307. CONFESSIONS OF AN EX-DOOMER
If you're reading this, you are aware of and probably concerned about the depletion of earth's finite fossil fuel resources, on which modern technological civilization is almost completely dependent, popularly called "Peak Oil" or PO for short. Good for you! By becoming aware of the issue and seeking to learn about it, you are already ahead of the vast majority of people. By trying to find out what, if anything, you can do about it, you're even further ahead. I'm betting you are more likely than average to be open-minded and someone who thinks for him/herself. My advice: don't stop thinking for yourself by adopting without question the dogma of PO doomerism.
I consider myself to be a person of above-average intelligence and a critical thinker, and yet I was sucked in by the 21rst century's equivalent of a doomsday cult. I was ripe for the picking.
I first became aware of the unsustainability of modern civilization in the 1970s, during the so-called oil shocks. I was a kid, but reasonably bright and with a scientific bent, so I read almost everything I could find on energy in general and oil in particular. What I discovered wasn't comforting. We had just 30 years of oil left! We needed it for all the chemicals and plastic things I had previously taken for granted. And here I was, burning this valuable stuff up in Dad's lawnmower! There had to be a better way.
I looked at renewables, but at the time, they all looked like losers. I wouldn't hear the term EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Input) for another 30 years, but even a teenager could see that if you put more energy into something than you could expect to get out of it, it wasn't going to solve the problem. That was true for alcohol fuels, and it was true for solar (photovoltaic) panels. Fusion power sounded good but again even a teenager could see that if you don't yet know how to make something work, it would be foolish to gamble the future on figuring it out in time.
Then I found coal and nuclear power. There was lots of coal, at the time, 500 years worth. And nuclear power, we couldn't ever run out of that (not necessarily true, but I believed it at the time). I had the answer - we were saved! You see, I liked modern technology, and I still do - to me, it was (and is) worth saving. I set the snooze alarm for 1990 (a few years before the oil was due to run out) and more-or-less forgot the whole thing.
In 1987, I first heard about global warming. This was surprising since during the 70s I remember people saying we were heading into a new ice age. Still, I looked at the CO2 and temperature data, and it did seem as if the cooling trend had ended and the earth was gradually warming up, and of course the rise in CO2 levels was clear as a bell. Although the causal relationship was yet unproven, it seemed to me that we'd be better safe than sorry, and so this just looked like another good reason to cut down on using fossil fuels. Unfortunately, mainstream thought seemed to have gone strongly against nuclear power, apparently (to me, having read a lot about it) without much more reason than that Hollywood had made it the spawn of the devil. Since I had already concluded renewables weren't going to do the job, I was resigned to the idea that we would burn through the remaining fossil resources until there weren't two carbon atoms left clinging together, and only then switch to nuclear power.
By the mid-90s it was time for my wake-up call. I discovered and started reading BP's world energy report. The forecast oil doomsday hadn't occurred, in fact there was a comfortable increase in the reserve numbers and the R/P (Reserve-to-Production) ratio had expanded to 40 years. It was beginning to look like this wasn't going to be a problem in my lifetime. The price of oil had crashed and headlines talked about an oil glut. All this extra oil was good news, but it looked as if, instead of counting our blessings at having another century or so of petro-chemical production, the US was hell-bent on burning it up in monstrous, wasteful trucks. What happened to the conservation programs? And when exactly were we going to start building nuclear plants? What about global warming?
About ten years later, I was debating energy issues with one of my greenie friends at dinner. While we both agreed on the need to kick the fossil fuel habit, her contention was that we could get all the energy we needed from renewable sources, whereas I was convinced that we needed nukes because renewables were a Hollywood eco-fantasy and that if you "did the math", you'd probably need a solar cell the size of the entire desert southwest to meet the energy needs of the US. She challenged me to prove that, so off I went to the web to do some research. In doing so, I found...
LifeAfterTheOilCrash (LATOC), Matt Savinar's oil doomsday site. It knocked me out of my chair. Everything I had believed for over 30 years was true, only it was worse than I thought! I had thought that even though we appeared to be stupidly squandering our fossil resources instead of switching to new energy sources, we still had, well, 40 more years to get our act together. But I had foolishly assumed that we could keep producing oil at today's rate until we got close to the end, at which point there would be a steep drop to zero. In fact, though, it was much more likely that a gradual decline in production would set in well before the end, and that while the oil would never completely "run out", production levels far below the ones needed to keep our present technology running would be devastating. Doh!
That's like finding out that the exam you haven't studied for is being given tomorrow morning. But that wasn't the worst of it. LATOC makes the case that it's too late to switch to new energy sources because the effort of switching will itself take energy, energy we won't have as oil production declines. LATOC also argues that we can't get enough energy from the alternatives to power our civilization at current levels. It knocks them down one by one. In short, too little, too late, to save technological civilization. But that still wasn't the worst of it. LATOC makes the point that the so-called green revolution that has enabled us to feed the world's booming population is entirely based on fossil fuels. As bad as it would be to see technology collapse, the doomsday scenario had expanded in the blink of an eye to include a dieoff of billions of people due to either starvation, or wars over the world's dwindling resources.
I went into a black despair. I became a doomer (hence the pseudonym). Well, I was sort-of a doomer - sort-of, because I'm not one to just surrender to fate. I soon learned that there were at least two different types of doomers, the fatalists and the powerdowners. The fatalists figure you might as well bend over, put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye. The powerdowners seemed to view the end of industrial civilization as a good thing and are looking forward to some sort of new agrarian age, albeit one where lots of people have to die to make room for the survivors. It's a little hard to tell them apart, frankly. Powerdowners claim to have a plan to wind down civilization to sustainable levels. But the plan seems to involve lots of people dying, and most of the survivors becoming a new peasantry. If you like modern technology and don't like death, that plan is hard to distinguish from the doomsday itself. Plus, powerdowners are convinved a powerdown is inevitable after wars and such have played themselves out - thus, fatalists are powerdowners who are foolishly not getting ready. One thing they have in common is the inevitability of the end of modern life.
As I said, I'm not one to surrender to fate. I had to do something. At the very least I could warn people! I told friends and family. I joined an on-line discussion group. I started looking at my own lifestyle to see what I could do to reduce my energy consumption. There wasn't much - after all, I'd been aware of the depletion issue for 30 years. I don't drive much, and I don't use much electricity. I avoid disposable plastic stuff. I recycle everything. I got a motorcycle license and a small motorbike to cut my driving even more. I put compact fluoresent bulbs in the lights I use. I started looking for inefficient appliances to cut my power needs even more.
I also continued my research into energy alternatives. After all, I still hadn't answered my friend's question about how big a solar cell it would take to run the US (answer: for electricity alone, it would be about 1/7 the size of Nevada, according to one solar power site). What I found was encouraging. Renewable technologies had advanced considerably since the 1970s when I'd last looked. Wind turbines had emerged as the most cost-competitive technology, and were being built in Europe. Even solar cells were no longer energy-losers; you could get back the energy needed to make them in a few years and then get decades of free power from them afterwards. Fuels made from waste products, or crops grown specifically for fuel, were energy winners now, given the right feedstock. In particular, vegetable oils could be used in diesel engines, and produced with an energy payback of 3 for 1. Brazil was making a go of ethanol from sugar. Nuclear power still looked attractive, despite decades of Hollywood's best efforts to brainwash me. And there was still lots of coal (250 years worth at today's production levels in the US, because we're burning it up faster than we were before). I started wondering just how impossible it really was to switch from fossil energy sources to a combination of these alternatives using coal to bridge the gap, and I started finding flaws in the logic behind LATOC. In due course, I found four whoppers.
First, doomers tacitly assume that anything short of our current energy consumption level would be catastrophic. They also count as a shortage the expected growth in energy demand from industrializing countries like China and India, perversely using an expansion of modern civilization (that they don't believe can occur!) as further proof that it will collapse. Truth is, there is tremendous waste in our current use of energy. A trip to the grocery store is like going to a monster truck rally these days. Is it really necessary to drive a 5000 pound vehicle to buy groceries? To go anywhere? Huge amounts of food are wasted. In fact, a lot of food is grown to feed animals for meat, a very inefficient way to produce food. (I like meat - I just don't eat that much of it.) We could cut back a lot and not miss it. In an emergency, we could cut back even more, just like we did to win World War Two. It wouldn't be much fun, but it would be possible, and no one would have to starve.
Doomers usually respond to this by making the silly argument that conservation won't work because of something called Jevon's paradox. In 1865, Jevon, writing about coal resources in England, argued that improving the efficiency of use of a resource would only cause demand to increase for the resource as the price dropped. Ergo, conservation causes demand to go up and you run out anyway. Doomers are dead wrong about conservation, though. In fact, surprise, they're dead wrong about what Jevon actually said, too. In the 1970s, conservation efforts and efficiency improvements in cars alone made a big dent in oil usage, enough that you can see it in the world's oil production statistics. Europe made the changes permanent by using taxes to keep demand down. The US didn't, so when the bottom dropped out of oil prices in later decades, we went back to our wasteful ways. Europeans use roughly half the oil per person than the US does. This all proves two things: conservation can enable us to get along with less oil if we have to, and people respond in predictable ways to price changes. Doomers forget that Jevon's so-called paradox assumed that the resource in question was still abundant. But once it runs short, all bets are off. If oil production started falling, the price is not going to go down unless demand goes down even faster. Even Jevon predicted that the price of coal would soar eventually, as the resource became scare in the 1930s - doomers don't know or don't mention that. Incidentally, Jevon was wrong about the end of coal spelling doom for industrial England - he couldn't forsee the switch to oil.
The second flaw is in assuming that because we use oil to do something now, we have no other way to do it. In particular, doomers argue that none of the alternatives will work because they all require oil to implement. Wind farms and nuclear plants require oil to produce the materials they're made from, to transport the materials to the site, and to run construction equipment. Electric cars take oil to manufacture. Even coal mines need oil to run mining machinery. Once we run out of oil, we won't be able to do any of those things anymore, goes the argument. The most obvious problem with the argument is that while these activities require energy, the energy doesn't have to come from oil. We use oil for many of them now because it's cheap and convenient, but that doesn't mean we can't use another energy source when oil's no longer cheap or available. Another problem with this argument is that many of these activities don't even use oil now! They use electricity or natural gas (natural gas will also eventually start to run short, but most likely a decade after oil does). The final problem with the argument is that if things really do start to get as bad as LATOC would have you believe, building energy infrastructure will have much higher priority that most of our present transportation uses. In an all-out emergency, rationing could be implemented giving first priority to food production, energy infrastructure, and long-distance transportation of goods, especially food. The annual road trip to see Aunt Tilly and the annual vacation getaway to the Caribbean would be below the line.
The third flaw in the argument is a bit more subtle. It is the assumption that the energy required to switch to alternatives must come on top of what we are using energy for now, rather than instead of some of it. For example, Savinar argues that we won't have the energy to power a crash program of building efficient cars. This ignores the fact that we are already building cars, millions of them every year. The energy used to build them is already counted; the energy needed to build efficient cars doesn't just add to the total. It takes roughly the same energy to build an efficient car as an inefficient one. It would take 10-15 years to turn over the automobile fleet - it doesn't have to happen all at once. Another example: we are today using energy to expand the infrastructure associated with oil consumption, things like roads, airports, and shopping malls. If things get as bad as LATOC says, we won't need those things anymore. That energy and construction equipment could be used to build power plants instead.
The fourth flaw in the argument is even more subtle. Perhaps you've guessed it by now. Doomers argue that there is no energy source we can switch to that can take oil's place in modern civilization. That might or might not be true, but it's beside the point. No single energy source has to, provided we can put enough of the others together. LATOC and others knock down alternatives one by one. But if (for example) we can produce biodiesel from fuel crops, why can't that be used to run construction machinery to build power stations? I've come to believe that no single energy source will take oil's place, but rather that by combining all the ones we know about, we can put together a workable solution that will be good enough to last 200 years or more - enough time for our descendants to come up with something else, or, if they can't, to gradually reduce their numbers without letting anyone starve.
By now, I had become what the doomers call an optimist, defined as anyone who doesn't think a collapse and dieoff are inevitable. I prefer to think of myself as a realist. The real optimists think the peak in oil production won't happen for another 10-20 years. They could be right, but it almost doesn't matter because we need to act now either way. A later peak just means we have more breathing room to get our act together. It's like finding out that exam you haven't studied for was postponed a week - you still need to study for it, only now you don't have to pull an all-nighter cramming! I personally think we're at or very near peak production now, on a plateau that will probably not be enough to satisfy the newly industrializing countries while supporting our wasteful usage.
I began to see the doomer viewpoint for what it is: dogma. A dogma is something you have to believe, without questioning it. And I began to see the hidden agenda of the powerdowners, namely, to bring about their utopian vision of the neo-agrarian society, no doubt with themselves its leaders. They know that most people won't willingly accept a return to centuries past, because most people are like me. We like our modern first-world lives! Some of us wish more people in the world could have the same lifestyle, even if it means sharing what's available a bit better. But if people can be convinced that a powerdown is as unavoidable as gravity, they may bring it about simply by surrendering to it and not looking for alternatives. Scratch the surface of the powerdowner philosophy, and you'll find Marxism dressed up in radical environmentalism.
The doomers may or may not be correct about our inability to switch the energy basis of our civilization, but their case is far from proven. The mere fact that people are debating what to do shows that a lot of people (even the doomers) don't believe the future is totally out of our hands. The track record of doomsday forecasts is poor - no one can really know the future. The smug certaintly of the doomers that they've got all the answers is what finally shook me out from their midst. The doomers are right about one thing - fossil energy sources aren't going to see us through the 21rst century. But if we don't change course soon, the way forward isn't going to be an agrarian utopia. It will be powered, at least in the US and for the remainder of my life, by coal. The environmental effects of that (primarily sea level rise from global warming) aren't the legacy I want to leave to future generations.
If going back to the land is appealing to you, that's terrific! No one's stopping you, or any of the doomers either. In fact, it's a good thing to have people make some worst-case preperations, just in case the doomers are right. But if, like me, you think technological and industrial civilization is something worth preserving, then let's get to work. Don't be fooled by doomer technobabble. This stuff isn't really too hard for the average person to understand. Look for yourself. And not just at the self-serving prophets of doom, many of whom simply cite each other in a kind of circular support system. Check your prejudices at the door and actually look at sites from the nuclear power industry, renewable power advocates, and environmentalists. Sift them for biases to get to the facts. And keep thinking for yourself.
-- by Doctor Doom