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The peak oil crisis: perspective

While waiting to see how the Iranian nuclear confrontation and the various Eurozone crises sort themselves out, there is time to step back and look at the interaction of the major forces that will shape our future. While the problems of oil depletion are already upon us, shrinking resources are only a part of global dynamics currently.

There are at least six major forces moving civilization in the world today: 1) population growth: 2) economic growth; 3) political stability; 4) technological innovation; and more recently 5) resource depletion and 6.) climate change. There are, of course, other less obvious change-producing forces at work in the world – theology, geology, and culture to name a few--but these six look like a good place to start thinking about the interaction of change. Our six forces are intertwined so that significant movement in one will eventually result in feedbacks affecting some or all of the others.

In the last 200 years a combination of better health technology and services, more productive agriculture, and improved transportation has allowed the world population to grow seven-fold. Although in some areas societal and even political measures are keeping population growth in check, as a whole the world's population is on course to increase markedly before the century is out. In a finite world this has, and will continue to have, serious implications for our other major engines of change. First is simply the need to grow and distribute food for the 78 million people that we are adding to our population each year. If one includes clothing, shelter, education, medical care, and a better-than-subsistence life style for the new arrivals, you can see that that the global economy needs to do some growing or at least rearrange the way resources are distributed.

This steadily growing population will add to resource depletion – fossil fuels, vegetation, and minerals -- for at a minimum all those additional people must eat and drink. If they are going to eat warm food or stay warm in the colder climates, they are likely to be adding to the atmosphere's growing concentration of greenhouse gases and the pace of global warming. The search for a better life is already resulting in mass migrations from poorer to richer regions which in turn is already contributing to political volatility.

Then we have the rapid economic growth of the last 250 years based on the exploitation of numerous technological discoveries coupled with the fossil fuels that supplied the excess energy for the increasingly complex societies and interdependent societies that most of us live in today. Today anything less than steady economic growth creates political problems – sometimes serious ones, for most peoples now look to their government to create the environment that will provide jobs and an adequate standard of living for all. Anything less eventually feeds back into social discontent – ranging from election upsets to bloody revolts as we have seen recently across the Middle East.

Although technological improvements have been changing civilization for untold millennia – stone tools, fire, wheels, gun powder, etc. – it is only in the last 250 years that science and technology came into its own allowing for rapid changes that we like to think of as "progress." This, of course led to population growth, more economic activity, and increasing complex political organization. In turn, this led to rapid depletion of the resources – fossil fuels, water, agricultural land, minerals, etc. – that are now on the verge of becoming a limiting factor for further economic growth. We are now coming to the realization that without increasing supplies of energy, and other raw materials, more economic growth will be impossible, which in turn will feed back into more political instability, more migration, and if we can't get the food supply right, a decline in global population.

Another important corollary to economic growth has been the over-loading of the earth's atmosphere with the combustion products of fossil fuels used for energy. It now seems that the global climate is becoming unstable at a rapid pace. Here the feedback is likely to come in the form of lower agricultural production as a combination of droughts, high temperatures, and floods take a higher-than-normal toll on crops and livestock.

This will eventually result in increased hunger, malnutrition and higher death rates. Somewhere along the line the effects of climate change may become so bad that a consensus will develop that the burning of fossil fuels must be sharply curtailed or the economic costs of rising temperatures become too much to bear or as some believe do us all in.

Interspersed with all the causes and effects that are driving our earth is the question of timing. While climate change may eventually be far more serious than any economic downturn or political discontent, it seems to move so slowly that so some believe we will be over the tipping point of no return before serious change is wrought by political agreement. The same seems to be true of resource depletion. In short we seem to be caught between the "could be extremely important" (climate change) and the obviously urgent (jobs).

Is there a way out of all this, or are we doomed to an unknown period of troubles of unforeseeable duration, with falling standards of living and interminable social upheavals? For now, much of the world seems fixated with using various financial tools – taxes, interest rates, money supplies – as solutions to perceived problems without much appreciation that energy supplies simply are becoming too expensive to use in the accustomed manner or that the atmosphere is becoming so unstable that our global food supply is endangered.

There are of course solutions. We know how to cut populations humanely and drastically, through limiting births, but this would require a far greater global social cohesiveness that we have presently. There may be something in the next few decades of technological developments – cheap, clean energy or even mining asteroids. For now there seems to be so little understanding of where we are likely to go that we can only wait for things to get worse.



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

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