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After the Peak

January 31, 2015

Nearly 17 years ago the modern peak oil movement began with the publication of “The End of Cheap Oil” by petroleum geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère in the March, 1998 issue of Scientific American. Campbell coined the term “peak oil” to describe the inevitable moment when the world petroleum industry would produce oil at its historic maximum rate. From then on, production would decline as the overall quality of available resources deteriorated, and as increasing investments produced diminishing returns. Unless society had dramatically and proactively reduced its reliance on oil, the result would be a series of economic shocks that would devastate industrial societies.

Campbell estimated that global conventional oil production would reach its maximum rate sometime before the year 2010. In later publications, Laherrère added that the peak in conventional oil would cause prices to rise, creating the incentive to develop more unconventional petroleum resources. The result would be a delayed peak for “all liquid fuels,” which he estimated would occur around the year 2015.

Today we may be very nearly at that latter peak. Slightly ahead of forecast, conventional oil production started drifting lower in 2005, resulting in several years of record high prices—which led the industry to develop technology to extract tar sands and tight oil, and also incentivized the US and Brazil to begin producing large quantities of biofuels. But high petroleum prices also gradually weakened the economies of oil-dependent industrial nations, reducing their demand for liquid fuels. The resulting mismatch between growing supply and moderating demand has resulted in a temporary market glut and falling oil prices.

Crashing prices are in turn forcing the industry to cut back on drilling. As a result of idled rigs, global crude production will probably contract in the last half of 2015 through the first half of 2016. Even if prices recover as a result of falling output, production will probably not return to its recent upward trajectory, because the US tight oil boom is set to go bust around 2016 in any case. And banks, once burned in their lavish support for marginally profitable drilling projects, are unlikely to jump back into the unconventionals arena with both feet.

Ironically, just as the rate of the world’s liquid fuels production may be about to crest the curve, we’re hearing that warnings of peak oil were wrongheaded all along. The world is in the midst of a supply glut and prices are declining, tireless resource optimists remind us. Surely this disproves those pessimistic prophets of peril! However, as long-time peakist commentator Ron Patterson notes:

Peak oil will be the point in time when more oil is produced than has ever been produced in the history of the world, or ever will be in the future of the world. It is far more likely that this period will be thought of as a time of an oil glut rather than a time of an oil shortage.

Within a couple of years, those of us who have spent most of the past two decades warning about the approaching peak may see vindication by data, if not by public opinion. So should we prepare to gloat? I don’t plan to. After all, the purpose of the exercise was not to score points, but to warn society. We were seeking to change the industrial system in such a way as to reduce the scale of the coming economic shock. There’s no sign we succeeded in doing that. We spent most of our efforts just battling to be heard; our actual impact on energy policy was minimal.

There’s no cause for shame in that: the deck was stacked against us. The economics profession, which has a stranglehold on government policy, steadfastly continues to insist that energy is a fully substitutable ingredient in the economy, and that resource depletion poses no limit to economic growth. Believing this to be true, policy makers have effectively had their fingers jammed in their ears.

A cynic might conclude that now is a good time for peak oil veterans to declare victory, hunker down, and watch the tragedy unfold. But for serious participants in the discussion this is where the real work commences.

During these past 17 years, as the peak oil debate roiled energy experts, climate change emerged as an issue of ecosystem survival, providing another compelling reason to reduce our reliance not just on oil, but all fossil fuels. However, the world’s response to the climate issue was roughly the same as for peak oil: denial and waffling.

Today, society is about to begin its inevitable, wrenching adaptation to having less energy and mobility, just as the impacts of fossil fuel-driven climate change are starting to hit home. How will those of us who have spent the past years in warning mode contribute to this next crucial chapter in the unfolding human drama?

Despite peakists’ inability to change government policy, our project was far from being a waste of time and effort. The world is better off today than it would have been if we had done nothing—though clearly not as much better as we would have liked. A few million people understood the message, and at least tens of thousands changed their lives and will be better prepared for what’s coming. One could say the same for climate activism.

If our main goal during the past 17 years was to alert the world about looming challenges, now it is to foster adaptation to fundamental shifts that are currently under way. The questions that need exploration now are:

  • How can we help build resilience throughout society, starting locally, assuming we will have little or no access to the reins of national policy?
  • How can we help society adapt to climate change while building a zero-emissions energy infrastructure?
  • How can we help adapt society’s energy consumption to the quantities and qualities of energy that renewable sources will actually be able to provide?

We have to assume that this work will have to be undertaken in the midst of accelerating economic decay, ecological disruption, and periodic crises—far from ideal operating conditions.

On the other hand, there is the possibility that crisis could act in our favor. As their routines and expectations are disturbed, many people may be open to new explanations of their predicament and to new behaviors to help them adapt to energy and monetary poverty. Our challenge will be to frame unfolding events persuasively in ecological terms (energy, habitat, population) rather than conventional political terms (good guys, bad guys), and to offer practical solutions to the burgeoning everyday problems of survival—solutions that reduce ecological strains rather than worsening them. Our goal should not be to preserve industrial societies or middle-class lifestyles as we have known them (that’s impossible anyway), but to offer a “prosperous way down,” as Howard Odum put it, while preserving whatever cultural goods that can be salvaged and that deserve the effort.

As with our recent efforts to warn society about peak oil, there is no guarantee of success. But it’s what needs doing.


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15 Comments, RSS

  • Having shovel-ready systems of governance would be a great help for those groups that are stumbling around, looking for a crazy, charismatic leader to point to some minority group for all their troubles.

    This new modern system of governance must make a few things perfectly clear:

    1) Population levels must be managed, hopefully in a humane way. It is the most important factor for being able to manage resources in a sustainable way.

    2) Being in balance with nature is the only path to peace. Resource scarcity causes humans to go into survival mode where the first thing that is tossed out is civility.

    3) Growth should never again be the goal of a society. It is impossible in perpetuity because we live on a finite planet.

    4) Religion and the blind faith in supernatural nonsense can only prevent the social development of humanity.

    The true irony of these points is that each and every one of them goes against the primitive programming of humans.

  • Limiting growth would be unnatural. You would have to punish people for having too many children. I would rather fight you to the death than allow that kind of governance. And so would a lot of people, and that is why war is the natural way to balance population with resources. Always has been, always will be. World war three will happen before any kind of population-control government is ever elected in a free democracy. The weak and stupid men will die in battle, the strong and intelligent men will survive as officers, and they will breed with the beautiful and intelligent women who’s husbands and boyfriends perish in the war, the remaining stupid and ugly women to be the nannies and servants of the successful women who breed with the surviving men. That’s nature’s way. The human way is to delude one’s self into thinking we have the power to control nature, including human nature.
    It is to laugh.

  • Birth rates tend to drop considerably during depressions. There’s no need for ‘managing’ population (as if it could be done in an acceptable way). Likewise the other points–those things will come about naturally to the extent that they “should”, otherwise they won’t.

  • Great piece, Richard. The thought came to mind while reading it that maybe a reverse-psychology approach would have been better to prepare people for this turning point period–still being clear about the situation but telling people that they don’t have to worry about it or prepare, they’ll be able to figure it out after things get really challenging. That might have resulted in more thoughtfulness on their part. Oh well, hindsight is 20-20 or thereabouts.

  • Well the Chinese did it, sorta. It’s estimated that there are 300.000.000 fewer Chinese people today thanks to their 1 child policy…or the equivalent of the entire United States population. So it’s doable without getting too ugly.

  • so after 17 years making very persuasive arguments backed with data which was ignored by most you expect the crisis will open these people’s eyes? Give me a break. … there is optimism then there is naivete

  • I don’t understand the term “prosperous way down.” It seems like an oxymoron. But I’m sure the guy had a point in mind when he coined it, much as Bill McKibben did when he discussed “graceful decline.”

    It just seems contradictory to me unless we radically redefine “prosperous,” so I wondered if Odum did that.

  • There is a global recession currently going on (since 2008). Humans add the equivilent of a new Germany each and every year (around 80 million people). Estimates are that Earth has around seven times too many humans due to the massive amounts of net energy provided by fossil fuels.

  • The Chinese policy was a complete failure on the humanity level but it was indeed effective. I am sure humans can prevent the baby being thrown out with the bath water on this concept. Humane policies of population control can be tried in every country and the best policies evolved further.

  • War is inefficient, especially when the costs of cleaning up nuclear fallout are taken into account. World War II had about 60 million deaths and resulted in incredible amounts of destruction and massive amounts of resource use. As I mentioned, humanity is adding the equivalent of a new Germany every year (about 80 million people). Obviously, a better solution is needed. War is simply too costly due to our advanced technology, even if it was true that war was used in the past to thin the herd, so to speak.

    It has been speculated that past rulers keep wars going for this very purpose – population control. They sent out the “undesirables” to die in battle, leaving far more resources and women for the remaining men.

    Humans were able to send a man to the moon and land a spacecraft on a moving meteor. Hopefully, we are able to figure out population control.

  • Dear Richard,

    You refer to the need to start building resilience locally, assuming little or no access to the reins of national policy.

    Local resilience, if replicated in a majority of places, translates into regional resilience. Local, consistent policies, taken together amount to regional or national policy. So don’t worry too much about access to policy overall reins.

    What I would like to stress is that resilience must not be understood only in terms of the economy and services, in terms of locally sufficient food, clean water, shelter, and healthcare. These things do not come by without social structures, cultural and political, to support them. Politics and law (plus law enforcement I guess) are an integral and key part of local resilience. It is essential that we understand that.

    My message is always that current democracies are only so skin-deep, extremely vulnerable to economic and social havoc, and if collapse blows them away, resilience will boil down to survival of the very few in power, individually or as a clan, enslaving the few and burying all the rest. Quite like in primitive medieval and ancient societies, often warrying.

    What I always say is that we should hurry up to make our “democracies” way more participative, and therefore more robust, more resilient, while having the chance.

    If I had to choose one cause to campaign for, it would be promoting radical democracy, which is to say genuine democracy. We cannot expect to shift abruptly to radical, direct democracy. What we should do instead is to introduce gradually increasing levels of direct democracy, complementing representative democracy

  • And war is “successful” on the humanity level? I don’t understand why you are against family planning that has socially and politically advocated constraints but you think war is a great balancing strategy. Have you talked to anyone with PTSD who survived a war? An amputee? Yikes. I spent some time in China and their policy wasn’t perfect but many Chinese people actually understood the necessity for it and abided it.

  • Friends, the 10-year change rate of population growth has decelerated from 2% to just above 1% since the 1970s. At this rate of deceleration, the population growth rate will achieve an order of exponential decay by no later than the early 2020s, which will have occurred in about 50 years.

    However, thereafter the second- and third-order decay regimes will occur in as few as 5-6 and 2-3 years, implying that population will peak in the 2020s, plateau, and then commence decline by sometime in the 2030s. (This fits generally with the “Limits to Growth” and Richard Duncan’s “Olduvai Theory” trajectories.) Therefore, the human ape population will not reach anywhere near 9 billion this century.

    Moreover, the 10-year change rate of population not coincidentally tracks with the decline in US (cheap light sweet crude) oil production PER CAPITA, having fallen ~45% since 1970. That is to say, population and its replacement requires an INCREASING supply of the civilization’s primary energy source PER CAPITA. Without that increasing affordable supply, population peaks and declines.

    Now world oil production PER CAPITA has fallen 2-3% since 2005-08, i.e., Peak Oil, and more for crude oil alone (ex unconventional, costlier, lower-quality crude oil substitutes). Thus, the world is now where the US was in the mid- to late 1970s when the US commenced deindustrialization, financialization, and feminization (women entered the paid labor force en masse and were employed in the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, including health care, education, financial services, gov’t, and retail, the employment of which is 65-85% are female employees) of the economy.

    Yet, when the US deindustrialized, debt to wages and GDP was much lower than today, and the average price of oil was in the $20s. Today, debt to wages and GDP is unprecedented, and the price of oil is 2-3 times higher than during the early to mid-1980s.

    Therefore, the oil-, auto-, debt-, and suburban housing-based model of global industrial growth is no longer viable. Therefore, we have reached the “Limits to Growth” of population, resource consumption per capita, production of the primary energy source, and real GDP and gov’t receipts and spending per capita.

    Consider the conditions hereafter that will coincide with the peak of population in the next 5-7 to 10 years and its decline by sometime in the 2030s. (Again, Google “Limits to Growth” and “Olduvai Theory”.)

  • Uh, you replied to my comment but I think you made a mistake. I never said war was successful on a humanity level. I am for humane policies of population control, family planning being just one of those policies. I even posted how war was ineffective and extremely costly on a resource level.

    Since the world gains the equivalent of a new Germany every year (80 million people added to the growing number) and WW II, which lasted about four years, “only” resulted in about about 60 million deaths, there would need to be about 6 World War II level conflicts going on simultaneously every year just to keep the world population level! Obviously, that is not going to work.

    It is very likely that the current level of human social development, with all the old cultures and supernatural nonsense, is too primitive for humans to reach effective population control on their own. Too bad because with reasonable human population numbers everyone, including all the other lifeforms in the ecosystem, could live far more comfortably and Earth could keep up with the needed renewable resource production. Until then, billions of humans and other species will continue to suffer, needlessly. It is ironic that many humans think we are so advanced and superior.

  • Yup. I was replying to someone else’s comment, but hit the wrong reply button.