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A man of many words. Profane, profound, loyal to a fault and a right rat bastard. I love the finer things in life: expensive cigars, cheap women and all the salted, cured meats I can eat. A friend to dogs, lover of humanity and despiser of people. If I were King the world would be a better place, because, well...I would be King! Oh, and I like ice cream.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Read It And Weep

A certain young graduate student I know (not Mick) wrote this paper. He shall remain anonymous due to a felony he confessed to in the paper. But, the message is a sobering one.

Peak Oil:

The Intersection of Public Health, the Built Environment, and National Security

Climate change is not the biggest threat facing modern society, not even if the sea level begins to rise noticeably in the coming decades. This and other anticipated effects of climate change – intensification of severe weather, droughts, floods, the spread of tropical diseases, etc – can all be dealt with or adapted to, given our level of technology. That last part is worth repeating – given our level of technology. But what if this were not a given? What if all the complex systems that our advanced society is based on began to crumble? Well, then climate change would be just an exacerbating factor in a much larger problem. This problem is Peak Oil.

“Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon.”

So begins the website Life After the Oil Crash, a first-stop primer for anyone interested in the issue of Peak Oil (Savinar 2005). This site is now the number two result when one Googles the word “oil.” Its daily readers include the multi-billionaire friend-of-Bush Richard Rainwater, who made his fortune by speculating on trends that he recognized before anyone else did. Rainwater says, “This is the first scenario I’ve seen where I question the survivability of man” (Ryan, 2005).

Peak Oil theories are based on observations of the behaviors of oil fields called Hubbert’s Peak. M. King Hubbert was a Shell petro-geologist in the 40s and 50s. He posited that the production of individual fields followed a bell curve, sloping upward until half of the reserve was tapped, and then sloping back down until it was no longer economical to pump the field. He correctly predicted the peak and decline of domestic US oil production. When his theories are applied to global oil supplies, some think that the peak is imminent, if not already in the past. Others give world reserves another 30 to 40 years before peaking. However, everyone agrees that at some point they will peak and then begin a long, inexorable decline.

The ignorant scoff and say, “We will never run out of oil.” Actually, they are correct. This is because it will no longer make economic sense to extract oil from the Earth once it becomes so difficult that it requires a barrel of effort to produce a barrel in return. Actually, we will probably stop long before that point. This is because we do not need to run out in order to face a crisis. All that is required is for demand to sufficiently outstrip supply – because all of our economic systems are based on growth, and all growth is currently based on the consumption of oil. Once it becomes apparent that oil-based expansion is no longer possible, and no viable alternative is ready, systems will quickly collapse.

If the peak was passed in 2005, as some believe, that means there is no longer any “swing” production available – extra capacity that can be tapped in time of shortage in order to stabilize prices. It basically means that the spigot is open wide and no more can be produced on a day-to-day basis. China and India are certainly demanding more and more oil. The price per barrel is steadily rising, approaching the what-will-be-historic mark of $100 per. The world will probably find out whether or not the peak has passed the next time there is a Katrina-sized disruption. On that occasion, Europe lent the US oil from its strategic reserves, acting as a swing producer (Appleyard, 2005). The question is, had Europe not, could Saudi Arabia have produced more? We do not know, due to how closely Saudi Arabia guards information about its capacities.

As with climate change, even skeptics must admit that Peak Oil is real, but argue the timetable. They say that new reserves are being discovered and the size of current reserves are being found to be larger than previously thought. Most of this is nonsense. No “elephant” fields have been found in over twenty years. Most of the smaller new fields labeled by the press as “new” are not new at all – they were previously discovered, but difficult to reach. They are simply newly viable, as the rising price of a barrel has made them finally worth tapping. The “Jack 2” field in the Gulf of Mexico is an example of this, as well as recent “finds” off the coast of Brazil.

As for recent upward revision of reserve estimates – there is no way to verify them, as most are held as state secrets, and there are many economic incentives for fraud. OPEC production quotas are based on the stated reserves of its members. Also, if the world became too aware of its situation, nations might more aggressively seek to wean themselves from oil addiction. That is not beneficial to exporter nations.

Humans have a tendency to believe that everything happens in cycles. Life, the seasons, the economy – climate change skeptics even argue that global warming is part of some grand cycle. Our consumption of oil, however, is a non-recurring event. Oil reserves are a trust fund of solar energy accumulated in the form of compressed biomass for hundreds of millions of years, and we will have burnt through it, literally, in just two centuries. This is not part of any cycle.

Peak Oil optimists say that we will be saved by innovation and alternative fuels. Perhaps this is true, but a look at the current state of our alternatives is not encouraging. Solar, wind, wave, and geothermal power, hydrogen cells and biofuels – these are all summarily dismissed in their present states of development by critics, including Savinar on his website, and James Kunstler in The Long Emergency. The following is from Life After the Oil Crash:

When considering the role of oil in the production of modern technology, remember that most alternative systems of energy — including solar panels/solar-nanotechnology, windmills, hydrogen fuel cells, bio-diesel production facilities, nuclear power plants, etc. all rely on sophisticated technology and metallurgy.

People tend to think of "alternatives to oil" as somehow independent from oil. In reality, the alternatives to oil are more accurately described as "derivatives of oil." It takes massive amounts of oil and other scarce resources to locate and mine the raw materials (silver, copper, platinum, uranium, etc.) necessary to build solar panels, windmills, and nuclear power plants. It takes more oil to construct these alternatives and even more oil to distribute them, maintain them, and adapt current infrastructure to run on them. (Savinar 2005)

Still, those who wish to dismiss Peak Oil usually do so with their faith in innovation – faith, not reason. This is due to the Pollyanna Principle. People are more likely to believe incorrect, even irrational, information that benefits them rather than sober assessments that spell bad news. The skeptics call the Peak Oil pessimists Cassandras, the same as there have always been, always predicting disaster. The following passage from a feature in the Sunday Times of London addressed this well:

But those [past] doomsdays were the product of faith; reason used to always say the world will continue. The point about the new apocalypse is that this situation has reversed. Now faith tells us we will be able to solve our problems; reason says we have no answers now and none are likely in the future. (Appleyard, 2005).

And later, in the same feature:

The evidence is mounting that our two sunny centuries of growth and wealth may end in a new Dark Age in which ignorance will replace knowledge, war will replace peace, sickness will replace health, and famine will replace obesity. You don’t think so? It’s always happened in the past. What makes us so different? Nothing. (Appleyard, 2005)

This is the subtle point of Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fair or Succeed, though rather than phrasing it so stridently, he for the most part allows the reader to draw the parallels between the fall of past societies and our own present situation. In example after example, Diamond shows how the population of past societies has always expanded to the threshold of local resources. Then, once local resources are exhausted, or diminish due to some other reason, collapse occurs – often rather quickly and brutally.

The final section of this book: Practical Lessons, should be required reading of all public health and planning students (if not the whole volume). Though Diamond is more concerned with environmental degradations than Peak Oil, the following gallows humor is still quite striking:

Are the parallels between the past and present sufficiently close that the collapse of … [past societies] … could offer any lessons for the modern world? At first, a critic, noting the obvious differences, might be tempted to object, “It’s ridiculous to suppose that the collapses of all those ancient peoples could have broad relevance today, especially to the modern U.S. Those ancients didn’t enjoy the wonders of modern technology, which benefits us and lets us solve problems by inventing new environment-friendly technologies. Those ancients had the misfortune to suffer from effects of climate change. They behaved stupidly and ruined their own environment by doing obviously dumb things, like cutting down their forests, over-harvesting wild animal sources of their protein, watching their topsoil erode away, and building cities in dry areas likely to run short of water. They had foolish leaders who didn’t have books and so couldn’t learn from history, and who embroiled them in expensive and destabilizing wars, cared only about staying in power, and didn’t pay attention to problems at home.” (Diamond, p. 514)


In The Long Emergency, Kunstler argues that America is perhaps the least prepared of all nations for the realities of Peak Oil, primarily due to our decades-long investment in suburban expansion, and the reliance upon automobiles that accompanied it.

The American way of life – which is now virtually synonymous with suburbia – can run only on reliable supplies of dependably cheap oil and gas. Even mild to moderate deviations in either price or supply will crush our economy and make the logistics of daily life impossible. (Kunstler, p. 3)

In addition, our sprawling suburbs have devoured lands that were once agricultural for miles and miles around our cities. In a post-Peak economy, without the means to transport the average piece of food 1,500 miles, we will need this land returned to its previous use. But will this conversion be possible?

Kunstler predicts that the suburbs themselves will become the wastelands of the future, unlivable due to their remoteness from the city and general lack of access to mass transit. Two-ton personal transportation devices run on fossil fuels will no longer be practical or affordable for the vast majority of citizens, as they are now. People will have to move in closer to existing population centers. Kunstler believes that large cities might be untenable – that the post-Peak world may favor smaller cities and hamlets that are surrounded by agricultural land that can support more modest populations.

When referring to Kunstler’s outlook in The Long Emergency, Richard Rainwater says, “It’s the Z scenario” (Ryan, 2005). An A scenario must then be a set of alternatives and innovations, and the time to implement and scale them, that would work so well in place of oil that there would be nary a blip in the purring of the global economy. The reality will most likely be somewhere in between. But where, at what scenario will we find ourselves when the passing of Peak Oil is realized?

This is the question facing future public health and planning professionals. How do we prepare for the possibility of any Peak Oil future that is not scenario A - business as usual? There is no preparing for a Z scenario. I must disagree with the billionaire Richard Rainwater on what this scenario might look like. I think that Kunstler belongs somewhere around the letter T. The Z scenario would be the nightmare world of stirring ash and cannibalism in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, perhaps as the result of resource conflicts that escalated to a nuclear level.

If we are lucky enough to develop a viable alternative to oil in time, it will most likely still require that we “power-down” from our current levels of energy consumption, unless we very quickly unlock the secrets of cold fusion. This means that the carrying capacity of the Earth will be diminished. Before the Industrial Revolution, the Earth’s population was around 1 billion. Since the boom allowed by the exploitation of fossil fuels, it has risen to well over 6 billion. What will the Earth’s carrying capacity be after the end of easy oil?


Where were you for New Year’s Eve, 1999? Do you remember the uncertainty about the Y2K bug? There were predictions that massive system failures and chaos could spread across any place that depended on computer networks. This is one reason that I decided to spend the corresponding week in Havana. Cuba was not dependent upon computer networks, and therefore might be a safe bet, just in case there was really anything to the alarmist Y2K scenarios that were being bandied about the news channels.

Cuba comes up again in considering Peak Oil. Some think that a best-case scenario’s slide down the back-slope of oil depletion with no real alternatives might resemble what happened there in the 90’s:

The American trade embargo, combined with the collapse of Cuba’s communist allies in Eastern Europe, suddenly deprived the island of imports. Without oil, public transport shut down and TV broadcasts finished early in the evening to save power. Industrial farms needed fuel and spare parts, pesticide and fertilizer – none of which were available. Consequently, the average Cuban diet dropped from about 3,000 calories per day in 1989 to 1,900 calories four years later. In effect, Cubans were skipping a meal a day, every day, week after month after year. Of necessity, the country converted to sustainable farming techniques, replacing artificial fertilizer with ecological alternatives, rotating crops to keep the soil rich, and using teams of oxen instead of tractors. There are still problems supplying meat and milk, but over time Cubans regained the equivalent of that missing meal. And ecologists hailed their achievement in creating the world’s largest working model of largely sustainable agriculture, largely independent of oil. (Appleyard, 2005)

Of course Cuba is now the beneficiary of Hugo Chavez’ largesse, and oil is being delivered regularly. Still, the country now has the know-how and the proper infrastructure to deal with a world without oil.

One difference between Cuba in the 90’s and potential American scenarios in the future is that Cuba did not have nearly so far to fall as we do. Cuba already did not possess networks as vast, advanced, and irreplaceable as those we depend on now in the United States. Another obvious difference is that Cuba is not a democracy, and it is not a capitalist economy. It is a dictatorship and a command economy. In Cuba’s time of powering-down, these features were almost certainly to its benefit.

I do not yet suggest that we do away with democracy and capitalism in order to deal with a future threat of unknown magnitude. However, taking more decisions regarding resources, infrastructure, and the environment out of the hands of elected officials might not be a bad idea. Non-elected professional, one hopes, would not allot funds to any more Alaskan “bridges to nowhere” or ignore the politically inconvenient measures necessary to avert impending water shortages.

I believe that Jared Diamond would agree:

Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping… outcomes towards success or failure: long-term planning, and a willingness to reconsider core values. One of those choices has depended on the courage to practice long-term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems have become perceptible but before they have reached crisis proportions. This type of decision-making is the opposite of the short-term reactive decision-making that too often characterizes our elected officials. (Diamond, p. 522)

Professional planners and public health professionals, working together, could begin structuring our nation in such a way that we could better deal with a future power-down. And even if such a power-down did not occur, these changes would be ones that would benefit public health and the built environment anyway. These include many of the things that our class has talked about this semester: mass transit, greater connectivity, less sprawl, pedestrian-friendly design, LEED certifications, local and organic food production, smart growth, and dense mixed-use development.

How can the above best be implemented? I would suggest the entire United States be re-organized along the framework concept of Megaregions. We would be better off without the plethora of archaic, overlapping, and squabbling jurisdictions and authorities full of redundant and petty politicians and bureaucrats that currently burden us. Efforts need to be coordinated at a larger scale. We no longer have the luxury to tolerate wasted time and incremental, provincial bumblings, simply for the sake of outdated political tradition.

As Richard Rainwater says when considering the post-Peak future, “You have to push way past conventional thinking, test the boundaries of chaos, see events in a bigger context” (Ryan, 2005).

Public health and planning practitioners need to speak up and seek to expand their power. The stakes are too high to be content with the present system, when elected officials can, and do, consistently ignore good advice. Those in planning and public health need to cast off their traditional meekness and their acquiescence to backseat roles. Their goal should be to advance from positions as advisors to positions as leaders, whether through advocating organizational reform or seeking public office themselves.


Portents of the coming oil crunch are everywhere. As recent as the December 9th edition of the New York Times there appears an article titled: Oil-Rich Nations Use More Energy, Cutting Exports. It seems that the historically high prices of oil are producing such rapid economic growth in exporter nations that they are needing to keep more and more of their production for themselves. Indonesia has already “flipped” from exporter to importer. Mexico is set to be next, perhaps within 5 years. Mexico is currently the number two source of oil to the United States (Krauss 2007). For the United States, the crunch may precede the peak. Then what?


Appleyard, B. (2005, October 16). Waiting for the lights to go out. The Sunday Times, October 16, 2005. Retrieved December 6, 2007 from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/article575370

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse. London: Penguin Books.

Krauss, C. (2007, December 9). Oil-rich nations use more energy, cutting exports. The New York Times. December 9, 2007.

Kunstler, J. (2005) The long emergency. New York: Grove Press.

McCarthy, C. (2007). The road. New York: Vintage Books.

Ryan, O. (2005, December 26). The Rainwater prophecy. Fortune, Dec 26 2005.

Savinar, M. (2005). Life after the oil crash. Retrieved December 5, 2007 from http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net


Never-been-to-Cuba said...

Wow, that guy can write.

The-Hell-You-Weren't said...

Ah, he's a hack. He basically just cribbed off Kunstler.

WriTerGuy said...

People think the first episode will look like this: www.worldwithoutoil.org.