The Politics of Peak Oil
To many of us, peak oil means that we are staring the collapse of
industrial civilization in the face. But our political leaders aren’t
paying attention. Once again, Roscoe Bartlett has introduced his
symbolic peak oil resolution into the House of Representatives.
Once again, it's attracting little attention or support — so far,
it doesn’t seem to have any co-sponsors, though in previous years it has
gotten perhaps a dozen. We are having problems convincing anyone in
Congress, besides Roscoe Bartlett, that peak oil is a problem. Why is
this, and what can we do about it?
The basis of our political problem is that we have not clearly explained the
effects of peak oil — specifically, we have not
explained why peak oil requires a different approach than global warming.
Almost as important, we also don’t have a coherent plan to deal
with peak oil. While of course we face all the usual political
obstacles, these two problems — both in our power to address — are,
I believe, the decisive ones. Here's my "rough draft" of
the kind of things we need to be saying in response to these two
Two Smart Guys Who Don’t Get Peak Oil
Most peak oil presentations concentrate almost exclusively on the
question of whether peak oil is real. We assume that it’s obvious
that if peak oil is here, and we’re not prepared, that we have a big
problem. Therefore we concentrate on convincing political leaders that
peak oil is in fact real. It’s real! It’s coming soon . . . no, it’s
But this "obvious" point is not obvious to a lot of smart
people who know about global warming. Global warming means we shouldn’t
be consuming so many fossil fuels; peak oil means we won’t be able to.
Either way, we should be looking for alternatives to oil. So what’s
the big deal? Why should a person already aware of global warming worry
about peak oil?
Two writers have made more or less this exact argument: Joseph Romm
and John Holdren. In an article for Salon entitled "Peak Oil?
Consider it Solved," Joseph Romm argues that solving global warming
will also, parenthetically, solve peak oil. He foresees a future of
plug-in hybrid electrics, carbon capture and storage, and ramping up of
solar and wind power. The whole debate over peak oil, he argues, is
moot: whether it’s here now or here in 50 years, either way we need to
drastically cut our dependence on oil.
John Holdren wrote an article "The Energy Innovation
Imperative" published in the Spring 2006 issue of Innovations.
This article is doubly significant because John Holdren is President
Obama’s new science advisor. Like Romm, he also warns against trying
to meet peak oil by increasing the supply of oil from dirty fossil-fuel
sources. He notes that "there is little agreement among specialists
about whether peak oil is 5 years away or 50, and even less agreement
about whether its occurrence will precipitate a shift away from fossil
fuels or just a shift among them."
He concludes: "I suggest that for purposes of energy-policy
planning today it does not really matter very much who is right about
peak oil. The economic and security perils of the world’s current and
growing dependence on oil tell us that we need to move smartly to reduce
that dependence no matter whether peak oil is close or far away. And the
looming danger of unmanageable climate change tells us that we must
choose ways to do this that reduce rather than increase the energy
sector’s emissions of CO2."
I suggest that the logic of these arguments has not been met, and
that failing to do so is the key reason why it is hard to get public
officials to look at peak oil.
The Economic Impact of Peak Oil
The point that Holdren and Romm have missed is the timing and impact of peak oil.
Peak oil is primarily an economic threat, not an environmental threat. The peak oil and global
warming problems have a completely different impact. If global
warming were the only problem we had, the first thing you'd do is to
start phasing out coal plants, because that's the worst fuel in terms of
warming; and the next thing would be to phase out or sharply reduce meat
consumption, which is the next most important factor. But peak oil
is a liquid fuels crisis, which renewable electricity won't do much for
until we have electrified transportation (probably decades away).
The timing of the peak oil crisis is also completely different.
Peak oil will hit sooner, faster, and harder than global warming. A
typical slogan for global warming is, "reduce carbon emissions by
80% by 2050." While this is radical enough, the time frame is decades away.
Peak oil is essentially here now, and we’re probably
feeling the first economic effects already. These effects will seriously
ability to respond to the needed energy transition. That’s the
Our whole economy runs on fossil fuels. A temporary decline in oil supply of 5% in 1979, after the
Iranian revolution, resulted in a very serious recession that lasted
several years. When the decline of oil begins in earnest, we could see
oil availability go down by 3% a year, perhaps more in importing
countries such as the United States. A 3% decline over 5 years would be
a 15% decline, and it wouldn’t be temporary.
The needed investments in renewables to sustain this economy are massive. The
Hirsch Report estimated it would take 20 years to prepare for peak oil.
Who’s going to
pay for all these wind turbines and solar power?
We could borrow the money to invest in renewables, but our whole society
is drowning in debt right now, both personal and societal. This debt is
so large that we can only realistically repay it if the economy is growing.
And the whole problem that we're facing is basically, well, growth.
In a shrinking economy, borrowing or lending doesn't make much
sense. We’ve gotten into our debt-based economy because we’ve assumed there
will be unlimited growth based on unlimited natural resources. People
lent each other money because they assumed there would be a bigger pie
down the road from which the principal and interest could be
repaid. Now we see that this assumption is false, and it’s likely that much
or most of this debt — not to mention any new debt incurred to build out solar
and wind power — won't be repaid. This leaves us exposed to the
alternatives of massive default and depression as banks and businesses
fail, or printing money to pay
the bills and hyperinflation. Your choice: the Weimar Republic, or the
Great Depression. That’s what we’re looking at as a
consequence of peak oil.
All right, maybe it's not that serious. Peak oil activists disagree on exactly how dire our
situation is. But the key point is that someone needs to be looking into
this seriously. The effects of global warming will seriously disrupt the
economy in 2050. The effects of peak oil, however, are already
here. That is what neither the experts nor the politicians are hearing from
Lack of a Plan
There’s a second political problem that we face that is almost as
serious. We don’t really have a plan or approach to deal with peak
oil. There are a lot of ideas, often somewhat contradictory, floating
around, but no consensus. Conservation; electric cars; lots of solar and
wind; more railroads; nuclear power from thorium; a steady-state
economy. But there is no unified and agreed upon response.
has a set of mitigation strategies, including education,
conservation, building rail networks, and so forth. All of these
have merit and I applaud them. I would look on these, however, as mitigation tactics,
not strategies. There is one overall strategy: the physical
scale of the economy has to be reduced, and fairly drastically and
fairly quickly. Ecological
economists such as Herman Daly, Jack
Manno, Robert Goodland, etc., say that there are three policy dimensions
which ecological economics has to address:
Of these, scale is the most important and is the issue forced by the
problem of peak oil.
We do not necessarily need a plan to take political action. If
a problem is serious enough, it could warrant political action
just to get the leaders to figure out what to do. Suppose that we had
solid evidence that a large meteor was headed to earth and was going to impact
in Washington, D. C.; we wouldn’t need a concrete plan of action to
get the attention of Congress. But for anything less serious than such a
meteor, it is really asking a lot of a political leader to take decisive
action when you can’t even tell them what "decisive action"
Why is this so difficult?
Why is coming up with a plan so difficult? There are a number
of factors; the problem of peak oil is multi-disciplinary, sometimes
technical, and some aspects baffle even the experts. Recently, the
editors of The Oil Drum, a
blog of collegial and open-minded peak oil experts, found that they were
unable to develop a consensus recommendation of what Obama should do
about peak oil.
But the fundamental reason is that our basic strategy, namely
reduction of the physical scale of the economy, is absolutely
unprecedented. No prominent leaders on either the left or
the right are ready to acknowledge this. (Well, there's Roscoe
Bartlett, I suppose.) They all cling to the
mirage of "sustainable growth" -- when, that is, they
acknowledge that sustainability is an issue at all.
For what it's worth, my suggestion to
President Obama is that we need
shift the economy to a "steady-state" economy rather than the
growth economy we have had for 300 years. We need to accept a material
standard of living less than what we currently enjoy. We need a
revolution in the economic and social structures of the country and the
world. It is not just a question of a few extra renewables here, and a
couple of tax incentives there. The whole society needs to change.
The time for an environmental future that made sense was the
1970's. Now the question is whether we have a future at all.
Without political leadership, it is likely that we are looking at a
rather messy economic and political collapse.
Regardless of what you think about all this, we are not going to get far
with this or any other suggestions unless we can communicate in a better
way. We need to do two things to make our message more
effective: (1) spell out the economic consequences of peak oil in more
specific terms, and (2) put forward a plan of action.
of these is going to be easy. But there is some good news here. As time
progresses, more and more people are going to become aware of the peak
oil problem. The more people we have thinking and talking about it, the
better chances for arriving at a better answer to these two questions.
This is the information age. Sooner or later, our political leaders are
going to get into the act, too.
P. S. A note on vegetarianism:
In an earlier version of this article I said that vegetarianism would
only marginally help the problem of peak oil. This was wrong or at
In the U. S., about 17% of all energy use (mostly fossil fuels) goes
into agriculture, so vegetarianism is not the first thing you would
think of when thinking about reducing U. S. energy use. But the U.
S. is incredibly wasteful in many ways, and the U. S. energy budget for
agriculture is still a huge amount by world standards. Agriculture
is basic to human existence and the human economy. In
international terms, the effect of peak oil on agriculture may be one of
the primary reasons for being vegetarian.
"Peak oil" will have the effect of driving food prices up,
and there is a clear relationship between the price of oil and the price
of basic commodities such as wheat, corn, and soybeans, and most of this
energy is funneled into livestock agriculture. This is an
inconvenience in the U. S. A., but can be critical for the 1 billion
people living on less than $1 a day.
There are also other
factors such as natural gas fertilizers, soil erosion, species
extinction, and land use which you would want to consider in evaluating
vegetarianism as a strategy. The case for vegetarianism on
environmental grounds is not limited just to peak oil or global warming,
but relates more generally to the question of "limits to
growth," which requires a more extended discussion than was
intended for this short essay.
January 26, 2009 (revised March 10, 2009 and April 12, 2009)