A fate worse than global warming?
By John M. Crisp
While we temporize about global warming _ some would say dither _ its long-term dangers may be overtaken by a related, but more acute, crisis: The depletion of the fuels that power the way we live on the planet, especially hydrocarbons like oil and coal. Eventually they will be exhausted.
This fact should be unsurprisingly obvious, since we're using these fuels at a rate that is much greater than they could possibly be replaced. Still, our reserves are enormous, making it easy to develop a sense of complacency about the future.
But, as a number of writers have pointed out, the depletion crisis will come not when the last barrel of oil or the last bucket of coal is burned, but when the peak of worldwide hydrocarbon production is reached. With regard to oil, this peak is sometimes called Hubbert's peak, after Shell geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who in 1956 predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in the early '70s. He was right; U.S. production has declined every year since 1970.
Other scientists have used Hubbert's methods to predict a peak in worldwide production, as well: the optimists give us 25 or 30 years; the pessimists believe that the peak is occurring right now. (Two good discussions of the prospects for worldwide oil production are Kenneth S. Deffeyes' "Hubbert's Peak" and David Goldstein's "Out of Gas.")
Whether it occurs in two years or five years or 30 years, what happens when we reach the downhill slide on the far side of peak oil production? In his book "Powerdown," Robert Heinberg suggests several possibilities, none very attractive.
One of them Heinberg calls "Waiting for the Magic Elixir." It's based on the hope that as hydrocarbons become less available and more expensive, other energy sources, as yet undiscovered, will emerge. Heinberg doesn't rule out this possibility entirely, but it's unlikely that any fuel with the energy and availability of hydrocarbons is waiting in the wings to save us. Depending on this hope is similar to setting out across the Pacific in a 747 with half-empty fuel tanks, hoping to find mid-air refueling on the way.
A second possibility is what Heinberg calls "Powerdown," which involves a recognition that the end of the hydrocarbon age will eventually arrive and that a rational, organized response is called for, one that brings the size of the earth's population into sync with the renewable energy that's actually available for the long haul. This alternative, however, requires a deep re-conception of the modern attitude toward what it means to be human and civilized. It calls for the reverse of globalization, for shrinking back into self-sustaining renewable communities. In short, it's unlikely to happen.
Far more likely is the alternative that Heinberg calls "Last One Standing." This is the default option, the one that, in lieu of rational action, humankind will choose simply because it requires us only to follow the natural course we've followed whenever resources have become scarce in the past: we fight over them.
World Wars I and II are good examples of conflicts over access to energy, and our current presence in Iraq, our interest in the Middle East, the incipient tensions with China and Iran are hard to explain unless oil is part of the equation. Competition for access to the last inexpensive, accessible deposits of oil and other hydrocarbons will continue to heat up until, as Heinberg puts it, there's only one left standing. Ironically, in spite of our worries about global warming, before the globe has time to heat up to the point of uninhabitability we may self-destruct is a series of chaotic energy wars over the last of the oil.
The Bush administration is unlikely to lead us out of this hydrocarbon wilderness; they're oilmen, locked in psychologically to a hydrocarbon future. So are most Democrats. Unfortunately, finding our way out of this dilemma will take more than innovative thinking and new discoveries. It will require a realization on a global scale that human life is unique in our universe, as far as we know, and that it can be preserved in the long run only within a framework of renewable energy.