Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Peak oil worries

I'm not normally someone given to paranoid ravings about the end of the world. I sneered at Y2K panickers, and I regularly laugh at fundamentalists who believe the rapture is coming THIS year... no, NEXT year... no, this time for SURE...

Recently though, the very real prospect of the world's oil supply mostly drying up within our lifetimes has begun to hit me hard. Some scattered readings on the subject:

Collapse by Jared Diamond, describing past civilizations that crumbled, and why it happened. I managed to read about half this book before giving up because it was so depressing. Diamond paints a very vivid picture of what it's probably like to be one of the people living at the end of a civilization, and it's not pretty.

If you don't plan to read Collapse, this post by Adam Cadre is a very good but morbid high level summary of it. Adam (whom I know mostly as an author of very excellent short interactive fiction) is taking this end of the world stuff seriously. He writes:

Reading Collapse along with some rather dire predictions for 2006 put me in a weird mental space as I went down to the Whole Foods to stock my refrigerator. I felt like I'd beamed in Twelve Monkeys-style from a dystopian future and was appalled at the decadent excess I saw before me. I watched people poking through a tastefully presented basket of satsuma oranges and wondered, how will you look back on this evening a few years from now when, like the Anasazi, you are scrabbling in the dirt for mice to pop the heads off of and eat whole?

There is a board on The Motley Fool called Peak Oil Party (membership required) dedicated to this subject. I've started lurking there to learn more about it.

Through this board, I read this half creepy, half hopeful series of editorials called, simply, "Things to Come". Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4. The author is of the opinion that a sharp reduction in oil availability is beginning within the next few years. He tries to soften the blow and speculate how we will continue to get by in a post oil world.

My dad is a fusion research physicist, so naturally I'm biased towards the eventual development of safe nuclear energy as a way of somehow saving us before things get really bad. My dad is of the opinion that science research is pretty much crippled by politics in this country, but he's cautiously hopeful that other countries will beat us to finishing the research.

I brought this up with Ginny, so now she's paranoid about it too. She thinks we should be making emergency plans for when it happens.


  1. I'm just about halfway through Collapse at the moment. At the Greenland bit. Any page now they're all going to die. Yes, it's a bit depressing - but more sobering.

  2. While it's wise to take sensible precautions towards future possible calamities — hard to do in a world run by religious fanatics who only care about Power Now! — it's easy to fall into the Chicken Little trap, too. I remember back during last year's one-two hurricane punch that gas prices would be up to $5 a gallon or higher by now, but they've actually gone back down to the $2 range and have stayed reasonably stable. $2 is still high, but not the disaster the worst-case-scenario predicters were foreseeing. I don't see the sky falling any time soon. We've had these "gloom and doom is just around the corner" prognostications for decades and the end times are still not upon us. Of course, there's always that random fundie with a backpack nuke....

  3. I havn't read this yet, though I've scoured most of the material on peakoil.net and elsewhere.

    I'm most definitely a peak oil theorist, since it stands to reason that our ability to extract hydrocarbons will definitely peak at some point.

    On the other hand, while conservation is our only choice going forward, there is an absolutely vast sea of wasteful oil consumption out there that can be trimmed quite relatively easily without civilization-ending results.

    For example, the US military wastes an enourmous amount of oil in the course of it's normal activities of "building nations" and spreading "democracy" and death around the rest of the world. It is so bloated and overapportioned that it could be reduced in size/strength by a factor of 10 and still easily be able to obliterate any opponent currently on the Earth. But at 1/10th the size, you can imagine a huge drop in the demand for oil that would result.

    Another example, our cities are laid out in simply the stupidest possible way when it comes to energy efficiency. Our places of work are in the cities or nearby, but our homes are generally miles away out in the suburbs. If we instead moved back into our cities near our places of work we'd save a hell of a lot of gas. And I certainly don't think that reinvigorating our cities like that would be the end of our civilization. In fact, the elimination of the urban sprawl would get rid of a terrible eyesore besides.

    So, while I"m very pessimistic about the future of our ability to produce hydrocarbons, I do think we have alternatives that perhaps aren't immediately evident at first glance. I think our civilization will change significantly, but we have a lot of wiggle room that I think is being overlooked.


  4. Anonymous12:31 PM

    If you are interested in this topic, this might be a good show for you: