Sunday, April 18, 2010

Forever and a day

Talk with many green technology advocates and you might get the impression that we have forever and a day to make the transition from an unsustainable society to a sustainable one. Of course, they will tell you that one day far into the future, if we don't make the transition, we will have serious problems.

Their view is based on not one, but two assumptions. First, as I said, it is based on the notion that we have a comparatively long time to make this transition, usually claimed to be several decades. Second, it is assumed that technology will appear and be deployed in time to prevent the worst problems that might result from fossil fuel depletion, climate change and a variety of other environmental and resource challenges. In short the transition will be a relatively smooth one. Keep in mind that these are people who believe we have serious problems that need to be addressed. Their agenda as environmental matters go is actually quite radical if somewhat gradualist.

The notion that we have a comparatively long time stems from two lines of thought: 1) The idea that the problems we face aren't that serious yet and 2) the belief that supplies of fossil fuels will be adequate until we are able to address these problems by developing and deploying alternative energy along with other technologies to address climate change, soil degradation, deforestation, fisheries depletion, fresh water depletion, and so on.

Of course, the technological optimism stems from two centuries of unparalleled technical achievement. My usual response to this is that technology is NOT energy, but rather runs on energy. Ergo, if you don't solve the energy problem, you won't get the technical fixes you are expecting for two reasons. First, you need sufficient energy to support a gargantuan research and development infrastructure to invent and test possible technical solutions. Second, you need energy to run that technology once you deploy it. Think of the amount of energy we would require for atmospheric carbon dioxide collectors on the scale needed to actually reduce carbon dioxide levels even if we seriously curtail emissions. And, finally, the perverse or counterproductive effects of new technology are never considered. All the technologies which are going to be deployed are somehow assumed to have zero side effects.

Let us return to the urgency issue. It is notable that some green technology optimists give themselves decades for a successful transition. Clearly they are hoping they are right for a very important reason: Substituting one technology for another or a new resource for a dwindling one requires time, often considerable time. It could easily take decades to replace our current liquid fuel-based transportation infrastructure with one that relies primarily on electricity. If our rate of conversion is too slow and the time window for the conversion too short, then we will fail.

The most critical question is how much time we have to make the transition. A fully equipped hospital with on-duty surgeons and staff may be the ideal technology for a critically injured patient. But they mean little to such a patient if we are in the position of having to build the hospital and train the surgeons and staff before administering treatment. I think this analogy aptly describes our current predicament. If you miscalculate concerning the time question, it will not matter how clever human beings are.

This concern is at the heart of the peak oil movement. Its most coherent statement is the now famous (at least within peak oil circles) Hirsch Report published in 2005. The report suggests that a 20-year crash program to develop and deploy alternative liquid fuels before the peak would be necessary to prevent tremendous social and economic dislocations. Hirsch is even less sanguine now given the torpor among the world's leaders on this issue. Partly this stems from his belief that peak will arrive within the next five years.

The green optimists need to rethink their position and do a little scenario planning. What if they're wrong about how much time we have? What is their fallback strategy? Even if they regard the risk of a nearby oil peak as small, they cannot absolutely know when peak will occur. Given that their entire approach is balanced on one assumption, namely, that we have decades, they must, of necessity, admit that a nearby oil peak would call for an entirely different approach.

That approach would require immediate and drastic action to reduce our consumption of oil and to move our infrastructure quickly toward other forms of energy that do not deplete. It might also require some stopgap measures using nonrenewable resources such as coal and natural gas, but only to help us complete the transition.


colinc said...

Another poignant post, Kurt. Thanks for the links to the Hirsch articles. I read the interview on EV and the "Executive Summary" from the paper. When his analysis is coupled with...

US military warns oil output may dip causing massive shortages by 2015

I recall a line from "...Red October"... "This business will get out of control. It will get out of control and we'll be lucky to live through it." Moreover, if we consider this in conjunction with the current "water-woes" in South-East and South-Central Asia along with those of the Middle East, a large portion of Africa and our own "desert southwest," this is not boding well at all!

Alas, there are so many "negative" factors to consider, focus on any one is way to narrow an approach to relay the absolute terrors that await us all if we all don't make some drastic and serious changes in the VERY near term. I do have some ideas to that end but are too lengthy to post here AND I am absolutely positive NO ONE will even consider them "reasonable" let alone like them.

Regardless, keep up the good fight.

Robin Datta said...

Some of the cognoscenti have asserted that Peak Oil was at various dates in 2005. The variation since then has been within a range narrow enough to attribute to random variation / noise. The overshoot well past nonindustrial carrying capacity carries its consequences which will be manifest with the decline in extraction rates on the other (now this) side of Hubbert's peak

mattbg said...

Aren't the "alternative" green solutions going to be delivered by a completely different set of people, though?

I doubt the "green optimists" are dragging their feet. They are probably working as quickly as they can. You can't have a baby in less than 9 months no matter how hard you try... even if you have a super hospital and 5 mothers working on the project.

Shouldn't we let them continue to work in case we really do have decades to solve the problem?

The people who could force us to do things differently in the meantime aren't these people -- they'd be policymakers, etc. Right? People who can decide we are going to shift things within the existing paradigm and with existing technology so that, for example, we try to discourage the movement of people with personal transportation (one of the biggest quick-wins) and things like that.

Dunc said...

Whilst I basically agree with your assessment... There are a few complications.

Firstly, there are plenty of people who are calling for much more radical approaches - they just don't get the same airtime. Why not? Well, because "the system" doesn't want them to. There is no margin in it for anyone with any power, and it doesn't fit the established narrative. So they will be ignored.

Secondly, I suspect that many of the "green optimists" aren't quite so sanguine in private. However, if there's one thing we should learn from the whole climate kerfuffle, it's that "We're all DOOMED!" is a counter-productive approach. Rather than encouraging people to take the issue as seriously as it deserves, it simply encourages them to ignore you, then ridicule you, then fight you. This also ties in with my previous point.

The simple and inescapable fact is that the majority of people (well, people who count, anyway) are determined to ignore the issue for as long as humanly possible. They won't believe it is serious simply because they don't want to, and freaking them out only deepens that resistance.

We are screwed.

Weaseldog said...

RDatta, I don't really understand your point about 2005 being the Peak for conventional oil, being an effect of random noise. Are you just saying that picking the peak month or peak day leads to analyzing noise patterns? If so, I don't understand how this matters in understanding where we are today.

The historical data appears to be clear that we reached maximum production of conventional oil in 2005 and maximum production of all liquids in 2008.

Both are in decline now, and absent the discovery of new continents, those peaks are very likely, the final word.

I keep reading articles that predict the peak in the future, but I can't find any material justification to support the notion that any of our super giant fields are going to reverse their depletion trends, and start growing at a never before seen, and remarkably dramatic rate.

And that's what it would take to reverse the net effect. Almost all of the world's major fields are post peak. All of the super giant ones are already post peak.

Ruminations about preparations for a future peak, seem a bit pointless in this view.

I've been reading the arguments about how we shouldn't upset folks by declaring a dire emergency, for over a decade now. It's like we're in a car, that is being destroyed by a locomotive. Someone in the back seat is telling us not to scream. It will just alarm everyone else in the car. We should instead spend the upcoming years, discussing ways to avoid or mitigate the crash. In the meantime the car is getting rolled, crushed, and everyone will soon be dead. But don't panic!

From this perspective, it seems silly to prognosticate on how we can return our civilization to an era of seemingly endless growth and prosperity.

Playing around recently, I thought I'd map out some conservative depletion rates. Figuring a conservative 2% decline to 2015 and then 6% after, I saw world oil production drop to 28mbd by 2030. That's about a third of peak production.

On the way to 2030, we're going to chase growth in every avenue. We'll certainly work hard to make sure that we have more people.

With oil production down to a third, we'll have only a third of the potential for modern jobs available. This will likely mean more than 75% unemployment.

2030 is very far away. If I'm still alive, I'll be 67 years old. Many of you reading this are likely to be young enough that you'll just be coming into middle age.

What kind of life will you have? What will you be doing? What will your children or grandchildren be doing?

The window for preparing through some sort of Apollo type program slammed shut in the past, broke and now exposes jagged pieces of glass.

And plan that is going to take decades to implement is nothing but a fantasy.

But there's no reason to believe me. If you passed High School math, you can work out your own depletion curves.

Take a production rate, like maybe 75mbd for conventional crude at it's peak. Then multiple it by a depletion factor for each year.

So for 2%...

Multiply by 0.98

Then keep multiplying your results
by 0.98 for each year onwards.

Then look at depletion rates for modern fields. Those are going in the 6-9% range. Try those numbers out and see what you get.

Add in a war or two and perhaps go to 12-15%. What does that look like?

But no need to become alarmist. what can you really do to prepare? We live in the here and now, not the future. If we can't get by today, then we won't see tomorrow.

We'd already doing the best we can. Look around you. This is what our best effort looks like.

Robin Datta said...

The fluctuations in oil extraction rate after the 2005 peak have been used by some to suggest that the peak is not here yet, although the range of fluctuation is small enough to attribute to randomness / noise. When the decline in extraction rates sets in, that suggestion will become invalid.