Oil discoveries have been declining for decades. We now consume much more oil than we discover. Despite the fact that the price of oil is now over $100 a barrel, oil production hasn’t really budged since 2005. There’s an obvious explanation for all this: we face an imminent peak in world oil production because of fundamental geological limits. The implications of this for our society are enormous and unprecedented.
And yet there is only minimal awareness of “peak oil” in the general public, and zero political discussion. Why isn’t “peak oil” catching on?
Maybe it is catching on . . .
Some people, of course, argue that peak oil is catching on. James Schlesinger, the first U. S. Secretary of Energy under President Carter, said in 2007 that the peak oil debate is over, and that the “peakists” have won. Kurt Cobb recently wrote an article arguing that the peak oil debate is (almost) over. He cited the aphorism, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win.” Cobb argues that we have gone through the first two stages (silence and ridicule) and are now in the third stage.
Well, peak oil is catching on to a certain extent, depending on the audience. There are roughly three levels of debate about peak oil: the experts, the informed public, and the general public. Schlesinger’s comments apply to the experts; there is no real debate here. Cobb’s comments apply to the informed public; probably in a few years, opinion pieces in major newspapers will turn decisively in favor of the peak oil theory.
But that still leaves us with the general public and the political process, where progress is agonizingly slow. In the long run awareness of peak oil is inevitable, but I wish to suggest three key factors which are retarding awareness. These are:
Peak Oil isn’t Palpable
Oil supplies have not yet started declining. They have stopped growing, even though there is a desperate demand for oil. Most in the peak oil community expected that the peak, whenever it came, would be relatively “sharp”: one year oil production would be increasing, the next year it would be decreasing. Instead, there has been a long plateau since 2005 in which oil supplies have only marginally budged in either direction. It is significant, though, that oil supplies are not increasing, either, despite record high prices, indicating to rational minds that we have run into a fundamentally new reality.
No Plan to Deal with Peak Oil
There is no agreement on any plan to deal with peak oil. Opinion even within the peak oil community is all over the place. It is interesting, also, that “peak oil” attracts people on both sides of the political spectrum. Most are politically on the left, but there are significant conservatives like Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican Congressional representative from Maryland.
Perhaps the “conventional” peak oil view is for heavy development of solar and wind, conservation, and sometimes nuclear. But Robert Hirsch argues for coal-to-oil and developing the tar sands. The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) and Herman Daly argue for a radical transformation of society into a “steady state” economy at a lower level of consumption. Others foresee a collapse to the pre-industrial levels of the 18th century (Gail Tverberg), or to an even more primitive, agrarian communal lifestyle (Derrick Jensen).
The lack of a plan does not stop awareness of peak oil, it just holds it back. The impact is psychological. Thomas Kuhn noted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that an old scientific paradigm is not replaced just because the facts contradict the old paradigm. It is only replaced when there is a new paradigm, which does explain the facts, to replace it. This new paradigm is what we do not have.
Peak Oil is part of “Limits to Growth”
The real problem actually is not peak oil at all, but limits to growth. This is strongly related to the previous point; the reason that no consensus even within the peak oil community has emerged is largely because the peak oil community itself has not fully digested the implications of the Limits to Growth hypothesis, first put forward in a book of that name in 1972.
That the real problem is limits to growth, doesn’t mean that we don’t have a problem with peak oil. We do indeed. It is just to say that oil is not the only problem, but just the most obvious and unavoidable problem. If oil were the only resource problem, it would be much easier to face. But there are impending shortages of a lot of different things, due to the fact that our economic system depends on natural resources which are sorely being overused. Climate change is a form of the “limits to growth” problem; we have run out of storage space for the waste products of our fossil-fuel burning activity, which currently are dumped into the atmosphere.
Many forms of renewable and alternative energy, such as wind turbines, solar PV, and electric cars, depend on the “rare earth” metals. But these “rare earth” metals are themselves in short supply. Moreover, even if we could wave a magic wand and solve oil depletion, we would still face the issue of climate change. Even if we waved a second magic wand and solved climate change, we would still face the realities of massive soil erosion, groundwater depletion, and deforestation. All of these are undermining the basis of agriculture on earth, and all of these beg for the rapid transition to a largely vegetarian or vegan diet.
It is the combination of these three factors which is responsible for holding back the spread of awareness of peak oil. If we had a palpable and undeniable fall in oil production, or if the peak oil community was united around a single plan to deal with the problem, or if oil were the only resource problem we faced, awareness would be a lot quicker in coming. When oil supplies will start to fall (the first factor) is unknown. But we can work towards a plan to deal with peak oil, and spread awareness of the more general problem of limits to growth, to alleviate the second and third factors. If we do this, we will promote and accelerate knowledge of peak oil and its critical impact on human existence.