It suddenly struck me, a thought almost out of nowhere. I hardly ever hear the word “conscience” anymore. It’s almost like the very concept has become an anachronism in 2011 America.
I only recently became aware of something that makes me pause to reflect. In what some people describe as “older cultures”, there are ways of living and a perspective on how to live that look at a longer view, living in harmony with the Earth and natural systems as a whole, beyond individual human lifetimes. In native tribes of North America, tribal decisions were put to tests of examining and considering what repercussions would be for the people living many generations into the future.
It seems like such an obvious thing. Of course we should do that. Everything is not all about me. Everything is not all about you. Everything is not even all about a society or the human race as a whole right now and in the immediate future. How could there even be any argument about this among conscious, aware, thinking, sane people of general goodwill?
And yet, here we are today, and I look around, and there’s just an overwhelming, endless, daily constant barrage of evidence of people not looking at anything in this way.
These days my thoughts turn every day to the assortment of crazy complex knots we’ve created for ourselves here on planet Earth, especially here in the United States.
We have an array of complicated and interacting problems that we might call the Big E Three. Energy, Economy, and Earth. It would be normal to say “environment” or “ecology” there, but something has been bothering me, more and more, with passing time and observations. One of our biggest problems, I’m convinced, is the foolish idea of “nature” or “the environment” or “ecosystems”, as being some kind of compartmentalized category of stuff that’s somehow regarded as if it’s a separate thing from humans and human activities. You find lots of this lunacy among the sorts who use terms like “tree huggers” or “environmental whackos”. We’re not talking about some collection of stuff apart from us, nature, the environemnt, the Earth, it’s where we are, we’re part of this.
There was an interesting piece I read online recently, The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street and Steve Jobs, including references to another piece of commentary by Frank Rich in New York magazine, talking about the death of Steve Jobs, and reaction to his passing among the general group of people involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests. Rich’s piece addressed a comment quoted from Michelle Malkin (a favorite “conservative commentator” among the alternate reality Fox News kind of crowd). Malkin’s comment: “There is perhaps no greater image of irony, than that of anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-materialist extremists of the Occupy Wall Street movement paying tribute to Steve Jobs.”.
There’s no irony at all, unless you’re completely oblivious to what’s actually going on.
The overall simple version of the picture here, though, is that Steve Jobs made piles of money by actually doing good work to make useful things of value to people, and doing it very well. He made money in exchanges of value for value. People respected Steve Jobs as wealthy for good reasons.
A Forbes website editorial piece came to my attention, “What You Don’t Often Hear About Those ‘Greedy’ One Percenters“. That article similarly badly misses what’s happening.
People are warping reality by reduction down to a question formed as: “rich people- good or bad?”. Some people act like it’s communists versus some collection of Ayn Rand fantasy hero characters. This is just raw simplistic idiocy.
For another glimpse of what’s going on, take a minute to read “How Republicans are being taught to talk about Occupy Wall Street” and have a look at how professional bullshit artist Frank Lutz is operating. Lutz’s list is missing an addition that should be there: “#11- It’s not ‘devious manipulation’, it’s ‘crafting the perfect political message’“.
The ugly irony is that people like these might be making substantial money writing misleading, deceptive, confused bullshit, while people who do (or can do), good, real, useful work, are struggling.
You want a real view of the economic situation? Answer the question of how many of the very kind of dedicated, exhaustively hard working people Tamny describes are, in fact, in the times we’re in now, in tough shape. How many of those kinds of people have found that their business that they slowly built up, investing all they had, working every day of the week, crazy long hours, for years, suddenly collapsed in a wounded heap, as a repercussion of the insanity, avarice, and sometimes gross fraud that sent us all into an economic crash?
When did gluttony and avarice and destruction become regarded as virtues?
It’s not just the insane clown casino games and manipulations and even simple fraud of all the Wall Street adventures. We also have the consequences of corporate management gladly slowly demolishing the economy of the United States in the games of globalization, among other things. That’s going to be a much worse problem, and not far off in the future, for reasons I’ll be getting to later.
There’s an entire subject all its own in the world of people I think of as “professional executives”. These are often people whose background is entirely in some form of sales or accounting with a business management degree, who control companies doing work they don’t really know and understand, who essentially think and act on a premise that running any business is the same as running any other business, and take control of business enterprises other people started and built up, with barely a clue of what it’s about.
It’s pretty fair to say that these types of people probably don’t care about how anything affects anything beyond gathering the largest possible amount of money and this year’s financial reports and bonuses. The long term they don’t see as their problem, not even for their own companies, as they might very well just be moving along to another one soon anyway. I’ve watched them in action. It hasn’t been a case or two of some passing quirk of particular exceptional bad or careless managers. There are mobs of these characters.
We’ve been living through a time where a frenzy of people only concerned with maximum possible immediate short term gains, in increasingly shorter and shorter terms, has brought us to a point where the future looks problematic. Not just for people making money to live, but for things to even function.
Once upon a time, the United States Congress passed into law the Glass-Steagall Act, which, as one part of it (and it was actually two different acts, to be exact here), separated investment banking and savings banks, compartmentalizing the world of finance and banking and generally instituting regulation to try to prevent the kind of runaway financial wreck that brought about the Great Depression.
In 1999, it was repealed. Before another decade passed, a circus of complex insanity and outright frauds turned the US economy into a disaster area, and took much of the rest of the world with it. One of the most extraordinary and shockingly unbelievable things, since this mess imploded, is hearing and reading monumentally and blatantly mendacious statements that claim everything went sour because of “excessive government regulation”.
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
People who lived through the 1929 crash and ensuing depression learned about intense pursuit of short term gains resulting in longer term disaster. They learned the hard way that this was not a good idea.
It’s interesting to me to note something hanging over everything that I’ve seen noted by other people; the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act only occurred when people who were old enough to have lived through the crash of late 1929, and the nightmare of following depression, had grown old enough to no longer be part of politics and public policy.
All sorts of complex and interwoven financial games ensued, including all the incomprehensible batch of stuff we have heard about (and, I dare say, hardly anyone can fully even understand) of “financial derivatives”, securitized mortgages, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and away we went.
Sometimes there’s good supporting evidence for the idea that history doesn’t repeat, but sometimes it rhymes.
The whole concept of “investment” as putting resources into people doing good, useful, work, and getting a long term return as a result of that good work, has been seriously deranged and shoved aside, turned into an oddity.
The pundit types generating the kind of simplistic diversions I pointed out earlier could do well by reviewing the differences between a couple of general and very different attitudes and operating principles.
One way of doing things: people purposefully doing good work, in work of a particular kind they do well, for useful purposes, wanting, in return, to make money doing that in trade, to live, live well, and, as needed, reinvest in their work.
A much different way of doing things is people having an attitude that their single prime purpose is to gather absolutely as much money for themselves as possible, which then takes them to thoughts of “how do I do that, then?” as a secondary concern to accomplish the goal.
One of these builds, and keeps things working, and gets the work done to continue human life and civilization. The second has a nasty habit of damage and destruction.
Confusing the two seems to be a problem for a more than few people. There is a pretty substantial clue to be found in observing that there are people who can’t tell the difference between, say, Steve Jobs and Carly Fiorina (or can even discern that there is a difference).
While on this, have a read about a little bit of the present financial happenings in Europe.
As I write, it’s not long after the ASPO-USA Conference 2011: Peak Oil, Energy & the Economy
Truth in Energy. It’s no surprise to look around and find no mention of this in the news.
I regularly go through articles turning up in the “Drumbeat” section of The Oil Drum site. You can find a lot of information and insight through articles you find turning up there, from all around the web, that you might not find otherwise. On the down side, it also reveals how many things are written and scattered around the web about petroleum, and energy resources and usage in general, that are practically every conceivable variety of bullshit.
Chris Martenson writes a very good summary of the state of things in Selling the Oil Illusion, American Style, which focuses on not just the reality of the oil situation, but the ways people are avoiding the reality.
There are people writing really good, realistic, and honest articles about the subject. One is an essay on the Energy Bulletin site titled “Hubbert’s Third Prophecy“, which goes beyond the basics of the characteristic pattern Hubbert found and described and into the repercussions.
A bit of other input on this: U.S. Energy Independence – The Big Lie. There are items in that piece I have some issue with in terms of the author’s opinions and subjective comments, like one comment about “green energy Nazis”. But the article addresses reality.
Another really good concise recent article addresses the foolishness of decades of suburban sprawl and guzzling petroleum.
Unfortunately, on the other hand, much of what you find out there falls into a category of fiction and nonsense.
You can find loads of things where somebody is writing nonsense and fiction about “debunking peak oil”, with phrases like “the discredited theory of peak oil” and so on. People find all kinds of ways to evade reality and confuse people about the oil situation and how things work, in streams of omitted, or distorted, or just plain completely false information, and assorted non sequitur arguments.
Probably the most gross, basic form of that is avoiding, or worse, completely misleading people about Hubbert’s findings and what the term “peak oil” actually means. (One obvious way is calling it a “theory”.)
Another article on the Oil Drum site, Five Misconceptions About Peak Oil, does a really great and concise job of sorting out much of the confused and confusing nonsense people encounter.
For now, a simple definition from somebody who knows. What is “peak oil”?
“The term Peak Oil refers to the maximum rate of the production of oil in any area under consideration, recognizing that it is a finite natural resource, subject to depletion.”
Our problems with oil supply don’t arrive when “all the oil is almost gone”. The problems begin as things hit limits and go into diminishing returns decline as you get to the point where you’re somewhere roughly halfway through the oil within a particular boundary; an individual well, to a particular deposit/field, to the area within a nation’s borders, up to the planet as a whole. In case you were not already aware of what the term means (or more likely, you’ve been misled about what it means), that is, in a nutshell summary, the phenomenon referred to under the shorthand label “peak oil”.
Far too few people are aware that the United States reached that point and has been in oil decline for forty years. We’re pumping out oil within US territory at a rate a little more than half of what it was at the all time peak around 1970, and is now at a rate about the same as it was in 1950 (and the rate we use it is much different now compared to 1950). This basic fact still seems completely obscure to all but a small minority of people. We all hear and read about oil constantly, yet this fundamental, crucial, core item doesn’t come up in much of the chatter.
I do find, more recently, that sometimes people writing nonsense pieces dismissing oil problems are occasionally mentioning and acknowledging geophysicist M. King Hubbert, his observations of the characteristic curves of oil resource discovery and extraction rates, and the fact that the rate of petroleum extraction in the US did in fact reach its all time maximum around 1970. It looks like some of these people have figured out that at this stage, enough people know about this that if they completely ignore it, people will catch the aroma of bullshit. So they’ll throw that in as a strategic move to establish some façade of objectivity and credibility (ponder the term “confidence man” for a minute). Then they proceed onward, into some argument of nonsense that claims that, in some way or another, somehow that doesn’t matter. Usually, that takes a form of assertions about “we got new technologies!” or “new discoveries!” that are supposed to sweep physical reality aside as irrelevant.
Tons of confusing and misleading hype is going around in the form of excited news about “new oil discoveries”, that doesn’t put things in context, telling you the rate we’re using up the stuff. These things strike me as a little like somebody finding a forgotten $20 bill stuffed in a coat pocket in the closet, and thinking they no longer have money problems.
Many of the reports of new oil discoveries probably sound like large impressive numbers, to people not paying close attention to this stuff. They’re not so impressive when you look at some new numbers, do a quick calculation, and find that the estimated quantity of this exciting new discovery is equal to oil consumption of a few years, or a few months, or a few days, at the rate we’re using it.
The other part of these things is that the frequency of discoveries, and the quantities of oil involved, just add to the pile of evidence that’s old news; we are well past the peak of oil discoveries on the worldwide scale, in terms of the number and frequency of finds and the quantities being found. [The metaphor of finding a loose forgotten bit of cash in a coat pocket kind of works here, too.]
Other stories regularly praise miracle wonders of “new technologies” and “unconventional oil” resources, of crude oil deep under the ocean floor, or tar sands, or oil shale.
Along with neglecting to mention the rate we use oil, another vital bit of information invariably left out by all the people chattering in excitement about “new discoveries and technology”, and “unconventional oil”, is that any of the new stuff has to offset and make up for the decline of existing oil deposits, just to keep the rate of oil flow within the US at the same rate, before any of that can increase oil production.
What we have generally known as oil is light sweet crude, gathered by drilling oil wells on land somewhere. Now, this is commonly being referred to as “conventional oil”, as things get more and more focused on “unconventional oil”. Unconventional oil is basically a category including crude oil petroleum in difficult places (drilling under the ocean), tar sands, and oil shale.
The problems of deep ocean petroleum extraction smacked us in the face when the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico blew up, killed 11 men, and created what was euphemistically called an “oil spill”. That was a pretty absurd way to describe what was essentially a blasting volcano of crude oil and natural gas.
I don’t believe the full damage and repercussions are fully known, and very possibly cannot really be fully known, even if we didn’t have the story obscured and obfuscated as much as possible by people putting a public relations smiley face on things.
[Cue BP “we care a lot” television ad spots. Actually, come to think of it, those seem to have tapered off and disappeared.]
The Deepwater Horizon rig was tapping into an oil deposit known as the Macando Prospect. If you’re been reading pieces I’ve written, you might remember me mentioning this. The Macando Prospect is reported to have estimated recoverable reserves of about 50 million barrels of oil; equivalent to less than three days of US oil consumption. This was the goal of what became one of the biggest disasters ever caused by man.
Tar sands and oil shale are not simply “more oil”. Tar sands are a source of bitumen. Oil shale contains kerogen. These things can be turned into something more or less, broadly speaking, serving the purposes petroleum has, but it’s a mistake to think of this stuff simply as “petroleum”. It’s more complicated than that.
Both tar sands and oil shale as resources have processes that have been devised to turn out something useful, but all options for both of them involve massive quantities of water, which ends up as toxic waste, and heat energy, with the burning of natural gas, another finite resource, to provide the heat. All of it is a variety pack of ecological nightmares.
Have a look at a tar sands site.
Earlier this year, the CBC series The Nature of Things, hosted by David Suzuki, did an excellent program on the Canadian tar sands, called Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands. Repercussions of the quest for crude oil substitutes from tar sands were made very clear. Everybody should see this, especially anybody with any notion that tar sands are a wonderful miracle substitute for crude oil to be exploited as completely as possible. It’s a horrific story.
These are each whole complex subjects of their own. Lost in the noise of people spewing propaganda that all these combine to solve our oil problems, especially the noisy nonsense from factions telling you that all this somehow negates the whole idea of a peak of oil, is this. We are now scrounging around for anything resembling petroleum anywhere any way we can, scraping the dregs.
The excited chatter about tar sands and oil shale seems to spread by contagion. It’s fed and driven by a parade of politicians almost entirely detached from a rational grip on reality, and assorted people set to make money off of this, pimping their particular enterprises and seeking other people’s money to feed their own respective beasts. People chattering about “oil independence” for the United States, and basing this on some ideas about things like tar sands and oil shale, simply haven’t looked at the numbers, are lost in fantasy, or just lying their asses off.
Very few people in American politics seem to be facing reality about petroleum resources and consumption. I can only think of a couple, off the top of my head, both of them members of the U.S. House of Representatives; Jay Inslee of Washington, and Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland. Now, I find a story in the news about somebody challenging Bartlett in a Republican primary election to take his seat in the house. Bartlett’s Republican challenger, Brandon Orman Rippeon, is described as “running on conservative ideals”, and quoted as saying:
“There is no such thing as peak oil until we’ve had peak technology,” said Rippeon, who wrote his master’s thesis on the U.S. petroleum reserve. “There is more petroleum than ever before.”
The really disturbing thing about this is that this character isn’t some strange exception on the fringes of current American politics. This kind of detachment from reality seems entirely normal now. Extra points for astonishment given for the statement that this guy wrote a master’s thesis on a subject related to petroleum.
I came in partway through the C-Span broadcast and caught the latter part of a U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing, of the House Natural Resources Committee. The hearing was titled Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge & Jobs. It was a farce. This was actually the second such hearing, I happened to also catch part of an earlier edition some weeks ago, and that one wasn’t any better.
There’s an entire subtopic story about that hearing, starring congressmen Don Young and Doc Hastings, committee chair. There’s a long story. The short version is that these two elected representatives of the people demonstrated far more interest in maintaining their own delusions of grandeur and power than in focusing their attention on severe problems facing the United States of America and solving them. The spectacle of these two assholes was stunning.
The whole circus, both of the hearing sessions I watched, was useless. The closest thing to showing some kind of sensible grip on reality and long term view was an occasional reminder from some of the Democratic party members about the idea that national wildlife refuge areas exist for a reason. This is depressing to consider, that this point about the obvious would even need to be mentioned. Never mind having people arguing the point. Nowhere, in the portions of the two hearing sessions that I caught, did I hear any mention of any facts about the rate of oil consumption in the United States.
There were plenty of vague rhetorical statements about how sucking oil out of the ANWR region would “reduce oil prices for consumers”, or about “energy independence”, that never looked at any hard information, nothing even remotely like serious analysis. Just some cheap sound bite nuggets that sound great to people who don’t know how deluded those claims are. Just the fact that the hearings were being described as being about “jobs and deficit reduction” made it obvious, to anybody realistically aware of the oil situation, how much of a manipulative political song and dance act this thing was.
“Reality is a harsh mistress. She insists that you pay attention and then, having done so, take care of business. Politics, on the other hand, is more like stage magic. The man in the tuxedo is always trying to divert your attention.”
– James Howard Kunstler
Going to this House committee’s website, examining a report from the US Energy Information Administration, which they offer up as part of the evidence of what a great oil bonanza there is to be had, here’s what you find.
In the high-side best case optimistic scenario, they estimate that oil flow from the area of ANWR under debate would peak at around a flow of 1.45 million barrels of oil per day, estimated peak coming around 2028. That’s the peak, remember, the highest rate. Recent years of US oil consumption has varied between roughly 18 to 21 million barrels of crude per day. Call it 20M/day for our purposes and at the estimated peak, in the best case, highest production rate estimate, it works out to about 7% of the US daily oil consumption, at the rate we go through it now, that sucking oil from ANWR would provide.
Oil data can be difficult to sort out, especially worldwide, for a number of reasons. One big reason being that depending on what you look it, things can be muddled by whether somebody is totaling crude oil production, or, as you often find, data where somebody is trying to paint a rosier picture of world oil production by literally counting any liquid fuels as “oil”.
That stuff, this confusion and obfuscation, comes into play in when some people say that we still have not reached a worldwide peak, yet, if you restrict things to actual “conventional” crude oil, rates have been in a wobbling bumpy plateau, not exceeding the maximum to date reached about six years ago. This suggests we’re at the limit now.
You can look around and find people who are very insistent that crude oil peak doesn’t matter anyway, because they think tar sands and oil shale will come right in and fill all needs, completely oblivious to the reality of that stuff, that all that is a completely different ball game.
In any case, depending on the above consideration, worldwide oil production is somewhere around 72 to 75 million barrels per day, of “conventional” crude, the stuff we count on. That magically shifts to a high estimate of maybe 85 million barrels per day if you count anything resembling petroleum, even any liquid fuels at all (that are not petroleum by any fudging of definitions). That, all by itself, is one of the most glaring issues about trying to get a realistic grasp of what’s what in the subject. People are getting shifty about the accounting, you could say.
So basically, in the most optimistic scenario, including assuming that worldwide consumption will not go up at all, the best ANWR oil production could do is provide about 1.5%-2% or so of worldwide oil demand, based on present demand.
After all of that, consider that with most optimistic estimates of a possible 16 billion barrels there, this will all last a few decades.
This is what some of the politicians, pretty much exclusively of the GOP variety, are saying is going to “keep gas prices down for American consumers”. Bullshit. The same to claims about “freeing us from foreign oil” and “energy independence” or “energy security” or any other forms of deluded sound bite rhetoric. The politicians of the Democratic party variety are not much better, the standard platitudes of “developing green renewable energy” to magically swap in as substitutes have their own kinds of deluded detachment from physical reality and practical and realistic possibilities.
Getting back to the campaign to go drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; there they are, with the reality that we’re now to a point where we’re scraping up the dregs, anywhere we can find, no part of the planet sacred, and the pink elephant in the room kind of question being avoided is this. Right, so, let’s say we do that, we get some very small portion of the oil we use from there, for maybe a few decades. When that’s gone, what’s your plan after that?
Four decades past the U.S. oil peak, and this still isn’t registering.
“I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville
It’s becoming unbelievably rare to find people really in line with facts of reality, having a good perspective on history and trends and a view toward the future, paying attention to the right things, thinking rationally, and then speaking or writing about it all honestly.
By chance, while writing this, when I took a short pause, I caught a portion of a program on C-Span with guest David Walker, who is an exceedingly rare character, in dealing rationally and realistically with facing the monumental problems of government finances. He’s a rare break from the endless barrage of bullshit.
James Howard Kunstler’s book The Long Emergency is an excellent job of running through a collection of interacting problems facing us, particularly here in the United States. The petroleum problems are a central piece of the puzzle. This book is an excellent job of comprehensive and concise examination of a collection of elements of current life, their problems, and the complex interactions of things. It covers all of the “three E” subjects, and their interaction and interrelation.
[Among other things, it’s pretty significant to note that Kunstler was talking about the economic shitstorm we were heading for, especially in terms of the trigger effect that the economic madness involving housing real estate would have, in a book written around 2004, if I remember right. He wasn’t the only one seeing this coming.]
A large part of The Long Emergency revolves around the general subject of energy resources and consumption and the trouble we are in. A significant portion of the book essentially follows on as a continuation of the themes he wrote about in previous books, The Geography of Nowhere and its follow-up, Home From Nowhere.
It might sound strange to say that a couple of books about the subject of what buildings we construct in America, how we build them, and most of all, where we build them, would be relevant to the subject of petroleum, and overconsumption. Yet they are. That this idea would completely baffle many people is a clue of how befuddled we are, and how misdirected attention is, on the subject of petroleum (and “energy” in general) in the United States of America, early 21st century.
“Where ideas are concerned, America can be counted on to do one of two things: take a good idea and run it completely into the ground, or take a bad idea and run it completely into the ground.”
The general story goes like this. Start at the end of World War II with America as kings of the world of the time in oil resources.
Begin intensive, full speed ahead endeavors in expanding cities outward in rings of suburban construction. Add all but the poorest of the American population acquiring petroleum fueled motor vehicles, large heavy ones, with large amounts of pride in the sheer behemoth mass and dimensions of American cars compared to European cars.
At the same time, neglect and ignore, or in the case of existing systems, actively dismantle and even ridicule any efficient public mass transportation systems in cities and their surrounding areas (“get a car!”). Continue all that aggressively.
Along with the spreading, sprawling suburban development, add in “single-use zoning” to separate areas of residential housing, general business and commerce, and industry, so that in most places in the country, going about daily life requires a car as a mandatory piece of equipment for every activity, driven longer and longer distances (as the outward expansion continues).
After only about one generation of this, oil extraction in the US peaks and goes into decline starting the down slope of Hubbert’s curve, the United States begins its experience of being an oil importer instead of oil exporter, and by 1973, political squabbles on the world scene trigger oil exporting nations in the middle east to restrict oil exports, and the United States freaks out.
Four decades later, we still haven’t gotten the hint.
We’re now talking about mining tar sands to get bitumen, to get something like petroleum after mutilating the land, applying massive quantities of fresh water and turning into toxic waste, and burning the finite resource of natural gas.
We’re talking about rooting out kerogen from oil shale, using possible different processes that are all ecological toxic nightmares, with more water and some heat source (probably more natural gas) to eventually turn out a kind of synthetic oil.
We’re talking about deep ocean drilling with disastrous consequences if something goes wrong, and now we have political arguments about assaulting wildlife preserves in the rare places untouched by human destructive activity.
It’s staring us in the face, smacking us over the head, the painfully obvious. We’ve blown through the onetime windfall of petroleum resources so fast, with so many people fiercely determined in their intentions of not even considering slowing that down, that we are now, pretty literally, scraping the dregs.
This still isn’t registering.
In online comments related to oil, someone wrote “we need to do whatever we can to keep it plentiful and cheap”. The time for that idea was many decades ago. We’re far past that now. Now, it’s: how do we go about conserving what’s left, and adjusting for conditions where we simply don’t have as much of it as we wish, and having whatever you want of the stuff, cheaply acquired, is right out of the picture. That ship sailed.
The time to be thinking in terms like “we need to do whatever we can to keep it plentiful and cheap” was way back in the early to middle 20th century, before we started the outward march into constructing suburbia and deciding that we would base everything we do on petroleum fueled transportation in automobiles and trucks.
Consider this again; when we began really blowing through the stuff at a serious rate and started spreading out into perpetual suburban expansion, and two cars (or more) for every family above serious poverty, around the end of the second world war, the United States was king of petroleum resources. A generation after that, the United States reached its oil peak and went into decline. One generation, 25 years after World War II.
If someone born at the end of the war, the beginning of the baby boom generation, had a child at age 25, their child was born around that time. If that child had a child when they were 25, their child, the grandchild of the baby boomer, is nearing adulthood, as we approach, or could very well be at, the peak limit of oil production rate for the planet as a whole. When the United States reached its oil peak in 1970 and went into decline, we started importing oil, with all the trouble that has gone with it ever since. When the world as a whole peaks, there is no new territory of oil resources to look to for imports.
As a late addition to this, as I write, this just in from The Oil Drum, addressing comments made by Newt Gingrich during a recent Republican party presidential candidate debate. Go read the article and you’ll get the full story. The short version summary is that Newt Gingrich stood before the audience in front of television cameras and God and everybody and delivered proclamations about the subject of oil that are just severely wrong. Monumentally wrong. Just over the top, “what color is the sky in Newt’s world?” wrong.
From what I gather, as far as I know nobody called Gingrich on this deluded fantasy, other than what I just pointed out, which is no surprise. No joke; I think I would almost fall over from shock if I heard anything from that whole bunch that indicated a rational, realistic, grip on the facts of the petroleum situation. The worst thing of all, of course.. how many, possibly millions of people, listened to this and believed him?
It’s hardly possible to even keep up with this stuff. It flows endlessly. The political disconnect from reality is an ongoing story in the United States today, and the subject of petroleum resources and consumption is one very large chapter. We’ve got serious problems when a large portion of general public consensus about petroleum in the United States is that the only limitations we have are a matter of who is in political power.
Here’s something to add to this. The jaw dropping delusion of Newt Gingrich’s comments came during a television debate of Republican presidential candidates on the subject of “national security”.
Pay attention to how much chatter you hear from politicians about “America’s energy independence” as a vital matter of “national security”. Then, see how many of the same ones proceed to say that their plan regarding that is to aggressively use up whatever oil resources we might have left in US territory. Let that settle into your mind to contemplate for a while.
This is the kind of thing we’re dealing with. This is how far ahead some people are looking. (Add in the thought that the people usually promoting that as a bright plan call themselves “conservative”, and your head might explode.)
The way we’re abusing the water on the Earth is a whole large subject of its own, and it’s off the scale of measurement of obvious to say that this is kind of an essential thing. It’s not just a question of pollution, the way humans are abusing the macro level natural systems of the planet has dire results. See a recent story about the Colorado River, which is literally being sucked dry. This mighty river now runs dry before it reaches the sea.
This is happening while people living in suburban sprawl zones, in places like Phoenix and Las Vegas, do things like draw massive amounts of water to irrigate their plots of land around their houses, in order to have nice spreads of pretty grass lawns while living in hard core baking arid desert.
I grew up near one of the Great Lakes near a river feeding the lake. In that area recently, I found myself looking at a sign posted on the side of the road, near a boat launch access ramp, informing you that this river was toxic, a polluted tributary of water, that was officially declared toxic enough that it was unsafe for humans to be in the water, drink the water, eat fish pulled from the water, or generally expose yourself directly to the water in any way. This really seems to get little to no notice from the locals, other than a general unspoken acceptance that this is known, and apparently not even an issue worth mention, just “how it is”.
That things like this are not even seen as anything worth talking about is astonishing. People seem to just accept that as normal now. Anybody younger than the middle age demographic category have never known a time when that particular river was not officially declared a flow of poisoned water.
We have people poisoning the water in new ways while it’s being promoted as a miracle of new boom times prosperity and boundless energy supplies, even as the reality of what finite fuel resources we have left.
There is an entire subject worthy of discussion all on its own in the idea of people claiming water as private property. This might be one of the most twisted bits of insanity to ever grip the human race.
A recent story in the Washington Post about a recent study on the potential consequences of the changing climate is no day at the beach, either. Even with things like these appearing, it’s easy to find people denying that there’s an issue to deal with. That’s almost incomprehensible, with the evidence of reality hitting us over the head regularly now, even if you’re oblivious to the news and discussions about changes in climate and studies of what’s happening.
I’ve been reading the blog Wit’s End occasionally, where one main focus of attention is a phenomenon that goes beyond disturbing, the subject of trees dying off in America from pollution.
What we’re doing to the planet is overwhelming. It’s almost too much to comprehend it all, and, generally, people don’t. The level of denial and irrational behavior is astonishing. Some people refuse to believe that anything humans do can have any effect on the condition of the planet. Others take a position of arguing that the Earth changes, hey, that’s just how it is.
It’s pretty damned obvious at this point how things have changed over the course of the past 150 years or so. It’s more than random coincidence that this is the period of time when humans have been burning fuels from underground, where energy from ancient sunlight has been locked in as potential energy stored in chemical form.
Sometimes people will actually go as far as to perhaps grudgingly admit that there are things happening, and human activity might have an effect, but dismiss it all with a general attitude something like “oh, well, that’s just how it is, nothing we can do about it, just suck it up and get over it and adapt”. Not such a pleasing attitude, I would think, for people in areas where the repercussions are looking grim and very real. Things are not looking so good in the Arctic.
There are, I have no doubt, probably quite a few people around who think that it would be just great if all of the Arctic ice melted away, because they’re thinking that all of that is only getting in the way of drilling platforms.
For a different look at repercussions of not considering the future and repercussions, take a quick read elsewhere about things getting interesting in Oklahoma.
Try to find people looking ahead to what the repercussions are of what we do now, seven generations from now. We won’t find this in that House committee hearing, there, you’ll mostly find obscene levels of pompous arrogance and stupidity.
We haven’t seen that in the cast of characters in finance and “the markets” and everything under the general heading of Wall Street here in the US, who warped and perverted concepts of business and commerce and investment.
Major damage to the U.S. economy has been the consequence of all the fun and games we know as “globalization”, but compounding matters, this is a concept that’s completely dependent on a perpetual state of limitless availability of petroleum fuel for shuffling things around the globe, and a general state of international calm to ensure that trouble doesn’t interfere with the transport of goods all across the planet. Definitely not a long term plan that is, dare I use the word, sustainable.
It’s unfortunate that this word has almost become devalued to the point of being useless by abuse, and reduction to nearly being regarded as some kind of term of fashion or style. The word has serious meaning, about as serious as anything can ever be. Are things sustainable? Can they be sustained? Simply put, can some situation, or set of circumstances, or activity and way of doing things, continue like this?
We have something that could be thought of as a kind of “meta-problem”, overriding all sorts of assorted problems, and compounding the difficulty. This is a tendency for almost anything, it seems sometimes, any topic, any issue, to be pulled as if by some gravitational force into some artificial dual, some contrived pairs of opposites of binary choices, with some batch of clichés as part of the package. One obvious example, right now, is the way this phenomenon sucks some people into useless division of everything into being either a “liberal” or “conservative” political issue or position.
Raise any point and include words like “sustainable” and “green” and “renewable”, and you’re lucky if you don’t get swamped with waves of people instantly lurching into chattering clichés and moving to a particular predefined position, like actors moving to their marks on a stage or set. It avoids the real effort of understanding and thinking.
The dilemma is that for a lot of people, the more complex and uncertain something gets, exactly when we need to forget about clichés and assumptions and see things exactly as they really are, think clearly, think things through, this is likely to be exactly the time when they lock on to whatever easy set of stuff they think of as associated with “my group”.
Which only makes things worse. Splitting anything and everything up into Team A and Team B, joining “my group” and shouting the clichés of “my team” at “those guys” does nada in figuring things out and making things work.
Somebody online suggested that one solution to the problems of the US auto manufacturers was to be found in the opportunity to sell cars to hundreds of millions of people in China, a nation with a population of about a billion people more than the United States, most of whom have not had cars before. This probably seemed like a really good idea, maybe even a ridiculously obvious idea, to him.
Lined up alongside a realistic look at the world’s petroleum situation, the reality becomes clear that this would, in fact, be a terrible idea. Facing the situation we have in our problems of repercussions of excessive use of the finite resource of petroleum, the last thing we need is to have hundreds of millions more cars than before, tooling around China.
The arrangements and logistics of globalization, with large portions of manufacturing being relegated to China and other places on the western Pacific rim, depend on petroleum fuel feeding all those floating behemoth ocean going freighters, and of course the consumption of those things sucking down gigantic quantities of diesel compounds the problem.
Assuming that will still be going well twenty years from now, even ten years from now, could be a serious mistake. Especially so if we have a nation where nobody is making much anymore, or is even capable of doing so, for a collection of reasons, including decimating the pool of people who have the knowledge and skill to make things, because all sorts of skilled roles in such things are lacking people who have been discouraged from such occupations, by being told that such things are passé in our “changing world economy”.
This is especially profound when you start looking at assorted Chinese bottom-feeder-cheap crap made so it might last a year or two before it explodes or disintegrates and goes in a landfill. In these things, nobody repairs things either, given that the idea is sold to us that you just go buy another similar piece of shit, because, hey, after all, it’s so cheap? Just toss it and buy a new one! Consume! All of this, of course, goes right along with the matter of considering the long term.
You can have some sort of device that your grandfather had 50 years ago that still works fine, while a thing that you bought at the local corporate retail chain discount barn made in China or Singapore or Korea falls to pieces after two years.
What happens when all that stops arriving from the other side of the Pacific?
“Of all races in an advanced stage of civilization, the American is the least accessible to long views… Always and everywhere in a hurry to get rich, he does not give a thought to remote consequences; he sees only present advantages… He does not remember, he does not feel, he lives in a materialist dream.”
The Monday after Thanksgiving 2011, the national TV news has bubbling chatter as news about excited people scrutinizing initial burst of “official holiday shopping season” and asking “is this a sign of good news and recovery for the US economy?”, depending on how much assorted trivial crap was snatched up by “consumers”.
The day after Thanksgiving has been seen as some sort of quasi-official “first shopping day of Christmas”. That’s not new. This, today, in the United States seems to have replaced the importance of anything else about the Christmas season such as, say, Advent, as decreed by retail commerce world.
This year, some corporate discount barn retail chains decided that wasn’t enough, and actually changed their plans, to not merely open their doors for business at a stupid early hour Friday morning, but open at midnight, or even late in the evening Thanksgiving day, effectively destroying the holiday for their employees. By now, anybody following the news knows all about assorted horror stories of obscenely bad behavior in shopping frenzy.
The worst has to be the story of 61 year old Walter Vance, a man who collapsed in an aisle of a Target store, and laid there as people walked around him, lying on the floor, or even stepped over him, ignoring him so as not to interfere with their gathering of trinkets. Someone did finally come to his aid, but he died. This is what we’ve become?
The Monday national network evening TV newscasts brought lead stories about “the big shopping weekend”, with excited chatter talking about what enormous amounts of money were spent over the past few days, with enthusiastic speculation like “can this be the US economy bouncing back?”.
That was the story, not that people, in shitty discount barn national corporate retail chain stores that killed off local businesses, selling assortments of crap made by people working for virtually nothing on the other side of the planet, occasionally attacked each other. Not people going on about their very important Christmas commerce bargain seeking and ignoring a dying man lying on the floor, the only apparent concern being that he was an obstacle between them and snatching up cheap deals on crap they don’t need, spending money probably most of them can’t really afford.
Evidently, some people think that we need much more of that, and then everything will be peachy. Come on, consumers! Get out there and consume!
This is how deranged many people have become.
There’s a broader theme here.
Christmas has always been one of my favorite times of the year, and it’s been horribly warped and perverted. Contemplate the phenomenon of people now commonly being referred to as “consumers”. Not “people” or even words like “citizens” when appropriate… consumers. This is much more than just some trivial point of semantics.
For a lot of people, Christmastime is basically just some kind of orgy of consumption. There’s this warped and corrupted idea of the exchange of Christmas gifts as some kind of indicator. It’s some kind of status measurement. If your outlay of Christmas gift spending doesn’t meet some sort of standard, some people are afraid they’ll be seen as some sort of cheap bastard, or, getting more to the point, if it’s a case of really not having the spare money to be lavish in the gifts department, well, what are you, some kind of worthless bum loser or something?
An online acquaintance in Australia posted comments online after seeing news reports of the grotesque stories from Christmas shopping frenzy the day after Thanksgiving in America, 2011. The basic gist; “what the hell is wrong with you people?“.
I think I understand what’s wrong. For many people in this country now, there’s this idea that goes right along with the concept of people as “consumers” as a primary purpose and role, an idea that has to be maintained, at any possible cost, of “we’re the most prosperous nation on Earth!”. If not, you’re apparently expected to do all possible to keep up the illusion.
The mad frenzy of stupid malevolence defiling Christmastime starts to be possible to explain if you consider that for many people in the United States now, things are not prosperous and luxurious and plentiful, but there’s some sense of Christmas as an obligation, with a kind of measurement against some vague standard. See the people going about the Christmas preparations of gathering goods as if it’s some kind of grim mission, with all the sense of joy of tax return time.
Consider the horror stories and notice something that isn’t mere chance coincidence; the stories are all happening at some kind of large corporate retail “big box” discount barn type of retail sales establishment. People there are in some sort of frenzy of desperation to try to fulfill their perceived Christmas gift minimum standard obligations, even when they really can’t afford to spend the money on some pile of stuff.
From where I sit, this is not disconnected to the kind of avoidance of reality in general public consensus view of what we have left in finite fuel energy resources, and the rate we’re consuming finite resources.
See all the deluded madness I’ve been talking about here, about all the ways people are trying to convince others, or convince themselves, that there’s no issue there, there are no limits to our consumption, holding on to all kinds of irrational nonsense that says we can have as much of that stuff as we want, or, even if they accept that this isn’t true, that some magic wand replacements will fill right in, and on we can go, doing everything exactly as we have been doing.
I don’t think these are unrelated stories.
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
So, where are we and where are we going?
No crystal ball projections to forecast the future here. On the other hand, some things don’t exactly require genius insight to see. It just takes attention and getting some presumptions out of the way. We also all have the benefit of the knowledge, thought, and insight of knowledgeable, attentive, aware, intelligent people who care. The key is to pay attention to them, and sort them out from the shysters, crooks, lunatics, and plain morons.
One of our biggest problems (another kind of “meta-problem”, if you like) is how many people can’t tell the difference. Even worse if they think they can tell the difference, and have it completely backwards and inverted.
The shysters, crooks, lunatics, and morons have a way of being noisy enough to get the most attention. They tend to operate on the principle that simplistic sells, and they can find lots of people who will gladly buy into what sounds like short simple easy answers, rather than dealing with the complicated and hard. It’s also far easier to do simplistic. Ignoring lots of facts and any need for making sense about the complexities of reality can make for a much shorter spiel. People can make a nice neat easy package of bullshit. Figuring out, explaining, and working out reality gets complicated and might take more than a sentence or two.
One scary thing about people simplistic enough that all they can do is deal with anything and everything in terms of “good guys versus bad guys” is that, chances are, they can’t tell when they encounter something that’s more like “bad guys versus bad guys”, and shouldn’t be part of either bunch.
A perfect historical example: back in the nineteen thirties, when there were so many people in Europe (and to a lesser extent, in the United States) who thought that it was down to a choice of picking one or the other between fascism or communism, when they were both madness.
It would just be a good thing to have people to thinking beyond whatever seems convenient personally for the next week. A good start, general public consciousness and a consensus about reality that is based in how things really are. Is this too much?
We can definitely do without the constant of people being referred to by the name “consumers”.
Our ignorance is not so vast as our failure to use what we know. – M. K. Hubbert
I may have previously mentioned an event, that was noteworthy enough to stick in my head, from a few years ago. It really summed up a lot. Talking to a couple of guys who drove big pickup trucks, as daily driver personal transport, I said a bit about the general oil situation. I tried, as I try to do encountering that sort of thing, to gently break it to them how our situation with petroleum was a problem because of the way we’ve been using the stuff, wasting so much of it. The response? It was simple; “they’ll think of something”.
That just nailed so much right on the head. They’ll think of something. It’s not my problem. Somebody will just pull a rabbit out of the hat and on we go. See the summary of how we blew through the oil here in the United States, that I already ran through twice here.
People have thought of something. People have thought of lots of things.
For a simple start, people have designed and built motor vehicles that are small, light, and make efficient use of fuel to get the most mechanical energy from a given volume of fuel. This isn’t a new thing, and automotive engineering has made substantial progress in engine work on the latter area. On the other hand, that immediately runs into a particular kind of foolishness where it’s pretty normal these days for vehicles to be pretty overweight, with even cars thought of as compact economy cars regularly weighing over 3000 pounds. It seems pretty normal for assorted coupes and sedans to be right around 4000 pounds.
One of the most incomprehensibly crazy phenomena around in motor vehicle madness is, I think, is people thinking that they’re being sensible or even really advanced and enlightened in going out and getting a hybrid SUV to replace their current SUV… and driving it dozens of miles every day as they do the commute, living somewhere maybe 20, 30, 40 miles (or more) away from where they work, both ways every day. “But it’s a hybrid!”.
It doesn’t come as any surprising bit of new information, to anybody who has a serious interest in cars, that things are done differently in Europe, and that’s nothing new. Over decades, while American manufacturers were building (and people were buying and driving) gigantic rolling land yacht barges, the European carmakers were building small light nimble cars that were only as big as they needed to be, used relatively little fuel to do what they needed to do, and could even go around corners. They could really be driven, as a bonus (as cars are supposed to always be, for some of us).
Here in the United States, we charged full speed ahead outward in expanding concentric rings of suburban sprawl, separated everything in “single-use” zoning laws that isolated where we lived and where we worked and traded, and neglected and even mocked public transportation. The result has been that we have not only blown through petroleum at a stupid, wasteful rate, but we’ve also left ourselves with everything in life, nearly everywhere in America, totally dependent on everybody driving petroleum fueled cars (and, more and more, trucks) to get anywhere to do anything. This has also left large areas of wasteland in the core of our cities.
In the meantime, over in Europe they not only thought more about the quality of function of cars, they also kept their cities functioning as tightly integrated functional cities where people could often walk to do what they did in daily life, maintained and developed intelligent, functional public transportation to get people around the cities beyond walking distance, without a car being mandatory everywhere jusy to function, with good train systems to get between cities.
Who uses less petroleum? Who is better situated for a world where the petroleum we have left is shrinking, what’s left is harder to get and only getting harder to get, and as a result, getting more and more expensive?
I’m obviously talking a lot about the subject of petroleum resources and use, both here, and in a series of pieces I’ve written. I hope that the reasons are also obvious. It’s such an inportant matter, and as I keep trying my best to point out, the general public grasp of the circumstances is seriously deficient, more often than not just absolutely deluded. The biggest reason for my repetition about that subject is the latter problem there. Oil isn’t our only resource issue.
The differences over time between the general attitudes and practices between the U.S. and Europe in motor vehicles is something to seriously consider, and in looking at all this, there’s another apparent problem that arises. It isn’t just the obvious fact that in many ways the general European approach has simply been more intelligent, more practical. You run into a kind of attitude that looks at even suggesting this kind of thing as some sort of affront, that says that even thinking that people anywhere else in the world could somehow be doing something better than we have here in the United States is some kind of grevious offense. In the kind of bipolar poltical madness we have going on, somebody is sure to launch into some mindless bitching saying “you hate America and our freedoms and prosperity and… blah blah blah blah!”.
We have a real problem with not looking forward past the immediate short term and not considering what people will have to deal with in the future. The comment about “doing whatever it takes to keep it (petroleum) plentiful and cheap”, when that thought needed to be the public theme sixty years ago or more, is a perfect example.
In trade and general economics, farming, the state of the Earth in terms of resources and in terms of the health of the planet and life and a whole, what disasters have to be happening before people wake up, and look at the larger longer view?
A few days ago, I watched the documentary film In the Shadow of the Moon again. This is a brilliant piece of work. I recommend it to everybody. I don’t just mean people interested in spaceflight and the Apollo moon flights. This documentary provides a nice perspective on the Apollo flights, featuring interviews with many of the men who flew to the moon. Only nine flights were made to the moon, six of them landing there. Only twelve men landed on the moon. It’s a small club of people who have flown to the moon and seen the Earth from a distance.
Never mind about whether you even care about the idea of spaceflight, the history of NASA, any of that. Hearing these men speak about their journeys, this great adventure, there is a profound sense of perspective these people have, that no other human beings in history have ever had. This small group of men, the ones who are still living, and they are all old men now, are the only people to have seen the Earth as a whole. That’s a pretty unique view. One of the most important parts of this documentary, in the larger view, is listening to these men speak about that experience and the perspective it gave them. It seems to have been a kind of epiphany for them all.
These people are truly unique in being the only humans to have truly seen the Earth, the whole world, the only world we have, as it really is, a miraculous oasis floating in the infinite expanse of space. It’s truly, literally, all we have.
It’s food for thought to consider how a small group of astronauts, part of the most ambitious program of technology in human history, and American tribes such as the Iroquois, have similar perspectives on the importance of the long view of our world, beyond individual convenience and petty indulgence and the immediate.
“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”