Peak resources

Wednesday October 27th, 2010

Blue Design and Peak Resources

The concept of peak resources is one of the principle underpinnings of Blue Design. Peak theory is a world of geology, graphs, and economics, accompanied by lively debate regarding the accuracy of the forecasts and the qualities of the downward slope as resources decline in availability. We will present a common-sense overview of peak resources and how it impacts Blue Design. This discussion is limited to non-renewable resources. Links are provided at the end of this post for those who wish to explore the topic further. 

A resource peak is the point in time when the maximum rate of global extraction for that resource is reached, after which the rate of extraction declines. M. King Hubbert  created a widely-used equation for forecasting crude oil extraction. This method has also been used to forecast the future availability of natural gas, coal, and many minerals, but oil still dominates the discussion of peak resources. Some believe peak oil extraction already occurred in 2008, but there is no broad consensus.

There is less information available forecasting peaks in other resources, but we can make an important link: peaks and declines in oil and other fossil fuels have wide ranging effects on the peak availability of all other resources. Although many of the minerals our technology uses are practically inexhaustible in terms of total resource base, the energy to be expended in reaching these resources and in refining ever lower grade resources in an age of increasing energy costs effectively advances peaks and declines in their availability.

We will concentrate not on the peak, but on the decline side of the resource availability curve after the peak. What does life look like as non-renewable resources become less plentiful and more difficult to extract? This all depends on a large set of variables that are difficult to forecast, including demand, availability of capital, development of new technology, population, and material standard of living. Limits to Growth provides examples of forecasting the interplay of these variables using many different scenarios.

We will never truly exhaust the supply of any non-renewable resource. As a given resource’s declining availability increases its cost, this results in decreased consumption of the resource and improves the economics of extracting less pure or harder to reach sources, in effect continually extending its date of complete depletion. In the case of oil, declining availability and rising price improves the payback of efficiency measures, alternative energy forms, and the extraction of lesser quality oil from tar sands, oil shale, and more difficult to reach areas (offshore, etc.). In the best case, this decreased consumption is offset by the increased consumption of other, less costly resources, or by new technology that allows us to obtain the resource more cheaply or use it more efficiently. If these offsetting measures are not available and demand remains high, then cost moves up sharply as the matching supply becomes more difficult to obtain.

This sort of description may lead us to place our faith in market forces, that declining resource availability will place sufficient pressure on the development of new technology combined with more efficiency in the use of resources. We believe it’s dangerous to place such faith in technology. John Michael Greer’s book “The Ecotechnic Future” has an insightful example of our passivity in the face of extreme resource change:

“When peak oil comes up for discussion outside the activist community, one of the most common responses to peak oil is, ‘Oh, they’ll think of something.’ If the person that makes this comment takes the time to expand on it, the underlying reasoning typically runs like this: every time the world is about to run out of some resource needed for progress, ‘they’ find something new, and the result is more progress.”

This is neither a reassuring nor responsible view of our future. Our industrial society is fueled by stored sunlight and founded upon abundant non-renewable resources. Can we be so sure that a high quality, portable source of energy as cheap as oil or coal lies just over the horizon, waiting for the right economic triggers? The risk is too great to remain passive, or to expect that improved technology can bring us through these transitions without also massively changing many other foundational qualities of our societies. We cannot accept that economics alone will catalyze technological innovation, that the future created by economic pressure on resource usage will be more prosperous, or that a transition to a different paradigm of resource consumption will be smooth or linear.

So what do we do? In the short term, we must use existing technologies to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and other critical non-renewable resources. In the mid-term, we must continue developing new technologies: continued efficiency gains in renewable energy sources, improved resource recycling technology, etc. In the long term (and this is Blue Design’s place), we must think about the very tail end of non-renewable resource decline, and realize that what we’re really talking about is a united relationship, a partnership with nature for renewable resources, and a different sort of technology that uses non-renewable resources in cycles and using sunlight following nature’s model.

We must also realize that the effect of these broad changes cascades through our societies: what we value, how we define prosperity, and how we each think about our place in the world. We must not view these projections of resource decline as predictions of coming collapse or the end of prosperity, but rather as a challenge we will rise to meet, and as a motivator to create a better world. This is the optimism of Blue Design.

“The problem is the solution.”  

For more information on peak resources:

The Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Bulletin “Peak Oil Primer” is an excellent introduction to peak oil.

Summary of the Hirsch Report, a 2005 study examining peak oil and alternatives for its decline, commissioned by the US Department of Energy.  

Limits to Exploitation of Non-Renewable Resources” was written in 1976. Its discussion remains relevant.

Peak Minerals,” the Oil Drum. 

New Scientist’s “Earth’s Natural Wealth: An Audit” (make sure to click on figure 2)

  • A Peak Resources Primer | Peter Larson & Blue Design

    [...] more on the subject, see Blue Design and Peak Resources. It contains the links to the resource availability projections referenced in the [...]

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