Exploring Hydrocarbon Depletion
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Page added on July 19, 2012
The problem isn’t just political intransigence—it’s that neither political party has made an effort to convince the electorate of the need for change. Without that sort of public discussion, closed-door negotiations are bound to go nowhere.
But while party polarization plays a large part in legislative stalemates, the problem goes deeper. Neither political party has been willing to conduct a sustained conversation with the American people about the real choices we face over the next generation. If large political decisions are to be sustainable, they need to obtain the consent of the people—and it’s hard to see how the current discussion can generate that consent, or even contribute to public education.  *
[T]here is an inherent cut-off point approaching – and it is very different from the shocks, jolts, and other experiences that formed our current national paradigm of energy and gas prices.
That is the point that I feel needs to be stressed, and it’s lack of emphasis, in my opinion, is the substantial failure of our energy education. Until this realization is made commonplace, the hardships we will endure (are enduring) won’t make sense, and the obstacles in the way of a logistically sustainable future will not have proper context. The world as we know it was built via cheap, easily transportable, and highly dependable fuel, and that fuel is essentially non-renewable in supply. At present, there is no substitute for fossil fuels in this way, as per the actual capacity to supply us with the energy we need to live in the society we do. 
‘Energy literacy’ and ‘peak oil literacy’ should be requirements for pundits – and for citizens more generally. I’ve followed these issues for many years now, and the poor energy knowledge among even the chattering classes and punditry still amazes me. 
A while back, sifting through some old research material, I came across this November 2010 article by an economist. I thought then, and do so more now, that it was a perfect description for the complete lack of awareness the too-large majority of citizens carry with them about Peak Oil.
… I am denying that the date of the peak is particularly significant and that sometime shortly after the peak we will face any kind of significant social strife, economic collapse, or other major drama. I’m stuck in a ‘business as usual’ pose, because I expect business as usual….
I expect over time petroleum will become expensive relative to other energy sources, and we will substitute away from petroleum and toward alternatives as that happens….Eventually, petroleum will become the niche fuel in an energy economy mostly running on other sources. I don’t expect the social trauma associated with this transition to be any more wrenching than the shift from wood to coal or coal to oil.
The attitude expressed— prevalent still—is certain to cause no small amount of anxiety to the general public in light of observations such as this one:
The hard truth is that there are no good fuel substitutes anymore. Throughout human history, we have always been able to find not just a substitute fuel, but a better one: a cheaper, denser, more abundant one. That is simply no longer the case. One may hope for some miraculous technological breakthrough, and one may simply have faith that the invisible hand will solve our problems, but such thin threads are hardly a reasonable basis for policymaking and forecasting. 
I’m a big fan of optimism, and I’ve repeatedly advocated that I think the people of this nation are up to the challenge of taking on the planning and implementation needed to transition to an industrial and personal lifestyle powered by something other than fossil fuels. I’ve also been quite clear that that undertaking is no small feat, will require a significant change in attitude and a healthy dose of realism and courage, along with a full appreciation for what we face, what’s involved, and why we must change just about everything….
So when I read from someone presumably more aware of energy factors than the average citizen, I wonder what kind of process is required to just “expect business as usual” in a world where the essential life blood of our industry and progress will be undergoing an inexorable depletion with nearly-inconceivable impact on life as we know it. When dealing with real-life problems affecting billions for years to come, that level of denial and hope isn’t worth much. Knowledge and information are vital … using them wisely even more so.
The notion that we “we will substitute away from petroleum and toward alternatives” is likewise a great attitude to have going in, but to just sit back and wait for all of that to just materialize from the heavens is great if you only plan on sticking around for a few more days.
And what of these “alternatives”? Funding? Research? Planning? Trial and error? Small-scale testing? Large scale testing? Feasibility? Efficiency? Quality? Cost? Time? Mass-production/implementation? I could come up with a dozen more considerations which suggest that a trauma-free transition might be a wee bit more of an issue that denial provides.
Every industry, family, commercial enterprise, social entity, governmental unit, and individual currently using fossil fuels—which we do for almost every product, process, service, and transportation mode owned or depended upon—might realize fairly soon that trauma-free transition will be anything but!
And just how similar is this highly-advanced, technologically-dependent, globalized, overly-populated planet to the wood-burning one dozens of decades ago? Might there be a bit more complexity now?
To scoff at the notion that the world of 2012 will adapt effortlessly to a transition in energy sources on anything approaching the scale mandated when our crude oil supplies are no longer the readily-available resource most of us have never given a thought to is to exhibit a lack of awareness difficult to fathom. Is there a business leader on this planet who shows up for work each day and just “goes with the flow” to see what opportunities might present themselves? Do coaches in any professional sport just advise their players to “show up for the game and we’ll figure out something then”? Why aren’t we planning for Peak Oil?
For the truth of it is that we, in the modern, capitalist, ‘free,’ industrialized world are not very good at saying: ‘No. No, you can’t have that. No, you can’t do that. No, you’ve had your share.’ Very few democracies, and even fewer when feeling the pressure of increasing constraint, have mustered the informed maturity to limit themselves, in part because their underlying philosophical principles were never preoccupied with prohibitions—just the opposite in fact. Freedom and liberty as we have conceived it (and this part—‘the as we have conceived it’–is crucial to my meaning here) have little demonstrated ability when it comes to self-restraint, especially when it comes to the most pressing issue of consumption. 
So we have some issues to contend with, not the least of which is both an education process and an appreciation from the populace that the effects of a peak in crude oil production will leave almost no business, no lifestyle, and no family untouched.
In a study I recently discussed here and here in which the emotional and psychological implications were discussed, the authors offered this observation about our collective attempts to deny that we face serious energy challenges ahead:
We suggest that, if and when serious oil shortages become a reality, three defense mechanisms: denial, establishment of scapegoats, and an increased need to affiliate are likely to be employed to facilitate the continuance of this American myth of plenty and perception of invincibility. [p.2149]
We suggest that, despite continued scientific evidence of peak oil, oil depletion, and declining EROI, the U.S. populace will continue to exhibit these psychological and sociological defense mechanisms on a broad societal scale until sufficiently clear, irrefutable evidence to the contrary brings about a shift in perception and changes in actions. As the gap between increasing U.S. oil consumption rates, declining EROI of oil, and oil depletion expands, demands for government intervention programs (designed to combat growing unemployment and poverty) will probably increase. At the same time, economic paucity and recession will result in calls for decreased government spending cutting these very programs. As a result, the division between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in American society will likely bolster affiliation within sub-groups on different sides of the issue. The influence of intense and unabated individual and societal stress created by the inevitable decreasing quantity and EROI of oil will likely adversely impact the interdependencies and linkages that bind society together.…
… [T]he leaders and political party in power are likely to seek expanded influence and increased structure resulting in larger, more centralized political power. The American populace, driven by fears of economic and social repercussions resulting from oil depletion, will probably experience lethargy and an unconscious desire to be guided by those in positions of power. The gravity of the impending energy crisis, and the possibility that there may not be an adequate alternative to oil, will likely result in discordance between the American populace and those in positions of leadership. It is probable that this discordance will result in disillusionment within the populace and expanded and increasingly mistrusted and maligned centralized leadership. [p. 2150]
Are these authors correct? I’m not qualified to answer, but a diligent reading of the information they presented suggests they did not pull these notions out of a hat. So are we willing to ignore information and advice like this and instead trust the words of those who have a vested financial interest in preserving business and energy-production (such as it is) status quo? Who wins and who loses? (Hint: most of us won’t be winning….)
We do have choices.
* [Even though this quote references a discussion on the U.S. economy, its principle is no less applicable to any legislation greatly impacting the nation.]