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Peak oil: powerdown or collapse?

Last weekend, I attended a conference in Washington entitled "Petrocollapse." The organizers of the conference believe at some point the price of oil suddenly will rise so rapidly and will become so scarce that much of the world's current economic system will be unable to function. A corollary seems to be that beyond that unhappy day, governments as currently constituted won't be able to do much to help the situation.

One of the speakers at the conference pointed out that it really is impossible to know where civilization is going without cheap, abundant oil. There are so many people, governments, organizations, and economic phenomena involved in the current economic order, the results of their interaction during oil depletion is impossible to foretell. This, of course, is perfectly true. There is no way of knowing how our grandchildren are going to be living 50 years from now and what they are going to be doing, but it does seem a few general observations about the early years of peak oil can be made.

Those who think, or at least write, about the future of society from the perspective of knowing that peak oil is imminent, fall along a spectrum ranging from life-as-we-know-it-with-hydrogen-cars to most-have-died-off from oil wars, famine, and disease with the remainder living in scattered tribes on subsistence agriculture.

Narrowing this spectrum a bit, we first get to the "mitigators" who believe that if we can muddle through 20 or 30 years of economic depression, perhaps severe, we can gradually emerge with a new set of sustainable energy technologies. Clustered around the other end of the scale will be the "pessimists" who believe the oil/industrial age and all its wonders has over shot and that we will be in a deep, deep hole. They believe there are no foreseeable energy technologies that can replace oil sufficiently soon to prevent a significant economic and societal collapse. Nowhere will this collapse be harder and faster than in the United States , which uses five times the average world consumption per capita and, must import, nearly 70 percent of its consumption.

As usual, the truth is likely to fall somewhere in between.

It is relatively easy to foresee what is likely to happen in the early APO (after peak oil) years. Few will disagree that $5-10+ gasoline will result in a major reduction in personal automobile travel and explosive growth in mass transit, alternative vehicles and ride sharing. The substantial increase in the cost of transporting goods and raw materials will result in unprecedented price increases, high interest rates, and an economic downturn. As most of the economy won't resume recent rates of growth at any foreseeable time, the stock market won't be the same for a long, long time. The type of employment opportunities we have had for the last 50 or so years will change markedly. Far more of us are going to be doing some flavor of essential-to-support-life manual work and far fewer will be sitting around offices doing the things people do in offices.

Like it or not, people are going to turn to their governments at all levels to get them through the crisis whether it turns out well or ends in societal collapse. They are already demanding that something, anything, be done about $3 gas. Just think of what they will demand when we get to $5 or $10 gas, or restricted availability of gas.

There are no other institutions, other than government, with the authority and command of resources to keep civilizations of the complexity we have built during the oil age running. Only a few percent of us, in America, live on or anywhere near a farm anymore and what were once near universal agricultural skills are now possessed by very few. The true necessities of life — food, shelter, clothing, and medicine— come to us through highly complex supply chains— all of which run on oil. Simply getting the remaining oil flows to where they are needed most during the decades of oil depletion will be a major challenge.

While many governments appear to be bumbling badly at the minute, there is a lot of recent and ancient history showing governments have tended to rise to the occasion when presented with a very great challenge. America ’s responses to the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, and the challenge of the moon landings are shining examples of what a motivated government can accomplish. In Europe , Churchill's Britain , Stalin's Russia and even Hitler's Germany had spectacular accomplishments during the 1940's.

Although it is apples and oranges, it is difficult to imagine that worldwide oil depletion will be anything more difficult than the Russian government and people faced the day Hitler’s Wehrmacht stormed into their country bent on destroying or enslaving them all. In the lifetimes of many of us, governments and their people have met and overcome some very big challenges. Admittedly the rapid withering of the liquid fuel supply that powers so much of our essentials of life will be one of the major challenges of the 21 st Century, but I for one have trouble seeing the oil depletion phenomenon leading to a total societal collapse.

Jumping ahead 20 or 30 years is obviously much more speculative than opining in a general way about the remaining years of the current decade. As with everything else, these decades of transition away from the oil age could result in a really bad outcome, a relatively good outcome, or any of a million in betweens.

The really bad possible outcomes of the great peak oil transition range from nuclear wars to runaway biology or an over-the-tipping-point climate. The good outcome, of course, would be mankind’s mastery of an environmentally friendly, sustainable, inexpensive source of energy. And finally there would be innumerable in between outcomes, which would be some unknowable mixture of the good and the bad.

One thing is sure however, the peaking of world oil production is certain to launch a round of social and economic changes comparable to the advent of the industrial age.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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