When Tracey, Buffie and I talk about how to run our homestead, or practice our crafts, one thing which often shapes the conversation to a large degree is an understanding of peak oil. Recently Tracey mentioned that I’d been writing as if this was a universally understood concept, when perhaps it merits a little explanation.You might have heard the phrase “peak oil” in the news recently, particularly as the price of oil was spiraling upwards in the first half of this year. If you’re not already familiar with it, stay with me for a moment while I explain what this term refers too. Since we first started to extract oil commercially (about 150 years ago), we’ve discovered more and more of the stuff under ground. Initially, it was used for lamps, and then we started making petrol cars and wanting more and more of this black oily stuff to power them. As people demanded more, we built more and more oil derricks, and pumped more and more of the stuff out of the ground. With a few exceptions, each year since we started extracting it we’ve extracted more oil each year than we did the year before.
Now oil is a finite resource. There’s only a certain amount of it under the ground. It’s made by a naturally occurring process, but that process requires certain geological conditions, like warm seas full of plankton blooms. It occurs on earth every two hundred million years or so. The point here is that the ground isn’t magically making more oil as we speak, and so within the timeframe of the human species, we can consider oil to be a once-off limited resource.
Since there’s a limited amount, clearly we can’t go on extracting more and more each year. This isn’t a “theory”, or in dispute in any way, it’s simply an unavoidable fact. At some point will come the year that we’ve pumped the most oil we can in any given year, and the next year we’ll pump a little less.
It’s hard to spot when that year is for the whole world, except in hindsight. In a particular country though, it’s much easier. In the 1950’s, a geologist named M. King Hubbert predicted that the peak of oil production in the USA (which was the world’s biggest oil producer at the time) would be 1970. At the time he was laughed at, but the peak turned out to be only a couple of months into 1971. Since then, no matter how many new oil rigs the USA builds, it still produces slightly less each year. From being the world’s biggest produces, the US now imports about two thirds of it’s oil needs.
So basically, “peak oil” is that point where we’ve used up about half of the oil in the ground, and now it’s no longer coming out faster and faster, but is in fact slower each year. The global oil peak is really hard to compute, but most oil geologists suggest that it was last year, this year, next year maybe, or in other words, around about now.
So are we running out of oil? Absolutely not. There’s still around a trillion barrels of oil in the ground around the world. What is happening though is that we get a little less of it each year, and unfortunately our whole society is based on the idea of growing each year.
There is a lot that can be said about what this means. Opinions on what can happen range from a slow shift to alternative energy technologies (hopefully renewable ones) to the total collapse of society as we know it. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
What does it mean for crafters, homesteaders and pioneers like ourselves?Well, on that front I like to look at the good news. For starters, the world is growing again. We used to talk about the world shrinking, about global markets and just-in-time delivery systems. In the last year, the cost of shipping goods internationally has approximately doubled. The cost of airline flights has increased, and about 20 airline companies have gone bankrupt this year, with predictions that it’ll include another 30 before the year is out.
It’s no longer economically profitable to earn a livelihood from local crafts because it’s hard to compete against products made in factories in China, and elsewhere around the world. As transport costs go up, this starts to change. Higher transport costs mean less ipods and world trip holidays, but they also mean more local jobs and more locally made products.
Oil is also incredibly energy dense. There is so much easily available energy in a barrel of oil that other technologies we have for generating power don’t look able to make up the gap in the near future. In a world with less energy available each year for running complex machines, you can easily imagine that the things that people find valuable economically will change. Expect hands-on people, particularly those growing food, to be much more valued in such a society.
I’m by no means a luddite. I’m a computer programmer, and like listening to my ipod while knitting my own socks. I’m not suggesting that a return to an agrarian society is going to happen, or is desirable, but I think that at the moment we’re a little out of control and could use a bit of time to slow down and value the things that are just outside our front door. It’s my hope that we’ll navigate all these changes well, and perhaps end up with a world where surfing the internet and weaving (or woodworking, blacksmithing, sewing, etc) are all highly valued.
I’ve mainly covered the good side of things here, and there are also plenty of dangerous waters to navigate in the years ahead, but I think that it’s easy to dwell on these a little too much. For more information about peak oil, how it relates to climate change, and what people and communities can do to adapt to the changes being forced upon us, I’d recommend taking a look at the Transition Towns network.
If you want a more balanced and properly researched and referenced explanation of peak oil, check out this page from the Oil Drum website.