April 12, 2005
Reader Request Week 2005: Peak Oil
A number of readers (beginning with mad) are interested in my take on Peak Oil and what it will mean to the American Way of Life(tm). "Peak Oil," in case you don't know, is a theory about petroleum production and depletion. Basically, there's a finite amount of oil out there under the rocks. Whenever oils is found, there's a fairly rapid rise in production in that area, followed by an equally rapid fall as the area depletes. Since this is basically the case for oil production and depletion worldwide, this suggests that once we hit a global peak of oil production, the slide toward depletion (and the attendant economic consequences) will be swift and no doubt wrenching. The bad news here is that some oil experts believe that "Peak Oil" will be reached in 2007, leaving just enough time to store those 55-gallon barrels of beans and rice and to get good with the crossbow. (For a rather more detailed explanation of "peak oil," go here.)
First, I have no doubt that the peak oil moment is coming. There are some geologist who believe that oil is constantly being produced in the very bowels of the earth and so depletion may not ultimately be a real issue, but there are in an extreme minority and even if they are ultimately proved correct, our current ability to extract extremely deep hydrocarbon deposits is nil, so, really, the point is moot. Oil that we can't reach is oil we can't use. No matter what, things are going to get tight with oil, if not in or by 2007, then still sometime relatively soon.
Two, yes, it's going to mess with us pretty seriously. People have a tendency to think of oil purely in terms of gasoline, but that's just the most obvious thing. Plastics are petroleum products; right now on my desk nearly everything on it is made of or uses plastics, from the keyboard I'm using to type this to the thin lining of the inside of the aluminum can I'm drinking my Coke out of. I live in the country: oil is used extensively in agriculture worldwide, in pesticides, in foodstock and in fertilizers. You know that when oil gets depleted you're going to get the shaft at the gas pump. But it's the stuff that you're not aware of about oil that's going to get you. Those perfect vegetables at the local grocery store could become a lot harder to come by -- and not just because of shipping costs, but because how much their production relies on petroleum.
How badly will it mess with us? Got me. But however bad it messes with us, it'll be a patch on how badly it messes with the third world and places that have a thin veneer of first world with a swirly third world center, like, say, China or even Russia (which at one point was technically the second world, but guess what? Them days is over!). Even in extremis, the US will have the native resources, physical, intellectual and otherwise, to weather a major economic disruption and keep its people from devolving into chaos or (worse case scenario) starving; this is when it's genuinely nice to have a continent-spanning political state, a stable tradition of government and a national ethos of plucky survivorship to work with. Other countries will not be so lucky. Will other places starve? Could be. I don't know.
But here's the third thing: As bad as it may get, I don't think it will get as bad as many people might fear -- or at the very least, won't be bad for long. To begin, America and Americans are happy to put off until tomorrow what ought to be done today, and this emphatically includes dealing with energy issues. However, when Americans are finally at a point where something has to be done, it gets done. The most famous cases of this, of course, involve war; I don't think most people truly realize how remarkable the American war effort was during World War II, but in fact it was absolutely nothing short of a singular phenomenon. No country in the history of the world has ever engaged its economy and domestic output as quickly and effectively as America did in those few short years. Likewise, the advance of American practical knowledge -- in everything from production techniques to creating a fission bomb -- was unprecedented in world history. And so with something like an oil peak; if America is looking down the barrel of ruin, it will suck it up and do what is necessary to persevere. It's done so before within the last 100 years with WWI, the Depression and WWII. We are admittedly out of practice (a happy side effect of having dealt with the issue so well before), but we can and will do it again.
But for another thing, many of the practical, non oil-based solutions to energy are already here in one form or another, some mature and some immature but immature mostly due to lack of will to fund and expand them. It will cause environmentalists to spontaneously combust, but we already have nuclear energy technology which we could roll out and employ and developing nuclear technologies (such as modular pebble bed reactors) could make nuclear energy somewhat more socially acceptable, especially if there few other immediate choices. In the slightly longer run, solar and wind power solutions are both at a point where they are not egregiously expensive relative to oil-production, and there seem to have been recent breakthroughs in the efficiency of solar; I don't doubt that highly motivated engineers could do more with that.
(Now, all this just relates to energy, but I don't doubt that we can also find ways to wean our dependence on petroleum in other areas, too; I can imagine the keyboard I use several years from now being made of some sort of ceramic, for example, rather than plastic, or computer monitors being replaced with eyeframe-held imagers that require substantially less plastic. And so on.)
You'll notice that I'm speaking of this in terms very much like a national effort, and indeed I think that's probably what will need to happen -- including an active role by our government to both manage the short-term issues of an energy crunch and a long-term commitment to creating the infrastructure that allows renewable energies to take root; planning comparable to, say, the creation of the Interstate system, or the planning needed to get a man on the moon.
This will obviously have broad implications. For one thing, I hope all of you rich people have enjoyed your era of low taxes. For another thing, the idle and not-so-idle distaste people now have for the government will likely become a thing of the past. I am certainly not a person who believes the government is the answer to everything, but neither am I someone who believe the government is the answer to nothing, as so many who are in power in government would have us believe they believe. Government is at its heart an organizing principle for the betterment of life for its citizens. We will need government when all this happens -- and people will remember once again that government has its uses.
One final thing to note is that I think people are already preparing for the peak oil moment, whether they realize it or not. I'm not one of the people who thinks we went into Iraq because of oil -- but I do think that even people who unreservedly supported the war cannot fail to see that despite our control of one of the most oil-rich areas in the world, we're spending $2.30 a gallon for gas. Really, you can't miss that. I also think people are (finally) beginning to think of our energy dependence on outside sources not only as a problem but also as vaguely unpatriotic; the person who doesn't care about his energy consumption is someone who is not looking out for us.
I'm eco-minded but most of the people where I live are not -- and yet the red-state people around me are talking about getting hybrids the next car they buy (this isn't even a question for me, incidentally; the next car I buy will get 50 miles to the gallon at least, end of story). They're also talking about what we need to do to get ourselves out of the situation we're in. This isn't the "libruls" vs "the real people" any more, or at the very least becoming far less so. People know something's coming, and they're adjusting to prepare, whether or not they know that's they're doing. I find this encouraging; when you're in a Speedway in small rural town and the old guy in the NRA cap is talking to the other guy in line about wanting a hybrid, we're getting to a point where we're going to be willing as a nation to suck it up and do what needs to be done.
So yes, it'll be bad. But no, it won't be as bad as it could be. And in 30 years, when all of this energy stuff is behind us, I think Americans will be able to look back and realize that they did a good job -- a little late, possibly, but having made up for the late start.
Posted by john at April 12, 2005 12:57 PM
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