Wednesday, June 23, 2010


This deliberately, deceptively titled post is not about peaking for optimal race performance. This has nothing to do with running, babies or Canadians far from home. In fact, the original title of this post was going to be "Terrified and Depressed". Cheery. Anyone still reading?

The peaking in the title of this post refers to peak oil theory. Previously I thought that the largest problems facing humanity were dwindling clean water and global warming. However, I have recently started reading about peak oil. I haven't been living in a cave, I did know that our fossil fuel dependent society was destined to run out of its primary currency sometime before the end of this century depending on which source you trust. What I had never understood was the concept of "peak oil" and its potentially devastating impacts.

What I have read over the past few days has completely floored me. I always thought that... well actually never mind what I always thought about peak oil and global energy; I was ignorant and naive. In case I am not the last person on the planet over the age of 18 who was/is uninformed about peak oil theory here it is in a nutshell:  Peak oil is defined as the moment at which the maximum rate of petroleum extraction is reached after which point oil production enters terminal decline (from wikipedia). Once oil production starts to fall, prices continue to go up until oil becomes unaffordable and, to be blunt, the world as we know it is completely altered.

The global economy is frighteningly dependent on cheap oil. This is not just a matter of paying a few extra bucks at the pump. The food we eat is produced using oil, the fertilizers - oil based, the energy to run the farm equipment -oil based, the energy to transform the raw components of food into more refined food - oil based, its transportation from producer to market - oil based. A little factoid, the average piece of food is transported 1500 miles from producer to consumer in the US and 5000 miles from producer to consumer in Canada. We need oil to eat, move, clothe ourselves, have access to clean water, build infrastructure, power cities, hospitals. We use oil in almost every mundane aspect of our lives. Most of our high tech gadgets like the laptop I am writing on are produced using oil. This morning on my run I was imagining the world around me and trying to imagine how many of the little scenes unfolding before would be affected by a lack of oil - the truck delivering food to the supermarket, the cars driving by, the woman drinking clean water out of the community water fountain. It's staggering.

Of course this oil dependence means that not just the individual person will be affected. Companies will go bust as the cost of acquiring the resources they need to produce their product drives them out of business. This could lead to global recession and depression. Ultimately all of this will lead to a massive re-organizing of society. Our globalized economy is notoriously sensitive to small fluctuations in supply - I don`t remember the oil crisis in the 70s but apparently oil prices tripled. We have no way of knowing how precipitously the oil supply will drop after peak oil but some geologists are suggesting annual declines in production grave enough to send the economy into a tailspin.

So of course there are alternative energy sources, the infamous oil sands in Canada, biofuels, wind, solar etc. etc. The problem with these, as I have been reading, is that their EROI (energy returned on investment) is far lower than traditional oil and some of them, depending on how you do the math, actually have negative EROIs, in other words the energy invested into them is greater than the energy extracted. In addition, we currently do not have the major infrastructure needed to generate, store and transport energy from these sources. We could build this infrastructure but that requires, you guessed it, energy. If we don't start making the switch to other viable sources of energy soon we are going to run out of the oil needed to do so.

There is a lot of speculation regarding WHEN peak oil will occur and some people speculate that we are already past it. The "peakers" seem to think we passed it in 2005 while others talk about 2020 or 2030. Regardless of whether this happened 5 years ago or is happening now or will happen in 15-20 years, this seems to me to be an intractable problem because its solution will require people to think ahead something humans are notoriously bad at and somehow overcome the classic tragedy of the commons dilemma (I don't think we've ever managed to do this in the past). Meaning is EVERYONE pitched in and drove less, switched to diesel cars (one aspect of European life I really appreciate), switched to LEDs for lighting etc. etc. we could conserve enough energy to perhaps buy us time to implement solutions (this sounds very vague partly b/c I am still reading and learning) but to be blunt this requires humans to act in a way that history shows is not very human.

Some of the descriptions I have read of a post-oil world are straight out of a hollywood, block buster movie about armageddon. Famines, fresh water shortages, wars, desperate people in desperate situations... I have no idea how sensationalistic some of the scenarios are but there can be no doubt that there will be suffering and a massive lowering of everyone`s standard of living.

There is no shortage of well-written, well-researched information on this topic available on the web. I highly recommend Matt Savinar's well researched, well written summary can be found here. For a think-tank summary look here, there are also various articles on the topic from this network of European scientists to name just a few. It would not be an understatement to say that these readings have fundamentally altered my outlook on life and in all honesty I have spent the past few days in a state of dazed and stunned disbelief. I am still reading and learning about this topic so I apologize if I have done a piss poor job of summarizing the issue.

Yup, I'm depressed. Scared. And avidly reading on this topic.


  1. Well, I'm a socialist and somehow, much to my happiness, I ended up living in a socialist country. As I see it there is one solution to this problem and that is very high taxes on non-renewable resources such as oil and gasoline. And it needs to be world-wide. I am an optimist and believe in humans but not to the point where I believe that eveyone "pitching in" will work. At least it won't work enough. A big change needs to happen at a worldwide and systematic level and it needs to involve paying money, lots of money, for what is scarce otherwise it will just suddenly be ... gone! Cool blog post topic!

  2. Am I the only person on the planet who thinks that the oil resources are highly underestimated? Maybe...but it does not prevent me from using bike and legs as transportation means, always bringing my own bag to store, drinking tap water, not using plastic cups, utensils etc. I, as SLG, believe in humans and am optimistic but it will require a lot of energy to !explain! that change is necessary.

  3. SLG - taxing oil is part of the solution i think but not the whole solution. though in some of the reading i have been doing people propose "tax holidays" on fuel when the price is too high in order to protect the economy (for what i ask? the next 5 minutes???). one of my hubby's favorite observations it that the cost of a liter of bottled water in Canada is usually more expensive than the cost of a liter of gasoline. talk about NOT paying the true social cost of a good!!

    mmmonyka - I answered your comment in a whole separate post. the short answer is no, you are not the only person who believes this but I, personally do not believe and I hope I explained why in adequate detail in my post. One thing though, if everyone led your lifestyle we'd be in a better situation.