[The following article, a condensation and adaptation of the arguments presented in my book Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age, appears as the lead article in the May issue of the emagazine livebetter , published by the Center for a Better Life. Click on the above link to read their presentation, or read it here. ]
What if it were too late to save the world?
What if rising threats to the natural support systems on which all our lives depend, posed by our industrial way of life, have already done so much damage that collapse of the global industrial economy is inevitable? If so, it is no longer possible to save everybody from the awful consequences. Yet it remains possible for any individual, family or community that immediately and thoroughly adopts the practices of sustainable living to weather even a civilizational collapse. Anyone who undertook such a difficult course would, of course, first have to be convinced that the danger is real.
The gravity of the situation is hard to appraise because the negative effects of industrial practices are not being publicly discussed, let alone dealt with. This is primarily because the industries that are doing the damage are making a great deal of money while doing so. In order to keep doing so, they spend their money freely on political influence, and on propaganda designed to distract us from the fact that they are taking the profits for themselves and leaving the consequences to others.
Another reason for the lack of comprehension of the danger is that experts in narrow fields of investigation, grappling with specialized problems of increasing complexity, seldom look up, or across, to see what is going on in other experts’ bore holes. But when a generalist surveys the field, and puts the expert analyses side by side, the magnitude of the danger becomes apparent.
A generalist consulting a specialist about the state of the civilization’s support systems needs to know what motivates the specialist. When the housing bubble was in mid-collapse in, say, 2007, realtors were not a reliable source of information on the state or future of the market. (Virtually every day of the years-long collapse, some realtors’ association would announce that the worst was over, the bottom had been found, and happy days were here again.) To find out whether hydraulic fracturing of shale gas is dangerous, do not ask a university that gets major funding from the companies who do the fracturing. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
A survey of specialists whose salary does not require lack of comprehension reveals a stunning array of injuries and stresses on the natural world, many of them planetary in scale and existential in nature. Global climate change, it must be said, is only one of them, and not necessarily the most immediately dangerous. A review of the top three threats, more or less in descending order of urgency, may help form a decision about taking drastic personal action.
. Nothing about modern life is possible unless oil (and gas) are both plentiful and cheap. And nothing is more remarkable about modern life than the fact that we all know the amount of oil on the planet is finite, and thus will someday run out, yet we continue to live as if oil is inexhaustible. The US burns roughly 20 million barrels of oil a day, one quarter of the world’s consumption, and produces between eight and 10 million barrels a day (depending on what the meaning of “oil” is, and that’s a moving target). In 2011, the world brought to market 87 million barrels of oil per day — and consumed 88 million per day.
M. King Hubbert was one of those rare people who could see truth even when his paycheck required him not to. He was a geologist working for Shell Oil when, in the 1950s, he grasped a truth about oil wells that applied as well to oil fields, and to the world’s oil supply. When first opened, a well’s production increases rapidly, reaches a plateau, and then tails off just as quickly. Graph the output and you get a vertical parabola, the trail of something that goes up like a rocket and comes down like a rock.
Hubbert’s Curve, as the graph is known, when applied to the oil fields of the United States (not including, at the time, Alaska) indicated that US oil production would peak, and begin an irreversible decline, in 1970. Reaction at the time ranged from incomprehension to derision, especially after the discovery in 1968 of Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oil field (never mind that Hubbert’s calculation was for the lower 48 states). Nevertheless, US oil production — including Alaska’s — did in fact reach its highest volume in 1970 and has been declining since.
If Hubbert’s Curve is a correct depiction of the world’s oil supply, it indicates that maximum production levels have been reached and the long decline has already started. It’s difficult to know exactly, because companies and countries lie about how much oil they have found, and can get out of the ground. Companies lie to entice investors; countries lie to enhance their power and placate their citizens. What no one lies about is demand. As the subsistence farmers of China and India become wage-earners, and thus consumers with disposable income, they want cars and all the other blessings of cheap plentiful oil. The day that everybody realizes that the supply of oil has peaked but the demand is still going up — in other words, that there is not enough oil to go around — that’s the day all hell breaks loose.
Now, the advent of hydraulic fracturing, called fracking — the application of water and chemicals under extremely high pressure deep underground to release oil and gas from shale — has opened up large fields of shale-bound oil in Texas, Montana and North Dakota, and of natural gas in Wyoming and Pennsylvania. Propaganda about these advances (generated primarily to attract investors) has been so successful that the public and the media have largely accepted the notion that an oil and gas renaissance is underway in America that has repealed Hubbert’s Curve, obviated peak oil, and is leading us toward energy independence.
Alas, mathematics has not been repealed, and it tells us that we are approaching energy independence in the same way that, when walking, we approach the horizon. Fracking wells, it turns out, are are more expensive, less productive, and play out sooner, than anyone expected. Their operations are hampered by daunting problems of water supply (it takes millions of gallons of water per year, per well) and water pollution (once deployed, the water is a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals, and has to go somewhere).
In the case of natural gas, the initial success glutted the US market and pushed retail prices to below half the cost of production. As a result, the number of gas fracking rigs operating in the country has gone from 1,600 four years ago to 425 as of February 8, 2013. In Montana’s share of the Bakken shale-oil play, which is a few years older than the similar field in North Dakota, production skyrocketed to 100,000 barrels per day in 2006, and has since plummeted to just over half that.
The US Geological Survey and the Society of Petroleum Engineers this year did careful estimates of the amount of natural gas and oil that can be wrested from American shale. Their conclusion: it will be in the area of 25 per cent of the amounts that have been touted by the oil and gas industries. But as the New York Times reported back in 2011, many industry insiders never believed their own hype — it was just what had to be said to keep the investor money coming in. According to the Times, one analyst from IHS Drilling Data wrote in 2009, “The word in the world of independents [independent oil and gas producers] is that the shale plays are just giant Ponzi schemes and [that] the economics just don’t work.”
The great American energy boom of 2012, when stripped of deceptive hyperbole, resembles the upward curve at the end of a ski jump; it doesn’t put you back on top of the mountain, it just injects a brief thrill into the last part of the fall.
Wherever you look in the world, oil is running out. Even Saudi Arabia has not since 2005 been able to sustain production of substantially more than 9 million barrels of oil per day, except for a brief period during the price spike of 2008. An analysis by the global banking and insurance behemoth Citigroup finds that Saudi Arabia may be unable to export any oil by 2030. (This report ignored declining production, and made its stunning prediction based on the rising consumption of the Saudi population.)
Mexico, the third largest supplier of oil to the US, is often lumped in with Canada and the US to envision something called “North American energy independence.” But Mexico’s oil production peaked in 2008, has fallen below three million barrels per day, and continues to fall fast. As a result, the US will soon have to depend even more on its number two supplier, Saudi Arabia. See above.
“Optimism is important for human progress,” says a former top official of OPEC (the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries), Saadallah Al Fathi, “but that does not mean we should ignore what the numbers are telling us”
2. We’re running out of food. Industrial agriculture requires cheap, plentiful oil for its fuel (multiple passes with large machines are required to sow, fertilize, spray pesticides, and harvest), for synthetic fertilizers (whose manufacture requires large amounts of heat, usually from natural gas) and for transportation of its harvests to market. But even without any disruption of its oil supply, and even without any further disruption from climate change, industrial agriculture is doomed.
Beginning with the introduction of the plow, industrial agriculture has been increasingly profligate with the one thing it must have to grow any crop — healthy topsoil. To generations of modern growers, topsoil has been seen as just dirt, a factory floor on which food is made by the application of technology and chemistry. Only recently have scientists learned that the soil is a complex, living organism whose health determines our own. Soil cannot survive the methods of industrial agriculture — the plowing, discing, cultivating, rod-weeding, harrowing, spraying, fertilizing, irrigating, swathing, combining — and when soil dies, it blows and washes away.
The US Department of Agriculture has estimated that since the 1970s, for every ton of food or fiber grown on American farmland, an average of seven tons of topsoil has been lost. Even more distressing, a study out of Iowa State University this year shows that loss of topsoil to water, i.e. sedimentation, is not only ten times worse than it was prior to 1950, it continues to accelerate despite billions of government dollars spent to encourage no-till, stream-buffer, low-impact, no-plant, cover-crop, rotational ag.
Jeremy Grantham manages GMO Capital, based in Boston, one of the largest asset-management firms in the world. He has for years been warning investors that the days of abundant resources and falling prices are over forever. In other words, the benefits of massive global industrialization have played out, and the real price tag is coming due. In his fourth-quarter 2012 letter to investors he made these points:
Five years ago we entered a chronic global food crisis — rising prices and falling reserves — that is going to continue, and get worse.
The dramatic increase in food supply required to support the projected world population of 2050 cannot be realized, because of exhaustion of water supplies, loss of topsoil, increasing droughts, and rising costs of fuel and fertilizer.
As the food crisis worsens , especially if it is accompanied by simultaneous fuel price increases, “the risks of social collapse and global instability increase to a point where they probably become the major source of international confrontations. China is particularly concerned (even slightly desperate) about resource scarcity, especially food.”
“The general public, the media, the financial markets, and governments badly underestimate these risks.”
Around the world, reports, papers, analysts and activists are repeating and expanding upon these points. (We seldom hear about them because none of them are able to deploy the huge advertising and public-relations budgets of food-and-agriculture giants such as Monsanto, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland.) Evan Fraser, author of Empires of Food and a geographer at Guelph University in Ontario, Canada, says: “For six of the last 11 years the world has consumed more food than it has grown. We do not have any buffer and are running down reserves. Our stocks are very low and if we have a dry winter and a poor rice harvest we could see a major food crisis across the board.”
Lester Brown, best known as founder of the Worldwatch Institute and an originator of the concept of sustainable development, predicts in his new book Full Planet, Empty Plates that steadily rising food prices will soon lead to political instability, spreading hunger and, unless governments act, a catastrophic breakdown in the global food supply. “An unprecedented period of world food security has come to an end,” he writes. “The world has lost its safety cushions and is living from year to year. This is the new politics of food scarcity. We are moving into a new food era, one in which it is every country for itself.”
Even the US Department of Agriculture, long regarded as an enabler and cheerleader for industrial agriculture, is showing signs of awakening to the terrible danger. Its third annual Climate Assessment Report, just released in draft form for public review, not only admits the existence of climate change, but states flatly that within 25 years the cumulative effects of rising temperatures on agriculture will become “a threat to the security of the United States.”
3. We’re running out of water. Recent droughts brought on by climate change are not necessarily the worst threat to our dwindling water supplies. Reservoirs that supply major American cities, such as Atlanta’s Lake Lanier and Las Vegas’s Lake Meade, frequently dropped to critical levels long before the onset of the current drought. In 2007, metro Atlanta’s five million residents were notified that they were within 90 days of running out of water. Providential rains saved them, that time.
We have known for decades that we have been drawing down our aquifers — underground reservoirs of water tapped by wells, the source of 90% of the world’s fresh water — at unsustainable rates. One of the most glaring examples is the Ogallala Aquifer that underlies much of the mid-American breadbasket, from north Texas to the Dakotas. For half a century, industrial farmers have been irrigating their crops with enormous quantities of water pumped from the Ogallala, dropping its level up to five feet per year.
They could be forgiven for such overconsumption 50 years ago, before it was well understood that the Ogallala is fossil water; it was deposited 10,000 years ago by the melting glaciers of the last Ice Age, and cannot be replaced until the end of the next Ice Age. (In non-drought years, some surface water filters down to the aquifer, and may replenish it at a rate of a fraction of an inch per year.) Now that we know how irreplaceable the water is, we continue to withdraw it at more than one hundred times the maximum rate of replenishment.
Another threat to the water supply of most American cities is the age and disrepair of the industrial systems built (many at the dawn of the Industrial Age) to deliver drinking water and to treat and dispose of waste water. At a recent Senate hearing, it was estimated that, on average, 25 percent of drinking water leaks from water system pipes before reaching the faucet. The committee was told it will take $335 billion to resurrect water systems and $300 billion to fix sewer systems.
We’re running out of time. There are many other fields of inquiry that yield similarly dire results, and there are many areas of synergy among them that magnify threats. For example, air pollution is acidifying lakes, rivers and oceans, while farm runoff stimulates algae growth, both of which threaten aquatic life and thus food supply; water shortages threaten energy supply because nuclear power plants, oil-fracking rigs and concentrated-solar farms all require huge amounts of water in order to operate. And then there is the granddaddy of all threat multipliers, global climate change, which is coming on faster and harder than anyone predicted just a few years ago.
We stand on the deck of a Titanic, beguiled by the blandishments of the all-you-can eat buffet, the lavish surroundings, and a crew that murmurs constantly that “nothing can go wrong.” Yet the deck is tilting, water is pouring in below decks, and it doesn’t take a naval architect to conclude that this ship cannot be saved.
Yet materials are at hand with which we could build a lifeboat. Any of us could choose to live sustainably, which means producing all the food and fiber and energy we consume, in a safe place (not in a city, a desert or on the coast). It would be difficult, it would require hard work and hard choices, and there is no guarantee that we could be ready in time. But it may be the only legitimate hope in the face of a future that is darkening fast.
Thomas A. Lewis lives on a sustainable-ready farm somewhere in West Virginia. A veteran journalist, editor and broadcaster, he served for several years as a roving editor for National Wildlife Magazine, during which time he wrote the authoritative “EQ Index,” an annual review of the state of the US environment that also appeared in The World Almanac. He was the series editor for the acclaimed Time-Life Books series on the earth sciences, “Planet Earth.” He is the author of six books. This article was adapted from his latest, Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age, which was just released as a second-edition paperback and is available on Amazon.com. He writes The Daily Impact, a website that chronicles the ongoing, slow-motion collapse of industrial civilization.