For this post, I’m happy to feature another guest article by Jim Lydecker. I’ve been slow to cover peak oil here more than in passing, not because it isn’t terribly important (It is.) but because I’ve had my hands full researching and writing about population and economic issues. Jim’s essay begins to fill that void. Peak oil links closely with the main themes here, and this piece brings to life its potential impact on our day to day lives.
For a primer on peak oil, try this.
By Jim Lydecker:
June 19, 2007
Actually, the whooshing is being replaced by a huge sucking sound… It is the sound of crude oil being sucked out of the ground to allow those cars to go flying by.
In America, unlike the rest of the world, over 1/2 of the oil we use goes to the production of gasoline. Each day, the world uses over 80 million of barrels of oil. The United States, with 7% of the world’s population, uses over 25% of that 80+ million. That’ll happen when a nation of 320 million has almost as many cars and trucks as people.
I lay in bed thinking of all the other things oil and its cousin, natural gas, are used for and how today would go if they were non-existent. This little exercise has been done before and everyone should think about it.
Living in Northern California, we have a fair amount of electricity generated by hydro, but not enough to keep all of us out of the dark all the time. Since it is 6:30 and still dark, I roll over, turn on my light and hope my section of the grid is not blacked out.
The light, in a fixture circa 1890, lit. I noticed the wire from the light needed attention as the fabric covering it was coming frayed… remember, no oil means no rubber insulation.
I roll onto the wood floor. My Dupont Stainmaster rug is no longer there. It is made out of oil.
I look at myself in the bathroom mirror and decide I need to shave and get ready for another day in Napa. This is not going to be as easy as usual. Without oil, all my toiletries are history. There is no disposable razor as it is primarily plastic. Without oil, there’s nothing plastic.
Even if I had one of those old fashioned straight razors, I’d have no shaving cream: The lather is oil based.
For that matter, I have no shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, soap, toothbrush or toothpaste as they are all made from oil. I look into my empty medicine cabinet and wonder where did my vitamins, aspirin, Zantac and antibiotics go? Oh, yeah, they are all made from oil. Even the moisturizing cream I use is no longer there.
I decide to jump into the shower. At least the cold water will wake me up. But then I’ll have a hell of a mess to clean up as the water will splash all over without my shower curtain. It, too, is made of oil.
It is au natural for me today.
Luckily, I am a cotton guy. I pull on a pair of Levi’s, t-shirt and socks. The socks suck because without oil, there is no elasticity to them and they keep falling down to my ankles.
I look for my Nike’s. They are not here! God, that’s right! Sneakers, one of the best inventions of all time, are non-existent. They are primarily oil based. I have to wear these uncomfortable clodhoppers with thick, stiff leather soles. Uncomfortable and just plain ugly!
Still cool outside, I look for my familiar multi-use Patagonia jacket. It is no where to be found. Ahhhhhh!!!, now I remember! It is made from oil. Instead I reach for my denim jacket.
Leaving my house, I am surprised by all the dust caused by the occasional horse or carriage going downtown on Second Street. Without oil, there is no asphalt and the streets are dirt.
I traipse the mile downtown to Main Street where there are a number of restaurants. The trick is to find one that has what you want to eat. Today I decide to keep it simple: Eggs, hash browns, whole wheat toast and coffee.
Eating is the most challenging part of the day as nothing in our lives is more affected by a contraction of oil and natural gas supplies than agriculture. In 1859, when we entered the oil age, we were an agrarian nation where 90% of the population produced our food. Oil and natural gas, from which all pesticides and fertilizers are produced, are directly responsible for the Green Revolution. Today, 2% of the population produces the food for the other 98%.
Without pesticides or fertilizers, crop yields plummet. Without oil, there are no tractors, combines, threshers or any other of the mechanized methods we now take for granted. And the transportation of our agriculture products becomes a nightmare at best without reliable refrigeration.
Curse those futurists, I think, those that said we can get by using ethanol and other crop-derived energy sources. Haven’t they thought of Jevon’s Paradox? I guess not! Jevon’s Paradox is when you attempt to get yourself out of a progress trap by doing something that makes everything worse.
In fact, every alternative source for oil or oil based energy is ruined by Jevon’s Paradox.
To switch to ethanol would consume what is left of oil and natural gas faster than just continuing on our present course.
Hydrogen? We’d need an additional 300 nuclear power plants to produce it for 300+ million people. Before the first 50 were built, we’d reach Peak Uranium and be in South Africa fighting for control of the world’s uranium.
And replacing 10% of our cars with fuel cells would use up the world’s supply of platinum.
I think of all the promises made about the oil sands of Canada… Oh, that’s right, the problem is the same as making synthetic oil from coal. It is a big problem with a big acronym – EROEI: Energy returned on energy invested.
If the EROEI is a negative number where you have to invest more energy into getting the same amount back, then what is the sense? This is the ultimate Jevon’s Paradox.
There was a time when the EROEI from Middle Eastern oil was a staggering +30. At best now it is +10.
The best we can do with oil sands is about -5. The only way the industry stumbles by now is because of huge subsidies from the American and Canadian governments. Since it requires huge amounts of natural gas, the EROEI will keep heading south as natural gas is depleted.
Wait a second! What am I doing here? I shouldn’t be contemplating this as I’m in the middle of my oil-free exercise.
Quietly I finish my single egg, piece of bread (no toast), and potato and wish I had some coffee. Coffee is difficult to come by without regular shipments from South America.
And I don’t know about that glass of milk I drank. The waitress said it was pasteurized but…
Sheeeeesh, I sigh as I begin the mile long hike back home. I figure I’ll kick back the rest of the day and relax.
But what to do in a world without oil? I can’t watch the tube or listen to the radio. They both require massive amounts of oil to manufacture.
Watching a DVD or listening to CD is out as well! In fact, I won’t even be writing this little exercise of mine now as computers will be non-existent.
Despite it all, I look around and notice the world around me seems cleaner. Probably something to do with our disposable society that no longer exists. And the air is cleaner without all those cars on the freeway – Hey! It is quieter, too. I can actually hear birds singing up above and children playing in backyards.
But it is not going to be a pretty scene as hydrocarbons are depleted. We are talking social strife, mass migration, starvation, epidemics and worse. The world’s population has become unmanageable to exist without oil.
I always tell people to go to YouTube and type “post-oil man” into the search bar. It may be the most eye-opening 4 minutes you’ll spend in your life.
As I reach home after my dusty walk from breakfast downtown, I look around and know at least it’ll be light today even if PG&E turns off the power on my grid. Nope, a rolling blackout won’t affect the light or temperature indoors.
Up above, our familiar ol’ friend, the Sun, shines bright and warm.
A recent post on Trinifar makes a good companion piece to Jim’s essay. Check it out.
Image source: Roadsidepictures, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 license