Peak Oil, New Energy, and the End of Scarcity – Making New Energy Thinkable
Fossil Fuels, Economics, and Peak Oil
Catton, Heinberg, and Malthusian Philosophy
Can New Energy Help Topple the Scarcity Paradigm?
Making New Energy Thinkable
SCARCITY OR ABUNDANCE
The end of oil as a primary source of energy (global production peaked in 2005-2006, and will be nearly completely depleted by the mid-21st century) to run the world’s industries and provide us with the necessities of life is a foreseeable reality. The quest for new energy sources and applications should be the responsibility of corporations and governments everywhere on the planet. An examination of the problems and possibilities in the development of “new energy” and the benefits of its reality is a worthy and vital endeavor in answering the question “What do we do when the oil runs out?”
Historically, efforts by “new energy” pioneers have been met with “resistance” (to put it mildly) from global oligopolistic energy (mainly oil) interests. Furthermore, many new energy pioneers and alternative energy advocates have tended to focus narrowly on pet theories or projects to the exclusion of valid sources promoting a comprehensive and real solution to the energy problem. Indeed, these efforts have combined to make obvious truths, alternative viewpoints, and possible solutions unthinkable. The reality is that new energy exists, is unlimited, forever renewable, non-polluting, and can free the world from a paradigm of scarcity and introduce it to one of abundance.
A FEW EXAMPLES OF NEW ENERGY ABUNDANCE APPLICATIONS
Polluting energy could be replaced by clean energy for all of humanity’s current applications of it, such as for providing transportation and running homes and businesses. In addition, new applications that are currently not pursued due to energy scarcity would become feasible, such as:
MAKING NEW ENERGY ABUNDANCE APPLICATIONS A REALITY
There are numerous problems to making new energy a reality, including organized suppression, but the issue seems to hinge on integrity, which is earth’s scarcest and most precious commodity. The hope for making new energy a daily reality may entail gathering people of high integrity, from all sectors, increasing their awareness of new energy viability and possibilities. If enough of us just think about new energy and its implications, it might create sufficient awareness. Awareness can be the catalyst to action.
Fossil Fuels, Economics, and Peak Oil
The hydrocarbons known as “fossil fuels” began forming when organisms captured sunlight via photosynthesis. Geological processes then distilled decaying organisms into what are called oil, natural gas, and coal. Fossil fuels currently provide about more than 80% of global energy industry production, with nuclear and hydroelectric energy comprising about half of the remainder each, with traditional “alternative” energy (wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, tidal energy, etc.) contributing about one percent. For people who have delved into the matter deeply, particularly when they have tried impacting the marketplace, it becomes obvious that alternative energy is such a small proportion of global energy production partly due to the workings of real-world capitalism. The global oligopolistic energy interests have ensured that nothing can threaten their marketplace supremacy. In addition, most potential challengers to the oligopolies have largely failed due to their own frailties, with their “allies” often inflicting more harm than the energy oligopolists. The energy oligopolists rarely have to actively derail threats to their market positions.
Economics is the study of how humanity produces, exchanges, and consumes the wealth that we create/acquire. Without production, there is nothing to exchange or consume, and production has little to do with money, financial institutions, and other modern economic concepts. Today’s popular conception of economics is generally focused on determining who owns what, which is the exchange (accounting) aspect of economics. In a world of scarcity, accounting becomes the primary economic focus. In a world of abundance, accountants are not needed. Today’s economists typically homogenize all economic activity by using money and market prices, and regularly achieve results with a tenuous relationship to reality. The real economy is based upon matter and energy, not money. No single measure of a nation’s economic output is more predictive or descriptive than how much energy it consumes.
With oil providing about 40% of global energy production, it is no mystery why the USA has repeatedly invaded the world’s greatest oil-producing region, just as Great Britain did when they were the world’s imperial overlords (and it is no mystery why the United Kingdom was USA's junior partner for the recent invasion of Iraq; invading its former colony and America’s new one). The USA, with less than 5% of the world’s population, consumes a quarter of the world’s oil production (and a quarter of all energy industry production), and imported more than half of the oil it consumed as of 2004. In the decade since this essay was first written, the USA has had a boom in hydrocarbons, which include shale oil and natural gas, but the extraction processes are highly energy intensive, and the boom will be short-lived. In 2014, pundits have been stating that the USA is rapidly becoming energy self-sufficient.
America’s thirst for oil is enough to explain its Middle East policy since World War II, but recent trends put America’s motivation in an even starker light: the world is running out of oil. If oil is the result of life and geological processes, humanity is consuming oil around a million times faster than it was created. Such a production/consumption ratio falls a bit short of “sustainable,” and the concept of “Peak Oil” has been appropriately gaining notoriety.
In 1956, Shell Oil geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that the USA's oil production would peak in the early 1970s. His prediction was widely criticized and dismissed when he made it, but it was accurate: 1970 was the peak year for the USA's oil production, when it stood at nearly ten million barrels per day. The peak year for extraction was 40 years after the peak year for oilfield discoveries, which was 1930. American oil production has steadily declined by about 40% since 1970 to less than six million barrels per day today. Hubbert’s methodology has been assailed on many grounds and his estimate denigrated in some corners as “lucky.” However, Hubbert’s professional descendants have used his methodology to estimate when global production would peak, and the answer has consistently been that it would peak in this decade, and it did, in 2005-2006. Global natural gas production may peak soon, and all fuels used today will peak in this century, except for maybe coal and heavy oils.
The numbers for global oil production and remaining deposits are not very controversial in the big picture. Competent estimates of the world’s recoverable oil deposits that existed in 1859, when the first oil well was drilled, have long been in the neighborhood of two trillion barrels. Humanity has consumed one trillion barrels so far, and is currently burning nearly thirty billion barrels per year. Oil company geologists and exploratory wells have scoured the planet. The peak decade for oil field discoveries was the 1950s, when nearly 500 billion barrels were discovered. The last giant oil field, Shaybah in Saudi Arabia (a sixteen billion barrel field), was discovered in the 1970s. There have been no major discoveries since 1980, and global oilfield discoveries peaked in 1964. Once discovered, oil fields cycle through a well-established pattern of extraction, with production peaking when about half of the recoverable oil has been removed.
Those issuing optimistic estimates for remaining oil deposits often are subject to oil industry influence, which gives them conflicts of interest. The optimists usually cite marginal sources such as “shale oil,” “sand oil” and other costly and difficult-to-extract hydrocarbons (and environmentally disastrous to produce). While optimistic estimates reach up to eighteen trillion barrels of globally recoverable hydrocarbons, the kind of oil extracted and burned today amounts to perhaps three trillion barrels on the high side, with the two trillion barrel estimate more likely. Promoting marginal sources of hydrocarbons reflects a typical pattern of resource depletion. When the cream has been skimmed, inferior sources are exploited until exhausted. Iraq’s high quality oil is also about the world’s easiest to produce, with an extraction cost of about a dollar per barrel. American oil interests have coveted Middle East oil for a long time and have now wrapped their arms around Iraq, at prodigious cost to Iraq’s people.
Even if the optimistic estimates of three trillion barrels of recoverable oil are accepted, it would extend the global production peak by a mere twenty years, and nations such as China are industrializing, which is spurring demand. At current production rates and the probable estimate of two trillion barrels, the world will run out of oil in forty years. However, the global oil crisis will not begin when the last drop is extracted. Resource depletion crises begin when production begins dropping, and the supply and demand curve causes prices to spike. In 2004, when this essay was first written, the USA's gasoline prices rose to well more than $2.00 per gallon, and oil prices rose to more than $50 per barrel. In 2014, those prices seem like a fairy tale of the good old days, and I do not expect oil and gasoline to ever get that cheap again.
Catton, Heinberg, and Malthusian Philosophy
One of today’s most visible Peak Oil spokesperson is Richard Heinberg, and an interview published in Z Magazine was the incentive to produce this essay. I first became aware of Professor Heinberg’s work in early 2003 when I read his brilliant article on the trajectory of the industrialized world and its dependence on fossil fuels. I eagerly purchased his The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. It is formidable. The phrase “the party’s over” refers to the coming end of the oil era. In his book, Heinberg explored how the exploitation of fossil fuels made the Industrial Revolution possible and how their exhaustion will signal its demise. He explored various energy alternatives, and his preferred energy solution is wind power.
Heinberg largely dismissed an entire class of potential energy solutions. That class of solutions I have been intimately involved with, and is sometimes called “new energy.” My interactions with Heinberg in the summer of 2003 bore no fruit in interesting him in a deeper investigation of new energy, and a related essay deals more fully with his treatment of new energy.
I have experienced Heinberg’s style of dismissal many times in various venues. Most dismissals were irrational and fearful, which is a strange reaction to the notion of true abundance. Heinberg, however, logically articulated his position, both privately and publicly. The Party’s Over prominently featured the thesis found in William Catton’s Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. The Overshoot hypothesis is partly based on the idea that humanity came to dominate Earth’s ecosystems at the expense of other species. That phenomenon is also known as Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction, as human activities have been rendering other species extinct on a scale only experienced before during global catastrophes. There have been five prior mass extinction episodes identified by scientists so far, the fifth being the extinction of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. Humanity has been causing the sixth one for the past 50,000 years or so, and the pace of extinctions is accelerating as ecosystems are disrupted to support human activities. Earth’s climate has been undergoing a recent shift, which may become far more dramatic in the near future.
In nature, animals typically breed to the limits of their food supply, and there are numerous recorded instances, both in the laboratory and in the wild, of animals expanding their populations due to windfall increases in available food. They breed to the limits of their resources, eventually use them up, and then the population collapses as the resources disappear (or they drown in their waste). Thomas Malthus was a British economist who worked for the British East India Company. In 1798, he published an essay which stated that human populations tend to grow faster than the food supply, which left humanity constantly on the brink of starvation. That observation has been the foundation for what is called “Malthusian” philosophy.
Early 21st century Americans consume about 80 times more energy than the calories provided by their diets. American agriculture has been estimated to burn around ten calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of food produced. Heinberg and others attribute the dramatic increase in Earth’s human population to the exploitation of fossil fuels.
What happens when the oil runs out? Do we use coal to fuel the world (for a while, at prodigious environmental cost), find other energy sources, or do we experience the overshoot phenomenon and humanity suffers a global population collapse? According to Heinberg, collapse is virtually inevitable and the last chapter of The Party’s Over is devoted to managing the collapse. Heinberg’s projected global population collapse has been his central theme for many years. Estimates of Earth’s carrying capacity for humans are around two billion in the absence of the energy provided by fossil fuels. Heinberg estimates it to be less than one billion today, partly because Earth’s long term carry capacity has been degraded by human activities, and the choice Heinberg gives his audience is losing humanity’s “excess” six billion people wisely or ignorantly. Heinberg had little optimism that it will happen wisely, with America’s invasion of Iraq simply one of the first wars that will be fought over the world’s dwindling fossil fuel deposits; a situation that he called “plan war.” With such a grim scenario, I was surprised when he stated that he did not want to discuss new energy until it was understood that drastically reducing earth’s human population was the first priority. In William Catton’s Overshoot, his prescription for humanity was to “expect the worst.” Catton called “neo-Malthusian” an unfair label to pin on his work, but it seems apt.
Can New Energy Help Topple the Scarcity Paradigm?
Overshoot focused on the term “paradigm,” which was invented in its modern sense by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Catton made the case for his “ecological” paradigm throughout Overshoot, but as Kuhn made clear, no paradigm is necessarily more “accurate” than another. Paradigms are adopted because people believe in them. All paradigms are built on assumptions, so any paradigm must first be evaluated by examining its assumptions. While trying to preempt the “neo-Malthusian” label being attached to his work, Catton labeled anything not conforming to his paradigm with terms such as “cornucopian paradigm, “cargoism,” "neo-exuberance," “cosmeticism,” “Ostrichism,” while calling his perspective “realism.” Analyzing Catton’s assumptions can illuminate the basis of his paradigm, and those his work has influenced.
Catton firmly placed humanity in Earth’s ecological systems and noted that through intelligence and tool-making humankind was able to populate many previously unsuitable ecological niches. The primary assumption of Catton‘s ecological paradigm was that humans have always been and always will be dependent on Earth’s environmental “carrying capacity,” which means the amount of “resources” that can be extracted from it on a continual basis. There are numerous assumptions implicit in such a paradigm. Some are that Earth’s surface is where life’s primary processes will always take place, with all land-based life dependent on water delivered by the solar-energy-driven hydrological cycle, and all life dependent on the energy delivered by sunlight. New energy can invalidate all of those assumptions, as well as topple assumptions that gird terms such as “carrying capacity” and “resource.”
New energy exists and its reality has been suppressed by a concerted, global clandestine effort, the kind most educated Americans immediately dismiss as a “conspiracy theory.” When one lives through it, however, it is no longer a theory. The primary assumption that Catton, Heinberg, and economists operate from is scarcity. They can hardly be faulted for it, as humanity has operated under the scarcity assumption for the past 10,000 years. None of the paradigms that Catton portrayed is based on abundance, a paradigm where everybody wins. What often passes for abundance is really greed-based, rape and plunder economics. The notion of true abundance can be the foundation for a completely new paradigm, and can usher in an era never glimpsed by historic humans.
R. Buckminster Fuller observed that all Utopias that have been envisioned and tried have been based on shared austerity, which is why they never worked and never will. A Utopia based on abundance has never been tried and was not really possible until relatively recent technological advances. New energy can be the foundation of a global society based on abundance.
Nearly every “resource” that humanity relies on today is primarily made available by energy or is energy. For a discussion of which “resources” humanity most relies on today, Michael Klare’s Resource Wars is appropriate. The “resources” Klare discussed were: oil, water, minerals, and timber. Resource Wars is dominated by the scramble for the world’s remaining fossil fuel deposits.
Fresh water is currently made available to humans by the solar-energy-driven hydrological cycle. With new energy (unlimited, forever renewable, non-polluting energy), unlimited amounts of ocean water could be desalinated and pumped overland to provide all of humanity’s water needs, and turn deserts into gardens (if we want to do that), and have about zero impact on the oceans. With new energy, all water can be purified before being sent back into the environment (or being infinitely recycled), for about zero environmental impact.
The term “minerals” almost exclusively refers to metals found in Earth’s crust, which are usually mined and refined today by environmentally devastating practices. Mining waste is largely created because of energy scarcity. Oxygen, silicon, aluminum and iron comprise about 87% of the Earth’s crust, with the remainder almost entirely other metals. With new energy, almost any patch of Earth could be turned directly into glass, steel and aluminum, with virtually no mining “waste” created. With new energy, those mined elements would also be infinitely recyclable, so mining as an industry would end before long anyway. And asteroid and comet mining would leap-frog the entire issue, and make all Earth-mining an obsolete practice.
Wood, as far as its utility to humans goes, is little more than carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms that photosynthesis-driven processes combined into cellulose, which forms the cell walls in plants, and lignin, which makes woody tissue. Humanity uses wood for structure, its fibers, and the energy released from burning it. Methods exist to infinitely recycle organic molecules. Synthetic molecules are superior to natural ones in many ways, and the science of creating synthetic molecules is still in its infancy. New energy, combined with synthetic sciences and the infinite recycling of organic molecules, would largely eliminate the need for harvesting living “resources” from Earth, such as wood and fiber. Also, many synthetic molecules are toxic, but are made because they perform tasks by using less energy than other methods. With new energy, the reasons for making those toxic synthetic molecules (such as chlorine gas, pesticides, and so on) could also disappear.
Food is humankind’s most essential energy source, with caloric energy comprising about 80% of what constitutes nutrition. Also, humans, as with all animals, are ideally designed to eat living food. Most degenerative diseases (which cause most deaths in Westerners) are caused by eating food that humans are not equipped to eat. With new energy and the burgeoning materials science, indoor farms are easily made that can have as much water, heat, light, and nutrients that crops need to grow, with 24/7 growing seasons (and no farmland pollution vented to the environment), and live food could be readily available to all earthly humans, no matter where they live.
Making New Energy Thinkable
The implementation of new energy can help eliminate all the reasons that Heinberg and friends cite in their arguments for reducing Earth’s human population by six billion or more in the near future. New energy can also make possible what looks a lot like heaven on Earth. In that light, the misleading dismissals of new energy by Heinberg and company require proper rebuttal, which this essay attempts to initiate. As Noam Chomsky and others have made clear, one of the greatest successes of our indoctrination and propaganda systems is to make obvious truths, alternative viewpoints and possible solutions unthinkable. As long as new energy is unthinkable, it will never be pursued at a level sufficient to overcome the organized suppression. A primary goal of this essay and its related writings is to help make new energy thinkable.
The scarcest and most precious earthly commodity is human integrity. A recent summation of the American sprit is not pleasant reading, but nobody has convincingly rebutted it and the evidence strongly supports it. Ignoring or denying that reality is perilous for anybody trying to make a difference in today’s world, particularly regarding something as paradigm shattering as new energy. One of the few hopes for making new energy a daily reality may be gathering those rare people of high integrity who can be educated about new energy, its implications, and the multifaceted situation surrounding it. Simply increasing awareness of new energy’s viability and possibilities may be all that it takes to generate enough “critical mass” to make it a daily reality for humanity. Where is that high integrity group? I have been looking for it since the 1980s. Some groups seem promising, but what may happen is that people comprising that “critical mass” will come together from all walks of life, with most belonging to no “group” at all. In 2014, I will embark on creating the group myself.
One of the greatest obstacles to seeing the bigger picture regarding new energy appears to be ideological indoctrination. While those received ideologies can seem comforting, they can also prevent comprehension. Among the ideologies people probably need to set aside, if they want to comprehend an abundance paradigm, are capitalism, organized religion, nationalism, and any other ideology that exalts one group at the expense of others. Those ideologies are all based on the scarcity paradigm and are all largely self-serving. They are also used by the elites to manipulate and control the masses. Controlling ideologies also extend to areas that most do not immediately associate with ideology. The rationalistic/materialistic paradigm that dominates modern science is an example.
If enough of us just think about new energy and its implications, it might create sufficient awareness to bring it about. Awareness can catalyze action.
 A popular book on oil’s origins and how it is “discovered” and extracted is Kenneth Deffeyes’s Hubbert’s Peak, The Impending World Oil Shortage, which is also representative of recent works concerned with the looming end of the fossil fuel age.
 For 2001, from U.S. Energy Information Agency data. In 2001, humanity used about 400 quadrillion British Thermal Units of energy-industry-produced energy each year. Oil supplies about 39%, coal 24%, natural gas 23%, hydroelectric and nuclear about 6.5% each, with traditional alternative energy providing the remaining 1%. In 2010, the number was 524 quadrillion British Thermal Units. But, the energy return on investment ("EROI") keeps declining as humanity mines the dregs of Earth's hydrocarbon deposits, with recently touted sources, such as tar sands, shale oil, biofuels, and fracked hydrocarbons yielding EROIs below five, which is considered below the minimum for sustaining a modern civilization. Humanity is quickly reaching EROIs that will be too small to sustain industrial civilization.
 I was involved in an attempt to bring alternative energy to the American marketplace. The story is told for the first time on the Internet at this link, and my role is partially told here. I am not aware of a more significant attempt made in American history. With this first footnote that refers to my work, an issue needs addressing for clarification purposes. This article is not a scholarly exercise, but my website is for the most part scholarly, and the material and discussion that this article’s footnotes refer to are where readers can go to find out more, so they can take those footnotes and see where they lead. I have attempted to create a body of work that is easily researched for validation and further consideration.
 In Deffeyes’s Hubbert’s Peak, the disconnect between economists and reality was regularly remarked upon, and is summed up with one anecdote on page 186, where a young economist stated in his lecture that because agriculture and mining comprised only three percent of the U.S. economy, they were matters of little concern. An elderly voice in the lecture hall then mumbled, ”What does that genius think we are going to eat?”
 See Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, p. 91.
 Decaying land plants created Earth’s coal deposits during the Carboniferous Period, which ran for 60 million years, which ended about 300 million years ago, with most coal formed in the Carboniferous's last half. Oil, however, is developed from marine life forms, and has had a much longer window of creation. William Catton, in his Overshoot, estimated that humanity was burning fossil fuel deposits at least 10,000 times faster than they were created (Overshoot, pp. 51-52), but oil deposits began forming more than 500 million years ago, when abundant marine life appeared. A “mere” 200 million year formation window for most oil deposits is not an unreasonable estimate, and by “oil” I mean what we consider true oil today, not the organic material trapped in shale, sand and other difficult to extract “oil.” The two trillion barrel estimate of global oil deposits in 1859 may not be far from reality, and will be completely consumed at current rates of extraction before 2060. So, 200 million years of formation is burned up in 200 years of extraction, for a burn rate of one million times greater than the creation rate. A common estimate in the early 21st century is that humanity burns up in one year what Earth's ecosystems stored in hydrocarbons in a million years, which confirms that million-times-faster estimate.
 See Deffeyes’s Hubbert’s Peak, p. 138.
 See this website devoted to Hubbert’s work. Hubbert predicted that global production would peak in 1995, which did not quite come to pass, but was within a decade of being correct, as global Peak Oil was reached in 2005-2006.
 See Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, p. 108.
 Heinberg’s The Party’s Over, pp. 102-121, covered the wildly optimistic estimates issued by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Energy.
 In real dollars, those are the highest prices since the all time high was achieved during the oil crisis of 1980-1981, when the last protracted war was fought in the Middle East, which was the USA-encouraged Iraq-Iran war.
 See “Plan War and the Hubbert Oil Curve, An interview with Richard Heinberg,” by Dave Ross, Z Magazine, May 2004, pp. 47-50. His work has become rather ubiquitous, and has been dominating the mindset of many alternative energy advocates.
 See Richard Heinberg’s “The US and Eurasia: Endgame for the Industrial Era?”
 Global climate change is the looming phenomenon that may create havoc not only for Earth’s other species, but also humanity. Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide by nearly half during the fossil-fuel-burning age is the prominent variable.
 An example that Heinberg and Catton use is that of yeast in wine vats, which experience explosive growth as they digest the rich environment they are introduced to, and eventually die off as they succumb to their own waste products. See Overshoot, p. 96, 169. Heinberg used that example in private correspondence, and made similar observations about humanity in The Party’s Over. They also describe “detritus” ecosystems that use up decaying organic material until the material is gone. See Overshoot, p. 168. Catton called humanity’s use of fossil fuels an immense detritus ecosystem, which is a novel and accurate way of viewing the situation.
 Thomas Hartmann’s The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight is a highly readable and holistic, if somewhat mystical, summary of what the coming end of the fossil fuel age may portend.
 See Catton’s Overshoot, p. 262.
 See Catton’s Overshoot, p. 199.
 See Catton’s Overshoot, p. 70.
 The “waste” materials could be further refined, or combined into relatively inert “rocks.” Also, earth’s surface would not need to be where those buildings reside, but can be on “stilts,” underground, floating on water (or even air, when suppressed anti-gravity technology is made available), so earth’s ecosystems do not have to “make way” for humanity’s artificial environments. With new energy and anti-gravity, possibilities barely dreamed of become viable.
 The process was written about the May 2003 issue of Discover magazine. The process has been promoted as an energy solution, but it really is not. It is, however, a startling solution to the waste problem. See this link.
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