I’ve noticed more general discussion about the topic of Peak Oil in recent weeks—helped in no small part by Sir Richard Branson and the Peak Oil report issued by a British group in which he played a key role—although it still remains well below the mainstream media radar.

The net result is that the majority of our population continues to remain unaware of Peak Oil, let alone understand or appreciate the potential challenges we’ll face once it is fully upon us. The louder voices continue to be those who deny it, based on motivations that remain at best puzzling. Casting proponents of Peak Oil as doom-mongers has been an effective strategy—again, for reasons I find perplexing. (I’ll explore this particular topic in a later post.)

So are we ready for Peak Oil? The answer seems quite clear: no, we are not ready, not by a long shot.

The explanations and information are there for the taking. The problem, as I suggested in my last post, as have others, is that too many of us simply do not think that we have to do without. Either we refuse to believe in limits, or cannot bear to consider the possibility of having to permanently scale back on our demands and expectations.

Our advertising and our media constantly exhort us to seek/get/buy/have more. It’s what we do, and it is by and large what our industries are designed for: provide us with more/more easily/more inexpensively/and better. No complaints there … it’s the essence of growth and progress, but it has taken on a life of its own. We do not permit ourselves the opportunity to step back and consider anything other than how to get more to make life easier today. On principle that’s not an entirely inappropriate expectation.

But too often, when limitations are suggested or imposed, particularly those arising from forces and factors beyond our immediate control, there is an outcry that something must somehow be done by someone in some way so as to address the shortfall. Why there is a shortage or lack of something at normal costs—how it relates to societal interests—is rarely considered.

The oil price hike in the last year or two is a prime example. The right complained that President Obama wasn’t doing enough to lower gasoline prices (while he’s at, I wouldn’t mind if he lowered the price of our daughters’ college tuition, the costs of meals at my favorite restaurant, and ticket prices at Fenway Park), and similar uninformed voices made their case for “drill, baby, drill” with almost no appreciation for the long term implications. Short-sightedness is now a thriving enterprise in some circles!

Peak Oil isn’t designed to cater to those needs. As the coach of “my” New England Patriots is fond of saying: “It is what it is.” And what Peak Oil is—however it manifests itself—is a legitimate “threat” to the ways of life we’ve come to insist upon and simply expect: that we can have as much as we want, whenever we want it, without considering anything else.

As has been noted, oil plays an essential role in almost everything that touches our everyday lives. From the food we eat to the means by which we transport ourselves, our goods, and our services, to what we grow, build, have, own, need, and do, oil is almost always an important element. But the painful truth now and soon is that the ready supply of oil and gas that we almost always take for granted (the occasional price spike notwithstanding) is on its way to becoming not-so-ready. Thinking that we’ll just implement a few crash programs to straighten out that potential mess is a nice thought, but we simply do not have the means to make that happen—not the technological capabilities, not the personnel, not the industries, not the leadership … yet. Clearly, we do not have enough time to do it all with effortless ease and minimal disruptions.

So when Peak Oil happens, what happens? Who must sacrifice? What must be sacrificed? What do we start trimming back on in our homes, our communities, and our businesses? Where exactly will the dominoes tumble?

Few ask those questions; few provide answers. We need more people to ask the questions, and more than just the occasional informed voice to explain what will happen and what must be done.

So for those who prefer to think that whatever changes might result from Peak Oil’s impact won’t be all that significant, consider only for a moment how much we depend on oil and gas for so much of what is in our world, and then try to imagine that anything other than major changes are in the offing once the supply is restricted for any number of reasons! Can’t be done….

For those who view Peak Oil as just another bump in the road to greater prosperity and successes because that’s how it’s always been for us, consider that it’s always been that way for us precisely because of oil! The great cities we’ve built, the lifestyles we’ve fashioned, the industries we’ve created, the toys we own and use … all of that came about because we had inexpensive and plentiful oil at our disposal to make almost all of that happen. Denying that flies in the face of the world we live in.

The false hopes about technology coming to the rescue, and/or human ingenuity and creativity as the answers cannot be counted on. Yes, of course that will be essential to the future we do create, but to just sit back and insist that technology and ingenuity are guaranteed to save the day is a risk we cannot afford to take!

The simplistic arguments that a sharp drop in production and/or price increases means we’ll just find alternatives are wonderful-sounding statements, but empty. What are the specifics? Where does the research money come from? How quickly will these as-yet-undiscovered technologies be created, tested, mass-produced, and then delivered effectively? Who supplies the needed personnel and infrastructure for these magical inventions? If it is such a simple realization for these deniers, why not just produce it all today and save ourselves the effort later on? (Why haven’t they just produced all of this technology already, in anticipation? If they’re that good, then they should have planned for this need.) Deniers of Peak Oil too often make it sound that technological solutions don’t require much more than a flip of the switch, but in the real world, that’s not going to be how it works.

The not-so-clever arguments by oil industry officials (no bias there!) who dispute Peak Oil (Rex W. Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil: “We’re going to be very forthright in not accepting something that is not completely scientifically proven.” [1]) are just as superficially satisfying as those who blindly proclaim that of course we’ll develop the right technologies somewhere down the road—and just in the nick of time to boot! It would be wonderful if those proclamations and predictions were correct, but can we really afford to leave our entire future to chance? (And regarding the above quote, how many things are ever “completely” scientifically proven? Are all of the processes that Mr. Tillerson’s company utilizes “completely scientifically proven”?)

Making the perfect the enemy of the good may appease shareholders, but it is no more a strategy than crossing our fingers and hoping we’ll find that the entire center of the Earth is one giant pool of oil that will be available early next week. These disingenuous arguments serve short-term interests only, and at some point, short-term demands a reckoning.

This same official also stated that “We don’t oppose alternative energy sources and the development of those. But to hang the future of the country’s energy on those alternatives alone belies reality of their size and scale.” [2] No one is saying this move away from our dependency on oil is going to be a small scale, simple undertaking! So when exactly should we begin: when the “size and scale” magically shrink down to an acceptable and non-profit-interfering level? When might that be? And how much more disruption will we be obliged to endure in the interim?

No nation on Earth possess the technological expertise or capabilities of the United States; yet for all that skill, our oil production peaked nearly four decades ago, and no magic technology has stemmed that tide or located massive quantities of new oil. The fact-free declarations of the deniers too often run headlong into the realities of oil supply, production, and exploration. We need a better approach.

Should we just wait and panic when Peak Oil happens, or do we owe it to ourselves to start planning and transitioning now? Everyone has a stake in how this all plays out….

Of course no one wants to willingly give up a pleasant life now (or, as is the case with the millions struggling through this Recession, give up the hope of better days to come). But when we don’t have the same measure of easily obtained and inexpensive, plentiful oil at our beck and call, we are going to have to do a lot of things differently. Pretending otherwise is a tremendous disservice to all of us and makes it that much harder to cooperatively implement the changes and adaptations needed.

And how daunting must it be for industries of all kinds and sizes to consider that the easy and cheap oil they rely upon to work their machinery or expand their capabilities or transport their personnel and goods and services and all the other roles that oil/gas plays in the everyday business world will soon not be available as much, as often, and as inexpensively? It almost invites complete economic paralysis, but we’re better than that. We’ll have to demonstrate this soon enough. That means we have to understand, plan, and then do.

Yes, having to undertake the changes we’ll likely be obliged to is a daunting prospect. It’s senseless to imagine otherwise. Our lifestyles, industries, infrastructure, recreations, consumptions, production, and transportation will all be affected to varying degrees when we’re confronted with the reality of Peak Oil. But I still believe it’s just as foolish to think that we don’t have the abilities and skill and talent and will to do what must be done to adapt and transition away from our excessive dependency on fossil fuels. (My optimism does not ignore the truth that we’ve got a lot of work to do, and rather quickly.)

This is our opportunity!

Consider this: If I and other proponents are wrong, then all we’ll have done is conserve more resources, advanced technologies and alternative resources sooner than we might otherwise have done, and probably enhanced a sense of community many of us lament has been lost in our thousand-miles-per-hour society. Worse things will happen to us.

It’s nothing more than human nature for people to want to initially disregard or deny any impending, adverse lifestyle or economic changes. And if we do recognize this likelihood, our first tendencies are to consider what we’re going to lose rather than potentially gain or improve. When that becomes your starting point, who wants to continue down that road? It promises not much more than added sacrifice and hardship; and thank you, sir, we’ve had quite enough already.

Change of this potential magnitude is understandably too much for most of us to consider right now, especially absent concrete objectives and plans for how to deal with the onset of Peak Oil. There’s too much still unknown, and the likely disruptions and insufficient preparation/adaptation time is too much to expect most to handle. Better the devil you know. Unfortunately, that’s not going to help.

We have a voice in how this will all play out. Will we choose to use it or not?

Next: Part V


[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=abYNEKrsuMsI&refer=home – Exxon Mobil Says Transition From Oil Is Century Away By Joe Carroll; May 27, 2009 (Bloomberg)
[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/08/business/energy-environment/08greenoil.html?_r=1 April 8, 2009; Oil Giants Loath to Follow Obama’s Green Lead By JAD MOUAWAD