Tags: collapse* + eroi*

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  1. we are experiencing slowly descending net energy. Put simply, this means that in the good old days you could simply drill a hole in the ground and high quality cruse oil would gush upwards. This low hanging fruit had a rate of return of about 300 - that is, you got 300 units of oil back for every 1 you put into it. This ratio is known as EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested).

    Those days of extremely high net energy have gone, but we have configured our modern world as if they would stay forever. These days, oil is in increasingly more difficult places to get at, and the stuff that is there is comparatively low quality stuff with a low EROEI. Basically put, the low hanging fruit has been well and truly picked.

    Other stores of energy have varying EROEIs ranging from coal with about 80, nuclear with about 10 and corn ethanol of about 1 (i.e. you get as much energy back as you put into growing, transporting and refining it, meaning it is not worth the bother). Renewables have a range of EROEIs that are open to debate but tend to be of the order of 10 or less. This means they are technically viable as an energy source (all other things being equal) but would need to be scaled up on a truly humongous scale to get anywhere near what fossil fuels give us today.
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  2. Draw a line five miles long to represent the millions of years during which solar energy has been captured and laid down in the earth’s crust in the form of coal, gas and oil. Then put a blip in it. That blip represents the time we have taken to extract and use this embodied energy. We are halfway through that blip.

    - James Bruges (The Little Earth Book, 2004)

    Back in late 2004, I saw a movie called The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream. It was a wake up call to the idea that we are about halfway through that blip of oil, and that the first half we used was the cheap, easy, high quality oil, and that the second half would be increasingly difficult to extract, expensive, and of lower quality. I came to understand that timing wise, the important point wasn’t when we “run out,” but when we reach the peak – the all time high of production. The peak is the important thing, because our whole society is built around the idea of continual growth. Continual growth is dependent upon reasonably cheap energy resources, and we tend to just take for granted that they’ll always be there, and growth (with a few inconvenient ups and downs here and there) will always continue. After all, it’s all we’ve known…that is, until we get a bigger perspective than just the industrial/informational ages of the past 200 years.

    Which brings us to this principle:

    The principle of peaks: the enduring health of any system depends on the appropriate balance and integration of the rate of increase in resource flows and exchanges pre-peak and the rate of decline in those flows and exchanges after the peak, for a given context.

    - Tim Winton, Pattern Dynamics

    The above is an important principle, because I gradually became more and more aware that there is actually a lot more that is peaking than just oil supplies. I found out that some believed seafood may have peaked in 1994. In 2007 I wrote an article titled “Peak Everything“: “I’m sure we’ve all heard the stories as well about the dramatic decline of bees, and the slower but long term decline of many birds. Washington state alone has at least 39 endangered plant and animal species. …It becomes a bit overwhelming to think about and comprehend all of these problems at once and together, but it is quite important to do so. As long as we keep thinking about the problems we’re seeing with the world’s “resources” as isolated problems to be dealt with individually, the more likely we are to turn to technological band-aid solutions.” When I googled the phrase “Peak Everything,” I found that Richard Heinberg was working on a book with that exact title: Peak Everything: Waking Up To a Century of Declines. Another way to say it is that we are now in ecological overshoot and have reached the limits to growth.

    As part of my own preparations for making a transition to this century of declines, I enrolled in a Permaculture Design Course in 2009. One of our instructors, David Zhang, led a session on common patterns observed in nature. One of these was the Pattern of the Pulse. Pulse, he said, is a pattern observed in time. It is a burst of stored up energy. Some examples include salmon runs, seasonal floods, the heartbeat, monsoons, lightning, forest fires, earthquakes, volcanic activity, and even plagues. When he started showing graphics and pictures of some of these pulses, suddenly I made the connection in my mind – peak oil is a pulse! Of course, this seemed so obvious in retrospect, but at the time when I made the connection, it seemed to clarify so many things, put so many things in perspective, and help me to realize this is a very natural process.

    Systems ecologist Howard Odum was of the opinion that all systems on all scales pulse. Storages gradually accumulate, consumers consume and develop, and eventually decline, and then dispersing materials that will be used in the next pulse. Winton wisely comments, “The capacity to maximize the rate of growth of flow exchanges needs to be balanced with minimizing the adaption required after the peak when decline sets in. The role of Pulse is to maximize exchange flows sustainably.” The pattern of the pulse demonstrates the principle of peaks, which is where the quote from Winton nearer to the top of this article comes in.

    Howard Odum, in A Prosperous Way Down:

    What is appropriate during one stage may be poor policy in another stage,” he wrote. “For example, for a system in a stage of descent, it will not be good policy to foster growth that is no longer possible.

    …Although history and ecosystems give us clues, we really don’t know what the policies should be for the period of turndown from our complex, intensive, locally affluent, urban civilization…

    In some systems, the mature stage is abruptly terminated by catastrophic removal due to pulses on a larger scale…In some other ecosytems such as a temperate forest approaching a winter season, decline is more orderly…

    After repeated cycles of growth and decline, ecosystems develop means for carrying forward information, in seeds, eggs, and spores, for the next growth cycle. Something similar is needed in downsizing of civilization.
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  3. the low-carbon path requires a high rate of growth in that expensive sector, and therefore high rates of investment. Governments would have to jump-start the transition with regulations and subsidies—a tough order in a world where most governments are financially overstretched and investment capital is scarce.

    For transport, the low-carbon option is even thornier. Biofuels suffer from problems of high cost and the diversion of agricultural land, the transition to electric cars will be expensive and take decades, and electric airliners are not feasible.

    Carbon capture and storage will also be costly and will likewise take decades to implement on a meaningful scale. Moreover, the energy costs of building and operating an enormous new infrastructure of carbon dioxide pumps, pipelines, and compressors will be substantial, meaning we will be extracting more and more fossil fuels just to produce the same amount of energy useful to society—a big problem if fossil fuels are getting more expensive anyway. So, in the final analysis, a low-carbon future is also very likely to be a lower-energy future.
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  4. Almost half the summer arctic ice is gone. The oceans are 30% more acidic because of these industrial gases in the atmosphere. Mother Earth now experiences land, air and water temperature increases, drought, deluge, flooding, forest fires, desertification, insect migrations, dying forests, and violent storms caused and aggravated by global heating from industrial activity. With Hurricane Sandy simply being the latest demonstration of the growing impact of global warming, with many more yet to come.

    Runaway global heating: Meanwhile, the heating is now creating system feedbacks that cause more heating.

    The warmer atmosphere is now melting the polar permafrost, which releases methane, causing more warming.

    Receding forests store less carbon, reduced ocean algae stores less carbon, disappearing ice fails to reflect as much heat, and added water vapor increases the greenhouse effect. We now face the real threat of runaway global heating beyond anything that human actions could reverse. Scientists now warn of “irreversible” changes to our Mother Earth’s climate.

    Coral reefs: We have lost over a third of Mother Earth’s coral, and most of the remaining coral reefs are in danger of complete destruction over the next few decades. Because of hotter and more acidic oceans caused by industrial CO2, destructive drag net fishing, and pollution, our world’s coral is dying. In 1998, in a single year, we lost 16% of the ocean’s coral reefs, which are the oceans nursery. By killing the coral reefs, we destroy ocean biodiversity and productivity.

    Material Limits: We have depleted virtually every non-renewable industrial and economic natural material in the world including wood, aluminum, copper, phosphorus, nickel, tin, zinc, platinum, and so forth. Humanity took the best, cheapest, easiest materials first, so the remaining stores are more expensive to extract, with greater energy, human, and ecological cost.

    Energy limits: For the first time in our human history, humanity can no longer increase its energy output. We have reached the peak of net energy input into society. More and more energy is drained away in efforts to retrieve the deeper, more expensive, dwindling energy stores. Conventional oil production has peaked and is in decline.

    In one century, humanity used up the best of our Mother Earth’s store of easily accessible hydrocarbons – representing 500-million years of solar energy stored as biomass and oil in our Mother Earth’s crust. This energy storehouse has been squandered on wars, over-heated buildings, unneeded lighting and many other forms of wasteful consumption. The oil left is dirty and expensive. Today, when we invest one barrel of oil energy into getting new energy, we retrieve 30-times or 50-times less energy in return. The net energy available to our human society from one-barrel invested has dropped from 100 barrels in the early 1930s oil fields to 1:3 in today’s tar sands and 1:2 in deep oil wells.

    Humanity has high-graded everything. We took the best land, best trees, best oil, best fish, and so forth. We now have to make do with the lower-quality materials, energy, and natural bounty.

    alternate URL: http://newsle.com/article/0/56699751
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  5. Fracking probably holds the global economy together long enough for cheap solar to take over by 2020
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