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When the Levees Break: Disasters Converging on a Finite Planet

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The 19th century novel Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates by American author Mary Mapes Dodge features a brief story-within-the-story that has become better known in popular culture than the book itself. It's the tale of a Dutch boy (in the novel he's called simply " The Hero of Haarlem") who saves his community by jamming his finger into a leaking levee. The boy stays all night, despite the cold, until village adults find him and repair the leak. His courageous action in holding back potential floodwaters has become celebrated in children's literature and art, to the point where it serves as a convenient metaphor.

Here in early 21st century there are three dams about to break, and in each case a calamity is being postponed-though not, in these cases, by the heroic digits of fictitious Dutch children.

A grasp of the status of these three delayed disasters, and what's putting them off, can be helpful in navigating waters that now rise slowly, though soon perhaps in torrents.

1. Unconventional fuels and production methods

I've written so much on the subject of peak oil, and some of it so recently, that it would be redundant to go into much detail here on that score. Suffice it to say that world conventional crude oil production has been flat-to-declining for eight years now. Declines of the world's supergiant oilfields will steepen in the years ahead. Petroleum is essential to the world economy and there is no ready and sufficient substitute. The potential consequences of peak oil include prolonged economic crisis and resource wars.

Producers of unconventional liquid fuels-tar sands, tight oil, and deepwater oil-are playing the role of Dutch boy in the energy world, though their motives may not be quite so altruistic. With unconventional sources included in the total, world petroleum production has grown somewhat in recent years, but oil prices are hovering at near-record levels (that's because unconventionals are expensive to produce). The oil industry has successfully used this meager success as a public relations tool, arguing that it can continue pulling rabbits out of hats for as long as needed and that policy makers therefore need do nothing to prepare society for a peak-oil future. In fact, world oil markets are depending almost entirely on continued increasing production from the US-all of which must come from fracked, horizontally drilled wells that decline rapidly-to keep supplies steady.     


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