On the Predictability of Peak Oil

I just finished reading Peak Everything by Richard Heinberg, which I found to be notably uneven. Some chapters were succinct and compelling, while others were sprawling and unconvincing.

Throughout the varied chapters you get a sense of the dramatic importance and certainty he places on peak oil theory. Broadly speaking I agree with Heinberg’s concerns about resource depletion, but his certainly about the process, timing, and consequences of peak oil really shows the insular nature of online communities and political subcultures. The ‘depletionists’ are far from the worst offenders, but it’s clear that Heinberg has mistaken the thousands online interactions and in person conversations for broad public awareness of peak oil.

This results in Heinberg conflating three related, but not equally valid premises:

  • People in today’s society consume energy resources at an unsustainable rate. This is a very strong position. Barring unforeseen and unlikely technological breakthroughs we’ll need to dramatically reconfigure our economy to use less resources during the coming century
  • The rate of energy consumption is immediately and dramatically unsustainable. The exact timing and severity of resource depletion is much more debatable then the overall nature of the problem. Legitimate predictions about resource depletion are all over the map, as are the assessments of the potential of unconventional fossil fuels, nuclear power, and energy efficiency to ‘save us‘. All of those issues have been extensively discussed and debated by Carrots and Sticks as well as many others, but it’s important to remember these are empirically unanswerable questions. You could run off a list of times were energy optimists made bad predictions, but you could do the same with energy pessimists. Indeed, I’m unaware of anyone in any field that has displayed a consistent ability to predict future events in even general terms. If I had to bet I’d bet with the pessimists and say peak oil is around the corner, but we shouldn’t forget the uncertainty present in all our decisions.
  • The rate of energy consumption is unsustainable and people know it and ignore it.
    There is precious little evidence that natural resource depletion is a main stream issue. While climate change, renewable energy legislation, and dependency of foreign oil are hot issues in Congress, there no real reflection of peak oil theory or any real sense that conservation will soon be a necessity. Outside of a few websites you don’t read much about peak oil.
  • -Chris

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