I have the pleasure of introducing a new contributor to The Rubber Wall:
-El Hombre Nuevo-
Human Destiny and the Truth About Oil
Oil has allowed the greatest economic expansion in all of human history. Our blind dependence upon it might cause the greatest economic collapse in all of human history. Walking the fine balance of irony is part of what it means to be human. If the human brain were a claw, it would be 10 feet long, razor sharp and impossibly nimble. It’s a good thing we have this ‘claw’ because compared with other animals we are not well suited to survival. We are weak, slow, blind, soft and lack sharp implements in our jaws or on our limbs. In the past we learned to build spears, plant crops, and weave fabrics. We learned we could pump a certain black substance out of the Earth, set it on fire and greatly improve our standard of living by doing so. It’s been a great ride but we now need to use our cranial Swiss Army knife to arrange for the next energy disaster. We will be caught with our pants down. The first step to take to prevent this disaster is to gain a proper understanding of the ideas and concepts involved. I hear so many ignorant comments on the subject that it is clear a better understanding is needed.
Price Determines Supply. The Bronze Age did not end for lack of bronze, and the Oil Age will not end for lack of oil. We will never run out of oil. If you are willing to pay $50 per gallon for gas, it will always be available. I hear so many people ask “when will we run out of oil?” The real question should be “when will we run out of oil that can be obtained at a price people are willing to pay?” Our goal here is to determine the magic threshold point. Below this point (price), people are willing to pay. Above this point, people will say ‘screw it.’ Are people willing to pay $5 per gallon? Experience suggests that we are. The Europeans have been paying this price for some time now. However, relative to North America, cars in Europe are small and efficient, ownership rates are low, and distances traveled are short. Would North Americans be willing to pay $5 per gallon? Maybe. We could adopt smaller cars and use more public transportation, but nothing will change the fact that North America is huge and the distances traveled are vast.
The problem with trying to peg down this threshold price is that it is not fixed in stone. It is a moving target. My car gets 30 mpg. At this level, would I be willing to pay $5 per gallon? Basically, no. I would not sell my car, but I would not drive it more than once a week or so (I am lucky, I can walk to work). If my car got 60 miles per gallon, would I be willing to pay $5 per gallon? Sure. The point is clear. The efficiency of our vehicles determines the threshold point. We can greatly expand the supply of affordable oil by increasing the efficiency of our cars and trucks. However, this is not a long term solution. Why? There is an upper limit to the efficiency of the internal combustion engine. Setting something on fire to extract its energy is still cave-man technology, even if it does come in a shiny red package with a satellite navigation system. We can do better. Understanding that a threshold point does exist and that its location depends upon the efficiency of our vehicles is the first bit of information needed to prevent the above-mentioned pants and ankles situation. What lesson does this bit of information teach us?
Build more efficient cars and we will buy ourselves time.
New efficiency laws would speed this process, but the market solves most problems on its own. (Message to Detroit: the Japanese are kicking your butts in this department. Stop investing all your money in developing the newest, biggest, 400 horsepower machine. Market forces will destroy you. You are already losing the quality battle with the Japanese, you cannot afford to lose the efficiency battle too.)
Oil Production. The rate of oil production has been increasing since the first day of production. So has the rate of consumption. The fact that BOTH of these graph lines have been upwardly slopping means that the price of oil has been basically stable for a very long time. The problem we now face is that the production line will not always have an upward slope. There will come a day when production can no longer increase. This does not mean production will decrease right away, only that it can no longer increase. Oil Production will flatten out in the near future, but consumption will continue to increase. One need only attend the first 10 minutes of the first day of Economics 101 to understand what this means. Prices will skyrocket. It is at this point that the Oil Age effectively ends. With the combined populations of China and India (1/3 of humanity) now actively bidding against North America and Europe on the world oil market, the stakes and consequences of this production problem are enormous.
So, why will the production line flatten? Most of the cheaply gotten oil has already been pumped, is already being pumped as you read this, or is already mapped out. Drilling technology will continue to improve and this will delay our day reckoning somewhat. Again, however, this is not a long term solution. Why? There is an upper limit to drilling technology. Pulling things out of holes ripped into the Earth’s crust is still cave-man technology, even if it is aided by ground-penetration radar. We can do better. Understanding that oil production will level off is the second bit of knowledge we need to have. Understanding that this leveling off point is the end of oil for all practical purposes is the third bit of knowledge we need. What lessons do these two bits of information teach us?
If we do not have a replacement in place or near when the Oil Age ends, we will be in serious trouble.
Talk about being caught with our goods hanging in the breeze. The best ‘belt’ in the world will not keep our pants around our emaciated hips. We need to start investing in the replacement NOW…YESTERDAY.
Action. We need a worldwide ‘Manhattan Project.’ We shall build a huge complex somewhere, give the project an unlimited budget, give it the best scientific minds from all over the world and let them work. It doesn’t matter if it costs 500 billion dollars or double that. Whatever it costs, the alternative is worse. Whatever it costs, the investment will be paid back 1000 fold. Why? Oil is and always has been inefficient. However, human ingenuity has allowed us amazing economic expansion, even with this inefficient energy source. The alternative to oil will be vastly more efficient. Imagine the economy we could build with that. So what does this new energy source look like? What is it called? These questions remain to be answered, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s call it: The Free Energy Machine (FEM).
Now, I just lost a certain percentage of readers. These are the naysayers. Now that they are gone, I can say mean things about them. These are the people who said humans will never fly. These are the people who, after the invention of the airplane, said that humans will never fly faster than sound. These are the people who, after the sound barrier was broken, said that humans would never leave the Earth, or walk on the Moon. There are many basic laws of humanity. One of them is: There will always be people who lack the imagination to grasp the true potential of human imagination. Another is: There is no limit to human imagination, creativity, or technological potential. This does not mean that certain technological paths are unlimited (fire, drilling), only that technology, in general, is unlimited. To those who say the FEM is a Star Trek fantasy, I would say that the weight of human history is against you. Could a person from the 18th century imagine a modern laptop computer? Could the Wright brothers have imagined that less than 69 years after their first flimsy flight humans would fly to the Moon? There is an unbroken chain of human ideas and knowledge leading from a roughly chipped stone tool to the remote control robots we have on Mars. Is there any reason to believe this chain is at its end? Another basic law of humanity: With all problems, imaging a solution and believing that it can be done is 90% of the work, actually doing it is only 10%. We are blessed to live in interesting times. We are cursed to live in interesting times. The Oil Age is coming to an end. Humanity either invents the FEM or slips into a nightmare situation. With 90% of the work already done on the FEM it would seem silly to choose the alternative. I understand that getting the international community to agree on anything is difficult. Steadily rising oil prices will spur both the international community and private research dollars to take the problem seriously. It is all a question of timing.
FEM & Human Destiny. Another basic law of humanity: Humans are explorers. Failure to explore results in psychological and physical degeneracy. People are endlessly curious about ideas and places. People need to see what is around the next corner. This is not a human hobby. This a human requirement. For the first 99.999% of human history, the need for exploration was easily satisfied. The Earth was a giant, unexplored wilderness. Humanity has always had a frontier, a place to send our young, restless souls and satisfy our need to see new things. Sometimes this frontier was already occupied and conflict resulted, but this is not the time for that story. Now, in the 21st century, what physical frontier is there? Every square inch of Earth’s surface is satellite mapped and GPS navigated. The limited exploring left is available only to those lucky scientists who can reach the ocean depths or the polar expanses. The rest of humanity is stuck. This problem is not merely an academic curiosity. It is real and must be addressed. It is the paramount crisis of our species. Where do we send our restless souls? Down to the corner for drugs? Drugs have nearly lost their original spiritual applications. They are now an escape device. Where to go to satisfy our human need? We have few things we can do to let off our explorer-steam pressure. We can go backpacking and pretend to explore. We can watch a nature show on TV and pretend even harder to explore. We can explore ideas through science and creative pursuits. These options are only band-aids.
The most basic law of humanity: You cannot change human nature. It is not logical to believe that the human need to explore would simply evaporate once the Earth was filled with our kind. We need space to explore. We need new SPACE. The human path has always led to the stars. Space is the great enzyme of human imagination and has been for all time. Our exploration of the Earth was but practice for the real game. We have made the first tenuous steps. The FEM will mark the real beginning. The FEM will do more than solve our Earth-bound energy needs. It will end our status as Earth-bound. The FEM will exist. The only question is how it comes about. Do we get it the easy way or the hard way? Do we hit the ground running relative to the end of the Oil Age, or do we suffer through harsh and ugly times first?
What do you think? What will you do? What is your part in our destiny?
Heehhehe, check this song out too. It musically illustrates the point.