Vonnegut: Jeremiah

One of the more lucid bits I came across in my early grappling with the concept of Peak Oil was Kurt Vonnegut’s Cold Turkey. Go read it if you haven’t already, or if you have. I think it’s perfectly spot on. Me and Kurt, we homeys.

[...] I once had a high that not even crack cocaine could match. That was when I got my first driver�s license! Look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut.

And my car back then, a Studebaker, as I recall, was powered, as are almost all means of transportation and other machinery today, and electric power plants and furnaces, by the most abused and addictive and destructive drugs of all: fossil fuels.

When you got here, even when I got here, the industrialized world was already hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, and very soon now there won�t be any more of those. Cold turkey.

Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn�t like TV news, is it?

Here�s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey.

And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we�re hooked on.

Through Gristmill, I just read another installment on the same note, a little more pointed. It’s about the gasoline, stupid. Don’t let the easy Bush-bashing make you too comfortable. “This is the end of the world.”

OK, I think that might be a mild exaggeration. End of civilization as we know it, within our lifetimes? I’m well past halfway sure. Other parents I know look at me funny when I tell them I don’t think our children will drive–not as a matter of course, certainly not as a coming-of-age rite–so why inure them to it?

37 thoughts on “Vonnegut: Jeremiah”

  • Erik Sandblom

    Why the doomsday scenario? Even Bush wants to kick the habit. Places like Portland, Manhattan, and many European cities show how transportation can be made more energy efficient. It would be interesting to see a study of how much energy is required for transportation in these cities.

    Kurt Vonnegut’s apprehension about fire trucks coming to a halt seem a little silly given all the alternatives in use today, ethanol, agricultural products etc. Plus all the clever lateral-thinking tandem Brompton ideas likely to crop up.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapeseed#Biodiesel

    I see violence as being a bigger problem than the oil shortage itself. But national oil-independence, together with its close relative, fear, is a powerful motivator to abandon being dependent on mercurial regimes. I can see strife erupting more domestically than internationally. Just like most countries have their bigots, they also have their car-dependent enclaves with their insufferable “can’t/won’t” contrarians. It’s remarkable that the right wing finds it natural that the government take responsibility for cheap roads and fuel.

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  • [...] – Cold Turkey, By Kurt Vonnegut [via CleverChimp] [...]

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  • Allan

    I too am skeptical of the doomsday scenarios.

    For one you have to ask yourself, why do we use so much oil? Well, obviously it is the cheapest. Cheapest of the cheapest in fact. Mining hydro-carbon chains are the highest yielding sources of energy. Of the mined hydro-carbon chains, petroleum is cheapest. Of petroleum sources, the middle east is cheapest. Well, all that means is there are a lot of other energy sources waiting to have their day in the sun… sources which are still mined hydro-carbons coal and methane and shale and the usual renewable “alternatives”. At this point in the discussion peak-oilers switch to complaints about poisoning the planet.

    Well, OK. Then it is about the environment. Data there are pretty inconclusive. Yet, prudence dicatates erroring on the side of conservation and so forth. However, no one is interested in conserving if it means it impacts their lifestyle (locally) or economy (nationally). It is classic NIMBY-ism. A close scrutiny of all the treaties and international agreements and so forth shows they are nothing more than glorified tariffs and trade-barriers.

    So where’s that leave us? Higher energy costs will act as a drag on our economy/standard of living. However, it is doubtful they will be the order of magnitude increase that would necessitate a radical change in the order of modern society, nor even making it so a typical 4 year old today will not be driving some 12 years hence. Whether we are poisoning Earth or not, no one (outside a few fringers) is willing to be first to make an order of magnitude change in their personal life or national economy to roll back the CO2 clock, which if the scientists publishing in about about Global Warming are to be believed, an order of magnitude change is what is required.

    Finally, I find that all besides the point with what is trully ailing our society. Indeed, if some new photovoltaic technology were to be discovered making solar cells 1000 times more productive than today’s state of the art for 1/10 the manufacturing cost, and if futuristic automobiles were made to drive around at speeds and convenience comprable to today, and if houses could have those PV’s on their roofs which made them all net energy producers, will our communities be any better for it?

    I think not. And in that context, it becomes obvious. The bike-pedestrian centric model and the localism it fosters is important for a myriad of reasons. But hitching our wagon to the peak-oil/global-warming team of horses while mighty enticing from a variety of immediate considerations, means we risk losing it all if peak-oil/glocal-warming proves a non-issue in the long-run. Rather, I think the bike-pedestrian centric model stands on its own and should be argued on its own. Biking people are healthier. Walking people know their neighbors and are happier for it. Growing ones own food creates a respect for conservation and economy. Knowing the craftsman of your manufactured goods fosters respect for labor and empathy for Labor. All of these are good things and none of them necessarily follow when we all have electric Minis and Smart Cars wisking us to and fro merely as super-efficient SUV’s.

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  • Erik Sandblom

    Allan, energy efficiency has been a hot topic for as long as I can remember. The reasons people give for being energy-efficient change with fashion, but the basic idea is timeless. Call it global warming, peak oil, geopolitics, oil shocks, nuclear disasters, whatever. Bicycles are good for all of those ailments. In ten years it might be something else, but I think bikes will come in as a handy solution for that too. Zero mpg is always going to be endlessly much better than even 0,0000001 mpg.

    I don’t think alternative fuels make a difference to the concept of peak oil. The point is, the price of fuel and energy is going to rise; slowly or quickly, a little or a lot, it doesn’t matter. In the first Gulf war $20 /barrel was going to ruin the economy. Now it’s $70 /barrel and the USA is putting out one new streetcar system per year on average. Todd switched from stylesheets to eco-bikes. A changing economy must not be mistaken for a failing economy.

    There is reason for optimism. Given the will to go car-free or car-lite, it only takes five years or so to do it, without any reduction in living standard. Secondly it is hugely beneficial to do so; I assume ditching the car halves someone’s energy requirement, and it’s the fossil fuel half too. If millions of people do this, and I don’t think that’s unrealistic in say 10 years, that will take a big chunk out of global oil consumption.

    I enjoy being car-free/car-lite, it’s not a sacrifice. The assumption that it has halved my energy consumption makes me optimistic that the problem — whatever you like to call it — will be solved.

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  • Josh Larios

    Why the doomsday scenario?



    The End of Suburbia
    Big Coal – The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future
    Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil
    High Noon For Natural Gas: The New Energy Crisis




    It’s not all doom and gloom, though:



    Post-Carbon Institute




    If you’re wondering why people are talking about peak oil in terms of the end of civilization, you should watch The End of Suburbia. There are free screenings periodically. It’s short, but packed with information.

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  • Erik Sandblom

    How is the end suburbia a doomsday scenario? I think a lot of people agree that the suburban dream suffers from being micromanaged. The houses themselves are nice, but the megastores are not, it’s unpleasant being forced to drive everywhere, it’s boring to live in a homogenous place.

    It’s not such a big deal to put in some corner stores, some bike paths, some public transportation. Longer term, you can convert some of the parking fields to put in apartment blocks, old age homes and schools. I bristle at the idea that things cannot change. I bristle at the idea that distances cannot be traversed without cars.

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  • Josh Larios

    The end of suburbia isn’t itself the doomsday scenario. It’s the canary in the coal mine. What causes suburbia to come to an end is the doomsday scenario. Suburbia doesn’t end because simply people can’t afford to drive to work and aren’t willing to bike there. It ends because our entire agriculture industry is powered by cheap energy, from fertilizers to transportation. It ends because a good chunk of the electrical infrastructure in the US is powered by natural gas and coal, easily available amounts of which are rapidly declining. (The 250 years we’re supposed to have thanks to all the coal in the US? Yeah, that’s pretty wildly optimistic.)

    I’ve been a bicycle commuter for three years, and car-free for a couple of months. I live in a small house, close in to the core of a large city. I’m not worried about my mcmansion in a maze of cul-de-sacs in the middle of nowhere. I’m worried that in the forseeable future there won’t be any produce at the supermarket because it’s not cost-effective to truck it there any more, we’ve torn up most of the rail infrastructure that could have been used as a shipping buffer zone, and now it’s too expensive (both in terms of money and energy) to rebuild it.

    Drop me a line with your mailing address and I’ll send you a copy of The End of Suburbia. If you aren’t worried after watching, send it back to me. If you are, give it to a friend and get them worrying. My email address is hades at elsewhere dot org.

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  • Josh Larios

    (I have a theory about why it’s called The End of Suburbia and not The End of Civilization. I was watching a documentary about heavy metal groundwater pollution from some industrial plants a while ago, and one of the investigators talked about how the pollution level was at greater than twenty times the legal limit. In reality, it was several hundred thousand times the legal limit, or something of that magnitude. But if you tell people it’s twenty times higher, they’ll be outraged; if you tell them it’s a hundred thousand times higher, they won’t believe you. Same here. Maybe it’s more palatable to say that the coming energy crisis will be a problem for suburbia, even though if you really listen to what’s being said in the film, it’s clear that the problem is much, much worse than that.)

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  • Erik Sandblom

    If the vegetables are brought in by truck, most of the cost is not for fuel, but labour. I guess fuel cost could be 10% of the cost of your vegetables. Even if the fuel price rises tenfold (that’s $700 /barrel), you’re still only looking at a doubling of the cost of your fresh vegetables.

    At a doubled market price, there’s room for lots more local produce, and that’s not a bad thing.

    The only people who are hurt by that are already poor. I mean, it’s not an energy problem of the future, it’s a poverty problem of today.

    You could argue I’m only looking at the final transportation of the grown vegetables, not the energy cost of producing and distributing fertilizer etc. But even so, you can already buy local organic vegetables, what do they cost? It’s an adjustment, but not a huge deal.

    And suburbs with dead ends are not in the middle of nowhere. A suburb is by definition close to an urban area. It is inherently suitable for bicycles and rapid transit into town. The cul de sacs can be connected up with bike paths.

    Let’s not forget that many people can and do go car-free, and that this both has big effects on fuel consumption and saves people a lot of money. Ditch your car and you can afford to buy a lot of organic vegetables.

    Again, a changing economy is not a failing economy. Look at the shift in manufacturing to Asia and the shift to IT in the US. That wasn’t a catastrophe. Neither will it be a catastrophe to shift from automobile and oil industry to local food producton.

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  • Josh Larios

    If I ditch my car and have that money left over for buying organic vegetables, it doesn’t do me any good if there are only enough local organic farms to support 10% of the population of my area. You can’t turn a conventional farm into an organic one overnight–that land is dead without continual energy input in the form of chemical fertilizers, or years of soil building through organic methods.

    It is a huge deal, at least in the US. I don’t know what the proportion of organic to conventional farms is in Sweden, but it’s pretty low here. Maybe in your area, it won’t be a big deal if conventionally-operated agriculture goes away. But here, I’m thinking we’ll see another dust bowl.

    And that’s not even taking into account the problem of fossil-fuel powered electrical plants. I agree that a changing economy isn’t necessarily failing economy. But I have a hard time imagining a future with an unreliable electrical grid and not thinking of it as at least a minor catastrophe.

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  • Murray

    Peak Oil is always underestimated. Its take more time and effort and research to fully understand the problem than most people are willing to put in. Does anybody realise what the BIGGEST use of oil is in the western world? Guess what… Its NOT transportation. Its NOT even materials we use for virtually every consumer product on the market (plastics, steel, alloys all require oil). No it’s food production. All anyone can talk about though is buying a hybrid and putting in corner shops.
    Alternative fuels? Take all the alternatives out there, throw years of development and tonnes of money at them and they would only make up a tiny fraction of the 80 million plus barrels a day habit we have. Do the math and have a hanky ready.

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  • Erik Sandblom

    Ok I’ll sit up and pay attention. I didn’t know the number one use of oil is food production. I thought it was transportation.

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  • miketually

    Isn’t it something stupid like 2000 calories of oil to produce 1 calorie of food? The figures used to be reversed…

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  • Todd

    [This comment by Bill Manewal, who needed the images inlined, not generally possible in WordPress comments, unless you use something the kidz call Fahrner Image Replacement.]

    Like a fish in water, the immersion our awareness in what Kunstler has called the ââ?¬Å?cheap oil fiestaââ?¬Â? has made us almost totally able to grasp neither its pervasiveness nor the likely consequences when the party winds down.We in particular at this forum are focused on transportation. Some of us remember the gas lines during the 70ââ?¬â?¢s. All of us have experienced sticker shock at the gas pumps. But miles per gallon or miles per kilowatt is only the small foamy top of the tsunami that is about to hit humankind.If we look at a human population graph of the planet from the earliest guesses, the slope upward is about 5 degrees with a little dip when the plague wiped out 1/3 of Europe.[image]This line is almost flat until about 1880 when, spurred by Pasteurââ?¬â?¢s work, doctors finally started washing their hands in nurseries, some 40 years after an obstetrics resident named Semmelweiss noted the 25% mortality rate from childbed fever on doctorsââ?¬â?¢ wards vs. the 2% mortality rate on midwivesââ?¬â?¢ wards where they washed their hands. (He lost his job and was vilified by his peers after his experiment of having the doctors wash their hands reduced their infection rate.) Then the line started a slightly steeper slope until about 1910 when it starts rising exponentially.Why the sudden rise? Iââ?¬â?¢m 62 years old. When I was in high school, earthââ?¬â?¢s population was 3 billion. Now its over 6.5 billion and growing at about 3 per second. http://www.ibiblio.org/lunarbin/worldpopThatââ?¬â?¢s a doubling in my little lifetime. Why the sudden rise?Have you ever done any gardening? Did you work the earth with shovels, picks, and hoes? I have. Iââ?¬â?¢ve never gardened with a horse or an ox, but for 3 years I did get to use a Ford 30hp diesel tractor with a 6 ft wide roto-tiller attachment on the back end, and a front end loader attachment to scoop a 10-foot high pile of compost. Wow! What a difference!So, around 1910 we seriously began applying our cheap oil to growing food. We use it to break the ground, till the soil, form rows, plant seed, pump irrigation water, spray herbicides, insecticides, fungicides (PETRO-chemicals that produced the ââ?¬Å?Green Revolutionââ?¬Â? allowing India to feed itself for the first time since the British raped that country.) Cheap oil is used to mine, process, transport and spread mineral fertilizers. Some 98% of the worldââ?¬â?¢s nitrogen fertilizer comes from natural gas. We use cheap oil to harvest the crops with 21-ton $200,000 combines, thresh the grain.In the early 1920s, most Nebraska farmers used horses or mules to pull machines that plowed the soil, planted seeds, and harvested a crop. Picking corn and other harvest tasks were done by hand, but machines were used to shell the corn and thresh grain.Plows: For the first time in the 1930s, plows were mounted directly to the tractor so they could be lifted out at the end of a row.Planters: Grain drills and corn planters got better at distributing seeds accurately and quickly.Mechanical cultivators: When the tricycle tractor was invented, it allowed farmers to drive cultivators through closely spaced rows.Harvesters: In 1935, the first wheat combine that could be operated by just one man was invented. The corn and soybean harvesters were not far behind.As has been mentioned in other posts, we use cheap oil to transport food to markets. We use cheap oil to refrigerate foods to retard spoilage. We use it to move our food, on average of 1200 miles, from the point of production to our household refrigerators. And THATââ?¬â?¢s why the population graph has exploded.As Kunstler has pointed out, thereââ?¬â?¢s a categorical difference between ââ?¬Å?technologyââ?¬Â? and ââ?¬Å?energyââ?¬Â?. Since WWII, we have grown accustomed to techno-fixes. When I was building my Stokemonkey, my neighbor, an educated hospital administrator, asked me why I was doing so. I explained that I wanted to avoid buying Middle East oil, adding pollution, increasing the earthââ?¬â?¢s warming, and I wanted to get exercise in the course of doing my daily job. ââ?¬Å?Besides,ââ?¬Â? I said, ââ?¬Å?My research shows that we will run out of cheap oil in the not-too-distant future.ââ?¬Â?ââ?¬Å?Oh,ââ?¬Â? she replied. ââ?¬Å?Theyââ?¬â?¢ll think of something.ââ?¬Â? She then drove off in her Mercedes SUV.Well the ââ?¬Å?somethingââ?¬Â? solution requires ENERGY to produce, whether itââ?¬â?¢s windmills, PV cells, trains, coal, even nuclear.Soââ?¬Â¦ when we run out of cheap oil, the party winds down and, although the planet can probably support about 4 billion homo sapiens creatures, it cannot support 4 billion homo colossus creatures. The latter can be recognized by their SUV shells and their McMansion caves.Simply put (but extraordinarily painful to implement): We will have to change how we live (as in spending most of our time growing food with animals and our own fertilizer in small towns, also known as the 3rd world, or 19th century America).And about 4 billion of us will have to die, as has happened to every group of creatures that has outgrown its food supply. In Peak Oil circles this is known as the Great Die-off or WTSHTF (an abbreviation that alludes to fertilizer and fans).[image]So, furrowing our collective brows over hybrids and compact fluorescents and coal and nuclear and cul-de-sacs, and bike paths and glaciers and hurricanes and resource wars, may well be a symptom of our being so deeply immersed in the paradigm of cheap oil, that we are in urgent need of glass navels in order to see the whole picture clearly.I ride a Stokemonkey because itââ?¬â?¢s a very tiny part of the solutionââ?¬Â¦ itââ?¬â?¢s an ââ?¬Å?adjustmentââ?¬Â?. But I donââ?¬â?¢t kid myself that our species isnââ?¬â?¢t poised on the edge of a cliff that is not like any we have faced since the last Ice Age (when we didnââ?¬â?¢t have adjustable-rate mortgages, derivatives markets, cheap RPGââ?¬â?¢s and nuclear weapons), one that will require a more radical shift to prevent horror and catastrophe than the word ââ?¬Å?adjustmentââ?¬Â? can possibly hope to convey.

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  • Erik Sandblom

    I’m still not convinced. You can power your farm equipment without fossil fuels. A large population will not starve if a lot of food is grown.

    The energy requirement of growing food must be different in different places. I understand a lot of North American food is grown with irrigation. The Swedish oil commission does not even mention food, only heating, transportation and industry. Swedish transportation consumes twice as much oil as industry and homes combined (scroll to the bottom).

    http://www.svenskenergi.nu/nr12006/t-transportsektorn.htm

    The Swedish oil commission says Sweden will not be an oil-free zone by 2020. But there will be sufficient alternatives that no section of society will be dependent on fossil fuels. Both in English:
    http://www.thelocal.se/article.php?ID=4195

    http://www.sweden.gov.se/sb/d/2031/a/67096

    Might the food shortage be a purely Midwestern (even red state? :-) problem?

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  • Todd

    Roll in the consideration that widely-touted bio-fuels compete for arable land with food production. See http://www.henwaller.com/?p=108 . Nobody can know what’s going to happen, but it seems pretty likely to qualify as “catastrophic” if you just connect all the converging dots. My father says I’m talking about “Armageddon”, which I don’t think fits: that’s the end of the world, god pulling the plug on creation. That’s something to feel complacent about, because you can’t do anything about it. This situation, on the other hand, seems worth trying to survive.

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  • Josh Larios

    Hooray for Sweden, then. Maybe natural gas production hasn’t peaked for you, and you’ll be fine. (I can’t find any statistics on how much of the fertilizer used in Swedens agriculture is extracted from natural gas. It’s already a problem here, though.) But even the CEO of Exxon has admitted that it has peaked for North America. How’s your immigration policy? And do you have a few hundred million couches we could sleep on, just while we try to get back on our feet?

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  • Todd

    O, related: http://www.alternet.org/envirohealth/41023/

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  • Mauricio Babilonia

    mictually wrote:

    “Isnââ?¬â?¢t it something stupid like 2000 calories of oil to produce 1 calorie of food? The figures used to be reversedââ?¬Â¦”

    You’re off by a couple orders of magnitude, but it’s in the right direction…

    The common assumption these days is that we muster our weapons to secure oil, not food. There’s a little joke in this. Ever since we ran out of arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.


    The Oil We Eat, By Richard Manning, Harper’s Magazine, February 2004

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  • Mauricio Babilonia

    Link to the aforementioned Harper’s piece (worth reading in its entirety):

    http://www.harpers.org/TheOilWeEat.html

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  • Allan

    Without trying to minimze the dependence of our food supply on fossil fertilizers or argue any of the other problems we have stemming from our energy policy (or lack of), lemme say, and please pardon my French, Knustler is an ass.
    Technology DOES equal energy. Without technology we would still be burning fallen timber. Excavating coal takes technology. Refining crude oil takes even more technology. Nuclear reactors still more. Getting ever higher yields from all these processes: technology.

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  • Mauricio Babilonia

    Erik Sandblom wrote:
    “Iââ?¬â?¢m still not convinced. You can power your farm equipment without fossil fuels.”

    Yeah? Who’s doing this now? Could you provide examples?

    Also, as Bill mentioned, almost all nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas. The “green revolution” has replaced natural soil fertility with synthetic fertility. How would you propose to replace industrial agriculture’s fossil energy subsidy? Are you proposing that we make nitrogen fertilizer with biofuels? Doesn’t that strike you as circular logic?

    “A large population will not starve if a lot of food is grown.”

    I suppose that’s true, but what are you trying to say beyond stating the obvious?

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  • Murray

    “Technology DOES equal energy.”

    No. Technology is predicated on cheap energy. Our leaps and bounds in technology in recent decades have been made possible (or at least accelerated) by the availability of cheap energy. Without the comfort zone provided by our extravigent fossil fuel driven lifestyles the rapid development of technology would not take place. Think of it this way. Our bodies require energy which is provided by food. Your not going to compose a symphony, or wirte a novel if you are hungry. In the same way we cannot develop alternative technologies if we are starving for energy. The time for development was about 50 years ago. If technology is going to save us we had better get busy… yesterday.

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  • Erik Sandblom

    Mauricio, Phil Foster is doing it in the article Todd linked:

    http://www.alternet.org/envirohealth/41023/

    I’m not sure what the point of that article is. Or maybe it’s just very balanced. First it explains that Phil Foster is growing some of his own energy, and then it goes on to say that won’t work. But it works for Phil. I’m not an expert, and at this rate I’m not becoming one either.

    Todd, I read “1 Tank of Gas or 1 Year of Food?” from one of your earlier posts. It only seems to support my conviction that greatly reduced car use will free up lots of resources for other purposes.

    I don’t know much about fertilizer.

    Josh, not much natural gas is used in Sweden at all. Conventional wisdom says Swedish food is more expensive but less manipulated than European food. That might have something to do with fertilizer.

    Mauricio, my observation that a large population will not starve if a lot of food is grown, was in reply to Bill Manewal’s population graphs. It doesn’t necessarily follow that a larger population will starve.

    The thrust of my argument is that a doubling of food prices is not a catastrophe for the western world. And maybe not for the third world either, since the West might stop screwing with crazy farm subsidies. Maybe a tripling wouldn’t be so bad either.

    One good reason for eating less meat is that it takes a lot of grain to raise livestock. So being a vegan or vegetarian is one way of reducing pressure on the soil.

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  • Josh Larios

    Hrm, well then, good for Sweden. I had no idea.

    The world in general, though? Still pretty screwed. That link is a fairly thorough refutation of the “if a lot of food is grown” half of “a large population will not starve if a lot of food is grown”, by the way, and draws heavily from this 1994 article from Ambio, a publication of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

    A doubling of food prices isn’t a catastrophe; you’re right. What about if the price of food doubles every five years, though?

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  • Allan

    Peak Firewood

    Things were looking pretty bleak in the mid-19th century. Maybe Knustler’s great-great-grandfather was extolling everyone to start raising sheep or move to Florida. And indeed firewood production did peak in 1875. By 1970 it was down to pre-Revolutionary War levels(1). And that with 100(?) times the population!

    Once again, technology DOES equal energy.

    1) page 28 of http://neptune.gsfc.nasa.gov/pdf/smithsonian_masek.pdf

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  • Josh Larios

    It’s a good thing we applied our ingenuity and found non-firewood-based replacements for all the products which were being made of firewood prior to 1875. I doubt my great-great-grandfather could have imagined a world where horses eat grains and grasses instead of firewood, or where the communities in arid lands are brought water via electric pumps instead of wood-fueled steam engines. And what inhabitant of the 19th century could have envisioned petrochemical fertilizers replacing the wood mulch that was used to restore nutrients to over-farmed lands prior to the green revolution?

    You’re right, technology saved our bacon back when nearly every aspect of our lives depended on increasing supplies of firewood; I’m sure it’ll step up this time, too. I, for one, can’t wait for construction of the Dyson sphere to commence.

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  • Murray

    I can see what you are saying Josh, but the discovery of new technology only allows us to make better use of the energy we have. It is not a new source of energy in and of itself. While I too hold hopes that a new (clean) source of energy may be found I cannot find anything (in years of research) promising enough to even come close to supporting the huge population that has exploded because of the availability of cheap abundant energy.

    We have, out of necessity become much more efficent at using the energy we have available, but what will we turn to next. The point you have made is that we have moved from wood, to oil. Where will we move next? We can’t burn our ‘technology’ to warm ourselves over winter. When you say “technology = energy” I think what you mean is “technology can enable us to make better use of energy”. It cannot create kilojoules out of nothing. Therein lies the problem with our undying faith in technology to save us from the on-coming energy crisis. You could argue the we will find the technology to utilise a new source of energy that we are not aware of yet. I have spent a significant amount of time (years) researching all alternatives on the horizon. When you do the math and try and scale even the most promising of them up to try and match our thirst for oil they don’t even scratch the surface of the problem… and we are running out of time.

    While I would like to imagine a happy Star-trek like future for us all the reality is that is very unlikely to happen. The only sensible thing to do is to start preparing for the worst, and hope for the best.

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  • Jim

    “…but the discovery of new technology only allows us to make better use of the energy we have.”

    Undoubtedly true. However, at the end of the day, KE=1/2mv^2. Even when technology gets us to 100% efficiency (not actually possible), such that the fuel we use is converted to mechanical work without waste, our current lifestyle is still energy intensive relative to the amount of energy we might expect to have available in the future. Moreover, it is a questionable proposition that enough food can be grown in our sterile farmland without nutrient supplements that are derived from oil.

    I too hold out hope for technological advance. But we should realize that the law of diminishing returns applies. Most items of technology grow in leaps and bounds, at first, and only in smaller increments as time progresses. Consider how similar in form today’s bicycles are to bicycles made 100 years ago, for example, even though bicycles from 120 years ago hardly resemble what we have now. Back on topic, the longer we look for energy alternatives to oil without finding one, the more likely it is that no suitable alternative exists.

    Sure, we might someday revert to some new technology to make use of some previously under-used energy source. But it will never be as cheap, easy, or abundant as that to wheich we became accustomed during the oil age. Afterall, if it was as cheap, easy, or abundant as oil is now, it would already be a competitor.

    Reply
  • Erik Sandblom

    The space shuttle is probably some of the most advanced technology ever. Does anyone know what kind of miles per gallon it gets?

    The shuttle is being replaced by Orion, which weighs 25 tons and seats five people.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=awTE9LR8w.Es

    Reply
  • Mike C

    Erik,

    I think your perspective on this is somewhat skewed by the fact that you’re in Sweden, a country I’ve had the pleasure of visiting twice within the past year. It’s my impression that Sweden is vastly ahead of the US in terms of coming to grips with the looming oil crash, not only in terms of infrastructure (man, that X2000 is sweet!), but (more importantly) in terms of the mindset of the people.

    After being there, and seeing the fantastic train service, and bicycles everywhere, and people installing geothermal heat, and the government actually paying some attention and making a plan, and then coming back here, and seeing our endless rivers of oversized automobiles, and our endless acres of asphalt, and (most dispiritingly) the vast majority of people here who can’t/don’t/won’t see any reason for anything other than full speed ahead business-as-usual… it seems to me you can’t even compare the two. Sweden is getting it right, and the US is getting it about as wrong as wrong can be.

    I hope I’m wrong. But I fear that you are.

    Reply
  • Mauricio Babilonia

    Thanks for the example, Erik–I hadn’t read the Alternet piece yet. I think the point of that article is that we may soon face a choice between food and fuel, especially if we try to maintain the current production level of fossil-fuel-powered industrial agriculture. As you may have noticed, I’m pretty much immediately skeptical of biofuels to the point of being rabid about it. Yes, it’s theoretically possible to run farm machinery on biofuels, but only if there’s a clear energy profit in producing them. It’s not at all clear that there is:



    Also from the Alternet article was this bit:

    For farmers, it’s a solution to high oil prices that makes intuitive sense, as it raises the possibility of growers cultivating their own fuel, just as most farmers did a century ago when they harvested oats to feed their horse teams.


    Reminds me of something Wendell Berry wrote about using horses for farming, where he pointed out (to paraphrase) that the very people who criticize farmers who might want to use animal traction for taking land out of food production are the often very same people who are cheerleaders for biofuels.

    I suspect that somewhere down the road, we’ll be using animal traction again, at least for small-field cultivation. It not only cuts out the biofuel transportation and processing costs, but provides nitrogen-rich fertilizer and results in less soil compaction.

    I also better understand your “large population will not starve if a lot of food is grown” point, and I happen to largely agree. Two observations: First, I happen to think that energy is not the only factor in the explosion of our population. Public health improvements have radically reduced infant and child mortality rates. Washing hands and developing vaccines certainly uses fossil fuel inputs, but not on a scale that even faintly resembles food production. All of those children who live to adulthood become potential parents.

    Second, the industrial model of farming is enormously wasteful. If we were to expect to feed our current population without fossil fuel inputs, profound changes would have to be made. Local food production (the 100-mile diet), eating lower on the food chain, less packaging, a certain degree of self-sufficiency (growing some of one’s own food) and encouraging organic methods would move us toward a more equitable and sustainable model. Sort of a true Green Revolution. Speaking of the 1970′s Green Revolution (chemical fertilizers and pesticides, etc–essentially the genesis of global industrial agriculture), it’s often assumed that it’s objective was to feed more people. It did, but the real motive behind its creation was to benefit the industrial producers of the inputs. I mean, look, then and now we still have problems with starvation in many parts of the world, and not just as a result of population growth.

    Erik’s point about food pricing is also well-taken. Large increases in food prices won’t hurt the non-poor in the western industrialized countries, and higher fuel prices will make a lot of industrial farming practices untenable. Hopefully, this will push us back into a more local version of food production.

    I also hope that the subsidies supporting the globalization of food dry up. Really, farmers from the midwest shouldn’t be going out of business due to price competition from farmers in Brazil or China, but that’s exactly what’s happening.

    Reply
  • Mauricio Babilonia

    Okay, I’m not having much luck posting links. My reference to the energy profit of biofuels was meant to link here:

    http://resourceinsights.blogspot.com/2006/06/nonrenewable-renewables-hidden-life-of.html

    The upshot:

    Biofuels produced the way we are producing them today are not even close to sustainable. In truth, the current production methods for biofuels are more like mining operations than farming operations.

    Reply
  • Cara Lin Bridgman

    Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse, talks about ‘mining’ Australia. As he puts it, Australia’s European immigrants have farmed and logged renewable resources as though they were non-renewable resources. In other words, they have used it up faster than it can renew. Therefore, Australia is losing it’s topsoil and forests.

    One of the main goals of the Communist Party in China has been to make the country self-sufficient in food (rice, in particular). This, in part, accounts for the success of the party. This also helps explain China’s one-child policy. Well, last year was the first time China did not produce enough rice to feed itself. It is now importing rice and wheat. Even though it’s population growth has slowed, the population is still increasing. Not only that, the standard of living is increasing, thereby requiring more meat (meaning it takes more rice or wheat or corn to feed each person). The problem is that China’s agricultural land is decreasing: turning into desert, blowing over the Pacific to North America, washing out to sea, and turning into cities. The real problem is that the productivity of China’s agricultural land is decreasing. China has been mining it’s topsoil. The land is burned out. The organic layer is gone.

    In Taiwan, even 30 years ago, the farmers noticed that applications of fertilizer changed the character of the soil. The pesticides killed the good soil critters along with the bad. This, however, hasn’t stopped Taiwan from fertlizing and herbiciding and pesticiding the heck out of its countryside.

    The problem is not just that we’ll lose the oil to plow and fertilize, it’s that we’ve already lost our topsoil. This especially includes America’s bread basket. Evidence that of that topsoil loss is apparant in the Ohio River at Louisville, KY. There, the river never gets more than 12 feet deep.

    So, in addition to having a huge party with oil, we’ve been squandering our principle instead of living on our interest.

    Reply
  • Bill Manewal

    “Evidence that of that topsoil loss is apparant in the Ohio River at Louisville, KY. There, the river never gets more than 12 feet deep.”

    That 12 feet figure is interesting: that’s the depth of the original topsoil in the midwest before the advent of modern agricultrual methods.

    Currently the Mississippi carries 5 tons of sediment per second.

    Reply
  • Erik Sandblom

    Would American food production need less fertiliser if it rained more on the prairies? In that case bad news, a British report says the US and North Africa will get dryer:

    “Moderate drought, currently at 25 per cent of the Earth’s surface, rising to 50 per cent by 2100, the figure for severe drought, currently at about 8 per cent, rising to 40 cent, and the figure for extreme drought, currently 3 per cent, rising to 30 per cent.”

    http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/article1786829.ece

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1886964,00.html

    Reply
  • used fire trucks...

    You must put a lot of work into blogging this much!...

    Reply
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