Prophets of Doom, Oil
Bookstores have lately been featuring stories about the end of civilization as we know it. Disasters and post-disasters are back in vogue. The publishing industry sees an anxiety that can be fed, from the latest religious end-of-the-world theory, or from people scared of rising energy costs, ecological disasters, the breakdown of the nation state and the dominance of rogue groups.
Many threats menace our current ways of life. Some are political and military, such as the growth of factions using terror tactics, and the decay of weak governments. Some are ecological, such as climate change. But even if we had a solid peace and a stable climate, the rising cost of energy would still disrupt our lives.
As the world's supply of petroleum is limited and the demand for oil ever increasing, at some point there will be an excess of demand over what can be produced in a given month, and then the price will rise. People argue about whether or not we have already reached that peak, or whether it is to come soon, or much later on. That is hard to know, but it is true that the largest oilfields are slowing their production and recent large discoveries have become rare, while demand is ever increasing.
Although they are related, "peak oil" is not the same thing as running out of oil. There might still be huge amounts of oil in the ground, but if the oil cannot be extracted and refined fast enough to meet growing demand, the price will rise. Available supplies thus begin to diminish, and the price will rise more. The point is not that we will run out of oil eventually -- everyone admits that -- but that before we run out, demand will outstrip supply, causing shortages and increased prices.
Both sides in the debate over peak oil bring statistics and arguments. Those who see the peak happening around now foresee quickly rising prices that will cause massive changes. But those who deny the peak is near, or who believe there will be new sources of combustibles and other technological remedies, also see prices rising to finance new explorations and new technologies. Either way, we pay more.
Strong advocates and analyses of peak oil can be found at The Oil Drum. In the dueling statistics, it is worth recalling the Guardian's point that "The one thing depleting faster than oil is the credibility of those measuring it." See also Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Beyond Oil and When Oil Peaked, Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything, Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook.
Increased oil prices impact everything. They put in question the networks on which our lives depend. Most obviously, of course, transportation, but if we consider all the things that are made from petroleum, all the plastics and artificial fabrics and chemicals and fertilizer and the food and products made using oil, we would see prices rising everywhere. If the lifestyle enjoyed in Europe and America continues to spread to developing countries, the demand for fuel and all those products will keep increasing.
There are petroleum sources which can be developed, such as oil shale, tar sands, and oil located deep in the continental shelf. But for these to be developed economically, the price must rise. So even if the growing demand could be supplied by these difficult sources, the prices go up. If prices rise far enough, entrepreneurs will find ways to develop burnable energy sources from the most unlikely materials. But this will not be cheap. So even if we were to deny the problems of climate change and plan to burn everything within reach, we would be living in a world where the price of energy has risen significantly and transport was affected. If, in addition, we do heed the problems of climate change and try to switch to sources of energy which do not require burning stuff, oil prices will still rise and transport will be affected.
When we talk about developing alternative sources of energy, we should keep in mind the amount of energy returned from a process in relation to the amount of energy invested in the process (EROEI). If it takes more energy to obtain and manufacture and transport a substitute for oil than that substitute makes available, we would have less total energy available. For example spending energy to create, store, and distribute usable hydrogen fuel might be worthwhile, but it would only be workable in the long run if we had large amounts of energy available to run the process. But that is in question.
(Continue to Prophets of Doom: Networks)