Stuart McMillen, an Australian comic artist, recently released a new comic about Buckminster Fuller’s idea that we all have thousands of “energy slaves” working for us in the form of finite fossil fuels. I particularly enjoyed these two slides which show how we are deluding ourselves into thinking that our unsustainable lifestyle, fueled by a one-shot expenditure of millions of years of stored sunlight is somehow “normal”:
It’s interesting that Buckminster Fuller calculated that the average person working full time could generate the equivalent of 14 liters (3.7 gallons) of gasoline per year. As I showed in my post last week, global oil production is about 4.5 barrels per capita per year (715 liters). It’s like there are 50 energy slave for every person on earth (and that’s just oil and doesn’t include gas and coal). But then of course a small fraction of the people in the world have thousands of energy slaves while the vast number of people have far less than 1 energy slave. When you consider that we have probably reached peak net oil per capital (after accounting for declining EROEI), we’ll all have fewer energy slaves going forward, forcing us into a more sustainable lifestyle.
The supermajor oil and gas companies reached peak oil in 1973. This was a “political peak” caused by oil reserve nationalizations.
They reached a second peak in 1998 and oil production has declined by about 2 million barrels per day between the companies.
The companies reached peak gas in 2010.
After reaching peak oil and peak gas the companies ramped up capital spending, ultimately hitting a peak of capital spending of over $60 billion per quarter in 2013. Capital spending has crashed since 2013, reaching levels not seen for over two decades.
Meanwhile global oil production continues to grow, approaching the psychologically significant value of 100 million barrels of oil per day.
However on a per-capita basis global oil production peaked in 1979 and has been on a plateau since the 1980’s. If you adjusted peak oil per capita for the declining net energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) we would have reached a permanent peak of per capita oil production in the 1970s.
Moving towards sustainability means moving towards a world that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Unfortunately this is a lot easier said than done and the individual actions needed to move towards sustainability often cost more and/or require significant behavioral change. As I’ve read books about sustainability over the past few years I’ve put together this checklist of concrete actions individuals can take. I certainly don’t do all of these things myself (and personally find many of them not worth the time or money), but the checklist has helped me focus on some actions which to me are worth the tradeoffs. Hopefully this checklist will help others understand their options and make changes in their lives so we can all transition towards sustainability. I have color-coded the list to show which actions require behavioral changes or time costs, which require financial costs, and which require both:
Behavioral change or time cost only (financial cost is negligible, but potentially takes more time and effort)
Behavioral change or time cost along with a financial cost (sustainability takes more money, time, and/or effort)
Financial cost only (time and effort is negligible but financial cost is high)
Start this process by calculating your household carbon footprint to understand your biggest impacts
For a more accurate assessment, hire a professional to do an energy audit of your home
Location, Location, Location
The decision of where to live has arguably the largest impact of any decision on how sustainable your lifestyle is. The population density of your location determines how much energy you need to expend to travel to work and to run daily errands. The harshness of the climate you live in determines how much energy you need to expend to remain comfortable. The resilience of your location to climate change and peak oil will determine how livable your location remains in the future.
Live in a moderate climate that doesn’t require constant heating and cooling of your house. An ideal climate would allow you to be comfortable by simply opening or closing a window. Find out which areas have the lowest average carbon footprint with UC Berkeley’s CoolClimate Map. For the San Francisco Bay Area, a far more detailed map is available.
In a location that is resistant to the effects of climate change – a location that won’t be swamped by rising sea levels or floods. A location with abundant fresh water. A location that won’t require ever-increasing amounts of air conditioning to remain comfortable during rising temperatures from global warming.
Live in an apartment building (ideally a LEED certified building) instead of a detached single-family home. Like the urban-vs-rural debate, this finding too is hotly contested, with opposition to “Agenda 21” efforts to force us into “stack and pack” housing – but the data clearly shows that because most residential energy goes into space heating and cooling, multifamily buildings are more energy efficient because they share walls between units.
Downsize your home – live in the smallest square footage you can tolerate – check out the “tiny house movement” for ideas on how to live comfortably in a smaller home.
Live in a walkable neighborhood where most of your daily errands can be accomplished by walking or biking – visit walkscore.com to find a walkable neighborhood
If you can live car-free, do so – instead of owning a car, walk, bike and take public transit. When you need a car, use car sharing services (Turo, Getaround), car rental services (Zipcar, Car2Go) and taxi services (Uber, Lyft, Arcade City). Living without a car eliminates the need for parking and makes it easier to live in a denser walkable neighborhood.
Simplify your life – declutter your home – eliminate possessions – embrace minimalism – when you have less stuff, you can be comfortable in a smaller home which will make it more affordable to live in a more walkable urban neighborhood.
Commuting to Work
Work from home if you can (telecommute)
Walk to work if you can’t work from home
Bike to work if you can’t walk
Take public transit to work if you can’t bike
Carpool to work if you can’t take public transit (Use Casual Carpool if you’re in the Bay Area or Carma elsewhere – or just ask your coworkers)
If you can’t live car-free, buy an electric car and charge it using rooftop solar panels
If you can’t afford a plug-in hybrid or a biodiesel car, buy the most fuel-efficient car you can (like a regular hybrid) – look at fuelly.com and fueleconomy.gov
Hypermile your car – pump tires to maximum recommended PSI, remove weight from the car, remove aerodynamic drag from the car (roof racks, etc.), cruise at the optimum speed (~55 mph), shift up to the top gear as early as you can, drive in a way that you almost ever need to brake, draft on the highway
Measure your fuel consumption – If your car doesn’t have a fuel economy gauge, buy one – like ScanGaugeE or Automatic – and start altering your behaviors to maximize fuel efficiency
Don’t wash your car – but if you do wash your car, don’t wash it yourself, take it to a “closed loop” car wash that recycles their water
Buy local food – join a CSA and buy from your local farmers market
Plant a food garden
Convert your lawn to an edible garden
Plant medicinal herbs
Plant perennial foods that don’t require annual replanting
Start a compost bin
Raise food animals like chickens or ducks
Become a beekeeper and build a beehive
Plant barley and hops and brew your own beer
Learn how to pickle vegetables
Buy food that is local (or fair trade if it doesn’t grow locally) and organic
Buy coffee that is shade grown, fair trade and organic
Lug a mug – Don’t buy coffee in disposable cups – bring your own stainless steel coffee mug (Klean Kanteen) if you’re traveling and use a ceramic mug if you’re not traveling
Avoid single-use coffee makers (especially those that do not have recyclable pods – like Keurig machines)
Drink your coffee black – it requires fewer inputs and it’s healthier
Replace your disposable paper filters with a reusable gold filter (pays for itself in a few months)
Compost your used coffee grounds (put them straight into your garden – citrus trees and berry bushes love acidic coffee grounds)
Buy eggs that are cage free, free range, local and organic
Buy milk that is hormone free (rBST/rBGH free), antibiotic free, local and organic
Avoid high-fructose corn syrup
Eat less meat – if you eat a typical American’s diet, you burn more fossil fuels walking than a vegetarian does driving a 35 MPG car (because natural gas and oil is used produce the fertilizer and pesticides needed to grow the grain to feed the animals, from the methane emissions from the animals themselves, and from the deforestation needed to produce an ever increasing amount of meat each year)
Being a vegetarian is far more sustainable, but if you’re going to eat meat purchase higher-quality locally-grown organic meat
Buy a whole animal – the best way to ensure its quality is to meet your meat (so you can observe its living conditions) – purchase an entire animal directly from a farmer (known as a heard share), have it butchered and share it with friends
Don’t buy overfished seafood – visit seafoodwatch.org for a list of what to avoid
Eat more meals at home – restaurant meals may waste more food than home cooked meals
Never buy bottled water – use reusable stainless steel water bottle (Klean Kanteen) (avoid reusable plastic water bottles – they leach endocrine disruptors)
Cook using natural cookware (like cast iron) instead of Teflon-coated cookware
Compost your food scraps
Simplify your possessions – inventory all of your possessions, decide what items you can do without and donate them
For grilling, sustainable charcoal (like coconut shell charcoal) is better than of chemical-doped charcoal (like MatchLight charcoal), while propane is better than any charcoal, and a solar ovens are better any of those
Things renters can do
Take shorter showers – use a shower timer
Turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth or shaving
If it’s yellow, let it mellow
Things homeowners can do
Perform a water audit on your home to find leaks and inefficiencies
Fix any leaks in your faucets and shower heads
Install rain-catchment barrels to save the water that comes off your roof
Install drip irrigation for your edible garden
Install low-flow shower heads and sink aerators
Install a hot water recirculation pump or a “ladybug” hot water stopper to avoid waste while waiting for the shower to heat up
Eliminate your grass lawn and replace it with xeriscaping and/or an edible garden (greatly reduces water usage and eliminates need for gasoline-powered mowers and trimmers and fossil-fuel based pesticides and herbicides)
Add mulch to your garden to increase water retention
Home Electricity and Natural Gas Use
Things renters can do
Hook up electronics you use intermittently (like your TV or Stereo) to “smart” power strips that eliminates standby power – like the Belkin Conserve
Adjust your computer settings so it powers down when not in use
Unplug all AC/DC power adapters when not in your (eg. unplug your cell phone charger when you’re done charging it!)
Buy energy efficient electronics (eg. compare the electricity usage of TVs before you buy a new one)
Alway turn off the lights when you leave a room
Replace every incandescent light bulb in your house with LED lightbulbs (which are better than CFL bulbs) starting with the most used bulbs first
Dust off the refrigerator coils to keep it running efficiently
Turn the thermostat to “vacation mode” when you go on vacation
Replace your old hot water heater with a super-efficient electric heat pump hot water heater, like the GE GeoSpring heater (Gas hot water heaters uses 130 watts worth of natural gas continuously just for the pilot light! Electric hot water heaters also allow you to supply your own renewable electrons with rooftop solar.)
Even better – install a solar hot water heater (if your homeowner insurance allows you to)
If you have to use gas, use a super efficient one or a tankless hot water heater
Buy a smart thermostat – like the Nest Thermostat – and optimize the settings to save energy
Replace the air filter on your HVAC system regularly
Optimize heat transfer due to infiltratioFind air leaks using a blower door test and an infrared camera
Seal air leaks in your ducts, windows, doors and fireplace (if you don’t use your fireplace) using caulk, weather stripping and a fireplace flue plug
In extreme climates, install double-door “airlock” entryway stop air exchange when you go in and out of the house
In locations that are hot during the day but cool at night, install a whole house fan and install window screens so you can quickly move outside air inside
Reduce heat transfer due to conduction
Improve the insulation of your walls and attic
Replace your windows with higher efficiency triple-glazed windows
Install insulating blinds to further reduce window heat loss
Optimize heat transfer through radiation
I cold climates, maximize passive solar thermal gain by installing southward facing windows with high R-values (heat going out) and low U-values (heat coming in)
In locations that are cold in the winter and hot in the summer, install passive solar window awnings that allow the sun to warm your house in the winter and block the sun in the summer
Strategically plant deciduous trees on the south and west side of your house – in the summer they will shade your house from the hot sun and in the winter, when their leaves fall off, they will allow warming light into the house
Buy sustainability-made “buy it for life” furniture – Don’t buy cheap furniture made with plywood or pressed wood – it can off-gas formaldehyde and can break easily
Buy sustainable bedding – using the same criteria as sustainable clothing – organic cotton, sustainably made, etc.
Business (if you own or manage a business)
Design your product more sustainably
Practice “cradle-to-cradle design” – design the product from 100% reused, recycled and/or natural materials and design it to be 100% recyclable, upcycleable or compostable
Reused materials – can you reuse existing materials instead of purchasing new materials? (eg. if you make cabinets, instead of buying new handles you could reuse handles from a salvage store like Urban Ore)
Recycled materials – for components that cant be made with reused materials, use 100% recycled materials that can be 100% recycled at their end-of-life, like aluminum
Natural materials – for components that cant be made with reused or recycled materials, use natural, sustainably-produced materials that can be composted at the end of their life (eg. bamboo, bioplastics)
Choose materials that have no human health impacts (eg. no off-gassing of VOCs)
Design your products to last a lifetime – design them to be repairable and upgradeable instead of disposable (the opposite of planned obsolescence)
Manufacture your product more sustainably
Run your factory on renewable energy (buy renewable energy credits if you can’t install renewable generation on site)
Design your manufacturing process to minimize waste and to recycle all manufacturing waste
Buy raw materials from suppliers who focus on sustainability
Deliver your product more sustainably
Design your product to be shipped with minimal or no packaging
Use sustainable packaging materials (biodegradable – (no Styrofoam, no plastic bubble wrap, no Styrofoam packaging peanuts)
Learn handyman skills and sowing skills to repair things around the house
Donate and buy clothes, furniture at consignment stores (eg. goodwill, salvation army, value village)
Buy home materials at a salvage store (Eg. Urban Ore, Omega Salvage, East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse)
Recycle and Compost everything you can
Use industrial compost if your city offers it
Create a compost pile in your garden for food scraps
Buy products that use less packaging
If you can walk or bike to a store, buy locally
Pay with cash or local currencies (like Ithaca Hours or Bay Bucks) instead of a credit card – the extra “friction” required to pay with cash had been scientifically shown to reduce spending amounts by making people more mindful of their spending habits
Pay with bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies if you can – using these non-inflationary currencies undermines our growth-dependent fractional reserve currency system
Go digital and paperless wherever possible – read books on a Kindle, get all your bills online, avoid printing things
Buy from co-ops, worker-owned businesses and B-Corps – support businesses that aren’t required to maximize profit above all else
Log your chemicals. For one day, make a list of all the chemicals that are going in and on your body—toothpaste, soap, shampoo, laundry detergents, household cleaners…. Then start eliminating those that you can and replacing them with natural alternatives.
Reduce Consumption of Plastics and Chemicals
Avoid the worst kinds of plastics: #3 plastic, PVC and Vinyl
Replace shower curtain with a glass door or an organic hemp shower curtain
Never buy vinyl toys for your kids – eg. vinyl beach balls
Shop with reusable canvas bags (instead of using disposable plastic bags)
Buy food from the bulk bins (and put them in stainless steel food canisters) instead of buying food in disposable plastic packaging or plastic-lined cans
Use a stainless steel water bottle (like a klean kanteen) (instead of plastic water bottles)
Drink coffee or tea instead of soda (to avoid plastic bottles and plastic-lined aluminum cans)
Drink coffee out of a ceramic mug or insulated stainless steel mug (like a klean kanteen) (instead of disposable plastic-lined and plastic-topped cups)
Buy local beer and fill up a growler (instead of buying beer in glass bottles or plastic-lined cans)
Eat meals with plates and silverware (instead of disposable containers and plastic silverware)
Bring your lunch to work (instead of buying lunch in disposable packaging)
Buy natural mosquito repellents instead of DEET repellents (a scientific study showed that Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard worked just as well as DEET)
Attempt to repair it before you trash it – contact the manufacturer and see if they can repair it (many sustainable brands will repair or replace their products for free), learn how to repair things yourself
Reuse your old items for other purposes – eg. an old t-shirt can become a cleaning rag
Donate for reuse instead of throwing them away – use Goodwill, Salvation Army, Freecycle, Craigslist
Take up a hobby that fulfills the other items on this checklist: eg. gardening
Make your hobbies more sustainable
Instead of boating with a powerboat, learn how to sail
Instead of fishing with a power boat, fish with a kayak
Instead of golfing a conventional course with a golf cart, walk a sustainable golf course (one that uses native species, doesn’t irrigate the course and doesn’t use fertilizers or pesticides – the way golf was originally played)
Instead of snowmobiling, go cross country skiing
Instead of offroading or ATVing, go hiking
Reduce Your Exposure to Consumerist Advertising
Part of the reason that we don’t make sustainable consumer choices is that we are constantly bombarded with advertisements encouraging us to consume unsustainable products and services. By blocking these advertisements we can reduce their influence on our purchasing decisions, thereby making it easier to live sustainably.
If you still can’t find the game you want, walk over to your neighborhood bar (which should be easy since you should live in a walkable neighborhood already!)
Email or write a letter to the sports leagues and tell them that you want to pay for an ad-free game stream
Don’t take taxis with TVs in them – take a lyft or uber instead so you aren’t exposed to all of the ads
Eliminate Paper Ads
Block junk mail – whenever you receive catalogs or junk mail, log on to catalogchoice.org and halt any future deliveries
Remove your information from consumer databases – follow the advice in the book “Hiding from the Internet” to make it harder for advertisers to target you
Eliminate Radio Ads
Stop listening to live radio
Listen to music on paid streaming services (Google Play, Pandora, Spotify, etc.) or on satellite radio
Listen to podcasts or audio books instead of talk radio and manually skip commercials
Buy a Bluetooth kit for your car so you can listen to podcasts while driving
Get Involved With Your Community
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'” -Dr. Martin Luther King
Reduce TV time – TV viewing is shown in “bowling alone” to be one of the top reasons for reduced community involvement – start by making a rule of never turning on the TV unless you know what you want to watch and for how long – don’t be a channel-surfing TV “grazer”, be a specific-program “hunter” that only turns on the TV and watches exactly what they came to watch
Live in a walkable neighborhood – as shown in “bowling alone,” living in auto-centric neighborhoods is a main cause of decreased civic engagement
Meet your neighbors – invite them over for dinner or drinks
Sustainable Finance: Reduce Your Participation in the Fiat/Fractional-Reserve/Debt-Based/Growth-Dependent Monetary System
“Until you change the way money works, you change nothing.” -Michael Ruppert
Our current monetary system is at the root of our sustainability problem. Every major currency on earth (US Dollar, Euro, Yen, Yuan etc.) is loaned into existence by government fiat through fractional-reserve banking (and sometimes printed or minted into existence through seigniorage). When money is loaned into existence, an increasing amount of money must be loaned into existence after it to pay off the principle as well as the interest. This system requires an infinitely -increasing amount of debt to be created or it will collapse. In order to stave off monetary collapse, this infinitely-increasing amount of debt requires an infinitely-increasing amount of economic growth to pay off the interest. An infinitely-increasing amount of economic growth requires an infinitely-increasing amount of resource extraction. An a finite planet we cannot have an infinitely-increasing amount of resource extraction, so we have an unsustainable monetary system. Sustainable currencies do not require an infinitely-increasing amount of debt. Examples of sustainable currencies are precious metals (some of our oldest forms of currency – gold, silver, etc.), local currencies (like Ithaca Hours) and finite-supply cryptocurrencies (like Bitcoin and Dash).
Get out of debt – exponential monetary growth through debt creation is the root cause of our sustainability problem – if you are a creditor instead of a debtor you can invest your money sustainability
Open a bank account at a sustainable community bank (like New Resource Bank) and close your old bank account at the “too big to fail” bank
Invest in sustainably-run companies
Start using non-debt-based cryptocurrencies for transactions – like Bitcoin and Dash (one of the anonymous cryptocurrencies I discuss in my book)
Buy some cryptocurrencies with each paycheck
Patronize establishments that accept bitcoins and local currencies – work hard to spend cryptocurrencies before you spend fiat currency
Get to know the owners of shops in your neighborhood and persuade store owners to accept bitcoins and local currencies
I’ve written before about demand destruction, but with gasoline prices at historic lows right now we are seeing the opposite: demand rebound. Gasoline sales in the United States are approaching all-time highs last seen right before the “great recession.” People are taking advantage of “cheap” gasoline and driving more. As we slowly recover from the recession (economists tell us the recession ended 5 years ago, but it seems like many areas still are recovering) more people are working and commuting more miles.
US Gasoline Consumption
Car sales are reaching record highs. Americans seem to have completely forgotten $5 gasoline are are buying more gas guzzlers than ever before. Below I charted out the sales of 21 models of muscle cars, full-sized pickup trucks and large SUVs with an average fuel economy amongst them of just 17 MPG. Since 2010, sales of these 21 models have put nearly 18 million new fuel-hungry vehicles on America’s roads. With an average fleet turnover time of 23 years (from a 4% scrappage rate), these cars will be on the road for many years to come.
Sales of Muscle Cars, SUVs and Pickup Trucks
Part of the reason for this increase in fuel-hungry vehicle sales is sub-prime lending, which John Oliver does a great job of explaining:
With global oil investment budgets being slashed by over $1 trillion dollars, it seems likely that the market will re-balance itself of the next few years and millions of Americans will be stuck with fuel-hungry vehicles as gasoline prices rise again.
Between 1999 and 2014 the liquid oil production rate for the supermajor oil and gas companies was on a steady decline. Between Q2-2014 to Q1-2016 this trend reversed, with liquids production increasing by over a million barrels per day. This increase in production has came on the heels of ever-increasing capital investment, which peaked out in Q4-2013. Since this peak, quarterly supermajor capital investment has dropped by nearly 60%. With less capital invested each quarter it is likely that the total supermajor oil production will return to its long-term downward trend.
Indeed this past quarter may have shown the beginning of the reversal. Supermajor liquids production declined by 7% quarter-over-quarter and increased by less than 1% year-over-year from Q2-2015 to Q2-2016.
Supermajor liquids production increased significantly year-over-year and quarter-over-quarter. This is partly due to a large increase in capital expenditures by the supermajors from 2006 to 2013. Interestingly, this large increase in capital spending has not abated the drop in natural gas production. As supermajor CAPEX spending peaked in in the 4th quarter of 2013 and has dropped by over 50% since, it seems likely that both liquids production and gas production will continue to decline from the historical peaks of 1973 and 2010, respectively.
Today I would like to introduce my “Peak Supermajors” project. The goal of this project is to answer the question “when will we reach peak oil” by studying the production and financial health of the world’s largest oil companies. Because oil is a finite resource, its daily global production will eventually reach a peak. By measuring when individual oil companies reach peak oil, I hope to bring us closer to answering the question “when will we reach peak oil?”
I am beginning my project by analyzing the largest publicly-traded companies: the “supermajors“. These 5 companies – BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Total – produce nearly 20% of the world’s oil and gas. They are mostly descendants from the original “Seven Sisters,” which themselves were largely descendants of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. These companies are leaders in the industry, both financially and technologically. By understanding the history of these companies and their strategy for the future, we can better understand the historical arc of the broader oil industry. As I fill out the database I plan to expand it to include data from all of the largest global oil companies.
Our house had an old “high flow” shower head. As California is in the midst of an epic drought (despite all the recent rain), I was planning on installing a low flow “aerator” shower head. These shower heads mix in air with the outgoing water to lower the flow rate while theoretically not sacrificing comfort. Compared to a traditional shower head the water pressure felt is higher but the flow rate is lower, so they end up saving water.
But right as I was about to install one I heard a theory that these aerator shower heads actually end up using more energy because the mist causes the shower to feel colder, which means the user turns the hot water dial up, thereby using more hot water, which requires the hot water heater to burn more natural gas (or use more electricity, which burns more coal and natural gas) to reheat more water.