Confessions of a Peak Oil Alarmist

What would you do if you knew? What if you lived in New Orleans last summer and you knew, through some inexplicable cosmic convergence of education, premonition, and intuition, something big was going to happen, sooner rather than later, lasting rather than temporal, avoidable rather than inevitable, something that would change everything? Who would you tell and how? Would they believe you and would they prepare? Could you prepare yourself?

I’ve been on a strange and sensational journey for the last couple of years. Join me and see how I became a Peak Oil Alarmist, the official Doomster of Southwest Virginia, the kind of guy people politely but purposefully sidle away from at dinner parties and Chamber of Commerce banquets. Welcome to my angst-filled world.

Have you ever pondered a human population graph? It resembles a motocross launching ramp. It’s essentially flat for forty thousand years but arcs upwards in the proverbial blink of an eye, starting about 200 years ago. What, after millennia of stability, brought about such a pronounced rise?

The answer is intuitive.

Like all animals, humans eat. When there’s lots of food, the population swells. Rudimentary agriculture ushered in the first population explosion. But things really got going about 200 years ago. The population then was 1 billion; today it’s nearing 6.5 billion and rising. This second explosion happened when we found and exploited a new energy source, fossil fuels. Fossil fuels allowed food production efficiencies orders of magnitude beyond natural or sustainable levels. (In fairness, advances in technology and medicine also contributed to the rise, but these were in the “cart” led by the energy “horse.”) This endowment, always buried literally beneath our feet, was there for any species at any time to use, but neither the dragonfly, nor the elephant, nor the giant squid had the intelligence, dexterity, and need to make use of it, as neither did we for our first, roughly 39,000 years. It could be used hastily or sparingly, but it could only be used once.

Not only did our newfound gift of coal, oil, and natural gas let a farmer grow enough food now to feed hundreds, but it let us build skyscrapers, interstate highways, particle accelerators, microwave ovens, and more. Oil was particularly useful, employed in food production, plastics, pharmaceuticals, and notably transportation, making us immeasurably richer and more mobile than ever before.

Equally self-evident is that exploitation of any finite resource cannot continue indefinitely. Once about half is gone, there’s rapidly decreasing availability forevermore. The top of the curve is the Production Peak.

Petro-geologists think Peak Oil is nigh. Rising demand from emerging economies, particularly in China and India, and peaking supply is a collision course for disaster. A catastrophic worldwide depression of immense proportions seems likely, with millions of people starving and millions more facing eternal financial hardship.

What’s uncertain is whether a miracle new energy resource will present itself. The options are few and nothing seems poised to take petroleum’s place at anywhere near the volumes we consume. Note here that while we’re really good with technology, technology and energy are different things and we can’t create more energy with technology.

The Hirsh Report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy in February, 2005, states, “…without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented.”

Our society is stumbling with obliviousness and nonchalance into a new and horrible epoch.

Selling impending scarcity to a complacent and entitled populace when the Dow exceeds 11,000, Boeing just set a yearly record for airplane sales, and the stores and service stations are full is as tough as selling an impending Category 5 hurricane to a sleeping “Big Easy.” Yet, history has shown that when complex societies have collapsed, they have done so quickly and unexpectedly. Why would ours be immune or different?

While I’m not a dour person and have never been clinically depressed, I’m clearly at a loss in constructively dealing with such gloomy thoughts. Do I continue planning next summer’s overseas vacation? Do we wall-paper the dining room? Is business-as-usual a wise plan of action, or should some type of bunker mentality ensue?

Katrina taught us many lessons. For instance: just because horrible things haven’t happened in recent memory doesn’t mean they won’t happen now. And, nature doesn’t care if we’re having a nice day. And, the notion that we’re all in this together is not comforting. And finally: adequate preparation really matters.

What would you do if you knew?