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Peak Oil and the Curse of Cassandra

I'm getting a shiver of deja vu these days when I read the peak oil-related websites. Some are boggling over the fact that "global warming" got more attention than "peak oil" in the discussions over the recently-passed Energy Bill in the US, while others are simply furious that the American public (and these websites seem predominantly American in focus) isn't taking peak oil sufficiently seriously. They're particularly bothered that mainstream discussion of the idea, when it happens, often pushes the peak date out by ten to twenty years (or more), making it seem like a distant crisis at worst.

When I read all of this, I realize that it's happened before.

The deja vu comes from my recollection of discussions of the coming Y2K crisis back in the late 1990s. Initially Y2K was the obsession of a handful of terrified (and sometimes terrifying) technologists, who seemed baffled by talk of "end of the century" parties, angry at the lack of concern demonstrated by those who should know better, and convinced that the problem was far worse than was generally acknowlegded. By the last couple of years of the decade, however, the question of what would happen come January 1, 2000 seemed to be a debate between "we're hosed" and "we're so hosed that the living will envy the dead." I expect a similar arc for peak oil -- as the idea moves out of the niche blogs and discussion boards and into the cultural mainstream, driven by relatively popular writers such as James Howard Kunstler, the level of anxiety around what will happen when oil production peaks (or, as some would have it, when the powers that be admit that oil production has already peaked) will skyrocket.

But to mention Y2K now, in 2005, tends to generate smirks rather than contemplation. After all, nothing happened, right? Serious people will argue that Y2K was nothing more than a full-employment act for computer programmers, looking to put one over on the ignorant public. Y2K, indeed; where were the plane crashes, train derailments, nuclear power plant meltdowns and ATMs spewing cash we were promised? I suspect that many peak oil followers will react very poorly to my comparison of peak oil and Y2K -- clearly I'm trying to say that peak oil is a hoax, right?

Wrong.

I have a somewhat different take on Y2K, having worked in the computer field in the mid-late 1990s. I see Y2K as an example of people managing to fix a problem at the last minute, only to be roundly derided by a public that saw the lack of disaster as proof that there was never a danger to begin with. This should have been predictable; even before the Y2K issue arose, I saw, again and again, problems averted before they happened through careful planning and (sometimes expensive) preparation -- and I saw, again and again, executives and accountants complaining that the computer techs were wasting time and money with nothing to show for it. Too few of them saw that the "nothing" was precisely what was intended -- potential (small-scale) disasters were prevented before they happened.

So it was with Y2K. While there were undoubtedly some people who saw Y2K as a way to make a quick buck, they were in a definite minority. Most of the people working on Y2K related programming and computer infrastructure tasks took their work quite seriously. In 1996-1998, every computer programming professional I knew was scared out of his or her wits about what would happen come 1/1/00. Most could cite examples of code they had seen, or even worked on, that would be non-fuctional (or producing serious errors) come the 00 rollover -- if nothing was done to fix it. But by late 1998 and 1999, they began to calm down -- they could see that the problem was being dealt with, and that the worst-case scenarios weren't going to happen.

Y2K is a lesson in what can happen when sufficiently-motivated people around the world work hard to avert disaster. The key here is "sufficiently-motivated" -- without the Cassandra-like voices of Y2K doomsayers, fewer companies and government agencies would have given priority to the problem. Ironically, it was the very success of the Y2K disaster crowd that kept the disaster from happening.

When I compare Y2K with peak oil, then, my goal isn't to underplay the potential seriousness of the problem or insult the peak oil specialists. Quite the opposite, in fact; the peak oil Cassandras -- Kunstler included -- are perfectly positioned to trigger the kind of anxiety-induced focus needed to accelerate a move away from petroleum dependence. What I hope to suggest to them, therefore, is that they need to keep in mind that there's another scenario besides global doom and blind optimism -- a scenario in which their warnings work.

This isn't a world where everything goes smoothly and everyone transitions to post-petroleum technologies without any issues; rather, it's a world in which lots of people are convinced that it's too late and are desperate to try anything, to do what's needed, to avoid the "collapse of civilization" scenario that seems all too likely -- and they succeed. And then they wonder what all the fuss was about.

So here is my advice to peak oilers: after all is said and done, you're going to be ridiculed, just as the Y2K people were (and still are) ridiculed. Not because you were wrong, but because you were right enough to keep the disaster from happening. In 2025, when most people in the world are driving cheap, Chinese & Indian-made battery/fuel cell/bioflexfuel hypercars, relying on smart agriculture to reduce or eliminate petroleum fertilizers, and using bioplastics as raw fabber materials, those reminded of the "peak oil" scare are going to look around and say:

"Peak oil? What a bunch of nuts. Look -- nobody actually drilled in the Arctic Wildlife Preserve or off the California Coast, ExxonMobil went out of business because nobody needed their liquified coal "oil," and people were more freaked out by oil at $60 a barrel than at $120 a barrel. Where were the wars, the starvation, the collapse of civilization and the ATMs spewing out money we were promised?"

When you hear them say that, feel free to smile and nod, and know that you were right.

Editorial Notes: James Cascio posts about the future of sustainability, energy and the planet at the amazing WorldChanging site. See the original article for many comments on the piece. -BA

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