Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Clueless Majority

Listening to public radio allows me to get some idea of just how clueless even respectable journalists and leaders are. In a recent interview with Robert Bryce author of Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence, Leonard Lopate asked why hydrogen wasn't a viable "alternative fuel" since, according to Leonard, "it's just water." No, Leonard, hydrogen is not water; it's hydrogen, the easiest lay on the periodic table. Hydrogen is just a proton with an electron and as such readily bonds to form other stuff. Nearly all the hydrogen on this planet is locked up with oxygen in the form of water. Freeing that proton-electron combo means carving it off an existing molecule (usually water) and that takes energy. We get some of that energy back when we shove the hydrogen back together with oxygen to form water again. But there's no free lunch. We had to burn some energy to get the hydrogen in the first place, then we get a fraction of that energy back when we lock the hydrogen back into combination with another element. No energy is "produced"; it's merely carried. The original energy came from whatever was burned in the first place to free the hydrogen. It's an energy shell game with a significant net loss. You'd have been better off just burning the original fuel for mechanical energy instead of splitting water molecules, storing hydrogen and then recombining it with oxygen.

In my experience the general populace does equate "hydrogen power" with simply "burning" water. They figure that our modern whiz-bang technology can squeeze Nature's energy bounty out of all that useless sea water we have lying around the planet's surface. As friend Jim Kunstler puts it, they conflate technology with energy. Technology doesn't produce energy; it depends on it. There is no magic way to "burn" water and keep America's 200 million cars running 50 miles each per day. I reiterate for the physics-illiterate: Hydrogen is not water; it's hydrogen and in this context (split from oxygen then joined again) it's just an energy carrier. The energy is released by something else (usually fossil fuels) and the hydrogen acts as a way to store it. Hydrogen, like electricity, is an energy "carrier." Those who fail to understand this tend to be the same ones who are outraged--absolutely miffed--that those evil oil companies are preventing the development of the rainbow-and-hearts hydrogen economy that will save us all and make driving as cheap as dreaming. If hydrogen were only horses, these ignoramuses would ride.

In an interview on the BBC World News Kofi Annan remarked that Africa needed a "green revolution." Mr. Annan joins the list of people who really ought to know better but don't. He understands that this simply means injecting fossil fuel-based fertilizers into the ground and make agriculture into industrial agriculture. So he understands too that high-priced fossil fuels are needed to boost food production and that the escalating costs of fossil fuels are what is driving up food costs in the first place..? His comment reminds me of Steve Martin's advice on how to get a million dollars and not pay any taxes. First... get a million dollars... How to reduce food prices? By increasing food production by using high-priced fossil fuels which are driving up food prices in the first place? It's like cutting a foot off the bottom of a sheet and sewing it back to the top to make the sheet longer. Food prices are up in large part because food production everywhere has been as good as it has for the past hundred years because of fossil fuel-based fertilizers. Modern food production is an industrial process whose bounty relies directly on fossil fuels. Fossil fuel prices and therefore food prices are on the rise because supplies of fossil fuel are permanently declining (and what's left requires more energy to get because we literally have to dig deeper and deeper for it) while demand in the form of industrializing populations (two billion east and south Asians--the growing middle class in China and India) is rapidly growing.

There is no easy fix to hunger in poor nations, a disproportionate number of which lie in Africa. Poor nations simply will drop out of the bidding for food as fuel prices are driven up by increased demand in China an India. Africa will have to starve. We won't be dropping dead from hunger here in the U.S. quite yet, but our oil-dependent economy and way of life will take a hit. Most of the places we've built in this country will simply become useless. Our infrastructure is set up with the expectation of cheap oil supplies keeping things moving over vast distances. I've heard very few voices in the media explaining these two unassailable facts: starvation will absolutely ravage the swollen populations of the poorest countries and most of the built environment in the U.S. will be summarily junked.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Seeing the stuff I've been awaiting finally happening and making headlines prompted me to start blogging again. Peakniks come off as Malthusian Cassandras and Apocalypse-craving nuts to most people who lack the ability to think things through logically (and that means most people). So that I don't seem to be spinning this stuff out of my rear or trying to compose an addendum to the Revelation of St. John, I will share a few headlines that I expect to come in the near future and which really aren't so far-fetched. First let's recap the big ones that Peakniks have been predicting for years.

"Food Riots in the World's Poorest Countries as Food Prices Soar"

"Gas Prices Continue to Climb Toward $4 per Gallon; Oil Setting New Highs Regularly"

"Higher Fuel and Food Prices Curb Spending; Businesses Closing; Recession Fears Grow"

"Airlines Shutting Down"

Check, check, check and check. These are all related, of course. The world's poorest feel the dwindling of oil supplies in their bellies while the more coddled countries feel it in their ability to drive and purchase luxuries like electronics and furniture (which happen to be two of the great comforts in my life). We here in the U.S. are going to see both a lot of job loss and lower wages for those of us who remain employed; those lower wages will be buying less food and gas, but you will probably be able to get luxuries like SUV's and high-end electronics for fire sale prices. There will be much work in the new fields of urban retrofitting and agriculture, however. In any case, here are the headlines we'll be seeing next.

"Outer Suburbs Depopulate; Core Cities and Towns Overcrowded"

"Only 1 in 10 Americans Can Afford To Drive"

"Last Commercial Airline Stops Operation"

Again, related headlines. The automobile suburbs will be depopulating because they will be unusable. These places were built to be driven in and if you can't drive, they are unlivable. If you have to drive at all to get from your house to the grocery store or to work, that is to say if it's just too far too walk to either and mass transit isn't an option, expect to have to move within the next few years. Of course traditional 20th Century jobs will be disappearing anyway. This may seem far-fetched for the 90% of Americans outside of Boston or NYC for whom there is no other way of life than auto-suburbia, but that's part of the fun of me typing this stuff here in mid-2008; I want the people who read this to remember it when they abandon their homes in 2018.

The mass use of both cars and planes will be decisively over. There will still be cars and airplanes, but most of us will not be able to afford to use either of them. Cars require a massive investment in an infrastructure (maintained roads and highways) that will become impossibly expensive to maintain when carbon fuels are even more scarce (read: expensive). I would love to see a headline about the restoration of rail as a product of market forces; rail is much more energy-efficient for moving many people than either the airplane or an armada of personal automobiles. There is no guarantee that a bunch of rail companies are going to spring up to take the place of the airlines and the highway-and-car combo, however. Long-distance overland travel may simply stop being an option for a lot of us. Places that aren't dense enough for walking and mass transit (everything built after WWII which is most of the stuff built in this country) will not be habitable unless the inhabitants grow their own food (note: we used to call such places "farms" before paving them over with cul-de-sacs).

A little further out in the future I expect to see this:

"Starvation Kills Hundreds of Thousands Each Year in Africa and Asia"

"Food Shortages in Major U.S. Cities; Rationing Imposed"

"Electricity Increasingly Unreliable in Large Cities"

The big cities will have their share of trouble, too, but come 2018 I'd still rather be in NYC than Luanda or Port-au-Prince. I can stand to lose the auto-suburbs, but I hate to think that I'd be bereft of heat, hot water, lights, subways, the internet and takeout here in my urban womb. The terror of losing these things prompted me to start this blog in the first place. In order to keep tens of millions of people living comfortably on top of each other will require an immense energy source, even if those people no longer each travel a hundred miles each day. With fossil fuels increasingly unavailable and prohibitively expensive, nuclear power will have to step in to keep us comfortable in the reduced physical radius of our lives. If you think that "green" sources like solar, wind and water can do it, then you really need to do more reading. Nuclear, solar, wind and water are all only really good for generating electricity anyway while the fabrication and maintenance of industrial infrastructure (including power generating devices of any sort) is only really possible long-term by the burning of fossil fuels. Try generating enough energy to build a solar panel from scratch with an existing solar panel and you'll see what I mean. If you plan to use some of the energy from that panel to do other things like heat your water and light your home, then you are in for a nasty surprise. (Solar Power Satellites may be feasible; do the research and decide for yourself.)

There are some other headlines that I wouldn't be surprised to see, but which I don't like to think about...

"Russia/China/U.S. Attacks Russia/China/U.S."

"Pandemic Reduces Populations in Three Largest U.S. Cities by a Total 40% in 3 Years"

The nations which can will probably attack each other in a scramble to secure the remaining supply of fossil fuels. I have no idea how bad this is going to get and I don't want to hazard a guess. I already visited the potential for pandemic in a previous entry. I've had to discuss famine because that particular wolf is at the doorstep right now, but I loathe thinking about pestilence and war. The thrust of this blog is the megalopolis in energy supply freefall. It's disturbing enough to think of the exurbs crumbling till just the overburdened city cores are left. Who wants to think about every third person dropping dead from disease or one of our major urban centers getting vaporized by a megaton present made in China?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Compelling Circumstances

I'm starting to hear more about ending sprawl, driving less, reducing air conditioner use, etc all in the service of reducing global warming. The progressive sort of people who say these things in the media act as if these things should be a matter of policy or personal choice. What they fail to understand is that global warming is a horse that's already left the barn and that circumstances will compel us to drive less, turn off the A/C and move within walking distance (or a short bus/train ride) to where we make our living and buy our stuff. People are already using less oil because the remaining supplies are dwindling while the amount of people using the stuff to drive and regulate the temperature of their dwellings (and to eat indirectly) is still rising at the same terrifying clip. The price is going up and at some point very soon we here in the U.S. will simply not be able to afford our current lifestyles. You no longer get to use up a bunch of energy in shuttling in your private conveyance 30 miles each way every day. You no longer get to run your air conditioner every moment between April and September. Likely you won't be getting to eat quite as much as you do now either nor live quite as long for that matter, but first say farewell to the hypermobility Consumerus Americanis takes for granted.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

We've Only Just Begun

Millions haven't starved to death yet, but they soon will. We Peaknicks have had the term "Malthusian" applied to us derisively, but I've always worn it proudly. Malthus was right about everything except the dates. He couldn't have anticipated how fossil fuels would have temporarily lifted the planet's carrying capacity. Tragically that lift just means that there will be that many more billions who will suffer when the crash comes. And that crash is indeed beginning right now. The poorer countries are going to depopulate due to hunger and internal strife, but these countries don't have the power to make life miserable for the richer countries. So they'll starve and riot and tear themselves apart within. Countries like the U.S., Russia and China on the other hand do have to power to go campaigning in other places to secure resources; they have to power to create external strife and they most certainly will. We in the so-called advanced nations will have plenty of opportunity to kill off our populations with (resource) wars. But don't worry; we'll have our share of death from internal strife, too! At some point a trip to the gas station or supermarket will mean risking life and limb.

To recap: famine will strike first and pluck the low-hanging fruit of the swollen populations in the world's poorest countries. I imagine that something like a few hundred million will perish there alone before things start getting interesting within the industrial nations. When shortages of food and fuel strike more noticeably here ($50 for a gallon of unleaded, the same for a gallon of milk perhaps), we'll probably be willing to throw a few million young lives at the Russians and the Chinese who will be willing to see that and raise. Pestilence tends to accompany starvation and war, but this time around we have the multiplier effect of climate change and a century of accelerated pathogen evolution as an unintended consequence of modern medicine. I imagine the the trinity of starvation, strife and disease will each take a number of lives in a macabre Fibonacci sequence: over half a billion lost to hunger, nearly half that again to war and half that once more to disease. To be honest I expect double the first number which would mean a final tally of nearly 5 billion. This puts the random person's chances of long-term survival at about 1 in 6. If you can avoid being an inhabitant of an overpopulated Third World country or being a soldier in the army of an overpopulated First Wold country, then you've already improved your odds.

Our metroplexes are bound to become dangerous places to live, especially in the unserviceable, car-dependent sprawl between the older core cities and towns. These car suburbs and exurbs are destined for abandonment, but there will be a few hardy souls who will try to make a go of it in the remains. They will be living in a lawless, raised ranch ghetto wilderness, however. Our civilization will likely collapse physically back into our core cities and as the hungry mouths of the Third World close forever in death we may actually find food prices stabilizing due to the demand destruction. This is only a stopgap, however, and it will be far from orderly. The economy will be in shambles, jobs will be scarce and money hard to come by. Electricity will probably be very expensive and the supply not always reliable; the same goes for food. Tens of millions of ex-suburbanites will be living on top of the millions already in the city. Disease flourishes where there is crowding and malnutrition. City services will no doubt be strained and supplies of clean water could be problematic for any number of reasons (failing infrastructure and rising sea levels are the two most obvious) and the resulting lack of sanitation will do a lot of the work in fostering depopulation through disease. Sanitation engineering has been more responsible than medicine for making modern city populations possible. Modern industrial living has convinced the average person that the built environment's foremost priority is the movement and storage of personal automobiles; Never forget, however, that among the first conditions for permanent settlement of any size is keeping the shit out of the drinking water.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

No More Driving

I was listening to The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC this morning and it reminded to me to do a screed on how clueless even the smartypants public radio set are about Peak and its ramifications. Brian couldn't believe when the New York Times guy he was interviewing explained that Archer Daniels Midland had sold the greenies a bill of goods with the idea that using corn for fuel was somehow "green." There is no net energy savings. That corn was grown using fertilizers and pesticides made from natural gas. Why bother making the corn in the first place? May as well use the natural gas to heat homes or power motors. Adding the step of making it food first is all smoke and mirrors to make people believe that driving could be "green." "I'm not burning nasty petrochemicals; I'm burning MAIZE!" ...which was grown using nasty petrochemicals. It actually costs quite a huge chunk of the energy originally available in the natural gas to convert it to food first, a net loss.

The result in the real world, by the way, is that human bellies are now competing with automobiles more directly. The stomach and the gas tank have been competing for as long as there has been oil-based industrial agribusiness. As long as humans have (temporarily) been increasing the food yield of the soil with natural gas-derived fertilizers and making that food energy more available to humans by use of natural gas-derived pesticides, refrigeration and long-distance overland transport, then our stomachs have competed with the engine and bidding up the price of the same stuff. On the ground now in this age of ever escalating fossil fuel scarcity, that translates into the poorer nations being outbid for food. Americans are still paying whatever it takes to keep the car-dependent postwar way of life going. Meanwhile a billion Chinese have traded their bicycles for BMWs and are eating more beef (which takes monstrously more fossil fuels for the same caloric food yield as non-meat foods, though admittedly it is sort of value-added since animal flesh is much more nutrient dense than everything except eggs). Oil = food and Oil = industrial way of life dependent on constant shuffling between zones of separate use. Oil is running out and the price is still being bid up by increasing populations and certain populations who are now just rapidly industrializing (read "driving, driving, driving").

The New York Times guy's proposed immediate solution was increased foreign aid to poor countries where the hungry are rioting. Whether our government prints more paper or uses the more obvious method of raising taxes to get dollars to send, the equation stays the same; Scarcity and demand push up prices. Scarcity and demand are both growing. The only "policy" that will help is one of mass willful powering down. If a few million of us in the industrialized nations would be less industrial, would give up our cars and start building walkable neighborhoods, then the price of oil and therefore food would stop climbing and maybe even reverse. Of course I laugh at this notion even as I type it . We're not going to change a damned thing about our lifestyles until we have no other option, until we're the nation with the poor, hungry rioters. I guarantee there will be any number of murders at gas stations across the country, particularly in those places where not having gas in the tank means not being able to get to work or to food. Of course, if things are that bad, there may not be very much work or food anyway. I expect sanity will prevail a bit longer in those places with transportation options, including walking a couple miles to work, and with some prospects of local agriculture and manufacturing. I wouldn't want to be in Greater Orlando or Atlanta in 2020.

A few days ago some truckers staged a protest to decry the high cost of diesel. How are Americans going to get their toilet paper, they wondered, if independent truckers can't afford the fuel to stay in business? How indeed. So being 1000 miles away from the source of one's food and one's basic conveniences doesn't seem like such a bright idea anymore, does it? In my neck o' the woods, the nearby farms were paved over for urban sprawl and then suburban cul-de-sacs while the factories that used to dot the neighborhoods have been replaced with big box retail or condominiums. Localism only goes so far, though. No matter how local the agriculture or production of goods, a place like New York, NY, is too big to succeed in the energy-scarce scenario that is developing. As I've said before 10,000,000 souls on 400 square land miles is only a possibility when fossil fuels make it possible to command resources in a thousand-mile radius. And of course New York is just the biggest node in a conurbation that runs from Maine to Washington, DC. This Northeast Corridor City may be better off than its more car-dependent counterparts in other regions, but ultimately it is just as doomed a megalopolis.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Here Comes The Future

Peak gains traction and I'm as excited as I am scared. Though I'm in for as hard a time as everyone else I can't help but feel immense satisfaction at seeing these Peak Oil predictions come to pass. The news is filled with stories of people giving up driving and using the bus, a true sign of desperation for car-loving Americans. With the exception of Manhattan (and I suppose downtown Portland, OR) taking the bus in this country is an admission of economic hardship and normally relegated to penurious widows, unemployable ex-convicts and young residents of government housing projects. The airlines, ever the canary in the Peak mines, are coming undone fast. Air travel was expected to be the first thing to disappear from the lives of the non-billionaires among us. Car use is following right behind. Motorized transport of any sort will likely become rare and expensive. I'm holding out hope for rail making a comeback, but I suspect long-distance travel may again become the sole province of large wooden sailing ships.

A super-commuter I know who drives across three states to get to work has actually started calling for the sort of high-speed rail they have in Europe. He drives from Pennsylvania through New Jersey, across Manhattan and into Queens. He has also spent lots of time in Europe and wonders why Europe is criss-crossed with rail that condenses 10-hour car trip into 4-hour affairs while America relies mostly on airplanes for long-distance travel. A few years ago there was a poster ad from some airline that read "Planes are faster than trains." Of course in Europe quite a few trains are plenty fast if not quite as fast as planes. They also run on nuclear-generated electricity instead of fossil fuels (France gets 90% of its electricity from nuclear). I wonder if the airline that ran that ad is still in business. Even if it is, it probably won't be by the middle of the next decade. Mass consumer air travel is a luxury of the era of abundant hydrocarbons and it simply won't survive in the new energy scarce world. Funny that that used to a be a prediction and now it's current events.

The American Dream has generally meant having a detached house as far away from sources of food and income as possible. Many of my loved ones live this way and now are finding that they almost can't afford to get to work or to the grocery store. People in this situation clamor for lower fuel prices (not going to happen ever) or alternatives like functional solar (and blaming the big oil companies for keeping solar from them). No one ever thinks about moving closer to work or living in a place where most things can be gotten to by walking. Others have chronicled the development of the car-reliant postwar landscape and I won't repeat it here. What amazes is that the average person clings to this toxic lifestyle and will do anything to preserve it. I point out to everyone who will listen that human beings lived without cars for 99% of recorded history; we've had cities for around 10,000 years and cars and their cities for 100. The dimensions of the traditional village and town that worked just fine for 9,900 years (give or take) are defined by walking distances. Working versions still exist all over the world and they are often beautiful and pleasant places. It's funny how the retronym phrase "walkable city" had to be coined at all to describe places that never got the automobile overlay. The best material on this has to be by Leon Krier and everyone reading this should purchase and read his books right now.

So air travel is going bye-bye and automobile commuting is right behind. Next in the string of failures will be the automobile cities. I'm thinking sheer abandonment. The over-leveraged home-"owners" are walking away from their upside down mortgages in the latest and outermost ring of developments. I'm sure the rising costs of driving to and from these middle-of-nowhere places helped pushed the residents into bankruptcy a little faster. It just got too expensive to keep paying the bank on top of feeding the car. At some point one just has to see the physical location of the house as a millstone about one's financial neck. Easier to walk away from the cheaply made, cartoonish thing and relocate to within a much saner distance of food and employment. Eventually "saner" will mean "walkable."

The deracinated masses will be seeking refuge in the core industrial cities and towns after they decamp from the low density sprawl, but I'm not too optimistic about the future of these cores either. I used to be when I thought Peak only meant the End of Suburbia. Peak, however, means an End to the Industrial Saga and that means the industrial mega-city. That means Paris (as pretty as it is) as well as New York. The core cities are composed of highly walkable precincts connected by rail, however, and most if not all of them are situated on major waterways and excellent natural harbors (which is why they became such dense population and economic centers in the first place). Sadly without oil it will be impossible to maintain several million human lives on a few hundred square miles of concrete. There have been mega-cities before and they always prove to be relatively temporary things that rely on the brutal command of resources and lives from hundreds of miles in each direction: water, grain, raw materials, soldiers, slaves and specialists. The largest sustainable city is maybe what we would now consider a medium-sized town of about 30,000 people. That's about as many lives as can be sustained in the center of an arable ring without having to go afield and take from the neighbors. A city by definition cannot sustain itself with the resources in its immediate vicinity. Keep this in mind as you consider which places have a long-term shot at survival with minimal chaos.