fossil fuels for every 1 calorie we produce in food.  Think about those huge combines, the tractors, and all the equipment used in the creation, storage, and movement of food.  Don’t forget the massive amounts of fossil fuel based fertilizers that are sprayed on the fields each year.  Much of the food on our plates travel an average of 1,500 miles before we dine on it.  

Remember the impact of the “high” fuel prices experienced in 2008?  Food prices also shot through the roof in the US and around the world.  Remember the images of food riots from around the world?   Now, think bigger, much, much bigger. 

A mere 5% decrease in oil production in 1970 caused fuel prices to rise 400%.  Think about the impact such a price jump would have now as it rippled through our economy.

E-v-e-r-y facet of our lives is based on cheap fuel.  How much plastic do you have in your life?  How much plastic is there in you car?  TV?  House?  In the products you use day in and day out?  All made from oil.  Most of our consumer products are made in factories many thousands of miles from here (China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, etc.)  Forget 12,000 mile product supply chains once Peak Oil hits.  The foundation of the global financial system is based on a growing supply of readily available cheap energy.   Banks create new money in our economy by giving loans to new businesses or to existing business to expand.  That debt, when paid back in the form of the interest rate paid on the loan, allows the economy to grow.  All that new economic activity is based on a growing supply of cheap energy.  The system most grow every day or it collapses.  Yes, our financial system is a massive ponzi scheme —  watch it fail the day there is not enough oil to fund new economic growth to pay back all those loans. Think house mortgage bubble crash that we recently had, plus the bank collapse, now multiply by 1000. 

I could go on and on but I can see your eyes glazing over.  The demand for oil is growing exponentially while the supply is flat and will soon be decreasing.  Oil is one of the most energy dense substances on the planet and is unique.  Our world will change very soon.  What are we doing to prepare for this new reality?

Exponential Growth
If Peak Oil is the “Rock” then Exponential Growth is the “Hard Place.”  (See the title of this posting if you are confused)  

We live on a finite planet.  The number of people on the planet is growing exponentially.  The amount of resources each person is using is also growing exponentially.  The amount of water we have is fixed.  Trees can be replaced only at a certain rate.  Fish can reproduce only so quickly.  The earth can absorb pollution and clean the air and water at a certain speed. Our demands for the earth’s resources are growing exponentially and will soon reach their limits.  

Read my post here to see more details.

This graph summarizes the situation (source):

In the late 1970s humanity’s demand surpassed the earths ecological capacity.  This means that we are currently living as if we have 2 planets.  Every day we stay above that horizontal line we are eating way the earth’s natural capital.  With each day we reduce the earth’s capacity to support life on the planet.  The impacts of this are becoming more and more apparent with each day at fish stocks collapse around the world, as water tables go dry, as the forests disappear, as the temperature rises, and so forth and so on.

So you can stop reading the news.  Can certainly stop watching the “news.”  Stop reading the magazines.  Background noise.   Soon there will be wild accusations, emergency actions, demands for investigations, military actions to protect the national interest, a rush to invest in research and magical technology to solve our problems.  It will all be for naught unless the debates and calls for action are to address the root causes, and not the symptoms.  

What are you doing to ensure a livable future for your children?  Grandchildren?  Nieces?  Nephews? 

Learn the issues.

Teach others.

Take action.

If you don’t, who will?

More Information can be found here:

  1. Great list of sources on peak oil here.
  2. Good website dedicated to peak oil here.
  3. Wake up, America.  We’re Driving Toward Disaster (Washington Post) 
  4. Imagining Life Without Oil, and Being Ready (New York Times, June 10, 2010)

This is posting was inspired, and based on a speech I heard Bill Mikibben give at a Slow Money conference held in Vermont in June 2010.  I liked the way he framed the idea so much that I thought I would try and share the main ideas here. 

One Comment for “This is all you need to know. (Between a Rock and a Hard Place)”

  • klalota says:

    It's terrifying and tragic that our entire planet, particularly those societies who use the most resources, is not up in arms over the environmental issues we now face. Have we become apathetic? Fatalistic? Or, like ostriches, do we think if we simply bury our heads in the sand these problems will go away? What are we waiting for?

    Thanks for the important, timely info.

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