Tuesday, September 06, 2005

oil and the end of the modern world

I noticed this thought-provoking and entirely frightening paper several weeks ago, but just recently got around to reading it. In some ways I wish I hadn’t; ignorance is truly bliss.

This paper describes how everything we take for granted in our modern world is entirely dependent on oil, and then states that even slight shortfalls between supply and demand will wreak havoc on oil-dependent economies. Oil production/consumption follows something like a bell curve, and best estimates are that we’re gonna hit the peak within the next few years. It’s all downhill from there.

Some lovely snippets from this paper:

Because petrochemicals are key components to much more than just the gas in your car. As geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer points out in his article entitled, “Eating Fossil Fuels”, approximately 10 calories of fossil fuels are required to produce every 1 calorie of food eaten in the US.

In addition to transportation, food, water, and modern medicine, mass quantities of oil are required for all plastics, all computers and all high-tech devices.

When considering the role of oil in the production of modern technology, remember that most alternative systems of energy — including solar panels/solar-nanotechnology, windmills, hydrogen fuel cells, biodiesel production facilities, nuclear power plants, etc. — rely on sophisticated technology.

In short, the so called “alternatives” to oil are actually “derivatives” of oil. Without an abundant and reliable supply of oil, we have no way of scaling these alternatives to the degree necessary to power the modern world.

All of this hit home while the family and I were visiting Barkerville (a historic mining town) during our vacation. Original buildings, daily events and lively actors are all combined to provide a reasonably accurate picture of what life looked like in the 1870s. We all had a great time exploring Barkerville, but I found my interest heightened after reading the peak oil paper. The working Cornish waterwheel display would delight any engineer-at-heart, but I found myself paying much closer attention to this power source that had nearly no dependence on oil whatsoever. How exactly did the flume deliver water to the wheel? What clutching mechanism was used to couple the waterwheel to the mine pump?

Like most teenage geeks, I read all the science fiction I could get my hands on. Writers like Asimov and Clarke described a future in which ever-advancing technology played a key role in our lives: just as often nearly wiping us out as well as granting us god-like capabilities, but always playing a key role. I’ve simply always assumed that we would eventually overcome our dependence on fossil fuels and come up with a better solution, but what if we don’t do so in time? What if we are currently living in the peak of human technological achievement, soon to descend into a Dark Ages like the world has not seen for more than a thousand years? Geez - just when I finally got my Linux server up and running the way I like it…

As a side note, I’ve been rediscovering the most excellent Connections television series again, in which writer James Burke shows the connections between different technology inflection points throughout history. The first half of the first episode, “The Trigger Effect”, is guaranteed to give you the heebee-jeebees as Mr. Burke imagines the impact that a collapse in modern energy systems would have. If someone is interested in watching this episode let me know and I can lend it to you.

So, now what? How would we cope without our oil fix? Perhaps by looking to those groups that still live like they were in the mid-nineteenth century - folks like the Amish. I’m thinking now is the time to invest in all books describing Amish tools, building and farming techniques - get ‘em from Amazon before the last spark of utility-generated electricity goes out.

Peak Oil: Life After the Oil Crash

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