Helping America Navigate a New Energy Reality

ASPO-USA Asks: "What Are We Missing?" – Part 3

By on 6 Jun 2011 in commentary

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the position of ASPO-USA.)

There are so many challenges facing us as a result of Peak Oil and related issues that it is easy to miss something important. ASPO-USA asked more than 50 leaders on Peak Oil to share what they felt was the most critical issue we’ve all been missing, the thing every one of us should be talking about – but aren’t. The answers were eye-opening, and have started a discussion that continues. This is the last in a three part series (First two parts available here and here), in place of a traditional commentary, Peak Oil Review will run a range of perspectives on this issue – from geologists to food experts, from social critics to scientists – what are we missing? Where should we be putting more attention, more resources? All of us miss things – but between so many working minds, we have a better chance of covering the expansive ground that we have to address. We thank all of our contributors for expanding our vision!

Editorial Note: The very last piece of this series was excerpted from a longer essay sent to us by long-time ASPO-USA board member and Solar Energy Leader, Ron Swenson. It so eloquently and completely summed up the discussion and raised such critical points that we felt that we must run the whole thing. So next week’s commentary will include Ron Swenson’s call to reconsider the tenor of our debate in its entirety.

– Sharon Astyk, Tom Whipple, and ASPO-USA

JEFF RUBIN

“There are several tactical paths China can take that at least give the appearance of holding inflation in check. Reducing the weighting of food and energy prices in China’s consumer price index would be one way. As long as the country’s headline inflation rate stays below 5%, markets won’t get too upset about what it is really measuring.

Having the People’s Bank of China step away from the U.S. treasury auction could be another way of keeping reported inflation at bay. A soaring Yuan, and hence tumbling import prices would provide a partial offset to building domestic price pressures such as what led to the recent truckers strike in Shanghai.

Of course, there could be other reasons for commodity market sell-offs in the future. But let us not lose sight of the forest for the trees. No matter how much oil prices and other key commodities such as copper and grain fall, look at the parameters in which they now move.

Even land-locked oil prices like West Texas Intermediate barely dipped below $100 per barrel. And Brent, the world oil price, never made it below the triple digit price threshold.

How the goals posts have moved. Five years ago, those prices would have been all time highs. Last week, they generated headlines of plunging oil prices.

What hasn’t changed however is the intrinsic relationship between oil and economic growth. Ratchet down expectations for economic growth and quite naturally you lower expectations for future oil prices.

But that’s only because without burning more oil, there is no economic growth.”

Jeff Rubin was the chief economist at CIBC World Markets for almost twenty years. He is the author of “Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller.”

SHARON ASTYK

“Sex. We’re not talking enough about sex. By this I mean we are not speaking honestly about the ways that what we see as the natural progress of women and the shifts in family structure that have transformed the world are, in fact, products of flows of cheap energy and pollution absorption capacity that are both about to dry up. The movement of women out of the informal household economy and into the public economy, the definition of women’s freedom as being the freedom to have a formal economy job and to invest for retirement in world markets and all of the assumptions we make about home and family life have all begun from a presumption that there will always be cheap oil and a stable climate. Women’s political and social roles depend on oil at every point from the availability of contraception to delay childbearing to the infant formula or refrigerated, electrically pumped breast milk that allows women to work through their early childbearing years to their tremendous role in the consumer purchasing (women make or influence more than 80% of all purchases) that drives our economy. Unless we frame our understanding of the peak oil issue through the lens of sex and gender, and reformulate a model of women’s freedom that isn’t oil dependent, that doesn’t empty out the all-important informal economy, we risk the future stripping women of their gains.

This should be of the profoundest concern not only to women, but to any man with a daughter, wife, sister or female friend. Peak oil is a women’s issue.”

Sharon Astyk, writer, farmer, blogger at Casaubon’s Book and member of the ASPO-USA board of directors.

GAIL TVERBERG

“I think that many peak oil folks under-appreciate the financial aspects our current oil problems. Both the US government and a number of foreign governments (such as the “PIIGS”) are badly stressed by the high oil prices experienced to date. These governments are doing their best to cover up their financial distress, but there are obvious signs, such as the US’ difficulty with its debt ceiling and the fact that the Federal Reserve has had to resort to quantitative easing to keep the economy functioning. Furthermore, food importing nations are being adversely affected by high oil prices through high food prices. Because of these continuing indirect impacts of high oil prices, there is a significant chance that things will take a sudden turn for the worse this summer. One likely aspect of such a downturn is a sharp drop in oil production.”

Gail Tverberg is on the editorial board of The Oil Drum and writes on her own blog, Our Finite World.

LINDSAY CURREN

“While there are a great many underreported and under explored issues out there, my concern is increasingly on the role that conservation will play in stepping down from today’s energy-heavy paradigm, and moving into the next iteration of low energy inputs in society, culture and economy. I find it troubling that business so vociferously posits conservation as an anti-business and anti-growth prospect, entirely ignoring the myriad business opportunities-from products to services, machinery to retrofits-that conservation offers. Such negative lobbying and messaging also obscures how good conservation strategies can positively affect a business’s bottom line and help families and individuals leverage cash more effectively. Finally it is a stance that acts against our better interests in terms of national and personal security. As a society we do need to do business with one another even in energy decline, and find ways to ply a staggering unemployment rate into new jobs. Yes we’re seeing an end to mythical growth, but not to sectors where real growth can occur, or what I call asymmetrical growth. By not embracing this America misses a huge opportunity and shows that it’s creative arc is at serious risk of debilitating decline-missing the boat at exactly the moment when we can least afford it.”

Lindsay Curren is the Editor-in-Chief of Transition Voice Magazine and writes Lindsay’s List, the women’s onservation blog..

TAD PATZEK

“Lack of scale and scale-up properties of all fashionable “clean tech” energy sources, and their total dependence on fossil fuels for the mining of raw materials, especially rare earth metals:

Dysprosium – Makes electric motor magnets 90% lighter

Terbium – Makes electric lights 80% more efficient

Neodymium – Used in motor magnets

Lanthanum – Used for hydrogen storage

Praseodymium – Used in lasers and ceramic materials

Gadolinium – Used to manufacture computer memory

Erbium – Used in the manufacture of vanadium steel

Ytterbium – Used to make infrared lasers

Also, fossil fuels drive metal smelting, electrolysis and refining, and semiconductor production (Al, Cu, Fe, Ni, Co, V, Si, and so many others), and fabrication. More of my thoughts on this subject are listed here: (http://patzek-lifeitself.blogspot.com/2011/03/us-fatso-on-renewable-diet.html)”

Tad Patzek is chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin.

DAVE ROOM

“After millennia of understanding our dependence on Mother Earth, several centuries ago humanity began to think of nature solely as a resource to be exploited. This delusion has led to us to edge of the abyss, having built a society that is approaching the limits to what Nature can provide.

In a world that is fatally out of balance, we need landmarks and milestones to help us see a new path forward. Narrative is like a series of virtual cairns that help us stay on a path. Personal narrative puts our experiences and the stories we tell ourselves into a meaningful context. For example, when my marriage fell apart, I evolved my personal narrative so that I experienced the pain as an integral part of my growth process. Just as personal narrative can keep individuals on path, shared narratives can provide the basis for keeping communities moving forward together.

The dominant narrative (e.g., the American Dream, just work harder, more is better) locks us into a myopic, consumer culture, leaving us ill-prepared for the coming ecological crises and resource constraints. We need new shared narratives that provide viable and inspiring alternatives to the status quo. And we will need to co-create these in the context of a broad-based movement so that people of all classes and creeds can see themselves in the narrative and their role going forward. Broad-based audiences are attracted to movements that make them feel like they are part of something much bigger than themselves. The biggest thing we can be part of is a new shared narrative for the transformation of industrial civilization to translocal resilient communities and ultimately to a more sustainable way of being on earth.”

Dave Room, ASPO-USA Board of Directors.

ALBERT BATES

“Having been beating this poor horse since the early 1980s, I am only surprised it hasn’t keeled over and died. You can sustain a bad situation as well as you can sustain a good one. We need to be thinking beyond sustainability, mitigation and adaptation, and start working on restoration.

Our planet’s geo-bio-physical stasis is coming apart. Humans, the handy apes, are the grand disturbers of evolutionary intelligence. In its early stages, that may have advanced Gaian goals. We, and other mammals, served the evolutionary needs of our fungal and bacterial forbearers. It has gone beyond that now, and our planet is retracing its chemistry back to a more stable, pre-human state.

The coming warmer epoch, Lovelock warns us, is too hot for all but a few sweating bipedal survivors scraping a mean existence from islands near the poles, a la Waterworld. There are some lonely organizations working on what is needed – the Society for Ecological Restoration, Sahara Forest Project or Global Coral Reef Alliance, for instance – but their efforts and financial support are puny in comparison to the desertification of the Amazon or long-term equilibrium sea levels and acidity.

Without large-scale global restoration efforts starting now, biodiversity inheritance, natural carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycling, and ecosystemic functioning may slip beyond recovery. Earth, meet Venus. Venus, Earth.

World leaders have to stop wasting time rearranging deck chairs and start immediate, massive restoration of degraded ecosystems. The handy apes, alone among Earth’s species, have this ability. Moreover, it is our obligation now.”

Albert Bates, lawyer, author, and teacher, wrote “The Biochar Solution” and many other books.

JEFFREY BROWN

“Thelma and Louise” is an American movie that ends with the two main characters committing suicide by driving off the edge of a cliff. I’ve often thought that this cinematic moment is an appropriate symbol for the actions of many developed OECD countries that are in effect borrowing money to maintain or increase current consumption. The central problem with this approach is that as my frequent co-author, Samuel Foucher, and I have repeatedly discussed, the supply of global net oil exports has been flat to declining since 2005, with “Chindia” taking an ever greater share of what is (net) exported globally. Chindia’s combined net oil imports, as a percentage of global net exports, rose from 11% in 2005 to 17% in 2009. At precisely the point in time that developed countries should be taking steps to discourage consumption, many OECD countries, especially the US, are doing the exact opposite, by effectively encouraging consumption. Therefore, the actions by many OECD countries aimed at encouraging consumption in the face of declining available global net oil exports can be seen as the OECD “Thelma & Louise” Race to the Edge of the Cliff. I suppose that the “winner” could be viewed as the first country that can no longer borrow enough money, at affordable rates, to maintain their current lifestyle. So, based on this metric, Greece would appear to be currently in the lead, with many other countries not far behind them.”

Jeffrey J. Brown, creator of the Export Land Model, is a graduate of Texas A&M University, and a licensed Professional Geoscientist in the State of Texas. He has written and coauthored several articles on Peak Oil related topics, with a special emphasis on global net oil export capacity.

TOBY HEMENWAY

“We need to be creating better models of healthy, steady-state economic systems. The mainstream media continues to perpetuate the myth that growth will return, because the truth-that although we might resuscitate the extractive economy briefly and intermittently, in fact, real growth ended years ago-is too frightening to confront. And in part that fear exists because there’s been so little development of healthy alternatives. All complex adaptive systems-organisms, cultures, economies-go through a growth phase, and it usually exists for only a small part of their lifespan. What the culture can’t get is that the end of growth is healthy place to get to; it’s the end of childhood and the beginning of maturity and deep development. But there are few good models of a steady-state or mature-system economics. That means that few people in the MSM or the culture at large can see the vast possibilities that the end of growth opens us up to. We need to be developing and publicizing both the theory behind and examples of people living well in steady-state economies. Without encouraging models and an understanding of the opportunities, too many people will try desperately to re-flate growth, and we all know the disastrous consequences of that.”

Toby Hemenway is the author of the first major North American book on permaculture, “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.”

RON SWENSON

“Reading all these price predictions by peaksters, I’m reminded of the Austrian economist Murray Rothbard who said, “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

We know that the media (government / business / religious leaders) are giving very little attention to peak oil, but I would like us to consider what we, the peak oil community, are not talking about.

We’re not talking about slamming the brakes on fossil fuels.

Even as our contribution to creating peak oil awareness begins to see a little light (at least in some circles), I am concerned that we will be so worried about saving our own bacon or appearing to be rational that we will fail to take posterity into account. If we are to save just a little oil for our children, we need to just plain stop using oil (gas, coal).

“Conservation” doesn’t capture the urgency of our existential moment in history. In fact, conservation is like a salve to assuage the conscience of well-meaning people who are stuck in Business As Usual (BAU). We can be conned into thinking that we are doing our part by swapping out incandescent light bulbs.

Why can’t we just use less oil? If you are drowning, drowning slower isn’t going to save your life.

If you are in the know (peak oil), it’s not about telling others to slow down. We have to jettison the artifacts of the oil-based economy and retool.”

Ron Swenson, ASPO-USA Board of Directors

2 Comments

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  1. Robert Spoley says:

    Learning curve appears to be one horizontal flat line. Please consider the following. Currently the planet appears to be awash in natural gas, both stranded and not. Gas to liquids used to be fairly popular. At current prices for gas and fossil liquid fuels, this should be looked at again. Question. Is thorium a fossil fuel? Sure! And it is not being used to generate electricty because ——- ? Biogenic gas is present in methyl hydrates worldwide in quantities that are offscale. The technology to capture this stuff and use it is, as far as I know, so far on the back burner that it’s off the stove. I guess that’s because the price of gas is so low that there’s too litle profit in getting the stuff. Currently it’s just escaping to the atmosphere where it is doing what(?)for global climate warming? Come on folks! I’m just a geologist and I can think about this stuff. By the way, somebody needs to read the September 1974 issue of Scientific American if they want to discuss the up and coming role of women in all societies.

  2. Darel Preble says:

    Please include Space Solar Power in the energy alternatives we should be pursuing. SSP is baseload (99% capacity factor) and can better address all three of our linked visceral (economic/energy/environmental) challenges than any existing alternative.
    The Space Solar Power Institute and Workshop
    http://www.sspi.gatech.edu/
    would be happy to provide such a comment.

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