Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The End of Suburbia II

Peak Oil: the problem
Last night I went to a screening of the Peak Oil documentary The End of Suburbia held by Barneys. If the calculations of many experts are right, somewhere in the next 5 to 10 years (or perhaps it is happening even now), the world will reach and pass maximum oil production.* The economic consequences of this could well be devastating, since increasing demand meeting dwindling supply means rapidly rising prices. This doesn't just mean it costs more and more to run your car (today's prices will be remembered as cheap), but it costs more and more to run everything.
*Two sobering points: the 'peak' of oil discovery came in the 1960s and every year since the early 80s the world has used more oil than it has discovered.

In particular, the documentary focussed on the Western world's short-sighted decision after WWII to invest gigantic amounts of wealth into the task of suburbanisation: the construction of a way of life built around the private automobile. Many aspects of this investment are now looking highly problematic.

But it's not just the suburban middle class who will feel the pinch. In fact, the entire global economy as we know it is based on the assumption of cheap access to energy. For example, most of our food is grown, processed, stored and transported using energy from oil, not to mention all the petrochemicals used in pesticides and fertilisers. And before we start talking about alternative sources of energy, it is worth noting that nothing that we now have, or will have in the next decade (new technologies take time to research and implement, even where a 'market adjustment' in the price of oil makes research increasingly attractive) comes close to the efficiency and ubiquity of oil. Blind faith in the market's ability to cope misses the huge amounts of energy required to keep the various 'stalls' of the market open.

So what are we to do?
This is the first in a series of four or five posts of my reflections upon both the film and the issues it raises. I realise there are many great sites out there, including many Christans writing about it (more links to come). However, I will seek to give a theological analysis of the problem and its possible 'solutions'. Ten points for the artist and title. Series so far: I; II; III, IV.

27 comments:

Christopher said...

Good post Byron, although I find no comfort in science or new technologies - not that you are suggesting I should.

(new technologies take time to research and implement, even where a 'market adjustment' in the price of oil makes research increasingly attractive)

And whose is to say that new technologies will or can be discovered?

The old positivism is rampant in a lot of discussions revolving around peak oil and climate change, but it is more than likely that a substitute for oil will not be "discovered".

People like to think that there are scientists "right now" in MIT and CSIRO research labs discovering how we can make ozone, or an oil substitute. But even if a substitute were found/created it wouldn't seamlessly fit in with our oil dependent societies. We aren't talking about the transition from leaded to unleaded.

While it doesn't have the same ring as the old song but "The things that your liable to read in papers and journals, ain't necessarily so"

byron said...

Indeed. There are in the order of 600,000,000 cars in the world (200 hundred million of them in the US). If we find another source of energy comparable to oil, that's a lot of cars to convert...

I suspect that recycling cars into other things will be a major growth industry over the next few decades.

byron said...

The doco also points out that many of the existing alternative automotive technologies (hydrogen, electric, etc) require significantly more energy than petrol to run. And where does that energy come from...

lachlan b said...

Roy Lichtenstein?

Christopher said...

I suspect that recycling cars into other things will be a major growth industry over the next few decades.

Like fish tanks? I like those old televisions that have been converted into fish tanks.

Is the doco being shown elsewhere? Or on other nights

byron said...

One of my friends was baptised in the inverted (and waterprrofed) shell of an old VW beetle. That was a good use.

Is the doco being shown elsewhere? Or on other nights
Unfortunately not, as far as I'm aware. You could try contacting Rachel, who organised the night with her husband Alex.

byron said...

Lachlan - ten points. Still another ten available for getting the title.

Anonymous said...

re: suburbanisation. Canberra is an interesting case in point. As a planned city - and the only city in Australia to be founded after the invention of the automobile, it is heavily dependent on private transport. The design reflects a belief in the endless supply of cheap petro-energy, (curiously ironic considering the Burley-Griffins’ well-known commitment to environmentalism). If some of those dire oil predictions were to eventuate, Canberra would almost certainly have to split into 5 (or so) completely independent small towns. how’s that for weirdly decentralised government?...

byron said...

In other energy news, SMH today reported that nuclear energy is not only too expensive, but in Australia it would also take seventeen years to make a dent in carbon emissions. And this is without even raising Peak Uranium...

Anonymous said...

I think the peak oil thing is overdone. The heavy coverage of the idea over the last two years did help propel speculative interest in crude to $80 a barrel. And yet Conoco Philips a few months ago struck oil in the gulf supposedly DOUBLING U.S. reserves at a stroke. The off shore potential elsewhere is enormous and untapped.

Alternative energy technology advances should not be discounted. I imagine they will occur more quickly than we imagine. "A fuel cell in every home" might be a campaign slogan a decade from now. Sometimes I think evangelicals in their zeal to flee the right think they must lose all faith in markets and technology. Why the pessimism? We are enjoying a massive wave of global prosperity with resources increasingly freed up for improvements in the quality of life for everyone. Don't be a party-pooper.

Dionysius

Jason said...

Byron: Really keen to see your theological response. I find this very encouraging. All the best with exams in the meantime.

Christopher: Love the fish tank idea. Replace a car with a fish tank. Grow some big fish!

Dionysius: I'm not sure about the validity of the Conoco-Philips find in USA (perhaps post a link), but even if true we need a whole lot more oil than that. Much, much more.

The USA used to be the biggest oil producer and exporter, until they hit peak oil in 1970. 1970 also happened to be the year that Hubbard predicted the USA would peak all the way back in 1956.

And this; "Of the 65 largest oil producing countries in the world, up to 54 have past their peak of production and are now in decline" (quote from Energy Bulletin Primer)

In addition, check out the chart at http://www.energybulletin.net/primer.php which shows the growing disparity between oil discovery and production. Oil simply isn't being found that can supply our needs.

I'm not sure 'peakers' are being pessimistic. Just looking at the geoligical data and trying to come to some appropriate decisions.

byron said...

Why the pessimism? We are enjoying a massive wave of global prosperity with resources increasingly freed up for improvements in the quality of life for everyone. Don't be a party-pooper.
Dionysius - Depends if we're having at party at someone else's expense - a serious question to ask. Will our present consumption run up an unpayable bill for our children? Is our present way of life in the West able to be reproduced around the world even now?

And even if our present abundance didn't have these problems, should we now build some bigger barns to fit our abundant crop, and relax, eat, drink and be merry? Jesus had some words about this.

Though make sure you stick around for the rest of the series and see if you still think I'm a party-pooper. I hope not. I think that rightly understanding the party is the key to our attitude on this question. So bring on the party...

Anonymous said...

http://money.cnn.com/2006/09/05/news/companies/chevron_gulf/index.htm?cnn=yes

Chevron not Conoco, 50% not 100%, but you get the point.

michael jensen said...

hmm. is Peak Oil like the millennium bug?

lachlan b said...

Isn't it just "I'd rather sink- than call brad for help"?

byron said...

Lachlan - afraid not. It has another title.

Michael - I assumed you were joking when you made your earlier comment. I guess not. In what way do you think they are similar? On what are you basing that judgement?

Anon - Chevron not Conoco, 50% not 100%, but you get the point.
Notice the article says the find may swell reserves by 50%. The estimate (made by the company whose stick prices are directly and dramatically affected by the announcement) was for between 3 and 15 billion barrels. That is, between 10 and 50%. Even if the highest number is correct, the US is still well past its oil peak (this doesn't come close to changing that). It will take around 7 years before US consumers see any of it (note the time these things take). And the US currently consumes over 6.6 billion barrels per year. It has had to import oil since 1970. This discovery is good, but doesn't really change the big picture. Even if this discovery were repeated many times over, it would only push back the timing slightly.

byron said...

If this is new to anyone, or you've got questions, check out this extensive list of faq. The Chevron discovery is dealt with towards the bottom of the first page. A time-frame is given for the extension the discovery gave us: three or four months.

lachlan b said...

drowning girl- thanks google

Rachel said...

yeah great post and I'm really looking forward to reading your series...

byron said...

Lachlan - bingo. Have another ten.

byron said...

And Christopher, I was twentieth on this one... :-)

Christopher said...

It is a magical position number 20. All that accumulated knowledge and wisdom to draw on.

michael jensen said...

Oh, you henny-penny.

We'll all be roooned!

Anonymous said...

You've got some interesting stuff going on at the moment! Of course, the theological analysis of Peak Oil is what I'm burrowing away at at the moment as well - but you knew that!

jeltzz said...

looking forward to the rest of this series. It's already sparked me thinking on the question of what might it look like to live a life fundamentally oriented to Not using cars.

byron said...

Rev Sam - yes, I've enjoyed your thoughts and in particular will probably link to your pledges in this series.

Jeltzz - yes, that's a great question, though I won't be addressing it in this series. I really should get on and write some more before people expect me to cover everything... :-)

Dave Lankshear said...

Isn't this just Y2K syndrome?

The Y2K "doomsday nutters" started with a bunch of computer geeks warning about a computer bug could send planes off course, wipe banking records, and generally cause panic and mayhem.

It did not happen — because governments and big business:-

* listened to the warnings...
* about a virtual problem that was easily fixed...
* by spending a little money fixing code
* just in time.
* By the time Y2K ticked over the "geeks" were quite content with the situation. (My dad worked for IBM).

Of course the "nutters" stored up tinned food and ammo for the Y2K apocalypse that never came.

Peak oil is exactly the opposite.

* We have not listened to warnings...
* about an energy crisis in the real world (the laws of physics — not some computer codes)
* requiring a vast "war-time" emergency economy rebuilding and retrofitting entire cities for the post oil era
* and we have already missed the deadline which was 10 to 20 years ago! (See the DOE sponsored Hirsch report)
* This time the "geology geeks" are anything but content!

And the "nutters"? Well, there will always be end-of-civilization nutters. It's just that this time peak oil threatens our economy, transport systems, business infrastructure, suburban town plans, plastics industry, airline industry, tourism industry, modern agriculture, the stability of international relations — this time the "nutters" may just be right! I don't know, make up your own mind. The one thing I am convinced of though is that peak oil is here, and it's effects will be profound.