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Revisiting the Riot for Austerity

admin April 25th, 2011


Almost exactly four years ago, my friend Miranda Edel and I were discussing the recent IPCC report on Climate Change and George Monbiot’s book _Heat_ and the reactions that we got when we talked about about the sheer depth of the reductions in climate emissions that would be needed to stabilize the climate.  Whenever we began to discuss emissions reductions on the order of 80 or 90% (depending on your country of origin – for the US Monbiot’s estimate was 94%, although there are reasons to question that number now), the universal reaction we got was that it was impossible – impossible to imagine living in the developed world on so much less.  So impossible there was no point in even discussing or imagining it.
Miranda and I disagreed.  We felt that this critical inability to conceive of what was necessary was something that we had to – and have to – overcome.  Both of us were aware of material limits on a renewable energy build out, and the time frame for such a transition, and we knew that the evidence at the time increasingly suggested that we had to make our changes sooner than we could possibly imagine such an energy transition.  Moreover, both of us looked at this through the lens of energy and resource depletion as well as climate change, recognizing that there were forces driving us towards a life with less whether we like it or not.
Someone, we agreed, had to take the very first steps to conquering the underlying doubt that we can change.  Someone had to do the basic work of establishing a vision of a life in the Global North that doesn’t include conspicuous consumption of energy.  More importantly even, as long as we felt that our response to climate change and energy depletion had to wait on policy measures – to wait for the high speed rail lines and superinsulated new homes, to wait for carbon credits or whatever, we would not act.  We needed to find a way to show that you can act right now – and make not a little tiny difference by carrying your cloth bag, but a big and measurable one – a change that nobody else thought was possible. We stole from George Monbiot the wonderful line “Nobody ever rioted for austerity!”  He was right – no population in human history has marched and demonstrated to have less.  We figured we’d be the first.
Miranda and I set out to document our project and spend a year reducing our energy consumption by 90% over the average American’s. What we didn’t expect was that first dozens, then hundreds, and by the end, several thousand people joined us.  We had expected to struggle.  We hadn’t expected to find community, and most of all, to have fun.  Perhaps we should have, though – as historian Timothy Breen has shown, rituals of non-consumption replace rituals of consumption and are as satisfying to most people as the consumption.  That is, while during wartime, people might miss meat or sugar or drives in the country, that the communal exercise of substitution becomes a good in itself – so exchanging recipes for cakes that use less sugar and playing cards instead of taking drives becomes just as satisfying when you are acting together for a collective purpose.
We set out to cut our usage in 7 categories – Electricity, Heating and Cooking Energy, Gasoline/Transportation Energy, Garbage, Water Usage, Consumer Good Consumption and Food Energy Consumption (we were not, in fact, striving to reduce our food intake by 90% ;-) ).  We measured our baselines and ran the calculations.  A few months into the project, my wonderful friend Edson built a calculator for us, so that you could just plug in your elecric usage and know where you were.
People joined us from 15 countries – and did their own baselines and measurements.  We had people from cities and countrysides and suburbs, the elderly and families with multiple children, the healthy and the disabled, the rich and the poor.  We listened, shared strategies, argued about the best way to do things.  We tried things and failed.  We got frustrated when it seemed like it would never work.  We celebrated, as for example, when there was a Riot for Austerity wedding!
Some fundamental revelations emerged.  The first was that the first 50% reduction in energy usage isn’t that hard for most of us – that was heartening.  Most people could get big drops in energy usage by making changes that weren’t too difficult.  After that, of course, it got harder.  We also found that most of us had a Waterloo – a place where we found ourselves struggling.  Out here in the country it was transport energy.  In the cities, it might be food and consumer goods.  We shared our struggles, and thrilled when someone made it – our friends Larry and Gail dropped their electric usage to well below 90%.  Someone asked “do you even live in your house?”  Not only did they live there, they worked out of it too!
In June of 2008, my family had achieved 80% in all categories, at least at one point.  We had achieved our 90% goal with water usage, but slid back up again to about 60% down from the American average, as our climate became increasingly wet – our 60+ inches of rain annually simply meant we didn’t feel we had to reduce our water usage quite so much.  We were never able to consistently keep transportation energy down to 90% – my oldest, disable son’s busing and the distance from Eric’s job made that harder for us out here in a rural area.  We had to settle for using only 4/5ths of the energy used in most households.
We have kept our energy levels down at the 80% mark for the most part, except for water and a home renovation project that put us well over the consumer goods limit one year.  By the end of 2008, a great deal of more data about climate change had emerged, and between that and the lack of political action that followed President Obama’s election, it became clearer and clearer that world action on climate change either had not or would not come in time (depending on whether you think we’re already past critical tipping points, which may be the case.)  While we’d never expected to change the world wholly, even the most dedicated families, the ones who had been living the Riot most passionately began to ask the same questions – why should I do this if it isn’t going to make any difference?
Meanwhile, my appearance in the New York Times as an advocate of carbon restriction had been played to create a new pathology – the Riot for Austerity wasn’t even mentioned, and I was classed in a story with other environmental activists as a “Carbo-rexic” – someone who was pathologically afraid to use their fair share of carbon.  The story did its best to portray me as a bad mother – taking several remarks out of context and implying that my children were freezing to death in their home (actually, when the article was run, the photographer wanted to take pictures of them under their blankets, but they declined because it was 80 degrees ;-) ), saying they “huddled together for warmth” (again, it was 80 – no huddling!) and implying that we didn’t let our son play baseball, the great American pastime because Mom is an environmental meanie.  For a couple weeks after we were bombarded with threats to call CPS, and we were afraid we would be investigated. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth about exposing my family’s experience in too much detail.
The Riot, born of the attention to climate change that followed 2006-7 emerged from a hope that it was possible to create a grassroots, collective response to climate change that would accompany other responses.  As it became more obvious that 90% wasn’t enough, that 350, not 450 was the target  and that we weren’t going to do anything about climate change, I shifted my focus towards adapting to energy and economic issues.  While we still used comparatively ilttle energy, we focused more on “Adapting in Place” than on Rioting for Austerity.
I have wanted to revisit the Riot for Austerity for a long time, but have been hesitant to do so, to start again, because I was struggling with a good answer to the question “Why do it?”  It isn’t that I think it is any less critical to learn to live on much less than it was in 2007.  It isn’t that I think cutting carbon emissions matters less – there’s a big difference between 550ppm and 800ppm.  It isn’t that I don’t believe that one of the central projects of dealing with both climate change and peak energy is to create a new American Dream, a vision of a life that can actually go forward into the world we have – a dream that requires less money, less energy, and that replaces the consumption at its center with something better.  I believe in these things, but I also understand why people ask “Why do with so much less if it won’t stop climate change, won’t delay an energy peak? Why live now like I’m going to have to then?  Why do the hard thing, when there’s so much hard coming?”
I’ve come to believe there are three reasons.  The first, is that it isn’t that hard – and that getting the most out of little is an art form, a pleasure, a life worth having and enjoying.  The second is the reason articulated by my old friend and colleague Dmitry Orlov, where he observes that if you are facing a fall out of a window, you’d probably prefer to fall out a first story window, rather than a second story window – that is, everything you can do to get yourself closer to the place you are going anyway softens your fall.  The third is that it is simply right.  Our narrative in which we in the Global North use so much more than everyone else on the planet implies that no one else minds, that such inequities are fundamentally normal and acceptable.  But, of course, everyone else does mind.  Our actions make their world less habitable.  Our consumption leaves less for our posterity.  This is wrong – and it is based on a fundamental lie.  We must find a way to change our lives, not so much because it might save us from the worst consequences of our behavior – might spare us the floods, the heat waves, the hurricanes, the tropical diseases – that’s just getting out of the logical consequences.  Instead, we have to change our ways because they are wrong, and we should do right instead.
So starting on June first, I’m revisiting the Riot for Austerity – my family is going to try and get back down in some of the places we’ve crept up, and we invite the rest of you – those of you who did it before, those of you who never to join us.  I’ll make some changes here – we’ll probably make our group go on facebook instead of yahoogroups (not 2007 anymore ;-) ), and I need to run a new set of numbers, as the data for the American baseline has changed, but the basic project is the same.  So is the basic goal – as long as most of us in the North feel that there’s nothing we can do but cling with both hands to a way of life that is doomed, we will both suffer the consequences of our clinging and also doom others with us.  The moment we can find a way out, a new story to tell, a new way of life, and the power to act on our own, we begin again.
There’s more to come, as with all new beginnings!

Steven Kopits on Peak Cost of Production

admin January 11th, 2011

I get the privelege of editing the Peak Oil Review Commentary, as part of my role on the ASPO board.  This is utterly delightful since it means I get to read a lot of good stuff ahead of everyone else.  Steven Kopits, a private energy consultant, has written a really fascinating piece for this week, which contains it, among other fascinating nuggets, this bit:

Nor has capital become more productive. From 1995 to 2004, $180 billion of upstream capital expenditure would deliver 1 million b/d of incremental oil, condensate and natural gas liquids production. From 2005, when the oil supply stalled, through year-end 2010, producing the same volume required $1.07 trillion, a six-fold increase — even after allowing for the $100 billion the Saudis invested in their spare, and currently idle, capacity.

Thus, increasing the oil supply now requires either six times as much money, or technology six times more productive, than it did a decade ago. This suggests that neither a modest increase in capital spending nor modest technological improvement will create additional supply. There is not a bigger oil resource available for just slightly more investment or marginal technology improvement. In the case of oil, “halfway through” does actually imply peak oil. Put another way, Hubbert‘s production curve is accompanied by Hubbert‘s cost curve. The cost of extraction does increase, and it is likely to increase at an increasing pace.

I’ve rarely seen the cost of production issues articulated so clearly and coherently, and this goes in my repetoir of useful information!


Peak Energy Vs. Climate Change: Stupidest Debate Ever

Sharon November 16th, 2009

Kjell Aleklett should really pretty much stop talking about climate change, because he looks like a fool when he does.  And that’s not a good thing, given that he’s not one - on energy he’s done deeply important work, and I’d hate to see people dismiss it because he says dumb things about the climate.

Here’s a good example from his screed:

“How will our well-being be affected by the expected growth in population? How will this affect our food supply, our climate, our economy and our hopes for peace? In Copenhagen the hungry will prioritise more food on the table before an unaltered climate. The poor nations want economic growth and we all know that this requires more fossil energy use. To see this we only need to study the development of China or India, or even Sweden from 1945 to 1970. In Copenhagen, this will mean that they will not want to sacrifice economic growth on climate’s altar. Ultimately, it comes down to we, the wealthy nations, not wanting to bear the cost of all the carbon dioxide waste we have dumped into the atmosphere without the poor and hungry also paying out.

In Copenhagen global emissions of carbon dioxide will be discussed and, for the sake of our future climate, it would be a good thing if emissions were reduced. However, according to the human well-being equation, it is not carbon dioxide but, rather, energy that is needed to produce food and to turn the wheels of the economy. By clever marketing of unrealistic future scenarios the IPCC has blinded the world’s politicians – particularly those in the EU – to these facts. Light was shone onto this issue when President Obama noted the importance of energy in a speech some days after his inauguration. He said, “No single issue is as fundamental to our future as energy” and I with many others began to hope for a brighter future when the Nobel prizewinning physicist Steven Chu was appointed as the USA’s Secretary of Energy.”

There’s not a single citation in this article, so, for example, his observation that we use a lot of energy to produce food now is left to stand with his presumption that we will require the same amount of energy to produce food in the long term.  In _A Nation of Farmers_ Aaron and I observe that low-input agriculture has largely kept approximate pace with high input agriculture, and that in periods of climate instability, low input agriculture that improves soil actually does better than industrial agriculture.  So no, we don’t need as much energy as we have been using for food.  Will we have a hard time feeding ourselves?   Undoubtedly, but “we use this much now, which means we must use more later” assumes that we can keep industrial society going on the same track – and even Aleklett knows we can’t.

We’ll also note that Aleklett simply doesn’t believe climate change is a serious issue, and has said so.  He seems, in the article, to be implying that he does, but he’s been more explicit in other writings.  He claims, again completely without evidence that the IPCC scenarios are “unrealistic” – which they are – but in the wrong direction.  All the material evidence – and by this I mean not-up-for-debate stuff like “how fast the ice is melting” which you can see by looking at it, or by fairly simple measures – suggests that the IPCC scenarios are unrealistic in that they *understate* the rate at which climate change *is happening* – not is projected to occur.  He gives lip service to the fact that we should put out less carbon, but then goes on to suggest we need more carbon sources.  

But the biggest and dumbest gap in this is that Aleklett doesn’t seem to have any recognition that addressing climate change *is* about food.  At the simplest levels, countries that are underwater don’t grow a lot of food.  Neither do countries who depend heavily on meltwater from glaciers that dry up and disappear (again, this isn’t a hypothetical, you can go see it).  Aleklett doesn’t seem to be familiar with research that higher temperatures will dramatically reduce yields of wheat, rice and corn, the staple crops that provide the vast majority of the world’s calories.  And desertification (in part caused by climate change, but also caused by the very oil-infused agriculture that Aleklett says we desperately need to preserve) will take large chunks of grainland out of production.  Copenhagen will almost certainly fail, but the idea that people in Copenhagen don’t get that this is about food is just laughably ignorant.  It is Kjell Aleklett who doesn’t seem to grasp that this is very much about food.

But more importantly, and the reason I’m being so hard on him, is that this represents two sides of a strain of thought that I think is truly destructive to the agenda of both Peak Energy and Climate Change.  On the one side, you have peak energy thinkers, frustrated that climate change gets all the attention, who falsely believe that they have to poke holes the fairly iron-clad science of climate change, because they are competing for attention and resources.  On the other side are climate change advocates who ridicule or simply minimize the importance of peak energy, because their assumptions all presume a stable economy and energy supply to build upon.  There’s a “we’re only allowed to have one big central problem, and we have fight over it” attitude, that presents a completely false dichotomy - a dumbass logical error  that a freshman in high school should be able to dissect.

The truth is this – we know for a fact that peak oil is real.  Why do we know this?  Because we’ve seen it happen right here in the USA.  No matter what technologies we use, no matter how much we invest, the US hit peak oil in the early 1970s, and hasn’t passed Saudi Arabia since.  We can look at all the other countries who have done the same.   It is a geological fact of life – and the preponderance of the evidence, slowly, solidly coming in is that the world is at or past its peak, that Saudi Arabia has been fudging its numbers with seawater. 

We know that other resources are going to peak too – and many of them soon.  We’re not sure exactly how much coal there is, but we do know that North American Natural Gas, for example, is a likely near-peak.  We know that we are already seeing high energy price volatility, we know that it is affecting our economy, not to mention our ability to get by personally.  We’re never going to know, year to year, how much food (tied to energy) and heat are going to cost us.   We know that if it isn’t going to get worse in the near-term (which is the more likely scenario, IMHO, since it is already happening), it is going to get worse in the long term, and ethically speaking, screwing the next generation is how the last couple of generations have handled this, and is not ethical.  So there’s not much doubt about this – we’ve got to deal with an energy decline, and rapidly.

The same is true of climate change – the climate is changing.  We know this – we can look at the pictures of glaciers in 1950 and glaciers now.  We can look at the arctic ice.  Anyone who lives near an ocean can go see the houses, once comfortably back from the sea’s edge, now hanging precariously.  We can look at flower bloom, and bird migrations and climate (not weather) patterns and see a consistent and substantial alteration over a very short time.  This is not rocket science.

We also know why the climate is changing.  The Greenhouse effect is not controversial – if it didn’t exist, the earth would be a lifeless rock, so cold it couldn’t support life at night, so hot it couldn’t support it during the day, just like the moon.  We know without any doubt that the gasses in our atmosphere are what warm the climate.  We know that there are more of them.  We know that more of them correspond with warmer periods in history from ice core samples.  We know that each gas has demonstrable warming effect, and we can demonstrate that their concentrations are growing.   You can certainly get more complicated than this, but again, it isn’t rocket science. 

There is no question that climate change is going to radically impact our lives – and soon.  It already is, if, say, you live in a low-lying area, or if you rely on meltwater, or if you are noticing more heat waves and drought or worried about the health consequences to you or your asthmatic daughter or you aging mother.  And just like it is wildly unethical to pass off our energy problems to the next generation, it is even less ethical to pass off our climate problem – because both effect basic things like whether we’ll eat or not.

In both cases, there are sensitive bits up for discussion – precise climate sensitivity, and exactly when the peak is/was.  Nothing is perfect, but overwhelmingly, the debate on both subjects is effectively over.  And that means that the scientists and thinkers on both sides of who are sitting there waving their hands saying “My problem is more important!  No, Mine!” are wasting a lot of time and energy on the false idea that we can’t have two central problems at the same time.  This is dumb – and it delays creating an appropriate response.

The truth is that we have at least two central problems (the economic one is tied to both in the long term), and only people who can get their mind around the combined difficulty will have anything useful to offer.  Yes, we need to know how what fossil fuels are in the ground – and we also can’t burn them rapidly.  Yes, we need to address climate change – and we need to stop lying and claiming that we can have it all – a happy growth economy based on renewable energy, yada yada. 

Thankfully, ther are people doing good work on both issues – people who really get it, like James Hansen and Richard Heinberg.  They haven’t fallen into the false dichotomy.  They haven’t missed that this really is all about “who eats” – and that we can’t see the whole picture of our future just looking through one eyepiece of a pair of binoculars.

Does Richard Heinberg Ever Sleep?

Sharon November 15th, 2009

So there’s his new coal book, which I haven’t even had a chance to finish my review of, and now Heinberg and Jerry Mander have put together an analysis the possibilities of *any* energy resource to meet needs to 2100?!?!  The man writes books and major papers faster than I read them – and I have been accused of prolificacy m’self.

 It is definitely worth a look, and different from all the other many things like this in two respects.  First, it emphasizes the impact of net energy, which is an extremely important concept – the energy density and net return of our resources is not something even folks who do this stuff always pay full attention to.  The second thing worth looking at is that they actually sit down with all the major options, renewable and not, and ask the question – how do we go on from here.

 It has a typical Heinberg (I like Jerry Mander a lot too, but the language and careful balancing are very much Heinberg) delivery – a little on the dry side, but extraordinarily clear and comprehensible – and it is worth looking at for the compiled info on EROEI and on the possible costs of retrofit. 

Here’s the Energy Bulletin link, but do read the whole thing – it’ll be worth it, not because the information is new – anyone who thinks hard about it knows that the energy bodied in a Toyota is “too damn much to keep up” – but because it offers another way of seeing the nails going into the coffin.


Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: Whistleblower says IEA Lied About How Much Oil is Left

Sharon November 10th, 2009

You’ll all want to see this – it seems like the mainstream media is picking it up.  It turns out that an IEA whistleblower is alleging that the IEA, succumbing to US government pressure, has been understating the seriousness of our energy situation.  And if you don’t follow the IEA, you probably don’t realize how extreme a statement that is – late last year the IEA announced that was predicting extremely high decline rates, of above 6% going into the coming decades.  They claimed this stemmed not from peak oil, but from insufficient investment, but the numbers they cited were at least as dramatic as the most extreme peak oil advocates in many cases.  So you want to pay attention when people say that the IEA has dramatically understated the concern. 

Perhaps more importantly, these allegations, if true, will confirm what independent Petroleum Geologists have been saying for years now – that we simply can’t trust national interests to honestly state our oil reserves.  Basically, we have no idea how much oil we have left – except that it is almost certainly less than we imagined.


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