a little late getting this sad news

August 12, 2010

Matt Simmons, leading peak oil pundit, dead at 69.


Apocalypticism — the psychology of the doomesday mindset

May 18, 2010

Apocalypticism, though hard to spell and pronounce, is relatively simply to define and understand: a belief that the world is going to end soon.

Apocalypticism plays a central role in a number of religious beliefs, particularly among orthodox dogmas, and as such it traditionally been the realm of nuts and zealots.

More recently, it seems to me that apocalypticism is finding a foothold in mainstream thought. There is a clear undertone of apocalypticism in the political rhetoric and zeitgeist of the United States. Heck, this blog had its roots in my belief that we are heading toward an energy crisis. Here are some other reasons to run for the hills:

Global warming, 2012, Islamic Jihad, alien invasion (mexicans or extra terrestrials)

Apocalypticism: pick your flavor.

What is it about human nature that leads us to envision our existence in such a dramatic endgame? I think apocalypticism is rooted in the individual’s fear of death.  Everyone faces their own personal apocalypse (death), and understandably some of us deal with that grim eventuality  by placing it in the context of a story in which the larger entities that frame our existence (country, world economy, environment, supernatural forces) themselves die or at least undergo a cataclysmic transformation.

Another common psychological driver of apocalypticism is the yearning for a “clean slate” . This is particularly relevant in religious “end of times” messiah beliefs in which an apocalyptic disaster rids the world of its sinners and ushers in a virtuous era of peace and prosperity. Or in the peak oil version, the massive industrial machine grinds to a halt without the oil required to lubricate it and people are forced to lead more simple but more spiritually fulfilling lives.

And what of the irreligious like me? Absent the “end of days” promise that is the fulcrum of so many religious ideologies, how to the faithless frame their existence. It’s sort of crushing to live one’s life without the promise of some slate-cleaning event. It is just too painful to accept that my existence is just a flash in a long history of human idiocy and wickedness, and that it will be no less idiotic or wicked on the day of your death than it was the day you were born.

Whatever the psychological drivers, some of us clearly yearn for some sort of apocalypse? We keen for it like a bunch wailing polygamists on a dessert steppe compound, arms held to the sky transforming the mundane into the cosmic through collective insanity.

More Cows vs Disney Land

April 19, 2010

 As taken from: http://www.boston.com/sports/other_sports/running/articles/2010/04/19/theyre_off_wheelchair_racers_start_in_boston/

Cheruiyot, 21, surpassed the course record of 2:07:14 set in 2006 by his 31-year-old countryman. A farmer back home, he earned a bonus of $25,000 on top of the $150,000 — and a golden olive wreath from the city of Marathon, Greece — that goes the men’s and women’s champions.

“I am going to buy some cows,” Cheruiyot said.

A particularly poignant response given that the cliché  post-victory declaration for American athletes is “I’m going to Disney World”.  Just think about that. Americans win and they giddily proclaim their well-sponsored obligation to make a pilgrimage to land of magic castles and giant mice. Africans win and they promise to increase their cattle herd for their farm back home.

If the world’s not heading for a massive breakdown, why do I still want to live more sustainably and self-sufficiently?(part 2)

February 22, 2010

this entry is the second half of this previous entry

Since writing the first half of this, we had a little boy (William Edward). He’s doing great, but it has obviously put a damper on my previously strong effort at making regular entries.

During the past three weeks and in the weeks leading up to his birth, I really began to notice a shift in my thinking. The threat of peak oil, true though it may be, isn’t looming as large in my head these days. I just don’t see society collapsing in a big pre-industrial morass.

But I still feel the need to get back to the land and become more self-sufficient. I’ve been reading a great book called The Good House Book. It is prime dream house dreaming material as it does a wonderful job of explaining how to employ eco-friendly building techniques in homes. My favorite section has to do with passive solar. I just love the thought of doing something with that in a future home, should the opportunity present itself.

Absent that gloom and doom thinking and its motivations, what explains my persistant  desire to move toward a more self-sufficient, sustainable lifestyle? The answer probably involves a mix of the following factors  (and probably some I haven’t yet thought of):

  • my country roots and a longing to return to a setting similar to that which I grew up
  • some real concerns about energy prices (such as gas and heating oil)
  • the comforting notion of self-sufficiency
  • living green is increasingly seen as moral and virtuous
  • the grass is always greener on the other side of the mountain

I don’t claim to fully understand what is driving me to continue to research ways of living more sustainably. It’s worth the self-examination, but ultimately, there’s no need to over-think it. It’s not like I’m ready to plunk $30K on  a  photovoltaic solar panel array. Right now, I’m very much in just a think and dream type stage.

I guess I don’t really need an end of the world as we know it-type rational to  keep reading and dreaming of moving to some passive solar home with an abundant garden  and fruit trees.

How much additional electricity would it take to power the entire US automobile fleet annually?

January 28, 2010

When I began considering the possibilities of electric vehicles one of my major concerns had to do with the amount of electricity we would need to generate above our current capacity if we were to replace our entire fleet of cars and trucks in the United States with electric vehicles.

The short answer is that we would need to generate roughly 25% more electricity per year above our current electric output to power our entire national fleet of cars and trucks.

My approach to calculating this is simple, no doubt over-simplified, but my conclusion can’t be far off. In fact, here’s a different way to approach the problem that comes to roughly the same answer:

But here’s a slightly more simplified way to get to the same conclusion.

The number of miles traveled by vehicles in the United States is roughly 3 trillion.

A typical electric car will take you about 3 or 4 miles on a kilowatt of energy. For the sake of easy math, let’s call it 3.

So we’ll need an extra 1 trillion kilowatts per year to drive those 3 trillion miles. Sounds like a lot, but when you consider that we now produce over 4 trillion kilowatt-hours per year it seems pretty doable.

What would it take to bump our annual electricity generation by 25%? I guess the answer is a lot of power plants, especially given that you need enough to meet peak load demand.

Is this calculation meaningful? Probably not very meaningful at least in the short-term given that electric vehicle adoption is not projected to be overly rapid. https://concernedaboutenergy.wordpress.com/2009/12/15/electric-cars-not-so-fast-says-the-national-academies-press/

But projections can’t account for everything. Electric vehicles, while not a sound consumer decision from a cost savings perspective at the current $3 gallon cost of gas, could become considerably more attractive if gas pushes $5 a gallon.

And wow, I’m watching the State of the Union Address as I type this and President Obama just expressed a commitment to building more nuclear power plants in the US to raucous applause. Hey, maybe we can generate that added 25% of electricity without having to turn to natural gas and coal.

If the world’s not heading for a massive breakdown, why do I still want to live more sustainably and self-sufficiently? (part 1)

January 18, 2010

In myself, and in many of the people who consider the topic of peak oil, I have a difficult time discerning motives. Why do I care about it? What outcome do I hope for? Am I hoping that society might collapse such that a new smaller/more local/more rural reality will replace our current North American way of life?

To be honest, I don’t know. Personal interest are complex. Everyone has their own leanings, biases, hopes, fears and concerns.

I will say that the more that I honestly assess my own feelings on the subject, the more I begin to doubt what I’ve expressed as my motive for writing this blog, namely that I’m concerned for the future of this country and its future use of energy. The more honestly I examine my own feelings, the more I recognize a biased undercurrent of dissatisfaction with my current way of life.

To take a step back, let me tell you a little bit about myself. I grew up in a rural county in Massachusetts (Berkshire County) which by some standards is one of the more sought after vacation spots in the North East. It has all the charms of small town, rural life (I grew up walking the same Main Street Norman Rockwell painted, Stockbridge), and it has all the cultural niceties you would expect to find in a vacation spot frequented by New Yorkers and Bostonians (more of the former than  the latter).

The majority of my years in the Berkshires were spent on a prep school campus. The school (Berkshire School) has over 50 acres of immaculately maintained sport fields and is nestled under a picturesque Appalachian mountain.

That is where I lived from age 9 until 18, when I left home for Tufts University. If you have been to Somerville or Medford (Tufts sprawls across both towns), you know they are a far cry from the shire of my youth. Here’s a reasonably representative shot of what a typical street looks like in Somerville:

The aesthetic downgrade was a little tough, though the beer and parties seemed to more than compensate my lost eden.

And excepting a 2 year stint in DC, I’ve lived within 5 miles of Tufts since graduating in 1995.

At age 37, I find myself living what at times is really feels like the standard suburban life. 9 to 5 work at a desk job, 49 weeks a year, and weekend getaways to country places and the beach. My wife, daughter and I live in a nice home in a picturesque neighborhood. Despite having left friends back in Berkshire County, I’m lucky enough to have all 3 of my closest college buddies still in town to hang out with.

I can’t really pinpoint when I became so focussed on energy issues. I do recall a Sunday shopping excursion a few years back to mall town out on 128 (aka, I-95 beltway), and thinking about how many cars were around me in the parking lot. Some seed was planted at that time about the unsustainable nature our current use of automobiles here in North America and our consumption patterns.

At some time around then I also read Omnivore’s Dilemma. That really opened my eyes to the industrial nature of our food supply and its dependence on petroleum inputs and the highway/truck-based distribution system used to transport food.

It was in the late summer of 2009 that those sparks of interest kindled into something more active and I began searching around the web for things related to “peak oil” and related energy topics. Of course, if you input a alarmist catchphrase Google will output alarmist sites, such as Matt Savinar’s http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net.

The resulting scare then gave way to a rather aggressive research phase during which I read 5 or 6 non-fiction books on energy topics, most of them directly or indirectly related to peak oil. Early in this stage, I was very taken with James Kunstler, who is arguably the most high profile among the peak oil crowd.

Since then I’ve been exploring some works of fiction, such Robert Charles Wilson’s “Julian Comstock” and Kunstler’s “World Made by Hand”.

Twilight in the Desert

January 13, 2010

I read Matthew Simmons “Twilight in the Desert” this past week. In the world of Peak Oilers, Matthew Simmons is sort of the mainstream guy that the rest of the authors love to point to as means of validating their positions. He is, after all, pretty well validated . He runs a successful energy investment firm and is respected throughout the industry.

You can check him out here to get a sense for the guy:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IwtAQzrfiw

Simmons asserts that Saudi oil reserves are not as plentiful as the Saudis have led us (with a mimimum of persuasion) to believe.

Back in the 70’s when the United States oil production was peaking, Saudi Arabia was on the upswing. They have since been the dominant exporter of oil and very much the lead player in OPEC. They have produced between 5 million and 13 million barrels of oil a day, every day, since then. They have done so however with relative secrecy. 

For me, the single most enjoyable page in the book is Simmons description of the how the rest of the world goes about guessing Saudi’s actual production. As he tells it, the most often cited source on oil is a Swiss company Petro-Logistics, which is run by a man in a second floor apartment above a grocery store who employs “port spies” that actually monitor and report on Saudi oil tanker departures and their estimated volumes/destinations. Actually, to update things, Conrad Gerber is dead: http://blogs.ft.com/energy-source/2009/05/01/opec-oil-supply-guru-conrad-gerber-has-died/

Since KSA’s (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) rise to oil exporting preeminence, there has been speculation among energy analysts and pundits of all sorts that KSA  is sitting more oil that it knows what do to do with. Some have even gone so far as to claim that the Saudis could, if they wanted to, produce up 20 million barrels of oil per day and basically flood the market.

The assertion Simmons makes in the book, which are compelling, is that KSA is not capable of vastly increasing their current rate of production (9 million barrels per day) and that they might very well be peaking. He comes to this conclusion after a thorough review of ~200 techincal papers available for reading via the Society of Petroleum Engineers (http://www.spe.org) .

lThe book get’s very in-depth in its analysis. Frankly, to deep for me. I could have done with less detail. But the facts presented by Simmons certainly lend credibility to his assertions that KSA’s oil boom is fast approaching its twilight.

I was able to read the book page for page until about 2/3 through it at which point it was so tedious that I had to skim entire chapters. The other annoying part of the book is that it’s predictive premise didn’t really jibe well with the fact that I was reading 4 year’s after its publication. I couldn’t help but want to hit the internet to see how Saudi Arabia’s oil situation was doing, eager to see if Simmons had been right (not that he offered any set dates for when Saudi oil would peak).

So apart from this being a boring book review, here’s what we know about Saudi oil production for the past 30 years. http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/country/country_energy_data.cfm?fips=SA