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Oil and Water and Warming and War and...Whew!

by cskendrick Mon Nov 13th, 2006 at 11:51:10 AM EST

I'd started this out as a post to London Yank's diary on Iran...and, being me, it got a bit out of control.

It's a review of a host of diaries I've written over the years on

  1. peak oil

  2. how we became oil pimps and hoes

  3. some thoughts on how we can transform our civilization

  4. the wars that are coming (and with us right now) as a consequence of this dependency, and

  5. their coincidental location in places with scarce water (my current hobby-horse), and

  6. how not changing away from pro-runaway greenhouse effect policies might kill us by killing the climate

  7. What the future might look like if we don't get a handle on things...

  8. ...and what it might look like if we do...

  9. Plus, as the grand finale, a grave concern that humans aren't that patient and as likely as not will simply make war after devastating war until the numbers are diminished to the point that while Earth might outlast us, even if some humans persist they will be hapless creatures and everything we think of as wonderful and worthy of our self-preservation will die even if we do not.

Read on...if you're feeling adventurous...

I wrote this comment to the One True Jerome a while back, which contains a summary of two older diaries.

The first was Something to Cheer The Pessimists Up - A Peak Oil Diary!, which was a snarky title for describing how we (Americans) managed to paint ourselves into an oil-dependent corner, and the consequences of same including the sad truth that

  1. it will be far simpler for international capital to pack up and relocate to developed economies that are better-hedged against energy price volatility and absolute increases (read: Europe) or

  2. move into emerging economies that can support buying into mass transit and alternative energby disincentives thanks to rapid growth fueled by, you guessed it, capital flight out of the overexposed American economy (read: Asia, Latin America)

Why We're So Addicted to Oil

Is the purview of Change Our Energy Policy? That's Just Crazy Talk., an exercise in interpreting how the character of the current American economy is actively, aggressively and expensively maintained, and at your society's expense.

This pretty much sums it up...

...[W]e are a civilization that is starting to lose its ability to produce goods of solid quality...of any sort. Oh, the convenience is still there, but with energy being what it is, delivering slop to your trough is about all that this America is capable of doing, and that goes for the full range of products.

One might suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, we should do something about bringing down energy costs, or changing our paradigm to something less sensitive to the price of gasoline, but there remains that ancient underlying aspect of American frontier culture -- the make-do attitude. It's at once a strength for resolve, yet a detriment to judgment as to what we as a society are resolved to keep, and what to change.

That's something we see coming out of Washington, out of boardrooms, out of the television every day: The message that the American people should just...suck it up, and deal, and stop being such a bunch of big (forgive the term) pussies about it.

All the while, the people delivering this screed of resolve and perseverance are cashing the country out, and inching toward the exits, smiling confidently the entire time as they reach for the door, already holding their car keys.

Fixing It Up

Still, we could salvage something...by kicking almost everything out the window as we march Toward a Post-Petroleum Economy, the three-pronged effort being

  1. Diversification of Energy - Diversify the energy supply portfolio of our civilization. We can and should improve capacitor technologies to accumulate near-continuous, low- and/or variable-density energy sources such as winds, tides and sunlight. With primary energy sources becoming the mainstay rather than the marginal source of power, gradually the burning of fossil fuels, charcoal, and dung will fade, as economies of scale for wind, wave and sun will emerge.

  2. Dispersion of Capital - Miniaturization a go-go. Devolution a go-go. Leverage skilled labor a go-go. Reduce capital inputs per output of product, disperse capital to the small shops and tool shed workbenches of the world, as much as possible. This is practicable by reducing the size and complexity and cost to manufacture, use and maintain tools and machines used in the production of goods and services. We don't need nanotech. All we need in the next decade or so - and have time for - is mini-tech. And anything that can empower the weekend hobbyist can make a factory that much more energy-efficient and competitive.

  3. Conversion to an Energy-Based Currency - Make the currency based not on speculation or precious metal stockpiles or good faith and credit, but on the kilowatt-hour. Make the dollar energy-based. In a sense, it already is. Make this explicitly so, such that a country that spends more than it saves in energy terms will see its currency depreciate, the opposite for thrifty societies. This might require the cooperation of several major currency countries, and a mechanics of crediting savings as well as debiting consumption would have to be in place, else not one of the major economic powers would play along since almost all are net energy debtors. The short-run advantage would fall to net energy producers, but in the long run the depletion of extractable stocks and the incremental appreciation of `energy capital reinvestment' would give a significant advantage to the most technologically progressive countries; the worst-hit would be net energy debtors that made no attempts to invest in the new mode; not only would such countries' productivity falter, their currency would crash, as well.

Of course, we could just slog on through the sludge...and right into a tar pit

This is the future that our current crop of global power elites is slouching toward, and it's not a happy place.  The great powers are presently jockeying for position in Central Asia. And apparently dissatisfied with insulting the Iranians, American neoconservatives are now taking up the noble task of Saber-Rattling with China. Nice.

Now, lately, I'm partial to water (not oil) scarcity as the primary driver for water

But it just so happens that a lot of oil-rich countries have lots of water, but for some reason nobody's invading Canada, Norway, Britain, Venezuela, Indonesia, Brunei, Brazil, Gabon, Nigeria...

...though I suppose somebody might get around to it eventually. Perhaps after the upcoming round of wars in East Africa are finished.

Dealing With The Tyranny of Oil

Might require a firmer hand eventually. Being, well, me, I've written a lot of future history scenarios that at least touch on this topic.

From The World in 2100....

Global warming not over yet. There is grave concern; we know how much warmer the Earth can become before a cascade sets in and the temperature ramps all to the way to maximum -- if we suffer a mere 7 degrees warming over the 2100 average, there is a 50% change of a runaway greenhouse effect. There are countries that do not subscribe to Kyoto IV, and since trade embargoes no longer have the force they once possessed, it is likely that miilitary force will have to be applied. This is for their benefit, too. We admire diversity, but will not allow the actions of others to threaten our own.

And as for the geopolitical and economic consequences of global warming...

(1) Centralized authority will be more persistent, due to the uncertainty, and persist as the main focus of power for an additional century.

(2) Mass media will have more leverage, thanks to its piggy-backing with central state power and the sensationalism of reporting disaster and fear.

(3) Despite the ecological hardship and need for food, or rather because of the die-off in human population because of the ruination of existing crop zones, agriculture will suffer, and control of food as the mainstay of political power will be delayed a century, as will the rise of computation control as the keystone in its own turn. The trend in social transformation at large is retarded by the long-standing ecological crisis.

(4) Means of production, new and old, suffer. Nanotech is available, but not as generically. Mechanized production and use of machines fails, but more due to general impoverishment than supplantation by an advanced technology.

(5) Nanotech never obtains the penetration it enjoys in the mainline scenario, remaining an elite technology, a preserve of the "have" economy, and the division between developed and undeveloped persists for several centuries longer than otherwise. Eventually, nanotech is generically available, but by that time more superior innovations as available, and they are the preserve of an even more restrictive elite. More on those later.

(6) Global trade is greatly impaired, not recovering for most of the millennium. Save for essential traffic, the world becomes a much less mobile place; Internet and nanotech make physical mobility less essential in both scenarios, but there is a distinction by class between those who travel and those who do not and this condition persists for many centuries.

Other points from that last diary are truly sci-fi speculative, but I think the six points above are valid regardless of one's expectations of the advance of science and technology going forward; it's a world that should be prevented from ever happening, even in a diluted form, for it is a cruel, unsympathetic and stunted place, hostile to life and freedom in equal measure...enamoured of security and power and control and the wealth to buy all three.

Now, if you're into the way speculative stuff...I can hook you up!

What the Rich Got Versus What You'll Get is a more detailed assessment of this universe, and the segregation of a well-to-do that is moving toward post-human (perhaps non-human) status.

And a A Happier Future History, is only happier in degree, but depicts a century in which we get the ball rolling in the right direction.

The Next Five Hundred Years really runs with all the elements, good and bad; the pacing will jar some, as some things we think of as immediate disasters take their time, and other events we do not expect generally to occur for a while arrive rather quickly.

The Four Hundred Years After That discusses the arrival of not a post-petroleum but a post-Terran civilization, as the great powers of Humanity first diversify offworld, then the baton of leadership leaves Mother Earth for keeps.

But say it all goes very, very badly...

Global Thermonuclear War describes that situation, where the problems of the now -- all of them -- are just too much, or there is too little will or that urgency is delayed too long, and somebody goes postal and takes the rest of the planet with them into the pit.

It's heartbreaking, not in a personal way, but in the way that the philadelphic heart can be broken, when all one's love and hopes and dreams for a better humanity are permanently dashed against a wall...

So let's call the whole thing off

...who launches first, second and third is not important, only that it happens. Perhaps some anarchist out there decided: civilization is so bogus, let's burn it all down.

The model assumes 80% casualties in a nuclear catastrophe in the early 21st century, with 50% of arable land and drinkable water lost due to radiation and blast scouring. Land quality is assumed to recover by the simple plug-in equation % good ^ 0.99 per century; basically, for purposes of the aftermath, what's ruined is ruined for keeps.

The population continues to fall, compliments of the breakdown in the global economic order and local civilization; by 2100, we have gone from 6,080 in the year 2000 to 958 million, and that reflects some upsurge after the fall.

What still stands

There are still armies, and governments, and what order exists is closely associated with their upkeep. It's a sort of feudalism writ large; autocracy is the order of the day, though some republics struggle to keep things going. No economic activity, no matter how primitive, is better off than before the war; far too many people died. There's still crafts and farming, cable television and the internet, churches and use of machinery. Some trade exists, but it is very sparse.

What's gone

There is no industry, or oil to run it. There is no mining, but that is moot since there is more scrap to harvest than can be exhausted, even if there were still industries. Mass education is gone, as are almost all medicines save for an emphasis on nutrition, hygeine, first aid, and radiation discipline. There is hardly any ranching; too difficult to police what the critters eat. Even hunting is rare; the bullets are worth too much for warfare to waste on game, and wildlife is more likely to be contaminated than livestock.

What never happened

Nanotech. Had it managed to be implemented before the war, there would have been a prayer of recovery. Of course, had it been in existence for the war, it would have been used in it, the ultimate holocaust as the planet was converted into a hot puddle of grey goo.

But maybe it gets better in the 22nd century?

By 2200, the population is up to 1.1 billion, and global GDP is compare to the year 1920 instead of 1850. Life expectancy is sub-current levels, about 66 years in the best areas. Farm production is doubled, promising increase in numbers going forward. Internet use is 50% greater than current, quite something given the relative population. Virtual simulation technology is now available, a happy retreat for persons living in a dark and dismal future. A few industries have returned, fueled by a class of recyclers, foragers among the plentiful ruins. These last are aided by the advent by nanotech, which renders them more resistant to radiation and biohazards and facilitates prospecting and recovery of critical materials. Some ranching in well-cleansed areas begins again, and there is even refining of petrochemicals, mostly plastics recovery. Perhaps the worst is past. Perhaps, just perhaps, Humanity has been handed a second chance.

Oops. Perhaps not

The 23rd century introduces Humanity to the new reality - it has survived, but it will survive with stringent limits going forward. Thanks to the bombs and the radiation, there simply is no more room for much more than a billion humans on Earth, not anymore. The days of progress fueled by rapid population expansion are over.

It is strenuous to feed humanity now, to glean nutrition and necessities from the land and the ruins. The brief renaissance in industry and petrochemicals is shelved for keeps; the old, fast-moving ways are gone, as is any hope of space travel. Virtual reality, quantum simulations, and a vibrant realtime kaffeeklatsch sort of society, at once congenial and contemplative, is what persists, that is, when the rigors of survival allow.

And with that salvo across the bow, humanity learns that there will be no additional wonders, not anytime soon. The post-Apocalypse is neither barbarian nor enlightened, purely hellish nor transcendent in sad wisdom. It is a stasis, a living within much-reduced means, of looking up at the stars and knowing that the change to attain them had been sacrificed for many centuries to come, perhaps for keeps.

My Thinking

I do not think human beings are patient enough and cooperative enough to last long enough to be killed off by runaway ecological collapse; I think if the problems caused by overpopulation and planetary overuse are deemed insurmountable, or if cooperative solutions are rejected, I think the end will come in the form of world war, perhaps several world wars, and these conflicts will make concerns about the changing environment moot for most of Humanity and almost all the survivors. Heck, triaging 80% of the human population might just save the planet, for all I know. Or not. Perhaps it will be what pushes the human race over the edge to extinction, and many other forms of life along with us.

So, I think whatever solutions, micro and macro, generate peace are probably valid as long-term solutions to global problems -- or at the very least buy time to generate same.

And what solutions either exacerbate conflict or introduce war where war was not before are by the same token very, very bad calls.

But maybe it's just me.


Have Keyboard. Will Travel. :)
by cskendrick (cs ke nd ri c k @h ot m ail dot c om) on Mon Nov 13th, 2006 at 11:52:50 AM EST
I find "your current hobby horse" that water scarcity is a main driver of violent conflicts very appealing, and I am wondering whether you have state-by-state data for the US. Also, What data would be necessary to run a region-by-region analysis of, say, Spain?

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Nov 13th, 2006 at 03:19:12 PM EST
for the United States.

To do the same for Spain, I would need by-region water supply statistics to derive a carrying capacity for each area, and some historical population figures to set up the initial growth rates.

The basic model's really simple.

For the more refined model, I would need literacy rates, some way to index infrastructure development (electricity, phone, road, rail, running water, etc). I think that's enough to get started.

Have Keyboard. Will Travel. :)

by cskendrick (cs ke nd ri c k @h ot m ail dot c om) on Mon Nov 13th, 2006 at 03:36:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll see if I can dig those up for you.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Nov 13th, 2006 at 03:40:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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