Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Year 2010 (Peak Oil) Problem

I needed something to read on the SkyTrain yesterday; how fortunate I was able to pick up a copy of the Georgia Straight right outside Columbia Station. What I found in there was one of the sort of articles that make me glad that I take the SkyTrain instead of a car - and since it's also available on the Straight's website, I don't have to stumble around describing it. It's about reaching for greater self-sufficiency - which is hardly something to scoff at, since everything you can make yourself frees up money you can spend on more important things, like pornography or booze that isn't bathtub gin - in the context of preparing for a post-peak oil world.

It's worthwhile to pursue, even if it's only for the immediate advantages it affords; if you can grow fresh vegetables in the comfort of your own home, why not? What concerns me is the direction from which I've seen the possibilities of peak oil approached in the past, the direction in which this article marches. How fortunate it comes out and says it right at the beginning.

"What if you woke up one day and found that the world as you knew it had ceased to exist?"

Well, that's an opener to get attention - but it almost made me stop reading the article from its sheer disingenuousness. Sure, peak oil is set to upend a great deal of the assumptions we take for granted today - but it's not Y2K. It's not an apocalypse in and of itself. It would not be a bolt from the blue; peak oil marks the beginning of constantly diminishing returns. It does not mean that the world has run out of oil. It is an event that can only be recognized in hindsight.

Perhaps in a post-peak oil society, surplus gas stations might be converted into covered markets. But an attendant wouldn't punch out one night and return the next only to find the tanks empty and the pumps ripped out.

So I can't get behind those who portray it in this way. The only person who could wake up to find that peak oil has made the familiar world cease to exist is Rip van Winkle; for the rest of us, if the worst forecasts are realized, it'll be a steady but gradual decline away from current standards of living - and with good cause. Over the last seventy years, North American society especially has been built on the assumption that energy would be cheap forever - and when those builders thought of energy, they probably thought of petroleum.

This temptation to spin an immediate apocalypse out of something that's manifestly gradual reminds me of another issue we're still dealing with now, actually; the "forecasts" of global cooling back in the 1970s and suggestions that we were on the cusp of a new Ice Age. I've never found any official studies from the time that actually suggested this; everything I've found suggests that the "global cooling" meme was spread mostly by the news media, with people latching onto it from there. Today, our cognitive ecology is filled with its spores.

There's a very thin line to be walked in situations like this. It never pays to be too strident and assured when you're dealing with a complex event still a ways off from the present day. Just look at Y2K.

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