has an interview
"doomsaying author" James Howard Kunstler. He sees the decline of oil
production as deadly to the status quo and predicts violent upheaval
in American life culminating in a return to small-town agrarian living.
In the typical gloom-and-doom style loved by certain advocates of "simpler"
lifestyles, he predicts "the beginning of a major collapse of suburbia" within
the next 10 years, based on the coming volatility of energy (primarily
petroleum) prices. Industrial farming will fail, people will have to
grow their own food, the middle class will largely vanish, and we'll see a reversal of the flow of labor from farms to cities which has prevailed over
the last century and a half. (Presumably this will be accompanied by
a die-off forced by the decreased productivity, but this is not expressed
in the interview save as a reference to the Black Plague.)
What's curious is that he flatly states "I read next to zero science fiction. And I don't write it.
" [emphasis added] I would beg to differ, because his interview (and by extension, his book) fits squarely into one of the classic segments of the genre: extension of current trends into the future, with dystopian outcomes.
Kunstler works it as a morality play, ignoring typical human reactions to difficulty. The interviewer sets the tone and implies a falsity with a question: "If technology can't dig us out of this problem, what will?" Here's where Kunstler lapses into fiction: he does not attempt to disabuse the interviewer (and by extention, the reader) of the notion that technology can do nothing (humans will pay for consorting with eeeevil technology!). Technology dug us into this problem just as it was digging us out of the last one (horse manure and its health effects); of course
technology can dig us out of this problem too. It's just too small, and the available resources too large, to remain unsolved... once people get serious about it.
Kunstler's conception of the collapse appears to have three major elements:
- Chemical fertilizers and pesticides will become unavailable, causing farm productivity to drop steeply. (He calls our current methods "eating oil", with a certain amount of justification.)
- Lack of petroleum for motor fuel will slash both the mechanization of farming (causing a surge in agricultural prices and farm labor) and the capabilities of national and global transportation networks; goods such as California oranges and Chilean grapes which are now commodities will become prohibitively expensive.
- Also due to the lack of petroleum for fuel, personal transport will become very limited for all except the rich. Air transport will again be the exclusive domain of a "jet set", driving will be a rarity, and most people will spend the majority of their lives within a few tens of miles of their birthplace. The world will be dominated by the super-rich, forming a class akin to feudal lords.
Kunstler's technological breakdown scenario centers around two basic things:
- Declining supplies of natural gas lead to an unavailability of nitrogen fertilizer (natural gas being used to make hydrogen, hydrogen fixing nitrogen using the Haber process).
- Scarce and expensive petroleum makes it expensive to power farm machinery, over the road trucks, container ships, and every other element of the transport network. Bulk goods such as phosphorus and potassium fertilizer become prohibitive, and toys and televisions from China join wheat from Nebraska as too expensive to transport compared to local products. As the standard of living declines, most people don't go much of anywhere either.
Overall Kunstler's future looks a lot like the 19th century.
The problem with Kunstler's thesis is that you don't even have to look to fiction to find the counterexamples. For one thing, we're not going to quit using oil if we really need it; we can make it. Nazi Germany had industrial coal-to-liquids plants over sixty years ago
, and apartheid South Africa kept the technology alive while dealing with oil embargoes. Oil is a good deal more convenient than many of the alternatives, but it was not indispensible even with 1930's technology; in the 21st century we can do much better.
Solutions to these "fatal" problems are going to bubble out of other initiatives, unbidden. Take nitrogen fertilizer. It's currently made by steam-reforming natural gas to hydrogen (CH4 + 2 H2O -> CO2 + 4 H2), then fixing nitrogen gas to ammonia with the hydrogen (3H2 + N2 -> 2 NH3); the ammonia can be used as-is or chemically altered to make urea or nitrates. High natural gas prices in North America have shut down most ammonia production, and the US is now importing a great deal of nitrate fertilizer (an excellent reason to eliminate incentives for gas-fired electric generation, like, yesterday). One of the "clean coal" initiatives that's been in the works since long before Bush is IGCC
, which is at least 20% more efficient than powdered-coal fired steam cycles. IGCC burns fuel in two stages: first it partially burns it with air or oxygen and steam to make a "syngas" containing combustible CO and H2, scrubs pollutants out of the syngas, then burns the clean syngas in a gas turbine (exhaust heat from the gas turbine makes steam to drive another turbine). Each IGCC powerplant is going to be handling hundreds of thousands of tons of hydrogen each year;
this hydrogen could be tapped for other purposes. It takes 3 tons of hydrogen to fix 14 tons of nitrogen in the Haber process, so each IGCC powerplant could produce millions of tons of fertilizer during its off hours.
How much would we need? If we assume 200,000,000 hectares planted to crops requiring 100 kg of nitrogen per hectare (numbers lifted from an Australian page on canola), that's 20 million tons of nitrogen requiring 4.3 million tons of hydrogen to fix it. If one IGCC plant could produce 200,000 tons of surplus hydrogen per year, we'd only need 22 of them to handle this demand. [NOTE: numbers corrected from original post; see update and comments.]
I cannot conceive of the US having any difficulty building 22 IGCC powerplants and the required ancillary equipment over the period of a decade; regulatory obstacles are going to dwarf the technical ones.
The other problem Kunstler sees is transport fuel. 'Tis true, our current economy depends a lot on personal automobiles running on gasoline, and long-haul trucks running on diesel fuel (aircraft, ships and river barges also run on oil). But Kunstler ignores two facts inconvenient to his thesis:
- Rail is profitable, far more fuel-efficient than trucks, and can be electrified; and
- Today's "no plug" hybrids are already being modified to make gas-optional hybrids, or GO-HEVs.
Both of these can slash the fuel required to move a ton-mile, and short-haul trucks running on batteries can bridge the gap from railhead to destination. The electricity to run them can come from the aforementioned IGCC powerplants or a variety of other sources:
- industrial cogeneration
- domestic cogeneration
This doesn't even look at any of the less traditional possibilities, like the road/rail hybrid "Bladerunner" truck concept. Rail-capable road vehicles would quickly fill available rail capacity, leading to the placement of new rail in highway medians. If that rail was electrified with overhead power, large amounts of freight could travel along highways using no liquid fuel whatsoever. This could lead to a continental transport network faster, quieter, cleaner and even cheaper than what we have today.
This analysis doesn't address Kunstler's entire thesis. Some modes of transport will remain wedded to petroleum power, and will either have to pay the going rate for oil (air transport) or accept the bulk and weight penalties of e.g. powdered coal slurry. River barges are in this category, while open-ocean shipping may be able to make partial use of sail power. (Cheap stuff from China may become more expensive than domestic after transport costs - CHECK!) But do we have to have massive upheavals in our society? Only if we're really, really short-sighted.
The only people who don't seem able to see this are those who don't read enough science fiction.
An anonymous commenter
notes that US cropland amounts to about 349 million acres, or ~140 million hectares
; he then draws a conclusion regarding the number of fertilizer plants required.
About 2 hours later, a reader signing himself "J. Case, Classical Values" offered a correction by e-mail:
"How much would we need? If we assume 200,000 hectares planted to crops
requiring 100 kg of nitrogen per hectare (numbers lifted from an Australian
page on canola), that's 20 million tons of nitrogen..."
I make that to be kilograms, not tons. Don't feel too bad, I do this sort of
thing ALL the time.
In other words, my numbers were 3 orders of magnitude too low... which more than offsets the factor of 700 noted by Mr/Mrs/Ms Anonymous. Finally, Rob sets the record straight
with the actual fertilizer numbers: 12 million tons of nitrogen, a little less than 100 kg/ha over 140 million ha. I admit, I was in a hurry and didn't do enough checking. The above numbers have been corrected.