29 October 2010

First Book Review - A US economist on my 'A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization'

I've just found the first print review of my new book, published by ArtVoice, which is apparently the number one weekly newsmagazine in western New York, Buffalo. The review is part of a wider article on government water policy in the Great Lakes region, and comes courtesy of Bruce L. Fisher, Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies, Buffalo State College at the State University of New York, and also a Visiting Professor of Economics and Finance there.

Fisher sums up the book as "dense, brilliant and frightening." You can read the whole thing here, but the excerpts focusing on my book are below:


The scientific evidence and the near-universal consensus about the reality of man-made climate change—which results mainly from burning oil and coal—is being met with phenomena like the Democratic Senate candidate from West Virginia, who is running on a platform of opposition to climate-change legislation, a position quite comfortable for every Republican. But as British think-tanker Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed’s new book shows, not only is there a consensus among scientists about catastrophic climate change, there’s a growing recognition that climate change, looming global food shortages, recent and future financial crises and the ongoing plague of political violence and terrorism are all linked by the fossil fuel business.

Ahmed’s A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization is a tough read. It is dense, brilliant, and frightening. Ahmed has done the job that has needed doing: He has connected the dots for the non-specialist. His first depressing achievement is to have collated the dense scientific literature on global warming into a chapter that sums it all up simply: The governments of the major industrialized countries have all come to understand that climate change is for real, and that the catastrophe of a four degree Celsius rise in global temperatures will happen by 2050, but because we are stuck in a global system dominated by petroleum, the governments that should be taking urgent, radical steps to move us to a post-carbon economy are not doing so. Nor, Ahmed says, can they be expected to do so.

Ahmed follows his summation of what the scientists are saying with a still-salient report on the recent global financial crisis, a review of the ongoing Third World food-production crisis, and a long, unsparing look at America’s global lust for oil, a lust that has sometimes put us on both sides of the “war on terror.” The result is a difficult volume that is hard to put down. It is a truly impressive book that is terrifying, but that, sadly, because Ahmed is a Marxist, is destined to be ignored. But you can’t ignore his sources, which include US military documents that concur on the inevitability of major climate change, but that strangely do not map out energy alternatives for America.

Where is President Obama on this? One would think that Obama and his Nobel Prize-winning secretary of energy would have galvanized the nation and created a crash national program on wind and solar power, instead of hurrying up the construction of nuclear power plants—of which there could never be an adequate supply, according to Ahmed’s sources. The creator of the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock, pooh-poohed wind and pushed nuclear, but wind power is gaining: Google executives just last week announced that they will spend $5 billion of their pocket change to create a near-shore East Coast wind-powered grid to power more than million homes. Ahmed’s book reports on the astounding strides that the government of Germany has already made in fostering alternative, renewable, carbon-neutral energy. He also gives kudos to some local British successes. But it’s hard to be hopeful in the US today, as the fossil-fuel lobby may be about to retake the House of Representatives.


Read more: http://artvoice.com/issues/v9n42/global_and_local_carbon

Exclusive: Former BP Geologist Confirms 2005 Global Oil Peak

We have just published a new report at the Institute for Policy Research & Development (IPRD) which finds that world oil production peaked between 2005 and 2008, and is currently in inexorable decline. Authored by the renowned 40-year veteran petroleum geologist Dr. Colin J. Campbell, who has worked and consulted for leading oil companies such as British Petroleum (BP), Shell and Exxon, the report warns that the “first half of the Oil Age” is over, and the “second half” – characterized by a gradual but increasing decline in production, has now arrived.

Drawing on an extensive country-by-country analysis of oil production data, Dr. Campbell concludes that world regular conventional oil peaked in 2005, prompting oil prices to rise dramatically as traders bought contracts on the oil futures market. The oil price shocks were instrumental in triggering the 2008 economic recession, which dampened demand and allowed prices to reduce. Regular conventional oil is currently declining at 3 per cent a year, with the decline of all categories of oil being about half that rate for the next decade or so before edging upwards.

“We are now inhabiting a post-peak economy”, said Dr. Campbell. “In the first half of the oil age, cheap, mainly oil-based energy has fuelled economic prosperity and related money supply. There is a fundamental difference between going up and going down. In the second half of the oil age, although the decline has begun gently, it represents a turning point of historic magnitude.”

In May 2005, Dr. Campbell predicted that an imminent peak in world oil production would lead to a stock market decline and banking crisis between 2008 and 2012. Dr. Campbell now forecasts a future price limit of around $100 per barrel – at current dollar value – noting that coming oil price shocks will impose further economic recession, dampening demand. He further critiques government bank bailouts to stimulate consumerism by pumping out more credit as doomed to failure, as any economic recovery would lead to a rise in demand for oil, again hitting the supply barrier leading to another price shock and renewed recession. Such policies could lead to “rampant inflation and dollar devaluation.”

The £100 price limit would restrain investments in more expensive unconventional oil and gas, which in any case will “have little impact on peak itself” but may be “important in ameliorating the post-peak decline.” World production of conventional gas is likely to peak around 2015 – with unconventional gas peaking much later, though subject to “slow and costly extraction rates.”

The Campbell report also warns that “resource wars” for control of the world’s remaining oil reserves have already begun, noting efforts to kick-start oil production in postwar Iraq, and that the war in Afghanistan, although less successful, “lies on a planned pipeline route from the Caspian.” Similarly, tensions with Iran cannot be de-linked from its substantial oil and gas resources. Dr. Campbell calls for greater governmental efforts at adaptation, highlighting that a failure to develop viable alternative energy supplies would make projected population growth unsustainable.

Dr. Campbell's outstanding new report confirms my own findings, as elaborated in my new peer-reviewed study, A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization, which examined a variety of academic and industry reports both for and against 'peak oil'. Despite every year insisting that peak oil will not happen for another 40 years, BP's own 2010 production data shows that world oil production was on a plateau between 2005 and 2008, and has been declining every since. The data is now unequivocal: we inhabit a 'post-peak' world, and it is imperative for policymakers to pay attention.

Dr. Colin Campbell's new IPRD report can be downloaded here. Learn more about my new book here.

8 October 2010

The Great Transition (beyond carbon)

Shorter variations of this article have been published by the United Nations University's 'OurWorld 2.0'; Daily News Egypt, and Pakistan Observer. The longer versions are available at the Public Intelligence Blog, and Energy Bulletin.

If there is one thing that defines the 21st century, it is the end of oil. But not just oil. Over the coming decades, we face the prospect of terminal depletion of the world’s major mineral energy reserves, with major ramifications for the future of industrial civilization.

A survey of about a hundred of the world’s most respected petroleum geologists by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil found that the vast majority expected world oil production to peak between 2010 and 2020, and that “the ‘peak’ is more likely to look like a bump on a long ridge than the classic bell-shaped curve.”

As the late geoscientist M. King Hubbert first noted, ‘peak oil’ occurs when world oil production reaches its maximum level at the point when half the world’s reserves of cheap oil have been depleted, after which it becomes geophysically increasingly difficult to extract it. This means that passed the half-way point, world production can never reach its maximum level again, and thus continuously declines until reserves are depleted. Using his model, Hubbert successfully predicted, to the shock of detractors, the peak of US oil production in the 1970s, after which the US became a net importer.

Unfortunately, the data suggests that world oil production has either already peaked, or is very close to peaking – and that we may well now inhabit a post-peak world. Until 2004, world oil production had risen continuously but thereafter underwent a plateau all the way through to 2008. Then from July to August 2008, world oil production fell by almost one million barrels per day. It is still falling. According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2010 – which as usual assures us that world oil production will not peak for another 40 years – in 2009 world oil production was 2.6 percent below that in 2008 (falling 2 million barrels per day), and is now below 2004 levels – indicative of a gradually accelerating decline rate.

2004 80371 thousand barrels per day
2005 81261
2006 81557
2007 81446
2008 81995
2009 79948

BP’s own data contradicts its professed optimism. This plateau in world production over half a decade is unprecedented, and suggests we have already started on the “long ridge” whose overall trajectory despite fluctuation will be inexorably downwards. The outlook is likely to be worse, given that according to a new peer-reviewed study by the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser Sir David King in the journal Energy Policy (38, 8, 08/10), official estimates of world total oil reserves (including conventional, deepwater and unconventional resources) should be downgraded from 1,150-1,350bn barrels to between 850-900bn barrels. This corroborates the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) admission in its World Energy Outlook 2009 that the apparent doubling of world reserves since 1980 were politically-motivated, coming largely from upward revisions by OPEC countries “driven by negotiations at that time over production quotas and have little to do with the discovery of new reserves or physical appraisal work on discovered fields.”

Reserve size by itself matters only insofar as it practically translates into actual annual oil flows and rates of production. The problem, as noted by Matt Mushalik – presenting the findings of former BP oil analyst Chris Skrebowski – is that “almost half of the current global oil production (45%) comes from a very narrow reserve base of just 190 Gb or around 1/5th of the remaining reserves. It is depleting rapidly at a rate of around 7 % pa., with annual production declining consistently since 2002.” Remaining reserves contribute to “little over half the global annual flows” and “at much lower production rates”, most likely because they “are not able to increase production.”

Dallas petroleum geologist Jeffrey J. Brown’s Export Land Model projects a maximum of nine years between the time an oil-producer peaks and the reduction of its oil exports to zero. No wonder then that various experts warn we could see an actual oil supply crunch between 2012 and 2015, after which prices would rise inexorably as supplies drop and demand rises – fuelled by industrial and population growth in emerging markets like China and India.

Unfortunately, oil is not the only problem. Unconventional oil, coal, and natural gas may well be unable to compensate for the shortfall.

For the first time, in 2005 ExxonMobil’s own world oil production forecast showed no contribution from ‘oil shale’ even by 2030. Similarly, the Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group at Uppsala University in Sweden investigated the viability of a crash programme for the Canadian tar sands industry between 2006 and 2018, and up to 2050. It concluded that even adopting “a very optimistic scenario Canada’s oil sands will not prevent Peak Oil.” Another study commissioned by the investor coalition Ceres warns that production costs, market instability, and low energy return on investment (EROI) of less than a third of conventional oil’s EROI, are endangering the viability of investments in unconventional oil.

Of course, the Gulf oil spill has put to rest previously widespread (but misplaced) optimism about the potential of deepwater reserves, due to the moratorium on future deepwater exploration. In any case, even before the disaster, the data points to a “sharply slowing and then flattening deepwater growth profile” by 2011, amidst acceleration in “the pace of deepwater decline.” As Bob MacKnight, analyst at the Washington-based PFC Energy, thus concludes, “We are really approaching a peak production in deep water” and new discoveries will only “shallow the decline rather than move the peak.”

The situation looks similar for the future of natural gas production. The interplay between prices and technological breakthroughs may permit deeper drilling of unconventional gas reserves for a longer period – 118 years at “current demand” according to one optimistic projection. But estimates of world demand project a massive 49 percent increase up to 2035 – fueled particularly by China and India. According to former Total geologist Jean Laherrere, who has conducted one of the most comprehensive surveys of the available conventional and unconventional gas reserve and production data, global natural gas production will peak around 2025 – cohering with Canadian geologist David Hughes’ projection of peak gas arriving in 2027.

As for coal supplies, an extensive study by the Energy Watch Group (EGW) warns that global coal production is likely to peak around 2025, at 30 percent above 2007 levels of production. US coal production in terms of energy will only remain at current levels for another 10–15 years. However, just this year the journal Science published a study predicting that world coal production from existing reserves could peak as early as 2011, and that it is “unlikely” future discoveries would ameliorate the decline.

In a separate study, EGW warned that world production of uranium for nuclear energy would peak between 2030 and 2035. This corroborates the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) 2001 projections for uranium production up to 2050 that “presently known [uranium] resources fall short of demand” and that “future exploration will be more difficult”; as well as industry warnings, such as that in 2005 by Cameco – the world’s largest uranium producer – to the effect that global demand will “outpace existing supply over the next decade by more than 400 million pounds.”

Although thorium has been advocated as a potential ‘magic bullet’ due to wide availability and potentially higher EROI, according to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Washington DC thorium still requires uranium to “kick-start” a nuclear chain reaction. Additionally, despite decades of research, no one has yet developed a commercially-viable thorium breeder fuel cycle, not even in India. The other problem is simply that the mining, transporting, refining, milling, waste reprocessing and construction processes of nuclear power are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Indeed, an extensive study published in the International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology finds that nuclear power is simply not efficient enough to replace fossil fuels in any case, requiring nuclear production to increase by 10.5 per cent every year from 2010 to 2050 – an “unsustainable prospect.”

The cumulative implications are unequivocal: industrial civilization faces multiple, converging shortages in the supply of energy across the spectrum of traditional hydrocarbon-linked reserves. These shortages are all likely to converge within the first quarter of this century.

The exponential demographic, economic, and technological growth associated with the birth and expansion of industrial civilization we have experienced for the last century or so, has been tied indelibly to the seemingly unlimited availability of carbon-based energy. This growth has also been made possible only by quite deliberate efforts on the part of the major powers to dominate the world’s strategic energy reserves, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia – a matter which has played a central role in geopolitical competition and conflict in the postwar period. The neoliberal doctrine of unlimited growth, however, overlooks the finite reality of the earth’s resources. We now face the fact that our traditional resource-base for continued exponential industrial growth simply does not exist. This suggests that industrial civilization in its current form simply cannot survive this century.

As international security expert Michael Klare points out, “major oil-consuming nations are more dependent than ever on supplies from countries that are prone to rebellion, ethnic strife, separatism, sabotage and coups d’├ętat – often instigated by the lure of oil wealth” – and the ‘War on Terror’ serves usefully to sanitize this stark reality. But given the speed of resource depletion, militarization offers no lasting solution beyond the spectre of renewed geopolitical competition, if not major conflict, to dominate the world’s fast diminishing hydrocarbon energy supplies.

As we have never before experienced the energy-economic system of a ‘post-peak’ world, it is difficult to accurately model how it might look in practice. Both alarmists and optimists may find themselves surprised. But one thing is clear: if governments and international institutions continue their current failure to grasp the significance of this hydrocarbon-energy crisis convergence, then there will be serious consequences for the ability of states to continue to deliver public goods and services.

Given the scale of supply constraints across the spectrum of traditional energy sources, we may find it very difficult to scale-up a viable supply of energy to replace cheap, conventional oil in time to avoid the collapse of critical infrastructures. The converging complexity of major stresses including energy depletion, climate change, food insecurity, economic instability and violent conflict – combined with the increasingly obvious inability of states to keep up with and respond to these crises meaningfully – could create a perfect storm culminating in “synchronous failure”, leading to collapse. And a short-sighted reversion to traditional military solutions would more likely accelerate, rather than avoid, this collapse.

When might such “synchronous failure” occur? In mid-2009 the UK government’s chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington warned that we could expect a ‘perfect storm’ of food, water and energy crises by 2030. However, my own assessment of ‘crisis convergence’ – based on six years of interdisciplinary research poring over thousands of academic studies and industry reports – suggests that “synchronous failure” could arrive as early as 2018 on a business-as-usual model.

The imperative, then, is to work toward facilitating a comprehensive transition to cleaner, renewable sources of energy; while doing our best to downsize our current levels of consumption and increase resilience. As study, after study, after study, after study has proven, the mix of technologies to achieve this transition already exist – a major impasse, of course, is how fast the process of transition could occur. Unfortunately, sheer social, political and technological inertia, if nothing else, could slow the transition process significantly (ecologist Vaclav Smil notes that historically, energy transitions have been a generations-long process). While we may be unable therefore to avoid catastrophic short-falls, these could be ameliorated by focusing efforts to radically reduce fossil fuel consumption through conservation and energy efficiency.

The economic model of an ‘ideal-world’ 100 per cent, post-carbon renewable energy system is still only theoretical, but it is clear that it cannot be based on exponential growth for its own sake. This speaks to a new post-carbon civilization based on greater consciousness of human-embeddedness in our natural environment; of the significance of mutual cooperation rather than self-seeking competition as an evolutionary imperative for species survival; and thus of less-materialistic values oriented around health, freedom, education, and well-being as central to sustainable prosperity.

The 21st century may well signify the end of industrial civilization as-we-know-it – but it also points to the unprecedented opportunity to envision, and work toward, a far more equitable, sustainable and harmonious post-carbon civilization.

1 October 2010

US Sorry for Medical Experiments in Guatemala - Will US Apologize for 60,000 plus Civilian Deaths?

Today's announcement that the US is "sorry" for conducting medical experiments in Guatemala in the 1940s, where prisoners were deliberately infected with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), is undoubtedly a welcome acknowledgement.

But let's face it. It's a bit rich.

And it begs the question. Will the US come clean, and wholeheartedly apologize, and give reparations, for the tens of thousands of innocent civilians slaughtered by right-wing death squads sponsored by an illegitimate US-installed and sponsored Guatemalan regime?

The 1940s experiments in Guatemala were part of a wider, now well-documented, pattern of US imperial interference that escalated in the context of the 1994 democratic revolution that brought the Arbenz government to power. US official attitudes to the democratization of Guatemala were candidly described in a variety of now declassified internal documents I discuss in this paper.

In 1952, US intelligence noted the rise of “militant advocacy of social reforms and nationalistic policies identified with the Guatemalan revolution of 1944”, resulting in 10 years of democracy - before the US intervened directly to secure strategic interests. “The radical and nationalistic policies” included “the persecution of foreign economic interests, especially the United Fruit Company”, and had won “the support or acquiescence of almost all Guatemalans.” The government had generated “mass support for the present regime”, proceeding “to mobilize the hitherto politically inert peasantry” via agrarian reform and labour organization, undermining the hegemony of large foreign landowners. But democracy was not to be lauded - it was a serious problem: “Guatemalan official propaganda, with its emphasis on conflict between democracy and dictatorship and between national independence and ‘economic imperialism’, is a disturbing factor in the Caribbean area”, the US concluded.

In other documents, the US noted that the democratic revolution of 1944 had contributed to “a strong national movement to free Guatemala from the military dictatorship, social backwardness, and ‘economic colonialism’, which had been the pattern of the past”. The “social and economic programs of the elected government met the aspirations” of the impoverished, and “inspired the loyalty and conformed to the self-interest of most political conscious Guatemalans.” Hence, “neither the landholders nor the [United] Fruit Company can expect any sympathy in Guatemalan public opinion.” Worse still, the government’s “agrarian reform is a powerful propaganda weapon; its broad social program of aiding the workers and peasants in a victorious struggle against the upper classes and large foreign enterprises has a strong appeal to the populations of Central American neighbours where similar conditions prevail.”

Cold War 'Domino theory' was not seriously concerned by the threat of 'international communism' per se. It was more worried about the danger that a whole region might be inspired by a successful model of nationalist economic independence. So something had to be done. In the words of a 1949 CIA assessment, this programme was “distinctly unfriendly to US business interests”. Similarly, the US State Department acknowledged that such policies constituted a threat to Guatemala as “a place for capital investment”. (See Mark Curtis' Ambiguities of Power, Zed, 1995 p. 152)

So in 1954, the US and British teamed up to violently overthrow Arbenz's reformist democratic administration, and installed Col. Castillo Armas. To keep the new, illegitimate, counter-democratic dictatorship in power required extensive 'force projection', in particular the creation and support of a lethal network of government-backed right-wing death squads whose sole task was to slaughter peasants into submission.

Amnesty International (AI) reported at the time that “tortures and murders... are part of a deliberate and long-standing program of the Guatemalan Government” and that the “selection of targets for detention and murder, and the deployment of official forces for extra-legal operations can be pin-pointed to secret offices in an annex of Guatemala’s National Palace, under the direct control of the President of the Republic.” Upwards of 60,000 people were killed by the 1980s. Further tens of thousands were killed after, and untold hundreds of thousands throughout this process were displaced in a conflict that spanned decades.

One report from Stephen Kinzer in the Boston Global in 1980 says it all. Kinzer cites a report from the National Council of the Jesuit Order in Guatemala as follows: “... it is only necessary to open one’s eyes to realize that here we are ruled by a system of anti-Christian power which destroys life and persecutes those who fight for life... This anguishing situation is being maintained with a repression among the most severe in Guatemala’s recent history. A regime of unjust force is trying to prevent the working people from reclaiming their just rights.” The Council reported over three thousand killings in the first ten months of 1979 alone, by government-backed death squads acting “with total impunity. It is axiomatic that in Guatemala there are no political prisoners, only the dead and disappeared."

This kind of analysis could go on ad nauseum. The history is well-documented.

So the question remains. Will the US say "sorry" for the destruction of democracy in Guatemala, for the hundreds of thousands lives lost, for the millions repressed?

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