I am so glad that I can take the issue of peak oil off the table. It was difficult to get people to listen and to engage in thinking about the ways in which their lives might change in the face of restricted resources. Of all the future issues/opportunities I deal with when speaking to clients and students, peak oil was the one that most looked blank at when it was mentioned. The failure of the peak oil community to start a conversation on how we might live within our means as a wider society reflects my experience. We don’t want to give up our comforts, and confront the fact that things may actually get worse from here on in.  Many people don’t believe there is a link between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change, and in fact, burning more fossil fuels may be necessary to cope with a changing climate.

George Monbiot has called it in the Guardian this week.

For the past 10 years an unlikely coalition of geologists, oil drillers, bankers, military strategists and environmentalists has been warning that peak oil – the decline of global supplies – is just around the corner. We had some strong reasons for doing so: production had slowed, the price had risen sharply, depletion was widespread and appeared to be escalating. The first of the great resource crunches seemed about to strike.

Among environmentalists it was never clear, even to ourselves, whether or not we wanted it to happen. It had the potential both to shock the world into economic transformation, averting future catastrophes, and to generate catastrophes of its own, including a shift into even more damaging technologies, such as biofuels and petrol made from coal. Even so, peak oil was a powerful lever. Governments, businesses and voters who seemed impervious to the moral case for cutting the use of fossil fuels might, we hoped, respond to the economic case.

Linking peak oil and climate change was one lever used by the sustainability movement to try and get some traction in the idea of doing with less and this has proved less than successful. I think Monbiot hits the nail on the head…

We have confused threats to the living planet with threats to industrial civilisation. They are not, in the first instance, the same thing. Industry and consumer capitalism, powered by abundant oil supplies, are more resilient than many of the natural systems they threaten. The great profusion of life in the past – fossilised in the form of flammable carbon – now jeopardises the great profusion of life in the present.

There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us, and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground. Twenty years of efforts to prevent climate breakdown through moral persuasion have failed, with the collapse of the multilateral process at Rio de Janeiro last month. The world’s most powerful nation is again becoming an oil state, and if the political transformation of its northern neighbour is anything to go by, the results will not be pretty.

The Post Carbon Institute’s Richard Heinberg has also published a post on this in the last week which in part blames the optimists view of the world.

Daniel Yergin has scored points by claiming that prophecies of a peak in world oil production have proven wrong again and again for a century or more. It’s strange that the failed forecasts of optimists get comparatively little public attention, given that they are at least as numerous. The most relevant example: around 1998, when the modern Peak Oil discussion was just hatching, the International Energy Agency, the US Department of Energy, and the US Geological Survey all issued forecasts that world oil production would grow steadily to achieve 120 million barrels per day by 2020, while prices would remain at the level of $20 per barrel (in 1998 dollars) even beyond that date. In 2004, when it was already clear that those forecasts had no chance of being realized, Daniel Yergin declared that oil prices would stay at $40 per barrel for the next 15 years. Neither the IEA, nor the DOE, nor the USGS, nor Daniel Yergin foresaw a situation in which crude oil production would flat-line for seven years beginning in 2005, or in which prices would whipsaw to record highs of up to $147 a barrel as they did in 2008.

And so a spurt of new production from “tight” shale deposits now serves as a pretext to declare victory. The peaksters should have seen it coming, after all: high oil prices do indeed trigger increases in reserves and production from lower-quality resources. Indeed, some of the better analysts did see it coming. I recall Jeremy Gilbert, the former BP chief petroleum engineer, speaking about the potential of new production technology at an Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) conference a couple of years ago. “The current fields we are chasing we’ve known about for a long time in many cases,” he noted, “but they were too complex, too fractured, too difficult to chase. Now our technology and understanding [are] better, which is a good thing, because these difficult fields are all that we have left.”

Coincidently, The Archdruid had a post on this topic last Wednesday which links a drop in demand in the US and Europe to a drop in global crude price, it also exhorts us to take a systems view of the whole issue.

Those processes are a good deal more complex than the ones we’ve traced so far, since they involve competition for capital and other resources among different sectors of the economy, a struggle in which political and cultural factors play at least as large a role as economics. Still, one result can be traced in the unexpected decline in petroleum consumption that has taken place in the United States since 2008, and that precisely parallels the similar decline that happened between 1975 and 1985 in response to a similar rise in oil prices. To describe this process as demand destruction is an oversimplification; a dizzyingly complex array of factors, ranging from the TSA’s officially sanctioned habit of sexually molesting airline passengers, on the one hand, to shifts in teen fashion that are making driving uncool for the first time in a century on the other, have fed into the decline in oil consumption; still, the thing is happening, and it’s probably fair to say that the increasing impoverishment of most Americans is playing a very large role in it.

Thus the simple model of peak oil that dates from Hubbert’s time badly needs updating. Ironically, The Limits to Growth—the most accurate and thus, inevitably, the most maligned of the various guides to our unwelcome future offered up so far—provided the necessary insight decades ago. By the simple expedient of lumping resources, industrial production, and other primary factors into a single variable each, the Limits to Growth team avoided the fixation on detail that so often blinds people to systems behavior on the broad scale. Within the simplified model that resulted, it became obvious that limitless growth on a finite planet engenders countervailing processes that tend to restore the original state of the system. It became just as obvious that the most important of those processes was the simple fact that in any environment with finite resources and a finite capacity to absorb pollution, the costs of growth would eventually rise faster than the benefits, and force the global economy to its knees.

That’s what’s happening now. What makes that hard to see at first glance is that the costs of growth are popping up in unexpected places; put too much stress on a chain and it’ll break, but the link that breaks isn’t necessarily the one closest to the source of stress. The economies of the world’s industrial nations are utterly dependent on a steady supply of liquid fuels, and so a steady supply of liquid fuels they will have, even if every other sector of the economy has to be dumped into the hopper in order to keep the fuel flowing. As every other sector of the economy is dumped into that hopper, in turn, the demand for liquid fuels goes down, because when people who used to be employed by the rest of the economy can no longer afford to spend spring break in Mazatlan, or buy goods that have to be shipped halfway around the planet, or put gas in their cars, their share of petroleum consumption goes unclaimed.

All of this speaks to an issue which is complex in the extreme as it encompasses human society, the industrial complex, energy and the environment. Go looking for people that have done some thinking and let them help you get your thinking clear. A colleague has began blogging on these issues, at Beyond this Brief Anomaly and I commend his work to you. Any of the previous sources for this blog are good places to start.