16 September 2011

The Jesus Bolt


The Jesus Bolt is a single point in a system that, when it fails, brings disaster. Typically the flight is going swimmingly, and hints that trouble is afoot are evident only in hindsight. Unnoticed, the part does its job, until it breaks with no warning.


If there is a Jesus Bolt for humanity, what would it be? What single failure could occur that is as potent for humanity?


To qualify for this glorious but dubious role the bolt must occupy a key position upon which the wings and frame of civilisation rest. It is the junction between major parts. Being a bolt, it holds them together and when not joined, the parts do not function.


The bolt is of course a metaphor as well as a real example. In your life or in your work you can probably think of significant individuals who keep the show running. Without sounding mercenary, you might think of some who are important but can be replaced. Some however seem irreplaceable.


These people achieve this status not just because of their character, but because they are well connected.  For example you may have heard that via six degrees of separation you can theoretically reach any of the other 6.7 billion people on the planet. What makes this possible is the presence of a relatively small number of individuals who link distant parts of the network.


Often we intuitively recognise a Jesus Bolt, even if we don’t acknowledge it. I think one sign would be the amount of attention it gets, either overtly or otherwise. Major players have large investments, and expect profits to match. Change not only diminishes the value of the current investment, but brings new risks, and changes power relationships.  Threats can be met with a furious response.


I am of course talking about oil.  The printing ink you are reading is an oil based product. The keyboard I am typing on is made from plastic, derived from oil. My breakfast cereal was grown, fertilised, processed, and delivered from crops using the products of oil. It is hard to imagine a single activity or product that is not, in some way, powered by oil.


Estimates of how much oil we have vary wildly, but the key moment is not when it runs out, but when supply cannot meet demand.


Some say we are close to so-called peak oil right now, but whether it is today, ten, or even twenty years away, that is not long. That’s not much time to prepare. The 700,000* cars already produced this year are not going to run on hydrogen.


Surprisingly, this is not the first oil crisis. The first occurred in the 19th century when much of the world was powered by whale oil boiled down from blubber in giant pots. The industry peaked in 1946 when there were 900 ships around the globe. In 1853, 8,000 whales were slaughtered for their oil, and sundry other parts used in corsets, perfume, lubricants and candles.


As the supply of whales was depleted, ships were forced to travel further, and take greater risks. The price rose, but the end of whale oil was as much triggered by the discovery of a cheap, abundant alternative.


In the 9th century, Persian scholar Razi was the first to distil kerosene, and in 1851 Samuel Kier began selling kerosene to local miners distilled from crude oil using a process he invented. This, and the discovery of vast reserves were precursors of the modern oil era.


Dirty environmental impacts aside, oil has been an amazing boon for humanity. It is, in effect, the product of an enormous, complex manufacturing process brewing millions of tonnes of organic debris in deposits we can extract with relative ease. The energy density of oil is high, and we have structured our economies around it.


Finding adequate replacements is a big ask. Initially it has to overcome the price advantage against oil’s head start. It has to provide safe, energy intense, portable fuel, with low environmental impact.


In looking for a good alternative we also have to think about the amount of energy returned for he amount we put in. A problem with ethanol from biofuels is the amount of energy you need to grow, transport, and process the raw materials. Extracting ethanol from the mush brewed in a vat saps energy, and the entire cycle may actual cost more energy than it produces.


Vast reserves of oil sands in Alaska, and shale oil deposits elsewhere face similar challenges. It takes so much energy to get a useable product out, it’s marginal whether it’s worth doing.


So as I watch the signs of the slowly unwinding bolt, what alarms me most is our wishful imagining that a quick twist of the spanner is all that’s needed. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s that simple.


* www.worldometers.info


Robert Rapier interview by Rod   http://fuzzylogicon2xx.podbean.com/2008/10/09/the-future-of-oil/


Robert’s blog http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com



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