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Apeakolypse Now

editorial - SchNEWS,  27 May 2005

Peak Oil is the greatest story never told. Even though Peak Oil is the central fact driving the wars and economic crises of our time, it is seldom mentioned in the mainstream corporate news.

Peak Oil (also known as the Big Rollover or the Long Emergency) is when demand for oil outstrips supply because the halfway point of the planet's oil deposits has been passed. 'Halfway' is a misleading word in this context. Most of the oil that's still left in the ground will be staying there, because it takes more oil energy to get it out of the ground than it yields. The oil and natural gas is no longer worth the drilling or pumping. Petroleum geologists reckon that the world oil peak will be sometime between 2005 -2010. The majority of non-OPEC producers such as the United States, Britain, Norway, and Mexico, who satisfy 60 percent of world oil demand, are already in a production plateau or decline. A leading guru, Colin Campbell (ex of Shell and Total Fina Elf) reckons 2007. Are we preparing for it? Are we readying ourselves to radically change our lifestyles and energy consumption? Of course not.

The bottom line is this: humankind is entering a whole new era. One in which every year from, say, 2007, there will be less and less net energy available to us no matter what we do (Alternative energy sources are nowhere near developed enough, or invested in, to compensate). The last time anything like this happened was the collapse of the ancient civilizations. The Maya, the Romans, the Greeks; these civilisations ended when their strategies for energy capture - be it slaves, coal or topsoil - became subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Industrial society is the name given to the world that built itself first on coal and then on oil. When oil becomes scarce and then runs out it will be the collapse of industrial society. Massive social change is coming.

In 'The Party's Over - Oil, War and the Fate Of Industrial Societies,' Richard Heinberg refers to the present epoch as the Petroleum Interval or the Petrol Bubble. The Stone Age lasted for millennia, the Bronze Age nearly a couple of thousand years, but the epoch in which humans discover oil then totally re-shape society around oil, and then run out of the stuff will be about 200 years.

The implications in terms of food are pretty terrifying. Since the 1960s it has been true to say that food equals oil. In 1944 the average US farm produced 2.3 thousand calories of food for every calorie of fossil fuel inputs. In 1974 the ratio became 1:1, in our own time there are no reliable statistics but it may be as much as 1000 calories of oil-energy to produce as each calorie of food energy, given that nitrogen fertilizers are made from natural gas, (itself a by-product of oil); pesticides and insecticides are synthesised from oil, tractors and combines run on diesel, and then there's plastic packaging, refrigeration and four-figure food miles. As Heinberg says, "in terms of energy return on energy invested, industrial agriculture is the least efficient food distribution system the world has ever known." Hoe and scythe classes anyone?

So the days of the out-of-town Tescos and Wal-Marts are numbered. But the bad news is that survival on planet earth could get a lot more difficult for about two-thirds of its inhabitants. The population boom at the beginning of the 20th century, boosting humans from 1.7 billion to 6 billion was the result of cheap abundant energy supplies helping to underpin massive expansion of agricultural production. With oil about to become a rare as arctic carp, the earth's carrying capacity - ie the total population it can support - will plunge back down to pre-industrial levels... or maybe lower still since we no longer know how to farm, and have thoughtfully covered most of the Grade 1 arable land with UGC multiplex cinemas.

crude talk

So why aren't we hearing more about this story then? On the quiet, Governments and Energy corporations admit the basic truths of the situation - Exxon Mobil's recent report, "The Outlook for Energy: A 2030 View", forecasts a peak in just five years - but nobody's shouting about it. Simply put, it's because it's in all the major players' interests to lie about it. The oil companies (publicly at least) downplay the problem because oil-producing countries will hike the price if they know they have BP and Exxon over a barrel. The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) lie about their reserves, claiming they are larger than they really are, because OPEC members agree to produce only a certain percentage of their reserves per year, and each money-hungry member wants to cheat by producing more - thus leading to the over 'generous' estimates. Governments of oil-producing countries also want inflated reserves so as to boost investment and help each oligarchy to shore up its power base, not too mention getting US/UK arms and military training for free. Other governments lie about Peak Oil because they don't want to appear powerless, or provoke public panic.

There is also the psychology of denial. Protecting the status quo is so much easier for politicians looking ahead all of three or four years. Not wanting to face social change, governments instead want to believe in the 'techno-fix'. Hydrogen, nuclear and zinc are all hailed as the saviours of industrial capitalism. But there are no hydrogen reservoirs. Hydrogen fuel-cells are made using fossil-fuels. You use as much fossil fuel energy to create each hydrogen fuel cell as you get from it. Hydrogen can be used to store wind and wave energy, but it is a carrier of energy (like electricity) not a source of energy. The nuclear energy cycle not only produces too much carbon in its mining, milling, processing, storage and decommissioning, but needs vast fossil fuel inputs as only 0.7% of natural uranium mined is the fissile U-253 needed. Zinc-air fuel cells have yet to attract enough attention or big-time investment.

But there's one other reason for the big Peak Oil omerta, which unites all of the above liars and the news networks. ["omerta" - a rule or code that prohibits speaking or divulging information about certain activities, especially the activities of a criminal organization] The potential collapse of the banking system. In the windfall energy years of the Petrol Bubble, more and more energy has been available each and every year. This has led to an economic system built on the assumption of growth. Large scale energy shortages would soon put a stop to that.

Societies will have to junk the preset debt-and-interest monetary system for a matter-and-energy accounting system, or some other kind of ecological system which acknowledges the finite nature of resources. This may not be a bad thing of course, but you can tell those with power are going to find the most painful route to arrive at that conclusion.

Any road up, the present financial system cannot survive net-energy decline. Less and less available energy means less economic activity. In the present banking system most money is created by making loans. But if there is less and less economic activity then there are less and less loans and so there's no tidy wedge to pay interest on the old loans, nor anyone to pay the loan sharks to come round yer house, nor oil to make the resin to stop the baseball bat from cracking on yer skull. And without these two mainstays it's all over.

Oil Check?

Try dipping your stick into -

- SchNEWS  (27th May 2005)

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revised 18 November 2005