Category Archives: Peak Oil

If earthquake preparedness is a stretch, peak oil preparedness is a pipe dream

I’ve spent some years thinking about–and preparing for–how I see our world changing in the coming decades. Some months ago, while doing my personal quarterly planning, I realized that I’d missed something big–huge in fact. I’d missed my preparation for the NOW in terms of earthquake preparedness.

I can speculate about how trends in availability of fossil fuels, and net return on energy, are changing the world. And it’s just that–a big guess. But the reality of earthquakes in California and the Pacific Northwest is far from speculative. It’s geology. From what I’ve been reading, in the 1000 year view it’s very predictable that these areas get BIG earthquakes (I’m talking 9+ magnitude) every few hundred years give or take. So it IS going to happen, we just don’t know when. And it’ll be a big deal when it does happen.

The funny thing is that in spite of that degree of science and certainty (there aren’t any earthquake deniers that I’ve heard of), getting people to take earthquake preparedness seriously is like pulling teeth! And we’re not talking “change your profession, learn to grow food,” we’re talking “buy some emergency kits, strap down your furniture, and make a reunion plan.” Not rocket science, but also not particularly common, either, if you ask around.

Thus it shouldn’t shock me too much that there is just so little interest in looking seriously at energy trends and saying “what does this mean, and what should I do about it?” To really embrace those questions takes a lot of abstraction, imagination, and courage. It is the few who are really looking at this, and it is a tremendously unpopular topic, other than amongst these few.

My instinct, in part informed by the late Ed Friedman, is to work with the willing and the capable who are energized by these questions, rather than trying to “convince,” “change,” or “bring along” the reluctant. I bet this is by far the highest probability way to move things forward–to work with the willing.

The Bigger Picture in 8 Points

From Dark-Mountain; they nailed the predicament we’re in. Although the energy issues aren’t explicitly mentioned, I see them showing up in several of these points.

A related NYT times article, It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . . and He Feels Fine.


‘We must unhumanise our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.’

  1. We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.
  2. We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.
  3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.
  4. We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.
  5. Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world.
  6. We will celebrate writing and art which is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.
  7. We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.
  8. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

Peak Oil Could Be Good News for Conservationists

Can we set aside enough wild area for the future?

I just got back from visiting Corcovado, a famous national park in Costa Rica. One could call this “the last great park” in Costa Rica—the rest are getting divided up or chewed around the edges, going so far as to threaten genetic diversity of the animals. Most of Corcovado is off limits to tourists, in order to allow the plants and animals to thrive. However there is constant pressure, especially from foreign-owned businesses operating here, to expand access, to build more, to make more money. It is an ongoing battle.

But it occurred to me, as we were bouncing through the surf on the one hour boat ride to the park entrance, after a 100 minute river boat ride, from a town which is a 20 minute taxi from the main road, how much energy it takes to get here. If we were coming here on foot, bike, or horse, it would have been quite a journey. And so it’s really because of oil that we can hop on a plane in San Francisco, fly to Atlanta (for mysterious airlines reasons) and then catch a flight to San José Costa Rica, followed by another flight to Osa province, followed by a series of taxi and boat rides.

As oil becomes more precious, it’s going to become more and more expensive to get over here. Now arguably that might mean that people who’d otherwise go to African safaris will instead come to Costa Rica, when today’s Safari dollar would only buy tomorrow’s Rainforest tour. So we could see an ongoing readjustment, whereby the travel to the most remote areas falls off first, as transportation fuels continue to go up in price, and as well as the pool of middle class jobs—and the dollars that come with them—shrink.

Down the line, this would mean that the market of people who can afford a trip to Costa Rica to the rainforest would shrink, and eventually be limited to the super rich. In one scenario, less traffic would mean less investment in development, and thus less environmental impact. In another scenario, though, it could mean further strain on this area as ever higher end facilities are created to win over the business of the few who can afford it.

Hang in there big guy

Thus far, the Drake Bay area appears to be well protected from development, in part because of the lack of a reliable road to get here, and also because there appears to be recognition from the local powers that be that conservation is good policy for tourist dollars. But these things can change, and if they do then habitats and nature can be hurt in a way that takes a long time to bounce back from.

In the long run, this area will likely revert back to the farming and fishing that was here previously. What I don’t know is how much environmental damage a local population could do; in part this depends on how many people are trying to live off of the land, and what tools they have at their disposal to speed up cultivation of the land. There is a certain carrying capacity here, as everywhere, and population growth is a critical input to it.

As things stand now, it takes a lot of fossil fuels to get people like me from the rich countries over here to more remote corners of Costa Rica to see nature. As the fossil fuels become less available, one pressure on the land here may reduce; whether that slack is taken up by local populations.

Unlimited optimism, limited energy


This is so cool looking!! Are you convinced now that it’s a bonafide free energy machine? Just a sec, two “official looking men dressed in black” are knocking on my front door…

I recently came across the documentary Thrive. Among other things, it claims that free energy devices–machines that generate more energy out than they have coming in–exist and work, however they have been completely and successfully suppressed by powerful people who profit from fossil fuels.

I suppose to some people this is a very satisfying idea, that lines up with a certain world view. However I see many serious problems with the “free energy device” train of thought:

* Physics: the ideas they are proposing don’t work with our current understanding of physics. Granted, they could have found something new, but then they’d have to show it. I met a gentleman last year, a social entrepreneur, who had seen dozens of these machines over the years, and never found one that was actually creating energy. He said that the inventors were looking at the wrong numbers–possibly because they didn’t understand power readings–and so there was in fact no energy gain.

* Control of information in the internet era: so the most powerful government in the world seems helpless to stop very low level people, like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, from sharing extremely embarrassing government information. But somehow they are able to keep down this true “game changer” of a technology? Really?

* Power: Basically the empire that controls the most energy rules the world. If these energy creating machines existed, every government would be chasing after them with gusto. And energy supplies are a growing problem for the military around the world.

The US military and the German military have both released reports that show series concerns about energy supplies. In fact it’s so bad, that the US military has been funding biofuels research! (Unfortunately biofuels are a net negative return on energy.) I’ve also heard of pretty amazing military solar technology. If these military folks could get energy producing machines, they’d do it in a heartbeat.

* Money: Think about the Sandhill Road VC types that you’ve met. Do they strike you as cooperative people who are willing to forgo profit? Heck no! They’re driving hard to make every dollar they can. I’d be shocked if any government could keep these rabid capitalists from making monster profits from an energy producing machine. They would step all over each other to be the first to get the machine, patent it, and make huge money. What happens instead is that they employ people, such as the gentleman I mentioned above, who check out these “free energy machines,” with their own measuring equipment, shake their heads, and say “I’ve seen this before, you’re confusing X with Y.”

* Academics: So you mean to tell me that there are a whole generation of physics researchers lusting after Nobel prizes, or heck even just tenure, who are purposely ignoring this “promising” field of free energy machines? Or that they have been “warned away” by the government, and it just doesn’t get talked about? Look, science has progressed far enough that now researchers are building machines to leverage the momentum of light. Which closet are the free energy machines going to be hidden in?!

Human nature: Let’s face it: when the stakes are really high, people often don’t play nicely. And the higher the stakes, the more nasty things get. There are lots of stories of rivalries among the rich that tell me it’s far from one big happy group of co-conspirators. There’s always someone who believes that they are better off going it on their own, be it in academia, venture capital, government, military, or owners of professional sports teams . You’re telling me they’re going to agree to keep the free energy machine a secret–for decades–and have nobody break ranks? I honestly think the existence of a free energy machine is more likely than those “big people” being able to cooperatively keep it a secret. 🙂

So look–if free energy machines existed, I think we’d all find out about in a big hurry. Especially in the age of wanton profit seeking and unlimited information sharing, it seems very unlikely that a secret like this could be kept. And if it does exist, it’s not that hard to prove–think about it.

My favorite resources for post-fossil fuel living

I was recently at an inspiring “unconference” in the Bay Area on the topic of sustainability, and I met many fascinating people with good questions. From those conversations, I decided to put together a list of the resources that I’ve found the most relevant when thinking about what living in a world with dramatically less fossil fuel use.

My top 3 recommended resources

1. Here’s the book that “changed everything” for me around sustainability. It is well written, makes a lot of sense, and doesn’t preach. Greer pretty much lays out what he sees, and lets you decide what you think. A provoking concept here is “if technology doesn’t bail us out yet again, THEN what happens?”

2. This is a fascinating book on the Soviet Union’s collapse experience. Since it happened relatively recently, it’s a great way to consider “what might it look like here.” I couldn’t put this down once I started reading it, because it’s not speculation, it’s a recording of what happened. He does a wonderful job of showing how the USSR had several structural things going for it that softened the cushion of collapse. These include most housing being state owned (so nobody got evicted or foreclosed on) and all housing being mass transit accessible (so people could get around without cars). I highly recommend this book.

3. Here’s a collection of post-peak short stories that Greer edited. There’s a great variety of future visions in here, and all are well thought-out:

Fiction, albeit well thought-through and grounded

More resources


Beware of folks using peak oil as a tool to scare you into buying financial advice

I’ve had a few friends forward me links to articles with a note that says “this sounds just like what you’ve been talking about!” And I keep hoping that they are going to send me a link to a legitimate website such as The Archdruid Report or Post Peak Living but instead I get to a page (which I’m purposely not linking to) that says something like this:

A team of economists, scientists and geopolitical experts has uncovered a startling pattern that has mysteriously appeared and threatens your financial security and way of life!

Unfortunately this just smells badly of a new form of crass consumerism, to save you from the old form of crass consumerism. Same process, different content. Got a problem? We’ll sell you a solution. Rinse, lather, repeat.

It reminds me of a conversation I had once with a guy whose job is to do marketing emails for investment managers. As he put it, it’s all about finding just the right angle to get people to click, the “made you look!” effect, as he called it. If these folks want to do that using other angles, fine, but I’m going to get territorial about peak oil as a way to shill.

I’m super clear that these investment websites that use Peak Oil scare tactics to sell are a pox on the real movement to bring awareness and useful action to learning deeply sustainable ways of living.  If someone has a genuine product to sell, or a reality tested skill to teach, fine. But it’s not what these folks are up to. We need to get these issues right.


The United States can learn from Japanese energy habits

by Dick Johnson

I’m currently visiting Japan, which I get a chance to do roughly every year, and I’ve got sustainability on my mind. One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to go far way, somewhere very different, and be able to compare habits and common practices that I otherwise wouldn’t think about. Since we are still in an age where traveling long distances is very convenient, and frankly costs relatively little money, I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Since the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and related nuclear problems, energy policy has been a major discussion in Japan. Even before the earthquake, Japan did a number of things relatively well, at least compared to many other rich countries, in terms of energy. Here’s some of what I’ve noticed:

  • Energy is expensive here, so individuals are relatively careful it. Electricity, gasoline cost a lot.
  • In much of the country, driving is a relative luxury. Buses and trains are convenient, plentiful, affordable, and used widely.
  • Many people ride bikes, for instance to and frame the train station, or just around their neighborhood. It’s a normal thing to do, as opposed to just something that young people or poor people do.
  • Rooms are selectively heated.
  • It’s normal practice for plumbing intrusions in kitchens and bathrooms to be properly gasketed, to prevent heated air from escaping.

Since the earthquake, there’s been a big public company about 節電 or saving energy. I’ve noticed very politely worded signs in retail spaces explaining that even during business hours, all of the lights aren’t necessarily going to be turned on, because of the need to save energy. Apparently people are fine to go along with this, so it makes me wonder if it’ll become a permanent way of doing retail lighting.

A raging debate in Japan since the earthquakes has been about whether to restart the nuclear plants or not. The dilemma as I understand it is that in spite of the ways that Japan saves energy, it is a rich country that nonetheless is used to consuming a lot of energy, and so without nuclear, the difference needs to be made up in other ways.

I’ve heard people talk endlessly about the wonders of renewable energy, but I have to question just how sustainable most “renewable energy” is. A positive side of renewable energy, to me, is that it pushes people to be more away of where their energy is coming from. Frankly the bonanza that the fossil fuel age has become so normalized that pretty much everyone has forgotten the huge impact it’s had on the comfort of our lives.

A negative side of renewable energy is that it’s generally a misnomer. For instance it takes serious amounts of energy, particularly high temperatures, to make a solar PV panel. I’ve heard in fact that the energy you put into making solar panel is roughly equal to what you eventually get out of it. So a solar PV panel is like a battery–put in fossil fuels, get out electricity via solar power. Not a bad idea, but not exactly renewable, either.

So what am I saying? An extreme form of conservation, to the point of re-engineering how pretty much everything is done, to the point where non-renewables are (practically?) never used is getting to be the only workable basis for a renewable society. I see a particular potential in Japan to be a leader in pioneering, or perhaps rediscovering, what this would look like.

For now, I see a handful of critical policies that Japan is following, that are on the right track:

  • Everything to do with individual driving is expensive. Gasoline, licensing, parking, toll roads, and on and on. $7/gallon gas anyone?
  • Massive investment in public transportation. If you want a mind blowing experience, go to Shinjuku station during the morning rush hour and watch train after train after train packed full of people go by. Wow there are so many people. Now imagine all of those people driving to work instead! All of that metal, that gasoline, the asphalt for the roads which would wear down, the increased air pollution.
  • Although the population of Japan is declining, I have yet to hear of a panicked government plan to somehow increase the population. It’s been pointed out that the Japanese society of the Edo period sustainably supported 30M people, without fossil fuels of course.
  • There are real actions being taken, real discussions happening, about saving energy. It’s not just a “nice to have” but people are really looking hard at it.
  • Japan has for many years looked at alternatives, including nuclear. Granted, it’s become apparent that nuclear is much more dangerous than previously thought, but in any case Japan appears less delusional about energy than the United States. Let’s just hope nobody finds shale oil under Japan’s agricultural land.

At the same time, Japan is no utopia of energy usage! Many visitors here notice:

  • Retail packaging is overdone. Yes the slice of cake you just bought is   wrapped, and then wrapped again, and then put in a box, and then wrapped, and then put in a bag, and looks amazing. But what for, and at what cost?
  • Gadget overload–there really is a gadget for everything here. Yes the US has been a big market for a lot of these gadgets. And Japan has more of them, and they are niftier. It is alluring.
  • Consumerism to the hilt. The advertising here is very, very well done, in your face, and relentless. It’s even easier here to buy things you don’t really need. I wonder how private debt is here? I do note lots of ads on the train for pay-day loan type products, at very high interest rates.
  • A throw-away culture. I don’t know if it still happens, but I know it used to be common for people to put their perfectly functional, relatively new, electronics out on the curb, to give away so they could make room for the newest and greatest.

Now having said all of this, my gut tells me that the “island nation” mentality of Japan is going to be an important asset as times change in the coming decades. The ability to pull together, to change direction as a nation relatively quickly, along with the current trend of declining population, could really make a difference for Japan getting to a sustainable state, much more quickly than other countries.