Thursday, January 24, 2008

Does Peak Oil Mean the Death of the City?

Oil Drum is one of the most important post carbon blogs. By focusing on peak oil, Oil Drum shot circuits the so called climate change debate. A new debate has broken out in oil drum about the deindustrialization of post carbon society. The notion is that faced with an increasing scarcity of oil, and skyrocketing prices for oil, large scale, machine dependent agriculture will collapse. Hords of hungry people will flood the land desperate for food, and moving onto the abandoned corperate farms, will set up peasant farming communities, which will use organic, labor intensive agricultural techniques to farm the land. The model for this new society is Cuba, well maybe Cuba without Castro.

Stuart Staniford has undertaken a critique of this "relocalization" model on Oil Drum.

A post by Sharon Astyk today in Oil Drum defends the relocalization perspective in "Is Relocalization Doomed?: A Response to Staniford’s 'Fallacy of Reversibility'".

My own perspective that the belief that the end of the carbon fuel era will mean a collapse in industrial civilization. The whole issues has a been there, done that feel for me. When I was a contract employee at ORNL in 1970-71, the whole issue of future scarcities was on the table. There was a simple ORNL solution to the problem of scarcity, that colors my thinking to this day. That solution was substitution. I am be reasonably sure that Alvin Weinberg did not invent the idea, but he sure did pick up the ball and run with it in Age of substitutability: or what do we do when the mercury runs out.

So how does substitution apply in agriculture? Simple, electricity can be substituted for oil. Agricultural machinery can be run with electricity as well as oil. Tractors, combines and other mobile machines can use battery or ultra-capacitors to store electricity. Stationary equipment can be hooked directly to the grid. Is there anything on a farm, currently any farm equiptment that cannot operate with electricity? Of course not, the question is silly.

Food can be shipped to market by electrified rail. Until the second half of the 20th century, railroads were the preferred method of shipping food. There was a spur line in every farming community. Rail hauling is still far more energy efficient than trucking, and even without electrification, a shift back to peak oil powered trains makes economic sense.

Where will post carbon electricity come from?

The answer is simple, from sustainable breeding power reactor. Clearly even if we can mine Uranium from the sea, the present nuclear power system is not indefinitely sustainable. In addition the current nuclear power system, relying as it does on light water reactor technology, is extremely wasteful. Reactor modified fuel is treated as waste rather than a resource. This leaves us with the so called problem of nuclear waste. What is really wasted in the current system is opportunities. Those opportunities are represented by the potential for more nuclear power tied up in the U238, U235 and Pu239 present in the so called "nuclear waste" and the alchemical transformation of elements which is occurring in nuclear byproducts. Maby of these byproducts are "uniquely useful, intrinsically valuable, and strategically important materials." Thus far from being the liability which the present nuclear power system treats reactor modified fuel, it is a tremendous asset. The failure to acknowledge reactor modified fuel as an asset, is perhaps the most serious public liabilities of the nuclear industry.

Why not renewables?

The big craze at the moment is renewable energy. Oak Ridge scientist looked at renewable energy in the 1970's. My father (C.J. Barton, Sr.) noted in 1974 that the problems of solar power included "the environmental effects of covering 5000 square miles of land [with solar energy collectors] and a few other problems such as the amounts of energy-intensive metals required to collect the solar energy." This is still the case. What is most amazing is the psudo environmental organizations like Greenpeace ignore the environmental impact of renewables while focusing on the far smaller impact of nuclear power.

My father's criticism of the materials input into solar generation is if anything more cogent today that in 1974. The price of steel, copper, concrete, and other materials required by renewables has dramatically increased since the beginning of the new millenium. This materials inflation is being fueled primarily by demand from China, but increasingly India is also entering the demand picture. As demand for construction materials to build renewable power generating facilities ramps up, a further inflation of materials prices will occur.

Nuclear power enjoys a considerable advantage over renewable in terms of materials cost. The materials input for renewables can be up too 10 times as much as for nuclear power per Mega Watt. Further more new nuclear technology can lower the materials input into new atomic power plants substantially. Light Water Reactors use water under high pressure. This design requires high level of materials input, and maintaining its safety requires even more. But reactor designs exist that does not operate under high water pressure. These include the Pebble Bed Reactor, and the Molten Salt Reactor. Neither design requires water as a moderator, as a coolant, or as part if its power generation. Both can be cooled by air.

Of the two new reactor designs, the Molten Salt Reactor has many advantages. Its requires less materials input than Light Water Reactors , while materials Like U238 or Th233, can be simply be left in reactors until nuclear alchemy turns them into fissionable atoms. At that point they can be burned in the chain reacton. Through radiation alchemy chain reaction byproducts are transformed into valuable and useful materials. These valuable byproducts can be chemically removed from from the molten fuel of the reactor, while it continues operation. Thus the Molten Salt Reactor is a nuclear cornicopia that can generate electricity, more reactor fuel, and valuable and often rare metals and other minerals, rather than nuclear waste.

Do we need to turn back to the soil in order to save humanity from a post peak oil collapse of civivalization. Certainly not! What an absurd idea.! Energy substitution will preserve our civilization, our way of life.

The end of the carbon fuel era is hardly the end of the age of portable energy. Energy is already carried to farms in the form of electricity. Farm machinery that now runs on carbon based fuels can be operated with electricity. Machines like tractors and combines can use electrical storage in batteries and ultra-capacitors unstead of liquid fuels. Energy is energy. Food can be transported to urban markets via electrified rail. These are simple substitutions which either involve using alternative existing technologies, or minor improvements in existing technologies. The rise of food prices now is not due to a brake down of farming technology. Rather it is caused, in no small measure, by the use of food for transportation energy. Bio-fuels use food that should be used for human consumption. It is just plain wrong to take food out of the mouths of the poor un Mexico City, in order to put ethanol into the tanks of American SUVs.

Electrical energy can come from renewable sources or from nuclear power plants. All of these technologies are sustainable on a long term basis.

If we plan wisely for the future of energy, we will not need to worry about future food shortages as Sharon Astyk does. Food production problems can be fixed with technology better than with massive human labor. The problem is not found in our material civilization, in our science, or in our technology, but in a lack of confidence in science and technology. If that problem is not fixed, we may end up paying a massive human cost.

The most unfortunate aspect of the so called relocalization movement is its expectation of an unneeded and highly undesirable decline in the the quality of human life in more advanced societies. Not only are the relocalizers willing to sacrifice the advantages of our current way of life without further examination of the possiblility of energy substitution, but the also seem totally oblivious to the truly terrible human consequences of doing so. Ours is an aging society. Our medical advances, and the comfort of our way of life have allowed many of us who would have already have died in a peasant society to survive into an older age. Many older people do not have the physical capacity to survive as peasant farmers. Without our medicine, and without the comforts of modern heating and air conditioning, and with the demand ofor heavy physical labor, many older people will die quickly.

Relocalization is thus is a wholly unnecessary a formula for massive death. One 20th century leader decided to use relocalization as a way to solve the problems of his country. His name was Pol Pot. Nearly two million Cambodians died because of Pol Pot's folly.


TechnoJabber said...

Ummm, I appreciate your stance on placing faith in technology and electricity... but have you ever seen an electric combine harvester? Or what about an electric Caterpillar 785B dump truck? You know… the massive behemoths that transport coal and uranium ore from the mine face and send them on their way to ultimately produce electricity for us? This is just a tip of the iceberg. Have you considered the amount of large-scale machinery required to build something like a power station (nuclear or otherwise)? That equipment is MASSIVE and as far as I’m aware, the technology to make those suckers electric is not being developed.

If the world is going to be nuclear electric like you say, we need to focus on how the vital industrial infrastructure is going to be converted before all the cheap oil is gone.

DV8 2XL said...

Relocalization to "small self sustaining communities” has been the mantra of the green movement since the Sixties. What the idiots fail to understand is that sustainability is not only about the continuing supply of resources but also about social and economic systems, politics, and culture; ultimately it is about concentrating recourses so they can be used effectively. Even physical resources such as waste management or fresh water supplies, and obviously transportation, can be used more effectively when the population is more concentrated. While the city is widely viewed as the cause of, rather than the solution to, many environmental problems, the fact is that the city represents the most compelling opportunities for moving society towards sustainability.

Cities have always been at the centre of cultural expression as well as of wealth creation. The critics of urban concentration conveniently ignore the fact that in almost every case throughout history when subsistence farming (which is exactly what the greens are suggesting we turn to) failed, people migrated to the cities. While conditions were not as picturesque as they were in the country, the fact remains that they came because they had a better chance of eating than they did back home. If conditions in the cities are appalling (and I’m not saying they are not) it is because of poor planning endemic of the sort of corrupt governments that are in power, not the fact that there is a concentration of people. The ultimate tragedy is that the problems are not addressed in ways that catalyze and capitalise upon the energies residing in this increase of available labour.

The international urban environmental agenda has tracked the concerns of cities in developed countries, rather than the successes experienced by affluent cities in the West because they are ideologically biased against them. All cities have issues, I am not suggesting otherwise, but mostly these can be solved by political will. In any case particularly in the case of energy conservation, cities represent the very best way of squeezing the maximum number of effective joules out of every available watt.

Charles Barton said...

I believe that the Caterpillar 785B was designed for mining. That probably has more to do with its size than the use of electricity. I am fairly sure that reasonable size electrical combines, tractors, and harvesters can be designed.

Charles Barton said...

DV9 2X.

I just posted this comment on oil drum:

. . . One thing that everyone in the energy debate agrees on is that the world has an abundance of energy resources. If we have as much energy resources as everyone - by every one I mean advocates of solar, wind and nuclear power - say we have, then we have enough energy to extract mineral resources from low grade ore. We also have the energy resources to supply far higher amounts of electrical energy to farms than the amount of energy they currently use as in the form of oil products.

. . . Adam Smith obeserved the value of the devision of labor in enhancing productivity. Smith's observations applied to agriculture as well. There has never been a 100 mile limit on food supplies, not even in ancient times. The ancient Athenians grew olives on the rocky soil of Attica, pressed the olive into oil, and shipped the oil to Black Sea ports, where the traded it for grain. The Athenians grew rick on their trade. The Black Sea was more than 100 miles distant from Athens. Ancient Rome was supplied with grain. During the middle ages the British grew sheep, they traded wool with the low countries for cloth. In the 18th century, the British imported wine from Southern Europe, while concentrating in their local agriculture on raising sheep.

In the 19th centuries it was the local, small scale farmers of Irland who growing only for local markets, practiced monocultural agriculture with potatoes. In Texas in the 19th century there were plenty of cattle, but no market until enterprising cowmen drove cattle to railheads in Kansas, hundreds of miles away. When railroads came to Florida, the first thing people did was to pick oranges, box them and ship them North.

The larger an area from which food is drawn, the less likely it is that there will be famine. Thus it has been only in the 19th and 20 centuries when there was wide spread agricultural specialization, and global agricultural trade, that many countries have been able to avoid famine.

Long range agricultural trade has existed since ancient times. Climate, soil and location have always created opportunities or necessities for specialization. Societies that only practice local agriculture are as a rule far poor, more subject to famine, and far more malnourished, than societies that engage in large scale agricultural specialization and trade.

(Ergo the localist have not the slightest insight into agricultural economics. They are so ill informed that they want to practice subsistence agriculture, and subsistence agriculture is the pits.)

Norbert said...

"You can never go back."

Going back to what greens call "localisation" means closing out decades of advancement. It necessarily means the destruction of many lives and great suffering for all but a few others.

In the last century we have stood by and witnessed the ideology of "go back". Cambodia is an example. In all seriousness does anyone really want this?

Norbert Neidermeyer


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