"Peak oil" -- what is that? The concept has been discussed since 1949, when geologist M. King Hubbert theorized that the extraction of the black gold followed a simple bell curve, meaning that after passing the peak in the curve, extraction would decline. After peak, never again would we be able to extract, and use, as much oil as we had previously.
In 1956, Hubbert made a startling and controversial prediction: America's oil production would peak in or around 1970. Hubbert's peers were confounded, as it was inconceivable that the United States, the world's largest oil producer in the first half of the 20th century -- literally the "Saudi Arabia" of the West -- could possibly decline in production.
So Hubbert was ridiculed, that is, until soon after 1970, when it became obvious that U.S. production had indeed peaked that year. (Peaks in production, whether in individual oil fields or oil nations, or worldwide, are only recognizable in hindsight, by comparing production in subsequent years.)
"Many experts now believe that world production peaked in the last several years or will in the next few."
Hubbert went on to predict that worldwide oil production would peak around the turn of the millennium. And indeed, many experts now believe that world production peaked in the last several years or will in the next few. Score another for Hubbert.
Along with the other fossil fuels, coal and natural gas (all of which are, in essence, stored solar energy), oil is the lifeblood of the world economy, not least because it's an extraordinarily dense source of energy. In his seminal book Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, William Catton wrote that "the energy expended in two decades by a vast labor force of Egyptian slaves stacking up 2,300,000 blocks of stone (each weighing 2.5 tons) to form the Great Pyramid of Cheops was less than the energy released in a few minutes by three stages of a Saturn V rocket propelling humans towards the moon."
Thinning supplies of oil are bad enough. But the world is also experiencing an increasing demand for the stuff. Rising demand and declining supply is a recipe for ongoing economic contraction, even international conflict. Witness the war in Iraq and the recession that just won't seem to go away.
Along with climate change, peak oil (as well as impending peaks in natural gas and coal in just years or decades) is perhaps the most serious problem facing the industrial economy that feeds, clothes, houses and employs billions of human beings. Fossil fuels provide roughly 85 percent of the energy used in the world economy.
"Rising demand and declining supply is a recipe for ongoing economic contraction, even international conflict."
While such factors as mammoth financial sector shenanigans were obviously salient to the 2008 economic crash, some peak oil experts theorize that the underlying basis for the crash may have been peak oil. After all, a debt-based economy requires continuous growth in order to function correctly. Even a small decline in energy inputs could have set off the chain reaction that led to the economic crises that have been unfolding ever since.
Perhaps most critically important, oil and natural gas have become the lifeblood of industrial agriculture. In fact, it's estimated that anywhere from seven and 10 calories of fossil fuels (in the forms of fertilizer and pesticides and for operation of machinery) are used for every one calorie of food produced!
Fossil fuels, which were the basis for the so-called Green Revolution that began in the mid-20th century, are the reason that the world's population has been able to grow from 1 billion in 1800 to nearly 7 billion today. We have literally been eating fossil fuels, and we are running out of food.
Is there a bright side to any of this? Yes there is, and it's called "Transition." Starting in a small town in England just a few years ago, the Transition concept has spread rapidly around the world, and there are now close to 300 cities and towns that have officially joined the Transition movement. Bloomington is the 54th in the United States.
"Transition Bloomington is on a countdown to launch and will be holding its "Great Unleashing" event at Bloomington City Hall on Saturday, April 24."
Transition means transition away from fossil fuel, and trying to do so, as author Richard Heinberg suggests, "as peacefully, equitably and intelligently as possible." Transition means relocalizing the production of food and energy resources. Transition means being more connected with one's community and crafting a world that is more equitable than the one we have now.
Transition is about being prepared -- making our community resilient for sudden shocks and changes to the larger economic and energy systems. Transition isn't just another organization or cause. The purpose of Transition is to bring together individuals and existing organizations to work together to transform our community from the bottom up.
Transition Bloomington is on a countdown to launch and will be holding its "Great Unleashing" event at Bloomington City Hall on Saturday, April 24. We are hoping for hundreds, even thousands, of community members to join us. If you are interested in bringing your unique voice into Bloomington's Transition, invigorating it with your energy, passion and purpose, the Great Unleashing is a must-attend event. By coming together for Transition, we will help to create a healthier, abundant and more secure future for all.
Doug Hanvey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Visit the Transition Bloomington Web site.