Peak Oil: Humanity's End?

Peak Oil: Humanity's End?

Everyone knows that oil is made from dead dinosaurs (and the forests they grazed upon). But it's worth restating because the point is, they aren't making more dead dinosaurs. It shouldn't be a revolutionary theory that one day we will start to run out of oil. But it was for a lot of people, and the phrase "peak oil" has entered the popular lexicon with a clang of doom.

The strange thing is that the phrase "peak oil" has become conflated with "humanity degrades into a Road Warrior-style post-apocalyptic nightmare." With all the potential catastrophes humanity will undoubtedly face over the next few decades, a decline in oil production seems the least likely to create this scenario. And yet it is on the tip of every good survivalist's lips.

It's difficult to grasp how important oil is to our culture. Everything about our way of life depends on oil in one way or another. We use it to make plastics, and to ship those plastics to our stores, and to fuel the cars that drive us to the store to buy them. Oil is responsible for growing our food and delivering it to our table. There isn't a single thing you can point to in Western life that doesn't rely on oil.

And it's that very dependence which will save us.

No one wants to live a Road Warrior life. For one thing, there just aren't enough dune buggies to go around. For another thing, we are all pretty happy with our lives the way they are. We have strong motivation to keep it that way.

"Peak oil" means what it says. If you look at the curve of the original graph which coined the phrase, the peak production is where we are at now, more or less. The tail seems to drop off steeply - until you realize the time frame: 200 years.

I think most people would agree that, given 200 years to transition away from an oil-based economy, humanity will probably do fine.

Most survivalist fantasies involve a sudden end to the oil production. They conflate "peak oil" with "sucking the last drops." But this isn't about the actual volume of oil in the Earth. It's about how many billions of barrels of oil we draw out of it. Yes, that number will decline. But it's not like three years from now the Earth will suddenly run dry (forcing us all into our dune buggies wearing our best metal goalie's masks).

We already have several pretty good alternatives to oil. We just aren't motivated enough to use them. But as oil prices steadily rise, expect to see an increase in the deployment of solar, wind, tidal, and nuclear power. Not that these things don't come with their own difficulties (Fukushima, et al).

Just look around at your neighborhood, at all the roofs of all the houses that don't have solar panels. If you want to get the drop, look into installing solar at your home now, because prices for installation (not to mention the raw materials for the panels) will probably rise.

But post-apocalyptic nightmare? Unlikely.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons