How I stumbled on the energy (and ecological) crisis
You can trace my worries about gasoline back to when I was 10 years old. Our family was on an epic camping trip, driving through Death Valley in 120 Fahrenheit heat, and probably higher than that in our dark Blue Rambler with no air conditioning. When I stuck my head out to cool down, it was like putting my face in a blast furnace. The gas gauge nearing empty, and I kept my eye on it until we finally pulled into a gas station.
After the first energy crisis in 1973, I worried again. Growing up in the industrial city of Chicago, it was pretty obvious the whole shebang ran on gas, from the trains that roared by to the endless lines of trucks and cars, and buildings were blackened by coal. I think everyone was worried back then.
So I joined the alternate technology group at the University of Illinois. We built windmills and electric cars that ran on batteries. Well, not me personally, but I cheered the brainy engineers on. I did help build a solar collector though. We drank a lot of beer, painted the cans black, and voila! A primitive solar collector. Alternative energy was not only going to be good for the planet, it was going to be a party!
When the oil shocks came again in 1979, I was too busy with my new career as a programmer at Electronic Data Systems and searching for a single man in San Francisco to think about it much. Besides, maybe it would finally force the evil oil companies to stop preventing renewable energy from happening.
Sometimes my grandfather, Francis J Pettijohn, a well-known sedimentary geologist in the National Academy of Sciences, would try to educate me about the role of fossil fuels in civilization. I’d counter with my alternate technology experiences in college, especially the solar beer can collector story. He’d chuckle and change the subject. Even when I read his “Memoirs of an Unrepentant Field Geologist” (Pettijohn) and first read about oil depletion, the world hummed briskly, life was good. One of the few parts of the book that stuck with me were his descriptions of M. King Hubbert:
“One student had a profound effect on my thinking and on the course of events later in my life — M. King Hubbert. When I arrived at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1929 King was one of the first graduate students I met. I was struck immediately by his personality. He turned out to be something of the iconoclast, a sharp critic with an excellent analytical mind and skill in mathematical and physical analysis. Nothing seemed to delight him more than finding a fatal flaw in someone else’s analysis. Although he was a graduate student working for his Ph.D. under Rollin Chamberlin, I never could discover whether he took any courses, and I soon observed that, although Chamberlin was his adviser and supervisor, King neither needed nor accepted advice and supervision. He was a very independent individual–a student of nobody.
Perhaps King’s most dramatic achievement was his prediction of oil depletion. This paper dealt with the trend and future production of oil and gas in the United States. King clearly saw that at the time the discovery rate had peaked and production would soon culminate, and that it and our reserves would begin an irreversible decline. He predicted a peak production in 1970. His paper created a great deal of consternation in the oil world, and provoked heated controversy; he was roundly denounced. It was heresy indeed in a profession that is constitutionally optimistic and incapable of conceiving of its demise. It turned out, as we all now know, that King was right”.
I came across M. King Hubbert again in 2000, remembered him from Grandpa’s book, did an idle internet search, and bang! Alarming articles at the Colorado School of Mines website about Hubbert’s Peak, which should be right about now. Although a bit frightening, there was far more bad news to contemplate at Jay Hanson’s dieoff.org. It wasn’t long before I joined several forums such as energyresources and runningonempty (also started by Jay Hanson), energybulletin, theoildrum and too many others to list to learn more. There were about 500 people back then following this issue, several of them well known professors like H. T. Odum at the University of Florida, and several graduate students of Charles A. S. Hall and other systems ecologists who posted the latest information on the forums.
So where were the beer solar collectors? How come there wasn’t much alternative energy almost 3 decades later, even though everyone knows oil won’t last forever? I spent hours at University of California (Berkeley) libraries reading technical journals about hydrogen, solar, wind, biofuels, soil science, nuclear, geothermal and other energy resources, as well as auditing classes, attending seminars, and lectures. Through the internet forums, I discovered many books and articles I would never have found otherwise.
Gradually it became clear why alternative energy couldn’t replace oil. But when I tried to explain why to family and friends, they thought I was nuts. This was happening to everyone else on the forums too (see “Telling Others“).
And who could blame them? It’s not a sound bite to explain. Perhaps a semester of lectures might win someone over to the views of theoildrum, ourfiniteworld.com, and other great forums, but that’s not how conversations go, I had about a minute to make a point, and then it’s someone elses turn to talk. That’s how conversations work. The other person was usually angry or exasperated with me for not seeing that solar, wind, nuclear, and other kinds of power could replace oil. And besides, the Scientists Will Come Up With Something.
The awareness of the consequences hit me like a sucker punch. This would be the worst disaster to ever befall mankind, with up to 6.5 billion people dying by the time it was over and a wood-based civilization arose fro the ashes. The puzzle pieces clanged together all at once, like a jail door in a prison.
My drive to read non-fiction was driven by finding out Santa Claus didn’t exist at age 5. If grownups went to such lengths to lie about this, perhaps I needed to be more cautious about all the other things I was being told. I was curious about every topic under the sun, wanted to understand how reality and the universe actually worked, not some fairy tale version. I devoured skeptical magazines to gain critical thinking skills and figure out how to tell truth tellers from liars. After my husband became a science writer at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in 1988, we joined the Northern California Science Writers Association, and the friends I met there steered me towards books on evolution, the philosophy of science, and the importance of peer-reviewed evidence. I subscribed to Science, Nature, Scientific American, Discover and other magazines.
It wasn’t until 2006, when National Geographic put Peak Oil on the cover, that I gained some credibility with friends and family. But even now in 2014, most people still think alternative energy is going to rescue us from both climate change and declining fossil fuels for reasons I’ll delve into in the next chapter.
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, cyberwar, nuclear war and terrorism, natural disaster, and more. I’ve tried to translate scientific literature and other dense material into information you can understand.
Although there are dozens of resources that are getting short that could also cause the collapse of civilization as we know it — such as fresh water, rare earth minerals, fish, and good topsoil — oil is the Master Resource that makes everything else possible. Oil is the fuel burned by trillions of combustion engines doing the actual work of society by moving goods and harvesting crops. The easiest resources, the richest ores, have been used up, so declining oil at a time when all of the remaining resources depend on oil for their extraction while at the same time are remote and difficult to get at — including oil itself — ought to trouble politicians, economists, and so on, but it’s been years now since peak oil was in the mainstream news.
It’s also hard to believe energy resources are a big problem because newspapers focus on today’s news. Possible oil shocks in the future is not a story because it isn’t happening right now. Important issues are only covered when there is “news”. So the last time the New York Times wrote about nuclear winter was 1991 after Carl Sagan’s book “Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race” came out. A more up-to-date paper on nuclear winter wasn’t reported — Robok’s 2007 “Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts”. However, Scientific American did report on this in their January 2010 issue in “South Asian Threat? Local Nuclear War = Global Suffering. Worry has focused on the U.S. versus Russia, but a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan could blot out the sun, starving much of the human race”. But how many people read Scientific American?
There has never been, and never will be again, a collapse of this magnitude. There are way too many factors to predict when, how, and how long the collapse will occur, and the suffering will vary greatly from place to place even within the same nation.
We’re leaving future generations a pretty crummy world. No one is thinking about the grand children, and I suspect that’s because we’re just not wired that way. Like other species, we live in the moment, from day to day. We have a hard time even imagining being hungry again after a big meal. So when you’re tempted to blame someone for our dilemma — oil companies, politicians, economists, scientists – remember that it’s really no one’s fault, we inherited our predicament from previous generations who turned to coal, oil, and natural gas when their trees ran out.
What we could do is try to preserve useful knowledge for the grandchildren. I encourage you to buy books in my book lists. Also hang on to undergraduate college level textbooks. Computers will not outlast the age of oil for long, and even if more simple transistors can be built, they won’t be able to access the information stored on today’s hardware, so these digital files will all be lost. Yet that’s increasingly where universities, libraries, and other institutions are putting information. So if you know any librarians, you might want to pass my “Peak Resources and the Preservation of Knowledge” article along to them.
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.