Friday, December 29, 2006

Peak Oil Millenarianism (Re-run)

This summer's oil supply and demand crunch, with its record high prices, helped make Peak Oil a mainstream concern in 2006. I've been following this issue since the 1990s, long before starting this blog. It's easy to get wrapped up in the technical details of theories and projections, and miss the enormous social implications of this phenomenon. I examined that aspect of Peak Oil in this posting from March.

Peak Oil is shaping up as the next Y2K. By that, I'm not just referring to the potential consequences of a peak in global oil production, which some forecasters predict will occur within the next few years. I see the resemblance to Y2K in much broader terms, as a major social phenomenon with dramatic, but highly uncertain outcomes, operating simultaneously on the levels of reality and perception. That makes it even more interesting, but also more problematic.

  1. Though hardly as precisely specified as "midnight January 1, 2000," Peak Oil threatens us with an imminent global systemic breakdown. Our food supplies could dry up, workers' jobs vanish, and the world descend into chaos and resource wars. That gets your attention.
  2. As with Y2K, it's possible that if we were to undertake the anticipatory remedies that experts prescribe--in this case massive investments in energy efficiency and alternative energy production--it might be impossible after the fact to ascertain whether Peak Oil would have ever caused the outcomes that have been predicted, and we'll be saddled with second-guessing about whether we should have bothered.
  3. Peak Oil also seems to be spawning a survivalist mentality, demonstrated at least anecdotally by the San Francisco lawyer who has set up a website devoted to this and plans to "drop out" to a remote, self-contained farm.
  4. Peak Oil, like Y2K before it, is becoming a publishing and media goldmine.
  5. The final similarity may be the most sobering. We'll know soon enough whether the pessimists or the optimists are right. It could turn out to be a major upheaval or an embarrassing fizzle. This won't be as black and white as it was for Y2K, but if we get to 2010 without an observable Peak--or unambiguous evidence of one in sight--the window of belief in this phenomenon, which has been around for decades in various forms, will likely close for another generation.

Whatever its scientific foundations, it's clear that Peak Oil feeds the innate human tendency towards millenarianism and catastrophism. There's even some recent thought that those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s may be particularly predisposed to this, having experienced oil shocks, Vietnam, Watergate, the Cold War, the Iran hostage crisis, and dozens of cheesy disaster movies. (The death this week of President Ford has provided a wealth of 1970s flashbacks.)

There's another, potentially positive analogy to Y2K. It's generally accepted that, although Y2K never manifested in its worst form, anywhere, the precautionary investment in upgraded information and communications technology has paid enormous dividends. Premature predictions of an imminent peak in global oil production could be just what's needed to galvanize governments and consumers to begin the decades of preparations that the SAIC report on Peak Oil suggests are necessary to avoid its worst consequences. So while I'm a skeptic, I also see that a bit of Peak Oil hype now might be helpful, unless it sets up a backlash after the next set of milestone dates passes without a Peak.

Energy Outlook will resume new postings on January 2, 2007. I wish you all a Happy New Year!

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