My grandfather rode a camel. My father rode in a car. I fly a jet airplane. My grandson will ride a camel.
- Saudi Saying
Err, how do I say thisâ€¦ Itâ€™s much, much, much, much worse than all this. It is an apocalypse, it is inevitable, and it is very, very soon.
Bloom, overshoot, die-off. Itâ€™s a rule that all organisms obey. The concept is this: when an organism discovers a new source of energy (commonly a food source), the first thing they do is begin to breed and consume the resource as quickly as possible. This is followed by overshoot, when the population of the organism is much too high for the energy source to support, since the energy source has been severely depleted, hence the coming die-off. This is the essence of the most catastrophic problem of Peak Oil. We are currently in overshoot. According to Richard Heinberg, author of Partyâ€™s Over and Peak Everything, the human carrying capacity of Earth without fossil fuels is two billion. Our current population is six billion and climbing. Ponder that for a moment.
Peak Oil is not, like many apocalyptic situations, a possible consequence. It is not even a very probable situation. No: it is absolutely, inarguably going to happen at some point. It is a matter of time. If you have a fixed supply of something (and oil undoubtedly is) and you are using more than 72 million barrels of it a day1, eventually you will run out of it. Unfortunately, we donâ€™t have to worry about running out of oil, because chances are we are never going to suck the last drop of oil out of the Earth. We have to worry about when we reach the half-way point: when we run out of cheap, quality, easily-accessible oil. Estimates range on this point (the Peak Oil point), but the majority fall somewhere between 2005 and 2015, but we will not know we have hit peak until 4 or 5 years after. A Shell oil executive sent an email to his employees warning â€śShell estimates that after 2015 supplies of easy-to-access oil and gas will no longer keep up with demand.â€ť2
Okay, 2/3 of the population being killed off is ominous. But pushing that aside, let me lead you through what Peak Oil will herald.
1) Resource Wars
First thing, when Peak Oil becomes more apparent, will be massive resource wars. Relax; this is the tamest stage. Some Peak Oil buffs have argued that the only way to explain the invasion of Iraq and the general involvement in the Middle East is that the US government is aware of Peak Oil, and is trying to get its hands on the last of the supplies. This is a doomed attempt. Resource wars will be futile, and probably quite short, for a couple reasons. One is that wars oversea require shipping people and equipment oversea, and this consumes a lot of oil. Two is that war is expensive, and although money will probably be no object, when supplies of oil get low, people will be hesitant about pouring it into producing weapons towards a doomed attempt at acquiring the dregs. So, in my opinion, oversea warfare will be short, though most likely disastrous, as governments and populations get panicky and are willing to obtain oil at any cost. Resource wars between neighbouring countries, however, will probably continue for some time, which is why it will be wise to get thyself away from the border when the Peak Oil effects begin to kick in.
2) Trouble in paradise
When people hear Peak Oil, their first thought tends to be SUVs. Yes, youâ€™re right, people wonâ€™t be driving around their SUVs. And yes, at first, you will see higher prices at the pumps, and longer lines. But very quickly, driving will not be an option at all. Do you think dwindling oil reserves are going to go to your minivan? Ha! No, theyâ€™ll be siphoned off into military ventures, and into producing food, and into shipping and manufacturing. Civilian transportation is waaaay down the priority list. If I may make one suggestion to prepare for Peak Oil, other than planting a garden, it is get a bike. It will serve you very, very well. But as I said, civilian transportation will be the first to crumble. If you commute, say goodbye to your job.
One of the next things to collapse, or perhaps it will be sooner, is big-box stores. I will be experiencing some serious schadenfreude when Walmart crumbles. Big-box stores typically get their products from overseas, which means fuel to ship these products across the world. These items are sent to warehouses, and from there a fleet of trucks take them to individual superstores, to which people usually drive, because they are rarely within walking distance. To get an idea of the scale of Peak Oil, imagine never again buying anything from China. In fact, imagine only being able to buy things that were grown and processed inside your own country. How about within your state/province? What about in your own town? What are you left with? This will be the beginning.
I intend to address the reason why alternative fuel sources wonâ€™t save us in another node, but hereâ€™s why the electric car wonâ€™t save us: even without considering that every part of an electric car takes a huge amount of petroleum to produce, and that upkeep and repairs will also require oil, the fact is that electricity, though it will not fall at the exact time of Peak Oil, will eventually topple as a result. Natural gas, which is approaching its own peak, does provide a sizeable amount of electricity, but even if that werenâ€™t true, electricity is indirectly dependent upon oil. The majority of electricity generated today is generated by coal. Mining, processing, and shipping coal all requires oil. Plus, coal will not be around forever. In fact, some people (like Richard Heinberg) suggest coal will peak a lot sooner than expected. Nuclear energy is heading for its own doom as peak uranium approaches. Nuclear power also requires a huge amount of fresh water, which is peaking itself (the Peak Everything title is sounding pretty reasonable now, eh?). Wind power and solar power, which provide much less than 1% of energy at the moment, would take a huge amount of energy to set up, and besides, the plastics used in these are synthesized from oil. Producing the turbines and solar panels requires oil. Even the upkeep of power lines requires a large amount of energy.
Imagine living in a world where you cannot heat or air-condition your home, ever. Where food cannot be shipped to you. Cities like New York, Las Vegas, Tokyo, etc will collapse quickly. The suburbs will become the slums of the future. I cannot overemphasize how catastrophic the change will be for people living in oil-dependent countries. Third world countries, who have never been allocated much oil, will remain mostly the same, I suppose. Actually, I donâ€™t know how 1/3 of us will manage to survive. Everything we are accustomed to will change. Acquisition and purification of water will be up to the individual, as well as food. The most fitting description I have read said that it will not be like the Middle Ages, it will be worse, because we have squandered the natural resources that were heavily relied on then. To top it off, Peak Oil will be experienced at the same time as global warming. We will face the greatest environmental challenge we have ever seen at the same time that we will deal with our greatest energy crisis. Oh, and did I mention a global depression? Our economy is based on infinite growth. Peak Oil will provide the check that was never supposed to happen, but is inevitable on a finite planet.
Peak Oil is a ridiculously depressing subject if you take it seriously (as you should). Of course, it will have its upsides. We will be forced to learn to create a sustainable way of life. Community ties will be strengthened. In times of great crisis, there is great innovation. There will be pockets of communities that will prepare and flourish. There will be a greater bond with the natural as we seek our food sources. Families will reconnect. Perhaps, on the whole, it will be an improvement to the artificial and unsustainable lifestyle we are currently promoting.
Bloom, overshoot, die-off. At the moment, the human race is behaving exactly as any organism would. Very soon, we will face the greatest challenge humanity has ever known. It will be up to us to earn the praise we have always heaped upon ourselves, to see if human beings are really so different from other organisms. Will we band together, make drastic and unpopular decisions and steer the ship toward solid ground, or will we stubbornly refuse to notice and continue on the doomed voyage?
(I donâ€™t know about you, but Iâ€™m building me a lifeboat.)
A correction: I don't mean to imply that we will suddenly wake up one day and be without oil and electricity, and that day 2/3 of the population will die off. No; Peak Oil will be slow, gradual, and painful process. As for the 2/3 of the population, well, assuming this estimate of the Earth's carrying capacity is true, it still doesn't mean that the population will suddenly need to plummet to that level. Hopefully the majority of it will be absorbed by a population self-check: people not having children they cannot support.
I also don't mean that cities will be a thing of the past. Likely in the future, the most common system will be small cities surrounded by farms, instead of bloated cities surrounded by sprawling suburbs.
1 Total world consumption of crude oil in 1996.
2 Jeroen van der Veer, reported January, 2008.
A Surviving Peak Oil node is to follow, as soon as I determine whether this is possible.
Not to mention tons and tons of websites, including one charming comic