Lurching toward the peak


One of the side notes to the struggles over climate change are minor but persistent claims that we are reaching or have already reached "peak oil." Others have taken up the chorus, speculating about peak water, peak land, even peak everything (the title of a book by Richard Heinberg). Some predict a century of declining living standards, declining production, declining food, declining raw materials, declining energy from traditional sources.

Peak oil theories point out that new finds for oil fields have been slowing considerably since at least the 1960s, and that at some point it will become more costly and difficult to extract oil, causing our energy costs for industry, transportation and agriculture to escalate, leading to higher costs and permanent shortages. Much intellectual capital has been spent (not least by oil companies themselves) trying to predict the exact moment we will reach peak oil, or asserting confidently that we have already passed the peak and are on the slope downwards.

While much of this can be (and has been) dismissed as hysterical catastrophizing, there is an underlying reality that humankind must come to grips with.

Even if "peak oil" or peak anything else is decades away, the truth is that many raw materials are finite resources - there is not a never-ending supply. There will come a time when extraction of resources that we currently rely on will become increasingly more expensive, and when supplies will begin to contract. Even if that point is not 2012 (or 1997), we need to shift to renewable sources of energy.

We need to make this shift anyway, for reasons of economics, climate change and pollution. This just adds another reason to the already compelling case for a fundamental transformation of how we manufacture, grow and transport goods and food, and heat and cool our homes and move ourselves about the world.

The carrying capacity of the earth is not infinite. This is true for oil, but also water, coal, agricultural land, forests and other natural resources essential to support human life. But we have been acting as if continual increases in everything are a sustainable path.

However, that "we" covers many contradictions. What "we" do in and with our homes and cars is one kind of problem; what corporations do with the major systems of production and distribution is quite another. The amount of energy wasted directly by individuals is miniscule compared to that wasted and over-exploited by industry, distribution and agriculture. If we are to make any basic changes for the better in how humanity impacts the natural world, we have to change those systems.

As we struggle to do so, we run up against the economic and political power of entrenched interests - companies that make massive profits from maintaining business as usual, no matter how destructive business as usual is. This is most obvious in the oil industry, as oil companies have been raking in record profits - the highest profits ever for any kind of company in the history of the world. As a result, they can make huge political "contributions" to reactionary politicians who "dispute" scientific knowledge. The Koch brothers are just the most egregious example, but the entire industry follows the pattern.

Many have pointed out that while humans can have all kinds of arguments and disagreements, when we try and argue with the laws of physics, we will always lose. But in the meantime, companies make massive profits from spreading false information about climate change, oil production, energy use. They point to worst-case scenarios of the costs of making any changes to our energy systems, all the while ignoring the much more significant and fundamental costs to humanity of continuing on our current path of depleting resources at an unsustainable rate.

Another example comes from agriculture and development. In many parts of the world, we are turning what should be renewable resources into unsustainable ones. For example, in the Southwest, water is being extracted from the giant Oglalla Aquifer (which lies under eight western states) at many times the rate that the aquifer is being recharged by rain and other precipitation. "Green revolution" agriculture in India relies on wells that must be drilled ever deeper to reach water, and the aquifers there are also being depleted much faster than nature recharges them. Sooner or later, some of this water will run so low that we can no longer depend on it. But little or no provision is being made for the certainty of water shortages.

A similar problem exists in our use of land for agriculture. In the massive Plains region, topsoil used to be 20 or more inches deep, providing rich natural sustenance for one of the most food-productive regions on the earth. Now, that topsoil in many places is six inches or less, and we are using up the growing potential of the land much faster than nature creates new earth.

There are solutions for all these problems, or at least potential solutions. Vastly increasing our use of biochar, rich human-made soil, is one example. Conservation and increased efficiency could make a big difference for the better in our use of energy, water, land, and other resources. So we do not have to be depressed about the future of humanity, unless we don't make the necessary changes in time before we reach disastrous tipping points.

The longer we let reactionary politicians who serve the interests of giant resource-depleting companies dictate or limit our policy on energy, climate change, and renewable resources, the worse it will be for humankind in the long run.

The first rule in escaping from a hole is that if you are in a deep one, you must stop digging. Our current path is digging us deeper and faster into a pit we must escape from. We can avoid reaching the peak of any resource - a death sentence for millions of people - but only if we act, only if we struggle to have decision-making on the basis of human need rather than private profit and greed.

Environmental issues, like economic ones, can open the door to fundamentally challenging the capitalist system.

Image courtesy Mister Speaker // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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  • I completely agree, Mark! I'm reading a book by Jaccard called "Sustainable Fossil Fuels," and he also makes the argument that whether we are reaching or have past peak oil is not the real issue because we must move away from using fossil fuels in any case due to their environmental impacts. So peak oil becomes irrelevant in the face of catastrophic climate change.

    I agree that the solution is to change energy policy towards carbon-neutral fuels and to increase carbon sequestration. I like how you've used a hopeful tone in your article despite the grim realities. At Diacarbon we make carbon-neutral bio-oil, syngas, and biochar through pyrolysis. The biochar application for carbon sequestration and soil treatment are very promising. I just wrote a blog article about biochar applications on our website:

    Posted by Nur S, 03/09/2011 5:07pm (5 years ago)

  • When crises hit, all to often the political left forgets about the environment in both its analysis and solutions. This piece is both welcomed and needed including the discussion it has generated.

    Concerning motor vehicles, the people don't control what is being produced. The owning class does. The TV ads of trucks running roughshod over forests, wetlands and deserts need to be challenged. They create an artificial need. Yes, the environmental movement has to do a much better job exposing all this and educating people about the harm to the environment.

    It's people and nature before profits.

    Posted by Len Yannieli, 03/04/2011 11:24am (5 years ago)

  • The problem is that the U.S. and other imperialist countries have contributed to this problem and to the problem of global warming by continuing to drill for oil and usurping the Middle East of their oil revenues by continuing to drill for oil and gas. This has caused the global warming crisis because they are destroying the land and the environment around them. The U.S. does not want to find other resources for fuel. The U.S. has also driven up food prices by using over 40% of corn for ethanol. The U.S. is hungry for oil and this has caused global warming, imperialist wars and food prices to go up tremendously.

    Posted by Brandon Harris, 03/03/2011 1:11am (5 years ago)

  • You say that the amount of energy wasted directly by individuals is minuscule compared to that wasted and over-exploited by industry, distribution and agriculture. This is untrue. The inconvenient truth is that well over one-third of final energy consumption in the USA is by individuals in their homes (22%) and their cars and light trucks (17% - although this includes some commercial use.) Commercial enterprises generally have far greater incentive to use energy efficiently - energy costs go straight to the bottom line. For example, vanity purchases like gas-guzzling sports cars and huge SUVs are common in the personal domain, while most companies buy vehicles that do the job they need, and no more.
    Kid yourself, if you wish, that you have no part to play in saving energy, but the fact is, everyone has to pull their weight.

    Posted by Nigel Harris, 03/02/2011 7:24am (5 years ago)

  • Good article, Marc! But when was that picture taken? I spent $3.65 a gallon for regular unleaded when I refueled my car today, and that was the cheapest I could find. (I'm in Sacramento, California.)

    Posted by Gail Ryall, 03/01/2011 8:13pm (5 years ago)

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