Thursday, 5 February 2015

Life Without Oil

If you're not worried about the future of our civilisation, you obviously haven't been listening.  You wouldn't be alone in that - this is an incredibly hard message for us to hear and we would prefer not to listen at all.  Jeffrey Sachs says that one of the reasons American politics is controlled by big corporate interests is because ordinary citizens are disengaged and distracted.  I suspect a desire to avoid facing our uncertain future is part of the reason.

I've been reading Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future by Steve Hallett with John Wright, published in 2011.  Hallett, who is clearly the lead author, is English by birth, currently associate professor of botany in Purdue University in Indianapolis and also had a stint teaching and researching at the University of Queensland just across the river from me.  Wright, very much the silent partner, is a journalist and I assume his job was to make the work readable for a non-technical audience.  If this is so, he has done a good job.

The foundation for this book is the idea that we are living in a period the authors call the "Petroleum Interval".  This is a period of history in which systems of production are oriented around the availability of cheap, plentiful fossil fuels, in particular oil and to a lesser extent coal and natural gas.

The availability of these fuels has shaped our society profoundly.  It drives our systems of production, enabling us to cheaply produce huge volumes of goods.  It drives our patterns of trade, allowing us to easily transport materials and products around the world in a thoroughly global economy.  It drives food production, pushing us towards agricultural systems that resemble factories with high yields made possible by fossil fuel based fertilisers and diesel-driven machinery, and ease of transport seeing crops grown in huge monocultural zones and shipped around the world.  This process of globalisation has enabled the whole world to be re-oriented in the interests of the great industrial powers of Europe and Northern America (or at least, their corporations), with China and India increasingly getting in on the act in recent years.

The authors have three bits of bad news for us.  The first is that this dependence on fossil fuels is hugely destructive.  The emissions from burning fossil fuels are causing irreversible changes to our climate.  Industrial farming brings large yields in the short-term at the expense of longer term declines as soils are worked out and aquifers are depleted.  This level of damage means that even if these fuels were unlimited the processes based on their use would not be sustainable.

The second bit of bad news is that these resources are, of course, far from unlimited.  They estimate that we are now at about the point of "peak oil" - the point where global oil production reaches its peak and begins to decline.  In the last 100 years we have used about half the world's accessible oil, so it will last at most another 100 years.  However, this doesn't mean we have 100 years to sort it out.  We are using the easiest-to-access oil first so long before we use the last drop extraction will become more expensive and yields will decline.  Coal and natural gas supplies are harder to estimate, but they are subject to the same problem - they can't last forever.

Given the multiple ways our societies are oriented around fossil fuel use, and particularly oil use, the impact of declining supplies is potentially catastrophic.  These problems will be exacerbated by the changes brought about by global warming and by continued population growth.  As it becomes more expensive to generate electricity, transport goods around the world and fertilise our crops we are likely to see chronic economic problems, food shortages, rising unemployment and financial instability.  Along with this will come intensified competition for the remaining resources - more wars and more unrest.  We are, in fact, already beginning to see these events, but because we tend to focus on the short term we fail to link them to the underlying issues of energy and fuel supply.

The third bit of bad news is that there is no ready alternative to oil as a fuel source.  Renewables such as wind, solar, hydro and tidal energy are less reliable than oil, less transportable and will struggle to deliver the amount of energy required.  Biofuels are expensive to produce and compete for cropland with food production.  None of the alternatives can replace the industrial fertilisers produced using natural gas.

The best hope for our energy in the immediate future, the authors say, is a combination of nuclear and hydrogen.  Nuclear power would make up the shortfall in standing generation capacity that can't be met by renewables, while hydrogen fuel cells would fill the gap created by the loss of petrol to power vehicles and ships.  The authors are well aware of the problems with both these fuel sources.  Nuclear power generates wastes which need to be stored for millennia, and carries the risk of catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (not to mention Fukushima, which happened after the book was written).  Nor is uranium unlimited.  Hydrogen fuel still has some technical problems to be solved, not least of which is tendency to explode.  Nonetheless, these appear to be the technologies with the most potential to bridge the gap.

What is to be done about this?  Well the authors are quite pessimistic.  In their view there will not be a smooth, pain-free transition.  We have left the task of adaptation too late, have become too dependent on fossil fuels to extricate ourselves in time.  The transition to a post-oil future will be painful, involving a great deal of suffering and conflict around the globe.  The task, as they see it, is not to avoid the collapse but to do whatever we can to reduce the amount of suffering involved, and to sow the seeds for the recovery that will come after.

This recovery, they believe, will involve us accepting a lower material standard of living than we have now.  However, they don't think this will be the disaster we fear.  All available evidence shows that more stuff doesn't make us happier.  It will involve a return to the sustainable agricultural practices of previous ages, with mixed cropping and rotation systems replacing industrial fertilisers and mono-culture.  It will involve, by necessity, more localism than we have now, with the majority of products sourced from near where we live rather than the other side of the world.

Of course not everyone is as pessimistic as Hallett and Wright about our energy transition.  In 2010 the Australian clean energy think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions published a detailed plan for converting Australia's electricity generation to 100% renewable sources by 2020, and have followed up with proposals on land management, building design and transport.  Their plan mostly relies on solar and wind generation, with a small amount of hydro and biofuel generation.  They view the costs as achievable and the technology as largely proven already.

I'm far from having the technical knowledge to judge between these viewpoints and the many others in the debate.  What both agree, though, is that change needs to happen and, indeed, that it will happen whether we like it or not.  The question is, will we shut our eyes and let it happen to us, or will we do everything in our power to manage the transition in the best way possible?

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