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...more valuable than the whole of his kingdom.

"Why not seize the pleasure at once? How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation?"

There's been a lot of talk about Peak Oil lately. Both on livejournal and elsewhere. For the record, with a strong interest towards sustainability, I do believe that peak oil is coming. I remember in seventh grade my biochemistry teacher told us all, children unknowing of politics, that within our lifetime — not soon, but within our lifetimes — that we would have to choose whether the remaining reserves of petrochemicals should be spent for power or for plastic.

It has even been suggested, for those who don't believe in peak, that it is largely irrelevant whether or not the notion matches objective physical reality because so long as people believe it to be the case they will act in accordance with that belief. But this is not what I'm here to talk with you about today.

Today I'm here to talk about a different facet of peak oil than the political force behind the meme. A couple days ago I came across the Life After the Oil Crash page. For those who think that peak oil is only referring to one's ability to drive their car around, I highly encourage you to read that page to get a better idea of the true implications of decreasing supply of oil.

As LAtOC points out, the whole of our socioeconomic system, every level of the chain from seed in the ground to your plate, is dominated by a requirement for oil. Even alternate energy sources like solarcells and windfarming require an initial payment in oil to construct the necessary facilities. However, I don't think their assessment's entirely accurate, or well, it's accurate but it's not quite precise. Many sectors of our econosystem do indeed require petrochemicals and, as yet, would fail without easy access to them: fertilizer for agriculture, plastics for microwafers and screens for computers, etc. But many of the other levels — such as powering combines and tractors, transporting food to market, u.s.w —, while they use oil, do not require oil per se.

What they require, is power. Energy. It does not matter what form that energy comes in, though the system is set up in such a way as to require a cheap ubiquitous supply of energy. So part of the problem is that the system as constructed is frivolous with its energy use. That is not to say that this issue should be downplayed — restructuring the system would take an enormous involvement and would require us to alter many of the basic assumptions about our lives — but that frivolity hides a greater systemic failure.

If we have learned nothing from computer science (and it is certain that we've learned nothing ;) the one thing which should never be allowed in a load-bearing system is to permit a single point of failure. The robustness of a system is not determined by it's strongest element, nor even by the average strength of each element, but rather the strength of a system is defined entirely by the weakness of its frailest element. If there is a single element which all other elements depend upon and that single element goes down, the entire system has collapsed and the cost of the loss, let alone the cost of recovery may be astronomical.

The problem with out econosystem is not that it requires oil at every level but rather that we've allowed the costs at every level to be traced back to a single resource. Single resource fails, the entire world economic system collapses. What is necessary then is that, while we still have the cheap resources available, we use them to reconstruct our economic system so that it no longer has a single point of failure but rather that the energy costs at every level are abstracted out of the heart of the system so that any source of energy may be plugged in to be used at any level, and at the same time designing the energy-supplying subsystem so that it draws from multiple resources rather than just a single fickle source.

Date: 2006-02-15 06:47 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile]
Like many other things in such systems, this is truly obvious if you stop to think about it, but since many people don't (either because they don't think, period, or because there are too many variables to think about) it does need to be explicitly pointed out.

Thank you for writing this.

Date: 2006-02-16 12:06 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile]
Thank you for reading.

I'm sure it's just because I find it so easy to do, but one of the things that I find baffling is how rarely people step back and try to take a look at the system as an abstraction. A lot can be learned by, well, ignoring all the details ;) Being able to take any system, whether it's intersecting circles of friends, a business, or an economic structure, and reduce that down to a little graph with bubbles and arrows really helps clear up a lot of things we'd be too personally involved with to notice if we left the details in.

If I had to guess, I'd say the problem is that people get too used to the system (whatever system) and move beyond thinking it's unalterable to not even thinking about altering it. It's easier to focus on the details that are easy to change, there aren't a lot of big wigs with political investments in the details (says the academic).

Somewhat tangentially related..

Date: 2006-02-15 10:31 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile]
The book Farmers of Forty Centuries, written in 1911, is about an american's experience surveying the agricultural techniques of eastern countries: primarily Japan and China. He found that their density made it so that they had extremely limited amounts of land and fuel per capita, but they had LOTS of manpower. So things were done in ways that used the manpower (intensive composting, using twigs for fuel) and made a sustainable system that preserved healthy land and healthy people for thousands of years. He contrasted that to US agriculture which (even then) was wearing out the land despite huge use of expensive [petrochemical] fertilizers, and provided remarkably less food or fuel value per acre.

This was of course severely damaged by the advent of cheap fuel, and probably receives the coup de grace from imported western ideologies.

But so ok, my point: we've got this crazy thing against work, so we don't think human work as a usable energy input. (Unless maybe it's the work of Mexican migrant workers...)

I find this terribly frustrating.
Well, technically human work isn't energy input, like every action it's an energy expenditure ;) But yes, we all too often overlook using our own bodies to perform work, which is indeed quite frustrating. And insofar as the technicalities go, being as we're paying the energy costs (in rice and corn) to have the humans around in the first place, we might as well put that energy to use.

Perhaps one of the greatest things I loved about going to Japan is that everyone walks. Everyone. Everywhere. You take the train or the bus from wherever in to the city for the day, and then you just walk to get where you're going. Ten blocks? A mile? Sure, I'll just walk. Hells, one of the hostels I stayed at gave free bike rentals as part of the package with the room and breakfast. A *hostel* for christ's sake. The big difference is that in Japan walking and biking are looked upon as transportation, nothing more. Whereas here in the States we look upon them as recreation, and the mere suggestion of using one's own feet for locomotion leads to blank stares.

I swear, the next time I say I'm going to walk down to the store (or other location within a couple miles) and get asked why I don't drive instead, someone's getting a thump upside the back o' they skull.

Another argument to help support

Date: 2006-02-17 06:31 pm (UTC)From: (Anonymous)
What you lay out here is, in my opinion, so obvious in its logic that it is astounding that we have put ourselves into this position. Another argument that seems to be ignored is that the dependence on oil lowers our national security and helps fuel/fund radicals... It seems that security hawks would be all in favor of reducing foreign dependence but that does not end by drilling ANWAR.

An argument read recently said that by drilling ANWAR we would no longer need oil from Saudi Arabia for up to 50 years. But it doesn't change the fact that with China and India's oil demand growing the world economy - which we drive so successfully - is still traced back to this single resource (as you argue in your post).

Why aren't questions like this being asked of politicians when they talk energy policy?

Michael (

Painfully obvious, I agree.

It's true that dependance on foreign oil is a security risk (as is dependance on foreign anything), but switching to domestic oil (or anything) doesn't really get rid of the problem it just moves it around. It's sort of like, moving from everyone in Oregon drinking water from one well in Massachusetts (where the water tankers could get hijacked along the way) to everyone drinking from one well in Salem (city in Oregon). If someone were to throw poison into that well, it doesn't matter where it is, everyone in Oregon dies. The benefit of locality is preventing the hijacking along the way etc, not in preventing single point of failure dangers.

There are a few potential reasons this is never discussed when politicians discuss energy policy. First is, maybe it's a stroke of genius, i.e. it's one of those things that seems perfectly obvious once someone's pointed it out but it took decades for that first person to notice.

Second is that a lot of very wealthy people have a lot invested in the oil trade and they would not be very pleased about any movements away from that. Not saying I believe in conspiracy theories, but money talks and politicians are far more likely to listen to the big wigs than to you or I, no matter what they say or how well intentioned they may be.

Third is that moving away from the SPoF of oil is going to cost. We've been building up this oil-based world order for generations, even corporate execs aside, we have a lot invested in the current setup (e.g. in factories, power plants, city layouts, etc). To go through and rebuild the infrastructure to abstract away the issue of power sources is going to be spendy. To say nothing of other countries, American citizens are known --if anything-- for their abhorrence of paying taxes, even when it's for the public good. That's part of the reason public transit is an abject failure in this country, to say nothing about the spectre of medical coverage.


part II

Date: 2006-02-18 11:07 am (UTC)From: [identity profile]
We already have a national power grid which gets us much of the way to abstracting energy sources away, but there's still a lot left. The biggest "built-in" oil costs are in transportation/motility whether that's automobiles, tractors, or what. The obvious solution would be to make them battery powered, but there are problems with that. The biggest problem is that it's difficult to get batteries to the necessary specifications (size, weight, capacitance, discharge rate, recharge rate,...), though there are other problems about the costs of creating/replacing them.

The important thing to change here is making farming equipment able to run without oil, for which some sort of wiring (as per electric trains, either in tracks or overhead) could be employed. The second big step (and another reason politicians shy from the topic) is to get everyone out of their damn SUVs. Can you fathom how much more it costs to haul around an extra ton or two of steel on your daily commute (which is quite long thanks to people's unfathomable love of suburbia), even just comparing it to a compact car?

And while we're getting rid of the SUVs we should get rid of all the other cars too. Move all city personal transportation infrastructure into public transit (whether bus, train, or whatever). Cargo transportation will need some other mechanism, though it could probably use the same tracks/wires/etc. Increase urban density to reduce the suburbs to reduce the areas of necessary coverage. Have another system of low energy transportation between cities (i.e. trains not trucks or planes). Some sort of individual personal transport will still be necessary for things like heading out of the city, though this should be done in a system like car rentals of flexcar rather than allowing personal ownership.

In short, to get rid of the built-in oil usage we need to get rid of the car culture, which will be a prodigious task though in some small places we seem to be making progress. And, given how ingrained the car culture is in the US, that means some major overhauling of all cities' layout. Basically suburbia has to go (another American treasure) and all cities need to be built up, as in vertically. If we manage to get rid of the cars we could narrow a lot of the streets and reclaim some density that way. Taking a look at Japanese cities like Tokyo will give a good idea of where to aim for.

But unless/until we're willing to massively reduce human population to a sustainable level there's only so high you can build cities. In which case, provided the technology and the energy, the way to go is building arcologies. Which, I hear there was one underway near Shanghai a few years back; I wonder if that's still in progress? In other countries that aren't so tied to the notion of the car and the suburban house things'll be easier, but the goal is the same.

But I think the biggest reason politicians don't discuss this is because we don't force them to. People look at the "oil crisis" and think that means we just need to find a new hole to dig in, they don't look at it and ask how their lifestyle consumes energy and how that's got to come from somewhere. So when we ask how the politicians are going to deal with energy, we ask them how they're going to guarantee the oil supply, not how they're going to help control energy expenditure. Genius stroke or no, now that the idea's been brought up the only thing is to go in and ask them, make them give us answers to the new question.

June 2017

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