Another birthday has come and gone, and with nothing between me and 40 now but the (frankly laughable) "uncertainties of December 2012" and whether winter will actually arrive this year, I thought it might be a good time to take stock of where we are in human history and my thoughts regarding the future.
Everything starts with energy, so we must do the same. Most people reading this post live in a world that is powered and guided by fossil fuels - a hyper-complex, technologically-advanced, racially- and religiously-mixed, growth-at-all-costs culture, that is largely unaware of its impact on the rest of life on Earth, nor of the physical limits to that growth that loom so completely and inescapably on the horizon. We have been the beneficiaries of 10,000 years of agriculture and all of the attendant cultural changes brought about by the ability to produce a storable surplus of grain. Some of those changes have been good ones, at least at first glance: the ability to move around quickly and see lots of new places and people, and eat new kinds of food, comes immediately to mind. But many of the products of agriculture have not been so kind: tooth decay, from a starchy grain-based diet, has increased 6-fold over that of foraging populations, despite radical advances in dental care. (So much for the old rotting teeth image so easy to conjure up for tribal hunter-gatherers). Social hierarchies also developed as a result of surplus grain in the larders - he who controls the bread and beer can get the rest of us to build pyramids for him. That unbalanced distribution of wealth, logically, also lead to the death of the commons. In foraging cultures everyone is equal, with equal access to resources and a temporary leader holding the position he holds based solely on strength of character, and even he participates in food collecting efforts like everyone else. Kleptocrats, that is, people who aren't directly involved in acquiring the day-to-day needs of life, like politicians, lawyers, police, etc, are the result of surplus energy in the system, and they don't exist outside of agriculture.
Even the aforementioned mobility, gifted to agricultural societies compliments of the industrial revolution, has its drawbacks: at human pace, epidemic diseases (another "gift" of sedentary city life resulting from agriculture) work themselves out regionally and create localized immunity. But when one can travel from Atlanta to Lima to Kathmandu and back to Atlanta in a couple of days, disease transmission knows no boundaries, and so invites an abnormal and historically unnecessary conversation about vaccinations and the need to poke our children with needles incessantly to cover all eventualities. I personally don't think seeing the Mayan ruins of Central America is worth injecting questionable substances into my children, lovely as they may be. Almost all of the world's pandemics arose in Eurasia among sedentary urban farming societies in temperate latitudes. In other words, among my ancestors. So my genetic code (and therefore the genetic codes of my offspring) has answers for all of those problems, even AIDS (fascinating mechanism actually); the genetic codes of millions of native Americans did not. They could've used a vaccine against us, but we didn't need one against them. Epidemic disease was unknown to them. Even the diseases of the tropics, like yellow fever and malaria, were brought to the New World by farming cultures of the tropical Old World. The answers to these diseases are not built into my genome, and so I stay away from the tropics. Permaculture principle: favor biological (and behavioral) solutions to our problems over technological solutions. Enjoy the sights at home, build your own pride of place, and skip the needle. Living and working in a far more local economy will erase many of the medical "problems" of today's highly-mobile culture, especially as the extreme sedentary behavior of modern affluent society gives way to more regular physical activity.
So all of this naturally begs the question, will it always be like it is today? Anyone who has observed the last few generations should intuitively know the answer to this question, and it should be a resounding NO! Our culture is well tuned to significant change, generation after generation, because it's all we've known for the last couple of centuries. Granted, almost all of that change has been in the direction of growth, increased affluence, and globalization, but change, in and of itself, is something we should all be very used to. And constant change, generation after generation, is something that will stick around for a long time yet. Knowing something about what kind of change we can expect in the coming decades should be a useful thing then.
The labels "futurist" or "fortune teller" tend to pop up here in conversation, and often work to dismiss out of hand the predictions being offered, but a detailed and sober analysis of energy, as well as natural and human models of reacting to changes in system energetics, can direct us into a less speculative frame of reference. As a brilliant visionary I can't recommend John Michael Greer highly enough, but I'll offer what I feel good about from a 4-year-old first-hand perspective. I say "4-year-old" instead of "39-year-old" because I stopped watching television and keeping up with the news 4 years ago and started building a first-hand data bank of the world around me. It's amazing how out of the loop I am on thousands of matters that don't really matter! But it allows me time to investigate the things that do matter more deeply, and that's exactly what I've been doing. Incidently, the aforementioned John Michael Greer dumped his TV over 30 years ago, and I've never run into a brain that works better.
In his wonderful little book "Future Scenarios," permaculture co-originator David Holmgren points out that the history of the 20th century makes a lot more sense when viewed primarily as a contest for oil, rather than a clash of ideologies. People tend to overestimate the impact of political, economic, and social ideologies like democracy v. dictatorship, capitalism v. socialism, or Christianity v. Islam, and mistakenly downplay the role of energy in guiding our actions, both individually and collectively. Switch over to an energetics perspective and everything falls into place a lot more elegantly; simple changes in perspective can be very illuminating. Right now, the United States is engaged in war in the Middle East, not to spread democracy, or end tyrrany, but to secure US access to the last high-quality petroleum stocks left on Earth. Okkum's Razor can be applied here: is it more likely that our government is spending trillions of dollars (that we don't really have) to rid a bunch of people they've never really liked anyway of a ruthless dictator and bring freedom and democracy to Iraq, or more likely that they're there for the last giant near-surface reservoirs of light sweet crude? The EROEI figures I'll present in a moment illustrate quite clearly the advantages of easy oil versus difficult, and suggest a pretty solid reason why a government like ours - one that runs almost entirely on oil - might be willing to spend some of its "social capital" on those high quality energy stocks. I.E. blood for cheap oil.
We spend energy to acquire energy, and the amount returned per unit of investment is what determines the quality of the energy source. All biological populations, including humans, exploit the lowest hanging fruit first. That's just natural. Who in their right mind would skip the easy stuff to go after the difficult? No one in charge of global energy supplies, I can promise you that. Occassionally, something will slip through, and provides a nice surprise to the one who discovers it later, like the $500 I found recently in my underwear drawer. It slipped beyond my awareness for a while, and my household operations were based on a slightly more limited supply of energy/money, and made for a very pleasant surprise when it was found some time later! Petroleum works the same way. It's possible that there are a few giant, high-quality, easy-access fields left out there to be discovered, but like my $500, they're not exactly game-changers. One of our society's favorite daydreams is the one where we find ourselves sitting on "virtually infinite" fossil fuel reserves of one form or another, and there is no shortage of important looking people declaring this daydream a reality.
Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on the maturity of your worldview), the chances of this actually occurring are virtually non-existent. Oil isn't something we just find accidentally and start pumping immediately. A quick look at oil discovery versus extraction graphs (most of us have seen them) shows that a lot of oil has been discovered and brought to market, but that the two nearly identical curves are separated by about 40 years. Find the oil and then power the global economy with it 40 years later, and the graphs are pretty easy to decipher. Global oil discovery peaked around 1960, and supply peaked a little over 40 years later. The IEA nailed peak oil as occurring in 2006.
So, you say, we are already six years beyond peak oil and things are running pretty smoothly still, right? OK, the world hasn't fallen apart, no, (at least from my perspective), and that's a good thing because it gives us more time to adapt, but let's take a look at energy return on energy invested (EROEI) and see if we can get a clearer picture of the situation. EROEI will serve as our empirical metric for analyzing the quality of an energy source, which is really the only parameter that matters according to the second law of thermodynamics, and the numbers are telling. At the height of easy oil supply in the U.S., circa 1930, the EROEI on domestic petroleum was about 100:1. That is, for every unit of energy we were investing in acquisition we were getting one hundred units back. Impressive by any standards; you can build one helluva complex economy on those sorts of returns. And that is precisely what we did. We built the interstate highway system, installed the national telephone system and electrical power grid, and put social safety nets in place that allowed us to operate in more cavalier ways. But by 1970 that return on domestic oil had declined to about 40:1, and by the year 2000 had fallen to about 14:1. Yikes. Imported oil included, we can lift those figures to only about 17:1 in 2005. Comparatively, hydroelectric power generation returns about 40:1, firewood about 30:1, wind power about 28:1, natural gas and nuclear about 18:1, and photovoltaics about 8:1. Now you can't run a global economy on firewood, but hopefully these figures provide some idea about where the declining quality of oil resources is taking us, and that's, well, most likely away from a global economy...
What about ethanol though? That's a renewable technology we already have in place that's working, right? Well, depending on whose figures you believe, ethanol returns between 0.8 and 1.6 (the high end estimate is an ethanol industry figure, of course) per unit invested. Broken down, even at the high end only 0.6 units of energy per unit invested is available to power the rest of human activity. What will that cover exactly? A few simple black powder fireworks at the local 4th of July get together? And I do mean local! You will have walked or ridden a horse to the party; grown, foraged, or bartered all the food you ate that day; composted your waste; carried your water from the creek; washed your clothes by hand; and had a glass of warm fresh raw milk. There wouldn't be enough energy surplus to bother with things like refrigerators, electric clothes washers, well pumps, bagged fertilizers, grocery stores and long-range supply chains, and definitely no cars or road maintenance. That's the most wasteful form of energy use humans have ever devised. In the worst case figures, we actually lose energy producing ethanol, which is why so many people are against government financial support (in the billions, fyi) for corn-ethanol. Or one of the reasons anyway. Ethically speaking, turning food into fuel for our cars pretty much turns my stomach, but when the economists start backing up my boycott based on monetary valuations...
There's no future for ethanol. It needs to be dumped in the dustbin of history at our earliest convenience. Will this year's drought and corn crop failure be the end of ethanol? One can only hope. The federal renewable biofuels mandate is one example of "greenwashing" that is getting in the way of real solutions. Less pollution is a result of getting work done with less energy, even if its of fossil origin. Solar panels and wind turbines are manufactured, at substantial costs, by the energy of oil and coal, after all. When energy returned equals energy invested, that resource stops being an energy source. Looking at the EROEI numbers for oil we're not that far away, and all the hoopla about tar sands and oil shales? They don't return much more than ethanol. Barely more than a wash in the final analysis. So we can have literal oceans of tar sand and shale oil underneath us and it doesn't matter one iota, because the quality of the energy is so incredibly low. Energy requires a gradient in order to accomplish useful work, and the steeper the gradient the better. Quantity matters not. Another hard thing for Americans to understand.
So where does peak oil play into all this EROEI business? To be honest, I'm not sure that it matters as much as I originally thought. EROEIs are already so much lower than they were several decades ago. Industrial efficiencies have compensated to some degree for declining energy quality, but efficiency has its own limits according to physical law, and efficiency is literally the opposite of resilience, something we are going to need more of in a lower energy future. As an example, let's look at WalMart. Those giant WalMart buildings don't have warehouses stored up with backups of the products out on the shelves. That would be a very inefficient use of expensive square footage. Instead, when an item is scanned at the register, it subtracts itself from the inventory, and when the inventory reaches a critically low number the computerized system automatically orders more of that product, to be delivered a couple of days later by a truck sent from a centralized terminal, which is in turn supplied by a host of global supply chains as needed, and mostly from great distances away. Any number of things can go wrong with this arrangement, from energy price spikes to foreign civil unrest to earthquakes and tsunamis. Most of these factors can't be controlled by WalMart, or even the United States, despite its exceptional will power. Energy price spikes, and general volatility, will become more common as energy quality declines. So will civil unrest and political upheaval. And we've already seen what earthquakes and tsunamis can do to high-tech facilities in distant lands. Efficiency, in all its 21st century glory, is actually the enemy of a more predictable energy descent. Resilience is something we should all be working on, even at the cost of efficiency, and if you read my blog, no doubt something that's on your mind.
To that end, we can make some predictions about the future that have a fairly high probability of coming to fruition. Firstly, smaller, more localized economies will be the way of the future - increasingly smaller from here on out. This suggests a general decline in large government and corporate structures, and a rise in local management of social and natural capital. Anyone working on relocalization is in the right place! Secondly, it suggests a general decline in our ability to push back the forces of Nature. We will only be able to rebuild and maintain high-tech levies around New Orleans for so long. We will only be able to reside in, or even visit, places that are generally inhospitable to humans for so much longer. Mountaineering and SCUBA diving will almost certainly decline, as the space program already is. In the service of that trend, we will have to get to know Mother Nature a lot better. We will all have to learn how to manage and build topsoil, and grow food, if we are to eat without cheap oil. Homestead water management, and human-derived fertility management, will become normal daily activities. Utilizing our forests for far more than timber will again be the norm. Getting familiar with these processes now can only be advantageous to our individual futures.
Food chains and supply chains will become shorter and shorter generation after generation. Those kleptocrats we talked about earlier will fall off the high energy teat one by one until we find ourselves back at very short, one or two stage, food and supply chains, where almost everyone participates in food, water, and energy acquistion. Federal governments, where they still exist, will become increasingly impotent and ignored. State governments will follow suit sometime later, and on and on, until we're back to political organizations that are quite small. Tribes perhaps, many generations from now (hopefully, barring large-scale collapse that would bring this about sooner, and to a population that is wholly unprepared for it). Industrial infrastructure will slowly deteriorate and be salvaged by humans trying to get by. The good news in that is that there is a ton of it! We should be able to live in relative comfort for many generations to come. We can have pressurized hot water without electric well pumps and diaphragm tanks and hot water heaters. These are industrial age luxuries that are completely unnecessary. Hot water on the other hand, has contributed to the control of many diseases and added to our daily comfort in a big way. Hot running water will continue to be a priority; wasteful mechanisms for delivering it will not.
Another, and admittedly scary, likelihood related to shortening food chains is the collapse of the world's fiat currencies. A dollar, let's remember, is not wealth in itself but merely the representation of wealth agreed upon by society as a convenient way to do business. There is nothing supporting it other than the belief that it means something. As economies relocalize and larger structures gradually lose their meaning, so will world currencies. Already we see local currencies, LETS systems, popping up all over the industrial world, offering local economies a pathway to local security. Barter and gifting economies are likely to become the norm of my grandchildren's future. Let's also remember, as John Michael Greer so astutely puts it, that in a monetary collapse nothing of real value is lost. Only the money organizing it is. So if you have lots of "money" put away, consider trading it for possessions of more lasting value. Land, seeds, trees, water, livestock, good quality hand tools, comfortable and durable shoes/clothes, housing, community infrastructure, etc; these are the things of real wealth, and won't be going anywhere when fiat currencies go the way they always do. The old advice of saving for "a rainy day" is increasingly bad advice these days, at least when that saving is in the form of money, or other tertiary (i.e. imaginary) investments. The rain itself will be the income in a more rational future, if it has a system of real wealth upon which to work.
The way I see it, two dominant trends loom in our near future, and in fact have been moving for several years already. One is the perpetual decline in real income per capita, and the other is the perpetual increase in food costs. Combined, they will be a potent force for reshaping the way we do business in the industrial world. That's what peak oil really means to me - it's the turning point away from fantasy and back toward reality. I've made these predictions before but will reiterate them once more: by the end of my natural life, which I will set at 50 years in the future for simplicity's sake, the year 2062, the high-powered flash-in-the-pan industrial economy that knocked food costs down to about 9% of the average American household budget will be long gone, and food costs will be running much closer to 90% instead. Instead of 2% of Americans (and a bunch of expensive machinery) involved in food production, there will be something more like 70-80% of Americans involved in food production by hand, at human/draft animal pace. Organic produce will just be produce again, "local" will be the only option, and the USDA and FDA will be history, along with the rest of the federal entourage.
I've modeled my activity around these trends and around permaculture principles more generally for the past 4 years, and can say, first-hand, that it is a joyful and rewarding way to live, whatever the time frame for energy descent turns out to be. It's hard sometimes - automatic dish and clothes washers are pretty awesome tools when one wants to spend their time doing something else. And let's face it, who doesn't want to spend their time doing something other than washing clothes and dishes by hand! It's a lot more deliberate, living in power down mode; the number of things one can accomplish in any given day declines dramatically without those excellent fossil fuels working constantly behind the scenes to free up our time. But there is a certain elagance, a kind of da Vincian sophistication, that can only be found in a life lived simply. Hardly a day goes by now when either I or my wife don't utter the phrase, "I love our life," and how many people, fossil-fueled or not, can say that? There is a real and tangible silver lining in energy descent, but it has to be experienced first-hand. It can't be lived and written about by proxy. I mean, it can, obviously, but it won't mean much until you own it for yourself. It's not a lesser life, it's not even a lateral move, it's actually better this way, because it's the way we have always lived and done business. Realigning with a more classical way of life is normal, peaceful, and fulfilling. It's the last couple hundred years that are the strange bit.
Just my .02