Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Duell's Peak

James Howard Kunstler recently wrote an essay for Rolling Stone magazine entitled The Long Emergency. He predicts dire consequences for our entire energy-dependent system, because of declining oil reserves:
...we face the end of the cheap-fossil-fuel era...we don't have to run out of oil to start having severe problems with industrial civilization and its dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time production peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady depletion.

The term "global oil-production peak" means that a turning point will come when the world produces the most oil it will ever produce in a given year and, after that, yearly production will inexorably decline. It is usually represented graphically in a bell curve. The peak is the top of the curve, the halfway point of the world's all-time total endowment, meaning half the world's oil will be left. That seems like a lot of oil, and it is, but there's a big catch: It's the half that is much more difficult to extract, far more costly to get, of much poorer quality and located mostly in places where the people hate us. A substantial amount of it will never be extracted.

...2005 is apt to be the year of all-time global peak production.

No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it, or even a substantial fraction of it.
Mr. Kunstler's argument that a slow, inexorable decline of global oil reserves is based on the theory known as Hubbert Peak. This theory predicts global reserves reaching an apex, followed by decline. The actual peak year will not be known until decline begins.

Some Hubbert scenarios predict a global disaster that would unfold as oil reserves start to decline, not just when they are depleted. Mr. Kunstler refers to American oil reserves hitting their peak in 1970. Since the whole Earth remained viable for additional reserves, the United States became dependent on foreign oil shortly after its own national Hubbert Peak. Once the whole planet reaches its global peak, things will go haywire.

Mr. Kunstler goes on to predict the dire situation that would fallout in a Hubbert Peak world. He points out that a hydrogen economy, while feasible, doesn't come close to generating the same energy output that oil has provided. According to Mr. Kunstler, even if we embrace every alternative energy source -- hydroelectric, nuclear, renewable, solar, etc. -- the sum total would not equal what we are currently dependent upon. The result will be a drastic downscaling of the modern world, where local living is revived due to reduced mobility. He claims that info technology and the high-tech economy of today will figure very little in a Hubbert world. He predicts that food will be grown closer to home; Wal-Mart-type mega-distribution businesses will close; and that the entire American economy will revert to an agrarian model:
We can anticipate the re-formation of a native-born American farm-laboring class. It will be composed largely of the aforementioned economic losers who had to relinquish their grip on the American dream. These masses of disentitled people may enter into quasi-feudal social relations with those who own land in exchange for food and physical security. But their sense of grievance will remain fresh, and if mistreated they may simply seize that land.
Mr. Kunstler paints a dire situation, one that should not be taken lightly. There's plenty of data that gives the Hubbert Peak theory plenty of legitimacy. While warning of a coming energy crisis, Mr. Kunstler also reveals his sociopolitical views. He predicts how regions of the United States might react to a Hubbert scenario:
I'm not optimistic about the Southeast, either, for different reasons. I think it will be subject to substantial levels of violence as the grievances of the formerly middle class boil over and collide with the delusions of Pentecostal Christian extremism. The latent encoded behavior of Southern culture includes an outsized notion of individualism and the belief that firearms ought to be used in the defense of it. This is a poor recipe for civic cohesion.

The Mountain States and Great Plains will face an array of problems, from poor farming potential to water shortages to population loss. The Pacific Northwest, New England and the Upper Midwest have somewhat better prospects. I regard them as less likely to fall into lawlessness, anarchy or despotism and more likely to salvage the bits and pieces of our best social traditions and keep them in operation at some level.
Ah, yes. Kunstler reveals how the true American soul will react to a profound energy crisis. Southern Christians will start shooting each other; Midwesterners will depopulate; the Southwest will dry up for lack of air conditioning; but New England and the Pacific Northwest will endure, no doubt since they are progressive to begin with.

I actually resonate with a lot of Kunstler's views on modern living. Suburbia is often an ugly, inefficient, energy-hogging phenomenon -- the SUV of urban planning. It is dependent on boundless energy and cars in order to basically function. It's going to be a real problem rectifying suburbia's growing demand for energy with declining supply. It will be a fundamental change in our society, to be sure.

But Mr. Kunstler leaves out human ingenuity in his dire predictions. He discounts how well Americans respond to crisis and change when confronted with it. Crises are history's great motivators, forcing humanity to adapt and leap forward. Modern technology, such as it is, has convinced me of one thing: Anything's possible. We shouldn't be so smug as to presume we can predict the future in this era.

In 1899, Charles H. Duell, the U.S. Office of Patents Commissioner made his famous prediction: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Duell was a man who barely had a grasp on what electricity would bring the world, much less foretelling the Internet, air travel, globalism, genetic technology, nanotechnology, flash mobs, Blogs and the plethora of discoveries and inventions that built upon the ones present in 1899. He was short-sided, to state the obvious.

In 2005, James Howard Kunstler seems to be revising Charles H. Duell's claim, effectively saying that due to an energy crisis, most everything that has been invented will be useless. How does he discount so much? Perhaps an energy crisis, while painful, will be the requisite kick in the pants that ratchets us back into the high-gear of innovation. In all probability, Mr. Kunstler suffers from Duellism as far as admitting that most prognostications are usually dead wrong.

The future is what we imagine it. If we imagine it as a melee between red states and blue states, then we are merely caught in the snares of our present limited mindset. If all Mr. Kunstler can imagine from such a fundamental change is an extension of today's political dynamics, I will lay odds that someday his predictions will be regarded like Duell's are today.

What is truly worrisome is not that there will be an energy crisis in our future; it's that so many of our best and brightest can't positively imagine a future that we can all live in.