On Petrocollapse…

Reader Mauricio posted a comment for OIFS’ note about my blog regarding his skepticism over ‘petrocollapse.’ I think this bears some discussion, since the peak oil crowd has its own internal fault lines much like any other group.

You can loosely break down the Peak Oil crowd into three or four groupings:

  • Cornucopians – These are the folks that think there’s nothing wrong; that there’s plenty of oil to be found; and that life will go on much as it has. If oil won’t do the trick, coal gasification, tar sands, ethanol, hydrogen or some other techno-fix will step in and save the day for us.
  • Soft-Landers – These are the ‘moderates’ of the peak oil movement, and they generally believe that while there will be some disruptions to our way of life, we’ll eventually get to some kind of low-energy way of life without too much disruption and chaos.
  • Hard-Landers (a.k.a. Doomers) – These are the folks that believe that we’re in deep, deep trouble. Multiple support systems will fail, taking down the power grid, and our modern industrial society with it. Die-off, war, environmental degradation, etc. will wipe out a huge chunk of the Earth’s population and drive us back into the Stone Age.

Many of the pundits out there can be grouped accordingly, with many of the more prominent ones (Kunstler, Heinberg, Lundberg, Ruppert, Savinar, etc) being put in the Doomer category. Economists, dreamers and other people with a vested interest in the status quo will usually be put in the Cornucopian group.

The levels of ‘Doomerosity‘ differ, of course. Some people think we’re in for a hard generation or two until we finally pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get on with the new arrangement for life, while others are sure it’s the end for humanity. I take ‘petrocollapse’ to mean the most hardcore doomer position, namely that shortly after we pass the peak of production, all hell will break loose due to economic crises spawned from oil demand permanently outstripping supply, and from the inevitable resource wars that will spring up shortly thereafter. Some, like Jan Lundberg, seem to be gleefully awaiting this prospect, while others simply see that as the fastest way to getting back to some sort of viridian agrarian fantasy where everyone lives in a Tolkein-esque setting.

I personally have trouble seeing things play out this way. The control structures that are in place globally will likely have at least some mitigating role to play in slowing down the descent. I find John Michael Greer’s idea of catabolic collapse a more likely scenario. Modern industrial society will collapse and revert to a simpler way of life over several generations, versus an immediate and catastrophic breakdown of society and all of its mechanisms.

Our modern way of life relies on many immense, complex and energy-intensive systems to keep things working. The national power grid, natural gas pipelines, our road systems and interstate highways, airlines, the internet, industrial food production, Just-In-Time warehousing & supply chain management, and other systems are really quite fragile.

The regional blackout of 2003 was caused by a single power station going offline, and some high-voltage lines went down. California has been forced to order rolling blackouts during the hottest weeks of summer for the last few years.

James Kunstler raises the point in his book “The Long Emergency” that we have no idea what will happen if there’s an interruption in the natural gas pipelines. If 20% of the pilot lights go out in an affected area, what happens when service is restored? How many explosions would we deal with? Not all systems will have state-of-the-art shutoff systems, so trouble in inevitable. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re drilling as fast as we can just to keep natural gas production levels stable, while our reliance on it grows every year. Most of the houses built in Minnesota and elsewhere in the upper Midwest use natural gas for heating, in addition to stoves, clothes dryers and water heaters. What happens when there just isn’t’ enough to go around anymore. We’ll pull the plug on fertilizer makers first, but what happens when it comes down to a fight between natural gas-fueled power stations out west versus people in the Midwest and northeast needed to keep warm in the winter?

Our modern road system requires regular maintenance to keep highways in useable shape. What happens when we can’t afford to pay the millions of dollars road maintenance requires every year? Who makes the decision as to which roads are maintained and which roads crumble?

All of the scenarios listed above can be caused by periodic shortages of power. None of them require the permanent, crippling shortages that petrocollapse proponents like to discuss. This makes the issue of petrocollapse moot, much like the debate about the actual peaking of oil production is not that important. What is important is that sooner or later (I’m thinking in the next five years or so, if we’re lucky), oil demand will permanently outstrip supply, and from that point on, the world’s economies are in trouble. We’re starting to see the first signs of that in places like Zimbabwe now, but there it can be partially attributed to a totally incompetent government in addition to the normal vicissitudes of supply & demand. Until more countries (and more advanced ones) start to feel the pinch, oil depletion will remain an area mostly for the opinion pages versus hard news.

Our way of life relies on abundant, cheap sources of energy. If that energy remains more or less abundant, but the price increases significantly, the economy will suffer. If that energy becomes scare and very expensive, both the economy and humanity will suffer. Either way, it’s a problem that is looming now, even while most people choose to ignore it. I can draw a parallel between our current situation and late 1930’s Europe, when many people saw conflict looming, but chose to ignore it for as long as they could. Feel free to ignore the extremists, but don’t discount the underlying facts.

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