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Excerpt from Endgame

Peak Oil (p. 107)

From chapter "Carrying Capacity"

I’m not the only one to speak of civilization as being based on slavery. Even those who defend civilization often acknowledge this. In The Culture of Make Believe I quoted philosopher William Harper’s 1837 defense of slavery: “President Dew [another speaker at the conference where he first delivered this message] has shown that the institution of Slavery is a principal cause of civilization. Perhaps nothing can be more evident than that it is the sole cause. If any thing can be predicated as universally true of uncultivated man, it is that he will not labor beyond what is absolutely necessary to maintain his existence. Labour is pain to those who are unaccustomed to it, and the nature of man is averse to pain. Even with all the training, the helps and motives of civilization, we find that this aversion cannot be overcome in many individuals of the most cultivated societies. The coercion of Slavery alone is adequate to form man to habits of labour. Without it, there can be no accumulation of property, no providence for the future, no taste for comforts or elegancies, which are the characteristics and essentials of civilization. He who has obtained the command of another’s labour, first begins to accumulate and provide for the future, and the foundations of civilization are laid….Since the existence of man upon the earth, with no exception whatever, either of ancient or modern times, every society which has attained civilization has advanced to it through this process.”

I received additional acknowledgment of the necessary relationship between civilization and slavery today, when I received this note from a graduate student in engineering at Georgia Tech: “Here in the mechanical engineering department, we have a ‘distinguished lecturer’ each semester who comes to give an hour long talk. These lecturers are usually CEOs of successful global companies, and we students fill the largest lecture hall on campus (about 400 seats!) to hear them speak. This semester it was Roger L. McCarthy, chairman of ‘Exponent Inc.,’ giving a talk on the importance of innovation and engineering to society, with an emphasis on ‘learning’ from history’s disasters. My heart pounded during the lecture, as I wanted to stand up like a magician and reveal to the tranquilized audience the well-disguised and tremendously destructive mythology that serves as the foundation for this culture. Of course, I couldn’t do this with the twenty to thirty seconds allotted to me in the Q&A session after the talk. So at the risk of appearing combative in front of my professors, I settled for these simple questions: ‘Has technology done more harm or good for human life, or more to the point, for life in general? And what metrics will you use in formulating your opinion?’

“I might as well have put the microphone to my ass and farted. He was baffled at the question, and probably wondered how someone could even think of asking it. His response was insulting, but typical: ‘You must not know anything about history! You must not know anything about what life was like two hundred years ago! Do you even realize what life would be like without technology? You have the equivalent of three hundred slaves working for you every day due to the advances made in technology over the last two hundred years. You have the benefit of three hundred slaves but without actually having slaves.’ The implication was that I was ‘ungrateful’ even to ask such a question.

“I was even more interested in the questions he didn’t answer than the one he did. First, he made no mention of whether technology is good for life itself. He simply ignored the human and nonhuman slaves the world over, as well as the fact that we’re killing the planet. Such topics are beneath consideration. In fact, they do not exist. And though he thought he didn’t answer my final question, about how we measure whether something is good or not, in fact he did: we can measure the success of technology with ‘an equivalent number of slaves’ approach. If next year, my life is such that I have an equivalent of six hundred slaves as opposed to my meager three hundred this year, well then, I have something to celebrate, don’t I? Meanwhile, I’ve become fatter and more clinically depressed while I strap on my jogging shoes and run in a circle for exercise (but not outside, of course, today is a red alert). What this means is that if we as a culture have chosen to value ‘enslavement’ in the most general and inclusive way possible, then we have done a tremendously good job implementing our design.”

* * *

Several years ago I interviewed Jan Lundberg, founder of the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium, “a diverse movement of grass-roots community groups, individuals, and businesses with the common goal of halting road-building,” because “a paving moratorium would limit the spread of population, redirect investment from suburbs to inner cities, and free up funding for mass transportation and maintenance of existing roads.” But there’s more to it than just roads. Phasing out massive fossil-fuel use, Lundberg says, is crucial not only to saving the earth’s climate, but to lessening the impact of the crisis that will occur when the world’s oil supply begins to run out. “The challenge before us all,” he writes, “is to survive an ecological correction unprecedented for our species. The correction will likely include an economic collapse and a conversion to subsistence activities and trading.”

Lundberg grew up around the oil industry. His father ran Lundberg Survey, Inc., a company that collected statistics on gasoline prices and industry trends. In 1973, just before the oil crisis, father and son began publishing the Lundberg Letter, which became the number-one trade journal for the oil industry and went on to predict the second oil shock of 1979.

After his father’s death in the mid-1980s, Lundberg quit the family business and directed his efforts toward energy conservation. By that point, Jan had realized that this culture’s “waste economy,” as he calls it, is unsustainable and the cause of massive environmental damage and species extinctions worldwide. We are laboring, he says, under the false impression that we can “have it all”: the physical comfort of the current way of living and a livable planet.

I said to him, “When my friends and I talk about the end of civilization, we often search for some sort of marker: one of the things we’ve come up with is the end of car culture. How do you see the end of car culture playing out? Even before that, do you agree the car culture is in its endgame? What will cause it to end? And if you don’t think it’s in its endgame, is that because they’ll find new oil, or failing that, figure out a new fuel system?”

He responded, “A lot of these questions have to be gone over in basics because the mass media and the educational systems provide zero insight into them. They act as though how much oil there is and what it can be used for are of no concern to the public.

“Probably the best place to start is by talking about Marion King Hubbert, a geologist who died several years ago who became famous for charting the life of an oil field. Extraction follows a bell curve—called the Hubbert Curve—in which production rises as new wells are put in, reaches a maximum when about half of the ‘Estimated Ultimately Recoverable’ (EUR) oil has been extracted, and then tails off as wells begin to run dry. During the decline, technologies such as water flooding and gas injection may be introduced to slow the rate of depletion, but all they do is stave off the inevitable. The same pattern that is true for individual oil fields holds for geological basins as well: production rises as new fields are found and then tails off as the larger and more accessible fields are depleted. This pattern can be extended also to entire nations, and ultimately to the planet. The bottom line of all this—and this is so obvious we shouldn’t need to say it, but we have to because there is so much ignorance and intentional deceit surrounding this subject—is that the production of any field starts at zero, rises to a peak, and then falls to zero.

“For the United States, production in the lower-forty-eight peaked about 1970—as predicted by Hubbert some forty years ago—and has been on the decline ever since.”

I asked, “When will world oil production peak?”

He responded, “Before we can ask that—and that is the question, isn’t it?— we need to ask another, which is, what is the world’s volume of EUR oil? Once again, production will peak when half of this volume has been extracted.

“One of the best figures I’ve seen for EUR is about 1,800 billion barrels, which would mean that global production would peak by the year 2007. Even if EUR oil is as high as 2,600 billion barrels, that would move the peak back to only 2019. To be honest, both of these figures seem too far away, because I don’t think they fully take into account that oil consumption continues to rise very quickly. I have seen other credible figures—and these seem far more feasible to me—sug-gesting that global oil production has already peaked.

“Now, when United States production peaked, that didn’t mean the end of the oil age, since the U.S. could still import oil. But when global production peaks, as it either already has or will shortly, it means the beginning of the end of the economy as we know it. Five Middle East countries will regain control of world supply. This will make the oil shocks of the 1970s seem like nothing, because then there were plenty of new oil and gas finds to bring onstream. This time there are virtually no new prolific basins to yield a crop of giant fields sufficient to have a global impact. The growing Middle East control of the market is likely to lead to a radical and permanent increase in the price of oil long before physical shortages begin to appear, and they will appear within the next decade.”

Of course the most recent U.S. invasion of Iraq took place in great measure to secure U.S. access to Iraqi oil.

He continued, “This will, of course, demolish the economy, which has been driven by an abundant supply of cheap energy for a century. We’re going to live through an ‘economic and political discontinuity of historic proportions,’ as one analyst puts it, or the crash, as we more often refer to it. I like the language of oil industry geologist Dr. Walter Youngquist: ‘My observations in some seventy countries over about fifty years of travel and work tell me that we are clearly already over the cliff. The momentum of population growth and resource consumption is so great that a collision course with disaster is inevitable. Large problems lie not very far ahead.’”

I responded, “Wait a minute. I’ve seen industry and government figures showing that “proven reserves of oil are enough to supply the world for forty-three years at current rates of production.”

He said, “I see two immediate problems with this. The first is that these figures come from government and industry. You don’t think that either of those groups would lie to the American public, do you? For political reasons, proved oil reserves are consistently substantially overstated. It is in the interest of both oil-producing nations and companies to overstate their remaining oil, because their business agreements limit them to pumping and selling a proportion of their remaining resources. For example, if contracts limit you to pumping 10 percent of your proven reserves per year, you’ll make a lot more money, and you’ll make it a lot more quickly, if you simply lie about your proven reserves. But in fact the rate of oil discovery is falling sharply. Discovery of oil and gas peaked in the 1960s, and the situation has deteriorated enough that by now the world consumes more than three times as much oil each year as is discovered. Do you think the oil industry is aware of oil field depletion? Of course. It’s their business. Why do you think no new supertankers have been built for twenty years? A report written for oil industry insiders and priced at $32,000 per copy concludes that world oil production and supply peaked in 2000, and will decline to half by 2025. The report predicts large and permanent increases in oil prices for the very near future.

“The second problem with that argument—that oil reserves will last forty-three years—is that it is based on ‘current rates of production.’ Their use of that language should clue us to the fact that they are dissembling, because the truth is that production is skyrocketing. At one time I thought that the downslope of the Hubbert Curve might be at least slightly gradual, but because in recent years production has accelerated to unanticipatedly high levels, I’ve come to believe that the downslope of the curve will be extremely steep.”

I told him I didn’t understand.

He said, “It means we’re using up the oil far faster than anyone anticipated, so the crash will be sooner and harder than even environmentalists predict.”

“But as oil becomes increasingly rare, it will become increasingly expensive, which will provide financial incentives to develop other forms of energy. Tar sands for example, or oil shale.”

“Economists say this all the time. They like to argue that scarcity results in price increases, making it more profitable to access poorer deposits. It’s too bad that economics and the real world so rarely intersect.”

“True. I took a year of graduate study in Mineral Economics back in the 1980s, and I remember informally renaming one of my classes ‘ME 514: Guessing at Things,’ and another ‘ME 525: Pretending to Have Answers.’”

“In this case the economists are confusing dollars with calories. The fact is that as an oil field ages, it takes increasing amounts of energy to pump out the remaining oil. You need to subtract that energy cost from the total value of the energy extracted. Even now, the average energy profit ratio for newly discovered oil in the United States has fallen to 1:1, meaning the energy required to find and extract a barrel of oil increasingly exceeds the energy contained in the barrel. At some point it will no longer make sense to use oil for energy, no matter how much you can sell it for. Too often, both economists and engineers forget that they cannot repeal the laws of thermodynamics. They forget, to switch ways of speaking here, something known to every child: that an orange only has so much orange juice in it.”

“Energy profit ratio?”

“That’s a measure of how much energy must go into a process to get a certain amount of energy out. The early oil wells in Pennsylvania had a ridiculously high ratio because you had almost zero energy input. You just had to go scoop it up and burn it. But the ratios for all these other forms of energy are much lower. Ethanol, for example, has an energy profit ratio of less than 1:1, meaning it takes more energy to make it than you get out of it.”

“You make a great point,” I said, “but I still have another concern. The government already subsidizes the oil industry, and subsidizes many other industries that make no fiscal, ecological, or economic sense. Why would we think that the same government wouldn’t just continue with these subsidies, even when they make no sense from an energy perspective? Why wouldn’t the government just use the full force and power of the state to hand over money, and energy, so that from the perspective of the corporation the tar sands are profitable?”

“That’s a good question, especially because that’s already happening. Our entire economic system is based on these subsidies, from agriculture to manufacturing to energy. Especially energy. That’s why oil is so cheap right now. Just including the cost of the Persian Gulf military presence—for which we as taxpayers foot the bill—would at least double the price of oil.

“The thing that scares me even more than monetary subsidies, however, are the hidden subsidies that can never be accounted for. Can you put a price on global warming? Can you put a price on a pristine lake or river? The so-called economic view of our planet and of life is anti-life.

“So long as we cling to this economic view, we will be able to maintain the illusion of cheap oil for just a little bit longer, paying for the oil in ways that we don’t know and don’t necessarily feel.

“But I’ll tell you what scares me the most about all this: everything in this economy is based on petroleum. It’s not just cars. It’s the food we eat, fertilized with petroleum products, transported by petroleum. It’s the plastics we surround ourselves with. It’s everywhere. Everything is oil. People don’t even know. They don’t even think. And it wasn’t very long ago that we supported ourselves on a plant-based economy. Canvas, for example, was from cannabis, and now it’s from DuPont. One reason they outlawed hemp was that DuPont was able to make substitutes. Medicines, clothes, it’s all there.”

“What about natural gas? Can the system keep going another couple of generations on natural gas and coal? Maybe coal gasification.”

“There’s not a lot of natural gas out there. And coal gasification is another one of those inefficient processes in which you have to put in a lot of energy but you don’t get that much out. Now, there’s a hell of a lot of coal, if you’re willing to destroy the surface of the planet to get it out, and pump all the mine wastes into your rivers, and the soot into the air.  I’m not certain that even this culture is crazy enough to do that.”

“Let’s cut to the chase. Do you think we’ll see the end of car culture in our lives?”

“Yes. It may be because we run out of oil, or it may be because of economic collapse from which we do not get up, based on the demand for oil so greatly outstripping the supply that the price goes through the roof. And the end of car culture may ultimately be a liberating event, for those who survive, as we try to remember how to live with what the land will give us. But if the collapse is so pervasive that too many nuclear events occur, even the collapse may simply further the destruction that is the hallmark of this culture.”

“Let’s take this step-by-step,” I said. “When we talk about the end of car culture, we’re not talking just about the end of traffic jams and commuting . . .”

“Because the agricultural system is also petrochemically based, we’re essentially eating oil. So we’re really talking about the collapse of the agricultural infrastructure, and the associated transportation and distribution network, which goes beyond agriculture. It’s the products, it’s commuting, it’s food.

“We’re essentially fucked, and we don’t know it. It’s like Youngquist said, we’re already over the cliff, but we aren’t paying attention.”