After Oil

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, one of the tallest buildings in the world. Wikimedia Commons

The end of cheap energy will be perhaps the central problem of the 21st century global civilization, impacting as it does every aspect of the infrastructure of global life -- how we move people and things around; how we power our technology; how we make stuff. Interconnectivity may make the world smaller, but high technology only gets you so far. After all, you can run all the computers in the world on solar energy, but refining every last scrap of organic matter on Earth into gasoline wouldn't power half the cars we have today. So you're left with the observation that when oil gets scarce, we'd better have another way of getting supplies to the plant that makes the solar panels and food to the people that run the computers, or the whole system grinds to a halt.

Probably in the ugliest way possible.

James Howard Kunstler has been getting attention for the New Urbanists for a while now with titles like The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, the latter of which deals precisely with the consequences of cheap energy being a historical anomaly. I highly recommend either book, but for a shorter version, he gave an excellent speech to the Commonwealth Club of California the other day, available here as text or MP3.

Peak oil is a provocative tautology only because it runs against two centuries of abnormal experience:

Oil production in the US peaked in 1970. ... In 1970, we were producing about 10 million barrels a day. Now we're down to less than five -- and we consume over 20 million barrels a day. We have compensated for that since 1970 by importing oil from other nations. Today we import about two-thirds of all the oil we use. Today, the world is consuming all the oil it can produce. As global production passes its own peak, the world will not be able to compensate for its shortfall by importing oil from other planets.

The oil industry has been dominated by what are called supergiant fields. ... The Burgan field of Kuwait, the Daqing of China, Cantarell of Mexico, and Ghawar of Saudi Arabia. Together in recent decades they were responsible for 14 percent of the world's oil production, and they are now in decline. ...

Both The North Sea and Alaska are now past peak and in depletion. Prudhoe Bay proved to be Alaska's only super giant oil field. ... Now 57 of Norway's 69 oil fields are past peak and the average post-peak decline rates average 17 percent a year. The UK's share of the North Sea has declined to the extent that England is now a net energy importer. ...

Russia, despite current high levels of post-Soviet-era production, peaked in the 1980s ... Iran is past peak. Indonesia, an OPEC member, is so far past peak it became a net oil importer last year. Venezuela is past peak.

As a result, the size of modern things becomes a problem:

The key to all our everyday activities in the future is scale. We will probably have to live more locally than has been the case in recent decades. I think we can state categorically that anything organized on the gigantic scale, whether it is an agricultural system, or a finance system, or a corporation, or a chain of stores, or a school, or a government, is going to run into trouble. ...

Our hyper-gigantic cities and so-called metroplexes are a pure product of the 200-year-long upward arc of cheap energy. Like other things of gigantic scale, our cities will get into trouble. They are going to contract substantially. The cities that are composed overwhelmingly of suburban fabric will be most susceptible to failure. Orlando, Houston, Atlanta. The cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers will face an additional layer of trouble -- the skyscraper, like the mega-city, was a product of cheap energy, and we are going to have trouble running them, especially heating them without cheap natural gas.

Not surprisingly, China is mentioned a number of times in this talk. I'm fascinated by the architectural revolution going on there (here's an interesting gallery examining some of the highlights). Like it or not, China is modernizing and needs to make room for huge new urban populations, and accomodate enormous new demands on its energy resources. So you have two countervailing trends linked by a common aspiration to grandiose scale: on the one hand the cities are being built out along current Western lines, which all the disastrous long-term impacts that will entail (i.e. see above); on the other, the Chinese (unlike, say, America of 50 years ago) are well aware of this reality and are pushing for development along more sustainable lines. It will be interesting to see if the developing world can leapfrog entirely past the age of suburbia.

The desire for enormity of scale is hardly unique to China, of course. Anyplace that wants to emphasize its membership in the global civilization will be tempted to pursue the grand. Huge, after all, is easy to confuse with permanent. Thus the present run-up of supertall buildings throughout the eastern hemisphere. 15 of the 20 tallest skyscrapers are currently on the Pacific Rim, and of those, 12 were built in the last 10 years. Burj Dubai is under construction. Numerous 600+ meter towers are in various stages of planning. Kuwait's Mubarak al-Kabir tower is a particularly striking example, that would rise to over a kilometer in height if it gets built.

Nor is the good old United States immune to the tendancy towards gigantism -- when complete, you'll practically be able to see the Chicago Spire from here! Many of these new projects, you'll notice, intend to bring offices and high-rise residences into proximity as virtual arcologies, part of a conscious effort to increase urban core density and reduce commute distances. While this is a goal Kunstler is actually working to advance, the concern is that doing so by way of these high-tech, vast-scale new buildings isn't really sustainable. However, several of the buildings I've cited here consider low energy and ecological impact as explicit design goals -- more of them will have to reach completion before we can really evaluate how well they do in that respect.


We already have the answer to your problem. We've had it for decades.

It's called nuclear power.

Unless you know a way to run a car on uranium, the point stands -- our entire national infrastructure is predicated on using internal combustion to move people and things. Consider the investment needed to replace every engine with an electric motor, upgrade the national power grid to carry the new load, and build out fifty times the nuclear generating capacity we have right now. Now suppose we actually do that, but so does China and India and Europe -- the last estimate I saw calculated that we'd hit peak uranium in well under a century and be right back where we are now, but with more actinides.

So if you're going to put that kind of effort into re-engineering the industrialized world, why not aim for a less energy-intensive outcome in the first place?

1. You can't pour electricity into a tank. Nor can you make plastics or fertilizers out of electricity alone (you need a raw hydrocarbon feed).

2. Ever calculated how many nuclear power plants it would requires just to supplant oil use? Not to mention Coil + NatGas? Do the calculation. Result is not pretty.

3. Ever check how much difference there is between current enriched uranium USE (by current operating plants) and true mined uranium production? Check the facts, there's a big gap (due to decomissioned Russian nuke material covering the gap, for now).

4. Every calculate how much money it would require to overhaul the hydrocarbon based transport/energy infrastructure to electricity AND beef up the aging electricity grid? The minimum is 1 trillion dollars for every year, for the next twenty years (ref SAIC/MIS study).

There is no simple & single easy alternative to oil, or coal or natgas. Certainly not for all of them.

Don't get me wrong. We'll need nuclear fission. Lots of it. But don't think it'll be enough to even cover oil production declines easily.

Kunstler seems like a crank and believes there are no solutions. When oil is scarce, he claims there will be food and goods shortages. What ever happened to economics? If oil gets scarce in the face of demand for it, the price will go up. And people will find ways of making things without it. And the demand will go down.

All his claims rely on the fact that people pay a certain price for goods based on cheap gas and oil, and he fails to see that people will either 1) pay more for the same or 2) pay the same for equivalent goods that aren't made from gas or oil. Instead he thinks everything will collapse.

I don't understand his hatred of the skyscraper--per person energy use is less in big buildings than homes, for instance.

All we really need is to gradually increase CAFE standards, get the Chinese to see how useful energy efficiency would be, and we'd all live in a better world.

Dean, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you're attributing to Kunstler stronger claims than he's actually making. On the supply-and-demand issue, his concern seems to be that because we've sunk so much investment into carbon-intensive industry to the exclusion of alternate approaches, the economy won't be able to respond fast enough to oil scarcity. Naturally, the peak oil activists hope the economy doesn't come screeching to a halt, so they're trying to get that transition underway now so that it already has some momentum by the time the market calls for it.

I think his critique has less to do with energy than with their effect on urban structure -- this doesn't really come through in this speech, but is clear in The Geography of Nowhere. That said, I think his complaints have really been taken to heart where the current wave of new projects is concerned, so this aspect of his argument sounds a bit dated to me. And as you say, large buildings are more efficient -- and easier to run on electricity instead of carbon, too.

I read "collapse" from him, he says modern civilization will collapse, cities will die, people will revert to feudal farming.

Here's two quotes from a Rolling Stone excerpt of the _Long Emergency_:

"Food production is going to be an enormous problem in the Long Emergency. As industrial agriculture fails due to a scarcity of oil- and gas-based inputs, we will certainly have to grow more of our food closer to where we live, and do it on a smaller scale. The American economy of the mid-twenty-first century may actually center on agriculture, not information, not high tech, not "services" like real estate sales or hawking cheeseburgers to tourists. Farming. This is no doubt a startling, radical idea, and it raises extremely difficult questions about the reallocation of land and the nature of work. The relentless subdividing of land in the late twentieth century has destroyed the contiguity and integrity of the rural landscape in most places. The process of readjustment is apt to be disorderly and improvisational. Food production will necessarily be much more labor-intensive than it has been for decades. We can anticipate the re-formation of a native-born American farm-laboring class. It will be composed largely of the aforementioned economic losers who had to relinquish their grip on the American dream. These masses of disentitled people may enter into quasi-feudal social relations with those who own land in exchange for food and physical security. But their sense of grievance will remain fresh, and if mistreated they may simply seize that land."

"As these things occur, America will have to make other arrangements for the manufacture, distribution and sale of ordinary goods. They will probably be made on a "cottage industry" basis rather than the factory system we once had, since the scale of available energy will be much lower -- and we are not going to replay the twentieth century. Tens of thousands of the common products we enjoy today, from paints to pharmaceuticals, are made out of oil. They will become increasingly scarce or unavailable. The selling of things will have to be reorganized at the local scale. It will have to be based on moving merchandise shorter distances. It is almost certain to result in higher costs for the things we buy and far fewer choices."

and "We will not believe that this is happening to us, that 200 years of modernity can be brought to its knees by a world-wide power shortage. The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope -- that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on. "

Keep in mind he hates where I grew up: Las Vegas.

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on April 4, 2007 9:11 PM.

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