The Coming Crisis – Washington Post Editorial

Posted: May 12th, 2008 by: h-2

Well, 30 years too late, and at least 10 years after Colin Cambell started warning the world about the coming peak oil issue, the news is finally hitting the true mainstream media. In this case, the Washington Post, the voice of the Washington DC establishment.

The issue is not simply a concern that we will have to pay outrageous prices for a gallon of gas. If that were the worst of it, the situation would be difficult but manageable. The reality, however, goes deeper and is much more troubling. There are multiple problems affecting the world that are having a decidedly negative net effect: a global rise in demand for crude oil, the plateau in the production of crude oil (which may indicate the peak has already been reached) and continued global population growth. Together, these three factors are serving to shove the world into a crisis that has ominous possibilities.

When there isn’t enough oil to satisfy global demand, the price obviously rises. Perhaps less obvious, however, is the effect this price increase has on the world’s ability to produce food. Every stage of the food production cycle is affected by petroleum and a rise in the price of a barrel of oil has compounding effects: It costs more to run the farm machinery, more to buy the fertilizer, more to take it to market and more for processing. In the United States, this results in raised eyebrows at the grocery store. In parts of the world where upwards of 75 percent of a family’s income goes to buying food, it results in social unrest and riots.
Daniel L. Davis, Editorial, May 5, 2008

That’s about as direct as you can put it. The era of not only unlimited growth, but growth at all, of any sort, is fast ending.

If you allow yourself to use actual reason to approach this problem, the consequences of such a condition become increasingly obvious.

Fertilizer Price Spikes

We are now, at this moment, hitting wall after wall of commodity and resource limits. One of the most key areas that is still not seeping down into the general population is the recent wave of fertilizer price hikes.

What’s to blame? According to Penn State ag economist Jayson Harper, high fuel prices and increasing demand are the culprits.

“I wouldn’t be expecting any kind of price relief for the farmer anytime in the near future,” Harper said.

According to The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) based in Washington, D.C., worldwide demand for nitrogen is up 14 percent, while demand for phosphorus has increased by 12 percent and demand for potassium has jumped 17 percent.

Fuel prices meanwhile have been setting nearly weekly records, with gasoline approaching $4 a gallon and diesel well over $4 a gallon.

Natural gas, of which nitrogen is derived, has still not come down from its usual price peaks in the winter, Harper said.

Worldwide demand from countries such as Brazil, China and India is increasing as farmers in those countries turn to more sophisticated ways to maximize their profits.

Phosphorus and potassium are also in high demand but is in short supply.

Along with supply and demand issues, the weakening dollar is also effecting prices. TFI estimates the U.S. imports 50 percent of its nitrogen and more than 90 of its potassium, which comes from potash and is only mined in a few countries.
No Relief in Sight for High Fertilizer Prices,

When you couple these price hikes, which are based on the cost of natural gas and a finite and probably peaking potash production globally, with petroleum price hikes, you get, as the author notes above, a chilling scenario.

The United Nations estimates that global population is growing at the rate of 78 million people a year — roughly the equivalent of adding the population of Germany to the world every year. According to Energy Information Administration data released earlier this month, global petroleum production has been on a relatively level plateau for the past 44 consecutive months.

But at the same time, the economies of China and India have continued growing, which accelerates the consumption of petroleum-related products and increases the amount and quality of food each person eats. These three facts have conspired to produce a global shortage of crude oil which has exacerbated the world’s inability to feed itself. If the world cannot produce significantly more barrels of oil per day, while at the same time the developing world’s appetite continues to increase and the global population continues its climb, there won’t be enough oil to go around or enough food for everyone to eat.

In just the past two weeks we have been given a foretaste of what that might mean as news organizations have reported rioting and social unrest in developing countries around the world as a result of food shortages; Canadian Bank analyst Jeff Rubin predicted oil prices will “soar to $225 a barrel by 2012.” Many experts expect these twin afflictions to remain for the foreseeable future.
Daniel L. Davis, Editorial, May 5, 2008

But as is almost always the case, more is not mentioned, and that more is the supplies of water, which are fast dwinding, in cases where the water supply comes from rapidly lowering ground water tables, and in others, vanishing rivers, either from overpumping, or from glaciers melting and then vanishing.

Simply put, the ideal outcome the author puts forward as a ‘solution’ is not going to happen:

The America public gets it, as an April 20 poll by found that 76 percent of Americans “believe that their government should make long term plans to replace oil as a primary source of energy.” [my emphasis] With such a high percentage of the population agreeing with such a necessity, where are our national leaders on this issue? While our presidential candidates continue to be satisfied discussing such critical issues as what someone’s pastor said, (who is bitter and who gets angry a lot), there has been not one substantive exchange regarding the most pressing issue facing our country.

Someone must step up and lead before a crisis of global proportions is thrust upon us and our only option is the implementation of draconian damage-control measures. Pray such a leader surfaces soon.
Daniel L. Davis, Editorial, May 5, 2008

Nothing Can Replace Oil or Coal

Let me explain what is wrong with the above scenario. There is nothing that can replace the finite carbon or uranium based resources we are currently consuming at record rates. The belief that we can ‘replace oil’ is a serious misunderstanding of our current situation. There will not be any ‘replacement’ of the incredibly high energy yields of these commodities.

We will not be going on towards a sunny and rosy future using some other mystical material to propel ourselves on past this inconvenient road obstacle.

There is no such thing as cost free, sustainable, growth, economic or of populations

Only half the reality is being apprehended, the other half is that we MUST, immediately, begin to conserve and reduce. This means not slow growth, it does not even mean the dreaded ‘no growth’ that we name a recession, it means negative growth.

To understand what this really means is to understand why the systems of the world are not facing this issue in any meaningful way. Capital based industrial and agricultural production are based at their very core on expansion and growth, as well as of course profit.

This growth is achieved in various ways, easiest has been population growth, which simply expands the markets being served. Second has been expanding the economies.

But both cases are not going to be possible in the future. So you are not going to see this system do the rational thing, it would be totally unheard of for any nation to actually act rationally in time to avoid the full face of the crisis.

The only organism I know of that believes it can grow endlessly is a cancer. It’s time to stop emulating a disease and start emulating sustainable biological systems.

What the Solutions Will Look Like (hint: no growth is involved)

This does not mean that we can’t implement solutions. It just means our current system has to make a choice: a few more years at an attempt to generate profit, which is a core requirement of the capital based system, or a slow adjustment to the reality that this way of living is over.

But it’s not just our 2nd and 1st world mode of industrialized production that’s in question here, you can see the problems pretty much everywhere, although the problems almost always boil down to serious fractures in the assumptions we had been operating under for the past 100 plus years.

And oil is at the very heart of these assumptions. Endless, joyfully bountiful supplies of oil, cheap, and available to all, to be precise.

Oil is the center of every major development that allowed the global population to enter into an unprecedented wave of natural resource consumption, which we foolishly named ‘economic growth’.

The delusional fantasy that we could have growth based on nothing more than the flow of ideas and information was proved a total dream when the high technology bubble burst. And that dream had never been based on anything other than massive levels of energy consumption. 1.2% of US total in 2005 (src), for example, to run the datacenters that run the internet, not to mention the massive amounts of resources required to produce the chips that drive all the hardware required to enter into the ‘information age’.

All growth is based on resource consumption, and our resources have hit the wall at pretty much exactly the time the original Club of Rome Limits to Growth said they would, assuming worst case scenario of no action being taken starting in the 1970’s. You remember, the actions president Carter began to implement, and which Reagon in his infinitely simple minded idiocy allowed to be gutted, a process continued by all presidents since.

This move away from the rational course back to some perverted and massively deluded manifest destiny of consuming as much as we want, when we want, for as long as we want, is now showing its full consequences.

The Great Taboo: Discussing Overpopulation

You can already see the results in such far flung regions as Africa or Haiti, where kerosene prices, when it’s even available, are driving entire nations to transform their forests into charcoal to cook with.

Skyrocketing kerosene prices, which are now amazingly almost at level with those of petrol and diesel, have placed the country on the verge of a domestic energy crisis, The Guardian can report today.

Both the government and oil dealers in the city`s three municipalities of Kinondoni, Ilala and Temeke, have admitted in separate interviews that the country is experiencing an acute shortage of kerosene.

In same vein, environmentalists describe the situation as too pathetic.

They fear further depletion of already degraded forests, as five million plus people in Dar es Salaam alone will definitely substitute kerosene for charcoal.

A Dar es Salaam-based environmental journalist said the increase of kerosene price would obviously have negative impact on the environment, as many people especially in big cities and towns, would opt for charcoal as alternative source of energy.
Guardian, United Republic of Tanzania, 2008-05-09

Obviously, this kind of situation cannot last more than a few years. And the causes will need to be addressed directly. The time to drop the idea that humans should reproduce endlessly without consequence is ending, in fact, I’d say it’s over now. And of course, what do we have in power now but a pandering to a misguided ‘Christianity’ that does exactly the wrong thing: cut family planning in the UN to get a few more Christian conservative votes.

And it’s not just here, everywhere is doing this, except China, which is currently the only country I am aware of pursuing a somewhat rational course re its population, although that’s about the only rational thing that country is doing, as its overburdened and rapidly expanding northern lands turn into desert dead zones, forcing more and more of its food production abroad, in the shape of imports.

The rest of the planet’s nations are going to find that their psychotic rates of population growth are not viable in any scenario. Decades of politically correct talk about how the West cannot talk about population growth are going to vanish in the winds, although the core point is of course correct: we consume in the USA between 25% (crude oil) and 40% of the world’s resources, and that most certainly is not going to continue.

But the reality is also showing very quickly: it’s irrelevant what the 2nd and 3rd world countries want to believe, tripling or quadrupling of populations in 30 year times will not work, and cannot be sustained. The Gulf oil states are good examples of such unsustainable growth (Saudi Arabia went from 6 million to 28 million since the 1970s), states I would add that have essentially NO natural food supplies beyond some very basic and limited commodities.

Venezuela went from about 10 million to 27 million since 1970.

But all of these numbers pale when you compare the growth in the same period (1970 – 2008) of first world, high consumption counties like the USA (203 million to 303 million).

Europe, to its credit, has seen relatively low population growth in this time period.

I am still waiting to hear the first rational comment from any national leader on this situation, but this editorial in the Washington Post is how it starts.

A Very Rude Awakening Is Right Around the Corner

The USA is going to find that its assumptions over the last 200 years are in for a VERY rude awakening.

To get an idea of what this process might look like, I recommend James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere, as an introduction and historical overview, and The Long Emergency, which is already proving itself to be disturbingly accurate in some respects.

A Regional Adaptation, or Failure to Adapt

What is becoming increasingly clear to me is that the planet will not react as a whole to this situation, one region will burn down its forests to make a few mounds of charcoal, other regions, say Iceland, will move to increasingly sustainable modes of living.

But, with few exceptions, all regions will have to adjust to an increasingly oil and petroleum free life. And this means the end of the so called ‘green revolution’, which basically allowed the global population to double since the 1970s based on the process of converting petroleum products to food.

That is the bottom line, and humanity is not going to be able to avoid this bottom line.

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