Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

After The Techno-Fix

After The Techno-Fix
by Peter Goodchild
Countercurrents.org (December 22 2007)

"Even when grappling with the idea of economic disintegration, Americans
attempt to cast it in terms of technological or economic progress:
eco-villages, sustainable development, energy efficiency and so on.
Under the circumstances, such compulsive techno-optimism seems
maladaptive." -- Dmitry Orlov, "Our Village"

The path beyond petroleum begins by considering five principles: that
alternative sources of energy are insufficient; that hydrocarbons,
metals, and electricity are inseparable; that advanced technology is
part of the problem, not part of the solution; that post-oil agriculture
means a smaller population; and that the basis of the problem is
psychological, not technological.

Everything in modern industrial society is dependent on oil and other
hydrocarbons. From these we get gasoline, heating fuel, fertilizer,
pesticides, lubricants, plastic, paint, synthetic fabrics, asphalt,
pharmaceuticals, and many other things. Speaking in more general terms,
we can say that we are dependent on hydrocarbons for manufacture, for
transportation, for agriculture, for mining, and for electricity. The
peak of world oil production is (or was) about thirty billion barrels a
year, supporting a human population of nearly seven billion. In the
entire world, there are perhaps a trillion barrels of oil left to
extract - which may sound like a lot, but isn't. By 2030, annual oil
production will be less than half of what it was at its peak.

1: Alternative Sources of Energy Are Insufficient

Alternative sources of energy will never be of much use, mainly because
of the problem of "net energy": the amount of energy output from
alternative sources is not sufficiently greater than the amount of
energy input (which is hydrocarbons). Alternative sources are not
sufficient to supply the annual needs of "industrial society" as the
term is generally understood.

The use of unconventional oil (tar sands, shale deposits, heavy oil)
poses several problems. The first is that of insufficient net energy.
The second is that of extreme pollution. The third is that is even if we
optimistically assume that about 700 billion barrels of unconventional
oil could be produced, that amount would equal only about fifteen years
of global oil demand.

Fuel cells cannot be made practical, because such devices require
hydrogen derived from hydrocarbons. Biofuels (for example, from corn)
require enormous amounts of land and still result in insufficient
quantities of net energy. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their
practical limits. Nuclear power will soon be suffering from a lack of
fuel and is already creating serious environmental dangers.

Solar, wind, and geothermal power are only effective in certain areas
and for certain purposes. Such types of power, in any case, are of
significant value only when converted into electrical energy, requiring
the use of disposable batteries and some very rare metals. In terms of
ecology (that is, the relationship between population and resources),
these types of power are therefore no better than the hydrocarbon-based
power they are intended to replace.

The world uses fifteen terawatts of power every year. It's hard to
imagine how much energy that is; it's more than "a lot". By 2030 the
world's oil supply will be so depleted that the Industrial Age will be
over, for all practical purposes. Yet proponents of "alternative energy"
hope to transform the entire planet in a time frame that would be
implausible even in a work of science fiction.

The quest for alternative sources of energy is not merely illusory; it
is actually harmful. By daydreaming of a noiseless and odorless utopia
of windmills and solar panels, we are reducing the effectiveness of
whatever serious information is now being published. When news articles
claim that there are simple painless solutions to the oil crisis, the
reader's response is not awareness but drowsiness. We are rapidly
heading toward what has been described as the greatest disaster in
history, but we are indulging in escapist fantasies.

2: Hydrocarbons, Metals, and Electricity Are Inseparable

Iron ore of the sort that can be processed with primitive equipment is
becoming scarce, and only the less-tractable forms will be available
when the oil-powered machinery is no longer available - a
chicken-and-egg problem. Copper, aluminum, and other metals are also
rapidly vanishing. Metals were useful to mankind only because they could
once be found in concentrated pockets in the earth's crust; now they are
irretrievably scattered among the world's garbage dumps.

Electricity is not a source of energy; it is only a carrier of energy.
That energy comes mainly from coal, natural gas, nuclear power plants,
or hydroelectric dams. Coal is terribly inefficient; only a third of its
energy is transferred as it is converted to electricity. At the same
time, the electrical grids are perpetually operating at maximum load,
chronically in need of better maintenance and expensive upgrading. The
first clearly marked sign of "the end" may be the failure of electricity.

Hydrocarbons, metals, and electricity are all intricately connected.
Each is inaccessible - on the modern scale - only when the other two are
present. Any two will vanish without the third. If we imagine a world
without hydrocarbons, we must imagine a world without metals or
electricity. There is no way of breaking that "triangle".

3: Advanced Technology Is Part of the Problem, Not Part of the Solution

Whatever choices may be available in the future, they will not be found
in advanced technology, in "high-tech" solutions. There are three
reasons why that is so. In the first place, any "alternative-energy"
devices would have to be created from plastics and metals. Secondly,
they would have to be controlled by electricity. Finally, they would
have to be created by large and sophisticated machines and transported
over long distances. But the whole point in speculating about
"alternative energy" in the first place is to find an answer to that
particular crisis - the fact that none of those three factors will exist
in future years.

In addition, all that we think of as "modern industrial society" has its
"sociological" components: intricate division of labor, large-scale
government, and high-level education. Without hydrocarbons, metals, and
electricity, we will find ourselves in a pre-industrial world in which
there is no material infrastructure allowing those "sociological"
components to exist.

Advanced technology is part of the problem to be solved, not the
solution itself. There may be some form of technology that can save us
from the depletion of hydrocarbons, but it is certainly not "high". To
speak of "high-tech methods" as if they were largely synonymous with
"methods employing alternative sources of energy" is ultimately
self-contradictory and self-defeating.

We cannot enter a "post-carbon" world. Life on Earth has been "carbon"
for at least half a billion years. It will not change in the next decade
or so.

4: Post-Oil Agriculture Means a Smaller Population

Modern agriculture is dependent on hydrocarbons for fertilizers (the
Haber-Bosch process combines natural gas with atmospheric nitrogen to
produce nitrogen fertilizer), pesticides, and the operation of machines
for harvesting, processing, and transporting. The Green Revolution was
the invention of a way to turn petroleum and natural gas into food.
Without hydrocarbons, modern methods of food production will disappear.
Food production will be greatly reduced, and there will be no practical
means of transporting food over long distances.

The starting point is to think in terms of a smaller radius of activity.
The globalized economy has to be replaced by the localized economy. In
the post-oil world, most food will be produced at a local level. The
catch, however, is that most of the world's surface is permanently
unsuitable for growing food: the climate is too severe, or the land is
too barren.

Nevertheless, a small human population might survive on agriculture, at
least if it reverted to some primitive methods. Some Asian cultures
brought wild plant material from the mountains and used it as
fertilizer, thereby making use of the N-P-K (et cetera) of the
wilderness. Many other cultures used wood ashes. The nutrient "source"
of the wilderness fed the nutrient "sink" of the farmland. (This is one
of the basic principles behind all "organic gardening", although few
practitioners would admit it or even know it.)

Using primitive technology, it will not be possible to feed a world
population that has anywhere near the present size. Even the
"alternative" catch-phrases harbor a number of misconceptions.
"Intensive gardening", for example, is possible only with a garden hose
and an unlimited supply of water. "Organic gardening" relies on sources
of potassium, phosphorus, and other elements that will not be available
without modern techniques of mining and transport. The maximum
population that can be supported, therefore, is about four people per
hectare of arable land.

5: The Basis of the Problem Is Psychological, Not Technological

As the oil crisis worsens there will be various forms of aberrant
behavior: denial, anger, mental paralysis. There will be an increase in
crime, there will be strange religious cults or extremist political
movements. The reason for such behavior is that fundamentally the
peak-oil problem is not about technology, and it is not about economics,
and it is not about politics. It is partly about humanity's attempt to
defy geology. But it is mainly about psychology: most people cannot
grasp what William Catton refers to as "overshoot".

We cannot come to terms with the fact that as a species we have gone
beyond the ability of the planet to accommodate us. We have bred
ourselves beyond the limits. We have consumed, polluted, and expanded
beyond our means, and after several thousand years of superficial
technological solutions we are now running short of answers. Biologists
explain such expansion in terms of "carrying capacity": lemmings and
snowshoe hares - and a great many other species - have the same problem;
overpopulation and over-consumption lead to die-off. But humans cannot
come to terms with the concept. It goes against the grain of all our
religious and philosophical beliefs.

Further Reading:

BP Global Statistical Review of World Energy. Annual.

Campbell, Colin J. The Coming Oil Crisis. Brentwood, Essex:
Multi-Science, 1997.

Catton, William R, Jr Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary
Change. Champaign, Illinois: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Deffeyes, Kenneth S. Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001.

Gever, John, et al. Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the
Coming Decades. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, 1986.

Meadows, Donella H et al. The Limits to Growth: a Report for the Club of
Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind. 2nd edition. New York:
Universe, 1982.


Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American
Indians (Chicago Review Press, 1999). He can be reached at


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