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Retro: Y2K and Peak Oil
Jamais Cascio, 31 Dec 09

OilProduction.jpgAn older post, appropriate for today's context: more fresh blogage Monday. Happy New Year, all! - eds

I'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?


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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Well said, I've talked to a number of folks about this but you have summed up this far better then I have. I just hope this is how peak oil will be viewed, there is tremendous amount of work to be done.

Posted by: Jeremy on 31 Dec 09

I liked your article. I think it's a quite-sound comparison between the two discussions.

But I am afraid that the complexity of dealing with the peak-oil issue is orders of magnitude greater wrt Y2K. At least that's my perception.

I agree though that when the number of "sufficiently-motivated" people goes beyond a given threshold things could actually be changed. Let's hope that we will reach that threshold soon.

I am quite pessimistic concerning the peak-oil issue (I would say I am one of the cassandras) but your article is a very nice way to start the new year with a sane optimism.

Let's hope that in 15 years they will laugh at me and at all the other cassandras.

Best wishes.

Posted by: Boniface Millian on 1 Jan 10

I would have to agree with the above poster that peak oil is more difficult a fix than Y2K. Y2K was like picking ergot out of a wheat crop before it makes your society go mad. Peak oil is more akin to back-hoeing an orchard and trying to replant the trees, and bring them to maturity before everyone starves. It is a much more deeply entrenched problem which will not be fixed with a few hundred billion band-aids, it will require a whole new system. By the time people are anxious enough to contemplate that time will be too short to implement it.

Posted by: chris on 1 Jan 10

Peak Oil isn't like Y2K at all. Y2K was just a software problem. A lot of that software was built into hardware so it was a bit worse then just a soft software problem, but it was still just a problem with instructions in computer chips. These could either be upgraded, overridden with software patches or software that was made to ignore the chips that had the problemm and implement it's own instructions etc. Point is that as big as the problem was said to be, and was, it is nothing compared to Peak Oil. We can not reprogram the oil fields to contain more oil. We can not merely program a car to ignore the fact that its tank is empty. And you can't reprogram peoples minds to accept lower standards of living or highy costs of living the same even. Those are things that have to be forced on people and they will resist if they can, and that means trouble. And trouble breeds more trouble. And every solution involves someone.......everyone........cutting back....doing without.....suffering......but nobody wants too. Weather it's having to buy a hybrid that you can not afford and cant see why you have to pay double for a matchbox car and can't even get two cents trade in on your very expensive suv.......anger.....frustration....voilence......especially when you can't even borrow the money for it..cause the credit crisus has became a permanent situation. You still owe 200k on that 500k house you brought thats only worth 100k now.......and you owe 20k on your 40k super SUV that you can't give away. No use burning it and saying it was stolen because the insurance companies are broke and your premiums went up by 3000% last year and you couldn't pay them anymore.....remember....just after your wife booted you out so she could go from owning 50% of everything to 100% of everything and move that richer boyfriend in to keep her head above don't even earn enough to pay the alimoney and soon you will be in jail on a labour farm for life to pay your debt......if you can keep up the 16 hours per day of hard labour required to make the interest payments and reduce the debt by a dollar a might see freedom again if you live to be 127 years old. Think of Y2K as you swing that pick on the chain gang manually ploughing those fields

Posted by: Stu on 1 Jan 10

I remember Y2K. I was CFO of a telecoms company and I chaired a committee that planned the transition to 1/1/00. I also remember the ridicule when nothing happened and feeling quite miffed. Nevertheless we took our role seriously. Thousands of lines of code were reviewed (mostly with software designed to find the problem), every system was thought about and nothing happened. We were successful.

I have been studying Peak Oil for a few years now and it seems likely Peak Oil occurred in the period late 2004 to 2008. That was the top of the bell-curve. Now production is in decline and will never recover those levels again. There are a whole heap of reason why this is the case, not all of them geological, nevertheless it is the case. Some of those non-geological reasons are human feed-back responses to the geological reasons, so it is hard to pion down any particular date or reason.

Unfortunately, unlike Y2K, we cannot simply form a committee and fix the problem. There are no solutions. Over the course of the last 40 years oil consumption has been around 4.5 barrels per person per year on average for everybody on earth. I am quite certain that conservation and efficiencies will mean that in a physical sense that we could function normally with much less. But that is not the issue.

The issue is the response of the capital markets to Peak Oil once it is clear production cannot increase. There is a real connection between energy consumption, measured in joules, and economic growth. Most neo-classical economists; and especially so called Austrian economists, do not recognise it, but it is as true as it is obvious, if only they stopped and thought about it for a bit. We will need to make new living arrangements and the quicker we recognise that fact the better it will be. Unfortunately very few people have any idea this is happening at all let alone happening right now.

Posted by: SailDog on 2 Jan 10

I think it's a great analogy. i get the fact that Y2K is very one dimensional compared to peak oil and our oil dependency ingrained in the very fabric of our every pattern and habit. But, it's not only peak oil that's driving the changes, there's economic melt down, ecosystem collapse, species cleansing, the social void, the climate crises, 2 billion on less than 2 dollars etc etc. these are all starting to weigh in and network up and peak oil is another trigger for the fundamental re-shift. it's a good trigger too. i talk to major corporates who see climate change as marketing luxury but they see oil price shocks as a direct and present risk that needs to be addressed. They are few in number but as the Y2K hysteria grows there will be many more joining them from all aspects of society. Add this to the already amazing level of creativity that we've been forced by necessity to unleash in the face of the future security of our species, i see the response to peak oil having a very good chance of matching the complexity and depth of the problem.
great article!!
can we deal with the next set of problems lined up to follow? or more importantly can we deal with all of the problems in such a fundamental way that we do it largely in one go?

Posted by: shane on 2 Jan 10

great post. thanks for this reflection and info on the Y2K experience

Posted by: zach on 3 Jan 10

Good points in the article and by the readers. On the critical point of whether an effective response is possible, I agree with the readers that it will be far more difficult to solve peak oil/peak gas. Nearly every car, every home, each industry, rely on fossil fuels for their energy. We should be conserving energy expended, and building windmills and solar panel installations as quickly as possible. Denmark began that effort in 1975, and is now reaping the rewards of that wise decision by the voting public.

Posted by: David - green thoughts on 3 Jan 10

Yep, Y2K presents an example of foresight preventing any visible problem. With Peak Oil, nobody moved at the time for preparations according to foresight, so we have lost the opportunity for painless gradual transition within that time at which it would have cost the least. Nevertheless, we still have some money and some opportunity left to use those oil driven dollars to build replacement necessities at a sensible rate and not go bust from doing so. The clearest example which I can think of for a comparable (though smaller) transition of industrial practice is the changes to remove the majority of CFC and Pb(CH3)4 products, both of which were claimed at the time by their manufacturers to be indispensable, and both of which were phased out with little visible cost or difficulty in the end. That we have an ozone hole which gets less eroded with each year that passes shows that given sufficient will to change, change can be accomplished. Also noteworthy from the history of both leaded petrol pollution and ozone depleting CFC's is that the companies who made those were the last group to agree that there was a need for any change.

Posted by: Z131 on 5 Jan 10

after 18 years of studying the subject of the end of civilization,I made a blog about it:
please have a look

Posted by: magdy halim on 9 Jan 10

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