Apocalypse Soon?

A UA professor thinks an oil crisis is imminent--so kiss your old life goodbye

Professor Guy McPherson understands why it's hard for people to accept it when he says the world as they know it is about to end.

It was a warm springtime morning, and McPherson had gestured toward the street from the back room of a University Boulevard coffee shop. The UA was on spring break, and the frenetic atmosphere that usually grips Main Gate Plaza at that time of day was vacationing along with the students. Everything was bathed in a lazy, sun-kissed sheen that made it perfect weather for sipping lemonade and napping.

"How could things be bad?" said McPherson, a professor of natural resources and evolutionary biology, who has written two guest commentaries for the Weekly on the topic (March 1, 2007, and April 27, 2006). "It's a beautiful day. It's lovely here in Tucson, Arizona, in the springtime. It's fantastic! How could anything be different than this? You're asking people to change their entire perception, their entire image of the way the world works, pretty much overnight. It's a hard sell."

The mop-topped McPherson, whose friends call him "The Prophet of Doom," had come from the shop's upstairs study room, where he had a meeting regarding the purchase of a piece of land in Sulphur Springs Valley. He, his partner/wife and a handful of friends were looking to live there after the oil-dependent economy collapses--and with it, American society.

"I'm trying to prepare for my post-carbon future," he said, "and that involves a piece of property with a community of friends. The property has to be farmable; it has to have shallow water; and it has to be within a tank-of-gas drive of here. And so I'm living in two worlds."

Unfortunately, the meeting didn't go well. The others who were on board to contribute money for purchasing the property simply didn't agree with McPherson's soothsaying, and they yanked their support.

"At this point, I've cashed in all my life-insurance policies, my IRAs, my retirement plans," he said. "I've completely sold out my normal life, my financial future as it were, in planning for what's coming next. It's not quite enough to buy what I think is necessary to pull this off, and so I'm a little disappointed that I'm going to have to start from scratch with my post-carbon planning. I've been working at it for a year--pretty much every waking hour.

"So we're starting over. But that's OK, because we're ahead of most folks."

If McPherson is living in two worlds--as a mild-mannered college professor by day, and a wild-eyed survivalist stocking a fallout shelter by night--it's because he has a vision of Tucson's future that's the stuff of dystopian science-fiction novels. He sees a Tucson in which dead cars litter the streets, and mass migrations leave large swathes of the city uninhabited. Gasoline won't be available to transport food into the city, and there will be power bottlenecks hampering the transportation and pumping of water--not to mention keeping people cool with air conditioning. Tucson will become a desolate, inhospitable place.

"It's hard to imagine a ... capacity of more than a few thousand people 20 years out, and those are going to have to be very hardy folk," he said. "No air conditioning. Perhaps they'll be harvesting water, growing all their own food. But those are the choices in the days ahead. You're going to have to generate your own water and generate your own food. Tough to do that in Tucson."

On the regional and national scale, McPherson worries government and social structures will disintegrate. The notion of globalization would be relegated to the dustbin of history, and people will go back to an agrarian lifestyle in small communities.

McPherson may seem like he's all doom and gloom. He often gives off the appearance of someone who's pained with the knowledge of something he can't change, like a 30-year-old who has just received the test results confirming that he'll develop an incurable, fatal genetic disease.

Then he cracks a joke.

"Believe me, I've had those thoughts about survivalists, and how I thought they were incredibly screwed-up, right-wing rednecks for oh so long," he said. "And then it turns out I am one. Damn it, I hate it when that happens!"

But mixed in with the resignation and dark comedy is hope. Last year, after his first commentary in the Weekly, he helped give life to Sustainable Tucson, an Internet clearinghouse for sustainable living. It might seem hopeless, and, if this oil crisis is as bad as McPherson thinks, then it probably is. He's the first to admit it.

But McPherson still says people shouldn't give up. He has a suggestion that could appeal to the American sense of individuality, if not the virtues of foresight and sacrifice, which he feels many of us have lost in an age of over-the-top, conspicuous consumption.

His idea? Conserve. Do it yourself. Learn to live sustainably. We may not be able to change others, but we can change ourselves and be better prepared for whatever comes.

But first: What's declining oil production all about? Depending on your point of view, Peak Oil, as this concept is known, has the potential to be one of the biggest calamities to befall humankind.

Peak Oil doesn't mean there'll be no more oil; it means there'll be no more cheap oil.

Oil comes in lots of different purities, contained in lots of different geological formations that impact the ease--and economy--with which it can be extracted. Some so-called "peakists" assert that we've picked almost all the low-hanging fruit. Meanwhile, consumption continues to increase.

It takes an investment of energy to get more energy in the form of oil. If we have indeed siphoned off all the easy-to-obtain, good-quality oil, then that leaves less-accessible, poorer-quality reserves. To obtain those, we have to invest more energy, impacting the investment-to-yield ratio, and, as a result, overall production.

The ratio of energy return to energy investment in oil production has been declining steadily since World War II, McPherson said. Crude oil prices have hovered around record highs for the past three years, and no significant oil-field discoveries have been made for the past four decades. The reserves found today tend to be small and rapidly depleted, so we depend upon a handful of aging mega-fields for our consumption.

Recently, there's been debate over whether the world's largest oil field--Ghawar in Saudi Arabia--is peaking; if it is, there are myriad political and economic implications from the depletion of that oil field alone. There's evidence to suggest that many of the world's largest oil fields have reached that tipping point as well.

In addition, geologists point out that oil-field production starts to decline when half of the oil has been siphoned away. The graph of output would look something like this: Production gains rapidly; it peaks; then it declines--slowly at first, but then much more precipitously. It's a bell-shaped curve, one that many people say also holds true for overall world oil production.

Despite predictions using various models, no one knows yet exactly when world oil production will peak. It could have happened in 2005 or 2006, as many experts suggest, or it could be as many as 40 to 50 years in the future. Optimistic oil companies tend to gravitate toward the far-off estimates, saying there are untapped resources in parts of the world that have yet to be surveyed.

But a wide range of voices--from geologists to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to government officials in Republican presidential cabinets--disagree with such rosy predictions and, at the very least, are warning about the ramifications of Peak Oil. James R. Schlesinger, who has served as secretary of energy and defense as well as the director of the CIA, testified about the problem before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2005.

"In the decades ahead, we do not know precisely when we shall reach a point, a plateau or peak, beyond which we shall be unable further to increase production of conventional oil worldwide," Schlesinger told the committee, adding that the oil peak is a "fundamental" problem. "We need to understand that problem now and to begin to prepare for that transition."

But regardless of how gently the United States is weaned from oil, the impact of decreasing production is clear. With industrializing countries such as India and, in particular, China feeding a voracious appetite for energy, and with the United States already mainlining, there'll be lots of demand. Prices will go up.

Art Silvers, a UA professor emeritus of public administration and policy, agreed with McPherson that higher oil costs will negatively impact the economy. After all, oil's tentacles reach throughout the economy.

"Most industries, directly or indirectly, have their costs based on the use of oil," Silvers said, rattling off a list of expenses that includes transportation and power. "Rising costs will cause increases in prices."

The speed at which production rates decline will likely determine the impact on the economy and society, Silvers said. If it's a slower decline, he has faith technological solutions will be able to compensate for the loss of oil.

"It depends on how fast this thing happens, right?" he said. "If it happens next Thursday--that the price of oil triples--we'll be in big trouble."

But McPherson, who sees the oil-production plunge just over the horizon, dismisses technological solutions.

"The more technology favors conservation, the less you're able to conserve, because it takes more energy for the technology than what you conserve by buying into the technology," he said. The Toyota Prius McPherson regrets buying is not the answer, he continued, because it took 840 gallons of oil to construct it. Corn-based ethanol--heavily touted by politicians--also isn't the answer, because it barely has a positive energy balance after tractors harvest the corn and it's been processed.

By the same token, solar panels may make sense for the individual, but they don't make sense at the societal level, he said.

"If we switch all of our electrical grid for the country to solar panels, I believe that would take all the oil left on the planet Earth to make that conversion," McPherson said. "Solar panels are energy intensive to build. And, by the way, that doesn't do anything about the 75 percent of the oil we spend on the road; that just replaces the electrical grid. The only alternative that is scalable is conservation, and nobody's asking us to be particularly conservative with energy or anything else."

There is very little in the way of leadership coming from our elected officials, and there's scant mention of Peak Oil in the media. McPherson was puzzled about why that is, especially when on a calamity scale of one to 10, he rates the Peak Oil phenomenon a "12." It's the looming disaster that no one knows about, he said.

"In my lifetime and my parents' lifetimes, we've enjoyed relative peace and enormous prosperity--economic growth off the charts," McPherson said. "Well, those days are just about behind us. If you're a 20-year-old or a 30-year-old, your future is very different from the one your parents had. Mine is very different from the one my parents had; they basically grew up post-World War II, and so they're in denial about it.

"I think that's a big part of it: denial. The powers that be, including the politicians and the mainstream media, maybe they don't want us to know. I mean, it's pretty obvious the Bush administration doesn't want us to know."

It would be hard for the Bushites to claim that they aren't aware of the possible crisis, however, considering that one of Peak Oil's media darlings, Matt Simmons, served the administration as a policy adviser and has written a book on the subject called Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy.

Leslie Liberti, director of the city of Tucson Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development, said there just isn't enough solid information to move forward with a program specifically addressing Peak Oil.

"We've heard a lot of differing opinions on the topic," Liberti said. "It's something that, unlike global warming, where at least we're getting to the point where there seems to be a general consensus on the issue, the estimates of the timing of Peak Oil and the ramifications are pretty varied. It's hard for us to have a real strong position one way or another until it's clear where the scientific community is falling on this."

The city of Tucson has endorsed the United Nations Urban Environmental Accords and the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, Liberti said, and the growth of the Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development will allow officials to build the framework for working with the community on environmental matters.

Liberti's views on Peak Oil seem to be shared by most officials at all levels of government. That's not necessarily government's fault, however. After all, it's hard to institute the kinds of far-reaching lifestyle changes required to deal with McPherson's cataclysmic forecasts when most people probably don't even know what Peak Oil is. Even tamer reforms are made hard by the fact that everything seems so hunky-dory right now.

But if McPherson and others are right, then we may not have time to reach that consensus. And that means people could be in for a rude awakening.

We have difficulty talking about the most important issues that face us," said Bob Cook, president of nonprofit community organization NEST Inc. and maintainer of the Sustainable Tucson Web site. "The issues of growth, the issues of public finance, the issues of workforce development and education, health care--we just don't have the level of political discourse in the community to move forward.

"And I think Peak Oil is particularly difficult, because it's such a big issue. It's sort of paradigmatic. It's about (the) end of era, (the) beginning of new era. ... Because of the uncertainty and the lack of firm knowledge, people feel very reticent about addressing it. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't."

Cook gave the Weekly a tour of his home near Tucson Boulevard and Elm Street. He's made a number of minor adjustments so that he and his wife could live more sustainably, which include planting garden vegetables (he and his wife have been getting more lettuce than they can eat), installing a cistern and constructing a groovy red-tile outdoor shower that waters plants as it cleans humans.

These are lifestyle adaptations almost anyone can make. However, the reality is that any energy savings produced by these and other changes are counteracted by the energy costs associated with Tucson's transportation system.

As the former chair of the Tucson-Pima Metropolitan Energy Commission, Cook has overseen a number of energy assessments and helped institute a range of building innovations that produced sizable energy savings.

"In fact, per-capita energy consumption in buildings has actually decreased over the last 10 years," he said. "So we're really seeing energy savings from buildings. The unfortunate thing is that our energy studies showed that's all being canceled by increased energy consumption in transportation."

According to Cook, in 1998, the price of fuels used in the Tucson metro area totaled $480 million. In 2005, it had ballooned to $1.8 billion.

"That should ring some alarms, because there's a very, very high likelihood that trend is going to continue," he said. According to Cook, the issue isn't so much about energy in the most general sense--it's about energy for transportation.

Like so many cities in the West, including Las Vegas and Phoenix, Tucson is all about urban sprawl and a dependency on cars. If there is a Peak Oil crisis, both McPherson and Silvers agreed, a need will develop for more efficient transportation and land use.

"The price of going out to the suburbs is relatively cheap in this country, in comparison to other countries," Silvers said. "There'll be an interest in finding more compact development and probably a new wave of public transportation."

Although Cook took a far more measured view of Peak Oil than McPherson, he did hit upon the idea that there needs to be a great mobilization of Americans, similar to World War II, in which we take aggressive steps to conserve right now, and not wait for technology to help us out.

"We're a society and culture that's so conditioned to think that technology ... will somehow save us: 'Somehow we'll find an answer, and we'll solve the problem,'" he said.

The conservation measures necessary to combat the Peak Oil crisis may be hampered by political roadblocks and a lack of knowledge, but there's also a problem with the public discourse. There's a fear that if leaders push for the cautious, sensible use of resources, it would be seen as a blow to the economy, Cook said. And the economy reigns supreme.

"Any message that says, 'Don't consume,' translates into slower economic growth for some," he said.

Meanwhile, inaction just makes it harder to combat the inevitable.

"The sooner we are adults about this thing and face it as a reality of the future, and not quibble about whether it's going to be this year or next year or 10 years from now or 15 years from now ... the sooner we start adapting to that overall picture, the better."

Back at the coffee shop, McPherson insisted that one person can be the catalyst for the great growing up of America when it comes to energy consumption.

Just ask someone who understands the life of Gandhi, Jesus or George W. Bush.

"We have to take action," McPherson said. "There is no choice. Don't be thinking that we can just go on with business as usual. If you're going to go on with business as usual, then, I'm sorry, you're going to be dead soon.

"I'm hopeful that we can get through this. If people start spreading the message, and people come to grips with the new reality, there are things that we can do. The world is going to be very, very, very different than it has been in the past. It won't all be bad, though. No, you won't be able to replace your iPod with a new version every second year. You won't be able to decide between Britney Spears and the latest rendition of American Idol.

"See? Good news everywhere."

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