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.
I’ve been reading 99% non-fiction for 40 years. My drive to read non-fiction began when I found out out Santa Claus didn’t exist at age 5. I was not only sad and angry about being lied to, I wondered what else I was being told that wasn’t true. I questioned everything from then on. I’d been pestering my parents and complete strangers to teach me to read since the age of 3, so when I finally learned how to read in first grade, it became my passion in life.
If I had to state just one trait I have, it would be curiosity about everything. Between the ages of 9 to 17 I read the cheap Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedia my parents bought, science fiction, and Mad magazine — which gave me a skeptical, outsider view of society, as if I were an anthropologist from another country.
Another key factor in how I evolved was when my parents let evangelists into the house once a week, so grandfather Pettijohn gave me the book “The Monkey Trials”, where I learned about evolution and the impossibility of many biblical stories. And so the monkey trials began again at our house. The evangelists soon stopped coming, and I became keenly interested in evolution.
In college I had no time to take English, but in my free time and summers worked my way through the classics from A to Z, especially liking Mark Twain and Russian authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I went through the usual heart breaks and learning about relationships with men, and I blamed fairy tales, TV shows, and fantasy books for preparing me terribly for how the world really worked, and stopped wasting my time with fiction (except for extraordinary books like Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”, Marquez “A Hundred Years of Solitude”, etc.,) and poetry, which speaks to the heart of human experience, metaphor, and the beauty of language. I stopped watching TV completely for 20 years, and though I have a TV now, I only watch documentaries and movies from Netflix.
After college, I devoured skeptical magazines to gain critical thinking skills and figure out how to tell truth tellers from liars. I roved the bookshelves of Cody’s and Moe’s in Berkeley, Green Apple in San Francisco, Powell’s in Portland, thumbing through books in science, natural history, cognitive psychology, anthropology, political science, biographies, and so on. 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 made there steered me towards specialized books on evolution, the philosophy of science, and peer-reviewed science journals. I subscribed to Science, Nature, Scientific American, Discover and other magazines.
If I’ve portrayed myself as a real smartypants, that is so not true, I am not even close to being a genius. Garrison Keillor likes to say that “all the children are above average” at Lake Wobegon. That’s me and everyone I went to school with in Evanston, Illinois. Really, the only difference between me and most people is that I have a bigger picture view from spending a huge amount of time reading non-fiction and far less time than average watching TV, driving (I read as I walked or commuted instead), raising children, etc.
I didn’t think much about energy until the first oil shock hit in 1973, when I was a sophomore in college, and joined an 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.
But then I read his “Memoirs of an Unrepentant Field Geologist” (Pettijohn) and was really struck by what he had to say about 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”.
Yikes! Had oil peaked? I did an idle internet search, and bang! Alarming articles at the Colorado School of Mines website about Hubbert’s Peak, (or what participants in the oil industry called the “reserve replacement problem”), 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 thirty years later, even though everyone knows the 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 else’s 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.
For example, when I try to explain why this is a diesel fuel crisis, because trucks, tractors, and other diesel combustion engines do the actual work of society that keeps us alive, but can’t be electrified for many reasons. Such as batteries or fuel cells would are far too heavy, and overhead wires won’t work, there are 4 million miles of roads and millions more miles of farmland that can’t be covered with overhead wires. Outraged sighs of disbelief ensue. So I quote Physicist Richard Muller at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote in “Physics for Future Presidents”, that “high-quality, expensive batteries—the kind used in cell phones and portable computers—store only 1% as much energy as gasoline, pound for pound” (page 305), and scientist Kurt House that there are laws of physics which limit the amount of maximum energy stored to around 3-5% of gasoline pound for pound, so the size and weight of batteries for trucks and tractors will always be too large and heavy. I’m either told I’m arguing from authority, the conversion goes back to electric cars, or more fun topics.
I once believed whatever I wanted to believe too, because I had no way of knowing who was telling the truth – so why not believe what sounded most appealing? I even had a new age phase in junior high school that was quite delightful. Space travel, astrology, the Loch Ness Monster, ESP, and all sorts of other magical thinking ruled my understanding of the world. What crashed this fantasy world was when I got one of Mom’s books off the shelf about ten steps to having an out-of-body experience, and after months of trying, got frustrated that it didn’t work. When I complained to Dad, he told me that not everything you read in books was true. I was flabbergasted, demanding to know if the publisher had known the book wasn’t true, and he said it was very possible, because the book industry wanted to make money. Not long after that, I found a story about rats eating babies in the Enquirer, and gave a report on this in history civics class, and Mr. Bilsky was so outraged and amused, that I got yet another lesson on not believing everything you read.
So I understand how easy it is to dismiss ideas you don’t want to believe in, especially if they’re scary. I could have dismissed the posts at energyresources and elsewhere on the internet if I hadn’t read most of the recommended books. Unlike articles in magazines, books have the time to really nail down a topic, close all the loopholes. You can’t change the conversation. The full complexity and interactions with related topics can be explored. Above all, there are references to pursue further.
So when I read Youngquist’s outstanding book “Geodestinies”, Gever’s “Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades”, and so on (see my booklist), 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 from now on. Fossil fuels were a unique, one-time only phase of our history. I’d already spent so much time reading non-fiction (and lots of ecology, natural history, etc)., that the puzzle pieces clanged together all at once, like a jail door in a prison.
The future unfolded like a nightmare. I was depressed for months. Violent scenes from films played unwilling clips. Armies marched, women wept over graves, Scarlett O’Hara dug up carrots.
I can see now why people thought I was nuts, there was no energy crisis, what was I nattering on and on about? Nothing was in the news about this at all. 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 2016, most people still think alternative energy is going to rescue us from both climate change and declining fossil fuels.
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, global trade, the financial system, politics, cyber war, nuclear war, terrorism, natural disaster, and more.
Energyskeptic.com is my attempt to translate high-quality, preferably peer-reviewed scientific literature about these topics into information the average person can understand.
I learned when my husband was a science writer at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory how often the scientists didn’t like what he wrote — it was too simple, they feared being criticized by other scientists because simplifying their research made it less nuanced, less “true” because maybe only one part was discussed, scientific terms weren’t used, and so on. So I’m sure experts will find fault with my understanding of a topic, or how I’ve phrased it, or what I’ve left out, especially most of the numbers and graphs, which my friends tell me makes their eyes glaze over.
Above all, my career as a systems analyst/engineer in health care, banking, and transportation has affected how I think and write. Often I was trying to take a workflow and computerize it, capture critical information for the sales department as soon as possible, create a unique manifest for a new country we were shipping to, and to do this you need to understand the process from the very beginning to the very end. Usually I could get 95% of the work done in 5% of the time, it was that last 5% that was the problem. Sometimes projects weren’t cost justifiable because it would cost too much to get the missing data, or take too many employees, or take too long.
It was my job to prevent expensive projects with a negative return from happening in the first place. Money returned on money invested. So discovering Charles Hall’s energy returned on energy invested made a lot of sense to me.
When I started looking at energy resources, I found that a lot of optimistic, positive articles in the news media were some kind of breakthrough in the laboratory that would not likely ever work out. Perhaps it depended on a really scarce rare earth metal, or the new and improved batter lasted longer — but you could only recharge it a few instead of hundreds of times. There is a financial incentive to blare these so-called breakthroughs — more investment or grant money.
The most important aspect of an energy resource is whether it takes more inputs of fossil fuel energy than the output energy returned, or Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI). So for a windmill, you’d look at how much fossil fuel energy was used to mine the iron, aluminum, concrete, to fabricate all the components, and so on to the delivery of the windmill, and subtract out the fossil fuel energy required to operate and maintain it. Basically, you need to find out if more fossil fuels are used in the full energy life cycle than what’s going to be delivered by the windmill over its lifetime. Even though this is the most important aspect of looking at alternatives to replace fossil fuels, I find that most people don’t understand this concept, or don’t want to understand it.
But even if a windmill had a positive EROI? SO WHAT? Any contraption that generates electricity isn’t worth a fig newton, because tractors, harvesters, logging and mining trucks and equipment, construction and road trucks, cranes, forklifts, 18-wheelers all run on diesel fuel. Not electricity. The 8,000 parts of the windmill aren’t going to arrive at the factory without trucks. The wind mill isn’t going to be moved to its destination without trucks.
Even many scientists who should know better use far very narrow boundaries to come up with a positive result. Studies that found a positive EROEI for corn ethanol were often done by scientists funded by the National Corn Growers Association, weren’t peer-reviewed (data and methods open to all scientists), and kept the energy analysis to within the biorefinery. Important energy inputs like the energy to make fertilizer, the tractors to plant and harvest crops, trucks to deliver the crops to the biorefinery, and delivery of the ethanol by truck or train weren’t included.
Much as I like EROEI, and can’t resist mentioning it, there are just too many ways to cheat — cherry picking numbers from LCA that tilt the results the way you want them to come out, leaving out key energy inputs, and so on.
There are plenty of other factors that trip up alternative energy replacements. Biofuels are limited by nitrogen, the depth and quality of topsoil, water, and so on. Solar PV, windmills, computers, and much other technology now depends too heavily on limited supplies of rare earth and platinum metals. Peak uranium, peak phosphorous, peak everything basically. There are dozens of resources that are getting short that could also cause the collapse of civilization as we know it. Fossil fuels have hidden from us what a deep hole we’ve dug for ourselves — we’re still able to continue to mine less rich ores and get at difficult and remote resources. Oil is the mot important of all. It is the magic wand that can make anything happen, prevent water shortages by drilling 1,000 feet deep, and used to get all other resources, including other energy resources like coal and natural gas.
Running out of water? Build a very energy-intensive desalination plant. Food requires a tremendous amount of water, so import food instead, or grow food hydroponically. These all require fossil fuels.
Oil is the fuel burned by trillions of combustion engines doing the actual work of society by moving goods, food, and water. 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, depleted, and difficult to get — including oil itself — ought to trouble everyone, but it’s been years 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. 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. But a collapse is inevitable because it’s hard science, every living being on earth depends on (food) energy, and humans have temporarily been able to jack up the carrying capacity of the earth by 6.5 billion people using the hundreds of millions of years of solar energy locked up in fossil fuels. It’s absolutely certain that there won’t be 7.5 billion people a century from now. But how long it will take to go back down to 1-2 billion is hard to predict, or what the exact series of catastrophes are that will cause systemic collapse.
Still, like in any murder mystery, we know who the suspects are. It’s the order of the dominoes that’s unknown. Any one domino can knocks others over — if Mr. Financial System crashes he’ll knock down Mr. Oil Production because new projects won’t get funded, and Mrs Global Trade will go home and supply chains will break down. If Mrs. Earthquake takes out Los Angeles or Tokyo, that will knock down Mr. Financial System. Or Miss Oil Shock could bring everything to a halt and bring down Mr. Financial System (one of the reasons peak oil is avoided is because several think tanks have stated that a general awareness of Peak Oil would bring stock markets and banking systems down, since it would be clear that loans couldn’t be paid back since the economy would start shrinking and stop growing like it has the past 200 years).
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.
The best action to take now is to stay under the energy depletion curve by women having no or just one child. We also ought to reopen Yucca mountain and put nuclear waste in immediately while we still have the energy to do it, or our descendants will be stuck all over the country with nuclear waste that lasts millions of years. And also clean up mining waste, superfund sites, and other damage future generations won’t have the energy, and eventually know-how to clean up.
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.