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Resource Wars, Water Shortages and Famine
- Part 5

February 2007

Fossil Fuels at Peak

Resource Wars, Water Shortages and Famine
- Part 5

by John Rawlins

John Rawlins has a B.S. in physics and a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. He retired in 1995 from the Westinghouse Hanford Co. at the Hanford site in Eastern Washington. Currently, he teaches physics and astronomy at Whatcom Community College.

Part 5

My wife, our older son and his wife and I spent two weeks in December on vacation in New Zealand, followed by a few days in Fiji on the way back home. I tend to look at new-to-me places now through the lens of peak oil and climate change, a view that can be depressing to fellow travelers when I can’t keep my mouth shut. Just reading peak oil news frequently had led me to imagine a different, more positive version of New Zealand than the one I actually experienced. What we saw was a partial look, because we only traveled around the south island, so my perceptions are incomplete.

My youngest son had just finished a year abroad of study at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, which is at about the half-way north-south point of the south island, on the east coast. He’s an outdoor kind of guy and during his stay he had been just about everywhere on the south island, so he was our tour guide and driver. Most of us were afraid to drive … with the driver on the right side of the car and driving on the left side of the road.

We ended up circumnavigating the island in about 10 days, including one three-day ocean kayak trip. The season was the beginning of their summer, equivalent to June in Bellingham — cool and variable weather just like here. The year-round climate is similar to the west coast climate in Oregon and Washington, except that freezes are rare.

A few things were noticeable immediately even in the city of Christchurch. Most cars were compact cars, with hardly any SUVs or large pickup trucks. There was heavy traffic in the sprawling city, so clearly their city culture is similar to that in the U.S. and peak oil will take a toll. The price of fuel was comparable with that in Europe, which is almost twice as high as in the U.S. We saw far fewer McMansions, likely a consequence of having to provide space heating with electricity. Likewise, the buildings were generally smaller, with hardly any high-rise buildings in any of the towns we visited.

Sheep, Deer and Cattle

What we saw outside of the towns was primarily a monoculture of sheep eating ryegrass. The country with a population of about four million humans reportedly has around 60 million sheep. We were rarely out of sight of large fenced fields containing hundreds of sheep. In the vicinity of the major towns we also saw some vegetable agriculture, and my impression was that most of the produce was local — although I don’t know whether that would be true in their winter.

There is a significant beef industry as well, and we saw perhaps an even larger venison influence, with occasional large fields populated by very large herds of deer that looked like a cross of our whitetail deer and our elk. These red deer came from England and Scotland in the 19th century, and uncontrolled reproduction led to their being viewed as pests by the mid-20th century.

In the early 1970s farmers began domesticating them for meat and velvet (from the males only), and over the last decade they produced about half a million animals a year from a total population of about 1.7 million deer. This comprises about half the world’s domesticated number of deer. Most of the exported venison goes to Scandinavia — a situation likely to be altered on the downside of peak oil. Similarly, all other animal-derived exports will likely be challenged by the post-peak economics.

New Zealanders spend relatively little wealth constructing roads. All the roads we traveled, except for those close to large towns, were two-lane roads. And most of the bridges were one-lane construction, with helpful right-of-way arrows for the uninitiated. The most striking difference from traffic in the U.S. was the very low traffic density outside the towns. There was never an incidence even remotely resembling the situation on freeways in the middle of nowhere in the U.S.

Arable Land and Plenty of Water

Overall, New Zealand will be in relatively good position to cope with the aftereffects of peak oil because of the large amount of arable land relative to the population, plenty of water and physical isolation. Currently, total exports and imports are in balance. They will likely see significant reduction in wealth because of the great distances their animal product exports must travel. Their glaciers are among the very few in the world that are expanding now, so perhaps global warming will deal residents a relatively benign hand.

The electricity supply is mainly from hydroelectric plants (67 percent), geothermal (6.5 percent), natural gas (22 percent), with the remainder (4.5 percent) from coal, wind and landfill gas. Thus, three-quarters of the electric supply is from renewable sources, a relatively healthy situation to be in should the world adopt stringent greenhouse gas restrictions.

In a post-peak-oil world, the primary resources I saw that might interest foreigners were arable land and plenty of water. However, the large distances to anywhere with high population may prove a major barrier to immigration. In summary, New Zealand seemed to be a relatively good place to hang out in a post-carbon world — if you like mutton and wool clothing and gobs of outdoor activities.

Fiji Is an Equatorial Third World Region

Unlike the first-world experience of New Zealand, Fiji is an equatorial third-world affair. The country consists of two big islands and many smaller ones. Most of the main island (Viti Levu) is in sugar cultivation, and sugar is one of the main exports along with garments, fish and mineral water. The one gold mine on Viti Levu shut down at the beginning of 2007, throwing 1,700 people out of jobs, which will likely decimate one of the towns we drove through.

Fiji apparently has about a billion dollars worth of negative balance of trade annually. Tourism is now the leading economic activity in Fiji. I asked our driver whether he had ever heard of converting sugar into ethanol for transport fuel, and replied that he had not. As exporting sugar and transport fuel becomes more expensive, surely some relatively wealthy Indo-Fijian entrepreneur will begin to copy the Brazilian experience and divert some of the sugar crop to ethanol production for local use. Incidentally, the manual labor involved in getting sugar cane from the field to the truck in that climate would have to rate high on the list of toughest physical jobs on the planet.

The two-lane roads have lots of potholes and enough traffic to make travel a slow proposition. The first thing a car passenger from the states would notice is the cloud of smoke coming from the tailpipe of every vehicle. Our driver explained that Fiji does not use gasoline or diesel, but some other low quality of fuel similar to kerosene — which smokes even in a new engine (which is rare).

The many buses get heavy use throughout the countryside, and they smoke in proportion to their size and age. Another popular form of transport is the bed of old Mazda pickups with a make-shift canopy over the back; typically four to six passengers will be in the pickup bed and two in the cab.

The villages are small enough to be entirely walkable for inhabitants. Some had traditional style grocery stores, but the nicer ones had large covered markets in the center of town, with a huge variety of vegetables (most of which I didn’t recognize). About 60 percent of the population is involved in some way with agriculture — a cultural property unknown in first-world countries at this point in history. The subsistence agriculture is one of Fiji’s best assets as peak oil looms; the food supply is relatively independent of all fossil fuels.

Also obvious to tourists is a quaint non-fossil fuel practice for controlling the length of grass — goats and some cattle, tethered to a movable pole and mowing the grass, are almost everywhere. Fencing would be too expensive for most Fijians. Homes were small, many made from random re-used parts, and crowded.

Our driver had a relatively good job for Fiji, and he had little hope of ever owning his own vehicle or traveling to another country. He also explained that, for someone who wants to stay in Fiji, a higher education is mostly a waste of time and money. There are higher education opportunities in Fiji, but most of the graduates leave the country. All in all, I had an impression of looking at a place like Whatcom County 100 years from now — almost sustainable, with little contact with the outside world, where the electricity works occasionally.

Some Countries Overpump Important Aquifers

Both these countries appeared to have adequate water supplies, but that is not the general rule for the populated countries of the world. In Lester Brown’s book “Plan B 2.0,” there is a list of countries that are overpumping important aquifers in grain-producing regions. The list includes China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Mexico, Israel and the United States.

The only countries on that short list without nuclear weapons are Iran and Mexico, and Iran might still have ambitions in that department. The total population of all the countries in Brown’s list is 3.3 billion, or about half the world’s 2006 population. In the more arid regions, such as the southwestern part of the U.S., the loss of irrigation water from fossil water aquifers means the end of agriculture. In other regions, it means less crop production as farmers turn to dryland methods.

In the U.S., possibly the most important water issue of the 21st century will be on use of the vast Ogallala aquifer that underlies the Great Plains from South Dakota to Texas. The recharge rate is very slow (far less than the withdrawal rate), and horizontal migration of water within the aquifer is very slow.

The USDA now reports that, in three major grain-producing states (Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma), the aquifer surface has already dropped by 100 feet and thousands of wells have gone dry in that region. Even so, irrigated land accounts for only 20 percent of U.S. grain production, so loss of irrigated production in this entire region will be relatively benign. The comparable percentages in India and China are 60 and 80 percent, respectively, and much of those irrigated regions is at risk of severe water shortage.

The entire world water situation as portrayed in Brown’s book is so worrisome that anyone moving anywhere would be well advised to check out the region’s present and future water supply and use patterns very, very carefully. Such an assessment must obviously include expected effects on precipitation arising from climate change. Peak food production in the world apparently arrived in 2006, and a significant cause of lack of growth was and is water supply.

Peak food production should, in principal, awaken us to the need for a peak population policy, as opposed to zero population growth. Unfortunately, population control policy is and will probably always be a political non-starter for ideological reasons. Sooner or later, however, energy descent will assure food descent, and food descent will then control the health and population numbers. As the human population, over the next century or more, finds its way to sustainable (post-carbon) numbers, there must be increased levels of poor nutrition, aka famine.

At present, poor countries that have depended on oil for agriculture will suddenly find themselves unable to produce as much food as they need, and unless they have something of value to trade, they will experience increased famine. The present method for allocating oil is by making economic deals or buying it on the world market — which simply means poorer countries will suddenly be unable to purchase the stuff in a post-peak era.

Unless the industrialized world has an attack of conscience and agrees to allocate oil on some other equitable basis, entire countries will fall off the oil wagon one by one, and their populations will then decrease eventually to sustainable levels.

Clearly, absent a new method of allocating precious oil, at some point in the future world oil production will fall to the level at which some of the nuclear weapon countries will not have enough fuel to maintain the required food production. The thought of a nuclear China (or India or Pakistan) experiencing widespread famine, with a clear indication of things getting even worse for decades, should be specter enough to scare the world’s governments into cooperative action.

Carter Doctrine and Resource Wars

This food-oil connection resulted in oil being declared a “strategic” resource (e.g., a resource we must have) in 1979 by President Carter. The Carter Doctrine goes on to say that the U.S. will do anything to guarantee U.S. access to Middle East oil, in particular. I firmly believe that “anything” in recent years translates to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Only yesterday I read about U.S. senators grousing because the expected oil deal handing over development and control of Iraqi oil to BP, Shell and ExxonMobil has been delayed.

Some believe that Iraq may have large undiscovered reserves in its western region that will rival those of Saudi Arabia. One has to wonder: Is protection of those potential oilfields the prime motivation for construction of the new U.S. embassy and military bases in Iraq? If so, that would amount to a stupefying amount of wealth (think trillions) for taxpayers to invest on behalf of the oil majors. Was/is the U.S.-Iraq conflict merely the first of many resource wars to be fought over oil? If so, who is next?

As disturbing as is the strong possibility that Iraq represents the first of a series of oil wars, resource wars are hardly new to the U.S. In fact, the would be the norm for the past century. Stephen Kinzer’s book “Overthrow” documents many U.S.-initiated regime change operations around the world, most having to do with some resource important to U.S. corporations.

This is a book well worth reading for insight into how our government cooperates with its corporate backers to change leadership in foreign countries, when that leadership is at odds with those corporate interests. Standard introductory history courses in our education system do not teach this stuff; that could risk leading to widespread disaffection with our entire system of government.

That history, combined with the specific identification of oil in other countries as a strategic resource important to the U.S., also combined with the well-known facts of oil depletion, should indeed lead us to expect the “war on terror” to last until there is not enough oil left to fight over. For our younger men and women, the challenge will be to come to terms with the expectation that they will be fighting these wars. For older people, the challenge will be to support the younger generation’s personal choices and to mourn the losers. Both political parties are complicit in this policy, so I expect little change in the next couple of decades. But of course, I am a pessimist by nature.

The next article in this series will be on a future-looking optimistic note, the subject of sustainable food growing. I will summarize some of the ideas behind permaculture and agroecology (aka bio-intensive gardening/farming) as two leading concepts for the future of food production. §


•Lester R. Brown, “Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble.”

•Michael T. Klare, “Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum” (also author of “Resource Wars”).

•Stephen Kinzer, “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.”

•Craig Unger, “House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties.”

•John Perkins, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.”

•William Clark, “Petrodollar Warfare: Oil, Iraq and the Future of the Dollar.”

•Online article illustrating how U.S. ethanol thirst hurts the poor in Africa:

•Online article showing other impacts of U.S. ethanol thirst:

•Online article showing how our ethanol thirst affects the price of Mexican tortillas:


Note: See Whatcom Watch, January 2007, page 2, for a book review of reference number 5, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” — for me this was a spellbinding book. It links up well with reference number 3.

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