Sunday, January 11, 2009

Financial Crisis and Peak Oil

A friend recently wrote about the "Current Financial Crisis" in another forum. After posting a littany of economic horrors from the news media, he asked rhetorically:

"Does anyone know where some optimistic/realistic writings might be?"

Well, embedded in that question is the assumption that optimistic=realistic. That assumption in turn is rooted in our unique historical perspective about progress, prosperity, etc. The narrative we've lived our whole lives is about to begin a new chapter.

I believe every generation has an intuitive feel for the "speed" of history. I believe rate of technological change provides the externally measurable benchmark for that subjective experience.

My great-grandparents were surprised that certain technological breakthroughs made their lives slightly different and better than their parents. For example, on one side of the family they were able to travel between Europe and North America by steamer, and on another side of the family they were able to work in factories in addition to farms.

My grandparents became used to sporadic but not infrequent change. My grandfather on one side was fascinated as a kid by crystal radios and cameras. They adapted to cars, planes, TVs, etc. Still, every new labor-saving device, transporation method, or entertainment medium was met with surprise and delight (or horror in the case of "improvements" like the machine gun and atom bomb.)

By my parents generation, change was expected. Linear change that is. They grew up with expectations of predictable, incremental technological improvement. Cars and planes got bigger and faster every year. Radios went stereo and TVs went color. But still, you could chart your expected life's course by observing where technology stood today, and extrapolating a straight-line trajectory towards the future based on the steady rate of technological improvement. Often, these predictions based on linear extrapolations are hilarious to us now: moon colonies and flying cars and house-cleaning robots and atomic powered everything...

(I should say I've been blessed to grow up in a family where ecological and social limits to economic growth were part of the dinner table conversation -- I'm talking about the generational Zeitgeist.)

I believe my generation, our generation, expected exponential or even chaotic growth. As a computer geek, the career to which I've devoted the last fifteen years of my life literally did not exist when I was in high school. (I choose to believe that fact and not my restless and cantankerous nature is why my guidance counsellors had nothing to say about what I should do with my life...) Our generation has an intimate, intuitive feel for revolutionary technological change. We understand in our bones that if you invent something cool on the Internet, tens of millions of people can hear about it and just start using it overnight. We've seen world-changing innovations and micro-trends and global one-hit-wonders bloom overnight like mushrooms on a lawn and then fade just as rapidly. For the most part we've grown comfortable in a world where things get faster at an ever-faster rate.

Which brings us to now, and which brings us to oil. Because we tend to think of technology as separate from energy, when the two are inextricably tied together. The reason we DON'T have flying cars or moon colonies or jetpacks is NOT that the technology wasn't there. It's that while a '57 Cadillac with fins and a "four-body" trunk was a profligate and wastefully inefficient use of fossil fuel, a flying car is SO wasteful as to be completely insane. (There is also a human factor : most Americans I see cell-phone-chatting and Dorito-munching and honking and running into each other on the freeways find two-dimensional travel plenty challenging thank you very much...) We cannot and must not abstract the technological innovation necessary to invent our toys from the fuel needed to run them.

So, thinking ahead to future generations (as I find even a wriggling ultrasound salamander-fetus in my wife's womb forces me to do), what civilizational "velocity" can we expect? What rate of technological change will feel natural to my children? To my grandchildren?

There are a number of possible trajectories.

The simplest is we could imagine human technological progress as a parabolic arc -- the plot arc of a Greek tragedy. We achieve our greatest ease and comfort and speed and energy usage (we will continue to argue whether that happened in 2005 or the 2010's) and slowly, we lose steam. The coal-generated electrical lights dim and we fade back into a preindustrial past. World population and technology use decreases to a level sustainable by a "solar economy." (Remember, at the end of the day, the only 2 energy inputs we have as a planet are solar and nuclear).

A variation on this theme is a more sudden and calamitous crash. In financial terms, we're already starting to hear mutterings... Instead of a "V-shaped" revovery versus a "U-shaped" recovery, what if we're looking at an "L-shaped" non-recovery? An idea I just picked up from my dad: the tipping point between gradual decline (managed contraction) and cataclysm will have to do with social cohesion. A few years back, power to a large swathe of Eastern Canada was knocked out due to a giant ice storm. For the most part, communities pulled together. People were skiing or snowshoeing to their neighbours, making sure everyone was safe, warm, had food and water, that the elderly and the sick were OK. In the United States... not so much... The response in NYC after 9/11 was amazing and inspiring -- everyday heroics and simple kindness turned a major metropolis into a small town for a few weeks But then you have the counterexamples like Katrina where the social fabric broke down completely within days. In this country we have such a history of NOT caring about each other, and such a bat-shit crazy obsession with violence and firearms, that I basically feel most US citizens are a few hot meals away from looting, murder and mayhem of all kinds.

A third scenario, and the most hopeful one, involves the simulaneous growth and dematerialization of our economy. Simply put, we could trade less atoms and more bits. That's the geeky way of putting it. The woo-woo way of putting it is that "primitive" societies with limited material economies had rich economies in information: relationships, art, music, myth, ceremony, food!. We can have unlimited growth in human culture and science without digging or drilling ever more out of the Earth if we have technology which is focussed "inside" instead of "outside." Technology that allows us to communicate without travelling. Technology that allows us to improve our lives without destroying the lives of our human and non-human neighbours. This could work in a financial as well as technological sense. For example, Polynesians had the concept of "mana", a broad-reaching spiritual concept roughly translated as personal power and social status -- almost a spiritual currency. Mana could be won, lost or exchanged through various social transactions or acts of bravery, artistry, or generosity. The First Nations of the Pacific Northwest have a similar notion of social hierarchy, and one's social standing can be enhanced by potlatch, or competitive gift giving. I believe humans will always be motivated by rational self-interest, but it's easy to imagine myriad ways in which we could harness human greed and self-interest to a spiritual currency in which personal "mana" is earned by giving rather than taking. All very utopian stuff, and I'm not optimistic that "NASCAR nation" is going to have this ego-shattering, soul-opening epiphany the next five to ten years; which is unfortunately when it would need to happen.

Notice that one scenario I didn't mention is the "Dallas" ending. We wake up tomorrow and it was all a dream. The stock markets recover. Oil prices stay low. Obama fixes everything. Rainbows and puppy dogs. Hydrogen powered flying cars even? I don't think this will happen, even though I fervently want to allow myself to believe it will. I'm a geek; geeks trust numbers. We can achieve a lot of things as a civilization, but I don't think we can achieve more than 87 million barrels per day of petroleum production. The decline rates that the IEA have estimated for fields using modern technology are 6-9% per year. For fields using more traditional methods, it's 3-5% per year. Let's be extremely generous and assume that at some point in the next few years we plateau at 87mbpd, and start seeing annual declines of 3% (for comparison, the "demand destruction" that caused the fall in price from $147 to thirties is estimated at 3.5%) So in 200x (could be 2008, could be 2015) we're looking at:

87.00 mbpd
84.39 mbpd
81.86 mbpd
79.40 mbpd
77.02 mbpd
74.71 mbpd
72.47 mbpd
70.29 mbpd
68.19 mbpd
66.14 mbpd
...

Assuming even this very generous 3% rate of production decline, within 23 years we're at half or our current production. If the rate turns out to be 6 percent, that halving will happen in about 12 years. So while I can't predict the future, what I do know is that my children, and your children will know in their bones this inexorable "compound interest in reverse". There are a lot of people talking about running our current civilization on hydrogen, or ethanol, or biodiesel, or organic bat-spit. But you'll notice very few of them are engineers. While there is theoretically enough solar energy hitting the earth every day to power our entire civilization, there are a lot of theoretical and practical limits to doing so. I believe we are looking at a massive wind-down of our civilization -- whether orderly or not.

Honestly, I'm not sure how to wrap up this train of thought. Except that I want my kid(s) to know how to make things, how to do things, how to go places (without petroleum), how to get along with people. Understanding is great if and only if it helps them actually live in the real world. Otherwise it's just mental wanking.

Some things I've been pondering lately. Very concrete, down-to-earth stuff:

- Where does my food come from? My friend Carrie once asked me to identify some green stuff in our friend Dan's garden. I answered "salad". That doesn't bode well for my health and safety in a post-peak world... I need to learn about gardening, permaculture, gathering, fishing, etc.

- Where does my water come from? I recently learned that my island-suburb of Alameda has about 75,000 people and no natural fresh water sources. Of course there are a lot of flat roofs that could be fitted with catchment tanks for the rainy season, and from what I've heard, aquaducts are incredibly low in energy usage and pretty easy to maintain. Still.... A meme I just heard from Jay's blog: In hawaiian "wai" means water, and "waiwai" means wealth. (Reduplication is used to indicate "more".) I always joke with my family and friends in Eastern Canada that the Great Lakes are the "Saudi Arabia of fresh water." In contrast, most of So Cal would be a desert without irrigation, and parts of North Cal aren't too much better. Our multi-year "drought" may turn out to be the new normal. ("drought" is the ecological equivalent of the euphemistic and optimistic term "current financial crisis")

- What do I actually know how to do? I.e. with my hands, in the physical world. That's not to say that the liberal arts are dead in the post-peak world, just that literacy or math, or perl scripting, or accounting, or economics or theoretical knowledge of any kind will help me only insofar as it allows me to be more efficient, productive, graceful in procuring food and shelter. An perfect example for me of "practical theory" is celestial navigation: a science handed down from the ancients which requires skills in geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and geography. Some would even say the skill of locating yourself within the celestial spheres even has spiritual dimensions. Oh yeah, and it will get you home when the batteries die in your GPS. (Or when the GPS satellite fall out of orbit and no one has the money or rocket fuel to put 'em back up.)

- What do I actually own? Until this year I calculated my net worth by tallying a bunch of numbers on my brokerage statements. This year, I find I'm "taking stock" of my actual physical resources. I have a property that I rent out. I have a boat. I have a bunch of tools and even know how to use most of them. The thing I don't have is arable land. That's a conscious strategy; we've made the decision that rather than committing to a particular homestead location, having a boat allows us to go where we need to go. It's a calculated risk. Particularly in the US, having farmland close to a big population center could be economically advantageous in the next couple decades as "farmer's markets" become the way most people get food. On the other hand, you could end up overrun by urban hipster refugees ready to kill for a Venti latte. I'd prefer to keep my nomadic options open...

- Who are my friends? Who are my enemies? How do I feel about violence?
Y'all may have seen the riotting going on in Oakland lately. Without condemning or condoning looting (but while vehemently condemming shooting an unarmed kid in the back!!!) I have to acknowledge certain potentially unbridgeable rifts in my community and in this country. This nation was founded on treating people of certain races and classes as a waste by-product of agriculture and industry. (Van Jones and others are doing amazing work at trying to "close that loop" -- but quick enough?) Since they've been treated as disposable for generations, I can't rely on my neighbours to treat me any differently when push comes to shove. On the violence/self-defense front I have a longstanding fear of and abhorence for firearms. But like all this peak-oil crazy-talk, I think it's good to go into this new world consciously. Sarah and I had a conversation awhile ago about about guns, and both decided we didn't ever want to own one. But I felt better having talked about it -- it was a conscious decision rather than sleepwalking. Most people I know who own farms seem to have one around. For us, again, the boat seems like a good short term strategy; Oakland could be burning to the ground, and if we're anchored a few hundred yards off Treasure Island we'll miss the worst of it. Greg, an in-law in Canada (who's a sustainable-fund manager) has been predicting this meltdown for years and has a friend who describes "tank-and-a-half" strategy. Basically, if the average car holds 10 gallons and goes 20mpg, in the event of a complete urban shit-storm you need to be able to go at least 300 miles to get out of the epicenter of the craziness. So he keeps a couple of jerry cans of gas in the trunk. When I talked with friends last year about keeping extra food around the house, folks responded with jokes about Mad Max, and with suggestions that community gardening rather than six weeks of canned goods are the long term solution. True; but in order to execute the long term strategy, you need to make it through the short term happy and healthy. I believe that in the next twelve months we could see interuptions in gas supply at the pumps. (Long story and a topic for another post -- but Ukraine and the recent bankrupcy of a major refinery on the US West Coast give clues how oil expresses it's dual nature as a recently-deleveraged-investment-vehicle and a necessary-for-survival-fuel) If that happens, I don't think US cities will be a safe place to be. Just getting through the first few weeks could make a big difference.

My point in all this is that it's better to have the conversations, make the decision, get the experience, and tools, and training NOW. I believe it will be much harder to "wing it" five to ten years from now.

- Ari

1 comment:

Blue Pearl said...

Nice post Ari, I agree with most all of it.