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The politics and reality of the peak oil scare

category international | environment | opinion/analysis author Wednesday April 04, 2007 16:48author by Andrew Flood and Chekov Feeny - WSM - Red & Black Revolution Report this post to the editors

Peak Oil Theory has been around since the 1970s. Some think we have already reached 'peak oil', others think it will happen with the next twenty-five years. The theory argues that when we reach 'peak oil' the rate at which we extract oil from the earth (measured in millions of barrels per day) will reach a maximum and thereafter will start to drop.

As the rate at which we use oil is currently close to the rate at which we extract it, the point of peak oil will coincide or be closely followed by the world consuming more oil than it is producing. As oil reserves are very limited, within months there simply will not be enough oil available.

For this reason Peak Oil Theory tends to come as part of a package which is about more than the production and consumption of oil. It also expresses fears about how society will be affected when the oil runs short. In essence, Peak Oil Theory is both about the economics of oil and a pessimistic vision of the future. In many cases Peak Oil is a theory that catastrophe is about to hit humanity. In the first half of this article, I ask if our future is inevitably pessimistic.

In the second half of the article I will examine the peak oil claims themselves. How bad do things really seem to be? This article will demonstrate that the depth of polarisation over this issue is such that even claimed 'scientific facts' cannot be trusted to be accurate but rather tend to reflect the ideological point of view of those offering them. On the one hand, a decreasing number of people deny there is any problem with oil supply. On the other are a growing number who predict peak within a few years and a cataclysmic effect on civilisation as a result.

Why should anarchists care about this argument? Well, if such a crash were to happen it would be a disaster, not only for the world’s population but also for the anarchist project. Oil provides most of the energy that makes current standards of living possible. The nature of the crash would set worker against worker in the fight for access to the limited resources the ruling class would allow to trickle down. And, as the various national ruling classes fought to gain control over the resources of other nations, workers would be pitted against each other in more and more destructive wars.

Before we panic though we need to consider how real all of this is.

Part A: We are all going to die!

The idea that the human population growth would cause it to go into decline is not a new one. An 18th century English economist called John Malthus first made it. The arguments he put forward then are very similar to the arguments made by the Peak Oil theorists. It’s worth going back to the beginning and looking at Malthus’ ideas as perhaps the modern day theorists are equally wrong in the assumptions they share about human society.

Why does Malthus matter?

In the late 18th century Malthus produced the first really systematic look at the question of human population. By looking at the patterns of population changes in various species he concluded that, in the absence of predators, the population of any species would increase exponentially, until it exhausts the resources on which it depends, upon which point the population will collapse dramatically. Based upon this theory he predicted that the human population would continue to go through cycles of exponential growth, followed by sudden collapse.

When applying this theory to humans, Malthus added in a strong moral dimension. The lower classes tended to have more children, and he argued this was a sign of their moral degeneracy. Hence the population collapses that would be experienced through famines and environmental destruction were evidence of God punishing the poor for their immoral ways. This outlook proved particularly attractive to the ruling classes who could present famines among their subjects as part of the natural order of things, or even as an example of God's righteous wrath against sinners.

For example, during the Irish famine of the 1840's, English politicians were able to justify their lack of intervention in Malthusian terms - the famine being, after all, God's natural means of keeping the population in check and simultaneously punishing the sinners, rather than having anything to do with the policies of the government. As Malthus put it, "this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind, does exist at present, and will for ever continue to exist". Thus the upper class continued to export food from Ireland as hundreds of thousands starved to death.

Today Malthus is a deeply discredited theorist. His intermingling of scientific observation with highly subjective moralising is obvious to us as nothing more than a crass justification of power and privilege without responsibility. However, perhaps more importantly, he turned out to be wrong. Since the time of Malthus, the human population has not suffered any of his predicted collapses. Instead the world's population has continued to grow and grow. From less than a billion in the 18th century, it has grown to over 6 billion today. This trend has been slowing but all the same the UN predicts that, on current trends, the world's population will be approaching 10 billion by 2050.

However, no matter how discredited the ideas of Malthus rightly are today, it is worth looking at the reasons why his predictions were so wrong. Firstly, we now know that population trends are much more complicated than Malthus imagined. However, we do know that in general, unless they are checked by predation or competition for resources, populations of species do tend to follow a basic Malthusian cycle of steady growth followed by sudden decline. For example, modern evolutionary biology provides plenty of evidence that the human population has collapsed to relatively tiny numbers - as few as thousands of people - on several occasions in the last 100,000 years.

However, modern humans have achieved a mastery over the earth, which allows us to consciously affect and increase our food supply. But Malthus was aware of this uniquely human trait, as he himself put it: "the main peculiarity which distinguishes man from other animals, is the means of his support, is the power which he possesses of very greatly increasing these means." So where exactly did he go wrong? Why has the population continued to increase at an ever-greater rate since his time, rather than collapsing as he predicted?

Underestimating the power of humans to innovate

Malthus’ basic scientific error was in underestimating the rate at which human ingenuity could increase the amount of resources available to them. Although Malthus and his peers in the ruling class were quite content to allow large chunks of the population to starve to death every so often, seeing this as God's will, many of those people threatened were not. The period since 1750 has been particularly marked out from the periods that came before by an almost constant scientific revolution.

As religion has waned in influence, people became less inclined to write off human catastrophes as God's will and instead were moved to look for the material causes of human suffering and ways to avoid them. Many of these advances have rested upon human beings’ unique ability to cooperate in vastly complex social organisations and our ability to consciously adapt our behaviour. So, for example, the doubling of life expectancy in the West owes most to the enormous public health and sanitation infrastructure that has been built up in the last 100 years in the West, as well as to the collective applied brain-power of some of the brightest human minds over several centuries in order to devise the solutions upon which we depend.

Malthus was wrong, human ingenuity overcame the iron laws of nature he claimed to discover. Peak oil is a new Malthusian panic where access to energy is the limiting factor that access to food once was. In the next section, I focus on energy as a limiting factor. The strongest part of the peak oil argument is that we are reaching the limits of conventional oil - this may be true. However, the arguments are flawed when they argue that there is no alternative to this oil. Making room for the human ingenuity that Malthus ignored, I will look in particular at the role of alternative energy resources and the use of 'unconventional' oil resources.

Part B: Energy and the limits on growth

As some people have applied themselves to the problem of extracting resources from the world and turning them to human uses, others have been working out the basic laws of the universe and trying to understand our place within it. We know, for example, that our species is going to be basically limited to the resources of this planet for the foreseeable future. We also know that one of the fundamental resources upon which humans depend is energy.

The earth ultimately receives all of its energy from the nuclear reactions in the sun. The energy from the sun is generally very hard to efficiently capture and turn into a form that is useful, and the vast majority is either absorbed by the oceans or the atmosphere as heat and or reflected back into space. However, a tiny fraction of the energy that the Earth has received from the sun over the last billion years has been trapped on the earth in the form of fossil fuels. These fuels are particular in that they are extremely easy to extract energy from - just add fire. Their organic nature also means that they are useful in other areas of the process of the transformation of sun-energy into human consumable energy - in particular petrochemicals which are crucial to modern fertilisers. Their nature of being relatively stable and easy to transport in normal atmospheric conditions makes them particularly suitable for transportation - another crucial part in the transformation of sun-energy into human consumable energy.

The big problem is that while we continue to relentlessly expand our use of the earth's resources, we can be absolutely certain that oil production will eventually peak. Based on the best available current data, this will happen sooner rather than later. Although, the exact timing of the peak in global conventional oil prediction - known as "peak oil" is heavily disputed - many credible scientists claim that it will happen within decades and several suggest that it may already have occurred.

Why is Peak Oil a problem?

Of course oil will not suddenly run out one day, leaving all the petrol pumps dry. Instead it will reach a relatively sharp peak of production, beyond which it will be impossible to efficiently extract any more oil, and production will somewhat gradually decline from that point on. Under capitalism "efficiently extract" simply means the ability to make sufficient profit from the extraction. The major oil companies currently abandon productive fields when profit drops below 20%.(1) Oil fields are abandoned before they are empty for this reason.

The theory that peak oil was imminent was first put forward by US geo-physicist, M. King Hubbert as long ago as 1956. He predicted that oil production in the continental United States would peak between 1965 and 1970; and that world production would peak in 2000. His prediction proved slightly inaccurate, as US production actually peaked in 1971 and world oil production will probably peak sometime after 2004. However, aside from the details of exactly when this peak would be reached, his predictions for the patterns of flow turned out to be largely accurate. According to the International Energy Agency's (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2004 Report: "Fossil fuels currently supply most of the world's energy, and are expected to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. While supplies are currently abundant, they won't last forever. Oil production is in decline in 33 of the 48 largest oil producing countries, ..."

Capitalist speculations

A clue that we are not facing the end of civilisation is found in the markets of capitalism. Oil is the major global commodity and, like other commodities, it is bought and sold on the markets years before it even comes out of the ground. If any section of capitalism secretly knew that a peak oil crisis was coming in the sort of worst case scenarios that are predicted, we can be sure that section would be seeking to make enormous profits out of this knowledge.

In the futures market this would be very simple to do. At the time(2) of writing, for instance, I can buy a barrel of Light Crude Oil on the New York MEX market for 65 dollars (3). This actually gives me that barrel of oil in December 2012 - 6 years away. And the price is only 3 dollars more than the price quoted for a barrel in January 2007.

Individual capitalists have made vast fortunes through spotting under priced future items and buying these in order to re-sell when the prices rises. In September 1992 George Soros sold short more than $10bn worth of pounds sterling because he reckoned it was over valued. He was right, Sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and it is estimated Soros made at least $1.1bn profit! In July 1997, with other speculators, he did something similar to Thailand triggering "Asia's worst financial crisis in decades". This illustrates that, even if the cost to capitalism as a whole through such behaviour will be a major economic crash, individual capitalists will still engage in such trades.

If any capitalist believed that oil supplies were going to crash they would realise that by buying say 100 million barrels today for 65 dollars they could make 1280 million if those barrels were worth say 200 dollars in 2012. And if the 2004 peak predictions are right, 200 dollars would be very little to pay for a barrel by 2012 - it could be that very much bigger profits could be made.

So why is it that no capitalist seems to believe in peak oil enough to put their money where their mouth is? Up to a couple of years back, ignorance might have been claimed as an explanation. But in recent months the idea of Peak Oil has been discussed in 'The Economist', probably the major international business magazine. Mathew Simmons, an energy adviser to George W. Bush, has published a book advocating Peak Oil theory, which has been widely reviewed in other publications. There is no longer any grounds to claim that peak oil theory is being hushed up.

So why is the future price of oil not shooting through the roof as capitalists speculate with the aim of making billions? Probably because very few are convinced, some even argue the opposite. The Economist in its article on the subject cites a report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates which "concludes that the world’s oil-production capacity could increase by as much as 15m barrels per day (bpd) between 2005 and 2010 .. the biggest surge in history".(4)

From this and other articles, the counter point to the Peak Oil argument can be sketched as follows. The expansion of oil reserves in the future will rely on smaller fields and on technology extracting a much greater percentage of oil from existing fields - this is already happening in the North Sea. Rising oil prices will mean that it becomes economic to also access the vast unconventional Oil Deposits. Already major production has started out of the Oil Sands in Alberta and current prices of over 50 dollars a barrel mean that the vast Venezuela heavy tar deposits are now economic to exploit.

Why is oil so important

The big scare claimed with peak oil theory is that there is absolutely no realistic prospect of us simply replacing all oil-sourced energy with an alternative energy source in the near future. But why call this a scare? Because replacing "all oil sourced energy" is not what is required. What is required is for a mixture of other fossil fuels (gas, coal), unconventional oil sources, alternative energy, and greater efficiency in energy use being able to take up whatever shortfall occurs when peak oil is reached. As the peak in conventional oil supply will really be a plateau, the point at which all or even most oil would have to be substituted will not occur for many decades.

To understand why oil is such an important substance to us, we need to examine the basic energy equation that defines the usefulness of fuels. Fuels are substances from which we can extract energy. However, it also costs a certain amount of energy to extract the fuel and to deliver it to where the energy is needed. The ratio between the amount of energy extracted in the fuel and the energy expended in extracting it is known as the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)(5). If it takes more energy to extract the fuel than can be extracted from the fuel, the EROEI is less than 1. For example, hydrogen fuel cells have a EROEI of less than 0.9 - meaning that you can only get at most 90% of the energy back out that you put into making it. This means they are only of use for storing energy generated by other means, on their own they consume rather than supply energy. So while they may provide solutions to enable mass transport without oil in the future, hydrogen cells cannot provide energy per se.

EROEI is, of course, difficult to measure since the total amount of energy expended in the process must be considered. For example, one must include the amounts of energy expended in construction of dams, windmills, power stations, power cabling, access roads or nuclear plants. The fact that the industries concerned with generating this power have a vested interest in producing research that shows their technology to have a particularly good EROEI does not help in estimating this. And, on the other hand, proponents of Oil and Nuclear energy have a vested interest in showing 'alternative energies' not to be an alternative. However, regardless of how one looks at the figures, it is clear that oil was once in a class of its own.

Plummeting EROEI

Oil discoveries in 1900 had an EROEI of over 100, meaning that for every barrel of oil that you used to find the oil, refine it and transport it to the customer, you got 100 barrels out of the ground in terms of energy. With fresh oil fields, little more was required than to drill a hole in the ground and pump the oil out. By the 1970's, as the oil in the most accessible areas became depleted, the EROEI had fallen to about 20(6). In other words the 1970's EROEI of oil was 20% of its 1900's value.

In terms of electricity production, hydro-electricity produces a significant net gain of energy, with an estimated EROEI of 10. However, the supply of rivers that can be usefully dammed to gain energy is already much closer to exhaustion than the oil supply. This is true for major dams, recently additional power has started to be generated through the construction of minor dams, which are similar to weirs(7).

On the supply side this means that a rising percentage of energy will come from alternative sources. Most importantly wind, wave, bio fuel and solar power. Wind power is already undergoing a rapid expansion - last year Denmark, the world leader, generated 23% of its electricity from wind power. Greenpeace estimates that by 2020 12% of the world's electricity consumption will come from wind power.(8)

Alternative energy

Peak oil theorists alongside the Oil and Nuclear industries have been trying to debunk alternative energy sources. At one extreme of those who seek to gain from the politics of panic and fear, the British National Party claim in their peak oil study that the EROEI of wind has is about 2(9). Numbers like this tend to be reproduced again and again but they don't bear proper investigation. An overview article which looked at 41 different analyses found an operational EROEI for wind of 18, some 9 times this claimed figure.(10)

A major problem in discussing the feasibility of these sources is the very different facts presented by those who take one side of the debate as against another. Peak oil theorists frequently claim solar panels require almost as much energy to construct as they supply in their lifetime, i.e. that there EROEI is close to 1. On the other hand, proponents of solar power claim EROEI's as high as 17 with payback for panels thus achieved in as little as 1.7 years.(11)

The low estimate EROEI figures are alarming but so in fact would the five fold drop in the EROEI of oil between 1900 and 1970 without the benefit of hindsight. Given these figures alone, and an idea of how important oil was to the economy, an alien observer might well guess that production had crashed by 1970. Instead it massively increased in that period - clearly there is a need for caution in assuming that even a future five fold drop in EROEI would automatically means a similar crash in production.

This is leaving aside that this fivefold drop basically comes from selecting the estimates of EROEI most favourable to the idea of peak oil as a cataclysm. If, instead, you select the sort of estimates that show wind power to have a much better EROEI then oil you start to get a different story. The EROEI figures are massaged to put forward a convincing argument, but the more you examine them the less convincing that argument becomes.

Is there more oil out there?

When you examine in detail the texts on Peak Oil, you realise that the peak predicted is for conventional oil. What does conventional oil mean? Basically conventional oil is what we all think of when we think of an oil field. It is the oil that can be obtained by drilling a hole in the ground and pumping out the liquid to be found there. Part of the reason the EROEI for oil was comparatively high in the 1900s was that the easiest fields then were actually under sufficient pressure to drive the oil out of the wells.

In addition to such conventional oil there are other sources, and the potential reserves in these are massive. They comprise oil that is very difficult to extract, typically because it is bound up in sand or shale deposits. Extracting this sort of oil is an operation more like open cast mining than conventional oil drilling. And the sand or shale extracted then has to be subjected to an energy intensive process to sweat the oil out. This currently gives EROEIs of up to 3(12). The largest deposits are in Venezuela and Canada, and these are already producing over a million barrels a day. It's estimated that these two deposits contain twice as much oil as all remaining conventional oil reserves, although only some of this is easily reached by strip mining.

Other problems and solutions

It is argued that electric power is not nearly as useful as oil is. Electricity requires power cables, or bulky batteries to be transported. There may be areas of the world's economy where there is no possibility of replacing oil with electricity as an energy supply. But the same factors actually give an advantage to solar and wind powered generation that can be generated on isolated sites of consumption not already on a power grid. The rapid development of plug-in hybrid cars and perhaps hydrogen fuel cells suggests that the use of electricity to power vehicles is a lot more feasible than initially thought.

On the demand side, rising prices have made large cars less affordable and encourage efficiencies in fuel economy. This means that demand for smaller cars and for hybrid cars will rise (home conversions have already demonstrated that up to100 miles per gallon can be achieved with hybrids that can be plugged into the mains). Homes, offices and appliances will become more energy efficient and increasingly will generate at least some of the energy they consume through alternative technologies. The ratio of oil use to GDP (a measure of production) will continue to fall (even in the gas guzzling USA it halved between 1971 and 2002). This allows for limited economic expansion without additional quantities of energy as less energy is used per unit produced.

Part C: The politics of the choice

The problem for anarchists is that these two separate possible futures are so different that it is hard to know how to judge where the truth might lie. The worst-case scenarios argued for Peak oil theory are essentially the end of civilisation as we know it. On the opposite extreme, there are still those who deny the possibility of any future long-term energy shortage. The complete lack of agreement even on the 'facts' that would seem to be straight forward - the EROEI's for convention and unconventional oils, solar and wind power - illustrate the great difficulty in choosing between these scenarios.

For understandable reasons, some anarchists have embraced peak oil theory because they simply believe the corporations are lying and cannot be trusted. However, for the reasons already outlined, even if this was the case we would expect individual greedy capitalists to be buying up 'cheap' oil futures, and so far there is no evidence for this.

So far the evidence is not there to uncritically support the peak oil predictions. Anarchists need to maintain a critical attitude to the whole debate. In the meantime we can use the debate itself as an educational tool. For instance, very few if any of the peak oil proponents seem to have thought about what the impact of peak oil would be on class society. The most common presentations of the outcome seem to see everyone suffering equally. But the reality that we know from every natural disaster is that most of the suffering falls on the working class, and that the cost of any solutions will also be imposed on the working class.

The fact that the likes of the BNP see something to be gained from creating a panic around peak oil should also give us pause for thought. Panics are not the atmosphere in which a libertarian society can easily be built. Rather panic and the fear of collapse of civilisation are precisely the requirements of dictatorship and fascism when it comes to forcing populations to accept that the boot on the neck is better than the alternatives.

We have seen Malthus was wrong because he underestimated human ingenuity. However, although it is tempting to attribute the deviation of human population figures from those Malthus predicted as purely being a consequence of the scientific revolution that coincided with it, it would be foolish not to note that the period since Malthus made the predictions also saw the transformation of social organisation in the guise of capitalism, which has today become so pervasive as to be almost invisible. For while the human ability to cooperate and innovate has provided the materials, capitalism determined the way they were used.

Consumerism is based upon people's desire to possess and consume resources and it provides a constant incentive for economic decision makers to extract more resources from the earth and to transform them into a form that is useful to humans. Thus, much of human innovation and scientific thought has been devoted to increasing the supply of resources available to the species and this has worked to such an extent that global food supply has consistently increased faster than the human population since Malthus's time.

This unprecedented increase in available resources can be seen as humans consciously diverting ever more of the world's resources towards themselves. This is not without its costs. Thus the last few centuries have seen our species actively shaping the planet's environment in order to provide this ever-greater supply of resources. We have transformed eco-systems, replaced continent-sized forests with farms, created vast areas of the world in which any impediments whatsoever, whether geological or biological, have been ruthlessly excluded. We have driven most of the species that might compete with us at the top of the food chain to the point of extinction.

Although it would be foolish to imagine that we have reached the limit of our innovations in terms of shaping the planet to our needs, this is an inherently risky route to take from the point of view of our species' survival. The earth's ecosystem and climate are unpredictable complex systems and could, at any stage, undergo dramatic change to arrive at a new point of equilibrium - a point that will probably be far less hospitable to our species - due to the unpredictable results of the dramatic changes that we are forcing upon the earth. In particular, most scientists believe that it is likely the atmospheric pollutants emitted by human industry may cause dramatic changes in our climate through what is known as global warming.

The elephant in the living room

The energy debates provide a useful mechanism for exposing the irrationality of capitalism. For instance, the market will decide the balance between supply and demand solutions to energy needs. Yet the most profitable solutions - like using unconventional oil resources - may also be the ones that require vast quantities of energy to extract and which in themselves, and because of this, will result in massive additional releases of CO2. Almost certainly if the population of the world was to decide on how to best fill our energy needs we would not take the path it looks like the market will dictate.

This is the key point. Whether or not the peak in conventional oil is imminent or decades away, the method in which capitalism will fulfil its energy needs will be irrational when looked at from the viewpoint of the future needs of the people of the planet. It could well be that the root to securing greatest profit for capital is that of exploiting the unconventional oil deposits. In that context feeding the panic about energy supply, and in particular the idea that renewable energy cannot be an alternative, is a very serious mistake as it would encourage many people to accept what would be a very polluting source of energy over efficiencies and renewable energies.

The greatest threat to most humans is not peak oil but rather global warming. Changing weather patterns and rising sea levels already threaten hundreds of millions of the poorest people on the planet. In that context, there is a real danger of peak oil hysteria simply playing the role of a distraction from the need to make real rational decisions about energy production.

The sort of energy debate anarchists need to be promoting is not that of conspiracy theories and collapseism. In the anti-war movement, conspiracy theories around the 9/11 attacks may grab the popular imagination, but they are a serious barrier to any real discussion of imperialism, the causes of the war and how it can be opposed. So it is with Peak Oil and the struggle that needs to be waged against climate change.

We need to help initiate a debate about a real program that people can fight for in relation to climate change. A program that can offer real solutions to filling our need for energy, but ones that do not lead to severe damage to the biosphere which we share.

In the medium term capitalism's continuous need to grow also means that the danger of some key resource running out before an alternative could be developed will always be with us. As will the danger of some by-product of production resulting in a drastic change in the suitability of the planet for human life. As the world’s population increases, any major sudden change could result in the deaths of billions of people. The need for a rational system of economic organisation based on human needs, including the need for an environment, which can support all of us, becomes more urgent with every day.

The article is from Red & Black Revolution 12. Its first publication online is on indymedia.ie

1 The hidden agenda; framework for an alternative oil policy, A Norwegian trade union perspective on the internationalisation of Statoil, translated by Laurence Cox
2 December 2006
3 You can see current prices on the NYMEX futures market at http://futures.tradingcharts.com/marketquotes/
4 Why the World is not about to run out of oil, The Economist, April 20th, 2006
5 There is a useful explanation of EROEI on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EROEI
6 Although an EROEI for oil of 20 is commonly given it may not be accurate. Middle Eastern oil has the highest EROEI and I've seen estimates in the range of 10-20. I've seen figures for Oil produced in the USA on the other hand as low as 2!
7 For examples of micro hydro power see http://www.microhydropower.net/casestudies/
8 Why Wind energy, Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, http://www.ecn.nl/en/wind/additional/why-wind-energy/
9 http://www.bnp.org.uk/peakoil/alterwind.htm
10 Energy return on investment (EROI) for wind energy at http://www.eoearth.org/article/Energy_return_on_investment_(EROI)_for_wind_energy
11 Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands http://tinyurl.com/y8jvdg
12 Actual figures I've seen claimed range from 0.7 to 17. Shell reported an EROEI for one oil shale extraction of 3.5, see http://www.csbj.com/story.cfm?ID=9271


12 megawatt solar farm in Bavaria
12 megawatt solar farm in Bavaria



author by El Bullpublication date Wed Apr 04, 2007 22:25author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Well done to the authors bringing to our attention a noteworthy (& often neglected) aspect of Peak Oil and for providing a context for an anarchist analysis. This is a very interesting contribution, but I was a bit uncomfortable with the insinuation that Peak Oil is the stuff of “conspiracy theories and collapseism”. The pitting of Peak Oil against climate change [arising from global warming] created a false dichotomy between these two interrelated challenges to humanity.

Another issue that I have with this article is the assertion that peak oil refers only to the peak in the production of conventional oil. This is not the case, as can be seen from the ASPO newsletters (www.peakoil.ie). Each of these newsletters have a “General Depletion Picture” which show the production of conventional oil together with other non-conventional sources. The most recent newsletter on this website, the March 2007 newsletter, shows a peak occurring between 2010 & 2015, with conventional oils peaking a few years earlier. It can be seen from this figure (copy below) that non-conventional sources are included in the assessment of the peak.

Finally (for now), I’m interested in the authors’ assertion that Malthus got it so wrong with regard to his predicted collapse of human population. One question – within what time frame did Malthus predict the collapse would occur? I’m not aware & I ask because if he didn’t specify a timeframe, then he obviously hasn’t been proved wrong; in fact it’d most likely just be a matter of time before he would be proved right in such a scenario.

Wake up - this isn't just another conspiracy theory
Wake up - this isn't just another conspiracy theory

The peak includes non-conventional sources
The peak includes non-conventional sources

Related Link: http://www.peakoil.ie/newsletter/en/pdf/newsletter75_200703.pdf
author by pithypublication date Wed Apr 04, 2007 23:03author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I've always replied to that "which ones?". I suggest those whose lifestyle and jobs and economic activity is reliant on past peak comodities. & That's you. Open up your computer and look inside. You're way past your fair share by a few micrograms...... we can always start civilisation again on a sustainable level from a third world country, suits the billionaires - they mostly live off shore from 3rd world countries. Does Pat C have an opinion or 100?

author by Andrewpublication date Wed Apr 04, 2007 23:09author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The two graphs you present actually demonstrate the 'scare' nature of a lot of the pear oil debate. The first imaginary graph shows a sharp peak and a fast collapse of supply afterwards. The second which is a reasonable estimate shows a broader peak followed by a long slow decline. There is a huge difference in the impact between the real and imaginary graph, in fact I'm pretty sure I mentioned just this example in the article.

Whether or not unconventional sources can fill the gap is exactly the wrong discussion for the reasons I outline at the end of the article. Creating a peak oil scare will encourage a climate of 'get at the last resources at all costs'. This is the last thing we need as the extra energy needed to extract these will simply accelerate global warming.

Malthus is important because he is an illustration of how easly resource arguments that seem to be about technology quickly become arguments that the mass of society are stupid and deserve to die in their own waste. The real argument here should be for moving towards an energy system that serves the needs of everyone on the planet and not a wealthy few.

author by Chekovpublication date Thu Apr 05, 2007 00:19author address author phone Report this post to the editors

"Finally (for now), I’m interested in the authors’ assertion that Malthus got it so wrong with regard to his predicted collapse of human population. One question – within what time frame did Malthus predict the collapse would occur?"

He predicted that the human population would continue to wax and wane periodically, with famine coming at regular intervals to devastate the population. I can't recall exactly what frequency he predicted, but he saw the period when he was writing, in the late 18th century, as being on the verge of one of the regular collapses. He definitely saw the cycles as having a much shorter frequency than the 209 years of population growth that we have experienced since.

There are various other predictions that he made that the last 200 years have shown us were based on false assumptions. He believed that food production could only increase linearly, while population would tend to grow exponentially. Neither of these assumptions turned out to be correct over time and global food production continues to outpace global population today.

"if he didn’t specify a timeframe, then he obviously hasn’t been proved wrong; in fact it’d most likely just be a matter of time before he would be proved right in such a scenario."

Absolutely, his basic theory on population is still essentially correct, I think. In the absence of predators, all species increase their population until they exhaust the available resources, whereupon they collapse. This insight was acknowledged by Darwin as a crucial building block in formulating his theory of evolution by natural selection, and it is borne out by all the evidence. Humans have simply been able to use their collective ingenuity to increase the amount of resources available to them. However, this can't go on forever. In the immediate future at least (from an evolutionary biological point of view) we are limited to the resources available on this plant and therefore there is a finite limit that we will hit at some stage when we can't continue to extract more resources from the earth to keep up with the growing population. What exactly the resource limit is - who knows? Food, drinking water, energy, minerals, pollution, radioactivity, ecosystem collapses - all sorts of things could go pear shaped and trigger a chain reaction of collapse.

When and if that happens, the evidence suggests that the postulated Malthusian population cull of the poorest through famine will not happen (another point where Malthus has since been empirically proven to have got it wrong). Studies of animal populations and historical human populations (see, for example, Collapse by Jared Diamond) suggest that, if we as a species hit this limit, we will see complete and utter collapse - which will either render us extinct or will leave a tiny percentage of the world's population to survive in a devastated world. Hundreds of millions, or billions, of people don't just die when resources run out. They burn every last tree for heat, strip every plant bare for food, eat anything that moves and, more importantly, they try to get their hands on the resources that other have - in a world littered with nuclear bombs, that's a pretty bad situation for everybody.

Happily, however, humans are uniquely capable of reflection and can actually limit their population. It turns out the answer isn't too complicated. If you take people out of abject poverty, give them old-age pensions and empower women through education and control over their fertility, the birth rate drops remarkably. Most of Europe has currently got falling populations, not including immigration. If we don't address this problem on a global level, as a species chances are that we will sooner or later experience a total societal collapse.

So, another prediction which looked wrong at the time, but could yet have its day is that of "socialism or barbarism".

Related Link: http://geography.about.com/od/populationgeography/a/malthus.htm
author by Terencepublication date Thu Apr 05, 2007 00:56author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I would just like to respond to the brief discussion about the graph of oil and gas from ASPO. What this graph actually shows or includes from ASPO is the peak of conventional AND polar, heavy, deepwater and NGL oil AND peak gas.

The consensus is that the peak of conventional oil has already happened, whereas the peak of the oils included above stretches this out to possibly 2010.

There is far less data available and work done on the problem of gas reserves, but the current (ASPO) estimate for peak gas is around 2020. Thus in a not very clear way, the graph shows the peak for both. It has been pointed out that this demonstrates the panic is not so great. Firstly though it needs to be pointed out that the figures for gas are probably not correct.

The current estimates are that world reserves are 6.1 Trillion Cubic Feet (Tcf) with Russia having 1.6 Tcf, Iran 0.97 Tcf, Qatar 0.91 and Saudi Arbia 0.24 and these figures are in dispute. Indeed A. Bakhtiari using the figures from Jean Laherrere who is probably the leading expert in the world on gas figures, in the article: After 'Peak Oil', 'Peak Gas' Too ( http://www.mnforsustain.org/gas%20after%20peakoil%20pea...i.htm ) reckons Peak Gas could in fact be a lot sooner anywhere from 2008 to 2009. In that case the data for the downslope which is only an estimate may simply be wrong and any complacency would be misplaced and cost us dearly.

This issue of Peak Gas is explored further in: Peak Oil to Peak Gas is a short ride ( http://energybulletin.net/23462.html ) where an additional hazard of gas is pointed out and links directly to global warming, hence showing there is no easy solution and most of them are fraught with danger, when he says: The claimed 'environment friendly' nature of natural gas, especially in relation to climate change, is contradicted by the huge loss rate relative to delivered and burned gas: at least 9% of world gas goes straight into the sky, unburned, where it acts as a very powerful GHG. This loss rate will very surely increase faster than production, notably because of increasing transport distances, smaller gasfields exploited, and increased attempts at gas storage...

Nevertheless there are important differences which mean you can't easily substitute one for the other. The first is that very large quantities of gas are not near as mobile or as versatile as oil. With gas you tend to be limited to using it on the continent where you find it, as shipping by LNG tankers and the associated port handling facilities is expensive and complex. So for example in North America, only a few percent is imported by LNG tankers, although N. America is already past it's own Peak Gas. Incidently the North Sea has already peaked in natural gas and Europe must increasinly rely on Russia and the Middle East where the vast majority of world reserves remain.

As we have all witnessed Gazprom the Russian gas company the controls nearly all the gas fields and pipelines in Russia is learning very quickly what a strategic asset it has and Putin is playing his cards well on that. It is unlikely Russia will be lie down like Saudi Arabia did for the last 60 years with their oil and essentially give it away for almost nothing.

From the above figures it will be seen that Iran has the 2nd highest gas reserves in the world. As everyone knows the US is doing a lot of saber -rattling there with most pundits reckoning it's all bluff. But controlling access to energy resources is almost as important as having them yourself and so I would judge that they will bomb Iran and try and get regime change to put in their own puppet government because to maintain their global dominance they must maintain their dominating control of energy resources. But all that to some degree is an aside other than to say that the downside of the slope above may not be as rosy as it would seem to be even if it looks quite gentle using those estimates.

Hopefully I will add further comments later on the main points in the above article

author by R. Isiblepublication date Thu Apr 05, 2007 00:59author address author phone Report this post to the editors

In the absence of predators, all species increase their population until they exhaust the available resources, whereupon they collapse.

That's just one of the contributing factors to the Law of the Minimum. Perhaps the most interesting one from today's perspective are the early observations that populations of bacteria in rich nutrients would grow logarithmically but crash not because they'd exhausted the nutrients, but because their waste byproducts were toxic to them. ( I forget what it's called, I thought it was Griggs or Gregg's Law but I can't find where I read it).

There are plenty of examples of societies which reached their carrying capacity for their environments (which includes their technological and cultural artefacts) and crashed. Jarod Diamond goes into them in Collapse.

The decoupling of the production of oil from the tarry shale deposits in Alberta etc from their greenhouse gas contributions leaves out their full cost and changes the definition of "resevere" to be one which is payable by other people than the extractors.

It's worth noting that the apparent association this article makes between pessimists and right-wing ideologues ignores the recent tradition of people like Julian Simon and indeed the utopian, scientific optimisim of the USSR.

It doesn't make sense to talk about peak oil and reserves while you allow the costs to be externalised and they're not easily quantifiable.

author by Chekovpublication date Thu Apr 05, 2007 01:08author address author phone Report this post to the editors

"That's just one of the contributing factors to the Law of the Minimum. Perhaps the most interesting one from today's perspective are the early observations that populations of bacteria in rich nutrients would grow logarithmically but crash not because they'd exhausted the nutrients, but because their waste byproducts were toxic to them. ( I forget what it's called, I thought it was Griggs or Gregg's Law but I can't find where I read it)."

I was including things like "environment in which you can survive" and "ecosystem" under the category of 'available resources'. I personally reckon, based on not very much at all, that our environmental impact and its effect on our ecosystem is the most likely 'limit' for us to hit as a species. Capitalism has always been darned good at driving innovations in production - but just completely ignores the offset cost of environmental impact.

author by R. Isiblepublication date Thu Apr 05, 2007 01:11author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Seems like you're saying much of the same thing and I apologise for not reading your comment properly.

I think you're possibly working on a model of humans being capable of evaluating risk that isn't necessarily true though. It's something that we seem to be very bad at doing. John Adams "Risk" shows how counterintuitive many decisions are. His blog is OK, but the book is definitely worth reading

It mostly applies to traffic safety, but the general public policy problems remain the same, especially apparently among the "educated" decision makers.

Related Link: http://john-adams.co.uk/
author by dunk - gardening crews: dublin, barcelonapublication date Thu Apr 05, 2007 17:50author email fuspey at yahoo dot co dot ukauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

Hi lads

Well done for again raising this critical point but it would have been great if you could have mentioned a bit more about the alternative models to this crazy oil age and outline some small local attempts to make these sustainable ideas realities, as demonstrated by the different community garden crews around the island. Dolphins barn, Phibsborough, Finglas, new Dolphins barn amongst others in Dublin. Also the lovely anarchist plot up in Belfast and the others in the West, Scariff and Gort especially...

The model that drives some of us is the successful agricultural revolution that happened in Cuba when they experienced their own "peak oil crisis", due to the fall of the Soviet Bloc back around '91 with the result of a radical new system of food production and distribution throughout the island of Cuba. Without the new method in this "difficult time" millions would have starved. The resulting new model was not one that came from the top down, as was previously the case from the centralised communist government, instead it came from the hungry communities themselves. They did not ask, they simply did....

What did they do?
They created a series of small local food production zones in cities with local markets sorting out distribution networks, spaces and systems. A decentralised more autonomouse organic low energy method is what came to become the norm, they now have as much food as before just with a tiny fraction of the amounts of energy used in the old days. There are still problems, but it is really something for us to focus on.

There are many more things they did but I just want to presently focus on the food angle as that relates to our own island. Below is the link to the film about all this, when the community gardeners of our island met up for the first time in Dells woods, where Ecotopia happened in 2002, at the CELT weekend in the woods, we screened this film and it was very uplifting becuause despite the crazy times we now live in we know the alternative is possible, we just hope more join in this adventure, "the revolution is fertile", once was the chant...

Anyway, Dolphins barn crew are still active, email them if your interested or see their site. ( http://www.dolphinsbarngarden.org/ )

That Cuban model inspired an English architect to come up with the idea of the CPUL (continous productive urban landscape): a series of eco threads through cities where food is created and cultivated from for local involvment and consumption. Its a model which can be repeated and built upon, layer after layer. In Dublin we tried to make such a greenway/CPUL and 2 of the cities new gardens were on that route, the botanic spine. But with not much support amongst other things its currently on hold...

While on this subject of feasible alternatives id like to direct you to the essay by Ted Trainer: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE GLOBAL ECOVILLAGE MOVEMENT, in which he outlines how a future sustainable society could or WILL look. I brought this up to peoples attention before on imc-ie ( Ireland and Climate Chaos : http://www.indymedia.ie/article/80959 ) and mails to the garden lists, got no response so presuming few checked it out, it REALLY REALLY is worth reading. And from reading: applying the principles....
As we are trying to do in Horta in Barcelona at present with our Barco (Boat, name for our squat social centre: http://wikihost.org/wikis/casas_bcn/wiki/el_barco ) and new garden ( http://wikihost.org/wikis/casas_bcn/wiki/el_huertohorta ) and idea for a new city green route (http://wikihost.org/wikis/casas_bcn/wiki/greenway_for_b...elona )

anyway regards from Barcelona, hope ye get away from the computers and help get your hands dirty "it can only be good"

Slan libh


Irish anarchists sow seeds of flowerpower (may 8 2005 irish times)

The power of community, how Cuba survived peak oil

Ted Trainer, University of N.S.W., Australia.

Ireland and Climate Chaos

CPUL (continous productive urban landscape)

Dublin Eco initiaves:

the botanic spine : dublin greenway
Dublin : first Greenway cycle of 2006

Dolphins barn community garden
Dolphin's Barn community garden under threat

cuba survived peak oil, so can ireland, so can the rest... get your hands dirty..
cuba survived peak oil, so can ireland, so can the rest... get your hands dirty..

Dolphins barn garden, less talk, more action... the new chapter is about to begin
Dolphins barn garden, less talk, more action... the new chapter is about to begin

author by Mike Novackpublication date Thu Apr 05, 2007 20:37author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I'm getting really sick of this "Malthus said" (and see how he was wrong) by people who haven't a clue what was in that famous essay (never having bothered to read it) and therefore do NOT know what Malthus did or did not say.

The importance of Malthus is NOT wit regard to predicting a crash in the human population (which, BTW, he did not do) but in his description of the system of dynamic balance between an animal population and its supporting ecosystem. Malthus did not say "we will have to come into balance" but, using more modern terminology, that we WERE in dynamic balance.

This was rather important for the "evolutionists" as it provided an explanation of INTRAspecies dynamic forces by which selection might occur (the population normally being AT its limit for the current conditions)

When Malthus described the limiting mechanisms for human populations he did NOT say (just) "famine" and it is VERY important to look at his entire list -- espeically that one entry he ALWAYS included at the end of it (war, famine, disease, ......., OR VICE). We'll come back to that in a moment.

Malthus's essay spends a lot of time deciding that humans are NOT going to forgo sex in sufficient numbers that this would keep the birth rate down. In other words, his statistics -- and his essay is replete with birth/death figures for various places over time, are leading him to conclude that a certain percentage of the population remaining celibate didn't make much difference.

OK -- now that "vice". Malthus never spells it out, what sort of "vice" he might have in mind that would serve to limit population by restrictng the birth rate. But remember, he was an 18th Century minister and he has just ruled out "people staying celibate" (so that the birth rate would be low). He HAS to be meaning BIRTH CONTROL (ie, sex but with measures that prevent procreation).

Seriously folks, READ the essay and then, if you disagree, by all means do so RATIONALLY.

author by El Bullpublication date Thu Apr 05, 2007 23:44author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Since Andrew was so appreciative of my graphs, I’ve pulled out another one , taken from the same ASPO newsletter referred to above. It shows the production rate of oil again, as per the previous two graphs. Nothing new here – production has been climbing steadily since the discovery of oil.

What’s of particular interest in this graph is the rate of discovery. The picture speaks for itself here – global oil discoveries peaked in the 1960s and has experienced a steady trend of declining discoveries since. The message here is loud & clear: we’ve discovered all of the major oil fields. This point, together with the relationship between oil discovery and oil production, is developed further at http://www.peakoil.com/sample/index.html. My point: this whole Peak Oil business is more than just a conspiracy theory.

I appreciate that this graph is for conventional oil, and doesn’t include gas & other non-conventional sources, but a consensus seems to be developing on this thread that our post-peak salvation doesn’t lie in these other hydrocarbons.

A key issue is the demand of oil &hydrocarbons. I don’t have a graph to hand, but I don’t expect any arguments to the suggestion that the demand curve closely follows the production curve shown in the diagram above. So, what will happen to the demand curve once the production curve peaks? Will we all willingly give up our decadent lifestyles? Perhaps we will, but I imagine it would be a reluctant change. And while that change was happening, a gap would open up between the production curve (irrespective of whether it levels, plateaus or peaks & drops) and the demand curve (which, I suspect, would continue to rise until reality hauls it back down).

In short, what I’m saying is that I don’t think we should be getting hung up on whether the peak will be a sharp one with a fast collapse of supply or a broader peak followed by a slow decline. This is to miss the point that a gap will open up between supply & demand, and this simple fact should not be discounted as the stuff of conspiracy theories.

A more flippant commentator might observe that there’s only decade or two left to achieve the global anarchist utopia required to avoid any rowdiness during this transition period. But that wouldn’t be doing justice to Chekov’s point that taking people out of abject poverty and other such measures would help stem the exponential population increase that has being taking place for the past few centuries. A reduction in population pressures would be expected to ease energy (and hence oil) demand, unless, of course, all those people lifted out of ablect poverty wanted electricity, internet access and forign holidays like us in the developed world. And of course there's the question of time – can significant results be achieved in reducing population growtrh before we see the effects of peak oil?

I fully accept the completeness of the collapse that will occur when we, as a species, reach the carrying capacity of this planet. It’s a point well made, and something that I feel warrants further discussion once we reach agreement that this peak oil business is a geological certainty and not just scare mongering.

Oil discovery -V- production
Oil discovery -V- production

author by wageslavepublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 04:24author address author phone Report this post to the editors

And there are a few others here

Pity it's out of date. The ESB should make one of these too!!


author by Chekovpublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 10:58author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Mike "I'm getting really sick of this "Malthus said" (and see how he was wrong) by people who haven't a clue what was in that famous essay (never having bothered to read it) and therefore do NOT know what Malthus did or did not say."

I've read the essay as well as various commentaries on Malthus. I find your contention to the contrary to be bizzarely rude.

Mike "The importance of Malthus is NOT wit regard to predicting a crash in the human population (which, BTW, he did not do)."

Yes he did. Here's a small selection of quotes (from many) where he makes the prediction unambiguously: "The different modes which nature takes to prevent or repress a redundant population do not appear, indeed, to us so certain and regular, but though we cannot always predict the mode we may with certainty predict the fact."..."Were there no other depopulating causes, every country would, without doubt, be subject to periodical pestilences or famine."

If you want to claim expertise on the subject matter, you should at least get the basics right and not make assertions such as the above which are obviously and unequivocally wrong. You really shouldn't, however, accuse other people of not having a clue and not having read the text because they may not agree with you.

Mike "but in his description of the system of dynamic balance between an animal population and its supporting ecosystem. Malthus did not say "we will have to come into balance" but, using more modern terminology, that we WERE in dynamic balance."

You can decide for yourself what is important in Malthus, not everybody has to agree with you. Personally, I think you're retro-fitting your own views of the world, and what you think is important, onto Malthus. As it happens Malthus did not mention a single time any concept of there beying a dynamic balance between humans and the ecosystem (both concepts were unknown to him), nor did he express anywhere that there was any great divergence between past and present.

Your idea that we were in dynamic balance (and it's your idea not Malthus's) is also clearly and unequivocally wrong - almost every species that has ever existed has gone extinct. Any equilibrium that has ever existed in the system, dynamic or otherwise, is fleeting and fragile.

Mike "This was rather important for the "evolutionists" as it provided an explanation of INTRAspecies dynamic forces by which selection might occur (the population normally being AT its limit for the current conditions)"

That's just a crazy interpretation. He wrote his essay 70 odd years before the theory of evolution by natural selection was postulated. Therefore, claiming that his influence was to provide an explanation of why a particular selective force operates is just completely getting things the wrong way around. Indeed, there's really very little ambiguity around it since Darwin was quite explicit about Malthus' influence - he simply took the "nature, red in tooth and claw" idea from it (which is the opposite of your claim about a dynamic balance).

Prior to Darwin, human speculation about our pre-history was completely dominated by theological ideas of a natural idyll where nature was in perfect harmony - a garden of eden. Darwin simply realised, from Malthus, that things were never hunky dory and all species tended to multiply as much as they could - this provided the idea that selective pressures had existed throughout history - it definitely and most certainly was not an idea whose influence was limited to intra-species selective pressures, since the idea is as relevant to inter-species selection and, most importantly, because there was no conceptual leap required to realise that intra-species selective pressures exist - people have always known that fitter, healthier, better looking animals reproduce more readily than their less fortunate competitors.

Darwin "In the next chapter the Struggle for Existence amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase, will be treated of. This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms. As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. "

Incidentally, I am curious as to why you place quotes around "evolutionists" - it normally signals disdain. Do you have a problem with "evolutionists"?

Mike "OK -- now that "vice". Malthus never spells it out, what sort of "vice" he might have in mind that would serve to limit population by restrictng the birth rate. But remember, he was an 18th Century minister and he has just ruled out "people staying celibate" (so that the birth rate would be low). He HAS to be meaning BIRTH CONTROL (ie, sex but with measures that prevent procreation)."

For somebody who seems to think he's the only person who has actually read Malthus, you've a habit of getting it badly wrong. Malthus is actually completely explicit by what he meant as vice:

Malthus "The actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice. For, independently of any vicious customs that might have prevailed amongst them with regard to women, which always operate as checks to population, it must be acknowledged, I think, that the commission of war is vice, and the effect of it misery, and none can doubt the misery of want of food."

author by Rozanovpublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 13:02author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Big subject.

have a look also at the work of Dale Allen Pfeiifer

example: Eating Fossil Fuels - article:

or read his book of the same name.

and Richard Heinberg

(example his book "the Party's Over"
which I have reviewed here:



another limiting factor in oil production / consumption:

amount of oil refining capacity

(one article amongst many:

Global refinery shortage shifts power balance
By Adam Porter

one wonders why there is an assumption that oil consumption is going to keep rising if the existing oil refinery system is working at capacity and there are few plans to increase that capacity (and in who's interest would it be to do so.)

because of this I suspect we won't see a dramatic oil peak but rather a flatter plateau.


re global warming - we need some joined up thinking here.

If (and I repeat IF... ) the predictions of the effects that global warming have on the environment take place on anything like the scale some are predicting this could have a mojor impact on certain aspects of oil production, transportation and refining.

If sea levels rise appreciably some of the first places to be affected will be the many oil refineries placed on coastlines (not to mention may nuclear power stations!)

secondly an increase in extreme weather events will make offshore drilling more hazardous (example see the damage done in the Gulf of mexico during Hurricane Katrina.) If repeated it could lead the abandonment of oil fields / gas reserves in more dangerous areas.

extreme weather might make the sailing of the hundreds of oil tankers more hazardous as well.


Regarding population debate, much has been made in the debate about "human ingenuity" in enabling an increase in world human population. Problem is, that "ingenuity" has mainly (but not exclusively) been using fossil fuels for fertilizer, insecticides/pesticides/herbicides, industrialisation of production and processing, transportation, refrigeration, distribution etc.

Obviously this is not sustainable and although there are partial solutions to some of them, we have yet to come with anything with can replace fossil fuels in total.

Oh and global warming could make a billion people homeless and take out (through flooding and desertification) 15% of the world's most productive agricultural land.


Like most people one hopes and works for solutions to these problems in a way that is not too alarmist.

My fear is that for most people in the western "democracies" these problems will not really strike home until they are suffering the consequences of peak oil / global warming on a daily basis - by which time it may be too late to take effect action.

author by Andrewpublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 13:48author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Some of the responses here seem to be responses to the fact someone has written a critique of peak oil theory rather than reactions to the article itself.

In fact the article does not question that oil supply is limited, that this means there will be a peak or even that the peak in conventional oil is very near if not already in progress. I'll just quote one section to demonstrate this "The big problem is that while we continue to relentlessly expand our use of the earth's resources, we can be absolutely certain that oil production will eventually peak. Based on the best available current data, this will happen sooner rather than later."

What this article addresses is the collapsist interpretations of the geological fact that there is only so much oil in the ground. It also seeks to demonstrate that collapseism is not politically neutral and should not be uncritically embraced as it has been in some green and other radical circles.

author by Goblinpublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 14:25author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Robert Newmans (the comedian and political activist not to be confused with Bob Newman the American ultra-conservative Radio pundit) ‘A History of Oil’ gives an accessible account of Peak oil in layman’s terms complete with a liberal sprinkling of biting satire.

His website has some interesting stuff and some good links. Worth a look.


author by El Bullpublication date Sat Apr 07, 2007 11:11author address author phone Report this post to the editors

There was quite a bit of sharp reaction to your original article. This may in part be explained by Peak Oil proponents being accustomed to being treated as flat earth theorists. However, those days are more or less gone, with broad acceptance of peak oil theory throughout mainstream thinking, media & business circles.

Having said that, there was enough in your original posting to warrant a reassertion of the basic accepted facts, viz your assertion that “When you examine in detail the texts on Peak Oil, you realise that the peak predicted is for conventional oil”. The APSO graph above, together with Terence’s comment, clearly contradicts your statement. Brief recap: peak [conventional] oil has probably occurred by now; peak [conventional, non-conventional & gas] oil is due within the next decade.

Your descriptions of “peak oil hysteria” and “conspiracy theories and collapseism” are somewhat disparaging, and it’s hardly surprising that your assumptions behind these slights are challenged.

Notwithstanding all of that, you have touched off a key discussion topic with regard to peak oil: a focus on the consequences rather than the “if” and “when” of peak oil that were being discussed heretofore. This shift in focus is also being reflected in the peak oil community. The annual international APSO conference, arguably the keystone international event in the peak oil calendar, has chosen as its title this year “Time to React” because “…the focus of attention is moving from trying to predict when peak might occur to the realisation that the range of possible dates is finite and even the most optimistic forecasts suggest that our modern society faces a truly significant challenge to deal with the phenomenon of Peak Oil”. The conference will also address global warming and “…explore the relationship between these two critical challenges”. And if all of that wasn’t enough, it is taking place in Ireland, amongst Gods chosen people – the Corkonians. (By the way, I have no connection with ASPO, other than being familiar with their work).

And now, some fleeting thoughts on collapseism. I heard Richard Heinberg speak at the Fuelling the Future conference in 2005, which was held in the picturesque Kinsale, Co. Cork. I suspect that Heinberg would fall into the category of collapseists, to develop Andrew & Chekov’s concept of collapseism. At Fuelling the Future, he made the point that civilisation is neither a natural nor a stable state for society to be in. I can’t be certain about the figure, but I reckon Heinberg said that there have only been about a dozen civilisations in the history of mankind.

Whereas humans are indeed sociable, a more natural state of organisation is family or clan based groupings. So, the collapseist thinking goes along the lines of “lets accept that this organised, stratified civilisation will inevitably collapse and revert to a more sustainable structure”. Yes, the world population will be decimated. And no, none of this is value-laden. It’s not about judging who deserves to survive or not. None of that emotive stuff. Just a discussion of how a system in a state of unstable equilibrium tends towards a state of stable equilibrium.


Related Link: http://www.eco-action.org/dt/critique.html
author by Mike Novackpublication date Sat Apr 07, 2007 13:37author address author phone Report this post to the editors

"Any equilibrium that has ever existed in the system, dynamic or otherwise, is fleeting and fragile."

A rather common tactic in rhetoric is to define the terms used by others in ways which they never intended and then shoot those down.


WHY do you pretend that people who use this term (espeically people from a science background) mean "system resistant even to an infinite disturbance" (then of course you shoot that down and say "not in equilibrium")

So you need a more formal definition?

A system is said to be in equilibrium if when subject to a disturbance of magnitude < X (some "small" amount) it will return to the state (or oscillate around it).

IF I say "that ball is in equilibrium sitting in the bottom of that bowl resting on the table" I am saying that if you jiggle the table, the ball will eventually return to the bottom of the bowl. I am NOT saying "even if you set off a thousand kg bomb next to the table". This is the NORMAL meaning of the term "equilibrium" in the sciences when discussing systems. So yes of course, in biological "stable" systems, sooner or later will come a disturbance sufficiently large to destroy that equlibrium. A person who says "in equilibrium" is NOT meaning "there will never be a disturbance large enough to do that". Nor should you forget that "oscillation" part of the definition. There may be (often is) the situation that disturbances occur often enough that they system never actually comes to rest -- but that does NOT mean (for those who use the term "equlibrium") "not in equilibrium".

Of course strictly speaking (in Physics, where I started) any equibrium is subject to probablity (because being on the floor is a lower energy state, there is a finite (though very small) probablity that the ball would "tunnel" through the wall of the bowl But I don't think we need to get into "quantum" considerations. Agreed?

NOW -- about the development of the theories of evolution. Most people are unaware of the "problems" that need to be solved (and why it took as long as it did). Darwin's book was titled "Origin of Species". One apparent problem that need to be explained away by the potential "evolutionists" was WHY, if evolution was taking place, we did NOT observe a "smear" of states. I was pointing out that Malthus was supplying a MECHANISM that helped answer questons about driving forces. You are reversing the order. Sometimes in the sciences the NEED to have a driving force as an expalantion leads to a search for a candidateand the discovery of the mechanism but that is more modern thinking (we have more confidence in the sciences). In the 18th and early 19th Century mechanisms were still coming first.

And grabbing lines is not the way to read a book length essay or report what was in it. I read Malthus (actually read the entire ssay) late in life and had been similarly misunderstanding what he had supposedly said.

I'll stand by what I said about "vice". His use of "vice" for other purposes (like saying "war is a vice", etc.) does NOT for example mean you can take the appearance of "vice" for "war" if that's in a list like .......war, famine, disease, and vice. In THAT context the term "vice" has to mean "something OTHER than has already appeared in the list".

author by Anti-academicpublication date Sun Apr 08, 2007 13:54author address author phone Report this post to the editors

is an irrelevent piece of rubbish that academics use to sound more important than they are. It bears absolutely no relation to what is happening in the real world and is an excuse to ignore the destruction wrought on the world by capitalism. It's a cop-out.

author by R. Isiblepublication date Mon Apr 16, 2007 20:36author address author phone Report this post to the editors

David Strahan _The Last Oil Shock_
Duncan Clarke _The Battle for Barrels_
See link below:

Related Link: http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/scienceandnature/0,,2055868,00.html
author by Terencepublication date Thu May 10, 2007 23:35author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I welcome this article in its objective to further the debate about Peak Oil from an anarchist perspective. Overall I find the article to present a relatively optimistic outlook. For those who would like to read something from a more pessimistic perspective, you can read the rather lengthy article written (by me) last year titled: Anarchism and the Peak Oil Argument at: http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=2672

The present article opens with a brief definition of peak oil and outlines that there are a range of dates for it. In general oil companies and their PR associates like CERA tend to give the most optimistic and extreme dates. Governments tend to like the idea it is 10 years away (always) so as not to want any sort of panic and to make it look like they are not caught off guard. It was K. Deffeyes (a geologist) that reckoned peak occured back in late 2005 and indeed the actual data coming in supports the idea that the peak of conventional oil occurred between 2004 and 2005 as demonstrated in the first graph. The figures in it are from the EIA and IEA both of whom project peak to occur in the future and for output to continue to rise even though their own data contradicts their wild forecasts. And interestly the IEA has been adding 'other liquids' recently to its monthly figures for oil. These liquids may well be Ethanol and is a good way of trying to mask the signal for the situation with conventional oil.

In the article Malthus is raised in connection with the peak oil pessimists and used to argue against their case by saying Malthus is not applicable anymore because 'humans have achieved mastery over the Earth'. On balance I think that really should read, that humans have temporarily made Malthus irrelevant whilst they have plundered the Earth with great ingenuity. But for me the argument is not quite whether the particulars of what Malthus said is right or wrong. All that matters is whether humans are living sustainably and how far into overshoot of the carrying capacity of the Earth we are. That in itself is probalby contentious. Getting back though to the past 200+ years, lets examine why Malthus is apparently wrong. Around those early years before the first of the cheap energy sources, coal was used, the increase in trading and distant voyages lead to the introduction and swapping of many useful plants that were more productive than native plants. For example the introduction of potatoes into Ireland (and presumably the rest of Europe) meant a very small area of land could now provide food to support more people and it did. These changes and the continual improvement in plants through selection and cross breeding all helped to boost food production and allow the population to grow.

Then with the introduction of coal, the industrial revolution was ushered in and during that era science and scientific understanding grew rapidly. These two developments, relatively quickly followed by the discovery and use of oil, enabled humanity to find and extract mineral resources quite easily largely because of increasing abundance of cheap energy. After all you need energy to mine, crush and smelt great quantities of rock. In the era of oil, the introduction of fertilisers increased productivity further and the cheap energy enabled machinery to free up millions of workers who wound up in the cities. So it is evident that the present population has arrived due to at least two factors which are cheap energy and human ingenuity. At present as widely cited, our food system uses huge quantities of energy largely in the actual farming, the manufacture of fertilisers which is energy intensive and the distribution (by trucking) to the dinner table. This leads some people to draw the conclusion that a shortage of energy would basically collapse this system and I think it is this block of people that the above article is basically debunking. But anyone familiar with the peak oil literature (see for example many articles at www.energybulletin.net) will know that it has attracted the interest and writings of many from the sustainable living, organic farming and permaculture communities. All of these people in my view correctly identify the above argument, in that they see a shortage of energy would have the effect of reversing mechanisation and requiring more people back on the land and to practice this in a more organic farming way which is much more labour intensive, but does not use energy intensive artificial fertilisers. The same people allow talk alot about making food local and what they are addressing really is the energy usage in distribution and how less availability requires it to be locally produced again.

Clearly if this happens -more people going back to small scale farming, it would be a very big social change and for it to get underway at any large scale would definitely mean a change in people's future expectations. As the American PO writer Kunstler point out, there will be huge resistance to this because collectively society has invested enormously in the present arrangement which is suburbia and will do anything to continue it, until it is no longer possible. And herein lies the danger and one of the many reasons to be not optimistic. For example in the past year, the Ethanol/bio-fuel craze has literally swept the world and this is a reflection of the denial to the depth of change required and the desire (as Kunstler says) to continue the easy motoring utopia. Already corn prices have soared and in Mexico led to protests by the poor because of the price rises for tortillas caused by it. We are already faced with the choice of growing land for food or for fuel. In the last week, Fidel Castro made a major speech on this and basically dammned the capitalist world as he is only too aware that this will cause billions of the world poor to suffer. And this is exactly the very issue in which Anarchist organisations around the world should be independently researching themselves and coming out with their own statements condemning this madness. So far there has been nada! It is quite clear the choice capitalism will make.
Note: Coverage of Castro speech titled Fidel Castro on ethanol and Bush can be found at: http://www.workers.org/2007/world/ethanol-0412/

Continuing with the Malthus argument in the article, the authors seem to think they have somehow won the argument when the argument itself is much broader and really about sustainability and whether we are in overshoot, to which they have not addressed some of the burning issues like the current major extinction event of biodiversity, global fisheries collapses, widespread pollution, soil damage and so on. Granted though they do mention global warming and attempt to treat it separately. The solutions of global warming though are very much tied up with energy use and therefore Peak Oil and how we will respond to it. You can't say global warming is more serious when the fallout of Peak Oil is central to what you will do about it. Incidently another point missed is that the Green Revolution in the 1960s -when there was a great increase in food prodution due to new breeds of plants like rice and happened to be also dependent on generous inputs of fertilisers, all of this is at risk of a continuation of these high yields. That is because this change greatly increased monocultures and these plants had to be regulary updated (cross-breed) with closely related wilder cousins to protect them against continually evolving diseases and pests. The biodiversity of this wild basis has been very seriously eroded. Indeed previously there was a huge range of varieties and sub-species grown by farmers and these were largely the heritage of the last 7,000+ years of farming. If you flick through back issues of The Ecologist magazine you will find many reports of how hundreds if not thousands of varieties of a whole host of foods have been covering many common fruits and vegetables and other important crops. This narrowing of the genetic base of the world major foods is worrying. GM technology is not even remotely advanced enough to make any difference and so far has been used for helping create monopolies, monocultures and increase the use of herbicides. So this optimism that Malthus is conquered is misplaced. It neglects to realize that for all our ingenuity we still needed to build it all on something and that something was the existing biodiversity and the benefits of plants carefully husbanded from the wilder less productive versions to the present, over thousands of year. Currently it is effectively burning on the bonfire of hubris.

The article goes on to talk about peak oil and a possible plateau in production and instead of challenging the geology and field by field analysis, attempts to prove it's case from another angle, that of the market. The market has always undervalued oil greatly. A common theme in many a Left critique of capitalism is that the market is often quite detached from reality, so whilst I understand that using this argument could have it's merit, I think it just does not work here. For example there has been much speculation that the period from peak oil onwards could lead to cycles of high oil prices followed by recession causing reduced demand leading to lower oil prices again and this see-saw action going on for a decade or more. In this scenario prices probably would not have to go too much higher. Another scenario, sees price increases being relatively 'modest' but that that the Third World and the poor in general would be priced out of it and reductions in their demand would therefore ease the problem. There already has been numerous incidental reports of this. The recent article: Senegal and Peak Oil ( http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/2448 ) highlights the vulnerability of that country.

It is perfectly feasible that even relatively small government interventions to subsidize public transport would allow those less well-off, even in the West to bus it to work rather than drive. In the comparison made to George Soros' bet on the currency, this was a very short term bet of mostly likely weeks and months at most. Likewise with other successful speculations. Rarely does one see anyone put up a lot of cash upfront with the expectation that they would have to wait several years. Basically I am saying that I do not think the futures markets work very well into the long term. For example how many pension and insurance investments have factored in climate change. I would say almost none. Another problem with the speculation argument is that it is exactly because of the likes of CERA who are also quoted as saying oil production could rise by a further 15m barrels per day by 2010. These absurd forecasts have been repeatedly debunked on sites like the www.oildrum.com and www.energybulletin.net, yet it is the role of CERA to confuse the market for any number of reasons, perhaps one being to avoid the kind of speculations used in the argument and maybe more likely to lessen the chance of public pressure being applied to tax oil companies heavily during this period in which they are making huge profits due to the higher prices and other similiar types of reasons. Another role for the likes of CERA and their forecasts is for their propaganda and deception value, because it is well known that humans automatically look to see what others are doing or saying collectively and by adding their (bogus) figures into the mix, people automatically will take the average -more or less. But if the CERA forecasts push the figures and dates out, then even the average will get distored too and thereby the objective is achieved.

As part of this same discussion on the peak, the authors state that capitalists then to stop extracting when it is unprofitable. That seems to give the impression they are leaving lots of oil behind for anarchists and socialists to get. That's not quite the case. Actually the ultimate recovery factor for oil fields is generally quite low and varies from 30% to 60% or so. Each field is different. Recovery factors have not increased very much over the years even with improvements of technology and it is not from a lack of trying. As Matts Simmons comments and he should know, he is in the oil services industry, technology has mainly resulted in the ability to extract oil more quickly. Oil that is left behind will in most cases be much more energetically difficult to extract and very likely would require more energy to get it all. The case is made about increased recovery from the North Sea, but this ignores the fact that for the UK sector, production is already down 25% from peak which was in 1999 and these stripper wells are barely making a dent. Incidently Matt Simmons correctly called the peak of North Sea production just a few years before it right when those owning and running the fields were saying 2010.

Another point raised is that we can keep production up by chasing after smaller fields since these are obviously far more numerous. The key thing though is; what quantity do they collectively hold? At the moment, the top 120 fields produce approximately a massive 45% of the daily 85m barrels of oil a day. The problem with oil extraction is that if you suck a field dry quickly, the recovery factor tends to be lower, whereas if you do it slowly, it tends to be higher. This is mainly because you are essentially drawing or pulling the oil out. So as you go to the smaller fields, they are going to be more widespread, you are going to need far more rigs and other equipment, including pipelines. And then you have the problem of sucking them dry rapidly and moving all that infrastructre. Capitalists will of course count the financial cost and anarchists must take account of the true cost which is the allocation of resources, people, expenditure of energy and so forth and both for the capitalist and the anarchist it is plain obvious that moving from those 120 fields to 1000s is going to be a heck of a lot more expensive. Getting back though to the quantity in those small fields, and remember you also have to consider how many dry holes you will end up drilling to find each one, here is a comparison of sorts to consider. In the solar system's main astroid belt, there are tens of thousands of astroids (biggest Ceres 250 miles diameter), some quite big and you might think if you clumped them all together you would get an Earth sized planet. But it was worked out long ago, that in fact you don't and there is not enough material to constitute a planet of any signifcant size. That should help in thinking about the thousands of small oil fields and their total compared to the big fields.

To finish on the point of whether peak or plateau, I suppose we won't know what happens until afterwards, but if there is a plateau, it is likely to lead to complacency, further CO-2 emissions, and continued urban sprawl. It's unlikely any preparations will be made just as they haven't up to now. If there is a peak, then indeed what matters is the rate of decent. Will it be a gradual 4% or say rapid 10 or 12%. The latter would indeed set the alarm bells ringing, but even with a 4% decline which many 'modest' models predict, the actual shortfall in the gap of supply will be bigger, because demand is projected to grow strongly. In others words the lousy, unequal and destructive economic growth that we do have, expects and appears to need continuing increases, so a 4% year on year decrease has to be significant as far as it is concerned. This has ramifications that feed into the financial system and the expectation that the economy can grow, but I will leave those arguments aside to avoid going off topic.

The next major argument used in the article is that renewables are up to the job and it goes on to discuss EROEI. In this alernative energy mix, there is basically biofuels, solar, wind and nuclear. Now the thing about oil is that it is used predominately for transport and if you stay with liquid fuels, then biofuel is obviously the leading contender. As already described above the stark choice of food or fuel is already facing us, but just to drive it home more clearly, no pun intended, the quantity of oil per tonne of corn or whatever is limited, regardless of EROEI calculations and one commentator on the oildrum.com website took the global production figures for most of the worlds major crops and used known conversion figures to work out the quantity of oil and arrived at the figure that using all of this (which presumably use most of the best farmland in the world) would supply around 8% of demand. Even if he is out by a factor of 2, it still shows it is a horrendus and impractical large scale possibility. So then, the argument would be why not use hybrids and all-electic cars and thus take advantage of solar and wind? Well it is clear electricity usage would soar if even 50% of the 700 million or so cars in the world were electric. Current projections from the (global) Wind Energy association realistically see wind providing 12% of the worlds electricity by 2020, but I really doubt this calculation includes the possibility of running an electric car fleet. The estimates for solar electricity by the same date are a lot less. There is mention that cars could be made more efficient. The technology for that existed in the 1980s but where are all the efficient cars? Well mileage is probably better by almost of factor of 2 in Europe, leaving less scope for improvement, but the roughly 200 million cars and trucks in the USA cannot be changed overnight.

However the article states without supporting evidence that there will be a plateau in conventional oil implying there is plenty of time to add even more wind and solar power. It also makes the case gas, coal and unconventioanl oil can be used to make up any shortfalls. Yet as most people know from the global warming issue, pleas are being made by scientists that we need to drastically cut the use of fossil fuels now, with figures ranging from 50% to 70+%. Something has got to give. We all know capitalism is unlikely to do the right thing and will struggle with these competing demands. Later in the article these facts are more or less joined up but in this part of the article it forms a key part of the overall case for justifying it's generally optimistic outlook, even though it acknowledges in part C that capitalism will generally make a bad job of it all.

So the central point is more or less missed which is that many of the peak oil pessimists and the case laid out in the article: Anarchism and the Peak Oil argument, is that the outlook is very bad due to the way the present global political system operates -i.e. capitalism. It is striking that so many peak oil writers have come to question and even reject capitalism. Even Matt Simmons has made a transition of sorts there, but other significant writers who would be categorised in the pessimistic camp but question the status quo would be (in not any particular order): Heinberg, Rob Hokins, Jan Lundberg, Julien Darley, Jeff Vail, J. Hanson, K. Cobb, M. Ruppert, D. Korten, J. Greerr and many others.

The article above goes on (in section C) to state that in fact it is global warming is the bigger threat anyhow. This is true in one sense but it fails to integrate the two issues when the response to peak oil increasingly on a daily basis has a clear connection and consequences for global warming. So why keep the two separate? Is not global warming a consequence of burning fossil fuels?

But the alernative energy point is still not fully dealth with here. Experience so far with wind and solar shows that you need to install at least double the capacity to replace existing capacity from fossil and nuclear power plants. In the case of wind, it has a 25% utility factor and solar can never be higher than 50% and if you take into account when the sun is low in the sky in the morning and evening, then it must surely reduce this to under 40%. This means if you want to replace a 500 MW gas or coal power plant with wind or solar you would need to install about 1 GW (1000 MW) of solar or wind capacity. It can be argued that some sites in places like Ireland have better wind and higher utility factors for wind, but for Europe as a whole the data so far says 25% (utility factor). We cannot expect to supply all of Europe with wind power from Ireland. Another point worth noting is that to make the best use of these energy sources, requires the construction of some form of energy storage, otherwise you will always need large scale capacity installed from existing plant to handle lean periods. Energy storage is basically limited to dams and pumped storage which is very limited due to lack of sites. The holy grail of energy storage has never been cracked, even though when high temperature superconductors (HTS) were discovered in the late 1980s, hopes briefly rose that this would deliver it. Unfortunately progress in high current capacity HTS has been much slow. Besides it is very likely that if industrial scale magnetic storage rings were developed they would have all sorts of unforeseen effects. They would also been very energy dense objects and would have to be handled with great care and built at safe distances. Anyway they are not even on the drawing boards anywhere and the experience of most technologies is they take a minimum of 20 years lead time to develop.

With nuclear power the whole thing hinges on the quantity and purity of Uranium deposits. The worst case projections say for the existing base of nuclear reactors (about 450 worldwide), there is only enough Uranium for about another 50 or so years at present rates. The nuclear optimists give wildly different results. The best that I can offer is to link to these two articles, the first from the optimist side and the second which looks at the EROEI of the Uranium deposits. The first is called: Is Nuclear Power a Viable Option for our Energy Needs and can be found at http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2323 -In it the author estimates useful Uranium reserves to be about 8000 times larger than present known reserves. Clearly this is a tad optimistic. In the second article, which is at odds with the first, titled: Chapter 2: From ore to electricity. Energy production and uranium resources. (by J. Storm van Leeuwen and P. Smith) and found at http://www.stormsmith.nl/report20050803/Chap_2.pdf and also a version at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/globalization-climate_chan...7.jsp this

The only things realistically left are ocean energy like wave and tidal power which probably still needs at least another 20 years of development to put it where wind power is today. As Hirsh said in his report, preparations for Peak Oil need to begin at least a decade in advance and preferably longer. Regarding tidal power, good sites are limited and it is long known the best one in the UK is the Bristol estuary. If that was dammed, as far as I recall it is estimated to produce 7 GW of power which is around 10% of the UK's electricity. But the construction and environmental costs would not be nil. Perhaps wave and tidal have a role to play in the medium term future, but not for now.

Progressing further through the article, one of the arguments basically says the EROEI of oil was 100 and fell to 20 in the 1960s and 70s and yet that was a time when oil usage rose and the world did just fine. It was implied or seemed that way to me, that this 5 fold reduction is equivalent to a further 5 fold drop in EROEI (from 20) to around 4 and lower. The answer though is that the late 1960s were when the peak of oil discoveries occured and EROEI of 20 is still very useable, much more so than 3 or 4. Given that I don't have a problem with the figure an EROEI of 18 for wind power, this figure automatically makes it one of the best viable alternative energy candidates. But there are other things to consider besides EROEI except unfortunately we don't have the same metrics. For example with tar sands the EROEI is low but varies probably from around 3 or 4 in the best deposits (although I doubt it) to less than 1. But in refining one barrel of oil from tar sands there are other resources used too. For example 10 barrels of water are used for every oil barrel produced. The process itself also produces widespread pollution and contamination of the land. The worst part though is great quantities of another very valuable and extremely pure energy source, Natural Gas, are used. As Matt Simmons says, it is like turning gold into lead. And it is said that if Canada continues with these tar sands they will destroy all of Alberta. And recall that availability of fresh-water and the sustainability of aquifiers is quickly becoming a major problem in many countries too.

So in general as the EROEI drops towards 1 you can endup using lots of other resources that may be limited or in demand for other uses and or have all sorts of negative side effects, for example in the form of pollution. Nature never makes things easy and is more in the habit of making Faustian bargains. Taking this line of thought further, it is obvious now that oil and gas were the gift to build the infrastructure for a sustainable society and more so because the energy in oil is available up front, whereas to build wind turbines and solar energy plant requires the energy to be available up front to construct it. Oil and gas have also had political side effects, because they were a means for a tiny minority to yield huge power. A similar pact is evident with nuclear energy, immensely powerful but extremely dangerous in the wrong society -i.e. this one. Wind and solar would seem more decentralised, democratic almost, since everyone in theory could generate their own power thereby potentially reducing dependence, but politically unacceptable for this reason.

Wind and solar is something the vast majority would like to see encouraged, but when one compares the subsidies, resources and political capital given to fossil fuels and nuclear it is evident wind and solar were never encouraged. In others words a widespread sustainable energy powered society is the desire of the people but it remains to be seen if there is enough democracy in the system to allow it. So far there hasn't. And it doesn't follow that if these energy sources take off within capitalism that they will neccessarily be sustainable in the happy sense because that will depend on the side effects such as pollution, land use and the cost and availability of the power to end users. Maybe corporations will someday own entire deserts.

This leads to a related side issue. Many of the optimists not only assume that alternatives can replace the energy from oil and gas, but there seems to be the notion that growth in energy usage can continue. As consumerism and energy intensive lifestyles spread further, there is this assumption growth can continue. Capitalism appears to require it, although I don't preculde the possibility that it could mutate into something else if it finds itself in a situation where there are limits to growth. What Peak Oil does or should do is make people realize that we as humans finally have to face up to the fact we live on a finite planet with finite resources and therefore any responses to deal with Peak Oil must take on board these issues. Global warming also makes the same case, and for some odd reason, people in general do seem to be more inclined to recognise that fundamental changes are required due to that issue, but not to Peak Oil.

However I wish to return to the topic of pollution that I raised above in the context of lowering EROEI. The effect or consequences of pollution except perahps for CO-2, is something that is rarely given much scope in any of these energy related debates, but in the original Club of Rome (CoR) reports back in the 1970s it got good attention. During that time one of the people involved, Jay Forrester, setup what is known as a World Dynamics (computer) model that attempted to model all the key factors affecting the general outcome in the world. Here is a link to to a good introduction to it and some findings from it. Its titled: Counterintuitive Behaviour of Social Systems at: http://web.mit.edu/sdg/www/D-4468-2.Counterintuitive.pdf The simulations from this model very much informed and drove the various scenarios and forecasts made by the (CoR) group. The key finding was of course that there are limits to growth and the various factors involved. There is an interplay between things like population, energy, usage of resources, energy efficiecny, pollution and capital investment and how these affect quality of life and ultimately population. Obviously if pollution rises significantly it can impact on the population by reducing it, but one would initially assume this happens something around when you have used up most of your energy and resources. However one of the key findings is that it can happen a lot sooner. The second image attached shows a graph illustrating this from the above document. One should download the document to see the other examples.

Today it is self evident that there is already significant widespread industrial pollution especially in the West and for quite sometime massive quantities of toxic and other waste has been regularly shipped to to the Third World through unscruplous deals and so this toxic burden is being spread far and wide. There is a tremendous focus on CO-2 which other than being a greenhouse gas and dangerous to inhale, is not really dangerous otherwise, especially in comparison to some of the many thousands of other chemicals that persist long term and cause serious damage to both humans and wildlife. In other words as far as I am concerned we are already progressing right into one of these pollution crisis as identifed in the model. Since it is energy activities, like mining (coal), oil drilling, refining, shipment and burning and power generation which are the source of significant amounts of the global load of pollution, then it follows that if we are going to consider any of the new energy sources, then we must be paying attention to their pollution output, even if their EROEIs are good. Again I still rank wind as the best. Clearly nuclear waste is well known and discussed. Burning even more coal is climatically suicidal, besides increases in things like acid rain, mercury and other toxic metal emissions.

It is to solar energy though I wish to turn, particularly photovoltaics. As to the EROEI it varies but is probably around 3 to 6 and has potential to increase somewhat. But the manufacture of solar cells involves the use of many toxic chemicals, especially thin-film solar cells which though are a smaller percentage of the total, have lower cell efficiency, but higher EROEI than typical silcon crystalline cells where most of the energy input is growing the pure silicon crystals. If solar energy and therefore manufacturing massively takes off like it should, then it remains to be seen whether the pollution load from manufacturing becomes a problem. Already the semiconductor industry causes a lot of waste and the disposal of electronic goods (often in landfills) contain many toxic heavy metals. These are potentially serious long term problems. It would be fair to say though that compared to the present, these seem like minor problems and it is probably too early yet to make any judgement. But these are things we should be keeping in mind and any discussion of alternatives must acknowledge.

In closing, I think it is time to move on and starting discussing key policies and issues and what the Anarchist perspective or approach should be. People in other domains have already started this. For example we have the permaculturalists and organic farming groups considering what Peak Oil means for them. There is the Post Carbon Institute making plans for cities and towns with lots of local groups forming. There is the Oil Depletion Protocol which is a blueprint for an international plan for allocating reducing supplies of oil in an equitable manner. Others are promoting a rejuvenation of the rail network, sustainable living and so on. And a number of governments have begun to address what Peak Oil may mean for them. Sweden as usual, way ahead of everyone, has committed itself to phasing out fossil fuels by 2020.

Oil Production reaches Peak in 2005?
Oil Production reaches Peak in 2005?

Interaction of resources and pollution crisis scenario
Interaction of resources and pollution crisis scenario

author by iosafpublication date Mon Aug 20, 2007 20:34author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Ganser is a historian, peace campaigner, worked in a variety of Swiss Strategic International Relations roles and a few of their universities & was author of the book "NATO's secret armies" which exposed "operation Gladio" amongst other skullduggeries. The report can be read in its entirety in the German language here - http://histsem.unibas.ch/forschung/projekte/peak-oil/ & he's also got his own site to explore "Peak Oil & the so called war on Terror" http://www.peakoil.ch/home/index.htm
a good casual overview of it in English may be read here - http://www.swissinfo.org/eng/front/detail/Peak_oil_beco...ty=st
For those too lazy to read that stuff, or whose german is non-existent ( I believe the current legacy of Irish education in European languages favours that euphemism ) basically the boffins at the bank reckon we're looking at 2010-2030 before things get really nasty.... you know "nasty"... open hand slapping and white top nails flailing at the petrol station as mammies get their 4x4's filled. That kind of n-a-s-t-y. I can't wait.

Related Link: http://www.peakoil.ch/home/index.htm
author by Conanpublication date Mon Aug 20, 2007 22:57author address author phone Report this post to the editors

There are alternatives you know!

Crisis? What Crisis?
Crisis? What Crisis?

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