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Permaculture and Peak Oil

by William Bentz Wednesday, Jun. 29, 2005 at 12:57 AM

Peak Oil and Permaculture explains the dynamics of the impending peak in global oil production and the implications for Australian society. Declining energy availability will spell the end of global economic growth and the consumerist culture it supports.

Permaculture is introduced as one of a number of related, radical cultural alternatives that can be adopted for the transition to a post-consumer world.

Peak oil: you may have heard the term a few times lately or this may be a first, but it is unlikely to be the last time you come across the idea that global oil production is about to start its terminal decline. In the last two or three months this issue has left the confines of a small but committed community of peak oil analysts and leapt into the mainstream press. Analysts are warning that peak oil will be the defining event of this century, that it will rival climate change as the focus of sustainability, and that the world as we know it will change beyond recognition in a very short period of time. How could an event of this magnitude have remained outside mainstream awareness for so long?

If you think back to the first time you heard about global warming, it probably did not register all that highly on your list of impending global catastrophes. But, once the concept was explained as theGreen House Effect, where increasing concentrations of industrial gases like CO2 turned the atmosphere into a gigantic hothouse, it probably became a little clearer. Peak oil, the dark twin of climate change, has no such easy metaphors, however it does require understanding a few unfamiliar concepts.

The first concept to understand is that our whole way of life is dependent on cheap, abundant hydrocarbon energy sources, mostly oil and natural gas. Not only are many of the things we take for granted made from oil and natural gas feed stocks, but more importantly almost everything we depend on contains high amounts of embodied energy sourced from these hydrocarbon fuels. Embodied energy is the amount of energy it takes to make something. The materials we take for granted in modern industrial economies, like concrete, steel, plastic, rubber and the products we make them into like cars, roads, factories and houses all take extraordinary amounts of energy to produce, transport and operate. Thanks to fossil fuels, we are now living in an era of enormous energy availability, embodied into historically unprecedented amounts of material wealth. This state of affairs is a recent development, but already it has become the norm and expectation of nearly everyone in the industrialised world and the desire of increasing numbers in the developing world.

The second thing to understand is that global oil production is about to peak and then forevermore slowly but inevitably decline. Shortly after, so will natural gas, the only other widely available energy source comparable to oil. It took the dedicated work of a small number of retired oil geologists and industry analysts to expose the impending peak in global oil production. Up until they started publicizing their work, the conventional oil industry wisdom was that supplies could continue to grow at 2-3% per year, just like they always had, for many decades to come. It turns out that this conventional wisdom is getting harder and harder to justify. The peak oil advocates are increasingly seen as being accurate and the figures coming out of organizations with vested interests in helping big oil companies protect their image as good investments are increasingly seen as unreliable and unlikely.

Both the US Geological Survey and the International Energy Agency have used suspect methodologies to make predictions consistent with oil industry expectations. Highly regarded retired oil geologists like Colin Campbell of The Association for the Study of Peak Oil ( have taken years, accessing the best data available, to painstakingly demonstrate beyond doubt that the peak in oil production will come much earlier than expected. It could even be happening now, and will most certainly occur within the decade. Part of the reason for the interest in peak oil lately is that financial markets are looking for reasons for the high price of oil. If its supply can be increased, why is the price staying so high? Increasingly now the interpretation, even by large conservative financial institutions, major banks and Wall Street investment houses, is that global oil production is indeed reaching its peak.

What about alternative energy sources? Can't we just switch over to solar or wind or even nuclear power? This is the most difficult concept in understanding the importance of peak oil. Not all energy sources are created equal. What makes oil and gas so attractive is that they have very high energy returned on energy invested or energy/profit ratios. Every energy source requires an investment of some energy to make it available. Oil needs to be located, drilled for, pumped, refined and delivered to the petrol station to be a useful form of energy. All this activity takes energy. Oil has historically had a very high energy/profit ratio. Until recently, it took roughly 1 barrel of oil worth of energy to make over 20 barrels available at the petrol station. This is an energy profit ratio of over 20:1. The reason for this is that oil and gas are very concentrated forms of energy. Essentially they are fossilized sunlight in the form of dead plants, concentrated into hydrocarbons by the work of immense geological pressure and temperature over long periods of time. The energy profit ratio of oil is now dropping sharply as the biggest and easiest deposits are being depleted. The energy profit, or net energy availability, determines the potential material wealth of a society, not the technologies which burn that energy.

I recently saw an ad for a device promising free energy from the sun. It costs 00. I already have one-- called a solar panel. I have invested in a Free Energy Machine for my house. The catch is that I have to invest in a technology that took an awful lot of fossil fuel energy to produce. The universe is full of free energy, but we must always invest some energy to make it available. It is like the old business adage: you have to spend money to make money. If I spend 100 units of energy to make my solar panel and over its 40-year life it pays me back 400 units of energy, then the solar panel has an energy profit ratio of 4:1. Solar energy is abundant, but diffuse, and so are other alternatives like wind and tidal power. After 30 years of research and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, solar energy has not increased in efficiency by more than a marginal amount. In economic terms, if we were to switch to solar power tomorrow it would be like taking an 80% pay cut.

It takes 1500 regular-sized solar panels to provide the energy needed to power my four wheel drive utility at full speed for one hour. It takes less than 15 litres of petrol to do the same. One barrel of oil (200 litres) contains an amount of energy equal to the energy expended by 60 people working every day for a whole year! Wind and solar currently provide less than a ½ of one percent of the global energy mix and even at record growth rates they are not predicted to grow at more than 10% per year. The International Energy Agency recently issued a report stating we must start creating an alternative energy infrastructure 20 years before the onset of peak oil to avoid severe economic dislocation. Things do not look encouraging.

In 2020 there will be the same amount of oil available as there was in 1985. This does not sound like a catastrophe; however, economic growth is dependent on energy growth. If peak production takes place within the next five years, then by 2020 it is clear that energy descent will be well under way. The corporate global economy cannot function without economic growth- the whole system is dependent on growing energy availability to support growing material wealth to support growing money supply. When oil and gas production peak, total global energy availability will start its terminal decline and so will the global economy.

As long as we can adjust our consumption then things could be all right. Studies show that people are happiest when they have enough wealth to meet their needs and a few of their wants, but no more. Energy descent may not be so bad, if it removes a few of the things that are making us unhappy, while leaving us in a position to meet our needs. The challenge lies in learning to change our expectations and take on a whole new set of understandings and behaviours necessary during the coming era of decreasing energy availability.

This is where permaculture comes in. Permaculture is the only discipline that has been created to deal with the energetic aspects informing sustainability. From a permaculture point of view, peak oil marks the end of the growth phase of global industrial society. This is a natural part of the life cycle of any dynamic system. First there is a growth phase, and after the concentrated, high-grade resources have been used up and total resource availability starts to drop, the system starts to decline. Permaculture is about learning the principles and practices that allow us to work with natural energy flows rather than relying on fossil fuels.

Permaculture is only partly about growing food and living more self-sufficiently. Permaculture is a design science that uses the patterns of nature to mimic ecological systems. Natural systems have evolved for millions of years to maximize the energy available from the sun. If we are to live well in the post-fossil fuel world, we will have to learn to do the same. Permaculturists have organic gardens because it is a way to grow good food on a low energy budget. They use clever design to make life easier and agriculture more productive. When the oil is gone, permaculture will offer some of the best strategies we know of for maintaining high levels of well-being. Permaculture is undergoing a renaissance as a set of principles and practices for the post-oil world where individuals and communities can learn to live well while we ride the downside of the energy availability curve.

How far off are the major effects of peak oil? It depends on a number of factors, but it is very unlikely to be farther out than a decade. One could argue that we are feeling the effects now, it is just that we are telling ourselves a different story about why we went to war in Iraq, why we are bullying the Timorese over offshore gas fields, why people try to bomb us and why we have to work harder and harder to stay afloat financially. If peak oil is the story then a lot of these events start to make more sense, and then we can start to understand how to prepare in order for the energy/culture transition to be a much more positive experience. In every challenge there is opportunity.
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It seems so simple... Mee Wednesday, Jun. 29, 2005 at 2:35 AM

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