Monday, January 29, 2007

Peak Oil within 12 Months... but that's good, isn't it?!

A conference held in Cardiff with the title "One Planet Agriculture" is underpinned by the theme that global supplies of oil will begin to ebb within 12 months. I have sensed murmurs about "fuel rationing", and optimistic reassurances that when this happened during and post WWII it did not cause the collapse of society. However, that was an entirely different society from the one that is now hosted on these shores. Hopefully there remains sufficient integratedness and national identity to hold it together now. Indeed, some hardship may forge cooperation within the necessarily localised communities that will pocket themselves when casual free-range transportation is no longer an option. Transportation itself must be the first mechanism to be hit by a restricted availability of fuel. This however, does not only mean that we can probably forget about jetting-off on cheap foreign holidays, and commuting from say Cardiff to London to get to work, but also the carriage of all goods including food, within that mighty mechanism of Globalisation. We will need to produce locally, and perhaps as happened in Cuba when more recently than WWII the Russians cut-off the liberal supplies of fuel and fertilisers that were their reward for being that sensitive outpost of Communism, a new society will flourish in small regional pockets, supplied by local farms. It is a point worth stressing too, that the black-gold on which the modern world has become enplaced is not only used to be refined into fuel, but it is also a necessary chemical feedstock for industry, and everything now depends on imported oil either as a fuel or a raw-material for manufacture, or both of these things. I would not be typing these words, were it not for the petroleum-based plastics industry that has somewhere churned-out this, yet another of the millions of keyboards upon which billions of hands mark out their daily diary of a lifestyle that has become customary in that part of the world. Whatever happens, we must maintain the internet and the world communications network, rather than humanity disappearing into packets of isolated darkness hidden from one another's view. But nonetheless, humans themselves will largely stay put and act on a largely locally focused level.
The Cardiff conference was organised by the Soil Association, who think that while the agriculture of the 20th century was driven by government-run, centralised systems of farming and food distribution, in the 21st century (and probably for ever more) its basis will be localisation. So that means we are now in the last days of Globalisation. No one can say precisely when Peal Oil will hit, but all serious estimates are than it will happen sometime before 2010 - i.e. within about 3 years, and so that "within 12 months" projection doesn't look so wild. The world will not find itself without oil overnight, but its costs will soar as the sweeping tail of oil reserves is steadily extracted. It is estimated that by 2021, we will have just half of the current oil reserves left; however, that oil is as I have explained before, more difficult to extract and to refine - it is a heavier, dirtier oil that needs more intensive processing. But long before then we will have been forced to change how we live.
Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association put it thus: "in hindsight, the fossil fuel era will be described as a sort of extravaganza where we lived beyond our means, treating capital as income and squandered all this energy." Well said, and indeed the rapid growth (mathematically close to exponential) in the world population can be plotted on the same function as used to describe oil extraction. The global family has worn and eaten oil, since it is used to run modern agriculture, along with producing the forcing artificial chemical fertilisers that have resulted in the depletion of soil in most of the world, such that much of its organic (humic) component is gone and it is ever closer to being a mere lifeless solid support. Farming will have to become "organic" because there will be no choice. It is often portrayed that we are "bad people" for our profligacy, and lack of foresight that resources are finite and mutable. However, we are just the same as any species, even bacteria. When bacteria are placed in an environment of plenty, e.g. on a Petri Dish, to grow, their rate of growth follows an "S-shaped curve". There is an initial slow rise, until a critical population of bacteria exists, and then a very rapid population explosion, until finally the food runs out, the population levels off and then they start eating each other. It is not a nice comparison when placed into human terms, and yet we are beginning to see wars over that particular precious resource of oil. So, maybe we are not so different from bacteria, but we should be. Greed only came about on a mass scale when there was sufficient plenty for acquisitiveness to reach planetary proportions - and that, our present consumer society, is entirely based on oil.
We are poised on the fulcrum of Peak Oil - the balance point between plenty and dearth. Only by adopting a programmed transition to lower energy "localisation" can life become sustainable. It may even become more worthwhile, restoring the sense of connectedness that seems to have been lost in the soulless material void of "more". That is not wealth at all. Spiritual and human values might begin their own rise in a new phase of consciousness. However, the practicalities are that it will take perhaps 10 years to augment a fully alternative structure of localisation, and so we must begin today, while there is still sufficient oil left to make it happen. In five years it may be too late.


Anonymous said...

What if you consider about solar energy.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

I think solar energy (both photovoltaics and water heating systems) could become an essential component of the energy mix of localised communities. The point is that the oil is running out, and so whatever technologies are to be implemented in the "Brave New World" of restricted travel, should begin their development on a practical sclae (not just at the research-level) immediately, while there is still a reasonable abundance of conventional fuels to do so! Thanks for your comment, spm. Regards, Chris.

Anonymous said...

Seems as though I should make it a priority to see something of the world before I'm confined to the company of yokel retards in the miserable future the soil association so eagerly anticipates.

From the consumerism of the 21rst century to the life of a peasant. Just great! Spend all your money now because your accounts will probably be frozen. Also, if you have savings; not much point in turning up to work.

Coal liquefaction could help us out of this nightmare, but we don't seem to have a single plant established, here in the UK. Now, that's gross negligence, surely?

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

My point is that we need to ease the slide down the oil-poor side of the production peak. I agree, coal liquefaction could (and should) be involved in ironing-out some of those bumps. The prospect of an "overnight" (or within a few years) transformation from consumerism to toiling the sod is horrible - I quite agree. Yet there appears to be no plan beyond expanding military forces, for what purpose? - to grab more of what is left of that declining trillion barrels that everybody wants and which will become in any case harder to refine into anything useful. It is a desperate situation that hurtles toward us - crazy! The U.K. could lead in establishing a sustainable compromise involving technology but with increasing localisation. Not a sudden crash - which is what will happen if nothing is done. Chris.