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The peak oil crisis: the 3rd transition

Modern man, the kind with the 1400 cc brain, is said to have been around for about 200,000 years. For the first 190,000 years however, not much of note happened, or at least that we know about. Tools got better - sharper spears and axes - but in general our remote ancestors went through life hunting and gathering. Little seems to have happened, for early man was completely occupied in feeding himself and, of course, procreation. Researchers think that in all these years the world's population never got to more than 15 million.

The first great change the Neolithic Revolution happened circa 10,000 to 7,000 years ago when our remote ancestors discovered how to domesticate plants and animals. This was great for instead of chasing around in the woods all day trying to spear or find something to eat, a person could sit at home and produce all the food he needed not only for himself and his family, but several others as well. These others could then group themselves in villages, towns, or cities and start developing specialized skills - tailor, shoemaker, brain surgeon, stock broker. All these wonderful new skills could develop because a farmer could produce and transport enough stored energy in the form of grain, veggies, fruits and animals, to allow civilizations to form. These civilizations did all sorts of things; they educated a least some of their young, discovered writing, science, the arts, and made war on each other -- all because there was enough energy stored in harvested food, wood, and later metals so that not everybody needed to search for food all day.

History bubbled along for about 10,000 years until the second great transition commonly called the Industrial Revolution started about 200 years back. Although this revolution started with better iron-making and waterwheel-powered textile factories, it really took off with the exploitation of fossil fuels (coal) and the invention of the steam engine. Someday the historians might get around to renaming the epoch, "the fossil fuel revolution" for it was this new source of energy that allowed it to happen. After the steam engine allowed us to pump out coal mines, there was no holding mankind back -- trains, factories, steamships, electricity, automobiles, airplanes, and electronics were all developed in short order. Lost in all the excitement, however, was the simple fact that all these wonders and a whole new way of life for many was all wrought by massive amounts of very cheap energy that could be extracted from the ground in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas.

For many, thoughts of getting enough to eat faded into the mists as a farmer or two equipped with science, mechanization, transportation and fertilizer could feed hundreds of others, living thousands of miles away, at ridiculously low cost. From an historical perspective, however, the major result of the fossil fuel-powered industrial revolution was the astonishing growth of the world' s population - from circa 1 billion people in 1800 to seven billion this coming August. That this growth could occur can be attributed to the massive increase in food production and transportation that fossil fuels and derivative fertilizers allowed, and to the nearly universal dissemination of modern medicine that cut infant mortality and increased life spans.

Needless to say, seven billion people can and do use up a lot more resources -- fossil fuels, minerals, water, fresh air, food, etc. than do one billion and that is the problem we are just starting to face. Scarcities have already started to develop for some fossil fuels, food, and some minerals. These scarcities will become worse over the next few decades until mankind eventually is forced into radically different lifestyles and forms of employment. Energy shortages are already developing (e.g. $100 oil) and are virtually certain to curtail the use of many kinds of oil-powered transportation over the next 20 years.

With declining quantities of fossil fuels, and the likelihood that renewable forms of energy cannot be developed and expanded quickly enough, continued worldwide economic growth is unlikely. While countries that are self-sufficient in fossil fuels and those able to get a lock on a share of fossil fuel production (most likely the Chinese) will be able to grow for a while. Eventually, however, they are certain to encounter other constraints. At the minute fresh water and food seem poised to follow fossil fuels into scarcity, but there are many other natural resources that soon will be too expensive for common use.

Taken together, the decline and eventual near cessation of fossil fuel production and that of many other minerals, disruption in global weather patterns, and the growing food and water scarcity will constitute the third great transition. Unlike the previous transitions in which life arguably got better for some, if not most, of the world's peoples, any upside to this transition seems to pale in the face of what is to come. Obviously the seven billion of us are going to have to shrink to some more sustainable number. Some demographers are already arguing that this might be under 1 billion. It would be nice if we could all do a China and limit each female to one child for a few generations, but this seems unlikely to happen soon. In reality, the transition to a sustainable world population is likely to be much less pleasant.

What life will be like as we move further into mankind's third great transition is difficult to predict. In addition to six billion more people, however, the 200-year old industrial age has brought much new human knowledge and many new technologies that should be of use in mitigating the problems and hardships ahead. Although liquid-powered motorized vehicles are likely to have a very short half-life, there are other technologies that could pick up at least part of the slack as soon as we realize we have a problem and economics dictates change.

Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.

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