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Mon

23

Jul

2007

Peak Tech?
Monday, 23 July 2007 14:20
by James Kunstler

Go anywhere in America, among any class of people — from the Nascar morons to the Ivy League — and one expectation is pretty universal: that technology will only bring us more wonders and miracles, and it will certainly save-the-day where our energy problems are concerned. This would seem natural for people living in an age when a simple cassette SONY Walkman is superceded by an 80-gigabyte iPod in one generation. But what if this assumption is off? What if peak technology occurs roughly in the same wave as peak energy?

Of course, another nearly universal expectation is that we will go through an orderly transition between the end of the oil fiesta and whatever comes next — implying, naturally, that some new sovereign energy resource is out there in destiny's green room, getting prepped up, waiting to be sent on-stage. The confusion about this, induced by strenuous wishing, is such that most people expect the next energy resource to consist of technology itself.

This has been the heart of my beef with the rosy future crowd. Energy and technology are not the same thing, not interchangeable or substitutable. If you run out of one (energy), you can't just plug in the other (technology). I certainly believe other energy resources exist besides oil and methane gas, but I maintain that we will be grossly disappointed by what they can do for us, given what we are currently running in society. Nor am I categorically against the idea of using these other things: solar, wind, bio-fuels, what-have-you. I can even be persuaded on nuclear with its many hazards, if that's the only way to keep the lights on. But all of these things will not preclude the extreme necessity to make severe changes in our manner of daily living — and to do so rather quickly.

Far from evolving triumphantly to yet-higher realms of technological nirvana, I'd expect a raw struggle to preserve much of the knowledge and applied technique that has already been acquired. I do happen to believe that the petroleum twilight will bring quite a bit of disorder to our society, which almost certainly means that the institutional context for research and development will suffer. Most particularly, I doubt that the big universities will be able to carry on in an energy-and-capital-starved future. Exactly how they might disintegrate is an open question. Last year, for example, I was shown the new bio-medical research "facility" at the University of Michigan, a building at least the size of a Cunard ocean liner, and wondered as I beheld it exactly how they were going to heat the goddam thing ten years down the line. But one might as well ask how the U might fund the paychecks of the building's occupants as Michigan's economy falls into an ever-larger crater. Such is the hubris-induced weakness of mind among those in charge of things that these mundane questions are not even asked.

The same pretty much goes for the big corporations. Their world is going to change pretty rudely, too. Far from expecting them to take over our lives even more comprehensively than is the current case, I expect them to wobble, fall to their knees, and expire as the tonic of globalism vanishes down the drain of economic history. Just as most people expect technology to save-the-day for energy, the same people expect the world to keep becoming an ever-smaller place of more intricately co-wired parts. Not me. I expect the world to become a larger place. I expect the wiring to unravel in a contest over the world's remaining oil. I expect that the nations of the world will eventually retreat back into their own continental regions (while that retreat may be violent and messy). I expect our energy problems to limit any organization's ability to project power and influence — whether it is a government or a corporation. I expect that anything now running at the giant scale will either have to downsize real fast or go out of business.

Few of the rosy futurists foresee anything but ever-greater peaks of affluence among an ever-larger pool of players. I think they have been watching too many installments of "Richistan" on cable TV. My own notion is that capital will dry up quicker than rain on a Scottsdale patio as our energy predicament becomes apparent, since expectations of future growth (of economies and the capital representing them) are keyed to an assumption of unlimited energy resources. When the truth finally hits — that there are real limits to the things of this world — it will knock the capital markets on their asses. We will see large numbers of men wearing Rolex watches weep into crumpled certificates as the tranches of hallucinated wealth dissolve in the mists of their hopes and dreams. This means, at least, that investment in technology R and D on the grand scale will probably not meet our current expectations.

In any case, it is getting pretty late in the day for us to just kick back and nurture fantasies about the future of technology while the prospect of an oil export shock resolves more vividly before us — the first symptom of an industry that will shortly fly to pieces. Of course the very last thing we should be doing — which everyone from the Nascar morons to the Ivy League "greenies" is doing — is focus all effort on how to keep the American automobile fleet running by some magic means other than gasoline. I say, just as a mental jump-start, let's put at least some of that effort into getting the choo-choo trains running again — but this is too silly for the boys at MIT or even the Pentagon.

A few years ago, I went to the famous TED conference in Monterrey, where the mandarins of computer tech gather every year to hear talks about the neat things happening in the world beyond Silicon Valley. (I was part of the "entertainment.") By far the most popular presentation of the whole conference was the one on flying cars. Yeah, I know. It was straight out of a 1937 edition of Popular Science Magazine. But that's where their heads were at. All those twenty billion dollar heads, and that was what really lit their wicks. In case you wonder why I'm skeptical about where we're going in this country.
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Comments (22)add comment

a guest said:

0
Charly
Funny that nobody talks about liquid coal and derived synthetic fuel. At current oil prices it is commercially viable and the biggest coal reserves are in this order the USA, Russia, China and India, where or near where in the case of Russia the demand is. I know, I know the processing shoots a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere. But more and more scientist are becoming skeptical (heretics?) with respect to global warming now called climate change BTW. CO2 which is often referred as a pollutant, but is not may even save the day, increasing crop yields in the face of dwindling land for agriculture and water availability. Looks like the jury is still out on this issue.
 
July 23, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

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Your nascar slam
Fu*k you Kuntsler. I have an IQ of 149, 2 engineering degrees, and 40 years experience in the aviation industry. I also live in Mississippi, and enjoy Nascar, so in case you didn't get the message the first time; F*ck you twice.
 
July 23, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

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NASCAR Morons?
While I don't fit into the larger NASCAR crowd's thinking on society and religion I do wish you would not open yourself up to criticism based on your views of certain segments of our population. You have important things to say and I do agree with some, not all of them. Just leave out the barbs so you don't muddy the waters of debate.
 
July 23, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
...
Good point. As a follow-up to the many times he has said this, it appears we still are not understanding that the scale of our dependency on fossil fuels will not be replaced by anything we have within our reach now or the next several decades and all the while the clock is ticking. I would add that connecting these set of challenges to the fact that our planet cannot support 6.5 billion humans long term. This is a root concern and will be a primary factor of change as the energy crisis starts inflicting casualties upon our immense population. I am glad to see someone is sticking to their guns on the ills of our current thought pattern in facing up to reality.
 
July 23, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
Peak tech was ~1970
This is the time the 747 was completed, we went to the moon,
BART was built. World Trade Center built.
The Concorde made its first flight. Global per capita
energy also peaked in this period.
 
July 23, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
Which just goes to show...
that an IQ of 149 and two engineering degrees is no proof against willful ignorance and stupidity.
 
July 23, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
Tragic humanity
To Mr 149 IQ, thats exactly why what Kuntsler is true. As an aside did you know that many top ranking officials of Hitlers Germany had IQ's exceeding even yours. IQ is not a barometer for wisdom, clever yes wise no. The path of Nascar or our industrial civilization is extremely complex and clever. The long term wisdom of many of our decisions (Nascar) is foolish.

Regards coal to liquids. If you check out theoildrum.com you will see a great article on coal and it's ability to be minded at the same prodigiuos rates we have mined it in the past. With peak oil we really are hitting perak energy.

Best of luck this is in my opinion humanities biggest challenge.
 
July 23, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
Poetic writing
I must commend Kunstler on his writing style. He really knows how to get right to the heart of the matter and does it so well. Time and time again, he hits the nail on the head.
 
July 23, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
Comments miss the point
I see that the comments reflect a complete missing of the point. Peak Oil is approaching and people is sensitive regarding certain ajectives. Forget the NASCAR insults and focus in the real issue. Liquid coal? As an emergency substitute is ok, however, if we analyze its EROEI you will see that is much less than oil.
 
July 23, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
...
yet another nascar moron sounds off...
 
July 23, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
...
Mr. Kunstler's point is well taken. The public's faith in technology as an energy supply panacea is unwarranted. Technology will help extract more oil in the future, but nowhere near enough to meet demand. The costs of this technology are very high. Building and manning a deep-water oilrig that drills seven miles beneath the surface of the ocean is a very impressive technological achievement. It is also an extremely expensive undertaking. Many planned oil projects have been dropped because costs have escalated so dramatically. The hydrogen economy is a fantasy and bio-fuels will only constitute a small portion of energy supplies. Oil is unique; no other substance comes close to matching its special properties. Unfortunately the Happy Motorists in Fantasyland public is woefully ignorant and unconcerned about the energy wall that America is driving into.
 
July 24, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
Kunstler is right
OK. Substitute 'Nascar Morons' for 'people who focus on televised sports events'. Same deal. Brilliant people across America know a lot about one tiny verticle field, and use the rest of there brain to memorize professional sports facts. Tragic. (They also tend to think they know everything about anything, and are thus doubly annoying)

Kunstlers book breaks down the country by regions and the SouthEast is referred to as the 'land of Nascar'. Don't worry, he rips apart Idaho as well and says we'll all mostly die a horrible death of starvation and exposure.

I believe him. ...and the hundreds of other petroleum scientists that 'get' Peak Oil.

Liquid coal is not going to run all the cars. Maybe emergency vehicles. Maybe...

Bob in Boise, Idaho
 
July 24, 2007
Votes: +0

Jimmy Montague said:

Jimmy Montague
Why leave out the barbs?
You don't want to think about the fact that spectators at an oval-track race are people who delight in watching here-they-come, there-they-go over and over again for hours on end, their only hope of a break in the monotony being a trip to the restroom or a multi-car crackup? You don't want to think about what it is within you that makes you look forward to a multi-car crackup? You like paying $5.00 or is it $6.50) per cup for warm, flat beer? You like those nice, cold, $10.00 hot dogs? You think that whole hillbilly-moonshine-runner-goes-WWF thing is a real groove, do you? Do you channel "Thunder Road"? Tell me: what's there that stimulates and challenges your 149-point IQ? Or are you the type for whom it just feels good to get stinking drunk in the middle of 100,000 screaming, smelly, drunken people?

If the latter is in fact the case, then maybe you should give up NASCAR and switch to football. People get hurt all the time in football, so there's less waiting. The beer and the snacks cost just as much. There are tailgate parties there, too. The fans scream and stink, and they're all stinko, and they dress really weird. And best of all, there's hardly any fossil fuel being burned while everyone makes fools of themselves.

Get hip, if you're really so smart. NASCAR is for dimbulbs.
 
July 24, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

Jimmy Montague said:

Jimmy Montague
Hey, Kunstler! You're a writer: wanna get rich quick?
Here's your idea --

Harry Potter as porno! Just think of it: "Hairy Putter at the Country Club";
"Hairy Putter and the Warthog Women"; "Hairy Putter Meats Hairy Pooter".

Query Larry Flynt and see if we've got a publisher there. Give me 5 percent for the idea. I'm outta here.

Jimmy
 
July 24, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
...
F*$K U cunt-stler - I own a V8 and I luv nazcar. I live in Texas - and the oil will Neva run Out here hahaha - U must think we R real morans to believe this bullshit. Your writing is very un-patriotic as a real American would want to use all the oil they could. If you don't like this country why don't you go and live in the middle-east where they believe in communism hahahaha!
 
July 24, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
Blatant truth is NASCAR fans are idiots
Nothing symbolizes white trash-redneck "culture" more than NASCAR.
 
July 24, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
...
Nascar morons, hey? Why not use "Stupid Niggers"? Or Ignorant Spics?, or any of a hundred other perjorative generalizations to get some attention to feed your overly inflated ego. Oh, never mind. Nascar Morons are not protected by the PC police, are they? So you would probably be sued. CYA Kuntdler? As for your Malthusian view of the world, it wouldn't be the first time you were full of crap would it?
 
July 24, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
...
Jimbo, why restrict yourself to Nascar? Let's include all racing. Even horse racing (ever count the number of private Jets and Limo's that show up for the Derby ? ). And don't forget all those motorized watersports like skiing, fishing, etc. Also the Olympics, which are a huge waste of valuable energy. And for god's sake you can't leave out the Bible/Koran/Whatever thumpers who preach the "be fertile and multiply" dogma. So let's all not have a life, eat grass, and whack off, and thereby save the planet.
 
July 24, 2007
Votes: +0

Jimmy Montague said:

Jimmy Montague
Why indeed, should I restrict myself to NASCAR?
I never understood guys who like to watch porno films. Who wants to sit around and watch somebody else have all the fun? I never watch baseball, either, and for the same reason. And now you've brought me to the realization that there's no difference between porno and any other "spectator sport". I never watch any sports because I always knew, as Mr. Bob Dylan once sang, "You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you."

Thanks! I knew I was right.
 
July 24, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
...
And you Amercians wonder why the rest of the world blames you for the mess we are ALL in. Have you read some of the comments above. It's astounding the US has lasted as long as it has. How does that saying go? If your not part of the solution......

Keep up the fine work Mr. kunstler. You make perfect sense to lots of the the rest of us who are lucky enough NOT to live in the good ole US of A!
 
July 25, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
Keep the NASCAR barbs
There are a lot of smart people who like NASCAR, but if the shoe fits, make them wear it.
The NASCAR fans who drive gas-powered trucks could do more for conservation by simply buying diesel trucks instead. But they won't because the money they save when they buy a gas-engined truck is spent on NASCAR propaganda crap and chrome wheels.
 
July 25, 2007
Votes: +0

a guest said:

0
Malthuswasright
Hitler lost the war trying to run it on coal to liquid...
 
July 26, 2007
Votes: +0

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