Peak Oil: Time to Get Serious
"Look across your local skyline. Think of all those skyscrapers, office towers and apartment blocks as wonderful expanding complexity. Incredible, impossibly new and miraculous; nothing ever like these cityscapes ever before. Think New York, Chicago, Shanghai.
"Think of these cityscapes as incredibly expanding human niches all made possible by our ability to use the energy stored in fossil fuels. Think of these buildings as being inflated by our energy economy. And then imagine each collapsing, bringing down and crushing their inhabitants as this inflating energy ends. Maybe six or so billion of Earth's present seven billion human population killed off as we go over the peak at the end of oil." Stan Doffish
Peak oil is real. Virtually everybody agrees that oil is a finite resource. But, of course, few see the apocalypse described above - this worst case prediction from one of those willing to look eyes wide open at peak oil and die off.
We won't ever run completely out of oil. Government and industry estimates of oil reserves locate the peak decades into the future. There is lots of time for market mechanisms to stretch efficiency and develop alternative energy sources. There are still ample supplies of non-conventional oil and, of course, ample supplies of coal.
But we are running out of cheap, easy to reach oil. And estimates of recoverable reserves would seem to be universally exaggerated. Plus, demand for oil - from developing economies such as China and India with huge expansion potential as well as from existing post-industrial economies - is increasing dramatically. At the same time discovery of new major oil fields has dwindled with the peak of global oil discoveries passed forty years ago.
Every year, the world consumes four times as much oil as it discovers.
There is huge potential in improving energy efficiency, but we are moving in the opposite direction of increasing expenditure of energy in enduses of only very marginal utility: SUVs and trucks instead of more fuel efficient cars, luxury travel and toys, entertainment industry, sprawling suburbia, etc..
There are limitless sources of non-fossil fuel energy. But after wasted decades of opportunity, development of new, clean, renewable energy technologies still receives only a small fraction of oil industry expenditure, and renewables currently supply less than one percent of global energy production. Informed skeptics insist that it is too late to develop solar, wind, tidal or other alternative forms of energy production to in any way replace oil before we go over the peak oil cliff. In fact, these skeptics rightly insist that it will take increasing energy to make this needed transition, energy from oil that will be in increasingly short supply.
Ramping up nuclear energy production has the same lead time / oil energy cost problems plus the presently unsolved waste and decommissioning problems at a far larger scale.
The cost in energy and in increased environmental degradation makes running our present global economy on non-conventional oil or coal problematic. Spending the equivalent of a barrel of oil to get two barrels of non-conventional oil or the equivalent in coal or liquefied coal will not supply enough energy to keep our global economy inflated and growing. And global warming is already a potentially civilization-ending, global-scale problem even without a huge new increased use of coal.
The bottom line is that within decades - sooner if you are a pessimist - we are going to experience a severe energy crunch that will in all probability risk global societal collapse.
It is more helpful (if certainly more depressing) to see peak oil as but one of several society threatening, global-scale problems caused by biologically unprecedented human populations with demanding appetites and powerful technological capacity.
Global warming is human caused change to the atmosphere. It is caused by adding greenhouse gases at a rate that raises global temperatures to levels effecting ecosphere and nested ecosystem and species function. Predicted climate changes could overwhelm our present fertile Eden with change at a rate precluding many species survival, us included.
Species extinction, the present Sixth Extinction, is another global-scale problem where human use of the Earth's ecosystems for food, fuel, fibre, minerals, etc. is redesigning nature for human use virtually everywhere globally with concomitant loss of species with their lost habitat.
Peak oil is an example of a severe resource depletion global-scale problem. Water will be another severely depleted resource.
Unprecedented human numbers times average personal consumption is the root cause of each of these global society threatening problems. E.O. Wilson has developed The Bottleneck metaphor for our 21st century: only some species, including, hopefully, some of our species, will make it through this bottleneck, through these human caused problems, to flourish in the future.
Controlling human population growth; limiting damage to the ecosphere by sharply curtailing demand (a global choice of quality instead of material quantity lifestyles aided by innovative efficiency, for example); and rapidly developing a clean, renewable energy economy are the necessary solutions to ameliorate the worst case potential from these global-scale problems.
But the massive change needed would require global agreement and cooperation. It would require the acceptance of a much more constraining global 'spaceship' instead of 'frontier' ethic and a strengthened rule of law because economic and social turbulence is to be expected.
And it would require strong leadership from the US, the world's superpower.
But George Bush began his presidency declaring: 'The American way of life isn't negotiable'. And the Bush Administration has been dismantling emerging global governance and cooperation with a radical, American-centric, unilateralist foreign policy.
And with the cynical, illegal seizure of Iraq the Bush Administration has chosen a resource war path for us all instead of a cooperative ethic and instead of a science and innovation path to find solutions to head off global societal collapse.
The skeptics think that it is already too late. Isn't time to get serious about peak oil and global warming? About navigating The Bottleneck? About imminent global societal collapse?
What do you think? Leave a comment below. See our commenting guidelines.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.