Category: Peak Oil


Naomi Klein (TED)

Literature is filled with strange tales of monsters lurking in the woods or other elements and the lengths to which lost travelers must go in order to survive in the vast, deep wilderness. Wildlife in these stories is as plentiful as it is dangerous. Bears, wolves and large cats bound into the man versus nature conflict whenever the unsuspecting wayfarer’s attention and strength are at an ebb. Living off the land in a foreign environment, without the resources and safety of the village are portrayed as an existential test of strength, tenacity and pluck against the unknown dangers of the gigantic world beyond the meadows in the immediate vicinity of the hero(ine)’s hamlet.

"The Voyage of Life - Childhood" by Thomas Cole (1842) (National Gallery of Art, via Wikipedia)

The narrative was first developed by the enscription of Epic of Gilgamesh into clay cuneiform tablets around 2600 BCE, though it is more famously rendered in Homer’s relatively recent 800 BCE Odyssey. Somehow this narrative has survived despite the passage of nearly a thousand generations of people over forty-seven centuries without regard to the massive changes in technology and the scale of human populations since those times. The first paragraph of the Odyssey, as translated by Samuel Butler begins:

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home

The world population never exceeded 15 million people before the development of agriculture in northern Africa by ~ 12,000BCE. That is 25% less than the population of the New York Metro Area today. The world population has increased fully 460 times that value in the intervening years. There were only about 450 million people by the time that Little Red Riding Hood was first told in the 14th century CE.

Energy use per person was nil at the time of Gilgamesh but now average power consumption among 300 million Americans is 12,000W per person, roughly twice that of the average Western European, nine times that of the average Chinese person and twelve times that of the average Indian. But as 2.4 billion Chinese and Indians seek a better life, we risk the prospect of requiring 11 America-equivalents of power consumption within 30 years. The world’s biome is already fracturing at the current capacity of 5 America-equivalents and in all honesty, it can not sustain even one for the long term.

The solution is simple: Convert to wind and solar power and decetralize consumption in society. It is possible and we can do it. The investment would be no more than that which created the vast petroleum network we use to fill our cars every day. But because we would no longer need to purchase power, this is a tremendous problem for petrochemical companies who have worked with the Tea Party to introduce legislation to eliminate wind power in Montana and soon Wisconsin and other states. This means that as we continue to consume oil, we take greater and greater risks with our environment. We are told that everything will be ok – do not worry about climate change. Climate has changed before! Stay the course!

Google Maps image of Tar Sand Extraction near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada (Google Maps)

Disappointingly, the major news media, who display big oil advertisements have obfuscated the issue, it is simpley the nature of a for profit institution to seek profit over truth. These companies do not want change because they are doing well enough as it is and their executives are incredibly wealthy. CEOs will always be able to afford food, even when no one else can. Their advertising is like the veritable wolf in grandma’s garb as Little Red Riding Hood walks into the house with butter and cakes.

Still, Environmental degradation is plainly visible if we simply pay attention. The BP Oil Disaster is a clear and ominous sign and another is much less widely known – the Alberta Tar (Oil) Sands. The U.S. has reduced its consumption of oil from the Middle East, but it now consumes far dirtier oil (it creates 3x the carbon dioxide of normal oil in production and use) and we are stripping bare vast regions of Alberta’s Boreal Forest. The impact can be seen from space. Gray area in the Google Map Image are current extraction sites near Fort McMurray. The small brown rectangles you see surrounded by green forest regions that are being logged before becoming new strip mines.

Picking up from where we left off in the first paragraph of Odyssey:

but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.

Alberta Aerial view of tar sands extraction in Alberta (Garth Lenz)

We no longer live in the world of Little Red Riding Hood. We no longer fear the woods because they are small, fragile and finite. They do not house predators anymore. Large animals that are not livestock have been allowed to remain only in a few reservations around the world that cover a small fraction of the Earth’s surface. Humans have taken over and we are now a geological force. It can be seen in the form of the road grid on any plane flight, it can be seen in the images of tar sands extraction and it can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico. There are few expansive horizons and they are no longer threatening. We have reached a new physical limit in which we do have a profound effect on our surroundings. That means that we have new responsibilities to care for the Earth if we wish to keep it as a home: We need to change the narrative.

There is one thing that we should keep: Ulysses was the only member of his crew that returned home. Homer makes it abundantly clear that it was due to his creativity, his leadership, and his foresight that he found his way back to Ithaca. If you read Odyssey carefully, you will find that while his crew were staging a man vs. nature drama, Ulysses was primarily concerned with the part about man vs. self – especially when traveling near the Sirens.

Please watch this excellent and informative talk on risk and the environment by Naomi Klein as part of the TED lecture series.

References
I am using Wikipedia simply to illustrate how easy it is to find this information. Other resources include governmental regulatory websites, newspapers, blogs, magazines, and published studies.
Wikipedia: Current Energy Use
Wikipedia: World Population
Wikipedia: Tar Sands

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If the Saudi oil reserves are ‘overstated’ as reported here by Al Jazeera, the ramifications are tremendous. It would mean that the world has now consumed more than half of all of the oil that was ever in the ground and that there is less remaining than was once thought. The price impact could be very large, given the world’s increasing reliance on fossil fuels. Welcome to the world of Peak Oil.

One big piece of news was rather quietly reported this past week. It was mentioned a bit more loudly in the British press than the American press. What came out was a WikiLeaks report in the Guardian that exposed diplomatic cables between the US and Saudi Arabia indicating that the Saudis had overestimated their Known Reserves of oil by 40%. That is, they led the world to believe that they had more oil than they really possessed. While this was already suspected, the ramifications are alarming because the Saudis can no longer pump enough oil to keep prices low. It also means the the world is at Peak Oil, where it has used up roughly half of all the oil that had ever been underground and that production now becomes increasingly difficult, expensive and environmentally risky. The BP Oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer of 2010 and the terrible environmental impact of the excavation of tar sands in northern Canada are only the earliest examples of the lengths to which society will need to go if it does not divest its reliance on fossil fuels. Yet American oil companies are funding efforts to get the public to stop believing that some of the adverse effects, like Climate Change, are even taking place. For more information, check out this great series of videos produced by The Nation.