Bursting Our Petroleum Power Bubble

September 6, 2013

This is a story I have watched unfold since the midpoint of the 20th century. The total transformation of planet Earth has happened due to cheap energy. Has this been a good idea? Perhaps even if we could find a new, cheap energy source, it might be a bad idea. Do we need to change our goals?

At the beginning of the 21st century, the modern world of developed countries is living in a beautiful bubble. The luxury and conveniences of this bubble are prodigious and would have been unimaginable at the beginning of the 20th century.

As luck would have it, I was born outside the bubble in 1930. From a toddler in the Depression years, to a youth in the Second World War and in the post-war boom, I watched the bubble form around me. Of course, like millions of others I am enjoying the luxuries and conveniences of the bubble because I also am in the middle of it. Needless to say, even more millions of people, especially in the developing world, do not enjoy these luxuries and conveniences because they are not in the middle of it.

It is my belief that they never will be. This is because the bubble cannot grow forever. In fact, it is most likely that it will either shrink or burst. Most people alive today were either born in the bubble or wish they were. They think that it is a permanent condition. Well, no condition is permanent.

Convenience of slaves

This beautiful bubble I have watched grow in my lifetime has been due to the power of commercialized petroleum. Andrew Nikiforuk, in his book The Energy of Slaves, has used slave power as a metaphor for petroleum power. Throughout history slaves were necessary to do much of the work that permitted great empires to grow. This applied to the Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Aztecs and even the British Empire. In the 19th century, coal and steam power did much of the work that humans and animals used to do.

But that was nothing compared to the punch of petroleum power once it was harnessed in the early 20th century. Human slavery was almost totally supplanted. It is said that a Roman citizen's family had an average of six slaves as help. At present, the average North American family has the equivalent of 400 slaves powered mostly by petroleum or its energy equivalent.

The purpose of this essay is to show that although using slaves (of whatever kind) to do our work has enormous benefit and offers convenience, slavery does have its downsides and unfortunate unintended consequences.

In the early 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian and explorer, travelled all over America. This was before the Civil War, so there was still slavery in the south. He observed that the south was characterized by "grandeur, luxury, pleasure-seeking and prone to idleness." The anti-slavery north on the other hand, was "self-sufficient, enterprising and tolerant." A southern slave owner was quoted as saying, "Even if owning a slave is sinful, it certainly has its conveniences."

Sins of petroleum power

The conveniences and luxuries of our petroleum-powered world are overwhelmingly obvious. But what we need to consider as part of the package are the sins. The petroleum power problems are grievous sins indeed, and they have grown to become seemingly unmanageable issues. Here is a brief list of them. The details could fill an entire library. I have watched them come about in my lifetime.

- The planet has been turned into a man-influenced sphere, and not in a good way.

- The atmosphere has been changed due to the addition of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Hundreds of thousands of people die every year from air pollution.

- The oceans have changed and become degraded. Most large fish have gone; many species are commercially or actually extinct. Coral reefs are doomed and carbon dioxide has acidified the oceans, threatening oxygen-giving plankton.

- Life on land has also been degraded. Many birds, amphibians and mammals are gone or threatened with extinction. Untold damage has been done to lower forms of animal life. Forests are a tiny fraction of what they were when I was a boy.

- Human population has exploded. It took all of history until the time of my birth (1930) for the Earth to be inhabited by its first two billion people. Human population is now about seven billion. The first billion took half a million years. The last billion took 13 years. This has been made possible by petroleum driven conveniences and tools.

- Human occupations and ways of life have been destroyed. I have watched farms and farming communities vanish. Many jobs have disappeared due to labour-saving devices. Our jobs have been shipped overseas because of cheap petroleum-powered shipping costs. Many cultures have disappeared. In the 1950s and '60s, I visited peoples in Africa and Asia whose cultures are no more.

- If anything is sinful, I consider wiping out natural and human heritage to be sinful. Petroleum power is responsible, albeit in an unintended way.

True power is meaningful work

Humans throughout the world face a tragic dilemma. We have dug ourselves into a deep hole of underemployment and overproduction, entirely due to petroleum power. When we ask the experts how to get out of the hole they say, "Dig deeper, downsize and fire more people. Increase production." We don't need to increase production. We have plenty of manufactured stuff. In fact, in almost every category we have too much inventory. We also have overcapacity in manufacturing sitting idle due to lack of demand. And we have so-called "dead money," sitting around waiting for something meaningful in which to invest.

Underemployment is like a growing plague on society. One in three university graduates end up in low-skilled jobs. More than half of new Ontario teachers are unemployed or underemployed. On the other hand, Switzerland has only two per cent youth unemployment. They have systems in place to address the problem.

I feel almost overwhelming sadness when I view the oppressively gargantuan quantity of retail available. How many shopping malls, how many airport retail outlets, how many online retail opportunities exist? Even in villages, as well as cities in Africa and Asia, I see masses of goods and hopeful salespeople but not much buying. Is shopping the purpose in life?

We don't need more production; we need more meaningful work. But that has been taken away by machines or by being shipped overseas. I think that meaningful work, not shopping, is the purpose in life. E.F. Schumacher said, "Next to the family, it is work and the relationships established by work that are the true foundations of society. If these foundations are unsound, how can society be sound?"

In spite of the way people complain about work, I have observed that even teenagers seem happier when they are accomplishing things. Leisure often leads to mopiness. Our educational institutions pump out thousands of hopeful graduates every year, but our society for the most part cannot offer them meaningful work in their field.

Instead we offer them "McJobs" and entertainment. This reached a crescendo in the 1980s when Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. We now have a large part of the younger generation drowning in a cacophony of narcissism with social media or video games. Escapism has turned to fantasy such as vampires and the Walking Dead or depressing dystopias full of explosions or breakdown. Is this great fodder for the young minds of the future? Blaise Pascal said, "Small minds are fascinated by the extraordinary, great minds are interested in the ordinary." Are we training a generation of small minds?

The leisure to be immersed in self-indulgent entertainment applies largely to the developed world that is unable to find meaningful work. On the other hand, half of the less developed world still does meaningful work, and it is often not easy. This is the female half. Throughout history, except for the affluent population, women have done much of the work, and they still do. Since the 1950s, when I travelled in Africa and Asia, I noticed that it was the women who looked after the children, worked the land and marketed their produce. Traditionally the men did the hunting and warfare (both now mostly illegal). In some cultures they did the weaving, but that is now facilitated by machines from overseas.

Young men in the developing world have every reason to be frustrated and disappointed in future prospects. At the same time, they can see in magazines, television and now other electronic devices the luxury and conveniences of the developed world. When this frustration is combined with testosterone, ambition and resentment, it can provide fuel for crime and rioting and potentially religious extremism. A warm gun, fellowship and a promise of heaven can bring meaning when meaningful work is missing.

It is not exaggerating to blame the convenience of petroleum "slaves" for the disappearance of meaningful work in the 20th century. After all, what does "labour-saving" mean?

A good new life

The conclusion of the list of "sins" is that perhaps having so many energy slaves is not only bad for the planet and in many ways for mankind, but it may be bad for the soul. Maybe luxury, leisure and shopping should not be the great goal of mankind. Maybe actually earning our life through work is a good idea. Or at least there should be a balance. First should come the values, then should come the technology.

Is there a way forward? There may be miracles in our future, but the only way to a better world that I can see is to lessen our dependence on petroleum and other fossil fuels and so reduce our dependence on those "slaves". It is unlikely that people will voluntarily give up on conveniences, especially if they are cheap. A few good-hearted citizens making sacrifices to lower our dependence on fossil fuels will not make a real difference. However, if fossil fuels become more expensive, then market forces will reduce their use. Northern Europe has made some difference through legislation and carbon taxes.

My mother was born in 1900 into an upper middle class family in Springhill, Nova Scotia. She was born into a world with very little petroleum influence. Her family cooked on a flame, lit with a flame and travelled on foot, by horse or by sail. How long had mankind had those things as a normal part of life? Four thousand years? Since the days of the early Mesopotamians? Yet my mother, who had her daily life in common with ancient times, saw a man walk on the moon and fully benefited from our 20th century bubble of luxury and leisure.

I was, as I said, born in 1930 before the bubble. During the Second World War we had rationing in Canada. We had enough gasoline to drive to our rented cottage twice each year. We were very short of sugar, flour, butter and meat. At our cottage the running water was me pouring from a pail. We had no electricity for light, refrigeration or a stove. Television and jet travel were not even dreams of the future. Yet I would venture we were just as happy or happier in those days than folks in our modern world.

It would seem to be possible to have a good life with less petroleum and other energy slaves. In fact, the good news is that it might be inevitable. The experts in studying peak oil tell us that we have used up all of the "low hanging fruit" of cheap, high quality oil. We are now resorting to desperate extraction measures: tar sand extraction or hydraulic fracturing that is expensive, dangerous and polluting.

In his books Why Your World is Going to Get a Whole Lot Smaller and The End of Growth, Jeff Rubin predicts the end of our petroleum orgy. The former chief economist of world markets for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce's research indicates that market forces will bring about a great reduction of petroleum dependency. Legislation and good-heartedness will not drive people away from oil, but the market will. If Canadians wish to have fresh strawberries in January in the future, they can do so for perhaps $125 a box.

Higher transportation costs will change the world. Manufacturing will return to local areas and so will agriculture. Canadian shops will once again see "made in Canada" on product labels. Jobs in manufacturing and farming should return to North America. China will become dependent on its own domestic market. In fact, this is already starting to happen. Communities the world over will become more cohesive and self-reliant.

End of cheap growth

Perhaps my grandchildrens' lives at the end of the 21st century, when they are close to my present age, will be more like my grandparents' lives than they will be like mine. Of course, the end of this century should still have many of the electronic gadgets we now find amusing and useful. It is hard to predict exactly the shape of society, but a less energy-intensive world could be much more satisfying. It will certainly be better for nature.

Let us hope that in desperation to maintain growth and new energy sources that we don't have a catastrophic bursting of the bubble. I suspect that the 2008 recession is not a temporary phase. It is the beginning of the end of growth triggered of course by Wall Street.

The sooner we stop perpetrating the silly myth of infinite growth on a finite planet, the better. There is currently optimism about huge supplies of shale oil and gas below ground in the United States. Experts who look at the economics of this potential say that this will not change the picture of the imminent end of the age of oil. We will always have petroleum products and the uses will extend to the distant future. However, we will not have cheap oil to maintain this beautiful bubble. Those days will soon be over.

A profound and sobering view of this situation is in the report "Perfect Storm" by Dr. Tim Morgan of the Tullett Prebon Group, one of the world's largest financial brokers in London. He states that a key element in the end of growth is the "killer equation". This is the "Energy Return on Energy Invested" (EROEI). In 1930, at the beginning of the commercialization of petroleum, it was 100 units of energy for every one unit invested. By 1970 it was 30:1. By 2010 it was 17:1. Tar sands and shale fracking are expensive. Their EROIE is 5:1 to 3:1. This huge jump in the cost of obtaining energy has giant implications in inflation and reduction of growth. We need to join together for plans for "life after growth".

Jeremy Grantham of Global Investment Management tells mostly the same story. He says that he is a numbers guy and the numbers tell a story of the end of growth. Politicians, corporations and markets ignore numbers they don't like. They are congenital dispensers of comfort.

We are at or near "peak oil" and what comes next is "peak water". Experts say that we will be there in a few decades. According to the World Bank, wars of the 21st century will be fought over water. The amount of potable water is finite. We can live without oil for a week. Try living without water for a week.

Good enough is not good enough

In working with and observing young people, I am struck by a deep pessimism and anxiety. The attitude that "the world has been ruined and there is no use" seems to be pervasive. Many of the most popular films for teenagers and 20-somethings are about dystopias and apocalypse. This is not only tragic, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Making the world of nature a meaningful part of our lives is healing for the body and for the soul. We need to imagine new cities and a new countryside that is healthy and organic rather than industrial. Our society needs CPR; not cardiovascular resuscitation, but conservation, preservation and restoration.

Sustainable is not good enough. Would you like your marriage to be merely sustainable? Good enough is not good enough. Richard Louv says we need to look forward to a new, better world, rich in nature.

It is possible to have a "small is beautiful" planet. E. F. Schumacher, who wrote the book of that title, suggests the holy trinity of "Health, Beauty and Permanence" as the goal for humankind. It will be helpful to have a rich and fulfilling life in a smaller bubble through engagement with nature. It does promote health and appreciation of beauty and it is not expensive. In fact, progressive places like Norway have been engaged with the "Friluftsliv" (free air life) for generations. Rob Hopkins has described possible ways forward in his Transition Handbook -- from oil dependency to local resilience.

We have been burning, in a wasteful and destructive way, 50 million years worth of carbon in a scant one or two hundred years. The luxury and leisure, although very convenient, have turned out to be not worth the problems created by our over-dependence on energy slaves. Even if we did discover a new, cheap energy source, it could cause more damage to nature and to meaningful work. Serious energy conservation will unquestionably be better for nature and the planet.

It would seem as though it will also be better for humanity. Perhaps a future of "less" will indeed be "more". On any scale of history our bubble is but a flash in the pan. I have watched its luxury and its sins grow in the last 50 or 60 years. I can now see its end, which will be either gradual or catastrophic. We need new goals, and if handled with wisdom and grace, our future can be beautiful.

Robert Bateman
Written for TheTyee.ca, 13 Jul 2013.

Photograph by Jenny Downing