“The greatest preventable holocaust in the history of planet Earth”

February 24, 2010 | By | 6 Replies More

“The greatest preventable holocaust in the history of planet Earth”

That’s the judgment on what awaits us from Michael Ruppert, in a new documentary entitled “Collapse“. Perhaps a series of graphs are in order:

World oil production: past and projected

World Population: past and projected. -via Wikipedia

Note how the world population begins to steeply rise at the same time world oil production begins to steeply rise.  Of course, correlation does not imply causation, but certainly the availability of such a potent energy source enabled the growth of modern industrial civilization.  If you prefer to see the population overlaid with oil production, see this superb article at the Oil Drum. The energy contained in one gallon of gasoline is roughly equivalent to 500 hours of human work output.  The energy contained in one barrel of oil is roughly equivalent to 23,200 hours of human work output. (source) More starkly:

Energy usage- expanded timeline

The age of fossil fuels has been a blip in the scale of human history.  We’ve only been using them a  few centuries, and yet we are unable to remember a time when fossil fuels were not abundant and cheap.  That age is now over.  Recent experience has taught us that the end of this age was heralded by massive price spikes and has already caused the greatest economic dislocation since the Great Depression, or possibly even including it.  Given that the growth of human population has so neatly coincided with the growth in the production of fossil fuels, human population now faces a analogous decline on the far side of the bell curve.

It’s a fairly simple ecological concept: carrying capacity.  A population of anything (bacteria, reindeer, humans) in nature will expand, until some factor or factors limit that expansion.  Overshoot occurs when the population expands beyond the carrying capacity–but limits have a way of eventually reasserting themselves, and the population is reduced to a more sustainable level.  Fossil fuels have allowed humanity to expand its population dramatically in the last century or so, but such growth cannot be infinite.

The signs of the end of the age are everywhere, for those who are looking.  Mike Ruppert is one of those who have been looking.  A longtime publisher of a newsletter titled “From the Wilderness“, Ruppert has also authored several books on the subject of peak oil.  Now, he’s the subject of “Collapse“, a documentary by director Chris Smith.   Here’s the trailer:

Frankly, this movie is horrifying, and everyone should see it.  Roger Ebert gave it a four-star review, saying

“I don’t know when I’ve seen a thriller more frightening. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen. “Collapse” is even entertaining, in a macabre sense. I think you owe it to yourself to see it.”

The movie consists of Ruppert, seated in a bunker-style room and chain smoking, while responding to questions from the director.  Ruppert expounds his vision of a catastrophic collapse, projecting a chilling sense of certainty.

As can be seen in the trailer, he grimly jokes that if a bear attacks a group of campers, in order to survive one does not have to run faster than the bear, only faster than the slowest camper.  This metaphor for our situation is apt, and he complains that people often accuse him of advocating social Darwinism.  His response?  This is not “social” Darwinism, this is actual Darwinism– literally the “survival of the fittest”.  He believes that the collapse of modern industrial civilization will lead to a massive die-off, the likes of which is unimaginable.

It would be easier to accuse Ruppert of being some doomsday crackpot if he didn’t have the annoying habit of being right in some of his other predictions.  One review of Collapse put his qualifications this way:

Ruppert predicted the global financial crisis long before Wall Street crumbled. He foresaw the mortgage crisis in the United States and knew ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that’s just what it wanted to do because the only issue was getting a hammer lock on oil stocks.

Watching this issue develop over the past few years, it’s becoming obvious that Peak Oil has gone mainstream.  Think about some of the headlines, just from this month:

Is it becoming clear?  As a society, we are already choosing to prioritize fuel over food.   This, at a time when hunger in America is at record levels.  At one point, the director asks Ruppert if there are good reasons to believe Peak Oil is not here, and that everything will be OK.  Ruppert responds that he no longer debates peak oil– he’s already been proven right and there is abundant evidence all around us.

Sample of crude oil- via Wikipedia

Sample of crude oil- via Wikipedia

It’s worth reminding everyone: peak oil is emphatically not about running out of oil.  There is still oil and there will be, for the foreseeable future.  But will it comfort you to know that there are still billions of barrels of oil if you cannot afford it?  If gas prices at the pump are $6… $10….$40 per gallon, will you still be driving to work?  Will you be able to afford the food which is trucked to the grocery store from 1,500 miles away at those prices?   There will indeed be plenty of oil remaining, but expect prices that crush the economy.  Forget the economics, think about food production:

The systems that produce the world’s food supply are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Vast amounts of oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides, and as cheap and readily available energy at all stages of food production: from planting, irrigation, feeding and harvesting, through to processing, distribution and packaging. In addition, fossil fuels are essential in the construction and the repair of equipment and infrastructure needed to facilitate this industry, including farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads. The industrial food supply system is one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels and one of the greatest producers of greenhouse gases.

The first oil price spike was a doozy, the global economy is staggering as a result of oil that briefly touched $147 per barrel.  There’s no dispute that there are debilitating price spikes on the way, and yet we seem completely unconcerned.  The situation we find ourselves in is reminiscent of early 2008 before the economic crisis began in earnest, as suggested by Richard Branson in the links above.  A few voices “from the wilderness” are warning about an impending disaster, but nobody in a position to do anything to mitigate the fallout is doing so.  The economic crisis has been described as a “black swan event“– an event which is high-impact, hard to predict, rare, and difficult to plan for.  Peak oil is not such a black swan event– but only because it is predictable. In fact, a task force that Branson was instrumental in forming, the Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil & Energy Security, recently issued a report which provides some stark advice (emphasis mine):

The peaking of oil supplies, or “Peak Oil”, is by its very nature a “Grey Swan” event. That is to say that although it is a predictable event – because very few people doubt  that oil is finite – on the basis of historic experience it is seen by many as an unlikely event. This goes some way to explain the widespread resistance to the idea despite the fact that there is now considerable evidence that it is imminent

… as we move into the next decade the companies will predominantly be developing the discoveries made around seven to ten years earlier as the storehouse of existing discoveries will be largely depleted. These discoveries of around nine billion barrels/year are already known. Even if fully developed they will not even offset  current depletion rates let alone supply a demand increase. Declining production is inevitable in the next decade

The conclusion of the analysis is that there will be no net increases in oil flows after 2011 even if all planned projects come onstream more or less on time and achieve the anticipated production flows. That everything should go to plan is, on the basis of recent experience, a distinctly optimistic assumption but it does define an outer boundary, the best possible outcome that could theoretically be achieved. The immediate conclusion from the analysis is that the peaking of oil supplies is imminent and will occur in the window 2011-2013.

In planning terms 2011-2013 is effectively tomorrow. This means the crisis is already upon us and companies and individuals need to be planning their response now.

Indeed, the 2005 Hirsch Report created at the request of the US Department of Energy concluded that mitigation of the impact of peak oil will take some 20 years.  Listen to Hirsch’s concluding remarks (pp.64-65):

The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.

The obvious conclusion from this analysis is that with adequate, timely mitigation, the economic costs to the world can be minimized. If mitigation were to be too little, too late, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), which would translate to significant economic hardship.

There will be no quick fixes. Even crash programs will require more than a decade to yield substantial relief.

How will governments react to peak oil?  To understand that, one need only ask how have they reacted to the economic crisis?  Our dear leaders insisted that nobody could have seen that sort of economic destruction coming, ignoring those who did precisely that.  They will attempt to continue business as usual, for as long as possible.  They will ensure that the politically well-connected are as well taken care of as they can be, while the rest of us are jobless, starving and confused about how we got there.  Remember, the bailout was originally sold as a way to fix the housing meltdown.  Instead, the bait and switch quickly became a way to shovel funds into some of the world’s largest financial institutions, while the housing crash has continued unabated.  A record number of Americans are facing foreclosure, unemployment remains extremely high, millions of Americans are hungry.  To date, nothing has been done (or even proposed) that’s an adequate solution to these crises, yet the bailout package was proposed and passed in record time and total financial rescue packages are estimated at some $24 trillion (Trillion, with a capital “T”) dollars.  Record bonuses have continued to flow to Wall Street bankers, leading to levels of income inequality similar to that of the 1920’s, when robber barons triumphed.  The richest of the rich are making more money and paying less taxes than at anytime in the last several decades.  How can anyone have faith in the government looking at statistics like these?  If you’ve enjoyed what’s been happening economically and politically the last year and a half, you’ll love peak oil.

If there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s that the people seem to be increasingly aware of the acute dysfunction of our government: 80% of Americans say Congress is more interested in serving the needs of special interests than the needs of their constituents; only 21% says the government still has the consent of the governed.  The last survey is even more of a contrast if the respondents are separated by income levels:

Seventy-one percent (71%) of all voters now view the federal government as a special interest group, and 70% believe that the government and big business typically work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors….

…Those who earn more than $100,000 a year are more narrowly divided on the question, but those with lower incomes overwhelming reject the notion that today’s government has the consent from which to derive its just authority. Those with the lowest incomes are the most skeptical.

That only 21% of the public says the government still has the consent of the governed should be an extremely sobering thought.  Consider that at the time of the American Revolution, roughly a similar percentage were Loyalists, or American colonists who remained loyal to Great Britain. (h/t Karl Denninger)  It appears that average Americans are coming to the same conclusion Ruppert has: it’s useless asking the government for solutions at this point. Crushing deficits are making it impossible to spend anything on all but the most pressing issues.  Military spending apparently counts as a pressing issue, while fixing our crumbling infrastructure does not.

Collapse was an extremely powerful, intensely passionate movie.  At times during the movie, Ruppert is unable to continue as he is overwhelmed with emotion.  If Ruppert’s right, and he appears to be, this will be the most important movie you ever see.  Coming to terms with the scale of the challenge facing us is a daunting task.  Ruppert’s advice?  The bear is in the camp, you must learn to run faster than the other campers.

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is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: You've assembled some staggering numbers in the links of your post.

    I wish I could disagree with you. I truly wish I could. As a country we so desperately need to courage to acknowledge the dangers, but we prefer to A) whistle in the dark and B) demonize outsiders.

    Why do I keep thinking about Sarah Palin? No, it's not her physical good looks! It's because she bald-faced lied that America could solve it's energy problem by drilling for oil in Alaska. This is totally untrue.

    There are "only" 10 billion barrels of oil in Alaska. If the U.S. tried to run off of only Alaskan oil, Alaskan oil would completely run out in about a year, more or less. The U.S. burns 21 Million barrels of oil per day. http://science.howstuffworks.com/us-gas-addiction… The math is simple, but people don't want to know the truth.

    We'd be doubly better off making sure that we inflated our tires than relying on Alaskan oil. I wrote about this long before Obama was attacked for asserting this FACT. http://dangerousintersection.org/2006/05/08/pump-… And there are many other ways to save energy for a country that burns 5,000 gallons of gasoline PER SECOND. This is NOT a misprint. http://dangerousintersection.org/2006/04/12/oil-t

    We'd really be better off following China's lead (as you suggest), and drastically figuring out how to live with less fossil fuel. But in America it has not been cool to suggest that we should live with less of anything. Maybe that's changing somewhat, but most of what I hear is lip-service. Most people I talk with think that doing their share is using CFL lightbulbs and recycling their trash.

    My point though, the reason I keep thinking about Sarah Palin is that when she claimed that the U.S. energy crisis could be solved by drilling for oil in Alaska, why didn't the executives of the biggest oil companies step up and ridicule her? Why didn't any other politician with a brain call her out on these false hopes?

    Until we somehow find the courage to acknowledge dangerous truths and shoot down dangerous lies, we're going to spent our remaining days brainstorming to come up with fantasy reasons for our misery.

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Erich-

    Yes, our refusal to accept that there are limits of any kind on our behavior or consumption is no doubt driving a part of this. Remember when Dick Cheney asserted that "The American way of life is non-negotiable"?

    The only politician I'm aware of that has even addressed this issue is Roscoe Bartlett (see here and here).

    Just last night, our local news carried the story of a local analyst warning that gas prices locally are set to "rocket like fireworks" this summer.

    Also, I just found this article which ties in perfectly:

    The world’s most powerful investors have been advised to buy farmland, stock up on gold and prepare for a “dirty war” by Marc Faber, the notoriously bearish market pundit, who predicted the 1987 stock market crash.

    The bleak warning of social and financial meltdown, delivered today in Tokyo at a gathering of 700 pension and sovereign wealth fund managers.

    Dr Faber, who advised his audience to pull out of American stocks one week before the 1987 crash and was among a handful who predicted the more recent financial crisis, vies with the Nouriel Roubini, the economist, as a rival claimant for the nickname Dr Doom.

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