Nov 19, 2011

Peak Oil and The Collapse of Civilization

Resource wars increase as civilization collapses
"What are they THINKING?! They're thinking that it's running out. It's running out, and 90% of what's left is in the Middle East. This is a fight to the death, so when you finally wake up, they will have sucked you dry. And you will have squandered the greatest natural resource in history."
- Bryan Woodman, Syriana

If you've never heard the term "peak oil" before, you're not alone. Even though the concept has been around since the 1950s, it's not something that gets bandied about much in mainstream media. I won't go into the details of it here (do you think I'm political or something?), but you can learn more than you ever wanted to know about peak oil here. Basically, it's the point where half of all the world's oil has already been extracted and consumed.

Many people believe we are at, near, or even beyond the point of maximum world oil production. In other words, total oil output is sliding along the downhill side of the bell curve while the demand for oil continues to increase rapidly.

Not that big of a deal though, right? I mean, we still have the other half to burn through before we run out. Right?

Um...don't we?

In his terrifying 2005 book, "The Long Emergency", James Howard Kunstler predicts that industrialized civilization will collapse long before we are able to extract all of the second half still in the ground. This is because the first half (that we've already blown through like a crackhead on his last bender before rehab) was the easiest to reach (i.e., not under an ocean or a frozen wasteland) and required the least amount of energy input to acquire. Also keep in mind that we used most of the first half after WWII.

Much of the second half is more difficult and expensive to extract because oil fields significantly decrease in output once they pass the mid-point of their total volume. Some of the remaining reserves also exist in difficult forms like oil shale, the extraction of which is more like strip mining than the familiar oil derrick.

Some dismiss Kunstler's exploration of peak oil as just more "collapse of civilization" doom-saying, but "The Long Emergency" doesn't read at all like a hysterical crackpot treatment of the end of the world. It's calm, rational, measured, and feels irrefutable. Not to mention deeply unsettling. One reader remarked that Kunstler is "either the craziest sane person or the sanest crazy person I've ever run across".

Crazy or not, Kunstler delivers some profound assertions that feel all too real:

  1. Modern life is based on an unsustainable model of unlimited growth that ultimately cannot continue.
  2. Almost all our technology, from electricity, transportation and food production, is based on unlimited access to cheap oil.
  3. Modern technology can't exist separate from oil, and wouldn't have developed at all without it.
  4. Most "civilized" people, particularly Americans, are oblivious of the three points above.
  5. Our lives are dependent on oil-based technologies that we don't understand.
  6. Technology has led to mass ignorance in the West about meeting life's basic necessities. How many of us could successfully feed ourselves without supermarkets and long haul trucking?
  7. Many of our mass population centers literally could not exist without unlimited energy resource access. Can you imagine Phoenix without running water or air conditioning? Like Phoenix isn't bad enough already.
  8. The "American Dream", considered by many as a birthright, will cease to exist when the oil runs out.
  9. No existing alternative energy source can take oil's place. We will not be able to simply transition our mass consumption lifestyle from oil to a different energy source. We'll be forced to drastically scale back our entire way of life.
  10. Lots of people will die when we finally begin to encounter serious oil shortages. The planet's human carrying capacity is around one billion people without oil. Current human population is nearly seven billion people.
  11. Humanity will not gracefully accept the end of the oil era. We can expect more resource wars, more poverty, and more religious extremism as people battle over dwindling oil resources.
  12. America, that shining beacon of liberty and equality, may very well not survive the end of cheap oil as a cohesive entity.
  13. We are very likely to see a mass resurgence of feudalism.
  14. Americans like to believe we're exceptional. We're not. We've just had exceptional access to the most fabulous natural resource on Earth.
  15. The modern oil era and all its resulting technologies have not fundamentally changed the human animal. Morality, government, racial and sexual equality, and "human rights" are really just tied to natural resources. Read "Guns, Germs, and Steel" if you don't believe me.
Kunstler thinks we have probably passed peak oil but says that knowing for sure can only be done via hindsight. Is he right? Is the beginning of the collapse of modern civilization upon us? I think it is, but I'm sure I can ignore it as long as there's enough gas to fill up the tank of my Suburban. After that, all bets are off.

"The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson


  1. I recently reread JHK "The Long Emergency". What got me was how accurately JHK had called the financial disasters of 2008. He has the reputation for being your ultimate doomer. That does not necessarily make him wrong though.

    Thanks for the 15 points you posted. Very much an eye opening reminder.

    Aside, do you follow John Michael Greer? (The archdruid report - also on blogspot)

  2. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for visiting. I checked out JMG and am following his blog now. It's gonna take awhile to absorb all he has to say. It's clear the guy has a very large brain. Thanks for the tip.

    My therapist's brother lives in Hungary. Whereabouts are you? Expat or just visiting (you sound American, but maybe I'm wrong)?