Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Since about the year 2000, Richard C. Duncan has been maintaining, no doubt correctly, that global systemic collapse will be signaled by massive failures of electrical power. Recent events seem to vindicate his theory: power failures in the US have been increasing steadily for several years. Lisa Margonelli (2012, 13 July) concludes that annual outages have doubled since the early 1990s. She adds that it would require "$17 billion to $24 billion over the next 20 years" to improve the grid and reverse the trend. The figures she cites for blackouts of all sizes can be compared to those for the really big blackouts, affecting at least 1,000 people for at least one hour. For example, from 1965 to 2000 there was roughly one major blackout in the US every two years. From 2001 to 2011, on the other hand, there was an average of about one every six months. The year 2011 alone had six big ones.
In the long run, however, the dangers of electrical failure are more a problem of energy than of mechanics. The transformers and other mechanical components, in many cases decades-old and long overdue for replacement, are a relatively minor part of the problem in the US, even if billions of dollars would be needed to replace them. The trickiest problem will come when there isn't enough energy to keep them operating. But it's not so much a lack of energy, more a case of overload -- although that's roughly the same thing.
It's hard to visualize how much energy the industrial world now requires: over 500 exajoules per year. A single exajoule is "10 to the 18th power joules." The Tohoku earthquake that devastated Japan in 2011 was slightly more than a single exajoule. It is because of this enormous consumption of energy that "systemic collapse" isn't something we can dismiss as belonging to some vague and distant future. Duncan (2000, November 13; 2005-06, Winter) points out the following:
(1) Electricity forms the largest global "end" use of energy. Electricity consumes 43% of that end use, whereas oil as such consumes only 35% as end use.
(2) The production of energy in all forms is, as noted above, more than 500 exajoules per year. Nevertheless, that's nothing for anyone to feel content about, because global energy production "per capita" has actually been declining since 1979. (That's the same year that global oil production per capita began to decline, mainly because oil is a major component of energy sources.)
It's important to note that the use of electricity worldwide has been increasing every year. But it is mathematically impossible to maintain those two different curves -- declining total energy, increasing electricity -- for very much longer.
(3) Yet electricity is also problematic from a engineer's point of view (and Duncan is an engineer) because the equipment is always very fragile. It takes very little to knock out what has been called "the largest machine in history," the North American grid. It took very little to cause the big blackout of eastern North America in 2003. The problem is certainly intensified by the fact that so much of that grid consists of obsolete equipment that self-serving politicians prefer not to talk about. The mechanical fragility of electricity is what will make it the most-evident signal that our house of cards is about to tumble.
So, yes, it's possible that the problem of the "mechanics" of electricity will be visible before that of its "energy." But from a larger perspective it can be seen that it's the declining energy supply that is causing the mechanical failure. It's been said several times, by various people, that the US is operating with a Third World infrastructure. Everything is done with an eye to saving money, everything is bargain-basement economy, everything is being done "on the cheap" (even if the bankers and the generals never go hungry). But that bargain-basement economy in turn is caused by the vast, overall problem of resource decline. The mechanics and the energy are a curious conundrum, or maybe just an example of a vicious circle, a chain reaction, a feedback mechanism.
The shortage of natural resources, in other words, means that the US, like other countries, is becoming impoverished, and therefore cannot replace 1960s equipment. (Of course, if less was spent on war then more money would be freed up, but that's academic because the whole point of fighting so many wars at once is to maintain a grip on the fossil-fuel supplies and other resources.) At the same time, the biggest danger isn't the mechanical one, which admittedly can be fixed for a few billion dollars. The biggest problem is that sources of energy have been declining since 1979. That problem isn't fixable for any amount of money.
We may need to distinguish more clearly between those two types of major blackouts: (A) those caused by mechanical failure and (B) those caused by lack of energy source (coal, natural gas, uranium, whatever). The two would take place, and also would be observed, in different ways, although of course the two are related: a mechanical failure is most likely, after all, when there is an increase in the use of electricity.
Type A is exemplified by the big one of August 14, 2003 in northeastern North America. A small mechanical failure causes an unpredictable and instant failure of electrical power over a large area. There is no warning and no means of taking precautions, and the failure is total darkness, not merely a dimming. On the other hand, power is restored in a matter of hours or days.
Type B is common in many parts of the world today, and even California has seen this on occasion. In July 2012, 700 million people in India lost power through mechanical failure, but this was exacerbated by overload. The failure of power may take the form of either "brownouts" or "rolling blackouts." "Brownouts" are reductions in voltage, not always noticeable except perhaps by erratic behavior from the TV or a grunt from the refrigerator. "Rolling blackouts," on the other hand, are total (or near-total) shut-downs of power, and these may be planned and announced, moving from one neighborhood to another and cutting off all but essential services.
Duncan does not seem to distinguish these two types clearly, although he does refer to brownouts and rolling blackouts. But it may be that he is wrong to speak of Type B (as I call it) resulting in a "cliff" with sudden catastrophic results. A massive failure of electricity due to energy shortage (Type B) would quite possibly not be as swift as Duncan implies, at least in the early years of collapse, mainly because there is a good deal of waste that could be eliminated beforehand. However, even if this second type may at first seem less harmful than a mechanical failure, the difference is that the problem will eventually last more than a few hours or days. In fact, when the energy shortage is global, i.e. there is a permanent decline in fuels, there will come a point at which the lights go out everywhere, never to come on again.
How can the average person deal with all this on a daily basis? In the short term and on the small scale, it's possible to prepare for electrical failures by maintaining a good supply of water, candles, batteries, matches, canned food, toilet paper, and cash (since all business will be "cash only"). The car's gas tank should be kept topped up, for whatever that practice is worth, because the pumps won't be working without electricity, even if there is any gas down below the pumps. But short-term answers are not the same as long-term ones. We might remember Iraq's much longer problem of inadequate electrical power, the effect of war. As the days slide into months, the priorities will begin to change: dysentery, for example, can set in from inadequate water supplies. And that in itself would be only the beginning of the long-term troubles. Imagine a world without transportation, communication, finance, mining, manufacturing, or agriculture, at least in any forms with which we are familiar.
Duncan, R. C. (2000, November 13). The peak of world oil production and the road to the Olduvai Gorge. Geological Society of America, Summit 2000. Reno, Nevada. Retrieved from http://www.dieoff.org/page224.htm
------. (2005-06, Winter). The Olduvai theory: Energy, population, and industrial civilization. The Social Contract. Retrieved from http://www.thesocialcontract.com/pdf/sixteen-two/xvi-2-93.pdf
Margonelli, L. (2012, 13 July). Electric forecast calls for increasing blackouts. Pacific Standard. Retrieved from
Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)
Thursday, February 14, 2013
A guest post by Post Peak Medicine
(Warning: I realize that narcotic addiction is a serious problem, I take it seriously in real life, and this article is for entertainment purposes only. Don't try this at home.)
Narcotic addiction is a growing problem throughout the industrialized world. Nobody seems to be quite sure why this is happening, but it may be related in some way to the parallel increases in obesity (food addiction) and anxiety / depression (tranquillizer and antidepressant addiction). Maybe these things are a subconscious reaction to our hyper-complex, unstable society and its imminent collapse, which people intuitively feel rather than consciously understand. As a result, doctors spend an increasing amount of time dealing with narcotic addicts who are not particularly ill but who are trying to wheedle narcotic prescriptions. This often causes doctor-patient friction, but much of this friction could be avoided if narcotic addicts would follow a few simple rules. Here is a list of a few Do's and Dont's:
DO have something physically wrong with you. Strange but true: in order to get a prescription from the doctor, you have to be ill. The doctor may take your back pain or fibromyalgia at face value for a while, but he is likely to want some x-rays, scans or specialist reports to back him up if he is ever audited. So you need to co-operate with any tests or referrals he orders. If you persistently "no-show" for your test appointments, your doctor-patient relationship isn't going to last long.
DO understand the limits. Most countries, states and provinces have guidelines for an upper limit for narcotic prescriptions. In Canada, for example, it's 200 Morphine Equivalents (MEQ) per day. This means a daily total of 200mg of morphine, 130mg of oxycodone or 40mg of hydromorphone. You can find out what the guidelines are for your area by looking on the Internet. Your doc is unlikely to prescribe in excess of the guidelines because if he does, he puts his license at risk. That's why, if you keep pestering him to raise your narcotic dosage, you will eventually reach a "glass ceiling" after which he won't raise it any further. Accept that that's the limit and don't push your luck by arguing with him. I had one patient argue with me for half an hour about his narcotic dose (which was over the limit) at the end of which I refused to give him any prescription and removed him from my practice, which wasn't an outcome which either of us wanted.
DO try to remain invisible. By this I mean don't pester your doc every week for narcotics. If he gives you a three month prescription, that is a strong hint that he doesn't expect to see you again until it's time for renewal. When your chart lands on your doc's desk, you do not want him to groan and think "Oh no, not him/her again". You want him to think "who is this?" because he only sees you four times a year.
DO make sure that any excuses or explanations you give to the doctor are consistent with the known laws of physics and biology. One druggie claimed that she wanted an early renewal of her narcotic prescription because she was flying out to help her daughter who was about to have a baby. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and gave her a prescription. She came back again three months later with exactly the same story, having forgotten that was what she said the last time. She didn't get her prescription the second time.
DO be prepared for follow-up questions from the doc. Here is a faithful reproduction of a conversation I had with one druggie, which illustrates how not to do it. Again it concerns a supposedly pregnant daughter. There must be a lot of it about.
Druggie: I need an early renewal of my narcotic prescription because my daughter is about to have a baby and I am flying out tonight to help her.
Me: Of course, I'm happy to help. Tell me where the nearest pharmacy is to where your daughter lives and I will fax your prescription there.
Druggie: I don't know which is the nearest pharmacy.
Me: That's OK, I can look it up. Which village or town does your daughter live in or near?
Druggie: I don't know.
This druggie's brain must have been so addled with narcotics, or withdrawal from narcotics, that she hardly knew what she was saying. Which was a good reason for stopping her narcotics. Which was exactly what I did.
DO give your doc gifts from time to time. I'm not talking about large gifts. If you want, you could try giving your doc an envelope full of cash, and if he accepts it, that could be the start of a very interesting conversation which is beyond the scope of this article. But that's not the kind of gift I am talking about. For example, when I was working in Newfoundland, I frequently received gifts of live lobsters from the fishermen during the lobster fishing season. At first I assumed that this was an example of the open hearted generosity for which the Newfoundlanders are justly famous, but then I realized that nearly all of the lobster bearers were on long term narcotics initiated by my predecessor. Then I began to wonder if there was something more to the lobsters than met the eye and whether I was expected to reciprocate in some way. Other gifts which I have received include: a home written poem, the loan of a book (which I read and returned) and a souvenir of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Most of these gifts have no little or no financial value. If you give your doc a gift like this, what you are trying to do is create the impression in his mind that you are a nice person and that he should be nice to you in return. It often works.
DO try to brazen it out if you are in a tight corner and there's no alternative. It may not work but it's worth a try. Here's an example of a patient I saw, and I'm fairly sure he had learned this trick by watching his defense lawyer cross-examine the prosecution witnesses. This patient was well known to my reception staff. He used to walk into the office for his narcotic prescription renewals very slowly, limping and apparently in great pain. However, my staff had seen him in the town walking briskly with no limp at all. After he got his prescription, I and two of my staff surreptitiously watched him leave. When he thought nobody was looking, he jumped on his bicycle and rode off at speed, weaving athletically in and out of the cars.
The next time he came for his prescription renewal, I challenged him about this and told him what we had seen. Poker-faced, he denied it, insisted that we had made a mistake, that it must have been someone else who looked like him, that we were too far away to get a good view, that he wouldn't dream of doing anything like that, and so on. He seemed so genuinely hurt by my suggestion that I began to doubt the evidence of my own eyes, and thought "well, I did mostly just see the back of his head from a distance when he was riding off, maybe I was mistaken and it was someone else" and I gave him his narcotic prescription. And then I surreptitiously watched him as he left the office – and he did exactly the same thing again. He almost got away with it, but he pushed his luck too far, and he didn't get any more narcotic prescriptions from me.
DO consider medical marijuana as an alternative to narcotics. It's probably more fun and better for you. Not all docs are sympathetic to this, but it's worth asking. You will have to comply with whatever the local eligibility regulations are.
DO NOT take cocaine within 5 days of going to see your doc for your prescription renewal. If the doc does a random urine drug screen and finds cocaine, it's basically game over and you will be finding yourself another doc in fairly short order. And don't waste time trying the old excuse of "Somebody spiked my drink" because he's heard it many times before. Weight for weight, cocaine is similar in value to gold dust, and you don't get generous strangers putting gold dust in your drink.
DO NOT think you can beat the system by filling your urine specimen bottle with water. That's the first thing the lab looks for. If the doc finds water in your random drug screen, he is going to assume that if it was urine it would have contained cocaine, and the result will be similar.
DO NOT be rude to the reception staff, or you will be out of the office faster than you can blink.
DO NOT double-doctor or double pharmacy. Docs and pharmacists talk to each other and are backed up by electronic cross-checking systems. Anything like this is likely to be picked up very quickly.
DO NOT tell the doc that you need some more narcotics because you accidentally flushed them down the toilet. Or that the kid you were babysitting flushed them down the toilet. Or that your mother in law was cleaning your apartment and flushed them down the toilet. When talking to your doc, the words "narcotics" and "toilet" should not occur in the same sentence. Telling your doc that your narcotics were flushed down the toilet is equivalent to taking a permanent marker and writing "DRUG ABUSER" across your forehead.
DO get a life. I can think of few things more boring and pointless than spending a large part of your day trying to score narcotics prescriptions.
"Post Peak Medicine" is a family physician in Ontario, Canada.