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Vegetarians, Meet Peak Oil

November 6, 2009

Vegetarians havenít been much aware of peak oil, and I am continually annoyed at things like "The Vegetarian Travel Issue" in vegetarian magazines. Oil underlies our economy, including our food system. Peak oil means that we are entering a new era, the era of limits. 

Peak oil is simple concept: it is the maximum rate of oil production. Our economy only works well when itís expanding ó and there are no cheap and easy substitutes for oil.

Peak oil would be a tremendous economic shock, or I should say: it is a tremendous economic shock. Most likely, we passed peak oil in July 2008 and still havenít really absorbed the economic damage. If we do somehow go over our production of oil in July 2008, it probably wonít be by very much. After that, itís downhill all the way.

The oil shocks of the 1970's, caused by the OPEC embargo of 1973 and the Iranian revolution of 1979, are our only real precedent for what the world will look like post-peak. These oil shocks produced several trends: expanded bicycle sales, high food prices, a lot of talk about world hunger, and . . . a lot of talk about vegetarianism.

In the 1970's, vegetarians had virtually no organizations and inferior literature to that today; and yet vegetarianism became a big deal, pretty much out of nowhere, rather quickly. Why? Of course there were a lot of factors, ranging from the hippie counterculture to Diet for a Small Planet; but the underlying reason was economics.

What the oil shocks of the 1970's really provided was a taste of what a world of resource shortages would feel like ó a world in which people paid a lot more for food, they worried about natural resources, and world hunger was a serious international issue. It didnít just appeal to everyoneís higher ethical sensibilities: it hit them in their stomach and their wallet.

A world of resource shortages is a world in which, suddenly, food can't be taken for granted by anyone. Vegetarians have something to contribute to this discussion, and thatís why they should pay attention to peak oil.