Is Peak Oil the End of Civilization?

Doomsayers claim that peak oil will produce worldwide panic and disaster, but the lessons of history make a very different prediction.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Environment

Skeptoid #100
May 13, 2008
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Think back to the days following 9/11, when all commercial and civilian air traffic was grounded. People were stranded everywhere. Only take it a step further: Take away the trains, the buses, and the rental cars. Imagine every gas station closed, and cars abandoned on the roadside as they too run out. People can't get to work and the nation's businesses can't even declare bankruptcy because there's no way to get to the courthouse to file the papers. The mail stops. Supermarkets are empty because there are no delivery trucks. And then, in a final shriek of terror, the power plants shut down, darkness falls everywhere, water pressure stops, and humanity devolves into a battlefield of hand-to-hand combat over who gets to eat the neighbor's dog.

This is the extremist scenario painted by peak oil advocates. Peak oil refers to the point at which world oil production must start to decline as reserves are emptied and pumps run dry. Oil is a finite resource, and so there's no doubt that at some point, peak oil will occur. The world's appetite for oil continues to grow exponentially, fueled by the explosive growth of most of the world's population in China and India. When the rift between increasing demand and decreasing supply gets to a breaking point, advocates say that the apocalyptic scenario described above must happen.

In some places, peak oil has already happened. In the United States, oil production peaked about 1970, when we produced about 3.4 billion barrels per year. Today we produce about 1.5 billion. The curve has followed the 1956 prediction by American geophysicist M. King Hubbert who described the oil production of any given region over time as a bell curve. This is called Hubbert's curve. Every region in the world has its own separate curve. Some, like the US, are already on the downside. Others, like Canada, which is just beginning to exploit its oil sands, are only just now hitting the steepest climb on the upside. In addition to Canada, the middle east and China are also still climbing their upsides. Russia has just barely tipped past its peak. The most pessimistic estimates for world peak oil say that it's already happened; the most optimistic give us another 30 years before we peak.

Oil production in any given region is not determined simply by physical factors such as the amount of reserves remaining and the technology required to develop it, but also by political and economic pressures. For example, Russia peaked way back in the Soviet days when their economy was falling apart, but their oil industry recovered throughout the 1990's and they've managed to find a second peak. The same could happen in the United States, if continental shelf and rocky mountain reserves were to be developed. They probably won't be, due to political pressures, but it's nice to know that they could be, if things came down to eating your neighbor's dog.

The biggest error made by the peak oil doomsayers is in failing to recognize the adaptive nature of the world economy. When demand goes up and supply goes down, prices go up, and consumers look to alternatives. As alternatives become more popular than the original, prices drop in reaction to the reduced demand, and eventually a marginalized industry disappears. Markets react and adapt. Currently, we have very high gasoline prices. Consumers are reacting by clamoring for alternative fuel vehicles. Many industrial products depend on oil, such as fertilizers, solvents, and plastics to name only a few; and as the price of producing these climbs, industry turns to alternatives. Alternatives become increasingly commoditized and prices come down. Oil becomes less relevant, and eventually nobody will care when reserves finally do run dry.

If consumers and industry failed to react to oil prices that climb astronomically for decades, then yes, it could be possible that we'd have an overnight shutdown of everything and the world would turn into a tumultuous battlefield of cannibalism. But neither consumers nor industry have ever acted this way, don't now, and aren't likely to in the future. Everyone wants to spend less money, and the most expensive options will always be least desirable.

Part of the reason that the doomsayers don't see this is that what's most visible right now is gasoline prices, and the total nonexistence of any viable alternative fuel vehicles. That's our worldview: Expensive gas, diminishing production, no alternatives. But outside of this worldview, some very interesting things are happening. Believe it or not, tremendous research is going on to develop alternative fuel vehicles: Supercapacitor technologies, fuel cells, hydrogen production. Silicon Valley is investing into alternative energy like a bat out of hell. And worldwide, industry is developing alternatives to petroleum based plastic like fructose. Agricultural fertilizers can be made from seawater or atmospheric nitrogen, but they're not in production because the market has not yet reacted that far. Eventually, when the price gap closes, these non-oil based sources may become the inexpensive standards.

What about other resources? Do they peak as well? Yes, they do, at least non-renewable ones do. It's generally believed that we're either just past or right about at the peak of gold production. Some 150,000 tons of gold have been mined throughout history, and the US Geological Survey estimates that there's another 90,000 tons still out there. Considering there's been a constant increase in gold mining efficiency, this all sounds about right. In many countries around the world, gold production has been dropping in recent years as reserves have been tapped out. But, do we need to expect a worldwide panic over gold? Probably not, since it's largely a luxury item and its industrial uses are relatively modest. We expect to see prices rise as supply diminishes, and probably a number of market adjustments until we settle into an eventual equilibrium of old gold being reused to meet demand.

There are other more serious resource peaks. Peak phosphorous, for one. Phosphorous is a crucial ingredient of both synthetic and organic crop fertilizers. And glyophosphate is a principal ingredient in herbicides used in super-high-yield genetically modified food crops. Both have seen dramatic price hikes in recent years as rock phosphate, the source of nearly all industrial phosphorus, is being mined out. If I stopped talking now, this would seem an alarming, terrifying prospect, and you might see doom & gloom web sites predicting global disaster the way you do with peak oil. Peak phosphorus is a painful situation for farmers, but it's one that's not insoluble. In the short term, farmers invest in the phosphorus companies, thus offsetting their production costs with dividend income. In the long term, the fertilizer producers continue their research into alternative supplies. High on their list is seawater, which is after all, the eventual depository of all agricultural runoff. This proposal is essentially an accelerated leveraging of nature's existing cycle.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Another peak that we're starting to hear about is peak silicon. In this case, it's not a physical shortage of silicon; it's the engineering limits of what you can do with silicon to make computer chips. Such a peak would mean that the capabilities of computers could no longer grow with our increasing demand on them. The doomsayer pundits could make an argument here too that overnight we'll start each eating other and burning down our cities and running around with babies on pitchforks. But in fact what happens is that the silicon industry fades and the graphene industry rises. Graphene is only one of numerous next-generation computer chip technologies that obsolesce silicon.

Generally, what tends to happen in any industry, is that by the time an existing resource runs out, inventive scientists have already come up with something better. When a production peak looms (be it oil, phosphorus, silicon, or anything), this provides a kick in the pants to accelerate development. Market economies work in such a way that investors are encouraged to fund such development, and the bigger the looming problem, the bigger the investment to meet it.

Mark Twain used to speak nostalgically of the sad disappearance of the riverboat industry. It was killed by steam trains. Steam trains were later killed in turn by diesel electrics. The glory days of rail travel were ended by the advent of airlines. Eventually airliners aren't going to be able to burn jet fuel anymore. What will happen then? Today, I have no idea; much like Mark Twain had no idea that airliners would one day replace his beloved steamboat. To assume that the current state of technology represents the last and final stage of development is a completely ignorant viewpoint. To listen to the doomsayers is to be completely uncritical and unskeptical. I don't know what's around tomorrow's corner, but all the evidence of history tells us that it's probably not a big scary dragon.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Cordell, Dana, Drangert, Jan-Olof, White, Stuart. "The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought." Global Environmental Change. 1 May 2009, Volume 19, Issue 2: 292-305.

Deffeyes, Kenneth S. Hubbert's Peak, the Impending World Oil Shortage. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Grubb, Adam, Anderson, Bart. "Peak Oil Primer." Energy Bulletin. Energybulletin.net, 11 Dec. 2009. Web. 16 Dec. 2009. <http://www.energybulletin.net/primer.php>

Swartz, Spencer. "World Need for OIl Expected to Ease, International Energy Agency Says Conservation Efforts Will Trump Any Global Economic Recovery." The Wall Street Journal. 4 Nov. 2009, Nov. 4: A13.

Tinker, Scott. "Of peaks and valleys: Doomsday energy scenarios burn away under scrutiny." News Releases and Features. Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas, 25 Jun. 2005. Web. 16 Dec. 2009. <http://www.jsg.utexas.edu/news/rels/062505a.html>

VanDerwater, Michael. "Oregon Builds a Solar Forest." Solar Today. 1 Jul. 2008, Volume 22, Number 4: 20-21.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Is Peak Oil the End of Civilization?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 13 May 2008. Web. 18 Dec 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4100>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 86 comments

Dear Brian,

Skeptoid is a great science broadcast, but with all due respect I disagree.

In the long run, it is possible to replace oil with the free market and science. The problem is we are living now. About 60% of oil reserves are in OPEC countries, so no one can confirm if they really have those oil reserves, and how expensive is that oil. Perhaps that cheap oil is already gone, and their oil reserves are a state secret. Consistent high prices may change behavior and spur investment in alternatives, but the prices are volatile and people buy SUVs for distant suburbs, and EVs, flex fuel, and hydrogen vehicles are an irrelevant minority.

Also, if a strategic resource becomes scarce, nations have gone to war instead of trusting the free market. After the United States cut off oil to Japan, they attacked Pearl Harbor. Don't assume people will act only rationally to problems.

Oil sands make the commute too expensive for a percentage of people. There could be millions of homes that will abandoned because people cannot afford them. High oil prices suppress economic activity unless the people live in walkable communities with bikes and public transit.

Perhaps OPEC is using saltwater enhanced oil recovery techniques to maintain their oil production. If so, those wells may suddenly plummet in output, creating a crisis.

Saudi Arabia uses oil to desalinate sea water. OPEC internal consumption is decreasing their exports to our cars.

We could face big, ugly changes.

Roger Kent, San Diego, CA
April 1, 2012 12:10pm

There are still plenty of oil reserves left in North America.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_reserves_in_Canada

This is what the Keystone pipeline is all about. Access to Canada's considerable reserves, which are second only to Saudi Arabia.

As well, US oil reserves are still considerable.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_reserves_in_the_United_States

Like Brian points out in this episode, when confronted with a declining resource, we adapt. We are already seeing this with more hybrid cars, biodiesel, plastics made out of vegetable oil, and a constantly increasing public transportation infrastructure.

If gas prices continue to go up, even if they matched prices in Europe, people will change their driving habits and transportation logistics will adjust to hybrid trucks and even more rail. We could change now, but gas is too cheap to prompt bigger changes than what we are seeing at the moment.

Grant Warkentin, Campbell River, BC
May 4, 2012 4:54pm

In response to: Trevor, Fort Collins Colorado.

The Canadian Boreal forest is 12 times the size of Florida. The Oil Sands are 340 miles from the Rockies and roughly 1300 miles from Fort Collins.

I find that "people will panic, which turns into chaos, which turns into anarchy" happens when persons exaggerate claims.

I'd rather have friendly Canadian oil over land than homicidal Middle Eastern oil over seas.

ed, Nevada
May 21, 2012 2:46am

Ed, how about a nice waste burner (at 1.5GW) or a few tried and tested modulars?

The thing is, when we compare the effect of technology to nature why even stick with polluting carbon technologies?

Me, If they offered me free power I'd gladly have a modular under the apartment block.

The argument to anything else but foreign energy dependance is and always be...total waste recycling

Mud, Sin City, NSW, OZ
September 13, 2012 3:48am

I don't believe in "doomsday scenarios" with a descend into cannibalism and all that, but I think that those who dismiss peak oil pointing to how economy drives people towards alternatives are often too naively optimistic about the transition to alternatives. Assuming it will run all smoothly and nearly unnoticed by the population at large, everything remaining the same, with just alternative fuels and materials replacing oil. But even though not apocalyptic, the transition could well be tougher and result in serious economic crisis and even relatively dramatic (not cannibalism though) changes in the lifestyle of developed and developing countries, as we may reach a point of scarcity when there are no alternatives that are perfectly equivalents, be by lack of development (oil is still more subsidized than alternative energies) or even stumbling in "physical" limits of fuel & material technology. It can't be possible that there will always be some alternative that is best or at least equivalent in efficiency and price, that's like some woo creed of an unavoidable destiny to become gods or whatever. The reality is that if "economic incentives" were such panacea, the world would presently be pretty much perfect, as there have always been some economic incentive to solve serious problems like famine and diseases, or even minor annoyances. Progress is possible, but it will never be everlasting parties and infinite chocolate.

skeptic guy, planet Earth
November 17, 2012 1:59pm

Infinite chocolate? Isnt't that alternative medicine?

I agree in principle Skeptic guy. I would say that governments do react to public pressure and most obviously, economic pressure (the punters like to be able to afford cake at least once a year).

This is the problem, governments even in proactiviy are working on a negative feed back loop and the detectors in the loop are quite often in all the wrong places.

Mind you when acupuncture theory finally gets a hold and we can get infinite controllable energy from a pin in a sponge, we'll never need a drip of fuel oil again.

The sad thing is, a lot of people who love to burn fuel cheaply actually believe that the pin in a sponge is a great approach. After all, its the unchanged "electrochemical principle" that drove cold fusion for such a long time.

Mind you, there are a few examples of spin off from cold fusion. The world is thankful for that.

Vitalogy gave us cornflakes. That should be enough!

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
November 17, 2012 6:42pm

Good points about peak oil. Too many doomsayers fail to understand the economics of the situation.

Assuming that there is a finite amount of oil, then as the supply decreases the price of oil will rise. This in itself will cause people to limit their consumption of oil, ending the more frivolous uses in favor of the more important uses. At some point, oil will be more expensive than the alternatives to using oil, and people will switch to using the alternatives simply because they will be cheaper than using oil.

Thus, it's quite possible that we may *never* actually run out of oil--it'll just get so expensive that few people will want to use it anymore.

macsnafu, Tulsa, Oklahoma
January 23, 2013 10:52am

Google "abiotic oil".
You'll get some pretty interesting hits, and I think the subject needs more research.

Also - engineers knew how to make ice mechanically, with ice plants, in the late 18th century. I just wasn't economically feasable till 75 or 100 years later.

There's probably well-known technologies out there that aren't economically feasable now but will be in the future.
The "Daedalus" starship is a good example. It can be built and launched NOW, but nobody will do it because there'll be no return on the investment.

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
September 19, 2013 9:19am

Just for thought...

Why do so many people tend to think that the U.S.A. is "all there is"?

Think about it - if we ran out of oil, why say that "we'll eat the neighborhood dog" when there are many countries out there that would *love* to jump on the U.S.A. and bring out their own, new, country? Ah, Ah... no cheating about how Americans as armed for resistance, because, remember, "nothing is working and no one can get anywhere".

May be wrong, but I still think about that when someone does the "doom-n-gloom" thing about the U.S.A. "falling apart".

That's all.

Have fun!

Bye...

Mad Mac, Somewhere in Colorado, I think
February 4, 2014 7:17pm

The Stone Age didn't end because they ran out of stones.

John Wetherill, VANCOUVER
February 5, 2014 12:02am

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