UH-OH

7 05 2010

Back in the early eighties, as we were first becoming aware that an ecological meltdown was at least as likely as a nuclear showdown, a friend of mine used to say,”I think there could come a time when we look back and realize that we have just driven one of the other species necessary for our survival into extinction.”  We didn’t use the phrase “tipping point” back in those days, but that’s 21st century shorthand for what he was talking about.

Last month’s oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico has the potential to be a lethal tipping point, but even if we dodge this bullet, the message from the mess in the Gulf is that we cannot blithely proceed in the same profligate manner to which we have become accustomed over the last hundred years or so.  There are limits to growth, and we have exceeded them, and we are now going to pay the price.

So, what is our quest for deep oil in the Gulf of Mexico gonna cost us?

OK, worst first:  containment efforts fail, and the whole oil pocket blows out into the Gulf.  Nature tells us, “You want oil?  Here’s some oil!”  Millions of gallons wash ashore along the Gulf coast, devastating coastal marshes–not just the plants, but all the birds, mammals, and fish that live in them.  Denuded of vegetation, the bare sand erodes away, pushed by a category 5 hurricane that comes roaring into the Gulf and makes Katrina look like a spring shower.  We lose a big chunk of Louisiana, including New Orleans, most of the migratory bird population of the central US, and the entire Gulf Coast fishery.  Meanwhile, the oil gets sucked around Florida and into the Gulf Stream, blackening beaches in western Florida, the Keys, and Cuba as it travels.  Storms push it ashore all along the Atlantic coast, polluting Florida’s east coast, decimating the ecosystems of the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, the   North Carolina barrier islands…you get the picture.  Gulf coast oil ends up on the shores of Ireland, leaving a floating charnel ground of dead sea life behind in its wake, from whales to the phytoplankton that are a major source of the oxygen we breathe.

That’s the worst case scenario.  The best case scenario is that the leak is plugged in the next week or so.  The oil that has already leaked will still take the same trajectory I outlined above, but the damage will not be quite so great.

And what is the lesson here, whether we’ve just taken enough poison to kill ourselves, or only enough to make us good and sick?

The lesson is that we have passed the point of peak oil supply and it is time to power down.  Exerting military force will not increase our oil supply, just burn more of it faster.

Current emphasis on offshore drilling sends the message loud and clear:  the easy oil is all gone.

There is a ratio called “Energy Returned On Energy Invested.”  Saudi Arabian oil, for example, has a ratio of nearly 100:1; that is, you get one hundred units of energy back for every  one you invest.  Projects like corn ethanol and Canadian tar sands, on the other hand, have a nearly even EROEI ratio, because it takes so much energy to transform them into something usable.

Nuclear power advocates used to boast (and still attempt to boast) about the high EROEI ratio of nuclear power, until Three Mile Island and Chernobyl suddenly added a lot of cleanup cost to the “investment” side of the ratio.  Of course, they never included the cost of keeping radioactive waste safe for hundreds of thousands of years, which has always made nuclear power a play now, pay and pay and  pay  and pay some more later proposition at best.

Similarly, we have just been given notice that many of the remaining oil pockets on the planet are difficult and dangerous enough to extract that it may simply not be worth our time and investment to go after them.  To drill into them anyway, without regard to the danger, is like an alcoholic drinking rubbing alcohol because it’s the only alcohol he can find. Damn the consequences, gimme my fix NOW.

In the face of this clear and present danger, the Obama administration has decided to suspend granting new offshore drilling permits for three weeks.  Three weeks.  “Hey, I didn’t grab for the bottle for five minutes..see, I got self-control!  I’m not an alcoholic!”

Can you say “denial, ” boys and girls?  How about “suicidal society”?

All this so we can drive our cars,heat and cool our homes, bring tasty foods from afar, and…maintain our empire.

All this  so I can sit here at my plastic computer keyboard and burn electricity communicating with you out there about how dangerous it is to use the amount of energy I am using to tell you  how dangerous it is to use the amount of energy I use, in spite of my best efforts to limit the degree to which I personally am poisoning the planet.

It’s a dilemma. I’m living about as simply as I can imagine, but when I take a “measure your carbon footprint” test, it tells me I’m still using about twice my fair share of the resources. When I examine why that is the case, I find I am bumping up against societal constraints rather than personal lifestyle choices.  Other than grow more of what I eat, there really isn’t much more I can do to further reduce my “footprint.”

I have to wonder about all the petroleum it takes to maintain the empire.  Aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, attack helicopters, tanks that use gallons of fuel per mile of travel, all that military hardware. Stretch limos and mansions and corporate headquarters. Why should I make my life any more Spartan as long as the government of my country is burning fuel like there’s no tomorrow?

Hmm….maybe they know something.

Or maybe they’re just running on ignorance and bad habits.

I feel like saying, “As long as the American Empire is using so much more than its fair share of the resources, why should a relative ascetic like me stint any more than I naturally can?”  Really, I’m not resting on my laurels  I am working towards having a lighter footprint, and sooner or later I will, but let’s face it–we can walk, bike, grow our own food, minimize our electrical use all we want, and that will not influence the energy hogs, military and otherwise, in our midst.  In fact it will please them, because we will just leave more for them to consume–and consume, they will.

On the other hand, my “I won’t cut back ’cause they won’t” stance starts to sound like a personal echo of the undeveloped world’s response to global warming:  “Why should we who are poor deprive ourselves when it is you who are rich who have created the problem?”  Well, maybe they do have a point there….

It’s not a question for which I have an answer.  Meanwhile, oil is still leaking into the Gulf, mountains are being removed in Appalachia, coal is burning all over the planet, and that volcano in Iceland has just gone off some more.  Volcanoes are out of our control, but the rest of it, at least theoretically, isn’t.  We’re in the garage with the door closed and the engine running.  Can we get it together to turn off the ignition?

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Runaway Train

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