As we enter a new millennium, human civilization faces numerous challenges. Much of our present infrastructure and processes are unsustainable. Industry pollutes with enduring toxins. The farming and food infrastructure depletes the water, minerals, and biological base essential for soil to grow healthy natural food.
The concept of determining the "footprint", or area of naturally recycled resources required to provide for the uses of a person, city, nation, or the global population, shows that in almost every defined area, whether political or physical, is beyond a sustainable population.
In general, it would take several additional planets to provide for humanities present resource use rate. Nations such as the United States, with a per person energy and resource use that probably exceeds that of any other definable group on the planet, rightfully deserve the "blame" of their increased throughput. But there is more to the story.
The majority of our 6+ billion population is dependent on the present global social / economic / industrial infrastructure, not merely for an economic livelihood, but for "life support" (i.e. water, food, shelter).
Eliminate all human resource use that is not "life-support", and you still find sustainability is at best questionable. The present infrastructure is producing food beyond that which is calculable for the sustainable input.
How is this possible? How are we feeding 6+ billion people? Our infrastructure is receiving non-renewable input. The expected useful lifespan of this non-renewable input is the lifespan of our infrastructure.
Fossil Fuel - Oil Edit
Focus for a moment on just one aspect of present human civilization that clearly cannot be sustained, fossil fuel use. The present infrastructure is essentially dependent on consuming cheap, abundant oil. When humanity started its 100+ year oil party most of the 1 billion or so individuals lived primarily in small, essentially self-sufficient communities.
We have destroyed most of the incredible resource oil represented not in building for the long term, but on devices, uses, and an expanding population, which demands ever-faster destruction of this finite resource.
But do not be mislead into the belief that it is only those who drive a huge SUV that consumes oil. The green-revolution crops, a scientific miracle, upon which most of the present population depends for subsistence, are dependent on constant fertilizer input, and pesticide protection. These chemicals are fossil fuel derived.
Put bluntly: Farmer puts oil fertilizer on land. Crops turn oil to food. Food shipped to city. Residents process food through digestive system, and flush through sewage treatment into river/ocean. Land is now further depleted, and more dependent on oil derived input.
Scope of the Oil Depletion Situation Edit
United States Exampled
As the largest single nation oil consumer, and with the highest average per person oil use, let's look at the basic oil facts for the United States to try and start to put the situation in perspective.
The United States Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that in 2004 the continental U.S. remaining traditional oil supply was somewhat less than 22 billion barrels (BBL). The widely debated (whether to drill or not) Alaskan wilderness fields represent probably another 10 BBL. DOE also estimates that U.S. 2004 use was 7.5 BBL (elsewhere estimated at 10 BBL/Year).
The remaining domestic supply represents less than 3 years of present demand. U.S. defense use alone is estimated at around 123 million barrels per year, with 72% of such being in the form of jet fuel.
DOE indicates the U.S. only pumps 8% of our own use. Even if emergency measures increased the pumping rate significantly, it is doubtful it could even reach 50% of present use. Therefore, if the flow of foreign oil into the U.S. is halted, oil fed and driven activity in the U.S. would fall to less than 10% of present activity.
Food alone may represent 20%+ of the U.S. annual use. In a United States cut off from foreign oil, using present industrial farming, just feeding the present population precludes any internal use of oil to expand domestic production, or rework infrastructure for a solar economy.
We need to act before an emergency is upon us.
The U.S. is reported to have 4% of the remaining global supply. This puts the global supply at around 800 BBL.
Recent (2004) global oil use approached 30 billion barrels (BBL) per year. 800/30 = 26 years (2030). Using more optimistic estimates of remaining useable supply, at recent consumption rates global oil supplies still may be exhausted before 2040. Even if you completely eliminated the U.S., the time for global depletion is only delayed by around 30%.
But of course, demand is not stable. In fact it rises every year. Perhaps the most significant factor is the expanding use in China. In 2004 China burned around 2.4 BBL, or about 8% of the annual global use. This was a 14% increase from 2003. If China with the largest single nation population on the face of the Earth were to suddenly expand use to match U.S. levels, remaining global oil supplies would be depleted in less then 5 years.
Posit that there is a 10 day supply of oil and fuels "in the pipeline" at any given time. Therefore, if the U.S. gets cut off from foreign fuel supplies, in 10 days supply drops to about 45% of expected demand. Less than six months later supply drops to around 23% of demand. We face a slow decline in supply from 23% to 6% for 12 years, with perhaps 12 years at 6% until final exhaustion.
Present farming & food processing represents over 20% of annual use.
Peak Oil Edit
"Peak Oil", which is the point where the wells simply cannot be pumped as fast as demand, may soon be reached. Sometime before exhaustion, as wells dry up, oil will no longer be cheap, or abundant, and the present infrastructure will shut down.
And the information on remaining supplies is not necessarily reliable. In early 2006, Kuwait announced it had mis-represented it's remaining supply of oil to be twice the true amount. In the same time frame, Mexico announced that it's giant Cantarell oil field which produces around 730 million barrels per year is about to decline, probably to 521 million barrels per year, as early as 2008. This represents an 8% loss in U.S. oil supply.
Whether we cease burning fossil fuels because of pollution and global warming, or from simple exhaustion of this resource, we have until the last drop flows to restructure to function within sustainable resource bases.
Returning to "King Coal"
A century or so ago, humanity switched, in large part, FROM coal TO oil as the primary fuel. The U.S. has perhaps the largest remaining coal supply, estimated to be around 270 Billion Tons. Every barrel of oil has around 6,048,000 BTU, and every ton of coal around 20,000,000 BTU (equal to 3.3 barrels of oil).
If coal were as readily accessible, easy to process and use, the U.S. coal supply is equal in BTU's to around 890 billion barrels of oil. I've seen on the web conversion efficiency rates of 40%, for a final product of 356 billion barrels. But of course, BTU's are not the only issue. There is the dangerous work of mining, the environmental damage left behind at the mine, the pollution from coal use, and it is of course NOT able to directly power most of the present machines.
In June 2006 the reports are that a coal to liquid fuel facility would cost $7.5 billion for a plant that could produce 150,000 barrels per day (around 54 million per year). It would take 182 of these facilities to replace the U.S. annual use of 10 billion barrels, costing about $1.4 trillion to build.
Amortize the plants over the production in their useful life and without interest or profit for anyone the plants cost $4.00 per barrel.
In 2005 the price of coal used at synfuel plants was $42.78 per ton.
The investment would represent a 35 year timeframe to come up with something else. Will we re-throne King Coal? It is at the top of the President's 2006 Advanced Energy Initiative.
Greenhouse Gas & Global Warming
Without some level of greenhouse gases (i.e. CO2, water vapor, & methane) most of the Earth would freeze. For perspective however, the present (400 ppm) level of CO2 is reported to be higher than at any time in the past 650,000 years. The level of these gases are affected by factors such as the number of animals (including humans), plant cover, in particular forests which can store a great deal of carbon, and the release of "new" carbon from the human activity of use of fossil fuels.
We seem to be clearly approaching a level of greenhouse gases where there is potential for dramatic global warming, telling us of the need to cease fossil fuel burning. At the same time we are warned of impending peak oil, where oil cannot be pumped fast enough to meet demand. The clear consequence of peak oil, to be followed by decline, probably quickly in pumping rate, is the dramatic increase in the price of all oil derived products and services, and the end of many of such.
The Kyoto treaty is often presented as an essential example of international cooperation to reduce carbon emissions. However the treaty is clearly flawed, in that it fails to require that quite a number of countries actually comply, even if they join in the treaty.
China, which has become essentially THE worldwide source of a large variety and volume of consumer products, and which in its burning rate is rapidly catching-up with the U.S., is for treaty purposes EXCLUDED from compliance.
As of 2006, China is constructing the equivalent of one large coal-fueled power station EACH WEEK. Over their roughly 60 life span, these facilities could collectively put into the atmosphere the amount of CO2 that has heretofore been released by ALL OF THE COAL BURNED SINCE THE DAWN OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION.
Pollution, is pollution. CO2, is CO2, the atmosphere does not care where the CO2 was generated, it still effects the temperature the same.
To be developed
Canada has in it's tar-sands an estimated 175 billion barrels of oil, spread out in locations the size of the State of Florida. If this was all immediately available, and able to be 100% processed, at 2005 consumption rates it represents 5 years and 10 months of use.
These oil sands look and feel like molasses, and are found in bands 6 to 10 meters thick. Two tons of oil sands yield about 1.25 barrels of tar and a barrel of crude oil. However, if all planned development is put into operation, the expected peak flow rate is around 1.095 billion barrels per year. This rate would meet a grand total of 3.65% of world demand, for a period of 158 years. It would keep some governments in military vehicles, and the ultra rich in some toys, but "civilization" would not be assisted.
Despite difficulties in processing, under construction in 2005 was a 1,160 km pipeline to carry the oil to the Canadian Pacific coast.
While manmade bio fuels meet or exceed fossil fuels in quality, they are impossible to produce in the quantity necessary to sustain the present infrastructure.
An early 2006 article in Mother Earth News on biodiesel presents an apparently optimistic view of biodiesel production. The article indicates that the United States has 6 million acres of cropland that are fallow, asserting that if all of this acreage was planted in rapeseed, it could conceivably annually provide 6 billion gallons of diesel fuel.
Setting aside considerations of putting our last fallow cropland into use, let's put this amount of fuel into perspective. In barrels, this is 142 million barrels. Approximately 2 BILLION barrels per year are used in the U.S. in the food production industry.
Therefore, the loss of every "spare" acre of farmland could replace perhaps 7% of the fuel used in farming and food processing.
There are, absent fossil fuels, means to sustainably obtain clean water, nutritional food, appropriate clothing and shelter, but not in sufficient quantities to sustain the present population, let alone provide any excess.
There are theories that oil is constantly being produced deep in the earth by reactions in the temperatures and pressures there, as opposed to being buried biological matter that grew in ancient sunlight. It may be true, but even if it is, the rate of production can't keep up with our annual use. If oil was being produced deep in the earth at the rate of 30 billion barrels per year, long ago the entire planet would have been oil.
Even if global population was in decline, draconian conservation methods may not allow for remaining fossil fuel use to continue long enough for global population to lower to sustainable levels. The transition period to a post oil paradigm promises to be an unpleasant, dangerous time, during which individual survival may be difficult, and with a significant risk that civilization itself may be lost.
Fossil fuels represent an essentially nonrenewable resource of untold millions of years accumulation of energy, that our use destroys. In the manner we use much of it, we destroy other aspects of the environment. Burning it for energy is silly, but at least when we are forced to stop, the impact is not directly life threatening. Perhaps our greatest challenge is our use of fossil fuels, as fertilizer, pesticides, and powering machines to greatly expand food production, and the population that has grown far beyond levels that can be sustained in an environmentally favorable manner on renewable resources.
Fossil Fuel Value in Perspective
When demand exceeds possible supply, expect prices to rise. A price / work comparison of oil in terms of human labor, perhaps pointless, but nevertheless presented: A human can work at around 75 watt per hour (256 BTU). In the U.S., minimum wage is something like $5.25 per hour. A gallon of fuel may be able to do 144,000 BTU of work, or around 562 hours of human labor.
At the U.S. minimum wage each gallon is doing the "work" of over $3,000 worth of human labor. Oil has annually provided in recent years energy to power civilization that is roughly equal to the dedicated labor of more than 50 billion slaves, who do not have to be feed, provided clothing, shelter, medical care, days off, etc.
The Rise of Civilization
Fossils as old as half a million years show essentially physically present day human remains, but despite stories of places such as Atlantis, the archeological record appears to show that as of the end of the last ice age human civilization was still at the hunter-gatherer level.
While the ice remained, and sea levels were therefore much lower, the continents were larger. For example, the edge of the SE Asia mainland was probably 500 or more miles "into the ocean" from where it is now. Island chains would have been a single island. Nevertheless, physical remains show a progression of technological and social development in some areas, followed by collapse. Humans in other areas remained at the hunter-gatherer level up until they were encountered, and overcome, by the more technical societies.
In his work Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond shows that it was their physical environment, in particular crops and animals readily domesticated, rather than a biological difference in peoples, that lead to the significant differences in development.
For a brief period, oil has permitted humans to live in places, numbers, and manners that are otherwise not possible. We now face the real potential for collapse of civilization on a global scale, with much of the natural ecology already gone, and the remaining already overtaxed.
Whether to avoid global warming, or due to effective depletion of fossil fuels, we will be forced to stop burning such. Look at what DOES NOT work without fossil fuels, or the ongoing input of fossil fuel derived molecules (such as pesticides and fertilizers), and start your own steps toward sustainability.
The more people who are aware and prepared in any emergency situation, the better the opportunity to reduce the overall impact and panic. Startled and frightened and/or angered and vengeful individuals will not be thinking clearly and acting rationally.
Each of us must shortly choose a new path, or we will be forced into one. Do you want to survive? Do you know what it takes to sustain yourself in a limited resource environment? A little knowledge, and a lot of enthusiasm, can go a long way.
Photosynthesisers are the basic energy source for any ecosystem, which is a complex web of living and non-living factors. These webs are not fixed, like parts of a machine, but the do eventually develop relative stable ranges of numbers of each member of the system. Despite our relative isolation in homes, and cities, humans must nevertheless be seen as PART of an ecosystem.
We need to recycle biomaterials, grow a diverse mix of crops in a multitude of micro environments, with hand cultivation to minimize soil disruption, with an aim to establishing a stable ecosystem.
Where are YOU going?
We can ignore depletion, and continue as we are, have good times until the fossil fuel era ends, and face whatever disaster is presented.
We can personally conserve, but if we do not build for the post oil paradigm, we miss out on the good times until the fossil fuel era ends, and face whatever disaster is presented.
We can personally conserve, and use "excess" resources to take advantage of the remaining time, cheap energy and materials, to step past the collapse, into the post oil paradigm. For the present, it is still possible to "click", or make a phone call, and have services or supplies delivered. After the crash becomes widely apparent, it will probably be too late for individuals to afford significant preparations.
When do you need to act? Back in January 2004, Professor Kenneth S. Deffeyes, of Princeton University, jokingly predicted we would reach the half-way point for the remaining oil supply on November 24, 2005 (Thanksgiving Day). Using best available data, after the fact he has corrected himself. He calculates that we passed the half-way point on December 16, 2005.
We need to effectively and efficiently network and focus our distributed capabilities and resources to maximize all of our transition to a sustainable paradigm.
In the collapse of previous complex societies, when they were geographically isolated, individuals survived by dispersing into the wilderness, and foraging. There was however, always "civilization" elsewhere on the Earth. The collapse we face will essentially occur simultaneously worldwide.
There is not sufficient "wilderness" left between complex centers in which the present population could disperse. Clive Ponting, in "A Green History of the World" writes that a human population of around four million, achieved about 10,000 years ago, may be the maximum supportable by a hunter gatherer society, and that in the abundant wild of the time.
By around 1800, the limits of local, self-sufficient agriculture and fertile land were essentially reached, with a global population of less than 1 billion. Since that time, we have used, and abandoned many marginal farming areas, and in our chemical applications and one-way nutrient flow denigrated what might have otherwise been fertile fields.
In that a hunter forager lifestyle, or even a return to animal powered and manured agriculture requires a GREATER area per person, they appears to be a guaranteed method to a large population dieoff, and perhaps a death-knell for the remaining wilderness.
Survivalism is Dead End Thinking
My initial reaction, now nearly a decade ago, to awakening to more detail of our oil dependency, was survivalist, with plans for a remote retreat. We purchased a little over 40 acres of remote desert land, and started putting in the necessary support for a remote homestead, essentially a survivalist retreat. It had been part of a cattle ranch, and came with and old windmill, water tanks, fencing, etc. as part of the old operation.
The area received more than 12" of rainfall per year, and had plenty of underground water not very deep. It also had plenty of mesquite trees, cactus, jackrabbits, coyote and snakes. From our highest hill, I could see the three plus miles of winding dirt road to the nearest paved surface,
On a summer afternoon I was there alone investigating the property. Climbing one of our hills, at the top, my chest hurt. I reached for the cell phone to call for help, and had my epiphany.
Even if I dialed 911, and an ambulance was dispatched immediately, the coyotes could be munching on my remains long before an ambulance could travel the nearly 30 miles of paved road, then 6 miles of dirt to my location.
For those who MUST have some survivalist data, shield materials for gamma rays are expressed in terms of the thickness necessary to reduce the radiation intensity by one half the initial value. For a rule of thumb, 10 halving thicknesses should be planned for.
But I came to realize that survivalist bunkers, or disbursing the population precludes the interaction among people essential to maintain specialized technical skills and knowledge. In effect, I has hoping that I could run and hide, others "did something" to take care of the problem. Hiding may still be the best survival move, but in the bigger picture, it's a dead end.
Survival is an inherent aspect of ongoing life, but this document is not "survivalist" in nature.
Preserve A Stable Foundation
If you start immediately, while resources are still abundant, you can create security for self, family, and community during the crash. Hopefully you can initiate or associate with a community structured to function in the new paradigm. It will be upon those who survive, with knowledge, skills, and abilities intact, who are well fed, with excess resources, to create a positive future for humanity, if there is to be one.
There are those who are confident that new technological developments will make oil irrelevant, indeed, that oil companies have suppressed such developments. The conspiracy theorists may be right. We may indeed leapfrog the currently touted "hydrogen economy" into "STAR TREK" technology. While I do not expect this leap in our immediate future, I acknowledge there is potentially much science for us yet to learn, such as:
Nanotechnology. Working directly with atoms as building material provides for the creation of devices that are incredibly strong, machines and electronic circuits that are microscopic, and great savings in power. They also threaten to be "attackers" so small as to be undetectable until too late.
Zero Point Energy. If real, and tapped, offers seemingly unlimited energy, which could also however be used to build a real "doomsday device". Conspiracy theorists claims many versions of such devices have already been invented, and that the energy sales industries are keeping them hidden to maintain the profitable sales of fossil fuels, and next perhaps the sale of p/v panels. There are intriguing stories, patents, and rumors.
A joke, which I've seen attributed to Iassic Asimov, is that perhaps supernova stars are not natural events after all, but rather alien civilizations that have an "industrial accident" with a zero point energy device. Even if there is no explosive potential, each such device is a new source of surface heat. Imagine the effect of billions or trillions of them in operation. But until these devices are clearly demonstrated, we must act within available known technology, products and knowledge. Look also at "atomic hydrogen", Tesla, Schumburg, and various other "energy from nothing" thoughts.
Genetic Modification. We have already combined entities as different as fish and strawberries, goats and spiders, mice and humans, etc. As the detail of our knowledge of genes increases, and the size at which we can manipulate matter decreases, a logical progression of this science is to be able to directly reprogram any gene sequence, and eventually to build from separate atoms.
Artificial Intelligence. It appears feasible for our devices to eventually be smarter than present humans. Our evolution and learning is, for now, limited by our physical nature. We're born, grow and learn slowly, forget things, age and decay, without being able to fully and truly pass on our experience. A "mechanical/electronic" intelligence could physically grow and evolve as fast as manufacturing processes can build of make changes. It can gather new information as fast as data can be transferred, "think" in multiple channels, and pass on it's thoughts in an instant.
All of this offers great hope and great risk. While caution is certainly in order, we must therefore not allow irrational fears to restrain us from continuing forward. But wandering hunter-gatherers will create no such scientific advancement. We will not even maintain that which we have if we do not shift to a sustainable foundation.
We sincerely appear to be approaching a crossroad, where we will have to choose between business as usual, leading to a collapse of civilization, and voluntarily changing our infrastructure and lifestyle to one that provides for continued and sustainable development.
Perhaps we should apply Dr. Kubler-Ross' 5 stages of grief, to humanities present global situation.
The first stage is denial. "There's plenty of oil"… or food… or water… or room on the planet…
Next comes anger or resentment. "Who did this!" or "We've been set up!".
The third stage is bargaining. "If I can just make it to retirement", or "…get the kids thru college", or "If we impose taxes… or rationing… we can…" delay the obvious outcome, and sooth ourselves by not having to think about it now.
The fourth stage is depression. A population sustainable absent non-renewable input and the present infrastructure is MUCH smaller than alive today, no visible program of conservation allows supplies to be stretched to match any "natural" population reduction, and extensive conservation would cause economic collapse of the infrastructure. There is not apparent "safe" landing for most of the planet.
Finally comes acceptance. You can't save the world. You may not be able to save yourself and your family. Any effort may be futile, but do you elect to do nothing, or calmly analyze what is needed for the future after the crash? Envisioning a high tech, complex civilization from the top down is an incredible challenge. So don't try to.
1. Accept that oil, and other fossil fuels are a finite resource. Accept they are, and will continue to be burned. Not only can't you stop it, our infrastructure is so dependent that it is stopping the burning and other fossil fuel uses that are the likely trigger for the crash of civilization.
2. Don't feel "guilty" about your personal use of fossil fuels, BUT take prompt steps to lessen and "ASAP" eliminate your DEPENDENCE on such. (Including your dependence on the fossil fueled infrastructure)
3. Select your personal vision of what an oil depletion (and depletion of our other finite resources) scenario looks like, and act accordingly. If you expect World War III, head for the hills, build and stockpile a bunker. If you expect the continued stress of products and services being priced out of the marketplace due to rising cost of depleting resources, plan ahead to live without them and look for alternatives.
4. Wherever you intend to call home, make it such that home can be livable without the need for constant input of fuel or outside energy. Take up the hobby of gardening now. Learn what you can grow in your area, and get accustomed to a diet from your own crops.
What does your personal home, and local post crash community NEED to look like?
The fossil fuel paradigm is a dead end. You must think and act for the long term.