Friday 1 April 2011

Reflections on Peak Oil, climate change and resource depletion

 I am very concerned at the turn of events in the world.  Numerous crises are occurring simultaneously that indicate a rapid deterioration in the situation for many countries (and the world in general).


The way we are fed news by an essentially corporate news media means that the things that threaten our existence most are downplayed or even frequently totally ignored.

What has completely disappeared (except for some few notable exceptions)has been any contextualisation of information or interpretation to indicate what the downstream effects of events might be.

There have been several notable examples of this recently.  

One is with the events in Japan especially surrounding the alarming events at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

After initial (and probably sensationalist) reporting in the first few days after the accident the ‘good news’ story of Tepco re-establishing the electricity supply to the power plant the international media (with one or two exceptions) went silent on the story: it was replaced by the Libya story.

The implication of this may be to plant in the minds of people that the crisis was over and that Japanese authorities were on top of the situation.  However, the truth of the matter was that (in the words of one commentator) the crisis was not being managed but the news being rather more successfully managed.

There were sources out there that were telling a different story.  While there was silence from our media Russia Todayhad news of further radioactive steam being released into the environment  and detailed interviews (more than the usual ‘soundbite’ with commentators such as someone from the Hiroshima Peace Group in Japan  who painted a picture of s slow-moving catastrophe and danger of complete meltdown in Reactor #3. 

Another source (Zero Hedge) was  translating and republishing from Japanese media sources. 

Many people I speak to are unwilling to entertain the idea that anything serious is happening and prefer to just go on as normal until they are confronted with something uncomfortable and unavoidable such as the earthquakes in Christchurch.

Generally we are only able to hold on to one idea at a time because seeing everything at once would be too uncomfortable.  One example is a dam that is about to break and people are being warned to evacuate: people 2 and 3 miles from the dam accept this information and evacuate but people living one mile from the dam refuse to see the danger and remain in danger.

This phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance and can give rise to all sorts of responses such as justification, blame and denial.

I subscribe to Michael Ruppert’s CollapseNet which publishes a daily digest of articles from across the world about issues of energy, economics, security/terrorism, environment etc.  These articles are vetted and are only posted if they can be substantiated and largely come from well regarded and varied sources such as NY Times, Guardian, Telegraph etc.

Read in isolation these articles often have great impact: however when these are put together in one place a picture of a world in great crisis emerges.  A point of crisis has been reached in areas of resources, environment, economy.  All of these areas however are interrelated and interdependent.
I would like to look at some of these areas in turn.


The first issue that faces humanity is man-made climate change. 
This is not a problem that exists somewhere off in the future but is immediate, one where we are experiencing the effects already.

Examples of changes and climatic disasters are too many to list - often because they go unnoticed and unreported by the international media  Often these are either ‘chance phenomena’ or ascribed to weather patterns such as el-Nino or la-Nina.  But when these are put together  (and all the facts are put on the table) it is hard to deny that we face climate collapse, for example.

One very good resource on climate change was an interview with Bill McKibben.

Recent example s that  come to mind are: drought in Africa (especially east Africa);China; United States, Southeast Asia; catastrophic  floods in China, Pakistan and recently (on the heel of a10-year drought) in Australia.

Climate tipping points

The other great, generally disregarded issue is positive feedback and climate tipping points, examples of which would be: melting of the polar ice caps; melting of permafrost.
One recent article on the danger of drought in the Amazon turning the forest from a carbon sink to a source of carbon.

Climate change and the media

I do not apologise for taking most of my sources from the Guardian, which of all the conventional media gives the most balanced coverage to climate change.

Much of the media (Rupert Murdoch’s news and TV, New Zealand television and newspapers) either underplay the issue (reporting without any contextualisation deep inside the newspaper) or completely deny climate change.

The more serious the problem the more denial there is by corporate-sponsored and corporate-funded ‘thinktanks’, websites trying to manipulate public opinion.  Unfortunately, in the present environment they have been largely successful in persuading a public already assaulted by attacks on their standards of living that climate change is some form of ‘hoax’.
This is covered well by Noam Chomsky.

There seem to me to be three basic groups in the climate change ‘debate’: the scientific and IPCC consensus on climate change; the climate change ‘sceptics’ and deniers; and a smaller group of scientists who agree that climate change has gone much further and is much more serious than  even the consensus view agree on.

Writers like Bill McKibben and some of the scientists who discovered and first brought global warming to public attention back in the 1980’s - James Lovelock and Jim Hansen, tend to be amongst those that think that the problem is more serious than the establishment consensus.

The second area which threatens the future of our civilisation is the threat of insufficient resources to sustain the human population.

This has been a theme ever since books published by Paul Ehrlich in 1968 and the findings of the Club of Rome?.  Previous  empires and civilisations have collapsed for exactly this reason - scarcity of resources.

This is well covered by Jared Diamand in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed 

Peak Oil
The most fundamental of these resources is oil - many other consequences flow on from this.

The reason for this is that (unknown to most of us) oil does not only provide petrol and other forms of transportation fuel but forms the basis for everything that we take for granted in our world of easy access to things.  Most fundamentally food - not only fuel needed for harvesting and transporting food but all pesticides are based on oil.  The entire “Green revolution” was based on the assumption of ongoing and plentiful supplies of oil.  It was largely oil that allowed the world population to increase to the size it is now.

Back in the 1950’s King Hubbert demonstrated that oil production followed a bell curve.  Once oil production reaches Peak  the production of oil is never going to be as easy or as cheap as before Peak - we have used all the low hanging fruits and to continue production we have to go further and drill deeper to find oil that is generally of a lower quality.

This does not mean that we are ‘running out’ as Peak Oil has been frequently misrepresented. However, it does mean that it is going to become less available, harder to refine and more expensive.  On the demand side we have a new economic power, China has a voracious and increasing demand for a resource that is less available.

One of the best short presentations of the problem is an animated sequence called 300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 seconds

Other excellent sources are interviews with representatives of the Peak Oil movement:

James Howard Kunstler  “Peak Oil and our financial declinePe


One of the problems I can see is people becoming experts in their own field. Frequently Peak Oil spokespeople talk about resource depletion but ignore climate change and Climate Change experts ignore Peak Oil and see reducing our consumption of hydrocarbons as a policy decision rather than something that will become inevitable with oil peaking and economies collapsing.

One of the exceptions for me is Michael C Ruppert who has admitted that climate change is not his area but looks at everything coming together: Peak oil, resource collapse; economic collapse - all coming together to threaten social and political collapse.  I think for this reason he seems to evoke the greatest reaction of denial - he does not make any compromise and hits us the truth between the eyes.

He is also saying quite unequivocally  that this process has already begun and that people should be already taking action to build what he calls ‘lifeboats’

He is warning of panic and social unrest in the wake of social and economic  breakdown.

Peak - Food
The next major problem the world faces is Peak-Food and Peak-Water.

At present we have very high commodity prices throughout the world.  These have been welcomed by the New Zealand media because of high dairy prices which is good for the farmers. This in no way takes into consideration the effect of these prices not only on NZ consumers but also on people throughout the world.

These prices are accompanied by record oil prices and agriculture depends on oil for every stage of its production.  I recall an item saying that thanks to price increases our exports had gone up by 17 per cent: however oil had increased over the same period by 20 per cent!

There have been huge increases in food prices throughout the world - in some places like Russia vegetable prices have doubled.  This has sparked food riots in many parts of the world and there is no doubt food and other prices have sparked rebellion in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries.

Last northern summer Russia experienced record high temperatures and fires. Apparently temperatures were 14 degrees higher than average.  Russia’s wheat crop basically failed and a ban on exports was announced and is about to be extended

Russia’s grain harvest was down to 60 tonnes from 100 tonnes. If there was a similar heat wave in the United States the American harvest would be down 160 tonnes from 400 tonnes.  This would have led to chaos in the grain market and possibly to a situation where wheat-growing areas would hold onto their own wheat and oil- producing countries make grain-for-oil deals.  The rest of the world (including New Zealand) would be left out.

It has been pointed out that we are just one harvest away from hunger.

There are four principal factors behind the previous abundance of food coming to an end:
1. Looming fuel shortages -- basically Peak-oil and peak-gas;
2. A shortage of farmers - there are fewer farmers than ever before and a loss of knowledge;
3.Increasing scarcity of fresh water - in the US 80 per cent of all fresh water goes towards agriculture, but sources of ground water are being used up and water is becoming scarce throughout the world.
4. Global climate change with increasing climate chaos and increasing unpredictability of weather

You could add two other things to this: the nature of modern, industrial agriculture is to rely on chemicals and for soils to degrade; bees dying and worldwide colony collapse which threatens the  pollination of crops everywhere in the world,

The case for food scarcity and future famine are put in the following videos:


Somewhere at the base of all our problems lies population and we cannot use finite resources to feed an increasing population and infinite growth.

When I was at school world population was 4 billion and increased to 6 billion in 2000 and has now reached 7 billion.

The sort of growth that we are seeing in population, economic activity, use of resources such as water, oil, fertilisers, uranium (just about everything) is exponential. 

Sooner or later a point is reached where this sort of exponential growth can no longer be sustained and some sort of crash involving a die-off of population is to be expected.

Basically that crunch time is now and we are in a period where the infinite growth paradigm collides with finite resources, so that we see energy shortages, developing, food shortages, water shortages along with inevitable collapse of the financial and economic system.

One video worth watching is a talk given by professor of physics Dr Albert Bartlett where he uses arithmetic to talk about the nature of exponential growth and its link with the world’s problems.

James Lovelock (of the Gaia Hypothesis) covers the question of population. 

Some of the conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones see ‘liberal’ environmentalists as part of a ‘conspiracy’ to reduce the world’s population.  Scientists and commentators are not advocating population reduction but seeing it as the consequence of problems facing humanity.

This is the area that I personally find the most difficult to grasp but have been forced to study.  All our problems with resources finally come down to economics which dominate and underpin every aspect of our lives.

The whole economy and financial system relies on exponential growth and the myth of infinite growth on a finite planet.

To a large extent the source of our problems arise from the nature of money and banking. Most banking in the West is based on fractional reserve banking where private banks are able to create ever increasing amounts of money which is  lent to governments and individuals at various degrees of compound interest.

The nature of this system is explained well in an animated documentary Money as Debt

The monetary system lies at the basis of a debt and sovereign debt problem that is facing the world from Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, the United States ...and New Zealand.

This amounts to an unravelling of the capitalist system and the disappearance of capital to bring about changes that might alleviate or address climate change or Peak oil.

The whole world is at a stage where problems are coming together to threaten imminent collapse of industrial civilisation - the financial system, the economy, the ecology - all more or less simultaneously.

This first became obvious with the financial crisis of 2008 arising from the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the United States.  This  saw the failure of banks and the subsequent bailing out of Wall Street at the expense of “Main Street’.  The very people who brought the crisis about were rewarded with huge payouts while at the same time thousands of Americans’ mortgages were foreclosed and ended up living in tent cities.

Millions of Americans have been impoverished and US cities and states are going bankrupt - to the extent that police cars cannot fill up with gas and lights are being switched off across the country.

As  the vast majority of Americans are being impoverished wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite and the banks who basically are running the economy.

The movie “Inside Job” covered this very well.

The dollar has declined as a reserve currency; China holds most of the United States’ astronomical levels of debt (14 trillion dollars at the present time - there is a site calledUS debt clock which shows  debt clocking up as you watch -

As  faith in the US dollar declines (and with it American power - the US went to war to stop countries like Iraq moving away from petrodollars) the price of commodities increases along with that of gold and silver.

We have seen a cascade of events across the globe - financial and economic failures in Iceland, eastern Europe, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain as well as severe austerity measures in Britain as well as here in New Zealand.

This has led to increasing levels of social upheaval in these countries as well as poorer countries - food riots and rebellion and  revolution  in North Africa and the Middle East.

As I write this war is being waged in Libya against Col. Qaddafi - I’m sure that if Libya exported carrots instead of oil no-one would be interested.  It is not the first war to be waged to secure oil resources.

This (along with revolution in Egypt and fears of violent upheavals in Saudi Arabia) has led to ‘oil price spikes’ - no doubt oil prices will settle down to a norm that was regarded as a ‘high’ just a few months ago .

We have seen natural catastrophes and extreme weather events that started with drought and record high temperatures in Russia, floods of biblical proportion in Pakistan (again threatening food production), floods in China and other parts of the world and now - as I write this - floods in Southern Thailand.

Then there have been catastrophic earthquakes in Haiti (from which they have not even STARTED to recover, Chile, the Pacific islands, leading up to the terrible earthquakes in Christchurch and now the earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan (along with nuclear accident at Fukushima - ongoing).

As a result of the events in Japan we are likely to see an economic tsunami as the effects of events in the world’s third largest economy - power cuts leading to loss of production, a rapid decrease in economic activity - spread throughout a world that is already deep in trouble - forget “double-dip recession’ - we never came out of the first one!

These are just some of the main things that are happening that have reached the headlines.  Other things happen unnoticed as it were, beneath the radar of the world’s press.

Books have been written, Chris Martenson produced his “Crash Course” and the movie about Michael Ruppert “Collapse” came out.  Many of the predictions that were made are rapidly, and before our eyes becoming realities.  How long will it take before a situation that looks fraught but ‘normal’ transform into general collapse and public panic?


There are areas that I have not been able to cover, such as:  decline in family and ethical values,; numerous examples of exploitation and repression throughout the world; increasing dependence on welfare etc.  

It is not because these issues are not serious and do not affect the lives of many but because they do not immediately threaten either our future existence per se or the existence of the entire paradigm we operate under.

Some issues such as US government involvement in the events of 9/11 I have ignored because they distract us from the much greater crisis facing us NOW .

I also do not cover (and certainly do not deny) the positive: the wonderful ways that people respond in times of crisis. (people coming together, talking to and helping each other after the earthquakes in Christchurch; the wonderful discipline and stoicism of the Japanese people) and the amazing initiatives of people in organisations such as Transition Towns and community gardens, time banks etc.

I am not an expert in any of these areas and I do not have the time or space to fully substantiate every assertion or claim I have made.  I have tried to provide links to reports and interviews that flesh these ideas out. 

However, what I do claim is a certain ability to think critically and to bring separate facts together to paint a picture - to ‘join the dots’.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.