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Peak Oil and the Curse of Cassandra
Jamais Cascio, 31 Jul 05

OilProduction.jpgI'm getting a shiver of deja vu these days when I read the peak oil-related websites. Some are boggling over the fact that "global warming" got more attention than "peak oil" in the discussions over the recently-passed Energy Bill in the US, while others are simply furious that the American public (and these websites seem predominantly American in focus) isn't taking peak oil sufficiently seriously. They're particularly bothered that mainstream discussion of the idea, when it happens, often pushes the peak date out by ten to twenty years (or more), making it seem like a distant crisis at worst.

When I read all of this, I realize that it's happened before.

The deja vu comes from my recollection of discussions of the coming Y2K crisis back in the late 1990s. Initially Y2K was the obsession of a handful of terrified (and sometimes terrifying) technologists, who seemed baffled by talk of "end of the century" parties, angry at the lack of concern demonstrated by those who should know better, and convinced that the problem was far worse than was generally acknowlegded. By the last couple of years of the decade, however, the question of what would happen come January 1, 2000 seemed to be a debate between "we're hosed" and "we're so hosed that the living will envy the dead." I expect a similar arc for peak oil -- as the idea moves out of the niche blogs and discussion boards and into the cultural mainstream, driven by relatively popular writers such as James Howard Kunstler, the level of anxiety around what will happen when oil production peaks (or, as some would have it, when the powers that be admit that oil production has already peaked) will skyrocket.

But to mention Y2K now, in 2005, tends to generate smirks rather than contemplation. After all, nothing happened, right? Serious people will argue that Y2K was nothing more than a full-employment act for computer programmers, looking to put one over on the ignorant public. Y2K, indeed; where were the plane crashes, train derailments, nuclear power plant meltdowns and ATMs spewing cash we were promised? I suspect that many peak oil followers will react very poorly to my comparison of peak oil and Y2K -- clearly I'm trying to say that peak oil is a hoax, right?

Wrong.

I have a somewhat different take on Y2K, having worked in the computer field in the mid-late 1990s. I see Y2K as an example of people managing to fix a problem at the last minute, only to be roundly derided by a public that saw the lack of disaster as proof that there was never a danger to begin with. This should have been predictable; even before the Y2K issue arose, I saw, again and again, problems averted before they happened through careful planning and (sometimes expensive) preparation -- and I saw, again and again, executives and accountants complaining that the computer techs were wasting time and money with nothing to show for it. Too few of them saw that the "nothing" was precisely what was intended -- potential (small-scale) disasters were prevented before they happened.

So it was with Y2K. While there were undoubtedly some people who saw Y2K as a way to make a quick buck, they were in a definite minority. Most of the people working on Y2K related programming and computer infrastructure tasks took their work quite seriously. In 1996-1998, every computer programming professional I knew was scared out of his or her wits about what would happen come 1/1/00. Most could cite examples of code they had seen, or even worked on, that would be non-fuctional (or producing serious errors) come the 00 rollover -- if nothing was done to fix it. But by late 1998 and 1999, they began to calm down -- they could see that the problem was being dealt with, and that the worst-case scenarios weren't going to happen.

Y2K is a lesson in what can happen when sufficiently-motivated people around the world work hard to avert disaster. The key here is "sufficiently-motivated" -- without the Cassandra-like voices of Y2K doomsayers, fewer companies and government agencies would have given priority to the problem. Ironically, it was the very success of the Y2K disaster crowd that kept the disaster from happening.

When I compare Y2K with peak oil, then, my goal isn't to underplay the potential seriousness of the problem or insult the peak oil specialists. Quite the opposite, in fact; the peak oil Cassandras -- Kunstler included -- are perfectly positioned to trigger the kind of anxiety-induced focus needed to accelerate a move away from petroleum dependence. What I hope to suggest to them, therefore, is that they need to keep in mind that there's another scenario besides global doom and blind optimism -- a scenario in which their warnings work.

This isn't a world where everything goes smoothly and everyone transitions to post-petroleum technologies without any issues; rather, it's a world in which lots of people are convinced that it's too late and are desperate to try anything, to do what's needed, to avoid the "collapse of civilization" scenario that seems all too likely -- and they succeed. And then they wonder what all the fuss was about.

So here is my advice to peak oilers: after all is said and done, you're going to be ridiculed, just as the Y2K people were (and still are) ridiculed. Not because you were wrong, but because you were right enough to keep the disaster from happening. In 2025, when most people in the world are driving cheap, Chinese & Indian-made battery/fuel cell/bioflexfuel hypercars, relying on smart agriculture to reduce or eliminate petroleum fertilizers, and using bioplastics as raw fabber materials, those reminded of the "peak oil" scare are going to look around and say:

"Peak oil? What a bunch of nuts. Look -- nobody actually drilled in the Arctic Wildlife Preserve or off the California Coast, ExxonMobil went out of business because nobody needed their liquified coal "oil," and people were more freaked out by oil at $60 a barrel than at $120 a barrel. Where were the wars, the starvation, the collapse of civilization and the ATMs spewing out money we were promised?"

When you hear them say that, feel free to smile and nod, and know that you were right.

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Comments

God dang, I hope you're right.


Posted by: jaggedben on 31 Jul 05

Everything I know about Y2K indicates you're right. There was a problem, and the PHB's took for ever to recognize it.

This Cassandra's curse is not simply bad for the cassandra- it's horrible for any society that hopes to understand itself. Articles like these help to break the curse.

The one sure-fire way to silence critics I can think of is to prove your ideas in the marketplace. Any suggestions on how to benefit while helping fix the problem? :)


Posted by: Daniel on 31 Jul 05

I doubt very much that a fix for peak oil is going to be a "ho, hum" affair for the public like Y2K.  Unlike the hidden software fixes, the only thing which could possibly conceal a radical shift in energy sources is if it comes in the form of liquids interchangeable with gasoline and at the same or lesser price.

This is vanishingly unlikely to happen.  Further, there is a natural gas shortage coming on at the same time.  The people who insulated their houses, installed solar collectors, and got a new economical car to keep fuel costs inside their budget may look back and wonder why they thought the world would end, but they are not going to wonder if it was a hoax.  This time, they will know better.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 31 Jul 05

That definitely makes lots of sense. I believe Y2K was a big hoax, peak oil isnt, but when 1/1/00 rolled around nothing bad happpened. I believe when the peak comes, whenever that may be (i believe it will be some time in the 2040's)we will have prepared enough to wean ourselves from cheap oil and other fossil fuels. I certanly hope youre right,we gotta get our asses in gear now, and fix this problem


Posted by: David on 31 Jul 05

After peak oil, women will still have babies, so what's the problem?


Posted by: majax on 31 Jul 05

Depends if you want to raise those babies to do architecture and lawyering or hand-weeding crops and cutting hay with a scythe.

We can make e.g. nitrogen fertilizer without oil or natural gas; I've written up at least two different ways to do it.  But we'll still go without if we don't get cracking soon.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 31 Jul 05

Another comment on this article, a thought just suddenly occurred 2 me, what if the peak oil specialists warning do not work


Posted by: David on 31 Jul 05

Beautifully put Jamais. As one of the softer-voiced Cassandras out there, I thank you for the pre-event hat tip. *laugh* This is why I try to stick to empiricism to make my points as opposed to normative screeds that no one will listen to. :)

I concur with EP that there's little reason to expect a ho-hum result from the energy crisis to come...simply because of the 1) the inevitability of a peak of energy supply at some unknowable point in the future, if it has not occurred already, 2) the sheer magnitude of the changes that will have to occur in our society, many of which we are yet to even ponder, and 3) the complexity of the peak energy issue...this thing is geopolitical, technological, societal, psychological, and just about every other adjective you could throw into the pot...


Posted by: The Oil Drum (profgoose) on 31 Jul 05

Since it will take a decade or more and trillions of dollars to replace the current auto and truck fleet, there will be commercial opportunities in retrofitting vehicles to be more efficient. Many will probably make money selling fake (200 mpg carburettors) as well as real (CVT's) improvement schemes. There can't be neat invisible fixes to the peak oil problem, because we will have to do everything humanly possible just to keep the economy from falling apart--given our virtual lack of action in preparation.


Posted by: Mark F on 31 Jul 05

No whats realy going on is the masses know there are a ton of competing ideas for what will replace oil and all they have to do is get through the next few years till one or more pan out then buy whatever car runs on whatever works.

Options...

Batteries get better cars run on solar wind nuke and wave...

Batteries get somewhat better cars run on fuel x,y,z and battery power people get whatever car runs on whatever fuel pops up localy...

Batteries get somewhat better low grade oils keep oil pumping and prices fairly high coal to liquids plants bloom all over... everyone drives a plug in hybrid getting 100 plus miles per gallon.. everyone owns solar panels and every windy space has a turbine or 20... nuke plants blossom across the nation and hydrogen fuel starts offing around at a cost of about 4 or so dollars equive to gallon of gas... Poeple buy whatever is handy wherever they are from biofuel powered hybrids to hydrogen powrered fuel cells to battery powered cars to whatever else we dream up in the next 20 years...

Hell a fair number likely will be driving compressed air powered 3rd/ 4th generation cars powered by 15k psi air tanks.

The point is we dont have to worry with all these possiblities at least a few have got to pan out sooner or later...

Its long since been a question of if we will make it its now just a question of what nifty new stuff we will be buying and driving...

Heck who knows maybe 60 years from now we will all be driving giant frankenplantanimal monsters that run on spoo and water and just need a realy realy realy big arse potty... Potty training your leviathan in 9 easy lessons...


Posted by: wintermane on 31 Jul 05

The way I see it there are three kinds of people when it comes to understanding the implications of peak oil. First there is the hoplessly clueless, then there are the ones who understand the peak oil concept and believe technology will save our asses, and third - the ones who *really* understand the problem on a scientific level and realize that there is NO substitute for oil that will let us continue to support the 6 billion people alive on the planet and all that will follow because of that. Very soon, when oil energy can not keep up with demand, people and nations will begin to fight over who gets it while the owners of the oil become increasingly wealthier by charging higher and higher prices to those who can pay. Don't look for the elected government offices to correct the situation in time because they are either oil owners themselves or closely connected with them.


Posted by: A. Reader on 1 Aug 05

Well said Jamais.


Posted by: Big Gav on 1 Aug 05

We have been waiting for the end of the world as we know it for a long time now... id rather it happened while im young enough to enjoy it properly.


Posted by: wintermane on 1 Aug 05

In Yemen, two weeks ago, 36 people died in fuel riots. Nicaragua recently declared a state of emergency over oil prices. There are serious energy problems in Indonesia and Thailand. A map of the 700+ US military bases in approx 130 countries has a high correlation to the location of oil reserves.

Jamais, I believe "we have the technology" but the evidence is mixed on whether we can bring it in to play in time.


Posted by: John Norris on 1 Aug 05

Great post Jamais. It shows up as the first hit on Google News for "Peak Oil," too.


Posted by: Andy Brett on 1 Aug 05

Thanks for a thoughtful piece Jamais. I agree with E-P that there's a distinction between Y2K and Peak Oil - it the first case, technicians solved the problem for us; it the second, we'll have to solve it ourselves.

But there's a similarity between the two problems: for some people, there's a certain glee anticipating our current "System" brought to its knees by its own technological hubris. That's better than having to do the long, hard, slogging work of building a world that works, painstakingly over decades. I think it's similar to the rage we sometimes feel as adolescents, when we first discover that we have to live in an imperfect world.

Not to impugn anyone's motives, but maybe that's why it's unpopular in certain circles to suggest that Peak Oil may not happen for several decades. Oil has long-term cycles of supply and demand. Demand doesn't change at the drop of a hat; it takes years to turn over a vehicle fleet, reconfigure buildings, upgrade boilers, light fixtures, etc. It can take decades to alter settlement patterns, change the amount of space people live in, etc. It takes years and decades to capitalize, engineer and construct oil wells, pipelines and refineries, retool automobile factories, lay new rail lines, etc.

The current spike in oil prices *may* reflect long-term capital trends and nervousness about political instability in oil-producing countries. There's no doubt that oil extraction has a peak - it's a finite resource - but we may not being seeing it now. Blanket statements that we are don't evoke Cassandra, they evoke The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Both stories are tragedies; both teach us something.

But I also think John Norris sure has a point. Current events make a lot more sense when you look for the commodity involved. To project military power (as we understand it today), and therefore Empire, energy needs to be concentrated, liquid or gaseous, abundant, cheap, accessible and secure. We Americans in particular don't seem to want to know how much of our "lifestyle" is delivered at gunpoint. Perhaps we should replace our national symbol, the eagle, with the ostrich.


Posted by: David Foley on 1 Aug 05

Good comparison between Peak oil and Y2K. Peak Oil will be much harder to fix, however. No one in the Peak Oil debate ever seems to suggest that maybe the way out of this is to share (remember grade school anyone?) Share the remaining reserves around everywhere. Share car rides, share washing machines and vacuums, Share Mc.Mansions. We've (Americans) buyed (literally) into this consumer culture to the point where if we can't have it all, we say it's the end of the world. If the whole world lived like we do- it WOULD be the end! Why can't we keep the world population stable and SHARE all of the products, services, and food. Why does our economy HAVE to grow at such a huge rate? Americans would have to give up their 'American Dream' of owning everything and instead focus on a new dream of sharing.
We can create a new world where everyone has access to things that improve their lives, but doesn't necessarily own them. There's no super smart veggie/fuel cell car that will ever solve the Peak Oil problem for the future generations. Let's quit trying to fool ourselves that it will. We as Americans need to reevaluate how we live and why we're set on destroying ourselves and the planet to do it. There is another way...


Posted by: A New Way on 1 Aug 05

A. Reader needs to review some of the technologies out there.  Feeding 6 billion people doesn't require petroleum per se, it mostly needs nitrogen which is fixed with hydrogen (Haber process).  The favored hydrogen source is currently natural gas, but you can get it many other ways too.

A quick search shows nitrogen application rates of ~150 lb/acre for corn (maize).  Yield of corn stalks (stover) at a grain yield of 170 bu/acre is 3 dry tons per acre.  If you can find a way to use corn stover to fix nitrogen at a rate as pathetically low as 1 lb N per 40 lbs dry biomass, the system can be self-sustaining.

6000 pounds dry carbohydrate contains about 2400 pounds of carbon; gasified and shift-converted to H2, I get C + 2 H2O -> CO2 + 2 H2 so 2400 lbs C would yield 800 lbs H2.  Combine 800 lbs H2 with nitrogen to form ammonia yields 4533 lbs NH3 containing 3733 lbs nitrogen.  I dare say that you could tolerate some losses and inefficiencies in this chain and still make it work.

It would be expensive, but it wouldn't be impossible.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 1 Aug 05

All this chemical speak is ignoring the biological facts. Nitrogen is an abstraction for protein (cell walls and sinues of microbs and insects) which is available thru predation in and of a plant's community cycle. Nutrient cycling offers a tremendous amount of protein thru the use of aerobic compost and compost teas. This is a fact of the planetary bioplasm that we are of and in. It is not that we can control all of this thru manipulation of elements. It is that we herd what we have and it will show us what to do.


Posted by: Kim McDodge on 1 Aug 05

Interesting discussion, though I suppose it would make more sense if we could factor in other contextual elements relevant to our near-term future, e.g. impact of global warming, potential epidemics, etc. - and mitigating factors, e.g. evolving and new technologies, changing patterns of consumption, potential population reduction, etc.

In 1966 I was a high school senior in Odessa, Texas, an oil town, and I recall a discussion with the guy who taught my government class, who was saying that we would exhaust the global petroleum supply in 20 years. In the early 70s, we began to realize our vulnerability... remember gasoline rationing? I remember leaving early in the morninig to line up for gasoline; stations could pump so much, then they would close. We thought we could see the end of petroleum back then, but it was just another shaggy apocalypse story.

We know our supplies of petroleum won't last forever, but I don't think anyone knows just how long they will last. I think Y2K was better defined. (Whoever said it was a hoax obviously didn't work on any of the Y2K projects, without which there would have been significant failures. However I was never in a panic about it, because the problem was clear and fixable.)

One difference in peak oil and y2k: y2k wasn't going to have an effect until the specific date, but we'll see many difficult changes leading up to the lapse of the oil supply, such as increasing fuel costs and the impact of those costs rippling through the economy, and wars over remaining pockets of petroleum.

Maybe we need a Peak Oil Project to focus our thinking.


Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 1 Aug 05

It won't be the first world which faces a peak oil disaster, it will be the developing world.

There are quite a few different tech solutions out there, but they are expensive. Only first world citizens will be able to afford to make the transition. Furthermore, the first world has the money and technology to drain out (or buy) the last ounce of oil.

The developing world will have millions of fossil fuel motors/generator and no funding to convert and will face the problems of peak oil head on.

What is interesting to me (and if anyone has any good resources on this let me know), is what will happen in the middle east? Currently, a angry population is kept in check through generious handouts of oil-money (Kuwait in particular, no taxes, free health, free k-college education, expats doing the majority of manual labor). When this gravy-train ends, what will happen?


Posted by: Chris Albon on 1 Aug 05

I think many predictions are overdone. It is not as if the USA could not do much better with current oil productivity technology, since Europe does better with this current techology.

A greater problem is that our culture's priorities are out of phase with known solutions to any of the limits to growth barriers.

Some sense of restraint and multiple objectives in development is necessary for much progress on a transition to lower oil consumption,and lower GHG emission future.


Posted by: Tom on 1 Aug 05

Kunstler then (at Y2K time) wrote much as he writes today about Peak Oil: We doomed, fucked, we're all gonna die, and nothing can be done to stop it.

Sorry, I don't buy it. If Y2K doom and destruction was avoided by some clever last minute inventions and adjustments, so too will Peak Oil doom. Either Kunstler doesn't get it, is unwilling to acknowledge it or is more interested in selling books. My guess? The later.


Posted by: Reggie on 1 Aug 05

For all of the people who are indicating that some sort of technology will take the place of oil that: transports food, transports people, transports goods, produces electricity, is used in manufacturing processes, is used as fertilizer in global agri-business, is used in all sorts of goods made of plastics and also has an EROEI as high as light sweet crude, please provide the evidence that such a technology exists.

Y2K was a known problem with a known solution. Peak Oil is a problem we have acknowledged, but we do not fully comprehend it's impact, and nor do we have anything that amounts to a reasonable solution. I agree that if we (as a global society) put our effort and dollars towards solving this problem we can get through it, but there is no evidence that this is happening, or is even in the plans. The most recent US Energy bill shows that nothing is being planned with respect to conservation or spending on renewables to the degree that is needed.


Posted by: Phil Plasma on 1 Aug 05

There are clearly differences between Y2K and Peak Oil, some of which have been mentioned here in the discussion. Y2K had a hard deadline, whereas the effects of Peak Oil will be a curve; Y2K had a narrow set of options for remediation (fix the code/hardware or replace the code/hardware), while the number of options for handling Peak Oil is far greater -- I disagree, however, with the proposition that we knew how to do the Y2K fix and don't know how to do the Peak Oil "fix." The question isn't how to avoid the Peak Oil worst-case scenario, but whether we can do what needs to be done in time. That is, it's a social question, not a technological question.

It's worth noting that, with Y2K, when the public-at-large started to freak out about the possibility, those responsible for repairs had already been working (or at least developing plans) for a few years; similarly, the abundant work that we talk about here on WorldChanging (as well as can be found on the myriad terrific sustainability sites out there) are indicative that work is already underway to remediate the worst of the Peak Oil scenarios, even if such efforts remain noticed largely on the fringes.

I do agree with the observations here that Peak Oil -- even the remediated scenario I sketch out in the essay -- will have more of a visible, personal impact than Y2K. But the larger point remains: in this scenario, it *won't* be as bad as people are led to believe, and the very human reaction will be "what, that's it?"


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 1 Aug 05

"If Y2K doom and destruction was avoided by some clever last minute inventions and adjustments, so too will Peak Oil doom."

Y2K was 'announced' in the early to mid 1990's, a full 5 - 10 years before the problem was to occur. Peak Oil will occur within 1 - 5 years, and we have made no preparations to deal with it. The preparations necessary to deal with the oil crash will require a complete overhaul of every aspect of our civilization. This is orders of magnitude more complex than fixing a computer bug.

Furthermore, oil is more fundamental to our existence than anything else, even computers. Had the Y2K predictions come true, our civilization would have been knocked back to 1965. With time, we would have recovered.


Posted by: Golgo 13 on 1 Aug 05

It might be even better than you say, Jamais. Personally, I think that most of what we need to do to transition to sustainability will make us happier, healthier, more secure and more fulfilled. We might have the very human reaction of "what took us so long?"

Sure, we'll give up some things, but one can do that and gain abundant happiness in return - just ask anyone who's happily married.

That is, if we realize that physics aren't negotiable, but the future is. The future isn't something to accept passively, resist reactively or plan for strategically - it's something to create dynamically.


Posted by: David Foley on 1 Aug 05

The preparations necessary to deal with the oil crash will require a complete overhaul of every aspect of our civilization.
I think that exaggerates things just a little.

We actually have two peaks hitting us roughly at the same time:  peak oil, and peak natural gas in N. America and much of Europe.  What happens?  Do things just dry up?

No.  What happens is prices go up. High prices arrest the increase in demand, and even destroy some demand.  They also spur investment in alternatives.

The problem with alternatives is that they take time to deploy, and so many of them have not even been tested at pilot scale.  US state and Federal government policy could easily have been opening these opportunities up, and almost all the policy-makers failed.  That goes from CARB in that liberal left-coast state to the Republican congress elected with Bush in 2000.

The choices are stark:

  • We shift demand to alternatives if they are available.
  • We destroy demand if they are not.
I'd like to see a system which can replace the energy from oil and gas with similar or even lesser cost, but the denialists keep claiming that this isn't even a good idea to look at with such fervor that it's hard to see how things will change before events deal them a hard blow with a clue-by-four.

But overhaul every aspect?  A car that runs on electricity is still a car.  Fertilizer made from gasified corn stover spreads the same as that made from methane.  A light's a light no matter what makes the electricity, and a building is just as comfortable cooled by energy from burning lignite or last winter's snows melting in an insulated pit.

People may deny the need to act, but they want what they want and technology (some of them very simple and cheap) will let them have it.  Plus ça changé....


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 1 Aug 05

I've posted my conclusions about what will happen when oil peaks over at peakoil.com, and I've also read the recent Hirsch report commissioned by the U.S. government on peak oil, which can be found in google.

Although the government is now aware the peak oil phenomenon is real and liable to hit anywhere between 1 and 30 years from now, what is currently being advocated is a large-scale move towards coal-to-oil technology that will allow fossil fuel usage to continue to grow over the next two decades. The report also anticipates economic turbulence unless this effort is ramped up ahead of time

Cassandras tend to attribute this direction entirely to shortsighted greed, but it's also true that batteries/fuel cells/other transportation technology are not yet cost-competitive with coal-to-oil. We need both technological advance and cultural change to prevent the worst effects of our fossil fuel addiction, because peak oil itself is going to do little to wean us beside perhaps raising the issue of where we get our energy in the collective consciousness.


Posted by: jtmorgan61 on 1 Aug 05

How convenient. Heads the doomsdayers were right, tails the doomsdayers were right.

nmg


Posted by: nmg on 1 Aug 05

People who think that a solution to our mounting fuel problems will be found in the next twenty years may find this article sobering:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7549530/


Posted by: slow-dancer on 1 Aug 05

"the question of what would happen come January 1, 2000 seemed to be a debate between "we're hosed" and "we're so hosed that the living will envy the dead."

This is why I read blogs.


Posted by: Ben Hunt on 1 Aug 05

Reality bites.


Posted by: Golgo 13 on 1 Aug 05

So surprising to read among some of the comments here that some persist in thinking that Y2K was a hoax -revealing thereby that they missed 50% of the point the author was making in his original post. In spite of the billions of dollars spent in efforts to head it off, there are hundreds of documented instances where the Y2K "bugs" (it wasn't just one people, it was thousands) made their presence known on the several dates that were of concern. Nobody ever seriously thought that there would be a single supercritical date incompatibility that would cut the legs out from under Western civilization. Rather the concern was that we might suffer an exaggerated form of the "death of a thousand cuts", none of them very big on their own, but the combined effect being crippling. Indeed, that fact that so much money got spent, so much equipment replaced, so much code re-written, so much effort expended just to see if something needed fixing or not - apart from the question of how much damage would have been caused by inaction, all are de facto proof that it was "real" enough.

I can think of an example of similar denial by supposedly informed, educated people: some of the best engineers in the country... "ahh, a pound & a half of foam hittin' that wing ain't gonna hurt it none..."


Posted by: ExtraO on 1 Aug 05

A big difference between y2k and peak oil was that y2k was a bump in the road which, when passed, meant a return to BUSINESS AS USUAL. Peak oil means a very different kind of issue - the end of a very cheap and very useful primary energy source. The end of peak oil is more like the end of slavery as a metaphor. In fact, cheap oil was a major factor in getting over the hurdle of the end of slavery. There is simply no comparable BIG solution in the works.
All the proposals are marginal, at best, and will provide some degree of ease, but none provide a full-scale alternative.
Regardless, there is hope. Cheap oil, like cheap slavery, has had some very bad effects.


Posted by: Charlie on 1 Aug 05

It's interesting that these kinds of discussions seem to fall along two lines.

On one side, some folks point out that the technology for making a graduate change from fossil fuels to alternatives probably exists -- even if it's going to be uncomfortable for a while. Soft technology comes to maturity, and makes the transition possible.

On the other side, we have folks who say that this will call for a major change in the way we all live our lives. Fundamental changes, force simplicity, etc. Nothing can be done, and we all had it coming anyway.

To me, I think that the second pack of folks really is trying to force a particular, fairly stark, worldview on everyone else. While I agree that they have some good points, I'm not sure I see the optimism, hope or leadership I would like from them.

Sure, we have a big problem here. The fossil fuel era is ending, and it's going to be disruptive as hell. But we have the ability to make the transition. Hell, we're going to be better off for it anyway. And it could be fun too.


Posted by: Anonymous on 1 Aug 05

Count me as someone who fixed a few of the Y2K bugs, before Y2K, and is now somewhat concerned about Peak Oil.


Posted by: odograph on 1 Aug 05

One thing to keep in mind about Y2K is that no company in its right mind would have admitted to having a problem due to Y2K programming. Think of the stock market ramifications.

Specially after having spent a bundle to try to avoid the problem.


Posted by: Ron P. on 1 Aug 05

Peak oil is not like Y2K in that Y2K had a date definate, there was a precise date that we had to deal with,

Peak oil predictions are all over the place, anywhere from 2004 to 2031, the fact is that is is coming like a train wreck we just do not know what junction. Because of this people will not act and certainly not want to deprive themselves of money or enjoyment unless the crises plainly exists which to most people it does not, although it is now on the radar not enough by a long shot

If peak oil is coming and everyone seems to agree that oil is a limited resource, then the question becomes what are we doing about some in government are talking about it ex congressman Bartlet http://www.bartlett.house.gov/EnvironmentalProject.asp

others like cheveron recognize the need to conserve energy they have placed ads in the major us papers, and indeed the government energy bill for the first time gives more money to conservation thatn to exploration a tacit admission that there is simply too little oil out there to find, meaning we need to go to an alternative.

What does this mean? that there needs to be alternative to oil,
we in the us need to recognize that while we produce 5mbd we us 20 and as our use is going up our production is going down as our fields mature,

The problem with the gloom and doom is that the us uses little oil relativly to produce electricity, we use it for transportation polyimers and fertilizers.


We will have to off set some oil for electricty this could be done by building new plants which use coal or nukes a distastefull thought but tathe is what we have as far as energy also we could use more wind power or solar altough solar needds to be refined, it is still a potential option, what we need to look at is what we do for transportation

most of the oil used in the us is for automobiles and there is a hugh infrasturcture in place that would need to be be changed to a non oil one

hybrids are not the answer the hybrids will need to use gas so this means that the oil infrastructure will continue as long as it does many people will continue to drive gas only vehicles,

THe peak means that the US will need to change the way we get from place to place what we need to remeber is that if oil is runing out then the us will need to ration oil to energy plants the military farms and fertilizer production those things that defend and feed us and that produce wealth, personnel transport will be at the bottom of the list, rationing willoccur, this will encourage hybrids and motorcycles, etc, but public transport will become more in vouge and a necessity, buses trains etc,

other countries which do not have their own oil or wealth to buy others oil will suffer in various ways those with non oil fired electricy production plants will fare better than those with oil fired plants,

In the Us price sfor what little oil we are allowed to buy will be a lot higher than now,

transportation costs will be passed on to the consumer, and cheap foreign goods will be more expensive transportaton costs will eat up wage savings but at least they will be using their energy not ours to produce our goods.

the end result will be a smaller world economy the us may surive ok but many other marginal economies will shrink slowing down the world economy, this of course will affect the us


Posted by: mac on 1 Aug 05

Odograph: Count me as someone who fixed a few of the Y2K bugs, before Y2K, and is now somewhat concerned about Peak Oil.

Count me as one who used the one true real-time programming language with anti-Y2K features built into the standard.

Peak Oil freaks me out because it does not have an optimal solution, very unlike the Y2K "problem".


Posted by: Webster Hubble Telescope on 1 Aug 05

Many people are concerned about peak oil right now but honestly is anyone surprised. the only thing that seems to be constant in our existence is change. Ever since the dawn of mankind, civilizations have been struggling. This is just another barrier that lies ahead and we as the human race will deal with it. So relax and soak up the waves of life. After all couldn't this be exciting?


Posted by: Beverly on 1 Aug 05

Good post. I worked on a few Y2K bugs in '99, mostly for compliance purposes (was a big deal back then.) I think it is definitely fair to compare the phenomenom of Y2K to Peak oil.

There is one difference though. Peak oil aside, after 9-11, most people I talk to, serious professionals included, have "disaster" fatigue.

Nobody's listening. Terriblisma is being tuned out. (It isn't really even Terriblisma we're talking; unless perhaps you are a !Kung. Western Civilization will bathe in this one.) It would have been better if peak oil was imminent in 1999.

Let me add one other thing that I think will positively add to this discussion:

http://www.energybulletin.net/7552.html
Richard Heinberg has proposed a protocal for dividing up oil should the peak observably happen. It is a serious proposal, and one that merits attention. It is not a disaster scenario, but rather an algorithm to avoid same.

This protocal in no way would prohibit solar, wind, nuclear, bio-mass, conservation (insert fave tech here) from saving the world.

It simply would provide a stable platform on which to build a better future, in contrast to say, wars over oil.


Posted by: Jon P. S. on 1 Aug 05

Donella Meadows, one of the authors of "Limits to Growth", published an article called "Chicken Little, Cassandra, and the Real Wolf". You can download it here:
http://www.wholeearthmag.com/ArticleBin/228.html

An excerpt:
President Nixon's "Project Independence," dreamed up after the 1973 oil embargo, promised that the United States would be free of imported oil by 1980. System dynamicists saw immediately (and later demonstrated with a computer model) that, given the expected lifetime of installed oil-burning furnaces and cars and inevitable delays in finding and gearing up domestic oil wells, that goal was physically impossible. (An amazing amount of political discussion is directed toward goals that are physically impossible.)

Mix physical beings with mental models, and choice becomes—maddeningly—a matter of risk. The fifteen-year-olds in the current population will fairly predictably start to vote in three years, have children over the next five to twenty-five years, retire in fifty years, and die in sixty-five years. The exact numbers are mushy, of course, because now we are talking human behavior and genetics. Some of those fifteen-year-olds, exercising "choice," will already have had children; some, mostly male, will have children when they're sixty. Some will never vote. Nevertheless, put enough of us together, and our collective behavior is predictable enough for insurance companies to make a lot of money betting on it.


Posted by: olson on 1 Aug 05

i'm not sure where you're going Mr. Telescope.

i know people who helped fix problems that were created while they were still in grade-school, if not earlier.

the energy problem is a little bit like that. if we try to fix it, we'll be adjusting frameworks that are older than any of us.

i don't think we'll have the luxury of moving everyone, at once, to a "one true" energy future.


Posted by: odograph on 1 Aug 05

Donella "Dana" Meadows was my teacher, mentor, inspiration and dear friend for 26 years, until her untimely death in 2001. I still spend part of each day grieving her passing. She wrote the following several weeks before she died - it's from a column about climate change and the possible demise of the Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems. It's about the root of our choices:

"Is there any way to end... other than in gloom? Can I give my friend, you, myself any honest hope that our world will not fall apart? Does our only possible future consist of watching the disappearance of the polar bear, the whale, the tiger, the elephant, the redwood tree, the coral reef, while fearing for the three-year-old?

"Heck, I don't know. There's only one thing I do know. If we believe that it's effectively over, that we are fatally flawed, that the most greedy and short-sighted among us will always be permitted to rule, that we can never constrain our consumption and destruction, that each of us is too small and helpless to do anything, that we should just give up and enjoy our SUV's while they last, well, then yes, it's over. That's the one way of believing and behaving that gives us a guaranteed outcome.

"Personally I don't believe that stuff at all. I don't see myself or the people around me as fatally flawed. Everyone I know wants polar bears and three-year-olds in our world. We are not helpless and there is nothing wrong with us except the strange belief that we are helpless and there's something wrong with us. All we need to do, for the bear and ourselves, is to stop letting that belief paralyze our minds, hearts and souls."

Dana worked with computer models, but she always thought that the future was about choice, not fate. She was trained as a biophysicist at Harvard, but came to believe that to solve our problems, we needed minds, hearts and souls. She had courage, and she believed in the power of love. She was a clear-eyed idealist. She was a brilliant international consultant, but was most at home in her garden, or with her sheep and chickens. She knew what it meant to be a whole person.

Peak oil, and our other problems, will be solved by whole persons.


Posted by: David Foley on 1 Aug 05

You know people had the exact same kinds of reactions and the same types of discussions back when cars and electricity and cities were taking over from horses gas/candle lights and towns and villages.

How ever will we afford such a monsterous change? How can we do without horses after all cars are not anywhere near affordable nor dependable nor useful enough to suplant the horse any time soon. As for elctricity.. we all know how much that wound up costing.. hell we havnt even yet electrified every place even in america... and a drastic change in where and how you live.... cities terrified people as to be blunt most cities of the day were deathtraps and unholy bastions of disease death and worse.

And now again we are at a time when our old systems are failing us and the new are ... less then perfect.. and again its gona be very interesting times. I personaly am glad im alive now.

Its not a question of will we make it and will it work its just a question of whos left alive after the dust settles and what new future are we who are left gona be living in?

My personal expectations are that a whole lota people will die in the process but that the future will be alot better then the present.


Posted by: wintermane on 1 Aug 05

After reading all of the comments listed above, I have one question for you, What are we trying to save? The endless enchantment of chaos exists for only one reason. Humans are afraid of death. Society is the stategy allowing everyone to live. No one has to leave or suffer on earth if we create this facade around us so we will feel safe. Fear is the most influential emotion in human beings and the fear of death is the strongest. Our knowledge of death is a gift and a curse for it inspires us yet haunts us. We will all experience it someday but everyone only does it once. But society does not offer comfort to the wide eyed and aware, it only serves as the means to control us. Our one chance to live we mist live in chains to the hand of the system. Imagine a world where you could be set free of endless hours giving to the system and enjoy the moments. Maybe even a new system could replace the old one, something not so complex that leaves more room to breathe. If we see the world through human eyes yes than its time to fear. But if we step outside our human concepts and ideals we may understand that it is time to rest.


Posted by: J. Carey on 1 Aug 05

What are we trying to save?

When a bridge is out, up ahead, why do people put up a sign that says "bridge out?"


Posted by: odograph on 1 Aug 05

What are we trying to save? I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm trying to save my friends, my family, and even all of you folks (yes, even you, wintermane). But I really don't think of it in those terms; I'm not on a missionary goal to save people. I'm more on a mission of trying to help people realize that they have the power to save themselves.

Peak oil is, in this context, simply one of many world-ending problems we're facing. You can add to that list global warming, cheap molecular manufacturing, open-source warfare, and heck, let's toss random asteroid strikes onto the pile. Know what all of those problems have in common? All of them force us to get smarter.

I like it when we get smarter.

Webster Hubble Telescope, I'm more confident than you about Peak Oil precisely for the same reason it freaks out you: there's no optimal solution. There are, however, myriad local-maximum solutions. And getting through Peak Oil will mean trying them all, looking for the ones that help us through this problem and, by the by, help us with some other ones as well.

Finally, David, thank you for those words from Donella Meadows. Someday, if I'm lucky, I'll be half that eloquent.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 1 Aug 05

As has been pointed out already, some effects of peak oil may already have started in Yemen and Nicaragua and other places around the world. The death of the King of Saudi Arabia may be a further instigator into the long, slow slide. From what I've read, supply is close to demand now and any disruption might have drastic effects. Something every self-respecting terrorist (oxymoron?) knows.

That's one reason I say that solar is civil defense.

The changes that society will have to make, especially American society, are going to be horrendous. Those changes can be easy if we begin to go with the flow or they can be hard if we kick and scream all the way.

The Bush/Cheney administration knows all about this and sees oil as a proxy for the power of life and death with the vast majority of us as dupes, cannon fodder, and useless eaters.

Everything you can do now to get off the nipple teat of the oil culture will pay dividends into the foreseeable future. Basic energy conservation and efficiency, small scale solar, living closer to home are prudent preparations for a more secure present and a better future.

My gut tells me that we can live comfortable "bare maximum" lives without oil but we have to be imaginative and ingenious enough to make it real.

PS: I had a solar/dynamo flashlight/radio modified to charge AA batteries after Y2K. Now I have a supply of low voltage DC power as long as the sun shines, I can turn the crank on the dynamo, and the rechargeable batteries hold a charge. I've been trying to interest product developers in this idea but find that, since it is not patentable, nobody is interested. Imagine what such a device might be able to do in Yemen and Nicaragua or other places around the world.


Posted by: gmoke on 1 Aug 05

There are a lot of plausible scenarios being mentionned, but it's hardly believable when someone argues their scenario is the only right one.

Cassandras are more credible when they lay down options. We need more "If we don't manage consumption, oil prices will skyrocket" and less "OMG oil is going to cost $100 a barrel, we're all doomed."


Posted by: Daniel on 1 Aug 05

There is nothing analogous between peak oil and Y2K. Once you realize this fact you understand this article is an empty wish. There will be no bioflex cars. More energy will go into growing the bio crap then you get out of it. Not to mention you need to grow food and there is no land for bio fuel.


Posted by: paul West on 1 Aug 05

Of course, there's always the possibility of demand destruction, if economies collapse to the point where it sharply reduces the demand for petroleum and its products. That could stretch out peak. Or, even more frighteningly, demand destruction through substantial population reduction, either from "natural" causes--plague, environmental collapse, or climate distortion--or unnatural--wars, bioweapons, etc. One thing is sure--things almost never turn out as anyone expects them to, and peak energy will probably play out much differently than anyone anticipates. For better or for worse, there will always be surprises to throw a monkey-wrench into the most far-sighted seers' predictions. We are dealing with a convergence of vectors that will make the next decade interesting, to say the least. On the other side of this bottleneck may be a new world--if we can make it. It's not like this old civilization could have gone on indefinitely, anyway--and the new ways of being that may take its place could be more hopeful than we can imagine. It's just getting from here to there that worries me.


Posted by: Ulerian on 1 Aug 05

The real problem is that we, the human race, took the oil resources and created a world that is only sustainable as long as we keep dumping in ever increasing amounts of cheap energy. This is what economic growth is all about. In other words, the very basis for our economy which feeds and takes care of us all is based on a process that must keep growing in size and keep using increasing amounts of energy for ever without limit. And on this planet, oil is the only thing that will provide energy quality high enough (high quality=high energy output for little energy input to produce) to keep such a crazy process going for any appreciable time span. The governments and scientific communities know that there is physically nothing else on earth that can replace oil after the peak and still keep the economies supplied with the same energy levels that are needed. In the mean time, the human population has grown to artificially high levels from the use of cheap energy to the tune of 6 billion people to feed, sustain, and keep warm in the winter. A large amount of this population is keep alive with food made from cheap oil products and energy. If the world economies begin to implode from lack of energy supply, billions will suffer and all hell will break loose in the world. It is fine to speak about technologies getting developed just in time which would allow us to do the same things we are doing now, but with very little energy required. But in the real world, this world, that will never happen because the leaders and governments of the world stand to make incredible amounts of profits as demand for oil skyrockets. These people will throw every road block they can in the way of using anything but oil for energy for as long as they can ride the gravy train. Just look at the current U.S. government, the highest leaders there are all knee deep in the oil business. The oil corporations have enough control embedded into the right governments of the world to prevent any new technology from developing and reducing the dependency on oil.


Posted by: A. Reader on 2 Aug 05

on this planet, oil is the only thing that will provide energy quality high enough (high quality=high energy output for little energy input to produce) to keep such a crazy process going for any appreciable time span.
The only thing?  That's a very strong claim, and also very questionable; electricity from any source is higher quality than oil (very small conversion losses to work, smallest of any source for conversion to light, etc.), and there are a wide variety of sources for electricity.
The governments and scientific communities know that there is physically nothing else on earth that can replace oil after the peak and still keep the economies supplied with the same energy levels that are needed.
That's true only if you use bad accounting, e.g. demanding that alternatives supply the same gross energy input as oil without accounting for oil's enormous conversion losses between wellhead and wheels and the much greater efficiency of alternatives such as electricity.

I'm working on an analysis now which will show how much leverage you lose to conversion losses with such "inside the box" schemes.  You need to think outside the box.

Some of the box's walls are Nature's laws, some are mere human convention ("we've always done it that way").  Learn the physics, learn the chemistry; they will allow you to see which is which, and thus which ones can be broken through.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 2 Aug 05

On "higher quality" than oil ... I think the lynchpins for a transportation fuel are

1. cost of energy
2. cost of transport

A gallon of gas costs $2.50, and a one gallon gas can costs $2.99 (froogle). Go ahead, price out the cost of equivalent electricity, and then (most importantly) the cheapest way to carry that gallon-equivalent along with you.


Posted by: odograph on 2 Aug 05

odograph:  Don't you start with bad accounting too.  A "carrier" such as a battery doesn't just contain the equivalent of the gasoline and the can, it also contains the converter from chemical energy to work (or at least the expensive, lossy half; electric motors are cheap, light and powerful these days).  Ergo, add the cost of the engine on the fossil side to make it equal.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 2 Aug 05

just heading out for a little trip (4 gallons in a prius will get you 100 miles and back) ... but be interested in some actual numbers.

on the surface, you're saying a reproduction of a Saturn EV1 would cost more than (say) a Saturn ION today?


Posted by: odograph on 2 Aug 05

"...The only thing? That's a very strong claim, and also very questionable; electricity from any source is higher quality than oil (very small conversion losses to work, smallest of any source for conversion to light, etc.), and there are a wide variety of sources for electricity...."

How about power from electricity produced by burning gasoline or natural gas in a fossil fuel powered electricity generator as is done in most cases? End to end, the quality factor is way less. Your statement is incorrect.

"...Some of the box's walls are Nature's laws, some are mere human convention ("we've always done it that way"). Learn the physics, learn the chemistry; they will allow you to see which is which, and thus which ones can be broken through..."

I am an electrical engineer with a MSEE degree from UTA, have a good working knowledge of chemistry, physics, and electricity. High quality electrical power (generated by for instance falling water) is not nearly abundant enough to make a dent in the amount of energy that is needed. Oil energy is the only one that is BOTH high in quality and abundant.


Posted by: A. Reader on 2 Aug 05

I well remember my shock and annoyance when I heard Kenneth Boulding define an engineer as "Someone who spends his life trying to find the best way to do things that should not be done at all."

Later, I started to think about my own work, and decided that Boulding was right.

So I quit working on ICBM'S and started to think about how to get some of the available energy from the combustion process in domestic heating systems.

I offer a challenge to all the good folks who have commented above. Take a walk down an isle of just any old superstore, and look at what is being offered, and ask yourself "would I and the world and my kids and grandkids be better or worse off if that thing had never been made?".

For me at least, the answer is pretty near --87% worse off.

Which means that a lot of what we are spending oil on should never have been done in the first place- and we all would be better off if it had not been.

I will confess here that I myself have spend way more than my share of kerosene running around the world on near futile efforts to drum up money for things that might not have been worth doing.

The oil depleted future might just be a lot better one than we have now.

eg- my house right now is very comfortably cool, it's 34C outside. I have no air conditioning. But I do have a lot of insulation and thermal mass, and a very efficient fan that runs from 4 AM to 7AM.


Posted by: wimbi on 2 Aug 05

Y2K was a narrow focus on a group of ancient COBOL code who dedicated two digits for the date. The majority of programs since have used either library code or had built-in support for an abstract data type (for instance Ada has the Time type as well as Duration for real-time). Now there may be problems in the future, but by that time programs are likely to fix themselves.


Posted by: wht on 2 Aug 05

...But this little voice in the back of my head is saying, "It's a lot easier and more focused to fix code than to roll over the world's automobiles and agriculture to fuel sources other than petroleum."

I just don't think there's any comparison between Y2K and peak oil when it comes to the magnitude of labor and political will power it's going to take to change what needs changing.


Posted by: Emily on 2 Aug 05

Question for the host/moderator:

If we post a comment but do not see it posted, could we expect a return comment as to why not? We may be repeating something but having just come onto your intriging site, we may not know. Just asking.

George Wright


Posted by: George Wright on 2 Aug 05

A. Reader writes:

How about power from electricity produced by burning gasoline or natural gas in a fossil fuel powered electricity generator as is done in most cases? End to end, the quality factor is way less. Your statement is incorrect.
Pray tell, where does anyone generate electricity for the grid in the USA by burning gasoline?  And in what sense are you using "quality"?  You sure don't mean total harmonic distortion or voltage control or the other things which constitute the grid manager's term of art, so what do you mean?

In the US, roughly half of all the juice on the grid comes from burning coal (link).  Another 19% or so comes from nuclear.  Petroleum accounts for about 3%.  If you substitute electricity for liquid motor fuel, you have many more options than if you stick with the "all energy comes through the pump" model.  You don't have to make a complete substitution; 20-30 miles of range from the last charge is enough to displace a huge fraction of gasoline consumption.

High quality electrical power (generated by for instance falling water) is not nearly abundant enough to make a dent in the amount of energy that is needed. Oil energy is the only one that is BOTH high in quality and abundant.
Coal is high in quality and even more abundant.  There is roughly a terawatt of wind potential in the USA.  Plastic PV cells may soon be available at $15/m^2 and 5% efficiency.  Cogeneration from existing industrial uses of heat could produce dozens of GW of new power.

Get back to me after you've covered that stuff, because if you have any objections that are not simple misunderstandings I really want to know what they are.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 2 Aug 05

As poet says most of americas electric power comes from coal and a fair amount comes from nuke. Thats why bush wants more nuke plants. Get that combo to 50/40 and we can make up the last 10 EASY with various renewables. Thats only a doubling of the number of nuke plants running now and as type 3 and 4 plants are far better then the experimental plants we have operating right now... safer too.

As for fuel for cars and jets and thingies... the higher prices brought on by the war in iraq have had thier effect.. alot more people are VERY interesting in getting the fuel eff of a given size/use car/truck up. But they need a bit of time to be reassured that yes unlike rechargable gadgets they bought before the rechargable car doesnt go dud in 6 months to a year. Once that happens and the battery gets cheaper.. expect a ton of buyers of hybrids.

And we are in great luck some very good battery techs have popped up this year and we can expect in 4-5 years as they hit cars alot of very interesting results will come.


Posted by: wintermane on 2 Aug 05

What people forget when suggesting energy alternatives is the energy equation for the given energy source; that is how much energy do I need to put into it (extraction, transport etc) compared to what i get out of it.

With Oil (and natural gas and other fossil fuels) the equation is hugely in favour of energy output. For a tiny fraction of input we get 100's of times more ouput. This is because the Dinosaurs already put in the input millions of year ago and slowly got crushed by the earths natural forces along with all that planr matter and turned into oil.

Now if we look at all the alternative energies being touted they just don't hold up. The current process for creating hydrogen actually consumes more energy than the hydrogen gives back, its just ridulously stupid to posit hydrogen as an energy source.

Vegtetable and plant oils have a roughly one to one energy ratio which makes it almost useless as well, especially when you consider we'd have to turn the whole planet into a giant vegtable oil farm with no little room for food crops just to satisfy our CURRENT energy needs which are increasing every day.

Solar energy is another good myth, as with current technology it takes more energy to create a solar panel than the thing will return in its useful working lifetime, although this could be improved over time.

Wind power does however have a chance and can provide significant output, but only for static uses. The problem with wind (and an improved solar power) is that they are no good for transport, as they would require massive capacitors in each vehicle, the cost of which in pushes the energy equation into the negative.

So the fact is that oil (and fossil fuels) was the greatest free ride we've ever had and there is currently nothing, I repeat nothing, on the technological horizon that can match it. So lets all try to live with that reality and stop pretending we'll be rescued by some fantastical new energy source that we haven't even conceived of yet.


Posted by: energy equation on 2 Aug 05

energy equation:  you're wrong about:

  • Solar PV payback time
  • Batteries
You're also probably wrong about the future; there are things out there with the potential to be just as convenient and darn near as compact as gasoline, just a bit different.  Why don't you know this?  I don't know, but it means you've got work to do.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 2 Aug 05

It doesnt matter how much energy its takes to make your fuel all that matters is can you afford the fuel. Thats why by the way oil sands are now being exploited... its not easy it takes alot of energy but the oil it makes is profitable at only 25 bucks a barrel.

As for hydrogen its 5-6 bucks a gallon equive right now and falling. Concidering how new the tech is what they have done so far in fuel cell costs and hydrogen costs is amazing...


Posted by: wintermane on 2 Aug 05

Richard Duncan has been working the figures on peak oil for a couple of decades now. He started talking about it way before it was kewl. One of his ideas is the Olduvai Theory where oil allows us to go from farming to the moon and back to the Olduvai Gorge Stone Age as we exhaust both easily available energy and materials in a couple of hundred years.

How's the Olduvai Theory for Cassandra?


Posted by: gmoke on 3 Aug 05

People mistake ease of use for NEED. We WANT oil because its easy we dont NEED it because even though it will be much harder we can use other energy sources to do everything we do now.

They just arnt easy.

Right now a horde is rising up to profit on energy in a world where energy isnt easy any more. They stand to make trillions... so pardon me if I ignore the thought that they might... not manage a "hard" task.

Yes alot ofmpeople wont afford the new harder energy yes alot of people will be in the dark again. But enough will make it.


Posted by: wintermane on 3 Aug 05

gmoke:  If we can get enough energy, materials will not be an issue.  We could build a better Saturn than the original out of carbon fiber and lithium-aluminum alloy, and the only thing that we could even theoretically run low on is aluminum (there's plenty of lithium in the oceans, and we've got problems with too much carbon in the atmosphere).

There are tantalizing hints out there that this sort of thing is possible with very small technological improvements; look at Going negative for my first take on it.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 3 Aug 05

I liked Wintermanes post about being excited to be living in this time of change. I think his view is the most realistic. Optimism is great and does great things, but not this time. All the Techies out there blogging their great ideas are far smarter than I and I give them all much props, but alas too little, too late.

I agree with the perception of first world survival through the initial stages of "Peak Oil" and it's repercussions. The third world is doomed first, however, and the drag, and outright desperation and rage, resultant from the ensuing chaos will be sufficient to knock us from our perch above the "lesser societies". Disease, hunger, war and other goodies are already there (3rd World). How much worse will it be when the fuel-driven society that we sold to them goes under and the developing nations are no longer developing?

Buckle up your seatbelts in your SUV's (or your hybrids, or your carrot/corn/veggie oil/biomass/elephant-shit/great-titted egret filled lossy, flossy, goose-down overdrive) and enjoy the ride. We're not only at Peak Oil, we're at PEAK CIVILIZATION. There are way too many people on the planet, much less drivers. Like glaciation, civilization comes...and goes.

Wintermane will probably survive, and then it gets really scary. King Wintermane will now be taking your questions...


Posted by: Lee on 3 Aug 05

I liked Wintermanes post about being excited to be living in this time of change. I think his view is the most realistic. Optimism is great and does great things, but not this time. All the Techies out there blogging their great ideas are far smarter than I and I give them all much props, but alas too little, too late.

I agree with the perception of first world survival through the initial stages of "Peak Oil" and it's repercussions. The third world is doomed first, however, and the drag, and outright desperation and rage, resultant from the ensuing chaos will be sufficient to knock us from our perch above the "lesser societies". Disease, hunger, war and other goodies are already there (3rd World). How much worse will it be when the fuel-driven society that we sold to them goes under and the developing nations are no longer developing?

Buckle up your seatbelts in your SUV's (or your hybrids, or your carrot/corn/veggie oil/biomass/elephant-shit/great-titted egret filled lossy, flossy, goose-down overdrive) and enjoy the ride. We're not only at Peak Oil, we're at PEAK CIVILIZATION. There are way too many people on the planet, much less drivers. Like glaciation, civilization comes...and goes.

Wintermane will probably survive, and then it gets really scary. King Wintermane will now be taking your questions...


Posted by: Lee on 3 Aug 05

I prefer supreme high exaulted grand emporer:)

I dont expect america to topple over mainly because the weakest will pull down the now so weak and in so doing will keep them bussy killing each other instead of us.

Not to mention I dont expect south america or central america to go boom so all the big stuff will be a continent away... if we are lucky.


Posted by: wintermane on 3 Aug 05

Engineer Poet, don't be so insulting when you dismiss the points of others, they are coming from a scientific educated background too. There is nothing that is as good an energy source as Oil - the technologies that you talk of will only delay the inevitable, since it takes too much energy to make them. I suggest that it is you who needs to go away and do more reading, and if you come back and still say we're wrong then, how about you address the points instead of just saying "no you're wrong, you're stupid" (to paraphrase what your posts amount to).

Here's some evidence for example, this study says that it takes more energy to make bio-fuels than you get out of them.
http://www.physorg.com/news4942.html
Do you have some evidence that it is wrong or some reasoned analysis?


Posted by: stuey on 4 Aug 05

Of course biofuel takes more energy than it gives, so does oil. The issue is, when does that energy get put in and from where. In the case of oil, the energy was input millenia ago and we have just been coasting off of this previous input.
There are ways to harness energy (including biomass) that don't require us to put in the additional energy right now, reaping the benefits of the system. Of course, given entropy it all equals out in the end.


Posted by: Traverse Davies on 4 Aug 05

What seems missing is a practical solution for the average Peak-Oil Crisis aware guy to buffer himself from the crisis. (The heck with the rest of the world, they can save themselves.)

I suppose one would want to wean oneself off of as much oil, synthetics, fertilizer raised, globally transported foods as possible.

Then, you should stock up on things that are going to be valuable, and figure out a way to defend it.

Or maybe just build a renewable energy powered bunker while it is cheap to build.

Or is there nothing one can do to save oneself. Will we all have to go down with the ship? I don't think we are going to save the ship. It is too late and people seem too ignorant of how enormous a problem this really is.


Posted by: nospam on 4 Aug 05

For Supreme High Exalted Grand Emperor Wintermane:

Why wouldn't you expect South and Central America to go boom? They have become increasingly dependent on oil and ALL of the countries within both have very fragile economies. More importantly, why wouldn't you expect US to go boom? For many in this country life would be over as they know it if they couldn't drive their SUV across the street to get a Big Mac. Many people live a long way from work and McDonalds which would create problems there.

It would be economic dominoes worldwide. As one falls it is already knocking down another and so on and so on. How would we stay atop our perch if everyone around us is desperately treading water (for some, literally treading water)? As Fred Sanford would say, this is the big one Elizabeth.

I take what the Maya passed along very, very seriously. This is not just about oil. This is a major shift on Earth and we all should feel fortunate to be here to witness it. Many are going to go down with the ship, many aren't (IMHO). Who will have it worse, those who stay or those who go? Depends on your perspective I guess.

Santa Claus is a goner. LOL.


Posted by: Lee on 4 Aug 05

We have enough heavy crude and nasty crude and other stuff to get us to 2100 if we need it to.

As for south america im fairly sure they will do fine overall. biofuels potential is high there and besides they already have alot of wars so who cares? And as for canada... its not as if they can do anything to anyone even if they do fail..

Finaly central america... concidering all the wars that go on down there we prolly wont notice the difference...


Posted by: wintermane on 4 Aug 05

stuey:  Perhaps you should follow some links to see if I haven't already written about the topics on which you're presuming to lecture me.  For instance:

Ethanol from corn
Hydrogen from most things
Carbon-negative energy systems

I know you may be new here, but either you have to be ready to wade through the heavy-duty stuff or you are just a parrot for other people who have... or have claimed to.  In short, you have to do your own homework.

Speaking of homework, wintermane, how about using a spell-checker and verifying that there is no unrest in Central America due to rising oil prices.  Oops....


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 4 Aug 05

I didnt say there was no unrest I said we prolly wouldnt notice the difference;/

I mean they have had what 50000 civil wars 500000 mass riots 30 genocides some plagues and all the rest....


Oh as for spellchecking... thats unpossible!


Posted by: wintermane on 4 Aug 05

You are right! I will happily smile at the idiots who tell me there was nothing to worry about in relation to peak oil.


Posted by: Torion on 5 Aug 05

Oh, Christ, another bunch who don't understand the concept of "substitutability".

Patiently: the reason we use oil, rather than, say, biodiesel or hydrogen produced by nuclear power, is that it's cheaper. And it's about as cheap now as it was in 1940.

If it becomes more expensive, a capitalist economy and the scientific method interact to automatically produce three results:

a) people find more of it;
b) people find ways to do more with less of it;
c) people find other things to substitute for it.

A) is obvious; look at the share of petroleum that comes from non-OPEC sources.

B) To give just one example, hybrid cars require about 1/3 less gasoline; plug-in hybrids require about 1/2 less. They're only just competitive now, and then only if you keep the car for about 6-8 years. This tells you something.

C) there are many easily available substitutes for petroleum, which in the US is used almost exclusively for transportation.

Eg., using the best current methods, ethanol becomes competitive at when oil hits about $25 per barrel. In Brazil, which put some effort into this (and has climatic advantages) ethanol for cars costs about half what gasoline does and is rapidly replacing it.

Using methods already developed and proven but just coming on stream (bulk conversion of cellulose to glucose by tailored enzymes)break-even point is at about $18-$20.

And using those methods, about 6% of the cropland in the US could fully replace all the petroleum products used in transportation. In fact, you wouldn't even have to use crops; timber from scrub second-growth forest would do nicely. (And also makes no net addition to the carbon cycle.)

Not surprisingly, given the current price ratios, ethanol production is being ramped up quite rapidly, and if oil stays above $25 per barrel, will begin to make significant market inroads all over the planet in the next decade -- China is already starting bulk imports from Brazil, for instance.

That's not to mention tar sands, which contain about as much oil as the Middle East and which are already attracting billions in investments, and so forth and so on.

All the above is AUTOMATIC.

It's a feedback mechanism. It's like pulling on a rope. Price... goes... up... substitute... is... found.

It's also why natural resources always drop in price over the long term.

There are more people than ever, consuming more than ever, and prices are lower than ever -- try pricing a ton of wheat or coal or timber in 1750, 1850, 1950 and now.

The more we consume, the more we have.

In other words, if petroleum vanished tomorrow, we'd be in trouble. If it just gets more expensive, there will be automatic compensations and nobody will notice it much.


Posted by: S.M. Stirling on 5 Aug 05

Oh im not saying alot of people dont have anything to worry about lets be honest its quite likely a few of the people posting on the forum will die due to this. In fact its fairly likely impossible that none of us will die. Im just saying its not gona be me.. well that is unless whoever is gona die realises it and remembers this post and decides to prove me wrong by taking me with em...


Posted by: wintermane on 5 Aug 05

Stirling, you're a smart person. You've clearly got it all figured out. He-he-he.

So, let me get this straight. There are more people on the planet than ever. We are consuming more natural resources than ever. New technology, response, to the global energy/climate crisis will distribute/replenish itself seemingly automatically to the billions of global consumers out there and everything will be OK? Am I talking to George Bush? C'mon, fess up. Laughable. Tell me about intelligent design.

We'll see pal. I betcha (1 Guinness). Like I said, Santa is a goner.


Posted by: Lee on 5 Aug 05

S.M. Stirling - you made a statement that (I agree) names two plausable outcomes:

"In other words, if petroleum vanished tomorrow, we'd be in trouble. If it just gets more expensive, there will be automatic compensations and nobody will notice it much."

... but I think there are a few more outcomes to consider, based on the *rate* at which it (oil) just gets more expensive. At the slow rates, nobody will notice it much.

At higher rates, it becomes less "AUTOMATIC"


Posted by: odograph on 5 Aug 05

Hasn't anyone remembered ultra deep water oil? Studies show theres enough oil to last up to 100 years, and besides, the end isnt here...yet. Oil capacity (not production) is beginning to increase from what governments approved between 01 and 03, by 2010 we could be paying just as much for gas as we were paying in 1996. And after doing some furtehr research of my own heres what I can up iwht, he wave consumed 900 billion barrels of oil already. if there is trillion left. that means the peak could be anytime from now to 2010, should there be 3 trillion barrels left the peak can occur anytime from 2020 to 2050. This article makes lots of sense but we cant just snap our fingers and be using alternative sources. And after reading lots of these comments on alternative sources its true that once production peaks depending on one sole source wont work. We would have to use EVERY LAST alternative source we can think of, whatever is best for that area, like arizona for example, would be great for solar power, but places like connecticut where i live woul have to use nuclear or coal power, America has roughly a 200 yr supply of coal, so does china and india, so i believe our energy future lies in coal, as dirty and polluting ang global warmin as it is, thats where it lies. But as for clean stuff, America is producing enough clean energy to power every home in 11 srates? what does that say? lots of work would be needed but american can run on clean energy no matter what it be hydro. With the exception of oil we would have to use EVERY SOURCE on an eual level, like solar is good for places like i mention above and nuclear in places like the norheast, BUT it would be the rest of the worl now. But i have to agree rough times are ahead of us, as more and more oil fileds decline, we will rely more and more on arabian oil, oil production in the UK peaked in 1999 and in 1980 in Venezuela. But always remember where theres a will, theres a way. AND I KNOW THERES A WILL, so there must be a way.


Posted by: david on 5 Aug 05

Let me take some time to make my equal scale theory here. We would have to look at our areas and decide what source besides oil is best for our region of the world. If that theory doesnt work, our only solution that can buy us LOTS of time right now is coal, whichcan be made into synthetic oil, BOOM perfect replacement. But one good thing could come out of peak oil and going back to the dark ages, global warming = porblem solved! But going back to coal it buys us lots of time, the only downsides would have to be, pollutin leading ultimately to global warming, and big enviromental damage due to mining and ncrease in mine realted diseases, but other than those blemishes, industrial life can be sustained for another 10 yrs or so, buying us lots of time to develop new technologies. Coalcan also give us time on better ways to make hydrogen fuel and other alternative sources, there ya go ppl, thats my view.


Posted by: david on 6 Aug 05

i meant 100 yrs not 10 yrs


Posted by: david on 6 Aug 05

Also anyone who believes that the peak is here now, you might be wrong. Take some time to read this article published recently in the Washington Post by the cambridge energy associates.
It's Not the End Of the Oil Age
Technology and Higher Prices Drive a Supply Buildup
By Daniel Yergin
Sunday, July 31, 2005; Page B07
We're not running out of oil. Not yet.
"Shortage" is certainly in the air -- and in the price. Right now the oil market is tight, even tighter than it was on the eve of the 1973 oil crisis. In this high-risk market, "surprises" ranging from political instability to hurricanes could send oil prices spiking higher. Moreover, the specter of an energy shortage is not limited to oil. Natural gas supplies are not keeping pace with growing demand. Even supplies of coal, which generates about half of the country's electricity, are constrained at a time when our electric power system has been tested by an extraordinary heat wave.


But it is oil that gets most of the attention. Prices around $60 a barrel, driven by high demand growth, are fueling the fear of imminent shortage -- that the world is going to begin running out of oil in five or 10 years. This shortage, it is argued, will be amplified by the substantial and growing demand from two giants: China and India.
Yet this fear is not borne out by the fundamentals of supply. Our new, field-by-field analysis of production capacity, led by my colleagues Peter Jackson and Robert Esser, is quite at odds with the current view and leads to a strikingly different conclusion: There will be a large, unprecedented buildup of oil supply in the next few years. Between 2004 and 2010, capacity to produce oil (not actual production) could grow by 16 million barrels a day -- from 85 million barrels per day to 101 million barrels a day -- a 20 percent increase. Such growth over the next few years would relieve the current pressure on supply and demand.
Where will this growth come from? It is pretty evenly divided between non-OPEC and OPEC. The largest non-OPEC growth is projected for Canada, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Azerbaijan, Angola and Russia. In the OPEC countries, significant growth is expected to occur in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Algeria and Libya, among others. Our estimate for growth in Iraq is quite modest -- only 1 million barrels a day -- reflecting the high degree of uncertainty there. In the forecast, the United States remains almost level, with development in the deep-water areas of the Gulf of Mexico compensating for declines elsewhere.
While questions can be raised about specific countries, this forecast is not speculative. It is based on what is already unfolding. The oil industry is governed by a "law of long lead times." Much of the new capacity that will become available between now and 2010 is under development. Many of the projects that embody this new capacity were approved in the 2001-03 period, based on price expectations much lower than current prices.
There are risks to any forecast. In this case, the risks are not the "below ground" ones of geology or lack of resources. Rather, they are "above ground" -- political instability, outright conflict, terrorism or slowdowns in decision making on the part of governments in oil-producing countries. Yet, even with the scaling back of the forecast, it would still constitute a big increase in output.
This is not the first time that the world has "run out of oil." It's more like the fifth. Cycles of shortage and surplus characterize the entire history of the oil industry. A similar fear of shortage after World War I was one of the main drivers for cobbling together the three easternmost provinces of the defunct Ottoman Turkish Empire to create Iraq. In more recent times, the "permanent oil shortage" of the 1970s gave way to the glut and price collapse of the 1980s.
But this time, it is said, is "different." A common pattern in the shortage periods is to underestimate the impact of technology. And, once again, technology is key. "Proven reserves" are not necessarily a good guide to the future. The current Securities and Exchange Commission disclosure rules, which define "reserves" for investors, are based on 30-year-old technology and offer an incomplete picture of future potential. As skills improve, output from many producing regions will be much greater than anticipated. The share of "unconventional oil" -- Canadian oil sands, ultra-deep-water developments, "natural gas liquids" -- will rise from 10 percent of total capacity in 1990 to 30 percent by 2010. The "unconventional" will cease being frontier and will instead become "conventional." Over the next few years, new facilities will be transforming what are inaccessible natural gas reserves in different parts of the world into a quality, diesel-like fuel.
The growing supply of energy should not lead us to underestimate the longer-term challenge of providing energy for a growing world economy. At this point, even with greater efficiency, it looks as though the world could be using 50 percent more oil 25 years from now. That is a very big challenge. But at least for the next several years, the growing production capacity will take the air out of the fear of imminent shortage. And that in turn will provide us the breathing space to address the investment needs and the full panoply of technologies and approaches -- from development to conservation -- that will be required to fuel a growing world economy, ensure energy security and meet the needs of what is becoming the global middle class.
The writer is chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. His book "The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power" received the Pulitzer Prize.


Posted by: david on 6 Aug 05

i've seen the same data as the david above, and think it will break sooner than most people expect, leading to surprise at the least, and some economic wobbles at the worst.

the interesting thing is that both cases (optimist and pessimist) have been made. at this point, we just start the clock and see who's right.

if there is no immediate problem, then that weak Energy Bill, and my neighbor's SUV, are going to work out fine.

if it breaks a little faster ... well, we get to see. it could be congress, and my neighbor, will change from their current plan.


Posted by: odograp[h on 6 Aug 05

Its not realy a case of one or the other BOTH will happen at the same time just in different areas. Some places will guess right and some will screw up...


Posted by: wintermane on 6 Aug 05

A devastating crash of civilization can be caused by massive failure of expectations, not just actual shortage of resource (eg., The Great Depression.) So the argument must include, and I would say, emphasize, this potential, not just the effects of actual oil shortage or expense.

From this perspective, oil prices and shortages can be a trigger that unleash far deadlier potentials, engendering a downward spiral that ends who knows where.

How do we deal with expectations? How did we deal with them during the dot com boom? Not very well.


Posted by: Joe Niederberger on 6 Aug 05

Ok I got a question for all of you, does my equal scale theory work? Let me explain it again.

In order to decrease dependance on oil for our needs, we need to look at whatever part of the country or world we live in and decide what energy source is best for that region as decided by the local government. SOuthern California = Solar Power Chicago, Illinois = Wind Power New York City= Nuclear, Wave power. Each area would have to have its own electric grid because different sources create different amounts of energy, as too not let solar power in california be overwhelmed by nuclear power from new york city, even though theyre 3000 miles apart the 2003 blackout of new york city was caused by a powerline fire hundred of miles away in canada.

What do you guys think of my theory? This isnt using actaul data, just my personal view!


Posted by: david on 7 Aug 05

Short term, we've got all these cars that only burn gasoline. It would take many years to transition to a fleet compatible with "equal scale" power sources. Simple electric cars would work for that though. We could have national automotive standards, and local power generation.

As an aside, California's best non-fossil resource is actually geothermal ... currently generating 11% of SCE's production.


Posted by: odograph on 7 Aug 05

Actauly you dont have to worry about conversions of cars the timeframe we are looking at is long enough WE wont be hit too badly by it. The people in for it are the ones who depend on used old american cars...

Most of us will simply buy a new car within x years of the changeover.. but they will be stuck with gas for decades after that.


Posted by: wintermane on 7 Aug 05

Well odograph you made a very good point, remember though my theory was my personal view, but after readin what you wrote ill change it around a little bit, thank you for helping me with this


Posted by: david on 7 Aug 05

"We are not helpless and there is nothing wrong with us except the strange belief that we are helpless and there's something wrong with us."

I love that quote. That could well be a WorldChanging motto.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 8 Aug 05

Well I heard today that oil prices hit $64 a barrel today, i hope that oil capacity data is right because if it isnt we are in deep doo doo. I dont want an early demise because we are too stupid and ignorant to usealternative sources and have a severe shortage


Posted by: david on 8 Aug 05

Dont worry if all else fails someone will just blow someone else up. Im half expecting something "interesting" soon.


Posted by: wintermane on 9 Aug 05

Regarding programmers "scared out of his or her wits," here's what I had to say about the topic in 1999.

Programmers and designers were certainly all aware of the issue and working on it at least as far back as the 80s. The only late-90s Y2K doomsayers I knew about were not knowledgable in the computer industry.

The US DOE published an SAIC study concluded that ten to twenty years of serious effort will be required to mitigate the more serious effects of Peak Oil.


Posted by: Fritz on 9 Aug 05

Fritz, the "scared out of their wits" programmers I knew personally were generally expressing such concerns in the middle part of the decade, with the number declining as the end of the decade approached. You're absolutely right when you say that, by late in the 90s, the only ones preaching doom were those who weren't actually working on the problem.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 9 Aug 05

Hmm, well wintermane, that makes me feel a little better I guess, we just gotta get our buts i ngear now and fix tis like they did with y2k in the 90s


Posted by: david on 9 Aug 05

Winterman I want to show you something. Heres my view on how I believe oil will play out. I phrase it in time

Now - 2010 oil price stays high until new capacity comes online (new capacity is being built up now)

2010 - 2040 Things will mainly be ok, we still have lots of time to build on alternative sources, fast advancing in technology. Fusion may be accomplished

2040's oil production peaks and begins to slide downward

2050's - onward, several scenarios are possible, if technology has advanced fast enough, if fusion is accomplished things will be fine and dandy, if we are still oil dependent then what the pessimists might happen can possibly happen, should fusion not be accomplished


Posted by: david on 9 Aug 05

hey odograph and wintermane, i had another idea for my equal sclae theory. This can be used to power cars too. For example, some can run on solar, others on batteries, some using biofuels, you know a little bit of this a little bit of that. The same way with the electric grid


Posted by: david on 10 Aug 05



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