[-empyre-] Re: Wired sustainability and Ambient Media
misterwarwick at yahoo.com
Sun Apr 20 03:16:27 EST 2008
I'm on the planning and executive committee for PostCarbon Toronto, and
we've been going through a number of gyrations lately, dealing with the
present and ongoing crisis.
A big part of the crisis, from my (and I would suggest, my fellow
members on PCT) perspective is that people don't see the crisis.
The previous posters who have noted the encompassing nature of the
technical industrial economy are on the mark. I would also note that
IMHO, ICT (Information and Communication Technology) will persist LONG
after its viability due to its value to the economy - for better or
worse. But eventually it will have to disappear.
Note, I say this all with a great heaviness in my heart, as I have
dedicated my entire career to the advancement of electronic and digital
arts. I no longer make art for the future. Not that I believe there
isn't a future worth addressing, I just no longer believe that it can
or will be addressed by digital electronic means from our time to any
viable and sustainable future. So, now, my work is dedicated to the
present with no notion or interest in what the future may consider of
what I do.
I would recommend to you all a blog/online effort:
The people who write for that are really top notch (Jean Laherrère,
Stuart Staniford, Sharon Astyk, and others) and are often, if not
usually, geologists and scientists involved with the problem of energy
consumption and resource depletion.
At PCT, I've been making noises that Peak Oil is done. Finished. The
problem is, most of the populace has no idea what it is/was to begin
with - i.e., they can no longer prepare for it, because they weren't
paying attention, and now that it's passed, they're stuck in the roller
coaster flying down hill, and don't understand why everything is such a
The rest of this post is an adaptation from my blog
so, you can read the original there. I have added some sections to help
people who are less informed of the theories under discussion.
This perspective, Peak Oil Is Done, is one that I think is true but am
sceptical of - I'm sceptical of everything... However, I think it is
worth consideration, as it could inform and influence our ideas and
practices, and, I believe, herald the beginning of a fourth dimensional
science/engineering/cultural/social practice : Energetics. Fourth
dimensional as it, like Peak Oil, will have a time limit. Energetics
will matter as long as there is a technical civilisation to measure the
results and make sense of the data.
The first part of my discussion will be a general discussion of Peak
Oil as a theoretical construct. With such a deconstruction, the obvious
question becomes "Well, WHAT then?" I would submit that it leads to the
subsumption of Peak Oil theory (PO) into other disciplines, as it also
(dialectically) strengthens the create another new discipline out of
itself, that I call (for now) Energetics. There is probably a better
name, but that will do for now.
I would submit it is in the interdisciplinary field of Energetics that
the efforts of energy-centred groups should be directed.
Peak Oil Theory
Peak Oil Theory, at its crux, postulates that oil (petroleum) in its
various forms is a non-renewable resource, and that as such, it follows
a predictable pattern of discovery, exploitation, a peaking of
extraction, followed by a depletion phase to where the resource is no
longer worth extracting or simply fails, or collapses. This was
mathematically modelled by MK Hubbert, who was able to predict the
peaking and depletion of the 48 contiguous USA states production to
within a year. He also predicted that the world would peak in the
His prediction failed because the economic crisis of the 1970s and
early 1980s caused so much demand destruction that it delayed the peak
for some time. That time seems to be now(ish). Petroleum extraction
peaked in May 2005, and has been largely flat since. There was a new
recent peak earlier this year, but it is not from new discoveries that
have come on line, but more from greater extraction on previously
accounted for fields.
As an aggregate whole, the extraction, peak, and depletion values
roughly describe a curve. When focused upon in a short time sample, it
can look very spikey, but as one pulls back to look at the data as a
whole, the result is very similar to a bell curve.
Some dispute parts of this theory. Some dispute the notion that it is a
non-renewable resource, viz. notions of abiotic petroleum creation.
(McGowan, Lomonosov, et al.) Some dispute the idea that the pattern of
extraction (discovery / exploitation / peaking / depletion / loss) will
follow the pattern described by Hubbert for some reasons I describe
Laherrère doesn't dispute the overall point of
extraction/peak/depletion, but he does have some issues with hubbert's
math and its real world accuracy. This is discussed here:
My research indicates that there is no significant proof of abiotic
petroleum creation, and thus, this idea can be dismissed directly, and
that while the details of Hubberts math could be refined (per
Laherrère) the fundamentals are still quite strong and accurate.
The notion that oil extraction will not follow a Hubbert curve pattern
stems from a few criticisms, none of which alter the basic issue, i.e.,
that oil is a finite resource. However, they are significant arguments
that are likely to continue. They largely reside in questions of (1)
what exactly constitutes "pretroleum production", (2) the role of
economics in production, and (3) how these two can be gamed to either
stave off a peak in production, or simply make it irrelevant.
Example: Shale Oil, Tar Sands, Coal-To-Liquids (CTL), biofuels, and
other similar systems can be combined with the economics of cost, and
these can be manipulated together in order to deny a peak, or extend
peak production at an arbitrary plateau.
Frankly, I consider such ideas of little true consequence, and the
product of an uncritical scepticism. It is obviously sceptical, but not
sceptical of itself and is thus uncritical, in that it privileges the
status quo of the consumerist society that its own scepticism favours.
Each of the above mentioned liquid energy technologies are faced with
their own serious problems, and as things stand today, I do not believe
it is likely that any of them, either singularly or collectively, will
be able to replace the quality or quantity of the petroleum resources
we are now merrily spewing into the atmosphere at such a profligate
This leads to an ancillary argument of the desirability (or lack
thereof) of mining those resources, given the amount of CO2 such
production would dump into the atmosphere.
The economic view of resource extraction has been thoroughly critiqued
and derided by PO theorists and activists. In essence, the critique
points out that no amount of money or formula of price manipulation is
going to put oil in the ground. The arguments between the geologically
inclined and the economically inclined don't often co-incide, and will
likely always be orthogonal to each other. My analysis of Peak Oil
Theory should in no way be taken as a victory for economic theory of
resource extraction. This will become clearer later.
Since the geological ideas of expanding the resource base beyond
standard liquids doesn't change the fact of Peak Oil, but merely delays
it, and since the economic is directly contradicted by the geologic, I
feel confident in eliminating both counter-arguments from the
discussion. As it seems the geologic trumps the economic (Kunstler),
and the expanded geologic argument only delays the condition, we can
then look at the points of contention, and I would submit that these
points of contention are the actual argument, not the scientific
geological matters of resource depletion. This can be reached through a
simple thought experiment.
Let's say that society collects a substance that has no material effect
on society whatsoever, outside of its desirability. And the production
of this substance peaks and begins to decline. As people desire it,
they will pay more for it, but since it has no material effect on
society (resources, air, water, earth, clothing, sex, transportation,
whatever) when it is gone, the only thing that is a problem is the loss
of the object of desire - the EFFECT of losing the resource.
Obviously, this is clearly not the case with oil. And that is the
essence of the problem. The problem isn't the peaking and depletion of
the resource itself. It is that the resource has a specific set of
properties that are of great value and use to our society. Hence, it is
not the loss of the resource itself that is the problem, but the
ENORMOUS EFFECT of the loss of the resource that concerns us.
However, that is not a specific value to the the notion of PO: it is an
ancillary or epiphenomenal problem to PO. This is where things get
interesting... and oddly, much more practical... for the discussion
turns away from "IF" a peak to "WHEN" and "HOW" do we deal with it. As
noted above, it seems that the question of WHEN may have passed some
time ago, and if this is the case, then we can dispense with the WHEN
question, and focus on the HOW we are going to deal with this question.
However, "how" is not a necessary question/conclusion from Hubbert's
Curve. The math doesn't care what you do with it. Hence, by stripping
HOW out of the equation, we are left with an empty Peak Oil Theory - a
theory in search of a practice outside of its own critique. It says
"We're peaking". The world says "OK, so what?" PO says "It will follow
this curve!" And the world shrugs. The world doesn't have to care about
this. There is no teleological or eschatological "purpose" behind any
of this - the world doesn't care. What is, is. PO describes the pattern
of depletion of a resource. How we deal with it is actually the
province of other disciplines, and I will discuss that in part 2.
So, we have a Theory stripped of its existential imperative: Peak Oil
is here and a fact. As former CIA Director Schlesinger noted several
months ago at ASPO (association for the Study of Peak Oil) Ireland:
Peak Oil has won the argument. Now that it's over, we can't anticipate
it. The only thing left for Peak Oil theory to do is to see if the
Hubbert Curve obtains on a global basis, or will the plateau be
maintained beyond viability and result in a massive and rapid
depletion, as the curve is, by definition, an equal area curve in gross
production with an unequal area of net production due to the exigencies
of post peak oil quality.
The days of Peak Oil Theory are done. This brings me to part 2.
the Distribution of Peak Oil Theory
The fundamental insights gained from Peak Oil will now go and inform
all the disciplines that surround it. These disciplines often have deep
and intensive theoretical discourses that are centred and directed upon
their own topic, and have generated a rich and complex literature
Hence, with PO, the practical and social implications are more
generously and genuinely handled by other disciplines and theories of
New Urbanism, Environmental Studies, Geopolitical Theory, Electrical
Engineering, Ecological Studies, Geology, Sociology, to name but a few,
rather than with the PO theorists themselves.
This is a very good thing, as PO theorists have had an abysmally poor
track record in developing significant social and political traction.
They have succeeded in frightening people with doomsday scenarios, and
many continue to do so. The PO Fear industry has a certain marginally
lucrative element to it. One should not overestimate it - I don't think
anyone is getting rich off of this - but one should not underestimate
it either, as people will often fight over table scraps with far
greater tenacity than they will over the meal served on the table. With
persons in the Peak Oil Theory cultural group, they are often not
invited to the table, hence, fighting over the scraps is all they have,
and infighting and turf battles and petty personal differences lurk not
far below the surface.
As energy supplies dwindle, industries and economies will necessarily
adjust and, as Kunstler says "make other arrangements". So, curiously,
the need for Energy Theorists and Engineers will increase.
Policymakers, industrialists, workers, social organisers, community
leaders, politicians, militarists, health care operatives,
entertainers, cultural workers, all various disciplines will have to
develop an energy component to all their planning and analysis, and All
will need frameworks they can pull out of a box and apply to the new
situations as they arrive.
Individually, they won't have the horsepower or depth of knowledge to
be able to do that. Most of them won't know a joule from a watt from a
geothermal hole in the ground.
Oddly enough, the politicians could well be the least capable of
dealing with this information, and the actual efforts and interests may
well come from career bureaucrats who are charged with getting a job
done. They will be the people most in need for ready made protocols,
systems, frameworks, and relationships that will inform their practice
as bureaucrats to perform their work. The politicians are mostly
interested in developing retail political strategies in order to get
re-elected and hold onto power. This propels PO theory into a very
Away from debating the obvious and coming up with ever more dour
predictions, to a position of positive action, where specific efforts
are required and each one embedding in their local social fabric to
inform and consult. Enormous amounts of debate will be required to
refine these protocols, systems, frameworks, and networks, and
recalibrate them to local needs and norms, and this will generate a
body of literature that will be fundamentally and qualitatively
different from what had gone on before.
These protocols, systems, frameworks, and networks will be informed and
developed from a variety of directions. Some will come from the ground
up: grassroots local organisations. Some will come from the top down -
government or industry funded researchers. Some will come laterally as
internet groups, user groups, study groups, etc. And the information
and theory will flow in similar patterns, from the ground up as
critical analyses of energy practice in the field generating data. From
the top down, from PO and other energy experts and their research. And
from lateral directions as groups inform each other of innovations,
news, and theory.
And that is where PO Theory will logically need to go.
Part 3. Energetics
In 20 years, the energy situation is likely to be very different from
what presently obtains. I would also submit that the notion of Peak Oil
will be quite dated, and there will be no necessity to even bring the
term up except in specific historical discussions. As noted at the
beginning, this has already occurred on a conceptual basis: Peak Oil is
a fact, and there is really nothing to argue about, hence, there is no
need for the notion of Peak Oil. We're done with it.
However, as noted in part 2, there will be a crying need for
perspective and as people organise in the shadow of reduced energy
availability, they will "make other arrangements" and will need
guidance and inspiration in that regard. In terms of practical
knowledge, there will be plenty of that available. city planners will
have the new urbanists.
Community organisers will have Permaculturalists and citizen's groups
(from the PTA to the Kiwanis to PostCarbon outposts) to work with.
Bureaucrats won't have the time to "bone up" on ER/EI or have any idea
how to go about assessing the energy needs or values of a cultural
event. Cultural workers will be among the most vulnerable, as their
interests have historically been far outside the sciences and
engineering - the very disciplines that will be tracking and developing
the data necessary for planning and organisation.
This is where PO comes in, only transformed into the discipline of
Energetics. The doom and gloom of classic PO will be gone: doom and
gloom is a self indulgent luxury that society will not be able to
afford. It will be replaced with a realism, where the quantitative
facts are not glossed over, and using this data to inform qualitative
measures to transform the quantitive energetic disadvantages into net
The arrow of thermodynamics points in one direction, but one can run in
that direction in headlong flight of ignorance, skip merrily off the
cliff in oblivious stupidity, walk in that direction slowly planning
each step carefully, or sit and wait a while and then crawl along to
stay in the sunlight. Energetics would be, by necessity, an
interdisciplinary theory heavily invested in concrete data provided
from practice in the field as well as scientific observations. another
aspect would be energetic cultural analysis, where culture itself is
viewed from an energetic lens (which I hope will be the subject of my
PhD), and the kinds of perspectives and data sets and analyses that PO
Theory has generated will come of use in all these areas and fields of
In this way, PO Theory would acquire a new and different focus as it
concentrates on a new and different audience. This would happen because
the people who are listening to PO Theory are largely different from
the people who should listen to PO Theory. One would think that the
general public should know about PO Theory, and some few inroads have
been made in that direction. Oddly, the people who have been most
responsive are some segments of the ruling elite. I would suggest that
this is due to their class position - they have more to lose than poor
subsistence farmers, and have a far greater self-interest in
ameliorating and shifting the energy downturn into something more
lucrative. This is why people like T Boone Pickens, Colin Campbell, Al
Gore, James Schlesinger, Adml Woolsey, and others "in the know" are
ACTING on the information.
And this is where a transformed PO Theory (Energetics) comes in: to
assist in informing those who already know and have an interest in
knowing more - consulting with them, advising them, providing
frameworks, protocols, theory, guidance, and data so they know what
they need to know in order to lead the world forward, and they are
going to need people and organisations to provide them with these
things. Hence, Energetics would acquire a consultancy and advisement
Some would argue that such an approach supports the neoliberal
political status quo. I would disagree. It doesn't matter who is in
office and what party they stand for. The information will essentially
be the same. The form and ordering of it would change depending on
local political conditions, but the facts remains the same. Whether
it's a fascist dictatorship or a anarcho-syndicalist collective or a
liberal party, it's not going to matter. The facts on and under the
ground are what will matter, and decisions will need to be made that
reflect those realities, regardless of the party in charge.
Different political organisations will have different responses to the
news. The US Republican party's response was to go steal it. I'm not
certain the US Democratic party is going to have a very different
approach, but one can hope. In any case, the state level and county
level bureaucrats are going to be the ones facing the problems, and
they will need consultants and advisement. Such consultants and
advisors will need to work from a theoretical framework, and that is
something that this field of Energetics would solve.
Peak Oil is done. We don't need to discuss it. What we need to do is
get down to brass tacks and envision a future worth living in, and then
set about building it. We need to abandon previous behaviours and adopt
new ideas as to how we're going to do this. This won't be simple or
easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.
More information about the empyre