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Tom Love - Twilight of the Petroleum Age affects our culture

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Jun 7, 2013


Energy appears increasingly in the news. People are growing more nervous about future prospects and mass media trumpet a “no need to panic, there’s plenty of oil” message ... all of which tells you something is up. A peak-oil meme is spreading.

We’re all in for a rude awakening. Whether we have faith in progress or envision an apocalypse as inevitable, it’s clear we’re in for a bumpy ride down the backslope of the petroleum era, with a variety of alternative scenarios developing.

Such talk starts to border on the apocalyptic, particularly when one seriously contemplates the extent to which virtually everything we take for granted about our lives depends on cheap energy, particularly cheap oil. Clothing, machines, transportation, our whole food system … everything, even our language and culture … all marinated in oil. The gargantuan scale of economic activity in the modern industrial world dwarfs the imagination: a quarter of all goods and services produced in all of human history, and roughly a quarter of all crude oil ever consumed, took place in just the past 10 years.

What is the energy basis enabling this spectacular growth? We’ve increased our per-capita energy consumption by borrowing from the past with fossil fuels, borrowing from elsewhere by enlarging our ecological footprint and globalizing our economy, and borrowing from the future through our financial system. But now, we’re running into planetary limits to growth, and the net energy crisis means our ability to continue borrowing on all three fronts is drawing to a close.

So why is the petroleum era ending? Because we’re running out of affordable oil, and it is not at all clear we have fuels that can easily substitute for it to keep our Industrial Age way of life going.

  • World oil production has been bumpy since 2005; while there is a lot of oil still out there, what matters is the rate it can be affordably extracted. We haven’t found big new sources of oil since the 1970s. Exploitation of the Alberta tar sands or Venezuelan bitumen deposits is a clear beacon of danger ahead, because the energy return on exploiting these resources is well below 8:1. We are throwing greater amounts of capital at oil exploration, drilling in the deep oceans and the high Arctic with decreasing results; we are running faster and spending more on ever-lower-quality, dirtier, environmentally damaging fuels, just to stay even.
  • The dozen or so net exporters, from Venezuela to Saudi Arabia, all export less now because their domestic consumption is increasing. And of what is being exported, most countries are being outbid by China and India, which can afford to pay more for oil because they use it more efficiently (think six people in a 60-mpg Tata vs. two in a Tahoe). In the United States, we import about half the oil we consume. At current trends, within 20 years zero oil will be available on the world market.
  • The heart of the matter is net energy, the amount of energy left over to do anything after the energy spent to mine, process and distribute energy resources. In the 1930s, East Texas oil returned 100 units of energy for every one invested: literally “bubbling crude.” This cheap oil powered us out of the Great Depression and helped win Word War II. The spectacular return on investment of oil and other fossil fuels we enjoyed just a generation or two ago is dropping rapidly.

We must raise our return above some minimum threshold for sufficient net flow to power society. Experts estimate this to be about 8:1. We’re not running out of energy; what we’re running out of is affordable liquid fossil fuels, particularly oil, upon which we’ve built our civilization.

The cultural implications are staggering.

  1. Cheap energy and belief in progress have made our complex lifestyles possible, based on control over past, present and future energies, added to domestic energy flow and stocks.
  2. Net energy decline, already under way, is challenging people’s subjective experience of modernity. For more and more people, things are not working out as planned. Contradictions and anomalies to the repeated reassurances about continuing “progress” are piling up, largely because what we face is not a set of problems, but a general and seemingly insolvable predicament.
  3. A period of experimentation — both failures and successes — is before us. We face a period of weeding out implausible notions about the energy-constrained future now unfolding, perhaps portending a historic break with this idea of secular progress, dominant in north Atlantic culture since at least the mid-1800s.

There’s really no reason to expect the petroleum age will unwind in some linear way, or that we’re heading to a reversion to agrarianism as industrial-energy supplies dry up, reversing how humanity grew to this point. Nevertheless, all other societal energy transitions were to higher quality fuels; now we need to do the opposite, with a lot more people on the planet. So while particular societies have in the past experienced local collapse, the emerging net energy crisis is both unprecedented and global. Thus, we have less cultural material with which to confront and adapt to it.

We’ve never been through anything like this. People will be searching for new narratives to make the rupture meaningful.

The good news comes from anthropology’s century and a half of global, cross-cultural view of ways of being human: People can live meaningful lives in basic material comfort on a fraction of First World per-capita energy consumption. The challenge is neither technological nor economic, but cultural: Can we learn to live within limits again?

Solutions to our energy challenges that do not acknowledge the net energy problem not only continue an unsustainable discourse of progress, they also inhibit our ability to construct new ways of taking this reality into account. The best way to make the inevitable transition ahead as smooth as possible is to work as if the worst outcome will happen.

The sooner we face the reality of lower net energy ahead, the sooner we can begin the task of constructing new narratives to make meaningful what’s shaping up to be an unprecedented chapter in human history.

Guest writer Thomas F. Love, professor of anthropology at Linfield College since 1983, specializes in energy anthropology and the consequences of global oil depletion in the United States and Peru. His book, “Cultures of Energy,” was released in January. He is an avid birdwatcher, lives with his family in Southwest Portland and has strong interests in religious aspects of human ecology.

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