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Peaked Oil: Why Peak Oil Arrived Yesterday

12 Nov

The Red-Queen: On the Energy-Technology Spiral

Or

Peaked Oil: Why Peak Oil Arrived Yesterday

Or

Something Fishy:  A Planet Running on Fumes

Or

It is the Thermodynamics, Stupid!

 

Preface

This book has a bit of a prosaic title, especially when coming from a historian (they usually come up with fantastically irresistible titles). I have suggested a few alternatives above in the guise of titles for my own summary-essay.

I cannot believe there is not a single review on Goodreads for this fantastic book (9 ratings and 0 reviews on Goodreads + 2 non-reviews on Amazon!) – can wager it is due to the strategically chosen title. But despite the seeming lack of interest in the book, it is a literal page turner. This is firmly among the top 3 environmental books that I have yet read.

What follows is more a summary than a review.  I have taken a few liberties in the process. For example, fracking is not covered in the book so I have tried to bring it into the analysis – integrating it into the argumentative framework to forestall criticism on that front. Being the only review on Goodreads for such a good book, I am under a bit of pressure here. There is only so much a summary can do. I have to warn you that you might find that it is a very depressing book in many ways – the most essential sort.

Stein’s Law: “Trends that can’t continue, won’t.” 

The Unexpected Oil Spill (Or Not)

It was 9:15 p.m. on April 20, 2010, The Deepwater Horizon oil spill (also referred to as the BP oil spill/Macondo blowout) began in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

In the next four months, the oil gushing from the Macondo well spread over several tens of thousands of square miles of Gulf water – An entire region was under environmental siege. Countless of birds, turtles, dolphins, and an unknown number of fish and shrimp died. Tens of thousands of people lost their livelihoods and incomes, and a whole way of life was demolished.

(A video of the tragedy was leaked to YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxCt3UsmJF0)

BP might have announced plans for compensation but for an events whose repercussions extend across the globe, how much and how many people can BP really compensate. It is a silly notion to even contemplate.

Tainter and Patzek uses the story of this Gulf oil spill as the background for a wide-ranging discussion of how we got here and where we are headed. They emphasize that such events point to a systemic problem, and suggest that the spill was in fact more than likely given sufficient opportunities and time. The disaster and GOM (Gulf Of Mexico) in general is taken as a microcosm to explore the inevitability of disaster in our society.

Nature: A Mean Fractal

Starting from the basics is the best way to understand the basics. As far as Oil is concerned, the first thing we need to know is how much recoverable oil is waiting for us down there (in GOM, in this case). How much risk is involved in obtaining it and what is the trade-off. In other words, do the benefits outweigh the risks, for whom, and for how long?

Finding new oil in the deep Gulf of Mexico has not been easy. Historically, “dry holes,” wells that never produced commercial hydrocarbons, have been numerous. To put the last number in perspective, 72% of all wells drilled in water depths greater than 5,000 feet were dry holes!

Why is this so?

The sizes of reservoirs are important for understanding ultimate oil recovery from any field. It turns out that over the entire range of reservoir sizes, hydrocarbon reservoirs follow a “parabolic-fractal” law that says there is an increasing proportion of the smaller reservoirs relative to the larger ones.

If this law of reservoir sizes holds true, most, if not all, of the largest oilfields have already been discovered, and the smaller ones will not add much new oil to the total regardless of how many new oilfields are discovered.

Jevon’s Paradox

Oil production is increasingly difficult and requires great skill, huge capital outlays, and cutting-edge technology. The oil and gas industry is by far the largest of all human technical endeavors. Petroleum permeates almost all manufactured products and is at the core of our energy-intensive civilization. Without petroleum, modern economies would not exist. Many people do not recognize this fundamental truth about their own lives, and a currently popular delusion goes something like this: because a modern society depends less on energy in generating monetary income, getting rid of fossil fuels will have a lesser impact now than it had two decades ago.

Unfortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth. Such arguments are akin to believing that if a modern plane can fly 5,000 miles with four jet engines turned on, and 6,000 miles with just two engines, it will fly 7,000 miles with all engines turned off. This type of thinking is known as the “Jevons paradox”.

“EROEI” or WHY THERE AIN’T NO SUCH THING AS A  FREE LUNCH 

There is a systematic pattern that links our demand for oil to the complexity of the technology we use to find and produce petroleum, our economic and energy return on energy production, the complexity of our society, and our ability to maintain the way of life to which we are accustomed. It takes energy to get energy, to find, extract, refine, and distribute it. The difference between what we spend and what we get back is known as Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI), a term that you will be hearing a lot more of in coming years.

The Human In the Machine

Unfortunately, complexity at every level of offshore drilling, from the technology to the board room to onsite decision making, means that the scope for other potentially catastrophic errors is very great, perhaps even predictable.

Also, increasing complexity means no single person has the concentrated knowledge to effect preventions – preventions depend on complex groups again with chances of internal failure within that group too. The logic is inexorable.

Nature: Also a Mean Banker

Petroleum has accumulated over millions of years by the almost imperceptible annual deposits of marine biomass (read converted solar energy). You can think of petroleum resources as a huge global banking account of these saved solar reserves.

Up until recently our withdrawal centers (ATMs), that is, oil and gas wells, operated with few if any restrictions.  A good ATM in Saudi Arabia might produce 10,000 barrels of oil per day.

But, with time, Mother Nature imposes the ever more stringent daily withdrawal limits on our ATM cards. Old and easy oil reservoirs are depleted, the new ones are less productive, and we need more wells to produce less oil per day at a higher monetary and energy cost (transaction cost or broker fee, in economic terms).

There are plenty of fossil fuels (“resources”) left everywhere on the Earth. The resource size (current balance of a global banking account) is confused with the speed of drawing it down (allowed daily ATM withdrawals). It is the total rate of withdrawal that peaks (due to restrictions imposed), not the resource size which is gigantic but mostly impossible to recover at economically feasible rates.

The Paradigm of The Low-Hanging PEAK

We employ the Principle of Least Effort when we look for the resources that we need. No one digs a mine for gold if it can be had from a stream. We would never have considered looking for oil in deep water before we had fully developed the easy oil available elsewhere. We follow the same principle in the development of human society and in other aspects of history.

If, in complexity as in other realms, we first pluck the low-hanging fruit, this means that as complexity increases, societies always becomes more expensive.

Complexity, then, is an investment. It has benefits and costs, and naturally we want the benefits to exceed the costs. As is generally true of economic processes, it is the initial investments in complexity that yield the highest returns. This is a variant of plucking the lowest fruit. The second fruit to pluck is the next one up, and so forth. In other words, when further complexity is required to solve problems, we next develop technologies and institutions that are just a bit more complex and costly. Whatever the problem is, it is solved at only a higher cost.

At some point, however, the costs start to accelerate and the benefits of complexity, the ability to solve problems, increase more slowly and the risks start to become more than acceptable. This is a normal economic event, and it is known as the point of diminishing returns.

That should be how we redefine the point of Peak Oil. There is a need to shift the definition.

Why So Complex?

We come back to our original question: why does complexity grow in the face of resistance? At least part of the answer is that complexity is a basic problem-solving tool. Confronted with problems, we often respond by developing more complex technologies (e.g., hybrid cars), establishing new institutions (e.g., the Department of Homeland Security), adding specialists or bureaucratic levels to an institution, increasing organization or regulation, or gathering and processing more information.

All that is needed for growth of complexity is a problem that requires it. Problems continually arise, thus there is persistent pressure for complexity to increase.

2010: The Year of the Boiled Frog

Boiling a frog’ is a famous metaphor for the problem we all have perceiving changes that are gradual but cumulatively significant, that may creep up and have devastating consequences: a little increase here, a little there, then later some more. Nothing changes very much and things seem normal. Then one day the accumulation of changes causes the appearance of normality to disappear. Suddenly things have changed a great deal, the catastrophe has arrived. The world is different, and it has been altered in a manner that may not be pleasant.

We know how to boil a frog. Complexification is how to boil a society. Complexity grows by small steps, each seemingly reasonable, each a solution to a genuine problem.  A few people always foresee the outcome, and always they are ignored.

PEAK SCIENCE?

We are often assured that innovation (in technology or production or processes) in the future will reduce our society’s dependence on energy and other resources while continuing to provide for a lifestyle equivalent or better than such as we now enjoy. Faced with the prospect that under current trends, our societies will continue to grow in complexity, and consequently in the energy that we will need, we must, at this point, consider an important question: could innovation reduce the energy cost of complexity?

But the thing is, Innovation is like any other system and is bound by the laws of complexity – It grows in complexity as more is asked of it and is subject to the benefits and costs that this imposes.

Institutionalized innovation as we know it today is a recent development. Our ancestors experienced periods of centuries to millennia with little or no technological change. Innovation was rare in past societies in part because scientists/experts were rare. Then we moved to scholars in the middle-ages and gentleman scientists emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Finally, we reached the mega-labs of today.

In every scientific and technical field, early research plucks the lowest fruit: the questions that are easiest to answer and most broadly useful. As general knowledge is established early in the history of a discipline, the knowledge that remains to be developed is more specialized. Specialized questions become more costly and difficult to resolve. Research organization moves from isolated scientists who do all aspects of a project, to teams of scientists, technicians, and support staff who require specialized equipment, costly institutions, administrators, and accountants.

*An Aside: I know of a scientist friend who keeps mourning she should have been born in an early age and that chances of a heroic discovery is no longer present, even nobel prizes are now symbolic – more an award/nod to an approach than to individual achievement. How many of us haven’t thought that if that idea was not already out, I could have thought of that. In fact, sports, literature, art and a few such pursuits might be the only fields where individual achievement is still heroic and consequently so prized.  Will literature and art too eventually move in this way?*

Looking at today’s unending stream of inventions and new products, most people assume that innovation is accelerating. Ever-shorter product cycles would lead one to believe so. In fact, relative to population, innovation is not accelerating. It is not even holding steady. Huebner found that major innovations per billion people peaked in 1873 and have been declining ever since. Then, plotting U.S. patents granted per decade against population, he found that the peak of U.S. innovation came in 1915. It, too, has been declining since that date.

The stories that we tell about our future assume that innovation will allow us to continue our way of life in the face of climate change, resource depletion, and other major problems. The possibility that innovation overall may produce diminishing productivity calls this future into question. As Price pointed out, continually increasing the allocation of personnel to research and development cannot continue forever or the day will come when we must all be scientists.

Jesus Fracking Christ – A Saviour?

Patzek’s (One of the authors) research has emphasized the use of unconventional natural gas as a fuel bridge to the possible new energy supply schemes for the U.S. Fracking is an important such new technology that is posing as a sort of savior.  But we need to understand such improvements inside the framework of he technology-complexity spiral framework – that such improvements is ultimately an increase in complexity. The effects on environment etc would cost even higher to reverse and in the long run, we will exhaust the trackable sources as well.

Does this mean that efficiency improvements and new technologies of extraction such as Fracking are not worthwhile? Of course not. Efficiency improvements are highly valuable, but their value has a limited lifespan. Technical improvements may merely establish the groundwork for greater resource consumption in the future. This in turn requires further technical innovation, but as we have just discussed, those technical improvements will become harder and harder to achieve. And as we do achieve them, they may serve us for shorter and shorter periods. We have a tendency to assume that technical innovations such as Fracking will solve our energy problems. This is unlikely. Technical improvements do buy us time, which is itself worthwhile and may be all we can expect.

It is the Thermodynamics, Stupid!

The Second Law of Thermodynamics defines what tends to or can happen in any energy system (the entropy of an isolated system never decreases). Considerable energy flows are required to maintain complex structures that are far from equilibrium, including living organisms and societies. We must breathe, drink, and eat for energy to flow continuously through our living bodies and maintain their highly complex, organized structures. Unfortunately, this tends to create a mess in the environment that surrounds us.

The same principle applies to the production of oil. The energy it would take to restore the environment damaged by the oil production processes such as Fracking (or inevitable disasters such as the BP spill) exceeds by several-fold the amount of combustion heat we get from burning the oil in our cars. In both examples, we cannot break even no matter how hard we try!

Malthus: Back from The Dead (And With a Twist)

In a previous review the various postulates on why the industrial economy took off had been examined. Many economists have found many ways to denigrate Malthus and his pessimism. However, Malthus in a slightly modified form (called The utterly dismal theorem) might turn out to be decisive argument because it directly challenges the progressivist view by focusing on one of its central tenets: improvements in the efficiency of technology, and the prospects of such improvement for increasing human welfare indefinitely. We might be living in a Malthusian world still.

Paraphrasing The Utterly Dismal Theorem:

Any technical improvement can only relieve energy-deficiency for a while, for as long as energy-deficiency is the only check on complexity, the improvement will enable complexity to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in even more energy-deficiency than before. The final result of improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium energy-deficiency, which is to increase the sum total of human misery (from Foreword to Malthus’s Population: The First Essay, 1959).

Energy as the Currency of Civilization

Although people in the industrialized world, and especially Americans(and Economists!), like to think that we earned our way of life through ingenuity and hard work, in fact our way of life depends on consuming inexpensive but high-quality energy. Without energy, ingenuity and hard work could not provide the quality of life that we now enjoy.

After all, our ancestors were ingenious and worked hard, and this is the case with many people today in developing countries. Yet none has achieved our standard of living. When we hear the word “cost” we think of money. Money is a transformation of energy. We pay for complexity with high-quality energy. Therefore, energy is the currency that ultimately matters.

The implication of this strain of thought is that humans have rarely had surplus energy. To the people of wealthy countries today, this may come as a surprise. We have lived in a time of surplus energy, and so we do not realize how unusual our time is. In the long span of human history, though, energy surpluses have quickly been dissipated by growth in consumption. The ultimate explanations for the two major revolutions in Human History (Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions) could very well be that in the first we found a way to extract more energy and then we stumbled upon a way of getting free or subsidized energy to power our growth.

The Boiled Frogs: A Quick History of Civilizations

Although we like to think of ourselves as unique, in fact our societies today are subject to many of the same forces and problems that past societies experienced, including problems of complexity and energy. In some past societies, the growth of complexity ultimately proved disastrous, and all past societies found it a challenge. It might seem quaint to talk of ancient societies declining but it is infect quite easy to see the striking parallels. It takes being a Historian though.

(Much of the insight in this section draws upon the book ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’ which the reviewer has not read. Hence, it is not covered in detail in this summary.)

The Roman Cauldron

There was not much ancient societies could do to store extra solar energy except to turn it into something durable. This they did by turning surplus solar energy into precious metals, works of art, and people and into monetary units. When the Romans conquered a new people, they would seize this stored solar energy by carrying off the same precious metals and works of art, as well as people who would be enslaved. Centuries of solar energy that had fallen on Mediterranean lands were seized and transported to Italy, making Rome the most magnificent city of the ancient world.

One of the problems of being an empire is that eventually you run out of profitable conquests. Expand far enough and you will encounter people who are too poor to be worth conquering (the germanic tribes), or who are powerful enough that they are too costly to conquer (The Persians). Diminishing returns set in.

The end of conquest meant that Rome’s budget could no longer be financed from stored solar energy (by looting newly conquered peoples). Now the budget had to be financed from yearly solar energy from owned territory, that is, from taxes on agriculture.

ROME: Hit that Decline Button – Sloowwly

Just when it looked like the Roman Empire might fall, the situation was rescued by a series of reforming emperors, most especially Constantine. Their solution was to increase the size and complexity of the main problem-solving institutions: the government and the army.

The strategy of the Roman Empire, in confronting a serious crisis, was largely predictable -  They responded as people commonly do: they increased complexity to solve their problems, and subsequently went looking for the energy to pay for it. But in adopting this course the Romans found a dilemma that we will encounter in the future. Their energy budget was flat. It depended on solar energy, which could not be increased. This meant that to spend more on the army and the government, the Romans had to take resources from the peasants and, at the same time, further weaken their own finances. Both strategies deferred until the future the cost of current crises, rather as governments today routinely do. The rest is history.

This way of dealing with increasing complexity can be called The Roman model. The society, in this model, increases in complexity to solve urgent problems, becoming at the same time increasingly costly. In time there are diminishing returns to problem solving, but the problems of course do not go away. The society must fund problem solving by extracting higher and higher amounts of resources, perhaps in the process degrading the productive system (the environment or the taxpayers). In the Roman Empire this meant taxes on the peasants. But consuming more resources in the face of diminishing returns means that problem solving brings fiscal weakness, popular discontent, and ineffectiveness. If the society is lucky, the only problem will be ineptitude at solving problems. If it is unlucky, it will in time collapse, perhaps initiating a dark age.

Byzantium – The Dark Age Solution

Third and fourth century Byzantine emperors had managed a similar crisis in a similar fashion by increasing the complexity of administration, the regimentation of the population, and the size of the army. This was paid for by such levels of taxation that lands were abandoned and peasants could not replenish the population. Byzantine emperors could hardly impose more of the same exploitation on the depleted population of the shrunken empire. Instead they adopted a strategy that is truly rare in the history of complex societies: systematic simplification. This led to a radical devolution of the civilization. The period is sometimes called the Byzantine Dark Age.

The simplification, however, rejuvenated Byzantium. The Byzantines went from near disintegration to being the premier power in Europe and the Near East, an accomplishment won by decreasing the complexity and costliness of problem solving.

This response is the Byzantine Model: recovery through simplification. It is a solution that is often recommended for modern society as a way to inflict less damage on the earth and the climate, and to live within a lower energy budget. In this sense, Byzantium may be a model or prototype for our own future, in broad parameters but not in specific details. There is both good news and bad news in this. The good news is that the Byzantines have shown us that a society can survive by simplifying. The bad news is that they accomplished it only when their backs were to the wall. They did not simplify voluntarily.

Europe: The Subsidized Continent

There are two primary reasons why today’s prosperous Europe emerged from so many centuries of misery. The first is that the competition forced Europeans continuously to innovate in technological prowess, organizational abilities, and systems of finance. They were forced to become more adept at manipulating and distributing matter and energy. The second reason is that they got lucky: they stumbled upon great, almost free subsidies.

Over the seas they found new lands that could be conquered, and their resources turned to European advantage. We are all familiar with the stories of untold riches that Europeans took from the New World.

This process is the European Model: of increasing complexity. Problem solving produces ever-increasing complexity and consumption of resources, regardless of the long-term cost. High complexity in a way of life can be sustained if one can find a subsidy to pay the costs.

This is what fossil fuels have done for us: they have provided a subsidy that allows us to support levels of complexity that otherwise we could not afford. In effect, we pay the cost of our lifestyle with an endowment from a wealthy ancestor. That ancestor is the geological stores of eons of past solar energy, transformed into petroleum, natural gas, and coal.

This is fine, as long as the subsidy continues undiminished and as long as we do not mind damages such as the Gulf oil spill. We would do well, though, to keep in mind the experience of the Romans, who found that high-gain subsidies do not last.

A Subsidized Planet: Living on Borrowed time – Literally

More recently, all societies of today, led by Europe, made the transition to financing themselves through fossil fuels, supplemented to varying degrees by nuclear power and a few other sources. This continues the European tradition of financing complexity through subsidies – energy coming from elsewhere. In this case, the “elsewhere” is the geological past.

Future Imperfect

The Deepwater Horizon is one of the latest manifestations of the evolutionary process of complexification. Problems such as the depletion of easy deposits and environmental concerns have been met by complexification: the development of technology that is increasingly capable, yet costly and risky (such as Parallel Drilling, Fracking, Arctic exploration etc). The cost comes not only in the money needed to design, purchase, and run such a rig, but also in the money to repair the environmental damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon spill, and in the damage to a way of life among the Gulf’s residents. Yet despite these costs, we will continue to operate such rigs until they reach the point of economic infeasibility or, more important, the point where the energy returned on energy invested, and the resulting energy and financial balance sheets, make further exploration pointless.

Can anything be done about the energy–complexity spiral without diminishing our material quality of life? Two potential solutions commonly suggested are: Conservation and Innovation. In fact these are related, for one focus of innovation is to improve the efficiency of our technology by designing devices that use less energy to achieve the same output. But does either conservation or innovation provide a way out of the energy–complexity spiral? In this discussion, we have found that there might not be much hope.

Renewable? Schenewable. Or Sustanababble!

<img src=”http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/sustainable.png&#8221; width=”100″ height=”200″ alt=”XKCD”/>

It is fashionable to think that we will be able to produce renewable energy with gentler technologies, with simpler machines that produce less damage to the earth, the atmosphere, and people. We all hope so, but we must approach such technologies with a dose of realism and a long-term perspective.

The fact that complexity and costliness increase through mundane every-day problem solving suggests a conclusion that is disturbing: contrary to what is often suggested in debates about energy, climate, and our future, it is usually not possible for a society to reduce its consumption of resources voluntarily over the long term.

To the contrary, as problems great and small inevitably arise, addressing these problems requires complexity and resource consumption to increase. The usual approach to solving problems goes in the opposite direction. The Energy consumption of societies can only be on an upward trajectory – indefinitely (till supply chokes and dies).

To believe that we can voluntarily survive over the long term on less energy per capita is to assume that the future will present no problems (or fewer!). This would clearly be a foolish assumption, and the reality places one of the favorite concepts of modern economists and technologists, sustainable development, in grave doubt.

So, it is not clear whether renewable energy can produce even a fraction of the power per person that we enjoy now, let alone more energy to solve the problems that we will inevitably confront. Renewable energy will go through the same evolutionary course as fossil fuels. We will first put to use the best sources in the best places. If population increases or we need to increase energy per person, we will next look to sources and places that are less suitable. This will take more land area per unit of energy captured, and probably increasingly complex technology. The marginal return to energy production will decline, just as it has with fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, even a steady-state economy is not a possibility (as suggested by some economists), since it too will, in time become a gradually collapsing economy, because of accumulation of environmental damage and the merciless Second Law of Thermodynamics. To advocate a steady-state economy is to assume that the future will hold no challenges and all waste will be perfectly recycled. If this proves unfounded, as undoubtedly it will, we may find that we cannot solve our problems no matter how pressing they may be.

In this context, the interested reader might want to enjoy Asimov’s wonderful short story: The Last Question

Back to the Hot Oil Bath of GOM

Cheap abundant energy, chiefly from oil, has come to be regarded as a birthright, and we all expect someone to drill and deliver that oil to support our energy-exuberant lifestyles. The tragedy aboard the Deepwater Horizon may be a rare event, like a Black Swan, but it does force us to consider the potential price for the complex and risky technological solutions that will continue to be required to bring the remaining oil to market.

Asking people if their lives are determined by fossil fuel gradients is like asking a fish if its nose is wet. If an energy gradient comes to our attention it is as a Black Swan, a sudden unexpected crisis. At least, this is the appearance. In fact, the onset of a sudden energy crisis is more like a boiled frog.

The processes building up to an energy crisis have been growing in the background for decades, out of sight of most consumers. Then a tipping point is reached – a catastrophe, and suddenly the world has changed. Similarly, the complexity and riskiness of drilling in open water have been growing for decades, but growing in the background, away from most peoples’ sights.

So the Gulf spill appeared as a Black Swan when in fact it was a frog finally boiled to death.

All Excess Baggage Aboard: How to Jettison the Energy Dilemma

So, what now? We seem to have run out of options. At least, the easy ones.

We are not the first people to face an energy dilemma. We saw three examples of societies that faced problems of energy and complexity. Each found different solutions (?) to their problems, and from this experiment we can foresee possible options for ourselves.

Which of these strategies are modern societies likely to pursue in the future? The Roman model of robbing Peter to pay Paul can be followed for only a short time, and we must hope that we never need to adopt it. The Byzantine model of simplification and conservation is a strategy that humans seem willing to adopt only when there is no alternative. It may lie someday in our future. And we might have to endure a future Dark-Age if pushed to that.

To be sure, we will try to continue the European model of energy subsidies for as long as we can. Humanity will not forgo such rich, steep gradients. Even the threat of climate change will not deflect humanity from searching for oil in ever-more-inaccessible places, nor from burning through our mountains of sulfurous coal. Too many people find the short-term wealth and well-being irresistible.

For how long, though, can we follow the European model? Declining EROEI and the Laws of Physics suggests that the answer is: Not forever.

We cannot cannot continue on false optimism and expect to preserve our lifestyle. Do we then need to identify things we want to preserve of our culture and channel energy to those items? Should we jettison as much as possible and try to stay afloat? Is that the only way to avoid a devolution into another in the sequence of Dark-ages that civilizations have made a habit of falling into? These are tough questions.

Wake Up and Smell the Boiling Oil

Our societies cannot postpone this public discussion about future of energy and the tough questions. The era of plentiful petroleum will someday end. We don’t know when this will happen, nor does anyone else. Surely it will happen sooner than we want.

We cant fool ourselves any more – we are running on fumes and dooming our grandchildren (or even ourselves – who can truly say?) to a pre-technological society. As the Red Queen said to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Paying more and more to maintain the status quo is the very essence of diminishing returns to problem solving. The Romans found this to be poor long-term strategy, if undertaken with an energy base that cannot grow.

But it is, however, the direction in which we are headed. Someday, the physics of net energy will curtail our use of petroleum. A trend that cannot continue, won’t.

Suggested reading:

Zipf, G.K.: Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort – An Introduction to Human Ecology

Lambert, F.: Shakespeare and Thermodynamics: Dam the Second Law!

Tainter, J.A.: The Collapse of Complex Societies

Price, D. de Solla.: Little Science, Big Science

Rescher, N.: Unpopular Essays on Technological Progress

Perrow, C.: Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies

Mirowski, P.: More Heat than Light – Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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