Peak Oil: What do we do now?

Our problem now is that we have built a complex economy that depends on oil and other fuels. We can see that we will have less oil in the future. The question is, “What we should do, in planning for a change in the world?”

Our natural reaction is to try to build add-ons to our current system that we hope might make the system work longer. I am afraid these will be mostly ill-advised, because the system is more complex than we understand, and well-meant changes may have adverse impacts.

What we really need is a new system that will work for the long-term. But such a system is so far away from us now, it is hard to even think about how it would work, and how we would get from our current system to the new system.

Our Current System

Our current system is a complex one that has evolved over a period of years. It is built upon a complex financial system, international trade, and many high-tech goods. Most people in the US live in homes that are heated and cooled to comfortable temperatures year-around and have access to a private passenger automobile, things that people in years’ past would have never dreamed possible.

The problem I see with our current system is that it is not likely to be very resilient. The current system depends on huge energy inputs. We can already see stresses as these are reduced.

Changes which don’t seem too big to us, and which seem to be helpful, could very well disturb the system. For example, conserving electricity would seem like a step in the right direction, but even this little step is likely to affect the finances of utilities, and is likely to make the construction of new, more efficient electric generation less feasible. When we make one change to try to make things better, we may in fact be making changes that make the system as a whole work less well.

There may be some specific changes that can be helpful, but it is difficult to know in advance what these are. In my view, these changes are likely to be the ones that require least government intervention, because they “make sense” without subsidies. For example, adding some geothermal electric generation in a location where geothermal is available, or making some natural gas vehicles if there seems to be a temporary oversupply of natural gas may make sense.

The big problem I see with our current system is that over the long-term (and perhaps not-so-long-term), it can’t continue to work, because the fossil fuels on which it depends are being depleted. Nearly all of the things (wind-generated electricity, solar PV, electric vehicles, fuels from algae) we are thinking about now are simply add-ons to the current system. Once the current system stops working, the additions will be of little benefit. Even something that looks resilient, like solar PV, stops working once there are no more light bulbs available for it to light up, and once back-up batteries are no longer available.

What we need: A new resilient system, that doesn’t depend on fossil fuels

We clearly will eventually need a new plan, but we haven’t even given a thought to what it might be. It is relatively easy to come up with a proposed component of the plan, but even this may not work out in practice.

For example, one can develop a plan for growing crops in an area that requires soil amendments to be brought in from some distance. Even though these amendments are “organic,” the fact that they must be transported some distance is likely to make the system not sustainable, without substantial fuel inputs.

As another example, I saw a plan developed by graduate students showing how we might build sustainable 1,600 square foot homes out of local materials. I would have a number of questions: How much labor will it require to build (and frequently rebuild) such homes? Will this be too much for a new poorer society? Will it be possible to heat such a large home, or should we be aiming for smaller homes?

We do have examples of societies that “worked” in the past, with virtually no fossil fuel inputs. In fact, if we look around the globe, some of these might be quite recent. It seems to me that we need to be studying some of these in more detail, to see if we can figure out what might work going forward. For example, quite a few of these used animal power, both for plowing fields and for transporting goods. If we were to start adding more animal power, what would this imply for land use? How did past societies deal with the need for shelter for themselves and their animals? How did they handle making clothing, and manufacturing household goods?

Societies don’t just spring to life. They evolve. That is a big reason our current situation is so difficult. We are trying to model the future based what we have now, but our current model is very much tied to our current fossil fuel use. It is hard to imagine that our system will work for the long term.

Instead, it seems to me we would do better to model the future on what we had at some time in the past, because at least this would give us an idea of what combination of home sizes, use of animals, size of farms, and even political structure worked in the past. I doubt people today would find this approach very acceptable, though, since so many things have changed–for example, modern medicine and the Internet, and it will be hard to give these up.

Our predicament

So what do we do? Just keep adding on to our current system, and hope that somehow we can keep it together a while longer? Or start working on a new, sustainable system for the long term?

If we do work on a new, sustainable system, how can we get our minds to even think in terms of what life might be like, essentially without fossil fuels? Is modeling based on the past (with perhaps a few additions to reflect the current situation) really our only alternative? Or is it possible to build a ” higher” sustainable system, using mostly local inputs, even though at this point, we don’t have a good model of what this might be?

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About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.

55 thoughts on “Peak Oil: What do we do now?

  1. It took some 250 million years of sunlight sequestration in fossil fuels. We are depleting these solar energy stocks in a time span of some 250 years.

    1. I’m still quizzing whether it’s therefore correct to say that

    (a) We’re presently consuming a daily amount of fossil sun energy at a speed that is one million times higher than the sun’s daily energy falling on the earth.

    (b) It will be impossible to increase our share of daily sunlight energy by means of technology to offset the loss of fossil sun energy.

    (c) Even a small increase of our share of daily sun energy “income” would be detrimental to the energy available to the rest of nature and thus create again more imbalances.

    (d) So we have no choice but to return to pre-1700 lifestyles and structures.

    2. If 1 is valid then it folloows that
    (e) The remaining fossil energy should not be used to try and maintain our modern societies but to adapt structures and industries basically to ways of life as we had before 1700, trying to keep some of the useful achievements such as predominently preventive health maintenance.
    (f) We need to relocalise, i.e. work where we live. Abolish mechanised transportation. Democratically ban a host of products and activities that are either harmful or that we cannot environmentally afford. We will again have to run the factories when the wind, solar and water energy is available, read when the sun provides the light, sleep when it’s dark. Indeed the manual trades as mentioned by Engineer Earl (December 17, 2010 at 5:29 pm) will have to be relearned. And most people now working the white collar and engineering sectors will find work in the primary production sector of agriculture.
    (g) Cities will also belong to the past. No city is sustainable because all depends on the availability of resources from the land, for which transportation will no longer be available.
    (h) We’ll be extremely frugal, use products that last centuries instead of today’s planned obsolence culture.
    Most of modernity’s industry will have to become obsolete because we can’t ecologically afford its products.

    3. The financial system – I believe – can and must be scaled down to those parts that directly concern commercial banking, lending, borrowing and risk taking. The stock echanges can be closed down, first of all the parasitical funds “industry”. Investments will have to be in the restructuring and retraining sectors, investment decisions taken by politicians according to ecological needs and options that remain.

    4. All of the above are nothing but intellectual exercises with no real effect as long as the People In Power believe that we (1) must continue to grow, (2) present problems can be solved with yet-to-be invented technologies, and (3) population growth needs no attention.
    The PIP are factually irresponsible dreamers and religious believers in technology and miracles.

    5. My biggest question is how the PIP can access this sort of refelctions and then maybe decide it makes sense and change their minds.

    Helmut Lubbers, Geneva/Switzerland

    • Hi Helmut,

      I suggest that it is more than just the PIP. Just as a little experiment: suggest a national motor vehicle maximum speed limit of 35mph (or equivalent kilometers in your case). Even though this limit is totally rational, for a wide number of reasons, I suspect the average person will consider you to be a total fool. In this age of opinion pools, expecting any “leadership” to support your suggestion is highly unrealistic.

    • Aloha Helmut,

      I think your analysis is generally correct, especially at this late date in the fossil era. It might have been possible at one time to convert our fossil fuel patrimony into the capital investments that would have allowed sustainable concentration of solar energy, but I fear we are much too late.

      We probably would have had to start at least as early as 1931, the year of Edison’s famous “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Natures inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. … I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

      Even if we had taken Edison’s prescient statement seriously, it still wouldn’t have been enough without strict control of population growth. And now, since we took neither the finite nature of fossil fuels nor the detrimental effects of unchecked population growth seriously, we are stuck with fending for ourselves (individually) while we watch the societies we grew up in crumble around us.

  2. What will survive and evolve on a barren planet? This is the question you all should be asking. It’s not in the nature of our species to voluntarily revert to a 1700’s lifestyle, no matter how quaint the idea. The human species will continue to wring out every last drop of high density energy it can get its hands on. It will continue to seek out ways to prop up and perpetuate current creature comforts (look at geo-engineering). It will continue to believe that such behavior is morally correct and admirable and worth pursuing.

    How brief their flame, but how bright they burn…..

  3. Here are my two cents

    1) the decline may not go with an abrupt crash and hard landing where> 90% of us suddenly starve to death. No – it will be a slow but steady decline with lots of crashes along the way. But – we as a society will have time to adjust. Our (in the western world) resources are immense, not just availability of energy but also energy and materials savings potential, education, infrastructure etc. Gaining time is the important piece here so we can implement workarounds and evolve new ways to live, to do business.

    2) It is not the 1900s any more, we do know very well how to generate electricity from various energy sources, we harnessed quite amazing powers, we have technology and expertise which will help us to create a constant and increasing flow of power, electric power that is – over time – energy which after all (very long term view) will not have to rely on fossil fuels.

    3.) Give a chemist and biologist electricity and biomass and they will create materials. Also here we are better off than just 100 years ago.

    4) our society on the mid term and longer term scale will most likely become more and more de-centralized. Technology allows that. No more central HQs/office people commute to, you can work from anywhere (home for example or a local mega office). People will generate power in their own dwellings, not just using solar but mini waste burning power plants and technologies which still will be invented. Trust our tech-kids, they are good! People also will grow their food more locally, no transportation of food from around the world.

    5.) I think we can easily survive and live comfortably of half of the energy we are using today – or less even. And I say that because a) when I grew up 40 something years ago we used certainly much less than half of the energy in our family than we do now. No jacuzzi, only one family car, longer distances were either gone via bicycle or public transportation, no air conditioning and food came from within the country, etc. etc. and b) today – in our household we just 2 years ago reduced our fossil fuel energy consummation by about 50% or more and we barely notice the difference (big savers are: burning renewable wood for heating, no more commuting but working from home resp. locally; home grown food = less driving for shopping, less packaging, less exotic items). and c) a lot of people right now do live on that much less – and in the past did (think Eastern European countries) survived and lived quite ok and used perhaps 20% of the energy we are using right now. While going back sounds awful – once you are doing it you may not even notice – the human mind is flexible like rubber and adjusts to many situations.

    In a nutshell – I think we are headed into a future which is a) decentralized and b) powered electrically (from varieties of sources)

    At least this is what I can hope for us Westerners, not sure how this may unfold for people who in many countries around the world right now live on the edge. Obviously reduction there is not an option.

    – SE

    • Aloha Sylvia,

      I have a great deal of sympathy for your view, as I have been a renewable energy researcher and developer for most of my adult life. I have built my own houses and powered them mostly with renewables from micro hydro to PV. My family grew up using about 1/10 the electricity of a typical family. We did however use as much gasoline as everyone else to operate the family vehicles.

      There is indeed a huge amount of waste that can be saved, which can make the decline in petroleum energy resources less abrupt. There are many cost effective ways to make electricity sustainably. But, the amount of time available to make a grand transition is too short.

      The world now uses about 88 million barrels of oil a day. Once a serious decline in oil production sets in, say 4.5% per year, we will need to find a replacement for about 4 million barrels per day capacity every year. That amount of fuel can supply energy that is roughly equal to 90 gigawatts of electrical generation (at 33% conversion efficiency). To get that amount of power out of concentrating solar power plants (with a capacity factor of 20%) would require an investment of about 2 trillion dollars per year. The technology is available, but where is the political will to spend that kind of money?

      In addition, to make electricity substitute for liquid fuels will require the conversion of much of the world’s transportation to electrically driven vehicles, not to mention the grid investment that will be required to get the additional electrical power to users. These are also huge capital commitments.

      Even before the decline in oil production really starts, we will find that the adverse economic effects of the “undulating plateau” will inhibit large scale capital formation. Although I would not be against the attempt, I just don’t think we can marshal the resources required.

      Individuals and small communities still have time to create little “islands” of sustainability, but the time for gradual conversion of the whole world economy to non-fossil power is long past.

  4. I don’t think much can be done to transition society to another system. There is no other system, anyway, that can sustain 9 billion people as we have overshot the carrying capacity of the earth at about 3 billion people in the ’60,s. We all know,don’t we, that an ideal socialist utopian society cannot work without totalitarian force applied to the minions. Unless there is a fundamental change of consciousness to do it without the despots trying to control everything. Well, the human condition has us freaking out about the prospect; intellectualizing about it aside. After a die off of about 8 billion people by 2100 those left will possibly be able to pick up the pieces and use what is left of the remaining resources to continue on. Only then will the earth be able to support the remaining 1 billion or so people again in some fashion.

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