What Should I Do – to be more resilient?

The What Should I Do? blog series is written by ChrisMartenson.com readers and is based in their own experiences in preparing for a future where austerity may be a necessity and self-reliance and community resilience is essential.


Why the Climate Change and Peak Oil Movement Are Failing

John Michael Greer points out why the climate change and peak oil movements have very little traction among the powerful people who make the rules.

…three factors.

The first was the astonishing political naivete of the climate change movement. All through the last decade, that movement has allowed its opponents to define the terms of public debate, execute a series of efficient end runs around even the most telling points made by climate science, and tar the movement in ever more imaginative ways, without taking any meaningful steps to counter these moves or even showing any overt interest in learning from its failures. Partly this unfolds from the fixation of the American left on the experiences of the 1960s, a fixation that has seen one movement after another blindly following a set of strategies that have not actually worked since the end of the Vietnam war; partly, I suspect, it’s rooted in the background of most of the leading figures in the climate change movement, who are used to the very different culture of scientific debate and simply have no notion how to address the very different needs of public debate in society that does not share their values.

This latter point leads to the second primary factor in the failure of the climate change movement, which is the extent that it attempted to rely on the prestige of institutional science at a time when that prestige has undergone a drastic decline. The public has become all too aware that the expert opinion of distinguished scientists has become a commodity, bought and sold for a price that these days isn’t always discreetly disguised as grant money or the like. The public has also been repeatedly shown that the public scientific consensus of one decade is fairly often the discarded theory of the next. When you grow up constantly hearing from medical authorities that cholesterol is bad for you and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, and then suddenly he medical authorities are saying that polyunsaturated fats are bad for you and some kinds of cholesterol are good, a certain degree of blind faith in the pronouncements of scientists goes out the window.

Part of the problem here is the gap between the face institutional science presents to its practitioners and the face it shows to the general public. In the 1970s, for example, the public consensus among climate scientists was that the Earth faced a new ice age sometime in the not too distant future. This was actually only one of several competing views aired privately among scientists at the time, and there were spirited debates on the subject in climatological conferences and journals, but you wouldn’t have learned that from the books and TV programs, many of the former written by qualified scientists and most of the latter featuring them, that announced an imminent ice age to the world at large. It’s become fashionable in some circles just now to insist that that never happened, but the relics of that time are still to be found on library shelves and in museums. When I visited the Museum of Natural History in Washington DC a year ago, for example, the exhibit on ice age mammals had a fine example: an illuminated display, prominently located, explaining that scientists expected a new ice age sometime in the next millennium or so. An embarrassed staff member had taped up a makeshift sign next to it announcing that current scientific opinion no longer supported that claim, and the display would be replaced sometime soon.

The mental whiplash caused by sudden changes in scientific opinion, each one announced to the public in terms much less tentative than it generally deserves, has played a larger role in hamstringing climate change activism than most of its supporters may find it comfortable to admit. Notice, though, that the uncertain nature of scientific knowledge didn’t prevent the passage of the Endangered Species Act or a baker’s dozen of other environmental initiatives in the Seventies; in fact, the scientific community was far more divided over ecological issues at that time than it is about climate change today. That was arguably a benefit, because it forced proponents of environmental protection to approach it as a political issue, to get down into the mud wrestling pit with their opponents, and to address the hopes, fears, and concerns of the general public head on, in terms the public could understand and accept. By and large, climate change activists have not done this, and this is an important reason why they have been so thoroughly thrashed by the other side.

Still, I’ve come to think that a third factor has played at least as important a role in gutting the climate change movement. This is the pervasive mismatch between the lifestyles that the leadership of that movement have been advocating for everyone else and the lifestyle that they themselves have led. When Al Gore, after having been called out on this point, was reduced to insisting that his sprawling mansion has a lower carbon footprint than other homes on the same grandiose scale, he exposed a fault line that runs straight through climate change activism, and bids fair to imitate those old legends of California’s future and dump the entire movement into the sea.

…I long ago lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people in one or another corner of the activist scene throw up their hands in despair and describe the task of organizing people to seek some form of change or other as being like trying to herd cats. In point of fact, herding cats is one of the easiest things in the world. All you have to do is go to the place you want the cats to go, carrying with you a #10 can of tuna and an electric can opener. The moment the cats hear the whirr of the can opener and smell the fragrance of the tuna, they’ll come at a run, and you’ll have your herd exactly where you want them. Now of course that strategy assumes two things. It assumes that you’re willing to go to the place you want the cats to go, and it also assumes that you have something to offer them when they get there.

That sums up what has been one of the most critical problems with the climate change movement: it has been calling on the world to accept a lifestyle that the movement’s own leaders have shown no willingness to adopt themselves, and thus have been in no position to model for the benefit of others. That’s left the movement wide open to accusations that it means its policies to apply only to other people – accusations that have not exactly been quelled by the efforts of various countries, the US very much included, to push as much of the burden of carbon reduction as possible onto their political and economic rivals. I trust I don’t have to spell out how such suspicions will be amplified by Shearman’s cheerleading for exactly the sort of authoritarian politics in which some people’s carbon footprint would inevitably be more equal than others’.

All these points are profoundly relevant to the core project of this blog, for many of the weaknesses I’ve traced out are also found in the peak oil movement. That movement has no shortage of political naivete, and it has plenty of spokespeople who mistakenly assume that their professional expertise – significant as that very often is – can be cashed in at par for influence on public debate. It also has its share of leaders who are perfectly willing to talk in the abstract about how people need to ditch their autos and give up air travel, but insist that they themselves need their SUV for one reason or another and wouldn’t dream of going to the next ASPO conference by train. These are serious weaknesses; unchecked, they could be fatal.

Of course there are other, critical reasons why a certain degree of political sophistication, a recognition that expertise is not enough to carry public debates, and a willingness to embrace the lifestyles one proposes for others – and especially the last of these – are essential just now. The most important of those reasons is that in terms of industrial civilization’s energy future, it’s very late in the day.

Natural Gas Is Our Best Hope for Energy Independence

From Charles Hugh Smith at the OfTwoMinds.com blog, here's a report from Ray W., an energy consultant. It offers some hope that the United States can overcome its oil addiction, with smart planning and effective leadership. Can we do it? Time will tell.

I try to understand the key dynamics of the energy marketplace because I believe that we have reached peak oil and the modern countries are so dependent on fossils fuels. The report below seems to be very objective.

I worry that the Saudis and big oil companies have so much influence in our government that our energy policy will remain the same, until we run out of money.

Of the three main fossil fuels, natural gas is uniquely situated.

Oil is nearing peak production. To find new reserves, companies such as BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil venture into ever more hostile environments, both physical and political, spend ever higher amounts of money, and take ever greater risks. Deepwater Horizon, the oil platform that detonated and sank in the Gulf of Mexico and spewed four million barrels of crude into one of the world’s most productive fisheries, is a tame example.

For real expense and environmental risk, look at the tar sands in Canada; for political risk, look at the Niger Delta. The increasing cost of oil exploration and production will consume a larger share of GDP, just as health care does, and if we continue to expand our dependency on oil, we will continue to erode the standard of living for all but the very wealthy. The trajectory of the price of oil is structurally upward.

Coal is simply nasty. It’s advantage: it’s plentiful and therefore cheap. Otherwise, it’s a supremely destructive substance at all stages of its exploitation, from mining to transport to combustion to ash disposal.

Natural gas is far more plentiful than oil and far less environmentally destructive than coal.

Gas produces about 40% of the carbon dioxide of coal for the same kilowatt-hour of power generation. It leaves no solid waste at all, unlike coal, which leaves tremendous piles of ash that must be disposed of and that are susceptible to environmental catastrophe. The Kingston spill in 2008 deposited 5.4 million cubic yards (about four times the debris of the World Trade Centers) in the Emory and Clinch Rivers in Tennessee.

Gas contains no mercury, lead, arsenic, or other heavy metals as does coal. At pipeline quality, its combustion produces no sulfur dioxide (the main cause of acid rain) and far less nitrous oxide (the main cause of smog) than coal.

Gas is transported by pipeline, which is extremely efficient. Pipelines, being underground, are also visually and logistically unobtrusive and, despite the recent tragedy in San Bruno, California, generally safe. Far more people have been killed in coal-related accidents, not to mention aviation or automobile accidents, than have been in gas-related accidents.

Now we come to extraction, where things get more complicated.

In the past three years, the amount of natural gas produced in this country has increased 16%, from 18 to 21 trillion cubic feet. This is attributable to recent rapid advances in two drilling techniques: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The high price of gas earlier in the decade spurred the development of these technologies, which extract gas from solid rock, rather than from conventional pooled deposits.

Extraction presents some serious environmental issues. Some gas deposits contain a fair amount of sulfur, which must be removed and disposed of. Most extracted sulfur is made into sulfuric acid for industrial purposes. Other deposits contain carbon dioxide in quantities as much as 12 percent by volume, which reduces the resource’s greenhouse gas advantage. And it takes a great deal of energy to drill for gas. The rigs generally run on diesel. The recently developed techniques for extracting gas from shale formations also consume large amounts of water. That said, gas extraction doesn’t use nearly the amount of energy or water as coal mine excavation.

Water will be the limiting factor for expanding gas production in the United States. Some shale gas producers have been working diligently to find environmentally acceptable ways to minimize the use of water, mostly through reuse. In shale gas production, the water is injected under pressure to fracture the rock, which liberates the gas.

The injected water contains several chemicals to provide for the optimal viscosity to enhance fracturing while still being liquid enough to withdraw easily. Most producers use less than a dozen chemicals, which comprise 0.5 percent of the injection stream. The very high numbers of chemicals (approaching 600) quoted in the film "Gasland" are an amalgamation of all the chemicals ever used for fracturing across the industry.

Some producers are racing to gain first-mover advantage in the shale plays, which seem to pop up every three months. These producers tend to be less cautious than others, and this is how accidents happen. But there is nothing intrinsically more hazardous or risky about drilling for gas in shale formations than drilling for conventional gas, or drilling for oil, or mining for coal.

Gas-bearing shale tends to be several thousand feet (one to two miles) below the aquifer. There is virtually no way for the gas to migrate into the aquifer except through the vertical component of the well that penetrates the water table en route to the gas resource. Gas wells, like oil wells, are encased in cement to protect the surrounding ground from seepage. Sloppy procedures can result in bad cement jobs. But this risk is present for any gas or oil well; it is not particular to shale gas.

The United States can substantially reduce oil usage and coal usage and improve carbon dioxide emissions by increasing the production and consumption of natural gas. We can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% within weeks, simply by switching about 15% of coal-fired electric generation to gas-fired, using existing spare capacity in the gas-fired fleet.

There is plenty of gas to make this happen without risking huge price run-ups. Gas prices on average might move up about $1.00 per MMBtu, from the $4.00-$5.00 range to the $5.00-$6.00 range. While this would be a 20-25% increase, other costs would go down, specifically the costs of coal-caused pollution. This does not consider the future value preserved by slowing climate change. Also, increased demand would spur increased production, which would moderate such price increases.

Eventually, gas use will have to be reduced if we are to avoid the worst of climate change. Increased gas use is a transitional strategy for the next 20-30 years, to provide time for renewable energy and efficiency technologies to be developed and deployed. However, even at that point, gas would still have a role. It is the logical fuel to use to complement the intermittent nature of renewable electric generation.

Technological improvements are likely in electric storage, but electric storage is unlikely to be economical enough to span all 24 hours of the day. Gas, delivered through pipelines, is an on-demand electric generation fuel, unlike coal or oil, and can respond instantaneously as minute-to-minute consumer demand and renewable generation fluctuate.

If we craft public policy to favor gas to displace coal and oil, we have to be careful not to grow complacent. Gas is not a panacea for climate change. It is still a fossil fuel. However, it is a readily available, pragmatic, interim solution as we move to renewables and efficiency over the next 20-30 years.


Climate Change and Politics in Copenhagen: We Won’t Get Fooled Again?

I'm so tired of being misled by our leaders that I search for people who don't sugarcoat what they see happening. This leads to inner conflict: the satisfaction of getting a somewhat realistic view of the problems that we face up the creek, and anger from realizing that how skilled our leaders are at promising to solve problems to gain power.

John Michael Greer doesn't sugarcoat what he sees. Below are some excerpts from his recent essay on the politics of climate change conference in Copenhagen. Don't read this unless you enjoy dark humor and you want to become more cynical. The realization that there are no easy solutions is always very difficult to swallow.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Human Ecology of Collapse.

The question that has to be asked is whether a modern industrial society can exist at all without vast and rising inputs of essentially free energy, of the sort only available on this planet from fossil fuels, and the answer is no.

…will somebody please explain to me someday how a head of state got given the Nobel Peace Prize while he was enthusiastically waging two wars?

Meanwhile the socialists are insisting that it’s all capitalism’s fault and can be solved promptly by a socialist revolution, never mind the awkward little fact that the environmental records of socialist countries are by and large even worse than those of capitalist ones; other radicalisms of left and right make the same claim as the socialists, often with even less justification.

I think a great many people are beginning to realize that whatever results come out of Copenhagen, a meaningful response to the increasing instability of global climate will not be among them.

Suppose, for the sake of discussion, that Obama agreed to cut US carbon emissions far enough to make a real impact on global climate change. Would those cuts happen? No, because Congress would have to agree to implement them, and Congress – even though it is controlled by a Democratic majority – has so far been unable to pass even the most ineffectual legislation on the subject.

Suppose the improbable happened, and both Obama and Congress agreed to implement serious carbon emission cuts. What would the result be? Much more likely than not, a decisive Republican victory in the 2010 congressional elections, followed by the repeal of the laws mandating the cuts. Carbon emissions can’t be cut by waving a magic wand; the cuts will cost trillions of dollars at a time when budgets are already strained, and impose steep additional costs throughout the economy.

any nation that accepts serious carbon emission cuts will place itself at a steep economic disadvantage compared to those nations that don’t.

Business executives whose companies will bear a large share of the costs of curbing carbon emissions have funded some very dubious science, and some even more dubious publicity campaigns, in order to duck those costs; academics have either tailored their findings to climb onto the climate change bandwagon, or whored themselves out to corporate interests willing to pay handsomely for anyone in a lab coat who will repeat their party line; politicians on both sides of the aisle have distorted facts grotesquely to further their own careers.

Beneath all the yelling, though, are a set of brutal facts nobody is willing to address. Whether or not the current round of climate instability is entirely the product of anthropogenic CO2 emissions is actually not that important, because it’s even more stupid to dump greenhouse gases into a naturally unstable climate system than it would be to dump them into a stable one. Over the long run, the only level of carbon pollution that is actually sustainable is zero net emissions, and getting there any time soon would require something not far from the dismantling of industrial society and its replacement with something much less affluent.

Even if it turns out to be possible to power something like an industrial society on renewable resources, the huge energy, labor, and materials costs needed to develop renewable energy and replace most of the infrastructure of today’s society with new systems geared to new energy sources will have to be paid out of existing supplies; thus everything else would have to be cut to the bone, or beyond.

I long ago lost track of the number of global warming bumper stickers I’ve seen on the rear ends of SUVs.

Nobody, but nobody, is willing to deal with the harsh reality of what a carbon-neutral society would have to be like. This is what makes the blame game so popular, and it also provides the impetus behind meaningless gestures of the sort that are on the table at Copenhagen.

a strong case can be made that the most viable option for anyone in a leadership position is to enjoy the party while it lasts, and hope you can duck the blame when it all comes crashing down.

the immediate costs of doing something about the issue are so high, and so unendurable, that very few people in positions of influence are willing to stick their necks out, and those who do so can count on being shortened by a head by others who are more than willing to cash in on their folly.

Both Sides of the Global Warming Debate Are Wrong

John Michael Greer, one of my favorite sources of intelligence, describes why the global warming debate is so polarized, with scientific "evidence" being used by both sides. He suggests that we should be more concerned about Peak Oil, which is less controversial and more predictable, but not very marketable. Excerpts below.

Click on the link below to read the whole essay. The comments are very interesting also.

Link: The Archdruid Report: Hagbard's Law

…Hagbard’s Law is a massive factor in modern societies. Coined by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in their tremendous satire Illuminatus!, Hagbard’s Law states that information can only be communicated between equals, since in a hierarchy, those in inferior positions face very strong incentives to tell their superiors what the superiors want to hear rather than ‘fessing up to the truth. The more levels of hierarchy between the people who gather information and the ones who make decisions, the more communication tends to be blocked by Hagbard’s Law; in today’s governments and corporations, the disconnect between the reality visible on the ground and the numbers viewed from the top of the pyramid is as often as not total.

Many of my readers will be aware that two examples of this sort of figure-juggling surfaced in the last couple of weeks. From somewhere in the bowels of the International Energy Agency (IEA), a bureaucracy created and funded by the world’s industrial nations to provide statistics on energy use, two whistleblowers announced that the 2009 figures that were about to be released had been jiggered, as past figures had been, under pressure from the US government. The reason for the pressure, according to the whistleblowers, was that accurate figures would be bad for the US economy – as indeed they would be, for much the same reason that a diagnosis of terminal illness is bad for one’s prospects of buying life insurance.

Of course news stories about the leaks brought a flurry of denials from the IEA. Doubtless some people were fooled; still, the gaping chasm between the IEA’s rosy predictions of future oil production and the evidence assembled by independent researchers has been a subject of discussion in peak oil circles for some years now, and it was useful to have insiders confirm the presence of fudge factors outside analysts have long since teased out of the data.

The second and much more controversial example came to light when persons unknown dumped onto the internet a very large collection of private emails from a British academic center studying global warming. Like everything else involved with global warming, the contents of the emails became the focus of a raging debate between opposed armies of true believers, but the emails do suggest that a certain amount of data-fudging and scientific misconduct is going on in the large and lucrative scientific industry surrounding climate change.

The result is a great deal of faux science that manipulates experimental designs and statistical analyses to support points of view that happen to be fashionable, either within a scientific field or in the broader society. I saw easily half a dozen examples of this sort of thing in action back in my college days, which spanned all of five years and two universities. Still, you don’t need a ringside seat to watch the action: simply pay attention to how often the results of studies just happen to support the interests of whoever provided the funding for them. You don’t need to apply a chi-square test here to watch Hagbard’s Law in action.

There’s good reason to think that the feedback loop by which popular attitudes generate their own supporting evidence via dubious science has distorted the global warming debate. The fingerprints show up all over the weird disconnect between current global warming science and the findings of paleoclimatology, which show that sudden, drastic climate changes have been routine events in Earth’s long history; that the Earth was actually warmer than the temperatures predicted by current doomsday scenarios at the peak of the current interglacial period only six thousand years ago; and that the Earth has been a hothouse jungle planet without ice caps or glaciers for around 80% of the time since multicellular life evolved here. Technically speaking, we’re still in an ice age – the current interglacial is on schedule to end in the next few thousand years, giving way to a new glaciation for a hundred thousand years or so, with several million years of further cycles still in the pipeline – and claims that setting the planetary thermostat a little closer to its normal range will terminate life on Earth are thus at least open to question.

What interests me most about the current global warming debate is that these facts, when they get any air time at all, commonly get treated as ammunition for the denialist side of the debate. This hardly follows. Paleoclimatology shows that the Earth’s climate is unstable, and prone to drastic shifts that can place massive strains on local and regional ecosystems. It’s equally clear that number juggling in a British laboratory does not change the fact that the Arctic ice sheet is breaking up, say, or that a great many parts of the world are seeing their climates warp out of all recognition. Even if natural forces are driving these shifts, this is hardly a good time to dump vast quantities of greenhouse gases into an already unstable atmosphere – you could as well claim that because a forest fire was started by lightning, dumping planeloads of gasoline around its edges can’t possibly cause any harm.

The problem with the global warming debate just now is that tolerably well funded groups on both sides are using dubious science to advance their own agendas and push the debate further toward the extremes. The common habit of thinking in rigid binaries comes into play here; it’s easy enough for global warming believers to insist that anyone who questions their claims must be a global warming denier, while their opponents do the same thing in reverse, and the tumult and the shouting helps bury the idea that the territory between the two polarized extremes might be worth exploring. As a result, moderate views are being squeezed out, as the radicals on one side try to stampede the public toward grandiose schemes of very questionable effect, while the radicals on the other try to stampede the public toward doing nothing at all.

It’s instructive to compare the resulting brouhaha to the parallel, if much less heavily publicized, debate over peak oil. The peak oil scene has certainly seen its share of overblown apocalyptic claims, and it certainly has its own breed of deniers, who insist that the free market, the march of progress, or some other conveniently unquantifiable factor will make infinite material expansion on a finite planet less of an oxymoron than all logic and evidence suggests it will be. Still, most of the action in the peak oil scene nowadays is happening in the wide spectrum between these two extremes. We’ve got ecogeeks pushing alternative energy, Transition Towners building local communities, “preppers” learning survival skills, and more; even if most of these ventures miss their mark, as doubtless most of them will, the chance of finding useful strategies for a difficult future goes up with each alternative explored.

The difference between the two debates extends to the interface between statistics and power discussed earlier in this post. Both sides of the global warming debate, it’s fair to say, have fairly robust political and financial payoffs in view. The established industrial powers of the West and the rising industrial nations elsewhere are each trying to use global warming to impose competitive disadvantages on the other; fossil fuel companies are scrambling to shore up their economic position, while the rapidly expanding renewables industry is trying to elbow its way to the government feed trough; political parties are lining up to turn one side or the other into a captive constituency that can be milked for votes and donations, and so forth.

Still, I find myself wondering if Hagbard’s Law plays a much bigger role here than any deliberate plan. The global warming story, if you boil it down to its bones, is the kind of story our culture loves to tell – a narrative about human power. Look at us, it says, we’re so mighty we can destroy the world! The peak oil story, by contrast, is the kind of story we don’t like – a story about natural limits that apply, yes, even to us. From the standpoint of peak oil, our self-anointed status as evolution’s fair-haired child starts looking like the delusion it arguably is, and it becomes hard to avoid the thought that we may have to settle for the rather less flattering role of just another species that overshot the carrying capacity of its environment and experienced the usual consequences.

Can the American Lifestyle Survive the End of Cheap, Abundant Oil?

John Michael Greer's essay A Gesture from the Invisible Hand explains why the end of cheap, abundant fossil fuels undermines the economies of the societies that are dependent on oil. This is really bad news for the "civilized" countries — and why denial from our leaders is the norm. Excerpts below.

This "peak oil" aftermath theme also explains why debt is accelerating and China is becoming a dominant economic power.

Link: The Archdruid Report: A Gesture from the Invisible Hand

It’s common, for example, to hear well-intentioned people insist that the market, as a matter of course, will respond to restricted fossil fuel production by channeling investment funds either in more effective means of producing fossil fuels, on the one hand, or new energy sources on the other. The logic seems impeccable at first glance: as the price of oil, for example, goes up, the profit to be made by bringing more oil or oil substitutes onto the market goes up as well; investors eager to maximize their profits will therefore pour money into ventures producing oil and oil substitutes, and production will rise accordingly until the price comes back down.

Energy is one of those places: in some ways, the most important of all. Energy is not simply one commodity among others; it is the ur-commodity, the foundation for all economic activity. It follows laws of its own – the laws of thermodynamics, notably – which are not the same as the laws of economics, and when the two sets of laws come into conflict, the laws of thermodynamics win every time.

This is necessary because energy doesn't follow the ordinary rules of economic exchange. Most other commodities still exist after they've been exchanged for something else, and this makes exchanges reversible; for example, if you sell gold to buy marble, you can normally turn around and sell marble to buy gold. The invisible hand works here; if marble is in short supply, those who have gold and want marble may have to offer more gold for their choice of building materials, but the marble quarries will be working overtime to balance things out.

Energy is different. Once you turn the energy content of a few million bushels of grain into a pyramid, say, by using the grain to feed workers who cut and haul the stones, that energy is gone, and you cannot turn the pyramid back into grain; all you can do is wait until the next harvest. If that harvest fails, and the stored energy in the granaries has already been turned into pyramids, neither the market economy of goods and services or the abstract system of distributing goods and services can make up for it. Nor, of course, can you send an extra ten thousand workers into the fields if you don't have the grain to keep them alive.

The arrival of geological limits to increasing fossil fuel production places a burden on the economy, because the cost in energy, labor, and materials (rather than money) to extract fossil fuels does not depend on market forces. On average, it goes up over time, as easily accessible reserves are depleted and have to be replaced by those more difficult and costly to extract. Improved efficiencies and new technologies can counter that to a limited extent, but both these face the familiar problem of diminishing returns as the laws of thermodynamics, and other physical laws, come into play.

As a society nears the geological limits to production, in other words, a steadily growing fraction of its total supply of energy, resources, and labor have to be devoted to the task of bringing in the energy that keeps the entire economy moving.This percentage may be small at first, but it's effectively a tax in kind on every productive economic activity, and as it grows it makes productive economic activity less profitable. The process by which money produces more money consumes next to no energy, by contrast, and so financial investments don't lose ground due to rising energy costs.

This makes financial investments, on average, relatively more profitable than investing in the kinds of economic activity that use energy to produce nonfinancial goods and services. The higher the burden imposed by energy costs, the more sweeping the disparity becomes; the result, of course, is that individuals trying to maximize their own economic gains move their money out of investments in the productive economy of goods and services, and into the paper economy of finance.

Ironically, this happens just as a perpetually expanding money supply driven by mass borrowing at interest has become an anachronism unsuited to the new economic reality of energy contraction. It also guarantees that any attempt to limit the financial sphere of the economy will face mass opposition, not only from financiers, but from millions of ordinary citizens whose dream of a comfortable retirement depends on the hope that financial investments will outperform the faltering economy of goods and services. Meanwhile, just as the economy most needs massive reinvestment in productive capacity to retool itself for the very different world defined by contracting energy supplies, investment money seeking higher returns flees the productive economy for the realm of abstract paper wealth.

One intriguing detail of this scenario is that it has already affected the first major oil producer to reach peak oil — yes, that would be the United States. It's unlikely to be accidental that in the wake of its own 1972 production peak, the American economy has followed exactly this trajectory of massive disinvestment in the productive economy and massive expansion of the paper economy of finance. Plenty of other factors played a role in that process, no doubt, but I suspect that the unsteady but inexorable rise in energy costs over the last forty years or so may have had much more to do with the gutting of the American economy than most people suspect.

If this is correct, now that petroleum production has encountered the same limits globally that put it into a decline here in the United States, the same pattern of disinvestment in the production of goods and services coupled with metastatic expansion of the financial sector may show up on a much broader scale. There are limits to how far it can go, of course, not least because financiers and retirees alike are fond of consumer goods now and then, but those limits have not been reached yet, not by a long shot. It's all too easy to foresee a future in which industry, agriculture, and every other sector of the economy that produces goods and services suffer from chronic underinvestment, energy costs continue rising, and collapsing infrastructure becomes a dominant factor in daily life, while the Wall Street Journal (printed in Shanghai by then) announces the emergence of the first half dozen quadrillionaires in the derivatives-of-derivatives-of-derivatives market.

Perhaps the most important limit in the way of such a rush toward economic absurdity is the simple fact that not every economy uses the individual decisions of investors pursuing private gain to allocate investment capital. It may not be accidental that quite a few of the world's most successful economies just now, with China well in the lead, make their investment decisions based at least in part on political, military, and strategic grounds, while the nation that preens itself most proudly on its market economy — yes, that would be the United States again — is lurching from one economic debacle to another.

Does Science Fiction Offer Guidance about the Future?

John Micheal Greer describes how some science fiction writers explore the future, sometimes with surprising accuracy. He says that some writers picturing the post peak oil landscape are producing peak oil fiction that could be useful for people who want to prepare for a very different world. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Future That Wasn't.

Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, the hugely successful pop spirituality phenomenon of two years ago, was exactly such a rehash of forgotten commonplaces; its promoters correctly guessed that ideas that appealed to the public during the boomtime of the 1920s, no matter how dubious those ideas were, would be just as popular during the late housing bubble. No doubt they’re sorting through the rather different self-improvement literature of the 1930s in search of a bestseller for the decade ahead of us.

The interesting thing is that there were thinkers busy during these same decades whose visions ended up having a huge and enduring impact on the way the entire Western world thinks about the future. These visionaries weren’t to be found in the ivory towers of academe or any of the other prestigious places where people, then and now, expect great minds to be found; they didn’t even have the cachet of romantically starving to death in garrets. Most of them could be found in ordinary urban apartments and homes, hunched over clattering manual typewriters, as they fed a couple of dozen cheap gaudy magazines with science fiction stories.

…serious literature rarely has a major impact on society. Its readership is too small and too well educated to slip into the uncritical enthusiasm that shapes the imagination of an age. Most often it turns out to be the popular literature, the reading material of housewives, factory workers, and schoolchildren, that reaches into the crawlspaces of culture where the future takes shape. By shedding literary credentials and wrapping itself in the gaudy finery of the pulp magazines, science fiction worked its way into the collective imagination of the modern world.

…science fiction in its pulp days transformed itself from a somewhat esoteric literary genre to a folk mythology that still shapes most of our thinking about the future today. Onto the blank screen of infinite space, as a result, the modern imagination projects all the dreams, fantasies and fears other cultures assign to more obviously metaphysical realms. Many of the essays I’ve posted on this blog have focused on disputing assumptions about the future that root straight back into the science fiction of the pulp era.

What makes this all the more interesting is that the grand future shared in common by most science fiction from the pulp era straight through to the 1970s – the leap upward from Earth to the first colonies on the Moon and Mars, the expansion through the solar system, the inevitable arrival of interstellar flight, and the panorama of star federations and galactic empires to follow – has lost nearly all the conviction that once made it look like the inevitable shape of things to come. It had its day, and accomplished certain things in that time; without Jules Verne and his many successors, human footprints probably would never have been left on the Moon, but its day is over now. Those who still cling to the old hope today – I am thinking of Ray Kurzweil and the Extropians here – have been reduced to wrapping Protestant eschatology in the borrowed garments of science fiction; rapture into heaven followed by immortality is a religious concept even when the god who is expected to provide it is named Technology. It’s a measure of this loss of faith that the publication of science fiction novels in the English-speaking world, at least, has declined steadily since the late 1980s and now amounts to only a few hundred titles a year.

In this light it’s interesting to note that the impact of peak oil on the future of the industrial world has begun to be explored using the toolkit of fiction. James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand is the example most people in the peak oil scene know about, and deservedly so; it’s a rousing, readable tale that borrows from familiar genres (notably the Western) to portray the aftermath of the petroleum age in accessible terms. More experimental and, to my taste, even more interesting is Caryl Johnson’s self-published “essay-novel” After The Crash, which weaves together a tale about the writing of a narrative history of the end of the Hydrocarbon Age in post-Crash Philadelphia with social criticism directed at the present and speculation about the future.

…Just as science fiction enabled people to get their heads around such improbable realities as moon landings decades in advance, peak oil fiction could make it easier for people today to make sense of the approaching changes in our own world.

Adapting to the End of Cheap Energy

Astute observer of culture and history John Michael Greer articulates the broad implications of the end of cheap energy. Excerpts below.

Follow the link to read the whole essay.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Age of Memory.

…The end of the age of cheap energy has many implications, but one of the most important – and most daunting – is that it marks the end of the road for nearly all the cultural trends that have guided the industrial world since the paired industrial and political revolutions of the eighteenth century. Those trends pursued greater size, greater speed, greater power; the replacement of human capacities with ever more intricate machines, demanding ever more abundant energy and resource inputs; an escape from the interdependence of living nature into an artificial world transparent to the human mind and obedient to the human will.

That way to the future is no longer open. The nations of the industrial world could pursue it as far as they did only because abundant reserves of fossil fuels and other natural resources were available to power Faustian culture along its trajectory. The waning of those reserves and, more broadly, the collision between the pursuit of unlimited economic growth and the hard limits of a finite planet, marks the end of those dreams. It may also mark the beginning of a time in which we can sort through the results of the last three centuries, discard the ones that worked poorly or demand conditions that no longer exist, and keep what still has value.

One useful way to talk about this process, it seems to me, is to borrow a common habit of talking about history and put it to work in a new way. Not that long ago it was common to describe the medieval period in the Western world as the Age of Faith, and to contrast it smugly with an Age of Reason that was held to have dawned with the first stirrings of the scientific revolution, and come into its own with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Oversimplified though these categories are, they point up certain important distinctions between the phases of our cultural trajectory that were primarily guided by religious thought and those guided by the expansive Enlightenment belief in the limitless power of human reason.

That latter belief is on its last legs just now, because the effort to direct human behavior solely according to reason simply didn’t live up to its advance billing; the inevitable reaction is following. Thus the faith that unchecked rationality is a ticket to Utopia, or the only hope of the human future, or whatever other set of religious ideas might be assigned to it, is wearing very thin these days, and the decline of today’s technological infrastructure in the wake of peak oil may just put paid to it. Reason will doubtless retain an active role in our collective life, just as faith has done, but other forces will likely take the lead in the decades and centuries ahead of us.

Thus it may not be inappropriate to suggest that in a very real sense, the Age of Reason is ending. If Spengler is right, what will follow it is an Age of Memory, where the collective imagination of the West turns back to contemplate its own past and extract the most useful elements from a thousand years of innovation. The cultural conserver concept, which I introduced in an earlier post here, represents one workable response to that possibility. I plan on discussing that in more detail, and in more practical terms, in the weeks and months ahead – subject to the usual interruptions, of course.

Peak Oil is a Predicament without a Political Solution

John Michael Greer describes why peak oil won’t be "solved" with popular solutions. It does create an opportunity for extreme political change that often ends badly. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: Post-Peak Politics.

…peak oil is not a problem that can be solved. It’s a predicament – a phenomenon hardwired into our species’ most fundamental relationships with physical and ecological reality – and like any other predicament, it cannot be solved; it can only be accepted. It differs in detail, but not in kind, from the collisions with ecological limits that punctuate the historical record as far back as you care to look.

Like every other species, humanity now and then overshoots the limits of its ecological support system. It’s our misfortune to live at a time when this has happened on a much larger scale than usual, due to our species’ recent discovery and reckless exploitation of the Earth’s once-abundant fossil fuel reserves. Expecting a change of leaders, or even of systems, to make that reality go away is a little like trying to pass a bill in Congress to repeal the law of supply and demand.

Still, leaders and governmental systems make great scapegoats, and just now scapegoats are very much in fashion.

Missing from nearly all these lists, however, is the simple geological reality that there’s only so much oil in the Earth’s rocks, we’ve pumped out most of the really large and easily accessible deposits, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain current production levels – much less increase them – by drawing down the smaller and less accessible deposits that remain. It’s not hard to show that this is a major factor in the current energy crisis; when a commodity’s price doubles in a year, but the production of the same commodity fails to budge outside of a narrow range, it’s a reliable bet that physical limits on the supply of the commodity are to blame.

The difficulties with this otherwise sensible observation, of course, are twofold. It offers no easy answers; if we’ve reached the physical limits of petroleum production, that’s a fact we have to learn to live with, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable it may be. At the same time, it offends against a common assumption of modern thought, the belief that human beings – and only human beings – play an active role in history. Older civilizations understood that nonhuman forces shared in the making of history, and there’s a fine irony in the way that our civilization, having rejected the nonhuman world as a historical agent, now finds its own history being shaped by a nonhuman reality with which it steadfastly refuses to come to terms.

Bring historical irony into the political sphere, though, and as often as not it turns explosive. The example of Germany in the aftermath of the First World War is instructive. Faced with the collision between an imperial ideology of world domination and the hard fact of military defeat, a great many Germans after 1918 searched feverishly for an explanation for that defeat that did not require them to recognize the geopolitical limits to German power in the dawning age of oil.

As the economic troubles of the postwar period mounted, so did the quest for scapegoats, until finally a fringe politician named Adolf Hitler came up with an answer that most Germans found acceptable.

We are in a similar situation in America today. If anything, contemporary political thought is far more impoverished than it was in 1908, when the radical fringes of society swarmed with alternative theories of political economy. Since the collapse of classical conservatism in the 1960s, and the implosion of the New Left in the 1970s, political debate in the American mainstream has focused on finding the best means to achieve a set of ends that few voices question at all, while a great deal of debate outside the mainstream has abandoned political theory for a secular demonology in which everything wrong with the world – including the effects of the Earth’s ecological limits, of course – is the fault of some malevolent elite or other.

The current presidential race in America is a case in point. Neither candidate has addressed what, to my mind at least, are the crucial issues of our time: for example, whether America’s interests are best served by maintaining a sprawling military-economic empire with military bases in more than a hundred nations around the world; what is to be done about the collapse of America’s economic infrastructure and the hollowing out of its once-prosperous heartland; and, of course, how America’s economy and society can best deal with the end of the age of cheap abundant energy and the transition to an age of scarcity for which we are woefully unprepared.

Instead, the candidates argue about whether American troops should be fighting in Iraq or in Afghanistan, and whether or not we ought to produce more energy by drilling for oil in the nation’s wildlife refuges. Meanwhile, the partisans of each of these career politicians strive to portray the other as Satan’s own body double, while a growing number of those who are disillusioned with the entire political process hold that both men are pawns of whatever reptilian conspiracy happens to be fashionable on the fringes these days.

Maybe it’s just me, but this sort of evasion of the obvious seems utterly counterproductive. If Weimar America is to have a less disastrous future than its 20th century counterpart, we need to move toward serious debate over the shape that future is going to have, and our economically ruinous empire, our disintegrating national economy, and our extravagant lifestyles need to be among the things up for discussion. The radical right have already begun to scent a major opportunity; Nick Griffin, head of the neofascist British National Party, has already commented that his party is precisely one major crisis away from power, and he may well be right.

More generally, the first political movement to come up with a plausible response to peak oil will likely define the political discourse around energy and society for decades to come. Griffin and his peers are eager to take on that role; their response may not look plausible to most people now, but then neither did Hitler’s, before the Great Depression lowered the bar on plausibility to the point that he could goose-step over it. Unless some other movement comes up with a meaningful politics for the post-peak world, Griffin’s ideas may yet win out by default.

That would be a tragedy, and for more than the obvious reasons. One advantage of crisis is that it becomes possible to make constructive changes that are much harder in less troubled times. While I am no fan of utopian fantasies, and the possibility always exists that well-intentioned changes could make things worse, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the dysfunctional mess that is modern American politics could stand some improvement. That might involve learning a few things from other democracies; it might also involve returning to something a little more like the constitutional system on which this country was founded, which after all worked well in a pre-fossil fuel age. One way or another, though, it’s time to take a hard look at some of our most basic assumptions, and replace scapegoat logic with a reasoned discussion about where we are headed and what other options our society might want to consider.