Sunday, April 30, 2006

Principles for the Post-Peak Oil Job Market

Many types of jobs will cease to exist: public relations executive, marketing directors, et cetera. I think work will be very hands-on, and a lot of it will revolve around food production.
                  -- James Howard Kunstler, 2003

When I speak before college audiences about peak oil, I often ask if there are any engineers present. I suggest that they concentrate on jobs that will produce rather than consume energy, particularly energy that is renewable and doesn't create greenhouse gas emissions. While it is difficult to tell exactly what kinds of jobs will be available in the post-peak oil age, inklings of some broad principles are coming into view.

To discern those principles I propose to contrast what is valued in today's job market with what will likely be valued in a post-peak oil job market. First, let's look at what has traditionally been valued in pre-peak industrial society. William Catton, Jr. explains in his book, Overshoot, that humans engage in two strategies to enlarge the carrying capacity of their habitat: takeover and drawdown. Takeover is essentially taking over habitat from another species. That takeover might take the form of farming which essentially appropriates habitat from other animals and plants and dedicates it to crops for feeding humans or their domestic livestock.

Drawdown is the second major strategy. Drawdown is the drawing down of finite resources to provide increased carrying capacity temporarily. In this case, "temporarily" can mean more than a century. The prime example is the extraction of coal, oil and natural gas to produce the energy, fertilizers and myriad other products that allow more than 6 billion people to live on our planet.

It is easy to see that drawdown is, by far, the more highly rewarded activity in pre-peak society. (After all, how many billionaire farmers have been celebrated in the business pages?) Huge fortunes have been made in the fossil fuel and mining industries. Today, those industries are thought to be the industries of the past, the old economy. But, in truth, they continue to provide the basis for the so-called new economy. Without our colossal extractive industries to produce the essentials of modern civilization such as oil, copper, zinc, platinum, and iron, the new economy wouldn't even exist. In fact, much of the new economy consists of manipulating information to increase our drawdown and takeover activities. (Admittedly, some of that technology creates more efficient use of resources; but to date it has failed to reduce overall demand for resources. For why this is so, see Jevons Paradox.) The new 3D seismic surveys of the deep ocean done in search of oil and the elaborate computer-controlled processes which extract oil from the Canadian oil sands are two excellent examples of how technology is used to abet drawdown. Countless other industrial processes are also aided by new economy technologies. Those technologies both increase demand for the products of drawdown and help accelerate that drawdown to meet that demand.

The post-peak oil age will in all likelihood lack the essential ingredient for ever-accelerating drawdown, i.e. cheap energy. (While it is true that knowledge can also help humans increase drawdown, it is doubtful that knowledge can grow quickly enough to offset the somewhat imminent decline in the production of oil and other fossil fuels. Even if this were not the case, we would face another crisis later as other resource limits were reached.) Drawdown of oil and natural gas has enabled the creation of an industrial agriculture that erodes the soil and destroys its fertility. That agriculture then attempts to make up for the lost fertility with natural gas-derived nitrogen fertilizers and oil-based pesticides. So, the loss of cheap hydrocarbon fuels and feedstocks has large implications for agricultural productivity and for the type of agriculture we will be able to practice. The end of cheap fossil fuel also has implications for the availability of water, both for irrigation and drinking. Cheap energy has led to the drawdown of many sources of water much faster than they replenish. And, the pollution that industrial societies create has made water purification one of the largest uses of energy worldwide.

These illustrations suggest that in a post-peak oil world a premium will be placed on decreasing drawdown through increased efficiency and through the outright curtailment of certain activities such as industrial farming with its heavy reliance on petrochemicals and irrigation. Takeover may also have to be curtailed in order to preserve species, land and waters which perform essential eco-services for human populations such as pollination and water retention and purification.

Perhaps now we can say with a little more confidence what principles should animate those entering the post-peak oil job market in comparison to the pre-peak one:

General Principles
General Principles
Increase drawdownDecrease or eliminate drawdown
Increase takeoverDecrease takeover
Detailed Principles
Detailed Principles
Emphasize quantityEmphasize quality
Emphasize competitionEmphasize cooperation
Emphasize powerEmphasize efficiency
Mine soil nutrientsIncrease soil fertility
Deplete finite resourcesBuild capacity of renewable resources
Shift environmental costs to publicBear all environmental costs you can't eliminate
Design linear product cycleDesign closed product cycle (Recycling)
Build in planned obsolescenceBuild in long life for products
Ignore necessary eco-services such as water purification and pollinationSafeguard and enhance needed eco-services
Focus on financial profitabilityFocus on ecological sustainability

I don't claim this list to be exhaustive. But I believe it offers a beginning for thinking about what mindsets and attitudes we need to inculcate in those who will be faced with working in a post-peak oil world. Right now most of what people learn in preparing themselves for work has little or no relationship to our ecological destiny. That needs to change and soon.


Anonymous said...

I agree. For the survival and well being of us all, we should adopt a new mindset. The details of the new way of thinking may vary, but I think you mentioned some of the fundamental and universal elements of such a mindset.

Anonymous said...

This should be one of the blogs with hundreds of comments after each posting. Thanks for the excellent insight.


Anonymous said...


I have read your article, "Principles for the Post-Peak Oil Job Market," with anthusiasm but unfortunately failed to find that it offered anything new to the subject it purports to address. However, the one specific "principle" I wanted to address with you or bring to your attention was that concerning Jevons' Paradox and your words to "emphasizing efficiency."

I am so thankful that you mention Jevon's Paradox. It is quite real and something that makes all proclamations about fuel efficiency and "renewable [sic] energies" empty. However, after referencing it in your article in the fourth paragraph, you go on to apparently forget it in your chart further on in the article. I found myself thinking, "either you believe or you don't," or "either you get it or you don't."

What starts out as an ambitious thesis becomes the same on limp-noodle quip about "cooperation, efficiency, recycling, sustainability (which doesn't exist), decreasing takeover, etc." I believe this is a huge topic but is given little scrutiny or forethought here. Jobs, roles and lifestyles are changing and that change will intensify as we go further down the slope and go off anticipated cliffs. Without going into my entire thesis here, a big question to ask is whether or not people will be willing to go back to high-human and animal-labor agrarian living and will that livelihood even be an option that our government will economically reward or socially allow? We must--if we want to survive and not be subjugated proles--be willing to reassume the work and live more and more with less fossil fuel inputs.

Maybe therein lies the difference between "principles" and "realities."

With respect and thanks for reading.

Kevembuangga said...

In the same vein as the previous comment I find it pretty useless to mull over "desirable" changes without questionning the process that could bring about those changes.
Even if a "perfect" solution existed (still, for what values, for whom???) there is no guarantee that it could be implemented given the existing "social mechanisms" inherited from our tribal ancestry.
People's silly ideas and habits are not anymore adaptive in the face of this kind of challenges.
No matter which side they apparently choose (primitivists vs transhumanists for instance) these are just inflated versions of our "good old tricks".
This is the most complicated and worse part of the problem.
Arguments about technologies, economics, politics, nuclear, ethanol, permaculture, drawdown, takeover, egalitarianism, libertarianism, whatever... are subsidiary to the dynamics of change and the dynamics depends more on people's opinions than on any realistic assessement of the challenges.
No matter what one would think, want or wish the inmates are de facto running the asylum.