I love books about dystopias, apocalypses, and world-endings. Parable of the Talents, Y: The Last Man, World War Z, The Dark Tower series…and that’s just off the top of my head. Maybe I like being scared, or maybe I like having my bad attitude about human nature confirmed. But I’m not really worried about most of scenarios for world-ending – I don’t think a plague will kill all the men, we don’t have super-intelligent robots who look just like us, and there are no zombies – yet. (But if there are zombies, Eric and I are SO on top of it. We have a zombie invasion plan that’s way more detailed than our earthquake/fire/hurricane plan. What? What’s wrong with that? )
But there is one dystopia mechanism that may hold some water – Peak Oil. Peak Oil is
the idea, invented by geophysicist King Hubbert in 1956, that oil production follows a bell-shaped curve. Based on observing the rise and fall of the Texas oil fields, Hubbert argued that every oil field has a peak rate of extraction. Once past the peak, oil becomes more and more expensive to extract from the ground, and production falls.
So why is this an apocalypse scenario? Advocates of the oil peak argue that world demand for fossil fuels is growing, but production is stagnating. Therefore, according the laws of supply and demand, the price for oil must rise. They argue that high oil prices could lead to everything from recession (probably) to total societal breakdown (well, these guys are a little overwrought). Critics say this rise in price will not happen because newer, more efficient ways of extracting oil are being found, but there sure is a lot of existing data that follows a peak-shaped pattern.
We may already be very close to the top of the curve. According to Dave Rutledge, an engineer at Caltec, if we continue extraction at this rate, 90% of the world’s fossil fuel resources will be exhausted by 2076. We do seem to be terrifyingly on track – Salon reports that this year is the first year that world oil production declined since 1984-85.
Keep in mind that it’s not just gas prices that rise – we use oil for everything from fertilizers to plastics. And according to a talk I went to by the director of the Port of Los Angeles, the entire West Coast only has a 5 day supply for the refineries. If no oil tankers come in, the West Coast shuts down in 5 days! So, unless we all get eaten by zombies first, we’ve really got to find a better way of doing things.
In the next installment (whenever I feel like writing it), I’ll tell you why ethanol is a boondoggle and why biofuels won’t save us.