January 24, 2013

What's a collapsarian gotta do to catch a break?

Frequent readers realize that one of my anchoring theses is that the Collapsarian community (Dmitry Orlov, James Kunstler, Richard Heinberg, and many, many others) use Peak Oil as a kind of deus ex machina to bring on a much-wished-for cessation of what you might call American business as usual. This business as usual is characterized by an auto-centric (I here refer to automobiles and the petroleum-powered internal combustion engine) society of sprawling suburbs, which encourage the ubiquitous (and seemingly self-replicating) pattern of strip malls, office parks, clogged freeways, urban congestion, pollution and global heating (I have firmly adopted James Lovelock's more dramatic phrasing).  The idea is that the inability of the world's oil fields to keep up with burgeoning demand, especially as China and India modernize and demand more and more of a relatively fixed quantity of available oil, will lead inexorably to wholesale changes in our "living arrangements" (as James Kunstler puts it).

I sympathize, of course.  What I wish is that we had, as Mr. Kunstler fondly wishes also, a vibrant network of high-quality trains as alternatives to the tedium of interstate highway driving, or to the awfulness of flying on cramped airplanes where all amenities have been eliminated in the name of security and economy.  Of course, this nostalgia for a nonexistent present (the French would have a good phrase for that) is a complete fantasy.  If we did have such a train network, the passengers would be my fellow Americans, jabbering, texting, screaming into their cell phones, occupying three seats each with their elephantine girth, and so forth.  It's nice to think about, but it's a dream.  If, as Cormac McCarthy said about Texas, that it's "No Country for Old Men," then America is not a good country in general for people of refined sensibilities.  I am afraid that's what Mr. Kunstler and many others are actually complaining about, and it's not even that subtle in the Clusterfuck Nation diatribes that James Kunstler writes on a weekly basis.  They're fun to read because they're so intemperate and scathing, but it's like scratching a bad rash.  It feels good while you're doing it, but it provides no lasting relief.  When you're done lambasting your fellow Americans, you look around and realize you're still here.

Still, Peak Oil offered so much promise.  Won't it cut into globalization, for example?  Well, it probably will.  The high cost of oil (which will remain stubbornly high because of the cost of extracting the remaining reserves and increasing international competition) tends to add significant costs to the transport of low-margin goods, such as cheap crap from China mass produced in their gulag of slave factories.  Meanwhile, there is no doubt that the general broke-ass condition of the American economy at present has significantly impacted what you might call "discretionary driving" in America.  The very worthwhile website maintained by the U.S. Energy Information Agency, for example, reports:

"U.S. gasoline consumption peaked in 2007 at 9.3 million bbl/d and fell by an average of 3.2% (300 thousand bbl/d) in 2008 due to the recession and high gasoline prices, which topped $4 per gallon in June and July 2008. Gasoline prices fell in late 2008 and remained below $3 per gallon through 2009 and 2010, but gasoline consumption remained flat, increasing by just 0.1% in 2009 and falling slightly in 2010. Regular-grade gasoline prices rose in early 2011, peaking at an average of $3.91 per gallon in May 2011, and for the year averaged $0.74 per gallon higher than the year before. In response to higher prices, households again cut back on highway travel, and gasoline consumption fell by 2.9% (260 thousand bbl/d) in 2011 from the year before."

It's a definite trend.  A little of this (but not much) is because of the move to more fuel efficient cars, such as hybrids. Essentially, this is an economic adaptation.  We're mostly stuck with gasoline-powered vehicles here in America (with our 240 million cars and trucks), so for the time being conservation is the only way out.  Yet this goes so much against the grain of American Exceptionalism, you know? 

The Collapsarians don't want to hear it, but my guess is that engineers will begin adapting to America's relative abundance of natural gas.  Natural gas is the bĂȘte noire
of the Peak Oil cassandras, of course.  They hate the stuff.  It's because America has so much of it.  It's the damned shale that's in the way of the dream.  It's loaded up with natural gas, and you can get to it with horizontal drilling and fracking the tight sedimentary deposits where it reposes.

The industry people say we have a 200-year supply of natural gas.  You can imagine how that one goes over with the Collapsarian community.  Yet the Peak Oil theorists seem reduced to arguing that the real supply, the readily accessible stuff that is economically feasible to extract, is more on the order of 20 to 30 years.  Still, a lot of these Collapsarians are late-stage Baby Boomers (such as Mr. Kunstler himself), and what good does it do one's anodyne fantasy of a return to the relative gentility of the 1950's to be told we can keep doing things the way we're doing them for another thirty years

You see the problem.  A 30 year time horizon does not work with modern America's attention span. 30 yeas might as well be forever.  Cars can run on natural gas; it's not that big an engineering hassle. Cars can also run on electricity, which can be generated with natural gas, or with solar and wind power, which is the project Israel (which is tired of buying oil from its burnoosed arch-enemies) is working on successfully.  That's what's going to happen, if I know my fellow Americans, and I must by now.  Qatar is in the process of demonstrating, by the way, that jet airplane fuel can be made from natural gas.  They're flying planes now using the stuff, and they're just as efficient (maybe more so) than jet fuel made from petroleum.

Just give it up, my Collapsarian friends, and make the most of it.  Americans will give up their cars when you pry their cold dead hands from the steering wheel.