[Note: This is the forty-third sample from the rough draft of my far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews. These samples are not freestanding pieces. They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you have some free time. If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.]
THE GREAT BONFIRE
During the maybe four million years that hominins have wandered on Earth, the inflow of solar energy has been steady, millennia after millennia. Meanwhile, buried underground were enormous reservoirs of fossilized solar energy, stored up for many millions of years. This resource was almost entirely unknown and untouched until the last few centuries, when industrial societies swerved blindly into a catastrophic binge of energy guzzling.
Revolutionary transitions in the human saga include becoming bipedal, the domestication of fire, the domestication of plants and animals, the rise of civilization, and the transition to fossil energy, which sparked a great bonfire. The great bonfire has blindsided the climate, enabled skyrocketing population growth, rubbished many ecosystems, and spurred a mass extinction. It is speeding down the rails to deliver industrial civilization to its only possible destination — its just rewards. Nate Hagens emphasized that cleverness is not the same as wisdom. Cleverness has a tendency to reduce us to idiot-savants, he says.
For thousands of years, nomadic herders unknowingly drove their camels and flocks back and forth over oceans of buried oil. These folks lived in their traditional manner, enjoyed their simple lives, and breathed clean fresh air. The first oil well in Saudi Arabia was drilled in 1938. For Arabians, the last 80 years have been a turbulent era of explosive growth in wealth, population, urbanization, mass consumption, and environmental destruction.
It’s a similar story with coal. Around 25,000 years ago, the mammoth hunters at the Dolní Věstonice site in the Czech Republic lived in a chilly tundra where trees, if any, were not abundant. They heated their mammoth bone huts by burning the solar energy embedded in two fuels: fat-rich mammoth bones, and chunks of black coal they found on the ground. Until a few centuries ago, coal was not an industrial-scale fuel source. It was far easier to exterminate forests than to drive mine shafts into seams of buried coal. This worked well for many centuries, as long as there were still large forests to massacre.
Wood is called a renewable resource. In theory, if you cut down a few trees once in a while, the forest will replace them, and the ecosystem will not get trashed over time. Sadly, countless millions of passenger pigeons, auks, moas, and many others are gone forever, because they were killed faster than they could replace their losses.
Phosphate, copper, and oil are called nonrenewable resources, because they exist in quantities that are absolutely limited. Once a deposit is extracted from the Earth, nature does not replenish it. Imagine how unbelievably stupid it would be to build a global, highly complex, industrial civilization, with billions of people, that was extremely dependent on the accelerating consumption of staggering amounts of finite nonrenewable resources, fossil fuel for example. Gosh! We are so lucky to reside in a wonderland of magical thinking, where life has never been better, and the best is yet to come. Our benevolent leaders will always keep us safe and happy.
As mentioned earlier, over time England cut its forests too intensively, and seriously depleted them. Firewood became more scarce and expensive. By the thirteenth century, some regions in Europe began fooling around with coal. By around 1550, the wood shortage in England had become a serious threat to the status quo. Industry needed fuel, and the entire population enjoyed having warm hearths and hot meals. Britain was home to significant deposits of coal, a dirty fuel that everyone considered to be inferior to wood. Folks were forced to choose between sooty stinky pollution, or a miracle of mass enlightenment, radical lifestyle changes, and highly effective family planning strategies.
They unconsciously chose to remain on the less demanding path. Coal production increased, and demand for firewood and charcoal declined. Much of the lumber they needed was imported from forested nations. This allowed a fair amount of former British woodland area to be converted into grazing land for livestock, or cropland for growing grain. So, they could produce more food, which naturally encouraged population growth, which naturally boosted demand for energy. We have a hard time accepting the notion that growth usually has a dark side, especially when its full consequences do not immediately blow up in our faces.
Water seepage into the coal mines was an ongoing challenge, and it inspired the development of steam engines to power the pumps. This new form of mechanical power, steam, stimulated the imaginations of clever lads. At the time, most mills and factories were located beside streams, which drove their waterwheels. Water flows were not constant, they varied by season, and by weather patterns. Many water-powered mills could not work reliably in the summer, when flows were low.
Other enterprises were driven by wind mills, and winds could be howling one day, and then calm for weeks. Neither water wheels nor windmills were major power sources. Until the expansion of steam power, the primary source of power remained the muscles of humans and other animals.
Unlike wind or water, coal fueled steam engines could reliably provide steady power output every day of the year. By and by there were steam powered textile mills, locomotives, steamships, and so on. Later came internal combustion engines, which were used to power a huge variety of machines. Gasoline couldn’t run a sewing machine 100 miles away, but electricity could. We invented generators, installed power grids, built hydroelectric dams, and nuclear power plants. We invented telegraphs, telephones, radio, television, cell phones, the internet, and so on. The human herd grew explosively from one billion to two, three, four, five, six, seven… Zoom, zoom, zoom….
Walter Youngquist noted that fossil energy accumulated over the course of more than 500 million years. We’re going to consume it in less than 500 years. We’re living during a brief blip in human history, one that can never again be repeated. Writing in 2012, he noted that the first 200 billion barrels of oil were consumed between 1859 and 1968. The second 200 billion barrels was consumed in the next ten years. Now, 200 billion barrels is consumed in just six and a half years. Of all the oil ever consumed, 50 percent was used since 1984, and 90 percent has been used since 1958.
Albert Bartlett said that since 1950, world oil production has been growing exponentially, at about seven percent per year. At that rate, production doubles every ten years. What this means is that children born after 1966 “will see the world consume most of its oil during their lifetime.”
J. R. McNeill wrote that at the dawn of agriculture, the human population was maybe 2 to 20 million people. Humans may have been outnumbered by other primates, like baboons. Since 1800, there has been an explosion of change. In the twentieth century, we consumed more energy than we did during all previous human history, and we impacted the planet more than in all previous centuries combined.
Nate Hagens noted that we eat maybe 2,500 calories daily, while our ridiculously luxurious standard of living requires 200,000 calories of energy each day. Thus, we consume 80 times more energy than our bodies need, possessing the metabolism of 30 ton primates. He says it’s impossible to accurately predict how the future will unfold, but it’s fairly easy to imagine what it will not be.
Welcome to the bonfire! We perceive our current way of life to be normal, because it’s all we’ve ever known. Graduates have been taught to expect that they will spend their entire lives in a wonderland of abundant energy and perpetual growth. They have no doubt that any obstacles in their path will promptly be swept away by the magic of new technology. They have yet to grasp that the path they are on is a short one. You cannot live this fast and recklessly for long.
Britain was home to significant coal and iron ore deposits. This encouraged the expansion of the iron making industry, which unlocked the gate to the Industrial Revolution. Early in the seventeenth century, clever folks discovered that coal could be roasted into coke, like wood was roasted into charcoal. Coke could burn much hotter than coal, which enabled the production of higher quality metal. Britain became a powerhouse, and built a sprawling empire.
One of their colonies was the future United States. America had huge coal and iron ore resources, and many of the deposits were of higher quality than those in Britain. This, along with abundant oil, enabled the U.S. to grow rapidly and become an industrial superpower. History often dances to the beat of geology.
Albert Marrin noted that lignite, or brown coal, is 73 percent carbon. It is soft, and very dirty to burn. Bituminous coal is 85 percent carbon. Black coal, anthracite, is over 90 percent carbon. It is the oldest, hardest, most deeply buried, and the hottest burning.
Writing in 2012, Jeff Rubin said that global coal production was still growing exponentially. The total energy content of coal mined in the U.S. peaked in 1998. Since then, we’ve been extracting larger amounts of lower quality coal. Anthracite production in the U.S. peaked in 1950, and had decreased 75 percent by 2010. Bituminous production peaked in 1990, and has been declining since.
Most coal production originates in just seven countries, and they only export 15 percent of their output to other nations. It’s expensive to ship. Lignite is the most abundant type of coal, but because of its low energy content, it cannot be shipped long distances at a profit. Petroleum, on the other hand, can be widely exported, because it has dense energy content, and is a far more valuable cargo.
Clive Ponting noted that world coal production was 10 million tons in 1800, 760 million tons in 1900, and 5 billion tons in 2000. Walter Youngquist mentioned a 2007 study asserting that 50 percent of all coal ever consumed has been used since 1970, and 90 percent has been used since 1909. He also noted that several recent studies had estimated that global coal production will peak by 2025. Of course, folks concerned about the Climate Crisis wish we’d shut down all mines today. Fat chance.
In 1952, during a spell of extreme cold, from December 5 to 9, greater London was suffocated by the Great Smog. Four thousand died from the choking dense coal smoke. Being outdoors made your clothes and skin black. At times, it was literally not possible to see your hand in front of your face. Pittsburgh was known as Smoke City back when it was a steel making center. More recently, some Chinese cities have been experiencing extreme pollution.
The industrial production of oil began in 1859, in Pennsylvania. In the following decades the war on the future became turbocharged. Initially, the primary product was kerosene for lighting, which replaced stuff like whale oil lamps, and candles made of beeswax or tallow. Later, oil provided the fuel source for internal combustion engines, and all hell broke loose. New reserves of oil were discovered at an increasing rate, and society consumed more and more of the black gold. Because oil is a finite nonrenewable resource, neither trend could continue indefinitely, no matter how hard we wish otherwise.
The discovery of new oil deposits in the world peaked in 1965, by which time we had discovered most of the easy to find supergiant oil provinces. Since then, discoveries have been fewer and smaller. They require drilling more wells, which drives up the cost of producing each barrel. Meanwhile, the consumption of oil has continued growing. We’re consuming it faster than we’re discovering it. [LOOK] This trend has an expiration date.
My friend, Walter Youngquist was among the generation of petroleum geologists who first saw the writing on the wall, with regard to the limited future of world oil production. The trends were disturbing. It was getting harder to discover new deposits, at the same time that there were a shrinking number of promising locations that had not yet been evaluated.
In the 1990s, several highly experienced gray-haired petroleum geologists began jumping up and down and shouting, attempting to warn humankind that terribly serious problems were approaching in the not too distant future. They were predicting that global oil production would peak before 2010, and this was a serious threat to life as we know it. The Peak Oil movement generated lots of information, and got significant attention for a while.
As I write in 2020, global oil production is hitting new peaks. In recent years, with a big sigh of relief, most folks have dismissed the Peak Oil predictions as the hysterical hallucinations of doom perverts. OK, it’s time to sit down and take a few Prozac pills. The Peak Oil folks were focused on conventional oil, which was most of the oil produced since 1859. With regard to conventional oil, the geologists actually turned out to be right. Its production peaked around 2005.
The geologists were well aware that there was lots of other oil in the ground, but the numerous and much smaller deposits could not be profitably produced by the traditional technology. These resources are called unconventional oil. They include tar sands, heavy oil, tight oil (also called shale oil), and deep water wells.
Eventually, new technology, notably fracking and horizontal drilling, enabled a sharp increase in the production of unconventional oil. This oil was far more difficult and expensive to extract, but we now had the tools to effectively produce lots of it (for a while). Consequently, global oil production could continue growing, enabling world population to soar to greater extremes. Humankind’s war on the future could now become more destructive than ever before.
Tight oil is extracted by a process known as fracking, which can retrieve oil from small deposits. Richard Heinberg mentioned a 2014 report. It found that in the North Dakota oil fields, 1,400 new wells had to be drilled every year, just to maintain current production, because the lifespan of each well is brief, just a few years. This was not cheap.
Nate Hagens wrote an important paper on current energy trends. [HERE] Don’t miss the graphs at the top of page 6. [LOOK] The right graph shows U.S. oil production from 1900 to 2018, and it indicates the volumes produced by the four primary types of oil sources. The red spike is labeled tight oil, which is the unconventional oil extracted from shale beds by fracking. The sharp spike in tight oil is what has (temporarily) made the U.S. the world’s top oil producer. The three non-shale sources had peaked by around 1980, and have since been in steep decline.
Hagens does note an important concern. With the transition to fracking shale deposits, the cost of extraction has been rising faster than the market price for oil, which means that profits are getting squeezed, and rich folks are sobbing uncontrollably. On the other hand, if the market price rises too high, the global economy begins coughing up blood, and mobs of bankrupt fat cats begin leaping out of top floor windows.
Billions of barrels of tight oil remain buried in a number of nations. This oil is “technically recoverable,” meaning that it could be extracted if profits didn’t matter. The subset of this oil that is “economically recoverable” (makes some profit) depends on the current market price for oil. When prices trend upward, drilling increases.
A crazy gold rush economy must have cheap and abundant energy. Economic growth cannot occur without growing energy inputs. When the inputs decrease, the economy shrinks. When the market price of energy rises sharply, the economy dives sharply. Our economic system is designed to function in just one mode — perpetual growth, by any means necessary, <bleep> the future.
Growth enables the economy to pay the interest on the vast amounts of money it borrows to grease the wheels of the machine. If growth stops, our voyage to utopia sinks. As you can see, our economic system is extremely dependent on the accelerating extraction of nonrenewable resources. It’s designed to eventually self-destruct, but for a while it allows a portion of humankind to live like children and enjoy ridiculous excess.
In the good old days of giant and supergiant fields of conventional oil, high volume production was easy. I remember a time when gasoline sold for 22 cents per gallon. The baby boomer generation witnessed a tsunami of robust economic growth and material prosperity. On a chart of population growth and global oil production, both curves follow a similar skyrocket trajectory. The descendants of the boomers are in for a far different experience.
And now, the plot thickens, and the drama takes another spooky twist. Gobble some more Prozac.
It takes energy to create the infrastructure needed to acquire usable energy from solar panels, wind turbines, oil wells, hydro dams, and so on. For oil, a geologist first has to find a promising location. Then, a road, pipelines, storage tanks, and utility infrastructure must be built. A drilling rig bores a well, and if the project is lucky, some oil is found — maybe a lot, maybe a little. Nerds can then calculate how much total energy it took to extract the oil, and compare it to the energy contained in the oil that the well actually produced. The calculation results in a measurement known as the EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested), or sometimes just EROI.
A hundred years ago, it was much easier to locate large high quality deposits (it’s easy to find elephants). Some wells didn’t even need to be pumped, you just opened the valve. So, in the good old days, it was not uncommon for a project to invest one unit of energy to extract 100 units from an oil well. In this case, the EROEI was 100:1. The investors that funded the project made a generous profit.
Writing in 2014, Walter Youngquist mentioned that in 1930, U.S. oil production had an EROEI of about 100:1. By 2014 it had fallen to almost 5:1, because of the growing dependence on unconventional tight oil. The global oil industry in 2014 was operating at about 18:1, because it included production from the conventional oil reserves remaining in the Middle East. The closer we get to 1:1, the more expensive everything gets, and the less stable the world economy becomes. He suspected that the red line for life as we know it was about 7:1 (others say 5:1). The ethanol produced from U.S. corn is 1:1 or less. This industry is kept on life support by subsidies that delight Big Agriculture.
Please note that calculating an EROEI statistic is far more complicated than weighing a hunk of copper. Experts use different formulas, so the numbers produced by various studies are not consistent. What is absolutely consistent across all studies is that the trend lines for U.S. and global EROEI values have been falling sharply in the last century.
Writing in 2013, Tim Morgan estimated that the global industry in 1990 was running at about 40:1. It dropped to 17:1 by 2010, and was expected to drop to 11:1 by 2020. Few of the new discoveries in 2013 were likely to produce more than 10:1. He expected that by about 15:1, the soaring costs of world production become a serious threat to profitability.
Morgan noted that there are still large deposits of oil and gas in shale beds, but extracting them via fracking at 5:1 generates little profit for the global economy. He wrote that tar sands are slightly higher than 3:1 — but only for the deposits that can be surface mined, which are 20 percent of total tar sands. The other 80 percent of tar sand energy will be left in the ground forever, because its projected EROEI is very low or negative.
There are vast tar sand deposits in Alberta, Canada. Their area is about the size of Michigan. Younquist noted that they contain 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen, but only 19 percent of it will ever be produced, because it takes two tons of tar sands, and lots of water and natural gas (heat), to produce one barrel of oil. Note that the barrel of oil will emit CO2 when burned, and so will all of the natural gas used to melt two tons of tar. It's a double whammy for the climate.
As EROEI declines, the cost of oil rises, taking a bigger bite out of the U.S. economy (GDP). In the 1990s, oil had been around $10 a barrel. In 2004, it was around $30. In 2008, it shot up to $147, economic growth slammed into a wall, and a terrifying mushroom cloud rose over Wall Street. Youngquist said that OPEC (oil producing) nations were delighted by the sudden surge in profits. But in the following weeks, it dropped to $60, and briefly to $40. OPEC freaked out, because falling prices reduced profits.
Alfred Crosby pointed out that the trend of diminishing EROEI means that lots of oil will be left in the ground forever, regardless of how high the price eventually rises. So will a lot of low quality coal. Imagine having a job that paid $100 per day, but the bridge toll to get there was $100. When it takes a barrel of oil to produce a barrel of oil, there is no net energy gain. Game over.
As the extraction of conventional oil declines, and the dependence on unconventional oil increases, the EROEI of the oil industry trends downward. At some point, declining EROEI will make it impossible for industrial civilization as we know it to exist. Study the fascinating chart of the net energy cliff. [HERE] The green area shows the energy available for consumption, and the red area shows the energy used to extract it. Note that old fields required very little energy for extraction, while tar sands and oil shale require an enormous amount of energy and money to extract. Once EROEI dips below 10:1, the trend sharply changes.
William and Rosemarie Alley wrote about nuclear power. They noted that today “there are some 440 nuclear power plants in 31 countries. More are on the way. Yet, no country on Earth has an operating high-level waste disposal facility.” Nuclear waste remains extremely toxic for hundreds of thousands of years or more. William worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, and spent years on the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, America’s preferred site for the “safe” permanent storage of nuclear waste.
The U.S. government invested $10 billion on 25 years of research on Yucca Mountain. The objective was to prove that the site would be safe for a million years. No place on Earth would be a perfect site. Dr. Alley believed that Yucca Mountain was close enough to ideal, and should be approved. It wasn’t. In 2009, President Obama nuked the project, without explanation. And so, the living generation enjoys most of the energy benefits, and most of the serious risks are our generous gift to future generations. You’re welcome!
Because Yucca Mountain was cancelled, America’s spent fuel rods continue building up, many of them temporarily stored in cooling ponds. If the circulating pumps for the cooling ponds stop, the water boils, the pool evaporates, and the rods are exposed to air, melt, and release radioactive gasses. The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods. I was impressed when President Trump once expressed interest in approving the Yucca Mountain project, but then he got distracted by far less important ideas.
OK, put away the Prozac, and fetch your medicine bag of hallucinogens. It’s time to take a mind-altering trip into an intoxicating dreamland of industrial strength magical thinking. The belief in perpetual growth became the sacred quest for a fanatical cult that emerged among some highly respected economists. Robert Solow, who won a Nobel Prize, asserted that the world can get along without natural resources. Writing in 1995, Julian Simon said that the world already possessed the knowledge necessary to continue growing for the next seven billion years; population can grow forever. Neither one was dragged off the stage, put in a straightjacket, and hauled away to the loony bin. Economists have great imaginations.
Like many other idiotic beliefs, the ideology of unlimited growth became a deeply rooted blind faith that had absolute disregard for factual reality and common sense. The goofy idea eventually became a carved-in-stone truth that altered the thinking and behavior of millions. J. R. McNeill noted that the twentieth century was a time when a number of “big ideas” emerged. A belief in the necessity of economic growth became universal, a global religion — all other concerns became secondary, or irrelevant.
Over time, more and more heretics began to question the faith, because the dream was losing its shine. Our glorious utopia was starting to wobble, squeak, pop rivets, and leak oil. Its designers never imagined that it would grow so large, gobble so many resources, and create so many disasters. They believed that they could conjure “solutions” for every “problem.” This was another big idea — technology could make everything perfect.
Problems vs. Predicaments
Before continuing, we must now take a moment for an important vocabulary-building side trip. John Michael Greer once pointed out the huge difference between problems and predicaments. Problems were challenges that had solutions. The problem of thirst had an effective solution — drink something. Sleepy? Take a nap.
Predicaments, on the other hand, seem to be something like powerful whirlwinds of foolish traditions, wacky beliefs, rotting cultures, bad luck, or something. They are perplexing challenges that have no effective solution. All you can do in response to a predicament is experiment with various responses that may, or may not, put a plastic bandage on a severe flesh-eating infection. Overpopulation is a predicament that can’t be resolved by wise leaders, illuminated holy folks, mass enlightenment, miraculous technology, or militant opposition to family planning.
Greer points out that it’s not unusual for societies to mistakenly perceive daunting predicaments to be mere problems that can be eliminated by clever solutions. This error reliably generates failures, and often worsens the predicament. There is no silver bullet cure for predicaments. They fade away or intensify, in response to their shifting moods, if and when they feel like it.
The Climate Crisis is a powerful planet thrashing predicament, and it is just getting started. Arctic icepacks are melting, vast regions of permafrost are beginning to melt, and enormous amounts of methane are being released into the atmosphere right now. Nobody can accurately predict how much more carbon will eventually be added to the atmosphere in the coming decades and centuries. There’s nothing we can do to stop the avalanche we’ve started, even if we tried. It cannot be stopped by driving electric wheelchairs, recycling, voting, or becoming a vegan. Of course, it is always intelligent and spiritually healthy to continuously reduce the harms we cause each day.
Nonrenewable and Unsustainable
The Earth Crisis is not a problem in need of a solution, it’s a big, strong, whoop-ass predicament that cannot be prayed away, banished by our virtuous lawmakers, or fixed with money. Actually, it’s a mountain of predicaments — climate change, topsoil destruction, population growth, water shortages, deforestation, fishery depletion, ocean acidification, toxic pollution, mass extinction, and on and on.
Most folks don’t have the time or desire to develop a good working understanding of this collection of issues. They’d have to read 500 books or more. Many choose to simply enjoy the easy path of blissful ignorance, or the snarling path of righteous misinformed confrontation. Most do not comprehend the concepts of genuine ecological sustainability, and most fail to grasp that almost everything in their way of life is unsustainable. McNeill diagnosed this deadly condition as History Deficiency Syndrome (HDS). It is curable, the medicine is learning, but HDS is a global pandemic that has infected most of humankind. The plan is to ignore HDS and live in bliss.
There is increasing awareness that we are moving into an era of climate change, and that continued use of fossil energy makes matters worse. Some are beginning to perceive that fossil energy is nonrenewable, and that we’re getting closer to its limits. More are beginning to realize that our lifestyles are far from harmless — but at the same time, most are not eager to abandon unwholesome lifestyle habits, and few are eager to take to the streets and euthanize industrial civilization this week.
We have a collective dream that technology will allow us to painlessly glide into a beautiful green utopia that requires no significant lifestyle sacrifices. We get to keep our luxurious life, all the bad stuff goes bye-bye, and everyone in the world lives happily ever after. A fundamental component of this miraculous transition to utopia is a shift to harmless, sustainable, renewable energy. We can simply switch from gas-powered wheelchairs to electric ones that run on renewable energy! Problem solved! Right?
Imagine if all of the millions of cars and trucks in the world were powered via huge batteries. Where would the energy to charge them come from? Which planets would provide the needed strategic minerals? Christopher Clugston evaluated the current reserves of the 89 strategic (and nonrenewable) minerals most essential to industrial civilization. He found that by 2008, the reserves of 63 of them were becoming scarce globally. In 1900, the U.S. had little need to import strategic minerals. By 2008, we were importing 68 of the 89 he analyzed.
Clugston concluded, “It is not clear to me that any intelligent response to our predicament exists.” On the bright side, it will eventually become impossible for the massively unsustainable status quo to continue. We desperately seek reasons for hope and optimism. Clugston is a total optimist: “Sustainability is inevitable.” Truth! He says that the best case scenario for the future may have a strong resemblance to the worst case scenario. Both take the family of life to a severely bruised and battered brave new world of sustainability (cough!).
Electric cars, bicycles, scooters, and skateboards are a serious fad now. In 2020, Harley-Davidson released the Livewire, a “shockingly fast” 105 horsepower electric motorcycle ($29,799). Yesterday, for the first time, I heard the term used to describe this category of products: Sustainable Transport. I fell out of my chair giggling hysterically. For 300,000 years, until 4000 B.C., when horses were domesticated, sustainable transport meant walking — it’s what our legs are for. Neither Jesus, Siddhartha, Muhammad, nor Zoroaster ever had driver’s licenses.
Walking doesn’t even require paths. Unsustainable motorized transport must have high quality road systems and lots of bridges. Road systems require periodic repair and replacement, especially in regions with freeze/thaw cycles in winter. The concrete industry would go extinct if limited to solar, wind, or hydro power (the same is true for mining, smelting, metalworking, and many other industries).
Youngquist pointed out that there are millions of miles of asphalt roads in the world. In the U.S., 94 percent of the roads are asphalt. Asphalt is made of 90 percent crushed rock, and 10 percent residue from oil refining. It takes less energy to make asphalt than concrete, and it’s cheaper too. Under ideal conditions, it has a lifespan of 25 years. Elderly asphalt disintegrates.
Asphalt is like chocolate. On sunny days, black roads can absorb lots of heat, and become much hotter than the air temperature. A June 2020 heat wave in Britain spurred air temperatures above 30°C (86°F), which heated the road surface to about 50°C (122°F), at which point asphalt roads began melting, and heavy vehicles left ridges and ruts in the surface.
About 80 percent of oil is used as a source of energy. The rest is used for thousands of other purposes, like petrochemicals, tires, plastic, medicines, roofing materials, paint, cosmetics, and polyester (i.e., modern clothing). For these types of processes, there is no substitute for using oil as a feedstock.
Renewable Energy Miracle
When I was a little boy, and skinned my knee, mommy kissed the sore booboo and made it better. Similarly, today there is a widespread belief among adults that the transition to renewable energy will make everything better. It will bring an end to the Earth Crisis dark ages, and lead humankind into a new and heavenly era. Everything will be better forever. It’s like being rescued by Superman, the all-powerful hero whose one and only vulnerability was pretty green crystals of kryptonite, an exotic substance that neutralized his super-abilities. The green energy fantasy also has one vulnerability. Its kryptonite is called critical thinking.
Ted Trainer invested a lot of effort studying the possibility of transitioning from fossil energy to renewable energy, while continuing to live as we do today, and preparing to successfully meet the projected growth in energy consumption. Like many others who have carefully focused on this issue, he concluded that this was transition was impossible. To entirely replace our current energy consumption with renewable energy would be totally unaffordable and impossible.
One area of extreme vulnerability is liquid fuels, which are used to power stuff like cars, trucks, trains, planes, ships, wars, and our food production system. Renewable energy could never come anywhere close to replacing oil. Producing liquid fuels like ethanol from biomass would require extra cropland and labor. Ethanol is absurd from a net energy perspective.
Power plants based on fossil energy or nuclear fuel can be built almost anywhere. This is not true for solar or wind operations. Ideal sites are chosen first, and less ideal sites for future development are limited in number. The transition to a renewable energy future would require a massive expansion of current wind and solar generation infrastructure.
Power generation plants that run on fossil fuel are capable of continuously operating at their full capacity. This is not true for solar and wind facilities. Renewables can only operate at full capacity during ideal conditions, which are not the norm. Far more solar energy is produced during the sunnier summer months than in the winter. Wind turbines do best in strong steady winds.
Trainer concluded that the transition to a totally renewable global energy supply could never be achieved via technological miracles on the supply side. It would only be possible via enormous reductions on the demand side, like maybe 90 percent. A renewable energy society could never support anything close to today’s massive population. This is not the happy news that hardcore consumers want to hear. It’s not hard to imagine that the predicament of industrial civilization will end up resolving itself, while humankind sits passively on the sidelines, staring at their cell phones.
Trainer proposed an extremely idealistic plan for an alternative utopia called The Simpler Way, which was less than sustainable. Like Youngquist, he was perplexed by a painful predicament. Both of them deeply appreciated the many benefits of living in an energy guzzling industrial civilization. At the same time, both regretted the immense harm it was causing to the family of life. Both understood that a sustainable future could not provide the full “high standard of living” they hoped to preserve.
Youngquist also presented an extensive critique of renewable energy, and pointed out a number of other weaknesses in the green fantasy. Intermittency was a predicament. Renewable energy from solar or wind was not produced at a steady rate — it could vary as passing clouds blocked the sunlight, or winds became calm. During the month of February in 2003, thousands of wind turbines off the west coast of Denmark produced almost no power. In August 2002, Denmark’s turbines produced a net energy loss, because they used more energy to run the steering motors than the turbines actually produced. In 2006, California’s wind turbines only produced about 10 percent of their rated capacity.
He pointed out that in the normal operation of a power distribution grid, the level of energy being fed into the grid must be very close to the level being withdrawn from the grid by end using consumers. Rising and falling demand requires prompt adjustments to the power being fed into the grid. Renewable energy cannot immediately do this, because it is hobbled by intermittency. Another predicament is storage. Storing electricity for later distribution is difficult, expensive, and inefficient.
Consequently, renewable energy must be backed up by another energy source. This is usually provided by a “spinning reserve.” Some form of generator, powered by nonrenewable energy, must be constantly ready to leap into action when consumption suddenly surges. Of course, the backup system requires a continual fuel supply. This diminishes the perceived goodness of renewable energy.
Youngquist, a geologist, was also acutely aware of the mineral component of renewable energy. He winced at the eco-missionaries who made nonsensical grandiose claims. They said that, unlike oil, solar energy is free, because the sunbeams just fall out of the sky. It’s also pollution free, no belching smokestacks, oil spills, or mountains of coal ash.
Dudes, the materials used to create the highly complex physical infrastructure for the entire system are not made of fairy dust conjured into being with magical incantations. They have their roots in strip mines, smelters, chemical plants, toxic waste dumps, oil refineries, and on and on.
Many tons of steel and concrete are needed to manufacture and install each wind turbine. To make a solar panel, you need stuff like cobalt, gallium, germanium, indium, manganese, tellurium, titanium, and zinc. To create the computer hardware needed to operate the grids, you need to fetch stuff like platinum, rhenium, selenium, gold, strontium, tantalum, gallium, germanium, beryllium, yttrium and pure silicon. In the good old days, living was easy. Wild folks just sat around the campfire, singing, chatting, and laughing.
The missionaries almost seem to assume that renewable energy systems are like the great pyramids, creations that will last for centuries. Wrong! They break, wear out, and require ongoing repair and replacement. With proper maintenance, solar panels have a lifespan of maybe 25 to 30 years. Wind turbines have a lifespan of maybe 20 to 25 years. To keep these systems in operation requires a functioning industrial civilization that consumes supertankers of nonrenewable energy. This is the opposite of free, green, and groovy.
Well, hydropower is surely renewable energy, isn’t it? No, said Youngquist. Each dam is made of millions of tons of concrete, and all dams have a limited working lifespan. Each devastates the ecosystem of the river it destroys. Marc Reisner wrote that, if the dam doesn’t collapse first, every reservoir will eventually be filled with silt, and turn into an extremely expensive waterfall — no more power generation, no more flood control, no more irrigation. Many reservoirs will be filled in less than a century. In China, the reservoir for the Sanmexia Dam was filled to the brim with silt in 1964, just four years after it was built.
Look, solar panels and wind turbines will not keep the residents of New York City or Chicago from freezing to death. They will not power municipal water systems, wastewater treatment systems, and trash disposal systems. What’s so wacky is that nobody acknowledges the elephant in the room. Everyone is dreaming as hard as possible for the prompt arrival of a renewable energy utopia, which may require a very long wait, and may never happen. But… when you suggest radical conservation, and radical lifestyle simplification, they look at you like you are a dolt. What a stupid idea!
The spirits of my four grandparents watch over the modern world, and wince at our crazy way of life. They were born in 1874, 1885, 1887, and 1891 (in 1900, the world was home to just 1.5 billion). All four were born into non-electric, car-free households, where every meal was organic. There were no highway systems, airports, light bulbs, cell phones, or plastics. Instead of television, radio, and internet, they enjoyed regular face-to-face contact with friends, neighbors, and family. Life was far less lonely and isolated. Imagine that.
Today, orbiting spacecraft passing in the night send back photos of the Earth below. The images clearly show the locations of cities large and small, each presenting a visible splatter of millions of lights, almost all fossil-powered, a ghastly demonstration of astonishing waste. If there had been satellites when my grandparents were born, the nighttime regions would have been almost entirely pitch black — like they may be once again by the end of this century. Stars are beautiful. Waste is not.
AFTER THE BONFIRE
Youngquist lived close to 97 years, and he accumulated more than a little wisdom along the way. We’re living during an explosive blip of nonrenewable prosperity, a blip that can never again be repeated. The blip will be a turning point in the human saga. “Most people living now will witness the peak and irreversible decline of world oil production,” he warned. We can’t exactly predict the date of the turning point, but we’ll know it after we’ve passed it.
He wrote, “The twentieth century witnessed the rise of the nonrenewable resource-based industrial economy. In some respects, the twenty-first century will be like the twentieth century in reverse.” Oddly, this is hopeful news, a reason for optimism.
If the blip was not limited by fossil energy depletion, it could continue until limited by topsoil destruction and other nightmares. We can survive without oil, but not without healthy soil. What a horror it would be to have another century of ignorance-powered, maximum intensity, planet-thrashing pandemonium. What would be left?
John Michael Greer, a venerable druid, provided his fans with wise counsel with regard to our civilization’s funeral wake. We need to compost the notion that the future is going to be better than today. Even the status quo is a dead end path, it has an expiration date. We’re not going to see utopia. It’s time to begin thinking hard about slower, smaller, and simpler — to focus our expectations on what is realistic.
The days of cheap and abundant energy will be drifting away into the mists of unusual twisted memories. We’ll be moving from the express lane of full-bore abundance to scarcity, struggle, and ecological payback. Our lifetime of decadence and excess was an abnormal fluke. It’s time to come to grips with the notion that “there is no bright future ahead.” That’s OK. Toss the extinct fantasies overboard. Our lives can still have meaning, if we strive to be fully present in reality. We can have meaningful lives without monster trucks, giant TVs, and jet skis.
Like fossil energy, a keg of beer is a finite nonrenewable resource. Alfred Crosby reminded us that after a binge of oblivion drinking, a hangover should be expected to follow, often preceded by projectile vomiting, and lapses of unconsciousness. When the keg has no more beer, the party’s over. We never expect to be rescued by the renewable beer fairy. At house parties, it’s easy for us to accept that there are limits in life. Perpetual growth parties are another matter, they last forever, we think. Stupid!
Recent news stories from the oil industry: