Peak oil and the Olduvai catastrophe: is there a link?
The Olduvai Theory is about the declining total world energy supplies and the catastrophic consequences. Peak Oil is a more confined thesis about oil supply declining due to the looming exhaustion of oil reserves in the ground. So Olduvai addresses all energy sources, but Peak Oil is only about one of the energy sources – oil.
In a recent article (Leigh, 2008), I failed to explain the Olduvai and Peak Oil relationship fully and clearly, and I would like to do so in this brief article. So what is the relationship between Olduvai and Peak Oil? Indeed, is there one at all?
Let us see exactly what Peak Oil is. Peak Oil was pioneered by US geologist Dr. M. King Hubbert. In the 1950's he argued that the world has a finite reserve of oil and that it is running out. Hubbert correctly predicted Peak Oil would be reached in the United States in 1970. Based on the Hubbert model, many believe that global oil production will reach its peak around now and then fall forever into a state of decline.
More specifically Hubbert postulated that when half of the extractable oil of a region had been pumped, increasingly declining levels of production would set in, until all extractable oil was exhausted. Generally then the rate of oil extraction would continue to rise until half the oil was taken and then increasing decline would set in and this is well illustrated by the Hubbert bell curve, as shown in the graph below (Mills).
At the global level we can say then: The Hubbert Peak is the point at which half of the world’s extractable oil reserves have been used, at which point scarcity will gradually increase and prices rise. And an increasing number of voices say we reached Peak Oil two or three years ago as total world oil production has been declining since 2006, shown in the following graph (Bowman, 2008).
Some follow-up considerations, that highlight the possible drastic shortages in oil that are about to appear worldwide, are listed below:
- The world’s largest oil fields were discovered by the end of the 1960s
- The amount of extractable oil reserves in the ground worldwide is dwindling rapidly
- Nothing can comprehensively replace the plentiful supply of cheap oil
- Many oil alternatives are much more expensive
- Nothing is remotely on the horizon to be developed and mass produced to significantly replace oil as the energy of transport and heavy machinery
- World refining capacity is working at full tilt, so even if we had the extra oil we could not refine it
- There is not the carriage capacity around the world to transport any significant extra payloads of oil
- Most oil producing countries are declining in their oil production as they are beyond Peak Oil
- The attempted universalization of economic development, taking hold in many less developed countries (including China and India), is leading to insatiable demand for oil as supplies dwindle
- Many officials and experts, even in the oil industry itself, are proclaiming that oil prices will soon reach $200 a barrel, on the way to much higher prices
- There will be an increasing world shortfall in oil supplies against demand, as the supply dwindles in the face of escalating demand
The Olduvai Theory
Dr. Richard Duncan, an engineer, in a series of publications has built and proposed The Olduvai Theory (e.g. 2000; 2005). This theory postulates that the plentiful supply of energy, from various sources, allowed and facilitated the economic development of the industrial civilization, beginning around 1930. Obviously this civilization with a high level of agricultural, industrial and commercial production, and machinery and gadgets, and life’s comforts, is highly dependant on reliable supplies of cheap energy.
However, Duncan records that even though total world energy consumption could continue to rise, actual world energy consumed per capita has been on a plateau since 1979. In that sense World Peak Energy (per capita) was reached about 30 years ago. So obviously the growth rate of energy production has not kept its previous more vigorous pace, as it increasingly lags the population growth rate levels.
He continues to outline that around now world energy per capita production will approach a “cliff” with rapidly falling levels of energy production. He predicts chaos and collapse of societies as a result of this loss of abundant energy. Nations will fail to maintain sufficient levels of electricity production for our economically developed civilization, which is reliant on cheap abundant energy supplies and electricity.
Duncan relates electricity production to the reliable availability of all energy sources, but particularly oil. Frankly this relationship with oil is not presented with strong convincing clarity. He also argues that electricity is the most important end-user energy, and I think most would agree it is a vital energy source for continued economic growth of our industrial civilization.
He further states that massive investment funds of around $15.5 trillion are required worldwide for development and maintenance of public electricity power systems. Considering that massive funds are needed not only for this, but also for other maintenance areas of society (roads and rail, medical, education, water resources, sewer systems and so on), it is likely that the necessary funding for electrical power will not be realized, thus the electricity grids will be increasingly unreliable and prone to even permanent failure.
So the Olduvai Theory mainly records and predicts:
- The exponential growth of world energy production ended in 1970
- Energy production per capita reached a plateau in 1979, and a rapid decline in world energy production per capita will appear around now with serious implications for electricity production
- Permanent blackouts, around the world, beginning around now would be the result of failed maintenance and development of electricity infrastructures
Points “1” and “2” above are urgent matters that must be dealt with, as they seriously relate to many issues in our society. However, we will continue to mainly consider point “3”.
As previously stated, in many countries around the world ageing and neglected infrastructures are about to become a massively expensive problem to be dealt with. Frankly, it is doubtful where many of these countries will find the funds to address this issue effectively, especially considering that the levels of personal, commercial and public debt are at record highs, bankrupting levels in a growing number of nations. So this has critical implications for the future effectiveness and reliability of the nations’ electricity infrastructures.
The Olduvai and Peak Oil Link
So where is the link between Olduvai and Peak Oil? In this section I will give somewhat a personal view of how I see the relationship playing out in the imminent future of the next few years.
In a previous paper (Leigh, 2008) I made the following comment on the threatening consequences of approaching exhausted oil supplies in the ground:
Without oil to continue to fire up our industrial society we will be without: public electricity, transport, industry’s processed products (food, clothing, packaging, and machinery), communication and computer services. A little bit of brainstorming shows that the society and its systems would come eventually to a standstill. A totally paralyzing set of circumstances with hunger and deprivation on an unprecedented worldwide scale.
But why would this above scenario be so? Oil accounts for a hefty 35% of total world energy supply, but only about 7% of the world’s electricity is produced by oil-fired technology in the power houses. In the table below we see the relative use of energy resources for the production of electricity.
However, we need to appreciate that oil, which makes up about 35% of all our total energy consumption, is vital. We need to consider more deeply. Coal, the biggest single energy source for power houses, could not be mined or transported in any significant amounts, without internal combustion engines to power the technology. So, even the 40% of coal-produced electricity worldwide needs the indirect input of oil to support and maintain the extraction and transport machinery.
In similar and other ways, even the remainder of world electricity of 53%, still directly and indirectly depends on oil as a vital support energy, and oil is in a decline trend amid escalating demand. Further, even nuclear and gas energy, amounting to 35% of the world production of electricity (EIA, 2006), have a heavy reliance on oil power for their primary extraction or haulage. Finally, whatever the energy source used for generating electricity, the power distribution infrastructures are still reliant upon oil for maintenance vehicles and other support services.
But the critic may say, “Oh well, oil will be scarce, but it will be directed by government to where it is needed most”. This may seem logical, but I do not foresee that happening easily in our democracies, as national economies begin to reel in the consequences of the unwinding effect of oil at $200 or $300 a barrel and beyond. All of our transport systems are largely dependant on oil. The sum total of the problems could begin to be overwhelming and paralyzing at all levels.
It is also possible that economic and political developments could intensify, and therefore exacerbate the effects of Peak Oil. Oil, in drastic undersupply, could be used as a powerful lethal international economic weapon. It may be that some of the oil producing nations will only continue to sell oil for certain currencies, which is already happening, and not accept the US dollar. And also due to vested interests and political agendas, certain nations may not sell oil to some other countries at all. Imagine if your country is one of the countries blackballed by various nations not to supply with oil, nor to accept your nation’s currency for payment. In an increasingly hostile world, verging on trade wars and civilization clash, these could be titanic challenges to overcome.
To illustrate this I would like to cite a present possible scenario. World news is full of the possibility of a military attack into Iran from Israel and the USA. The leadership in Iran, in response, has warned that if there is any significant military action against their nation, they will block the Strait of Hormuz. This narrow strait is one of the world’s most strategic oil chokepoints, at the extreme south of the Persian Gulf. This potential action by Iran would immediately halt 40% of the world’s oil supply which is exported through this Persian Gulf strait (Jahn, 2008). Imagine what that would do to the price of oil ($400 a barrel?), and the international scramble that would ensue, in which nations assert themselves to maintain oil supplies, if they can even get them. Maybe most of us can not even begin to imagine the powerful international forces such an event could unleash!
It is likely that oil could begin to be much more scarce than many anticipate, and this could be accompanied by unexpected shocking consequences! One of these consequences could be electricity blackouts becoming permanent.
Reflect for a moment – imagine the catastrophic consequences of no electricity: no phones or computers, no industry which is electricity based, no dairy products or processed foods, no refrigeration, no water as the water pumps won’t work, no cars or transport because the petrol pumps won’t work, no schools or universities, no banks which can’t electronically process transactions, no employment, no income – dwindling stocks of everything as society collapses to unprecedented levels of chaos and deprivation (Leigh, 2008).
The Olduvai Theory must surely have its flaws, need development and even expansion to accommodate the present world, and its chronology may need adjusting. However, as we approach the possibility for such a sequence of critical Olduvian events to appear, we would be well warned to take drastic steps to soften their potential impacts. Olduvai may serve one good purpose at least – to warn us of the foreboding and challenging future we have to successfully confront.
Olduvai may yet ride in to town – will we be ready?
James Leigh, Assistant Professor Cultural Geography, University of Nicosia, Cyprus
Bowman, J. (2008), Empty Holes and Black Swans, 12 February, Agora Financial, accessed 6 March, 2008, http://www.agorafinancial.com/afrude/2008/02/12/empty-holes-and-black-sw...
Duncan, R. (2000), The Peak of World Oil Production and the Road to the Olduvai Gorge, Geological Society of America, Summit, Reno, Nevada, accessed 8 March, 2008, http://dieoff.org/page224.htm
Duncan, R. (2006), The Olduvai Theory: Energy, Population and Industrial Civilization, The Social Contract, accessed 28 March, 2008, http://www.thesocialcontract.com/pdf/sixteen-two/xvi-2-93.pdf
IEA (International Energy Agency), (2006), cited in Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future, InterAcademy, accessed 29 June, 2008, http://www.interacademycouncil.net/CMS/Reports/11840/11901/11905.aspx
Jahn, G. (2008), Iran Says Any Attack Would Provoke Fierce Reaction, Associated Press, 2 July, accessed 3 July, 2008, http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080702/ap_on_re_mi_ea/oil_congress
Leigh, J. (2008), The Olduvai Theory and Catastrophic Consequences, Energy Bulletin, 24 June, accessed 30 June, 2008, http://www.energybulletin.net/node/45518
Mills, M. Evolutionary Psychology and Peak Oil, A Malthusian Inspired Heads Up for Humanity, accessed 5 May, 2008, http://www.drmillslmu.com/peakoil.htm