“The world is not about to run out of oil, but it does face the end of the First Half of the Age of Oil,” writes retired oil geologist Colin Campbell. “That [age] opened 150 years ago when wells were drilled for oil on the shores of the Caspian and in Pennsylvania. The cheap, convenient and abundant energy it supplied led to the growth of industry, transport, trade and agriculture, which in turn allowed the population to expand six-fold exactly in parallel with oil.”
Campbell goes on, “The Second Half of the Age of Oil will be characterised by a decline in the supply of oil, and all that depends upon it. … That speaks of a second Great Depression and the End of Economics as presently understood.”
ADAM FENDERSON meets the man who predicts the end of life as we know it, and comes away feeling strangely optimistic.
In his retirement home in Ballydehob in rural Ireland last year, Colin Campbell received an unusual phone call. A Southern American accent introduced himself as Dick Haines, Office of US Naval Intelligence. He claimed to be standing inside the Ballydehob phone box, just minutes away from Campbell’s home.
Campbell walked down to the box, and saw a man standing beside it, wearing nothing less than dark glasses and a hat. “Are you looking for me?” he asked the man. “No but those who are, are inside that shop,” said the man, gesturing. Campbell recalls, it was like a scene out of a movie. Inside, Haynes was accompanied by two women. Campbell joined them and they walked off together towards the local pub, followed at a distance by the man in the hat.
It was a polite enough meeting, but Campbell was left with the impression that his work was not going unnoticed.
As far as retired oil geologists go, Colin Campbell is an important man. After decades spent working for majors in the oil industry, in the 1990s he became a main contributor to the PetroConsultants database of world oil and gas reserves.
Then, increasingly disturbed by what he considered inflated, politicized figures produced by the international energy agencies, Campbell essentially became a whistleblower, publishing his own studies in journals such as Scientific American.
From his humble home office, surrounded by his collection of fossils, Campbell continues to maintain his own databases. The numbers representing the remaining world energy reserves are perhaps the most significant set of numbers in the world. Unless the energy agencies are running two sets of books, Campbell, within his computer spreadsheets and rows of green folders, may prove to have the most accurate set of these numbers in existence. And the message the numbers are giving him is sending shockwaves through the world.
We are, he believes, very close to the ultimate global peak of oil production — known most commonly now as Peak Oil. It’s a message many people don’t want heard, or want to hear. “Most people who come here start going through my bookcase. They’re looking for evidence that I’m a crackpot,” he told me, in his considered, somewhat disappointingly sane tone, when I visited him at home in Ireland.
When world oil prices started rising dramatically over a year ago, Campbell’s perspective, until then mostly ignored or written off as simple pessimism, quickly became widely regarded. A woodcut portrait of him featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and when National Geographic devoted a 2004 issue to ‘The End of Cheap Oil’ they used Campbell’s work to question the far more optimistic predictions of the Energy Information Administration.
The significance of Peak Oil is hard to overstate. As Campbell points out, the financial system depends on a constantly growing energy base, without which we can expect increasing instabilities and dysfunctionalities; a second Great Depression. Oil is significant, not only in that it supplies 40 per cent of all societies’ energy and is indispensable to transport, but also because it is the major feedstock for so many plastics, pharmaceuticals, agro-chemicals and other, now vital, products.
Earlier this year, the US Department of Energy (DoE) commissioned a risk management report on Peak Oil, by the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a company that provides scientific reports to all branches of the US government, including the Department of Defence.
The DoE perhaps got more than they were bargaining for. The opening sentences of the report read: “The peaking of world oil production presents the US and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.”
If the SAIC report is correct, we need to spend at least a decade preparing for the end of cheap oil, in order to mitigate its effects; and these programs might take years to build up to full scale.
But if Campbell is correct, we have months, not years.
Campbell’s studies, published through the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) project global oil peak in 2007. Conventional oil, the most readily accessible oil, he believes has already peaked, in 2004. Other methods of analysis seem to support Campbell’s projection of an imminent peak, most notably UK Petroleum Review editor Chris Skrebowski’s Megafields Project, and investment banker Matthew Simmons’ investigation into Saudi oil reserves.
It might be said, that by most conventional standards, we are simply fucked. One of the first websites devoted to Peak Oil was Jay Hanson’s DieOff.org and as the name suggests, it anticipates the collapse of industrial civilisation — taking much of the human population with it. Accepting the Peak Oil thesis can produce a kind of survivalist mindset, or a bleak acceptance. Colin Campbell, in his gentle and genial way, stresses that this isn’t necessarily a doomsday scenario, but even he takes for granted that the world’s population will likely drop dramatically.
So how then, can one explain a conference devoted to Peak Oil, where the mood was positive, and offered a sense of opportunity?
In a small seaside town called Kinsale, with a distinct antiques-and-tea retirement-tourism flavour, about 100 miles from Colin Campbell’s home, I attended Fuelling the Future, a conference held in a marquee in the carpark of a progressive adult education college. Good conversation, good food and by the end, I experienced a surprisingly deep sense of solidarity and readiness for a challenge. “Show me the shit and I’ll scrub it,” was one of the comments by a festival volunteer, taken out of context but emblematic of the readiness to take action. If anything, Peak Oil seems to be the opportunity many people —especially those already devoted to sustainable lifestyles — have been waiting for.
Alongside Campbell and prominent Peak Oil author Richard Heinberg, the conference brought together the perspectives of authors Richard Douthwaite and Australian permaculture co-originator David Holmgren. Also in attendance were many other permaculturists, low energy organic farmers, natural builders, micro-renewable engineers and local-economy experts, along with an Irish MP, a celebrity TV environmentalist and several local councilors.
Rather than fighting the peak, perhaps we can work with it? Our quality of life, if not number of conveniences, might even improve in a low energy world. Examples came from local experiments in natural cob building; urban and rural permaculture properties; Cuban urban organic gardening; and experiments in local alternative currencies. Strong cases were made: through intelligently designed organic farming practices and community restructuring, healthier foods can be harvested, comparable with the yields of oil dependent industrial agriculture. Strengthened local economies can help us weather the storm of global instabilities and rebuild a sense of place and community.
The conference ended with suggestions of immediate, practical steps, which could be taken. David Holmgren recommended that everyone begin with a total audit of their household’s consumption of food, energy and water usage. Others talked about trading a car for a bicycle; insulating the attic; learning how to grow food; starting a community garden; learning natural building techniques. Richard Douthwaite stressed the importance of community involvement and creating bottom-up solutions.
Bobbins Campbell, Colin Campbell’s wife, herself a veteran of the oil industry, perhaps summed up the Fuelling the Future conference when she said affectionately, “Well I live with the man they call Dr Doom … yet I really felt inspired by you all and this weekend.”