Peak Energy and an Overview of Its Implications for Food

Sharon May 21st, 2008

Well, there’s a headline, folks.  I turn on my computer this morning and see the words “Oil rises to $130 on supply concerns“!!!!  Wow, we’re concerned.  Speaking as someone who has been concerned about PO since, oh, 1997, and has been writing about it since 2003,  I find it both heartening and, well, odd.    I can’t count the number of people who in the last few months have said something along the lines of ”Wow, you were really right, weren’t you.”  The tones of amazement are my favorite part ;-).

With Kunstler on CNN and T. Boone Pickens driving the markets, and Jeffrey Brown all over the place, I think we’re there folks.  Peak oil is now taking center stage.  And since I suspect there are probably a lot of people out there this week googling around looking for information, I’m posting a peak oil primer that Aaron Newton and I collaborated on.  It covers what will be entirely familiar ground to many of my readers, but hopefully will be useful to others.

But before you read this, I’d like to mention a couple of other posts I’ve written.  Because just knowing what peak oil *is* doesn’t necessarily help you.  Aaron had to, as he joked, “talk a friend off the ledge” this week, and I suspect there are a lot of people out there who have just encountered a new and terrifying idea, and who are now panicking. And this is scary.  It does mean an enormous amount of change. 

BUT- and this is an important but - we are not all doomed.  This is hard and scary, but it is not the end of your world.  So before you rush out and buy MREs and ammo (Aaron’s line was “Spam and automatic weapons are the new black” ;-)), read some more stuff.  Because it is important to remember that what is happening is the beginnings of a huge and difficult change - but change can happen.  There are a lot of people - a lot on this site, a lot in the world - who can help.

 To the extent I can help anyone, here’s some stuff I’ve written before on this:

The truth is, your world has just changed.  You can’t unknow things.  But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing good left. 

 If you are still dubious and don’t understand how this is different than the 1970s, you might look here: #


                To alcohol- the cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems.”   

                                                                                                - Homer Simpson

Brewing beer takes about thirty days. There’s the malting and mashing and lautering and boiling, not to mention the hopping and the separation, the cooling and fermentation.   Then most beer is filtered before being bottled.  And let’s not forget the drinking.  Beer has been brewed since the 7th century BC, or perhaps even before, and will probably be brewed until humans no longer walk the face of this planet.  As a Whistran Brewery sign describes it, “Beer: So much more than just a breakfast drink.”

The above description makes it sound like an awfully complicated process, but really it’s not. But the procedure does requires adding specific ingredients, including heat, in just the right sequence so as to produce one of mankind’s most beloved beverages.  In this way brewing beer is not unlike the process of making oil.  A long time ago, a tremendous amount of oceanic plant material lived and died and floated to the bottom of the sea.  There it built up into an enormous layer of biological material. Like brewing beer, this process required the combination of specific ingredients in the presence of heat. At lower temperatures it produced oil and at relatively higher temperatures it produced natural gas. In certain locations the oil and natural gas became trapped in porous rock formations conducive to the containment of such materials.  You can think of these formations as kegs of energy. 

 During previous millennia, before we discovered how to make use of these intense energy sources the human population was relatively stable, never exceeding several hundred million. During our most recent experimentation with fossil fuels however, we’ve seen that number increase to just over 6.5 billion people. . Even more important than the growth in population, oil has enabled lavish, consumptive lifestyles in the Global North, so that inequity between rich and poor has grown. The average American consumes 30 times the resources of the average Kenyan.[i]

During the middle part of the 20th century, the United States was awash in oil.  Germany, on the other hand, was so desperate for similar fuel that they were forced to take coal and press it into gasoline.  Many historians point out that our victory in the World War II was made possible, in part by our easy access to great quantities of oil and it’s abundant energy. Winston Churchill famously said , “”Above all, petrol governed every movement.”[ii]  Following World War II, the United States began to utilize this incredible resource at home.  James Howard Kunstler, author of “The Long Emergency”, describes America’s domestic use of fossil fuels this way.

“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.”

Most of us are familiar with regular gasoline fill-ups and the need to drive back and forth from work to home, from the shopping mall to the elementary school.  Cheap fuel made easy motoring typical of American life.  And although that has begun to change with rising energy prices, we’ve barely begun a great shift.  Imagine for a minute how hard most Americans find livingwithout a car.  But aside from this most obvious of petroleum uses, there plenty of other ways we use oil in our everyday lives. 

It is inevitable when you fill up a mug with beer and begin to drink it that eventually you will reach a point at which your glass is half empty.  If you go out with friends to a bar, you are more likely to order a pitcher of beer for all of you to share.    Now imagine that around the time that you have drunk half of it, someone announces that it is the last pitcher of beer in the whole world - that we’re all very sorry, we thought we had more, but everyone in the universe has looked in their fridges, and the beer is all gone forever.  So now you have half a pitcher of beer and that’s it - no more.  Now, what do you do?  Do you drink it fast, and have one incredible party, and never drink again?  Do you sell what is left to people who will pay you a lot for it?  Do you horde it, holding on to it at all costs?  Do you ration it out so that everyone gets a fair share? Fight over the rest of it?  

There’s likely to be a lot of people who want that beer, and regardless of whether you share it out evenly or unevenly, people’s desire for beer is going to be met with smaller and smaller supplies of beer.  Now it is possible that we could reduce desire - that if it gets inconvenient enough, that some of the beer drinkers will decide they like lemonade better anyhow.  But no matter how many advertising campaigns praise the wonders of lemonade, quite a few of us are going to notice that it really isn’t quite the same thing as beer, the wonder liquid. 
Now the nice thing about beer is that it is not required for human existence (ok, we know some people who will argue with us about this).  And in a purely technical sense, neither are oil and gas.  But just about every part of our life here in America is dependent upon oil and gas, both of which are most likely near the halfway point of availability.  As we mentioned above, oil doesn’t just fuel our cars and heat our homes.   Virtually everything we buy, from food, to medicine to clothing to tools has petroleum in it as an ingredient.  And everything we do has an energy cost.  Much of that energy is supplied by oil and natural gas.  And there are a lot of people who want what’s left - even as it gets more expensive, and harder to get out of the ground, and there starts not being enough to go around evenly.  

And no one really disputes that someday, the pitcher will be half empty.  When one examines the life of an oil well it inevitably follows a pattern that looks a lot like a bell curve. In the beginning, as an oil well starts to operate, it easily extracts oil and production rises steadily. At a certain point in the life of the oil well, typically at about the halfway point of its life, the production of the well peaks. All the easily extractable oil has been pumped out and the well is now working harder to extract oil that is tougher to get out of the ground. From this point on, the oil is harder and harder to extract so production slowly declines each subsequent year.

As individual regions and nations peak in oil production, the world as a whole gets closer and closer to the day when the global oil keg will reach halfway and then enter into an era of declining availability. Currently, 54 of the largest 65 oil producing nations are in decline.[iii]  Russia’s production just declined for the first time, and Saudi Arabia, while strenuously denying it, seems unable to meet demand.  Large numbers of oil company executives have begun to admit we are at or near an oil peak. 

As we peak, oil producing nations begin to hold back more of their limited supplies for their own use.  Saudi Arabia, for example, recently announced that it planned to reserve energy for future generations.   Again, this is perfectly natural - the US, for example, long past its peak exports virtually no oil - but this means that the declines in availability are greater than the declines in production - if production falls by 2%, exports may fall by 4%.  If this happens, as is likely, while demand is still growing, the total shortfall in availability may be quite dramatic.  This is called the Export Land Model, pioneered by geologist Jeffrey Brown.

Poor industry transparency makes it difficult to say for sure, but there is little doubt that for those of us not currently receiving senior citizen discounts, peak oil will happen during our lifetimes, probably quite soon.  It is not unlikely that the peak in oil (as opposed to “liquids” which include unconventional sources)  is already past.  This fact might turn out to be an event of even greater magnitude than the discovery of oil itself. In America we have built an entire way of life on ever increasing amounts of energy, especially oil, the liquid fossil fuel that powers 95 percent of transportation in this country.[iv] It’s not hard to see that peak oil will have an enormous impact on us as the global keg party winds down.  

Natural gas is the other essential  fossil fuel response for how we live our lives in America these days.  We use huge quantities of natural gas each year to heat our homes, cook our food and take hot showers.  Six out of every ten homes in America used natural gas as a heat source.[v]  A natural gas production well experiences a different sort of life cycle. Because it is a gas, it flows out at a constant rate. Unlike an oil well, when natural gas production peaks, it then drops off dramatically (think chugging the pitcher).  And in much the same way as with oil regions, natural gas regions reach a peak when the majority of the wells in that region reach their individual peaks. Right now the North American natural gas production appears to be approaching peak. Exxon’s chief executive Lee Raymond was quoted in 2005 saying, “Gas production has peaked in North America.”[vi]

When will our global natural gas supply peak? That is one of the most urgent  questions of our time and one to which the answer is not known. It’s unlikely however that the global peak of natural gas production worldwide is very far off.  Many analysts expect natural gas to peak about a decade after petroleum.  It is important to understand that natural gas is much more difficult than oil to transport over long distances, so what matters most to Americans is the North American gas supply.  US natural gas supplies peaked in 1973,[vii] but the US has a NAFTA agreement that requires Canada to sell us much of their gas.  All North American gas peaked in 2002, and soon that agreement may leave Canadians short of heating and cooking fuel[viii]

But aren’t we making huge new discoveries every day?  You hear about them in the news all the time!  In fact, most of the discoveries we’re making are very small in relationship to world oil demand, and many of them will take a decade or more to develop.  At this point, we’re using 6 barrels of oil for every new one we discover[ix], and oil discoveries have been declining for forty years.  As Julian Darley told us in regards to the much hyped “Jack” discovery (which is under 5 miles of ocean) “we’re digging around in the couch cushions for loose change now.”[x]

So it seems very likely that both our global pitchers of oil and natural gas are about half empty.  What will that mean for us?  A report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy headed by Dr. Robert Hirsch states that, 

“Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization. It fuels the vast majority of the world’s mechanized transportation equipment - Automobiles, trucks, airplanes, trains, ships, farm equipment, the military, etc. Oil is also the primary feedstock for many of the chemicals that are essential to modern life.”  

So it is not surprising that Dr. Hirsch reports that,” the problem of the peaking of world conventional oil production is unlike any yet faced by modern industrial society.” 

Richard Heinberg, author of “The Party’s Over” writing in May of 2006 said,

“Global oil production is peaking-for all practical purposes, now. In the past weeks, the New York Times, Bill Clinton, and the executive vice president of Ford Motor Company (among many others) have stated that world oil flow is at peak. We have even seen one of the major oil companies (Chevron) place ads in multiple magazines and newspapers in order-gently, perhaps, but insistently and conspicuously-to break the news to the American people that the era of cheap oil, and cheap energy in general, is finished, over, done, dead, and gone. And that era just happens to be the only one that Americans alive today have ever known.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers[EAW1]   put out a report in September of 2005 that stated, “World oil production is at or near its peak and current world demand exceeds the supply.”[xi]  The above-mentioned US Department of Energy-sponsored Hirsch Report says that to deal with the coming peak in global oil production we would need 20 years of  devoting virtually all of our national wealth and energies to developing alternative energies and building new infrastructure.  The report stated that to do it in 20 years, we’d have to be devoting more of our time and energy than we did to fighting World War II - that is, most of our money, and our time and our industry would all have to be working together to make this giant change in 20 years.  Otherwise, there could be major problems - a depression, huge changes in the economy, energy shortages, rationing, rolling blackouts and gas lines, poverty, even hunger.  Especially hunger. 

So enough with the geology and beer analogies you say.  What about food?  One of the most troubling ramifications associated with the coming peak in fossil fuels is the roles they play in how we get our food.  The model of industrial agriculture used currently to produce much of our food is especially vulnerable to the coming decrease in both natural gas and petroleum availability because it is utterly reliant on cheap energy and fossil fuel derivatives.

Petroleum has made possible the mechanization of much of the labor involved in agriculture. In 1900 roughly 38 % of the population of the United States was actively involved in growing food. By 1950 that number had been reduce to just more than 12 %.[xii] Today less than 2% of the American population does that work. This shift in labor was made possible largely by the harnessing of fossil fuels. Tractors and combines, among other machinery, replaced the human hand in the field. Pumps for irrigation rely on diesel fuel as does the vast network of intercontinental trucking that hauls, on average, each item of food over 1500 miles from where it is grown to where it is eaten.

Petroleum is also the feedstock for the pesticides used to support industrial agriculture and its vast fields of monoculture crops. Seemingly endless landscapes of corn, wheat and soybeans cover Midwestern America and are protected with a combination of chemicals that kill the pests. When you grow a thousand acres of just one type of plant, the bugs that like to eat that plant are drawn to those fields in swarms.  Without the ability to fight off enormous numbers of such pests, this system of monoculture probably wouldn’t be possible.

Next there’s the matter of all the nutrients needed to grow our food.   We eat an incredible amount corn in our country.  A recent Corn Refiners Association study suggests corn is used as an ingredient in almost 4,000 products.  This does not include the meat, dairy and eggs that are a derivative of corn used as feed or lots of paper products that include corn.

Author Michael Pollan put it this way in a Mother Jones interview in February 2005. 

In addition to contributing to erosion, pollution, food poisoning, and the dead zone, corn requires huge amounts of fossil fuel - it takes a half gallon of fossil fuel to produce a bushel of corn.”  To grow the corn on which our current diet is largely based requires providing it with an awful lot of one specific nutrient, nitrogen.  The large amount of nitrogen fertilize required to grow corn, is currently created using the Haber-Bosch process of taking atmospheric nitrogen out of the air and putting into a solid state. And this process uses an inordinate amount of natural gas.  But as we have already discussed, both natural gas and petroleum are finite resources beginning to enter into a stage of decreasing availability. The short-term effect is likely to be a rise in the cost of our food, especially processed food made from corn. The long-term effect will likely be failure of industrial agriculture to continue to feed the United States and the world.

Taken in isolation, the idea that we’ll prioritize energy for agriculture, or for any one thing or another does make a lot of intuitive sense - as long as we are talking about some discrete, neatly isolated thing.  It is easy to think that the reprioritization of resources will be both logical and inevitable -  but the problem is that intuitive responses aren’t always right.  In actual working systems, there are a host of first priorities, all of them extremely difficult to triage. 

The problem is that there are so many highest priorities in any society - do you cut back on police protection?  Medicines? Ambulances?  Heat for the freezing? Public transport? The transport of relief supplies?  Military engagements?  In times of radical shortage, prioritizing becomes the struggle of competing priorities, political interests, black markets and a host of other factors,  none of which ever quite get what they need 

What about renewable energies? Biofuels?  Hydrogen fuel cells?  The truth is that none of these can replace the energy density of fossil fuels at all.  Biofuels, for example, produce, at best, only 1.34 barrels of oil equivalent for every barrel of oil used to produce them.[xiii] That’s not very impressive - oil gives you 30-100 barrels of oil for every barrel used to extract it. And it is possible that the energy return of biofuels is actually much less - that it is negative. David Pimmetal and Ted Paczek have analyzed ethanol, including cellulosic ethanol production and found that they consume more fossil fuels than they produce in equivalent energy[xiv].   And biofuels produce more greenhouse gasses, raise food prices, and essentially put cars in competition with people for basic foodstuffs.  If we were to put every single acre of arable land in the US into ethanol production we could run cars for less than half a year.  Biofuels have been a disaster for the environment, for the world’s poor, and for the pocketbooks of ordinary Americans who suffer from high food prices.

Hydrogen is a technology that has been “just around the corner” for the last 3 decades, and which shows no signs of getting any closer.  It is not, in fact, an energy source at all, but a medium for storing energy, and an inefficient one as well - it is four times less efficient to use electricity to generate hydrogen than it is to just use the electricity directly[xv]

While we support growth in Solar PV panels and Wind production, the difficulty with both of these is the large quantities of reserve capacity, fueled by fossil fuels required to deal with the fact that both are intermittent sources - solar cells only produce energy when the sun shines, wind turbines only when the wind blows.  Thus, they both require large quantities of fossil fueled backup capacity - up to 60%.[xvi]  Add to this that both remain substantially more expensive than fossil fuels despite rising fossil energy prices, because the comparatively small technological improvements are overridden by the rising costs of the fossil fuels and metals used to make them. [xvii]

While we will almost certainly build out some renewable energy sources, the reality is that our future involves using much less energy than we do now.  We have no choice but to cut back radically - and a reasoned, careful, wise reduction will be more just and positive than a haphazard one done by necessity.

All of this makes it much makes it that much more urgent that we get to work now.  If we are going to continue to feed ourselves and all the other human being already on this planet without the help of fossil fuels we must begin to make a change now.   Yes folks, the house lights are coming up as the partying is winding down.  It seems like we might want to sober up before trying to tackle the difficult question of just how best to deal with the problems of peak oil, chief among them fossil fuel based industrial agriculture.     

A return to small-scale, sustainable agriculture with a focus on producing our culinary needs and wants locally would reduce our dependency on oil and natural gas in advance of their inevitable decline in availability.  One obvious benefit will be the enormous amount of fuel saved by reducing the amount of food shipped all over the country.  Fewer refrigerated tractor trailers crisscrossing the country means less oil needed as a nation. 

Changes like removing some of the mechanization from our agriculture and reducing or eliminating the use of inorganic pesticides and fertilizers will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and the foreign countries in possession of the majority of what remains of these fuels.  Two thirds of the world’s remaining oil reserves are in the Middle East.[xviii]  Much of the remaining natural gas is there too.  If we needed a great deal less of their oil and NG to grow our own food, we would be less likely to get caught up in deadly conflicts that require huge amounts of money, energy and worse yet, the lives of our men and women in military service.  Imagine if we refocused the amount of money and man power spent intervening in Iraq on learning how to again grow our own food without Middle Eastern oil.  We could disengage from a region that obviously isn’t interested in our meddling.

Less oil involved in growing our food will also mean more oil available as feedstock for precious commodities like medical equipment and necessary pharmaceuticals.  Rather than a drastic decline in the availability of really important petroleum derivatives, removing the fossil fuels from our food could help us more gradually adjust to decreasing stocks of these fuels.  Even more important, the health benefits of a more localized, nutritious diet might reduce our need for medical equipment and drugs.

Making this change now rather than waiting until the peaking of fossil fuels creates more severe social disruptions is important because it will take time to learn how to grow our own food without fossil fuel inputs.  And it will take time to learn how to cook with whole ingredients and to adjust to a more seasonal diet.  These changes will be much easier if we do them now while we have time to adjust rather than more abruptly in a time of crisis.  


[ii] Michael Antonucci, Blood for Oil: The Quest for Fuel in World War II, Command:

January-February 1993





[vii] The Story Of Natural Gas:Supply, Demand And A Brick Wall

Enskilda Securities

Institutional Investor Meeting

Kitzbühel, Austria

March 12, 2004

Matthew R. Simmons

[viii] Darley, 183

[ix] Murphy, 8

[x] Darley, Personal Communication, September 25 2006

[xi] Energy Trends and Implications for U.S. Army Installations

Eileen T. Westervelt and Donald F. Fournier ERDC/CERL TN-05-1 September 2005


[xiii] A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Economic Research Service Report number 814 titled “Estimating The Net Energy Balance Of Corn Ethanol: An Update” was published in July of 2002.


[xv] Murphy, 66

[xvi] Murphy 84

[xvii] Ibid, 85

[xviii] The New Petroleum by U. S. Senator Richard G. Lugar and R. James Woolsey

Published by Council on Foreign Relations Jan/Feb 1999

33 Responses to “Peak Energy and an Overview of Its Implications for Food”

  1. Stephen B.on 21 May 2008 at 8:18 am

    It’s a funny situation now. I too have all kinds of folks around me, amazed at what is going on now, and amazed that some of us have been predicting it, though of course, there are still many who don’t get “it” yet.

    But even amongst those who understand that oil is going up and getting ever scarcer, a good many people still don’t get how profound the changes to our lives will be and how soon such changes will impact us. Just this morning, I was hanging in a popular stock trading chatroom over at, a place that I’ve been talking about Peak Oil for years at now, mainly afterhours. Back when, everybody laughed. Even now, while most all understand Peak Oil and that prices are going up and that they’ll be driving smaller cars and driving less, I was told to take my meds when I mentioned that air travel will be a thing of the past for most in 5 to 10 years: It’s a longish, raw transcript, but a telling read, I’m “StephenB” and along with “Treidar”, we’re discussing oil with the others….check out Alman’s and JFlosum’s remarks in particular

    [08:45:16] oil is cheap @ 4.00 when u consider that people are buying water @ over 20.00 a gallon
    [08:45:18] DIG tracks oil and gas stocks, not just crude:
    [08:45:39] forecast from LATOC page:
    [08:45:40] Within a short time of global oil production hitting its peak, it will become impossible to dismiss the decline in supply as a merely transitory event. Once this occurs, traders on Wall Street will quickly bid the price up to, and possibly over, the $200 per barrel range as they realize the world is now in an era of permanent oil scarcity.
    [08:45:48] USO/OIL/DCR etc track crude:
    [08:46:25] will gallon be 10$ when oil hits 200 ?
    [08:46:29] oil inventory number today at 10:30 ET
    [08:46:49] cnbc on pace to break yesterdays use of the word oil during the day..
    [08:46:50] funny how nobody even talks the kind of prices we will have in 5-10 years time :)
    [08:47:05] if you avoid it , maybe it will go away..
    [08:47:59] ok well if oil is the discussion in here what is the trade for the day on it?
    [08:48:12] OMNI was an idea before
    [08:48:21] 100% cash
    [08:48:27] that’s my trade at the moment
    [08:48:36] 5 or 10 years, the world will be SO different…..I don’t even talk about it with people because they’d just think I’m crazy and walk away…4 years ago, people couldn’t even listen to me describe even what we have now…just look into some of the old #at afterhours logs…..I was a doomer, chicken little, etc etc
    [08:48:36] wait till 10:30 stockjock
    [08:48:38] yes cash is a position…
    [08:48:57] might as well take a walk tho
    [08:49:43] you can try to short, but plenty of people getting burned
    [08:50:00] 5-10 years from now airlines and air travel will be pretty much gone…..think of what that means for 10s of thousands of employees…all those airports vacant…airports that right now are still being expanded….Boeing still has new planes on the drawing boards….it’s all for not
    [08:50:10] IVAN about to eat 2.5 going to be a nice mover today yestdays volume was nice accumulation
    [08:50:30] scalpin USO short been working everyday fwiw…fighting the trend but its lunch money
    [08:50:48] i’m thinking some folks need to get back on their meds :)
    [08:51:00] lunch money is good
    [08:51:05] its about time on ivan
    [08:51:09] getting depressing in here :)
    [08:51:12] No kidding ALman! lmao
    [08:51:50] there have been more oil reserves found in the last decade than we could use for the next century
    [08:51:52] may as well drink laced koolaid
    [08:51:56] well, on the bright side, oil is off 1 dollar off it’s high
    [08:52:23] good morning all what a beautiful day thing i go for a walk on the beach
    [08:52:40] but the daily rate at which they can be tapped is declining bogey….we’ve been using more oil than we’ve discovered, on a daily basis, since about 1982….how much longer can that go on?
    [08:52:54] so far the trend has been premkt high on oil..dip..then they have retested the premkt high each time..c if that continues or they take it down this time
    [08:53:13] QTWW gapper
    [08:53:17] anyhow… this log too and revisit it around 2016
    [08:53:19] when they become THAT predictible they have to throw a change up
    [08:53:24] ASTI looking good for today
    [08:53:46] sorry guys for earlier comments, lot younger that most of you expereinced with facts on Oil but my beliefs my sound nieve but there some truth to the frustration
    [08:53:58] StephenB: lol
    [08:53:59] is there still electricity around 2016, Stephen?:)
    [08:54:26] If crude goes to double digits this year, Dow will see all time hi
    [08:54:37] hmm guess with that kinda thinking we should still be using whale oil

    I didn’t respond further. Ah, a little at a time….if only we had a little more time.

    Stephen B.
    suburban MA

  2. Stephen B.on 21 May 2008 at 8:20 am

    Hmmph….funny, that chat log I just posted had all the chat handle/names stripped from it after I pasted….well, it’s still an interesting read I think even if you can’t tell exactly who is saying what.

    Stephen B.
    suburban MA

  3. jaseon 21 May 2008 at 8:36 am

    Sigh. Depressing, yes, that you still aren’t mentioning nuclear energy. Read up on it, for once, maybe - even the original die-hard radical environmentalists are waking up and saying “Hey - this really *is* the answer.”

    They’re also saying that people who don’t understand the issues they talk about, shouldn’t talk about them. Don’t understand nuclear energy? Then you can’t really criticize it, you know.

  4. Sharonon 21 May 2008 at 9:00 am

    I love the invocation of irrelevant authorities here, the random “they” who are conveniently saying things for you ;-). Frankly, you don’t seem to understand nuclear energy well enough to actually discuss it in a credible, coherent way without name calling. People who routinely move immediately to personal attacks and appeals to irrelevant authorities tend to do that from ignorance.

    I don’t mention every energy alternative in this essay, you are correct - in part because the work I took it from has a later discussion of nuclear energies. But again, no one, including you, has made a credible case that a. a massive nuclear build could be done within the limits of greenhouse gas limitations - nuclear plants are very energy intensive and carbon intensive to build, and the need to get emissions down before the methane starts bubbling faster is greater than our need for electric cars, or b. that we can do a massive nuclear build out fast enough to ameliorate the peak oil crisis.

    Make your case and reasonably politely, and I’ll listen. Continue making your points as you have, no one will.


  5. Greenpaon 21 May 2008 at 9:59 am

    “Continue making your points as you have, no one will.”

    Exactly; I’m afraid I’ve quite quit listening to Jase, or being interested in his thinking.

    One more attempt, though; for others.

    The problem, Jase, is not that we don’t understand the wonders of physics and engineering. I guarantee, I understand both at least as well as you- you wanna talk bosons and mesons and the benefits of monel metal? I know them in detail.

    The problem is you cannot see that we have an equation here that includes… human behavior, as an inescapable part.

    You’re recommending a technology with “huge benefits” - that works just fine-

    IF IF IF- it is planned, built, and maintained - PERFECTLY- 100% of the time.

    And the consequences of not maintaining perfection 100% of the time- are incredibly awful, in fact completely unacceptable to anyone living within 500 miles of the “oops” event; and cancel ALL benefits, replacing them with utter disaster- for 10,000 years.

    You know of some human institution with a track record of 100% perfection for even 100 years?

    I’m not aware of any. Quite the contrary- all human institutions have a demonstrable record of decreasing efficiency and increasing mistake rates as they age. All.

  6. jaseon 21 May 2008 at 10:03 am

    “I love the invocation of irrelevant authorities here, the random “they” who are conveniently saying things for you ;-).”

    Mentioned earlier, but to reiterate -
    Written by Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace.

    “name calling.”

    No names there. Question mark?

    “personal attacks”

    “Attacking” a person’s ignorance isn’t a personal attack, in the ad hominem sense of the phrase.

    “appeals to irrelevant authorities”

    Seeing as Moore co-founded Greenpeace and then realized that the knee-jerk reactions to things that they didn’t have any expertise in, and went on to research nuclear energy and come to the conclusion that it is the reasonable environmentalist’s choice, he’s hardly irrelevant.

    “within the limits of greenhouse gas limitations”

    You’re conflating two different points. First is the problem of peak oil, and second is the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, nuclear power happens to address both. In terms of carbon emissions, nuclear plants give off 2-6% of comparable fossil fuel plants. And that’s taking into account the entire life cycle, mine to reprocessing. (Not really, though - since the US doesn’t reprocess once-through fuel, the actual numbers are much better for reactor designs as in France and Japan.)

    Taking the attitude that “This solution isn’t perfect, so we won’t even bother” is self-defeating and nihilistic.

    In terms of ameliorating peak oil, nuclear power of course would, by definition. Would a non-fossil fuel source of energy help with a fossil fuel energy crisis? Of course, almost tautologically so. Could it totally remove any impact of peak oil? Likely not, although keep in mind that if it hadn’t faced rabid, unreasoning opposition from radical environmentalists over the past fifty years, there probably wouldn’t be this peak oil crisis we now face. It’s like a doctor telling a patient with an infected cut that antibiotics could poison them, and then when the limb needs to be amputated, telling them that it’s too late for antibiotics.

    Downright schizophrenic.

    Is global warming a problem? Sure. Is the energy starvation and collapse of modern civilization a bigger problem, one that moots climate change? Yes, definitely. Fortunately, nuclear power (again) goes the furthest of any alternative towards solving both problems.

  7. jaseon 21 May 2008 at 10:10 am

    “IF IF IF- it is planned, built, and maintained - PERFECTLY- 100% of the time.

    And the consequences of not maintaining perfection 100% of the time- are incredibly awful, in fact completely unacceptable to anyone living within 500 miles of the “oops” event; and cancel ALL benefits, replacing them with utter disaster- for 10,000 years.”

    This sort of thing is why I mentioned statistical ignorance earlier. Cite sources explaining just what those horrible consequences would be - five seconds will find the official NRC report on Three Mile Island saying that the radiation exposure of the two million people closest was one millirem - about a sixth of a chest x-ray. Their summation -

    “However, comprehensive investigations and assessments by several well-respected organizations have concluded that in spite of serious damage to the reactor, most of the radiation was contained and that the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment.”

    Huh. How about that. And for god’s sake, leave Chernobyl well enough alone - it is universally accepted by serious engineers and scientists that that reactor was designed to fail. This was even known at the time. The United States and other first world countries are now more advanced than corrupt, inefficient Soviet bureaucracies. You might as well say that bridges are too dangerous, because for all the good that they do, they could collapse and kill hundreds of people.

  8. Philon 21 May 2008 at 10:30 am

    Anybody who says that nuclear power is the answer is either dishonest or seriously out of touch with reality. There is no single solution to mankind’s problems. We’ve spent the last 200 years enthusiastically digging ourselves into this nice big fossil-fuel tarpit, and getting out of it is not going to be easy. As Amory Lovins has been hammering home for the last 30 years, energy conservation and demand reduction through more energy efficient tools and products is both the cheapest and fastest way to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and electricity (from whatever source). Whilst Socolow and Pacala’s now-famous “wedges” paper has some rather obvious flaws - they talk, for instance, of stabilising emissions of greenhouse gases whereas the target has to be one of stabilising concentrations - their basic premise that reductions can only be achieved by multiple concurrent approaches to the problem is a sound one. There is no panacea, and we should all be very wary of those who peddle solutions which claim to be the cure for all our ills. We can’t run our society on snake oil.

  9. Sharonon 21 May 2008 at 10:31 am

    Moore is a “he” not a “they.” One guy does not make a mass movement of environmentalists. As for the questions about personal attacks, that’s entirely disingenuous - I’m not going to sort back through a few weeks of comments for examples, but you know what I’m talking about. All I can tell you is that you look awfully trolly to me (and I recall you from Colin’s site with your many names, and have seen you do that here as well) - the deal is this - you are welcome as long as you behave courteously. I’m happy to have you advocate nuclear power - courteously. If you need an example of how courteous arguments are conducted - without either direct ad hominems and with grownup civility, consider looking at other posters here, many of whom may disagree with me or with you, but who do it quite gracefully. Kiashu, for example, and often disagree - but without the designed-to-work-people-up approach.

    I’m not conflating two different issues issues - yes, once built, plants do produce less carbon (although not nearly as little as you cite - and I’ll be glad to provide a full essay with cites when I’m done with the current book in a few weeks) - building nuclear power plants takes a lot of energy - cement, for example is incredibly carbon intensive. An analysis of the merits of nuclear power does have to include the environmental costs of a build out and whether we can afford them. This is true of any alternate energy source - and it has to be possible above and beyond enough maintenence of the economy to afford the huge costs of building them - without capital, they don’t happen. I haven’t run the analysis, and I’m betting neither have you.

    As for peak oil, nuclear plants require fossil inputs at every stage, and peak oil is as much an economic as physical problem. So yes, it matters where we are in relationship to the peak whether we can do a large scale build out of nuclear plants- whether we’ll have the money or the resources. We both agree that we could have fixed this problem any number of ways had we started long ago - solar and wind would have worked quite well if we’d started in the 70s. But we didn’t, and we’re here now, and that means we have to deal with the real question of how to allocate limited resources - money, energy and our carbon emissions. We are at the triage stage - and at a point at which it is possible that whatever projects we start, we will not finish for lack of wealth and resources. So what we do has to be careful, wise and has to offer us returns even if we don’t get it completed. I’m not persuaded that large scale nuclear meets those criteria. You are free to try and persuade me. Courteously - or your messages will be removed.


  10. Philon 21 May 2008 at 10:44 am

    “We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand, we offer — in the catalytic nuclear burner — an inexhaustible source of energy. . . .

    But the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to.”

    “We make two demands. The first, which I think is easier to manage, is that we exercise in nuclear technology the very best techniques and that we use people of high expertise and purpose. . . .

    The second demand is less clear, and I hope it may prove unnecessary. This is a demand for longevity in human institutions. We have relatively little problem dealing with wastes if we can assume always that there will be intelligent people around to cope with eventualities we have not though of. If the nuclear parks that I mention are permanent features of our civilization, then we presumably have the social apparatus, and possibly the sites, for dealing with our wastes indefinitely. But even our salt mine may require some surveillance if only to prevent men in the future from drilling holes into the burial grounds.

    Eugene Wigner has drawn an analogy between this commitment to a permanent social order that may be implied in nuclear energy and our commitment to a stable, year-in and year-out social order when man moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Before agriculture, social institutions hardly required the long-lived stability that we now take so much for granted. And the commitment imposed by agriculture in a sense was forever; the land had to be tilled and irrigated every year in perpetuity; the expertise required to accomplish this task could not be allowed to perish or man would perish; his numbers could not be sustained by hunting and gathering. In the same sense, though on a much more highly sophisticated plane, the knowledge and care that goes into the proper building and operation of nuclear power plants and their subsystems is something we are committed to forever, so long as we find no other practical source of infinite extent. ”

    “we have established a military priesthood which guards against inadvertent use of nuclear weapons, which maintains what a priori seems to be a precarious balance between readiness to go to war and vigilance against human errors that would precipitate war. Moreover, this is not something that will go away, at least not soon. The discovery of the bomb has imposed an additional demand on our social institutions. It has called forth this military priesthood upon which in a way we all depend for our survival.

    It seems to me (and in this I repeat some views expressed very well by Atomic Energy Commissioner Wilfred Johnson) that peaceful nuclear energy probably will make demands of the same sort on our society, and possibly of even longer duration. ”

    Alvin M. Weinberg, Science, July 7, 1972

    I for one don’t want Faustian bargains which burden my children and their descendants for hundreds of millennia, nor do I want Weinberg’s Nuclear Priesthood anywhere on this planet.

    Unlike today’s nuclear power fanatics, Weinberg at least knew of the huge moral issues associated with this techology. Today’s proponents just see it as a technofix and blithely ignore the bigger issues.

  11. lydiaon 21 May 2008 at 11:03 am

    Sharon, is there any way to block jase off this blog? I am so sick of his rants I could scream, I no longer listen at all, but I do find it hard to even look that he is on, a I have to expend precious energy scrolling down to get past his comments……………

  12. jaseon 21 May 2008 at 11:04 am

    “Moore is a “he” not a “they.””

    “although not nearly as little as you cite”

    Actually, it’s even less - the comparison in question is to the cleanest of fossil fuels, not average fossil fuel emissions.

    “I haven’t run the analysis, and I’m betting neither have you.”

    No, but apparently unlike you, I trust the people who have run the analysis. And if, or when, the analysis doesn’t turn out the way I thought it might, or would have wanted it to, I don’t scream and yell foul or bias.

    There are more than enough natural resources left to begin the large scale building of nuclear reactors. If there are shortages, actual shortages, then please - go ahead and throw up a cite. But on the face of it, the continued construction and growth that is going on now around the world argues strongly against that. The stumbling block is that there is still an irrational, knee-jerk fear of anything atomic, tied in many cases to a dislike of civilization itself.

    Call it self-hating humans, maybe.

  13. jaseon 21 May 2008 at 11:06 am

    “Power to Save the World”, by Gwyneth Cravens would be a good introduction.

  14. olympiaon 21 May 2008 at 11:12 am

    I think that, in a world that’s increasingly poor and desperate for energy, a lot of safety concerns would be overlooked in the zeal to build up nuclear power, and to do it quickly.

  15. simplephaton 21 May 2008 at 11:38 am

    not to keep dwelling on the nuclear power issue but just so you know there are some people that live in utah that would prefer not getting more of the worlds nuclear waste, typically they are the people not being paid to store it

    House clashes on Italian radwaste
    EnergySolutions CEO tells House panel his facility has room for foreign, domestic waste; critics aren’t so sure

    …Matheson drilled into an investigator from the General Accountability Office who testified there was more than 30 years of remaining capacity.
    But, Matheson pointed out, the investigator extrapolated from one of the lower disposal years, and that he made no allowance for what may happen if any of the 33 applications for new nuclear power plants get approved.
    “You didn’t predict growth from those new plants?” Matheson asked.
    “That’s correct,” replied Gene Aloise, the director of the GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment section in the Denver Field Office.

    simplephat in Salt Lake City

  16. Sharonon 21 May 2008 at 12:55 pm

    Jace, I’m familiar with the study you cite, and also with the work of Mark Diesendorf, who comes up with radically higher figures - that the C02 emissions on a large scale build out would be much more like 1/3 of a natural gas plant. I’ve seen the debates between various analysts, and while I think there are critiques to be made of both studies, it is certainly true that Diesendorf does take into account the problems of extraction in a radically scaled up scenario like the one you propose.

    More relevantly, neither answers the basic question - whether we can afford a build out. What both studies do is compare nuclear power plants to natural gas plants, which is largely irrelevant, since I also oppose a major build out of natural gas plants (which would be wildly stupid, since gas is past peak in NA). The question that has not been answered is what level of build out is necessary and possible while a. stabilizing the economy and b. getting total emissions down below 350 ppm in a very short time. I don’t have time to look at the competing numbers for carbon emitted in construction and calculate whether we can do a build out at all right now, but it would be an interesting exercise, and I may take it up after the book is done.

    As for the question of shortages - the issue, as I assume you know, is a matter of future shortages, not present ones. One doesn’t say “poof, here’s a nuclear power plant” - any build out is going to take several decades. So the question is whether we will have the energy and money in a post peak society to finish the nuclear power plants - and then to finish their lifecycle decades later, when the nuclear waste must be dealt with. Again, I haven’t done the math - and so far you’ve shown me no one who has done the really relevant math.


  17. Ailsa Ekon 21 May 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Nuclear, nuclear, nuclear. Pfui.

    What gets me is that everyone forgets hydro. New England was once the manufacturing center of the US based on hydro. If oil goes away, we probably will be again.

  18. Greenpaon 21 May 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Jase; “And for god’s sake, leave Chernobyl well enough alone - it is universally accepted by serious engineers and scientists that that reactor was designed to fail. This was even known at the time. ”

    Absolutely hilarious. You’ve made my point so beautifully. Yep, humans- knew- and did it anyway. That will never happen again, you say- but 100% of history says- oh, yes, it will. Really. And your “universally-by serious.. ” is an untruth. You’re playing just a tad fast and loose with reality there- not a good recommendation for why we should trust you regarding fissibles.

    And then you go on-”And if, or when, the analysis doesn’t turn out the way I thought it might, or would have wanted it to, I don’t scream and yell foul or bias.”

    Uh- excuse me? Exactly what then is your demand that we ignore Chernobyl??

    I admit to being ever so slightly curious as to the cause of your tightly closed mind. Do you teach nuclear engineering, and so have a huge investment in being right about it all? Or do you own stock in GE?

  19. jaseon 21 May 2008 at 1:31 pm

    “b. getting total emissions down below 350 ppm in a very short time.”

    See previous point about how that problem is mooted by the need for the continuation of civilization.

    “As for the question of shortages - the issue, as I assume you know, is a matter of future shortages, not present ones.”

    And, thanks to the miracles of modern civilization, money and energy can be stored over time. A surplus - or even a bare minimum amount - can be kept on hand for the duration of a project. If I’m baking bread, I don’t worry about whether or not I’ll have enough flour for the second loaf, I just get both loaves’ worth of flour ready when I start out.

  20. jaseon 21 May 2008 at 1:41 pm

    “You’ve made my point so beautifully.”

    What point? That humans can learn from their mistakes? Or that if something goes wrong once, then you should never never ever try it ever again, even if you understand completely what happened, know how to prevent it, and stand to reap huge benefits?

    “And your “universally-by serious.. ” is an untruth.”

    No, it’s a perfectly valid qualification. Any statement can be refuted by a handful of the lunatic fringe - Take “People know the earth is round,” or “Scientists agree that living species evolve.” Are there a few people who are still flat-earthers, a few ’scientists’ that don’t accept evolution? Yes. Thus, you say “Sensible people know the earth is round,” or “Rational scientists agree that living species evolve.”

    “Uh- excuse me? Exactly what then is your demand that we ignore Chernobyl??”

    Uh, because the well-documented studies show that the failure modes of Chernobyl have been analyzed, corrected for, and removed from modern reactor design? It’s not calling the case of Chernobyl biased or a foul, it’s calling on people to stop mischaracterizing it, lying about it, and generally getting it wrong.

    “I admit to being ever so slightly curious as to the cause of your tightly closed mind.”

    There’s a difference between having a “tightly closed mind” and knowing that a position is correct, and that the opposing position is wrong. Saying 2+2=4, and 2+2 != 5 doesn’t make someone close-minded - it makes them right.

  21. Ailsa Ekon 21 May 2008 at 1:42 pm

    Back when I was on soc.motss in the early ’90s, we had a “sit on your hands” rule. Arguing with the trolls only encourages them.

  22. Greenpaon 21 May 2008 at 2:19 pm

    Ailsa Ek - very true; my good friend Hank Roberts puts it “don’t feed the trolls”.

    The problem is identifying them. For me, Jase here has indeed slipped into the troll category, but the reason he’s still on here is that he does, at first glance, look like he might NOT be one; in which case he could be worth talking with.

    This, to shift the conversation, is a huge huge problem in the coming world of smaller communities. Crunchy Chicken a few posts back asked what kind of personal fantasies folks entertained for their own futures. A large percentage of the respondents had some version of “I dream of getting together with a good group of people and forming a little community on the land somewhere.”

    It’s a very enticing vision. The historical reality has been, however, that such communities very very rarely survive. Why? Crypto-trolls, in large part- and with them, other persons perhaps best described as community parasites.

    Intentional communities are launched with great hopes- and great good will, for all the others in the group. Down the road- it turns out that some members are just not very nice people- and others are just totally incompetent humans. Sometimes, a community can absorb and tolerate these; but sometimes it kills the community.

    None of this is likely news to this group; but I do have one piece of new information to share. A few months ago I was teaching a two day “thing”. At lunch, this very topic came up, and I discovered one of my students had been a founding member of “The Farm” - one of the very few 1970’s “hippie communes” that has actually survived, and thrives today.

    Delighted, I asked her how The Farm handled the problem of layabouts, nasties, and total incompetents. Her answer: “when it got to that point, we took them into town, and put them on a bus.”

    Wow. A gutsy community! And very very difficult to achieve. But most likely desperately important for survival.

    Guess what they’re doing these days? By golly - making films about… peak oil!

    Sometimes- the best thing for all, is to take them in to town; and put them on a bus.

  23. jaseon 21 May 2008 at 2:35 pm

    “Sometimes- the best thing for all, is to take them in to town; and put them on a bus.”

    Interesting. So, in a hypothetical post-peak world, you’d just go ahead and kill by exile anyone who didn’t mesh with the community? I’m curious as to what standards you’d envision for ‘busing’ someone out into the wild.

  24. Sharonon 21 May 2008 at 2:42 pm

    I’m going to close the nuclear discussion down for now - and I’d like everyone to respect that decision. Jase, you’ve shown that you are available for comment on this issue most of the time, so I officially promise to run an appropriate post to get a discussion of nuclear started after I have the book, when I have the time to give the discussion my attention. Until then, I’d like there to be some hope that if there are people out there dealing with basic peak oil understanding issues, they’d feel free to ask questions about them.

    If you want to talk about the basics of peak oil, the post specific and anything relevant that isn’t about nuclear, go ahead. But let’s save the detailed nuclear discussion for a couple of weeks.


  25. NMon 21 May 2008 at 3:27 pm

    Thank you for another lucid explanation of the situation, and the timely reminder that losing the lifestyle we’re accustomed to doesn’t mean that life will not be good, and well worth living. Many of us need to hear that, again and again, and be reminded, often, that the work we do and the choices we make matter. I find myself constantly repeating your arguments to friends (less cogently than you, I’m sorry to say), and citing your blog. Coming here is much-needed reality check, since it contrasts so strongly with the astonishing non-awareness I see and hear otherwise. NPR just had a piece about the current economic situation in the United States, that concluded it’s just a repeat of the 1970s. I missed the end, but DH found it reassuring. Augh. Oh, well — back to work.

  26. Ailsa Ekon 21 May 2008 at 3:39 pm

    “So, in a hypothetical post-peak world, you’d just go ahead and kill by exile anyone who didn’t mesh with the community? I’m curious as to what standards you’d envision for ‘busing’ someone out into the wild.”

    Seriously? OK. I’m not good at people either, so I can certainly see where the idea of getting shipped out if you won’t shape up is frightening, but if people want to survive in community, sometimes individuals have to be encouraged to go elsewhere, even if they haven’t got an “elsewhere” lined up to go.

    In a community, everyone is expected to contribute to the survival of the whole in some way. Remember the communist line, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs?” Well, unless you have a very good excuse (infant, very very old, etc.), you don’t get to be all need and no ability. I had a roommate for a while who couldn’t even hold down a temp job for a week, wanted me to keep him supplied with cheap vodka at all times, and refused to leave even when the landlord threatened to start eviction proceedings - and he has a long history of doing this, and is in fact still at it. Can you see a place for someone like that in a survival-level community, unless he’s willing to do something like childcare or cleaning or something else useful but non-strenuous to let the more energetic people get other things done?

  27. Meganon 21 May 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Hey Hamsters and Sharon and others, there’s a blurb in our online local paper today about our city council unanimously passing the creation of a peak oil task force in Bellingham to study energy issues and impact on our community. Go the Ham! There’s not much to the story, just that it passed unanimously, but very interesting and I’m glad our town is looking at the issues!

  28. Brad K.on 22 May 2008 at 6:00 am

    Sharon, I feel that you are playing word games here. The phrase you quoted, “Oil rises to $130 on supply concerns,” is a technical term for money traders.

    Their concern is about their money. They care less about whether the resource runs short, as long as they are making money on whatever happens.

    When you use the term ‘concern’, it is because you are concerned about the impact of the end of plentiful oil.

    I think you are overlooking the likelihood that the most immediate effect will be regional and world wars. The money traders with ‘concerns’ will be looking for ways to make more money, and that has always been a major motivation for war.

  29. rdheatheron 22 May 2008 at 8:25 am

    I heard on NPR’s business report(?) this morning that the reason oil is so expensive is that not enough money’s been thrown at the oil fields.

    head/desk with rolling eyes…..

  30. […] Colbert and Kunstler are great, but enough levity. This gave me chills. Hirsch says we will soon look at the prices we are paying at the pump today as “the good old days.” Watch this, and if this is new to you, Sharon Astyk has some great info for you. […]

  31. […] now, I think, is talking people down off of ledges, as Sharon Astyk’s friend Aaron had to do recently.  This task, somehow, feels much more doable to me than sounding the alarm.  I didn’t […]

  32. […] Sharon Astyk: Peak Energy and an Overview of Its Implications for Food […]

  33. Dirk Bruehlon 03 Sep 2008 at 1:50 pm

    You have to understand Energy to get answers about the impact of Energy Plants on our environment.
    Converting Energy has never ever 100% Energy-Output. There is always waist in form of heat. Nuclear Power Plants have a lot of negative impacts on the environment, on our society and our next generations (after people who installed nuclear power plants passed away), but one negative impact only people know who really understand Energy: Nuclear Power Plants generate a lot of heat waist into the environment, directly heating up our environment. If you add up all the heating planned nuclear power plants will do, you will find out if next generations are still able to survive on this planet!
    Only converting Solar Energy (which is not only Photo-Voltaic, but Wind- and Hydro-Power, too) into electrical or mechanical energy will not heat up our atmosphere additionally!

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