For decades, we’ve heard warnings about “Peak Oil.” This is the idea that production levels of fossil fuels will hit their apex, that we won’t find enough new reserves to meet growing demand, and that the machine of capitalism will implode as it can no longer power itself.
We are certainly seeing the peak of something, but it isn’t oil supply. It’s oil demand.
Energy consumption per capita in the US is on the decline (albeit from pretty ridiculous highs). Growth in China is slowing way down—they had a great leap forward, but such growth simply isn’t sustainable. Or even healthy. And supply is expanding with new techniques (mostly fracking and horizontal drilling).
The global recession contributed to the decrease in demand, but it doesn’t account for all of it. Small things like more efficient appliances and the end of the incandescent light bulb have gone a long way to decreasing our energy load, offsetting the explosion in the number of devices and gizmos that now seem necessary for our survival (or at least: entertainment).I’m a bright-eyed optimist, so my hope is that our dependence on fossil fuels will lessen as we learn to lean on cleaner energy like solar and nuclear. One of the problems with declining oil prices is that alternative sources of energy become less competitive. Solar recently hit parity with some fossil fuel power plants, as the cost per kwh has plummeted due to massive leaps in solar panel efficiency and plummeting costs of production.
With gas dipping below $2, will American drivers turn back to massive SUVs and trucks? There’s already been a call in recent weeks to tax gas at the pump even further, levying a carbon cost to cover the externalities of burning fuel. It doesn’t take long for lessons learned to be forgotten. Or for us to take highly variable things for granted.
All of this comes on the heels of more bad environmental news. 2014 was now officially the hottest year on record. Global warming is happening, whether that makes you comfortable or not. We’re contributing, whether that aligns with your worldview or not. Sea levels are going to creep up, and we’ll have to deal with that coastal city by coastal city.
Again, I’m an optimist. I think we’ll engineer a way through this mess. New York City is working on plans for parks that will ring Manhattan, providing levies to guard against the next major storm, but also to cope with rising sea levels. Advances in nuclear energy continue to make this the cleanest of the always-on energy sources. (I toured a natural gas power plant a few weeks ago, and the entire plant was built because of a nearby wind farm. Always-on power generation has to be built to accompany wind and solar, which is a massive problem. Nuclear will have to play a greater role going forward).
Me and my dad at a natural gas power plant outside Pueblo, CO.
Now let’s talk distant projections. Where will we be in 50 years? I have a few hopes, and I think they have a greater chance of being right than the constant predictions of peak oil. I think in the near future, energy production will come through innovations that we build rather than something we pump from the ground. This will have an incredible impact on global economies and result in an even further decline in world violence and the incidences of war.
Right now, energy is a natural resource, tempting nations like Iraq and Russia to annex neighbors. And tempting Americans and others to drill in some of our most beautiful habitats. When wealth is as simple as running pumps, the industry can be commandeered by bandits with guns, as we are seeing with ISIS. And Russia, to some degree. When energy is instead met through solar and nuclear, it will have the same effect that Silicon Valley had in turning factory and rote jobs into jobs that pay more, require more education, are safer, and better for the environment. Oh, and generate fewer wars.
I also think in the next 50 years (hopefully on the sooner side) we’ll see Africa explode with the same perceived problems we saw in Asia. China’s rapid growth has brought a lot of people out of poverty in a very short time. While some were denouncing the offshoring of our least desirable jobs, those jobs were increasing wealth and freedoms elsewhere (especially for women). We should celebrate this. And we should hope that Africa has a chance to build factories, consume cheap energy even if it’s coal and oil, and go through the same growing pains that we went through and that the rest of the developed world has gone through. Pulling the ladder up behind us is wrong on so many levels.
The craziest thing I think we might see in the next 50 years is a drop in ppm of atmospheric CO2 levels. Once we stop pumping so much of it into the air—as we move to electric vehicles powered more by solar, wind, and nuclear—nature will absorb a lot of what’s out there. This will be the big stunner. We’ve seen this with catastrophic oil spills. Predictions of the decades of environmental ruin are followed by shock when environments return to order in far less time. I believe the resiliency of our planet will surprise us once again. As will the ingenuity that spills from our noggins.
These sorts of pronouncements are often seen as reasons to slack off or do nothing, but I disagree. Stoking fear should not be our way to inspire action. Truth is always better than clever agendas. We can inspire people to be better stewards of our environment, to use less energy in dozens of little ways, to pay more for an electric car or solar panels, to make a positive difference through positivity. The fear mongering has done real harm, I think. It has bred mistrust. It has turned us away from useful solutions like nuclear power (if you haven’t seen Pandora’s Promise, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Seriously. Grab a copy right now. You’ll thank me).
The best outcome of cheap oil will of course be the end of the incredible violence in the Middle East. For those who think this is impossible, consider the violence in Ireland just a few decades ago. Consider the record low murder rates in American cities recently announced. Consider the violence in myriad places throughout history that has now declined. At some point, the Middle East will generate wealth through trade, tourism, and innovation. It’ll be harder work than pumping liquid money out of the ground, but a lot safer, more rewarding, and less violent.
The people who predict bright futures are always mocked, and those who predict collapse are treated as sages, even as the former get it right and the latter are almost always wrong. This speaks more to our fears than it does to their wisdom. Here’s looking to a brighter tomorrow, powered by something clean, and visible through a lifting smog.
My newest release, THE SHELL COLLECTOR was inspired by my obsession with the world’s oceans and many of these environmental concerns. The work is dedicated to my good friends Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan, who have done much to make the world and our environment a better place. If you haven’t read Stewart’s excellent Whole Earth Discipline, you should. It’s a brilliant book.