Three Cheers for Peak Oil!

After decades of back-and-forth, the debate about peak oil boils down to two points of contention: Is peak oil real, and is it cause for concern? But instead of arguing tired positions that don’t seem to be converging on consensus, maybe it’s time we shift our tack and instead see what we can do to bring about the peak as soon as possible.

I’m not here to argue whether peak oil is a real problem or not. There are many reasons to believe it is — such as the many prominent geologists talking about a decline in production and the recent run-up in oil prices — and many reasons to believe it’s not. After all, the “peakers” have been wrong about the end of oil for more than 100 years, so it’s easy to just assume they’re wrong again. And we know our total unconventional resource base is massive.

I’m also not going to argue whether we should care if peak oil is near. Sure, essentially everything we value in modern civilization — food, transportation, consumer goods, medicine — will become more limited and expensive if oil production declines and no substitute emerges to take its place. In some extreme scenarios, observers posit that law and order are at risk, governments will have to be redesigned (possibly toward autocracy or other undesirable forms), and economic philosophy will have to be reconfigured.

But our markets might save the day, or something better might come along. One pithy maxim (“the Stone Age ended before we ran out of stone”) captures this sentiment by reminding us that rocks were replaced with something better: metals. And the same story was true with whale oil: Despite concerns in the late 1800s that whaling would cause the extinction of these marvelous marine mammals (“peak whale,” if you will), we ran out of whale oil customers before we ran out of whales because a competitive product — namely, petroleum-derived kerosene — came along that was better than whale oil for illumination.

Instead of debating this issue, let’s do what we can to bring about a peak in oil production and get it over with. Let me explain. About a year and a half ago, I was driving my 8-year-old daughter to her soccer game, more than 40 kilometers away from home. We were stuck in traffic with a seemingly endless stream of cars, when she said, “If everyone keeps driving cars so much, then the world will run out of gas, and that will be great because then we will have to ride bikes, which will be fun.”

She’s right. Biking would be a lot more fun than sitting in traffic trapped inside a metal cage isolated from the people and nature around us. But it’s so easy to get stuck in our patterns and assume that’s the way it needs to be without stepping back to question whether that’s the way we want it.

Let’s be honest — although oil has been an amazing enabler for many things we love (mobility, comfort, healthcare), it’s also bad for us in many ways. The rise of our oil-powered modern society has been concurrent with a whole host of problems: divided neighborhoods (split down the middle by highways); asthma epidemics; rampant obesity; petrodollar-funded terrorism; a changing climate. Peak oil might just be the perfect antidote to these social ills.

So although peak oil sounds intimidating and disastrous, if its arrival is concurrent with a change in our consumptive culture, new behaviors, and the development of an abundant, domestic, renewable, clean, low-carbon alternative, then it can also be synonymous with many good things. Peak oil might mean peak smog. Peak water pollution. Peak obesity. Peak traffic congestion. Peak carbon. We might return to nature hikes, walking or cycling (to my daughter’s delight!). Maybe peak oil will be the downfall of drive-thrus and their window-framed relationships, forcing us instead to engage with our fellow citizens face-to-face. Can we hope that peak oil will end the construction of highways that divide our neighborhoods by wealth, color or luck? Can we be bold and say peak oil means peak divorce? After all, instead of ferrying ourselves around alone in our cars, maybe we will be home with our families, dining with our spouses, speaking with our neighbors, playing with our children.

I see a post-peak oil world as a place where instead of racing to pump oil out of the ground as fast as possible, we switch gears and decide we’re past the petroleum age, and we leave oil — and its dollar value — in the ground as a reserve for a rainy day. If we find a suitable alternative to oil and quit worrying about when its production will decline (thus putting the “peak” behind us), it is possible to imagine a world where, instead of fighting over scraps of oil left below territories controlled by brutal dictators, we make oil irrelevant, and leave these autocrats sitting above boundless reserves of worthless oil, wondering what they did wrong to squander their mineral resource wealth. In these ways, peak oil can help us reduce our foreign entanglements and bolster our diplomacy. Such an approach is in great contrast with today, where our energy trade insistently undermines our foreign policy.

In the end, even though peak oil seems scary, maybe we should do everything we can to bring it on sooner because that means we will have found something better. And then we can also ride bikes, which will be fun.

Michael E. Webber
Monday, June 8, 2009 - 05:30