The tagline for this web site says “Peak oil, climate change and a failing economy.” That’s pretty abstract. What does it mean concretely?

A transition group is mostly about local food production, using less energy, and strengthening local community. Peak oil, climate change and a failing economy are three excellent reasons for forming a transition group, though they are not the only reasons for doing so. They are, however, the newest and in some ways the most powerful reasons now motivating people who previously may have had less interest in gardening, energy conservation and community action.

That certainly applies to me. I’m an engineer with over 30 years experience in solar cell research and production. For the last 15 years, I’ve also been a political activist, first on the issue of universal health care and then more broadly with the Green Party. The political approach is not showing signs of success. I’ve concentrated on trying to understand the technical facts relevant to energy issues.

Peak oil is the most relevant of facts. Our political leaders are not admitting it, much less preparing our society to cope with it. It has been clear for a long time that sensible policies on the subject of energy have practically zero chance of being followed, or even heard, in our two-party political system.

Part of the reason is that elected officials feel obligated to act like they have solutions to social and economic problems. A sensible energy policy is not a solution to the problem of supplying our society with energy for economic development and prosperity. The energy policies actually being pursued are even less a solution. Current policy amounts to short-term measures to keep energy flowing at the expense of addressing or even admitting the facts about depletion of resources, especially oil.

To borrow a thought from John Michael Greer, finding energy to keep our industrial society running is not so much a problem as it is a predicament.

“The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether a solution can be found and made to work and, once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people may come up with responses. These responses may succeed, they may fail, or they may fall somewhere in between, but none of them ‘solves’ the predicament, in the sense that none of them makes it go away“. (1)

Fossil fuels now supply over 80% of the energy we use. Oil supplies 37%; coal, 23%; and natural gas, another 23%. Oil, the most important one, supplies 97% of our transportation fuel. Fossil fuels are finite and will, to a first approximation, be exhausted in this century. Oil will be the first to hit peak production and then decline.

Peak oil may already have been reached in 2006, though the decline since has been small and erratic. It is possible that the number of barrels of oil on the world market in 2011 or 2015 will greater than the number from 2006 before the decline rate becomes steep and irreversible. Knowing the exact timing and scale of the peak is not so important as understanding the decline that follows.

The predicament is that known alternative sources of energy are individually and all together inadequate to the task of replacing oil, coal and natural gas. Going through the whole list of alternatives to pin down their limitations individually is a long and tedious exercise. Most proposed alternatives fail because their net energy is not adequate. Low net energy generally translates into too expensive for ordinary use.

Specifically for liquid fuels that might fit with our existing transportation infrastructure, various types of biomass conversion have been promoted. However, if we used all our existing farmland to grow biomass, and if we could get much better yields than are now common, not only would we be starving because we forgot to grow any food, we would still fall very far short of replacing oil. Biofuels have reasonable niche applications, but they are not a solution.

If we use electricity for transportation, we are going to need an entire new infrastructure, we are going to have to find some source of energy for generating all the new electricity, and we will also have to find a replacement for the coal that now generates half our current supply of electricity.

Coal will be the next fossil fuel to peak and decline. It is likely that we will not be able to increase the rate of electricity generated from clean sources at anything like the rate at which oil and then coal will decline. Electricity is not a solution.

Neither is the imagined “hydrogen economy.” Like electricity, hydrogen is a carrier of energy, not a source of energy. To use electricity, you first have to generate it, and to use hydrogen, you first have to generate it. It takes an actual source of energy to generate either one. Also like electricity, using hydrogen for transportation would demand an entire new infrastructure – plants, pipelines, tanks, filling stations, and so on.

Liquid fuel made from crude oil is what we now depend on to run our cars, trucks, trains, planes and boats. When the flow of oil slows – as has been happening the last several years – the price of fuels goes up and we are forced to curtail some of our traveling and shipping. Economists call this “demand destruction.” That, too has been happening in the last few years. Expect more demand destruction as supply decline proceeds.

Declining and unreliable energy sources are no basis for an expanding industrial economy. As long as more net energy was available than we were currently using, economic contractions were fairly mild and temporary. Growth was the normal condition. When more net energy is not available, when it is in fact declining, then periods of growth are weak and temporary, and recession is the normal condition.

Declining net energy is at least in part a cause of the recession we have been in for the last few years. Extremely high oil prices choked the life out of the economy in 2008. Oil prices are now working their way back to a level that will choke our so-called “jobless recovery.”

If there were affordable and practical alternatives to replace oil, we would be using them already. Tax cuts and deficit spending do nothing about the issue. Wars for oil both postpone the consequences and, by burning up a lot of oil, make them worse. If the problem is how to revive the automobile industry and the automotive lifestyle, there is no solution. The days of cheap oil are gone.

So far as climate change is concerned, the good news is, demand destruction temporarily reduced the world’s carbon emissions. The bad news is, plans to make liquid fuels from coal and natural gas will, if implemented, increase carbon emissions. It seems the only thing that will stop our forcing of global warming, acidification of the oceans and other symptoms of carbon emissions will be running out of fossil fuels. The political approach to this issue is also showing no sign of success.

Now, it is not impossible that some currently unknown source of energy will be discovered and developed in the future. That would change the picture. It is also possible that will not happen in this century, and it may never happen. Counting on an unknown invention is not a plan, it’s faith in magic. While it may make a comforting faith, we are discussing practical ways to fill a gas tank (or not), not speculating about theology.

The transition response to our predicament is to reduce our dependence on oil and fossil fuels generally by reducing our energy use, both as individuals and as a community. With industrial farming and food distribution, it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food. A shortage of energy can quickly translate to a shortage of food. That means it’s also a good idea to produce as much of our food as possible ourselves, locally, using as little energy as possible in the process. That is another way of reducing our dependence on oil.

Transition is not about creating a society that uses less energy. That society is coming, whether we like it or not and whether we are ready for it or not. Transition is about creating a community able to adapt to less energy without panic, collapse and catastrophe.

There’s no guarantee conservation and local food production will be enough for our community to survive the decline that’s coming. For the foreseeable future, we are going to depend on our neighbors as the industrial economy increasingly fails us. We had better learn to work together in new ways. We will need all the help we can give each other.

Art Myatt

(1)<\a> The Long Descent, John Michael Greer, New Society Publishers, 2008; block quote from p. 22. [Return to article]