Monday, September 29, 2008

Peak Oil in the Outback

The following is from an email from Chris, who lives and works in Alice Springs, Australia. It offers an interesting perspective on hitting the peak oil wall in resource exploitation, the scant possibilities of continuing family life as we know it post-peak, and on what it means to be a native (in the truest sense).

“Peakers” are still rare out here. I met my 1st one here in 1972. Not in the fully developed intellectual sense; yet nonetheless prophetic.

An aboriginal school teacher at the time, a friend of my fathers. I was five years old, a migrant from the USA, I wanted to know how aboriginal people saw white people.

His response was unforgettable: “You guys say we’ve been here 40,000 years; we say since the dreamtime. You may as well call it forever. You guys got here yesterday and tomorrow, you’ll be gone. But we will still be here.”

I know some cattlemen here who 5 years ago were burning $40,000 in diesel to run split system air conditioners to keep a whole house cool through the long hot desert summer. Of course these costs are moving exponentially. This seems to be a crazy amount to be spending on micro climate control; yet the purpose is to make it livable for non native women. One farmer told me that when the generator breaks down his wife just jumps in the car and drives 400 miles to Darwin; she will stay in an air conditioned motel until the generator is fixed. Without these women, the outback white community will cease to exist.

This is just the tip of an iceberg emerging through the fog out here in the desert. A huge amount of the economy is based on speculative ventures in mining, for example, where all of the feasibility projections are assuming ridiculously low energy costs. Major negotiations are underway towards a huge boost in uranium mining, huge royalties will go to largely mal adjusted aboriginal people as cash. The Government is by far the biggest employer and spender out here, largely on programs designed to help the Aboriginal people here. Of course they are mostly designed to help make these people more like whites; generally they are a dismal failure.

In short, my father’s friend’s philosophical perspective nearly forty years ago, seems ripe fruit soon ready for harvest.


NeilLoriGreenhawk said...

The Outback and the town of Alice Springs are quite similar to the US West and its high deserts. Dmitry can you imagine being in Lost Vegas or Fiery Phoenix in the middle of the afternoon without air conditioning? We would roast like peanuts. These places are not sustainable. Note: many of these cities and towns have the water piped in. Thank you, Neil Lori Greenhawk Patriot

Nancy said...

I have been in Alice Springs in June, when they had an unusually wet year (there was water in the rivers) but the heat was like a fist pounding on top of your head.
I got an Akubra hat, not for the fashion, but because it was working better than my Sol-Umbra model.

And I noted that the native Aboriginal people very sensibly spent the day in the river; the adults sat under bark lean tos in the shade of the trees, sitting in the shallows, and the kids playing in the sunnier areas.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen--and women--go out in the noonday sun, y'know. If we did what the native people did, and rest during the hot part of the day, we'd not 'roast like peanuts' unless we insisted on doing everything OUR way. Sensible people take sensible measures in extreme weather.

You won't have the a.c. much longer.

Chris Outback said...

Chris Outback: something fishy here! June is the middle of winter here with maximums of about 16-20C& frosty nights. So if you think it was hot in June? Also to mention the glorious relaxed lifestyle here without mentioning alcohol? Unfortunately many aboriginal people will be totally unready for the collapse. They have become almost utterly car dependent, very little traditional food gathering still takes place; alcoholism is rife.

Nancy said...

You are right, Chris Outback. I was actually in Alice Springs in February, which is more like your summer. I get my months mixed up sometimes.

Russian President said...

it seems what has been described in the book "Reinventing Collapse" has already started:

Anonymous said...

Opal mining in Coober Pedy is already collapsing, and that town is a total one trick pony. Alice runs on mining and tourism. Not that different to the bulk of the Australian economy apart from the rest having a sliver of agriculture on top.

My country will become a sleepy backwater again, mostly forgotten by the rest of the world. I view this as the best possible outcome compared to the chaos that is likely to break out elsewhere. Here we are all too far apart to get in each others way much. No one can be bothered travelling 100km to slap their nemesis in the face.

The flipside is that no-one will be coming to help us either, so we have to be prepared to solve our own problems.

Ben in Gladstone said...

Good potential for solar though!

Australia just needs to build or buy enough solar stations before the collapse.

As for the farmer's wife is this common or a one off ocurrence? I know the fly-in-fly-out thing has been taking off (no pun intended) for a while now. Maybe the white wimmin can stay on the coast while the men tough it out in never-never.

When I was touring the North on holiday earlier this year there was a lot of talk about outback depopulation. Maybe the Aboriginal teacher had a point. However in Mount Isa there are plenty of people to work the mine and not enough housing. You think when you can let a chicken shed for $400 per week there would be a roaring trade in pre-fab housing. Maybe the QLD govt is stopping this. I don't know. Also why not force people who buy A/C to get PVs on the roof as well. At least when the sun is shining the A/C will be blowing.

What I do know is that the outback areas are being dug out and farmed out to send all the money to state capitals to build endless equally unsustainable suburbs to cater for new, economically useless immigrants wanting to live the beachside Aussie dream.

Anonymous said...

Alice Springs also has a huge military base nearby with scientists doing something--there's also a no-go zone where even the locals have no idea what is going on. Australia won't be ignored...unfortunately for its people...until the 'American Empire' well and truly ends.

Chris Outback said...

Ben, Alice has virtually zero real unemployment like Isa; yet if you look into it the mining boom is doomed.(Tourism in Alice is down 40% this year also) The machines which do 99% of real work on mines run on diesel, to pull stuff out, shipped with diesel again, mostly to China. China is utterly dependent on western consumerism to fuel its manufacturing sector. The whole deal is a house of cards; oil is the 1st of many key resources to go,have a look at peak phosphate for instance. As for migrants being economicly useless? 90% are highly skilled, valiant consumers.How relevant any of our skills will be in the new world is the question. The big issues on the horizon will not be solved with zenophobic scapegoating. If you really want to understand the depths of the issue read up on sites like,, Photvoltiacs running aircon? They barely make the energy required to replace them in their lifecycle, they are effectively a fashion statement.Our whole lives are about to completely change& there aint no tech fix that will allow us to keep going the way we are. We can look at this as a disaster or we may choose to see it as the biggest adventure humanity has ever had. Isa's greatest resource will be its bush, lakes& rivers in the not too distant future, buy a canoe& find your spot, beat the rush!

Chris Outback said...

Anon; don't be surprised if we suddenly have 5,000,000 USA refugees here! Remember how they saved us in the Coral Sea war& kept our neighbors at bay since? Guess what? It's payback time; google american refugees& see what is already happening in Canada.

Ben in Gladstone said...

Hi Chris

I am basically in agreement with you on a lot of things. I found this article from the Oil Drum website so I am fairly au fait with the state of things. I am also an Electrical Engineer by trade so I am hopeful about the future in a way that I suspect you are not.

I am not sure about what you say about PVs however. I do remember that they return about 3 times as much energy in their typical lifetime as goes into their production. I would imagine hauling a tonne of diesel from Saudi would have a similar energy return. The efficiency can also be improved by concentrating the sun using a dish like is done in the Outback settlement of Hermannsburg.

As for migrants to Australia you need to read Tim Flannery's book "the future eaters". He sums up the past, present and future of Australia very well I think. He say you can have a population of 10 million doing well or 30 million doing badly and damaging the environment. At the moment Australia is heading towards the 30 million end.

I know what you mean about the tourism. I visited Undara Lava tubes during my journey to the North. They said that tourism was down by 75% and almost all thie international tourists had gone. All due to peak oil.

Take this away with you!
Australia could get all of its current energy use from a 100km x 100km square of outback desert covered with concentrating solar collectors like in the SEGS array in the US. It would take a lot to build but the alternative is unthinkable. According to Flannery the continent can only support about 300,000 people on subsistence agriculture.

Chris Outback said...

Hi Ben, whist I agree there has been massive innovation in thermo solar in particular; this is the simplest equation: everythng we do has a net enorgy cost. Currently our energy use in the form of juoles is astronomical. In the short time we have left before oil rips a great hole in our productive capacity, we will not have time to build this massive solar aternative. There is an economic theory called the law of the inertia of established capital. i.e the $ made keeps trying to make more $ in the same way it has made $. Logical people have been saying for many decades the key to our future is to invest a massive proportion of our productivity into sustainable systems. These calls have been ignored far too long. Even if your magic 100KMsq materilased tomorrow, where is all the required modified transport coming from? What is the oil& carbon footprint of the estabishment of economy designed around the new systems? Note the predictions of Orlov, we are moving through a period of denial, from ignorance to awareness. The marked sign as predicted is finacial collapse (Due to speculation of business on stable oil prices for many years ahead) the next stage is commercial collapse, funds dry up for investment, business becomes inslovent. Next is blackout/brownout period. This is happening as we speak in the majority of the world. Check out Olduvai. Its an ugly but nonetheless true mathematical equation. We have taken energy as God's gift& used what could have lasted thousands of years of carefull exploitation in a mere century. So we could drive around in big flash cars eating food from thousands of miles away; thinking we were kings. Its the end of that game, the beginning of something completely different.

Anonymous said...

Completely agree with Chris Outback!
And I have to add that not only we had destroyed the material future, we also ruined the moral of the society for several generations ahead.

chrisinphilippines said...

Since writing this article I have moved to The Republic of The Philippines. I may still be returning to Australia IF the transport is available; however I am building a largish boat here anyway so I may be able to sail back there at some point anyway. Although most here have no conception of what is going on in the markets; they are far better prepared, at least in the provinces, than modernized countries. People still pump their own water from the ground by hand, almost all grow food of some kind in their yards; the transport is mostly public or small engined motorbikes and pushbikes. People are still using caribou as working animals; food is mostly grown near where it will be consumed. Also debt is far less rife here. Anyway my garden is growing, my fishing skills improving and my boat is under construction. In some ways the ignorance of the Peak Oil issues here is a blessing, I've seen almost no sign of the depression starting to creep into Australia.