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Chicken Little, peak oil and Y2K

At the recent conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas-USA in Washington, D.C., an unknown person hired two people to dress as Chicken Little and walk around outside the conference venue.

The trouble with Chicken Little is that he neither had a practical plan to address the problem of the falling sky nor the sense to discern the intentions of Foxy Loxy who ultimately devoured Chicken Little and his friends before they could reach the king to tell him that the sky is falling. As such, Chicken Little gives us poor guidance about the effect that the efforts of those involved in the peak oil movement will likely have. A better analogy would be the so-called Y2K problem.

Y2K refers to the problem of two-digit year notation previously used in computers, notation which could only accommodate years up to 1999. Many experts believed that computer failures related to this problem had the potential to be highly disruptive of global society if not corrected before the year 2000. As a result of this concern, firms and governments spent large sums to update or replace outdated software and hardware.

Critics of extensive Y2K preparations said that the problem was overblown and that any necessary corrections could me made after January 1, 2000 on an as-needed basis. Those who supported extensive Y2K preparation cited the almost completely smooth rollover to January 1, 2000 as a vindication for their strategy. Oddly, their opponents cited the same smooth rollover as proof that such preparation, which was by no means complete in all sectors of the economy, was largely unnecessary.

The peak oil movement is facing a similar scenario. If those concerned about peak oil were miraculously able to get governments, communities and households to begin rapid and extensive preparations for oil decline, the effects of such a decline, when it arrived, would, of course, be mitigated to a considerable extent. No doubt, at that point those who claimed that peak oil would not be a problem would say that the less than catastrophic result proves that peak oil was never a serious threat to civilization. In other words, don't expect to be thanked if preparations urged on your community prevent problems. Heroic measures after a crisis always get more attention and attract more awards.

Of course, many of those in the peak oil movement would say that it is far too late in the game to prevent the catastrophic consequences of an oil decline because that decline is imminent. But it is a common mistake to underestimate the adaptive power of human communities when faced with a crisis. The real difficulty remains in convincing the public that such a crisis may actually be nearby and that an ounce of prevention will be far preferable to the pound of cure which will surely have to be applied.

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