Excerpted from KMO:
(for context, see our entry on Epochalism)
“Peak oil theory, as you probably know, starts with the obvious observation that oil is a finite resource. The process which produces oil takes place over geological time scales and so once we have used up what?s in the ground now, it is effectively gone. The peak comes when the rate of extraction can no longer increase and we have to adjust ourselves to declining supplies of fossil fuels. Now, our civilization?s use of petroleum as our primary source of energy really has produced an epochal change. It changed nearly everything about how we feed ourselves, how we occupy the landscape and how we organize our society. It has changed the definition of the family and allowed for a centralization of power that exceeds any previous empire. Fossil fuel energy replaced human and animal muscle power and thereby transformed nations of farmers and artisans first into industrial workers and eventually into service and knowledge workers in the post-industrial information economies of the First World. All this from fossil fuel energy.
Not only has petroleum replaced human and animal muscles for doing mechanical work but we also use it to make fertilizers, detergents, solvents, adhesives and most plastics. Imagine modern life without plastic. Fossil fuels, particularly coal, are still the primary energy source for our electrical grid, which runs the server farms that give all of our amazing little electronic gizmos something to connect to.
The implication of peak oil is that all of this energy allowed for dramatically increased complexity in our society. In 1700 you didn’t have any automotive mechanics or refrigerator repairmen because those devices did not exist. In 1986 when I graduated from high school and was supposed to be thinking about a career path, there was no World Wide Web, and no podcasts. The more complex your society becomes the more distinct job roles there are and, ideally, the better your chance of finding the job that best fits your temperament, your aptitudes and your desires. In my own case, there were no podcasters in the late 80s to serve as role models, so while podcasting is the occupational role that fits me better than any other I?ve ever tried, it?s not anything I could have aspired to before the rise of the web, RSS feeds, .mp3 players and personal computers powerful enough to handle big media files. The society I inhabit today is much more complex and has more unique professions in it than the world I grew up in, and I?d be hard pressed to claim that that is an entirely bad thing.
The long-term implication of peak oil is that when oil production peaks and begins to decline all of this increased societal complexity that comes from replacing human and animal muscle power with fossil fuel energy will have to move back in the direction of our pre-petroleum living arrangements. We will not be able to sustain the level of societal complexity that exists now.
The US Department of energy in 2005 issued the Hirsch report which stated, “The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.”
Now, people who are very alarmed about peak oil say that we don’t have ten years; that conventional oil production peaked in 2005, and that far from having a decade in which to prepare, if we started today we be starting nearly a decade late. The Hirsch report concludes, “without timely mitigation, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), accompanied by huge oil price increases, both of which would create a long period of significant economic hardship worldwide.”
I don’t believe there’s any reason to discount that conclusion, and I do agree with Jim Kunstler that suburbia is a living arrangement that is not viable for a post-petroleum future, but what I do not expect the current viability of suburbia to crash into the far future complete non-viability of suburbia overnight. The peak oil fast collapse scenario is equivalent to industrial civilization running into a brick wall or over a cliff at full speed. Lurid predictions of this sort of crash include a massive internal refugee population, people stranded because they cannot afford fuel for their cars, the sudden imposition of martial law, the breakdown of civil order, banditry, and even cannibalism.
I agree with John Michael Greer that we are living through what he calls a catabolic collapse, which is to say that society is slowly eating itself as it goes through a stair step progression of collapse, partial recovery and reorganization, and that this process takes place over a couple of centuries. It has been happening for most of my lifetime, and it will continue through the lifetimes of my children and grandchildren. This view doesn’t mean that we won’t encounter hardships, shocks and discontinuities. I certainly believe that we will, but I don’t think that we are headed for a Mad Max world in which people who once made their livings selling insurance or working at Walmart turn to living as medieval serfs, or roving bandits.
I want to be perfectly clear about the fact really terrible things and really marvelous and unprecedented things have happened in the past and that they will continue to happen in the future. The way that we inhabit the landscape and the way we organize our societies has changed dramatically over time, and it will continue to change, but the types of sweeping overnight changes that Singularitarians expect or that people who anticipate that any day now the US federal government is going to announce that we have been in contact with extraterrestrials for decades and that the ETs are about to share their technology with us or that we are about to experience an epochal change in human consciousness due to cosmic alignments and the transition to the age of Aquarius; these are not the sorts of changes that we can reasonably expect to see in the near future.
While I take the implications of peak oil seriously, I?m starting to consider the fast collapse from peak oil to be yet another version of the unrealistic epochal change that sweeps away the current reality in an instant and delivers us into a fully furnished new world. If we remain fixated on visions of epochal changes like the ones I just mentioned, then we?re likely to completely miss the actual trends that really do create extreme disruption on the time scale of an individual human lifetime.
While I think that a lot of people, myself included, have squandered a lot of time and psychic energy obsessing over developments that are unlikely to come to fruition in our own lifetimes, I?m not saying that our current civilization is sustainable or we have arrived at anything resembling a stable developmental plateau. As a species, we have endured a series of catastrophic events some of which could have marked the end or our line. There have been die offs, mega-scale natural disasters, disastrous shifts in the climate and episodes of mass slaughter.
Around 70,000 years ago, as a result of climate change from the mount Toba supervolcanic eruption in Indonesia, the global population of Homo Sapiens was reduced to around 10,000 individuals. That is a hair?s breadth from extinction. The Black Death in medieval Europe killed between a third and half of the population. Six million Jews died during the Holocaust, and even in my own lifetime there have been episodes of mass slaughter in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Balkans, and Rwanda. Those were surely apocalyptic events for the people who lived through them, and they were the end of the world for the people who died in them. Still, as events that shaped the development of global industrial and post-industrial civilization, they were but blips.
And make no mistake, in spite of the fact that I have helped propagate some improbable worst-case scenario thinking about peak oil, in the future we will be using less energy, and we will be consuming fewer material resources. I think that the people in the Transition Network, and other people who understand the implications of peak oil and are not scaremongering to grab attention, understand that we have inherited an extravagant and wasteful lifestyle and that material consumption, beyond the level that satisfies our physical needs, does not create happiness. We can simultaneously decrease our material consumption and increase our quality of life. That I fully believe. I’ve done it myself.”