Can Peak Oil Save Us?
By Colin Wright
Occasionally I run into someone who has heard about Peak Oil, but doesn't think it will matter much. Usually they are convinced that the peak is at least 30 years off. Or that we have copious amounts of alternative sources of energy (tar sands, oil shale, methane hydrates, etc.) that we can tap into as soon as the market signals. They may have read somewhere that people have been warning about the depletion of oil ever since it was first discovered. Or they may dismiss Peak Oil as the rantings of a doomsday cult, much like the Y2K prophesies of societal collapse.
Unfortunately the Peak Oil deniers are usually not familiar with the writings of world-class geologists like Colin Campbell and Ken Deffeyes. Or energy analysts (and Friends of Bush) like Matt Simmons. They usually don't know about the Hirsh Report, a DOE-sponsored study concluding that Peak Oil would need 20 years to plan for and would require multi-billion dollar investments in coal-to-liquid projects.
Meanwhile world oil production has been flat for two years now, even as increasing demand from the US, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East has priced the third world out of the little oil they have been using. Peak Oil means that half the world's usable reserves are gone, but more importantly, that falling production rates will have devastating economic consequences on the global economy.
The Portland City Council takes Peak Oil very seriously (see www.energybulletin.net/26922). Their 12-member Peak Oil Task Force is recommending that the city cut its fossil fuel consumption by 50 percent over the next 25 years. They think this is achievable through high-density planning and zoning and increased public transportation. Additionally, they "see the potential for profound economic hardship and high levels of unemployment, and recommend having plans in place to adapt social and economic support systems accordingly."
While Portland has been actively preparing for an expensive-oil future, Seattle has been planning to spend billions of dollars on a new highway replacement. While claiming to be a leader in the fight against global warming, the city of Seattle seems to have no recordings of greenhouse gas emissions, like Portland, on its web site. It's not clear whether we're on target to meet even Kyoto standards (which apparently we're not). Biofuels are going to save us and our auto-centric lifestyles, I suppose, if we can believe the mayoral photo-ops.
The silver lining of Peak Oil and Gas is of course that it may save us from the worst of global warming (if we leave the remaining coal in the ground). A low-carbon diet will be forced upon us, which will make Ron Sims' 80 percent carbon reduction targets by 2050 much more realistic. (But if we don't manage to construct an effective mass transit system in the next two decades, increased energy costs will probably mean it will never be built.)
But I see another possible "upside" to Peak Oil. It forces upon us the chance of a paradigm change in our behavior.
For almost all of our history human populations have been growing and we have sought out just about every available niche. "Go forth and multiply" has been the biblical imperative. In North America, Europeans decimated native populations and spread west when group or class conflicts arose. Elites urged imperial expansions in places like Hawaii, the Philippines and Iraq. When African Americans and other minorities demanded equitable treatment in employment, housing and education, many whites simply fled to the newly-developing suburbs.
These expansions were all made possible by developments in technology (among other factors)--Guns, Germs and Steel. But underlying this were new ways to harness energy, be they in sailing ships or automobiles. Human population growth has been mirrored and enabled by energy growth. In fact, while the population quadrupled over the last century, the energy in the food production system has gone up by 80 times (according to Thomas Homer-Dixon).
We are now close to the pinnacle of net energy use. (In fact, we have long passed the net energy per capita peak.) To use an analogy from physics, the centrifugal forces which pushed humans out into the world will soon be replaced by centripetal forces which will draw us back together again. As we go over the energy peak and move onto the energy down-slope, we will be forced to learn to live with less. This will require a new outlook, but one for which I believe we are well equipped.
Humans are extremely adaptable. It's one of our defining traits. But above that, we are social animals. Except for a few outsiders, our hopes, dreams and efforts are all motivated by group purposes. Everyone wants to be well-regarded by their peers and neighbors. We crave respect and status. (How do you want your obituary to read?)
The mythical figure of the macho, rugged individual suited imperial expansion. In their time and place, these Davy Crockett figures were common heroes. (They were for my boyhood. And no doubt for W's.) But now, driving a Hummer signals the driver as someone decidedly un-cool, a square, out of touch with the new zeitgeist. The new status symbols are high-tech, but low-energy. Think iPod. Bicycle. Condo. The Dandy Warhols.
Anecdotal evidence for a change in zeitgeist, perhaps. No doubt, change will be uneven and drawn out, dependent on local circumstances. But my feeling is that when people are forced to live and work closer together, this will unleash the creativity to produce a richer social environment that will counter the isolated consumer/worker ethos that corporate capitalism fosters.
Just because we are moving into a low-energy future does not mean we will move backwards in time, like a movie in reverse. Writers like James Howard Kunstler look to a dystopian future, where women lose their freedoms and ethnic tensions are exacerbated. But the "Long Emergency" is definitely not the only possibility in the history books not yet written. We have accumulated fantastic wealth and know-how, including hundreds of years of science and technology, and advances in human understanding. The trick is to convince enough people of the changes that are coming before we are overtaken blindly by events. To plan for our future.
Over 70 years ago, in a country using little oil, Bertrand Russell wrote in In Praise of Idleness that we could meet all our needs with less than four hours of work per day. His evidence was how England mobilized its economy during WWI. As he put it:
"Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever."
Even today, machine technology and cooperative economics may offer the keys to a prosperous and sustainable low-carbon economy, as writers such as Jon Rynn have suggested. The biggest challenge may be convincing people that our current economic system, after a century of state and corporate propaganda, is not the only option. In fact, I would argue that the current system is one which supported a growing population and a growing GDP during the up phase of the energy curve. (And that is why the working classes went along with it, bought off with the trickle-downs.) In a world of diminishing energy, we will need to rethink our economy--and that implies our relations to one another. Peak Oil will provide us with that opportunity, perhaps sooner than we expect.
--Colin Wright, email@example.com