Thursday, February 10, 2005

Jiminy Cricket and "the long emergency"

"We suffer from a kind of Jiminy Cricket syndrome in this country. We believe that if you wish for something, it will come true. Right now a lot of people - including people who ought to know better - are wishing for some miracle technology to save our collective ass."
So says James Howard Kunstler in a recent speech about what he calls "the long emergency." He outlines the case for an early date for world peak oil production and the implications it has for the way we live. It will mean downscaling all the institutions of daily life including transportation, education, retail, agriculture and food processing to name a few. The global economy, so utterly a product of the "20-year-final-blowout of cheap oil," will essentially cease to function as fuel costs rise to unimaginable heights. And, it is cheap transportation, above all, which has made the global economy possible.

The techno-fixes are fantasy, he says. What he doesn't explain in this speech is that while the techno-fixes are, in fact, technically feasible, they either could never be scaled to the proportions needed to make up for the loss of oil or that scaling would be self-defeating. For example, as David Goodstein, author of "Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil" explained in this interview, it would take 10,000 of the largest nuclear power plants to replace our use of fossil fuels. Even if they could be built, the uranium needed to run them would last for 10 to 20 years at most.

But can't we rely on a combination of alternative technologies such as wind, solar, and biomass as well as nuclear? The answer is yes and no. Biomass, as Kunstler states in his speech, "is a joke." It takes so much petroleum to raise crops for burning or converting that the process more often than not is a net energy loser. Wind and solar will be important, but again, they simply can't be scaled to the point where they will completely make up for the loss of oil. This is particularly true when it comes to providing fuel for transportation.

As of now, barring some miracle or a much longer wait than expected for an oil peak, we will soon have to live on considerably less energy. Kunstler suggests that we start preparing now.

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