We’re running out of water and oil . . . (yawn).

October 28, 2007 | By | 11 Replies More

Today, the following Associated Press article was run on page-19 of my local newspaper (the St. Louis Post-Dispatch):

An epic drought in Georgia threatens the water supply for millions. Florida doesn’t have nearly enough water for its expected population boom. The Great Lakes are shrinking. Upstate New York’s reservoirs have dropped to record lows. And in the West, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is melting faster each year.

Across America, the picture is critically clear — the nation’s freshwater supplies can no longer quench its thirst.

The government projects that at least 36 states will face water shortages within five years because of a combination of rising temperature, drought, population growth, urban sprawl, waste and excess.

“Is it a crisis? If we don’t do some decent water planning, it could be,” said Jack Hoffbuhr, executive director of the American Water Works Association, based in Denver.

Water managers will need to take bold steps to keep taps flowing, including conservation, recycling, desalination and stricter controls on development.

The price tag for ensuring a reliable water supply could be staggering. Experts estimate that just upgrading pipes to handle new supplies could cost the nation $300 billion over 30 years.

“Unfortunately, there’s just not going to be any more cheap water,” said Randy Brown, utilities director for Pompano Beach, Fla.

Truly, this is a major story; our country is running out of a critically important resource.  Combine that lack-of-water news, though with the equally unreported news that the world is running out of another critically important resource: oil. How bad is it?  I’ve previously reported on the issue of peak oil before (and see here).

Recently, I’ve read a book that, even if it is only partially accurate, should be front page news in every newspaper in America, day after day.  

The book is The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, by James Howard Kunstler (2005).   Kunstler writes that

America is still sleepwalking into the future.  We walked out of our burning house and we are now headed off the edge of a cliff.  Beyond that cliff is an abyss of economic and political disorder on a scale that no one has ever seen before.  I call this coming time The Long Emergency.

Kunstler writes that the main problem is the end of cheap oil and natural gas.  These resources

underlie everything we identify as a benefit of modern life.  All the necessities, comforts, luxuries and miracles of our time-central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lighting, cheap clothing, recorded music, movies, supermarkets, power tools, hip replacement surgery, the national defense, you name it-we owe their origins or continued existence in one way or another to cheap fossil fuel.

Kunstler argues that the steady technological progress we’ve experienced thanks to cheap oil has tricked us “into a kind of Jiminy Cricket syndrome, leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough can come true.”

What are Kunstler’s facts?  Here are some of them (starting on page 66):

The total planetary endowment of conventional nonrenewable liquid oil was roughly 2 trillion barrels before humans started using it.  Since the mid-19th century, the world has burned through roughly one trillion barrels of oil, half the total there ever was, representing the easiest to get, highest-quality liquids.  The half that remains includes the hardest oil to get, lowest quality liquids, semi-solids, and solids.

Worldwide discovery of oil peaked in 1964 and has followed a firm trend line downward ever since.

The rate of oil used has accelerated tremendously since 1950.  The explosive rate of world population growth has run parallel to our rates of oil use (in fact, oil has enabled the population explosion).

The world is now using 27 billion barrels of oil a year.  If every last drop of the remaining one trillion barrels could be extracted at current cost ratios and current rates of production-which is extremely unlikely-the entire endowment would last only another 37 years.

In reality, a substantial fraction of the remaining half of the world’s total oil endowment will never be recovered.

After peak, depletion will proceed at 2 to 6 percent a year, while world population is apt to continue increasing (for a while).

The ratio of energy expended in getting the oil out of the ground to the energy produced by that oil in the US oil industry has fallen from 28:1 in 1916 to 2:1 in 2004 and will continue falling.

Even though it is clearly written, Kunstler’s book is difficult to read, even for those of us who have seen the facts he has cited presented by other credible sources over the years.  His work is depressing and gut-wrenching.  One of the main reasons his work concerns me is that I agree with his premise that American society is thoroughly deluded and oblivious about the danger of peak oil and is working hard to remain deluded.  We refuse to let facts get in our way, conservatives and liberals alike:

These days, even people in our culture who ought to know better are wishing ardently that a smooth, seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements-hydrogen, solar power, whatever-lies just a few years ahead.  I will try to demonstrate that this is a dangerous fantasy.  The true best case scenario may be that some of these technologies will take decades to develop–meaning that we can expect an extremely turbulent interval between the end of cheap oil and whatever comes next.  A more likely scenario is that new fuels and technologies may never replace fossil fuels at the scale, rate, and manner in which the world currently consumes them.

What is generally not comprehended about this predicament is that the developed world will begin to suffer long before the oil and gas actually run out.  The American way of life–which is now virtually synonymous with suburbia-can run only on reliable supplies of dependably cheap oil and gas.  Even mild-to-moderate deviations in either price or supply will crush our economy and make the logistics of daily life impossible. . . . the extent of suffering in our country will certainly depend on how tenaciously we attempt to cling to obsolete habits, customs and assumptions-for instance, how fiercely Americans decide to fight to maintain suburban lifestyles that simply cannot be rationalized any longer.  The public discussion of this issue has been amazingly lame in the face of America’s post-9/11 exposure to the new global realities.

The salient fact about life in the decades ahead is that it will become increasingly and intensely local and smaller in scale.  It will do so steadily and by degrees as the amount of available cheap energy decreases as the global contest for it becomes more intense. . . . the US economy of the decades to come will center on farming, not high-tech, or “information,” or “services,” or space travel, or tourism or finance.  All other activities will be secondary to food production, which will require much more human labor.

I sometimes talk with people about the depletion of oil and water and most of them simply don’t care.  When I first speak of the undeniable facts, most people look terrified for a moment, but they then they lock down their minds.  They simply can’t deal with the situation.  Many of them argue that someone, somewhere, will come to the rescue.  They personify the “free market” (and see here) as a godlike savior that will intervene in such a way that we need not worry.  They try hard to convince themselves that some other energy source will come to the fore, magically, and save the day.  Perhaps they are watching way too much TV, such that they think that the lack water and oil are just fictitious stories that will resolve next week.  Perhaps they lock down their minds because they can’t bear the toxic thoughts that they will need to consider to make substantial changes to their lifestyle over the next 10 and 20 years.  They can’t bear to think that these changes in American lifestyle will lower their standard of living and imperil national security.  The average American spends many multiples more time considering sports scores and television show than considering the national energy crisis.

Some people might argue that coal is the answer, but Kunstler disputes this, pointing out that coal poisons groundwater at a prodigious rate.  To get to coal, we are destroying the mountains of Appalacia (want to see how bad it is getting?). Coal has also been implicated in mercury pollution, acid rain and increased rates of asthma.  Kunstler also takes on nuclear power and renewable energies as replacements for cheap oil.  Kunstler doesn’t argue that these other energy sources can’t be part of the replacement formula for oil.  The problem is that these sources aren’t capable of substituting for cheap oil.  How much cheap oil do we need to replace?  We use 5,000 gallons of gasoline per second in the United States.  Knowledgable reality-based people are stumped when it comes to replacing this vast amount of cheap energy with alternative sources.  Further, knowledgable people admit that today’s oil (upwards of $3 per gallon of gas) is still cheap.  We’re headed into dangerous uncharted territory. 

What’s truly startling is that our national leadership is almost totally silent about exploring the need to make immediate major changes to national energy policy.  Where is any national dialogue acknowledging that we are at the end of a 27-year process of blowing our window of opportunity to begin a less-tumultuous transition to the energy strategy that is next to come.  We haven’t looked soberly at the energy issue since Ronald Reagan tore Jimmy Carter’s solar panels off the White House in 1980. I have a theory of why we don’t address energy shortages by conserving energy:  it’s not macho.  It’s opponents paint conservation as feminine and weak.  Yet, as is becoming clear, producing more energy is not a viable stratagy anymore (and see here).

Even the people who do acknowledge these issues and do claim to care about them argue, for the most part, that a few cosmetic changes in their way of life will fix things.   It’s time for all of us to wake up from these creepy fantasies.  Carpooling a couple days per week and bringing your own cloth shopping bag to the grocery store aren’t going to make a dent in what is about to come.  These, and many other “green” strategies, are feel-good maneuvers that serve only to salve the collective guilt many of us feel (but of which we dare not speak for fear of being ostracized). 

At least for the time being, we find it more comfortable to not speak of that huge elephant in the room.  Currently, most people find it more important that we not offend or scare our fellow citizens than to actually strategically plan for our long-term future.  May we somehow be forgiven for the kind of world we are leaving for our children and our children’s children . . .


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Economy, Energy, global warming, Health, Politics, Science, The Middle East, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Population: Quiver or Quake | Dangerous Intersection | March 17, 2009
  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Actually, I don't think it is so much machismo as it is denial.

    We have to face it. energy is mankind's limiting factor. Wars are now being fought for control of the oil, while no reasonable substitute is being considered.

    The centralized, specialzed, "Factory" mythology in American culture has resulted in our cities designed on cheap transportation as its foundation. The zoning ordinances in most cities prevent close proximity of the residences to the place of employment. While much white collar work can be done by telecommuting, this is not an option for the blue collar labor force.

    This may seem odd, but many of the oil-producing nations have made efforts to wean themselves from oil as their only energy source. The Saudis have experimented with solar-thermal power generators for over 20 years. Egypt, Kuwait, Abu dhabi and orhers are preparing to build full scale solar power plants.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    It is downhill all the way for oil, according to a study by the Energy Watch Group (EWG) in Berlin, Germany. It reported this week that world oil production peaked in 2006 – far earlier than expected.

    EWG analysed oil production figures and predicted it would fall by 7 per cent a year, dropping to half of current levels by 2030. The announcement comes as oil prices reached record highs last week, at more than $90 a barrel, and contradicts optimistic projections by the International Energy Agency in Paris, France.

    The report also predicts significant falls in gas, coal and uranium production. The group warns that supply shortages could cause "a meltdown in society", leading to scenes of mass unrest, such as those that took place in Burma earlier this month when the government pushed up fuel prices.

    For full article, go here.

  3. brian morgan says:

    the only possible major increase in energy supply is the introduction of nuclear generation of base-load electricity into asia & elsewhere.in time this could make a difference.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Urinals without water. Fountains without water. A waterfall without water.

    Dry is the goal as United Parcel Service Inc., Coca-Cola Co. and other companies in the Atlanta area rally to cut water use in response to the region's most extreme drought since at least the 1920s. Metropolitan Atlanta, which has added more new residents than any other U.S. city since 2000, may face limits on growth if the shortage persists, business officials said.

    For the full article from Bloomberg's, go here.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's another thing to consider on oil and water shortages. These are the most important ingredients for making food. Water is important for all live, of course. What about cheap oil? It is used in the manufacture of fertilizer, in running the machines at farms and ranches and in transporting food to places far away. The average food item travels more than 1,000 miles from the place were produced to the average American mouth. http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1749

    Here's another thing to consider. In Germs, Guns and Steel, Jarred Diamond convincingly argues that "advanced" civilizations could evolve because they figured out more efficient ways of growing food. Cheap food translates into an excess of human energy and creativity that can transform civilization in numerous ways (hospitals, libraries, science and technology). http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1459 What we're going through now is a reverse of what allowed this evolution of our civilization. Cheap oil & water = wonderful cultural possibilities. Lack of cheap oil & water = societal decay.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Georgia was enduring its worst drought in a century, and it had already asked President Bush and the Supreme Court for relief. So on Nov. 13, Republican Governor Sonny Perdue appealed to a higher power, hosting a statehouse vigil to "pray up a storm," begging God to bring the rain he had withheld for 14 months.

    But it wasn't God who allowed an outdoor theme park to build a million-gallon mountain of artificial snow while the Southeast was running dry; it was Governor Perdue and his fellow elected officials. They also allowed the wasteful irrigation of Georgia's cotton farms and the rampant overbuilding and overslurping of metropolitan Atlanta.


  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Every day for the last month or more I've waited, as each piece on Atlanta ends at more or less the same point — with the dire possibility that the city's water will soon be gone — as though hitting a brick wall.

    Not that there hasn't been some fine reportage — on the extremity of the situation, the overbuilding and overpopulating of the metropolitan region, the utter heedlessness that went with it, and the resource wars that have since engulfed it. Still, I've Googled around, read scores of pieces on the subject, and they all — even the one whose first paragraph asked, "What if Atlanta's faucets really do go dry?" — seem to end just where my question begins. It's as if, in each piece, the reporter had reached the edge of some precipice down which no one cares to look, lest we all go over.

    Based on the record of the last seven years, we can take it for granted that the Bush administration hasn't the slightest desire to glance down; that no one in FEMA who matters has given the situation the thought it deserves; and that, on this subject, as on so many others, top administration officials are just hoping to make it to January 2009 without too many more scar marks. But, if not the federal government, shouldn't somebody be asking? Shouldn't somebody check out what's actually down there?

    So let me ask it this way: And then?

    For more, see the entire article in Salon.com. 

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's todays statements from James Burkhard, managing director of the Global Oil Group at CERA, a private company that advises governments and corporations on energy trends (interviewed by Newsweek).

    Q: Where do you stand on the question of peak oil: that we're on a slope of dwindling resources?

    A: We believe there is plenty of below-ground resources to satisfy demand …

    Q: For how long?

    A: We have an outlook that goes to 2030, so we don't see a peak in the supply. But what's really important is, will investment be allowed to go to areas that can move supply? If investment is not allowed to go there, we could have very tight oil supply … Venezuela has significantly altered its investment climate, so investments there are not as attractive as they used to be. Mexico does not allow foreign investment [in the oil sector].

    Therefore, a leading expert has no information he's willing to share that pertains to any time frame longer than 22 years from now. This interview should not instill public confidence in the oil industry's ability to keep providing oil long term.

    He coyly refuses to answer the question in the title: How high can the price of a barrel of crude go? The availability of oil is critical to national security and we're not getting straight answers from the oil industry.


  9. Erich Vieth says:

    This is from Salon.com's article, "Our "black Monday" for oil

    The record high price of crude that was hit this month reflects the new reality of global energy consumption — and may presage dark times for America.":

    The bottom line: Oil prices are high today, not due to a temporary disruption in the global flow of petroleum as in 1980, but for systemic reasons that are, if anything, becoming more pronounced. This means news headlines with the phrase "record oil price" are likely to be commonplace for a long time to come. The only good news may lie in just how bad the news really is. Sooner or later, ever rising energy costs are likely to push the United States and other oil-consuming nations into deep recession, thus depressing demand and possibly beginning to bring energy prices down. But this is hardly a recipe for lower prices that anyone would voluntarily choose.

    What, then, will be the lasting consequences of higher energy costs? For the ordinary American consumer the answer is simple, if grim: A diminished quality of life, as discretionary expenses disappear in the face of higher costs for transportation, home heating, and electricity, not to speak of basics like food (for which, from fertilizers to packaging, oil is a necessity). For the poor and elderly, the implications are dire: In some cases, it will undoubtedly mean choosing among heat in winter, adequate nutrition and medicine.


  10. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Ambrose Evans-Pritchard says food will never again be as cheap as it is right now. Part of the reason is the worldwide difficulty in accessing sufficient water supplies. Ethanol subsidies are another part of the problem.

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