Life Without Oil

Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy FutureA gradual contraction into more sustainable patterns of resource use is not the norm for a society that is exploiting the environment. The norm is a last-ditch effort to maintain outward displays of power, and then a sudden, and dramatic, collapse.”   That’s one of the foreboding statements with which Steve Hallett and John Wright punctuate their preview of past civilisations in the opening section of their book Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future.

They consider we are at the peak of oil production and that we’re not facing that reality. There are late flurries to extend the discovery of further oil.  Deep sea drilling, the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands and oil shale extraction are among them, the latter two causing horrendous environmental damage. But all they will produce is a temporary delay of the decline. The authors judge that around 2015 oil production will show a clear and convincing decline, and the world will be at the beginning of the end of what they call the petroleum interval. It’s an interval that will have occupied a couple of centuries in the long history of humanity. Oil has enabled the construction of a monumental global civilisation in which we have become dependent on the increased productivity and efficiencies of scale it can provide. As it diminishes and disappears we require an energy transition which the book considers we are not geared to make in good time. We therefore face a long global economic contraction as the price of oil escalates, a sequence of economic slumps which will continue until fundamental problems of energy availability, food production, water supply and population control are sufficiently well corrected.

The book recognises that we have paid only a minuscule part of the cost of fossil fuels, and the result is a huge ecological debt of which climate change is the result. Global climate change is already in full swing, with worse impacts yet to come, complicating and worsening our struggles with the end of the petroleum era. Although the book’s focus is on the end of oil it includes a clear understanding of the causes and long-lasting consequences of human-caused climate change.

The new energy future which the depletion of fossil fuels will force upon us is of course the same energy future which the mitigation of climate change demands. The book is not optimistic about our capacity to make the transition in time to meet the strains which costly oil will impose on our economies, let alone, though it doesn’t make the observation, in time to counter the mounting greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.  Indeed it concludes that renewable sources cannot possibly fill the oil void and sees nuclear power as the potential dominant energy source with hydrogen eventually used for transport.  As a reader whose major concern is the mitigation of climate change I found little reassurance from this aspect of the book. The authors don’t deny the need for mitigation, but they seem to think it unlikely that we will stop using fossil fuels before they are exhausted. If that proves to be the case then coming generations will be coping with problems a good deal larger than the replacement of energy sources.

The move to new energy sources is admittedly a major one and only time will tell whether human societies will mobilise to make it at the pace required. But I thought the book’s judgment that we simply can’t find the energy we need from renewable sources was somewhat cursory alongside such careful investigations as those made by Al Gore in his book Our Choice or Lester Brown in World on the Edge or the recent WWF Energy Report.

The deep and long-lasting economic recession which the authors see ahead is premised on our economies’ deep fossil fuel dependency. Environmentalists who take comfort from the thought that running out of oil might finally reduce carbon emissions underestimate the consequences, say the writers. Oil and other fossil fuels pervade not only our transport systems but also many other aspects of the economy from plastics to computers to fertilisers. Asset inertia will delay transitions from oil to energy alternatives, and the book’s view is that alternatives will come online only when they are not alternatives at all, but the only option. The message of deeply troubled economies ahead is hammered home by a survey of many countries and areas of the world with accompanying explanations of why most of them are facing retraction. Again I found myself wondering whether the authors allow sufficiently for the possibility of renewed vibrancy in economies which rapidly embrace green energy and put adequate resources into advancing it.

But maybe I just prefer optimism and the authors are the realists. They’re not ultimately pessimists though. They look beyond the global collapse to the shape of more adequate future societies. Hallett is a botanist and ecology is the book’s key to an economic system which will recognise our interconnectedness with the natural world, curtail unsustainable resource extraction and limit damage to the environment. The protection of farmland must be a priority. Industrialised agriculture must give way to sustainable farming, undertaken without inorganic fertiliser. The rebuilding of soils and the rediversification of the rural landscape are essential to restore farming as a true support for human societies. The place taken by oil and natural gas in current industrial farming practice can be filled by hard work and deep thinking.  It’s our divorce from nature which has blinded us to the reality that we are part of nature and must respect the laws of ecology if we wish to avoid collapse.

The book’s discussion is wide-ranging, lively and interesting. The combination of scientist and journalist in the writing team works very well for the reader. The opening survey of the collapse of past civilisations following the depletion of resources and ecological damage is a haunting reminder of how easily successful human societies excuse themselves from the need to treat with respect the natural provision on which their wealth depends. The concluding argument that ecology is the proper foundation for economics is a sure delineation of any hopeful future the human race may have.

The writers have done their best to combine the anxieties of oil depletion with those of climate change. But it is difficult to fully integrate the two. The mitigation of climate change demands that we cut back drastically on the use of fossil fuels. It is not the prospect of their ultimate depletion that alarms, but the prospect of their continuing use until that time. The book gently chides environmentalists who would welcome an early end to oil, on the grounds that they don’t give full weight to the disastrous consequences. But in the matter of disastrous consequences climate change seems to me to far outweigh even the serious economic disruption the authors foresee accompanying the decline of oil. However both concerns can, and in this book do, converge in the urging of an economic system which understands and respects the natural environment which sustains human society.

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14 thoughts on “Life Without Oil”

  1. Life without oil is going to be a world of great human misery, but an early end to oil seems to be the only way we will be able to save our saves in the long run.

    And no, I don’t see how all that coal, shale and tar sands can be consumed without a global network of transportation to ship it hither and tither, and people being able to afford it in the first place. That’s why the lignite plans etc are so stupid, these people are not facing up to the scientific, and long-term economic realities.

    1. Life after peak oil is sometimes said to be as it is now in Cuba. They reached Peak oil and practically Peak everything-else after the rise of Castro and the fall-out with USA. Cuba incidentally has one of the highest indexes of equality of any country, and also one of the least carbon foot prints per capita. The ecological demands of Cuba are also below the considered maximum of 1.7 Ha per person unlike the rest of the Western World. Cuba is a living example of living and surviving sustainably – without the benefits of modern alternative energy sources.
      For a glimpse of what it may be like Kim Hill visited in 2005 and recorded this intrepid journey:

      1. Lessons for Life after Oil – beware of dodgy cigar sellers! 😉 (enjoyed that last little Freud joke)

        Went to a very interesting talk a couple of years back given by a Cuban agronomist. The collapse of the Soviet empire pulled the rug out from under the country, and they had to adjust from an almost-mind-numbingly-inefficient soviet ‘collective farm’ agricultural style to one that actually fed people using the bare minimum of resources they were now confined to.

        As in medicine, they succeeded quite spectacularly.

        One of the things they had in their favour, of course, was this level of equality – enforced or otherwise. As Orwell observed during WWII ‘the lady in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goering’s bombing planes.’ In the hyper-entitled ‘meritocratic’ West sacrifices will tend to be – as is standard – forced on those who can least afford it, and there’s little reason to believe a post-oil world will be any different. (Nor one that’s actually tackling AGW, for that matter.)

        Societies based on what Australians call(ed) the Jack principle – as in ‘bugger you, Jack, I’m alright’, an attitude that many contemporary Aussies may be shocked to discover was once held to be reprehensible rather than routine – are particularly hamstrung in facing such collective dilemmas. ‘He’s not sacrificing anything, so why should I?’ ‘If this problem’s real I stand to be the loser.’ ‘I worked all my life to live extravagantly just like they do on the TV, and now you’re telling me I can’t have that?’

        This leaves a lot of room for both wrongheaded denial and for fascist-style ‘anti-elite’ populism, both which I believe we’ve been seeing.

        We must hope for a change of heart and a resolve that we’re all in this together, plus a successful alternative technological revolution. In the long run I think a return to living in something something that actually deserves to be called a community will be a revelation for many, scratching itches that a spanking new 2011 VE Series Commodore actually can’t reach…

        1. “Societies based on what Australians call(ed) the Jack principle – as in ‘bugger you, Jack, I’m alright’, ”
          an ahhhh haaa! moment!
          I read “My Brother Jack” years ago – it just clicked why he was Jack. 🙂

  2. We have lived in a golden age of cheap oil and coal so its hardly surprising that nobody wants to see it end. Oil is a wonderful fuel and so cheap. Do you think you could find a rickshaw operator to push you and your family, the pets and all your luggage 10 k in return for a $2 bottle of Coke?
    With oil starting to run out and we can’t burn coal Hmmmmm.

  3. Prof William S, Fyfe, geochemist and esteemed alumnus of the University of Otago (BSc, MSc, PhD), has pointed out many times that the root of eco-logy and eco-nomy comes from the Greek “oikos” meaning “house, household, or family”. Fyfe has long championed the view that environmental sustainability is economically advantageous in the long term. This presentation holds as true now as it was when he gave it in 1996.

  4. Life without oil..? Don’t see it myself, though mainly because the liquid black stuff is such an excellent metal-to-metal lubricant.. and major resource for many good and great products utilized by humanity and its many talents..

    Not what this blog is saying of course, though surely the future utility of oil is a matter of degree. Given the necessity of emissions reduction I would have thought oilco extractors, refiners etc would more readily accept a greater longevity to their biz ambitions in constraining fuel usage whilst simultaneously cutting those emissions to manageable and/or solvable levels.. a thought anyway..

    Interesting in Bryan’s blog were mention of economic “retraction” around the world, and “asset inertia”.

    Fitting is the Exxon CEO, Rex Tillotson’s, admission to the US government recently of on an economic supply/demand basis the price of a barrel of oil today would be ~$60.

    That literage at the pump in no wise equates to this strongly suggests the (obvious) intervention of price-raisers. We ought therefore to be seeking out and influencing the supra-economic forces which extract their ‘pound of flesh’ in causation global retraction/s. Yes..?

    OTOH, a higher price can and does stimulate the search for alternatives.. no?

    Sorry I’m longish here, but it appears to me the two authors related by Bryan are somewhat bearish. All-or-none is not on!

  5. tom, I think that as Peak Oil passes (if it hasn’t already) and alternatives become more available, our whole attitude will change.

    Oil is _extremely_ valuable as a specialist lubricant and as feedstock for high quality plastics and carbon fibre materials. Our grandchildren’s grandchildren will recoil in horror that we were so profligate/ shortsighted/ downright foolish to burn such a valuable commodity.

    Alternatives? The alternative is to stop, just stop, thinking that power must come always from burning stuff. Power, including power for transport, is available all around us if we just care to look at it properly.

  6. I just had a new look at some technology that I found very interesting some years back and the field has made great progress since:
    The Vanadium Redox Flow Cell Battery.

    and here:

    Let me explain a couple of things: This battery separates the plates where the current is drawn from the electrolyte from the storage vessel of the electrolyte. Energy storage capacity is just a matter of building larger plastic tanks and the battery stores energy long term virtually loss less. Its now well into becoming commercially available even in something small as a car battery. Vanadium is plentiful and is not lost in the process of using the battery either.
    The Japanese have calculated that wide-spread implementation of these batteries can cut their prime electricity generating capacity by 1/3 plus with this time variable input such as wind and solar can be optimized.
    Have a look at the recent progress there. With this alternative energy generation looks suddenly a whole lot brighter.
    Even John D might finally agree that Wind has a future….. 😉

    1. Sodium sulphur has my vote. Cheap plentiful materials sodium, sulphur, aluminium. Can be used for long term storage – just allow them to cool down. Could be installed below ground in houses or just outside. However, they are currently very expensive because only one piddling little factory is making them.

      1. Interesting. But perhaps trouble for smaller applications such as cars where the combination of hot (300 Deg+) battery plus explosive Sodium with noxious Sulfur would put a new dimension to car crash outcomes…
        But its looking good for large scale industrial applications.

        1. They do make more sense for immobile use, but I think if the costs were reduced enough even houses could be fitted. Imagine the scale of the grid backup then.
          Strangely enough Wiki suggests they were originally developed as batteries for electric cars.

  7. replying to several commenters,,

    Thomas – thanks for link – I looked over the VRB potential@apella and as hinted several of its properties in relation to longlife, charge capacity, expandability and user/powergrid two-way power flows for instance appear highly promising.. cf Lithium..

    adelady – second par – nicely put—intergenerational birds are coming home at last (a sort of slow-follower result from firstly looting of its original risk advisory intent by business entities several decades ago and resultant Recession by their mistreatment)

    Stop tho.. something else. You may care to look over Princeton’s Socolow, an advocate of ‘wedge’ change applied to existing technology and industrial processing. Scheduling, applied promptly and consistently, will work he assures us. Worth a look.

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