by Richard Heinberg
During the past few years the phrase Peak Oil has entered the global lexicon. It refers to the moment in time when the world will achieve its maximum possible rate of oil extraction; from then on, for reasons having mostly to do with geology, the amount of petroleum available to society on a daily or yearly basis will begin to dwindle. Most informed analysts agree that this will happen during the next two or three decades; an increasing number believe that it is happening now – that conventional oil production peaked in 2005–2006 and that the flow to market of all hydrocarbon liquids taken together will start to diminish around 2010. The consequences, as they begin to accumulate, are likely to be severe: the world is overwhelmingly dependent on oil for transportation, agriculture, plastics, and chemicals; thus a lengthy process of adjustment will be required. According to one recent U.S. government-sponsored study, if the peak does occur soon replacements are unlikely to appear quickly enough and in sufficient quantity to avert what it calls “unprecedented” social, political, and economic impacts.
This book is not an introduction to the subject of Peak Oil; several existing volumes serve that function (including my own The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies). Instead it addresses the social and historical context in which the event is occurring, and explores how we can reorganize our thinking and action in several critical areas in order to better navigate this perilous time.
Our socio-historical context takes some time and perspective to appreciate. Upon first encountering Peak Oil, most people tend to assume it is merely a single isolated problem to which there is a simple solution – whether of an eco-friendly nature (more renewable energy) or otherwise (more coal). But prolonged reflection and study tend to eat away at the viability of such “solutions”; meanwhile, as one contemplates how we humans have so quickly become so deeply dependent on the cheap, concentrated energy of oil and other fossil fuels, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we have caught ourselves on the horns of the Universal Ecological Dilemma, consisting of the interlinked elements of population pressure, resource depletion, and habitat destruction – and on a scale unprecedented in history.
Petroleum is not the only important resource quickly depleting. Readers already acquainted with the Peak Oil literature know that regional production peaks for natural gas have already occurred, and that, over the short term, the economic consequences of gas shortages are likely to be even worse for Europeans and North Americans than those for oil. And while coal is often referred to as being an abundant fossil fuel, with reserves capable of supplying the world at current rates of usage for two hundred years into the future, a recent study updating global reserves and production forecasts concludes that global coal production will peak and begin to decline in ten to twenty years. Because fossil fuels supply about 85 percent of the world’s total energy, peaks in these fuels virtually ensure that the world’s energy supply will begin to shrink within a few years regardless of any efforts that are made to develop other energy sources.
in MuseLetter #185 / September 2007
by Richard Heinberg