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Oil, Peaking?

The peak oil theory, which argues that at some point—either now or in the future, depending on whom you consult—oil reserves will reach peak production and then decline, with potentially catastrophic effects on our civilization, is the subject of furious controversy. Few, apart from a small number of commentators who believe that the market will provide a "bottomless well" of energy, question the theory's basic premise: that oil is a finite resource which will eventually run out and leave a major gap in energy supplies. The disagreement is over geology and arithmetic. Some researchers believe peak oil has already arrived; some believe it will arrive in the near future; and others believe the future is much farther off. provides a good introduction to the theory and the controversy

Environmentalists point out, quite rightly, that many of the remedies suggested for the feared peak oil disruptions would be worse than the disease. For them, the central issue is not that we are running out of oil, much less of fossil-based energy, but that we are already burning too much of it for our own health and that of the planet. In theory we could convert coal to synthetic fuel for uses where only liquid would do, and burn coal directly for other uses, for about a thousand years. This would solve the peak oil problem, but, according to climate change experts, at a cost that is too heavy, both for us and for the earth.

The scientific consensus is that our heavy use of fossil fuels is making the planet warmer, threatening significant rises in sea levels and average temperatures that could inundate many cities and threaten many species—quite possibly including our own. We cannot solve the problem of peak oil, which will arrive at some point, by tweaking the supply side of the equation. The environmental risks are simply too great.

In a sense, the question of whether we are actually reaching peak oil is less important than the perception that we are, and the disruptions this perception could cause. The political analyst Gwynne Dyer points out in "Oil: The Party is Over" that if the markets decide we have reached peak oil—never mind what the actual situation may be—oil prices will "soar out of sight overnight." In a society designed to run on cheap oil, the disruptions would be enormous. It might even seem like the end of civilization as we know it (a favorite phrase among the more ardent peak oil theorists).

Both the environmentalists and Gwynne Dyer are right. Peak oil is a problem with only one obvious remedy: using less oil. And even the perception that it has arrived hardly bears thinking about because of the disruption it might cause.

The prospects of climate change in the long run and oil-price-induced recession in the short run are not attractive. But they do provide an opportunity to advance the argument for changes in the way we manage our civilization. If we are going to run short of oil anyway, and the substitutes for it do as much or even more damage to the environment than it does, it follows that we cannot go on as we have. One way or another, business as usual is going to end. This does not mean the situation is hopeless because business as usual, the way we have done it in the past, has been less than ideal. The end of cheap oil gives us a chance to do better—and it "concentrates the mind wonderfully," as Samuel Johnson would put it. Or it should.