The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label peak oil. Show all posts
Showing posts with label peak oil. Show all posts

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Is the Energy Transition Feasible? The Future as a Garden of Forking Paths


"El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan" (J.L. Borges)

Recently, Simon Michaux argued that the transition to renewable energy is not possible for the lack of sufficient mineral resources. This conclusion was criticized by Nafeez Ahmed in a recent post. As usual in our polarized world, that led to a heated discussion based on opposing views. My opinion is that both Michaud and Ahmed are right but they see the question from different points of view. If you allow me, Ahmed is more right because he shows that the future is not running on a fixed path. Rather, it is a garden of forking paths. If we choose the right path, the transition is possible and will lead us to a better world. 

Do you remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? It tells you that you shouldn't cry wolf too many times but also that the wolf will eventually come. It illustrates how our destiny as human beings is to always choose extreme viewpoints: either we are too afraid of the wolf, or we believe it doesn't exist. Indeed, Erwin Schlesinger said, "human beings have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic.

This dichotomy is especially visible in the current debate on the "Energy Transition" that recently flared in an exchange between Simon Michaux and Nafeez Ahmed, the first maintaining that the transition is impossible, the second arriving at the opposite conclusion. In my modest opinion, Michaud's work is correct within the limits of the assumptions he made. But these assumptions are not necessarily right. 

Models may be perfectly correct, but still unable to predict the future. 

If you really believe that they can, you are bound to make enormous mistakes -- as we saw in the way the recent pandemic was (mis)managed. Let me give an example: the story of the "peak oil" movement.

When I stumbled into the peak oil concept some 20 years ago, I thought it was a great idea. I am still thinking it is an incredibly insightful view of how humans exploit natural resources, and I keep studying the subject, as you can read at this link. But you also probably know that peak oil is unpopular nowadays. I have had referees criticizing our work just because it mentioned the term "peak oil." As if we were submitting a paper to "Nature Astronomy" where we argued that the Earth is flat." Why that? 

There was nothing wrong with the peak oil concept. It was based on sound models, and it was proposed by some of the best oil geologists in the world. The problem was that the models didn't allow deviations from the stated path. They didn't take into account how the oil extraction system could rearrange itself to react to the scarcity of resources. Even oil extraction is a garden of forking paths, and the system can choose one or another depending on the circumstances. In this case, it chose a path that led to the exploitation of shale oil resources and that delayed the peak by more than 10 years. 

Shale oil resources were not taken into account in the input data of the model. So, over and over, the peak was announced to be arriving in a specific year, and it didn't: the earliest estimates had it in 2005. Today, in 2023, we may be finally peaking, but we don't know for sure. Many peakers argue that the peak did arrive, but only for "conventional" oil. Sure, the surgery was successful, but the patient died. No wonder that most people, including the referees of scientific papers, are now convinced that peak oil was a hoax. 

The peakers' mistake is typical of the way the role of models is misunderstood. The peak oil models are great to let you understand the cycle of resource exploitation and that you have to expect the peak, sooner or later. But you are making a big mistake if you think they can predict the date of the peak. Instead, that's exactly how the peak oil models were used. I did that, too, regrettably, but we learn from our mistakes (except in politics, of course). 

Models are there to understand the future, not to predict it. 

The future is a garden of forking paths. Where you go depends on the path you choose. But you still need to follow one of the available paths. 


Now, let me try to examine Michaux's work and Ahmed's rebuttal in light of these considerations. I went through Michaux's report, and I can tell you that it is well done, accurate, full of data, and created by competent professionals. That doesn't mean it cannot be wrong, just like the peak oil date was proposed by competent professionals but turned out to be wrong. The problem is evident from the beginning: it is right there, in the title. 

Assessment of the Extra Capacity Required of Alternative Energy Electrical Power Systems to Completely Replace Fossil Fuels 

You see? Michaux assumes from the start that we need "extra capacity" from "alternative" energy in order to "completely replace" fossil fuels. If the problem is stated in these terms, the answer to the question of the feasibility of the transition can only be negative. 

Alas, we didn't need a report of 985 pages to understand that. It was obvious from the beginning. The limits of mineral resources were already shown in 1972 by the authors of "The Limits to Growth," the report sponsored by the Club of Rome. We know that we have limits; the problem is which paths we can choose within these limits. 

This question is often touched on in Michaux's report when he mentions the need to "think outside the box" and to change the structure of the system. But, eventually, the result is still stated in negative terms. It is clear from the summary, where Michaux says, "The existing renewable energy sectors and the EV technology systems are merely steppingstones to something else, rather than the final solution." This suggests that we should stick to fossil fuels while waiting for some miracle leading us to the "final" solution, whatever that means. This statement can be used to argue that renewables are useless. Then, it becomes a memetic weapon to keep us stuck to fossil fuels; an attitude which can only lead us to disaster. 

Nafeez Ahmed perfectly understood the problems in his rebuttal. Ahmed notes several critical points in Michaud's report; the principal ones are underestimating the current EROI of renewables and the recent developments of batteries. That leads him to the statement that renewables are not really "renewable" but, at most, "replaceable." Which is simply wrong. The EROI of renewables is now large enough to allow the use of renewable energy to recycle renewable plants. Renewables are exactly that: renewable. 

You could argue that my (and Ahmed's) evaluation of the EROI of renewables is over-optimistic. Maybe, but that's not the main point. Ahmed's criticism is focused on the roots of the problem: we need to take into account how the system can (and always does) adapt to scarcity. It follows different paths among the many available. Ahmed writes: 

...we remain trapped within the prevailing ideological paradigm associated with modern industrial civilisation. This paradigm is a form of reductive-materialism that defines human nature, the natural world, and the relationship between them through the lens of homo economicus – a reduction of human nature to base imperatives oriented around endless consumption and production of materially-defined pursuits; pursuits which are premised on an understanding of nature as little more than a repository of material resources suitable only for human domination and material self-maximisation; in which both human and nature are projected as separate and competing, themselves comprised of separate and competing units.

Yet this ideology is bound up with a system that is hurtling toward self-destruction. As an empirical test of accuracy, it has utterly failed: it is not true because it clearly does not reflect the reality of human nature and the natural world.

It’s understandable, then, that in reacting to this ideology, many environmentalists have zeroed in on certain features of the current system – its predatory growth trajectory – and sought out alternatives that would seem to be diametrically opposed to those regressive features.

One result of this is a proliferation of narratives claiming that the clean energy transformation is little more than an extension of the same industrialised, endless growth ideological paradigm that led us to this global crisis in the first place. Instead of solving that crisis, they claim, it will only worsen it.

Within this worldview, replacing the existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure with a new one based on renewable energy technologies is a fantasy, and therefore the world is heading for an unavoidable contraction that will result in the demise of modern civilisation.  ... Far from being a sober, scientific perspective, this view is itself an ideological reaction that represents a ‘fight or flight’ response to the current crisis convergence. In fact, the proponents of this view are often as dogmatically committed to their views as those they criticise. ....

Recognising the flaws in Michaux’s approach does not vindicate the idea that the current structures and value-systems of the global economy should simply stay the same. On the contrary, accelerating the energy and transport disruptions entails fundamental changes not only within these sectors, but in the way they are organised and managed in relation to wider society.

My critique of Michaux doesn’t justify complacency about metals and minerals requirements for the clean energy transformation. Resource bottlenecks can happen for a range of reasons as geopolitical crises like Russia's war in Ukraine make obvious. But there are no good reasons to believe that potential materials bottlenecks entail the total infeasibility of the transition.

... we face the unprecedented opportunity and ecological necessity to move into a new system. This system includes the possibilities of abundant clean energy and transport with diminishing material throughput, requiring new circular economy approaches rooted in respect for life and the earth; and where the key technologies are so networked and decentralised that they work best with participatory models of distribution and sharing. This entails the emergence of a new economy with value measured in innovative ways, because traditional GDP metrics focusing on ever-increasing material throughput will become functionally useless.

If you can, please, try to examine these statements by Ahmed with an open mind because he perfectly frames the problem. And never forget one thing: the future is not a single path toward catastrophe. It is a garden of forking paths. We are bound to follow one of these paths: we don't know which one yet, but not all of them lead to the Seneca Cliff. In the transition to a renewable energy system, we can adapt, reduce demand, improve efficiency, deploy new technologies, and simply be happy with a more limited supply of energy at some moments. It is only the rigidity of our mental models that make us think that there are no alternatives to fossil fuels. 

 This post was revised on May 8th 2023 to improve clarity

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Colin Campbell (1931-2022). A tribute to the father of the "Peak Oil" concept


Colin Campbell died at 91, on Nov 13th, 2020, in his home, in Ballydehob, Ireland. He loved to illustrate the concept of peak oil using beer. No fancy theories, no ideology: beer is a real thing that you can't create out of thin air. And after you have drunk it, there is no more of it! 

I met Colin Campbell for the first time in Italy, in 2003, when I invited him to give a talk at the University of Florence. That day, it was clear that Colin was bringing us an important message. He knew that our world, our proud civilization, and our (perhaps) great achievements, were all based on the availability of cheap oil. No oil, no energy. No energy, no civilization. 

Not everyone who listened to him understood his message, but some of us did. It was just two years after that the Twin Towers in New York had fallen in flames. It was an event that screamed for an explanation, but that could not be understood in the framework of the world that was presented to us by the official media. It was on that day that a small group of Italian scientists and researchers collected in my office to meet Colin after his talk. An electrifying experience: we all had the impression that a veil was being lifted, that we could see what was behind the propaganda curtain, that we could finally perceive the machinery that kept the world moving. A new reality was being revealed to us. 

Colin was not an academic scientist. He was primarily an "oil man," people who have practical, no-nonsense views, and can't be easily swayed by ideologies or fashionable trends. People hardened by experience, used to setting realistic goals and attaining them. Colin was not a man who could be easily intimidated or browbeaten. 

As a former oil man, Colin had access to data that for most of us are too expensive to buy, or simply unavailable. Together with his longtime friend and coworker, Jean Laherrere, they revisited an old model that Marion King Hubbert had proposed in 1956, they revamped it with new data, and they published their results in a 1998 article in "Scientific American" titled "The End of Cheap Oil." The model was simple, and the data still uncertain, but the study went straight at its target and arrived at a clear conclusion: the oil resources of the world were becoming more and more expensive, and economic growth was going to be a thing of the past in a non-remote future. The consequences were unknown, but potentially disastrous. Later, I called the descent ahead the "Seneca Cliff,"

Colin was moving along a path parallel to the one created, some 30 years before, by the authors of "The Limits to Growth" and their sponsors, the Club of Rome. Colin was a big fan of the "Limits" study, actually one of those people who brought the study back to the attention of the public in the 2000s. Sharp-minded as usual, Colin could recognize ideas that were grounded in the real world. He would never have bought the vague arguments that had been deployed against the study, such as that resources are "created" by human intelligence. No, resources are something real, something physical, something that you can weigh and measure. They do not come for free: you must pay for what you extract, and the cost may be more than what you can afford to pay. This is the essence of the idea of gradual depletion that leads to the "bell-shaped" curve. It was the basis of the "Limits to Growth" study and the basis of the "Peak Oil" theory. Below, you can see the main result of the 1998 study.

In the early 2000s, Colin went on to establish the "association for the study of peak oil and gas" (ASPO). It was a group of scientists, intellectuals, and simple citizens who had understood a simple concept: the future was not going to be what we were told to expect. It was an attempt to alert governments and everyone about the dangers ahead. 

Rethinking about that story, today, it is amazing how Colin succeeded, alone and only with his own resources, in creating an organization that arrived to have some effect on the global debate. High-rank politicians heard the message, although often reacted by criticizing it. For a while, ASPO was also a watering hole for all sorts of subversives, including the arch-conspiracy theorist Michael Ruppert, whom I personally met in Vienna at one of the ASPO meetings. I am reasonably certain that ASPO was infiltrated by the CIA, I have no proof, of course, but I would be surprised if they hadn't probed ASPO to see what we were up to. Evidently, they decided that we were harmless (they were correct) and they left us in peace.

ASPO went through a cycle of popularity that lasted about 10 years. For a while, it looked like we could influence the world, that the people who had the power to do something would listen to our message and intervene. In 2005, Colin Campbell proposed his "Oil Protocol" (also called the "Rimini Protocol") that would have put a limit on the extraction rate of hydrocarbons worldwide. That raised much interest in the mid-2000s. But that didn't last for long. 

The trajectory of ASPO went along a similar path as that of the Club of Rome and its "Limits to Growth" study. In both cases, a group of intellectuals tried to alert the world rulers about the finiteness of the material resources on which the economy was based, and that something had to be done to avoid the "overconsumption trap" that would necessarily lead to a crash. In both cases, the message was rejected and demonized, then ignored. 

In 2008, ASPO's predictions seemed to have been borne out when oil prices shot up to levels never seen before. Was it "peak oil" arriving? It probably was, at least for what it had to do with "conventional" oil, but the consequences were unexpected. The powers that be reacted aggressively to the crisis, pumping gigantic amounts of money and resources into the exploitation of new oil and gas resources in the US. It was the start of the age of "fracking." From 2010 onward, a huge amount of oil started flowing out of the "tight oil" wells, reversing the declining trend that had started 40 years before. For many, it was the delivery from a nightmare. Some spoke of a "new era of abundance" that might have lasted for centuries, if not forever. 

None of the geologists in ASPO, or outside ASPO, had predicted this development. Cornucopians and catastrophists, alike, judged that the revenues from shale oil could not justify the costs of extraction. They couldn't believe that the oil industry would embark on such an expensive and uncertain adventure. Indeed, fracking didn't bring profits: it was mostly a political decision, meant to keep the current elites in power. In this sense, it worked very well, although nobody can say for how long. 

Fracking was the death knell for ASPO. After 2010, the public rapidly lost interest in peak oil, Perhaps it was unavoidable. People easily forget unsettling truths, much preferring comfortable lies. And that's what happened. ASPO never officially died, but it declined to a much lower level of activity than it had shown at the beginning. Colin Campbell retired in his home in Southern Ireland, and his last comment on peak oil was published in "Cassandra's Legacy" in 2018.

Rethinking today about Colin's legacy, we can see that he was not always right in his assessments. One of the limits of his approach was that it was focused only on oil and gas. His models were sometimes oversimplified, and, at times, he would be too quick in disparaging new technologies that could change the picture. Perhaps his main limit was to have overemphasized the importance of the peak date as a turning point for humankind and to have believed that it could be determined by models. I know that he understood that the peak was just one point in a smooth curve, and he said that several times in public statements. But many people misunderstood the meaning of "peak oil" and saw it as equivalent to "running out" of oil. For some, it was the equivalent of the religious concept of apocalypse, and that led to accusations against ASPO of being a millenarian cult of some kind. 

It should go without saying that Colin's ideas were as far from millenarism as they could possibly have been. His approach was good, data-based science, and he was fond of quoting Keynes saying, "when I have new data, I change my mind, what do you do, sir?" (actually, Samuelson said that). Colin's capability of dispassionately analyzing data led him to avoid the mistakes that other members of ASPO made, such as putting all their hopes on nuclear energy or refusing to accept climate science as a valid scientific field.  

So, even though right now the concept of "peak oil" seems to be out of fashion, good ideas are like souls. They move from one generation to another, being reborn as new incarnations if they are good. Campbell's ideas have that power, right now they are nearly forgotten, but waiting to reappear in a suitable body, like the spirit of the Dalai Lama. We, humans, forget things so easily, especially important things. But one day we'll understand Campbell's main message that what we get from the Earth may seem to be free, but it must be repaid, sooner or later. And the debt recovery agency employed by Gaia is ruthless and cannot be bribed using money. 

From the time when I first met Colin, that day in 2003, I considered him my mentor as I moved into a field of research, resource depletion, that was wholly new to me. It was in large part with his help, which he was always happy to provide, that I succeeded in carving for myself a niche in this new and fascinating field. Over the years, I came to know Colin and his wife Bobbins well. He was not the kind of man who cared for his public image, nor he was used to boasting about his accomplishments, but I can tell you one thing: he truly was a good person. He was at the highest level of the empathy scale, as my friend Chuck Pezeshky defines it. 

Colin cared for people. For his family, his friends, his coworkers, and also for humankind as a whole -- otherwise he wouldn't have done what he did with ASPO. He understood how resources, and crude oil in particular, are at the basis of much of the oppression and suffering of humankind, and he tried to do what he could to free people from this immense burden. Today, we can see him as one of the great minds of the past decades who tried to alert humankind of the dangers ahead, such as Aurelio Peccei, Donella Meadows, Rachel Carson, Herman Daly, and many others. They were not heard, but their memory will not be forgotten.  

May Colin rest in peace in the arms of that Earth that he studied so much as a geologist. 

Monday, February 28, 2022

Back to Reality: We are All Children of Oil


Colin Campbell, founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), speaks in Pisa in 2006. Officially, the Powers that Be (PTB) ignored the ASPO message, but it could be that they understood it all too well. That would explain many things about the current situation. For two years, we thought that all our problems were caused by a microscopic, peduncled critter. Now, we are back to reality: we are all children of oil, and we cannot survive without it.

A few days ago, I found by chance on my shelves some documents from the 2006 conference of ASPO (the association for the study of peak oil) that I and others organized in Pisa, in Tuscany. The conference had a certain global resonance: it was sponsored by the Tuscan government, hundreds of people from all over the world came to attend, and the international media commented on it. It was part of a wave of interest on peak oil and its consequences. Just as another example, see the leaflet on the right that I also found rummaging among old documents. It announces a meeting to be held in the Tuscan countryside in 2004, titled, "The Party is Over", and subtitled "How to exit from the petroleum-based economy"

Today, it looks as if these things are a hundred years old. How was it that there was an age in which you could express this kind of subversive thoughts in public and be given some space in the media? And how could we delude ourselves into thinking that we could have convinced that nebulous entity called "humanity" that we were running out of our natural resources, crude oil in the first place? Even more subversive, that we should reduce consumption and move to renewable sources before it was too late?

At the time, we didn't know exactly how much time we had before troubles were to start, but our estimates were correct in terms of orders of magnitude. In the early 2000s, Colin Campbell proposed that the peak of "conventional" oil production would come around 2012. It probably did, but the peak was masked by the production of non-conventional resources. "Shale oil" bought us another decade of growth, although at a modest rate and at a high cost. So, we had more than 20 years to prepare from when, in 1998, Colin Campbell and Jean Lahérrere had first flagged the problem with an article published on "Scientific American." But, as we should have expected, nothing serious was done.

On the contrary, the entity called "humanity" showed the maturity and wisdom of someone in the grip of convulsions and possessed by demonic forces. We have seen 20 years of a roller coaster in the desperate search for an enemy to destroy and turn the clock back, to when things were good. The enemy has been singled out as Osama, Saddam, Assad, Qaddafi, and many others, destroyed only to be replaced by the new monster of the year. 

For two years, then, the monster was not a human being, but a microscopic peduncled creature that nicely played its role of bugaboo, until it was officially vaporized by the microscopic equivalent of carpet bombing. Now, it is over, and a new, more conventional monster is advancing: the soulless Vladimir Putin. Chances are that he will not be the last monster in the demonization chain.

Every time we seemed to have destroyed our arch-enemy, it came back in another form, bigger and uglier than before. And each time, in the fight against the monster on duty, we lost something of our wisdom, our freedom, our humanity. 

We never realized that what we were fighting was not a monster, but a reflection of ourselves in the desperate search for a way to continue a way of life that some of our leaders defined as "not up for negotiations." But when you deal with Nature, everything is up for negotiations. And Nature always wins the game. 

Peak oil never reached the level of the official monster of the day, but it was worrisome enough that it deserved the standard demonization treatment. It could not be bombed and there was no vaccine against it. But we marginalized it, ridiculed it, and made it disappear from view as if we had bombed it to smithereens. Yet, it is returning, even though not mentioned, during the current crisis. 

We are 8 billion on this planet, all children of crude oil. Without crude oil and other fossil fuels, most of us simply wouldn't exist. And without crude oil, we cannot continue to exist. As a monster, peak oil is much scarier than any of the bugaboos that the mainstream media have been proposing to us. Gas and coal are in the same group.

We should have known what to expect. It was all written already in 1972 in the study titled "The Limits to Growth." To be sure, the authors never mentioned wars for resources in their discussion. But just by taking a look at the curves for the most likely scenarios, it wasn't difficult to imagine that the global collapse was not going to be a friendly party. 

With the world's economic system expected to crash at some moment during the first decades of the 21st century, we should have expected the race to grab what was left would get uglier and uglier. It is happening. 

Is it the story of a failure? Maybe, but in a strangely twisted way. Thinking about what's happening right now in the world, I have a strong impression that our leaders didn't ignore our message. Not at all. Already in 2001, it was said that George Bush Jr. had decided to invade Iraq because he had read some material produced by ASPO and was worried about peak oil. It is probably just a legend, but the so-called "Carter Doctrine" of 1980 already recognized that the US couldn't survive without the oil resources of the Middle East. Our leaders are not smarter than us, but not stupid, either. 

So, it may well be that the PTBs perfectly understand the situation and that they are maneuvering to place themselves in a position to gain from the coming (actually ongoing) collapse. After all, the game that the elites know best is putting the commoners one against the other. It is the game being played right now. Like the Russian Roulette, it is one of those games you won't necessarily survive. 

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Saga of Crude Oil. An Epic Story told by Douglas Reynolds

The "bell curve" of oil production has been popularized together with the concept of "peak oil," the point of the curve where the global crude oil production reaches its maximum, just before starting its irreversible decline. There is something universal in this curve that may describe much more than just the output of the oil industry. Have you ever tried to look at the curve in narrative terms? If you did, you may have noticed that it describes a typical heroic saga. The hero starts as a young hopeful, grows to be successful in his quest, then faces decline in old age. That's the way the universe moves and it is not a coincidence that Douglas Reynolds chose the title of "An Energy Odyssey," linking to Ulysses' saga, for his recent book on the world cycle of peak oil. 

Every civilization has its founding saga. It is the story of a hero, or a group of heroes, who manage to overcome enormous difficulties, succeed in their task, and then fade slowly, enjoying the fruits of their efforts. The Sumerians had the story of Gilgamesh, the Greeks the Iliad and the Odyssey, Medieval Europe had Dante's comedy, and there were many others. 

What about us? We do not really have a saga that defines our civilization, except rather brutal ones that involve the bombing to smithereens of the enemies of democracy. Perhaps it is because our society is unlike any of the past ones: it was not created by heroes, but it grew over the availability of cheap and abundant sources of energy that no society ever had in the past: fossil fuels

So, maybe it is there that we find our founding saga: exactly there, with those dark things extracted out of the ground that brought to us wealth over anything that the wildest dreams could imagine. It is a saga that has something in common with that of the Volsunga, where the hero, Sigurd, kills the dragon Fafnir and obtains his underground treasure. 

If crude oil is the protagonist of our saga, the peak oil cycle has a certain narrative flavor. As in old literary sagas, we have the growth of the hero, his success at the peak, and then his decline in old age. Crude oil is at the peak of its cycle and now its decline is starting. This story is not something that we'll read in a book, or hear sung by a bard. We will experience it as protagonists. The walls of Troy have been breached and what's going to happen to us? As for many ancient sagas, this one has a dark aspect: the protagonists may not survive the challenge.  

Perhaps it was with these concepts in mind that Douglas Reynolds chose the title of "Energy Odissey" for his recent book on the cycle of the world's crude oil production, linking to Ulysses' ancient saga. 

Reynolds has been teaching at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and he has been active in the field of oil depletion. Those of us who have been involved in this kind of study know very well his contributions, especially on the correlation of oil depletion and the fall of the Soviet Union, summarized in his 2016 book "Cold War Energy: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union

With "Energy Odyssey," Reynolds summarizes a whole career of research in this field. The result is a true saga: the book covers a wide range of elements of the story, including some correlations that are not usually made: we read about Pyramids, Aztec Gods, Kachina dolls, Nordic Gods, falconry, the Babel story, Moby Dick, the Wizard of Oz, and much, much more. 

It is difficult to summarize this book. Let me just propose you an excerpt, then you may decide to read it yourself. Or, you may contact the author (ask me in the comments for his email).


From the Introduction of "Energy Odyssey" by Douglas Reynolds.

The idea of the Iliad and the Odyssey is that of literature and history. That is, these books are an oral tradition of explaining a story generation to generation. And since there really was conflict and war surrounding the city of Troy, these stories are based on a history. Instead of considering history as a science, and literature as a humanity, the ancients were more convoluted or maybe they simply had the requirement for interchangeability in the day. That is, history was literature and literature was history. Or another way of saying this is that The Iliad and The Odyssey were the Freakonomics of their day. The genres were not so much confused as they were integrated in order to be able to create education for the common man or woman or human, often called “man” for convenience.

It is an interesting concept of having history and literature so close to each other. It reminds one of the difference between rhetoric and oratory. In the Greek tradition, the difference had to do with court cases and the law compared to argumentation. Oratory would try to win this or that case kind of like an ancient version of the television show “Suites” and where it was all in the winning of the case rather than what is right and what is wrong as being important. Rhetoric was more of a higher elevated philosophical discourse. It had to do with getting at a deeper truth that eludes one. The difference between rhetoric and oratory reminds one of the sciences and especially the economic social sciences of coming at the truth where one can use inductive reasoning or deductive reasoning and where the risk averse nature of the profession tends to emphasize induction over deduction even though a truer and deeper insight requires deduction more than is thought. What each reader may have to do then is to plug the ears of your preconceived notions and sail by the sirens of alternative argumentation so that you don’t sail your boat into the rocky shores of excessive disputation.

One of the interesting story lines in the various plots of Odysseus is not so much what Odysseus goes through or how he is affected by his travels or how he steps up to meet different challenges, but rather the idea that the city of Troy actually takes in the Trojan Horse in the first place. On the surface, one has to be surprised at the naiveite of the Trojans. Did they not know this could be a trick? Or maybe in a way the literary story is showing that all conflicts involve people with a weak link or vulnerable under side and that that is the point of the story. Maybe even our own technology has a vulnerable side that a Trojan Horse can undo.

What is interesting about Odysseus and the Iliad and the Odyssey is that the world too is taking such a journey. And after the Trojan War, especially, the journey is fraught with adventures and side trips but eventually leads to a resolution of sorts for Odysseus and so to a resolution for the world at large.

Though there are many formidable hardships in regard to energy where the world’s economies will be taken captive and certainly enticed into being devastated on coastal rocks, nevertheless, a realistic perspective of energy and its potential and its hazards can propel a proper expedition to be undertaken. And yet the world may also be taken in by its own Trojan Horse.

This story may have parallels for today’s world’s energy odyssey. For truly the world’s economy is dependent on energy and all the different types of energy determine how the world’s economy will work. Right now, there is a great battle between using fossil fuels and using renewable energy for the world’s economy, and it seems like the tension, rather like that of the Trojan War itself, is a battle for the hearts and minds of the people and where no one is winning the argument. Or, the current Trojan Energy War is not a battle for the hearts and minds of people, but rather a stalemate between the energy consuming economies that want ever more available energy for ever greater economic growth on the one side, and the supplies of energy that by their very nature are either finite or unstable and must eventually reach a limit.

In the Iliad, Odysseus and his Greek city state allies seem to have reached an end and cannot win the battle. Thus seemingly, the force of technology has won the day and there is no more scarcity to inhibit economic growth. But there may be a surprise in store where the stalemate of the battle will break in a most unexpected manner by both sides. It will be the Hubbert Trojan Horse Scenario. The crucial character in this energy odyssey story will be a geologist by the name of M. King Hubbert, and the outcome, though surprising, will be destructive to both those who believe in renewable energy and those who believe in fossil fuel energy as far as how the economy reacts. Just so, M. King Hubbert’s Trojan Horse Scenario is the final takeover of the Scarcity and Growth debate, at least in regard to non renewable natural resources.

Energy Odyssey:
The Hubbert Trojan Horse Scenario
Table of Contents

Introduction: Energy Odyssey: The Journey to Energy Enlightenment
1: Energy Dialectic: Rhetorical Adversity in Energy Philosophy
2: Energy Architecture: The Pyramids of Entropy
3: The Energy Quetzalcoatl: The Serpentine Energy Chain
4: Entropy Subsidy Wizarding: Merlin the Energy Magician
5: En Tech Symphony: Beethoven’s 5th vs. the 6th
6: The Tower of Energy Babel: Rally to Growth and Scatter from Scarcity
7: The Energy Kachina: The Four Seasons of Exploration Balance
8: Energy Novel Similes: Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick & Blood
9: Energy Constitution: American Hamiltonian Shale Oil Utterance
10: The Loki of Energy: The Oil and Gas Enigma
11: Energy Falconry: The Guardianship of OPEC
12: The Texas Sole Energy Ranger: Hi Ho Lithium, Renewables and Away
13: Don King Energy Economics: The City Streets of Electrical Power Grids
14: The Energy Macroeconomy Yin and Yang: The Pangu Inflationary and Stagflationary Effect
15: Energy Gaia: The Mother Earth of Foreshadowings
16: Energy Children: The Blessing of Ganesha and The Hardship in Developing Countries
17: The Eris of Energy: The Discord of the Golden Apple
18: COVID Energy Chess: The Strategic Pandemic Moves
19: The Energy Rasputin: The Demise of The Soviet Union
20: The Romulus and Remus of Energy: Rome’s Crisis of the Third Century
21: The Oracle of Energy Delphi: Determining Prescient Energy Scenarios
22: The Trojan Energy Horse: The Odyssey Continues
23: About the Energy Author: The Energy Muse’s Song

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Climate Change and Resource Depletion. Which Way to Ruin is Faster?

What could bring down the industrial civilization? Would it be global warming (fire) or resource depletion (ice)? At present, it may well be that depletion is hitting us faster. But, in the long run, global warming may hit us much harder. Maybe the fall of our civilization will be Fire AND ice.
The years after World War 2 saw perhaps the fastest expansion and the greatest prosperity in the history of humankind. Yet, it was becoming clear that it was exactly this burst of prosperity and expansion that was creating the conditions for its own collapse. How long could humankind continue growing an economy based on limited natural resources? How long could the human population keep increasing?

Not everyone agreed that this was a problem, and the mainstream idea seemed to be that technological progress could maintain the human expansion forever. But, for those who were concerned about this matter, the discussion soon split into two main lines: one focused on depletion, the other on pollution. Over the years, the "depletionists" concentrated on fossil fuels, the main source of energy that keeps civilization moving. Initially, the disappearance of fossil fuels was seen simply as a necessary step in the progression toward nuclear energy. But the waning of the nuclear idea generated the idea that the lack of fossil energy would eventually bring down civilization. The collapse was often seen as the result of "peak oil," the point in time when oil production couldn't be increased anymore. It was estimated to occur at some moment during the first 2-3 decades of the 21st century.

On the other side, the focus was initially on pollutants such as smog, heavy metals, carcinogenic substances, and others. Pollution was generally seen as a solvable problem and, indeed, good progress was done in abating it in many fields. But the emerging idea of global warming soon started to be seen by "climatists" as an existential threat to humankind or even to the whole planetary ecosystem. The time scale of climate change was never defined in terms of momentous events but as a gradual temperature rise that could play out over a century or more. Some climatists spoke of "tipping points," e.g., the "methane explosion," that could have brought rapid ruin to humankind. But it was impossible to estimate the time scale of these events, and the majority of climatists tended to regard those who expressed these views as scare-mongering catastrophists.

Climatists and depletionists were looking at the same scene, just from two different viewpoints. But human beings notoriously have difficulties in changing their views. Their minds seem to become easily fixed on a single problem, and they tend to play the game of "my problem is bigger than yours." Ours is an age of "either-or" positions (you are either with us or against us, as G.W. Bush famously said). So, climatists and depletionists found it hard to work together and, often, they became bitter enemies of each other. It was a dispute that reminded the struggles of the Medieval Christian Church between heretics and orthodoxes (with the orthodoxes defined only after the debate had ended, sometimes with the members of the other side burned at the stake)
Depletionists were often geologists who had no training in climate physics. Sometimes they would scoff at the idea of climate change as the delusion of a group of pseudo-scientists who played with models that were unrelated to the real world. More often, they would not attack climate science directly but argued that the depletion of fossil fuels would solve all climate problems: no oil, no emissions. Then, no emissions, no climate change. 
On their side, climatists were often specialists in atmospheric physics. They were heavily focused on climate models while tending to rely on industrial estimates for the available fossil resources as external parameters in their calculations. They tended to see these resources as abundant and believe that curbing emissions to avoid a climate disaster would make depletion irrelevant. 

It was a clash that could not be solved by discussions among people who were speaking different scientific, and even political languages. Peak oil had its moment of popularity during the first decade of the 21st century, then it faded out of the debate. Climate change, instead, kept making inroads in the global memesphere, despite the dogged resistance of several lobbies and political sectors. By the end of the 2nd decade of the century, it was dominating the debate, and it had nearly completely silenced the opinion that peak oil was a threat worth of attention. 

The reasons for the tilt of the debate to favor climatists may have been more than one, but overall it may well be that it was because it is much easier to worry about a problem that is more distant in time. Politicians could comfortably claim that they were doing something useful while proposing that the airlines could run their planes on biofuels or that cars could be run on "blue hydrogen."  Peak oil may have arrived, probably as early as 2008 for conventional oil, but in the great cacophony of the media, it went unmentioned and invisible to the eyes of the public and of the decision-makers.  
All along the debate, it was almost always impossible to propose a compromise that took into account both problems, depletion and warming. But, already in 1972, the study titled "The Limits to Growth" tackled the problem in a holistic way (image by Magne Myrtveit). The computer model used in the calculation didn't share the limitations of the human mind and could simply compute the results of the interactions of the various factors. At that time, the importance of climate change was not yet clear, but the "pollution" parameter was later recognized as representing the effects of greenhouse emissions. 
The results of the "base case" scenario computed in "The Limits to Growth" study (see the figure below) indicated a probable collapse of the industrial civilization for some moment in the second decade of the 21st century. It was intended to be the illustration of a trend rather than a prediction, but it may have turned out to have been remarkably prophetic. 

But what was the cause of the collapse? Depletion or pollution? The answer was "both," but the model showed that the peaking of the production of natural resources coincided with the start of the decline of the industrial system. Pollution (climate change) arrived later, and its effect was mainly to make the decline steeper, generating a typical "Seneca Cliff." 
This result made a lot of sense: pollution is a consequence of resource exploitation and you would expect it to arrive after that depletion has played out its cycle of growth. Yet, it was also possible to create scenarios using the "Limits" model where pollution had such negative effects to become the main driver of the collapse. As usual, the future can be imagined but not predicted. In 1972 it was way too early to presume to be able to predict what was supposed to happen 50 years later.

But things kept moving and in 2009, Dave Holmgren systematized and arranged the collapse question in a semi-quantitative quadrant that indicated several possible futures that depended on the interplay of depletion and warming. Holmgren didn't take a specific position on what was the most immediate threat, but his diagram provided guidelines to assess just that.

And here we are: in 2021 Holmgren's scenarios were reviewed by "Rutilius Namatianus" (RN) in a series of three posts on "The Seneca Effect" (one, two, three). He arrived at the conclusion that -- just like in the "base case" scenario of The Limits to Growth --  depletion is arriving faster and hitting us harder.  According to RN, the reaction to the 2020 pandemic is mostly an effect of the economic system being on the verge of collapse because of depletion, even though the public has not realized that yet. 
Like other depletionists, RN is skeptical about the existence of human-caused climate change. Apart from that, though, his position makes sense. Right now, it is difficult to find a sector of the economy so badly damaged by global warming that it might cause the system to collapse. So, the crash of 2020 may be attributed to the constraints generated by the gradually increasing costs of the exploitation of natural resources for a growing economy and an increasing population. 

A civilization based on conspicuous consumption cannot keep going for long when there is little left that can be consumed. Hence, we are seeing a series of correlated changes: less traveling (especially by plane), the collapse of the tourism industry, the contraction of the entertainment industry, less commuting, and the reduction or the disappearance of other wasteful activities that we can't afford anymore. All that is officially just temporary and things are supposed to return soon to "normal," that is to the best of worlds. But we may reasonably doubt that. Instead, we may well be seeing the start of the Seneca Cliff that "The Limits to Growth" had already seen in its scenarios of 1972.

Does all that mean that climate change is not a problem anymore? Not at all. Surely, the economic crash of 2020 is reducing the human impact on climate, but as I noted more than once complex systems always kick back (a quote by John Gall). We still have to receive a kick from Earth's climate that may be much worse than anything we received so far (*)
What we are doing to the ecosystem might turn out to be just a moderate perturbation, with the system kicking back to its original state in a few millennia -- or maybe even just in a few centuries. In this case, some forms of human civilization could survive the change. Or the ecosystem may kick us up all the way to the Eocene, with a temperature of 12 C higher than it is now. That won't necessarily mean the extinction of the human species, but it would not be unlikely.

And here we are, laughing at the pitiful attempts of the so-called "decision-makers" to stop the tsunami with teaspoons. We are both spectators and actors of the grandest spectacle in the history of the world: the end of the mightiest civilization that ever existed. No matter how our future will be playing out, remember that the destiny of soap bubbles is just of shining gloriously in the sun for a short while. Universes may be little more than a shower of soap bubbles in the sun, just on a grander scale. As we fade out, there will be new universes and we may even be able to create a few ourselves. Humans may have done a lot of damage to the ecosystem, but surely they never lacked fantasy!

(*) In 2012 I wrote a post on "Cassandra's Legacy" titled "Confessions of a Peak Oiler" that some people interpreted as if I had reneged the peak oil movement. But it was not that (otherwise I would have titled it "Confessions of a FORMER peak oiler.") I just made the point that the climate threat was bigger than the depletion threat, not that it didn't exist. 

Friday, June 18, 2021

Four Scenarios for a Catastrophic Future (part II)

This is the second part of the series of posts by "Rutilius Namatianus" (RN) that re-examines the 4 scenarios of the future proposed by David Holmgren in 2009 (first part). 

 In general, you may find that RN's interpretations are rather extreme, but I do believe that there is some method in the overall madness of the current situation and that the post may correctly identify some of of the reasons why we are here. You will also notice that RN is "not convinced" that Anthropogenic Global Warming is real. I disagree with this position, but I felt that this post was worth publishing nevertheless. If nothing else as evidence of how fast the prestige of science is collapsing, by now more or less at the same level as that of the cult of the Spaghetti Monster. 

Overall, RN argues that we have moved into the scenario that Holmgren called the "Brown Tech" scenario, where the ruling elites have decided that the way to go is to concentrate all the remaining resources for their use, while the commoners are left in the cold. RN describes this scenario as "a totalitarian monster gripping power through a pervasive surveillance and police state, and the majority of the population pressed into poverty and dependence." Enjoy this post!

 By Rutilius Namatianus


Ten years after the financial collapse of 2008, it was surprising that the 'establishment' had managed to hang on to control of the situation with increasingly outlandish financial manipulations. Behind the scenes though, we must also acknowledge that they only managed to pull of this magic trick because they also had a huge networked surveillance-and-control system that they expanded at top speed after the crisis. 

This period saw the proliferation of laws and regulations all designed to trap peoples finances in an elaborate electronic fun-house where there is no stable measure of anything. the proliferation of automatic collection of data, recording of every last transaction, reporting into centralized databases automatically of everything people do, and an increasingly arbitrary and opaque (and violent) system of punishment for anything 'suspicious' or 'out of the ordinary.' It cowed most of the population of the developed world into a kind of nervous submission. 

In the less developed world, we saw a huge upsurge in violence, disorder, and general upheaval as people do not accept even deeper poverty with acquiescence. It is telling that in the West the tablet-generation of people glued to small portable media devices all their waking lives has coincided with them being docile enough to accept these extreme measures of fraud which have kept the wheels on (if wobbling) the cart ten years after the big crash hit. This might well be by now a critical component of the control system and any interruption or degradation of it or its effectiveness could lead to chaos in the 'West'. So right now, in 2019, we know for sure that we're in Holmgren's 'brown tech' scenario but with a propaganda narrative of 'green tech' as a Potemkin facade. 

As real energy and resources decline, the brown tech power structures have managed to keep selling increased poverty as 'being green' but it's getting tougher to sell this to people as they realize they are getting poorer. The past couple of years have shown some developments: Brexit in Europe, the Visegrad countries resisting the EU migration agenda, led by Hungary's Orban, but echoed in not-yet-majority movements in a half dozen other countries (viz, Italy managed to put Salvini in power for a year before Brussels regained control of Italy and evicted Salvini just this year). We saw the Cyprus bank confiscation and four years of Greek 'bailout agreements' which put the country in receivership with a lapdog government executing all orders from the bankers. This continues today. 

North and West of there, the non-Greek rest of the EU can see what happened and knows they're next on the list. In the US we have the whole story of the Trump presidency. This was something the 'establishment' did not prepare for, and while they have effectively isolated him from his administration to continue the basic life support functions of the 'deep state' in the US, there has been policy stagnation in the US for three years as everything and everyone has become obsessed and preoccupied with a Trump-versus-antitrump polarization. The accompanying breakdown of reality into surrealistic political fantasy in America, with the dominance of identity politics, absolutely everything as 'fake news' and everyone following narratives instead of reality, all around, have kept America, ironically, from really moving further into the totalitarian zone of the brown tech scenario. Three more years of inconclusive wars on fringe territories have led to no real change in geostrategic balances, as the other main contenders are in equally shabby condition and busy propping up their own narratives.

A new angle 

One thing I want to propose now is a modification of Holmgren's mapping. It was pretty clear to many of us back when these scenarios were being worked out (2007-2009) that the 'green tech' future was nothing but fantasy, even then. Holmgren acknowledges that a lot of the debate of these scenarios took place in an excellent forum known as 'The Oil Drum' from the early 2000s to about 2012. By 2012 most of the main contributors and discussants in the Oil Drum had concluded their own ideas about what was going on and were already putting into action their responses, most of which involved changes of career, lifestyle, and so on, and left much less time for talking on forums about it, and meant much more hard work preparing for or dealing with the crisis. That forum is now just kept as an archive. Still, even then, many of us saw 'green tech' style scenarios as fantasy. 

Now, in 2019, it is clear that indeed, green tech was never a realistic prospect. We are already a decade into brown tech. The question is where to from here. Another big factor is the 'climate change' variable. Holmgren took this as fact. Not all of us were so convinced that it was either so serious or so related to human activity. To some of us, the climate changes look more like cycles related to solar activity and orbital aberrations similar to those which brought us the Roman warm period, the early medieval cold period, the medieval warm period, and the little ice age. Beyond that, the timescale of energy and resource decline likely makes any question of climate change irrelevant. Therefore considering this possibility, we might want to rethink the climate axis on Holmgren's map. We might want to replace it with another axis! 

It has been shown that post-2008 the brown tech elites and power structures have managed to hang on to control through increasing use of extreme surveillance and tightly networked instrumentation of more and more of the economy. This intimidates people into submission and also locks them into a tighter loop of dependence- if you will yourself directly starve because your digibit-card gets shut off or stops working, then you feel it and the threat of it immediately and you will sit down and shut up much more readily than if you only know abstractly that if the city burns down in riots, that the supermarkets won't get resupplied next week. It's a weaker connection back to the feedback loop and people are more likely to rebel. And along the gradient to that extreme, if your digibit-card gets nicked by a fine or penalty of basically being subversive or voicing dissent, then you'll keep your mouth shut- viz China's rapid rollout of 'social credit' as a mechanism of automated electronic mass control. This has the potential to ride heavy demand destruction down the decline curve without the elites losing control. 

So it seems first of all that Holmgren's four scenarios are really three - brown tech is the current reality already a decade on, and there is a bifurcation (Holmgren treats this possibility in his paper) between lifeboat and earth steward depending on local conditions. in different places the scenarios coexist. A new fourth scenario might be added which we might call 'mad max,' if it could be even more dystopian and extreme collapse than 'lifeboat'. a major variable in all this would seem to be how long Brown Tech keeps control, and how tightly they manage to clamp down. Thus, Brown Tech already left behind its 'green tech' possibility but still keeps up a facade of 'green tech' and a self-indulgent shiny consumer existence for a portion of the population. This could almost be called a Huxley's scenario. Behind the pleasant facade of Brown Tech is a totalitarian monster gripping power through a pervasive surveillance and police state, and the majority of the population pressed into poverty and dependence- a scenario that could easily be named '1984'. 

It is clear that 'Huxley and '1984' can coexist and one transitions into the other as resources decline. but let's plot a new map based on this thinking: on one axis, we have, as before, resource/energy depletion, slow vs fast. on the other, we have consolidation of power, slow/moderate to fast/total. in the slow depletion, slow/moderate consolidation quadrant, we have a scenario that's Huxley with some 20th-century style fascism and the veneer of civilization, with a future of staircase type catabolic decline into one of the other scenarios depending on which one goes sooner, energy or control. This is Holmgren's Brown Tech scenario with a nice face. 

In the slow depletion, fast/total control quadrant, we have the ugly face of Brown Tech, which I've called 'brown tech apotheosis'. This can hang on as long as it keeps the resource depletion variable above some threshold limits. On the fast depletion, slow/moderate control quadrant, we have Holmgren's Lifeboat scenario. Power doesn't manage to consolidate, and resource limits break things down into wars, chaos, and finally a low complexity lifeboat world. On the fast depletion, fast/total control quadrant, we have a period of 1984 which transforms into more or less worldwide war, and then as the wars burn out, leave behind a condition I've called 'mad max'. This is a very bleak and ugly version of the Lifeboat scenario. 

Actually, Mad max, Lifeboat, and Earth steward are all along an axis depending on local conditions, as terminal points of the chain of evolution of these scenarios (extinction is also a point on this axis, even though further beyond mad max). It seems the main variables that distinguish earth steward, lifeboat, mad max, and extinction, are local conditions (environment, climate, population salvageable resources, etc), plus the trajectory which was followed to get there through the previous map- a trajectory through 1984 and WW3 is more likely to terminate in mad max or extinction, whereas a trajectory through lifeboat might lead to enclaves of earth steward. It is looking as if much of the Third World and the US are going through worse conditions now, but will avoid some of the worst later, for example.

Thus, it is useful to try to figure out not only where we are on this map but what path we have been following and how it might evolve further, acknowledging that not every part of the world is following exactly the same trajectory. So we can also try to follow different futures for different regions. It does seem clear that before the 2005-2008 time of peak net energy, there had been in force a long trend toward tighter integration of the global economy. Thus, it is useful to consider all regions more or less as starting in the same spot circa 2005 and plot their divergence since then. 



First, let's try to see if we can get a better understanding of where we are along the depletion axis. This at least should be easier to observe and quantify than the consolidation of the control axis. We know that in 2005 our scenario begins somewhere in the 'Huxley' quadrant near the left side of the depletion axis. We know (as we suspected years back) that the recent bumps in oil/gas production and plateau maintenance of coal production have been ever lower quality resources with lower net energy and steeper decline profiles in time. We don't know if we have already crossed the middle of the map with respect to depletion but we can be pretty sure we're close to it if not over it. 

We also know that absent some unpredictable step function down in production (due to some one-off natural phenomenon like an earthquake, or to some out of band event like a war), that the decline profile will be messy but accelerating downward over a period of a couple decades. We could easily already be some years into that and just on a bump- or we might have another fifteen or twenty years to go before the bottom falls out. 

So what else do we know? We know that in 2008 we fell off peak energy and have been sliding downward for eleven years. We also know that at the time the power elites of the Huxley/brown-tech-with-a-nice-face scene, managed through increasingly extreme distortions, to keep control. The rapidity of those measures is definitely a step function type of move, so we are pretty sure we took the step out of the Huxley quadrant in 2008/2009 down into the 1984 quadrant. There is still plenty of nuance in that quadrant and most of us reading this on a computer screen are living in the Huxley zone that, while shrinking, coincides with a growing 1984 zone as parts of the same general 'establishment'. We know that 2016-2019 saw a lot of bumpy resistance to the further consolidation of control, but also saw successful responses and regaining of control by power elites in many areas. We know that now in 2019, as well as in 2010 or 2015, we were further along the depletion axis than we were in 2008 and that this is basically monotonic in time. We wont find any new resources or high-quality energy sources from here on out.

We haven't yet fallen into world war 3 (apparently), so we're still in the Huxley/1984 mix, with the Huxley component bleeding out and the 1984 cauldron waiting to collect all who fall through the cracks in the Huxley facade. And yet, wherever the brown tech/1984 steamroller has not managed to erect such an effective electronic prison, we can see massive increases in riots, chaos, violence, etc, over the past decade. That's characteristic of world war type scenarios even if it's not organized military units fighting organized campaigns.

Not to mention that the past decade has seen more of the earth's surface and population caught up in organized military violence as well. So we're somewhere between 1984 and ww3 with some Huxley on top for those still living the comfortable life. We see some major bifurcation points ahead: the last round of crazy finance manipulation and twilight-zone measures like negative interest rates and financial
markets that only go up on exponentially exploding debt numbers, all the insane measures taken in the past decade, seem to be running out of gas. New injections of imaginary digibit money have less of an effect on markets than previous injections and the effects don't last as long. People are figuring out that they're poorer and even in the developed world they're getting more restless about it. Challengers to the narrative of the elites are appearing and even managing to gain positions in prominent public office sometimes, though so far the brown tech elites have managed to keep them in check. This hints that if the brown tech elites are going to keep control and keep the scenario in the brown tech apotheosis quadrant of the map, they must up their game- new measures for even more total control. And they are working hard to do so.

Thus one major bifurcation point approaching is the question of how successful will these new measures be? It seems clear that these measures will largely involve electronic and computerized technologies- surveillance, instrumentation, automation, and centralization of processes to insert a control mechanism into the loop of execution of even simple routine actions. It's an electronic panopticon prison for the whole world, something which many people (criticized by the mass media as cranks, weirdos, conspiracy theorists, or nutjobs) have been yammering about for years. And yet that's the only real option for the elites to keep control. 

They cant control the depletion axis, that's physics driving that dimension. They can slow down the progress along that axis only be destroying resource demand, which means making people poorer or reducing their number (or a combination of the two). While an extreme version of this might be a mass-extermination of most of the human population to allow an elite to live richly for centuries yet to come in some techno-enhanced prolongation of the Huxley scenario, this is an absurdly unlikely trajectory fraught with too many real engineering problems to be realistic. Not that the elites of the brown tech world couldn't accomplish the kill-off of billions, that's a technically feasible move, but rather that they wouldn't be able to keep up a technological empire afterward. They would merely instead transition rapidly and sharply through a world-war-3 phase into the mad max with enclaves of an especially evil lifeboat scenario, some of which would be whatever remained of those elites. 

Thus it seems clear that all trajectories ultimately lead monotonically to the right and eventually either down to (near-?) extinction or, even if they bow deeply down through mad max, ultimately curve back up into lifeboat. So some combination of population decline and increased poverty, though, can prolong the elite's hold on a brown-tech/Huxley scenario, and this seems obvious to be their main focus. The equal amount of noise about the evil lurking beneath the surface of trends like the UN 'agenda 21' and other such forces, while they might sound like far-out conspiracy theories would actually fit perfectly with an effort to hang on to a brown-tech Huxley/1984 hybrid world as long as possible, with the Huxley fragment keeping control. 

However, it is not at all clear how they will manage this next round of measures without also breaking some of the electronic facades that have kept the populations of the developed countries docile thus far. It looks like their aim there instead is to drop the facade and dump the mass of them into 1984 rather swiftly by closing the last loose ends in economic activity, communication, and individual tracking of people's movements 24/7. Once they feel confident they have those pieces in place they can drop the remains of the facade and they will have locked the majority into the 1984 scenario, which can continue for perhaps even a decade or more before it melts down into mad max. 

That's a scary proposition for anyone alive right now, because it would mean most of the rest of his life would be lived through such a scenario. Another bifurcation question is in the world war direction- will for example the widening rift between the US and China turn more hostile and end up in a hot war? will it percolate into more proxy wars in the third world? Cold war? How rapidly will it move in that direction? In some aspects, the map and our experience hint to us that we're already in WW3, it just doesn't look like any world war we've seen before. Further refinements can be attempted at drawing trajectories, for smaller regions, by trying to identify local conditions which will influence the bigger trends as the play out in those regions. Let's try to picture what we know or think is a pretty solid guess for some major modern blocs: the US, the EU, the 'third world', and China. (places like Japan and Australia go largely with the US in this picture). 

The future will be examined in the next installment of this series of posts.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Peak Water: Are we Running out of a Critical Resource?

"Peak Water" is an idea that has been going in parallel with that of "Peak Oil." Both assume that the production of limited resources, fossil fuels and fossil water, will follow a "bell shaped" curve. The production peak of liquid fuels may have been passed during the past few years. About "peak water" the situation is less clear, but the data indicate depletion problems in several areas of the world. Above, you see the historical and predicted water production from the Texas section of the Ogallala Aquifer. The data approximately follow a "Bell Shaped" (Hubbert) curve, typical of the depletion of non-renewable resources. In this case, the peak seems to have arrived in the late 1990. 

Freshwater is a fundamental resource in our world, even more than crude oil. Without freshwater, it would be impossible to maintain the current agricultural production that manages to feed nearly 8 billion human beings. Most of the world's agriculture, nowadays, is based on irrigation. It means that production depends on water that has been stored somewhere, naturally or artificially. And once you start depending on a limited stock of resources, you face a problem. Even though your resource may be renewable, if you exploit it faster than it renews itself, you will eventually run out of it. It is the phenomenon called "overexploitation"

There lies a truly nasty problem that we may be facing in the near future. A lot of water used for irrigation nowadays is "fossil water." It means it has been stored underground by natural processes that may have been active only in the ancient past or that may be very slow, sometimes of the order of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. Underground water deposits are called "aquifers." Some are fast replenished by natural phenomena, but in most cases, the rate of water withdrawal is much faster than that of the natural flow into the aquifer. That's a recipe for disaster.

A classic case of an agricultural region that ran out of fossil water is that of Saudi Arabia. Starting with the 1980s, Saudi Arabian farmers started extracting water that had been lying underground for hundreds of thousands of years, from a time when the Arabian peninsula was green. That was true fossil water in the sense that the replenishment rate of the aquifers was practically zero. The result was a boom in agricultural production that quickly peaked in 1990 following an evident bell-shaped curve. The curve had a second cycle during the 2010s, but that changed little to the situation. Right now, Saudi Arabia's agricultural production is reduced to practically zero and all the food must be imported.

Saudi Arabia's freshwater production was a classic case of a "Hubbert cycle." That is, water production followed the same kind of "bell-shaped" curve observed for crude oil and other mineral resources. The "Hubbert Theory" (the one that generated the concept of "Peak Oil") is far from being perfect, but it is true that in most cases oil production cycles generate bell-shaped curves. 

With aquifers, the core of the question is the same: you exploit a limited resource, you make a profit, you invest part of it in more exploitation. And that leads to depletion. The result is expected to be the same kind of curve. 

It doesn't matter that, in most cases, aquifers are partially replenished by natural phenomena. The curve will be the same, although it will not go to zero at the end of the cycle, but will return to the natural groundwater recharge rate. (source)

 But that may be an optimistic estimate: with aquifers, there is always the issue of subsidence. It means that once you remove the water from porous rock, the rock becomes more compact and it won't be filled again with water. It happens also with oil wells, but in that case, you don't care: it is known that oil is a one-time resource. Some aquifers may be in the same category, and may be gone forever after that they have been emptied. As an additional effect of subsidence, your home may sink into a hole in the ground. (image: subsidence in Jakarta).

So, it is perfectly possible to run out of water, even though water is theoretically a renewable resource. During the first millennium CE, an entire civilization, that of the Garamantes of central Sahara, disappeared when their supply of fossil water ran out.

So, how do we stand today? Overall, one would tend to say that the situation is not so good (to say the least). Most of the aquifers in use are being overexploited. The table below, from Wikipedia, is impressive (again, to say the least). 


If we continue in this way, it is unavoidable that sooner or later humans will run out of freshwater. It will be"peak water," but when could it happen, exactly? 

The problem with freshwater is that we don't have the same wealth of data for water resources and consumption that we have for crude oil. There exist a large number of aquifers, most of them are exploited only locally and it is difficult to obtain reliable data on what is being done in all the regions of the world. Nevertheless, we have some rough estimates: the total amount of freshwater accessible to humans is estimated as some 200,000 km3. The total consumption of freshwater worldwide is estimated at around 1,000 km3 per year

That these estimates are such round numbers tells us something about the uncertainty involved. But we can still say that aquifers contain huge amounts of water, about one thousand times more than the estimated volume of the world reserves of crude oil (about 200 km3). Even just the Ogallala aquifer in the central US is larger, estimated to have contained some 3,600 km3 of water before pumping started, in the 1950s. Then, we also consume huge amounts of water. We can compare again with crude oil, and we find that oil consumption (about 4 km3/year) is again dwarfed by water consumption that turns out to be about 250 times larger. 

Unfortunately, these data are not enough for an estimate of when peak water could occur. Not only there are too many uncertainties involved, but the main point is that water is mostly a local resource, unlike oil, which is global. It means that the depletion cycle is spaced differently in different regions, depending on the rate of consumption to reserves. So, the fact that Saudi Arabia mostly ran out of water during the past decade had no significant effect on the world's agricultural production. But if a truly major agricultural region, such as the Central Plains in the US, were to run out of water, then the situation would quickly become dire for all the regions in the world that depend on food imported from the US.

So, what's happening in the US in terms of water production and consumption? The good news, here, is that consumption has been declining. That happened not because of water depletion, but because of the switch from coal to natural gas as the main energy source for electricity production. Natural gas plants are more efficient than coal-fired plants and the result is a reduced need for cooling water. (data below from USGS)

So, it is possible to reduce the consumption of water and that leaves plenty of it available for agriculture, but that doesn't solve the problem. As you see in the figure, the second largest sector of water consumption is irrigation and that sector has been declining, too. Nobody can say for sure if (or when) the wells of the Ogallala aquifer will run dry, bur these data are worrisome

Then, can we find new aquifers? Maybe, but even here the situation is not promising, to say the least. In 2013, the discovery of a new, large aquifer in Kenya was reported with much fanfare in the media. The aquifer was described as containing 250 billion cubic meters of water. Less than one-tenth of the Ogallala aquifer, but still a remarkable discovery.  Too bad that it was soon found that it was brackish water, not freshwater. So is life, you can't have everything, you know?

But we can desalinate brackish water, can't we? We can desalinate seawater, too. And you won't tell us that we will run out of seawater, will you? Sure we can. But that's not a panacea, either.

Agriculture is an economic activity that lives on very small profit margins. You increase the cost of some agricultural inputs and a lot of things change and farmers go in the red. Water for irrigation is often subsidized and farmers can't usually afford to pay it much more than $0.01 per cubic meter. In comparison, desalinated water may cost around one dollar per cubic meter, maybe a little less but not much. It is a factor of 10, at best. How much would an eggplant cultivated using desalinated water cost? More than most people would be able to afford.

As things stand, there is no way to use desalinated water in agriculture: we should go back to the dreams of "energy too cheap to meter" and that doesn't seem to be closer today than it was in the 1950s, when it was proposed. Besides, as long as our energy supply comes mainly from fossil fuels, using a substantial fraction of it to produce the huge amounts of freshwater needed for irrigation would be an environmental disaster.

That doesn't mean that desalinated water is a bad idea. Not at all and, in the future, it may cost much less than it costs right now. Just think of the possibility of producing freshwater using the excess energy that renewable energy plants generate at some moments during the day. It would be a smart way to store energy that otherwise would have to be wasted.  

Smart, yes, but problematic in many ways. One is that at present we are still far away from having excess energy production from renewable plants sufficient to produce the huge amounts of water needed in agriculture. The second - probably worse - is that desalinated water is mostly produced from seawater, near the seashore. But agriculture is mainly performed inland, so you would need a gigantic infrastructure to transport enormous amounts of water where it is needed. Again, not an impossible task, but a steep barrier to overcome, and the costs would be gigantic, too.

In the end, the problem is not so much having sufficient energy to desalinate water. It is that irrigated agriculture is just not a good idea. In most cases, it is a trap that leads to the destruction of the fertile soil, something that the ancient Sumerians already experimented around 2,200 BC. It seems that the Sumerians depleted the aquifers they had been using for about one thousand years and couldn't avoid the soil to become too salty to be cultivated

Are we facing the same destiny? Maybe. But there are many ways open for a kind of agriculture that's more respectful of the soil and that doesn't need so much water as the current methods do. It is to be seen if we can change fast enough to avoid having to adapt the hard way, that is rebuilding after collapse. In this field, as in many others, the Seneca Cliff is awaiting.