Triaging Remaining Resources: Part 1

Jenna Orkin

Most peak oil experts agree we're entering times that try men's souls, not to mention their resources.  Now that oil production is entering what SAIC Advisor Robert Hirsch, has warned could be a precipitous decline, it makes sense to ask how we should triage the oil that remains: What per cent should be used for growing food? What per cent for developing renewables? Etc.

The necessity for thinking in these terms is heightened by galloping demand in those U.S. wannabes, China and India. As Matthew Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, has said:

"[W]e need a global economic cooperative framework for how we allocate oil use and in this framework we need to give India and China, for instance, an incremental use of another 50% more oil while we go on out [sic] diet to have any sense of equality. If we don't do this than we will basically end up playing musical chairs, and musical chairs can get violent very fast."



So I asked several peak oil experts how they would allocate our remaining oil.
Jan Lundberg responded:

"[Y]our points are crucial. A whole conference should be held on them.
There's not much planning going on for a post-peak world, but if sanity
somehow broke out and there was a little time to rework budget priorities,
there would have to be funds put into the simplest, decentralized
solutions for problems with growing food, providing minimal essential
electrical power, and improving some transportation systems.
'Although old freeway-construction foe Mark Robinowitz is one of several
peak oilists who feel that remaining oil ought to go to renewable energy
development and implementation, I want to put a plug in for a probably
more crucial and competing priority: removing roads and restoring the
land. Without this -- requiring earth moving equipment using petro fuels
-- we will have many decades of continuing erosion that kill salmon
spawning streams and rivers. This is bigger than just salmon: it's about
clean water and many species.
'For our Pedal Power Produce farm we opted for gasoline tractor-work to
jump start crop growing for our organic produce. Nevertheless, seven
years later now, I would say that greenhouse gas emissions have to
basically stop, and the poisoning of the land from petrchemicals has to
stop too. The unpleasant reality is that we feed ourselves thus. Putting
efforts into real alternatives, instead of perpetuating the status quo,
should be our clear goal."

I responded in a way that showed Jan I thought he was talking about taking a pick ax to Midtown Manhattan.
He clarified:

"On my position regarding roads, please use my original language because
the greater amount of road decommissioning and removal and restoration is
actually unpaved roads in rural hilly areas (mainly logging roads).
Depaving is vital but even with flat areas there is more to it than just
depaving if deep road beds are to be made agriculturally useful places.
There simply will not be the energy and other resources to properly take
out many paved roads: they will become bike paths, and trees will
eventually do away with roads via root action."

In a phone conversation, Julian Darley http://www.juliandarley.com/ of Post Carbon Institute http://www.postcarbon.org/ in Vancouver, said [transcribed from handwritten notes]:

J.D: "This is a huge question. That's why I didn't get back to you at first. My first thought is that we should be using almost none of it [the remaining oil.]
'But the first thing for any animal to think about is its food. Then we have to talk about what per cent goes to renewables, and what per cent to developing vital chemicals. And what are those vital chemicals?
'About half of the 21 million barrels that the US uses daily goes to gas. A further per cent goes to diesel. So this is some of what we use for food growth, tractors and freight.
'Then there's a certain per cent that goes into personal transportation. We certainly need to reduce our use of jet fuel and spend almost none on that.
'We also need to move into more car co-ops. We could reduce oil use by a factor of ten or more if we did that.
'And we have to shorten the supply chain and move to a biointensive agricultural system that uses no gas or diesel.
'The US should be working towards relying only on our native oil production, which would mean cutting our use by 80%. You have to cut your suit according to the cloth.
'We also need to cut our heating and electricity demand. This will contract the economy which is going to happen anyway.
'You see, I have to turn your question around to: What do we need to do? Which bits are the easiest to cut?
'Another big question is: How fast is the oil supply declining?
'The only thing that interests me is being practical. Not using engineering solutions; they're coming ten to thirty years too late. I don't think they can be rolled out on the scale necessary. For instance, converting coal to liquids will make no difference. We have to cut demand.
'This is a Heaven-sent opportunity to stop destroying the planet. The less damage we do, the better our oceans and the rest of the planet will be. We've been acting like a heroin addict."

I thought of the picture on the cover of a local newspaper that ambivalently denounced Petrocollapse, the peak oil conference in New York City that I moderated. The illustration was of a slumped Uncle Sam injecting black fluid into his arm.

J.D: "Let's not do what the Easter Islanders did. We're a cross between Easter Island and the Titanic. We've already hit the iceberg so we should fill the hole in the hulk."

We got into a tangled metaphor that mixed the Titanic with the canoes the Easter Islanders could no longer build once they chopped down the last tree on the island.

J.O: "Do you feel safe in Vancouver?"

J.D: "What do you mean?"

J.O: "Aren't you there because you think it'll weather the storm well?"

J.D: "What makes you say that?"

J.O: "I assume it."

J.D: "Please don't assume that. I'm not doing this work for myself. People have to stop being selfish if we're to survive.
'I didn't start out as a specialist in gas. I wrote High Noon for Natural Gas because I think it's an important subject. I used to write screenplays." [Interesting in light of the fact that Darley's M.A. from the University of Texas "culminat[ed] in a thesis about the elimination of television."]

J.O: "I know. I used to write fun stuff too."

J.D: "Anyway, Vancouver is a dangerous place."

J.O: "With what?"

J.D: "Shootings. It's regarded as a glorious pearl but it has a lot of social and planning problems. If there were a place in North America without problems, everyone would go there and it wouldn't be so wonderful anymore.
'There are many places in North America without much rain. But it's not my fault."

J.O: "Why do you say that? Did someone say it was?"

J.D: "Well people aren't happy when I talk about these things, but I didn't do it.
'Australia, too. I didn't tell Great Britain where to put the five main cities in Australia. Instead of putting them where they could grow food, they founded them according to where it was convenient to send convicts.
'We need a Plan R. What can we Retrofit? We need to use lower energy and make it fit. We need to use what I call 'radical moderation.' There's no revolution here.
'They're putting a trillion solar panels in the desert. Who lives there? A lot of scorpions, so that's a bad idea."

J.O: "Instead, those who know what's going on and are in a position to do something about it are just figuring out how to save themselves. They see it as a kind of Darwinism."

J.D: "It's not Darwin. Social Darwinism has nothing to do with actual Darwinism, which I admire. The problem is Spencer and a few other Brits... Jeremy Bentham's another one."

I remember the sole fact I know about Jeremy Bentham: He bequeathed a portion of his estate to London University on the condition that they bring out his skeleton to attend meetings. They complied until the head fell off at which point only the head attended. Google provides a different version of this 'memory.'

J.D: "I denounce both capitalism and communism. But there's also a deep, dark problem with liberalism at work here as well.

J.O: "So what's your solution?"

J.D: "Global relocalization is the antidote to globalization. And shorten the supply chains."

J.O: "That sounds like a version of the Communist rallying cry."

J.D: "Ah, yes! 'Villages of the world, unite and shorten your supply chains!'
'We can't run a small, model city with six and a half billion people. The rich will have to give up a lot. We can either plan or we can let it happen naturally. The question is how to do it without chaos.
'Post Carbon should have an institute on every campus and in every town. We're interested in advising groups of all sizes.

'It would also be better if we ate plants."

J.O: "But you're not in favor of agriculture."

J.D: "I wasn't in favor of agriculture ten thousand years ago. But we did it. What I said was 'Biointensive agriculture.'
'We also made a terrible mistake ten million years ago when we came down out of the trees.
'If we lived near the equator we'd be naked and we wouldn't have to worry about heat. Anywhere else, we'll freeze. But we made some big mistakes. Agriculture was a bad idea. It's no fun for billions of people who are poor and malnourished. I see people trawling the bins in Vancouver. Now it's going to become no fun for even more people."