arch-peace editorials

11 October 2006

Peak Oil and the Development

Peak Oil and the Development, Design and Building Professions
October 10, 2006

Directly or indirectly, all the architects, urban designers, planners, builders, developers and so on who are associated with our organization are using large quantities of natural and modified raw materials. Many of our conventional natural resources are in bountiful supply. Coal, and less harmful silica and other basic building materials appear to have literally centuries of supply life. Other natural resources have a significantly shorter lifespan and substitution with other materials will not necessarily be timely or technically possible.

The issue of environmental limits to humanity on earth was brought to international attention in the early 1970s by the precocious computer modelling of natural resource use in the book Limits to Growth (1972). The authors were pilloried by the US media but revisited their resources predictions 20 years later in an even gloomier publication Beyond the Limits (1992). Critics quickly pointed out there would be technological solutions to materials shortages (eg aluminium for copper; plastic for steel) and politicians and traditional economists still dismissed the notion that the world would be susceptible to the finiteness of development resources. However, by the late 1990s an increasing number of organizations point to the depletion of the world’s resources, their finiteness, and the link between their exploitation, environmental degradation and poverty. Observers repeatedly state that the human claim on nature is increasing unchecked almost everywhere. Our capacity to destroy life-supporting eco-system services rises and perhaps the ‘business as usual’ economic model is no longer an option.

More tangibly, it seems we are in a rather precarious situation in relation to oil, according to a number of petro-geologists. Oil is a critical energy resource. In Richard Heinberg’s analysis in The Oil Depletion Protocol, one of the fundamental problems with oil is, ironically that it is such an efficient energy source. Because of that, Heinberg remains sceptical about the prospect of renewable energy sources filling the gap when the oil finally runs out.

Much of the work contained in Heinberg’s three books is based on the ideas of the geophysicist M. King Hubbert who drew attention to the finite nature of oil resources in the 1950s. Viewed through Hubbert’s eyes, the classic bell curve graph of accelerating oil production then accelerating scarcity takes on a chilling aspect. This is known as the 'peak oil' concept and it has gained quite a lot of media coverage in the last 2 or 3 years.

The term "Peak oil" is shorthand for the premise that the amount of oil (or any other finite material) left for us to use has "peaked" (or is just about to peak). Once world­wide production begins to fall and with continuing increase in demand, oil prices will skyrocket, leading to widespread chaos. How bad will it be? If Heinberg is to be believed, the impending dislocation caused by the end of the oil era will be about as bad as it gets - global resource wars as oil-dependent economies battle for control of remaining resources and widespread famine caused by the slowdown in oil-dependent agri-business. The picture he paints is cataclysmic!

"I'm a huge advocate of re­newables," he says. "I have photovoltaic panels on my roof and drive a biodiesel car but re­alistically I don't think we can expect renewables to replace fos­sil fuels unless we reduce our total energy con­sumption quite dramatically. "It's not just going to be a mat­ter of replacing gasoline with something else and continuing on our merry way. We're actually going to have to change our transportation systems and also re­duce the amount of transpor­tation that we do."

Heinberg is also sceptical of the prospect of bio-fuels saving the day. "It's clear ethanol and other bio-fuels are going to entail trade-offs between food and fuel. If we try to replace gasoline and diesel fuels with bio-fuels we'll simply fail because we don't have enough land and people will starve in the process." Nuclear power is similarly dis­missed as being fraught with too many technical, financial and environmental hurdles to be able to fill the gap quickly or easily.

So what, according to the peak oil gurus, will happen in the energy scarcity period between oil plenty and other kinds of energy plenty?

If we are to gently surf the downward slope of Hubbert's bell curve rather than precipitously tumble off the edge, Heinberg says, it will take a social transfor­mation of no lesser magnitude than the industrial revolution. "I don't think we are going back to exactly how people lived 200 years ago but we are going to need lots more human labour in agri­culture and that means the middle class is going to start shrinking."

Manufacturing will again be­come a local business in the post-­oil era as the interdependencies of global trade are unwound and shrink into relatively self-contained continents. In­ternational trade will continue but it will be restricted to luxur­ies and exotic items. People will work and shop close to home and even grow some food in their own backyards - just as many of our parents did. The intense pace of economic activity we've become used to through globalization will diminish dramatically - there simply won't be the fuel available for transport and the financial flows won’t be there either. The travel and tourism industry will rarely see overseas visitors for a long time. And inter-state travel on large land masses will diminish. The education industry will shrink considerably partly because of its reliance on overseas students and their income. And the property, development and building industry will probably shrink massively.

What do these scenarios imply? For one thing, unless the transition is managed exceedingly skillfully, large scale unemployment for several decades. But Heinberg doesn't stop there. He thinks that de-globalization is going to be good for people and good for com­munities. "If the transition is accomplished in a co-ordinated way it might actually mean more jobs and more satisfy­ing jobs for people. If you look at the end of the process it's not hard to paint a fairly attractive picture. The problem is how we get there - very few communities are plan­ning for this transition. If we just let market forces rule, the result is going to be economic, political and social chaos in the intervening period."

But there are attempts to canvass practical ways to make the transition to an oil-less world. At its heart of Heinberg's most recent book, The Oil Depletion Protocol, is the guideline under which individuals and states pledge to reduce consumption by at least the world depletion rate. Most of the developed world is characterised by public denials of the threat of shortage and aggressive actions to grab as much remaining oil as possible. In this latter category Heinberg places the US-led invasion of Iraq. But at least one country is taking this seriously. Sweden’s planning for the transition included an inquiry into energy consumption earlier this year. The inquiry produced a startling document entitled Mak­ing Sweden an Oil-Free Society. The report has the imprimatur of the Prime Minis­ter and sets out a range of measures that will break the nation's dependence on oil by 2020. While the authors admit it is ambitious, there is no doubting their sincerity or their belief in the gravity of the situation. And starting early is the best way to surf gently down the oil-less slope.

(Much of this material is sourced from the article When oil dries up, Sydney Morning Herald, September 2, 2006)

Dr John Blair


beatriz + the arch-peace team said...

Hi John,

The topic is very timely. You have raised many interesting issues there, one about the possible social transformation, the need to change our consumption levels (life-style), the idea that globalisation will slow down, and about our reliance on the education industry. I hope to read some comments on any of these.

In relation to the first, social transformation, after the last increase in petrol cost, the news mentioned concerns (from the part of petrol station operators), regarding the increasing number of vehicles who, after filling the tanks, left without paying. Surveillance systems are being reviewed because of this. It may be too early to tell, but what strikes me is that it may not take much to notice some degree of change in people's behaviours.

The Swedish example is interesting, however, I think I heard somewhere that they are relaying on some nuclear power (?)- not sure. If this was the case, perhaps a discussion about that could also follow.


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