It hasn't gone away
Just when you thought discussion of peak oil had peaked, it's back. For those unfamiliar with the debate and why it is important, you might like to check out this brief introduction to the concept. Written back in 2003, it is one of the best short intros I've seen.
Even though global demand for oil has dropped due to the economic downturn, that doesn't mean that some of the underlying causes behind it hitting US$147 per barrel a couple of years ago are not still around. For those who might be new to this debate, the estimates used by governments are usually based on figures from the International Energy Agency. However, even figures inside the IEA question their own numbers (or if you prefer, there is the SMH version).
Peak Oil and Conspiracy Theories
Peak Oil shares a number of features with conspiracy theories. It is held by a minority who reject the "official" version (in this case, the IEA numbers) as hopelessly partisan or influenced by powerful stakeholders. Telling the truth would unsettle these interests and so those in the know seek to spread the world that the world is darker and scarier than we thought.* Think The Matrix: there is a moral responsibility to face the truth, even if it is less pleasant than the "official" story. This is part of the appeal of accepting the alternative account. By doing so, one joins the ranks of the enlightened and is by default on the side of the angels, fighting a David-and-Goliath battle against the powers whose interests are served through the truth remaining suppressed. Such heroic skepticism draws on a variety of powerful western narratives from the myth of Promethius, through one popular account of the Enlightenment as the triumph of reason over tradition, to contemporary celebrations of investigative journalism. We've all been told often enough that we ought not to believe everything we've been told.
In this context, is peak oil simply another loopy conspiracy theory put forward by misguided figures who have lost touch with reality? Perhaps.
Yet the basic concept of global oil production one day reaching a high water mark is more or less widely accepted by all sides; the debate is really about when this is most likely to happen. And even the most optimistic numbers from the IEA and oil companies put this within two to three decades at the very best. The darker option is that we are now at the peak or have just passed it, and the current slump in production due to the global economic downturn may not ever decisively turn around.
Either way, there are huge changes ahead, whether we like it or not. And this is what makes peak oil different from other conspiracy theories. Everyone acknowledges uncertainty about the precise amount of oil able to be recovered (and the rates at which it may be extracted); for all kinds of technical and political reasons, the calculations involve too many unknown variables. Yet all acknowledge that oil is indeed a finite and non-renewable resource that is deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary society. And so no one is saying that business-as-usual can continue with oil production in terminal decline. Thus, peak oil is not a typical conspiracy theory and cannot be dismissed as such. Even those with the rosiest outlook acknowledge the need to move beyond oil, more or less urgently.
And this is what the debate is really about: the appropriate degree of urgency. The timing and rate of decline are crucial. A slow decline in a few decades could enable a transition to other forms of energy (though nothing is as powerful and easily transportable as oil). A rapid decline from here on would mean long term economic depression, food shortages, spiraling costs, more wars, social instability and governments collapsing.
Some dismiss peak oil as a bad joke. But as with all jokes, timing is everything.
*Even conspiracy theories that apparently claim the world is lighter and less scary than we thought, like Climate Change scepticism, still assume an enormous world-wide cover-up based on self-interest. I will be writing more on CC denial sometime soon.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
It hasn't gone away