Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Transition for Humanity Into the Post-Petroleum Age: 10 Commandments.

On her blog, "Our Finite World", Gail Tverberg outlines the likely prognosis for humanity, and our best possible choices, as we run up against the Limits of Growth The case she unveils is, to say the least of it, sobering, but I am reminded of an article that I wrote some while ago, which, with a few amendments and reconsiderations, I now re-post here. The original set of 10 commandments provided a simple set of rules for members of a small community to live in reasonable harmony with one another, and that is essentially the requirement for an oil-dependent society that has necessarily fragmented into smaller communities, once its supply of oil has been severely curtailed. At first sight this does seem like a prognosis of "doom and gloom", as indeed it will be if there is no sensible scale-down of oil-fuelled activities. Indeed, a "wall" of fuel dearth will suddenly appear, and we will drive straight into it; or really be abandoned by the wayside of the petrol-fuelled journey of globalisation. So, here are some suggestions (not rules or commandments, but logical consequences and prospects for the era that will follow down the oil-poor side of Hubbert's peak). Overall, it will be necessary to curb our use of oil in the same amount as its rate of declining supply. The world's major 800 oil fields are showing an average production decline rate of -5%/year which determines the size of the "hole" that must be filled by a matching production rate of unconventional oil, just to preserve the status quo, let alone to permit a growth in supply. Clearly the depletion-rate will not be precisely linear, but certain courses of action are indicated.

(1) The real problem is that our society is based around the car. This is particularly so in the U.S., where it is (or has become) necessary to travel over significantly greater distances than in the U.K., and in Europe generally. Fuel is cheap in the U.S., and if it were not, the economy would grind to a halt. I have toured extensively in the U.S., giving lectures on environmental subjects, and indeed when I was scheduled to cover 10 venues in 14 days (on one trip) I needed to fly between almost all of them (except in Houston where I had two engagements in the same city), and was amazed at how much competition exists between airlines with the consequence that I could cover about 1,000 miles for around £30.00 ($50.00). The standard price would be probably four times that in the U.K., say from London to Edinburgh, which is less than 1,000 miles, but you gather my drift. As I have stressed before, in no way are cars part of the solution to the problem of sustainable living in the oil-poor era, which I predict we will see begin to emerge within about a decade from now. I have "done the math", and it seems clear enough that the massive amounts of fuel that we currently use cannot be replaced gallon-for-gallon by biodiesel, biobutanol, bioethanol or indeed biohydrogen - there just isn't enough arable land to grow the crop to make any of this stuff on a sufficient scale, certainly not if we want to keep growing food. A rise in car-share schemes would be a useful first step.

(2) That brings me onto the next vital issue - food production. Most farming will necessarily become organic. It is often argued that growing food organically (fertilized by plant mulch and animal manure, and without using chemical pesticides) requires more land than modern forced agriculture does. However, studies made by the Rodale Institute show that this is not the case Rock-phosphate fertilizer is another issue, since it may be challenging to maintain its supply throughout the present century, and thus there is a real incentive to recycle N and P from agricultural run-off and from human and animal waste, which would also address the problem of eutrophication and algal blooms. Methods of Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture need also to be introduced as a means for reducing the inputs of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and freshwater into farming

(3) Many urban conurbations can only support a small number of their very large populations. A city the size of London is a good example, with around 8 million people depending on where you draw the borders, which would pose a considerable exercise in relocating most of that number since London itself has insufficient arable land for the purpose of sustaining so many.

(4) Transportation is, of course, a major issue, beyond the availability of the "car". Virtually all goods on shop-shelves are imported - many from other countries, sometimes across the world, and certainly over considerable distances within these shores. Most of that will have to go, and local production will become the norm. Hence there will be an inevitable rise in local economies.

(5) This is a thorny matter, because it means that the accepted mechanisms of retail trade will need overhauling. Massive chain-retail industries, say McDonalds and many others, will have to to work on the local scale if they are to survive. Hence if we had a McDonalds in the village of Caversham, the burgers it sold would be made from locally farmed beef, not imported from Argentina, say. Everything will hence become more expensive, as the monopoly advantage of bulk-buying on an unimaginable scale will be lost. All such mechanisms rely on cheap oil and it is precisely the loss of that which we are planning for.

(6) Certainly in the U.K., once the world leader in engineering, we now manufacture relatively little because we can buy it more cheaply e.g. from China. However, the cost of imports will necessarily soar, and so if we want particular items (even cars), they will have to be made certainly within the U.K. The same argument applies for the U.S., and maybe even more so. Indeed, there is a certain joy to be had in the death of faceless corporate industries who we believe don't really care too much about individuals. Smaller local businesses do, because their livelihood depends on it. The developing world may be hard-hit, however, if the West no longer wants to buy their goods, and that development may atrophy - but it must in any case, since all of it is underpinned by the declining source of world oil supplies.

(7) The age of "consumerism" per se, is drawing to a close. This will impact on everything, and hard. We will never re-experience the oil-extravaganza of the 20th Century. Hence that kind of manufacture and supply will make its swansong. How indeed we will make anything in the future is a good question since oil and gas have served as both a basic manufacturing material and a fuel for industry. It is certain, however, that an emphasis on more essential items (warm clothes and pots and pans, say) will matter much more than devising novel gadgets for mobile-phones beyond their inaugural purpose of just talking to somebody. The entertainment industry, tourism and the service sector generally will begin to wrap-up.

(8) Having seen a huge reorganisation of education in the U.K., we will see far more, and maybe a return to some of the original technical colleges that have now become universities, and this might end much of the current pretence that the nation is better educated than ever before. With the fall of the intrinsic manufacturing industry (which was based on first coal and then oil), and high levels of unemployment in the 1980's, a whole generation of new universities was established and a general re-jigging of the system to fit the bums-on-seats funding policy. Hence some universities will offer whatever courses can swell their entry numbers, and so we see a rise in pharmacy while the real science of chemistry has declined sharply. The title "professor" needs to be looked at too, when in some universities a professor (that's "Full Professor" in the U.S., not lecturer) may have no scholarship in the subject he is allegedly a professor of!

How indeed can such an individual profess? Real knowledge and real levels of literacy and numeracy should be instilled from school levels and this does not seem to be the case even though we have never had more "university graduates". Indeed some companies e.g. Zeneca, in exasperation, are now training their own staff, taking them at age 16, rather than training poorly educated graduates. This is indeed how industry used to gain its ultimately senior staff (they worked their way up), and it would avoid the mandatory "student debt" that has been enforced on the young by vastly expanding the numbers of university places but then removing the maintenance grant system, which now would be absurdly expensive for the government to fund. My novel "University Shambles" satirises some of the absurdities that have come about in the hastily expanded British university system

(9) The high-tech medical system will also be unable to survive. Most of modern medicine depends on oil and gas, at the simplest level to get hospital staff to work in the mornings. Even bandages and dressings, drugs and high-tech equipment such as heart monitors and devices to jolt an arrested heart back into life depend on oil as a manufacturing feedstock along with a stable electricity supply to run them. There will likely be less cosmetic surgery, and organ transplants too. The NHS in the U.K. was set-up primarily to fight infectious diseases, and this might be more effectively done working on a smaller community scale, than in confronting a highly mobile world population with the means to transport diseases too. That knowledge gained in the successful control of much infection should be prized and taught as part of the new physicianship.We may see the return of the "cottage hospital" which like a local farm, attends to the needs of a fairly small community, rather than massive city hospitals and health centres. Preventative medicine will come to the fore, since prevention is indeed much more effective (and less demanding of resources) than cure.

(10) This, the final item, is a round-up of what has already been alluded to. Life will necessarily become more locally focussed. If people are unable to move around so freely, they will tend to stay where they are. A likely successful outcome for we humans in the imminent oil-poor era will be met through thinking and planning on the scale of small communities. Some regions will naturally have certain advantages over others and disadvantages too, e.g. whether there is access to transport/energy from a river or plenty of crop-land or woodland. That said, the internet should not be lost, otherwise we will become hidden from one another in small isolated community pockets, and that would be a seriously retrograde step. Optimistically, this may be a good time to think about setting up your own local business in wherever it is you choose to settle. Now that is an important choice to make, as you may find yourself stuck there if you don't like it!

Monday, August 10, 2015

"Look and Learn"! A View from 1966.

This is the title of a recently re-discovered book from my childhood, published in 1966, in which there is an article  entitled "The World's Great Powerhouse", which refers to the putative prospects for solar energy, as envisaged almost 50 years ago, and makes fascinating reading now. As it states, "In one year the sun gives out more energy than will ever be obtained from all the world's coal and oil. How can it be harnessed? How can it be used to prevent land becoming desert?" As time has unfolded them over the past half-century, these matters are now at a critical stage in regard to the intrinsic availability of fossil fuels, our use of them, and the non-maintainable rate at which we are eroding the world's soils. Indeed, 2015 has been proclaimed as "International Year of Soil", is the call to arms to protect this fragile, living skin of the earth

The article refers to the power of the sun, and how it may be accidentally harnessed by a carelessly discarded bottle which starts a fire, laying waste to "millions of acres" of forest, and the familiar childhood experiment with a magnifying glass that sets fire to  piece of paper held in the focus of its lense. It is noted that coal and oil are non-renewable resources and that "It takes millions of years to create coal and oil, but man is using them up at a fantastic rate." And indeed, he continues to do so, consuming almost one thousand barrels of crude oil every second. The statistic is given that "The amount of sunshine falling on the whole world creates an amount of heat which would equal 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes of coal being burned." The amount of energy hitting the top of the Earth's atmosphere is reckoned to be 174 Peta-Watts, and so over a year, that equals 5.49 x 10^24 J. Assuming that the coal is anthracite, we have an energy content of 32.5 GJ/tonne meaning that the above mentioned 4 x 10^23 tonnes of it would release 1.3 x 10^34 J, so the "Look and Learn" estimate of the annual solar energy equivalent in terms of coal appears to be overestimated, which should be nearer 169,000,000,000,000 tones of coal.

For the most part, the article addresses the thermal power of sunlight, and how difficult, yet tantalising, is the prospect of "trapping at least some of it", and is prescient in terms of the development of solar thermal power stations, giving mention to "use reflectors, either glass mirrors or sheets of polished metal" to concentrate the sun's rays on a "big scale". Such power plants have subsequently been developed, e.g. the 354 MW SEGS solar complex in northern San Bernardino County, California Smaller. Smaller scale devices are alluded to, e.g. the "hot umbrella" solar cooker, and passing mention is made of "silicon cells" which had not so long been developed, but were by then the main source of energy for Earth-orbiting satellites and space-probes, and remain so to this day It is salient however that even now, little more than 1% of global electricity demand is met from solar energy

The prospects for extracting useful elements from the oceans are visited later on in the book under the heading "Amazing Treasure House of the Sea." Although there are indeed vast quantities of various elements contained in seawater (e.g. 100 tonnes of silver and 600 tonnes of copper in each cubic mile of it), the problem of obtaining them is similar to that implicit in harvesting solar energy, namely that being present in fairly diffuse abundance, it is necessary to concentrate them into useful amounts, which poses a considerable challenge. Research continues, in an effort to find materials that might serve as "filters" for the extraction of substances such as uranium from seawater, which it is said would make nuclear power an effectively limitless technology in terms of its fuel supply

The final section of the book is called simply "Oil!", the exclamation mark being given to emphasise the importance of this remarkable substance to most human activities. As is stated, "In 1859 oil came from the world's first well to light the lamps of America. From these modest beginnings, rose a vast industry which today supplies the nations of the world with the life-blood of civilization." It is indeed the life-blood of the global human mechanism, and it is significant to note that in 1964, 1,405 million tonnes of oil were produced throughout the world, which is equal to around 10 billion barrels. We may note that current oil production is 84.9 million barrels a day or 31 billion barrels in a year, and so although the global population has a little more than doubled in the past half century, our use of oil has trebled. The article observes that, "Drills bore down nearly five miles into the earth to obtain it; floating derricks probe the sea bed in the everlasting search for more supplies. So vital is the possession and safety of oil pipelines that they have become a major concern of many governments." Thus the increasing difficulty of maintaining the global oil production was noted even then, long before it became necessary to drill in ever deeper fathoms of water, to process "oil" from bitumen in tar sands, and to frack hydrocarbons out of shale, as is done now to prop up the global oil supply.

The book itself was a Christmas present to me, I think from my Great Grandmother (on my mother's side of the family), as it is signed "Nan", which we all called her. She was Welsh (as indeed am I, having been born in Cardiff), and a resilient lady, being the widow of a slate miner, killed in a roof-fall underground. Left with two very young sons to bring up, and needing a man's wage in the house, out of expediency she made an arrangement with her lodger "Griffith" (who had himself been injured in the mine, and walked with a stick and a dragging leg), to become his wife. She was 10 years older than him, and lived to be 93. They seemed very content, as I recall.

The coalmines of Wales are now largely abandoned, although there is the odd mention that they might be reopened, so long as clean burn technology (CCS) is introduced to any power stations they may fuel In all probability the fossil fuels will be with us for some time, but ideally in the service of sustaining us as we Transition to a less global and more local way of doing things. Probably there is no simple substitute for oil, and limitations on the number of electric vehicles we may have in the future, hence our salvation might be looked for in more resilient, and more sustainable communities. However, I do not deceive myself that this transformation will be easy and painless. In a new order of lower energy and more locally based lifestyles we may need to learn more of the kind of practical skills that the likes of and Nan and Griffith knew.