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Peak Oil: The Clock Is Ticking

By Peter Goodchild

18 October, 2006

Perhaps the most common response to the peak-oil problem is: "The oil isn't going to disappear overnight. We have a century to prepare." Unfortunately, the fact that the decline in oil is a curve, not a vertical line, makes it difficult to comprehend. What matters is that the serious damage will be done long before we get to those tiny remaining drops a century or so from now. If we look at the forecasts of Petroconsultants Corp., which produces the "bible" of oil data, we can see that in the year 2000 there were five barrels of oil per person per year, but that by 2025 there will only be about two barrels, not five. That's not an "on/off" situation, but at that point the human race should probably wave goodbye to the Oil Economy. The year 2025 is far less than a century from now.

The same statement, "We have a century to prepare," also raises the question: Who is the "we" here? All human beings? A small group of dedicated survivalists? If the answer is the former, then the statement is false: humanity, as a whole, never makes any decisions. The human race, taken in its entirety, simply does not behave in such a sophisticated manner; the human race much prefers ignorance, superstition, cruelty, and intolerance. Robert D. Kaplan's book The Ends of the Earth is one of many texts that elucidate the harsh reality of human nature.

It is not only oil, but in fact the entire economy that has followed a bell curve. The year 1970 was the Peak, the Big Peak of Everything, especially for Americans. Backward or forward on that bell curve, one sees a dirty, noisy, crowded world. Right on that Peak, one sees the Golden Age - Beatlemania, "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll," Easy Street. As Dickens might say, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." The gap between the rich and the poor was not so bad in those days, whereas according to the U.S. Census Bureau's "Historical Income Tables - Families," the mean income of the richest five percent of American families more than doubled (in adjusted dollars) from 1966 to 2000. (For all other American families, there was little change over those 35 years.) In the year 1968, there was the Tet offensive, the turning point of the Vietnam War. In the year 1969, there was the first moon landing.

On the domestic scene, the bad news about oil was that U.S. production in 1970 began a permanent decline. On the international scene, the good news was that even though oil production was not reaching its maximum in an absolute sense, it was nevertheless heading towards that aforementioned ratio of five barrels of oil per person per year; it would stay at that ratio until the early twenty-first century.

What about the coming several decades? Of course, a great deal depends on which time period one is discussing: the world of 2100 will be very different from the world of 2020. The question of slow versus fast collapse will also have a big effect on future scenarios. But if we look at tangible events of the last hundred years - the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Soviet collapse of the 1990s, the Argentine collapse of 2001 - two possible conceptions of the future stand out most clearly. These have best been illustrated by novelists (although not with peak oil as the setting) rather than by sociologists.

The first is that of a slow slide into an impoverished police state (George Orwell, 1984). In this scenario, government and banks do not disappear. They are here to curse us forever. We may be poor and living in chaos, but we will live in relentless drudgery, paying taxes and trying to support our mortgages. This is roughly the same scenario as that of the Great Depression of the 1930s - no matter how bad daily life became, the bank was always ready to take away people's houses and farms.

The second is that of a thermonuclear war that throws humanity back into a quasi-medieval world (Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz). In the fight for the last drops of oil, civilization is largely destroyed. With Bush's Iran activities, such a scenario is quite plausible. The good news is that governments and banks would be destroyed at the same time. The bad news is that we would be eating a lot of grass soup.

From a Darwinian perspective, civilizations are rather brief interludes in the story of mankind. Humans and humanlike beings have existed for about a million years, but civilizations have existed for only about 5,000 years. Humanity's "uncivilized" past, therefore, is greater than its "civilized" phase by the enormous ratio of 200:1. Considering the brevity of the latter, it might almost be said that civilization is merely an experiment, the results of which are still uncertain.

All civilizations grow too large to support themselves, and their leaders have little foresight. These civilizations then collapse and are buried in the mud. The same will happen to America, but human shortsightedness prevents us from seeing America as only one among many civilizations. America, in other words, is seen as "civilization" in a generic sense, not as merely one single civilization in a quantifiable sense.

Partly because Rome was the most recent civilization before that of America, it serves to a large extent as a mirror of modern times. The fall of the Roman Empire has been ascribed to various factors, from laziness to lead poisoning. The impoverishment of the soil, and the consequent lack of food, may have played a large part. No doubt it was also a combined military and economic problem: there wasn't enough money to pay for all the soldiers guarding the frontiers. Pestilence may have been another significant factor. Perhaps a more correct answer would actually be a more general one: the empire was too big, and it was poorly led.

The main difference between America and previous civilizations, however, is that from now on the cycle of "civilization" cannot be repeated. Oil is not the only mineral that will be in short supply in the 21st century. Industrial civilization has always been dependent on metals, but hematite, for example, is no longer sufficiently common, and mining companies now look for other sources of iron, which can be processed only with modern machinery.

The machines of one century built the machines of the next. The machines of the past - the hammer, anvil, forge, and bellows of the ancient blacksmith - made it possible for later generations to extract the low-grade ores of the present. Very low-grade iron ores can now be worked, but only because there were once better, more accessible ores. This "mechanical evolution" is, of course, liable to collapse: when Rome fell, so did literacy, education, technology. But after many centuries, the Classical world returned. The western world experienced its Renaissance, its rebirth, after the Dark Ages because the natural world was fundamentally unchanged.

In the future, however, after the collapse of the present civilization, the necessary fuels and ores will not be available for such a gradual rebuilding of technology. The loss of both petroleum and accessible ores means that history will no longer be a cycle of empires, contrary to the descriptions of Spengler and Toynbee.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Chicago Review Press has published Peter Goodchild's Survival Skills of the North American Indians, The Spark in the Stone, and Raven Tales.He can be reached at:

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