There's no shortage today of outrage over gasoline prices; if we could fuel cars with anger, prices would go right down again. Nor is there a shortage of irony for anybody with an inkling of what the world's oil situation is really like.
Today's complaints are going to seem trivial when prices begin to go up more or less without end, and that's going to happen quite soon, probably within a decade. The end of cheap oil is in sight--a truly epochal event that is going to change everything. Given the state of our current understanding, it seems unlikely that we'll handle it well.
Part of our problem with understanding has to to with previous handwringing about petroleum prices and supplies. Those who were around for the oil price shock of the early 1970's will remember rash predictions that the world would soon run out of oil. Because the OPEC reductions in supply of petroleum were purely man-made and transitory, those predictions turned out to be false, an outcome that led some to conclude that all predictions were to be ignored.
There was one prediction, however, that had already proved true before the OPEC embargo was ever imposed. In 1956, geologist M. King Hubbert proposed that for any finite resource such as oil, production would rise along a bell-shaped curve that would peak when approximately half the resource was gone. He foretold that oil production in the United States would increase year-by-year until 1969, give or take a year, and then decline ever afterwards. Hubbert's prediction was astonishingly accurate.
The amount of oil produced in America peaked in 1970, and has gone down ever since, notwithstanding the discoveries in Alaska and elsewhere.
Using techniques similar to Hubbert's, geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere predicted in the March 1998 issue of "Scientific American" that world oil production will reach its highest point at some time before the year 2010. (Substitute fuels and technological innovations might delay the peak by a decade or so, if developed and deployed appropriately). The peaking of production does not mean that the world will be out of oil--far from it. More than half of the resource will still be left. But the total amount taken from the Earth each year will begin to decline, while demand will continue to increase.
The result will be an inexorable rise in the price of petroleum. Where the price of oil and gasoline has been steadily going down, adjusted for inflation (even with the recent increases, it's still historically inexpensive), suddenly the price will go up and up and up.
If the end of cheap oil is a decade or two away, the implications for Americans are hard to understate. Try imagining the greater Los Angeles area with gasoline at five or ten dollars a gallon. Doesn't work, does it? Our civilization depends on the availability of virtually free energy. Our buildings and roads, our towns and cities are built to the measure of the automobile. And oil is a material as well as a fuel, the primary source of a myriad of products.
As the price of oil rises, there will be radical stresses and dislocations in our American economy and society. It's currently fashionable to believe that market forces and technology will solve any conceivable problem with the supply of petroleum. There are some promising developments along those lines, including a new kind of solar cell based on organic materials. But those technologies and market forces had better get a move on, because this monumental change is very near to us in time.
Once production peaks, the transition to a new kind of economy will have to begin. Given the scale of the problem, alternatives should already be in hand and in the process of implementation.
Yet, so far there are few signs of systematic thought or action on this problem, or even explicit notice of it. The current outrage over gas prices is not very relevant in this context, except as a symptom of denial. The reality is that we've built our civilization around something we knew wasn't going to last. That's a challenging position to be in, and some degree of psychological wavering is to be expected. Yet our responsibility to our children demands that we face the facts as they are, and start to build a more viable future. Let's stop whining, and start planning.
"The End of Cheap Oil", Colin J. Campbell & Jean H. Laherrere, Scientific American, March 1998, pp. 78-83.
"State's Oil Drillers Hit a Dry Spell", Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times Column One, 12/7/98, p. A1.
"Consumers Won't Pay. . . Yet", Robert B. Reich, Los Angeles Times Commentary Page, 12/4/98, p. B9.
"Oil Production in the 21st Century", Roger N. Anderson, Scientific American, March 1998, pp. 86-91.
"Liquid Fuels from Natural Gas", Safaa A. Fouda, Scientific American, March 1998, pp. 92-95.
"Solid-state Organic Solar Cells", Wim C. Sinke & Martjin M. Wienk, Nature.
Richard Anderson has for six years taught a course on the human future in Environmental Studies at U. C. Santa Barbara. gconserve at aol.com