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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Syriana Moment

Last week Mrs Studebaker, our daughter, Avanti, and I went to visit the George Washington Museum in Morristown, NJ. The Museum itself was closed due to construction, but the mansion where he lived was open, and it was a very instructive and insightful display as to how people lived before petroleum. It was only a few generations after the Revolution that oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, and America was drop kicked directly front and centre into the Petroleum Age. I would argue that the age of the American Empire is almost directly coincidental to that resource. While it is true that the european invasion of North America was a rapacious disaster for the locals - starting with a mass death from smallpox, and culminating in death camps and forced migrations - that particular brand of murder and imperialism was largely limited to the North American continent, and the American Ruling Elite hadn't yet dreamt of the global hegemony it now enjoys.

The addition of oil to the mix is what made America's global empire possible, as it directly leapfrogged the coal powered weed of the British Empire. This leapfrogging was aided, in no small part, by the tiny brained tribal battles of Europe's idiotic fratricidal warfare. And before this oil fueled leapfrogging, the European immigrants lived rather dire lives in America, and the Morristown settlement was no exception. The houses were, for the most part, small hovels centered around a hearth. In Morristown, the largest house was the one that was Washington's HQ for the winter there. Even by today's standards, it was a large house, but we had driven through endless acres of McMansions that were larger. The winter Washington spent in Morristown made Valley Forge look like a picnic. Valley Forge had breaks in the cold - the winter in Morristown was one of the coldest ever on record.

The ground in Morristown is similar to much of that part of the country - thin soil on top of a hilly rocky base - not very good for farming. The winters are cold and snow is common. The Summers are hot and filled with mosquitos. Not an optimal location. Today, many thousands of people call it home, as they bask in their centrally heated and air-conditioned homes, many of which are much larger than the mansion Washington called home, and most of them much larger than the hovels the peasants lived in at the time of Washington.

During the winter, sometimes parts of the big house were left unused as they were too hard to heat. Note: this is how Washington, a member of the ruling class, lived. The servants who lived there were crowded into a few small rooms with low ceilings.

There was a book for children in the heated trailer next to the house. It talked about how different the life of a child was in the 18th century. At the age of 12, children were given adult responsibilities, and girls were often married off a few years later. Schooling was limited to the barest necessities of reading, writing, and simple arithmetic. Books were rare and expensive. The evening meal was the largest and it took much of the day to cook. People worked, all the time. Knitting was a continuous occupation, as was the carding and spinning of yarn. In fact, people would load up a spinning wheel on a horse just to go visit a friend. Women would often get together and spin thread as a social occassion.

Due to the local soil conditions, farming was hard and continuous. Because houses didn't have the luxury of fibreglas insulation, and houses were built without precision saws and tools, homes were often drafty affairs with low ceilings and small windows. Trees were cleared quickly, to make way for farms and to be used as wood. Thanks to replanting and the advent of petroleum, there are as many trees in New Jersey now than at any time since the arrival of Europeans - in fact, by 1900, much of NJ was clear-cut rolling hills of farm land. I walked back to the mansion and stood in the upper hallway looking out over the Museum grounds, and that's when I had a Syriana Moment.

I was thinking of the Matt Damon character talking to the prince of Syriana:

"You want to know what we think of you? We think that 100 years ago you people were living in tents and chopping each other's heads off, and we think that's exactly where you're going to be in another hundred years."

I looked out the window at the parking lot full of SUVs and minivans. I looked in the sky at the contrails of jets flying off to distant parts of the globe. I looked at the rocky eaten soil, and the spare grey trees. I thought that General Washington probably looked out that same window at similar trees - shivering thin midwinter sticks - and that he gazed at a similar broken land. Where the asphalt parking lot now sits filled with gas guzzling wagons of heated suburban comfort, was probably a collection of meagre frozen tents full of enlisted men and disease, huddled together against the cold.

And then I thought:

"You want to know what I think of you? I think 200 years ago you people were scratching out a miserable existence on this crappy rocky soil, and that's exactly where you're going to be in another 200 years."

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Spreading the Word

Friday was an interesting day. I teach an illustration design class (basically, Photoshop 101) on Fridays, and I prepared a packet for them to read. It consisted of Roscoe Bartlett's talk before Congress on the Peak Oil issue, Duncan's infamous "Olduvai Theory" paper, and a few other shorter works, including one by yours truly. The reading became increasingly less doomer/fatalistic, as I wanted the students to be left with a sense that hard times are ahead, but they need not end in catastrophe.

They were stunned. The reaction was "Why hasn't ANYONE TOLD US???", which I read as "Why isn't this on CNN, ALL THE TIME???" One girl looked like she was going to cry. I felt bad, but I did forewarn them: this is TOUGH STUFF. You Will Be Depressed.

Luckily one girl, who is several years older than the rest in the class and is Cuban, had some good things to say - she explained that when it all went to hell in a handbasket in the 1990s in Cuba, at first, life was VERY tough. But after a while people adjusted and learned how to live on less. One thing she said that I thought was really important was this:

"After a while - you think about other things. The situation stabilises, and you learn to cope and find a way to be happy. Life goes on."

She was able to emigrate to the USA, and she is in contact with her extended family back in Cuba. She has nothing good to say about the Castro regime itself, but she does miss having health care and free education. With what I showed her regarding Peak Oil, she feels she has already lived through a Peak Oil de-powering process, and she is sad that it seems she will have to go through another one.

She also said that many people in Havana (who could afford it) left the city and started small farms and ranches in the countryside. This opened up some room in the city, and almost instantly gardens began to flourish. However, she also said that if you dumped vegetables in the back yard, they'd sprout and grow due to the temperature and climate in Cuba. She has no idea how the Big City Near Us can possibly cope in a rapid depowering scenario.

That's where I piped in, saying that it is imperative that we - all of us - work together to prevent a rapid depowering, how it is important that we all work together to help the human race transition to the next phase in civilisation, and to get there with grace and dignity.

I also pointed out to them that the thing that cuts at contemporary Civilisation the most is not losing gasoline, but fertiliser and metals. The oil pissed away on transport is actually fairly elastic, and I showed them examples of electric cars, electric assist tricycles, and a variety of other transportation alternatives - and this is where we can make the most changes that would have the most immediate and beneficial effect.

We talked about population control, and the necessity of having children - just having FAR FEWER of them. That became rather complex and heated, so I stipulated that we would discuss it again another day, and went on to a different, if related, topic - food production. The Cuban girl had much to say on that (which makes sense if you know her. I really like her - she's very smart and very talented - but dang... she DOES talk an awful lot...) and soon class was almost over and the assignment was given:

Illustrate a post carbon society.
Doom and death? Clean and mean? Smaller and Sweeter? Wetter and Better? Whatever - JUST CONVINCE ME. DO NOT COMPROMISE. I gave them the physical parameters of the work.

They left looking like they had just been sentenced to life in prison. I went to lunch with some of them, and we had a long discussion on the subject. The general mood was "OK, well, let's get on with it." Which I found inspiring, and it makes me think that the Doomer Scenario may never come to pass - people can work together and we can make this happen.

"Yeah - it's brutal. you're gonna be really pissed and depressed for a while. But you'll get over it, and you'll have a better idea of what to do. You won't be sad forever. It's better to know this so you can work on it now, than to go skipping along with your fingers in your ear, pretending like it doesn't matter."

I hope to put some of the images they come up with on this blog.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Another conversation

Greetings -

After my last post, I got REALLY sick. Last week SUCKED. I was in bed for three days straight. Now, I'm down to a miserable cough, but that's a dramatic improvement.

A few years ago, I, Stuart Studebaker, was posting on the Forums at under the name "Winston Smith". I quickly tired of the dominant ideology of the conversation which was often of a rightwing Libertarian bent, and of a pigheaded variety at that.

Every six months or so, I'd go back and check it out, and find nothing improved. Last week, I went and found someone had re-kindled the Peak Oil coversation there - something I had tried to do at least 6 months ago.

A recent exchange went down, where I thought some basic points were covered in a very polite and reasonable way, and I am re-posting that post here. I hope you find it useful. Feel free to comment.


Hi Gold Rust.

I'll do my best to 'splain answers to your points and questions.

You asked:

I'm not an expert in this or anything, so tell me if I'm wrong - but whats wrong with using solar or geothermal energy to do all that stuff? And who says the ER/EI has to be positive?

OK - sure - this one's easy.

Let's say you get (x) units of energy from burning hydrogen (H). But: you need energy to MAKE the H, and that value (due to the laws of physics regarding hydrogen) is *always* greater than (x) units. So, if you are cracking petroleum to get the H (Petroleum is MUCH easier to crack than water, and provides a lot more H per kilo), you're better off just burning the petroleum. If you're cracking water, you need electricity. And the electricity you're using to crack the water comes from somewhere. If it is coming from petroleum, again: you're better off burning petroleum than using it to make H. However: if you're using solar power to crack the water to make the H, then you're technically getting most of the electricity for "Free". At that point, the ER/EI ratio gets much more favourable, and H makes sense as a kind of chemical battery. The problem is, Solar / Geothermal / Wind / etc. only accounts for a microscopic portion of the planet's energy production, and this doesn't account for another monstrous problem: H is extremely low density. To get it to a useful density for transport, it has to be reduced to liquid. The problem with that is it takes enormous amounts of power to liquify H, so we're back to the ER/EI problem. Also, H is reactive and tends to make containers very brittle, and due to is tiny molecular weight is prone to leak from ANY container. To fight these problems requires more energy, and you're back to an ugly ugly ER/EI.

ER/EI *must* be positive. Otherwise it's not a fuel. Think of it like food. If you have food that costs more energy to eat than you get from eating it, you'll starve. It's basic physics.

The way I see it happening is, as petro runs low, it will rise in price, forcing people to look into alternative methods, that may not be as effeicent at first but will be better than what they are using. It probably wont be hydrogen, or maybe it wont be any of the ones you mentioned as alternatives - maybe it will be a combination of several of them.

This explains the failure of "free market" solutions fairly well, from:


"We would like to believe that progress into new energy and more efficient use thereof is slow merely because not enough money is being put into it. As the price of oil rises, therefore, more money will go into such research, more progress will be made, and new technology will then be implemented and deployed to preserve our way of life. A common slogan is "the stone age didn't end for lack of stones, and the oil age won't end for lack of oil." This faith is utterly misplaced, and comes from a misunderstanding of the free market.

This institution predates the invention of bronze. Even stone age tribes know how to barter, and how to use durable goods of stable value as a medium of exchange. The mechanisms of the free market are in tune with our psyches, and that makes the free market a wonderful institution for providing people with the motivation to do what the rest of humanity wants them to do. The free market can drive people to try all sorts of things. But whether they succeed depends primarily on the laws of physics, which the free market cannot defeat. It cannot drive new discoveries of oil if there isn't any left to discover. It cannot get people to invent impossible technologies, but it can certainly get people to try. And people are already trying. Anyone who develops new solutions to our energy problems stands to gain such astonishing rewards, that it is ludicrous to think that if these rewards are increased by X amount, our savior will pop out of the woodwork. The rewards already go far beyond "fuck you money."

While facile solutions to our energy predicament may emerge, taking faith in that scenario is foolish. It implies that you believe in the All Too Convenient Anthropic Principle - the principle that the laws of nature are tuned not only to cause the emergence of life on our planet and its evolution to include the appearance of our species, but also that the laws of nature are conducive and will forever be conducive to our species enjoying a Western consumerist lifestyle from now to eternity. Don't count on it.

Gold Rust then says:

I agree that ethanol could not possibly be a single replacement for petro, but I have no hard time envisioning it in hybrid cars that run on it and solar, etc.

The problem is the production of ethanol requires industrial farming techniques that depend on pertoleum. Also, there is the ethical question re: using food to "bring Muffy to Soccer practice..." Especially as food costs skyrocket (I discuss that below).

I think your problem is that you dont look at the whole picture - the world isnt going to just wake up one day and say "Oh my gosh, theres no more fossil fuels!" - it will be gradual.

I agree - which is why I am not a "Fast Crash Nihilist" like many peak oil researchers.

As petro becomes less common in the ground, prices will rise - ever heard of supply and demand?

I dismantled that argument with the kuro5hin quote.

Why can't we just where sweaters in the winter? Thats what they do in Russia, and I still do it today - a sweater can keep you just as warm as a heater, at a fraction of the cost.

I do to. BUT: drive out to some suburb in say, Indiana, and go up to some McMansion - you know - one of those new big ugly houses with the SUVs in the parking lot, and all the lights on - and tell these people (often dupes of the Republican Party) that they

a: have to start wearing sweaters around the house
b: sell their SUV and buy a tiny toyota hybrid, or better yet, a used Toyota Echo, and ride their bicycles as much as they can - get a trailer for the bike and use it to buy things at the market
c: put timers on their lights
d: stop using the gas fireplace, and plant some trees in back for fuel in 15 years, and install a wood burning firebox/stove NOW.
e: stop using a gas range for cooking
f: forget the clothes dryer - set up clothes lines in the back and drying racks in the garage
g: buy a high efficiency front loading washer
h: learn to do the dishes by HAND
i: Abandon the TV set and read books to each other for entertainment, and learn a bunch of card and dice games
j: Install a solar PV panel set up for daytime electricity to power their new hyper efficient refrigerator
k: get used to Much Higher Indoor Temperatures in the summer, because their central AC is done for.
l: Open cans by hand
m: learn to chop food with a knife not a processor
n: learn to COOK food, from raw materials that do not require freezing or refrigeration
o: dedicate a corner of the basement as a root cellar for the winter storage of potatoes, parnsips, turnips, and rudabagas.
p: install a solar hot water heater on their roof
q: start a food garden.

Now, those are just SOME of the things people are going to have to get used to post peak oil. Sweaters in winter are just a tip of the iceberg. The suburbs (at least those that are not on a train line) are completely screwed. The loss of petroleum is going to effect every aspect of modern living, no exceptions, and no sympathy given. It's going to be, as the book title suggests: A Long Emergency.

Cooking requires so little energy it could easily be supplied to a whole neighborhood by a solar panel or a wind turbine down the street. This obviously wont be the most likely solution, but I don't think alot of trouble will be in this area.

Sure. Tell that to the restaurant industry. The shift in cooking and food production will prove to be the most difficult, as it directly impacts everyone - the rich and poor alike will face the same problem. The restaurant industry will shrivel up, but not disappear. See it return to more of a "cafe" system, with electrically heated water for beverages, and wood powered onsite baking. Haybox and sun box cooking will provide more efficient hot dinners but many hours of cooking will reduce capacity and increase expense.

Winston Smith said:

Materials: All our high tech materials are dependent on the long molecular chains so easily produced from Petroleum. Our mining machines are dependent on petroleum.

And Gold Rust asked:


Recycling isn't permanent. There is continuous loss in recycling due to oxidation of resources. Metals rust, plastics crumble, etc. We'll be able to mine our landfills for years, but eventually they will also give out. It is the loss of metal resources that threatens industrial civilisation the most in the long term.

If certain steps wil be taken, doesnt it follow that we will continue to take steps to supply people with fuel?

IF and only IF: there is fuel to supply. As we go down the back side of the peak, petroleum will accellerate in price, and the fuel that's left will be needed to develop more sustainable energy sources. None of the energy sources, outside of fusion, has nearly the power and none, including fusion, has the transportability and density of petroleum.

Basically, we're looking at the loss of a one time gift of dense, transportable energy, and with it, the certain end of our style of civilisation. Because we use 7 - 10 calories of petroleum for every calorie of food we eat (farm equipment, fertiliser, harvesting equipment, transport to the food processor, transport from food processor to market, energy to keep market open, transport of consumer to and from market) we're looking at a dramatic loss in the ability for society to feed itself. Example: Almonds. Almost all the almonds consumed in the USA are grown in Southern California (just drive around anywhere outside of Bakersfield - you'll see). These almonds get to places like MAINE by way of truck. Add a zero to the cost of fuel for the truck and watch almonds get scarce in Maine, quick. Now, do that to the entire food industry, AND combine that stress with ever more mouths to feed from over population. Results: starvation in poorer countries, and massive re-alignment and rationing of the farming system in richer countries to prevent food riots.

Once petroleum is so scarce and expensive, fertilisers will disappear and desertification will rise exponentially. Permaculture farming will be the only sustianable alternative, but the yields aren't high enough to feed the 10 billion people on the planet. Result? Malthus.

Winston Smith:
I would prefer a Die Down - where we depopulate peacefully and gracefully. But a depopulation is INEVITABLE. It's not a matter of IF - it's a question of HOW and WHEN.

and Gold Rust replied:

I quite agree - but HOW, most likely wont be from petro shortages, and WHEN will most likely be... erm, sometime between now and 500 years.

No, it has to be this coming century, and it has to be orderly, peaceful, and with dignity.

If we don't depopulate as described, the results will be:

Duncan's Olduvai Theory

I wish this peak oil issue was a point we could argue and make it go away. But it isn't. It's the real deal - a true crisis in Civilisation. I think we can manage it and make it a less bumpy road, but unless someone pulls fusion out of their butts in such a way that it is possible and practical, industrial civilisation is OVER.

Orwell's 1984 will be seen as a quick signpost on the way down as we die off into something more resembling ancient Rome. If we don't want to collapse back into a late iron age slave state system, we need to begin implementing post peak policies NOW, so we can pull the right hand side of the peak out - changing a crash into a slope.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Eating, Pooping, Fighting and Fucking

A few nights ago, I met some very nice people at an art opening, and we got to talking about energy, culture, etc. I wrote an email to a few of them, and I thought it was interesting and would make a good Early-Warning post.

So, I edited out the personal chunks and re-wrote other sections, and came up with the following. Lately I've been sick with the Devil Bug, and my head is full of snot. As a consequence, I've been sleeping a lot and taking it easy.


First, I should point out there is a HUGE debate raging in the energy community between the Nihilists and the Cornicopians. The Nihilists are of the opinion that

"We're all fucking doomed - try what you will you foolish mortals!!! IT WILL BE FOR NAUGHT AND YOU WILL ALL DIE!!!!"

This is occassionally followed by the cynical chuckle of true despair that sounds something like "Muuuwahahahahaaaa..."

Then there are the Cornicopians. They are often referred to as "idiots". They actually aren't idiots - they just have greater levels of confidence in certain factors and data than the Nihilist think is rational and many of the rest of us think is justified.

Then there's the "rest of us". A diverse mix of people, of course, and rather than try to distill such a crowd into components, I'll describe my own position, which runs like this:

The Nihilists are correct in one sense. We are all completely doomed *IF WE DO NOTHING*. If we do a little, it will postpone the disaster, but won't avert it. If we do a lot we can cushion the downslope and evolve our society into a depopulated and sustainable system. If we do everything we can, we can not only evolve into that "good place" we can do it with relatively little loss of life.

The Cornicopians do have a few good points - mostly centered around technology. The Cornicopian technology fixes can certainly help avert a die off.

The problem boils down to one of population. If we don't reduce our birth rate immediately, we are looking at an uncontrolled and violent die off, and possible extinction. I'm not saying "No More Babies, period" but that they need to be fewer in number, and much better cared for when they appear. With reduced population, there will be reduced pressure on the planet's resources. Combined with sustainable practices (recycling technologies, permaculture farming, etc.) the future of the species is much brighter than the dark night envisioned by the Nihilists. But if we continue to crowd the planet with more and more people, the resources will give out, and result in massive warfare over the scraps. Not one, but several (small) nuclear wars would easily result.

Personally, I don't want to see the world go down the path of trading nuclear tipped insults, massive starvation, or freezing to death in the winter on a ruined deforested planet.

The long term key is demographic. The short term key is culture and technology.

We can do this, but it will take enormous effort. I have come to the conclusion that the people who will matter the most to the species will prove to be those people born between 1945 and 2010. It is up to the older boomers (1945 - 55) to set the course as they settle into positions of power. It is up to the younger boomers (1955 - 1965) to agitate and do the planning and innovating. They are young enough and smart enough to realise it, and have sufficent numbers to make movements in the markets - their children are older and can focus on these issues with the clarity bourne of experience. The generations of 1965 - 75 and 75 - 85 will end up doing the heavy lifting. They will get it in the neck, as they will be in the prime of their lives as the oil system peaks out in the 2010's. The children of the 1990s will be crucial as they will be the parents of the first post-petroleum generation. This is a position of such crucial importance, I can't emphasize it enough - their victories and failures will loom large on their children and grandchildren. Also, the children of the 1990s will have the greatest pressure on them to innovate and organise the new society. By their adulthood in the 2020s, the first wave of boomers will begin dying in great numbers, soon followed by the late boomers. The Children born in the 2000s (children of people born in the 70s and 80s) will be the last petroleum generation and will be pivotal in the transition. It is of extra-ordinary importance that they be raised with the knowledge and impetus to continue building the new sustainable civilisation.

People born after 2010 will simply have to cope with what I call the "Peak Generations" deal them. If the Peak Generations can come through and do the right thing, step up to the plate and set civilisation along a path of permacultural sustainability and graceful depopulation, then those born at and after the oil peak will willl not curse their memory for having squandered the world, but will revere the Peak Generations for having had the wisdom and intelligence to look forward and help rather than stand around, do nothing, and hinder the human project.

Many Nihilists feel we are slaves to our basest natures. They are probably right, but I would submit that we are not chattel slaves - we are wage slaves! And as wage slaves to our basest natures, we have the ability in our leisure time to do something other than eat, poop, fight and fuck. It is this time we spend not exercising our base instincts that allows us to plan and culturally blunt our base instincts.

There is distinct pleasures to be had from our base instincts and processes: food is a delight when well prepared and shared with love. And after a big meal, a good healthy crap is a distinct (if smelly) pleasure. Fighting can be good, especially when the fight is one of principle and wisdom against ignorance and stupidity, and is fought on the battlefield of ideas. Nothing can oppose the force of millions of people peacefully united behind the ideas of justice and freedom. And the extra-ordinary pleasures of good sex is not to be underestimated, especially, if not most of all, when it is in the context of a deep, loving, and caring relationship.

However: each of these pleasures comes with a series responsibilities. The food comes with the responsibility to not waste the food left over, and for food to be produced in a sustainable and healthy manner for not only the people eating it, but for the soil and environment that produced it.

And the good healthy crap that follows a good meal, we must realise that our bodily waste is a very valuable resource. Which is why we must reduce our consumption of hormones, chemicals, and medicines - it all comes out in our wastes to poison the earth and it endangers other creatures. We will need our ("clean") waste in order to fertilise our fields.

The fighting must continue as long as there is injustice and exploitation in this world, as long as people are denied the simplest freedoms, the fight must continue. However, the fight must be along the lines envisioned by Ghandi and Martin Luther King: it must be a fight of peaceful masses of people moving and demanding justice and freedom. This requires the same level of solidarity one would find in any military unit - the forces of hate and violence will seek to divide and conquer the forces of good and progress and provoke them into violent confrontation. The movements must maintain solidarity and peace, but must also not compromise either their ideals or integrity, even as their comrades are blown to bits or beaten to bloody pulps. It is from this solidarity that the communities of the sustainable future will evolve.

And the fucking must continue, for reasons too obvious to mention. However, as sex is the source of the demographic problem that is essential to our predicament, on the socio-political front, we need to greatly expand birth control and voluntary sterilisation programs. I would recommend that birth control methods be heavily subsidised by the .gov and sterilisation procedures (vasectomies and tubal ligations) be free of charge. This would reduce pregnancy and the transmission of diseases - a net gain in both directions. But beyond the policy wonkery: sex is a good thing, and I recommend it...

So, in each case, we can see how even our "basest instincts" can be routed into constructive and positive directions that will lead to the development of the civilisation we need: a non-petroleum based sustainable, permacultural depopulated world civilisation of 500 million souls living full, rich, and colourful lives slowly evolving into homo futuris - the human of the future.


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