Sunday, March 27, 2005

Fear and Loathing in the New Millenium

Concurrently we may be approaching the home stretch of our one shot at technological civilization. Or, if you will, the final flip of the coin determining whether man receeds into the next, and possibly permanent dark age.

Before you start labelling me an alarmist, I actually side tenetavely on the side of optimism.

So, now to explain the scarey parts. Currently persistant technological and economic growth depend on amounts of energy only really feasibly (under current or projected technological advancement) suppliable by petrochemicals. Thats not to say it couldn't be replaced, only that it would require a significant portion of world GDP to put into place, and would likely not be implimented in time. You can now expect oil prices to rise, they will never fall again, and it unlikely they will ever stagnate for any lengthy period of time. As supply of oil falls, its not just oil that gets more expensive, everything else down the line does as well. Energy is the primary input required for all industrial output, it does not function like a normal commodity, it has consistant inelastic demand. Any major increase in oil price will directly correspond to a decrease in industrial output, unless an equivilent amount of energy is put back into production from another source to make up the price differential.

Its important to reiterate that in the foreseeable future, under market circumstances: No such technology or combination of technologies exist that can wholly replace the energy output cheaper than fuel, even steadily rising fuel costs. Even by the time fuel prices have risen to the point where another technology is economically feasible, it will only be economically feasible in a much smaller economy. That is, every major corresponding rise in fuel price due to scarcity will have an effect to slow and diminish growth. This will mean that when the rise in fuel prices (due to physical scarcity, not simply demand) exceed the rate of general productive growth, productive growth will fall every year after that, untill the costs of excavating fuel in energy quotients, exceed the energy procured. After that, barring some major replacement (of which it might allready be far too late for a market oriented solution to do any good), exponential economic collapse will ensue.

Now, looking at this from a strictly economic perspective one would say: the size of the productive output of the economy would simply diminish to sustainable levels based on energy production from renewable sources.

This view excepts two major problems: Current economic models, both real and imagined, are based around the concept of persistant economic growth. Any restructuring to the opposite would result in a huge economic fallout and generally persistantly unstable markets. I.e., reality would go contrary to conditioned market pyschology.

Secondly, in real human terms, since there is a requirement for persistant growth from current economic standpoint, and since global population is expected to rise exponentially (thus neccessitating more energy for food production, on less and less arable land, for greater amounts of diminishing energy, among other things) a persistantly diminishing global economy means persistant famine, disease, and disorder.

That is, that a rapid shrinking of the economy would cause social upset creating a futher destruction of the economy, perhaps very much below the point of energy equilibrium (as the power and industrial infrastructures are destroyed and fall into disrepair) so much that we don't simply fall into a global dark age, but also an only semi-metaphorical global stone-age. The subsequent loss of vast amounts of fossil fuel, raw industrial materials, and industrial infrastucture, coupled with complete social disentigration could in fact act as to prevent any further industrial development.

That is to say: That if industrial society collapses, it may never repeat itself.

Now to some people who might see this through rosey colored lenses as a "return to nature", you hippies are in for a rude awakening. Think of the various wars of the middle ages (the 100 Years War comes to mind) coupled with vast industrial and nuclear pollution, rogue nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, modern munitions, and vast warzones. Sure, everyone is living in huts, but everyone has AK-47's too. And it only took bronze axes and sheep to turn the fertile crescent into a vast desert. In otherwords, life would be nasty, brutish, and short.

Now for the optimism: If renewable energy sources recieved anywhere near the vast public subsidy afforded to fossil fuel consuming industrialization, we'd rapidly evolve our abilities to diversify and appreciate our renewable energy inputs. You would still see some economic fallout, simply because it is unlikely at this point that even starting now and pouring WW2 levels of funding into it, you'd be able to catch up to the decline fast enough. However, it would be much diminished than waiting for price signals (rather than energy peak), which by then would allready be too late. This method also has the advantage of consigning much fewer people to premature death. Likely at most only in the hundereds of millions rather than billions. Secondly, you could drive to intelligently reduce waste of energy, much of our industrial power infrastructure is not much changed since the 1950's and endures enormous amounts of energy waste that is fully within technical feasibility to eliminate. Likewise with engine fuel efficiency in vehicles (Funfact, most fuel efficient land vehicle ever constructed got about 8,500 miles on one litre of petrol). Highly promising is ultra-capacitor technology which would greatly dimish the energy and economic costs of storing electrical energy. There's also a slew of promising technologies in renewable energy, waste reduction, disposal, and recycling. What all of these lack however is consistant steps to actually attempt to impliment them. There's an economic addiction to petroleum that is causing a dangerous ignorance of its demise, and the consequences of not implimenting renewable sources now.

It's allmost never good to procrastinate, and its downright dangerous to do so in this case.

One more caveat emptor: Hydrogen is a trojan-horse. As of right now the only feasible way to produce enough is nuclear fuel (the projections based on getting hydrogen from water via electrolysis or natural gas all like to ignore the laws of thermodynamics), which of course is patently risky. But hydrogen is also even more volitile and harder to store than gas, and would still be more expensive (nuclear reactors require outside energy input, most likely from oil), and would likely accellorate environmental damage. Why then is it touted? It would allow existing fuel interests to control supply and demand and use existing infrastructure. More than likely it would only slow the pace of the decline if impliment, however it might lead to disasterous shortsightedness.

Okay, done with work, gotta go home, laters folks.


Blogger Hoodidge said...

Well said. It's a shame that probably the pitival step is getting uber-capitalists out of government - or at least getting moderates in - it's a shame since everything needed is in place and yet those little economic parasites are embedded in our western skin. And I'm not waving the red/black flag or anything - I just don't see how we can expect steering groups to react favourably to any report that says: your economic forecasting, in its very essence, is deeply flawed. Maybe if we repeat it often enough.. let's all chant.

March 31, 2005 at 1:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Welcome to the end of the world as we know it and thanks for participating.

Related but not specifically pertaining to peak oil:

Rapture (Flower, Fist & Bestial Wail)

March 31, 2005 at 4:02 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home