My guest today is Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute. I invited him to be a guest after watching his wonderful video 300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds (1.3 million views). The fact is that while there are toxic substances in the natural world and some poisons have been in use for centuries, the overwhelming presences of toxic chemicals we experience today is the result of widespread use of fossil fuels. But an end is in sight, because we’re running out of fossil fuels. Imagining life after fossil fuels is also imagining a life without most of the toxic chemicals we use today. We’ll be talking about the fossil fuel and toxic chemical connection and where we can go from here. Richard is the author of 12 award-winning books, including six on the subject of fossil fuel depletion. He has written for Nature Journal, Reuters, and Wall Street Journal, and has delivered hundreds of lectures on energy and climate issues to audiences around the world. His current book project, due out early next year, is Our Renewable Future, an exploration of how our economy and our daily lives will change as we phase out fossil fuels and adapt to wind and solar energy. www.postcarbon.org
TOXIC FREE TALK RADIO
Wondering How We Came to Have All These Toxic Chemicals? Here’s the History..
Host: Debra Lynn Dadd
Guest: Richard Heinberg
Date of Broadcast: September 15, 2015
DEBRA: Hi. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd and this is Toxic Free Talk Radio where we talk about how to thrive in a toxic world and live toxic free. It’s Tuesday, September 15th, 2015. I’m here in Clearwater, Florida and it’s only 82° today instead of 95°, so I know that autumn is on this way.
Today, we’re going to be talking about something that we haven’t ever talked about on the show before and that is where do all these toxic chemicals come from? How come we have a toxic world now a hundred years ago, we didn’t and 200 years ago, we didn’t? What happened that now, we have toxic chemicals in every part of our lives in every consumer products, in the air we breathe, in the water we drink.
Everything has toxic pollution now. Why is that? Where did that come from?
My guest today is Richard Heinberg. He’s a senior fellow at Post Carbon Institute. I invited him to be a guest after I saw a wonderful video that he made called300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds. It’s had 1.3 million views.
If you want to take a look at it and I hope you will, you can just go to ToxicFreeTalkRadio.com and look for today’s show. I’ve embedded this video there.
This gives a summary of everything that’s happened in the past 300 years that has taken us from basically living within the resources of the planet to having toxic chemicals all over the place and living beyond our resources.
So I’m going to have Richard tell us about this in a little slower version and we’ll talk about it and find out where the toxic chemicals came from, but also what’s happening that we are getting to the end of fossil fuels and how we’re going to need the transition away from that. I think what’s going to happen is that as we lose our fossil fuels, we’ll also lose the toxic chemicals.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Good morning Debra.
DEBRA: Thank you so much for being here.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Of course, it’s afternoon where you are, yes.
DEBRA: It is afternoon where I am and morning where you are in California.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Yes.
DEBRA: I used to live in California. I lived out in West Marin in Forest Knolls. Do you where that is?
RICHARD HEINBERG: I do. Yeah, I’m a little bit north of there in Santa Rosa.
DEBRA: Yeah. And my father lived in Santa Rosa and I also lived in Inverness by the ocean, so I know your area where you are.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Yeah.
DEBRA: I was born in California. Anyway, tell us how you got interested in the subject of post carbon and fossil fuels and everything that’s happening that is creating our situation now.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Right! I’ve always had a curious mind. By the 1980s, it was clear to me. I mean, a lot of other people have already picked up on this, but it was becoming clear to me that there were a lot of things going wonky in the world all at the same time. Our population was growing rapidly. The environment is being plundered in various ways. We are starting to see species extinctions at much higher rates than normal and so on.
So I was trying to figure out why this is all happening at once. I started applying all the kinds of answers that I could imagine. Was it something to do with politics? Was it something to do with economics? I looked into these areas. And clearly there were things going on that were at least partially responsible for these dramatic changes in human society. I started looking into anthropology and I saw how human societies have evolved from hunting and gathering through horticulture and agriculture up to our modern industrial form of production.
But it wasn’t until 1990s that I realized that the key to understanding the whole thing was energy. Energy is what enables us to do literally everything we do. Without energy, nothing happens.
And if you look through human history, our ability to harness more energy, whether it was in terms of planting food crops or literally harnessing horses and oxen, these things changed the society and enabled the growth of civilizations. But when we get to the industrial revolution and the unleashing of fossil fuels, we see suddenly the harnessing of energy on a scale that simply was impossible previously.
Fossil fuels carry energy that’s in a concentrated form that’s also portable and versatile. We’re able to use it to do all the amazing things that we’ve done in the last 200 years, everything from transportation and cars and planes and trains and ships to the production of electricity, to power all of our communications devices. None of this would have happened without fossil fuels.
So the fossil fuels obviously have given us enormous advantages. They’ve enabled the growth of industrial civilization, but we are also paying an enormous price because we’ve become addicted to energy sources that are inherently limited. I mean these are non-renewable resources that we are extracting as fast as we possibly can and burning them once and for all so future generations will not have access to them. And as we burn them and as we transform into plastics and chemicals, we’re also changing the environment. We’re doing a massive chemistry experiment with the oceans and the atmosphere.
DEBRA: And the humans.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Absolutely and human health and the health of livestock and wildlife and pets and everything else.
DEBRA: I remember when I’ve been studying toxic chemicals in consumer products for more than 30 years and I remember when I first started studying them and understanding that they came from fossil fuels and wanting to know these petrochemicals. Were they just digging them up out of the ground and making them into consumer products?
And one of the things that I learned early on by reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica is that fossil fuels are the reason that we are – I’m not quite sure what the word is when you talk about obtaining them from the earth – extracting fossil fuels is for fuel. They’re being used for fuels. So they’re brightly named fossil fuels.
The reason that they’re being made to make plastics and pharmaceuticals and everything else that they’re being used to make is because when they come out of the ground in their raw state – you probably could explain this better than I do – is that they come out as raw materials and then they separate it out. I think it’s a distillation process or something and at different temperatures, different parts of the oil or coal or whatever turn into different things. So what they do is they take off the fuel, the gasoline or the oil or whatever and then there’s all this stuff left over.
In a way, the making of toxic chemicals that go into consumer products is very responsible recycling project. It’s recycling the waste from the making of fuel. And yes, it’s being recycled into us as poison and therein lies the problem. So it’s not being extracted so that we can have plastic. It’s being extracted for fuel and the waste is being turned into products.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Right. Maybe calling it waste is possibly a little misleading because we are talking about organic chemistry here and the fossil fuels are basically organic molecules. They were produced over hundreds of millions of years in some cases or at least tens of millions of years from ancient plant materials. In case of oil and gas, we’re talking about algae and plankton primarily and with coal, peat and in some cases forests. All of these materials are compressed and chemically changed again with time and pressure into long and short organic molecules, hydrocarbons…
DEBRA: Let me just interrupt you right there because we need to go to break. That’s what the music is about.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Sure. Yes.
DEBRA: You can explain that in more detail when we come back. You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd and my guest today is Richard Heinberg from the Post Carbon Institute and we’re talking about how we got all these toxic chemicals and we’re going to be talking about what’s going to happen when we run out of fossil fuels. He’s with the Post Carbon Institute at PostCarbon.org. We’ll be right back.
DEBRA: You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd and my guest today is Richard Heinberg from the Post Carbon Institute and they’re at PostCarbon.org. I want to mention again he has got this great video, which is how I found out about him. It’s called 300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds. You can go to ToxicFreeTalkRadio.com and watch that.
Before we go on with your chemistry explanation, I just want to mention that some time ago, I don’t know, a few years ago, I was watching on the History Channel a whole series of really excellent shows called The Men Who Built America”. And I remember it was talking about some of these things that you talk about in the video and especially there was a whole thing about the development of using fossil fuels and then showing how it was a really big environmental problem that they were taking oil and turning it into fuel for something. I don’t remember what it was. It was kerosene or something I think that they were making. And then the rest of it, they showed this scene of the rest of it just being dumped into the environment. I was just looking at all the stuff being dumped into the environment.
Of course it makes sense. Somebody came along, Henry Ford or somebody. Somebody came along who built the engine using this waste product. I know you don’t want me to say it’s a waste product and you’re going to tell us why. But the leftovers from the production of kerosene or whatever that turned into standard oil are like all there in these shows. They’re really, really well done and it really showed me how this whole industrial thing happened.
So you can just look up The Men Who Built America” and you’ll get to the page and all the shows are there on the History Channel. You can just watch them. Okay, go on.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Yeah. Most likely the one that talks about Rockefeller would explain the early history of the oil industry.
As I was saying, oil, natural gas and coal also are hydrocarbons, which means that they are varying linked chains of combinations of hydrogen and carbon atoms. The simplest one is methane, which is the main constituent of natural gas, which is just one of these chains and one of these segments. And then you can add more octane, which is the main ingredient of gasoline. As the name suggests, eight of these kinds of molecules, hydrocarbon molecules linked together to form a larger molecule.
So the organic chemistry is all about splitting up these chains or adding to them to make longer chains or smaller chains. I think of it as a Lego set and by adding and subtracting molecules, it’s possible to make thousands, tens of thousands of different unique substances, molecular substances. That’s what basically all of modern chemistry is about.
RICHARD HEINBERG: It got its start in the 19th century when we started using coal tar as a feedstock for organic chemistry. But then with oil and natural gas, it was possible to use even a greater variety or to produce an even greater variety of organic chemicals.
When the raw crude oil is refined in a refinery, depending on the demand of the sheet to produce certain blends of gasoline, diesel and other fuels, what’s left over often is a heavy gooey tar that ends up being used for building roads. Generally, what’s used for organic chemistry is actually more valuable use of fuel than for making gasoline or diesel. So the chemicals industries and plastics industries will buy whatever natural gas or oil refined products are appropriate for their uses and typically they’re willing to pay a higher price than the gas station down the road.
DEBRA: I think that that’s probably today, but I think in the beginning as I saw on TV that it started out being a fuel and then we started having all these other products because there was this leftover material and then now, the products are much more valuable than the fuel.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Yeah. What do we do with all of these amazing materials that we can refine from oil? Kerosene, which initially was used as lamp oil as a replacement for whale oil, is now what we use to fuel jet airplanes. Jet fuel is basically the old kerosene that we used to use in kerosene lamps.
DEBRA: Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting to think about what if we didn’t have fossil fuels? Where will we make all these things out of? I think that we’ve created – I think you used the term – fossil fuel civilization or fossil fuel society and it really is. All the things that we think are so wonderful and marvelous and time-saving and all these things really are based in the thought that we’ve made them from fossil fuels. We’ve created them from these miraculous materials and yet, there is a supply that is going to end and then it’s not going to be there anymore.
I do want to talk about that. We’re coming up on the break. We still have about a minute, but I don’t want to ask you a long question. Well, I’ll ask you a question. You can start.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Sure.
DEBRA: What I want to talk about next is that I’ve watched your video 300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds about five times now, but none of the listeners have seen it. When we come back from the break, what I’d like you to do is just give us the synopsis.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Sure.
DEBRA: And you don’t have to do it in 300 seconds. I’ll give you about eight minutes to talk about how we got from no fossil fuels to our present situation.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Okay.
DEBRA: Okay, good. So you’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. My guest today is Richard Heinberg. He is a Senior Fellow at Post Carbon Institute. Their website is PostCarbon.org. And you can go to my website, ToxicFreeTalkRadio.com and watch this video, 300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds. We’ll be right back.
DEBRA: You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd and my guest today is Richard Heinberg. He’s from Post Carbon Institute at PostCarbon.org. Okay, Richard, tell us the story.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Okay. The story starts in the 19th century when we were using whale oil as a source of illumination. We were using whale oil as lamp oil to light our homes at night and of course whale oil is a renewable resource. Whales reproduce, but we were using at a rate that was causing the decimation of whale populations around the world. So whale oil was getting more scarce and expensive and we needed a replacement.
Meanwhile, there was a different kind of oil, rock oil, seeping out of the ground in various places around the country, including Western Pennsylvania. And this rock oil or petroleum was able to also be used with just a little refining as lamp oils. So somebody got the brilliant idea of drilling a well, like water well to see if they could get more of this petroleum out of the ground.
It worked and it resulted in a huge economic boom in Pennsylvania. People were going out in wild cat and drilling wells over the place.
Some people got rich. Some people of course lost lots of money. That’s been the story with the oil industry ever since of course. It’s a boom and bust industry because it’s based on resource extraction.
But anyway, along came a clever young chap named John D Rockefeller and he figured out how to turn this boom and bust crazy fast-growing industry into a more orderly and organized wealth producing machine, which became known as standard oil and he organized the oil industry very quickly.
Folks started looking for ways to put this oil to use in transportation. Very soon, the automobile was invented. As more and more people wanted automobiles with which to burn gasoline refined from oil, the problem was how to make the automobiles fast enough. So a guy named Henry Ford came up with the idea of an automated assembly line, in other words, a powered assembly line where automobiles could be produced in much higher numbers much more quickly. And powered assembly lines were then adapted to making other consumer products.
So with powered assembly lines, with cheap energy that could also be used to make electricity, which brought energy right into people’s homes so that all they had to do was plug in appliances. Anywhere in your house, you would have access to energy that would replace muscle power, with all of this, suddenly we had an economic boom like it had never been seen before. In the first couple of decades of the 20th century, we’re all about increasing and manufacturing.
Manufacturing could occur at such a rate at this point that it actually led to the Great Depression. The problem was overproduction. We were making so much stuff so fast that people couldn’t absorb it quickly enough. So the solution to the Great Depression and to the overproduction was a couple of things – advertising, talking people into wanting more stuff and the other was consumer credit, helping people go into debt to buy stuff they couldn’t afford. With these two ingredients, we created the consumer society and the consumer economy that was continually growing depending on people going into evermore debt to buy evermore stuff so that they could keep the engines of production going.
And of course, more and more…
DEBRA: If I could just interrupt you for a second.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Yes.
DEBRA: Here, until this point in time, production of everyday household goods was dependent on the need of people and the people made their own things. They would carve things out of wood. They would sew their own clothing. They would grow their own food and they would produce the amount that they needed and it was all driven by need.
And now, at this point when we’re starting to have advertising and debt, it’s not driven by need anymore. It’s driven by the machines, the need to keep those machines going and continuing the profits of those who own the machines. This is not the way nature works. It’s not at all.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Yeah, right. Also, before our economies were mostly localized, we’ve always had trade and even long distance trade, but usually just for luxury goods. The stuff that people really needed is food, furniture and building materials. All of those came from their immediate regions and vicinities.
But with cheap transport fuel with airplanes and trucks and ships and so on, we began to have what came to be known as globalization.
Economists love this. It’s called economic efficiency if you can make something cheaper in China with cheaper labor and cheaper raw materials, then there’s more profit to be made. But of course, what this does is to create economic fluxes where people lose their jobs because they can’t compete with lower wage workers on the other side of the planet and economic disruption so that every generation where the economy is shifting to something different. One generation, it’s computers. The next generation, it’s iPhones. For the next generation after that, who knows what it’s going to be?
RICHARD HEINBERG: So parents and children speak in a different technological language. They don’t even know what they’re talking about. They lose the same cultural reference. They have musical taste and so on. So we’ve created a very fast-paced society that’s dependent on continual growth and of course it’s all based on the ever increasing extraction of non-renewable resources that are depleting in real time.
DEBRA: Yes. You did a very good job because you just said all of that in exactly the right amount of time.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Terrific.
DEBRA: When we come back from the break, we’re going to hear about Richard’s visions for what’s going to happen when the fossil fuels run out. And maybe you’ll tell us when you think that’s going to happen and how we can transition into a less fossil fuel, less toxic world, which is what I’m interested in, how to be less toxic.
RICHARD HEINBERG: I’ll be happy to talk about that.
DEBRA: That’s great. You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd and my guest today is Richard Heinberg. He’s from the Post Carbon Institute, which is at PostCarbon.org. We’ll be right back.
DEBRA: You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. My guest today is Richard Heinberg. He’s from the Post Carbon Institute and they’re at PostCarbon.org. So Richard, tell us what’s going to happen now with running out of fossil fuels.
RICHARD HEINBERG: We’re seeing the problems associated with depletion particularly in the oil markets. We’re starting to see signs also with coal and natural gas, but I think oil is leading the way. Oil is our most important fossil fuel. Virtually all transportation depends on it, global trade. So oil is really important and we have been searching for oil and pumping oil out of the ground for many decades now and we’ve used the low-hanging fruit principle. In other words, we’ve gone after the cheapest best, most accessible oil.
First, we are not about to run out. There are still lots of oil in the earth’s crust, but as time goes on, what are left to find and to pump is lower and lower grade resources. So we have to use more sophisticated technologies. Here in the United States, we’ve adapted hydraulic fracturing or fracking and horizontal drilling in recent years to go after pockets of oil that geologists previously would never have even bothered with because better resources were available. Well, better resources aren’t available anymore, so now we have to use this sophisticated technology. That means the cost of production is rising very rapidly.
Even though the price of oil fluctuates, it’s generally higher than it was a decade or two ago, but the cost of production for the companies themselves are rising faster than prices are. So this is a prescription for problems down the line. Probably before the end of this decade, we will be seeing another oil shock, another dramatic price increase or a big consolidation in the oil industry with lots of companies going bust or being bought up by other companies.
The oil industry really is showing the initial signs that it’s the end of the road. Over the course of the next few decades, this is an industry that will be going away.
DEBRA: I remember when I was 16 and I was first learning how to drive that gas was $0.25 a gallon and my mother would give me a quarter so I could buy a gallon of gas. And now, it’s $2.50 a gallon. I think that a lot of people who may be listening and are alive today weren’t even alive back in the 1980s when we started having the energy crisis. They didn’t experience this, but I did experience this and I think you probably experienced it too.
RICHARD HEINBERG: That’s right.
DEBRA: What happened was I was driving around in my 100 octane Firebird Formula 400 and I couldn’t get gas for it because they started diluting all the gas. And I couldn’t drive my car. This is at a time – for people who weren’t there at the time – that there was gas rationing.
We think that the supplies are going to just always be there, but if you were living then as I was, you were assigned a day at the week when you can buy gas. And the cars would line up. You have to spend an hour or more sitting in line at the gas station in order to get your ration gas. As I said, I couldn’t even get gas for my car because it required a 100 octane fuel and the octane was being diluted down to 85 or something like that. And I had to buy a different car because I couldn’t drive my car. So I have an idea that something like that is going to happen again.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Yeah. The energy shocks of the 1970s were mostly political in nature having to do with politics in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia and so on.
RICHARD HEINBERG: What’s happening now is entirely different. We’re depleting the high grade resources that drove economic growth during the 20th century.
Getting off of oil is going to be an expensive and time-consuming process because the only real substitutes that we have are battery-powered vehicles, electric cars or bile fuels, making substitute fuels out of food crops. Both of these substitutes are problematic in different ways and neither of them is going to be a direct drop-in replacement for jet fuel or for the kinds of fuels that were in global shipping or trucking.
DEBRA: I see my vision. During the break, I was thinking, “Oh, I should refer to the Post Toxic World.” It’s like your Post Carbon. I should be Post Toxic. My Post Toxic vision is that the whole culture is going to be different because we’ll be using renewable materials instead of fossil fuels to make most of what we’re making and it will all go back to being more local, more artisan and those kinds of things.
And of course, there are technological things that people can’t make it home like televisions and cellphones and stuff like that. Those will probably still be around, but it will end up being a lot more local and natural and handmade than it was prior to fossil fuels.
Do you see that’s probably where we’re going? Or do you have a different vision?
RICHARD HEINBERG: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I mean people already are demanding less toxic materials like paints for example.
RICHARD HEINBERG: So companies that make paints are looking for ways to reduce volatile organic compounds, VOCs, which are mostly from fossil fuels, organic paints.
The same thing is happening in the chemical industry, the pharmaceutical industry. They’re realizing that the days of fossil fuels are numbered. So they are going to have to start using plant-based materials, corn starch and other materials like that, carbohydrates to substitute for hydrocarbons.
And of course, in many cases, the substitutes aren’t going to be quite as good at least in the early days. In some cases, there will be more expensive. But one way or another, it’s inevitable that we’re going to have to shift the wave from using fossil fuels as the basis not only for our energy consumption, but also the chemicals industries and plastics and materials industries and all the rest.
DEBRA: I actually feel optimistic that the end is in sight. I’ve spent a lot of time, I’ve spent my entire adult life looking for products that weren’t toxic and telling people about them. But it looks like it’s going to run its natural course and that already we’re seeing or I mean I see over a 30 year period that there’s more and more less toxic products and nontoxic products and more organic things and all of that. It’s starting to emerge. It’s like a new phase, a new wave of what’s coming in the future.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Right.
DEBRA: Go ahead.
RICHARD HEINBERG: You see as a vanguard of this. Most of our industries, most of the people are still on the fossil fuel bandwagon.
DEBRA: Yes, they are.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Those of us who have decided to get off of fossil fuels before the party is really over, I think we’re performing an important function within society as a whole. We’re the growing tip of society leading into the inevitable future. It’s going to take experimentations. It’s going to take time and investment to get us to a toxic-free fossil fuel free future.
So we have to get started now. We can’t just wait until all the oils are gone and then try to figure out what to do.
DEBRA: Yeah. I think that somehow I managed to be able to look into the future and see that’s where it’s going. And I did that many years ago when nobody was talking about this. But I’m glad I did. It’s one of those things where something that was a lemon in my life of getting sick by toxic chemicals turned out to be lemonade on a larger scale because people like you and I need to be here being the visionaries and doing this and leading it all forward because that’s how things change. People have visions and then they say, “That’s what we should do. This makes sense,” and they start making it happen in life and society shifts.
I never had thought about the connection until I saw that show on TV, The Men Who Built America” and then I saw your video. It wasn’t even part of what I was doing to see the fossil fuels as a collaborative movement alongside what I’m doing from the health direction.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Right.
DEBRA: But I’m glad to see what you’re doing and I’m glad to know that you’re there and that people are working on this. So I’m looking at my clock here. We’ve got about a minute left.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Yeah.
DEBRA: So any final words you’d like to say?
RICHARD HEINBERG: Getting off of fossil fuels in the early stages is going to require more effort and expense just like finding less toxic foods and paints and products of all kinds. It takes more effort and sometimes they’re more expensive. But in the long run, we are doing a service not only to ourselves, but also to the rest of society by creating demand for products that will ultimately be necessary for everyone, not just for a niche audience, but for everyone.
Sometimes, it feels lonely out there being the only one to be driving an electric car or whatever, but this is really important work.
DEBRA: It is. Thank you. Thank you. I’m so happy to meet you. I’m sure we’ll be talking again.
RICHARD HEINBERG: I hope so.
DEBRA: You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. Be well.