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Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg is a writer and speaker about energy issues. She is especially known for her work with financial issues associated with peak oil. Prior…

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What Can we do Now About Peak Oil

Our problem now is that we have built a complex economy that depends on oil and other fuels. We can see that we will have less oil in the future. The question is, “What we should do, in planning for a change in the world?”

Our natural reaction is to try to build add-ons to our current system that we hope might make the system work longer. I am afraid these will be mostly ill-advised, because the system is more complex than we understand, and well-meant changes may have adverse impacts.

What we really need is a new system that will work for the long-term. But such a system is so far away from us now, it is hard to even think about how it would work, and how we would get from our current system to the new system.

Our Current System

Our current system is a complex one that has evolved over a period of years. It is built upon a complex financial system, international trade, and many high-tech goods. Most people in the US live in homes that are heated and cooled to comfortable temperatures year-around and have access to a private passenger automobile, things that people in years’ past would have never dreamed possible.

The problem I see with our current system is that it is not likely to be very resilient. The current system depends on huge energy inputs. We can already see stresses as these are reduced.

Changes which don’t seem too big to us, and which seem to be helpful, could very well disturb the system. For example, conserving electricity would seem like a step in the right direction, but even this little step is likely to affect the finances of utilities, and is likely to make the construction of new, more efficient electric generation less feasible. When we make one change to try to make things better, we may in fact be making changes that make the system as a whole work less well.

There may be some specific changes that can be helpful, but it is difficult to know in advance what these are. In my view, these changes are likely to be the ones that require least government intervention, because they “make sense” without subsidies. For example, adding some geothermal electric generation in a location where geothermal is available, or making some natural gas vehicles if there seems to be a temporary oversupply of natural gas may make sense.

The big problem I see with our current system is that over the long-term (and perhaps not-so-long-term), it can’t continue to work, because the fossil fuels on which it depends are being depleted. Nearly all of the things (wind-generated electricity, solar PV, electric vehicles, fuels from algae) we are thinking about now are simply add-ons to the current system. Once the current system stops working, the additions will be of little benefit. Even something that looks resilient, like solar PV, stops working once there are no more light bulbs available for it to light up, and once back-up batteries are no longer available.

What we need: A new resilient system, that doesn’t depend on fossil fuels

We clearly will eventually need a new plan, but we haven’t even given a thought to what it might be. It is relatively easy to come up with a proposed component of the plan, but even this may not work out in practice.

For example, one can develop a plan for growing crops in an area that requires soil amendments to be brought in from some distance. Even though these amendments are “organic,” the fact that they must be transported some distance is likely to make the system not sustainable, without substantial fuel inputs.

As another example, I saw a plan developed by graduate students showing how we might build sustainable 1,600 square foot homes out of local materials. I would have a number of questions: How much labor will it require to build (and frequently rebuild) such homes? Will this be too much for a new poorer society? Will it be possible to heat such a large home, or should we be aiming for smaller homes?

We do have examples of societies that “worked” in the past, with virtually no fossil fuel inputs. In fact, if we look around the globe, some of these might be quite recent. It seems to me that we need to be studying some of these in more detail, to see if we can figure out what might work going forward. For example, quite a few of these used animal power, both for plowing fields and for transporting goods. If we were to start adding more animal power, what would this imply for land use? How did past societies deal with the need for shelter for themselves and their animals? How did they handle making clothing, and manufacturing household goods?

Societies don’t just spring to life. They evolve. That is a big reason our current situation is so difficult. We are trying to model the future based what we have now, but our current model is very much tied to our current fossil fuel use. It is hard to imagine that our system will work for the long term.

Instead, it seems to me we would do better to model the future on what we had at some time in the past, because at least this would give us an idea of what combination of home sizes, use of animals, size of farms, and even political structure worked in the past. I doubt people today would find this approach very acceptable, though, since so many things have changed–for example, modern medicine and the Internet, and it will be hard to give these up.


Our predicament

So what do we do? Just keep adding on to our current system, and hope that somehow we can keep it together a while longer? Or start working on a new, sustainable system for the long term?

If we do work on a new, sustainable system, how can we get our minds to even think in terms of what life might be like, essentially without fossil fuels? Is modeling based on the past (with perhaps a few additions to reflect the current situation) really our only alternative? Or is it possible to build a ” higher” sustainable system, using mostly local inputs, even though at this point, we don’t have a good model of what this might be?

By. Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg is a writer and speaker about energy issues. She is especially known for her work with financial issues associated with peak oil. Prior to getting involved with energy issues, Ms. Tverberg worked as an actuarial consultant. This work involved performing insurance-related analyses and forecasts. Her personal blog is ourfiniteworld.com. She is also an editor of The Oil Drum.

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  • Anonymous on December 29 2010 said:
    Well, I think you forgot to mention that any system designed to replace the current one needs to address the problem of perpetualpopulation growth, which the current system depends on and, ironically, is the sole reason the current system will no longer work once the limits are reached.So, the problem we have is continuous population growth causing stress to a system that already reached its limits, all we need is to adapt our current economic system to survive with population shriking...than, actually make our population decline to sustainable levels.or the planet itself will do itthanks for the attention.
  • Anonymous on December 29 2010 said:
    Luis Carlos makes an excellent point about growth of demand spurred by population growth -- along with rising expectations spurred by greater awareness of how people live in the affluent countries. It is, after all, in the impoverished third world where population is rising. If something should happen to cause the first world to stop contributing food, finances, technology, medical supplies and expertise etc to the third world, such places could experience much hardship.I am pleased to see Gail's discussion of "mitigation," or the creation of more resilient communities and economies.Such knowledge will be quite helpful for communities regardless of the underlying cause of breakdown of modern highly centralized supply and market infrastructures.
  • Anonymous on December 29 2010 said:
    I appreciate your "common sense" approach to something which escapes recognition by irresponsible Companies like Koch Industries! This privately held company is best known as one of the top ten polluters and a sponsor of the defeated Proposition 23 in California. We need oil to last as long as possible by bringing new technologies online. Thank you for positive influence on the industry.
  • Anonymous on December 30 2010 said:
    Amazing, we all seem to agree about the influence of population on the global economy. Too bad that Professor Julian Simon isn't arount to observe this heresy. He thought that more people was better than fewer people, because then there would be more brains to deal with our problems.No wonder people think that economics teachers are NUTS.
  • Anonymous on December 30 2010 said:
    For one thing, we need to get rid of the victim culture of entitlement. We need to just say to hell with anybody that will not produce that expects to consume. Race, gender, religion etc.....doesn't matter...you work..or you live in poverty....except of course if you have saved your own money to an extent that you can consume more then you produce. Governments should shrink....a lot....and stop interfering in peoples personal lives. Feminism needs to get the finger.....it's just a big parasite victim culture that sucks up resources...money....and transfers wealth and opportunity from those that create it......to parasites who leech it. This whole damn thing......I've got kids so I'm entitled to such and such.....no your not....nobody owes you a damn thing because of your choices....feed your kids and look after them or lose them.....period. And do it on your own money.
  • Anonymous on December 30 2010 said:
    A lot of smart and ingenious people are good to have around. The third world is not producing such people in large quantities, unfortunately. The third world is producing persons who in general are unable to handle modern technology wisely or safely. That is one reason why nuclear weapons proliferation, as practiced by Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, is so dangerous.
  • Anonymous on January 01 2011 said:
    You learn something every day in this business: Russia and China are Third World countries for example, at least according to the good Alfonso. I spent 6 years training for war with Russia, and the Chinese stopped our advance in Korea. That doesn't sound very Third World to me.
  • Anonymous on January 01 2011 said:
    Fr. Banks, you fail to comprehend the mechanism of nuclear weapons proliferation. It proceeds outward from nations such as Russia and China to third world nations such as Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, etc.The problem does not require you to acknowledge it. The problem will come to you unacknowledged, without so much as holding a grudge.
  • Anonymous on January 02 2011 said:
    Fr Banks - sound to me like I've taken orders without knowing it. Anyway, nuclear proliferation is a very nasty thing, and I'm afraid that I understand this better than most people, to include the excellent Alfonso. But it was caused by the drowsy voters - by e.g. their putting into the White House people like George W. and Condoleeza. Assuming that the voters wake up, this thing can still be handled. But some radical thinking and/or actions are going to be necessary. Let me give you an example: Russia is not an enemy of the United States, and it probably never was. Of course, I didn't mind pretending that it was during my 6 years in the US Army.

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