The words “peak oil” are being heard more often these days, and in increasingly exalted corridors, but what do they actually mean? Mere inconvenience and higher prices at the pump? Or TEOTWAWKI (for “the end of the world as we know it”)?
Let’s look at some of the scenarios various experts have have imagined:
- A smaller, relocalised world. Jeff Rubin, former chief economist at CIBC World Markets, doesn’t envision the apocalypse, although he acknowledges, “much could go terribly wrong in this transition.” However, in his new book, “Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalisation,” he sees the potential for many silver linings: more farmers’ markets and less imported Atlantic salmon, more revitalised local factories and less stuff shipped from the ends of the Earth, fewer SUVs but a “more livable and enjoyable world.”
- In its latest report, the sustainability organisation Feasta is decidedly less cheery. “Tipping Point: Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production – An Outline Review” warns there’s a good chance our civilisation today is “on the cusp of a fast and near-term collapse.” “Appeals towards localism, transition initiatives, organic food and renewable energy production, however laudable and necessary, are totally out of scale to what is approaching,” writes author David Korowicz. While his study doesn’t lay out any clear answers, it still ends on a note of hopefulness: “There is much we can do. Not to prevent or defer a collapse, rather to prepare to some degree our selves and communities for some of its impacts … (T)he reality is that this is the most important, meaningful, and potentially liberating work that we have ever had to do, and it must be done right now.”
- The “think-and-do-tank” nef sees declining oil — and other dwindling resources — as a call for an end to endless economic growth and consumption. And, like Rubin, it sees that transition as a potentially good thing: “Such a new economy implies the need for a great ‘reskilling,’ for example in the food economy, and the growth of urban agriculture. Other adaptations could bring a range of social, environmental and economic benefits. A redistribution of paid employment via a shorter working week, tackling the twin problems of overwork and unemployment, would free up time for people to do more things for themselves, each other and the community, and reduce their dependence on paid-for services.”
- Some big-league business and energy players — including Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson — lent their names to the latest report from the UK’s Industry Task Force on Peak Energy and Oil Security. Released in February, “The Oil Crunch: A wake-up call for the UK economy” doesn’t welcome the idea of a sharp reduction in growth — something it sees as an invitation to “even deeper recession.” Higher oil prices, it warns, will bring Britons higher travel costs, higher food bills, higher heating bills and more expensive goods in general. To avoid such outcomes, the report states, the government needs to speed up the green-economy revolution and make plans to protect the public, especially the poor, from the cost impacts brought on by peak oil.
- Finally, we have oil industry expert Matthew Simmons, who sees peak oil as both a crisis and an opportunity. While oil discovery rates are declining and the giant wells that have produced most of the output are getting harder to pump, Simmons believes all those offshore rigs could be put to good use as infrastructure for a new era: the age of ocean energy (pdf). Deep-water wind facilities, he says, could provide a wealth of benefits: electricity, desalinised water, hydrogen and liquid ammonia, which could be used as everything from a solvent to a vehicle fuel. “This exciting opportunity is where offshore oil and gas was 80 years ago,” Simmons asserts.
All in all, not quite TEOTWAWKI, but perhaps one version or another of the veiled curse, “May you live in interesting times.”