Sunday, July 29, 2007

Peak Oil

Crooks and Liars has an interesting post today about peak oil. It's quite alarmist and panicky and includes the sentence "An apple will cost $7" as well as the phrase "post-industrial stone age." It almost sounds whacked out enough to make me think that it was written so as to make people disbelieve it. Although why something like that would be published on Crooks and Liars, I don't know.

Anyway. The comments thread is actually more informative than the actual article, as it contains these two excellent links, one to a National Geographic article on peak oil and one to this agriculture-something article. Also this slightly less excellent but funnier link to a British comedian I've never heard of, who actually has quite a bit to say.

Peak oil seems to me to be a no-brainer. The question is not whether its going to happen, but when; people who refuse to believe that the oil will eventually run out, after a long decline in our ability to process it out of the ground, are on the same level as people who refuse to believe that humans cause the extinction of other species or that human industrialization could possibly change the climate. Maybe when you've spent your entire life in the suburbs, it seems like suburbs are your natural habitat and nothing could ever have been different and nothing could possibly change, but really that isn't true. Its like the Discovery Channel special on the world before the dinosaurs: when fern-trees were the massively dominant species on land, they changed the air to the point that it was literally not breathable by modern humans, and there was so much oxygen that lightning didn't just light trees on fire, it made forests explode. It seems very obvious to me that a species that covers such huge percentages of the total land on this Earth is going to change the basic nature of the planet in very dramatic ways.

The one important question other than 'when?' is how bad this is going to be, specifically how fast the drop off is going to happen. The Crooks and Liars post makes it sound like everything is going to be going along all nice and easy and then the bottom is going to drop out, in the matter of just a few years going from $3/gal for gas to not being able to buy gas anywhere. But I think it will be softer than that, many decades before we're completely out; even the American fields that peaked in the 70s are still in production, some of them. As the National Geographic article points out, there are still lots of options for extracting oil from the earth, its just that the options that are left are quite a bit more difficult. But honestly, things might go very badly if thats the way the politics plays. The government controls our economy in this country to the extent that they could make this very difficult for us. If our politicians decide its politically expedient to live in denial, I imagine they could spin out our economy for years into the decline.

Even then, though, I don't think we're going back to the stone age. There are a lot of good options out there to replace oil; none of them are nearly as massive industries as oil currently is, obviously, and if all the oil in the world disappeared tomorrow, we would absolutely not be able to depend on solar, wind, hydroelectric, nuclear, tidal, ethanol or biomass power. But just because things aren't that way today doesn't mean they can't be that way even, say, ten years from now. People say they can't imagine the changes that would have to be made in order for us not to be dependent on oil, but imagine a world where every cute little suburban house comes with solar panels all over the roof, that supplement the power you get from the power company's windmill fields. Imagine a world where you plug in your car every evening and then go to work in the morning as usual, maybe even buy yourself a little ethanol at the pump to supplement your electric-hybrid engine. Imagine a world where you don't have a lawn, you have a garden, because imported food is too goddamn expensive. Would the fundamental lifestyle changes really be so unimaginably great?

I'm not trying to pretend that it's going to be easy or smooth or anything, but I think it's going to be possible. It might be the end of American hegemony, but I don't think it's going to be the end of the human race.

1 comment:

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