I am not normally associated with the tin-foil hat crowd but something has been cropping up with regularity in the news that has been keeping me up all night lately, which then makes me tardy with all sorts of assignments. I am talking about “Peak Oil,” the doomsday scenario that nearly everyone seems to agree we are rapidly approaching or may even be in the throes of already.
Briefly, for anyone who avoids newspapers or the kind of uncomfortable information regularly found in the brilliant Economist or National Geographic, Peak Oil refers to the date when the world’s crude oil production peaks. After this date the rate of production is predicted to enter terminal decline. Which, for Joe six-packs like you and me, means we will very soon need to take out a mortgage to fill up the car. It also means that I can kiss the plastic keyboard I am writing on goodbye AND the plastic coffee mug I am drinking out of AS WELL AS the coffee in it since production and transportation costs will make drinking the glorious dark roasted bean a luxury that only the Carlos Slims of the world can afford.
We live in a world awash in petrochemicals, whose long dark tentacles affect everything and everyone. And when the waves of cheap oil recede, it’s gonna look ugly. In the inevitably Mad Maxian post-oil future, I can forget about having clothes, chairs, shoes, carpet, cell phones, iPods, oh shoot let’s just forget about all electronic devices. And this is just the stuff within reach of my grubby little hands right now. We rely on cheap transportation and energy, fueled by cheap oil, for everything that makes modern civilization, well, modern. Take that away and we might as well say hello to the dark ages all over again. Although of late I have come more and more to the uncomfortable conclusion that unless we reverse course dramatically our devolution will be incredibly nasty, brutish, and short. And much sooner than we all realize. Which means in our lifetime, my fellow Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Gen-Yers.
Not surprisingly, we’ve already got all of the low-hanging fruit out of the ground, so to speak. Back in the 1940s when J. Paul Getty struck a deal with the house of Saud for the right to drill in the middle of nowhere (really: it’s called “The Empty Quarter” on maps!), oil would practically beg to be released from the ground. Now, nearly all of the world’s oil fields are in decline, some of them precipitously. The keg is nearly empty except for some wispy foam and so the party ends.
Many people, and conveniently they are largely contained to the marketing arms of the oil industry as well as key administrators in our federal government (yes, the same administration that ironically thinks god created oil when he created the world 5,000 years ago), poo-poo the findings of a ginormous number of scientists who believe we are right around the peak oil threshold. This is bad for you and me because it means we are not planning very well for a post-oil future.
So, what in the world could I possibly like about this scenario? It’s a chance to innovate our way out of this looming disaster! America could actually lead the world in the field of oil-use reduction instead of oil consumption. Two-thirds of the oil we currently use is for transportation. How about banning the current internal combustion engine and forcing everyone to use plug-in electric hybrids, with the electrical power coming from solar, wind, wave, geothermal, or some other form of renewable power. This is just a start but it’s a pretty big target and by doing so quickly, we could extend by decades the amount of useable oil we still have. The recent issue of New Scientist magazine has an article about reconstituting oil from plastics. That also seems like an exciting line of research considering the amount of plastics plaguing landfills these days! I could go on and on because this is a fascinating subject (and will probably become a hit parlor game in the mid-2020s!) but I will leave you to ponder ways to reduce your own oil consumption lest I soon have to deal with dudes in mohawks and leather chaps trying to raid my meager stockpile at the refinery I will have bought out in the Mojave desert in 2017, when everyone thought I was a crazy nutjob.
Lastly, just for fun, try taking this quiz to see how you would do jump-starting civilization from scratch. I scored a mediocre 5/5 the first time, which means, when civilization collapses in the next few decades, I could probably bring it all the way back to the sophistication and charm of the 15th century. Again with those darn middle ages! (Although in all fairness I aced the test the second time, after I looked at the answers.)