Jevons Paradox

William Stanley Jevons
William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882)

As I look at the church’s responses to the impacts of climate changes I am deeply impressed and moved by the commitment shown by so many people. Yet I am also concerned that some of these efforts may be in vain. They may even be counter-productive. They may be unwitting victims of the Law of Unintended Consequences and of Jevons Paradox (the ‘Coal Question’).

False Savings

My first concern is to do with false savings. Let’s say that your place of work is near to your home. You have been in the habit of driving to work, but now decide to use a bicycle. You save a few gallons or liters of fuel each week. Great! You have done your bit to reduce the use of a scarce resource (oil) and you there are now fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But has that gasoline really been saved? Since it is now available to others it will be used by someone, somewhere. So, the truth is that it has not been saved. It has merely been transferred from one consumer (you) to another (a stranger who could be anywhere in the world).

You may respond by saying that we need to make a gesture, or that cycling to work is good for your health. Fair enough — but the fact is that you have not met your original goal of reducing gasoline consumption and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

In fact, you may have made matters worse than if you had done nothing at all.

The Coal Question

In order to understand this conundrum let us meet that bewhiskered Victorian gentleman, William Stanley Jevons.

Mill Chimneys Victorian industry

Jevons was living at a time when Great Britain was going through a phase of rapid industrialization. The Industrial Revolution, which had started about 150 years earlier, was kicking into high gear.

In the year 1865 he published The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (they went in for long book titles in those days). Even though he was writing 150 years ago, the words he wrote in that book are as relevant now as they were then (just substitute the word ‘oil’ for ‘coal’).

Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country — the universal aid — the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times. With such facts familiarly before us, it can be no matter of surprise that year by year we make larger draughts upon a material of such myriad qualities — of such miraculous powers.

. . . new applications of coal are of an unlimited character. In the command of force, molecular and mechanical, we have the key to all the infinite varieties of change in place or kind of which nature is capable. No chemical or mechanical operation, perhaps, is quite impossible to us, and invention consists in discovering those which are useful and commercially practicable . . .

I must point out the painful fact that such a rate of growth will before long render our consumption of coal comparable with the total supply. In the increasing depth and difficulty of coal mining we shall meet that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress.

Let us unpack those three paragraphs.

  1. The first paragraph states that coal was the über-commodity of the 19th century because it was the principle source of energy. Substitute the word ‘oil’ for ‘coal’ and his words apply to our situation. Without coal, without oil, we are “thrown back into the laborious poverty of earlier times”.
  2. The second paragraph shows the coal and oil not only give us raw power, they give us “molecular power” — the ability to create new products. They are used not only as fuel but also to create basic chemicals that in turn are used to make an enormous range of products such as fertilizers, medications, pesticides and plastics.
  3. But, and there’s always a ‘but’, in the third paragraph Jevons points out that the supply of coal is not infinite. Moreover, it will become ever more expensive to extract future supplies. We will never run out of coal or oil, but, sooner or later, we will run out of affordable coal (and oil). He is actually describing, a hundred years ahead of his time, the problem of declining ERoEI — Energy Returned on Energy Invested. He has a premonition of the Hubbert Curve.

His wonderful phrase, “that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress” pretty much summarizes much of what we are trying to achieve in this blog. There are no simple answers because there are no simple questions. But there are boundaries that will “stop our progress”.

I suppose that there is one other question that can be derived from the above statements. How is it that the quality of our written English has declined so precipitously? Where did we go wrong?

The Paradox

The following two statements summarize his famous paradox.

It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

Whatever, therefore, conduces to increase the efficiency of coal, and to diminish the cost of its use, directly tends to augment the value of the steam-engine, and to enlarge the field of its operations.

Translated into modern English, he is saying,

  • Coal is being burned with greater efficiency. (There were two reasons for this. The first is technological innovation, the second the economies of scale that ensue when the number of customers is increased.)
  • Hence more factories and power plants use coal since it is now economical to do so.
  • Hence the overall consumption of coal increases.

Apply the same thinking to our situation.

  • People buy fuel-efficient cars to save money.
  • Because their cars are more efficient, they drive more miles.
  • Also, because it is more economical to drive, more people buy cars.
  • Hence the overall consumption of fuel increases.
  • Hence we should all drive 1960 gas guzzlers. What’s not to like?
Red Cadillac gas guzzler
Now that’s an automobile

The Katy Freeway

Katy Freeway 26 lanes
The Katy Freeway

The idea of Jevons Paradox crops up everywhere.

I used to live in Houston, Texas, and frequently drove on the I-10 West (the Katy Freeway). It is a major, badly congested commuter highway. To reduce the congestion the freeway was expanded such that the intersection with Beltway 8 is now 26 lanes across. (There used to be a two-track railroad on the corridor but they tore it up to make room for more traffic lanes).

Once construction was complete, travel was much faster and more convenient for just a few weeks. But now the traffic is as bad as ever. Why? Because more people chose to drive to work, and real estate developers built more homes adjacent to the freeway.

Demand met supply.

Demand Reduction Is Crucial

Jevons Paradox leads us to the conclusion that demand reduction is crucial. Merely saving resources or improving efficiencies will do no more than keep us in one place; indeed, such activities may actually make things worse.

  • If you make steam engines more efficient then more factories and power plants will be built and coal consumption will increase.
  • If you add more lanes to freeways then more people will use those extra lanes, and congestion will be as bad as ever.
  • If you drive an economical car then other people will drive more miles and more people will buy cars, thus wiping out your sacrifice.

The lesson is simple:

Reducing consumption or pollution is of no value unless overall demand is reduced. Failure to heed this insight means that all attempts to address our predicaments through improved efficiency or consumption are doomed not only to fail, they may actually make those predicaments worse unless demand elsewhere, all over the world, is reduced correspondingly.

Compassion

Child labour in a Victorian factory

I started this page by alluding to the fact that so many of our church friends are dedicated in their effort to help those who have been hurt, in one way or another, by climate change and related problems.

Jevons was with them. Far from being a cold-hearted economist who had no concern for the needs of those in trouble, he showed compassion. Here is what he said (once more, using a quality of English that one can only envy).

We must begin to allow that we can do today what we cannot so well do tomorrow….

Reflection will show that we ought not to think of interfering with the free use of the material wealth which Providence has placed at our disposal, but that our duties wholly consist in the earnest and wise application of it. We may spend it on the one hand in increased luxury and ostentation and corruption, and we shall be blamed. We may spend it on the other hand in raising the social and moral condition of the people, and in reducing the burdens of future generations. Even if our successors be less happily placed than ourselves they will not then blame us.

Conclusion

Any attempt to “save” energy or to reduce emissions is likely to have limited success unless it is matched with a commensurate reduction in energy consumption and emissions everywhere by everyone.

Now that’s the real challenge.

Happy Motoring Esso 1950s

Proper 26: Be Careful What You Ask For

M. King Hubbert. Peak Oil.
M. King Hubbert (1903-1989)

Appointed Gospel

The gospel reading from this week’s lectionary is taken from Luke 19:1-10.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

This lesson seems to have little direct bearing on the Age of Limits predicaments that we face. But the gospel readings for the last few weeks all seem to feature the need for faith and persistence in hard times. This reading fits that pattern.

Exploration and Production

Time-Magazine-Climate-Change cover

In the year 2019 the topic of climate change received considerable attention — it is now part of the public discourse, even in the mainstream press (such as Time magazine). The basic idea is that our consumption of fossil fuels generates greenhouse gases (principally CO2) that are leading us toward catastrophic climate change. Therefore, it is argued, we need to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels, and/or we need to replace said fuels with renewable sources, principally solar and wind power.

An unstated assumption is that we actually have a choice in the matter — we can decide whether or not to reduce our fossil fuel consumption. It’s up to us. But maybe that assumption is incorrect. Could it be that we will be forced to reduce our fossil fuel usage, whether we like it or not? In which case,

Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

In the year 1956, Dr. M. King Hubbert, who was working for the Shell Oil company at the time, published his seminal paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels. One of his insights is that we need to find sufficient new sources of crude oil to replace what we are currently using. If we fail to do so then eventually we will run into the phenomenon of ‘Peak Oil’. (He did not use that phrase, but his analysis provided the basis for it.)

Oil companies talk about reserves and production rates, but the fundamental challenge that they face is finding enough new sources of crude oil to replace what is being used now. Hubbert forecast that the replacement rate would peak around the year 1970. After that we would consume more crude oil than we find. His prediction was on the nose — he nailed it.

His work led to the development of the now famous Hubbert Curve, as shown in the sketch below, which is for the production of oil in millions of barrels per year for the lower 48 of the United States. The red line is his 1956 prediction. The green line shows actual production. It can be seen that actual production followed his prediction very well until around the year 2008. Then production increased substantially such that production rates in the year 2018 are close to the 1970 peak. The increase is due mostly to the production of Light Tight Oil (also referred to as Shale Oil), primarily in Texas and North Dakota. But, as explained the post The Return of Peak Oil, it appears as if shale oil production is now at its peak, mostly because it has never been profitable; investors are withdrawing their support.Production of oil and shale oil in the United States

Further information to do with new sources of oil in the United States is provided by Jean Laherrère. The chart below shows that exploratory drilling is at just 5% of the 1981 level. And the number of gas exploration wells seems to have dropped to close to zero.

Oil exploration decline - Laherre

This post started by describing the need to cut back fossil fuel consumption. When we look at the rate at which we are finding new sources of oil it would appear as if we are going to have little choice — fossil fuel consumption will go down, not because of environmental concerns, but because we are not replacing the oil and gas that we are using.

Proper 25: Humility and the Year 2050

Intellectual arrogance

Appointed Gospel

This week’s lectionary gospel reading is from Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the context of the Age of Limits this lesson provides guidance to those of us who communicate the predicaments that we face. People who study issues such as climate change and resource depletion are generally well educated and have had sufficient time to research these difficult, complex and emotional topics. This can lead to a situation where they become like the Pharisee in the gospel reading — they feel superior to those who pay no attention to these topics, often because they do not have sufficient time.

Such an attitude is unworthy. Moreover, it is likely to be  ineffective. We need to remain humble and to recognize that others may be making a greater contribution than ourselves, even if they do not talk as much.  In particular, we need to recognize the time and effort made by those who are actually doing something about our situation, rather than merely talking about it.


The Year 2050

Rusting wind turbines

Throughout this blog and in my book I suggest that we consider building a new Christian theology around the following three points.

  1. Understand and tell the truth
  2. Accept and adapt
  3. Live within the biosphere, both spiritually and materially

Of these, I suggest that the most difficult to grasp is the first one: Understand and the tell the truth. The world in which we live is extraordinarily complex, with many feedback loops (both positive and negative, many of which are neither identified nor understood) and potential tipping points (once more, often not either identified or understood).  No matter how much research we may have done, and no matter how well educated we may be in there topics, we return to the need for humility.

For the last few weeks we have concentrated on the realities and implications of climate change — partly because that topic has received so much publicity from that remarkable young lady Greta Thunberg. But climate change is not the only challenge that we face; resource depletion is equally serious. Moreover, the two topics are tightly intertwined with one another. And then we need to add in other issues such as population increase and biosphere collapse. All of these topics interact with one another in complex and difficult-to-understand ways.

But not only is it difficult to determine what will happen, it is even more difficult to figure out when events will occur. One of our truth-telling responsibilities is to provide a timeline, as best we can, knowing that any predictions we make will turn out to be incorrect. In the section entitled The Sadness of Six Degrees at the post Proper 17: The Place of Honor I note that a shortcoming of an otherwise excellent book is that it does not provide dates. It tells us what the Earth may look like as temperatures increase, but it does not provide any estimate as to when these events will take place.

Nevertheless, our political leaders have no hesitation to do with jumping into the fray. Joe Biden, one of the leading candidates in the Presidential election in the United States had this to say,

I guarantee you we’re going to end fossil fuel . . . Before 2050, God willing.

Other candidates have come up with similar goals, so let’s pick on the year that Biden selected — 2050 — to see what the world will look like if his campaign promise materializes.

  • All energy currently provided by fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) will be provided by alternative sources. Vice President Biden does not tell us what those alternatives are, but let us assume that they are a mix of nuclear power (fission), wind and solar.
  • Since the word “fuel” is used, we can assume that oil, coal and gas will continue to be used for the manufacture of the thousands of petroleum-based products, ranging from fertilizers to chemotherapy drugs to computer screens.
  • Implicit in his message is an assumption that no one will be called on to make any type of sacrifice — we will be able to maintain Business as Usual (BAU).

The harsh reality is that, if elected, there is no chance at all that Biden will meet his goal of ending fossil fuel consumption by the year 2050.

We will explore project management and financial realities in future posts. Let’s start with what I consider to be one of the most important articles written this year, Net-Zero Carbon Dioxide Emissions By 2050 Requires A New Nuclear Power Plant Every Day written by Roger Pielke and published by Forbes magazine.

Here is the money quotation from that article.

 . . . the math here is simple: to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy three . . . nuclear plants worth of carbon-free energy every two days, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.

. . . some people don’t like the use of a nuclear power plant as a measuring stick. So we can substitute wind energy as a measuring stick. Net-zero carbon dioxide by 2050 would require the deployment of ~1500 wind turbines (2.5 MW) over ~300 square miles, every day starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.

It is easy to pick on Joe Biden — we are used to political candidates making promises that sound good but that don’t make mathematical sense. But my concern is to do with well-meaning Christians and church authorities. They have fallen into the same trap. If our message is to be convincing then it must also address thermodynamic and project management realities.

Let’s expand on Pielke’s words to do with wind energy.

  • We need to deploy 1500 wind turbines EVERY SINGLE DAY, starting tomorrow (his article was written a month ago) up until the year 2050.
  • This would require the 300 square miles (78,000 hectares) of land to be converted to wind turbine sites, EVERY SINGLE DAY.
  • Therefore we need to dedicate (300 * (2050-2020) * 365) square miles of land to wind turbines in the next 30 years. This is approximately 3.3 million square miles. The area of the United States is 3.5 million square miles (including Alaska). So, starting right now, we need to plan for an area the size of the United States to be dedicated to wind turbines.
  • But this is just a start. In her article Understanding Why the Green New Deal Won’t Really Work, Gail Tverberg describes the enormous battery power that will have to be deployed (and then maintained) to allow for the fact that the wind does not blow when we need it. We also need to recognize the wind turbines are complex machines that require fossil fuels for their manufacture and maintenance. Ditto for the electrical grid that they feed into.

If Christians are to provide real leadership in the troubled times that lie ahead, it is vital that they start by understanding the dilemmas that we face. We need to avoid fatalism. But, equally, we need to avoid hopium.

Realistic Hope


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Proper 24: Persistence

Vince Lombardi
Vince Lombardi

Winners never quit, and quitters never win.

The gospel reading from this week’s lectionary is taken from Luke 18:1-8.

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’

For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Recent gospel readings have been somewhat paradoxical — particularly the passage in which Jesus commends the corrupt estate manager. This week’s passage also seems to be rather strange; Jesus is comparing God with a corrupt, powerful judge. However, the core message is to do with the widow’s persistence. She keeps demanding that the judge give her justice even though she has been repulsed many times already. (The story does not tell us about the widow’s attitude. Was she tearful and begging for justice, or was she something of a pain in the neck whom the judge simply wanted to get rid of, or was she simply reasonable and polite while making her requests?)

Those of us who work with Age of Limits issues, particularly climate change, are often tempted to give up trying to communicate. So few people understand what is going on, indeed so few people even want to understand what is going on. But the passage from Luke tells us to keep on trying, even though our efforts seem to have so little effect.

The final sentence in the passage returns once more to the issue of faith, a difficult topic that we have looked at in Proper 21: Lazarus and Fences and Proper 22: Slow Walk. It is hard to maintain faith when the world that is seemingly heading toward a slow-motion catastrophe. But, this sentence tells us that the Son of Man will expect us to have kept the faith, no matter how difficult that may be.

One reason to stay faithful is that there is always the possibility of good news coming at us from totally unexpected directions. In his post The Public Interest in Climate Change Reaches and All-Time High. Greta Thunberg Conquers the Memesphere Ugo Bardi uses Google Trend information to demonstrate the impact of Greta Thunberg’s leadership. He says,

Ms. Thunberg was supported by a top-notch public relations agency. They did everything right from the beginning: the target, the delivery, the positioning. But it was the person, Greta Thunberg, who was absolutely perfect in her role: flawless on all occasions.

At the same time, the forces of darkness trying to stop Greta Thunberg managed only to propel her further forward. A large number of angry old men made fools of themselves by insulting her. Many so-called “experts” on climate could only show their ignorance. Most attacks against her backfired, also because the young lady turned out to be both smart and resilient.

But there is more, here, than a flawless P.R. operation. The time had come for a major memetic transition. Most of us were expecting it as the result of some climate disaster, hurricanes, sea-level rise, heat waves, this kind of things. But we were hit by every sort of climate disasters and the result was the opposite: in the wake of each terrible event, the public interest in climate change diminished!


Complexity

About two months ago, in the post The Return of Peak Oil, I suggested that the topic of ‘Peak Oil’ may come back into public prominence within the next few years. Actually, it never really went away — it’s just that the decision by the investment community to spend billions of dollars on a money-losing project — shale oil — put off our oil reckoning for a few years.

Discussions to do with Peak Oil have been further driven into the background by the recent uptick in concerns to do with climate change, as discussed above. Yet my hunch is that oil shortages will come to dominate our public discourse in a manner not achieved by climate change because those shortages could hit us so quickly. In Proper 14: The Unexpected Hour we took a look at Luke 12: 32-40. Change can come upon us when we are least expecting it. For example, if the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran were to result in a shooting war that closes the Straits of Hormuz we could quickly see long lines at gas stations.

In the context of Peak Oil discussions I would like to point to two posts on this general theme. They are from John Michael Greer and Gail Tverberg (one of the original Oil Drum writers).

John Michael Greer — Peak Oil
John Michael Greer

Greer’s post is Waiting for the Next Panic. The following quotation is written in his  dry, sardonic style.

There were two standard flavors of peak oil activism during the heyday of the movement, from 2008 to 2012 or so.  The first flavor insisted that as the price of oil kept going up, alternative energy sources would become more affordable, and the world’s industrial societies would finally get around to transitioning over to some other energy source. Fans of nuclear power formed one bloc in that wing of the movement, fans of what tended to be lumped together as “renewable energy” (solar, wind, biofuels, and the like) formed another, and the two factions belabored each other with a right good will, each insisting that the other wasn’t economically viable. (For what it’s worth, the evidence suggests that they were both right.)

Then there was the other flavor, which can be described readily enough as warmed-over apocalyptic fantasy using peak oil as an excuse.

 . . . We argued, furthermore, that nuclear power and renewable energy were both hopelessly uneconomical as ways to power either the electricity grid or the transport grid, the two main uses of energy in a modern industrial society, and that the grand plans for an energy transition being brandished by a range of enthusiastic activists would go precisely nowhere.

The background to his post is that around the year 2010 the topic of “Peak Oil” gained prominence. For various reasons, mostly to do with the exploitation of shale oil, production of crude oil in the United States, we were able to continue with Business as Usual, i.e., crude oil supplies were not restricted and prices did not rise much.

The following chart has two lines. The red line is the production of conventional crude oil in the United States. It shows a peak around the year 1970, just as predicted by M. King Hubbert. The green line shows the impact of shale oil production. By the year 2018 production was close to the 1970 value.

If it turns out that shale oil production declines because it is uneconomic then we will revert to the red line, as discussed in the post The Return of Peak Oil.Production of oil and shale oil in the United StatesAnother issue that Greer raises is what he refers to as “apocalyptic fantasies”. I have been rather surprised at how little discussion there has been in the Christian community about Revelation-style, sudden end-of-the-world scenarios.

Gail Tverberg — Peak Oil
Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg’s post is entitled Understanding Why the Green New Deal Won’t Really Work. She takes a deep look at the “alternative energy” scene, and comes up with similar conclusions, i.e., that alternative, “green” energies will play an important role in our future but they will not substitute for fossil fuels; we will not be able to maintain our current, energy-profligate lifestyle.She concludes her post with the words, “ . . . using an overbuilt renewables system, there is not enough net energy to provide the high salaries almost everyone would like to see.”

The central point of both of these posts is that we cannot go back to the world as it was. You cannot swim in the same river twice. Alternative energy sources are important and should be developed, but they will not allow us to maintain our current, energy-profligate lifestyle. It is this reality that provides, I believe, an opportunity for the Christian church to provide leadership.


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The Future Is A Muddle

California-Power-Outage

Last week PG&E, the major utility company in northern California, preemptively shut down electrical service to around 87,000 customers in 12 counties. They did this because high winds were forecast. These winds could cause tree branches to fall on power lines, which, in turn, could start devastating wild fires, such as we saw last year.

Here we have a glimpse of the future. Consider some of the factors that came into play.

  • PG&E has not invested sufficient funds over the years to maintain the integrity of its systems.
  • California law imposes a high degree of liability on utility companies if their equipment does cause a disaster such as a major wildfire. Maybe the law is excessively onerous — nevertheless, it is what it is.
  • The company’s communications with its customers, including those who depend on the availability of power to keep life-support systems operating, was inadequate. In particular, their web site crashed at critical times because so many people were trying to find out what was going on.
  • Large numbers of people had no contingency plans in place, nor did they have emergency supplies of food, water and batteries. They were caught by surprise.

In other words, the situation was a muddle.

In 1 Corinthians we read,

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

What this passage is telling us is that even the Apostle Paul, with all of his intellectual and spiritual gifts, could not see the future in detail. But he could see an outline.

The PG&E shutdown does provide us with such an outline, a glimpse as to what the future holds; it will be confusing, uncertain and will have both ups and downs (but with more downs than ups).

In his 2005 paper – How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse – John Michael Greer says,

. . . the process that drives the collapse of civilizations has a surprisingly simple basis: the mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital and the resources that are available to meet those costs. Capital here is meant in the broadest sense of the word, and includes everything in which a civilizations invests its wealth: buildings, roads, imperial expansion, urban infrastructure, information resources, trained personnel, or what have you. Capital of every kind has to be maintained, and as a civilization adds to its stock of capital, the costs of maintenance rise steadily, until the burden they place on the civilization’s available resources can’t be supported any longer.

We in our times have built up a tremendously complex society; in order to keep that society functioning, we will need to devote more and more of our resources to maintenance. This means that there will be less net energy (money) available for everything else that we want to do such as alternative energy projects. (This problem will be exacerbated by the fact that our ERoEI, Energy Returned on Energy Invested, is also moving inexorably downwards. This means that we need to use more and more of our available energy just to find and extract new sources of energy.)

Society will therefore experience a slow but relentless stepwise decline. We will spend more and more of our resources on maintaining the systems we have built, but those systems will continue to decay. Eventually we will hit bottom and a rebuild process can start.

What lessons can modern-day Christians take from these insights?

  • The Bible talks of an apocalypse followed by sudden end times. We may need to recognize that events will often happen gradually and in no particular order. The word “sudden” may not apply.
  • We need to prepare for difficult times. How this is to be done is a huge topic. But it mostly boils down to living a simpler life and using less energy.
  • We need to be humble. Like Paul, the best we can do is see through a glass darkly.
  • We need to be ready to help others. For example, during a power outage people on life-support systems may only live if we can provide them with our portable electricity generator.

Proper 23: The Enemy Is Physics

Physics and the Age of Limits

Every week, as time permits, I look at the lectionary readings for that week and try to interpret them in the context of the Age of Limits.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (October 13th 2019, Year C) is taken from Luke 17:11-19.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

This passage to do with faith is a continuation of last week’s gospel reading, Proper 21: Lazarus and Fences.

It can be difficult to have faith when we look at our predicaments. So few people seem to understand what is going on, and even fewer are taking action to try and change our direction. But this gospel passage tells us to keep the faith and to be grateful for any progress that is made.

Episcopal Bishops

Many bishops of the Episcopal church joined the recent climate strikes. The following is taken from the church’s web site.


Tens of thousands of young people are mobilizing at this moment in New York and across the United States, standing up for climate action and climate justice. Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist who electrified the audience at the UN Climate Summit in Poland last year (2018) came by fossil-free boat to join the mobilizing youth. We, a group of Green Bishops of The Episcopal Church have stepped out of our Fall meeting here in Minnesota to voice our support for this youth mobilization.

We Green Episcopal Bishops resolve to support a network of young climate activists in The Episcopal Church, building up to an Episcopal youth presence at the important United Nations Climate Summit in 2020, most likely to be held in the United Kingdom. Called COP (Conference of Parties) 26, the summit in 2020 is so crucial because it will be the 5-year stocktaking of how the world is doing keeping its commitments to the Paris Agreement. Even more importantly, we will all be called upon in 2020 to “raise our ambition” on climate action.

The Episcopal Church is already committed to action that will support a 1.5°C ceiling on global warming above pre-Industrial Revolution levels. We are working from the individual and household level up to regions and to the level of the whole Church to make the necessary transition to a sustainable life.

The Episcopal Church is also committed to climate justice, standing in solidarity with vulnerable people – the Gwich’in People of Alaska, the Standing Rock Tribe, Caribbean island peoples, and the people of Polynesia, and others, all of whose ways of life, and in some cases their very lives, are already threatened and disastrously changed by climate chaos. We recognize that climate change joins other scourges such as social violence and poverty in displacing millions of people worldwide, and we will work to make sure that all immigrants and asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect.

Finally, all we do as Episcopalians following the Way of Jesus is done with prayer, faith and trust. We turn to God for guidance, courage, and compassion.

The reaction of myself and many of my friends in the Episcopal church is to be grateful that our leaders are stepping out and providing much needed leadership. Their message provides a link to the church’s Creation Care web site (many of us are involved in local Creation Care activities at the diocese and parish level). The Anglican Communion has a similar Season of Creation site.

But, and there’s always a but . . . One of the purposes of the posts at this blog and the book New City of God is to take a careful look at the scientific background to statements such as these. After all, Greta Thunberg (G.T.), the young lady who started these strikes, says “listen to the science” and “our enemy right now is physics”.

With these thoughts in mind, I make the following comments to do with the bishops’ statement.

  1. G.T. did not arrive in a “fossil-free boat”. From the look of the boat it appears as if it has carbon fiber sails. The making of such sails, and of the boat’s hull, requires an enormous input of fossil fuel energy per kilogram-kilometer travelled. If we compare the fossil fuels required to take G.T. on a commercial airplane (including the fossil fuels needed to build the airplane and its infrastructure pro-rated for the number of flights) I would be curious to know which is more environmentally friendly. Actually the most energy-effective way to cross the Atlantic is in a spare cabin on a large cargo ship. This would give a very low energy consumption in terms of joules / (kilometer * kilogram of body weight).
  2. If the Episcopal Church is committed to the 1.5°C target how does it propose to get there? Such a goal requires substantial sacrifice on the part of the church members. Has that sacrifice been calculated and explained? Moreover, aren’t the bishops being unrealistic. Given the lack of action at the national and international level, and given that, once carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere it stays in the atmosphere, shouldn’t we accept that 1.5°C is going to happen?
  3. The above two points are rather picky, but my third point is of the greatest concern. The statement commits to “climate action and climate justice”. Both goals are, of course, fully in line with Christian mission. But, by splitting the focus, confusion can be created. This is not just a theoretical point. Earlier this year members of Congress proposed a ‘Green New Deal’ based on mitigation of the impacts of climate change. The same document also proposed various social justice goals. What happened was that its opponents sensibly picked on the social justice part to effectively challenge the entire message. They said that the GND was just another way for the government to control our lives. This allowed them to successfully avoid discussing climate change issues. It’s true that addressing climate change will likely help poorer people the most, and that’s good. But I suggest that the focus should be only on climate change such that all people — rich and poor alike — benefit.

My comments may seem to be unnecessarily pedantic and even ungracious. But, if the church is to provide leadership with regard to climate change and other Age of Limits issues, then we need to make sure that we address the scientific, engineering and project management realities correctly.


The Carbon Trap

In his 2012 paper The Ladder of Awareness Paul Chefurka talks about understanding our predicaments as developing in the following five stages.

  1.  Dead asleep;
  2.  Awareness of one fundamental problem;
  3.  Awareness of many problems;
  4.  Awareness of the interconnection between many problems; and
  5.  Awareness that the predicament encompasses all aspects of life.

He has now written an equally useful piece entitled the Carbon Trap. Here is what he says.

Whether we realize it or not, everyone living on planet Earth today is caught in what I have come to call the “carbon trap”. The nature of the trap is simple, and can be described in one sentence:

Our continued existence depends on the very thing that is killing us – the combustion of our planet’s ancient stocks of carbon.

This unfortunate situation was not intentional, and is no one’s fault.

The trap was constructed well outside of our conscious view or understanding.

Its design came from our evolved desires for status, material comfort and security.

We recognized its seductive promise long before we knew enough science to discover its hidden hook.

It was built with the best of intentions by well-meaning scientists and engineers, whose knowledge of the consequences was both incomplete and clouded by their own evolved desire for a better life.

Most of us, even those who are aware of our predicament, distract ourselves by creating and admiring elaborate and luxurious appointments for our carbon-clad prison.

Many who can see the bars spend their time dreaming of ways to slip through them into the world outside – a world of natural freedom that they can see but never reach.

Those who are fully aware of the trap also understand that we now need it to survive; that leaving it (if that were even possible) would be as fatal as staying inside. We are victims of what complex systems scientists call “path dependence” – where we came from and how we got here puts strict limits on what is now possible for us to do.

One of the things we can’t do is simply open the door and leave. Even the fact that our carbon-barred prison is now on fire can’t change the cold equations. We are condemned to wait here until the walls burn down, when a few soot-blackened survivors may stumble out into the blasted and barren landscape left behind by our self-absorbed construction project.

This is why I believe that the one quality most needed in the world today is compassion.

Our fossil fuel dependence started 300 years ago. (I select the year 1712 — that was when Thomas Newcomen invented his atmospheric/steam engine for pumping water out of mines.) Many people say that, when our fossil fuel supply declines and/or we simply cannot add more carbon to the atmosphere, then we will simply revert to an earlier lifestyle, the way that people lived in Biblical times.

Chefurka is saying that this is not the case; we cannot go back. The pre-industrial world is gone and will never return. You cannot swim in the same river twice. If and when the fossil fuel dependency comes to an end he is saying that we will be living in a totally different world — one consisting only of “soot-blackened” survivors.


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The Return of Peak Oil

 

M. King Hubbert. Peak Oil.
M. King Hubbert (1903-1989)

My interest in issues to do with the Age of Limits started about nine years ago when I was working on an offshore oil and gas project in the nation of Malaysia. At that time my focus was on what was then referred to as ‘Peak Oil’. In the following years I learned more about other issues, such as global warming (which became ‘climate change’), our destruction of the biosphere, and the scary debt bubbles that we are blowing. It all came together in the idea of an Age of Limits.

The Peak Oil story, at the time, seemed so simple.

  • We need to find new sources of oil to replace what we are currently using.
  • Actually we need to find more than what we are using in order to fuel economic growth.
  • Unfortunately we have picked the low-hanging fruit, those sources of oil that provide abundant quantities at low cost. Finding and exploiting new sources is increasingly expensive. The technical term for this issue is Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI). It takes energy to find and exploit new sources of energy. Our ERoEI has been steadily declining.
  • Hence the price of crude oil will increase and supplies will be increasingly prone to interruption.

Absence of Peak Oil

But then, about seven years ago, extensive investments were made in the recovery of shale oil from fields in the United States (mostly in Texas and North Dakota). The impact of these discoveries can be seen in the following chart.

Hubbert Curve Actual

The chart has two lines. The red line is the famous Hubbert curve developed by M. King Hubbert in the early 1950s. Hubbert correctly predicted that production of conventional oil would reach a peak in the year 1970.

The green line shows actual oil production in the United States. Up until the year 1990 actual production followed Hubbert’s prediction closely. But then, starting around the year 2010 production of tight oil/shale oil took off such that overall production in 2018 was not much less than what it was in 1970.

Geologists always knew that the shale oil was there. But it required new (and expensive) technology in the form of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) using high pressure injection fluid consisting of water, sand and other chemicals. The produced oil is generally quite light, hence it is often referred to as Light Tight Oil (LTO).

The production of shale oil is costly. Therefore, it required that investors be willing to pour billions of dollars into this money-losing venture. Because the oil is so difficult to extract, and because there are relatively few sweet spots of high oil concentration, it has been estimated that the price of crude needs to be above $120 / barrel for the shale oil business to be profitable.

The chart shows actual prices (US $/bbl) for West Texas Intermediate. For the last few years the price of oil has mostly been in the $50-60 range — well below what is needed for the shale oil business to make a profit.

Oil Price (West Texas Intermediate)
Oil Price (West Texas Intermediate)

Consumption Continues

In the meantime, our consumption of crude oil and other fossil fuels is climbing quickly. In the recent article Fossil fuel burning leaps to a new record, crushing clean energy and climate efforts published in July in Canada’s National Observer, the author, Barry Saxifrage, cuts through much of the supposed good news to do with fossil fuel usage. He shows that since the year 1990 the rate at which fossil fuels are burned world wide has gone from 7.1 to 11.7 billion tons of oil equivalent (BTOE).  That’s a steady increase of 2.2% per year. Here is the chart.

Fossil fuel consumption since 1990

And here is another chart from the same article showing just how much oil we have used in recent years. Roughly half of the oil ever used by humanity has been used since the year 1980.

cumulative global fossil use since 1750

Climate change and over-consumption are not problems that we can blame on generations past — we are doing it to ourselves in the here and now. We are making the situation worse.  We are not slowing down.

The picture below, which was prepared for the Peak Prosperity site, illustrates our reckless greed. It shows the large amounts of gas being flared from the Bakken Shale fields. This gas is produced along with the oil. There is no system in place for compressing the gas and moving it to potential markets. So, this one-time resource is simply flared. We are in such a hurry to grab the oil that we cannot wait until we have found some way of using or saving the natural gas. Once it is gone, it is gone.

Shale gas flaring — North Dakota

Shale Oil Realities

Going back to the early work of M. King Hubbert, he made it clear that we need to focus on the exploration side of the oil business. It is essential that new reserves be found at a sufficient rate to replace what is being used. He himself did not use the term ‘Peak Oil’, but he developed the concept. Peak Oil does not mean that we run out of oil — it means that we run out of affordable oil. In other words, there comes a point at which it does not make economic sense for companies to continue exploration because the new discoveries cannot be extracted profitably.

In his post The wheels come off shale oil Kurt Cobb states that investors have had enough. He says,

. . . investors at some point would realize that shale oil was a long-term money loser. A former industry CEO did the math and calculated the damage as minus 80 percent for investors in the industry as a whole since 2008. Lately, investors seem to be reacting to facts rather than the hype.

Renewables

The first chart from the National Observer article shows that renewables and nuclear power have also been growing over the same time period. This leads to the good news conclusion that, “Alternative fuels are replacing fossil fuels”. Such a statement ignores two facts. First, our consumption of fossil fuels continues to climb. Second, alternative fuels still constitute only a small fraction of the overall energy picture.

Not only have alternative fuels failed to replace fossil fuels, it could be that the effect is additive — renewables have not replaced oil, they have simply added to the total energy consumption picture.

Also, since the rate at which we are using oil and other fossil fuels continues to increase the impact on the climate becomes ever more severe. Our overall emissions of greenhouse gases continues to rise. The atmosphere does not care about percentages — global warming increases with the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Hence, in spite of all the conferences, articles, meetings and protests that have taken place since 1990 the harsh truth is that we have done nothing to cut back on our use of fossil fuels. In the words of the proverbs. “Fine words butter no parsnips” and “Talk doesn’t cook the rice”.

Conclusions

The situation can be summarized as follows,

  • The production of conventional oil is steadily declining, just as Hubbert said it would, all those years ago. The oil companies are having ever increasing difficulties in finding new reserves.
  • Yet we are consuming oil at ever increasing rates.
  • The production of shale oil is likely to go down. It is a money loser and it appears as if investors have had enough.
  • Alternative energy sources are growing, but they are only a small fraction of the overall energy picture — they are not replacing fossil fuels.
  • “If something cannot go on forever it will stop”. Like it or not, the growth in fossil fuel consumption will come to an end.

All of which suggests that the concept of Peak Oil may be ready to stage a comeback.


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