Obviously the earth is finite and there is a peak oil (coal, natural gas). When I was younger this didn’t worry me, in fact, I welcomed the end of oil so that clean, sustainable alternative energy from the sun, wind, water, geothermal, and so on would triumph over the powerfully evil oil companies. It never for a second occurred to me that alternative energy could never replace fossil fuels for reasons you’ll discover in the energy section of this website.
It was extremely difficult to find information that honestly explained the challenges alternative forms of energy such as wind, solar, biomass, batteries, and so on, face. Or a good explanation of the enormity and complexity of an electric grid we’d need to build to carry renewable generated electricity. If you ever manage to find this information, most of which is not available to anyone who doesn’t work at a university, it’s written in dense scientific language language the 95% of scientifically illiterate Americans are unlikely to understand — even scientists outside a given field will struggle with the unfamiliar terminology.
I’ve been accumulating material since 2000 on the energy crisis, which encompasses many other areas – ecology, environment, climate change, carrying capacity, soil science, agriculture, transportation, infrastructure, politics and so on. I’ve tried to translate scientific literature and other dense material into information the average person can understand.
Extraordinary claims of collapse and extinction require extraordinary evidence. Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” was over 6,000 pages long — the collapse of civilization is a topic of immense complexity and a case for collapse and extinction can’t be made in an article or even a book.
Another reason these claims seem extraordinary is because newspapers and magazines only publish today’s news. You probably haven’t read or thought about these issues in years. For example, the last time the New York Times wrote a significant article about “nuclear winter” was in 1991 when Carl Sagan’s book came out, in the Books section of the Sunday paper. But the New York times didn’t report that a nuclear winter could result from even a limited nuclear war after a very important article on this topic was published in 2008. Important stories tend to appear just once. Blink and you’ll miss it.
I am sorry the skeptics movement is stuck on Big Foot and Ghosts, when being skeptical of energy and resource limitations is far more pertinent to survival. I think more people would be interested in critical thinking, skeptic blogs and podcasts, if it gave them a Darwinian advantage. The skeptic literature is narrow in many regards, there ought to be more skeptical articles on the insurance industry, financial bubbles and fiat currency, flame retardants in furniture, and a zillion other topics that would save people money, improve their health, and protect them from scams.
I digress. Back to gloom and doom. The potential extinction of humanity is the hardest claim to make. It is the result of all the posts in categories “death by 1000 cuts” and “collapse”. It is the compounding, amplification, and negative synergy of their interaction that’s the problem, not just the occurrence of so many problems at the same time. The accumulated sum of all these blows and destruction of ecosystems our lives depend on plus lack of energy resources to tide us over the worst of rising sea levels, dead oceans, chemically and radioactively poisoned treeless, dry, bio-invaded landscapes, heat, and endless tribal skirmishes, etc., is quite likely to culminate in our extinction.
Deciding whether a disaster goes in which of these 3 categories depends on the potential number of deaths, the size of the area affected, and how far in the future the event is.
- (death by) A 1000 cuts
Each category builds on previous ones — drought in “A 1000 cuts” and bioinvasion in “Collapse” both contribute to extinction.
This is all due to the one-time-only exponential growth to 7 billion people that fossil fuels enabled, and now we are on the cusp of population declining back to less than half a billion (or even lower given how much we’ve degraded ecosystems world-wide). I’m guessing this will take place over the next century or two, and start in earnest about 8 years after the decline from the present oil plateau (which Hirsch believes has 1 to 4 years left to to as of 2011).
There has never been, and never will be again, a collapse of this magnitude. The time span of collapse has too many factors to predict, a lot will depend on how severe social unrest and wars are, or there’s even a small nuclear war, or nuclear bombs are exploded high in the atmosphere to create Electromagnetic pulses. Bioterrorism is most likely to matter when people are weakened by hunger and disease. The 1918 flu pandemic killed 2% of healthy well-fed Americans but over 20% of people in India and other poor countries.
Due to specialization in our culture, very few people have had the luxury of being a generalist. I’ve had the time and the extreme curiosity to read books across dozens of disciplines, and a brain perhaps a bit rewired by my profession of systems engineering and architecture, to try to synthesize many fields of knowledge.
To share and organize this information, I’ve started putting it up at this website. If you really, truly want to understand renewable and other energy problems, you’ll need to read the books at the end of my Energy Overview. The same goes for other topics covered in my booklist – the problems we face can’t be expressed in sound bites and tweets.
Above all, if you don’t know how we know what we know, then anything I say is just one more blah-blah-blah in all the “he-said, she-said” blathering. Even very intelligent believe in wacky ideas (i.e. Shermer’s “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things“). So I encourage you to read books in the booklist under Science & Critical thinking.
I also put this site up because nobody is speaking for the grandchildren. Their very existence is at stake — we risk driving ourselves extinct if we continue to destroy and pollute the land, air, and water at the current rate. Fossil fuels gave each one of us thousands of times more impact on the planet than was possible in the hundreds of millions of years in the “age of wood” that preceded coal.
Since I don’t expect most computers to outlast the age of oil very long, you can help future generations understand what on earth happened by buying books and printing articles in my booklist. How else will they know? Future religious, economic, and political leaders are going to tell people whatever it takes to gain power and wealth.
Even book publishers willing to print “gloom and doom” books have guidelines that state only positive books with “what we can do” information will be published. The few authors who are putting books out that clearly explain our dire future have to come up with nonsense at the end to get published.
How I stumbled on the energy (and ecological) crisis
After the first energy crisis in 1973, I joined the alternate technology group at the University of Illinois. We built windmills, converted cars to methane and batteries. Once we drank a lot of beer and painted the cans black to make a solar collector. Alternative energy was not only good for the planet, it was a party!
That Christmas, my grandfather, Francis J Pettijohn, a well-known sedimentary geologist, explained to me how dependent civilization was on fossil fuels. I smiled and gave him a big hug, and told him not to worry, the solution was simple. Just drink beer, paint the cans black, and sunshine will do the rest. Plus somehow stop evil the oil companies who were keeping renewable energy from happening since they’d make less money.
I’m sure Grandpa knew better. But he was a kind, affable man, who’d learned it wasn’t worth trying to change people’s minds.
I didn’t get around to reading Grandpa’s autobiography “Memoirs of an Unrepentant Field Geologist” until 2000. There, I read about M. King Hubbert and peak oil, which led to internet searches and discovering Jay Hanson’s website, the energyresources forum (also started by Jay Hanson), Jay Hanson’s dieoff.org, runningonempty, runningonempty2, later energybulletin, theoildrum (and now, too many sites to list).
But hey, whatever happened to those black beer cans? I threw myself into the latest renewable energy research. Gradually it became clear there were no alternatives to fossil fuels. Oil was a free lunch, brewed by Mother Nature for millions of years, pure solar energy, the most dense form of energy on the planet next to uranium.
Since I’d been reading non-fiction for decades, the full enormity of what would happen hit me like a sucker punch. The problem was: even if there were alternatives, we didn’t have enough time to make a smooth transition, nearly all transportation depends on oil and we can’t electrify transport.
The future unfolded like a nightmare, and I was depressed for months. Violent scenes from films played unwilling clips. Armies marched, women wept over graves, Scarlett O’Hara dug up carrots.
My family and friends thought I’d gone crazy when I started talking about peak oil and why alternative energy wouldn’t solve our problems, about overpopulation (carrying capacity) – how the earth could only support 500 million people without fossil fuels, economic and civilization collapse, and so on.
Thankfully for my peace of mind I started “meeting” people all over the world in energyresources and runningonempty who were far more educated in the implications of the energy crisis. We shared our frustration over not being able to convince others that a crisis was at hand. In 2004, the first peak oil group in the San Francisco Bay Area was begun via Meetup.
At energyresources and runningonempty, people posted the latest books and articles on energy, environment, ecology, evolution and so on. Most people filter information through false political, social, and economic lenses that hide the truth of the depletion and destruction of the natural resources, infrastructure, and ecosystems we depend on to stay alive. At these “peak everything / ecology” forums, I gained new insights that completely changed my world view and priorities.
It wasn’t until 2006 when National Geographic put Peak Oil on its cover that I gained some legitimacy with friends and family. But most people I know are still in denial, and who can blame them, this is awfully depressing and overwhelming to think about.
If you want to put your head in the sand, fine – it’s going to be awfully difficult to survive the worst of the decline, even if you prepare. But if you want to help society make a smoother transition, with fewer deaths and less suffering, consider joining your local peak oil groups, Postcarbon, Transition Towns network, ASPO-USA or ASPO-International, and read articles in the “What to Do” section.
I’ve reached the point where I welcome the end of fossil fuels — as soon as possible — so that we don’t drive ourselves and most other multi-cellular creatures extinct by crossing planetary boundaries that will result in irreversible and catastrophic destruction of the ecosystems all creatures, including us, rely on for our survival. Yes, this means the end of comfort and travel, the beginning of wars, chaos, and the end of civilization as we know it, but continuation of business-as-usual is quite likely to result in our extinction. And that would be a real tragedy — we may be the only intelligent life form in our galaxy (Rare Earth Hypothesis and Galactic Habitable Zone).
Whole Grains – an Essential Post-peak Skill (http://wholegrainalice.com/ )
Each of us has something different to contribute. For me, it was clear the electric grid would grow increasingly unstable. Refrigeration will grow less reliable, leading to a need to get enough calories to survive from food that doesn’t need refrigeration. The way people have done that for the past 6,000 years is by eating grains, which can be stored and allowed civilization to survive several years of bad harvests in a row. Climate change will increase the number of bad harvests, but fortunately the technology to protect grain from pests and decay is much better now than it was in the past.
I’ve been baking with whole grains for many years. I see my own small contribution to the transition as helping people learn how to bake, mill, and store whole grains at home. I’ve set up another website to teach these skills (http://wholegrainalice.com/)
There’s a saying “we’re only 9 meals away from a revolution”. The longer hunger can be staved off, the less likely we are to experience a chaotic, violent tipping point when economic collapse, oil shortages, and other disasters increase in the future.
I wish I were more inclined to collect garden gnomes or porcelain ballerinas instead of gloom-and-doom articles, but this is where curiosity and the desire to know the truth have led me. How I got to be this way is reviewed further here.