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We've Been Living Off Buried Treasure

By Sammy of Stone Marmot

Sept. 22, 2008

A fairy tale: A 30 year old man has been working for the past twelve years, earning an average of about $40,000 a year and living fairly comfortably. He is reasonably happy. One day this man finds a treasure chest. He opens it and finds $10,000,000 in gold inside it. He somehow finds a way to avoid taxes and counterclaims on it (Now this is REALLY a fairy tale!).

He figures he is now rich and can live the life of his dreams. He quits his job, buys a big house, fancy car, does a lot of foreign traveling, staying in luxury hotels and leaving big tips, spending extravagantly and wastefully. He ends up spending an average of $500,000 a year.

Ten years later, at age 40, he realizes he has already spent half of the worth of his treasure chest. At his present rate of consumption, he will be broke at age 50.

What does he do? Quit living so extravagantly and wastefully and cut back to about $50,000 or even $100,000 a year, which should last the rest of his life? After all, he was comfortable and happy many years ago on $40,000/year. But no, he can't even imagine any lifestyle other than the one he has been living the past ten years. Anything else would be like going back to living like a prehistoric caveman

So he continues his present lifestyle, but puts a little spare time aside looking for more buried treasure. And he is finding some. He is finding an average of about $1.15 a day in loose change that people have dropped. "There must be more buried treasure chests around here," he thinks. "After all, I have already found one treasure chest, and am finding occasional coins here and there, so there must be more treasure chests."

This is how most of us, particularly those of us in the United States, live with respect to oil. We are literally living off buried treasure. We've been living very extravagantly and wastefully off this treasure, figuring it would last forever (or at least the rest of our lives, which, to most of us in our infinite selfishness, is all that matters).

We have been told repeatedly since the 1960s that there is only so much oil in the ground. We have used about half of what has been found to date. We are always finding more, but it is "pocket change" compared to what we have found in the past and what we are presently consuming. The biggest oil find this century only provides us a couple more years of supply at present consumption rates, which are still steadily increasing.

Many of those who acknowledge that there may be a limited supply of oil behave like they expect oil to be the same price, dirt cheap, until the last drop is extracted from the ground. When we first started using petroleum on a large scale basis, we just had to go to some field or cow pasture, drill down a couple hundred feet, and it would gush out of the ground on its own pressure. Then, it was dirt cheap. Then it would no longer gush out of the ground on its own pressure. We needed big pumps, which need continuous energy to run, to extract it from the ground. This increased the cost of oil. Then we had to bore thousands of feet into the ground to find it. This increased costs more. Now we need big metal floating islands hundreds of miles offshore, drilling miles into the ground, the surface of which is a mile below their floating platform, islands that need to be serviced with ships and helicopters and are more subject to the whims of Mother Nature (like hurricanes). This has greatly increased the cost of oil. Or the oil is found on the other side of the world from where it is consumed, greatly increasing transportation costs. It is often found in unstable regions which require expensive security and greatly increased defense budgets (plus a big cost in human lives).

The point is that we have used up almost all the cheap oil. We continue to use the cheapest oil first, so all that remains is much more expensive to get. This also means we will never really run out of oil, at least not until our sun turns into a big red giant about five billion years from now and boils all the volatile substances, like oil (and us), off our planet. Instead, what will happen is that petroleum will get more and more expensive as it is harder to find and extract until it gets to some price, say $150,000 a gallon, where it will be too expensive to use compared to alternatives.

We also can't imagine any other lifestyle worth living if we aren't using energy at the rate we presently are. We think any other lifestyle would be like living like prehistoric cavemen. But right now, we are extremely wasteful in our use of energy. Some of that is due to present technology and can be partly improved with technological improvements. But the vast majority of the waste is due to our lifestyles

Most people also appear to believe that we are entitled to cheap and convenient energy, as if it was written in one of the Ten Commandments or is a natural result of Maxwell's Equations or Einstein's Theory Of Relativity. Grow up, people! Just because we had for a while some cheap and convenient form of energy in the past, that doesn't mean we are assured an equivalent alternative in the future.

Does this mean we are doomed to living in the Stone Ages again after this petroleum is mostly gone? No, not if we wake up, start using what we have more efficiently, and use what we have to prepare for an alternative lifestyle and economy that uses more renewable energy sources.

But the truth is most people don't care if we are running out of petroleum. They live in denial and only care that there is enough to make the rest of their lifetimes convenient and comfortable. After they are gone, they could care less what happens to the rest of the world, to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. These people, which are most of us, lie to themselves that some miracle is going to happen and everything will be fine. If this miracle never occurs, they won't know and care since they won't be here. They are only concerned that the oil lasts the rest of their lives.

I'm surprised the younger people haven't been more vocal about this. After all, anyone younger than the "Baby Boomer" generation will probably start to really be impacted by this in their lifetimes. Add in Social Security, pensions, health care, and global warming, the older generations are really throwing a heavy burden on the younger generations. Maybe that is the real reason so many older people are in denial about all this: They don't want to face a revolt they can't hope to suppress or win.

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