Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Peak Oil 4: Consequences of Peak Oil

The scale of all human enterprises will contract with the energy supply. We will be compelled by the circumstances of the Long Emergency to conduct the activities of daily life on a smaller scale, whether we like it or not, and the only intelligent action is to prepare for it. - James Kunstler (2005) "The Long Emergency"

Peak oil has already had a major impact on U.S. society. Rising gas prices, and the realization that the gigantic cars manufactured by the U.S. auto industry were unsustainable, caused the collapse of some of the largest corporations in America. The American auto manufacturing industry was so unsustainable that doubling the price of gas caused an almost complete collapse of the industry within one year. Many people lost their jobs, most of them for good. High gas prices in 2007-2008 led to many public protests and riots worldwide [i]. Oil prices are projected to increase substantially in the “business as usual” scenario, from $80.16 in 2010 to $110.49 in 2015 and $121.94 in 2025 ((EIA 2009), Table 16, pg. 88). As the title of Richard Heinberg’s book on peak oil suggests (2005), “The Party is Over,” and life is going to get tougher.

What will the post-peak world be like? It's hard for us to know. Many people thought the world would collapse because of the year 2000 problem, but it had an insignificant effect on our lives. Still, it's hard to believe that the change from cheap to expensive oil won't have big repercussions. Bates (2006) comments "Peak Oil may be the trigger for a global economic depression that lasts for many decades. Or it may not. It may plunge us into violent anarchy and military rule. Or it may not. But if Peak Oil doesn't wake us up to the precariousness of our condition, divorced from our roots in the soil and the forest, annihilating the evolutionary systems that sustain us and replacing them with brittle, artificial, plastic imitations, what will?"

Peak Oil will cause four types of changes in transportation. From the fastest to the slowest they are:

· Lowered quality of life – e.g. drive less

· Increased energy efficiency – e.g. buy a Prius

· Adapt a new energy supply – e.g. ethanol.

· Changed cultural aspirations- e.g. buy a house in the city, no need for a car.

These four changes will work together to reduce energy demand. Alternative energy will never replace oil for transportation, and we will face a decline in the four ways above ( As a result, many who study Peak Oil believe that people will essentially be stranded in the suburbs due to oil shortages, and will be forced to migrate out of the suburbs (e.g., see the interesting movies “Sprawling from Grace” (Edwards 2009) and “The End of Suburbia” (Greene 2004). However, it seems unlikely that people will abandon the suburbs in response to peak oil, as there will be alternative methods of transportation such as electric cars, which as of 2011 are already becoming widely available.

Peak oil will also reduce food supply and economic capital. As people adapt to preserve economic capital, the changes will become social as individuals work together as communities to adapt to an oil-free, low energy lifestyle. Transport of food and goods currently depends on liquid fuels; Peak oil will sharply curtail transport, creating a gap between supply and demand of food and goods that only increasing local production can fill.

Environmental and Social Costs of Oil Use and Addiction

The environmental consequences of Peak oil and the costs of our oil dependence are well illustrated by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. The Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling 41 miles off the Louisiana coast in water 5,000 feet deep when it exploded on April 20, killing 11 platform workers. Before British Petroleum (BP) capped it on July 15, 4.9 million barrels of crude oil had gushed from the drill hole, causing widespread damage to shorelines and fisheries. The federal government closed nearly 36% of federally-owned area in the Gulf of Mexico to fishing, costing the fishing industry billions of dollars. The U.S. Travel Industry estimates that the three-year cost to lost tourism could exceed $23 billion. Costs to BP had risen to $3 billion by July 5, 2010.

A clue to how the spill relates to Peak oil is contained in the name: the Deepwater Horizon was in deep water because oil companies had already drilled all of the shallower, easier to drill locations. Drilling for oil is becoming riskier and more expensive as we are forced to mine more extreme environments; the easy oil is already gone.

The social costs of oil use also deserve closer inspection. In his book "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" (2008) Thomas Friedman argues that the global dependence on oil has made the oil states powerful, and that power has prevented or even reversed political reforms. In (Figure 1.) the countries that produce more oil than they consume plot in the green “sustainable field,” where we refer to the ability of a country to meet its current needs. Countries in the green field export oil, and countries in the red field must import oil. The dependence of countries like the U.S. on oil from countries in the green field has caused many social problems, including decreased national security of importing states.


Figure 1.

Of the 23 countries that get the majority of their income from oil and gas, none are democracies (p. 105). Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia can treat the U.S. with impunity because oil income has made them powerful. Friedman's First Law of Petropolitics states "In oil-rich petrolist states, the price of oil and the pace of freedom tend to move in opposite directions… Petrolist states (are) authoritarian states (or ones with weak state institutions) that are highly dependent on oil production for the bulk of their exports and government income ((Friedman 2008), p. 96)." Governments of petrolist states get their money from oil sales, not taxes, and they use the money to placate their citizens through subsidies. If the price of oil plummets (which seems unlikely), governments of petrolist countries like Iran will likely collapse.

In general, the "resource curse" affects third-world countries that sell their natural resources and use the money to develop in unsustainable ways. Typically a minority of citizens controls the resource, and they became fabulously rich while the vast majority of citizens remain destitute. The resulting concentration of power prevents the development of democracy. "Our addiction to oil makes global warming warmer, petrodictators stronger, clean air dirtier, poor people poorer, democratic countries weaker, and radical terrorists richer (p. 81)." Thus the proliferation of bumper stickers in the U.S.: ((Friedman 2008), p. 80): "How many soldiers per gallon does your SUV get?"; "Osama loves your SUV"; "Nothin' Dumber than a Hummer"; "Draft the SUV drivers first." Friedman concludes that "The world will be a better place politically if we can invent plentiful renewable energy sources that eventually reduce global demand for oil to the point where even oil-rich states will have to diversify their economies and put their people to work in more innovative ways ((Friedman 2008), p. 107)."

Effects on Transportation and the Economy

Peak oil is likely to strongly hurt businesses that depend on transport by truck or plane. If you are a trucker, work in the airline industry, for FedEx or UPS, or for big box stores like Wal-Mart, you should start formulating a backup plan in case you lose your job. Obviously if you are an investor you don't want to invest long-term in companies that make money primarily through transportation. New jobs in sectors like local food production will open up to close the supply-demand gap for transported goods.

The post-peak world may be like living in the U.S. during WWII. Americans were resource-constrained, and there was energy rationing (no new cars, limited gas). People grew victory gardens. WWII was an emergency, but not the type we are used to, the kind associated with natural disasters. Rather, it was a "long emergency,” to use James Kunstler's phrase, and that's the type of emergency that will confront us. The repercussions and responses to Peak oil will stretch out over years. Yet like natural disaster emergencies, when people band together and work toward a common cause, the Peak oil emergency may help rebuild communities. It may reverse many negative trends of the 20th century such as depersonalization and centralization.

The U.S. is particularly vulnerable to the challenges presented by Peak oil because it has a low population density, and because the U.S. built its cities for cars rather than people, leading to urban sprawl. Australia is even more vulnerable because transportation distances within Australia and to its trade partners are even greater than in the U.S., and it is more dependent on petroleum-based fertilizers to produce its food.

In conclusion, Peak oil is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity in the next several decades. As global oil production decreases and demand increases, the price of oil and of all goods that use of oil or oil-derived energy in their life cycle will skyrocket. Sadly, people will be forced to abandon marginal living areas that petroleum made livable, such as big chunks of Australia. But out of the Peak oil crisis may emerge a new, more rewarding lifestyle, if we prepare for change.

For more information about Peak oil see:

ASPO International: The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas:


Bates, A. (2006). The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times, New Society Publishers.

Edwards, D. M. (2009). Sprawling From Grace: 82 min.

EIA (2009). Annual Energy Outlook 2009, USDOE: 230.

Friedman, T. (2008). Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution - and How It Can Renew America, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Greene, G. (2004). The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream: 78 min.

Heinberg, R. (2005). The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, New Society Publishers.

[i]For a sampling from 2007-8 see: Transporters, farmers to protest failure to cut fuel prices in India (, Truckers protest fuel prices in Mexico City (, Scores of bikers in UK have caused rush-hour disruption in a protest against rising fuel prices (, Truckers to protest fuel costs in U.S. (, Hundreds Protest Against Steep Fuel Price Rises in Burma (

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Peak Oil 3: National and Global Production Peaks of Oil and Other Resources

"We've embarked on the beginning of the last days of the age of oil." — Mike Bowlin, Chair, ARCO

"My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel." — attributed to Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Emir of Dubai

We are not good at recognizing distant threats even if their probability is 100%. Society ignoring [peak oil] is like the people of Pompeii ignoring the rumblings below Vesuvius." — James Schlesinger, former US Energy Secretary

Geologists have been predicting since the 1950s that oil production would begin to decrease in a matter of decades. When Geophysicist M. King Hubbard predicted in 1956 that oil production in the U.S. would peak in the early 1970s, both the scientific community and the public made him a pariah. However, when production peaked in 1970 as he predicted (Figure 1), many scientists accepted him as a prophet (most of the public remained unaware of his predictions). Many people forget that until the early 1970s the U.S. was, like Saudi Arabia of the 1980s and 1990s, the largest oil producer in the world. However, since the early 1970s the U.S. has become increasingly dependent on foreign countries like Saudi Arabia to feed its voracious appetite for oil. We now rely on unstable third world countries to fuel our cars, and we finance despots and wars to maintain our precious oil supply. Even George W. Bush acknowledged in 2008 that the U.S. is addicted to oil. The effects on foreign countries of the U.S. addiction to oil are very similar to the effects of the U.S. addiction to illegal drugs: the flow of money from the wealthy U.S. leads to corruption, crime, and political instability in third world countries. Our addiction has caused scores of countries and millions of people to suffer. Moreover, our dependence on foreign countries for oil has obviously decreased our national security.


Figure 1. U.S. oil production over time. Equation for Gaussian fit: y = 10955*exp(-0.5*((x-1972.8)/36.21)^2). Data from BP Statistical Review (2010).

Now that the U.S. depends on foreign countries for 2/3 of its oil, we must be concerned not only about the reliability of our existing suppliers but also the natural limits to global oil production. In the year 2008 the world experienced for the first time a spike in oil and gas prices resulting from demand, as opposed to previous price spikes in 1973, 1980, and 1990 caused by global conflicts. Increases in oil prices result in increases in the costs of farming and food. The spike in 2008 occurred because countries didn't allow the market to correct itself; instead, for decades they subsidized energy and food, keeping prices artificially low ((Friedman 2008), p. 41).

To understand better why we can expect to have future shortages of non-renewable resources such as oil, we refer to (Figure 2), which plots hypothetical production rates of renewable and nonrenewable resources as a function of time. As discussed previously, because there is a finite amount of every nonrenewable resource such as oil, production and consumption inevitably lead to resource depletion. The total amount of a resource that is available (the ultimate cumulative production) is equal to the area under the curve. Resources that are not abundant and that we use rapidly run out quickly so that their resource production curves are very narrow. Resources that we use slowly or that are abundant last much longer, so their curves are wide and do not peak until well into the future.


Figure 2. Hypothetical production rates as a function of time. After Hubbert (1987).

It is the timing of the peak that is of most interest, because any time after the peak the resource will be scarce and therefore be expensive. In (Figure 2) the “unlimited exponential growth” curve can represent human population, while “renewable resource” can represent water production/consumption. As stated by Hubbert, “In their initial phases, the curves for each of these types of growth are indistinguishable from one another, but as industrial growth approaches maturity, the separate curves begin to diverge from one another. In its present state the world industrial system has already entered the divergence phase of these curves but is still somewhat short of the culmination of the curve for nonrenewable resources (1987).”

Note that on the rising limb of Hubbert's Peak demand drives supply: "the more oil the world economy needed, the more the oil industry could produce… Once we pass the peak, supply begins to dictate demand, meaning that prices start to rise suddenly and steeply, and the people with control of the remaining oil really get to start calling the shots (Hopkins 2008)."

We can apply Hubbert’s approach of constructing resource availability curves to any non-renewable resource on either a local or a global basis. Many countries are already post-peak for production of oil (including the U.S.) and other resources. For example, the U.S. imports 100% of the following resources that it uses: Arsenic trioxide, asbestos, bauxite and alumina, columbium (niobium), fluorspar, graphite, manganese, mica, quartz crystal, strontium, thallium, thorium, and yttrium (Keller 2011). Because we have global trade, local scarcity has not resulted in a crisis. Countries that have a surplus of a resource export it, and countries erase their deficits by importing. The problem occurs when global annual production rate of a nonrenewable resource peaks and then begins to decline. During the decline, resource production cannot keep pace with demand, and resource prices rise. Peak oil may cause shortages of many other resources because oil provides the energy to transport those resources. If the U.S. doesn’t have oil to transport all of the resources that we import, we will have more than just an energy problem.

What nonrenewable resources may become scarce in the 21st century? Hubbert predicted that copper, tin, lead, and zinc would reach peak production within decades (Hubbert 1987). At the current rate of consumption, these metals will be available for 60, 40, 40, and 45 years respectively, and Indium, which is used in LCDs and solar cells, may run out in only 15 years (Ragnarsdottir 2008). Phosphate, which is an essential component of fertilizers, may disappear within the next 60-70 years (Oelkers and Valsami-Jones 2008), which could greatly decrease agricultural productivity and cause widespread food shortages.

It’s not just non-renewable resources that we have to worry about. Certain types of renewable resources have production curves similar to those of non-renewable resources because their renewal rate is less than the harvesting rate. For example, deep (fossil) groundwaters have been in the ground for hundreds or thousands of years, which means it would take hundreds or thousands of years to replace them at natural recharge rates. In many areas of the world, the groundwater extraction rate is much greater than the recharge rate, so the groundwater reserve is shrinking, as made visible by falling water tables in unconfined aquifers. When we use groundwater and other resources faster than they can be replaced, we are effectively mining them, and we can expect the production rate to peak and then decline, as occurred in Saudi Arabia (Figure 3). Consequently, hydrologist Luna Leopold advocated the treatment of groundwater as a nonrenewable resource that we should use only during droughts. The sustainable approach to resource use is not to use renewable resources faster than nature can renew them.


Figure 3. Saudi Arabia Water Supply 1980-2000 in Million cubic meters/year. Data from Abderrahman (2001).

Another renewable resource whose production has peaked is the global wild fish catch, which peaked in the 1980’s due to overfishing (Fig. 1.10). Fortunately the use of aquaculture as a substitute is expanding, which has softened the blow. As human population and resource demand continue to increase, we can expect to see the production of more resources peak and then begin to decline. The important question is, will we always find adequate substitutes as we did for marine fish?

Oil production is now declining in 60 of the 98 oil-producing countries. Most of these countries had a peak in oil discovery 30-40 years before they reached peak production. Similarly, we can expect world oil production to peak 30-40 years after world discovery rates peaked in 1965. World oil consumption has outpaced the discovery of new oil reserves for almost three decades: we now consume four barrels for every one we discover.

Discoveries of oil total about two trillion barrels worldwide, and we already used ~one trillion barrels. That puts us at the center of the production curve where the peak is (often called “Hubbert’s Peak”), so that when we start consuming the second half, production rates will decrease and prices will rise (the curve is symmetrical, so the peak is in the center and the area under the curve to the left of the peak is the same as to the right of the peak, corresponding to one trillion barrels). Furthermore, the first trillion barrels was the oil that was easy to get out of the ground; the second trillion barrels will become increasingly more difficult to mine. The EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Investment) will steadily decrease, and the amount of environmental damage associated with oil recovery will greatly increase.

Andrew Nikiforuk gives good evidence that the world is nearing peak oil in his book “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent” (Nikiforuk 2008). He notes that the biggest supplier of oil to the U.S. is no longer Saudi Arabia, but our next-door neighbor Canada. U.S. citizens are happy because there is less risk that money we spend on oil will end up in the hands of terrorists who target us. However, Canadian oil primarily comes from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, and mining of this “dirty” oil creates huge environmental problems, including much higher CO2 emissions per unit energy because large amounts of natural gas are used to refine this dirty oil. Production of tar sand oil emits roughly 100 to 650 pounds of CO2 per barrel, compared with North Sea oil that emits only ~20 pounds per barrel. Nikiforuk (Nikiforuk 2008) calls this “a switch from bloody light oil to dirty heavy oil,” and concludes that it is not in the best interests of the U.S. or Canada.

Several other observations support the idea that global peak oil is near. First, of the 98 oil-producing nations, 60 have already passed their peak (Hopkins 2008), including the U.S., U.K., Norway, Venezuela, and Russia; countries near their peak include Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and China; and countries where production is increasing include Canada (tar sands), Kazakhstan, and seven others. Second, although prices have been very high, giving an incentive to increase production, the production rate has remained steady at 84-87 million barrels per day for the last six years (Figure 4). The evidence is that geology rather than economics or politics dictates production rates. Third, oil companies are drilling in more difficult environments because they have already tapped out the easy targets. For example, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in May 2010 resulted from the extreme pressures below one mile of ocean and four miles of rock where they were drilling. Another supporting observation is that oil companies have not greatly expanded their oil exploration activities even though the price of oil has skyrocketed. Oil companies are now using their vast amounts of money to diversify or buy back their own stocks rather than spending more money on R&D and exploration. This is clear evidence of falling return on investment in exploration, and shows that oil companies are planning for reduced oil production.


Figure 4. World oil production in thousands of barrels daily. Gaussian fit predicts peak production in the year 2026 (y = 85079*exp(-0.5((x-2026)/51.94)^2). Data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy Data 2010.

So when will global oil production peak and then begin a steady decline leading to increasing cost? Oil companies and national governments want investors to be optimistic about the future, so they try to discredit peak oil claims. To get the true story we need experts who are independent of corporate or government interests, who have no personal stake so their opinions are objective, and who base their opinions on facts. Kenneth Deffeyes (2001) argued that the peak would be somewhere close to the year 2005. Using data from British Petroleum’s annual Statistical Review of World Energy 2010, I plotted world oil production through 2009 (Figure 4). The data show that oil production plateaued starting in 2005. The increasing gap between constant supply and increasing demand fueled by countries like China and India caused oil prices to increase dramatically by 2007 before falling in response to the global recession. A Gaussian fit to the production data peaks at 2026[i] (Figure 4). Most other studies that tried to fit the production data and extrapolate it into the future suggested that oil production would peak near 2008-2010 (Figure 5, from Considering that oil production has not increased significantly since 2005, and actually dropped 2.6% from 2008-2009 (BP 2010), these predictions seem accurate. However, as Hopkins (2008) points out, the exact date of the peak doesn't matter; what matters is that it is near, and we haven't begun to prepare for it.


Figure 5. World oil production (EIA Monthly) for crude oil + NGL. The median forecast is calculated from 15 models that are predicting a peak before 2020 (Bakhtiari, Smith, Staniford, Loglets, Shock model, GBM, ASPO-[70,58,45], Robelius Low/High, HSM,Duncan&Youngquist). 95% of the predictions sees a production peak between 2008 and 2010 at 77.5 - 85.0 mbpd (The 95% forecast variability area in yellow is computed using a bootstrap technique). The magenta area is the 95% confidence interval for the population-based model.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary” (Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management, February 2005, Page 64). What is crazy and wasteful is that the U.S. and other countries are still building car assembly plants, roads, highways, parking lots, suburban housing developments, and airplanes as though cheap oil will last forever (Brown 2009). We continue to make investments in an infrastructure that will be superfluous shortly after we build it. This is an example of a market that is failing because it does not anticipate even short-term changes.

Many will dispute the assertion that world oil production has nearly peaked. It is possible that the current peak apparent in (Figure 4) is a local maximum rather than a global maximum. Examples of local maximums include the 1973 and 1980 peaks in world oil production followed shortly after by price increases. Both of these local maxima resulted from political events, the OPEC embargo in 1973 and the Iraq-Iran war in 1980. So while resource availability is the primary control, anything that disrupts production and transportation of oil (wars, natural disasters, and politics) can cause short-term fluctuations in production rates and therefore price. However, the current oil production peak is not caused by political events, but by the inability of producers to increase supply.

Others argue that oil production, or at least combined conventional and unconventional oil and gas, will not rapidly decline but will plateau or slowly decline (Cheney and Hawkes 2007). Production of conventional oil and gas may decline steeply. However, substitution with unconventional oil such as tar sands combined with improvements in extraction technologies will slow the rate of production decline for combined conventional and unconventional oil and gas, consistent with the nearly constant production rate of the last six years. Even in this best-case scenario where world oil production plateaus rather than peaks, oil prices will still climb considerably because demand will continue to increase exponentially as the economies of China and India expand at an exponential rate. As noted by Lester Brown, in this era of globalization “where oil production is no longer expanding, one country can get more oil only if another gets less (Brown 2009)”. The U.S. will be competing with China, India, and every other country in the world for oil, which will drive up oil prices.

Some think that increasing domestic production will solve any oil shortage problems for the U.S., but in reality, oil companies will sell any domestically-produced oil on the global market. Despite political claims to the contrary, if the U.S. opened the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling today, when it reached maximum production in roughly 2030 it would supply no more than 1.2% of the total world oil consumption[ii], and therefore would have a negligible impact on oil prices. Furthermore, oil production could not begin until roughly ten years after opening ANWR (yes, it takes that long to build the pipeline, drilling facilities, etc.), and would peak around 2030 before starting to decline, so it won’t help the U.S. for at least ten years. So no, opening ANWR will not solve our oil problem.

The most important question about oil is not how much remains in the ground, but how much can we mine and still maintain economic and energy profits (Hall and Day (2009)). We get an energy profit when we get more energy from the oil we produce than the amount of energy required to produce it. The Energy Return On Energy Investment EROEI of U.S. petroleum declined from roughly 100:1 in 1930, to 40:1 in 1970, to about 14:1 in 2000 (Hall and Day (2009)). For the tar sands that produce a major amount of oil consumed in the U.S. the ratio is much less than 10:1, perhaps even close to 1:1 (Figure 6). As EROEI decreases, the cost per unit energy increases.


Figure 6. From Hall and Day (2009)

Increases in EROEI, supply-demand gap, and price of petroleum will also cause increases for gasoline, because gasoline is produced by distilling oil in a refinery. Gasoline is an amazing substance that we take for granted. Each gallon of gasoline contains 37 kWh of energy, which is equivalent to 500 hours of human work[iii] ( In other words, you could hire 500 people to push your car for one hour and it would get you roughly as far as one gallon of gasoline. Currently that gallon of gasoline costs about $2.50, but to hire 500 people to push your car for one hour at a typical wage of $10/hour would cost you $5000. People say gas is too expensive? It’s the bargain of the millennium, which is why people are burning through it so quickly.

Some argued that gas prices were high in 2008 because the U.S. didn’t have enough refineries, and that the problem of high gas prices would just go away if we build more refineries. If that were true, then the price of gas should be cheaper in most other countries, which are unlikely to all have made the same dumb mistake. Here is a global comparison of gas prices:

Table 5.2: Gasoline Prices for Selected Countries, February/March, 2009

From <>.


Pump Prices


Pump Prices


Pump Prices



India (Delhi)




United Kingdom








South Africa
















South Korea


United States



In most countries gasoline is more expensive than in the U.S.. Iran and Venezuela have anomalously low prices because they are petroleum-producing countries with government-controlled pricing. European countries have much higher prices due to heavy government taxation. Thus, high gas prices are a global problem caused by oil scarcity, and are not caused by a U.S. infrastructure deficiency. We conclude that oil is becoming scarce, that exploration and enhanced recovery are unlikely to relieve that scarcity, and that oil prices will continue to rise as demand increases.


BP (2010). Statistical Review of World Energy 2010, British Petroleum.

Brown, L. (2009). Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. New York, NY, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Cheney, E. S. and M. W. Hawkes (2007). "The Future of Hydrocarbons: Hubbert's Peak or a Plateau?" GSA Today 17(6): 69-70.

Deffeyes, K. S. (2001). Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

Friedman, T. (2008). Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution - and How It Can Renew America, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Hall, C. S. A. and J. W. J. Day (2009). "Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil." American Scientist 97: 230-237.

Hopkins, R. (2008). The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience, Chelsea Green Publishing.

Hubbert, M. K. (1987). Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon in Human History. Societal Issues, Scientific Viewpoints. M. A. Strom. New York, NY, American Institute of Physics: 75-84.

Keller, E. A. (2011). Environmental Geology, Pearson Prentice Hall.

Nikiforuk, A. (2008). Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Vancouver, BC, Canada, Greystone Books. file:///C:\Users\ayersj\Documents\My%20Classes\Sustainability\Papers\TarSandsBook.pdf.

Oelkers, E. H. and E. Valsami-Jones (2008). "Phosphate Mineral Reactivity and Global Sustainability." Elements 4(2): 83-87.

Ragnarsdottir, K. V. (2008). "Rare metals getting rarer." Nature Geoscience 1(11): 720-721.

[i] According to Deffeyes (2001), production values for nonrenewable resources such as oil are best fit using the Gaussian or normal distribution y=a*exp(-.5*((x-x0)/b)2). This equation has three adjustable parameters: the year of peak production (x0), the amount of oil produced daily during that peak year in millions of barrels (a), and the number of years between the half-maximum points (b). I used the Solver add-in in Microsoft Excel 2010 to minimize the sum of the squares of the residuals (= predicted – measured), known as the chi-squared statistic, by automatically adjusting the values of the three parameters until I obtained the best fit values for global production of a = 85.0, b = 51.9, and x0 = 2026, with r2 = 0.87. I obtained the same results using nonlinear regression in Sigmaplot 11. The calculated peak production of 85 million barrels per day is roughly equal to the production rate from 2007-2010.

[ii] Fear of oil shortages has led to the spread of misinformation, particularly for political gain. Recently a friend said he had heard from several sources that ANWR can supply about 60 years of oil for the U.S.. I told him that I had heard that, given our current oil consumption rate, it was more like a two -year supply (if it were our only source of oil), and that to last 60 years ANWR would have to contain more oil than Saudi Arabia ever had. That night I looked up the statistics. According to the USGS (2001) ANWR holds roughly 10.4 billion barrels. In 2007, the United States consumed 7.54 billion barrels of oil. Thus, it would take only 10.4 bbl/7.54 bbl/year = 1.38 years for Americans to consume all of the oil. For the maximum estimate of 16 billion barrels of oil in ANWR it would take 16/7.54 = 2.1 years. Considering our rate of consumption of oil is continuously increasing, an estimate of two years supply is a reasonable upper limit.

[iii] Actually, if as stated previously "One kilowatt-hour per day is roughly the power you could get from one human servant”, then I calculate that it is 888 h as follows: if E = P*t, then t = E/P = 37 kWh/(1 kWh/d) = 37 d * 24 h/d = 888 h

Peak Oil 2: Oil Formation, Exploration, and Recovery

To understand why the amount of oil stored in the ground is finite, and the amount that we can retrieve is even smaller, we need to review how oil forms and how we recover it from the ground. The oil stored within the earth initially formed hundreds of millions of years ago when plants used photosynthesis to store the sun’s energy, died, were rapidly buried, and transformed under heat and pressure into oil. The energy stored in oil molecules is therefore ancient trapped sunlight. Oil can form from buried plants only under special conditions in the oil window at approximately 3-6 km depth, and only when oxygen is not present to react with the carbon to form carbon dioxide (respiration). Oil is usually found only in sedimentary rocks that are less than 500 million years old, because land plants did not exist before that time. Because oil takes millions of years to form, it is considered a non-renewable resource.

Oil source rocks are the fine-grained organic-rich sedimentary rocks, usually shales, where oil forms over millions of years. Because it is a low density fluid, oil does not usually remain in the source rocks but tends to migrate upwards through permeable rocks. A reservoir rock such as a sandstone or coral reef has sufficient permeability to let the oil flow into it and porosity (empty space) to store the oil. An impermeable cap rock, often salt beds, can trap the oil beneath the surface. Petroleum geologists look for oil in places where cap rock (salt) lies above potential reservoir rock (sandstone), which in turn lies above potential source rock (shale).

Because oil is “liquid gold,” oil companies have spent billions of dollars perfecting techniques for oil exploration and recovery. Over time, exploration shifted from the surface to the subsurface. Each drilled well provided information about the subsurface. From drill chips, geologists could identify rock types and microfossils and assess their potential as source, cap, or reservoir rock. After drilling a series of wells, a geologist could interpolate the subsurface structures (sedimentary layers, faults, etc.) between wells so they could estimate the depth of reservoir rocks in undrilled locations, and therefore how deep they would have to drill a potential well.

To improve their oil-finding capabilities further, oil companies developed methods for wire line logging, gravity surveys, and subsurface seismic profiling that greatly increased the success rate of expensive drilling and allowed exploration geologists to find small patches of oil at great depth. These techniques greatly lowered the costs of exploration; they also greatly increased the amount of oil delivered to the market. Both factors helped to keep the price of oil low. These techniques were so effective that oil discoveries skyrocketed until 1965 (Figure 1) but have fallen ever since, suggesting that most or all of the abundant oil supplies have been found.


Figure 1. Crude oil price per barrel (2009 U.S. $) over time. Data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy (2010).

Experts debate how much oil remains, and how much we can recover. In his book “Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage” Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes (Deffeyes 2001) claimed that the total recoverable amount of oil was 2.1 trillion barrels in 2001, and that we had used roughly half of that, so that roughly 1000 billion barrels remained. In 2006 we consumed oil at a rate of 31 billion barrels per year. If that rate remained constant, it would take 1000/31 or ~32 years from the time of Deffeyes’ estimate to consume all of the remaining oil, i.e., we would deplete oil reserves by the year 2033. However, the oil consumption rate is increasing exponentially because population is increasing at an exponential rate. Furthermore, it is not the timing of ultimate exhaustion of the resource that concerns us, but the timing of peak oil production. After oil production peaks, a gap will develop between continuously increasing demand and decreasing supply, and the price of oil will skyrocket (Figure 2). This will occur well before ultimate depletion occurs.


Figure 2. Peak oil and the supply-demand gap. After Keller (2010).

The prospects for finding large new oil deposits to erase the supply-demand gap are not good. Theoretically we can recover large amounts of oil from smaller oil fields, but it is not economically feasible; oil companies make most of their money from giant oil fields. Today ~85% of total production comes from less than 5% of production fields (Deffeyes 2001). Oil companies made all but two of the major oil discoveries before 1940, so the rate of discovery of large oil deposits (spikes in (Figure 3)) has greatly decreased.


Figure 3.

Enhanced oil recovery is also unlikely to significantly increase supply. Primary recovery, which uses natural reservoir pressure, extracts no more than 25% of the petroleum in the field. Enhanced recovery, which requires manipulating the reservoir pressure by injecting gases and liquids, extracts up to 50–60% of the petroleum. Despite more than 50 years of research on how to improve recovery rates, we still leave more than 40% of the oil underground. This is unfortunate, because worldwide we are now abandoning more wells than we are drilling.


Deffeyes, K. S. (2001). Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

In October 2010 I traveled to eastern Kentucky to learn about the effects of mountaintop removal (MTR) mining on the community.  We were fortunate to be able to tour an ICG coal mine in Hazard, KY, and to meet with some prominent opponents of MTR, including Tom Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, and Erik Reece, author of "Lost Mountain."  Most of the community clearly supported coal mining, but a vocal minority of opponents included people like Beverly May who had to fight coal companies to save their homes.  After saving her neighborhood from MTR coal mining, Beverly became an activist with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and was featured in the documentary "Deep Down."  Her story made me wonder if coal supporters would become opponents like Beverly if coal companies threatened their homes.  Why are people willing to let corporations destroy their neighbors homes and write it off as "progress?"
The devastating effects of MTR mining became apparent when we toured the property of Daymon Morgan, an army veteran who has been fighting for decades to prevent a coal company from destroying his land. Because he is too old to walk through his forested backyard, he hopped in his ATV to take us for a tour.  He showed us the herbs and trees that grow in the wild.  Then he took us over the ridge to see his neighbor's property: it was a bald patch of rock and dirt, with rubble strewn along its length.  The contrast between the beauty of Daymon's forest and the horror of the coal mine was so overwhelming that a student started crying.
Traveling through Hazard, KY made me realize the scale of MTR mining.  When I started teaching Geology, I would tell amazed students that the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens blew 1300 feet of rock from its top. In Hazard alone I must have seen ten mountains that had that much rock removed from their tops.  Humans have exceeded nature in destructive capacity.
Perhaps we could live with MTR mining if coal companies returned mine tailings to their original location at the top of the mountain rather than dumping them into stream valleys where they contaminate the water.  If coal companies restored the land surface to its "approximate original contour" and then replaced the soil and planted new trees, the environmental and aesthetic objections would mostly disappear.  However, coal companies insist on using the cheapest mining methods, and don't view "restoring the land" as part of their job.  Thus, they continue to turn much of Appalachia, one of the most beautiful areas I've ever seen, into a wasteland.

Peak Oil: Background

Climate says we should change, but peak oil says we will be forced to change (Hopkins 2008).

Oil is an amazing liquid, and an ephemeral, invaluable gift[i]. It has been the world's most important source of energy since the mid-1950s. But evidence suggests that demand for oil will soon outstrip supply, and in the face of shortages of energy, especially for transportation, we will be forced to change our lifestyles.

Oil is effectively a non-renewable resource because it forms much more slowly than we consume it. Thus, by definition our dependence on oil is unsustainable. Oil will become a “scarce,” expensive resource when the world production rate reaches a maximum, an event called peak oil. After that peak, oil production will decline and oil prices and the cost of living will begin a long-term increase.

Currently we have no adequate substitutes for oil. It is the only high energy density liquid that can fuel our current forms of transportation. Coal is used to produce electricity, natural gas for power and heating, but there is no substitute for oil for transportation. The only other liquid fuels that could potentially substitute for oil are hydrogen and biofuels, and both have significant drawbacks. Hydrogen is not a source of energy but a carrier of energy. Hydrogen production requires other forms of energy, usually fossil fuels, and hydrogen vehicles are not energy efficient (MacKay 2009). Biofuel production requires large amounts of land because the efficiency of photosynthesis is low. In most countries biofuel can only be produced by converting land for food to land for fuel, but even if we converted all agricultural land to biofuel production it still could not meet our transportation fuel needs. For example, if Britain converted all of its agricultural land to biofuel production, it still would not supply enough energy (36 kWh/d per person) to meet demand from cars (40 kWh/d per person - see (MacKay 2009) pp. 43-4). After peak oil, we will think twice before hopping in the car for joyrides or frivolous errands; those activities will be too expensive to continue.

Besides its importance for transportation, oil a critically important part of our industrial agriculture system, and is the raw material for many chemical products, including pharmaceuticals, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics; the 16% not used for energy production is converted into these other materials. Peak oil advocates such as Deffeyes argue that we should save our remaining oil for more valuable applications than burning it up in our cars. For example, we can’t make most plastics without oil. An oil shortage could cause shortages in all these materials:

Table 4.1: Things we may have to do without* after Peak Oil

* or fall back on less adequate or more expensive substitutes

  • Most forms of plastic including PVC and polycarbonates
  • Wax
  • Asphalt used to make roads
  • Tar
  • Many lubricants
  • Many solvents
  • Many detergents
  • Many adhesives
  • Resins and epoxies
  • Fibers (polyester, acrylics, nylon, etc.)
  • Synthetic rubber
  • Agrochemicals: Fertilizers, Pesticides, Herbicides
  • engine coolant and aircraft deicer fluid (propylene glycol)
  • Styrofoam
  • Many personal care products including perfumes, cosmetics,
  • Oil-based paints including polyurethanes
  • Materials for electronics (electrical insulation, capacitors, transformers)
  • Many inks and dyes
  • Many food additives including flavorings, colorings, and fragrances
  • Many pharmaceuticals

Thus, an oil shortage could have a major impact on the way we live. In the next post we will explore the evidence for peak oil.


Hopkins, R. (2008). The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience, Chelsea Green Publishing.

MacKay, D. J. C. (2009). Sustainable Energy - without the hot air. Cambridge, England, UIT Cambridge Ltd.

[i] Note that we use the term “oil” synonymously with petroleum

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cuba’s transition from a peak- to a post-petroleum world

Excerpts from “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived the Peak Oil Crisis”
Cuba’s "Special Period" was an economic depression that began in 1991 after the collapse of Cuba's primary sponsor, the USSR. The depression peaked by the mid-1990s and decreased in severity by the end of the decade. Cuba also experienced an energy famine when oil imports dropped from 13 to 4 million barrels per year. Thus, Cuba was the first country to face the peak oil crisis, even though it was an artificial peak. This crisis transformed Cuba's society and economy, as exemplified by the Cuban governments change of its 30-year motto from "Socialism or Death" to "A Better World is Possible", and led to the nationwide adoption of sustainable agriculture. Cuba's successful transition from a peak- to a post-petroleum world teaches us many lessons that will be useful when our own countries are forced to make this transition in the near future.

Because most of Cuba's electricity was produced by burning oil, the oil shortage led to widespread blackouts. People could no longer rely on refrigerators, so their only option was to eat fresh food when it was available. Food shortages became the first problem to develop during the Special Period. To understand why, it helps to know that Americans consume 10 barrels of oil per year producing food, 9 on autos, and 7 on houses. Food shortages were exacerbated by an intensification of the U.S. embargo, which led to an 80% decrease in food imports. After the Green Revolution Cuba's agricultural system was the most heavily industrialized in Latin America, but the oil shortage meant that they couldn't use energy-hungry tractors or combine harvesters or transport the food great distances to consumers. Thus, farmers had to completely transform the agricultural system by relocalizing it and changing farming methods from those of industrial agriculture to permaculture. Society became more decentralized as people moved from cities to farms. People became more self-sufficient as they learned to produce their own food. This took 3-5 years, during which there were constant food shortages, and Cubans lost an average of 20 pounds. Government food distributions & rationing kept people from starving.

But Cuba had some advantages: it had 2% of the population of Latin America but 11% of the scientists. Prior to the Special Period scientists had conducted research on sustainable organic farming, and once the need arose they implemented these methods nationwide. It took 3-5 years to make damaged soils fertile and productive again through systematic application of green manure (plowing green matter in) and compost and use of crop rotation. Nationwide farmers decreased oil-derived pesticide use from 21,000 tons to only 1,000 tons per year by using crop-interplanting methods and biopesticides. Now 80% of the food produced in Cuba is organic. The Cuban diet has changed in response: it is now more vegan-like, with greatly decreased consumption of meat, sugar and dairy products and increased fiber content.

The urban agricultural movement was also effective. It started as a survivalist response on the part of individuals, but grew when entire communities began to convert idle neighborhood plots of land to community gardens. These communities used permaculture methods to create natural gardens on roofs and patios. Each neighborhood has a kiosk to sell fruits and vegetables.

The impact of Peak Oil during the Special Period extended far beyond agriculture. To be politically independent Cuba had to be economically independent, which in turn required energy independence. Cuba now uses its own crude oil (which unfortunately is dirty and bad for the environment) and biomass to produce electricity, and Cubans now use one-eighth of the amount of energy that Americans use. Cubans now would rather sell their oil than use it.

The collapse of the economy meant that money became worthless, and people were forced to switch to alternative currency systems such as bartering. People had to abandon their cars. In small towns people turned to horses for transportation. For transportation over short distances city dwellers could walk or use bicycles. For longer distances Cuba had to develop a mass transit system overnight. Even now mass transportation in cities is inadequate, so the current trend is to build mixed-use communities that are self-reliant because all amenities are local.

Increased exercise and a switch to a healthier diet of fresh vegetables caused the health of Cubans to improve. Health care became decentralized, with doctors and nurses living in the same neighborhoods as their patients and paying house calls. Universities decreased in size but increased in number so they could serve local populations.

The people of Cuba demonstrated impressive resilience during the Special Period. They were forced to live with less and to change their way of thinking and way of life, but they successfully adapted, and are still happy. Cubans survived despite their government's planned economy; perhaps during "long emergencies" such as the Special Period it doesn't matter what form of government you have as much as how resilient communities are.

For more information see and the video "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived the Peak Oil Crisis"

Monday, August 23, 2010

Solar Cookers for Haiti

I recently purchased a panel reflector solar cooker for $130. The HotPot was designed and developed by Solar Household Energy ( and is manufactured by Integrated Logistics Solutions ( in Monterrey, Mexico. Its design uses simple scientific principles. The reflector focuses sunlight on a black pot containing food. The pot is enclosed in a transparent glass "greenhouse" that traps the heat absorbed by the black pot. The HotPot is excellent for slow-cooking vegetables, rice, legumes, and fish (and meat for my wife). Twice per week I buy locally grown organic produce at the Farmers Market, come home, cut it up, and toss it in the HotPot. It can cook up to 9 pounds of most foods within 3 to 4 hours. Preparation usually takes no more than 15 minutes of cutting and tossing into the pot. No liquids need to be added except for rice and beans because water is "sweated" out of the food. Cooking is even easier; I just set it outside facing the sun, and then rotate it twice to track the sun across the sky. Afterward I simply fold up the reflector, wash the black pot, and store them with the glass pot. Solar cooking requires no fossil fuel energy, is good for the environment, and requires minimal cleanup. In addition, the dishes I prepare are healthy and are excellent as leftovers.


Solar cookers can help solve two of the biggest problems in Haiti, deforestation and lack of clean water. Deforestation primarily results from poor people chopping down trees to make charcoal to fuel their stoves. Women often spend many hours every day collecting wood to make charcoal. A simple solution is to provide solar cookers with instructions to the women in each household. Haiti has abundant sunshine, and to become sustainable the Haitian people need to make use of this valuable, free resource. Solar cookers eliminate the need to cut down trees for charcoal. The time saved could be used by women and girls to improve the situation, perhaps through education. An additional benefit is that solar cookers can be used to effectively pasteurize water, thereby preventing water-borne diseases. Solar cookers are an extremely cost-effective solution to the problems of deforestation and water contamination. Solar Cookers International ( has an aid program to distribute solar CooKits, pots and Water Pasteurization Indicators (WAPIs) in Haiti. This is an example of high-impact philanthropy, meaning charitable donations are used to maximize benefits by leveraging existing resources.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Simpleton’s Guide to Sustainability

From general to specific. Items in lists within good cells improve to the left from good to better to best. Any suggestions for additions or deletions?












Conserve (reduce, reuse, recycle)











Hidden costs

Triple bottom line accounting


Reusable, recyclable, biodegradable








Selective harvesting


Solar and wind energy

Personal Automobiles

Public transportation


Soybeans, farm-raised herbivorous fish

Escalators, elevators



kayak or canoe





Downhill skiing

Cross-country skiing

Recreational vehicles

Tents and Cottages

Industrial agriculture

Organic Community Supported Agriculture

Using a treadmill

Walking outside


Running or bicycling

Travel for meetings


Daily commute to work


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cutting government services doesn’t always save money

People are familiar with the concept that cutting corners often ends up costing more money in the long run: this applies to homes, cars, nearly every consumer purchase. But the same holds true with government services, which we purchase with our tax dollars. Many want the cheapest government possible, so the trend in the past few decades has been towards decreasing taxes. That trend combined with the recession beginning in 2008 has led to drastic cuts in government services. Those cuts, however, often lead to problems that cost money to remedy. One of many examples is the problem of violent patients in emergency rooms (Julie Carr Smyth, AP, 8/11/2010). Cash-strapped states have closed state hospitals and addiction programs and cut mental health jobs. As a result, ER visits for drug- and alcohol-related incidents increased from ~1.6 to ~2 million between 2005-8, and incidents of violence in ER rooms jumped from 16,277 to 21,406 between 2006-8. In response, hospitals have had to pay for expensive deterrents such as 24-hour guards, bulletproof glass, installation of "panic buttons", coded ID badges and scanners, and metal detectors. From a sustainability perspective, it makes more sense to invest in prevention of substance abuse and mental illness than in security systems to protect people from addicts and the mentally ill. Treatment and prevention increase social capital and may increase economic capital through cost savings; security and deterrence systems do not increase any form of capital.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Globalization and culture

Much of the backlash against globalization stems from a fear that it will lead to a homogenization of culture. This process has operated throughout history, but electronic media and global transportation have accelerated the process because they have removed barriers to the exchange of information. Without barriers, random processes cause the entropy of the global social system to increase, eventually leading to homogenization. It's like the classic experiment that explains entropy and diffusion. Divide a box into two chambers and fill each with a different gas. When you remove the divider, Gas A molecules begin to diffuse into the Gas B chamber, and vice-versa. The entropy, or disorder, of the system increases as the two chambers change composition from pure gas to increasingly similar mixtures of A and B molecules. When the process is complete, the two chambers have the same compositions. Both entropy and stability are at their maximum values.

Likewise, geographic and communication barriers have historically divided world cultures. A diverse array of cultures developed in isolation, which led to decreased stability and increased conflicts. The modern removal of communication barriers inevitably reversed the process of cultural divergence by increasing the efficiency of information exchange and removing cultural obstructions. Theoretically, the subsequent cultural 'blending' will ultimately (over long periods of time) lead to cultural homogenization and societal stability, but in the short term the process can be disruptive and painful. However, the force driving this process is relentless, so stopping the process would be difficult or impossible, and undesirable since it leads to an increase in stability. As long as humanity has affordable global travel and digital communication, fighting against cultural homogenization on a global scale would be futile. The only way to slow or prevent it is to slow or stop the exchange of information, which is neither desirable nor acceptable.

Just as a homogeneous mixture of two gases is more stable than the segregated pure gases, cultural homogeneity should encourage stability. Removal of cultural differences and barriers increases understanding, which decreases fear and hatred, which increases stability. However, we also previously argued that decreased diversity leads to decreased resilience. A system is most resilient when diversity is at a maximum. For example, ecosystems with high biodiversity are more resilient than those with low biodiversity. In a farm or garden, a polyculture is more resilient than a monoculture. Reasoning by analogy, high cultural diversity corresponds to greater resilience. Cultural diversity makes it more likely that society will find solutions in the face of global threats such as global warming. In the past, some cultures were better prepared to deal with adversity, while other less adept civilizations collapsed. For example, in contrast to the Easter Islanders who practiced unsustainable logging practices until no trees remained, Japanese leaders successfully dealt with timber shortages in the mid-17th century. They invoked Confucian principles of limiting consumption and accumulating reserve supplies to develop sustainable forest management (Diamond 2005). In our global society, one culture may provide the seed of knowledge or understanding that will lead to the preservation of global civilization. What if that culture were wiped out during cultural homogenization? Global homogenization of culture would decrease the resilience of humanity.

Therefore, sustainability requires stability and diversity. We must maximize the two at different spatial scales. A community containing people with similar cultures and beliefs can be stable; a country containing diverse communities can be resilient if those communities respect each other’s differences. To promote sustainability, society should adopt policies that reduce intracommunity diversity and increase intercommunity diversity. For example, many cities in the northeast like Buffalo, where I grew up, have multiple ethnic neighborhoods (Polish, Italian, and Irish in Buffalo), and these neighborhoods have coexisted peacefully for more than one hundred years.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Simple Science is Sometimes the Best Science

Many people think that important science always involves sophisticated mathematics, high-powered supercomputers, or expensive technical instruments. A recent book demonstrates that this is not always the case. David MacKay, Professor of Physics at Cambridge University, published a very influential book in 2009 titled "Sustainable Energy: Without the hot air", available for free download at A review in Physics World stated it is 'a book every budding physicist should read - and perhaps also ... the one every working physicist would like to have written.' This book has probably had a greater impact on science and society than any other scientific publication in the last couple of years, but it involves physics no more complicated than application of Newton's laws of motion. MacKay uses data, logic, and simple math to arrive at important conclusions. He systematically calculates the maximum amounts of energy that can be produced by renewable energy sources in Britain and shows that it is not physically possible to meet Britain's energy needs using renewable energy alone. This conclusion is very important, but MacKay also shows why some forms of renewable energy such as solar are much more promising than others such as biofuels. His conclusions will help determine where future scientific research funds will be funneled and therefore what path research on renewable energy will take. Though the science MacKay used is simple, the conclusions are important enough that he was appointed as the chief scientific advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change shortly after the book was published. Britain is now conducting studies to decide whether to support large-scale deployment of tidal power, the form of renewable energy that MacKay most strongly endorsed for Britain in his book.

The enormous impact of MacKay's book may help dispel some misconceptions about science. Important science doesn't need to be expensive or complicated, and sometimes it is published in books rather than scientific journals (remember "The Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin and "PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica" by Isaac Newton?). Society needs clear-headed thinkers like David MacKay to show us how to address some of the pressing scientific problems of our time such as global climate change and peak oil. And the general public can learn a lot about the future of society by reading MacKay’s book.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Economic growth can be too fast, leading to attacks against children in China

Change as rapid as China is experiencing is destabilizing. Imagine you are Chinese peasant whose lifestyle does not change while everything changes around you. Your friends who became wealthy will no longer be friends with you; the girl you hoped to marry now spurns you because her family is now wealthy. The landmarks you grew up with have been torn down and replaced with modern buildings. You feel alienated and disempowered. What do you do? Perhaps these changes can explain the strange rash of copycat crimes in China that started in March 2010, when a man stabbed eight children to death while they waited for a bus outside their elementary school in the southeastern city of Nanping. At his trial the man said he was angry because he was jilted by a woman and treated badly by her wealthy family. On April 28 he was put to death, and on the same day the second attack occurred: a man in the southern city of Leizhou wounded 15 students and a teacher in a knife attack. The third attack occurred the next day in the eastern city of Taixing when a man slashed 28 children, two teachers and a security guard with an 8 inch knife. The following day a fourth attack occurred in Beijing, where a farmer attacked kindergarten students with a hammer, then burned himself to death.

According to experts, "outbursts against the defenseless are frequently due to social pressures... and growing feelings of social injustice in the fast-changing country. An avowedly egalitarian society only a generation ago, China's headlong rush to prosperity has sharpened differences between haves and have-nots (Bodeen, AP, 4/29/2010)". Change can be too fast for systems and people to adapt; even seemingly positive change like rapid economic growth is unsustainable because it is destabilizing and causes social upheaval.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Message to Science Educators and Students about Global Climate Change

A recent poll of climate scientists by the University of Illinois found that 97% now accept that human activity is causing climate change ( Yet many high school and university science educators who are not climatologists remain skeptical, and pass that skepticism on to their students. What science educators need to realize is that they are teaching their students to be skeptical not about one scientific theory, but the entire scientific process. If science educators don't accept the overwhelming consensus of scientific experts, why should their students or the public? My concern isn't so much whether students learn and accept the scientific consensus on global warming; my concern is that they will conclude that science isn't a legitimate source of knowledge, and that it shouldn't play a role in public policy decisions. If scientists don't trust science, if they don’t believe it is the most effective method for discerning the truth, then why should anyone else? Frankly, I feel sorry for science educators who dedicate their lives to a process that they don't trust. They do science and their students a disservice by not having an unbiased expert present the facts so that their students can form their own opinions.  All of us should avoid giving opinions on subjects we are not qualified to evaluate.

Now climate contrarians are allying with creationists to keep the teaching of global climate change and evolution out of the public schools (see “Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets”, Kaufman, published March 3, 2010 For over a century creationists and their predecessors have fought against earth scientists about the age of the earth, biologists about evolution, and astronomers about the age of the universe. Now the same anti-science groups are fighting climatologists about global climate change. Scientists in these fields need the support of other scientists; we need them to take the time to learn about these issues; we don't need them to undercut science by voicing their opinions rather than presenting the facts to students.

Students of science: Don't believe anyone who states opinions about scientific issues without presenting supporting facts, including me. If your teacher or Professor makes an unsubstantiated statement challenging the consensus scientific view, be it on evolution, global climate change, or any other topic, challenge them to explain what evidence they base their opinions on. On global climate change, ask them why they think they know better than the 97% of climatologists who believe the evidence shows that the earth is warming. Ask them how all of those climatologists could be wrong. If the response is not based on science, but on something else like politics or religion, call them on it. If they claim that the scientific experts in that field are unreliable or have all committed fraud, ask them why you should trust any scientific authority.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Taxes can promote sustainability

The majority of U.S. citizens favor low taxes because they want to decide how to spend their money rather than letting the U.S. government decide. However, most Americans don't realize that taxes are useful not just for raising revenue but also for discouraging undesirable choices.  For example, gas taxes discourage gas consumption, which reduces our payments to countries that sponsor terrorism, reduces pollution and emission of GHG, and increases national security by preparing America for future gas shortages. If the proceeds from these taxes are used to remedy other chronic societal problems, and in doing so increase the quality of life of all Americans, we get a win-win situation. For example, the three E's of sustainability are environment, economy, and equity. Raising gas taxes is an investment in the environment, and it improves the economic situation of the federal government, making it more sustainable. If the revenue is used to provide health insurance and education to poor children, we've made a wise investment in human capital and increased equity, making our society more sustainable. Many people would rather not have to pay the gas tax, and use the money they save to buy stuff like HDTV's.  But that use of money is not in the best interests of society, or even of those individuals.  I believe that the benefits of having a healthy, educated citizenry far outweigh the benefits of having more unnecessary stuff. Would you give up the chance to upgrade to an HDTV if it meant you might live longer (due to reduced pollution)? That you would pay less for your healthcare because hospitals would not have to charge the insured to cover the uninsured? That as an employer you could more easily find well-educated workers, which would improve your bottom line? That all Americans would benefit because a better educated citizenry would make our country more competitive in the global marketplace and our workers more valuable in the global workforce? And since we are now competing globally, a better educated, healthier workforce would make all U.S. companies more competitive and richer, which would make their employees richer, which would increase the amount of tax revenues flowing to the government, which might result in future tax reductions.  Thus our choice to raise gax taxes and invest the money in people rather than stuff improves environment, economy, and equity, making the whole country more sustainable.  Yes, not all taxes reap so many benefits, but we have to acknowledge that they have the potential to, and therefore be willing to pay them, recognizing that they are simply another form of investment.  Wouldn't you rather invest in people rather than stuff?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Failure of the U.S. Government to Address Sustainability

The U.S. Government will fail to adequately address sustainability issues, and American citizens will have to abandon the top-down approach and rely on a bottom-up approach to solving these problems that affect our national security. I say this because Congress and the public have become so polarized along ideological lines that compromise and political progress have become impossible. As a result, moderate members of Congress are choosing to leave rather than run for reelection. On February 16, 2010 when moderate Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) announced that he would not seek reelection after two terms, he stated that "there is too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving" on Capitol Hill (Kellman and Jackson, AP, 2/17/2010). Nowhere was this more apparent than when the Senate in January rejected a bipartisan deficit commission that could have forced Congress to make painful budget decisions. Members of Congress are unable to agree to reduce capital outflows, but they refuse to increase capital inflows by raising taxes because that is politically unpopular. Most telling was the fact that some Republicans who originally supported the commission changed their votes after President Obama endorsed it. Clearly these members of Congress were acting in the interests of their political party rather than of the country they serve.

By rejecting the establishment of a commission that could have taken the heat for such unpopular decisions, Congress essentially sealed the economic fate of the federal government. This plot shows the federal deficit over time. The total area under the annual deficit bars is a measure of the total deficit, i.e., the economic overshoot = outflows - inflows, which is also shown by the cumulative deficit line that is now approaching $6 trillion. The federal budget is seriously out of balance, but even worse, in most cases these deficits were planned. Unbalanced proposed budgets are passed every year now.


In this plot I've shaded Republican administration years red and Democratic administration years blue. Notice that until Barack Obama took office in 2009 the red area was much greater than the blue area, meaning that until 2009 Republican administrations contributed more to the deficit than Democratic administrations. Of all of the Presidents since 1970 only Bill Clinton managed to balance the budget, ringing up surpluses in his last three years of office. In contrast, President George W. Bush changed the budget surplus of his first year in office, which was budgeted by Clinton, and turned it into record deficits within two years.

As a result of the economic recession in President Obama's first year in office in 2009 the annual federal budget deficit rose to the highest level ever. It remains to be seen if the benefits of the money spent on the economic stimulus package to stave off the recession outweigh the harms resulting from the increase of the deficit, but if the trend continues, the federal government will soon be unable to meet its financial obligations, and this will likely result in an economic collapse. Most economists predict that interest payments on the budget deficit will consume 80% of all federal revenues by 2020 (Tom Raum, AP, 2/15/2010).

And it will only get worse. In January the U.S. Supreme Court, dominated by political ideologues, voted to eliminate any limits to political contributions by corporations or lobbies. Most American citizens believe that members of Congress are already in the pockets of corporations. Now these corporations will have unlimited influence. The fate of bills will be decided by who has the deepest pockets. And when it comes to the three ABCs of unsustainability, who do you think will win when Congress tries to regulate Automobile, Beef, and Coal producers? Will members of the Senate ever vote to limit CO2 emissions when wealthy oil companies are paying them not to?  Congress is losing its integrity and its independence. Soon it will lose its economic power and therefore its influence. We can't rely on Congress to fix our problems.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Do snowstorms disprove global warming?

The two snowstorms that hit the U.S. east coast in the past few weeks have been touted by many climate change contrarians as proof that the theory of global warming is incorrect. Much of the focus was on Washington, DC, because that's where media people and contrarian politicians are concentrated. Here I examine the many errors associated with this line of thinking.

First, contrarians argued that snow equals cold, and therefore that an unusually large amount of snow means unusually cold. Of course this is a logical fallacy: anyone who has lived in a snow-prone area like my hometown of Buffalo, NY knows that unusually cold means less snow, because very cold air holds less moisture. Large snowfalls are usually associated with warm, moisture-rich air. In Washington DC it is usually cold in enough in January and February to snow, so what was unusual about the two snowstorms was how much snow fell, not how cold it was. Thus, people were confusing precipitation and temperature. In fact, the theory of global warming predicts more intense storms, because the atmosphere has more energy, and greater amounts of precipitation, because the atmosphere is warmer and therefore can hold more moisture. The storms on the east coast resulted from warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico moving northeast and hitting cold dry air from Canada. This caused the warm moist air to cool, and because cold air can hold less moisture than warm air, the excess moisture fell as snow. This was expected because El Nino has been active off the U.S. west coast, and this typically causes more precipitation in the southern and eastern U.S. (note that El Nino events are expected to become more frequent and intense as warming continues).

Contrarians were also confusing local and global. They were committing the logical fallacy of over-generalizing when they inferred from observations on the U.S. east coast the condition of weather globally. They don't seem to understand that it's possible to be unusually cold in some areas but unusually hot in the rest. For example, looking at a global map of temperature anomalies for the month of December 2009 (data from NASA), we can see that it was unusually cold in the U.S. and Siberia, but unusually warm in the rest of the world:


Finally, contrarians were confusing weather and climate. On the short term of weather (days, months) it is entirely possible to have unusually cold temperatures; warming just makes them slightly less probable. But over the long term of climate (years, centuries, millennia) the trend is towards increasing average global temperatures.

So when arguing that snowstorms on the U.S. east coast refute global warming, contrarians were confusing precipitation and temperature, local and global, weather and climate. Is it possible to get any more confused about global climate change?

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For humorous takes see