15 March 2012

Adapting to a New Reality

From Salon
In energy terms, we are now entering a world whose grim nature has yet to be fully grasped.  This pivotal shift has been brought about by the disappearance of relatively accessible and inexpensive petroleum — “easy oil,” in the parlance of industry analysts; in other words, the kind of oil that powered a staggering expansion of global wealth over the past 65 years and the creation of endless car-oriented suburban communities. This oil is now nearly gone.The world still harbors large reserves of petroleum, but these are of the hard-to-reach, hard-to-refine, “tough oil” variety. From now on, every barrel we consume will be more costly to extract, more costly to refine — and so more expensive at the gas pump.
 Those who claim that the world remains “awash” in oil are technically correct: The planet still harbors vast reserves of petroleum. But propagandists for the oil industry usually fail to emphasize that not all oil reservoirs are alike: Some are located close to the surface or near to shore, and are contained in soft, porous rock; others are located deep underground, far offshore or trapped in unyielding rock formations. The former sites are relatively easy to exploit and yield a liquid fuel that can readily be refined into usable liquids; the latter can only be exploited through costly, environmentally hazardous techniques, and often result in a product which must be heavily processed before refining can even begin.
 The simple truth of the matter is this: Most of the world’s easy reserves have already been depleted — except for those in war-torn countries like Iraq.  Virtually all of the oil that’s left is contained in harder-to-reach, tougher reserves. These include deep-offshore oil, Arctic oil and shale oil, along with Canadian “oil sands” — which are not composed of oil at all, but of mud, sand and tar-like bitumen. So-called unconventional reserves of these types can be exploited, but often at a staggering price, not just in dollars but also in damage to the environment.
In the oil business, this reality was first acknowledged by the chairman and CEO of Chevron, David O’Reilly, in a 2005 letter published in many American newspapers. “One thing is clear,” he wrote, “the era of easy oil is over.” Not only were many existing oil fields in decline, he noted, but “new energy discoveries are mainly occurring in places where resources are difficult to extract, physically, economically and even politically.”

Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves is a fascinating science-fiction work with a sad message. In it, human beings accidentally discover a means of accessing virtually free energy, and quickly become dependent on it. The man who made this energy source available is hailed as a hero of humanity...but nothing is without its price. Another scientist is the first to suspect something amiss, and discovers that long-term use of this energy source will prove ultimately destructive. He finds, however, that getting people so accustomed to free energy to wean themselves off of it is night-impossible. Ultimately, another scientific breakthrough must save the day. While I've tried to avoid spoilers, the novel implies that it is more likely that the laws of the universe themselves will change than it is that human beings will be far-sighted enough to end behaviors which are attractive in the short run but which will prove -- in the end -- destructive.  

We often prefer looking for ways to mitigate symptoms than to deal with the problem. Because we're not dealing with the source of the problem, though, it will keep appearing -- like a poisonous mushroom, no matter how many times we destroy the cap and stem, the underground spores will simply flower anew. For my own part, I increasingly prefer the direct approach of tackling the problem itself. This is why I'm particularly enamored of Stoicism: rather than dealing with the effects of emotions, Stoicism invites its students to address the emotions themselves -- to understand them, and so to deny them their power. The direct approach has served me well: it is why, in September when I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, I wasn't content to simply take a pill to regulate it.  I didn't want to be stuck taking medication the rest of my life, and saw no reason for doing so if I had a choice. So I changed my diet to avoid too much sodium, and I committed myself to an active lifestyle.  My doctor has since repeatedly slashed my prescriptions: while I once took 605 milligrams a day, I now take only 75, and I've lost 112 pounds to boot.  Directness bears many fruits.

The above article's premise, that the era of cheap energy is permanently over, is thus problematic considering how much of the modern world is oil dependent. The amount of petroleum-derived products (plastics) we use in everyday life boggles the mind, and that's only the tip of the iceberg. The entire global economy --factories ships, airplanes, delivery trucks, many trains -- relies on oil-using transportation to function, and much of that economy consists of industries which depend on oil for other reasons. Automobile manufacture, supposedly the backbone of the American economy, produces a product entirely dependent on oil --  and even hybrids which can use electricity rely on power plants which use fossil fuels, including oil.  In the United States, we have abandoned cities and mass transit in favor of suburbs and highway sprawl. Virtually everyone must  use a car to go everywhere. All of this is already unsustainable -- the infrastructure that sprawl demands is too costly for the amount of people using it -- but oil will make this even more so.   We can no longer take oil for granted. We must begin to force ourselves off the easy path and look for ways to live without using it as much. 

The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler

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