Category Archives: Peak Oil

The truck of the future is…the train

Jim Hansen of the Master Resource Report this week included a story about a cement factory in West Virginia that bought 1.25 mile extension–and a 205 foot bridge over a highway–to link the factory with two major train lines.

Now get this–it’ll remove 24,000 trucks from the road. And apparently rail can move 1 ton of freight 469 miles on a gallon of fuel. Granted, that number comes from the Association of American Railroads. But even if they are off 10x, I bet they are still ahead of trucking. Yikes.

I haven’t looked around on the ground, but I’m guessing that if I go to where the freight rail depots are in the San Francisco Bay Area (are there any?) I’ll see lots of weeds and decay. Seems to me that this train-centric spots will go back to being  relevant–and lively–in the forseeable future.

I’ll add as well that if you’re in a business that involves shipping your product long distances, get ahead of the game and consider what changes you’d need to make to do a lot of that shipping by rail. Or even better, start doing some of your shipping now via rail, so that you have the time to ramp-up at your own pace. I believe the ability to leverage rail will be a big competitive price advantage.

The view is great but the air is thin: reflections on the first “Age of Limits” conference

I just returned from the first Age of Limits: Conversations on the Collapse of the Global Industrial Model conference. It was a thoughtful, well organized gathering in a beautiful setting in rural Pennsylvania, Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary.

The conference gave me a lot to think about, which I’ll be writing on going forward, but I today I wanted to reflect on what I see as one of the core conundrums of peak oil folks as a group. It basically boils down to this: get a group of smart white guys in a room, and you’ll find that they like to look at charts, debate, and theorize. But it’s less popular to put on the work gloves, get out a shovel, and get to work. Let me explain.

On the one hand, such gatherings give a great opportunity to think about what’s going on in the “bigger, bigger” picture around us, and fine tune one’s sense for what’s going on and how things might play out. It is quite interesting to hear about the history of other societies, how they grew and shrunk, and the pace at which it all happened. And there is a practical angle to considering the “Is our society any different?” angle, both in terms of the bad news (if anything our society is different on the bad side) and the good news (these changes play out over years and decades, not days and weeks). But I found myself getting itchy to get beyond yet another Hubbert’s Peak chart and into the “OK, now what.”

So the beauty of a gathering like “The Age of Limits” is that there is a real diversity there, and so I found like-minded individuals to talk about the “OK, now what.” Here are some highlights:

  • One of my favorite authors, John Michael Greer, gave a session  on Green Wizardry, aka mastering the a practical set of life skills to live in a more sustainable way: organic intensive gardening, weather proofing of houses, passive (yes I said passive for a reason) solar heating, and so on. And yes, he’s actually doing these things himself.
  • In addition, in informal discussions outside of the seasons, JMG told us about the role that fraternal organizations such as the Grange and the Free Masons used to play in local society, certainly before the time of the 401k’s and medical insurance, and in an age of much greater civic involvement than now. That got me thinking that such organizations could play a crucial leadership role in years ahead, as decision making necessarily gets more local, and with higher stakes.
  • Luanne Todd told me all about her years of experience in raising grass fed cattle (and sheep, and goats) using a careful system of fences, timing, and ingenuity. It took me a while to realize that this system probably goes way back, to the days before tractors, machines, artificial fertilizer, and so on, where it was necessary to get the cows to do a lot of the work for you. Also it was so interesting to hear Lu refer to herself as a “grass farmer.”
  • And Orren Whiddon, founder of Four Quarters, gave us a very enthusiastic tour of his machine shop. As an engineer I definitely shared his excitement in his tools, and noted that many of them are rebuilt 1950’s era machining tools which he and his crew have refurbished. There is something very exciting about being able to machine your own replacement parts, in order to repair your machines, if you follow. And yes, he can run the machine shop off of alternative energy sources if (when?) needed.

It was great to be at a gathering where practically anyone I went up to had an active vegetable garden, and many were raising chickens as well. So clearly many people there are in various stages of taking action, but interestingly there wasn’t a lot of focus on the action itself.

I think that John Michael Greer put it really well when he said several times about the importance of taking personal to prepare for the changing times ahead, as opposed to focusing on trying to get other people to change. In fact this is good general advice for anyone, at any time, wouldn’t you say?

Good news, source of 3 billion barrels of oil found! Bad news?

OK so I came across a report from McKinsey (yes, that McKinsey) on energy, and it’s actually pretty good. They identify a largely untapped source of the equivalent of 3 billion barrels of oil. Great news! But wait, it comes from… conservation.

I know it’s really fun to drive EVERYWHERE, to eat a 20,000 mile salad, and to run the heat in the house with the doors wide open (hint: that was sarcastic) but eventually the gravy train will end. In fact it *is* starting to end.

The degree to which the energy supplies can be stretched out, while rich societies learn to get by on less, will decide what the transition period looks like.



I’ve turned a corner: the end of cheap oil or “Why sustainability is more than a warm fuzzy idea.”

I haven’t been writing for a long time because I’ve taken a 45 degree turn from where I was headed when I started this blog.

  • Am I still passionate about helping society? Yes.
  • Do I still think that social benefit organizations have a critical role to play? Yes.
  • Am I still engaging in the non-profit world? Yes.

So what’s changed? I now “get it” that sustainability is a grave, pressing issue on which action must be taken. It’s not a “we oughta do this because it’s nice and responsible” but rather it’s “we take real action or the consequences will be ugly.” I’ll be writing in future about the changes that I’m personally making my life based on the changes that I see happening. But suffice to say I’ve had a substantial wake-up call.

Here’s how this all started for me. Last July, while looking for career inspiration, I read the book Confessions of a Radical Industrialist. It wasn’t what I expected. Yes I was very surprised to see a successful, hard driving company founder writing so passionately about sustainability and the environment. But I was even more surprised to see how it actually made sense–even in a narrow single bottom line financial way. And then when he expanded that to the bigger picture of what’s going on in the world today, it turned a light on for me. Thus I went looking for more books like this, and a funny thing happened to me on Amazon.

You know how has the  “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” feature? Somewhere in the midst of browsing there, I stumbled upon The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age. In addition to being an extremely well written and researched book, it is also the first book I’ve read about the future that actually felt grounded in something real.

Sure it’s fun to dream about flying cars and all the energy we’ll ever need via solar panels, but back here on planet earth, we’re faced with a fixed set of natural resources and frankly, physics. Thus any analysis that completely ignores the hard physical constraints on the carrying capacity of the earth is deeply flawed. So how much of the analysis of the current and future state of the world ignores the fixed “limits to growth” nature of the earth? Unfortunately almost all of them. Problem.

John Michael Greer, in books like The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World, does a very nice job of putting together a number of pieces about the situation we’re in, that have great face validity. Do I think he got everything exactly right? No, nobody does. But he has put together a critical mass of sensible–yet not often talked about–ideas to show what history tells us about what’s happened before, where things may be heading now, and what we might do about it.

This may all sound a bit crazy, but if you take a step back, it actually makes a lot of sense. You just need to ask yourself: is the earth finite or not? That’s one of the ideas behind the book Limits to Growth, an overview of a system dynamics model created by a set of MIT researchers in the ’70s. Among other things, they explored the idea that the earth only has so much of everything, and followed it through to see where it would take them. The short answer is “collapse, followed some time later by stability at a much lower level of energy spend.”

And yet if you listen to mainstream economists, politicians, and the media, you’d think that the rich world can–and should–expand at 6% a year forever. Sure, they’ll talk about ups and downs, and temporary slow-downs, and so on, but the arrow on their charts is clearly pointed up and to the right. It seems to me that eventually, something’s gotta give.

But here’s the big challenge with the “eventually” part of that: the world is a complex enough system that it’s very hard to pin down when that “something” is, and what it’ll look like. As John Michael Greer so ably points out in his books, bigger picture decline doesn’t happen clearly one day, which is announced in newspapers. Rather it happens in fits and starts, in a few select places, over time. If you look too narrowly, you’ll miss it, in fact. Although you may have a niggling feeling that life just isn’t quite as comfortable as it used to be. And you’d be right. But if you try to nail down a date for “the start of the decline” you’ll be disappointed. So let’s stop trying to predict when “the future” is going to come, and recognize that in fact it’s coming one day at a time.

So in a sentence, what the hell is going on? Basically, fossil fuels are a super concentrated form of solar energy that took many millions of years to form and because of it, we in the rich world are able to live at a level of comfort that is unprecedented in history–and that may not last a heck of a lot longer because we’ve used up about half of the oil that exists. And alternative energy? Better than nothing, but nowhere close to being as “richly nourishing” as “good old fossil fuels.” Obviously there’s a lot more to be written about that set of ideas, but in a nutshell, that’s what I see as the bigger picture.

There, I said it. Sound pretty bad, huh? Do you think I’m crazy? Have a look into the issues I’m raising and decide for yourself. (The folks at Ravenna Capital Management publish a free weekly bulletin summarizing key energy news–it’s super informative.) But the key point I want to make is this: it’s up to all of us, both individually and collectively, to decide what we want to do. Shall we ignore the bad news about resource constraints and believe that “technology will overcome?” Shall we hole up in a cabin in the woods with 1,000 cans of beans and a shotgun? Or shall we learn all we can and get prepared for whatever might come? It’s really up to all of us–me, you–to decide what actions we take.

Where to start? What I’m doing is I’m going beyond the conventional sources of information to develop for myself a point of view on what I think the bigger picture is, and what I can do about it, starting now. I invite you to do the same.

I hope we can learn from each other, and work together.