Peak Resources and the Preservation of Knowledge
By Alice Friedemann January 6, 2006
“Peak oil will affect more people, in more places, in more ways, than anything else in the history of the world”. Walter Youngquist, author of Geodestinies
After worldwide oil production peaks, there are no substitutes ready to make up the energy shortfall. The immediate problem will be a need for liquid transportation fuels.
Liquid, renewable fuels, such as ethanol and hydrogen, do not have a high enough Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI) to run civilization, let alone maintain the existing infrastructure, the majority of which was built when oil had an EROI of 40 to 100.
Liquid, non-renewable fossil fuels that could be used to replace oil, such as liquefied coal, require a tremendous amount of expensive infrastructure that needs to be built at least ten years before the world peak production of oil, according to Robert Hirsch. We haven’t done that, nor is it likely we ever will, because after peak, fossil fuels will be rationed and apportioned to agriculture and other critical agencies.
We’re likely to lose many of the books printed on acidic paper between 1850 and most of the 20th century within decades. For the last twenty years, many books and journals have been printed on non-acidic paper and put on microfiche. Both can last for centuries if kept at an ideal temperature and humidity. But that isn’t permanent enough. Librarians are aware of this, and have turned to computers as a way to preserve knowledge. Some libraries are stopping the delivery of many printed journals and have them online only.
But computers are the top card in the house-of-cards complex civilization we built with coal and oil, and computers will be the first to go when supply chains fail as global trade diminishes.
Declining energy supplies are likely to trigger a global depression, resulting in political instability, which may trigger resource wars.
Preservation of knowledge needs to start immediately, while nations are still stable and wealthy. Now is the time to consider how to preserve knowledge with a material that won’t decay, rust, mold, or shatter easily. We should leave our descendents knowledge they can use and be amazed by, information to fuel the next Renaissance.
Since there are no alternative energy sources, except for fusion, which could possibly replace fossil fuels, a priority should be the preservation of knowledge. Fusion is unlikely to ever be harnessed as a source of energy, and certainly won’t be ready in time to save us from the impact fossil fuel decline will have upon civilization.
Fossil fuels enabled the human population to grow at a rate 133 times higher than all of human history before then. Fusion would allow exponential growth to continue until we used up all of the other resources on the planet (e.g. water, topsoil), and lead to an even greater loss of human life and biodiversity.
There aren’t any alternative energy sources that can replace fossil fuels in the window of time left. If only we’d listened to Jimmy Carter, while there was still a chance of reducing the inevitable tragedy relying on non-renewable energy sources would bring.
We are about to enter a time of social, political, and economic hardship and instability, and these human factors will exacerbate the problem of declining energy.
Our lives depend on oil, natural gas, and coal for our food, clean water, sanitation, transportation, electricity, cooling and heating, cooking, and health. These fossil fuels are composed of complex hydro-carbon chains that provide the feedstock for over half a million products, including plastics, medicine, paint, chemicals, etc. We are utterly dependent upon the fossil fuels entwined in all aspects of our lives. They have enabled our population to grow from one billion before coal to six and a half billion now.
The biggest mistake people make about the seriousness of “Peak Oil” is assuming there is a technical fix. This is understandable, given how virtually all articles in the press and scientific journals are about advances and breakthroughs.
There is a “Plan B”. Hirsch’s stopgap measure, Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management,is the most likely plan to be attempted as the energy crisis worsens. The solutions are heavy oil, gas-to-liquids & liquefied natural gas, enhanced oil recovery, efficient vehicles, and coal liquids. Notice that nearly all depend on using low quality liquid fossil fuels (which would increase global warming). Some highlights:
- The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.
- The problem of the peaking of world conventional oil production is unlike any yet faced by modern industrial society.
- Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization. It fuels the vast majority of the world’s mechanized transportation equipment – automobiles, trucks, airplanes, trains, ships, farm equipment, the military, etc. Oil is also the primary feedstock for many of the chemicals that are essential to modern life. This study deals with the upcoming physical shortage of world conventional oil–an event that has the potential to inflict disruptions and hardships on the economies of every country.
- Use of petroleum is pervasive throughout the U.S. economy. It is directly linked to all market sectors because all depend on oil-consuming capital stock.
- The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.
- Even if efficient vehicles were mandated or a technology breakthrough occurred, it would take 10-15 years to replace the existing vehicle fleet. In 2004, …U.S. oil consumption was 20 MM barrels per day, two-thirds of which was in the transportation sector.
- The implications for U.S. … mitigation of world oil peaking are troubling. To replace dwindling supplies of conventional oil, large numbers of expensive and environmentally intrusive substitute fuel production facilities will be required. Under current conditions, it could easily require more than a decade to construct a large coal liquefaction plant in the U.S. The prospects for constructing 25-50, with the first ones coming into operation within a three year time window are essentially nil.
Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), a co-founder of the House of Representatives Peak Oil Caucus, said that we should not try to fill in the gap between supply and demand with the Hirsch plan, because after these measures run out, civilization will crash even harder, and these measures will damage the environment.
Another Plan B would be to build new nuclear power plants. Since the issue that needs to be solved is liquid transportation fuel, nuclear power is irrelevant. So are solar, tidal, and wind power.
Currently there is only enough uranium left to power existing plants for about fifty years. If Generation IV nuclear power plants can be made to work, they could stretch U235 fuel for several millennia, as well as reduce nuclear waste considerably.
Per Peterson, chairman of the nuclear engineering department at the University of California, Berkeley, said that Gen IV might start being built around 2025-2030. These plants generate tremendously high heat, which could contribute to solving the liquid fuel problem by splitting hydrogen from water to convert low-grade heavy oils into high-energy fuel. We’ve known since 1969 that we needed to build these types of reactors to stretch out nuclear fuel, but still haven’t figured out how to do this safely.
Saudi Arabian oil reserves
So here we are close to Peak Oil, and we haven’t started on any Plan B. We‘ll know we’re at Peak Oil production when Saudi Arabian oil extraction declines, because they have such a huge portion of the world’s remaining oil, nearly a quarter of it. But Matt Simmons believes that they may have exaggerated their reserves and have other problems:
1) There’s a 35-40% probability that Saudi Arabian oil fields “could fall over a 30 month period of time by 50-70%”. Fields that are produced too quickly, (which has happened in the past and may be happening now as well), can drop off suddenly and quite sharply, leaving oil behind that may never be recovered.
2) Saudi Arabia claims to have 260 billion barrels of reserves, but the real number is probably less than half of that.
3) The Saudis damaged their oil fields by over-producing in the early 1970s and again after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. That changed the subsurface pressure, creating huge water problems that will make it harder to recover oil.
4) Congress had evidence in the 1970s that the Saudi oil fields had only about 30 years of sustained production left but kept it secret.
5) There are no new large oil fields likely to be discovered in Saudi Arabia
6) The Saudi’s are mining their oil in ways that Hubbert hadn’t anticipated. They’re using new technology, which depletes the oil sooner, which makes the decline rate steeper than what Hubbert and others calculated.
7) We’ve used up the vast majority of the world’s high flow rate, high quality oil. We still have a lot of oil. But it’s heavy, gunky, dirty, sour, contaminated oil. It doesn’t come out fast, and it’s very energy intensive to get out.
So not only do the Saudis probably have a lot less oil than they claim, but extraction could fall off precipitously due to poor management in the past and the use of new technology, which is depleting the oil sooner than it otherwise would have been. Worse yet, what’s left is poor quality, difficult and expensive to refine oil that’s hard to get out.
Consequences of a decline in oil
When world oil production declines, all nations will be affected. The major likely consequences are global depression and civil disorder as decline continues, starvation as agriculture is affected, and World War III over the remaining resources. Wars have been fought over minerals throughout history. Colin Campbell has written a global depletion protocol to try to prevent this from happening, but at this point most governments are not even aware of it, let alone trying to implement this plan.
As time goes on, shortages will occur, triggered not only by declining oil supplies, refinery breakdowns, and hurricanes destroying oil infrastructure, but also from revolutions and terrorists blowing up oil refineries, pipelines, and oil tankers.
The USA is down to oil reserves that could power our country, at current rates of use, for four years. This vast country, with limited train and mass transit systems, combined with massive dependence on vehicles to reach sprawling suburbs, makes the United States very vulnerable to oil shocks.
There are plans in place for rationing should shortages strike,   and there is room for demand destruction. The U.S. rationing plan calls for agriculture to take what it needs off the top. After that other critical agencies will get what they need. Anything left over will be distributed to everyone else.
Natural Gas Depletion
Natural gas heats over half of all American homes and provides twenty percent of our electricity. Natural gas is also used to make plastics, chemicals, fabric, carpets, packaging, and many other products. It is the feedstock and energy source used to create nitrogen fertilizers that grow up to four times more food than could be grown otherwise. It’s also used to refine oil and tar sands.
North America will face the depletion of natural gas within the next decades. Natural gas extraction has a much steeper rate of decline than oil – current annual new well decline is 31% and half of the natural gas needed in 2012 is going to come from fields that haven’t even been discovered yet. This problem is as serious as oil depletion.
Replacing fossil fuels with some other energy source
At one time, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI) for oil was at least 100 to 1.1 We are reaching the point where the EROI of oil will be 1 and no more drilling will take place. It was while the EROI of oil was high that most of our current infrastructure was built.
Evidence suggests that the EROI of corn ethanol is less than one, which means it takes more energy to make than you get out of it – an energy sink.
Pimentel and Patzek have shown that it takes twenty seven to fifty seven percent more fossil fuel energy to create ethanol or biodiesel than you get in the energy returned. Worse yet, this is done at a tremendous environmental cost, since biofuel crops harm soil structure and remove the nutrients, deplete groundwater, pollute water with pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides, cause eutrophication of water via nitrogen runoff, increase soil erosion, and contribute to air pollution and global warming at the ethanol plant and when burned in cars.
Even if the highest claim of a net energy for ethanol of 1.67 were true, a much greater EROI than .67 is needed to run civilization. The 1 in the 1.67 is needed just to make the ethanol. An EROI of .67 has 150 times less energy than oil when we started building American infrastructure.
Charles A. S. Hall, who has been studying net energy for decades, believes that you’d need an EROI of at least 5 to run civilization, because you need to include the energy to make the machines, mitigate environmental damage, feed and house the workers, etc.
For example, consider a windmill composed of steel and concrete. A windmill farm in the Escalante desert, built to produce 5.55 TWh of power, would require 13.8 million pounds of aluminum, 2.8 trillion pounds of concrete, 639 billion pounds of steel, etc. The wind farm would occupy over 189 square miles. Pacca & Horvath don’t give the capacity factor for these windmills, but an often used number is 30% (i.e. wind blows hard enough 30% of the time), so a 5.55 TWh wind farm might serve around 175,000 to 350,000 people, depending on the wind speed and how close people were to the windmills, since power is lost via transmission over long distances.
In 1992 such a wind farm would cost 200 million dollars, which doesn’t include labor and maintenance costs, and would serve less than one percent of the United States population. It would cost over $200,000,000,000 to build enough windmills to generate electrical power for everyone (though of course, you couldn’t, since not all areas have enough wind). With energy prices many times higher now than in 1992, the cost would be far more expensive.
After fossil fuels are gone, the windmills must be able to generate enough energy to maintain themselves and build new windmills, including all of the equipment used to mine the metal and concrete components, forge metal into blades and towers, and build the trucks and roads that enable windmills to be delivered to their sites. Windmill energy must also provide the energy to build and maintain the electric grid and storage battery infrastructure, and all of the people involved in the process. Any extra energy could now be used to run civilization.
It’s often said that once oil goes to “x” dollars a barrel, alternative energy will become economically viable. But this will never happen, because the alternative energy infrastructure is built with fossil-fuel inputs, so alternative energy sources will always cost more than oil. To even talk about energy using dollar figures makes no sense — you can’t stuff dollar bills down your gas tank.
Energy can be reduced to physics, to the laws of thermodynamics and other rules that the Big Bang bequeathed our universe. Oil has been a free lunch, one that nature spent hundreds of millions of years making, reducing 196,000 pounds of plant matter into one gallon of gasoline – pure, unadulterated solar power that no alternative energy source but fusion could possibly hope to replace. Oil is also incredibly easy to use, ship, and store.
The number of scientists who insist that alternative energies can substitute for fossil fuels, and ignore or deny the basic laws of physics and thermodynamics is frightening. It’s reminiscent of Lysenkoism.
United States Infrastructure
While the EROI of oil was high, we built a vast infrastructure to deliver clean water, treat sewage, built roads, bridges, dams, and so on.
Any non-fossil fuel type of energy will have a great deal of work just maintaining the existing infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the following grades to our infrastructure in 2005.
Grade Infrastructure Components
C+ Solid Waste
D+ Aviation Transit
D Dams Energy Hazardous Waste Roads Schools
D- Drinking Water Wastewater Navigable Waterways
Consider just the drinking water infrastructure, the main reason our life spans have increased so much. In this century, all of the 600,000 miles of pipes delivering clean water to homes will need to be replaced. Every component of the water system is aging. The energy required to replace or maintain thousands of treatment plants, pumping stations, reservoirs and dams over the next century is staggering.
Useful Life Matrix
Clean Water Years Component
50 Treatment Plants – Concrete Structures
15- 25 Treatment Plants – Mechanical & Electrical
25 Force Mains
50 Pumping Stations – Concrete Structures
15 Pumping Stations – Mechanical & Electrical
50- 80 Reservoirs & Dams
60- 70 Treatment Plants – Concrete Structures
15– 25 Treatment Plants – Mechanical & Electrical
65– 95 Trunk Mains
60- 70 Pumping Stations – Concrete Structures
25 Pumping Stations – Mechanical & Electrical
65- 95 Distribution
And consider the energy required to deliver the water. According to Allan Hoffman, “Energy is required to lift water from depth in aquifers, pump water through canals and pipes, control water flow and treat waste water, and desalinate brackish or sea water. Globally, commercial energy consumed for delivering water is more than 26 Quads, 7% of total world consumption”.
The fragility of global trade and infrastructure
Science fiction movies used to scare us with out-of-control robots bent on world destruction. If there’s a runaway robot now, it’s global corporations doing what’s best for the shareholder rather than the citizens and nations of the world. Pensions have been looted, health care benefits taken away, taxes avoided, and regulations ignored.
Risks are being taken that could bring down the global financial system.
One of the risks to global trade is due large computer and electronic companies using the same outsourcers for similar components from the same region — even the same place – such as an industrial park in Hsinchu, Taiwan. The risk is a single source of failure.
Microprocessors depend on electricity, electricity depends on microprocessors
Business interruptions can cost a fabrication plant 20-30 million dollars in lost revenue. For instance, a plant that had a four-hour long electricity outage had to spend the next four days recalibrating their equipment, resulting in a $5 million dollar loss. Insurance companies have responded with huge deductibles and capped the loss amounts.
As unexpected energy shortages and outages grow more common in the future, this will wreak havoc on microprocessor production.
The electric grid was originally designed for analog devices, which are much less vulnerable to momentary disturbances in electric power. But a nearly imperceptible one-second sag in voltage or other momentary disturbance at a semiconductor-fabrication plant producing microprocessors could ruin an entire 30-hour batch of chips, and possibly the equipment itself, (EPRI 2003).
Any device with a microprocessor is vulnerable to the slightest disruption of electricity. Billions of microprocessors have been incorporated into industrial sensors, home appliances, and other devices. These digital devices are highly sensitive to even the slightest disruption (an outage of a small fraction of a single cycle can disrupt performance), as well as to variations in power quality due to transients, harmonics, and voltage surges and sags. Another example from EPRI of possible consequences is if a microprocessor running a paint gun in an auto plant failed from an electrical disruption, it could destroy the finish on one or more cars, and disrupt part of the assembly process.
Today about 10% of total electrical demand in the United States feeds or is controlled by microprocessors. By 2020 this level is expected to reach 30% or more (EPRI, 2003).
Microprocessors are essential to the modern world
Billions of chips are created every year for a myriad of applications: in autos, airplanes, ATMs, air conditioners, calculators, cameras, cell phones, clocks, DVDs, machine tools, medical equipment, microwave ovens, office and industrial equipment, routers, security systems, thermostats, TVs, VCRs, washing machines – nearly all electrical devices.
So when an earthquake struck Taiwan in 1999, world markets were shaken. Willem Roelandts of Xilinx immediately knew this had the possibility of hurting the world economy. “There is not an electronic product in the world that does not contain a Taiwanese component”, he said.
Even though the factories were fine, electrical and transportation systems weren’t, so production and delivery of components stopped, which caused assembly lines in the United States to halt as well. Wall Street traders sold off electronic firms, especially Dell, HP, and Apple.
You wouldn’t think the United States would build microchip factories offshore in industries that were essential to its national and economic security. But low wages are irresistible to corporations. Also, many foreign countries are closer to sources of natural gas, which is declining at an alarming rate in North America.
According to Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, “ “Natural gas is a raw material for compounds used in thousands of consumer products — from agriculture, telecommunications and automobiles to pharmaceuticals…and food packaging. More than 96 percent of all manufactured goods are directly touched by chemistry. The industries that rely on chemistry together represent more than a quarter of the nation’s entire workforce. Unaffordable natural gas is driving away investment, crippling our manufacturing base, and reducing job opportunities. It is transferring to foreign countries the advanced research and technology desperately needed in order to compete on the world stage. In effect, our nation’s energy policy has become its de facto manufacturing and national-security policies as well.
Industries also like to locate factories where environmental regulations are less stringent.
The chemicals used to create computer parts have resulted in 29 superfund sites in Silicon Valley, the most concentrated number of superfund spots in America. At the Advanced Micro Devices superfund site in Sunnyvale, California, chemicals are in the groundwater and soil that can cause death, cancer, brain and central nervous system damage, leukemia, anemia, convulsions, nausea, unconsciousness. The zinc and copper at this site are toxic to plants, ruining what were once some of the best orchards in the world.
The need to go where costs are lowest is driven by the enormous amount of money it takes to build a mega-size wafer fabrication plants — nearly ten billion dollars.
Part of this amount is due to very high insurance costs. In 1997, an Hsinchu Taiwan fabrication plant had a fire that caused $421 million dollars in smoke and water damage.
Outsourced products are delivered just-in-time to the factory assembly. According to Barry C. Lynn, “Our corporations have built a global production system that is so complex, geared so tightly, and leveraged so finely, that a breakdown anywhere increasingly means a breakdown everywhere, much in the way that a small perturbation in the electricity grid in Ohio tripped the great North American blackout of August 2003”.
Less major blows to assembly lines have come from strikes, SARS, fires, explosions, and manufacturing mistakes, such as the ones that resulted in Chiron’s failure to deliver half of the American flu vaccine. Fortunately, the impacts so far have been temporary and regional. But it’s not hard to imagine events that could result in worldwide disruptions leading to a global depression.
Energy shortages for instance. Already many businesses in the chemical, agricultural, steel, glass, and other industries have failed or are in pain from high natural gas prices in America.   When enough key suppliers of infrastructure components fail, this will stop the downstream assembly line. Suppliers might also go out of business because of economic failure in the manufacturing country, civil or regional wars, and extreme weather.
Despite the risk, single-sourcing occurs because cutting costs is how you stay in business, so the cheapest supplier wins the race to the bottom. Corporations have gone cuckoo with outsourcing; letting suppliers located in potentially shaky political and economic countries hatch their nest eggs.
When the fledglings hatch they often fly on Fed Ex, which is so reliable it seems as if the supplier were on the other side of town instead of across the world. But the airline industry is reeling from higher energy prices, so it’s possible that the intricate, just-in-time, high-speed aircraft delivery of electronic gear will shift to ships, a much slower, less predictable way to deliver cargo “just-in-time”.
Most products traded globally travel by sea. Over 50,000 large ships carry 80 percent of the worlds’ cargo. Shipping faces critical challenges in the future.
Oil and LNG tankers are increasingly failing from corrosion. Over 2400 tankers split up or nearly did so from 1995 to 2001 according to the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners.
Another hazard to shipping is piracy or terrorism. According to Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS), and Anne Korin, director of policy and strategic planning at IAGS and editor of Energy Security:
- The number of pirate attacks on ships has tripled in the past decade. In 2003, there were 445 attacks. 92 seafarers were killed, and 359 assaulted and taken hostage, in 19 hijackings and 311 boardings.
- Three-quarters of the globe is covered in water that is thinly policed.
- Pirates are often trained fighters armed with automatic weapons, antitank missiles and grenades. Most of the world’s oil and gas is shipped through the world’s most piracy-infested waters. Piracy is becoming a tactic of terrorists, who see it as a lucrative source of revenue. They’ve attacked tankers near Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
- 60 percent of oil is shipped in 4,000 tankers passing through bottlenecks where they’re vulnerable to attack. If a tanker were set on fire at one of these vulnerable points, the sea-lanes would be blocked.
- Many shipping companies don’t report piracy lest their insurance premiums go up, but what is reported amounts to over 16 billion dollars per year.
Terrorism is affecting the worlds’ energy infrastructure. U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has repeatedly warned that “terrorists are looking for opportunities to impact the world economy” by targeting energy infrastructure. Nigeria, Columbia, and Iraq have seen many attacks in the past few years. There have been 282 attacks on oil infrastructure and personnel in Iraq from June 2003 to November 2005.
Trading partners matter. Strategically, it’s probably not a great idea to partner with China because of their bloody history, economic booms and busts, and a landscape so environmentally devastated millions of Chinese are on the brink of starvation.
But it’s corporations that are now making strategic decisions about what’s best long-term for U.S. citizens based on how profitable next quarter will be. The United States relationship with China began with Motorola, and Wal-Mart consummated the marriage.
China is on the verge of being unable to feed itself. More than 900 square miles of land degrade into desert every year while even larger areas are losing their productivity. The soils are becoming acidic and lifeless, making the crops vulnerable to fungal attacks. Worse yet, this shift has caused grain yields to fall by 20%.
Water is growing scarce for farmers because cities usually win the rights to it. Aquifers are depleting and irrigation wells are drying up, forcing farmers to abandon their land.
According to Lester Brown of World Watch, “The cheap food of the last century may soon be history. China will soon have to buy grain on the world market, and given their 150-billion trade surplus, will be competing with Americans for food, at a time when the USA is also losing cropland to aquifer depletion and soil erosion”.
Much of the country is an environmental disaster. The Gobi desert grew 20,000 square miles in five years and is now within 150 miles of Beijing. This has been brought on by over-farming, over-grazing, and destruction of forests. The dust from this desert is starting to affect the whole world, and contains arsenic, cadmium, and lead.
We’ve become so linked to China economically that their frequent booms and bus could do the same to our economy. Many industries have China to thank for their good times, especially shipping lines, which are hauling enormous amounts of oil, 150 million tons of iron ore, coal, and other raw materials to China, and bringing back finished goods like electronics, furniture, and clothing.
China has surpassed the United states in the market for cell phones and color TV’s, and is on their way to outdoing us in buying PC’s and soon, perhaps, energy.
There are almost 120 boys for each 100 girls being born in China, due to the one-child policy leading parents to prefer boys to girls. Historically, this skewed ratio has meant big trouble, and one of the ways societies coped was by starting wars.
Women are being kidnapped and sold as brides. From 2001 to 2003 China’s police freed more than 42,000 kidnapped women and children. And it’s only likely to get worse; one estimate puts the number of bachelors over the next decade at 40 million.
This could pose a threat to China’s stability according to Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer, authors of “Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population”, which cites two Manchu Dynasty rebellions in areas that were disproportionately male. They believe that young adult men unlikely to find wives are “much more prone to attempt to improve their situation through violent and criminal behavior in a strategy of coalitional aggression.”
Whether China dissolves in internal chaos, kicked off by hunger and unhappy bachelors, or explodes outward militarily as resources grow scarce, remains to be seen. But given China’s violent history, it’s a sure bet there’s a conflagration ahead.
Stephen LeBlanc, Harvard archeologist, believes that throughout most of history we have been engaged in constant battles. When trying to find out why war was so prevalent, he assumed people were fighting for real reasons, and he discovered that the fights were always over scarce resources, usually food and often women.
He has evidence that we have never been able to control our population growth, which inevitably resulted in over exploitation of the environment, as far back in time as you go.
The consequence of over-exploitation is scarce resources, and that usually leads to war.
LeBlanc concludes: “Humans starve only when there are no other choices. One of those choices is to attempt to take either food, or food-producing land, from someone else. People do perceive resource stress before they are starving. If no state or central authority is there to stop them, they will fight before the situation gets hopeless”.
Jared Diamond looks at the recent example of the Rwandan genocide in “Collapse”. Although most people think this was an ethnic struggle between the majority Hutu and ruling Tutsi, that’s because most people understand the world in terms of ethnic conflict.
Since there were areas where Hutu killed Hutu, Diamond concludes that the real reason for the slaughter was for ecological reasons: “Look at the land: steep hills farmed right up to the crests, without any protective terracing; rivers thick with mud from erosion; extreme deforestation leading to irregular rainfall and famine; staggeringly high population densities; the exhaustion of the topsoil; falling per-capita food production. This was a society on the brink of ecological disaster, and if there is anything that is clear from the study of such societies it is that they inevitably descend into genocidal chaos”.
If LeBlanc and Diamond are correct about hunger resulting in battles, then we’re in for a rough time, as oil and natural gas grow scarcer. Food, from planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and distribution, is utterly dependant upon fossil fuels in the United States.
How America handles a declining standard of living, given our addiction to comfort and super-sized meals, with over half of Americans owning guns, and 30,000 people killed with guns in 2002,  remains to be seen.
Continued global trade at current levels cannot be sustained as energy declines. At some point global trade will lessen due to a combination of declining fossil fuels, piracy, terrorism, energy shocks, pandemics, natural disasters, political turmoil, global depression, and a shortage of large, non-oil based vessels.
Global trade will not disappear, since moving freight over water is very efficient, but there will be several discontinuities as declining energy forces us to roll backwards though history.
Most cargo is shipped on enormous container vessels that can be over 1100 feet long with ten thousand containers stacked many stories high.
The first discontinuity will come when we have to retrofit ships to run on coal, and set up coal stations and tenders all over the world.
The second discontinuity will occur when coal gets scarce and container ships are moved by wind power (if this is even possible), with liquid fossil fuel only used when entering and leaving ports. A further step down will happen when it’s too energy-intensive to keep harbors dredged deep enough accommodate large container ships. It’s already very tricky getting these large ships into port, a local pilot is brought in and complex computer systems are used to delicately park these gargantuan ships along the wharf.
These huge ships would have to remain offshore and unloaded to smaller ships, if that is possible, since they weren’t designed for this.
The third discontinuity will come when containerization can no longer be supported due to lack of fuel and/or electricity for cranes, trucks, and trains. Containerization revolutionized the amount of cargo and the swiftness with which it could be loaded and delivered from origin to destination by orders of magnitude over earlier forms of transportation.
The final discontinuity will come when ships need to be built from wood, because the remaining mineral ore is too low quality and energy-intensive to process, and when we can no longer recycle the rusted and dispersed iron and steel.
The Fragility of Microprocessors
I work in the computer industry as a systems architect/engineer. My father got in on the ground floor, programming computers with wires before there were even punch cards. As far as I could tell, his job was to draw squares, circles, and triangles and connect them with arrows. I used to fill the flow charts in with crayons when I was younger.
I took an introductory course to find out what Dad had been doing, and was hooked. I couldn’t believe you could get paid to solve intricate and interesting puzzles. I abandoned my plans to get a PhD in molecular biology and started working at EDS.
I think computers are the most amazing achievement of mankind. I especially like being in touch with family, friends, and new acquaintances from around the world with common interests.
The first computer, the ENIAC, built in 1940, took up 1500 square feet. The same floor space now could contain 1.4 million microchips, each with orders of magnitude more computing power. A car now has more computing power than the first lunar spacecraft.
Creating a chip begins by cutting a thin 12 inch slice, called a wafer, from a 99.9999999% pure silicon crystal, one of the purest materials on earth. Wafers require such a high degree of perfection that even a missing atom can cause unwanted current leakage and other problems in manufacturing later on. This is the platform that about 5000 computer chips will be built on. Each chip will contain millions of transistors, capacitors, diodes, and resistors built by punching and filling in holes in more layers than a Queen’s wedding cake.
Particles 500 times smaller than a human hair can cause defects in microchips. The more particles that get on a wafer, the greater the chance there is of a killer defect. Some particles are worse than others — a single grain of salt could ruin all the chips on a wafer. Sodium can travel through layers even faster than stray bits of metal. Particles that outright kill a chip are caught during the testing phase at the factory. Sometimes only 20% make to the end. The traveling particles are insidious, and can cause a chip to malfunction, perform poorly, or die later on (hopefully before your warranty expires). Consumer reports recommends not even trying to repair a personal computer after four years, and in the two to four year range it’s a tossup whether to repair or buy a new one.
Typical city air has 5 million particles per cubic foot. There are processes that require a maximum of 1 particle per square cubic foot.
People are among the worst offenders, as far as particle generation goes. If you walk at a good clip, you emit 7.5 million particles per minute. Even sitting still, you are still emitting particles. A smoker is a particle-emitting dragon long after the cigarette, and a sneezing worker is even worse, a veritable Krakatoa.
City water is not pure enough to be used — it’s full of bacteria, minerals, particulates, and other junk. To make city water clean enough requires many filters, UV-light, and other water treatments. Some fabrication plants use millions of gallons of water a day, requiring a huge investment in water processing and delivery systems.
Microchip fabrication is primarily a chemical process, requiring ultra-clean 99.9999% chemicals and 99.9999999% gases. About one in five steps use water or chemicals to clean the wafers or prepare their surface for the next layer.
Firemen practically need a chemical engineering degree to inspect and fight fires in a chip fabrication plant. During a fire, they risk being exposed to volatile, flammable, or combustible solvents, and chemicals like arsine, used in chemical warfare.
The chips also require humidity to be just right. If the humidity is too high, the wafers accumulate moisture, and the layers won’t stick. Too dry and static electricity will suck particles out of the air and practically glue them to the surface, they’re so hard to remove.
So it shouldn’t surprise you that it costs over 3 billion dollars to build a clean room. The inside is composed of non-shedding materials, especially stainless steel. Floors have sticky mats to pull dirt off of operators’ shoes. Pens, notebooks, tools, and mops – everything is built of material that sheds as few particles as possible, but even so, equipment particles cause a third of the contamination.
How chips are made
Wafers move from workstation to workstation and have different operations performed on them at each one. Wafer fabrication for a chip might involve 450 processes with operations that overall take several thousand individual steps. The machines that make this all happen include high-temperature diffusion furnaces, wet cleaning stations, dry plasma etchers, ion implanters, rapid thermal processors, vacuum pumps, fast flow controllers, residual gas analyzers, plasma glow dischargers, vertical furnaces, optical pyrometers, etc.
If you were shrunk to chip size and tied to a wafer, you’d go through the car wash from hell. You’ll be moved along by robotic wafer handlers from one machine to the next, where you’d be layered with different materials, centrifuged, electro-polished, dyed, scraped, heated to 1,800 F, ultrasonically agitated, sputtered, doped, hard baked, dipped in toxic chemical baths, irradiated, blasted with ultrasonic energy, spray-cleaned, dry-cleaned, scrubbed, micro-waved, x-rayed, shot with metal, etched, and probed.
At various points, the “Survivor” show comes on. Chips are examined at an atomic level for defects, and their electrical functioning tested. They’re usually thrown out if anything is wrong, since most mistakes can’t be fixed.
There are many problems that can cause a chip to fail besides contamination. The wafer must be perfectly flat in structure and while it goes through the workstations. If the wafer were 10,000 feet high, you’d see bumps or holes no higher than 2 inches – more than that and the layering is thrown off. If the wrong step was performed after 3,841 correctly performed steps, the chip was under or overheated, the layer didn’t fully stick, was improperly aligned before the next layer was added, or a chemical misapplied, the chip is thrown out. It’s amazing any chips make it out the door.
After your makeover, you’d emerge in a designer outfit composed of up to 25 layers embedded with millions of transistors, diodes, and resistors. You’ll find yourself “best in show” at tattoo competitions and irresistible to Terminator fans.
The Case for collapse starting sooner than later
Jared Diamond lists five main factors for the collapse of civilization. All five are evident. The first two reasons, collapse from environmental reasons and climate change are so evident they require no further comment.
The third factor is not being able to adapt to new conditions. Dmitry Orlov makes a good case for the eventual collapse in the United States being much harder than the recent collapse in the former Soviet Union due to our cultural weaknesses. Ecologists believe that we needed to have started adapting to the decline of energy in the 1970’s by reducing our population and encouraging small family farms to get people back to the land.
The fourth reason for collapse is “relations with hostile neighbors”. There is reason to believe sleeper Jihad cells lie in wait of an opportunity to blow up key pieces of infrastructure in America. Russia, China, and Europe may unite against the U.S. to prevent America from taking the lions’ share of the remaining oil.
On the fifth factor, relations with friendly nation, Diamond said: “Almost all societies depend in part upon trade with neighboring friendly societies, and if one of those friendly societies itself runs into environmental problems and collapses, that collapse may then drag down their trade partners. It’s something that interests us today, given that we are dependent for oil upon imports from countries that have little political stability in fragile environments”.
Diamond’s “loss of trading partners” factor is another reason computers won’t survive PetroCollapse. As global shipping, factories, and countries have a hard time keeping the lights on; computers will stop being made as supply chains break down. If even one of the dozens of types of single-sourced equipment or pure chemical suppliers goes out of business, the assembly line stops.
Andrew Gould, CEO of Schlumberger, said of the oil decline that “An accurate average decline rate is hard to estimate, but an overall figure of 8% is not an unreasonable assumption”.
Matt Simmons also believes that an 8% rate of decline is possible, given how Saudi Arabia’s fields were mismanaged, the use of technology to extract the oil sooner than it would have otherwise been pumped, other super giant oil fields having depleted rapidly after their peak, and the likelihood that Saudi oil reserves are probably half of what is reported.
The decline after peak might initially be low, buying a few years of time, but if it does reach 8% per year, world oil extraction would decline by almost half in eight years. That is likely to lead to the collapse of civilization, because there is too little time to adapt.
Preservation of Knowledge
A project to preserve knowledge may be unable to continue in an unstable society beset with power outages, hunger, and crime. Once rationing and shortages begin, agriculture and other essential services will receive the most energy. Scientists will be unemployed. It is very likely that resource wars will erupt all over the globe, so the military will be taking a large portion of the dwindling energy resources as well.       
The time to begin is now, before we begin the inexorable retreat to wood as civilizations’ main energy source.
We’ve reached the point where we need to be concerned about the preservation of knowledge. This cannot be done with computers, which are the least likely component of all to survive long-term, but this is the main plan for storing knowledge at institutions dedicated to this issue.
Computers are the top cards in the civilization house of cards. Knock out any below and it all crumbles. Computers have too many complex, energy intensive inputs and dependencies (Hawken, Shaw 2004, Shaw 2005, Boberg)
How can it be done?
We may be able to cannibalize computers for parts to keep some machines running, but eventually all the knowledge stored in computers will be unavailable. By that time, most of the paper in library books will have decayed, become nesting material for rodents, or burned to heat homes.
Although archival paper and microfiche can last for five hundred years when kept at ideal temperatures and humidity, power outages will make it impossible to maintain them for that long.
It’s likely the unprecedented stable weather we’ve had the past ten thousand years will change, not only given the earth’s past history, but from our chemical alteration of the atmosphere. While there may be initial global warming, that could change quickly to an ice age, or to extreme weather, with the climate warming and cooling so quickly that agriculture becomes tenuous (Cox).
If it is possible to etch words into metallic or other extremely durable substances, we ought to do it, not only for the coming dark ages, but to enable some knowledge to survive through future climate changes.
After all, we once put a disk on a space probe to explain humanity to potential aliens, why can’t we do that for our descendants?
Clearly not everything in print can or should be saved. Priority should be given to information that would be useful to a society far simpler than ours.
We should leave our descendents with information they can use and be amazed by. We owe it to them. It’s the least we could do considering we’ve driven so many species to extinction and left much of the land a toxic, deforested, desert. If we can spend billions on microchip factories that are out-of-date within two years, surely we have the resources to save some useful knowledge and music for our descendants.
We need to find better materials than paper and clay tablets to preserve knowledge. Someday there will be a new renaissance.
Maybe it’s as simple as converting Coca-cola factories from making soda cans to printing aluminum texts.
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