Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Peaking oil

For a country so dependent on importing and exporting we are amazingly relaxed about the state of the world's oil supply. The report into 'peak oil' by the German military leaked in Der Spiegel last week barely rated a mention in our mainstream media. Neither did the British government's Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security report. Both made sobering reading.

Let's be clear - no one is saying that the earth is running out of oil anytime soon. In fact 'peak oil' refers to the peak of production, when we are producing the most we ever will. The problem is that production will then start to decline at the same time as resurgent powers such as China and India seek a bigger share. Oil prices are likely to become very erratic as speculation and recurring recession drive demand up and down, but the basic trend will be a permanent oil supply crisis with fossil fuels becoming very expensive.

The likelihood of this and its implications are what the two reports were attempting to explore. The British reports warns of a supply 'crunch' in the near future and says that we need to act now to prepare. The Bundeswehr report warns of shifts in the global balance of power, a decline in importance of the western industrial nations, a "total collapse of the markets" and of serious political and economic crises. Both reports stressed the urgency of the situation that we face.

Up until a couple of years ago discussions around peak oil were never heard among ‘hard-nosed’ business people or politicians. It was only the extremist freaks that kept trying to bring attention to these issues – hippies, greenies, geologists. Now, like on so many other issues, fringe opinion is being adopted by the mainstream.

(As an aside, wouldn’t it be nice to see some acknowledgement of the hippies? I’m sick of seeing guys in power suits talking about the environment and then saying “but don’t think I’m some kind of hippy” as if we would ever mistake their boring old arse for one)

It looks like peak oil is here, although we won’t know the precise moment until it has passed. Globally we go through just over 30 (US) billion barrels of oil a year, but for the last ten years new discoveries have amounted to around 10 billion barrels a year. We have already got most of the easy to get stuff and now we are going after the rest. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is in some ways a predictable outcome of our oil dependency as we source our oil from increasingly more remote oil fields, employing more complex and inevitably riskier production techniques.

However there does not appear to be any energy source capable of fully replacing oil, and neither are we making the investments now that would be needed to even attempt to do so. In Aotearoa the government is still ploughing money into road building while neglecting the transportation systems that will survive the end of cheap oil – rail, coastal shipping, walking and cycling. There is even talk about spending some $20 million to put a tunnel through the Kaimai’s to carry road freight (hat-tip Mark Servian). I can’t help wondering what that money could do if we invested it in trains.

One thing for sure is that the end of cheap oil will hit us all hard. Fossil fuels power our food production systems and its distribution. Transportation, materials production, international trade, construction... basically everything will become a lot more expensive. There is a lot that we can do to begin preparing for the end of the oil age, and many communities are already getting started. While we cannot maintain our current lifestyles, we can maintain or even improve our quality of life. We just need to do the kinds of things that hippies have been talking about since the 1970’s – energy efficiency, localised economies, waste reduction, passive solar building design, walkable cities, and a focus on building communities rather than making more stuff.

Despite the government’s wilful negligence on this issue we have a choice – begin to make the transition towards a low energy future or ignore the problem and watch Rome burn. Personally I’m not waiting for the politicians.

(from Monkeywrenching)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ecological overshoot

Last week the human species went into debt. Not financial debt, but in something far more important – the service flows of the environment. Money is just something we made up, useful but ultimately illusory. If we go into ecological debt, on the other hand, there is no government or lending establishment that can bail us out. There are no appeal rights against the laws of nature.

It's a simple idea. Think of it like a business. If it spends more than its income, eating into its capital, it will eventually go bust. A family budget is the same. If times are hard you may have to spend some of your savings on groceries and rent but sooner or later you have to learn to live within your income.

Natural resources are the same. We cannot continually take more resources than the environment can regenerate, yet most wealthy countries live far beyond their environmental means. If everyone in the world lived like the average American we would need the resources of at least 5 planets. For the UK it is 3.4 planets, and New Zealand is probably somewhere around there. The per capita consumption of China is estimated to be close to one planet living.

I personally don't aspire to the lifestyle of the average chinese, so I'm interested in how we reduce our consumption without losing our quality of life? Which begs the question of what it is that makes the 'good' life. It's something that we don't seem to much ask ourselves these days, obsessed as we are with living the 'big' life. We have locked ourselves into a growth frenzy that makes us work harder for less happiness. Most people have less time to spend with their family or their friends, less time to walk along the river bank or share a meal together and less financial security despite the economic growth of the past few decades.

Much politics is focussed on cutting spending on the things that make people happier in order to boost spending on things to increase economic growth. It is assumed that this will make us better off, although there is no evidence to think so. In my opinion, it is time that we began to invest in infrastructure to improve the well-being of our people. Not because it will boost tourism, not because studies show that happy citizens are more productive, not because it will give savings in the health sector, but simply because it will make us all better off in the only terms that really matter – enjoyment of life.

One of the candidates for Hamilton City Council, Mark Servian, has said “A community is a home, not a business, so council spending decisions should be based on 'cost-benefit', NOT 'profit-loss'. Neither a household or a firm can let itself go broke, but the city is first and foremost where we live our lives. The council is our shared project for making our collective home much more pleasant”. I agree. It is a pretty bleak vision that sees pavements, drains and rubbish as the only things councils should be interested in. In my view we will learn to live within our ecological means by living better lives and local councils have a major role to play in that..

One obvious strategy in Hamilton is to invest in making it a more walkable, cyclable city. With our flat streets, our gully system, our river banks and our parks it is hard to imagine a place better suited for it. This could be combined with a functioning passenger rail service to Auckland and better cycle and public transport connections to outlier towns to make getting around a joy rather than a source of road rage. I wouldn't be the only one that would be both happier and greener because of it.

(from my Waikato Times column)