Summary: Industrial civilization is rapidly running out of net fossil-fuel energy -- and alternative energy sources won’t be able to make up the difference. As we begin the slide down the steep backside of our civilization’s net energy curve, lower standards of living are in everybody’s future. Obama knows this, but is unable to say it publicly. But if we don’t start making some basic preparations for our non-optional, lower-energy future right now, we’ll likely end up with a much lower standard of living than if we did prepare. The basic, precautionary, low-energy backup-systems we need – food, water, transportation, manufacturing – are straightforward and relatively cheap…but they will take awhile to develop fully. We need to start preparing right now, at all levels: individual, community, regional, and national. -- Heck, even an intelligent child could do a better job planning for energy descent than we're doing now! Sasha in 2012!
What is our energy predicament?
Modern industrial civilization is an insatiable beast, requiring ever-increasing quantities of energy to fuel the necessary economic growth. Almost all of this energy presently comes from fossil fuels. Preeminent among these fossil fuels is oil, due to its easily storable and transportable nature. We’ve basically structured our entire industrial civilization around oil. It’s the “keystone” energy source – the one that all of the other energy sources depend on.
The annual global extraction rate of oil has now (still unbeknownst to the general public) peaked and begun its terminal decline. This is huge. And the other fossil fuels are not far behind. The extraction rates of natural gas, coal, and uranium will likely peak on the order of a few years to a few decades, at the most. More alarmingly, the rate of net (usable) energy obtained from these fossil energy sources declines at a much faster rate than the gross extraction rate due to the increasing energy-cost of extraction (which is due to the unavoidable high-grading of resources over time). The situation is especially dire for energy-importing countries like the US, because energy exports from the exporting countries will decline even faster than their extraction rates due to increasing energy consumption in these countries.
Alternative energy sources (solar, wind, tidal, etc.) will be unable to replace declining fossil energy inputs for a number of reasons. (See the Post Carbon Institute’s excellent report, “Searching for a Miracle” for a full discussion of these.) In short, these alternative energy sources would not give us the kind of energy our present infrastructure can handle, would give us too little net energy even if fully deployed, and would likely not be fully-deployable anyway since the materials required to scale them up and redo the present infrastructure would quickly become too scarce. Due to these (and other) limitations, alternative sources will almost certainly never match (or even come remotely close to) the energy production required to replace declining fossil energy.
Thus, the US faces an imminent, extended period of unavoidable energy descent – i.e. less and less energy will be available to us every year. Since our existing industrial systems that we have come to depend on require large and increasing rates of net energy inputs, these systems must either disappear or change during energy descent. These systems include those that provide us food, water, shelter, sanitation, transportation, manufacturing, education, employment, entertainment, etc. In other words, just about everything about our lives will change over the coming decades to fit the increasingly-lower-energy-input reality.
In short, our lives during this century will, gradually and unavoidably, become monumentally different from our current high-energy-use industrial lives.
Does Obama know?
He almost certainly knows. This stuff is so vital to national security and the continuation of his present job that Obama must know. From his pre-Obama speeches, we know Secretary of Energy Chu understands it, so I think we have to assume that Obama is in the fold with our energy predicament.
Why doesn’t he do anything about it?
The short answer is because he can’t.
The first thing Obama could do is to simply admit the reality of our energy predicament. Admitting this, however, would be equivalent to announcing the end of material-economic growth -- which would mean the end of our entire financial system as it now exists. This would be a very big deal. The following is my take on some reasons why Obama can’t even do this necessary first step – why he can’t even level with his own citizens.
The reason Obama can’t level with us involves the touchy subject of “corporate power,” and, tragically, still falls in the “not-in-polite-company” category as a discussion topic. But in case you haven’t noticed it yet, relatively few massive corporations (especially financial ones) now control essentially all government decisions in the US. They have for many years. In other words, the President and Congress basically work almost exclusively for the huge multi-national corporations. The US national government is a wholly-owned subsidiary of GoldmanSachs-AIG-BankofAmerica-Monsanto-DowChemical-etc... Inc. It’s not a conspiracy -- it’s just how power relationships have worked themselves out over the years. This is controversial only in our popular delusions.
All these corporations would be mortally wounded if the president admitted to our energy predicament. These huge corporations (especially the financial ones) are like huge balloons inflated with consumer confidence and the promise of future economic growth. Once that confidence vanishes (as it would if Obama told us the truth about energy), the balloons would quickly deflate. Our industrial economy would screech to a halt. It’d be a big mess in the short-term – and probably for awhile afterwards. People would be angry. Windows would get broken. Governments would fall.
While the deflation of these consumer-confidence-inflated “corporation balloons” is inevitable (in light of our energy/resource predicament above), and likely to happen well inside of a decade no matter what Obama says, they will not go gently into that good night. Corporations are, as Wendell Berry writes, really just big piles of money with the sole purpose of becoming bigger piles of money. They don’t have “feelings” in the human sense, and thus have no “irrational” concerns for the well-being of the humans who outlive them. Corporate entities are the epitome of selfishness. Left to their machine-like logic, the corporations would rather run full throttle off an approaching cliff than admit defeat and pull their own plug. In this sense, they would rather destroy human civilization and the Earth than die themselves. (For an amusing/tragic commentary on this, see Derrick Jensen’s As the World Burns.)
Due to this ϋber-rational prime directive, these corporations are just not going to willingly pull the plug on themselves; nor will they allow Obama to do so by admitting our predicament – even though it clearly would be in the best interest of humans and the rest of the biosphere. By definition, a corporate executive (like our President) who disobeys the corporate prime directive is no longer a corporate executive. It does not compute.
So that leaves either the outraged citizenry and/or biophysical reality to do the plug-pulling. Citizen outrage can be suppressed up to a point with carrots or sticks, but our rapidly advancing energy and resource limits cannot. So while the timing is still uncertain, the plug will be pulled -- and probably sooner than later. Huge change is a-comin’ no matter what we do.
Why is it bad to do nothing?
As our civilization’s energy descent gains momentum, all the large-scale, high-energy, complex systems we count on (see list above) will begin to falter. As they go, we will need to replace these failed systems with lower-energy, more-local alternatives. This change will not be optional. Our material standard of living will necessarily be lower in this new arrangement. Again -- not optional. All this is a given – it will happen whether we prepare for energy descent or not.
The reason we need to at least try to prepare is that some lower-energy system replacements will afford a higher standard of living than others. For example, with no oil available, skilled sustainable organic farming techniques will still yield far more food than random foraging in degraded woodlands. Cleverly-designed, low-tech rainwater collection systems will afford far more clean water than scooping muddy water from shallow holes dug into dry streambeds. These are extreme examples, but you get the idea.
If we start getting these “emergency” systems together now, we will have a far easier time transitioning to lower-energy alternatives when the energy-emergencies arise – and they will arise. And again, the low-energy alternatives we end up with will likely be of significantly higher quality if we can (at least somewhat) plan them out beforehand. Nobody can predict exactly how the coming troubles will play out, but we can at least try to address some of the most likely basic problems.
But a prerequisite for any positive, precautionary action is a frank honesty about our energy predicament. …And we’re not so good with the honesty thing lately.
Crudely put, if we wait until TSHTF, we’re gonna get hit with the $@*#.
What should we do?
The million dollar question! Here’s my take on what should be done:
Perhaps we can organize our energy descent planning into three phases: a short-term emergency plan; a medium-term transition plan; and a long-term resilient/sustainable plan.
First, we need to rapidly deploy locally-based, emergency-ready systems that could furnish the basics (food, clean water, emergency medical supplies) as emergency rations in the event of a weeks-long fossil fuel supply disruption. Basically, this would be the handout-based Katrina-type response that “Brownie” couldn’t quite pull off. I suppose the military may already be prepared to cover this part (to avert a very-possible governmental collapse), but the New Orleans precedent is not encouraging. I suspect simpler, regionally-appropriate, locally-organized emergency plans would be more robust in the face of chaos.
Second, we need to deploy locally-based, low-energy, “appropriate” technology that would allow citizens to be largely self-sufficient in supplying their own basic needs (food, water, transportation, basic manufacturing) if the fossil-fuel-supply was disrupted for an extended time – say several months to a year. This would involve significantly more than just the “handouts” represented by the shorter-term response above. One example: food security in this sense would require robust local food networks and farmers markets throughout the country, seed saving, and significantly more home-gardening in suburban and urban settings. Perhaps Obama could sneak in this “Transition Towns” type of preparation under the guise of low-cost, local sustainability and job initiatives – even without admitting to our energy predicament.
Third, and most challenging, we need to pool our remaining resources to construct locally-based infrastructures that could be maintained long-term with minimal fossil energy input – the mythical “sustainable societies.” The infrastructure would need to include all of the following parts, tailored to each region, and organized at the community level: food, water, renewable-energy, transportation, manufacturing, health-care, and shelter. Ideally, this would allow resilient adaptation to an essentially-permanent low-energy situation in an increasingly wacky climate.
Now, I don’t want to gloss over how difficult this last part would be. Just starting these advanced, long-term preparations would only be possible if the national government either (cough) “saw the light,” or if it dissolved and allowed regions to self-organize as needed. In either case, it would be a long, hard road with a lot of trial and error. It would be very tough to pull off even in the best of circumstances. -- And obviously, we won’t have the best of circumstances. At this point, such a path would likely even be almost impossible in some locations (ex: Southwest US?).
But again, our non-optional energy descent will have a much better chance of success at any of the time-scales if we could do any/some/most of this preparation before the extended emergencies arrive -- because once they do, a lot of organizational abilities (and access to most remaining resources) go out the door.
So Easy a Child Could Do It!
None of this is rocket science. Given the necessary information, our energy predicament is not difficult to understand. After a quick peek behind the wizard’s curtain, the reasons why our predicament is not made public are also rather clear. The dangers of not acting can be easily predicted by a reasonably-smart child. Even the appropriate precautionary measures are no-brainers with a little bit of background knowledge. I explain this stuff to kids and uninformed adults all the time, and they get it. The only people who don’t get it are those who don’t want to get it for some reason -- i.e. job/marriage/social status/bank-balance depends on it not being true, fragile psyche, conflicts with political/religious beliefs.
The point of the following fictional debate between “Sasha” and her dad “Barack” is to show how dangerously far from reality our political/economic system has wandered during the Fossil Fuel Age – i.e. how utterly unreasonable and reckless it has become. Sasha’s questions represent the simple-but-profound wisdom of someone schooled in basic cause-and-effect logic, honesty, and cautionary behavior – stuff you can learn from good parents and/or good teachers at an early age. Barack’s responses represent the evasive, put-it-off-‘til-tomorrow denial of biophysical reality that defines the apex of our fossil-fueled civilization.
I’m still rooting for Obama, but I honestly think our country would have a better chance with energy descent (and climate change) if we put intelligent children in charge at this point.
These grown-ups are just not getting it. Sasha in 2012!
Sasha and Barack Debate the Merits of Peak Oil Preparation
Sasha: Hi Daddy.
Barack: (hugs her) Hey baby! I haven’t seen you all day. How are you?
S: I’m good, Daddy. Umm…Daddy…
B: What’s on your mind, honey?
S: Where does gasoline come from?
B: Well, that’s a good question, baby! Gasoline comes from oil…and we get oil from the ground.
S: But where does oil come from? How does it get in the ground?
B: Umm…let’s see…Oil comes from algae that died hundreds of millions of years ago. Algae is that green scummy stuff on the reflecting pools near the Washington Monument. It grew thick on the top of the warm oceans way back then, and then it fell to the bottom when it died. Then the algae got covered by dirt, sand, and shells until it was buried way, way deep below the Earth. Since it’s really hot way down there under all that rock, it got pressed down and cooked – like in a hot pressure cooker. That’s how it turns into oil.
S: (laughs) That’s funny. So, like when we put gas in our car, we’re just putting in really, really, really old cooked green scum?
B: (laughs) -- Yea, I suppose you could say that. What got you thinking about gasoline, honey?
S: In school today, my teacher said that we might not have enough gasoline and oil when I get older. She said it might be a problem. You and Mommy never told us that. Is it true?
B: Yea, it’s true, honey. It might be a problem. But we’ll have enough for awhile.
S: But how could it be a problem?
B: Hey, what is this, ‘Meet the Press?’ Umm…Well, a lot of things could go wrong, I suppose. There could be a war or a terrorist attack; or some countries might not have enough to sell, or might not want to sell it to us anymore.
S: And not having oil would be bad for us, right?
B: Right. We need oil and gasoline for a lot of things. It’s where we get most of our energy in this country.
S: And that bad stuff could happen any time? Or could it only happen when I’m older?
B: Oh, there’s always a chance bad stuff could happen. But we do our best to try and stop it -- to keep us safe, and to keep enough oil and gasoline coming.
S: So you’re working on something that can replace gasoline and oil in case that happens?
B: Why, yes we are, you little smartie. It’s called “Fourth Generation Biofuels.” – It’s a fancy name for making gasoline out of plants that we can grow on farms or in factories. That’s what Dr. Chu is working on. He’s really, really smart.
S: Neat. Is that what you use in your limo and your airplane?
B: No, it’s not really ready yet. It won’t be ready until you’re older. Maybe you’ll use it when you’re old enough to drive. Or maybe your kids will use it.
S: Wait, I don’t get it. – You said bad stuff could happen any time with the oil, but you say the stuff to replace the oil won’t be ready until I’m older? I don’t get it.
B: Well…I mean…there won’t be a problem with oil anytime soon. You shouldn’t worry about it.
S: But you just said oil problems could happen any time and that it would be bad ‘cause we use oil for just about everything. Isn’t that what you said?
S: But you and Mom are always lecturing us about that we should always be extra prepared in case something bad happens. You’re always like (adult voice) “You need to be prepared for the future, because you never know what can come up.” It’s always, “You have to think a step ahead, Sasha.” You make me finish all my homework on Friday afternoon in case we get busy over the weekend. You won’t let me spend my birthday money because (adult voice) “You might need it for something really important later on.”
B: What’s your point honey?
S: I’m just saying that it doesn’t make sense for you not to have a replacement for oil if we could have problems with it at any time. Isn’t there anything that could replace it now – like if we had problems tomorrow?
B: No honey. All the replacements are a bunch of years away. But we’ll be OK.
S: Daddy, you’re not making any sense! What do we do if there’s a problem with oil soon?
B: There won’t be honey.
S: But you said there might be, so what if there is?
B: Well, we’d be in trouble.
S: But aren’t you the boss of the Country?
B: Uh huh.
S: Then shouldn’t you make some sort of plan in case we have trouble with oil? Shouldn’t we be getting ready just in case there is a problem soon – before Dr. Chu’s plant-gasoline is ready?
B: Well…That’s a good idea, honey. Maybe let’s think of a plan that would get us ready. What do you think we should put in this plan?
S: Umm...I don’t know. You’re the President. I’m just a kid.
B: But you’re a pretty smart kid, so let’s try to think of what we should put in the plan. What are some important things we should take care of in case there’s a problem with oil?
S: Umm…How about food? We should make sure everybody has enough food if we don’t have gasoline to drive to the supermarket. Everybody should be able to walk to a farmer’s market -- like the one we used to go to in Chicago. Or everybody should have a big garden like we do now.
B: Wow, sweetie! That’s a good one. What else?
S: How about water? My teacher said that dirty water kills more people every year than wars. We should make sure everybody has clean water. Our teacher told us all the ways people used to get clean water in the olden days before oil and gasoline – like collecting rainwater off roofs. She said people were pretty smart back then.
B: Nice, honey. You have a pretty good teacher. Anything else?
S: Maybe we should have some way for people to go places even if they can’t drive their cars. Like…umm…bicycles maybe. Our teacher showed us pictures of this country where the whole road was filled with bicycles. She said it’s the fastest way to get around without gasoline. Lots of the bikes even had carts on the back, like a pickup truck, with lots of stuff piled inside.
B: (laughs) I wish I had kids who paid attention like you, back when I taught school. Good job, baby. Anything else?
S: My teacher says that a lot of the stuff we use comes from other countries. She said we need a lot of gasoline to bring it across the oceans. Maybe if we have problems with oil, we can’t get that stuff anymore. Maybe we need to be able to make a lot of that stuff in our own country. People should learn how to make stuff we don’t make here anymore.
B: (laughs) – I think I’m going to put you on my staff, kid.
S: (beams) So when can we get started?
B: (laughs) I like your moxie, honey! But you have to understand how it works here in Washington. We can’t just do stuff right away, even if it is a good idea. All this stuff will take years -- but maybe sometime soon we can start the ball rolling. Everybody in Washington needs to talk about things a long time before they actually do anything. It’s really frustrating sometimes.
S: But…Dad! You said we could have problems with oil anytime now! Aren’t you supposed to keep bad stuff from happening to us? What if something bad happens? Why can’t you do anything? You’re the President!
B: (sigh) It’s complicated, honey. But don’t worry about it – everything will be OK. You have great ideas, but we need to talk about it some more. OK? …C’mon, I’m hungry. Let’s talk about this after dinner.
S: (sigh) OK, Daddy.
B: (hugs her) I love you, baby.
S: I love you too, Daddy.