Monday, July 25, 2016

Power is nothing without control: lessons from the failed coup in Turkey




In the recent coup in Turkey, we saw the armed forces splitting into two factions fighting each other. It is part of the general problem of controlling complex systems, especially social ones, where we can quickly discover that power is nothing without control. Here are some considerations of mine based on the similar plea that the ancient Romans faced. (image: an F16 flying over Ankara during the coup, from "the aviationist")



About two thousand years ago, the Romans had developed the most effective military apparatus seen before in history and, with it, they had created a vast empire. However, with the first century before our era, they found that they had a problem: their stupendous military power was going out of control. One of the warlords of that time, Julius Caesar, had staged a successful military coup in 49 BCE. Even before that, the Roman legions had started fighting each other, led by one or another warlord: Marius against Sulla, Caesar against Pompey, Octavianus against Anthony, and more. And when the warlords were not fighting each other, they were engaging their forces in reckless military adventures that were putting the Roman state at risk. For instance, in 53 BCE, Marcus Licinius Crassus led the army in a disastrous expedition against the Parthian empire  from which not even he came back alive. In short, the Romans were discovering that power is nothing without control.

The solution to the problem came from a man of exceptional military and political skills: Gaius Julius Octavianus. And it was a straightforward solution: the system had become unstable because it was too complex, it had to be drastically simplified by having only one warlord in command. So, Octavianus took the title of "emperor," that so far had meant just "commander," and added to it the title of "Augustus" (venerable) and that of "Caesar" to link it with the prestige of his predecessor. Most importantly, he started to link the imperial rule to religion. In time, the Roman Emperors were turned into semi-divine rulers, the porphyrogenites ("born in the purple"), people on whom the Roman Gods (and later on, the Christian God) had bestowed absolute power over their subjects. Rebellion against an emperor was not just a crime against the state, but a crime against God Himself.

Did it work? On the whole, yes. After Octavianus, the Roman Empire was turned into a remarkably resilient structure that was to last about half a millennium in the Western part of the empire, that was eventually doomed only by the collapse of its gold-based financial system. And Octavianus' idea of taking the title of "Caesar" was so successful that the Russian Emperors still called themselves "Czars," about two thousand years later. Not that Octavianus' idea stopped the rebellions completely and, in times of grave crisis, more than an individual at the same time would claim the title of Emperor of Rome. But, on the average, the Roman experience shows that a semi-divine (or even fully divine) ruler is a good way to keep the state together. As another example, we can think of Japan, where the military dictator of the country, the Shogun, though no divine ruler himself, ruled in the name of the divine emperor, the Tenno.

Now, move forward to our times and consider the recent events in Turkey, where we saw the Turkish army splitting in two and the local warlords fighting each other. Turkey is not an empire but it is (or perhaps was) part of the large empire that we call today "globalization." So, the struggle in Turkey was probably just a reflection of a deeper struggle within the empire, even though we'll probably never know the details of what exactly led to the coup. Outside Turkey, we are not yet seeing independent warlords fighting each other, but we are seeing that the Global Empire is engaging its military forces in reckless adventures that put the whole system at risk. The case of Iraq is just an example, to say nothing of the risk of a confrontation against a nuclear-armed state. For sure, the Global Empire has the most powerful military force ever developed in history, but all this power is nothing without control.

We seem to be facing the same problems that the Romans faced two thousand years ago: how to maintain control over a complex system that turns out to be unstable and prone to fighting against itself? The Romans solved the problem by drastically simplifying the system. Possibly, something similar can take place in the modern Global Empire, with the emperor in Washington becoming a divine ruler, taking up all the related trappings: crown, scepter, purple clothes, and the like. More than that, a divine ruler cannot be elected by the people: his power can only be the result of the divine will. We aren't yet seeing the Washington emperor claiming to be a divine being, but we may note how Mr. Erdogan played the religion card to gain the upper hand in the struggle in Turkey. Clearly, we are moving toward something new in the way the global empire is ruled, it is a slow and uncertain motion, but the general direction is clear. (*)

If there are similarities of our world with the ancient Roman one, we must also be careful to consider the differences. The complex system that we call "globalization" is much vaster than the Roman empire and it faces additional challenges. The Romans didn't have to face resource depletion, nor climate change, at least not in the same degree as we do, today. The Roman maritime transportation system kept working and supported the economic structure of the empire up to the very last decades of the existence of the Western Roman Empire. In the case of the Global Empire, the gigantic maritime transportation system that we call "containerization" is vulnerable to financial crisis, to a fuel supply crisis, and to sea level rise. A long-lasting interruption of the vital supply of goods carried by this system would rapidly kill the empire, no matter what the Global Emperor could order his armies to do. Then, a nervous warlord with nuclear weapons could bring the empire to an even faster end.

Overall, what we are seeing is all part of the behavior of complex systems, something that we still don't understand completely. We know that these systems are thermodynamical dissipative structures that evolve and change in order to maximize the dissipation rate. This is a phenomenon that goes on along an irregular path, sometimes taking the shape of the "Seneca Cliff", an abrupt and uncontrollable decline that often marks the end of those stupendous structures that we call "empires." Will we ever be able to overcome these cycles of boom and bust? So far, we haven't. At present, we are in full overshoot and it will be impossible to avoid some kind of collapse in the near future. We can only try to soften the blow, but the ongoing debate shows that the global elites really have no idea of what they are facing.



(*) Mr. Trump is clearly not the kind of person who can position himself as a semi-divine emperor. However, is probable incompetence as president may very well lead to a military coup of the same kind that led Julius Caesar to become emperor in Roman Times

On the loss of control that led to the demise of the Western Roman Empire, see also this post of mine: http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.it/2014/03/power-is-nothing-without-control-how-to.html



Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Some reflections on the Twilight of the Oil Age (part III)

Guest post by Louis Arnoux



Part 3 – Standing slightly past the edge of the cliff

The Tooth Fairy Syndrome that I discussed in Part 2 is, in my view, the fundamental reason why those holding onto BAU will grab every piece of information that can possibly, superficially, back up their ideology and twist it to suit their viewa, generating much confusion in the process.  It is also probably fair to say that the advocates of various versions of “energy transition” are not immune to this kind of syndrome when they remain oblivious to the issues explored in Parts 1 and 2.  Is it possible to go beyond such confusion?

The need to move away from ideology

The impact of the Tooth Fairy Syndrome is all the more felt in the main media and among politicians – with the end result that so many lay people (and many experts) end up highly confused about what to think and do about energy matters.  Notably, we often encounter articles advocating, even sensationalising, various energy transition technologies or instead seeking to rubbish them by highlighting what they present as problematic issues without any depth of analysis.  For example, a 2013 article from the Daily Mail was highlighted in recent discussions among energy experts as a case in point.[1]  The UK is indeed installing large numbers of subsidized, costly diesel generators to be used as back-up at times of low electricity supplies from wind turbines. This article presented this policy as very problematic but failed to set things in perspective about what such issues say about the challenges of any energy transition.

In New Zealand, where I lived close to half of my life before a return to my dear Provence (De reditu suo mode, as a wink to anearlier post by Ugo) about 73% of electricity is deemed renewable (with hydro 60%, geothermal 10%, wind 3%, PVs about 0.1%); the balance being generated from gas and coal.  There is a policy to achieve 90% renewables by 2025. Now, with that mix we have had for many years something like what the UK is building, with a number of distributed generators for emergency back-up without this being a major issue.  The main differences I see with the UK are that (1) in NZ we have only about 5M people living in an area about half that of France (i.e. the chief issue is a matter of renewable production per head of population) and (2) the system is mostly hydro, hence embodying a large amount of energy storage, that Kiwi “sparkies” have learned to manage very well.  It ensues that a few diesel or gas generators are not a big deal there.  By contrast, the UK in my view faces a very big challenge to go “green”.

The above example illustrates the need to extricate ourselves from ideology and look carefully into systems specifics when considering such matters as the potential of various technologies, like wind turbine, PVs, EVs, and so on, as well as capacity factors and EROI levels in the context of going 100% renewable.  All too often, vital issues keep being sidestepped by both BAU and non-BAU parties; while ignoring them often leads to erroneous “solutions” and even dangerous ones.  So as a conclusion of this three-part series focused on “enquiring into the appropriateness of the question”, here are some of the fundamental issues that I see in front of us (the list is not exhaustive):

“Apocalypse now”

At least since the early 1970s and the Meadows' work, we have known that the globalised industrial world (GIW) is on a self-destructive path, aka BAU (Business as usual). We now know that we are living through the tail end of this process, the end of the Oil Age, precipitating what I have called the Oil Fizzle Dragon-King, Seneca style, that is, after a slow, relatively smooth climb (aka “economic growth”) we are at the beginning of an abrupt fall down a thermodynamic cliff.

The chief issue is whole system change. This means thinking in whole systems terms where the thermodynamics of complex systems operating far from equilibrium is the key.  In terms of epistemology and methods, this requires what in anthropology is called the “hermeneutic circle”: moving repeatedly from the particulars, the details, to the whole system, improving our understanding of the whole and from this going back to the particulars, improving our understanding of them, going back to considering the whole, and so on.  Whole system replacement, i.e. going 100% renewable, requires a huge energy embodiment, a kind of “primitive accumulation” (as a wink to Marx) that presently, under the prevailing paradigm and technology set, is not feasible.  Having the “Energy Hand” in mind (Figure 5), where does this required energy may come from in a context of sharp decline of net energy from oil and Red Queen effect, and concerning renewable, inverse Red Queen/cannibalisation effects?  As another example of the importance of whole system thinking, Axel Kleidon has raised the question of the viability of very large-scale wind versus direct solar.[2]

Solely considering the performances and cost of this or that alternative energy technology won’t suffice.  Short of addressing the complexities of whole system replacement, the situation we are in is some kind of “Apocalypse now”.  The chief challenge I see is thus how to shift safely, with minimal loss of life (substantial loss of life there will be; this has become unavoidable), from fossil-BAU (and thus accessorily nuclear) to 100% sustainable, which means essentially, in one form or another, a direct solar-based society.

We currently have some 17 TW of power installed globally (mostly fossil with some nuclear), i.e. about 2.3kW/head, but with some 4 billion people who at best are grossly energy stressed, many who have no access to electricity at all and only limited transport, in a context of an efficiency of global energy systems in the order of 12%.[3]  To address the Oil Fizzle Dragon-King and the Perfect Storm that it is in the process of whipping up, I consider that we need to move to 4kW/head for the whole population (assuming it levels off at some 8 billion people instead of the currently expected 11 billions), plus some 10TW additional to address climate change and other ecological energy related issues, hence about 50TW, 100% direct solar based, for the whole spectrum of energy uses including transport; preferably over 20 years.  Standing where we now are, slightly past the edge of the thermodynamic cliff, this is my understanding of what’s required.

In other words, going “green” and surviving it (i.e. avoiding the inverse Red Queen effect) means increasing our Energy Hand from 17 TW to 50 TW (as a rough order of magnitude), with efficiencies shifting from 12% to over 80%.

To elaborate this further, I stress it again, currently the 17 TW do not even suffice to cater for the whole 7.3G global population and by a wide margin.  Going “green” with the current “renewable” technology mix and related paradigm would mean devoting a substantial amount of those 17 TW to the “primitive accumulation” of the “green” system.  It should be clear that under this predicament something would have to give, i.e. some of us would get even more energy stressed, and die, or as the Chinese and Indians have been doing for a while we would use much more of remaining fossil resources but then this would accelerate global warming and many other nasties. Alternatively we may face up to changing paradigm so as to rapidly steer away from global EROIs below 10:1 and global energy efficiency around 12%.  This is the usual “can’t have one’s cake and eat it” situation writ large.

Put in an other way, when looking at whole societal system replacement one must look at the whole of what’s required to make the system work, including people and their own energy requirements – this is fundamentally a matter of system boundary definitions related to problem definition (in David Bhom’s sense).   We can illustrate this by considering the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).  As a thought experiment, remove oil (the media have reported that KSA’s Crown Prince has seen the writing on some wall re the near end of the oil bonanza).  This brings the KSA population from some 27M down to some 2M, i.e. some 25M people are currently required to keep oil flowing at some 10M bbl/day (including numerous Filipino domestics, medics, lawyers, and son on) plus about three times that population overseas to supply what the 25M require to keep the oil flowing…

Globally, I estimate very roughly that some 1.5G people, directly related to oil production, processing distribution and transport matters did require oil at above $100/bbl for their livelihood (including the Filipino domestics).  I call them the Oil People. [4]  Most of them currently are unhappy and struggle; their “demand” for goods and services has dropped considerably since 2014.

So all in all, whole system replacement (on a “do or die” mode) requires considering whole production chain networks from mining the ores, through making the metals, cement, etc., to making the machines, to using them to produce the stuff we require to go 100% sustainable, as well as the energy requirements of not only the Oil People but the full compendium of the Energy People involved, both the “fossil” ones and the “green” ones; while meanwhile we need to keep existing fossil-based energy systems going as much as possible.  Very roughly the Energy People are probably in the order of 3 billion people (and it is not easy to convert a substantial proportion of the “fossil” ones to “green”, including their own related energy requirements – this too has a significant energy cost).  This is where Figure 2, with the interplay of Red Queen and the inverse Red Queen, comes in.

Figure 2
 
In my view at this whole system level we do have a major problem.  Given the very short time window constraint, we can’t afford to get it wrong in terms of how to possibly getting out of there – we have hardly enough time to have one go at it.

Remaining time frame

Indeed, under the sway of the Tooth Fairy (see Part 2) and an increasingly asthmatic Red Queen, we no longer have 35 years, (say up to around 2050).  We have at best 10 years, not to debate and agonise but to actually do, with the next three years being key.  The thermodynamics on this, summarised in Part 1, is rock hard.  This timeframe, combined with the Oil Pearl Harbor challenge and the inverse Red Queen constraints, means in my view that none of the current “doings” renewable-wise can cut it.  In fact much of these stand to make matters worse – I refer here to current interactions between efforts at going green largely within the prevailing paradigm and die hard BAU efforts at keeping fossils going, as perhaps exemplified in the current UK policies discussed earlier.

Weak links

Notwithstanding its apparent power, the GIW is in fact extremely fragile.  It embodies a number of very weak links in its networks.  I have highlighted the oil issue, an issue that defines the overall time frame for dealing with “Apocalypse now”.  In addition to that and to climate change, there are a few other challenges that have been variously put forward by a range of researchers in recent years, such as fresh water availability, massive soil degradation, trace pollutants, degradation of life in oceans (about 99% of life is aquatic), staple food threats (e.g. black stem rust, wheat blast, ground level ozone, etc.), loss of biodiversity and 6th mass extinction, all the way to Joseph Tainter’s work concerning the links between energy flows, power (in TW), complexity and overshoot to collapse.[5]  

These weak links are currently in the process of breaking or are about to break, the breaks forming a self-reinforcing avalanche (SOC) or Perfect Storm.  All have the same key timeframe of about 10 years as an order of magnitude for acting.  All require a fair “whack” of energy as a prerequisite to handling them (the “whack” being a flexible and elastic unit of something substantial that usually one does not have).

It's all burnt up

Figure 6 – Carbon all burnt


Recent research shows that sensitivity to climate forcing has been substantially underestimated, meaning that we must expect much more warming in the longer term than touted so far.[6]  This further exacerbates what we already knew, namely that there is no such thing as a “carbon budget” of fossils the GIW could still burn, and no way of staying below the highly political and misleading 2oC COP21 objective (Figure 6).[7]

The 350ppm CO2 equivalent advocated by Hansen et al. is a safe estimate – a boundary crossed in the late 1980s, some 28 years ago.  So the reality is that we can’t escape actually extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, somehow, if we want to avoid trying to survive in a few mosquito infested areas of the far north and south, while some 80% of the planet becomes non-habitable in the longer run.  Direct Air Capture of atmospheric CO2 (DAC) is something that also requires a fair “whack" of energy, hence the additional 10TW I consider is required to get out of trouble.

Cognitive failure


Figure 7 – EROI cognitive failure


The “Brexit” saga is perhaps the latest large-scale demonstration of cognitive failure in a very long series.  That is to say, the failure on the part of decision-making elites to make use of available knowledge, experience, and expertise to tackle effectively challenges within the timeframe required to do so.  

Cognitive failure is probably most blatant, but largely remaining unseen, concerning energy, the Oil Fizzle DK and matters of energy returns on energy investments (EROI or EROEI).  What we can observe is a triple failure of BAU, but also of most current “green” alternatives (Figure 7): (1) the BAU development trajectory since the 1950s failed; (2) there has been a failure to take heed of over 40 years of warnings; and (3) there has been a failure to develop viable alternatives.

However, although I am critical of aspects of recent evaluations of the feasibility of going 100% renewable,[8] I do think it remains feasible with existing knowledge, no “blue sky” required, i.e. to reach in the order of 50TW 100% solar I outlined earlier, but I also think that a crash on the cliff side of the Seneca is no longer avoidable.  In other words I consider that it remains possible to partly retrieve the situation while the GIW crashes so long as enough people do realise that one can’t change paradigm on the down side as one may do on the upside of a Seneca, which presently our elites, in full blown cognitive failure mode, don’t understand.

To illustrate this matter further and highlight why I consider that production EROIs well above 30:1 are necessary to get us out of trouble consider Figure 8.  


Figure 8 – The necessity of very high EROIs



This is expanded from similar attempts by Jessica Lambert et al., to perhaps highlights what sliding down the thermodynamic cliff entails.  Charles Hall has shown that a production EROI of 10:1 corresponds roughly to an end-user EROI of 3.3:1 and is the bare minimum for an industrial society to function.[9]  In sociological terms, for 10:1 think of North Korea.  As shown on Figure 7, currently I know of no alternative, either unconventional fossils based, nuclear or “green” technologies with production EROIs (i.e. equivalent to the well head EROI for oil) above 20:1; most remain below 10:1.  I do think it feasible to go back above 30:1, in 100% sustainable fashion, but not along prevalent modes of technology development, social organisation, and decision-making.

The hard questions

So prevailing cognitive failure brings us back to Bohm’s “enquiry into the appropriateness of the question”.  In conclusion of a 2011 paper, Joseph Tainter raised four questions that, in my view, squarely address such an enquiry (Figure 9).[10]  To date those four questions remain unanswered by both tenants of BAU and advocates of going 100% renewable.

We are in an unprecedented situation.  As stressed by Tainter, no previous civilisation has ever managed to survive the kind of predicament we are in.  However, the people living in those civilisations were mostly rural and had a safety net, in that their energy source was 100% solar, photosynthesis for food, fibre and timber – they always could keep going even though it may have been under harsh conditions.  We no longer have such a safety net; our entire food systems are almost completely dependent on that net energy from oil that is in the process of dropping to the floor and our food supply systems cannot cope without it.


Figure 9 – Four questions


Figure 10 summarises how, in my view, Tainter’s four questions, his analyses and mine combine to define the unique situation we are in.  If we are to avoid sliding all the way down the thermodynamic cliff, we must shift to a new “energy pool”.  In this respect, dealing with the SOC-like Perfect Storm while carrying out such a shift both excludes “shrinking” our energy base (as many “greens” would have it) and necessitates abandoning the present highly wasteful energy use paradigm – hence the shift from 17TW fossil to 50TW 100% solar-based and with over 80% useful uses of energy that I advocated earlier, over a 20 to 30 years timeframe.  


Figure 10 – Ready to jumping into a new energy pool?


Figure 10 highlights that humankind has been through a number of such shifts over the last 6 million years or so.  Each shift has entailed:

(1) a nexus of revolutionary innovations encompassing thermodynamics and related techniques, 
(2) social innovation (à la Cornelius Castoriadis’ imaginary institution of society) and 
(3) innovations concerning the human psyche, i.e. how we think, decide and act.

Our predicament, as we have just begun to slide down the fossil fuels thermodynamic cliff, similarly requires such a nexus if we are to succeed at a new “energy pool shift”.  Just focusing on thermodynamics and technology won’t suffice.  The kind of paradigm change I keep referring to integrates technology, social innovations and innovation concerning the human psyche about ways of avoiding cognitive failure.  This is a lot to ask, however it is necessary to address Tainter’s questions.  

This challenge is a measure of the huge selection pressure humankind managed to place itself under.  Presently, I see a lot going on very creatively in all these three intimately related domains.  Maybe we will succeed in making the jump over the cliff?


Bio: Dr Louis Arnoux is a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur committed to the development of sustainable ways of living and doing business.  His profile is available on Google+ at: https://plus.google.com/u/0/115895160299982053493/about/p/pub



[1] Dellingpole, James, 2013, “The dirty secret of Britain’s power madness: Polluting diesel generators built in secret by foreign companies to kick in when there's no wind for turbines - and other insane but true eco-scandals”, in The Daily Mail, 13 July. 
[2] As another example, Axel Kleidon has shown that extracting energy from wind (as well as from waves and ocean currents) on any large scale would have the effect of reducing overall free energy usable by humankind (free in the thermodynamic sense, due to the high entropy levels that these technologies do generate, and as opposed to the direct harvesting of solar energy through photosynthesis, photovoltaics and thermal solar, that instead do increase the total free energy available to humankind) – see Kleidon, Axel, 2012, How does the earth system generate and maintain thermodynamic disequilibrium and what does it imply for the future of the planet?, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, published in Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society A,  370, doi: 10.1098/rsta.2011.0316.
[3] E.g. Murray and King, Nature, 2012.
[4] This label is a wink to the Sea People who got embroiled in the abrupt end of the Bronze Age some 3,200 years ago, in that same part of the world currently bitterly embroiled in atrocious fighting and terrorism, aka MENA.
[5] Tainter, Joseph, 1988, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press; Tainter, Joseph A., 1996, “Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies”, in Getting Down to Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics, Island Press, and Tainter, Joseph A. and Crumley, Carole, “Climate, Complexity and Problem Solving in the Roman Empire” (p. 63), in Costanza, Robert, Graumlich, Lisa J., and Steffen, Will, editors, 2007, Sustainability or Collapse, an Integrated History and Future of People on Earth, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, U.K., in cooperation with Dahlem University Press.
[6] See for example Armour, Kyle, 2016, “Climate sensitivity on the rise”, www.nature.com/natureclimatechange, 27 June.
[7] For a good overview, see Spratt, David, 2016, Climate Reality Check, March.
[8] For example, Jacobson, Mark M. and Delucchi, Mark A., 2009, “A path to Sustainability by 2030”, in Scientific American, November.
[9] Hall, Charles A. S. and Klitgaard, Kent A., 2012, Energy and the Wealth of Nations, Springer; Hall, Charles A. S., Balogh, Stephen, and Murphy, David J. R., 2009, “What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?” in Energies, 2, 25-47; doi:10.3390/en20100025. See also Murphy, David J., 2014, “The implications of the declining energy return on investment of oil production” in Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society A, 372: 20130126, http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2013.0126.
[10] Joseph Tainter, 2011, “Energy, complexity, and sustainability: A historical perspective”, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, Elsevier


Monday, July 18, 2016

The limits to society's attention span: peak oil ten years after the ASPO-6 meeting in Pisa



The concept of peak oil has gone through a peak, too, about ten years ago, approximately coincident with the sixth meeting of the association for the study of peak oil (ASPO) in Pisa, Italy. Ten years later, peak oil has nearly completely disappeared from the attention of the media and of the public. Here are some reflections of mine on this subject, together with recollections of people who participated in the meeting in Pisa.


Ten years ago, only five years had passed from the 9/11 attacks. We were still reeling from discovering that the collapse of the Soviet Union didn't mean the "End of History", and that there would be no "peace dividend" for us. At that time, the concept of "peak oil" was new, interesting, and being explored by a group of smart people who were interested in the future of humankind. The Pisa meeting, in 2006, was a high point of this wave of interest.

In the ten years that followed, history moved forward at an incredible pace with wars, revolutions, financial crisis, and changes of all kinds. We saw oil prices spiking up to $150 per barrel in 2008, then crashing down, and then restarting the cycle. We saw the US production reborn from its ashes with the great "shale oil" revolution that should have lasted for centuries but that, right now, is collapsing. We saw the Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we followed the story of the great oil field of Kashagan in the Caspian sea, once touted "the New Saudi Arabia" that still has to deliver its first barrel. We saw the collapse of oil producing regions such as Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela, all accompanied by political turmoil. And, more than all, we saw Climate Change moving from a side threat to a major challenge for civilization.

In this great turmoil, the peak for conventional oil seems to have appeared, more or less, when it had been originally predicted, around 2005-2008. But the old forecasts had not taken into account the dogged reaction of the industry and of the financial system, that pushed for producing combustible liquids from anything that could even remotely produce it. As a consequence, "peak liquids" has been postponed of about a decade, and it seems to be here, right now.

But, with all this turmoil ongoing, people simply forgot about peak oil, that receded beyond the event horizon, as if it had been sucked in by a black hole, leaving only a faint glow behind it. Nobody seems to be interested in peak oil any longer, as you can see from the results of Google Trends, shown at the beginning of this post. This peculiar blindness of our civilization appears not just for peak oil, look at how people have lost all their interest in Global Warming, just now that we see everything melting around us. It is a typical behavior of memes, as I already commented about one year ago.


So, as usual, we are moving into the future blindfolded, head first, and at full speed. What we will find there, is all to be seen.
_______________________________________________________________


In the following, you can read comments by some of the participants in the ASPO-6 conference in Pisa received in occasion of the 10th anniversary. If you were there and you wish to add your recollections, write them in the blog comments.


In the picture, the group of ASPO-Italy that organized the 5th conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas in Pisa, Italy, that started on July 18, 2006.
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Colin Campbell

I have the best of memories of the Pisa Conference which was excellent in regards to both contents and location. It is true that ASPO seems to have passed its peak as there have not been any recent international conferences, although ASPO USA remains very active. I think it is now widely accepted that so called Regular Conventional Oil passed its peak in 2005. I think that the peak of all categories is imminent, if not already passed last year, but that will not be recognised for a few years down the other side. I will be 85 years of age next month and am certainly too old to do much more on this subject, although I do try to update my depletion model. The last version was for 2014 but for some reason I cannot at the moment access the EIA website to get updated production, consumption and reserves data for 2015 by country.

I assume you have seen my last book Campbell's Atlas of Oil and Gas Depletion which was published by Springer in 2013. They chose this very presumptive title and charged a lot for it, but I think sales have declined steeply. I was thinking of trying to produce a short book comprising no more than updated versions of the country tables and graphs in the book and have proposed same to Springer. If they should agree I would have to find someone to come and update all these spreadsheets or even better design some kind of computerised model that integrated them all. If one of your students were to be interested in such a project, he or she could come to Ballydehob for about six months to do it, assuming some money can be found to cover the cost.

Regarding the wider picture, I think the world does enter the Second Half of the Oil Age, when this critical supply of cheap energy that fuelled the First Half declines from natural depletion, leading to general economic contraction and falling population. The transition will no doubt be a time of great tension as indeed already witnessed by massive immigration pressures, being especially felt by Italy. These subjects are being covered by the new quarterly journal The Oil Age : Understanding the Past and Forecasting the Future which is edited by Roger Bentley.

______________________________________

Dennis Meadows

I do remember the Pisa meeting, though mainly because it was my first visit to Pisa and meet you, more than for anything I learned about peak oil. I was already well informed and convinced about peak oil. And I did not need more professional contacts in the field. So the meeting was interesting to me, but not especially influential for me. It was well run, and I appreciated that you created the chance for me to run a STRATAGEM session.

It is unfortunate that peak oil has suffered the same fate as all other limits. Between those who are ideologically opposed, those who profit from the current system, and those who just don't think about it, the issue has essentially disappeared.

The pretext is low gas prices in the US and the (short) burst of production from shale. But if that pretext had not appeared, some other one would have been found. This world is simply not equipped to do the sort of short-term sacrifice and long-term planning required for an adequate preparation for the end of an era of cheap energy. Add to that the fact that the future without cheap energy will definitely be much less fun for the rich than the present one, and you have a guarantee of denial.

What lies ahead? I would guess that another profound financial crisis is coming. It will depress energy demand enormously. And it will attract all the attention, just as the pain receives the attention of someone with cancer. They treat the pain, not the cancer, perhaps even becoming addicted to pain killers, without ever understanding the true nature of the problem. And in every time of crisis control of the political system drifts towards simplistic authoritarians. You had Berlusconi; we are likely to get Trump.

I read John Michael Greer's books as they come out. They stimulate me to think about that future without abundant oil. I expect that will be evident by 2030.

EROI is a key concept that could bring clarity to the situation. But it will not be pursued, because it just brings bad news. Politicians only like good news stories.

___________________________________________

Pedro Prieto

I remember from the Conference the carps in San Rossore, good weather, Denis Meadows signing to my colleague Daniel a first edition of the Limits of Growth, some interesting talks, as usual in all the ASPO meetings, the surprising disappearance of Ali Samsam Bakthiari, Robert Hopkins in his probably last intervention out of the transition town where I suppose he lives since then, some high expectations on the KiteGen from Alessandro, that I am afraid have not yet materialized, a set of electric motorbikes, and me driving one of them.

Sad that ASPO web page is fading if not completely disappeared now. I am not so sure that we can say yet in ASPO, as George W. Bush said on the air carrier: "Mission Accomplished" on the end of military activities in Iraq in 2003.

___________________________________________

Robert Hirsch

I remember the conference very positively. Yes, a great deal has happened since the conference. Some comments in italics:

— How did you find your experience in Pisa? Very positive. It is a beautiful city and the arrangements were fine. Most of the conference was worthwhile but, as always, some of the presentations were of little value.  

— What has changed during the past ten years in your worldview? The drop in oil prices took the wind out of “peak oil” to the point where it is not now given much credence. That’s extremely unfortunate in my opinion, because the problem has not gone away. It seems likely that OPEC spare capacity will be gone within the next year or two, and oil prices will escalate. Thereafter, some production will come back on line but large scale bounce-back is generally a slow process, as you know. It is likely that the onset of the decline in world oil production will occur within a matter of years, but then again, most who have forecast that date have been proven wrong in the past! 

— How do you think that the peak oil idea has evolved and changed the world? See above. Also, the concept has lost popular credibility. That likely won’t change until oil prices escalate dramatically, likely a few years from now. 

All the best, Bob

___________________________________

Charlie Hall

My response would be similar to Bob's -- I found it wonderful! I remember the big tent (which worked very well), the thrilling speakers like Colin and Jean and Ugo and Rui and Chris Screbowski, the wonderful new friends and the urgency of the topic. I was not alone or crazy (well...). And the Italian food!! [I looked for my presentation (probably something on EROI (yawn) but could not find it on my present computer. I probably could if anyone cares.] Not to mention Pisa itself. I had no idea the tower was so beautiful, leaning or not. My wife and I then visited the Carerra Marble mines (with lots of old pictures of pre fossil fuel mining) and then Lucca, where Puccini was born (and his duck hunting retreat on the big Lake to the North). I broke the rules and touched the piano on which (I think) Madama Butterfly was written! 

To tell you the truth I liked the one in Lisbon even better, for it was my introduction to ASPO. Dick Lawrence insisted that I go, and it was this meeting (and Pisa) that pulled me out of my doldrums as an ecologist and back to my real interest in energy, which was a very good thing for me and my career. Upon arrival I overheard someone saying that Jean Laherrere and Colin Campbell were headed for such and such a bar for lunch, so I hustled there like an ambitious grad student to meet my new heroes and buy them a beer. I also had a terrific time meeting Bobbins Campbell, Jane Screbowski and others. Gosh what fun and laughs!! Cork was great too, for there I met Pedro Prieto, who has been a great colleague. 

So I guess my main message is: THANK YOU ASPO EUROPE!!! for bringing me back to my real interest, energy, helping me to meet many super people, and resurrecting my (quite good in retrospect, I think) work of the 1970s and 1980s which I had abandoned for seeming lack of interest/funding. My guess is that Peak oil and related topics will be back with a vengeance, and all but we will be caught with their pants down. There are now three studies Mohr (attached) Maggio and Cacciola 2012 and Jean's own analysis on ASPO France which all show a peak in ALL fossil fuels perhaps as soon as 2025. Well its like Gustav Mahler said in 1910 or so: I wish I could conduct my symphonies 50 years from now! (Leonard Bernstein got famous by resurrecting Mahler). So everybody hang on to your power points, your notes and so on. Whatever is left of civilization in 50 years will be pouring over your notes as we pour over Darwin's and Newton's. Its that fundamental!!!! 

Congratulations to everyone on this list for your pioneering work! Meanwhile let me put in a plug for Ugo and my (as editors with economist Gael Girard ) new Journal from Springer "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality". Please send us your best work!









Friday, July 15, 2016

Some reflections on the Twilight of the Oil Age (Part II)

Guest Post by Louis Arnoux


Part 2 – Enquiring into the appropriateness of the question


Let’s acknowledge it, the situation we are in, as depicted summarily in Part 1, is complex.  As many commentators like to state, there is still plenty of oil, coal, and gas left "in the ground".  Since 2014, debates have been raging, concerning the assumed “oil glut”, concerning how low oil prices may go down, how high prices may rebound as demand possibly picks up and the “glut” vanishes, and, in the face of all this, what may or may not happen regarding “renewables”.  However, in my view, the situation is not impossible to analyse rigorously, away from what may appear as common sense but that may not withstand scrutiny.  For example, Part 1 data have indicated,that most of what’s left in terms of fossil fuels is likely to stay where it is, underground, without this requiring the implementation of  difficult to agree upon resource management policies, simply because this is what thermodynamics dictates.

We can now venture a little bit further if we keep firmly in mind that the globalised industrial world (GIW), and by extension all of us, do not “live” on fossil resources but on net energy delivered by the global energy system; and if we also keep in mind that, in this matter, oil-derived transport fuels are the key since, without them, none of the other fossil and nuclear resources can be mobilised and the GIW itself can’t function.

In my experience, most often, when faced with such a broad spectrum of conflicting views, especially involving matters pertaining to physics and the social sciences, the lack of agreement is indicative that the core questions are not well formulated.  Physicist David Bohm liked to stress: “In scientific enquiries, a crucial step is to ask the right question.  Indeed each question contains presuppositions, largely implicit.  If these presuppositions are wrong or confused, the question itself is wrong, in the sense that to try to answer it has no meaning.  One has thus to enquire into the appropriateness of the question.”

Here it is important, in terms of system analysis, to differentiate between the global energy industry (say, GEI) and the GIW. The GEI bears the brunt of thermodynamics directly, and within the GEI, the oil industry (OI) is key since, as seen in Part 1, it is the first to reach the thermodynamics limit of resource extraction and, since it conditions the viability of the GEI’s other components – in their present state and within the remaining timeframe, they can’t survive the OI’s eventual collapse.  On the other hand, the GIW is impacted by thermodynamic decline with a lag, in the main because it is buffered by debt – so that by the time the impact of the thermodynamic collapse of the OI becomes undeniable it’s too late to do much about it.

At the micro level, debt can be "good" - e.g. a company borrows to expand and then reimburses its debt, etc…  At the macro level, it can be, and has now become, lethal, as the global debt can no longer be reimbursed (I estimate the energy equivalent of current global debt, from states, businesses, and households to be in the order of some 10,700EJ, while current world energy use is in the order of 554EJ; it is no longer doable to “mind the gap”).

Crude oil prices are dropping to the floor


Figure 4 - The radar signal for an Oil Pearl Harbor


In brief, the GIW has been living on ever growing total debt since around the time net energy from oil per head peaked in the early 1970s.  The 2007-08 crisis was a warning shot.  Since 2012, we have entered the last stage of this sad saga – when the OI began to use more energy (one should talk in fact of exergy) within its own productions chains than what it delivers to the GIW.  From this point onwards retrieving the present financial fiat system is no longer doable.

This 2012 point marked a radical shift in price drivers.[1]  Figure 4 combines the analyses of TGH (The Hills Group) and mine. In late 2014 I saw the beginning of the oil price crash as a signal of a radar screen.  Being well aware that EROIs for oil and gas combined had already passed below the minimum threshold of 10:1, I understood that this crash was different from previous ones: prices were on their way right down to the floor.  I then realised what TGH had anticipated this trend months earlier, that their analysis was robust and was being corroborated by the market there and then.

Until 2012, the determining price driver was the total energy cost incurred by the OI.  Until then the GIW could more or less happily sustain the translation of these costs into high oil prices, around or above $100/bbl.  This is no longer the case.  Since 2012, the determining oil price driver is what the GIW can afford to pay in order to still be able to generate residual GDP growth (on borrowed time) under the sway of a Red Queen that is running out of thermodynamic “breath”.  I call the process we are in an “Oil Pearl Harbour", taking place in a kind of eerie slow motion. This is no longer retrievable.  Within roughly ten years the oil industry as we know it will have disintegrated.  The GIW is presently defenceless in the face of this threat.

The Oil Fizzle Dragon-King


Figure 5 – The “Energy Hand”


To illustrate how the GEI works I often compare its energy flows to the five fingers of the one hand: all are necessary and all are linked (Figure 5). Under the Red Queen, the GEI is progressively loosing its “knuckles” one by one like a kind of unseen leprosy - unseen yet because of the debt “veil” that hides the progressive losses and more fundamentally because of what I refer to at the bottom of Figure 5, namely were are in what I call Oil Fizzle Dragon-King. 

A Dragon-King (DK) is a statistical concept developed by Didier Sornette of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, and a few others to differentiate high probability and high impact processes and events from Black Swans, i.e. events that are of low probability and high impact.  I call it the Oil Fizzle because what is triggering it is the very rapid fizzling out of net energy per barrel.  It is a DK, i.e. a high probability, high impact unexpected process, purely because almost none of the decision-making elites is familiar with the thermodynamics of complex systems operating far from equilibrium; nor are they familiar with the actual social workings of the societies they live in.  Researchers have been warning about the high likelihood of something like this at least since the works of the Meadows in the early 1970s.[2] 

The Oil Fizzle DK is the result of the interaction between this net energy fizzling out, climate change, debt and the full spectrum of ecological and social issues that have been mounting since the early 1970s – as I noted on Figure 1, the Oil Fizzle DK is in the process of whipping up a “Perfect Storm” strong enough to bring the GIW to its knees.  The Oil Pearl Harbour marks the Oil Fizzle DK getting into full swing. 

To explain this further, with reference to Figure 5, oil represents some 33% of global primary energy use (BP data). Fossil fuels represented some 86% of total primary energy in 2014.  However, coal, oil, and gas are not like three boxes neatly set side by side from which energy is supplied magically, as most economists would have it.

In the real world (i.e. outside the world economists live in), energy supply chains form networks, rather complex ones.  For example, it takes electricity to produce many products derived from oil, coal, and gas, while electricity is generated substantially from coal and gas, and so on.  More to the point, as noted earlier, because 94% of all transport is oil-based, oil stands at the root of the entire, complex, globalised set of energy networks.  Coal mining, transport, processing, and use depend substantially on oil-derived transport fuels; ditto for gas.[3]   The same applies to nuclear plants.  So the thermodynamic collapse of the oil industry, that is now underway, not only is likely to be completed within some 10 years but is also in the process of triggering a falling domino effect (aka an avalanche, or in systemic terms, a self-organising criticality, a SOC). 

Presently, and for the foreseeable future, we do not have substitutes for oil derived transport fuels that can be deployed within the required time frame and that would be affordable to the GIW.  In other words, the GIW is falling into a thermodynamic trap, right now. As B. W. Hill recently noted, “The world is now spending $2.3 trillion per year more to produce oil than what is received when it is sold. The world is now losing a great deal of money to maintain its dependence on oil.”

The Tooth Fairy Syndrome


To come back to David Bohm’s “question about the question”, in my view, we are in this situation fundamentally because of what I call the “Tooth Fairy Syndrome”, after a pointed remark by B.W. Hill in an Internet debate early last year: “It is interesting that not one analyst has yet come to the very obvious conclusion that it requires oil to produce oil.  Perhaps they think it is delivered by the Tooth Fairy?”  This remark vividly characterised for me the prevalence of a fair amount of magical thinking at the heart of decision-making within both the GEI and the GIW, aka economics as a perpetual motion machine fantasy.  Unquestioned delusional beliefs lead to wrong conclusions.

This is not new.  Here are a few words of explanation.  In 1981, I met US anthropologist Laura Nader at the Australia New Zealand Association of the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) Congress held that year at University of Queensland in Brisbane.  We were both guest speakers at seminars focusing on Energy and Equity, and in particular on how societies actually deal with energy matters, energy crises and decide about courses of action.  The title of her paper was “Energy and Equity, Magic, Science, and Religion Revisited”.

In recent years, Nader had become part of US bodies overseeing responses to the first and second oil shocks and the US nuclear energy industry (she was a member of the National Academy of Science's Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Systems, CONAES). As an anthropologist, she was initially taken aback by what she observed and proceeded to apply her anthropological skills to try and understand the weird “tribes” she had landed into.  The title of her paper was a wink at Malinowski’s famous work on the Trobriands in 1925.  

Malinowski had pointed out that: “There are no people, however primitive without religion or magic.  Nor are there… any savage races [sic] lacking either in the scientific attitude or in science though this lack has been frequently attributed to them.”  

Nader had observed that prevailing decision-making in the industrialised world she was living in was also the outcome of a weird mix of “Magic, Science, and Religion” with magical and mythical, quasi religious, thinking predominating among people who were viewed and who viewed themselves as rational and making scientifically grounded decisions.  At the time I was engaged in very similar research, had observed exactly the same kind of phenomena in my own Australasian fieldwork and had reached similar conclusions.

In my observations, since the 1970s the prevalence of this syndrome has considerably worsened. This is what I seek to encapsulate as the Tooth Fairy Syndrome.  With the Oil Peal harbour, the unquestioned sway of the Tooth Fairy is coming to an end.  However, the imprint of Tooth Fairy thinking remains so strong that most discussions and analyses remain highly confused, even within scientific circles still taking economic notions for granted. 

In the longer run, the end effect of the Oil Fizzle DK is likely to be an abrupt decline of GHG emissions.  However, the danger I see is that meanwhile the GEI, and most notably the OI, is not going to just “curl up and die”.  I think we are in a “die hard” situation.  Since 2012, we are already seeing what I call a Big Mad Scramble (BMS) by a wide range of GEI actors that try to keep going while they still can, flying blind into the ground.  The eventual outcome is hard to avoid with a GEI operating with only about 12% energy efficiency, i.e. some 88% wasteful current primary energy use.  The GIW’s agony is likely to result in a big burst of GHG emissions while net energy fizzles out.  The high danger is that the old quip will eventuate on a planetary scale: “the operation was successful but the patient died” Hence my call for “enquiring into the appropriateness of the question” and for systemic thinking.  We are in deep trouble.  We can’t afford to get this wrong.

Next: Part 3 – Standing slightly past the edge of the cliff



Bio: Dr Louis Arnoux is a scientist, engineer, and entrepreneur committed to the development of sustainable ways of living and doing business.  His profile is available on Google+  at: https://plus.google.com/u/0/115895160299982053493/about/p/pub




[1] As THG have conclusively clarified, see http://www.thehillsgroup.org/depletion2_022.htm.
[2] The Meadows’ original work has been amply corroborated over the ensuing decades.  See for example, Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, 2004, A Synopsis: Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, The Donella Meadows Institute; Turner, Graham, 2008, A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality, Socio-Economics and the Environment in Discussion, CSIRO Working Paper Series 2008-09; Hall, Charles A. S. and Day, John W, Jr, 2009, “Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil” in American Scientist, May-June; Vuuren, D.P. van and Faber, Albert, 2009, Growing within Limits, A Report to the Global Assembly 2009 of the Club of Rome, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency; and Turner, Graham, M., 2014, Is Global Collapse Imminent? An Updated Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Historical Data, MSSI Research Paper No. 4, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.
[3] Although there is a drive to use more and more liquefied natural gas for gas tankers and ordinary ship fuel bunkering.

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)