Michael Lind writes a top-9 list of “most annoying sky-is-falling clichés in American foreign policy” under the headline “So Long, Chicken Little” in the March/April issue of Foreign Policy, with his second pick being, “The world must adapt quickly to the end of fossil fuels”, including the advent of Peak Oil. He characterizes Peak Oil as being “the point at which more than half the world’s petroleum supplies will have been exhausted and begin a long decline”. But, he says, the “menacing date” at which Peak Oil will be upon us has “repeatedly been pushed forward into the future by the advent of new technologies. For instance, thanks to innovative ways to tap into previously inaccessible or prohibitively expensive sources, natural gas will soon be available in much larger amounts than anyone imagined only a few years ago.” Lind’s bottom line is that it’s fearmongering to say that “we’re about to run out of the stuff.”
Lind makes a valid point within the whole two paragraphs he devotes to the subject: It’s true we’re not about to run out of the stuff. Unfortunately, in making that point, Lind illustrates that he doesn’t understand what Peak Oil really means, and irresponsibly repeats a common misconception that couples as a strawman argument and serves to divert attention away from a discussion that really needs to be had. Peak Oil doesn’t mean “we’re about to run out of the stuff”, and if Lind ever bothered to listen to the “Chicken Littles” who attempt to raise awareness of its serious consequences, and who rather point out that there will always be oil in the ground, he would know that. Peak Oil does not refer to “the point at which more than half the world’ petroleum supplies will have been exhausted”, but to the peak of oil production. That’s not the same thing.
What Peak Oil means, essentially, is not the end of oil, but the end of cheap oil. Ironically, Lind unwittingly concedes that Peak Oil is upon us in observing the fact that energy companies are developing new technology “to tap into previously inaccessible or prohibitively expensive sources“. Precisely. And it is the reality of Peak Oil that has driven companies to do so. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room. Lind looks upon it, perceives the creature’s form, and then denies its existance.
Peak Oil is often called a “theory”, as though it wasn’t a fact that oil is a finite resource, and as though it wasn’t a mathematical reality that production must peak, just as global oil discovery peaked in the 1960s, and just as U.S. domestic oil production peaked in the early 1970s. That oil production must reach a peak, after which point it must decline, is not some kind of paranoid delusion. It’s a mathematical certainty we’ve already witnessed as historical fact, on the national scale. Global peak oil production is likewise not a question of if but when. According to world-renowned petroleum geologist Dr. Colin Campbell, the data shows that the peak of world oil production is already behind us, having occurred sometime between 2005 and 2008.
As Campbell also points out, “Today, 29 billion barrels of oil a year support 6.8 billion people with an energy supply equivalent to that of billions of slaves working around the clock.” To illustrate this point, one need only look at a graph of the human population over time. It is a very modestly increasing line over most of human existence, with a few bumps along the way (e.g. the “black death” in Europe during the Middle Ages), until the industrial revolution – which is to say, until the discovery of oil – from which point, the line takes a dramatic turn and skyrockets upward. The enormous and growing world population is only sustained because of cheap oil. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the consequence of removing cheap oil from the equation.
The U.S. government isn’t exactly naïve about it, either, despite the role of the government in helping to exclude the topic of Peak Oil from mainstream discourse. Former Vice President and Halliburton CEO Richard “The good Lord didn’t see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratic regimes friendly to the United States” Cheney was fully in the know about Peak Oil and its consequences when he headed up the Bush administration’s energy task force, documents from which, released via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, included maps of Iraq’s oil fields and lists of potential contracts. In violation of international law and under manufactured pretenses, the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq, and, in a further violation of international law, privatized its economy so as to free up its oil for exploitation by foreign oil companies. The oil wars have already begun, yet another manifestation of the reality of Peak Oil. Yet denial reigns king, with myths like that there was an “intelligence failure” leading up to the invasion of Iraq serving to veil the grim reality behind a mask of obfuscation.
Peak Oil is not about there being no more oil in the ground. It’s about whether it’s economically viable to get the stuff out. When you can drill a hole in the ground into an underground reservoir and oil gushes out, you can get many times more energy out than you put in. It requires far more energy, however, to build a deep-sea well, or to extract oil from shale or oil sands, than to get an equal amount out as from conventional sources. Eventually, there must come a point in time when there is not enough benefit in extracting oil from the ground. This will not be the point in time when just as much energy is required to get the stuff out of the ground as attained from burning it. That point will never be reached, because well before that happens, the costs must rise so high that nobody is willing or able to actually afford it.
The research and development costs for new technology Michael Lind refers to, required to obtain oil from non-conventional sources, are passed on to the consumer in the form of rising prices. And if you are thinking that a permanent return to and surpassing of the $4.00 per gallon mark seen in 2008 would not disrupt your life too much because you can ride your bike to work, think again. It’s not just about filling the gas tank in your car. Don’t forget your bicycle tires are made from oil. Rising oil prices equates to higher food prices, too. You might be able to walk to the supermarket from where you live, instead of driving, but you still buy food wrapped in plastic (made from oil) that was delivered to the store on a truck (burning oil) from some distribution center, where it was in turn delivered by some form of freight (burning oil) from where it was packaged, where it was in turn delivered by some form of freight (burning oil) from where it was grown on some farm with the aid of tractors, pesticides, and fertilizers (oil, oil, and oil). Couple the consequences of Peak Oil with a failing economy, and you have a recipe for financial disaster, on both an individual and national scale. Anyone who thinks civilization as we know it could not possibly end is simply blissfully ignorant of both historical and present realities, as Dr. Jared Diamond excellently illustrates in his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed“.
And if you think that hybrid or electric cars are the answer, think again. A lot of energy is required to manufacture a car, and then the electricity used to power these vehicles must be generated. In most cases, that means instead of burning oil, you are burning coal. And there’s no such thing as “clean coal”. There is only pumping the resultant CO2 gas into underground reservoirs for storage, leaving the problem of what to do with it all for future generations to figure out a permanent solution to.
So maybe you’re thinking biofuels like ethanol can help. Think again. It would be apt to call this a total joke, if it weren’t so unfunny. It requires more energy to make ethanol than you get out of it. Remember, you have to factor in not only the process of producing fuel from, say, corn, but also the fact that to produce that corn in the first place requires immense quantities of oil. Far from being a step towards sustainability, biofuels are a step backwards. It’s institutionalized insanity, really.
There’s nuclear energy, of course. But then you have the problem of having to extract uranium from the ground, which is energy intensive. And then you have to enrich the uranium, and construct a nuclear plant, both of which are also extremely energy intensive. And then you have to do something with the radioactive waste. Current solutions including making weapons from “depleted” uranium (or “DU”, consisting primarily of the isotope U-238), which, despite its name, is still radioactive and, perhaps even more detrimentally to those who inhale aerosolized DU that results from DU munitions striking its target, chemically toxic. Oh, and the half-life of depleted uranium is about as long as the Earth is old, so the mildly radioactive and toxic DU dust the U.S. has left by the tonnage in Iraq, for instance, is going to contaminate the soil and water there for a very long time to come. As for the more radioactive, non-“depleted” nuclear waste, well, it’s quite a bit like “clean coal”. It involves just storing the stuff someplace where we hope it will be contained until future generations can figure out a more permanent solution.
There are the alternative clean energies like solar and wind power, but these are a very long way from being able to replace oil, gas, and coal. The technology is still very expensive, and the infrastructure to be able to replace one electric grid with the other just isn’t there. And it won’t be, so long as people like Michael Lind continue to argue and persuade the public that we needn’t bother to adapt to the end of the age of cheap but unsustainable energy (i.e. “fossil fuels”) on a timely basis (i.e. “quickly”).
And don’t look to the U.S. government to play messiah on this; they’re all too busy in Washington playing geostrategical games to ensure hegemony over energy-producing regions of the world (e.g. Iraq) to bother with such trivialities as transitioning to a sustainable economy and sensible and moral foreign policy.
There is an interesting lesson in the Bible about the psychology of the masses, in the books known collectively as “The Prophets”. Throughout these books, a central theme emerges of the prophets – the political analysts of their day, if you will – foreseeing what was to come, with the true prophets being outcast, marginalized, and ridiculed by the masses of society who preferred to place their bets on what the false prophets had to say, because it sounded more to their liking. Yet if only the people had chosen instead to heed the warnings of the prophets whose assessments were correct, it might have been possible for them to have changed course and created a different future for themselves than the one predicted and finally realized absent such a change of course. By believing the false prophets, the public assured their own fate, making the predictions of the true prophets inevitable and self-fulfilling by stubbornly refusing to acknowledge unpleasant truths, and to change.
The sky is not falling. But Peak Oil is most assuredly upon us, and if we don’t start rethinking our ways and changing our habits now, the consequences will be disastrous. We can choose our future. We can choose to ignore Peak Oil, delude ourselves into thinking that cheap energy will continue to be available into the foreseeable future, and continue on present course; or we can recognize that Peak Oil is a reality, that the end of the age of cheap oil is nigh, and make the changes required, both on an individual and societal basis, in order to prepare for what’s coming and have some kind of framework in place to be able to deal with it and avert, or at least mitigate, catastrophe.
Michael Lind and his mockingly dismissive attitude is representative of perhaps the most serious problem: the self-destructive denial and willful ignorance that plagues our society.
It’s time to wake up to reality, and to act accordingly.