Casaubon's Book

Megan Quinn Bachman has a fabulous piece on the problem of net energy ignorance. Megan followed a group of ASPO attendees who visited congressional offices to talk about peak oil, and found pretty much what you’d expect – but what you’d expect has serious consequences:

During our congressional briefings, it felt like we were the ones slamming our heads against the wall. We were told that:

-Ethanol could free America from its dependence upon foreign oil (while at the conference chemical engineer and energy analyst Robert Rapier noted that turning all arable land in the world into biofuels would replace only 40 percent of global oil).
- Oil companies (while not acknowledging the growth killing potential of declining conventional oil production) are using the peak oil argument to speed development of unconventional fuels.
-We will always need to build more roads for more vehicles, that shale gas and “clean” coal will power America (and pollute the climate) for centuries, and that the strategic petroleum reserve is more than adequate to handle oil shortages, including if the strategically vital Straight of Hormuz leading into the Persian Gulf was blocked. In sum, there is no short-term oil supply problem, and there will be no long-term one.

It is not surprising that those in the seat of power won’t touch peak oil. After all, as the energy available to our society diminishes year after year, collapse is inevitable. And collapse runs contrary to the story of American ingenuity and triumph. As retired CIA analyst and now journalist Tom Whipple pointed out at the conference, America’s most dominant religion is not Christianity but the belief in economic growth, and those who contradict that core belief are heretics.

I’m not sure that it isn’t that politicians won’t touch peak oil – I think a compelling narrative can be built around peak oil, but it has yet to be coherently fashioned. But right now, the idea that if you aren’t headed to utopia, the only other place to go is the apocalypse has so much currency (what I’ve called the Klingons/Cylons dilemma) that we have to build the intellectual space that allows for a future reality. That’s a hard job, and frankly, I don’t think it starts in Congress.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Glenn
    December 8, 2011

    Sharon,

    As you know, Greer has pointed out this dichotomy problem, and that there are more than two choices. And no, it’s not going to start in Congress. Naomi Wolf just did an essay on how frugality and gardening are the new chic. “The American Hangover”.

    So you’re ahead of the fashion curve.

    Glenn

  2. #2 Brad K.
    December 8, 2011

    Sharon,

    I fear that much of the public rhetoric about global warming has tainted concerns about both global warming and about peak oil.

    Irrespective of the actual historical trends, too much of the dialogue has centered on whether the science was perverted by political or fundraising agendas. Peak oil suffers from contagion, since many of those concerned about climate change are also concerned about peak oil. And much of the same rhetoric has been used by proponents of either against skeptics.

    In my mind there is a correlation between the increase in cost of energy — oil — and the recent and ongoing economic turmoil. Wealth that used to be gained by applying cheap energy to resources started running out of cheap energy. Cheap energy became less cheap, or less available, or both. Those making a living chasing wealth convinced the ever-salable politicians to permit new “leveraging” schemes to replace the cheap energy that was no longer churning out ready wealth.

    Government and industry practices that depended on ready wealth gained from the expenditure of cheap energy were permitted to continue, while shortfalls of energy and wealth were covered up by industriously creating newer and more promising patches. Um, more promising in the sense that lots of promises were made to inspire and get approval for those patches. In the absence of abundant cheap energy, those promises are mere whistling in the dark.

    Human power has never been cheap. It most certainly isn’t today. Employing people that today help turn cheap energy into wealth by having them grow food instead, especially if they grow food in gardens or otherwise using manual labor, instead of the modern agribusiness “apply cheap energy to the problem” approach. Turning wage earners into barely-more-than-subsistence food growers means abandoning the generation of unlimited wealth. Speculators, politicians that live on the wealth donated by special interests and voters to gain office, and the average joe on the street all recognize that fact, that any real preparation for the decline of energy availability, price, and stability of availability, requires just that, a turning from money wealth to, well, subsisting.

    The problem is that with planning, subsisting after the changes coming could be much more comfortable with planning and preparation. It just won’t generate scads of wealth to inspire special interests to get involved.

    As the oil companies demonstrate, those that gained wealth from the exploitation of cheap energy are very intent on gaining wealth through the changes to come, and intent on being in positions of security, power, and wealth afterwards as well. Besides, look at all the money tobacco companies made after tobacco was proven a health hazard. Why shouldn’t oil companies squander energy to make a fast buck on any gimcrack and gewgaw they can sell, like solar panels, geothermal home heating systems for homes that leak energy like a screened in porch, and manufacturing millions of cars and batteries when people should be reconsidering the school, work, and shopping commute concept.

    BTW — why isn’t anyone making a fuel efficient engine to retrofit older cars? The energy to rebuild or make a new engine is vastly less than to make a full car. And retrofitting existing vehicles will likely save a bunch more energy than building one new car that transfers energy consumption from gasoline and diesel to coal burned in someone else’s back yard.

    Don’t look at politicians as clueless. They are too heavily invested in the here-and-now to do any different than they have. You have to change the special interests at the peak of their contribution and impact heap to change politicians. Or maybe recall them or hold them accountable, legally, for their actions.

  3. #3 Risa Bear
    December 8, 2011

    Ha, I was just going to say JMG has just done a good essay. His is on “arbitrage” and it’s a good handle on the whole rise-and-fall-of-fossil-fueled-civilization thingy. If anything can be made more cheaply at point B than at point A, then money will flow to point B, no matter how many 99 percenters it hurts. Politicians’ public narratives are cover for the flow. Many of them know we are right. But even if you were to put them to the rack, they wouldn’t tell. Let alone try to fix it. They’ve been captured.

    So Sharon’s right, and so are you, Glenn. Frugality and gardening, my eye. It’s treading water as the ship goes down. Call it what it will be: subsistence farming.

  4. #4 starskeptic
    December 8, 2011
  5. #5 Neil Craig
    December 10, 2011

    Indeed, and it is undeniable who it is that doesn’t know things:

    “Ethanol could free America from its dependence upon foreign oil” – people like Craig Ventner are developing algae whuich could easily produce opil at high efficiency,
    - “Oil companies (while not acknowledging the growth killing potential of declining conventional oil production) are using the peak oil argument to speed development of unconventional fuels.” – Oil companies are doing that despite the fact that oil production is not declining.
    -”We will always need to build more roads for more vehicles, that shale gas and “clean” coal will power America (and pollute the climate) for centuries, and that the strategic petroleum reserve is more than adequate to handle oil shortages, including if the strategically vital Straight of Hormuz leading into the Persian Gulf was blocked. In sum, there is no short-term oil supply problem, and there will be no long-term one.” And in what way is that not true?

    Sometimes one has to conclude that thje only reason some people remain “ignorant” is that they wilfully avoid what they know to be the truth.

  6. #6 Stephen B.
    December 10, 2011

    We will always need to build more roads for more vehicles…

    Neil, one of the first things my very free-market-oriented Economics 101 professor grilled into us is that there is no such thing as “need.” (He may have taken it from Friedman, one of his teachers, but I’m not sure.)

    It’s all *want* carried out to some exceptional, sometimes overdone, degree.

  7. #7 Stephen B.
    December 10, 2011

    As for your other points which you say are true (oil production is still growing, shale will save us, algae will give us gobs of oil replacement), give it all time, give it time.

    I, like the others here, think that you will actually see hardship beyond your imagination …..unfortunately.

    It’s like the old saying goes…. Since I haven’t died yet, I never will…..err, whatever.

  8. #8 Neil Craig
    December 11, 2011

    You’re quibblying over language Stephen to avoid admiting you have no factual point.

    Then to prove you have no puint avoiding debating whether, factually, the shale exists (it does) and relying on proyer ro produce the lack of pie you wish.

    I suspect, because unlike most Luddites looking forward to a return to medievalism, I actually know some history I have a better idea than you of what poverty can exist.

    But perhasps somebody, somewhere, will try to produce a rational reason for believeing the existence of shale etc “just ain’t so”?

  9. #9 Stephen B.
    December 11, 2011

    Neil,

    I don’t understand why you continually need to be so condescending and insulting.

    If you think the shale oil is so great, then go bid on some leases, develop the kerogen, and peddle the byproduct to your neighborhood Shell station.

    I’ll wager that you won’t be producing any oil from shale kerogen soon for the same reason nobody else has – the energy return on energy invested is so low as to make it economically unfeasible, at this energy price point or any other that we’ve faced in the past 35 years – and some of those price points have been at times, pretty high.

    We’re all waiting :-)

    And don’t call me a Luddite. As a former engineer, I am no such thing. You actually know very little about me – too little, to start sticking labels on me. When I start applying labels to you, then you can apply them to me. Until then, please keep your ill-informed opinions about me to yourself.

  10. #10 Jason
    December 12, 2011

    Mr. “won’t someone argue the facts even though I won’t be presenting any” seems to have little to say to that, Stephen. He set up a nice straw-man by claiming we pretend shale doesn’t exist. As soon as you muddied his party line with troublesome facts about the inefficiency of shale energy production it got rather quiet.

  11. #11 Dunc
    December 12, 2011

    There’s a very interesting report on resource scarcity from PwC written up in The Engineer today: PwC survey warns of mineral shortage’s harmful effects

    There is a link to the full report, which is publicly available. I’m not putting another link in to avoid auto-moderation.

    Summary: it’s complicated.

  12. #12 Dunc
    December 12, 2011

    Are we on full moderation, or is it just comments with links? If it’s the latter, I’ve a post waiting about a survey from PwC on resource scarcity. If the former, there’s no need to publish this. ;)

  13. #13 Dunc
    December 13, 2011

    OK, since Sharon’s clearly busy, perhaps I can sneak the URL through if I don’t make it a link…

    PwC survey warns of mineral shortage’s harmful effects:

    http://www.theengineer.co.uk/pwc-survey-warns-of-mineral-shortages-harmful-effects/1011215.article

  14. #14 Sharon Astyk
    December 13, 2011

    No, you aren’t being moderated – SB still hasn’t fixed the stupid comments problem, and I’ve been offline for the last few days for other things. Will go liberate comments now.

    Sorry folks – the good news is that SB is moving to a new platform which hopefully should resolve all the major technical difficulties in the next week or two…hopefully.

    Sharon

  15. #15 Dunc
    December 13, 2011

    Ah, that explains it. Thanks.

  16. #16 Joseph
    December 14, 2011

    Have all of you seen this article on Arctic methane release?

    http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2011/12/14#comment-2005622

    Maybe The Long Emergency/Descent just got a bit…ummm…shorter.

    Greer refuses to deal with climate tipping points that could produce rapid change in global climate. And he refuses to acknowledge that what we are in is historically unprecedented, and therefore, NOT like the fall of the Roman Empire or whatever. Mr. Greer seems to not want to distinguish between irrational apocalyptic thinking and the rational-empirically derived postulation of a rapid “descent” due to reaching a climate tipping point, and there is a difference. It is exactly here that his locomotive size ego gets in the way of clear thinking.

    As I have said here before, it is a good idea to keep several possible future scenarios in mind.

  17. #17 Neil Craig
    December 20, 2011

    Saying that I shouldn’t discuss anything until I have aspent years singlehandely developing the technology is condescending and insulting Stephen. It is also stupid because everybnody knows the real world isn’t like that.

    I’m afraid I understand perfectly well why “environmentalists” prefer being insulting to discussing facts.

    If you are not publicly on record as having told all supportrs of windmills that they should never push their claims until they have spent years building windmills in their back gardens without subsidy and selling the product to the grid without subsidy that would also be both dishonest and hypocritical. If you have I would be pleased to read the links you supply showing you to be honest and not a hypocrit.

    I note, however, that in any case you have chosen not to debate on any of the facts but purely on this personal criticism. Namely you have made no slightest attempt to support your alleged belief that the shale doesn’t exist or that the technology being used in Canada to extract it is impossible under the laws of physics operating in the USA.

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