Friday, December 19, 2008


Suburbia’s Future

Much as been written on the institution and physical dimensions of suburbia, and there has been a flood of commentary since people started thinking about what will happen to the suburbs as their underpinnings start breaking down in the peak oil world. Much of the commentary has been overwhelmingly negative.

I myself agree with Kunstler’s view that suburbia is a colossal misappropriation of resources. Nevertheless, I don’t think we should just write off the suburbs if for no other reason than a lot of people live there. Undoubtedly the world upheaval just starting is going to cause the deaths of millions, and probably even billions. But we can’t just throw up our hands in despair because thinking quickly and acting deliberately could save many, and make otherwise miserable existences more bearable.

Recently over at The Oil Drum Jeff Vail wrote a series of four posts (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) which throw out some ideas about what might be done to mitigate the damage, and how suburbia might fare as a result. Readers with an interest in this topic — and I assume many suburbanites will be among them — might find some useful ideas there.

Personally, I don’t think we should have any illusions about suburbia continuing to be a nice place to live. It was conceived on assumptions that are no longer valid, and conditions are going to get very bad. But if people form communities, pull together, pool their resources, work hard, and make the best of what they have, many lives could be saved, and, in some places blessed with favorable conditions, it is even possible that thriving communities could emerge.

Here’s hoping that there are enough peak oil-aware people in the suburbs to make a difference.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Somolia the New Hot Spot in ‘War on Terror’?

A few days ago the inimitable Chris Floyd observed that the US government was trying to get a UN Security Council resolution that would make Somalia into what he calls a “global free-fire zone.” And indeed UN authorization was handily obtained, with Bloomberg reporting that
The Security Council voted 15-0 to adopt a U.S.-drafted text that permits all nations and regional organizations -- with the consent of Somalia’s provisional government -- to “take all necessary measures that are appropriate” to deter piracy.

The presence of the pirates is quite convenient. First, there is a view that they can be considered “terrorists,” which would facilitate expansion of the “war on terror” into Somalia. Indeed, the Gray Lady herself has led the charge in that respect. Second, this could present an opportunity for the US to give AFRICOM its first major assignment. And third, establishing a foothold on the Horn of Africa would help the US lock down Middle East hydrocarbon reserves, not to mention help US oil interests in Somalia itself.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Social Unrest

Certainly there are more pressing problems than social unrest, you might think, but the specter now haunts many countries and — as economic conditions worsen everywhere — threatens to engulf the world. If there is one thing that governments fear more than an attack from outside, it’s a disgruntled populace, and this disease is going to spread like wildfire. More and more people will find themselves without jobs, food, and homes, and when the number reaches a critical mass, it will rise like a tsunami approaching land. Some countries will have it worse. China and India, for example, are not only highly populous, but also have significant numbers of people who have just begun to taste the fruits of industrialism and the consumer culture. The US does not have such a large population, but its leaders will soon find that the sense of entitlement they instilled in the populace is turning into a colossal liability.

Mitigating this problem would require a redistribution of wealth, a revamped, powered-down socioeconomic system, and getting people to accept a lower standard of living. But the probability that governments will take such action is practically zero, so get ready for that tsunami.

Monday, December 08, 2008


Can Electricity Save the World?

Unless swift, coordinated action is taken by the governments of major countries around the world, it appears that billions of lives are going to be lost. Unfortunately for those billions (and I fully acknowledge that I might be among them), the governments of major countries tend not to take swift, coordinated action to save lives. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that the coordinated financial action now being undertaken by governments is aimed at propping up banks and saving elites. So let’s write this one off.

To address climate change and energy problems, there is a concerted push — that even includes many environmentalists — to build a new generation of “safe” nuclear power plants. The idea appears to be that it would enable us to phase out thermal power plants and at the same time provide lots of electricity that would save billions of people from starving and freezing.

Needless to say, this is a laudable goal. People in their right mind — even doomsters who predict a massive dieoff — aren’t cheering on the Grim Reaper.

But we need to realistically assess the belief that peppering the planet with nuclear power plants and hooking everyone up to the grid is going to save the world.

What many people need most desperately is food, and, until they could become self-sufficient, they would need to get that via farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, ships, trucks, trains, aircraft, and everything else needed to grow, process, and deliver food to the starving millions. Sure, some electricity is used, but the system is built on and powered by fossil fuels.

How will you build housing and hospitals for the needy? Electricity would be handy, but it can’t be done without fossil fuels.

But let’s go one level deeper. Is it even possible to build such infrastructure now? We keep hearing about the need for “Manhattan Project”-type efforts to build a vast infrastructure of renewable energy hardware, or a new crop of nuclear reactors, or space-based solar energy collectors that would beam energy down to the planet’s surface via microwaves, and all sorts of other ideas. Indeed, saving billions of people with nukes would require not only building the power plants themselves, but also extensive power grids reaching into the hinterlands of many countries. How would all this be built and maintained? With fossil fuels, of course. Considering the electrical grids of some industrialized countries such as the US, Britain, and South Africa are in need of repair and upgrading, where would the money for such projects come from?

In the Day of Industrial Civilization, the sun has already passed high noon and is heading down into the western sky. The window of opportunity for such planetary-scale development is closing fast, and many projects that are already underway will never be finished, such as Japan’s maglev train. Money is also disappearing fast. Yet, proponents of the “new nukes” advocate a program to build many nuclear plants, which would also require building vast grids in developing countries. Such thinking is about as relevant as a fleet of SUVs.

The precious funding and resources still available should not be wasted on pipe dreams that will never materialize. To save as many as possible, the poor and starving should be given land, seeds, simple housing, water, solar cookers, and other low-tech tools. And political stability.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


Oil Production: To Cut or Not to Cut

Oil-producing countries face a choice of either reducing oil production or not reducing it, but no matter which they choose, there would seem to be no outcome favorable to anyone. Here is one article that touches on the problem.

Choice One is to maintain production and let oil prices fall as low as they will go. If there is any chance that the world industrial economy will be revived, it will require cheap and abundant energy. In this sense, everyone would prefer Choice One for its positive economic effect. On the other hand, the downside is the devastating impact this will have on the economies of countries that depend largely or mainly on oil revenues to support their economies, and the depressing effect on new oil field development.

Choice Two is to cut production until crude prices rise to a level that can support oil-producing countries’ economies and provide enough capital to fund new oil field exploration and development. The figure of $70/bbl is often quoted, although you will find lower and higher figures. The downside here is that if oil prices are kept high, that will pretty much quash any hopes of reviving the industrial economy (which would only be temporary, anyway).

Over the long term, industrial civilization is declining. With that inevitability in mind, keeping a floor under oil prices is good because it will enforce the trend toward powering down. Therefore with the future in mind, Choice Two is the better alternative.


Blast Furnace Shutdowns

If there is one activity that is characteristic of, and essential to, industrial civilization, it’s steelmaking. And yet, around the world, steelmakers are planning blast furnace shutdowns, or have already done it. There are examples of this from Japan, the US, Sweden, India, Taiwan, and more if you want to look for them.

A blast furnace may be kept warm, which also requires that it is kept fueled, or it could be totally shut down. Startup requires considerable fuel and time because the furnace must be heated back up to operating temperature, and the iron inside that has cooled and solidified has to be melted again. With demand falling precipitously, look for more blast furnace shutdowns. And the more than are shut down, the less likely that they will all be started up again.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Zimbabwe: Don’t Let This Happen to You

Zimbabwe is crumbling. Those of us in the industrialized countries fret about losing our jobs, which is of course a serious matter. But look at Zimbabwe. It’s toast. There is no food, and people are drinking sewage. Society is descending into chaos, and the situation is so far gone that there is little if anything that can be done.

At the same time, however, there is now open talk of a Second Great Depression about to envelop the entire planet. Is such speculation far-fetched? Take a look around you. Elites keep lapping up “rescue” money, while the situation for the Little People continues to worsen. And as I have pointed out in this blog, the vast infrastructure of the US is surprisingly deteriorated, with the prospects for repair and rebuilding rather grim. As industrial civilization begins to wind down, there is a very real possibility that — unless the right action is taken now — Zimbabwe could become a prelude to what will happen in other countries, including those now considered “rich.”

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