Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Peak oil perspectives

Anybody who's been a part of the left wing of the political spectrum for any length of time has always been at least dimly aware of the concept of an impending global oil shortage. Until fairly recently, though, it's been discussed as one potential environmental catastrophe of many. Maybe our landfills would overflow and encroach on our cities, maybe we would pollute the air until it became unbreathable, maybe we would run out of water, maybe the oil wells would run dry. Which one would happen first was never an issue because we could stave them off for a while by recycling, supporting green power, using low-flow shower heads, and driving less frequently. And besides, all of these horrible things would probably all happen after we were long dead anyway, so they wouldn't have an impact on us personally.

These days, though, an impending oil shortage has gotten a lot more press, and is being discussed as something that might well be imminent, if not already happening. For about three years, a growing group of people has been using the Internet to spread the word about what has come to be known as the "peak oil" movement and how it could change the lives of us all. A few Canadian bloggers have recently started paying attention to the issue, and I myself started sinking my teeth into it last fall. From what I've learned, there seem to be five major perspectivs in this debate, each of which has a very different outlook on the near future. This website, which does an excellent job summing up the differences between them, has respectively dubbed them the "Pollyanna scenario," the "optimistic scenario," the "plateau scenario," the "pessimistic scenario," and the "Head for the Hills scenario."

So what does this particular idealistic pragmatist think? Well, first off, I really don't think the Pollyanna scenarios--the ones that have the oil not running out and us living in a world full of ever-increasing industrialization and oil consumption without any immediate repercussions--seem terribly credible. Most of the online material I've read from these folks has been incredibly sarcastic, as if it were more important to make fun of the people who believed in the more pessimistic scenarios than it was to say anything of substance, and even the more serious stuff has an air of "la la la I can't hear you" about it. But leaving those scenarios out still leaves a pretty wide range of possiblities, each of which I think is as likely as any other to actually happen, ranging from the "we're going to be crunched, and the future is going to be hard, but we'll eventually make it through and maintain a high-technology, low-energy society" perspectives through to the "most of us are going to die, very soon, and those who survive will end up living in a post-industrial wasteland" perspectives. Mainly, I think we don't know, and can't know, exactly what's going to happen, and while the great minds of the world will theorize all they want, nothing they say is going to change that simple fact. When it comes to the peak oil question, I am deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to have all the answers, and equally suspicious of points of view which seem to be inexorably tied up with a particular ideology. Anyone who tries to predict the future from a knee-jerk political stance is going to automatically going to be granted somewhat less credibility from me from the get-go, even if I'm sympathetic to a lot of what they stand for.

In practical personal terms, this means that I don't believe in making drastic changes to my life based on potentially false assumptions about what we think might happen, but sticking my head in the sand isn't an option, either. I might not know precisely how the future is going to change, but I am convinced that it will change, and I believe that there are things I can do now to make some of those potential futures a lot easier on myself. I can decide to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly now, so that I won't be as likely to have any self-inflicted disabilities if life suddenly were to get a lot harder. I can learn skills now that could be of great benefit under a more pessimistic scenario and which wouldn't hurt me to have under a more optimistic one. I can list and develop skills and traits I already have that could be of use in a post-industrial economy. I can decide not to take on any more pets after my current ones die, so that I won't be responsible for any small furry beings who might live twenty years into an unknown future. I can decide to see the world and spend time with faraway people I love now, because someday it might not be feasible or even possible. But no matter how much thought I give this stuff, it still all boils down to the fact that we just don't know what's going to happen. If, like some of my friends, I could convince myself that the more pessimistic scenarios were right on the money, it would actually be freeing in certain ways, because if you know how things are going to go, you can actually make plans. You can decide to quit your job, sell your house, and live off the land in a commune to try to make the inevitable future a little easier on yourself when everybody else wants to join you in another ten years. You can decide to move to a warmer or a cooler climate where you won't need heat or air conditioning when the worst happens. You can decide to quit donating to and working for causes that matter to you, and stop worrying about conserving power because hey, no matter what you do right now, you're all doomed anyway. I really think that kind of thinking is a trap, though, because not only do you end up working yourself into an unnecessary frenzy, but you're virtually certain to be wrong about some pretty major things. And where does that leave you then, not to mention the rest of the world?

So for now, I'm just going to keep reading, keep thinking, keep learning, and most of all, keep enjoying the life I have, whatever that life ends up being. (While I go on recycling, supporting green power, using low-flow shower heads, and driving less frequently, of course.)

Web references:

Books written for lay audiences: Academic papers:
  • Bunger, JW. 2003. Peak oil production. Oil and Gas Journal, 101 (40), 10, October.
  • Bunger, JW, Crawford, PM, Johnson, HR. 2004. Is oil shale America's answer to peak-oil challenge? Oil and Gas Journal, 102 (30): 16, August.
  • Campbell, CJ. 2002. Petroleum and people. Population and Environment, 24 (2): 193-207, November.
  • Duncan, RC. 2003. Three world oil forecasts predict peak oil production. Oil and Gas Journal, 101 (21) 18-21, May.
  • Edwards, JD. 2001. Twenty-first-century energy; decline of fossil fuel, increase of renewable nonpolluting energy sources. American Association of Petroleum Geologists, 74: 21-34.
  • Kelleher, K. 2004. How long will the oil age last? Popular Science, 265, 2, August, 33-4.
  • van Mourik, M; Shepherd, R. 2004. Investment incentive concerns overlooked in peak-oil debate. Oil and Gas Journal, 103(10): 18, March.
  • van Mourik, M. 2002. Peak oil and economics: some lessons from offshore. Energy Exploration and Exploitation, 20-1 (6-1): 61-69. Special issue.
  • Williams, B. 2004. Next big thing: peak oil. Oil and Gas Journal, 102 (15): 15-15 April.
  • Williams, B. 2004. Peak-oil, global warming concerns opening new window of opportunity for alternative energy sources. Oil and Gas Journal, 101, (32) 18, August.
Web-board or interactive blog discussions on the topic:

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