Monday, August 18, 2008

Unraveling the Unraveling

Within the relatively small community of “Peakists”, they divide roughly into three groups; Cornucopians, Doomers and the largest group, that I will simply call Moderates. I would describe the Moderates as a group of very concerned, but cautiously optimistic, or not so optimistic people. I’m undecided where I fit in, but it is somewhere between the latter two.

Right up front I’ll confess to some hubris in the title, as there are many things which are simply unknowable, but a useful starting point for predicting the future is to examine the past.

Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain said:” History doesn't repeat itself; at best it sometimes rhymes

There is evidence for this, but when it does rhyme it is because it is a different stanza from the same song. If we are about to rhyme with past events, that would suggest that we will not collapse into a great smoldering heap in a few months or years but a slow decline over several generations to a civilization more akin to how we lived around the end of the 19th century.

Recent disparate events have made me reconsider some of my beliefs.

How Fast? How Far?

This is like asking the question; “If I fall off a 1000 foot cliff, will I hurt myself?” The short answer is “It depends”, and begs a number of questions. Did you jump, or were you pushed? Did you fall by yourself or with others?

If you jumped, and you are not suicidal, then you likely made some preparation. You either put on a parachute, or placed a large stunt-man style airbag at the bottom. If you thought it through, you carefully selected the time and landing spot AND you knew how to use your device before you jumped. (This is an important point here). If you were pushed, then you were in all likelihood unprepared and you will most likely die.

If you jumped by yourself, then you may at worst suffer a sprained ankle or perhaps even a broken leg. If you fall with others not so prepared, they may land on you and your efforts would have been for naught. The slightly smarter ones may figure out why you are wearing a parachute, and take it away from you before you jump, or try to grab you on the way down, also foiling your plans.

The depth of your fall will also vary, depending on preparation. If you make the trip at terminal velocity you will likely fall more than 1000 feet, as you will end up below ground level. This is referred to as overshoot.

The length of time for decent from Peak Oil will be determined by the depletion curve. If consumption is limited only by geological production factors, then the curve will follow some variant of Hubbert’s Peak. This will result in maximum prices over a minimum time period.

The depletion curve can be stretched out by a reduction in total energy consumption, or by employing alternate energy sources. It seems likely that it will be a combination of both. It’s important to note that the area under the curve will not change, as that area is the total remaining reserves.

Obviously, common foresight and preparation will play an enormous part in answering this question. The slower and more orderly the descent, the less painful it will be.

Historical References

In order to predict what may happen, others have made many references to various empires and civilizations that have gone before us.

One common example is the Mayan civilization. Through soil depletion and possible climate change in the form of drought, combined with an unwillingness to adapt, the massive and sophisticated civilization disappeared over a period of up to two hundred years. This is a relatively comforting thought, however…

Recent Events

  • The battles in Georgia seem to be prompted by two issues; Control of the BTC pipeline and an ongoing crusade by Vladimir Putin to restore Russia to its former power and glory. For the sake of brevity, I won’t elaborate but I highly recommend watching the documentary “The Putin System”.
  • Both Protracted and sporadic conflicts between the United States and the Middle East continue to remind us of the total dependence on oil and the importance of continued supply. As Vice President Dick Cheney said, “The American way of life is not negotiable.”
  • The Olympics in Beijing are the coming out party for China. Because of this event the media has highlighted the enormous growth and industrialization of the country. It also highlights the rapidly blossoming love affair with consumerism and capitalism. The Chinese have chosen a path and show no signs of wavering.

So, as I see it, we have a very contentious situation here. We have three very large industrialized countries; one wants to become a superpower again, one that has every intent on remaining a superpower and one that is pushing hard to become a superpower. The three threads I see running through these countries are hubris, energy and nuclear capability.

Peak Oil Mitigation

As I have said before, (along with many others) our present way of doing things is not sustainable and renewable energy is butting its head up against the laws of physics, particularly the laws of thermodynamics. For this reason, I choose the word mitigation, not replacement.

A Saudi minister said, “The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones; we just found better technology to stones.” True, but it is also apocryphal. While we will be using wind turbines and photovoltaics, we will also be dusting off our metaphorical stones.

In order to maximize our mitigation, a concerted effort is needed, requiring vast amounts of capital and resources. Unfortunately, the free market requires a return on investment, with reasonable confidence that market conditions are stable enough to maintain those returns over the life of the infrastructure.

I say unfortunately, because we are dealing with a tightly coupled supply-demand situation. As an economy grows, consumption grows. Oil demand goes up and oil prices go up. As oil prices rise, the economy then contracts. This is The Devil’s Seesaw, as coined by Peter Pogany of The Energy Bulletin. The seesaw has two effects. It causes bursts of renewed oil consumption and non-viable renewables and secondly, when energy prices and the economy are low, there is less capital available for mitigation. This will send us stumbling and lurching, not gliding down Hubbert’s curve.

So, to go back to history and the Mayan’s decline, the present situation has some disturbing differences and one glaring similarity;

  • The Mayan troubles were protracted because the resource decline was protracted. Their soil did not deplete overnight.
  • The Mayans were in control of their own corn production.
  • To my knowledge, there was not widespread scarcity in the greater region or globally. Feel free to correct me on this.
  • The Mayans had the opportunity to go elsewhere, and likely did so. (Richard Branson does not have enough space ships, and they fall back to earth anyway.)
  • The Mayans were unwilling or unable to adapt.

As significant as M.King Hubbert’s work was, using it as a basis for planning is a gross oversimplification. It assumes, or at least implies (unintentionally) that future distribution of oil will be uniform based on demand. Factoring supplies being cut or rerouted instantly and perhaps permanently was beyond the scope of the study.

In simpler terms, when the world is producing at 50% of peak oil, it would be folly to infer that each country will receive 50% of what they were receiving at the peak.

Thus, a smooth shift away from fossil fuels will require a global effort involving commitment, cooperation and consistency. That said, history shows me that we do not play well with others when we are threatened. The watered-down shambles that became The Kyoto Protocol is a testament to this.

So, will we rhyme with history? Considering an unstable economy and major geopolitics with self-serving interests, I don’t think we are even singing the same song.

In light of this, I find the idea of a gradual decline over a century or two to be highly optimistic. As has been said, this is a whole new ballgame.

I think I just took a step towards the Doomer camp.


dekss said...

Yes it soundy pretty doomy.

gaea said...

Decline over a century or two...this (I read this somewhere) may sound like a safer path, but is it? A long, slow decline (e.g. Roman empire) can cause the loss of precious art work and books - although, I suppose a fast crash could do that also, but perhaps not scatter ALL such items - unless these resources are protected. Library of Alexandria, for example. Protection is hard to come by in a post-peak world, I would guess, unless an administration is installed closer to NOW to guide and lead this vast country. But how to do that? We (the people) don't even get to elect the president anymore by popular vote...

Bob Brannigan said...

Hi dekss

Can you elaborate? I agree it sounds doomy, but I take no pleasure in coming to this conclusion.

Are you commenting on the tone, or do you agree as well? I would love to be proven wrong.


Bob Brannigan said...


This is a good point. Unfortunately, where we are right now means that we don't get to choose slow or fast, so which is better is a moot discussion.

We may get to choose, if enough people wake up and realize that these problems are real and while unpleasant, they are a hell of a lot more important than Paris or Britney.

Due to lobbyists and political gridlock, don't expect to much from the Federal level. They should be the leaders but shoulda, woulda, coulda doesn't help.

I think that much of the change is going to come from the ground up in the form of informed, rational people. That is what this blog is all about, to promote thought, discussion and ultimately action.



Seven Bays Homeowner said...

I've read many blogs like this over the past few weeks. I think it might be a bit of doomer fatigue, which I am feeling myself. I'm all ramped up for the world to end and it simply isn't happening. How the market hasn't crashed yet, is beyond me, the fundamentals haven't changed, the news goes from bad to worse, yet the market continues to bump along up and down in a pretty stable fashion. There are no huge crashes pending.

This of course, is what will happen with society. It will be a long slow grind to a halt, not a rapid event as we see in the movies. It will take years to come to the point where our economy truly crashes and the soup lines form again. If it ever gets there!

I read an article that said we would go back to the times of Mayberry instead of Mad Max and think that is naieve. I also don't think it is Mad Max either, but I watched people walk around the square today during my lunch. I asked myself what would they do in a Post Peak Oil world? Do they have the freedom to be responsible citizens and contribute to a productive society? There were a few who looked like they could pull it off, but for the most part, I wasn't given over to any idea of optimism.

When Peak Oil does occur and we slowly grind into the ground, society will suffer for it and that in and of itself will accelerate the collapse. As citizens become more desperate for food and supplies, they will resort to more desperate means.

Mad Max? I don't think so. I have more optimism in society than that, but I can't believe that it will be Mayberry either.

Bob Brannigan said...

Dear SBH

You bring up a number of good points. I'll try to address them.

First, watch out for peak oil fatigue. This hit me, not when I learned about peak oil, but when I seriously investigated alternative energy. Peak Oil awareness can really wear you down because the various factors happen over years while the Sword of Damocles hangs over your head.There are a number of sites that address the psychology. is a good one.

Peak Oil angst has a parallel in the fear of nuclear war, 50 years ago when the Cold War was on. We knew it could happen, we just didn't know when. 46 years ago it very nearly did happen during The Cuban Missle Crisis. Thankfully it was averted.

Peak Oil is slightly different, as we know it has or will happen, but what form it will take is very much an enigma. I still have more questions than answers, which is why I'm blogging. The situation as I describe it appears valid, but it just a possibility, and should be taken as such. I don't want to be considered part of the "Peak Oil Pornography" group.

Regarding the financial market, it bumps along only through massive injections of cash and guarantees. Despite woes in the US, it is still the financial hub of the world, so the world has a vested interest in propping it up. Second, huge oil revenues from NOCs, called SWFs or Sovereign World Funds have been invested throughout the world, and particularly in the US. A serious crash would wipe out trillions of dollars. I am not a financial type so I have no idea how long this can or will be sustained, but I question your statement that "there are no huge crashes pending".

You appear to be ambivalent about the crash. You speak of optimism and yet you see your fellow citizens as not up to the task and eventually "will resort to more desperate means". This is understandable and only time will tell. I addressed this in my post "Pondering the Endgame"

I too read the Mayberry post. He basically admits things are going in the crapper but states that pointing this out is not "useful". I agree, that railing on about the "Certain Doom" doom scenarios is not helpful unless you have a vested interest like James Howard Kunstler or Matt Savinar.

That said, I also don't think it is helpful to ignore some very real possibilities, lest they squarely kick you in the butt.

So, we could have Mayberry, but most of us are asleep and we could have precipitous crash, depending on how everyone behaves. We will likely end up looking like most of Cleveland, with foreclosed houses gutted for their copper wire and plumbing. We still have a choice but more time lost favours the doom end.

Take care and keep in touch.


alochin said...

Great article.

Doomy? May be we should think of the end result. WHERE is rock bottom? Not how long, but how deep will we fall? When we have replaced oil? But its not all about oil. What about food, and the ultimate problem, overpopulation. How will we reduce our population? What radicalism will come out of the holly duty of replenishing the Earth?

I think it will be a progressive descent, lasting probably several centuries, but don't be fooled by the duration, thinking it will be smooth. It could also be hard fall, then rebound to another shorter period of expansion, then fall again ... until we finally accept that the Earth is spherical, I mean, finite.

Eventually (soon?), oil will be the least of our problems. Food and water won't.

So what should we do? I live as sustainably as I can, donated my truck and bought a Civic and a bicycle, learn skills with my hands, turn off TV and computer (I am at work :-D) and get busy in my big garden. Not enough? I will adapt as the society changes.

I also have doomer fatigue. I can't change the word, I can only be part of the change.

Andre, Western WA

Noah Scales said...

Maybe a different look at "Doom" would be helpful here.

Is doom growing your own food successfully, and bartering the extra with your neighbors? Wearing the same clothes year after year, or until they wear out, and then getting whatever is available second-hand? Calling your friends, but not having the money or time to ever visit them, because your only transportation choices are horse-drawn or pedal-powered? Participating in a democracy, in your town, to keep taxes and business regulations working for your survival? Helping your neighbors because you've been there and will need them to help you again later?

Yes, doom is when circumstances conspire to forcibly develop your kindness, patience, and generosity, while taking away your privacy, emotional distance, self-determination, and wealth. Doom is choosing to cooperate even if you really, really, really do not feel like it.

Bob Brannigan said...

G'day Andre

What should we do? For myself, the first step is to inform myself as much as I can, but like I said, some things are not knowable. The next step is to inform others, gently. Some people that can appear thick, when in reality they are in denial. I know I was.

Knowledge can be very powerful, but so can disinformation. Checking your facts and using critical thinking allows you to avoid disinformation and also counter damage done by disinformation. It is also personaly empowering.

As more people are informed, they provide an increasing pressure on government at all levels.

Most politicians, even the most informed ones, are a gutless bunch. If people want their utes and more roads to drive them on, that's what they will get. On the other hand, if people want energy and climate taken seriously, politicians will do a 180 without so much as a sheepish grin. Such is the power of re-election.

It sounds like you are doing practical things as well. Exerting some level of control is therapeutic.

Yes, water and food may become a problem, but the new RO desalination plant in Perth is driven by renewables. Things are being done. Rather than The Long Emergency, I prefer to think of it as a significant period of adaptation.

External events may cause upheaval, but remember The Serenity Prayer. (

It has real value whether you are religious or not.

Good luck,


Bob Brannigan said...

Hi Noah

I use Doom as a label for the bottom end of the spectrum of possibilites. Doomers, tend to not only predict a dire future but they appear to revel in it, so I will never be a true doomer. I'm just trying to evaluate possible changes on the way.

Regardless of where we end up, these changes may be seen as doom to one person whereas another person might revel in it. I know people that would consider the loss of shopping malls as tantamount to Armageddon.

For most people, it will be a combination of hardship and new-found pleasures. Adaptation will be key.


GermanDom said...

Hi all,

@Noah: "doom" to me is when you loose your job and DON'T get help from the govn't etc. to help you feed your family. Yes, soup lines and nowhere to go.

You mentioned your quest in the realm of alternative energy. That's my hobby horse at the moment, realizing that most are not feasable. What's your favorite silver bullets/BBs?

Greatings from Munich!

Noah Scales said...

Bob, economic relocalization and social integration are possible positive outcomes of energy descent. However, uncontrolled energy descent is preventable with simple or self-guided changes in lifestyle that do not produce those outcomes in the short term.

Eating vegan, line-drying clothes, using mass transit, wearing a sweater indoors, and recycling ALL waste will allow massive declines in petroleum consumption and resource use. None of those changes require localizing.

On a government level, the investment in infrastructure required to enable mass transit and closed-loop conservation of recyclable materials is surely less than the investment required to replace oil with renewable energy and retool for a hydrogen economy.

Meanwhile, becoming vegan, wearing a sweater indoors, and line-drying my clothes are self-guided, incredibly cheap, even money-saving, changes I can make.

Our continued use of petroleum resources could teach us to conserve other resources like metals, wood, soil, and minerals. A future where those resources are conserved is a bright one.

Noah Scales said...

@Dom: OK, but the fear holding back changes we need, a fear doomers have too, is not fear of soup lines. It's fear of community, the real community, not just a group of like-minded people who want to hole up somewhere together.

Bob Brannigan said...

Gruss aus Kanada Dom,

Unfortunately, I don't believe that there are any silver bullets.

The best we can hope for is to use various technologies to stay under the oil depletion curve, but ultimately we will be on a solar energy budget.

That budget will be much smaller than the one we presently have so significant changes will need to be made.

There is not enough room here to discuss these technologies, but one needs to pay particular attention to EROEI. Many people tout "Silver Bullets", without doing their homework.

There is an excellent article right now on The Oil Drum discussing EROEI.



Bob Brannigan said...


I agree that a concerted effort to conserve will be part of the mitigation effort, but with all due respect, I encourage you to do more research. One telling point is your mention of a hydrogen economy. Except in specialized applications, it is not going to happen.

We have taken our abundance of energy for granted, and part that means that we are out of touch with the vast amount of energy we need to sustain almost 7 billion people.

Loss of this energy source will mean drastic changes. Some resources can be conserved to a certain extent but you can't beat entropy.

I will be posting some links I find very worthwhile soon. In the meantime, I encourage you to read, read, read, always with a critical eye.

alochin said...

Remember that oil can be called ancient sunlight, or fossil sunlight.

Oil is nothing else than solar energy store under the form of molecular bonds. Burning oil only restores the solar energy used by the ancient plants.

It took hundreds of millions of year of sunlight to make that oil, and we burned it in 200 years. After that, we will have to live on "live" sunlight.
This gives a scale of the adjustments we will have to make.

Wind, biomass, hydro, all these are different forms of solar energy.

Only nuclear power is not dependent on sunlight, but it has its own problems.


Bob Brannigan said...


Not to be picky, but for the sake of completeness:

Nuclear, for all its problems, also uses a non-renewable fuel source. I am amused at the possibility that nuclear arms will be dismantled to keep the lights on. Well, ok... just a thought.

Other renewables are tidal (shall we call that lunar energy or gravimetric energy?), and geothermal.

Unless the Large Hydron Collider at CERN comes up with some incredible revelations, that's all we will have.

Pardon me but I suddenly feel like screaming;


There, I feel better now.



Noah Scales said...

Yes, I know hydrogen is not an energy source in itself, but is only a storable fuel source requiring energy to produce it. My point was not that we need to start mining hydrogen, but that conservation and lifestyle changes make a practical, meaningful, near-term alternative to major infrastructure changes replacing how we produce and store energy.

And yes, I need to do my homework. My homework is to learn how convince people of environmental problems, and participate with them to manage our common resources (air, soil, water, wood, metals, and fuel).

What I lack is the skills and emotional resources to approach my community and neighbors, what with all their ignorance and selfishness and everything. You could accuse me of projecting my character flaws onto others. After all, every reason that stops me from getting my neighbors on board seems to highlight my operative plan: to take care of myself (and only a select few others) first.

Thank you for your patience with me, Bob. They say don't make the perfect the enemy of the good, and all I'm trying to be is good.

Bob Brannigan said...

Hey Noah,

In my reply to Andre, my shout about hydrogen was not directed at anyone in particular, but against the poor information, or disinformation that is out there.

I'm sorry if you took it as a slight.

The sooner we realize that there are no obvious silver bullets, the sooner we can approach the problems rationally and realistically.

I too, continue to do my homework because the problems are very complex.

You raise an excellent point about priorities. Take care of yourself and those close to you first, no matter how altruistic your aims are.

Peak oil awareness is good. Peak oil angst wastes valuable energy.

You do have the skills to communicate and as you become more familiar with the issues, you will become more comfortable explaining the problems and promoting the solutions.

This is not a sprint, but a marathon.

Take care


GermanDom said...

Hey Bob, Grüsse zurück!

(your keyboard can't do that now, can it?-)

"ultimately we will be on a solar energy budget." Hear you all the way, bro.

Germany is subsidizing PV out the arse, but I think that's barking up the wrong tree. CSP is my answer, whether in the desert or on top of houses. ONLY, have you ever seen CSP on top of a house? That's the silver bb I'm working on..

I'll let you know once my Verein is up and running (we're going tax-deductable at the moment).

Greetings from Munich,
Dominic from Ohio..-)
dominic at schmelzer dot com

GermanDom said...

@ Noah
"It's fear of community, the real community"..

If I understood you correctly, I think you have just said something very profound.

Can I rephrase that to make it somewhat more plastic?

"You can divorce your wife and leave the kids, but you can't divorce real community".

It's like leaving the Amish, for instance..

alochin said...

I agree with all what I read here. I also see emotions similar to what I have felt, particularly in spreading the message. There will be a lot of emotional hurt, unfortunately.
Hydrogen is a no-go in my opinion.

I still believe we are optimists, just realistic optimists. When we know what we are facing, it is gloomy, but we believe we can make changes, multiple changes in every aspect of our lives.

Other peoples are stocking up weapons, or want to fight Iran. I call those pessimists.

My biggest fear is a decline over several centuries, made of collapses, rebounds in areas than have some resources left, then collapses again, until we finally learn.
My hope is that Americans will react fast enough once hard times have hit, and lead, as it has in the past. But even in that case, there will be massive die-off in many parts of the world.

Andre, Western WA, US.

Bob Brannigan said...

Dom, grüße zurück noch einmal :-)

PV has a place but I agree that Germany has overdone it. The problem, at least for now and in the foreseeable future is storage. Due to the variability of PV output, the operation requirements for regular electrical generation actually go up.

When you say CSP are you referring to PV or thermal. I have wondered about optical concentration, but I haven't found a typical PV output curve yet to know the maximum intensity they can withstand.

All that said, the storage problem remains.



Bob Brannigan said...


I'm all for optimism, but in this case it can be dangerous. Optimism often walks hand-in-hand with denial.

For example; If you buy a house with a mortgage that is 80% of your income, you can convince yourself that Kraft dinner every day is ok. Over the long term, it is unworkable, and you will ultimately go bankrupt.

America lead? At the risk of being unkind, isn't that an oxymoron? Please read my blog entry Pondering the Endgame and feel free to comment there.

I have worked with complexity all my life but the complexity I am delving into regarding energy eclipses anything I have seen before. Many solutions are counter-intuitive.

That said, the biggest challenge is misinformation, due to either ignorance or intentional deception. It promotes false optimism, which can kill you.

One statement that really infuriates me is "More energy (sunlight) hits the earth in an hour than we use in a year".

This bit of trivial rubbish implies false abundance and encourages complacency. "Buy our solar panels and eveything will be fine"

The statement is true, if you only count electrical and fuel but I like my world at a comfortable 20 deg., not -200. Also, the uncountable cubic kilometers of fresh water that fall on the earth and replenish the biosphere were distilled and transported by the sun. Keeping the earth warm and wet uses more than a few joules. The CO2 that is absorbed and the oxygen that is produced is a solar driven process. Almost every organism on the planet uses solar energy.

Try Googling the water and food requirements for a cow. When you sit down to a juicy steak, you are using up a lot of solar energy even if the steak is only 500 calories.

Is there enough for us? Yes, because we lived and thrived before fossil fuel. Just not 6.7 billion of us.


GermanDom said...

Bob (big show off, copying the double ss from somewhere;),
I'm thinking thermal, although PV might work too (many systems, my favorite is Cool Earth Solar at the moment). Reason thermal: it doubles as a heater, would use a stirling for the excess energy making e-, especially in the summer when you don't need the heat (except for the occasional shower). Storage is then water/oil/liquid salt, at least short term. Like I said, developing a system, don't even have a model running yet..
Cheers/Servus into cyberspace!