136. WILL DECLINING EROEI CAUSE COLLAPSE?
-- by JD
The peak oilers say the EROEI of oil is increasing. It is taking ever increasing amounts of work to produce a barrel of oil. In the early days of oil you could stick a straw in the ground and collect oil flowing out under its own pressure. But now we have to harvest low grade oil from sources like the tar sands -- mining it like coal and cooking it in huge vats. We're putting in more work per unit of energy returned.
In some ways, that is true, but it's not necessarily a danger signal. Look at the step from hunting/gathering to agriculture. Jared Diamond makes a good case that hunting/gathering had a higher EROEI than agriculture:
Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers? Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn't emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world"?This is very strange, because the peak oiler theory is that decreasing EROEI leads to contraction or collapse. Diamond's evidence, on the other hand, suggests that a dramatic drop in the EROEI of humanity's first and most important energy source (food) led not to collapse, but to a massive explosion of growth.
One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5'9" for men, 5' 5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5’ 3" for men, 5’ for women.Source
It's intriguing to carry the analogy over to modern petroleum production. The original wildcatters were hunters, and big oil fields were their prey. But now the game is getting thin, and the hunters are turning into agriculturalists. The tar sands in Alberta are a petroleum farm. We're moving beyond the hunter/gatherer stage of oil; now it's about hunkering down and laboring in the fields.