free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: July 2006

Monday, July 17, 2006


Many in the peak oil community feel disheartened with technology and consider progress to be slowing. No doubt there are various reasons for this perception, the most rational of which may be a general loss of confidence with science.

Progress may indeed appear to be slowing when one considers the amount of new innovations and advances made during the first half of the 20th century, only to see the second half of the 20th century 'merely' improving upon earlier advances instead of continuing to come up with all new innovations and breakthroughs. Greenneck summarises this position nicely in recent comments:
I recall when Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the Moon and back then, the future looked bright indeed.
Well, 35 years later we haven't got back to the Moon.
What went wrong?

This is why some people believe PO will lead to some kind of doom: they have lost confidence that science will solve it.
I suspect that if one were to travel back in time and grab someone from 1900 to take them on a quick trip of the 20th century, they would likely adopt a similar position on civilisation's progress as many of the PO pessimists do. The jump from 1900 to 1950 would be a remarkable leap for them. They might feel amazed at how much we have progressed, seeing inventions that were in their infancy in 1900 become highly advanced and wide spread. They would see the remarkable leaps forward made in almost every aspect of scientific endeavour, and they would see some of the greatest achievements in human history. And while they may at first feel disorientated with the level of progress made, they would soon fit in with society - after all, social structure and culture in 1950 really wasn't that different from 1900.

But then the jump from 1950 to 2000 would be a different story. Our friend from 1900 might think that civilisation had slacked off. The technology, while improved upon, is still basically the same. There have not been the giant leaps forward in theoretical science that the first half of the century enjoyed. A few industries have made impressive advances, most notably electronics and computing, but over all it would appear to our time travelling friend that progress has slowed considerably.

After a while though our friend would begin to perceive the true advances civilisation has made, however he would not easily understand them. Unlike the jump to 1950, the jump to 2000 would see a change in society he would be virtually incapable of comprehending. People of different races working together and treating each others as equals, women in leading roles in large corporations, he would see scantly clad men and women with strange high-tech sports gear zipping through the streets, people communicating with other people on opposite sides of the world using difficult to see technologies. He would see people assimilating astonishing amounts of information quickly and easily, people conducting business from all parts of the globe and at any time of the day or night. He would see communities of like-minded individuals finding each other from remote and widespread locations and clustering into virtual communities. He would see organisations and corporations employing individuals from all corners of the Earth and working together without ever leaving their homes. He would see people playing when he thinks they should be working, and yet they are never truly away from work as they often work when he thinks they should be resting.

The changes to society and culture are long and varied, but in short, our time traveller friend from 1900 would be overwhelmed by the pace and the capabilities of society circa 2000. In the year 2000 he may not perceive the same obvious degree of technological advancement made from 1900 to 1950, but he would be incapable of comprehending the progress made in the way people live their lives from 1950 to 2000. He would fail to understand the considerable advantages of the new globalized and digitised world community, and perhaps would think that the world has gone crazy.

Not unlike our PO doomer who craves the more quiet, simpler times.

The point of this little time travel exercise is to elaborate on human progress. To understand how civilisation is progressing, we must look at all of the aspects of civilisation, not merely a single part of the equation. For example, some people merely look to the continued use of a single resource as proof that civilisation is not progressing, as a doomer recently put it so elegantly in the comments:
If technology is advancing so fast why are the computers you jackasses typing on most likely powered by COAL!
It should be obvious that we can not merely measure the progress civilisation has made in the resources or materials it uses, nor the inventions patented per capita, as some people foolishly do, nor can we even measure progress purely as a technological aspect.

To consider human progress, I could easily point to the plethora of technological advances made recently. I could comment on the fact that civilisation appears to be on the verge of a new technological age based on all new materials - just as iron and bronze revolutionised the world with new unforseen technologies thanks to the widespread adoption of new superior materials (bringing about the iron age and bronze age), so too will our new found capabilities of structuring carbon at the molecular level (commonly known as nano-technology) herald in a new technological age of unforseen advances with the widespread use of superior materials. We may only just be entering what may come to be called 'the carbon age', based on molecularly perfect carbon materials that offer massive increases in strength, reduction in weight, transference of heat and ultimately massive increases in efficiency and reductions in waste, and many other possibilities not yet perceived.

However to elaborate on the considerable progress civilisation has made, we must not solely focus on the technological. Social and cultural advances are also of vital importance, and are intimately bound with our technological advances. And in many ways, the advances that we have made socially and culturally are far more important then the technological advances we make.

Consider Wendell Phillips famous words:
"What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind."
It's unquestionable that this simple technological advance, first developed over 500 years ago, had a tremendous impact on society and culture. Now consider the modern evolution of the printing press and what it has done for the mind. The internet is arguably one of the most important social revolutions in history, and is what has allowed such wide-spread awareness of peak oil issues to be assimilated by society in the first place. If it were not for this technological and social advance many people would likely still be unaware of the peak oil issues. It may be powered by an old power source, but it is still a deeply impacting advent radically altering civilisation as we know it.

While technological change over the past 50 years may be difficult for some people to perceive, especially given the considerable about of improvement over innovation, the radical social and cultural change we have experienced should be obvious. Society has radically transformed and continues to do so, and this effect must not be so easily dismissed. Civilisation today is far more adaptable and capable then ever before, and assuming that we are incapable of dealing with complex issues such as peak oil simply because we still use antiquated power sources is imprudent. We may have considerable challenges ahead with transitioning to new ways of life, but transitioning to new ways of life is one thing that we have become ever more skilled at doing.

Don't dismiss our adaptability; it's what allowed a once weak, defenceless and insignificant little species to conquer the world, and we've been accelerating our adaptability capabilities ever since.

Peak oil; we will adapt.
-- by Omnitir

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


So, would anyone care to describe the so-called "powerdown" option in enough detail that one could get a sense for what's proposed? I've asked the 'downers on the PO site, but they all just point me to the bible of the 'downer movement, Richard Heinberg's book Powerdown. I've now read it, and I still don't get it. Not only did I not learn anything new about the PO problem, I still couldn't tell you what the powerdown option actually means.

In the introduction, Heinberg sets up the problem, trotting out the familiar four horsemen of PO apocalypse: overpopulation, resource depletion, environmental destruction, and the current political and economic system. His description of industrial society as a rickety raft in imminent danger of sinking is amusing. "Miraculously, seconds go by and it is still afloat,", he says, followed by "A minute goes by and still the damned thing is afloat.", and finally "...every one of your predictions about the fate of the raft has been disconfirmed...there must be some mystical power keeping the raft afloat..." One gets the impression of a man who hates the technological society that spawned and sustains him, and is frustrated by the fact that reality refuses to confirm his belief that it should end in calamity.

Chapter one does a decent job of laying out the magnitude of the energy problem we now face in keeping the raft of civilization from sinking, but rushes over important energy alternatives inconvenient to his thesis. Perhaps these are discussed at greater length in his prior book. Of coal, he says "If we rely on coal to make up shortfalls from other fossil fuels, extraction rates will peak within decades." Decades of coal-derived energy sound to me like decades in which to develop non-fossil energy alternatives, hardly an imminent collapse of society. "Nuclear power is dogged by the unsolved problem of radioactive waste disposal, as well as fears..." So, what, we're going to throw in the towel on civilization because we can't overcome interminable legal hurdles to proper waste disposal and fear-mongering from anti-nuclear advocacy groups? "...the necessary uranium would run out within just a few decades." Ignoring breeder reactors, a technology we've already developed, as well as resources that would become economic at higher uranium prices. France gets 75% of her electricty from nuclear reactors, a pretty good existence proof that the problems dogging nukes aren't technical in nature.

Chapter two, "Last One Standing", is largely a 30-page paranoic rant about the administration of George W. Bush, complete with unsupported allusions to 9/11 conspiracy theories. The point of this bilious assessment of recent events is that US leaders are plotting to fight wars over the remaining oil resources. But wars are incredibly wasteful of resources, especially energy, and certainly won't make more oil resources available. And an all-out war over oil resources with China would like lead to a nuclear exchange that would spell the end of both countries, a fact that surely wouldn't escape even the most dimwitted of current world leaders. In the last chapter Heinberg writes "Even the nation that wins the game will be utterly devastated...and not even the wealthy will be able to maintain their current way of life...Why would anyone choose this path?". Couldn't have said it better myself. A far more likely explanation of events in the middle east is that the US is seeking to ensure an orderly market in the world's dwindling oil resources by instilling fear of US military action in the hearts of the despots that now control those resources, and might be inclined to use the "oil weapon" at this critical time in history. Or there is Paul Robert's contention, in his book The End of Oil, that the US is trying to open up Iraq to exploration and production by western oil companies, all of whom have run out of ways to replace their reserves. Like most people in the US, I'm looking forward to the end of GWB's presidency in 2008, but to suggest that we're looking at the opening salvo in a shooting war for oil is a stretch.

Chapter three was as noted the biggest disappointment to me. It was here that I expected to see the cooperative, powerdown option laid out before me. Yet the reader gets no more than disjointed glimpses. Heinberg describes the Kyoto protocol on climate-change and reprints the Uppsla protocol for managing down oil consumption advocated by the ASPO. He lists the 7 recommendations from the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth (LTG), most of which are completely reasonable and none of which require that industrial civilization end. He briefly rails against the evils of the debt-based fiat money system without explaining the terms, and asserts as self-evident that the system has lead to the problems of population growth and oil depletion. He appears to gravely misunderstand the fundamentals of economics and money when he suggests that all the ills of the system could be cured by having countries issue their own debt-free money. While he argues that economic growth is inconsistent with limitations on resource usage, the data he provided in chapter one refutes this because since the 1970s the world experienced smaller but positive economic grown even in the face of declining per-capita energy use. He takes some shots at globalization without defining what he really means by "re-localization". Finally, he give both Cuba and the Indian province of Kerala as instructive with regard to the likely shape of a powerdown, but admits that neither of these will match what will be faced by modern industrial nations. Readers are left to imagine a powered-down version of their country as either utopian or apocalyptic. Are major metropolitan areas of the US decaying ruins long abandoned by people who've gone back to an agrarian lifestyle? Or dense hives of humanity packed with former suburbanites who've moved closer to work and/or have fled from reclaimation of their land for agriculture? Heinberg doesn't say. Does the powered-down civilization still have high-tech healthcare? Electricity and running water? Modern sanitation? Or has it reverted to a pre-industrial level of technology that will never advance further? Re-localization doubtless means US citizens can no longer obtain mass-produced shoes from China, but are they then buying mass-produced American shoes, or hand-made shoes from the village cobbler? (The assertion that re-localization will be required isn't supported with any numbers. Long-distance transport of goods by ship is incredibly efficient. As oil resources dwindle, one might expect lower-value goods to become too costly to ship, but high-value goods might nevertheless still be more efficiently manufactured in centralized locations and transported around the world. Oil itself is of quite low value in relation to its mass, worth about 25 cents a pound - as long as any world market exists for oil, I would expect a market for higher-value goods to continue to exist as well.) Worst of all is that Heinberg doesn't tackle the population problem that he believes is at the heart of the sustainability problem. In the last chapter he says "By any reasonable assessment, the Earth has already exceeded its carrying capacity for humans...the drawdown of fossil fuels temporarily enabled us to...create phantom carrying capacity." Exactly how far does the population have to drop to provide the liebensraum needed by the survivors? Although Heinberg criticizes environmental organizations for timidity on this subject, he, too, avoids giving a number or timetable. (PO 'downers cite other sources that put the figure at 2 billion souls - reaching that target from the current 6.5 billion within this century is the stuff of sci-fi nightmares.)

Chapter four, "Waiting for the Magic Elixr", invites the reader to skip it, as it's clear what the author thinks of alternatives to oil just from the subtitle, "False Hopes, Wishful Thinking, and Denial". Indeed, a common 'downer response to initiating any discussion of energy alternatives is the assertion that the proposer is "in denial". Apparently they haven't read past the title, for the chapter is interesting both for what it discusses and what it does not. What it does not discuss at any length are two obvious near-term sources of energy to replace oil, coal and nuclear power. Instead, these are both buried in a short discussion of hydrogen, well-known by most PO-aware people as an energy carrier but not a resource. Of these important energy sources, Heinberg simply asserts that by using them to produce hydrogen they cannot meet America's transportation needs, and that both sources produce wastes (which, I suppose, Heinberg thinks are worse than the consequences of powerdown). He gives plenty of space to methane hydrates, a highly speculative possible source of vast amounts of fossil energy. He even mentions unnamed (and thermodynamically impossible) sources of "free energy". The overall effect is to give the reader the feeling that all of the alternatives must be equally untenable. Heinberg barely discusses renewable energy sources, since the chapter on powerdown appears to count them as part of the solution. That's good, because wind turbines are, like coal and nuclear power, an obvious next step after oil. He mentions efficiency improvements as a strategy likely to be at least partially effective, again, apparently included in the powerdown option. Heinberg has in effect classified energy sources and efficiency measures he likes as part of the powerdown solution, while ones he does not like as magic elixrs. Finally, several pages of this chapter are devoted to the strawman that even with an unlimited energy source, humans would ultimately have to curb growth because of Leibig's Law of the Minimum, the idea that the resource in shortest supply will limit growth in a species' population. Heinberg invites people to confuse economic growth with population growth and increasing resource consumption, yet as Heinberg himself notes elsewhere most of the population pressure is coming from under-developed nations. Most industrialized nations, including the US, would have below-replacement population growth were it not for immigration. If an unlimited energy source were to become available and were used to lift under-developed nations to US levels, experience to date suggests that the population would rapidly level off. Still Heinberg persists, asserting that once the hypothetical new energy source was saturated, a turn towards resource wars would be inevitable anyway, and thus even a successful switch to alternative energy ends up following the resource-war trajectory. How fortunate for those of us reading this today that this same line of reasoning wasn't used when wood, whale oil, and coal appeared to proscribe the limits of human achievement. There is no question in my mind that there is an urgent need to curb human population growth, so as to keep the demands on energy alternatives as low as possible. But Heinberg simply hasn't proven that the current population level cannot be sustained over centuries with sufficient sources of energy, in other words, a combination of both powerdown ideas and ideas that Heinberg would doubtless consider "magic elixirs".

Chapter five, "Building Lifeboats", is a green light for people looking for an excuse to become the new survivalists. I won't rehash it here, since it's not terribly detailed. (The sidebar on people attempting to relearn stone-age technologies provides dark amusement.) About the only thing I found illuminating in this chapter was the description of the Amish, which perhaps hints at the lifestyle Heinberg would have us adopt. And yet, Heinberg notes that Amish families typically have large numbers of children, something that has historically been common to agrarian societies. He does his best to square this with the urgency of population reduction, but I found it unconvincing. I found encouraging the statistic that the yields of sustainable Amish farming practices are 50-75% of mechanized agriculture, which gives me hope that a turn away from current practices (one of the LTG recommendations I agree with) won't necessarily spell starvation for us (because, at least in the US, we produce far more food calories than we actually need to have excellent nutrition). Heinberg doesn't explain how the lifeboat communities are going to avoid destruction by rampaging hordes of well-armed, starving, ex-urban thugs in a "Mad-Max" world. If anything, human history suggests that eventually feudalism would return.

The last chapter casts the current situation as a struggle between the Elites, who've opted for resource wars, and the Movement, an alliance of environmental, anti-war, anti-globalization, and human rights organizations. The chapter is a call to action, to push the elites towards the powerdown option while building lifeboats as "plan B". Although generally sympathetic to their aims, his biggest criticism of members of the movement is their lack of frankness on population issues. (I'm also generally sympathetic to environmental causes - my biggest criticism is that they've successfully and unthinkingly blocked nuclear power in the US, leaving us dependent on fossil resources decades past the point where we should have weaned ourselves from them.) It is here that he attempts to explain the apparently irrational behavior of the elites as having been selected for by the capitalist political system. Indeed, it's hard to argue that our present system has not yielded a great number of political leaders unable to look beyond the next election cycle, and business leaders unwilling to look past the next quarter's results. Still, it's a huge leap to assert that they've lost the capacity for long-term planning, at least in their personal lives. Most of these leaders are healthy people in their 40s, 50s, and early 60s, who will live to see the consequences of their strategies played out during the early part of this century. Almost all have children and grandchildren whose futures they would certainly care about. The obvious infeasibility of resource wars will rule them out as a deliberate choice even of the elites. It is more likely that they honestly think the raft not as shaky as Heinberg believes, and that real solutions to our problems that preserve industrial civilization await only the will to execute them. I hope they're right, because it won't be much fun to break the raft up into a few strong logs, and allow everyone that can't fit onto them to drown.
-- by Doctor Doom

Thursday, July 06, 2006


If you're reading this, you are aware of and probably concerned about the depletion of earth's finite fossil fuel resources, on which modern technological civilization is almost completely dependent, popularly called "Peak Oil" or PO for short. Good for you! By becoming aware of the issue and seeking to learn about it, you are already ahead of the vast majority of people. By trying to find out what, if anything, you can do about it, you're even further ahead. I'm betting you are more likely than average to be open-minded and someone who thinks for him/herself. My advice: don't stop thinking for yourself by adopting without question the dogma of PO doomerism.

I consider myself to be a person of above-average intelligence and a critical thinker, and yet I was sucked in by the 21rst century's equivalent of a doomsday cult. I was ripe for the picking.

I first became aware of the unsustainability of modern civilization in the 1970s, during the so-called oil shocks. I was a kid, but reasonably bright and with a scientific bent, so I read almost everything I could find on energy in general and oil in particular. What I discovered wasn't comforting. We had just 30 years of oil left! We needed it for all the chemicals and plastic things I had previously taken for granted. And here I was, burning this valuable stuff up in Dad's lawnmower! There had to be a better way.

I looked at renewables, but at the time, they all looked like losers. I wouldn't hear the term EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Input) for another 30 years, but even a teenager could see that if you put more energy into something than you could expect to get out of it, it wasn't going to solve the problem. That was true for alcohol fuels, and it was true for solar (photovoltaic) panels. Fusion power sounded good but again even a teenager could see that if you don't yet know how to make something work, it would be foolish to gamble the future on figuring it out in time.

Then I found coal and nuclear power. There was lots of coal, at the time, 500 years worth. And nuclear power, we couldn't ever run out of that (not necessarily true, but I believed it at the time). I had the answer - we were saved! You see, I liked modern technology, and I still do - to me, it was (and is) worth saving. I set the snooze alarm for 1990 (a few years before the oil was due to run out) and more-or-less forgot the whole thing.

In 1987, I first heard about global warming. This was surprising since during the 70s I remember people saying we were heading into a new ice age. Still, I looked at the CO2 and temperature data, and it did seem as if the cooling trend had ended and the earth was gradually warming up, and of course the rise in CO2 levels was clear as a bell. Although the causal relationship was yet unproven, it seemed to me that we'd be better safe than sorry, and so this just looked like another good reason to cut down on using fossil fuels. Unfortunately, mainstream thought seemed to have gone strongly against nuclear power, apparently (to me, having read a lot about it) without much more reason than that Hollywood had made it the spawn of the devil. Since I had already concluded renewables weren't going to do the job, I was resigned to the idea that we would burn through the remaining fossil resources until there weren't two carbon atoms left clinging together, and only then switch to nuclear power.

By the mid-90s it was time for my wake-up call. I discovered and started reading BP's world energy report. The forecast oil doomsday hadn't occurred, in fact there was a comfortable increase in the reserve numbers and the R/P (Reserve-to-Production) ratio had expanded to 40 years. It was beginning to look like this wasn't going to be a problem in my lifetime. The price of oil had crashed and headlines talked about an oil glut. All this extra oil was good news, but it looked as if, instead of counting our blessings at having another century or so of petro-chemical production, the US was hell-bent on burning it up in monstrous, wasteful trucks. What happened to the conservation programs? And when exactly were we going to start building nuclear plants? What about global warming?

About ten years later, I was debating energy issues with one of my greenie friends at dinner. While we both agreed on the need to kick the fossil fuel habit, her contention was that we could get all the energy we needed from renewable sources, whereas I was convinced that we needed nukes because renewables were a Hollywood eco-fantasy and that if you "did the math", you'd probably need a solar cell the size of the entire desert southwest to meet the energy needs of the US. She challenged me to prove that, so off I went to the web to do some research. In doing so, I found...

LifeAfterTheOilCrash (LATOC), Matt Savinar's oil doomsday site. It knocked me out of my chair. Everything I had believed for over 30 years was true, only it was worse than I thought! I had thought that even though we appeared to be stupidly squandering our fossil resources instead of switching to new energy sources, we still had, well, 40 more years to get our act together. But I had foolishly assumed that we could keep producing oil at today's rate until we got close to the end, at which point there would be a steep drop to zero. In fact, though, it was much more likely that a gradual decline in production would set in well before the end, and that while the oil would never completely "run out", production levels far below the ones needed to keep our present technology running would be devastating. Doh!

That's like finding out that the exam you haven't studied for is being given tomorrow morning. But that wasn't the worst of it. LATOC makes the case that it's too late to switch to new energy sources because the effort of switching will itself take energy, energy we won't have as oil production declines. LATOC also argues that we can't get enough energy from the alternatives to power our civilization at current levels. It knocks them down one by one. In short, too little, too late, to save technological civilization. But that still wasn't the worst of it. LATOC makes the point that the so-called green revolution that has enabled us to feed the world's booming population is entirely based on fossil fuels. As bad as it would be to see technology collapse, the doomsday scenario had expanded in the blink of an eye to include a dieoff of billions of people due to either starvation, or wars over the world's dwindling resources.

I went into a black despair. I became a doomer (hence the pseudonym). Well, I was sort-of a doomer - sort-of, because I'm not one to just surrender to fate. I soon learned that there were at least two different types of doomers, the fatalists and the powerdowners. The fatalists figure you might as well bend over, put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye. The powerdowners seemed to view the end of industrial civilization as a good thing and are looking forward to some sort of new agrarian age, albeit one where lots of people have to die to make room for the survivors. It's a little hard to tell them apart, frankly. Powerdowners claim to have a plan to wind down civilization to sustainable levels. But the plan seems to involve lots of people dying, and most of the survivors becoming a new peasantry. If you like modern technology and don't like death, that plan is hard to distinguish from the doomsday itself. Plus, powerdowners are convinved a powerdown is inevitable after wars and such have played themselves out - thus, fatalists are powerdowners who are foolishly not getting ready. One thing they have in common is the inevitability of the end of modern life.

As I said, I'm not one to surrender to fate. I had to do something. At the very least I could warn people! I told friends and family. I joined an on-line discussion group. I started looking at my own lifestyle to see what I could do to reduce my energy consumption. There wasn't much - after all, I'd been aware of the depletion issue for 30 years. I don't drive much, and I don't use much electricity. I avoid disposable plastic stuff. I recycle everything. I got a motorcycle license and a small motorbike to cut my driving even more. I put compact fluoresent bulbs in the lights I use. I started looking for inefficient appliances to cut my power needs even more.

I also continued my research into energy alternatives. After all, I still hadn't answered my friend's question about how big a solar cell it would take to run the US (answer: for electricity alone, it would be about 1/7 the size of Nevada, according to one solar power site). What I found was encouraging. Renewable technologies had advanced considerably since the 1970s when I'd last looked. Wind turbines had emerged as the most cost-competitive technology, and were being built in Europe. Even solar cells were no longer energy-losers; you could get back the energy needed to make them in a few years and then get decades of free power from them afterwards. Fuels made from waste products, or crops grown specifically for fuel, were energy winners now, given the right feedstock. In particular, vegetable oils could be used in diesel engines, and produced with an energy payback of 3 for 1. Brazil was making a go of ethanol from sugar. Nuclear power still looked attractive, despite decades of Hollywood's best efforts to brainwash me. And there was still lots of coal (250 years worth at today's production levels in the US, because we're burning it up faster than we were before). I started wondering just how impossible it really was to switch from fossil energy sources to a combination of these alternatives using coal to bridge the gap, and I started finding flaws in the logic behind LATOC. In due course, I found four whoppers.

First, doomers tacitly assume that anything short of our current energy consumption level would be catastrophic. They also count as a shortage the expected growth in energy demand from industrializing countries like China and India, perversely using an expansion of modern civilization (that they don't believe can occur!) as further proof that it will collapse. Truth is, there is tremendous waste in our current use of energy. A trip to the grocery store is like going to a monster truck rally these days. Is it really necessary to drive a 5000 pound vehicle to buy groceries? To go anywhere? Huge amounts of food are wasted. In fact, a lot of food is grown to feed animals for meat, a very inefficient way to produce food. (I like meat - I just don't eat that much of it.) We could cut back a lot and not miss it. In an emergency, we could cut back even more, just like we did to win World War Two. It wouldn't be much fun, but it would be possible, and no one would have to starve.

Doomers usually respond to this by making the silly argument that conservation won't work because of something called Jevon's paradox. In 1865, Jevon, writing about coal resources in England, argued that improving the efficiency of use of a resource would only cause demand to increase for the resource as the price dropped. Ergo, conservation causes demand to go up and you run out anyway. Doomers are dead wrong about conservation, though. In fact, surprise, they're dead wrong about what Jevon actually said, too. In the 1970s, conservation efforts and efficiency improvements in cars alone made a big dent in oil usage, enough that you can see it in the world's oil production statistics. Europe made the changes permanent by using taxes to keep demand down. The US didn't, so when the bottom dropped out of oil prices in later decades, we went back to our wasteful ways. Europeans use roughly half the oil per person than the US does. This all proves two things: conservation can enable us to get along with less oil if we have to, and people respond in predictable ways to price changes. Doomers forget that Jevon's so-called paradox assumed that the resource in question was still abundant. But once it runs short, all bets are off. If oil production started falling, the price is not going to go down unless demand goes down even faster. Even Jevon predicted that the price of coal would soar eventually, as the resource became scare in the 1930s - doomers don't know or don't mention that. Incidentally, Jevon was wrong about the end of coal spelling doom for industrial England - he couldn't forsee the switch to oil.

The second flaw is in assuming that because we use oil to do something now, we have no other way to do it. In particular, doomers argue that none of the alternatives will work because they all require oil to implement. Wind farms and nuclear plants require oil to produce the materials they're made from, to transport the materials to the site, and to run construction equipment. Electric cars take oil to manufacture. Even coal mines need oil to run mining machinery. Once we run out of oil, we won't be able to do any of those things anymore, goes the argument. The most obvious problem with the argument is that while these activities require energy, the energy doesn't have to come from oil. We use oil for many of them now because it's cheap and convenient, but that doesn't mean we can't use another energy source when oil's no longer cheap or available. Another problem with this argument is that many of these activities don't even use oil now! They use electricity or natural gas (natural gas will also eventually start to run short, but most likely a decade after oil does). The final problem with the argument is that if things really do start to get as bad as LATOC would have you believe, building energy infrastructure will have much higher priority that most of our present transportation uses. In an all-out emergency, rationing could be implemented giving first priority to food production, energy infrastructure, and long-distance transportation of goods, especially food. The annual road trip to see Aunt Tilly and the annual vacation getaway to the Caribbean would be below the line.

The third flaw in the argument is a bit more subtle. It is the assumption that the energy required to switch to alternatives must come on top of what we are using energy for now, rather than instead of some of it. For example, Savinar argues that we won't have the energy to power a crash program of building efficient cars. This ignores the fact that we are already building cars, millions of them every year. The energy used to build them is already counted; the energy needed to build efficient cars doesn't just add to the total. It takes roughly the same energy to build an efficient car as an inefficient one. It would take 10-15 years to turn over the automobile fleet - it doesn't have to happen all at once. Another example: we are today using energy to expand the infrastructure associated with oil consumption, things like roads, airports, and shopping malls. If things get as bad as LATOC says, we won't need those things anymore. That energy and construction equipment could be used to build power plants instead.

The fourth flaw in the argument is even more subtle. Perhaps you've guessed it by now. Doomers argue that there is no energy source we can switch to that can take oil's place in modern civilization. That might or might not be true, but it's beside the point. No single energy source has to, provided we can put enough of the others together. LATOC and others knock down alternatives one by one. But if (for example) we can produce biodiesel from fuel crops, why can't that be used to run construction machinery to build power stations? I've come to believe that no single energy source will take oil's place, but rather that by combining all the ones we know about, we can put together a workable solution that will be good enough to last 200 years or more - enough time for our descendants to come up with something else, or, if they can't, to gradually reduce their numbers without letting anyone starve.

By now, I had become what the doomers call an optimist, defined as anyone who doesn't think a collapse and dieoff are inevitable. I prefer to think of myself as a realist. The real optimists think the peak in oil production won't happen for another 10-20 years. They could be right, but it almost doesn't matter because we need to act now either way. A later peak just means we have more breathing room to get our act together. It's like finding out that exam you haven't studied for was postponed a week - you still need to study for it, only now you don't have to pull an all-nighter cramming! I personally think we're at or very near peak production now, on a plateau that will probably not be enough to satisfy the newly industrializing countries while supporting our wasteful usage.

I began to see the doomer viewpoint for what it is: dogma. A dogma is something you have to believe, without questioning it. And I began to see the hidden agenda of the powerdowners, namely, to bring about their utopian vision of the neo-agrarian society, no doubt with themselves its leaders. They know that most people won't willingly accept a return to centuries past, because most people are like me. We like our modern first-world lives! Some of us wish more people in the world could have the same lifestyle, even if it means sharing what's available a bit better. But if people can be convinced that a powerdown is as unavoidable as gravity, they may bring it about simply by surrendering to it and not looking for alternatives. Scratch the surface of the powerdowner philosophy, and you'll find Marxism dressed up in radical environmentalism.

The doomers may or may not be correct about our inability to switch the energy basis of our civilization, but their case is far from proven. The mere fact that people are debating what to do shows that a lot of people (even the doomers) don't believe the future is totally out of our hands. The track record of doomsday forecasts is poor - no one can really know the future. The smug certaintly of the doomers that they've got all the answers is what finally shook me out from their midst. The doomers are right about one thing - fossil energy sources aren't going to see us through the 21rst century. But if we don't change course soon, the way forward isn't going to be an agrarian utopia. It will be powered, at least in the US and for the remainder of my life, by coal. The environmental effects of that (primarily sea level rise from global warming) aren't the legacy I want to leave to future generations.

If going back to the land is appealing to you, that's terrific! No one's stopping you, or any of the doomers either. In fact, it's a good thing to have people make some worst-case preperations, just in case the doomers are right. But if, like me, you think technological and industrial civilization is something worth preserving, then let's get to work. Don't be fooled by doomer technobabble. This stuff isn't really too hard for the average person to understand. Look for yourself. And not just at the self-serving prophets of doom, many of whom simply cite each other in a kind of circular support system. Check your prejudices at the door and actually look at sites from the nuclear power industry, renewable power advocates, and environmentalists. Sift them for biases to get to the facts. And keep thinking for yourself.
-- by Doctor Doom