September 3rd, 2010


The Layman's Guide to Doom: Peak Oil.


     Ultimately, declining resources are the true root of the ongoing economic collapse. The chief among these, and the Prime Mover of Doom, is petroleum.

     Look around you. Damned near everything that makes modern living possible is made out of, made with, and/or transported by virtue of petroleum. Modern agriculture is absolutely dependent on petroleum both to produce crops on what would have been considered barren wasteland in the pre-petroleum era, and to transport their produce hundreds or thousands of miles from the monolithic farms to the distant population centers. The electric grid may be powered by coal, hydro, and nuclear, but the coal, uranium, and concrete needed to keep the plants going are mined and transported by petroleum energy. Not to mention the vast fleets of gasoline and diesel powered trucks needed to service the grid day-to-day. Or the millions and millions of people who rely upon gasoline fueled automobiles to get to their work at the power stations, factories, stores, and service industries...

Other than the sky, it's pretty much all petroleum.

     Contrary to what Captain Planet told you, there is no viable replacement for oil. No "alternative" or combination of alternatives even comes close to filling the bill. Even the ones that are reasonably useful require a massive investment of fossil-fuel resources to construct, essentially just front-loading the fuel/pollution cost, not eliminating it.

     Now, if you're old enough to remember the 1970s, you will recall the Energy Crisis of that decade... The fuel shortages. The lines at the pumps. The series of recessions with sky-high unemployment and inflation. The collective psychological trauma we shared when gas station managers had to tack or tape a big "$1." to the left of their pump and sign price displays, which were mechanically incapable of displaying prices above 99 cents.

We all gazed up in horror!

     You'll also recall the early 1980s, when all that ended with an oil glut that drove gas prices back down to just over 50 cents.

     "I knew it all along!" laughed the typical American. "There never was a fuel shortage. It was just them damned camel-jockeys screwing with us. So much for the silly hippies and their 'we're running out of oil' mumbo-jumbo!"

     Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. After all, the Arab world had been angry with the West since the whole State of Israel thing, over twenty years before the Energy Crisis. They'd tried using their oil to screw with the West before. And the unofficial (but effective) US policy was "Screw you, Akbar! For every barrel y'all hold back, we'll produce two extra. So you can just kiss our star-spangled..."

     Then the US passed Peak Oil around 1970. Suddenly America couldn't compensate for withheld Middle Eastern oil and everything went to hell in a handbasket.

     Now Peak Oil is usually explained with bell curve charts, the calculations of geophysicist Dr. M. King Hubbert, and all kinds of technical data... But you can really understand it just by considering the fact that, a hundred years ago, you could pretty much poke a piece of drain pipe into the ground in Texas or Oklahoma and hit a great, spewing gusher of sweet, light crude. Now we're fighting wars in godforsaken sand-holes on the other side of the planet, polluting the hell out of our best fisheries drilling for oil miles below the sea, trying to refine nasty, sulfer-laden heavy crude, and even attempting to squeeze oil out of shale and tar sands, just to (almost) maintain the current supply of petroleum.

     Peak Oil doesn't mean that oil wells suddenly start belching up dust. It means that a field, country, or planet has passed maximum production, and has nowhere to go but down. US Peak Oil was around 1970, and resulted in a decade of recessions, the permanent collapse of most serious domestic manufacturing, and the degeneration of the dollar into a doomed fiat currency. Peak Oil forums debate the exact year in which the world passed (or will pass) Peak Oil, but that's really just a matter of trivia.

     The fact is that the real cost of oil is climbing (the dollar price is meaningless smoke and mirrors), and the supply is becoming ever more unreliable. The US and world economies, in fact modern civilization as we know it, are absolutely dependent on a continuously increasing amount of cheap petroleum.

     Bottom line: We're boned.

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