Thursday, August 27, 2009

Chapter 7: The Big Secret

What if Matt Savinar, Paul Chefurka, Paul Kingsnorth, James Howard Kunstler and George Monbiot are right?

Matt Savinar has been quoted in the U.S. House of Representatives by members of the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus, like Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett from Maryland. He's been name-checked in Fortune magazine in a recent profile of one of Bush's billionaire buddies, who claims to have read Savinar's site every day since last September, and is keeping $500 million of his fortune in cash just in case Savinar and other peak oil doomsayers, like James Howard Kunstler, are right.

What if there is no replacement for oil?

Scientists don't deny it's coming. The only question is when. Some geologists say we're already on the downslope while others put the peak at around mid-century. Regardless, thousands of people of various professions aren't waiting for the exact date of the bad news to be pinned down. They've seen the polemical documentary "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream," shown at countless house parties, community centers and city halls across the country.

To David Fridley, a scientist who works on energy efficiency at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and who worked in the oil industry for 15 years, the increasing concern about peak oil tells us a lot about the shape of people's assumptions. "Those who come from an environmental point of view see peak oil as an opportunity to disrupt the never-ending growth of our reliance of fossil fuels," he says. "Then there are those who see our ultra-consumerist society as flawed, and peak oil is the disruption that will bring an end to that. Then there are the people who believe technology can save us, who are delving more into what solar and water power can do."

All trying to get a bead on the future at once.

As the geopolitical and economic dominoes start to fall in the wake of climbing oil prices, as food prices increase and energy prices are beyond our grasp, that stream of cars and trucks we see plying the highways every day will falter, if not actually stop, altogether. It takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel inputs for fertilizers, pesticides, farm equipment and transportation from natural gas, oil and coal to produce one calorie of food on the table.

How do you reengineer society to go backward? How do you carve up container ships and turn them into sailboats? We can't go back to steam engines burning wood because we burned all that wood when we were clearing the fields for farms. And even going back to beasts of burden, using the muscle power of horses for transportation, isn't straightforward, not when horses and people are competing for local, arable land and scarce reserves of food.

If governments know about Peak Oil and if Peak Oil predictions are correct and there is no solution other than for most of society to power down, what will that look like?

Oil wars in the Caucuses, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan? Global financial instability? Huge transfers of wealth from the middle class to the rich before the producing economy winds down? Workers rights undermined, weakened and even reversed. Food riots and human rights riots globally. The militarization of national police forces? All examples of dwindling resources?

The fact is, though, the Cassandras of peak oil are not all wearing fleece and Birkenstocks, and using peak oil as a convenient reason to rekindle back-to-the-land fantasies. They are geologists and energy experts in governments, universities and think tanks. And many of them echo the core conviction of the activists: Oil-drunk America has to go on the wagon or it will soon be heading into a dauntingly thirsty future.

Even strategic advisors to the Bush administration's Department of Energy believe it would take a good 20 years and trillions of dollars of investment in infrastructure for the nation to avoid liquid fuel shortages, when peak passes. A 91-page report released in February 2005 by Science Applications International Corp. played out three scenarios for the Department of Energy. Titled "Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management," it's come to be known as the Hirsch report, after one of its authors. Those three scenarios: Wait until the peak occurs to transition to other fuels, plan for the transition a decade in advance, plan for the transition 20 years in advance. In the first case, they predict significant fuel shortages globally and economic upheaval. Only in the third scenario do the report's writers conclude that major liquid fuel shortages could be avoided.

In a few years or perhaps as many as 10 or 20 years we may see oil go to $8 or $10 and even $20 or $30 a gallon or more. What happens then?

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