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Peak Oil Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What solutions are best in the long run?
  2. Won’t substituting for fossil fuels inevitably mean a lower net energy yield?
  3. At some point, aren’t we bound to eventually dissipate earth’s energy and mineral resources?
  4. Isn’t it futile to try to grow our way out of this predicament? Don’t we need to discuss other options?
  5. Can’t we reduce our consumption? Isn’t happiness to be found in consuming less?

1. What solutions are best in the long run?

When dealing with matters of public policy, which fossil fuel depletion certainly is, the best solutions do not always prevail. For analysis, itover is useful to determine which have the best cost/benefit ratio. But this is decidedly not the same thing as determining which will be implemented. Anyone can formulate an "ideal" solution–workable if everyone cooperates.

Self-interest of billions of people must be taken into account. Like it or not, the world economy involves individuals making decisions which do not always benefit the collective. It’s the price we pay for having choice. This system is the lesser of evils.

Competing interests can torpedo the best of plans. Like California’s million solar roofs initiative that was derailed this year because the labor unions wanted to require all solar installations to be done with union contractors. No matter what I may think of unions, and no matter how justified they may believe their position, their tactics delayed and damaged an important effort to mitigate peak oil.

Likewise, just try to tell people they need to live with less. They’re not going to get it. They will oppose you, they will vilify you, and they will drive their Hummers into our collective grave. So we who are concerned about the future have to refine our message. We have to harness the energy of human desire, before we can solve our physical energy problem. The economy and the environment and resource depletion are not in opposition. The most important part of this message cannot be conveyed in words, which is why we need price signals.

Nobody would read blogs or articles about oil depletion if the price hadn’t already jumped. You could sponsor a multi-billion dollar global ad campaign about peak oil. As long as energy is cheap, people will ignore you, because they will always choose their immediate comfort and convenience over a future risk they don’t fully understand.

But when energy prices rise, you don’t have to advertise. People get the message. The markets will work or nothing will. People don’t care about peak oil, they care about themselves and getting the services they need. If fertilizer becomes too expensive, organic farms will take the place of conventional agriculture. If plug-in hybrids provide a better and cheaper way of getting from point A to point B, companies will make them and we will drive them. Cheap gasoline, which is subsidized by governments to the tune of $5 to $15 per gallon, is the enemy of change. We pay the price anyway. Wouldn’t it be better if we were actually conscious of it?

2. Won’t substituting for fossil fuels inevitably mean a lower net energy yield?

No. Wind power is the fastest growing energy source in the world today. Energy of construction of wind turbines, including mining of materials and all transport costs are paid back in 3 months of operation, [hat-tip, the Ergosphere] while the expected operating life is 20 years. It therefore has an EROEI [Energy return on energy invested] of 80:1. This is an EROEI similar to oil in the 1950’s. There is therefore no theoretical limit to building windmills.

The world supply of uranium can be extended indefinitely. Current “once-through” reactor fuel cycle methods involve throwing away over 97% of the energy content of the highly enriched uranium. Reprocessing of spent fuel and use of breeder reactors can recapture this wasted energy and create more still. A side benefit under development is the "transmutation" of high level radioactive waste to a level below that of natural uranium ore. Many people decry fission technology because they believe it is too dangerous. Faced with the Hobson’s choice of climate change, energy poverty, die-off, or nuclear power, we may well choose nuclear power.

Solar energy farms using a small fraction of the earth’s surface could provide more energy than we would ever need. [See Richard Smalley’s “The Terawatt Challenge”]

Geothermal energy is limitless for any human purpose. And laser drilling technology may make boring deep into the earth’s moho or mantle possible.

3. At some point, aren’t we bound to eventually dissipate earth’s energy and mineral resources?

There are many ways to obtain renewable energy, as stated above. With regard to metals and other finite resources, using them does not make them go away. They are still somewhere on earth. They may need to be ‘mined’ from waste dumps, (predicted by Buckminster Fuller), but they will never be “used up.” There is always a price at which it becomes economical to process and reclaim needed materials. Engineering for disassembly and reuse will make this process easier in the future, and should be a top priority. Amory Lovins has called this a "cradle to cradle" production cycle. This change alone could add a huge stimulus to the economy.

4. Isn’t it futile to try to grow our way out of this predicament? Don’t we need to discuss other options?

The population is growing, therefore the need for food, water, and energy is also growing. “Other options” means one of three things:

  • Force people to reduce their consumption voluntarily (oxymoron alert). (Highly unlikely. I’d like to hear of even one example of when that has ever worked without a price signal or government mandate.)

  • Kill people or let them die-off to reduce overall energy use.

  • Prevent people from having any more children. (i.e. forced abortion or sterilization)

Absent one of these three methods, we will need to grow overall energy usage while reducing fossil fuel usage. This is possible, but requires political changes (ending of petroleum subsidies, and feebates for efficiency) that may be somewhat destabilizing to the existing order. Therefore it may not happen until the oil supply tightens to the breaking point.

5. Can’t we reduce our consumption? Isn’t happiness to be found in consuming less?

Voluntary simplicity may seem like a worthy goal, but good luck with that. If it were that easy, we’d all be living in monasteries. People have demonstrated overwhelmingly, that given a choice, they want to have more things, and use more services. You might as well try to use voluntary celibacy as a form of population control. Good freaking luck!

With the exception of religious orders and Luddite communities such as the Amish, society has always moved in a direction of a higher standard of living—ergo—more products consumed. The key will be to bring manufacturing in line with preserving natural capital to make this sustainable. The key to sustainability is market pricing of externalities. This is simplicity.


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