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And before you get too exercised, please read the post, date 9 Feb 2006, titled "All Tools Suck".

Monday, July 19, 2010

Good Thing I Can Walk to Work

Given some of my colleagues in the XML community, I feel like I might be coming a little late to this party, but I just read James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, a cogent and calm analysis of peak oil and an exploration of what that is likely to mean for the world as a whole and the U.S. in particular.

Kunstler's point is basically this: 100 years of cheap oil have allowed us to create a society of artificially inflated wealth, allowing us to overpopulate the Earth far beyond its normal carrying capacity (literally "eating oil" in the form of crops grown with artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigated using water pumped by cheap oil), live in unsustainable suburbs and skyscrapers, and generally live far beyond our means. And this period of cheap oil is about to (and now, 6 years after the book was published, has) start ending, as we pass the "peak oil" point, the point at which the world supply of oil steadily decreases.

His prediction is that the decrease in supply will inevitably lead to a number of very serious problems, of which the most dire will simply be a lack of food--without cheap oil to irrigate, fertilize, and transport food people will starve. Lots of people. He makes the point that the world population at the start of the industrial revolution was about 1 billion people, which we can take to be the maximum solar carrying capacity of the earth. We're roughly 6 times that now. Not good. This can only lead to resource conflicts of the most serious kind.

Thus we are entering a time of contraction on all fronts: food supplies, energy for transportation, fuel for heating and industry, feedstocks for chemicals and plastics, etc. The reduction in real wealth will make it harder to maintain our current infrastructure and even build those things that might replace some of the lost oil (how do you raise the money to build wind farms or solar panel fabs when the growth-based economy has collapsed and the cost of everything is rising?).

In short, the 100-year period of constant growth in wealth is over, never to return. The disruptions will be severe and hard to predict.

All of this will be exacerbated by global warming (itself caused by coal and oil), which will further disrupt agriculture not to mention flooding coastal cities and, in the worst case, shutting down the gulf stream and freezing Europe.

Kunstler's arguments seem to be well grounded in fact and a clear historical context. Many of his facts were consistent with what I've read in other contexts. I didn't check his primary sources but he at least documented his key facts. He's not hysterical and does not appear to have any particular ideological axe to grind, other than clearly viewing all politicians as spineless and useless.

One part of the book that I found particularly striking was his remarkably accurate prediction of the financial meltdown that occurred in 2008.

He also makes the point that no alternative energy source is going to do much to help, certainly not in the short term (meaning the next few decades) for the simple reason that, even if we could generate all the electricity we needed with solar, wind, and nuclear, we can't replace our oil-based transportation system with an electricity-based one. Not to mention it's unlikely the U.S. would be willing or able to build enough nuclear plants fast enough. Hydrogen is patently nonsense and ethanol is a scam. If start rebuilding the train network now, we might avoid the worst, but we're not seeing any political movement in that direction (although Warren Buffet's investment in Union Pacific Santa Fe seems much more shrewd than it may have seemed at the time).

If he's anywhere close to right (and I think he is, or I wouldn't be mentioning it here), then we're in for some pretty serious disruptions in all aspects of society.

For information technology, one question becomes: where does the electricity come from to power the servers that we now depend on for our Google and Amazon and Bing? Not to mention the manufacturing facilities to build the computers themselves. Chip fabs cannot be scaled down to cottage industries.

I find it interesting that the trend in large-scale server farms has been to cite them in the Pacific Northwest where hydro power is plentiful. That could be to our advantage. Will the economy remain sufficiently intact to even have a need for the sort of abstract computing infrastructure we build and maintain? Will soaring transportation costs make computing that much more important?

I just returned from a week-long trip to Oxford, UK, which I found to be precisely the sort of small city Kunstler says we'll all have to live in before too long: dense, walkable, with good public transport, not too vertical. I walked and took the bus to get from my hotel to my client about 2 miles away. I ate in neighborhood restaurants, all quite good, no more than a few minutes' walk or a short bus ride away. Several of my colleagues did not own cars and several biked to work every day. The cars on the streets were significantly smaller, on average, than I'm used to here in the States.

When I got home to Austin I was struck by the almost cartoonish hugeness of the vehicles in the airport parking garage--they seemed to be almost exclusively the hugest SUV models made. Even when we drive our 15-year-old Explorer, which was the largest SUV Ford made at the time we bought it, we often lose it behind bigger monsters parked around it. Our Toyota, which would have been a large car in Oxford, was really hidden.

How many more overseas trips can I expect to take in my job? I didn't do anything that couldn't have been done well enough remotely, although being there physically made things more efficient and had significant social benefit.

Another question that immediately came to my mind is what can I do to really prepare for the sort of almost unthinkable change that Kunstler says is coming? I've already done a good bit by moving closer to the city center, building an energy-efficient house that supplies some of it's own electricity (and could supply more given an investment in more PV panels or a small wind generator). We raise chickens and grow a few vegetables and could grow a good bit more. There's land in the neighborhood on which a community garden could be based (could probably feed a good bit of the neighborhood with the open (and largely unused) areas on elementary school grounds just a couple of blocks away).

But what about natural gas? Kunstler points out something I hadn't known, which is that when natural gas wells tap out, they do so very quickly and without warning. And he claims most of our gas fields are already starting to play out. There's not much you can replace natural gas with. Could I build a digester and produce enough methane from chicken poop? Where would I get the grain to feed the chickens to make the poop? Right now we get organic grain from a mill here in Texas, but before that mill opened, we got it from a mill somewhere quite far away (Kansas? Pennsylvania? I don't remember now). Seems unlikely I could produce enough to keep my on-demand water heater running, much less run the stove or the furnace.

Here in Austin we're reasonably well situated--we have relatively warm winters, good solar exposure, water from lakes (not the Ogalalla aquifer), decent agricultural land, and less sprawl than most other cities in Texas. But would that be enough? I don't know. Austin was the edge of the frontier when it was first settled in the 1830s. It could be again.

It would be hard for us to survive full summer heat without air conditioning, even with the passive solar aspects of our house, although our PV system was designed in part to cover the daytime load of the A/C system, so maybe we would be OK there. With an electric car we could get around as long as there was sun to charge it. And we can walk or bike to most of what we need. (Should I get on the list for a Volt--Austin will be a launch city. I'm seriously thinking about it since I do now have the cash to buy one.)

In any case, the book is a real eye-opener.

If there is any silver lining to all this it seems pretty clear that a lot of current issues like over-dependence on corn-based food, globalization's homogenizing and dislocating effects, over-sedentary, over-fed first-worlders, will go away pretty quick. But I can't seen those changes being necessarily pleasant or welcomed by the majority. I'm glad I'm handy with tools and subscribe to Make. I'm thinking that maybe having a milling machine and a metal lathe in the garage might be good moves.

My father grew up on a pear and apple ranch in the Hood River valley of Oregon. We visited there recently and I got to talk to the woman who now runs the ranch (the granddaughter of the man who founded the ranch back in the early 20's, just as oil-based agriculture was coming into its own). We talked about globalization of agriculture and the local food movement and such.

She pointed out that their ranch, which is small by Hood River valley standards, produces as many pears as the state of Oregon consumes in a year. Most of the pears they grow are sold overseas. If they didn't have access to those markets, where would they sell? It's hard to see that ranch (or the Hood River Valley or the Yakama Valley) being viable in their current forms for much longer.

So enjoy those pears and $3.00 a pound Yakama cherries while you can. I know I am.


Blogger John L. Clark said...


I'm glad that you're taking a serious look at the Peak Oil and other resource overconsumption problems; I think we need as many people focused on these problems as possible, because I think that they are the most severe problems that we as a species have yet faced, and I believe that it will be necessary to try to work for a solution as a community. (It saddens me that these problems are of our own making.) I place myself in support of you and others as we try to work through these challenges.

Peak Oil and other resource depletion are input-side problems; analysts such as Richard Heinberg argue (and I agree) that we need to consider the linked output-side problems, such as Global Warming, which you mention in your article. In "The Transition Handbook", Rob Hopkins argues persuasively that considering only one side of the problem could very feasibly lead to exacerbating the other side of the problem, and so they should be considered together.

Once I became aware of these ecological problems, I wondered how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place. The culprit that I have identified is the emphasis on unchecked growth that pervades our culture and serves as the backbone of our economy. Tim Jackson helps us to understand this link to economics in "Prosperity Without Growth". Thus, we will need to work on a cultural revolution to reject some principles that serve as core assumptions for nearly all of us. For an incisive perspective on the moral urgency of this change, I recommend looking into Derrick Jensen's work, perhaps starting with "endgame".

Please let me know how I, and the community, can help you.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

I'm not sure there's much I can do personally, beyond what I'm already doing to reduce my own energy consumption and generally scale back my family's life so that we are better prepared for a scaled-back future.

As a counter to the depressing doomsaying of James Kunstler I found Peak Oil Debunked, which seems to be a reasonably thoughtful counter to the most extreme of the Peak Oil predictions.

I imagine the truth lies somewhere in between. I certainly agree with Kunstler that a refocus on mass transportation and generally making cities more livable through density and walkability is the right thing to do, but do I think we're on the bring of major societal chaos that will tear this country (the U.S.) apart? I hope not.

Certainly transportation technology advances that simply perpetuate suburbanization aren't really helping.

But in many ways Kunstler's arguments are about financial chaos as a side effect of inevitable contraction and that seems much scarier and more likely than simply running out of fuel for cars. We're already in a situation where credit is hard to get. It won't matter how many electric cars GM or Toyota builds if nobody can get a loan to buy them.

So I don't know. It seems likely that market forces will tend to reduce consumption as prices increase, mitigating the at least immediate effects of fall-off in supplies. As the Peak Oil Debunked blog points out, there is a lot of room for conservation in the U.S. For myself, I could almost entirely eliminate the use of my car for things like getting groceries, the pharmacy, going out to eat, as long as I was willing to eat the time cost. We live within walking distance of all the essential services we need. But Austin, like most U.S. cities, doesn't provide the level of public transport needed to make more far-flung trips convenient, must less pleasant.

Let's say oil supplies tighten significantly over the next two years and bus ridership goes up--Austin's transit agency is already in serious budget trouble and would have a hard time reacting to a surge in ridership (as they did in 2008). While we finally have a (largely pointless) light rail system, it would take a remarkable effort to put in a more comprehensive trolly or Portland-style light rail system in less than 5 years given public demand for it.

Thanks to a recent inheritance I have some cash available. Should I buy a Volt? Expand my PV system? Buy gold? Put by a year's worth of rice and canned goods? Buy Treasury bonds? Fill my garage with machine tools?

4:10 PM  
Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

I'm not sure there's much I can do personally, beyond what I'm already doing to reduce my own energy consumption and generally scale back my family's life so that we are better prepared for a scaled-back future.

As a counter to the depressing doomsaying of James Kunstler I found Peak Oil Debunked, which seems to be a reasonably thoughtful counter to the most extreme of the Peak Oil predictions.

4:11 PM  
Blogger LeighW said...

Yes, very eye-opening indeed. Thanks for sharing this. I live in a suburb of Atlanta, one of the most sprawling cities in the U.S. and one which has no reasonable public transportation from the suburbs to the city. I'm fortunate enough to work from home, but I often think of the multitudes of commuters on I-85 and I-75 and wonder what in the world they would do if gas were rationed to a tank a week? If they could not telecommute or carpool, they literally could not get to work. And Atlanta seems to be doing nothing substantial about the problem. It could lead to an economic collapse of this city.
I fear for our society but I also have hope...despite our historic unwillingness to head crises off at the pass, we also have a historic resilience and determination to survive...even the disasters of our own making.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

Kunstler heaps particular scorn on Atlanta as certainly typical of, if not the worst of, suburban sprawl gone out of control. I don't know if his analysis is completely warranted but it is consistent with my experiences of Atlanta and the South East in general (I lived in Chapel Hill, NC for 10 years).

8:26 AM  

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