The Oil is Going…So What?

The recent Salon article regarding peak oil is a really interesting look at different reactions to peak oil. The star of the article, Matt Savinar, is convinced that the end is nigh. In a nutshell, the decline in oil production and the climb in demand for petroleum products will result in a serious, if not disastrous, changes to our way of life. He almost seems to relish the look of despair that steals across the face of those he explains his theory too. Forget your dreams. Forget your plans. When the oil runs out, there won’t be any strawberries in February.

I fully believe in peak oil. I think we have either reached it or will reach it soon. I believe it will have profound implications on how we live.

I don’t believe it’s the end of the world. I don’t believe the problem can’t be dealt with.

Many people on the apocalypse side implicitly believe the following: “Things will continue to happen as they are happening.” In other words, we will continue to consume oil at an increasing rate (as we are now). This makes many many assumptions. For example, China will become the biggest car market in the world, adding a millions of gas-guzzling vehicles to the road today. Another example: The world trade in out-of-season fruits and vegetables will continue. And another: Useful clothing will be made out of oil-based synthetics. You get the idea.

This assumption ignores the fact that humans are adaptable. Economic models are adaptable. Governments are adaptable. “The sky is falling” movement acknowledges this by saying that they realize this but it will simply be too late by the time things get rolling. We need oil now to create the energy sources of the future.

The “things will always be as they are now” concept ignores the fact that, rather than someone pulling the emergency brake on a train, peak oil will slowly drag thing down. Price will rise, attitudes will shift, buying habits will change, economic models will be revised. The belief that everything will just collapse is, well, overly pessimistic.

Take, for example, the gas price spike last summer. In relative terms, the spike was small but that small spike was enough to dent sales in SUVs. By buying smaller cars, the consumption of oil per person dropped, however little. Rising gas prices acted as a brake on oil consumption. This is a small example of what will likely happen as peak oil is reached. There will be no sudden “holy crap, that’s the last drop out of the last well” moment. Rather, as prices go up, alternatives will become cheaper and people will gravitate to the cheaper product. And the doomsday scenario completely ignores the fact that, while oil may be running out, there’s a disgusting amount of fossil fuel sitting around in the form of coal which can be and has been successfully converted to fuel.

But let’s assume that there is a precipitous drop and little time to adjust. What’s stopping governments from banning vehicles that consume too much fuel? What’s preventing them from slapping a 40% tax on a Hummer? In a word, nothing. If you assume that the ignorant leaders of today will be replaced by ignorant leaders tomorrow, then you’d be right to head for the hills. If, on the other hand, you believe that the leaders of tomorrow will be forced to address a very real and very large problem, things don’t look so bad.

This applies to pretty much anything. Can’t get strawberries in Toronto in February? My great-grandmother had this marvelous canning recipe that you can use on the strawberries you grew in July. Missing your exotic mango from Trinidad? You would not believe the taste of this apple that once grew in BC until monocultured McIntoshes took over the market. I think the seed bank has some samples. The point is, things can and will change if there’s enough pain. A little pain last summer changed buying habits a little. A lot of pain will change buying habits a lot.

Finally, there’s a quote in the article about everyone wanting to move to California because the climate is great and the growing season is long. This assumes that the climate will continue to be what it is today. With all the oil being burned and some climate models predicting an 11 degrees (celcius) increase in global temperatures, don’t you think that long-term thinkers and planners that peak oil Chicken Littles claim to be would figure out that the best place to move to would probably be Ontario or Vermont instead of the sun-blasted desert of California?

I’ll put my money on long-term predictive climate models (the earth will continue to get warmer) instead of long-term soothsaying.

posted at - 10:58 pm - 3/28/2006

It Makes Me Feel Better About My Lousy Choices

Oh yes! Here’s a doozy of a comment straight out of this New York Times article:

“David Katz, who owns and interior design firm in Seattle, traded in his 1999 Ford Explorer last year to help buy a Lexus 400H, the hybrid-electric version of the RX sport utility. ‘I was sitting at my desk ruminating about the crisis in the Middle East and what I could personally do to use less fuel,’ Mr. Katz said.”

So, being a socially responsible citizen, he traded in one gas-guzzler for another gas-guzzler if slightly less so.

I mean, honestly, this is just like shooting fish in a barrel there’s so much wrong with it and it just highlights the fact that real changes will never occur as long as they entail some sacrifice. I have no doubt that David could actually have bought a Honda Civic or something small but chose not to because his social status wouldn’t allow it or he really “needed” the extra space (in which case, an uncool minivan would be a better bet).

So, as usual, people get to feel good about their poor choices and, to boot, can look down upon all those poor, unenlightened souls still driving gas-guzzlers. Ignorance is bliss.

posted at - 8:38 am - 3/24/2006

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