Apr 282011

I know a couple of people who are on the pessimistic side of the Peak oil hypothesis, and a couple who are equally fervent in their optimistic belief (the idea being that we’ll always find more and/or technology will save the day). As is my wont, I’m somewhere in the middle, thinking we’re likely to find more oil and natural gas, but that it should still be conserved, at least until we have more progress on the various replacement technologies. Someone (I forget who) recommended I read James Howard Kunstler’s book “The Long Emergency” (Amazon US link, Amazon CA link). It’s an interesting read, albeit a little dated (it was published in 2006). He tends to skim over some issues such as the importance of the transition from lots of oil to little oil, and the writing does tend to the breathless (although it’s far better in the book than on his blog). I’d recommend at least skimming through it if you’re interested in the issues, maybe borrow it from the local library as I did.

What the book did accomplish was to make me think about the consequences of a world in which oil is much more expensive than it is now. It doesn’t need to be the case that we can’t find any more; a serious insurrection in Saudi Arabia that caused major disruptions to the flow of oil is not out of the question these days, and China is using an ever-increasing proportion of the world’s oil, which will automatically result in price increases.

Some of the questions are easy to ask: What happens if the cost of shipping cheap goods from China trebles, or quintuples, or worse? What happens to commuters when the cost of getting to work is multiplied by 3, or 5, or 10? As the cost of heating goes up, how many more people will die of the cold in unheated, uninsulated, houses? What happens to the cost of food (a large factor of the Tunisian uprising) as the cost of the fuel rises, given that the Green Revolution that saved so many lives depends on cheap petroleum-based fertilisers?

The price of oil hasn’t gone below $50 per barrel for the last 5 years (according to http://www.oil-price.net/). We don’t know what’s next: it may hover around $100 per barrel for a while, or leap to a much higher level; either way there should be at least some discussion of what oil is best used for, what we can substitute other technologies for, and an investment in those technologies before we need them. There are options already for power generation, even if most of them also have issues, but there seems to be less focus on food and transport (both people and goods), and if anything, there seems to be an ever-increasing use of petroleum-based plastic materials. I don’t see much productive discussion around these issues – anyone got good pointers that don’t veer off too much into apocalyptic fervour?

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