Online Journal
Front Page 
 Special Reports
 News Media
 Elections & Voting
 Social Security
 Editors' Blog
 Reclaiming America
 The Splendid Failure of Occupation
 The Lighter Side
 The Mailbag
 Online Journal Stores
 Official Merchandise
 Join Mailing List

Analysis Last Updated: Aug 25th, 2009 - 00:49:08

Peak oil and climate change -- drowning in rhetoric
By Andrew McKillop
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 25, 2009, 00:44

Email this article
 Printer friendly page

These are both long-running or even stalwart themes of the late great consumer society. They only stretch back a decade or so to some people, but a whole lot further when you drill down a little -- looking for the right ice cores or pockets of remaining oil and gas. Today they provide the base, or in finance jargon the underlying security for an endless road show and conference business that stretches right around the world. Not only thousands of Web sites, TV shows, press reporters and publishing houses extract value from dwindling oil and changing climate, but big business and big government have also adopted and absorbed these themes. Both big business and big government now get plenty of traction from what some call the two Great Causes of Our Times.

For average consumers of media, politics and current affairs the ever-growing torrent of laws, regulations, facts, views, notions and fantasies generated by these epic challenges to average society and the consumer economy is often seen as a wall-to-wall disinformation and propaganda effort. So big, so constant, and so shot through with faulty ideas and reversals of logic it must be a fake. Something else must be behind it, but what? For some rightly named players things are however very simple. Big business wants average consumers to buy new products. Consumers can buy new solar goodies, pay an awful lot more for their green electricity, buy organic foods and sort out their rubbish, and above all, right now or very soon, buy a 40 000-dollar Chevy Volt or BYD electric car. Maybe it can only do 40 mph in all electric mode but if you pay just a tiny little more it will do 125 mph, in a Tesla Roadster with 6800 laptop lithium PC batteries stuffed under each car hood.

Enter big government

Curiously enough, in ultra capitalist societies, whenever big business shows up in the crosshairs with its begging bowl, big government will be close behind -- or even in front! Big government is anxious to save the car industry, that is official. Plenty of consumers get their living, and governments get a lot of taxes from this industry and its products -- the world�s estimated 900-million car fleet, presently 98 percent oil fuelled. So electric car nirvana is not only backed with fine words, but also with billions of dollars of public cash. Quite soon, Green Mobility will be a no alternative.

Maybe there won�t be enough lithium for the batteries? Maybe we won�t have the power plant

capacity to charge them up on a Sunday night, before their joyful owners hurry down to the friendly local 30-mile tailback on the urban highway, Monday morning? While the lithium pinch is swept aside as doom mongering, or sidestepped with the famous �we don�t yet know,� the power plant capacity problem has already generated a whole new segment of the emerging Clean Technology sector, the Smart Grid business. This is the marriage of Information Technology, and old fashioned, dumb, creaking and usually undersized power grids, making them magically capable, in the imagination, of recharging millions of electric cars with the click of a mouse button. To be sure, smart grids have their own marketing effort, to bore or confuse the average consumer. The bottom line is simple, and universal in the Peak Oil and Climate Change business: Maybe it will work, maybe it won�t. Everything is possible, nothing is sure.

G-20 political leaders have not yet poured cash into smart grids the way they have helped the car industry because, very simply, grids are still working but car making isn�t. This battered and bruised industry, despite their official New Economy rhetoric left over from the Reagan and Thatcher 1980s that bad businesses fail and �go to the wall� is receiving magnificent and hearty rafts of public cash. The rationale is simple. Any business that seems able to track down or hunt the Evil Molecule, and talks loud enough about it is worth a big dollop of public money. This evil new menace, as any person knows who ever listened to a TV news show the last 10 years or so, is C02. But maybe C02 isn�t the real culprit in climate change? To be sure, the Web abounds with sites, and bookstores are gorged with books that go a whole lot further and which say outright that climate change doesn�t exist at all. Or it�s due to astronomical causes. Or that yes its real but it�s good for you -- the favored comment of the late, unlamented G W Bush.

It would be difficult to put a number on current and future spending by big government, using public cash, mostly borrowed and printed, to fight the dangerous molecule. Its close friend CH4 or natural gas, due to gas being a lot cheaper than oil, does not receive the Public Enemy status that C02 gets, but this may change if the world�s new suppliers of liquefied natural gas -- emitting vast amounts of CH4 in its production and transport -- start charging more for it. One not-so-exotic threat to world climate stability is methane from hydrates, and from peat bogs and cutover forestland. Along with C02, the potential quantities of both are almost literally unlimited. Under almost any scenario, climate change has to go on for centuries, which it already did but previously with little or no human assistance, and above all without generating political rhetoric or cutting edge business.

Enter ecology

In a truly ecological way, meaning everything is interrelated one way or another, the Smart Grid biz is closely related to the boom in wind farms and solar power plants replacing those high carbon, C02 spewing power plants we don�t love, but do depend on. Since the wind and the sun aren�t around on a 24-hour basis, some way has to be found to make dumb consumers use electricity when the renewables can produce, and use less when they aren�t available. This seems easy, but isn�t, exactly like putting a brake on the fantastic rate of species extinctions due to agribusiness farming. Knocking holes in the web of life was previously as innocent as collateral dead oil war victims in Iraq, or war on terror collateral dead in Afghan villages, but big government and big business now want less of it. In other words, biodiverse and low carbon farming translates to eat different things and pay more for them. Maybe organic farming will feed the masses, and maybe it won�t.

What we find is that transition psychosis has gripped previously slow moving, and even slower thinking consumer societies round the world. Suddenly we need to change very fast, not only Obama style because we can, but because we must. Suddenly a raft of new products and ways of doing things are moving into the market. Not surprisingly, for any downstream goody generated by Peak Oil and Climate Change, somebody, somewhere will have a competing goody and wants to slay the rivals. Or they simply don�t like what�s offered as the New Way, and suggest a completely different outlook and theme. These range from hair shirts to the lizard skin tuxedos of Gulf Arab petrodollar recyclers, buying solar energy goodies and building 60-floor office blocks with gray water recycling like there is no tomorrow. As the never absent doomster crowd says, No Tomorrow could be the case.

There is a clear ecological trophic level stepwise change, from fact to fiction, in almost any sector or theme drawn into the Peak Oil and Climate Change vortex. We could say the climate change mitigation business was cranked up on the back of climate change scientific business, the mitigation business heavily diluting, or exaggerating, where needed, the real facts and trends. C02 emissions change the world�s climate, but so does CH4, coal dust fly ash, unburnt fuel, eroded soils, salt particles, city dust and a host of exotic climate change gases emitted by humans. Cutting down on all of these is a nice notion, but only an ultra doomster full stop to industrial and urban society would radically change things. If we don�t want radical change, why bother doing anything?

This argument is brushed aside because the Evil Molecule generates massively complex and interactive food webs for business, finance, industry and government, to say nothing of scientific researchers, mass market book writers and the all-day, all-year conference circuit. Taking only C02 emissions trading, the World Bank estimates turnover in this business as running at around 125 billion dollars-a-year. The quest for carbon sequestration, extracting C02 from power plant chimneys and making it disappear underground, or in algae beds, tree plantations �that will never be cut,� or anyplace else is already very big business. The trifling detail that sequestration doesn�t work or is too expensive is only an extra challenge, the growing crowd of Evil Molecule hunters tell us. All they need is more cash.

Like an evolutionary diagram of the purest Darwin type, showing amphibians finally crawling from the seas to become slithering land-borne reptiles, and then sprouting wings to take up flying as birds, the Evil Molecule is directly linked by a host of pathways to Peak Oil. Usually not mentioning coal or natural gas, TV chat show hosts and leading politicians sternly tell us burning oil emits C02, especially from cars, which is not entirely a surprise to some. Even if we don�t manage to extract and sequester the Evil Molecule from coal, and neither from gas because they are cheap and only the friendliest of Arabs export it, we absolutely must stop the molecule wafting out from car tailpipes and power plant chimney stacks, especially if they use oil. In other words, we must use less oil.

Bingo! At last, there�s a way to say oil is running out without actually saying it. Peak Oil is still, to some, purely doomster ranting by misfits with a grudge against society. But using less oil to slow down climate change, save the car industry and win the war on Middle Eastern terror in a single operation is a tasty prospect. No mention is needed of oil depletion. Talking about this, as everybody knows, is used by OPEC and its friends, specially including Wall Street oil traders to talk up oil prices. This is bad, even if petrodollar recycling helps Siemens produce nice new solar energy gadgets and can save big name banks like Barclays from closing down.

The ecosystem is now almost complete. Hunting the Evil Molecule, using less oil, fighting terror and cranking up a new investor boom and slump are seamlessly meshed together. Each new cash-generating species added to the system raises its stability and life expectancy. This is satisfying to both the Peak Oil lobby and the Climate Change lobby. Both lobbies are reassured. Both are comforted they have a future, even if it is only measured in a few decades for oil depletion, and will likely fade out of public attention for climate change, in part simply due to media overkill and the pressure of events.

The plot deepens

Certainly in the last few million years, the biggest single change in world climate happened almost overnight, with the 1883-1884 Krakatoa explosion, equivalent to about 13 000 times the Hiroshima A-bomb in dynamite equivalent. World atmospheric turbidity and albedo, or reflectivity leapt upwards. World average temperature dropped about 1.25�C for a few years and remained unstable long after. Estimates put the emission of rocks and debris from the explosion at around 20 to 25 cubic kilometres, for a weight not far from current annual, year in and year out soil erosion losses, of about 70 billion tons. Other than soil erosion from agribusiness and deforestation, most of which is washed away and not blown or lifted into the sky, anthropogenic sources of aerosol particulates such as road building, cement making, quarries and urbanization, and from the world�s fast growing fleet of diesel-engined saloon cars are massive. They are also constant.

Aerosols are powerful agents of climate change. Cloud cover has probably risen radically in several large regions of the globe. The cooling impact may be underestimated. It might be that if human beings suddenly stopped emitting aerosols which tend to cool the planet, global average temperatures would increase, or increase even further if we need to comply with Global Warming C02 doctrine. This full stop on aerosol emissions is of course somewhat unlikely, but if it happened, global cooling might be the winner, and accelerate radically. In brief, nobody knows what the Evil Molecule and other climate change agents are doing, could do, or might do. The basic reason is complexity, to which we can add the scale and pace of driving factors.

Peak Oil is at least as complex as climate change, as oil changes from �something everybody knows� as a blackish liquid coming out the ground, easily or not, to something that now includes a host of oil-like and gas-related minerals, and also the biofuels which are organic hydrocarbons. Like the mysteries of climate change, peak oil has its own. This includes the basic and unbelievable fact world oil is produced by companies and states who give every impression of wanting to fully deplete their reserves in the shortest-possible time, with the maximum possible environment damage, and the biggest possible economic shock of adapting to its disappearance. The UK and its squandered North Sea reserves, or Gabon and its own, are two examples. Oil reserve conservation? Never heard of it! Whether they like or not, and to be sure passively, all consumers incite this plot or conspiracy. Plenty of documented history shows that even when oil runs out, people fight about it, as much as they fought to grab the reserves they then produced like there was no tomorrow.

Other more mundane mysteries include the incredible amounts of oil that are simply thrown away, probably more than 1.4 million barrels every day, with an environmental impact not needing any description. One thing is sure: World losses of oil, especially offshore and in transport have been increasing a lot faster than production and consumption for at least a decade. Another striking mystery is the simply proven fact that when oil costs more people use more, and when it costs less people use less. Economic explanations of this, to be sure, stretch to 700-page tomes from highly acclaimed professors, with copious graphs and charts, but the basic mystery remains: why use it up in record time, why complain about its price when demand rises with price ?

Plot lovers will appreciate the next one. Using it up as fast as possible will accelerate the invention or production of oil�s replacement. This is official New Economy rhetoric. Experts in rhetoric like the former president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, that helped organize the rout in post-communist east Europe, point out that the collapse in whale oil supplies after about 1860, due to the poor things being hunted to near extinction was in fact a good thing. Jacques Attali goes on to say that electric street lighting was �invented� because whale oil couldn�t light the dark and dangerous streets of US and European cities at that time. Running out of whales started the electric street lighting business, of course using coal, oil and gas for power generation. Today we will do that with wind or as yet unimagined and undiscovered energy sources, while whale stocks are regenerating and the wind blows, Insha�Allah. Running out of oil will be good for innovation, so the faster it disappears, the more innovation we get.

Shaky rhetoric

The ITER project in Caderache, France is another nice idea, of nuclear fusion, an idea that is almost as long in the tooth as running out of whale oil and whalebone corsets, but finding that oil and oil-based plastics can replace them. Nuclear fusion we can note, if it ever became commercial, would probably need large amounts of lithium for core blankets. As fusion defenders will instantly retort and respond, energy so cheap it doesn�t need to be metered will make sea water extraction of every conceivable mineral, including lithium, as easy as driving a Tesla Roadster. With a flick of the switch, we can get the missing ingredient, any missing ingredient, in epic proportions.

Sad to say this is unlikely. Until or unless we get nearly free energy, and its present real cost is already extreme low, we will have to fear dark outcomes, including unlit city streets. To be sure, other voices outside the Doomster camp put the challenge even more rousingly. As the Sufiy investment letter says: �The choice is very simple: the Fall of Rome or a painful Next Industrial revolution based on transition from fossil fuels and the Green Mobility revolution. Banking must be restored as solid if boring, and drive bull markets for Technology driven new ventures.�

The fall of Rome in fact took quite a while, through about 410-450 a.d., and had surprisingly low body counts at each Hun visit and exodus of Romans. Any role of fossil fuels, or technology change in the Fall of Rome was either 100 percent absent or marginal, but one thing is sure: Rome�s population fell from about 600 000 or more in 400 a.d., to probably less than 100 000 in 500 a.d. . In other words, Rome downsized in a serious way.

Today we have a �consensus view� that world population can only go on increasing, and this alone shackles innovation because human needs are so high. Due to this, the logic continues, the next industrial revolution will indeed be painful. Putting this another way, world population doubled, that is increased 100 percent through 1965-2005, but not even the population boomers, who want further growth, are able to suggest more than another 50 percent or 75 percent by 2050. In other words, population growth as an annual percent rate is slowing, more and more since the 1990s. Nothing guarantees even a 50 percent growth to 2050. World population could or might fall 33 percent in the same 40-year period. Like the balance between forces and factors raising world temperatures, or lowering them, world population dynamics are anything but set in stone, and as with climate change tipping points exist. The impact of major downward change in world population through the next 40 years would be dramatic. Both oil depletion and climate change could or would change dramatically.

One of the reasons the end of population growth is a no-no subject is simple, and as politically incorrect as saying the simplest solution to peak oil is use less, every year, starting with the most oil intense, and therefore oil wasteful societies. Population boomers are on safe ground with their claim that ever-rising population almost guarantees economic growth. In theory, it drives down wage costs as more poor people seek work that isn�t available, and emigrate to where they hope it might be available. Not being able to drive wage costs in their home country, because it�s so poor, they can drive down wages in richer countries. This is grist to the satanic mills of classic capitalism, but is also a good, historic, proven cause of world wars and genocidal mass emigration adventures, far more destructive than Hun visits to Ancient Rome. What has to be understood is another no-no subject: the near quadrupling of world population in the 20thC was a one-off event. It won�t happen again and can�t happen again. It was at least equal in unrepeatability to the fossil energy boom. Since the second is now recognized as not only unrepeatable, but very undesirable, this status can also shift to population growth.

Like climate change, changing the population pump that pushes the world to make-or-break decisions on the future of civilization will likely be underground, a subject of controversy, of claims and counter claims, but falling world average population trends by about 2015 are more than only possible. When we get a fall in oil and energy demand, and economic growth, when these all turn negative, population growth also falls, as in the 1930s. We also know what happened to world politics in the 1930s, but a repeat of European fascism and Nazism, Soviet communism, Japanese imperialism, and US and British capitalism and colonialism fighting it out, literally, is not certain.

Living in exciting times

Another reason for the fall of Rome, and wildly different from the fall of petro civilization, is that Rome probably lacked enough money in circulation, or was also unable to finance its trade deficits with the rest of the world. This is nothing like present day financing of the massive and incredible trade deficits of the USA, nor world money printing press activity. As we know, whether it concerns printed dollars to amuse Chinese soft toy and integrated circuit exporters, or Arab oil and gas exporters, the USA, Europe, Japan and other financial players print an awful lot of money, some of which they lend to themselves and call national debts. For the Peak Oil doomsters this creates another problem: the oil price may only measure how fast US money printing presses turn, and is not directly connected to physical or geological depletion. Put another way, as long as real resource exporters want to exchange their resources for paper and electronic money, and play the debt game we can�t say there is real shortage.

The life expectancy of this process is as uncertain and unsure as climate change and the probable date when �the last barrel� is extracted -- or produced from coal, gas, biomass wastes or algae. In a truly ecological sense, the spider�s web of financial and economic, resource and environmental needs, pressures, factors and trends prevents any straight answer to the question as to when the machine blows up or changes. How it will change is also a mystery, but for decades, and more, writers and thinkers have played with the challenge.

News media almost have a duty to hunt for Black Swan events, and not finding them have to make do with old news giving it new, daily, hysterical and exciting spin. Peak Oil and Climate Change have forced themselves into the party, so they now have a duty to perform. Both have this capability, since any kind of bad weather, today, is �something to do with climate change.� Oil shortage is still communicated by media as due to OPEC having a grudge against civilization, but late night TV viewers are allowed to see deep offshore oil rigs presented as symbols of the epic struggle by great high-tech companies to deliver small consumers their daily fix of cheap fuel. The average deep sea floor loss rate of oil, often 10 percent of nameplate capacity, of course never figures in these eulogies to heroic production in hostile environments, because ecology shows for TV viewers have a different censoring framework for allowable worry and politically correct concern.

Due to new and growing financial, economic and business dependence on Peak Oil and Climate change, news and media treatment of both is now highly controlled and channeled. In fact so close censored that real information struggles to get through the pipe -- making it sure and certain that surprising news is the only logical result. Only an idiot is unable to give the breakout percentage chance of the surprise being good, or bad. And when bad news comes, the consumer herd and their managing or leading politicians are, at first, only able to do one thing: the wrong thing.

Copyright � 2009 Andrew McKillop

Copyright © 1998-2007 Online Journal
Email Online Journal Editor

Top of Page

Latest Headlines
Ripped from the headlines: Greed, corruption, and hate crimes in northeastern Pennsylvania
Bomb, bomb Iran: Lessons from Iraq unlearned
War is peace and where to put the Nobel Prize
The lobby within
A primer on the war in Afghanistan
Russia, NATO and Afghanistan: High stakes game
U.S. creates its antithesis in Iraq
The movement of movements: From resistance to climate justice
Obama�s Nobel & START: Peacemaker arrives empty-handed
Examining Obama�s rationale for escalating the war in Afghanistan
Trade deficit, new home tax credit and easy Fed policies threaten double dip recession
Obama�s reignites �war on terrorism� with massive Afghanistan surge
The Kool-Aid syndrome and Somalia�s fading hope
COP15 failure and peak oil success
Former Soviet states: Battleground for global domination
Third quarter GDP to be revised downward; unemployment to rise and stock rally to continue
Things could get ugly fast
Nuke Gaza
Today�s ancient warfare: Facts vs. beliefs
Goldstonewalled! US Congress endorses Israeli war crimes