Battlepanda: Final Thoughts on Peak Oil


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Final Thoughts on Peak Oil

(Posted by John.)

So how bad will it be? Dunno. (How's that for anti-climactic?)

Seriously though, I'd be pretending to much greater expertise in this subject than I actually have if I made a prediction. But let me put it this way - not only are we not getting ready for this, we're not even getting ready to get ready. That DOE report I mentioned predicted it would take 20 years to make the transition away from oil - and also predicted a Peak in 2016. So we're really behind. Obviously, it's much worse if the Peak comes sooner.

But there are many, though I don't believe they make up the majority, who are pushing what I've repeated called Apocalypse Porn (in a perhaps doomed attempt to coin a phrase.) These people include Matt Savinar and JH Kunstler, and the running theme is that civilization as we know it is doomed, doomed! One of the oft-repeated claims is that the global economy functions on oil, therefore when oil Peak hits the global economy will collapse. But this assumes that people have no agency in the matter. Yes, the ships which carry the bulk of world shipping run on oil. But not that much oil - less than we use for airplane travel, or even agriculture. People will quite readily give up flying to Florida for vacation, rather than give up cheap laptops from China. They will, if at all possible, give up driving to and from work every day rather than give up eating. Indeed, in a post-Peak world procuring cheap commodities from overseas becomes even more important as our lifestyles are degraded by high fuel prices. Similarly, whatever cargo can be moved by rail will be as trains are more efficient than trucks. This will be more expensive then we're used to - but not prohibitively so, and not so much as to induce cannibalism.

Now, this isn't to say the transition will be painless. In fact, given our essentially total lack of preparedness, I'd bet on a major recession (not to mention less variety at the supermarket) as a result of oil production peaking. But the transition is possible, and advising people to put money in canned goods and marksmanship lessons - rather than clean, renewable energy - isn't terribly helpful.

Some optimists would like to hope that even this relatively mild future could be avoided, by high prices stimulating conservation. I believe a certain amount of this is possible, but whether it can outpace racing demand growth is very questionable, in my eyes. Demand in the US, China, and India is simply growing too quickly, and any decline in price (from conservation) is only going to fuel that growth further, and possibly be self-defeating.

Speaking of - stop blaming China and India for the oil prices. Yes, they're accounting for almost all the demand growth. But it's hardly like they're gluttons - or oiloholics, as The Economist calls them. To portray China and the US as equally culpable for high oil demand is no doubt insulting to the Chinese - who after all still consume less than 1/3 the oil the US does, and 1/12 the oil per person that the US does. If the US wanted to avoid high oil prices, the US government could have led the way in efficient cars, not SUVs. As my favourite President said, it's insulting for a nation of SUVs to lecture an nation of bicycles on energy efficiency.

But it does point to the importance of choosing our new energy sources properly - and why abundance is so important. God willing, by 2050 there will be 9 billion decently well-off people on the planet. The only way we're going to avoid armageddon is if there is room for growth, and the only way we can do that is with abundant energy.

Do I have a plan? Well, my short version goes like this: get people off of oil for transportation. Using electric cars for our daily commutes, and trains for longer trips, would do wonders for the economy and for the environment. If necessary, we could probably support aviation from coal-derived fuels. But I'd just as soon not, if possible. There's more to it than that - what role for biofuels, for example - but any plan that doesn't begin with getting Americans out of gas-powered cars is worse than no plan at all. And there's always the chance that if America doesn't do it for itself, it'll be forced to by foreign competition - seriously, does Detroit remember how bad the 1970s and 80s were? Because they aren't acting like it.

I haven't even begun to deal with all the issues surrounding oil, sustainability, and alternative energy sources - these posts have really just been a primer of sorts. But if you're interested in keeping up, I'd reccomend The Oil Drum, WorldChanging, and Treehugger just for beginners. For more depth, read Natural Capitalism - and don't let optimism or pessimism get in the way of critical thought.

If I have time to post more later I will, but I'm moving on Saturday and thus will be kind of busy the next few days. If I don't get to it, thanks for reading and especially thanks to Angelica for giving me the opportunity to annoy a wider audience. Good luck in London!