- Peak oil started my journey
- Peak everything
- Global warming turbo-charges all these dangers!
- Scientific panels sound the alarm every few years, but are largely ignored
- The Eclipse is Now
- The 10 Rules for Recovery
1. Peak oil started my journey
Over a decade ago I was captivated by the peak oil debate. I always thought the oil crisis would start when the oil ran out. Instead, peak oil describes how oil production will one day reach a maximum of output (or peak) and then begin to decline. Since Ford’s famous assembly line brought motoring to the modern world, the human race has enjoyed ever increasing supplies of cheap, easy to mine light sweet crude. We always find and mine the largest, easiest oilfields first. They make more money. We are now nearing the point where the only new discoveries are in deep ocean waters, and are very hard to get at and expensive to mine. We’re not finding enough, and are burning oil our grandparents discovered: there’s a now historic growing gap between what we burn today and what we’re finding. Peak oil is coming, soonish. In our lifetimes.
Alternatives like tar sands and shale oil are now being mined, but they cost more, and cause profound local environmental destruction and emit far more CO2 than traditional sweet crude. And they won’t last. As National Geographic reports:
The IEA report projects that U.S. domestic oil supplies, dominated by fracking, will begin to decline by 2020. “As tight oil output in the United States levels off, and non-OPEC supply falls back in the 2020s,” the report says, “the Middle East becomes the major source of supply growth.” Earlier this year the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) also forecast a plateau in U.S. oil production after 2020.
The age of sweet oil is turning sour. We have mined the easy stuff, and from here on in it will gradually get more and more difficult to satisfy demand. Many expert geologists are predicting the peak to be somewhere in the next decade (see graph).
Exactly when is the peak? I used to be quite scared of peak oil, and used to obsess over the exact timing. But now I don’t really care, other than to hope that it arrives sooner than later. Why? Because climate change is so urgent we should not burn the remaining oil anyway – let alone the gas and coal, which would cook the planet 5 times over! In fact, I long for the day all oil categories peak and begin to decline on a steady basis so that it forces recalcitrant governments into action!
2. Peak everything
Learning about peak oil started me reading other environmental books. The story is bleak. Coal, oil and gas have given us the cheap energy to accelerate everything we do. Cheap energy has turbo-charged mining, fishing, farming, hunting, logging, building, and over-populating this planet. Cheap energy has grown our economy and our population. Peak oil is only the tip of the iceberg, or the proverbial canary in the coalmine! The real environmental crisis is that we are simply using too many finite resources too fast, making our civilisation prone to depletion and collapse. If we already use renewable resources like fresh water too fast — with over half the rivers in the world not reaching the sea — then naturally we want to check how our finite resources are going. It turns out they’re not so good. Underground aquifers or ‘bore water’ – the so-called ‘fossil water’ that took thousands of years to accumulate – are running dry. This is already hurting agriculture. Not only that, but industrial farming is killing our soils. 100,000 square kilometres dry up and blow away annually! Scientific American said the world’s farmland topsoils could be gone in 60 years. Farming could also suffer from climate change, as global warming cuts crop yields by 10% per degree! See Peak water, soil, and food.
Previously renewable fish stocks are dying, as 75% of fisheries are on the verge of collapse. As George Monbiot says, “Since 1996 the fish catch has fallen by a million tonnes a year, as stocks are exhausted. Sieving the seas for what remains, fishing fleets will trigger the collapse of entire ecosystems.” (For more see Peak fish.) Forests and other important animal and ecosystem habitats are also under stress, with mankind nearly using half the land surface of the earth for grazing and farming. (Cities only take up 3% of the land). We also corrupt the land, introducing pests, hunting predators, and polluting with plastic and other toxic wastes. We will mine most conventional metal ores by 2075, being forced to use more and more energy extracting non-conventional ores from thinner tailings and even the grains floating in the ocean itself.
All these trends are accelerating as the population explodes and the number of people on earth grows around 75 million annually. It’s like adding a new United Kingdom every year.
The speed of growth is amazing. Did you know that if anything grows at 2% per year for one lifetime, there would be 4 times as much in just 70 years? This is just basic maths, but it applies to anything, whether describing growth in people, power plants, or pollution. Anytime you hear “something” is growing at a percent a year, ask yourself what that would look like over a human lifetime?
1% growth per year = 2 times as much
2% growth per year = 4 times as much
3% growth per year = 8 times as much
4% growth per year = 16 times as much
5% growth per year = 32 times as much
6% growth per year = 64 times as much
What are we to do about population growth? Just try putting a ban on how many kids people can have! Fortunately educating and empowering women stabilises population growth.
We seem close to what some have called ‘peak everything‘. For the first time we are crashing into a comprehensive range of resource and environmental limits on a global scale. Previous civilisations rose and fell as they used up local resources and environments, such as when Roman topsoil washed into the Mediterranean, shrinking the supply of cheap food. These civilisations sometimes took decades or centuries to unwind. But once the environmental damage was done, the outcome was inevitable. We are about to crash into a number of global resource limits, all at once, on a warming and overpopulated planet. What could go wrong?
3. Global Warming turbo-charges all these dangers!
Climate change can accelerate every negative trend discussed above, threatening farmlands and ecosystems, disrupting rainfall patterns and turning break baskets into dust bowls, drowning millions of hectares of rice paddies and wheat belts under seawater, and spreading flood and famine and disease and death and refugees across the world.
For more see Climate change is serious.
4. Scientific panels sound the alarm every few years, but are largely ignored
As Pulitzer Prize winning scientist Jared Diamond said, “People are worried now.” Hardly a year goes by without a careful, cold, calculating scientific organisation sounding the alarm. My Limits Page documents a growing list of recent papers, from the classic and disturbing 1970’s Limits to Growth which is still on track 40-something years later, through to recent work by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2015. The science is undeniable, and from so many different sources. This is not a problem of scientific credibility but of greed, apathy, and a feeling of powerlessness with activists. (But some activist groups are gaining more money and momentum. Read on!)
5. The Eclipse is now!
My old motto was too melodramatic: “We must eclipse ourselves or be eclipsed.” It was binary: all or nothing; success or failure; life or death.
I now see that there are a thousand ways we might succeed in some areas and fail in others. While we might not “be eclipsed” and collapse back to the stone age, we still risk being stuck in the twilight. Unless we roll out the 10 Rules for Recovery (below) our children will inherit a planet we hardly recognise, with half the biodiversity extinct by 2050 and many billions living in poverty, hunger, and war. There are dangers ahead. What if water stress becomes too much, and existing international tensions boil over into water wars? What if we fight over the remaining oil, water, and farmland? How will we respond when today’s refugee crisis is multiplied tenfold, maybe a hundredfold, due to climate collapse? How do we prepare for mega-droughts, especially when America has almost used up all their fossil water? What other wild-cards are coming our way?
We can and must do better. You can make a difference, and help us emerge out of this gloomy period into a bright green new world! If just one cause below grabs you, take it up as a hobby. Read the pages I link to below, watch some documentaries, and join an online group. Get involved. You can change the way it goes. You’ll make some great new friends along the way.
6. The 10 Rules for Recovery. We need to:–
REFUEL on safe, modern GenIV nuclear reactors that eat nuclear ‘waste’ to prevent the worst of climate change. Just today’s nuclear waste could run the world for the next 500 years. Nuclear waste is not the problem, it is the solution. Nuclear power MUST give us the reliable baseload power that modern grids need. They also allow some wind and solar, and help intermittent, unreliable renewables to play their part.
RAIL everywhere with trains, trams, and trolley buses all good options.
REZONE our cities around the trains, allowing New Urbanism to creep around the transport network. Then the suburbs will be able to plug into local New Urban districts that are walkable, attractive, trendy, local and efficient. There are a variety of New Urban and eco-city plans that might work for your area.
RECHARGE our transport fuels rather than mine them. There are a variety of options for a post-oil world including Electric Vehicles, synthetic diesel from seawater, and even a recyclable metal powder called boron that can be burned for fuel!
RECYCLE all our waste using a Plasma Burners that rips waste apart and sort it at the molecular level. We can take get rid of council landfill tips forever, and turn household waste into the next house: ordinary garbage into the next house or car or boat!
REINVENT industry to run on mostly renewable materials. We need to reinvent processes so they use clean, recyclable materials. Governments should encourage Green Chemistry, Nano-technology, and even lower technology solutions like building Skyscrapers out of wood!
REPLENISH the soil and not mine and destroy it through Industrial Agriculture. This means adopting nutrient recycling schemes, using biochar to bring the soil back to life, and not flushing the invaluable phosphorus and other nutrients in our sewage out to sea! It means our sewerage departments need to speak to our agricultural departments.
REPAIR ecosystems so that nature will continue to give us ‘Ecosystem services’. Nature gives us free services that increase our health and wealth. Without them we would have to pay for all our fresh water, soil, clean air, certain waste processing, etc. Trying to replace ecosystem services with expensive human technologies instead would pretty much bankrupt us all.
RE-GREEN deserts with seawater greenhouses producing fresh food and possibly protein from seawater bug-houses!?
REDUCE population growth by meeting all human needs, especially by empowering and educating women! Empowering women in developing countries not only helps them and their families achieve their potential, it helps those families not see children as some form of superannuation. Studies have proved it prevents population growth, and can stabilise the population.