Thursday, August 18, 2016

No Peaking

The human world's consumption of energy and consequent production of waste heat shown on the graph here reminds me of the microbial activity observed in my compost piles by way of temperature readings. The scale would need adjusting to read in degrees Fahrenheit, but the initial climb and plateau are quite similar. The second heating phase (China joining the world economy) would be analogous to adding another huge batch of well-chopped organic matter to the pile; it brings the temperature even higher, but the effect is relatively short-lived. Once the temperature of the pile peaks at about 160 degrees, the microbial population can no longer tolerate those conditions and there is a rapid die-off causing the temperature to drop to near ambient.
Without resorting to manurial metaphor, Gail Tverberg explains how the current downturn in per capita energy consumption could well continue into a complete collapse of our current way of life. Rather than ascribing the cause to peak oil, as it is usually construed, she explains how demand destruction aggravated by enormous debt could, ultimately, be what drives our economy into ruins.
Industry hacks make lipstick out of oil and put it on the pig of energy production. Mentioning "peak oil" in conversation conjures up the idea of oil shortages, when, in fact, there is no apparent shortage presently. Though the energy quandary the world faces presently was ushered in by peak oil and peak coal, it may be better to side step the cognitive dissonance and characterize the issue as a population problem. Talking in terms of "population overshoot" or "carrying capacity" encompasses all resources, not just energy. It also brings in the even more daunting notion of the developing latest extinction of the biosphere.
Upon hearing the vision statement of a big ag oriented talk on the state of agribusiness in Maryland, I raised the question of whether the authors' views of a foreseeable future took into account peak oil. The answer was no, which led me to take many of the conclusions presented with a grain of salt. Later, in a different context, I brought up the importance of preserving biodiversity in Calvert County, which raised more discussion, but my earlier peak oil concern never got much air time. 
Raising the carrying capacity flag, rather than the peak oil flag, implicitly postulates a global context. The term is more immune to dismissal by our inured belief that substitutes can be found for everything, because it implies that limits exist. Peak oil is usually discounted by the idea that additional peaks in newly exploited resources will come along, as needed, to endlessly boost total energy production. However, pointing out that we need to withdraw our footprint from half of the earth's surface if mankind is to have a chance at a secure future brings the scope of the problem into clearer focus and sets the context to address planning in the light of population overshoot and carrying capacity. 
Jumping down from a global scale, solutions can be cast in a local frame since ecosystems function globally, continentally, regionally, locally, and microscopically . Hence, in the discussion of the future of agriculture in Maryland, a renewed program to preserve and restore wilderness in our county makes sense, though it would likely reduce land available for agriculture. This would push us to more intensive and careful stewardship of land resources, whereas peak oil, of necessity, pushes us toward smaller, more localized agricultural enterprises. Either way, we end up with a vision far different than the one proffered by big ag advocates.

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