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The Peak Oil Crisis: The Leading Edge

Do you remember the furor over drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge a few years back? The whole country was up in arms. At various times some 50 to 60 percent of Americans favored drilling in the area as they were told this would result in lower gas prices.

Last week the USGS lowered its estimate of the amount of oil that could be extracted from the region all the way from 10 billion barrels down to less than one billion, making drilling in the area uneconomical. By the way, the amount of crude being pumped down the Alaskan pipeline now has fallen from 2 million barrels a day (b/d) when the pipeline first opened back in the 1970's to about 600,000 b/d in recent weeks. The trouble is that when the flow of oil falls below a quantity estimated to be 200-300,000 b/d (some say 500,000) the line will have to be closed as there will simply not be enough hot oil being sent down the pipeline to keep it from freezing in winter.

Last week an organization in California, The Post Carbon Institute, released a new book, "The Post Carbon Reader," which draws a much broader picture of the serious issues facing mankind. With 30 authors, each specializing in some aspect of the multiple troubles we face, the scope of the book touches on nearly every aspect of our civilization that is out of balance, unsustainable, and headed for a fall. The basic proposition of the book is that the world has reached the limits of growth in terms of its population, economic activity, and the ability of the atmosphere to absorb more carbon emissions. Either the world's peoples must transform themselves into a sustainable number living in a sustainable manner or there will be many dire consequences right up to the possibility that the human race itself could become extinct. Clearly, this is serious stuff.

Some hold that our sustainability problem started when we first started planting crops and domesticating animals 10,000 years ago. This thesis says if we had stuck with hunting and gathering as a race we would have been able to sustain our act indefinitely, but then we would never have had enough surplus energy to learn reading & writing, and to build cities, the Internet and space ships. Our immediate problem, however, started in earnest with the industrial revolution about 200 years ago when we first started digging up prodigious quantities of coal and feeding it into steam engines. It wasn't long before we struck oil and the rest is history. The world's population went from an estimated 5 or 10 million when we first started farming, to a billion when we started serious coal digging, to about 7 billion today. We also got incredibly richer in terms of material goods and could sure get around much faster.

In retrospect it was an incredible couple of centuries, with some, but not all, aspects of civilization reaching new highs. Mankind's greatest omission during this period was the failure to use our newfound sources of energy and knowledge to make all these wonderful benefits sustainable. We simply dug the coal, pumped the oil, and contaminated the atmosphere as fast as economically feasible. Now these golden centuries are drawing to a close.

In surveying the detritus from our 200-year binge, the Post Carbon's authors identify at least a dozen of what it is fair to term "civilization threatening" mega-problems facing us - too many people; screwed up atmosphere, climate, and oceans; too little water; too little food; declining supplies of fossil fuels; over extension of credit and massive national debts; tottering global financial systems; and the list goes on. One of the book's major points is that all these problems are interconnected so that developments in one of them affects many others.

Now there is little new in all this. Any alert citizen is aware of at least some of the mega-problems facing us. What is lacking for many, however, is a sense of timing. We all know that someday the sun will explode and engulf the earth, but this unhappy day is said to be billions of years away. A good solid meteor hit would not do us any good either (remember the dinosaurs), but as these things seem to come millions of years apart few worry. As long as a problem is perceived as being decades, or for some even a few years away, it is not a concern.

Unfortunately the attitude that serious adverse events while coming are still beyond the horizon of concern has led to nearly universal complacency and denial. In recent years it has become obvious that we are already in the throes of at least two of our mega-problems, peaking world oil supplies and an unstable economic system. These two problems are of course closely interconnected to the point where it now is difficult to sort out cause and effect. Some believe that the four fold increases in oil prices in the last decade was a major cause of the at least some of the world's current economic problems. Others believe that continued growth of world oil production is being hampered by our recessionary times.

In any case it seems clear that the first ripples of the tsunami that will come with the winding down of the industrial age are already upon us. Universal recognition of this fact cannot be far away.

Editorial Notes: Tom Whipple is the Post Carbon Institute's Peak Oil Fellow.

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