Thursday 1 April 2010

How quickly will peak oil affect us?

“We're all in the same boat on the same planet in a very uncertain time”, said Mark in his latest blog post. In my three posts this week I’m going to be reflecting on that uncertain time – on what our near future might be like, and how we can know.

For myself, I feel it’s increasingly likely that the moment is very close where peak oil will “hit”. I suspect that world oil production peaked in July ’08, and that the only reason the economy hasn’t completely crashed yet is that we haven’t noticed yet that there’s no ground beneath our feet. That realisation is starting to come. Heinberg reports that the US Government has now accepted peak oil (no, sorry, an “undulating plateau”) but curiously only revealed this to a French newspaper. But that might mean it won’t be long before the Wall Street Journal carries the story, at which point the financiers will look down and see the chasm below them. And that’s the moment we’re going to remember as the moment when peak oil happened.

I’m very interested in the question of what happens next. People tell me I shouldn’t get too caught up in this question, because we can’t know, there are too many factors and too many possible scenarios, so the only sane path is to try to increase our resilience in general, and enjoy the moment. They’re probably right, and they’re almost certainly more cheerful. But I can’t let go of this question, because I don’t quite buy the “resilience in general” idea. It seems to me that, unless we think through all the issues that might scupper our resilience – you might say, all the dimensions in which we are accustomed to getting the support we need - we might not be all that well prepared.

One starting point for thinking about the future is to remember that ours is not the first civilisation to rise up out of a simpler, agrarian society and subsequently return to that simpler state. The civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Maya would be other examples. Among the best-known commentaries on why these civilisations “collapsed” (returned to a simpler state) are Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. Diamond emphasises environmental destruction – the using up of resources like wood or soil. Tainter puts more emphasis on the costs of maintaining increasing complexity, as societies solve problems by adding more and more layers of bureaucrats, soldiers etc who don’t directly produce food, and therefore require an “energy subsidy” to enable them to be fed. As new fixes are stacked on top of old fixes, the whole edifice becomes increasingly difficult to manage. It can be kept going as long as an ever-increasing amount of energy is available, but eventually the energy resource is used up and the whole thing unwinds.
However, both Tainter and Diamond describe “collapses” as a gradual change. The Roman empire, for example, contracted in size and complexity over a period of hundreds of years. We might assume that we might manage our own “de-growth” in a similar, ordered way. A new paper from David Korowicz suggests otherwise. I’ll say more about it tomorrow.

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