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May 04, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Has "Peak Oil" been reached? And, if so, does that mean we've already entered the post-SUV era, and have begun a long, slow, downhill economic slide?

Now seems to be the season for asking these questions. James Howard Kunstler's new book argues -- in Kunstler's likably brawling, always-provocative way -- that the answer to both is emphatically "Yes, and then some." (Rolling Stone runs an excerpt from Kunstler's book here.) Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes concurs. The Economist's current cover package is on the theme of What-to-do-About-Oil? The magazine's Vijay Vaitheeswaran argues that the oil industry is facing big changes.

I know nothing, of course. But that isn't going to stop me from having reactions. Half of me is very been-there/worried-about-that. The Cold War, hippies, Nixon/Carter/ Reagan/Clinton, oil shocks, disco, over-population, eco-catastrophes, tax cuts, tax hikes, hiphop, El Salvador, Watergate, bellybutton-baring fashions -- we've faced 'em all, and we've survived 'em all. We'll get through this too. But another part of me is far less blase, and thinks: Hey, someday one of these predictions of doom may turn out to be correct! So I do let myself fret some about oil.

But I worry more about Avian Bird Flu. Doom-mongerers say that we may be in for the worst flu pandemic since 1918, when as many as 40-50 million people died worldwide. Perhaps the experts are getting hysterical; then again, perhaps they have good reason for their hysteria. In the words of the CBC:

There are few warning signs before a pandemic strikes except a large and rapidly growing number of new and unrelated cases every day. The WHO says in the best-case scenario, two to seven million people will die in the next pandemic and tens of millions will need medical attention.

Yikes. At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen has put up a short (but links-heavy) posting about avian bird flu. Tyler also contributes at a blog devoted to covering the bird flu crisis. Whenever I'm in the mood for a strong fix of hyper-anxiety, all it takes is a quick visit to the Avian Flu blog. In a recent posting, one Avian Flu blogger wonders whether the flu pandemic might not already have begun. Get me my surgical mask!

Which crises and doomsday scenarios are you most prone to fret about these days?



UPDATE: Here's a fun piece of James Kunstler-iana. Kunstler, who leaves few hornet's nests un-stirred-up, blogged about Political Correctness, and the commentsfest took on a gung-ho life of its own. John Massengale has his own strong opinions about PC.

UPDATE 2: Here's the transcript of a James Kunstler speech about oil. Fun passage:

Long before the oil actually depletes we will endure world-shaking political disturbances and economic disruptions. We will see globalism-in-reverse. Globalism was never an 'ism,' by the way. It was not a belief system. It was a manifestation of the 20-year-final-blowout of cheap oil. Like all economic distortions, it produced economic perversions. It allowed gigantic, predatory organisms like WalMart to spawn and reproduce at the expense of more cellular fine-grained economic communities...

The implication of this is enormous. Successful human ecologies in the near future will have to be supported by intensively farmed agricultural hinterlands. Places that can't do this will fail. Say goodbye to Phoenix and Las Vegas.

posted by Michael at May 4, 2005


One thing that I notice about many proponents of Peak Oil is that the writing is filled with anticipation at the Divine Retribution awaiting those wicked SUV drivers. Not that that discredits the arguments about Peak Oil, but it does give off a bad odor.

Posted by: Jaz on May 4, 2005 05:51 PM

Hell, Michael, you might as well worry about the weather for all the good it will do you.


I worry that my grandkids will never see a wild Texas horny toad, a healthy Rio Grande river,or smog-free skies over the Chisos Mountains. I worry their lives will be so filled with pollution, dwindling natural resources, and man-made disasters, they might wish they were never born.

Perhaps every generation has felt this way. But, it does seem to be taking on a more dire and sinister tone of late - this feeling of a looming crisis bigger than any we have faced before. Has that unstoppable locomotive sensation, the human Orient Express on a fast road to hell...

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on May 4, 2005 06:03 PM

there's plenty of coal in wyoming and tar sands in canada, i don't see what the problem is... *shrugs* as for the flu, people forget in 1918 a pandemic wiped out millions of people and as early as 1957 and again in 1968 maybe a million or so more. periodic pandemics are the *normal* state of human affairs.

Posted by: videlicet on May 4, 2005 06:31 PM

Oil: According to recent reports oil is being produced by anaerobic bacteria living way below the sea floor.

Then you have the process of thermal depolymerization. Basically cooking oil out of organic materials, rubber and plastic, and even old newspapers. Tyson Foods uses it to dispose of turkey and chicken waste. Production cost about $15.00 a barrel.

The Flu: Keep in mind that 60,000,000 dead would only be 0.1% of the world population. Helps to keeps things in proportion.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on May 4, 2005 06:40 PM

I have no idea whether we are near peak oil or not, but anyone taking the recent runup in oil prices as evidence needs to take into account the fact that much of it is being driven by changes in the financial markets - in particular, the trend of pension funds and other large institutional investors attempting to "balance their portfolios" by buying large positions in commodities. Thus, we have the curious phenomenon of large and growing inventories coupled with rising prices. See article here:

Posted by: jimbo on May 4, 2005 06:55 PM

well yeah, maybe, but it's not *artificial* demand as you seem to imply... take for instance this commentary:

Just consider that China's car population has more than doubled since 2002 and that it is up tenfold since 1994! Thus, as mentioned above, oil imports of China have risen by 40% so far in 2004. And while I certainly do not believe that Chinese oil imports will rise every year by 40%, it is equally unlikely that oil imports into China will ever decline again meaningfully.

In fact, if we look at what happened to per capita oil consumption during phases of industrialization in the US between 1900 and 1970, we see that per capita consumption rose from one barrel per year to around 28 barrels. In the case of Japan's industrialization between 1950 and 1970 and South-Korea's between 1965 and 1990, per capita oil consumption rose from one barrel to 17 barrels.
In the case of China, oil demand per capita is still only 1.7 barrels per year, and for India it has only reached 0.7 barrels. By comparison Mexico consumes annually about 7 barrels of oil per capita and the entire Latin American continent around 4.5 barrels.
Therefore, starting from such a low base, oil consumption in Asia will, in my opinion, double in the next ten to 15 years from currently 20 million barrels per day to around 40 million barrels per day.
Remember also, that if China's per capita oil consumption went to the level of Mexico's per capita consumption China would consume 24 million barrels of oil daily, which would be close to 30% of global production. And since it is most unlikely that current total global oil production of 80 million barrels per day can be increased much - in fact, it may begin to decline because no major oil field has been discovered since 1965 - I expect that prices will increase further in future - possibly far more than anyone is now expecting.
but, like i said, that isn't to say we're running out of stuff to burn, there's plenty of other fuels we can *economically* subtitute for oil, especially as the price of oil rises. Posted by: videlicet on May 4, 2005 07:18 PM

OKOKOK, very interesting, etc. But I was hoping to get y'all talking about which impending crises you tend to think about, when you're in the mood for thinking about impending crises. I assume "wanting to worry about impending crises on occasion" is a human universal, by the way.

So which crises do you fret about, when you're in the mood to do some fretting?

Grrr: that's the trouble with posting about current events. People want to debate about 'em ... Imagine that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 4, 2005 07:24 PM

here's a list if you want to worry, but why? jared diamond writes about collapse (particularly environmental) but notes just the same that they're eminently preventable with the proper foresight.

thomas de zengotita writes that the defining characterisitc of our current age is that our lives are optionable. if there is a crisis or collapse, it's because we *chose* it. wondering/worrying about a property bubble/currency crisis/war with china or whatever seems quite prosaic altogether when none of it is *inevitable*, don't you think?

in other words, when you have a choice in the outcome, when you're *responsible* for what happens next, taking refuge in *disaster* just doesn't seem to cut it, and indeed would seem rather infantile... like, as lou reed would say, "you're going to reap just what you sow," hardly seems tragic :D


Posted by: videlicet on May 4, 2005 07:51 PM

Wanna know what this southern boy worries about? Terrorism. That's right, terrorism. Those slimey so-and-so's are good at biding their time and drawing us into complacency. Give me the flu any day over a car bomb in the Lincoln Tunnel or on The Golden Gate Bridge. Give me a little smog anyday over anthrax in the Subway. I drive a car that gets 35 MPH (city) gas shortages, I can handle. But where the hell are those suitcase nukes that have turned up missing in Russia?

Posted by: buster on May 4, 2005 08:49 PM

I seriously doubt that "wanting to worry about impending crises on occasion is a human universal".
Or may be it's me, being 45% weird: I have overload of personal things to fret about, global flu or oil prices are the least of my worries.

Or if it's true, than I think only in a Halloween mode: let's play scared to cheat real disaster away. You're not going to impress the dark forces; what's the point loosing your sleep over it?

My attitude is to take the things in stride, we'll deal with it when (if) it'll be here.
Besides, there is very little an average person can do if a really big-scale catastrophe happens, remember tsunami survival stories? It helps to know the basics (like wearing masks and washing hands in an epidemic), but that's about it. Ever since Chernobyl I became a fatalist.

But if you insist on more causes to be upset about - here in series of posts Alan Sullivan writes about something that looks really spooky.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 4, 2005 09:31 PM

I worry about terrorism, if I worry "about" anything. Mostly I just get what I always lovingly refer to as my "feeling of impending doom." And when it occurs, I hope it passes. I try to stay away from reading running-out-of-oil, earth-overheating, about-to-be-hit-by-an-asteroid stories. What can I possibly do about any of those scenarios?

Posted by: Rachel on May 4, 2005 09:34 PM


Marburg virus, ebola, MRSA, West Nile, CWD going into humans, drug resistant TB etc etc.

exploding toads in Germany

whether all the junk they put into meat will have long term consequences on humans

Bovine Growth Hormones

South Korea, Iran, India/Pakistan,

why most of the people I know dont realize YeeHaa!!!! is not a foreign policy

What will happen if Bush chokes on a pretzel and we have Cheney in office

How my teenage son is going to get thru life with no more Star Wars episodes to look forward too.

The dark watches of the night are really good for coming up with stuff to worry about if you have that sort of brain.

Posted by: Deb on May 5, 2005 09:11 AM

Alan Kellogg's post: 60mm dead is actually 1% of the world's population, not 0.1%.

Posted by: JT on May 5, 2005 09:39 AM

Deb, are there reasons to worry about SOUTH Korea?

Posted by: Tatyana on May 5, 2005 09:43 AM

While declining oil production and the avain flu might indeed turn out to be real crises, experience has taught me that overhyped crises outnumber the real ones by some considerable margin.
I'm just old enough to remember the "population explosion" crisis that first arose in the late 1960's and reached the peak of fearmongering around 1970. There was Paul Erlich's gloom-and-doom _The Population Bomb_ and, of course, _Soylent Green_ ("is people!") Dire predictions spoke of worldwide famine within a generation and an environmental collapse of Biblical proportions. One book, whose name I no longer recall, actually predicted that if the other planets in the Solar System could be made habitable, humans would jam them to capacity within a couple hundred years. Well, we all see how the "population explostion" quickly became the "population implosion" - which, come to think of it, is become a crisis all its own :)
A few years later, in the mid-1970's, came another crisis best known by the title of a _National Review_ article, "Watch on the Rhine." It was only a matter of time before the superhuman Soviet army poured through the Fulda Gap and overran NATO's feeble forces. Once again the dire predictions came out, this time saying that the Soviet forces would reach the Rhine in 48 hours and the English Channel in 72. The U.S. Army, a ragtag collection of illiterate drug addicts in that post-Vietnam era, would be swept aside with massive casualties, while the European NATO armies would mostly just get in the way. Once again, this scenario never played out, and before long the Soviet threat disappeared.
I'm sure other examples of fizzled-out threats can be found with a bit of effort. It's just very hard for me to take these newest predictions too seriously. I really believe that some people, often people who are considered respected authorities in their fields, somehow get a thrill out of making dire predictions. Reality is seldom so terrible.

Posted by: Peter on May 5, 2005 09:47 AM

Which crises and doomsday scenarios are you most prone to fret about these days?

None of them. Most of these concerns come about because modern communications reveal things which have always been happening but which, in the past, most of us weren't aware of. If you look at long-term trends in human longevity, health, wealth and so forth, life is steadily improving. Most people are better off than ever, and our increased wealth and technical knowledge improve our chances of dealing with real threats when they do occur. People focus on possible disasters because 1) it's easy and entertaining, 2) they are now wealthy enough to have the free time to do so and 3) this kind of fretting fulfills a need to believe in something, that many no-longer-religious people have.

To paraphrase Keynes, the real threats, both personally and socially, are generally unexpected.

Posted by: Jonathan on May 5, 2005 09:48 AM

"While declining oil production and the avain flu might indeed turn out to be real crises, experience has taught me that overhyped crises outnumber the real ones by some considerable margin."

I believe that this is known as the Russian roulette fallacy.

Posted by: John Emerson on May 5, 2005 10:28 AM

P.S. I haven't followed the Peak Oil argument carefully, but I haven't seen it as a doomsday scenario. Just as something that would change the balance of power, put pressure on some sorts of activities vs. others, probably increase the power of those controlling the remaining oil, etc.

Talking about the SUV's in this context isn't opportunistic or faddish, except for faddish minds. The ris of SUV's represents a reversal of quite reasonable attempts to improve gas economy -- as I remember, there was some little adaptation of tax law that helped them flourish.

Free market absolutists object to any interference in the market, and believe that there's no possibility of resource shortage ever being a problem, but they tend to be raving fanatics.

Posted by: John Emerson on May 5, 2005 10:45 AM

Omigod: toads are exploding in Germany! Eeek.

Sure, the tendency to fret about potential catastrophes is a human universal. (Women generally are prone to dwell on personal and health catastrophes, men on global/abstract/tech catasotrophes, it seems.) The commenters here who say they don't spend mental energy dwelling on potential catastrophes of course aren't lying, but they're talking about something different: how-they-cope-with-anxiety, which they may do brilliantly. But here's the question I'm posing: What's the anxiety?

Another question: where does it come from? A small example: will FedEx really get my resume to that guy on time? Because if it doesn't I won't be getting that job. That's a typical small-scale way of fretting about potential catastrophe. The person who has this concern may be calm about it, and may not get overwrought about it -- I assume we all negotiate life pretty well most of the time. But the concern is still there. The mind seems to generate, unbidden, scenarios of disaster and catastrophe. How we deal with that is a great question, but a different question than the one I'm suggesting, which is: What kinds of disaster-scenarios is your mind most prone to dwelling on or inventing?

The human mind seems to spend a certain amount of time imagining what would happen if something-or-other became a crisis -- it crisis-ifies life. What'll happen if I don't make that payment? What becomes of my retirement fund if the bottom drops out of the economy?

Evidence from the general culture: The news business turns much of what they sell into a crisis -- why? Because ... it sells, and it always has sold, which is a pretty certain indicator that it appeals to some innate tendency/taste/preference we have. Fictional narrative depends on suspense, and what does suspense have to do with? Something awful will happen if something isn't done about it, and pronto. Many religions and mythologies have stories about floods and apocalypses. Disaster movies aren't a specialized taste -- they're as broad-based as can be. (Think "Titanic.") Magazines that sell to rambunctious 25-year-old women are full of articles about breast cancer and bad food additives -- why? Because even splendidly healthy young women seem to like (or be drawn to, or however you want to put it) worrying about these things. They like (or are drawn to, or whatever) imagining catastrophes. The mind does these things whether we want it to or not, and we're drawn in the cultural sphere to this kind of material in the same way that we're drawn to sweet tastes. The urge/preference/desire is unavoidable and built-in.

In day to day life, people routinely worry about what'll happen if property values go down, if college tuitions go up, if that workman doesn't show up or makes off with the downpayment ...

Another example: the libertarian blog ChicagoBoyz. Love it, and this isn't a criticism. But the ChicagoBoyz crew gives every evidence of being drawn to fretting about over-regulation and over-intrusive government. If we let government get away with too much, why ... well, it'd be a catastrophe, or disaster, or crisis, or just plain awful. Why does the ChicagoBoyz crew do this? Partly because it's a reasonable thing to worry about and dwell on, but partly because ... well, the Chicagoboys crew is prone to fretting about these things.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 5, 2005 10:58 AM

I saw an interview last night where the Saudis said that they have enough oil to serve the world's needs for at least another 100 years. Shortage of oil is not the problem, although dependence on Saudi oil might be.

I'm far more worried that I'll ever be able to retire, if I want to press the panic button.

Posted by: annette on May 5, 2005 11:02 AM

Michael: Count me in with the ChicagoBoyz. I am still very concerned about socialism taking over the US in covert form. I actually think my fears are rational and based on evidence but maybe I am just fooling myself.

Interesting thread. Thanks.

Posted by: JT on May 5, 2005 11:37 AM

JT - I'm in the same trench with you, Chicagoboyz and Samizdata (f.ex).
If government overregulation and steady socialism advance over this country is not a catastrophe in itself, it sure makes all other catastrophes much more likely and resolutions of them much more unlikely: tested and proved by that big chunk of unhappiness over at Eastern hemisphere.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 5, 2005 12:33 PM

Our fixation on crises reflects our need for simplicity. Our world is mind-bogglingly complex, frustrating our need to figure it out. A crisis is simple, boiling everything down to one variable, an "if x then y" construct, something we can understand in less than one minute.

One thing I can't explain is our fondness for doom and gloom. Why aren't we just as attracted to simplistic explanations that promise nirvana? We tend to treat those who predict dystopia as respected prophets, while those who promise utopia are treated like snake oil salesmen.

Posted by: Outer Life on May 5, 2005 12:47 PM

Why does the ChicagoBoyz crew do this? Partly because it's a reasonable thing to worry about and dwell on, but partly because ... well, the Chicagoboys crew is prone to fretting about these things.

There is something to what you write, at least as it applies to me (I can't speak for my colleagues). However, one thing that I have noticed as I get older is that I am decreasingly inclined to fret about Big Issues, which seem anyway to be working themselves out without me, while I am increasingly inclined to fret about personal issues -- where the effects of my own decisions (and most especially, my mistakes) are becoming clearer with time.

Posted by: Jonathan on May 5, 2005 01:41 PM

"The U.S. Army, a ragtag collection of illiterate drug addicts in that post-Vietnam era, would be swept aside with massive casualties, while the European NATO armies would mostly just get in the way."

A friend of mine was in that U. S. Army in Europe. One day he happened to read his tank unit's mission statement in case of Soviet attack. Their mission consisted of delaying the Soviet advance for five minutes, until the American tanks were all "put out of commission".

The U.S. troops in Europe were just triggers for nuclear war. The U.S. could just as well have lined up few thousand Rachel Corries against the Soviet tanks, because our tanks weren't going to stop them.

Posted by: John Emerson on May 5, 2005 02:20 PM

Mr. Kellogg writes "[a]ccording to recent reports oil is being produced by anaerobic bacteria living way below the sea floor."

Although a layman to this issue, I have been following it and have read some of what I could find of and about Thomas Gold ( and Jean Whelan (google her & Woods Hole) and others in support of the alternative theories for the origin oil, as well as both recent books by Deffeyes and several other pieces that support the conventional "fossil fuel" theory, but I have not seen any recent reports definitively supporting the anaerobic or abiotic theory or theories, nor have I found what I would call a definitive debunking of what appears to be established consensus opinion.

Nonetheless, even if there were life forms currently living deep and, presumably, excreting what we call fossil fuels, then questions still remain regarding their digestion rate versus mankinds burn-off rate.

Please send links.

Posted by: Chris Collins on May 5, 2005 02:31 PM

Mr. Emerson:

I worked with a guy who had been a colonel in the U.S. Army and who was quite clear that there was no real obstacle to the Russians taking over Western Europe via conventional military means--they had assets to do it. However, what such a scenario obviously didn't take into account was the strategic issues. Could the USSR "afford" to take over Western Europe? Could it garrison Western Europe while also guarding against potential U.S. reinvasion? Moreover, how about internal uprisings, which would have been virtually certain if too many of their assets were engaged far from home. Sensibly, the Politburo was never really very interested in such "adventures."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 5, 2005 02:50 PM

The mind seems to generate, unbidden, scenarios of disaster and catastrophe.

From the Theocratic Right Wing Nutjob In-A-Nutshell chapbook: that's the result of Original Sin, and it's what we have to live with in a world with free will. The answer, of course, is to turn to the Lord in prayer. So, to answer your question, I don't fret much, except about having enough time to get done all the things I need to Get Done.

Digression about Peak Oil from the 'I'm Living It' Dept.: Ft. Worth, TX, and about six or seven other counties, are sitting smack on top of the largest natural gas field in North America. Until 10 years ao, there was no technology to get it out of the ground. Today, we have the technology, and the 'fretting' today is over having drilling rigs in people's backyards for a few weeks and not owning mineral rights. Now, who believes that we're going to stop the March of Science, and just give up on finding oil?

My point is only this: Doomsday shouters will always have a market, and they'll generally do well, because so many people are just plain negative. It's the easy way to be.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on May 5, 2005 03:50 PM

FvB, a small note (generally I agree with what you're saying): I think hypothetical possibility of local uprisings back in the rear at discussed time is far from certain.
I was an observant teenager in the 70's and I can tell you for sure: the country was uniformly Soviet, dissidents were at a very small percentage to general population, and even the nationalists on territories acquired 25-30 yrs prior were thoroughly subdued. Economically, Brezhnev's rule haven't bankrupted the country yet, Reagan haven't succeeded at the Evil Empire campaign yet and there were simply not enough incentives for repressed to act against more or less satisfying political system.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 5, 2005 04:47 PM

JT: Oops. I erred. I thank you for the correction.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on May 5, 2005 06:31 PM

Tatyana, no it's North Korea that's saber rattling over there. I was worrying about my physical therapy appointment today when I wrote it....

Posted by: Deb on May 5, 2005 06:45 PM

kunstler is an idiot in the paul ehrlich mode. You can safely ignore him for several reasons.

First, as technology improves the oil fields we can explore continue to expand. There are actually more proven reserves today than they were 50 years ago - largely because we have better drill bits, better geological models, satellite imaging, and so on. That trend shows no signs of slowing down.

Second and more important, we have nuclear power and fuel cells. If and when it becomes cost-ineffective to use oil, we will switch to nuclear power. Nuclear power can be used to generate electricity which can power fuel cells for transport. Case closed.

All the talk of nuclear waste is more idiocy. Nuclear waste is concentrated, and is not soot belched into the air. For this reason it is cleaner. Disposal methods are well developed. Japan gets 90% of its power from nuclear energy, and France more than 30%. The technology is mature.

There is no way we will allow ourselves to suffer economic decline rather than switch over to nuclear power. Any leftist who tries to tell you otherwise is a liar or a fool, as they don't understand human nature. After all, even Berkeley has roads.

Posted by: gc on May 6, 2005 01:10 AM

Sometimes even people who are so extreme, off-the-wall, and hey! even kooky as to be dead-wrong on the substance of an issue provide the very useful social function of getting people to discuss the matter.

Of course if their portrayal of a situation is so bizarre as to conjure up a cartoon then you have a less positive outcome.

Posted by: David Sucher on May 6, 2005 01:14 AM

In terms of the impact of Peak Oil -- assuming it is so -- the critical and unknown question is whether the decline is a cliff or a gentle slope.

Big difference.

Kunstler assumes --- but offers no facts or reasoning to explain why it is so -- that we are at the edge of a cliff.

Posted by: David Sucher on May 6, 2005 01:18 AM

Kunstler assumes its a cliff because he desperately wishes it to be so. He has an absolute aesthetic hatred for the suburbs, and has convinced himself that anything so ugly must offend the universe on some basic level. He might as well be in a rivival tent on the outskirts of town, preacher fire and damnation for this generation of sinners, since the signs point to Judgement Day...

Posted by: jimbo on May 6, 2005 10:36 AM

GC sounds like a jackass.

"First, as technology improves the oil fields we can explore continue to expand."

There he assumes ever lasting technological improvement. No mention of possible diminishing marginal returns or other complicating factors, e.g. a couple of well placed nukes, America's trade deficit, immigration, etc. etc.

"There are actually more proven reserves today than they were 50 years ago - largely because we have better drill bits, better geological models, satellite imaging, and so on." Tell me more about the word "more". How much more? Double? Triple? 32% And do you mean the rate of discovery is accelerating? Oh, it's not? Gee, what's that portend?

"That trend shows no signs of slowing down." What trend? You mean the trend of technological developments making marginal gains while there have been no "elephant" size oil field finds since the early 60's? Is that the trend you are talking about and implying will save us and let us all live like George Jetson real soon now?

"Second and more important, we have nuclear power and fuel cells." That's a little bit of BS since, if you actually read Kunstler, instead of spouting off like a trained seal, you'd now that of the so-called alternatives (as in alternatives to fossil fuels (I leave aside questions regarding the fossil fuel origin theory)), he addresses both nuclear and hydrogen fuel cell power, and, while acknowledging their potentials, nonetheless has some non-idiotic criticisms.

"If and when it becomes cost-ineffective to use oil, we will switch to nuclear power." Get your head out of your @ss. No, really. Do you think costs are just completely abstracted from reality, like, big whoop prices will go up and they'll build more power plants and la dee da salaries will go up too and bills get paid by the tooth fairie?

"Nuclear power can be used to generate electricity which can power fuel cells for transport." Yes, it can! And the Pharoahs built big stone piles. But at what about the costs. Quiz time, straight from that idiot Kunstler's new book: If gas stations gave out hydrogen instead of gas, as your imaginary fuel cell replacing gas transport system is presumed to work, how many trucks per day would have to show up to load that station? How does that compare with today's situation? What difference do you think it would make to the economy, not to mention the political situation, overall?

Agreed that if a meteor is on the way then we roll over and play dead, but otherwise we work and figure out a way to beat this peak oil thing. I'd just rather address the criticisms of a realist like Kunstler than dismiss them outright because someone believes The Force will save us.

Posted by: Chris on May 6, 2005 10:49 AM

Fun debate! But let's cease-and-desist on the name-calling, please. Civility's important-- it helps enable the free flow of ideas, which is a big part of what's great about blogging. Thanks.

BTW, part of what I like about Kunstler is that he's so fire-and-brimstone. He's a Jeremiah. I guess my figuring is that cultures always have Jeremiahs -- it's a standard cultural role -- and that Kunstler does a very entertaining and provocative job of playing the role. I'd rather watch his fire-and-brimstone act than just about anyone else's.

Then, of course, comes the moment to semi-rationally discuss things ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 6, 2005 10:58 AM

Sucher and jimbo commit the sin that they accuse Kunstler of. Have you read the books? How about the website? How about the link above to the Rolling Stone article?!

"...That argument states that we don't have to run out of oil to start having severe problems with industrial civilization and its dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time production peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady depletion.

"The term "global oil-production peak" means that a turning point will come when the world produces the most oil it will ever produce in a given year and, after that, yearly production will inexorably decline. It is usually represented graphically in a bell curve."

I defy you to show me where, solely in terms of
Peak Oil, which I take to mean the theory that oil production is at or near a peak, Kunstler states, in contrast to the theory, that the back end of the curve is cliff-like. Go ahead. Read the books. Check the website. Show me where he says oil production will fall off a cliff.

The cliff, and the tone he adopts regarding decline, has to do with the several other facts, including foremost in his writings, the non-sustainability of our current suburban living arrangements.

Your attack on his motive can be turned around: It is you, presumably enjoying this lifestyle, who cannot imagine a drastic change; cannot even hold the argument in your short-term memory system long enough to weigh it critically, but instead you seek any means to delete it.

Posted by: Chris on May 6, 2005 11:00 AM

All I'm saying:

There are a lot of very smart people out there who are very interested in making lots and lots of money. Kunstler has an esstentially static view of technology that assumes that all these people will simply throw up their hands and give up, and everybody will simply decide, collectively, to return to the 19th century. Ain't gonna happen. If oil goes to $100 a barrel, or $200, it will cause a readjustment, but it will not require the sort of complete reordering of society that Kunstler desperately hopes for.

The raw, physical fact is that we have a proven technology that can provide enough energy to run our civilization as currently constituted essentially indefinitly: nuclear fission. We do not require some fairy godmother to come down and give us some magical new energy source. All we have to do is fully develop one we already have, but have not used to its full potential for political and economic reasons. What do you think is more likely: the entire world will give up on cities and move to "small communities surrounded by intensively farmed hinderlands", or the political restraints that have retarded nuclear development will come off?

Look, I agree with a lot of Kunstler's points about the aesthetics of suburbs. I remember reading and liking "The Geography of Nowhere" back when it came out. But he has convinced himself that everyone will be forced to adopt his ideas by some kind of natural law, and I'm just saying he's fooling himself about it...

Posted by: jimbo on May 6, 2005 12:21 PM

One more thing about Kunstler:

Never trust a man who wears a bow tie.


Posted by: jimbo on May 6, 2005 12:56 PM

Michael: "But I was hoping to get y'all talking about which impending crises you tend to think about, when you're in the mood for thinking about impending crises."

Yellowstone: a major eruption could be unpleasant.

Influenza pandemic: My son, wife, and I are all asthmatic.

Not that I worry that much, though. I grew up on pretty highly ranked targets (Colorado Springs, CO; Cheyenne, WY; Ramstein AB, West Germany; Hampton, VA) and lived through the Ford and Carter administrations. I'm somewhat inured to the possibility of nuclear disaster, economic collapse, tornados and blizzards, etc.

Michael: "The mind seems to generate, unbidden, scenarios of disaster and catastrophe."

Outer Life: "One thing I can't explain is our fondness for doom and gloom."

I think this is easily explainable in evo-bio terms. If you aren't prepared for a windfall, you might be unable to take full advantage, but it's not a disaster. If you aren't prepared for a disaster, you might not survive. The ability to speculate about potential disasters is one of the biggest advantages of an abstract intelligence (in evolutionary terms).

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on May 6, 2005 01:01 PM

My big worry?
Bark beetles.

I live in the mountains near Yosemite. In recent years we have lost more and more Ponderosa Pines to beetles. The drought-weakened trees can't produce enough of the sap that fights off the beetles -- and formerly beautiful tall trees are suddenly yellowed and dead.
This worry is compounded by reports of beetles killing nearly all birch trees [I think that's the tree] in the east...
This spring has been a wet one, so I am a bit less worried than last year... but if it gets too hot and dry again, I am putting drip irrigation lines out to the biggest pines on my property that I would hate to lose.


Posted by: Paul Worthington on May 6, 2005 01:30 PM

Chris, I wouldn't be so quick. I have not and will not have a chance to read his book. But I have read Kunstler's web site for years and in fact have blogged on his obsession with peak oil. As well, I heard him on the radio about a month ago. And there is absolutely no doubt that he see the impacts of the fall-off from peak oil as being catastrophic and cliff-like. He envisions a new feudal age, for example, and I consider that to be a "cliff." he does not appear to think it possible that we can slowly adjust over a period of decades to continually rising prices.

Whether he correct or not is one thing; that he considers the impact of peak oil to be something to which we cannot adjust without enormous, catastrophic impact seems to me to be beyond dispute.

Posted by: David Sucher on May 6, 2005 04:35 PM

Oil has a demand CURVE, not a cliff on the edge, and as prices rise so will production.

For those who are poo-poohing the fact that proven reserves are up, go read Oil and Gas Journal a bit, and STFU.

My personal main concern with exhaustion of oil supplies in the future are that oil is much better used for other things than energy. Nuclear power will indeed be able to pick up the slack, and modern reactors are 'walk away safe'; in other words not only does Homer Simpson not need to stay awake on the job, terrorists a la this season's "24" CAN'T make them meltdown. The physics of their construction does not have meltdown as a possible reacton chain.

And we currently spew about a million or more times the radiation every year burning coal for electricity than has been released in even old dirty nuke plant designs in all of history.

But asteroids from space scare me, a LOT! Cheap space access now! Get all of humanities eggs out of this one basket! **/rant** :-)

Posted by: David Mercer on May 6, 2005 10:08 PM

Perhaps it should be pointed out at this point that Kunstler supports nuclear power.

Posted by: Ilkka Kokkarinen on May 11, 2005 05:31 PM

Ah so, then in that case he is probably merely a dishonest propagandist, and fully understands the nonsense of this supposed production cliff he's hawking.

I've worked for Big Oil (part of my time on the Dark Side as a consultant), and believe you me, lots of things as replacements get economical as oil goes up towards $100/barrel, and those replacements WILL show cost decreases with succeeding technology generations, and oils demand will eventualy fall off of a cliff, as everyone by that point uses cleaner, cheaper things. Happens all the time to commodities in the industrial era, and is a pattern that has held for past resource based energy products as well.

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