Does peak oil mean a return to Little House on the Prairie?

Cover of "World Made by Hand: A Novel"

Cover of World Made by Hand: A Novel

I just finished reading an excellent post-collapse novel called World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler. (Here is my review.) I like to read novels in a vacuum, not knowing much about the book or the author, if I can help it, so my opinion of the work won’t be tainted. So I didn’t know until after I finished the book that Kunstler is a social critic who has also published a well-known nonfiction book warning about the effects of peak oil called The Long Emergency.

Peak oil is a term that was familiar to me, but I hadn’t done a lot of reading on it. Essentially, it refers to the time when global extraction of oil peaks. After that, oil will become increasingly more scarce and more expensive, making life for those cultures that depend on it (like ours) more difficult.

I don’t think we need to debate whether or not oil production will peak one day. Oil is a nonrenewable resource, and sooner or later, we are going to start to use it up. What is up for debate is when peak oil will occur — anywhere from “it already has” to 2050 or later — and what the effects of it will be.

The “peak oil” concept has given rise to what might be characterized as a doomsday cult, which believes that it will cause the collapse of industrial civilization. A protracted global depression will ensue, resource wars will take place between countries competing for scarcer oil, and food shortages will cause widespread famine. In the end, the lights will go out, and we’ll all have to become farmers again.

Certainly, this was posited in World Made by Hand (and not without a small degree of narrative satisfaction, I think), although there were other contributing factors, such as terrorism and epidemics. This reminds me of the Y2K hysteria, when world computer systems were going to fail overnight and plunge us back into the pre-Industrial Age. It seemed that some welcomed the theoretical end of modern civilization as they were gleefully hoarding toilet paper.

Y2K did not come to pass as predicted, and I don’t think the effects of peak oil will be as dire as some would like to believe either. It does not seem plausible that humankind would simply throw up our hands and retreat into a pre-Industrial way of life. Our history has been one of more or less continuous progression forward, of building on and expanding what we had previously learned. We know how to make electricity without oil, for instance, and I don’t think we would relinquish that knowledge — as difficult as the transition may be — in favor of candles and washboards, as occurred in World Made by Hand. We would get busy figuring out alternatives.

Knowledge, once learned, cannot be unlearned. Once you release a technological demon, it can’t be put back in the bottle. Consider the example of atomic weapons. If they had not been first developed by the United States under the Manhattan Project, someone else (probably the Germans) would have invented them. The time was right and our body of knowledge was such that it was inevitable that the atomic bomb would be invented then. Certainly, this is knowledge that we would like to control, but we can’t because it’s already out there. Otherwise, nuclear weapons would not continue to be reinvented by various governments we would not like to have them.

When the time is right, the technology emerges, and once it has, it is very difficult — if not impossible — to go backward. (I can only imagine that would happen if there were a worldwide catastrophe accompanied by a dramatic and sudden population decline, such as all-out nuclear war.) Oil would not disappear overnight, and its decline wouldn’t affect our infrastructure such as satellite networks. We would be highly motivated to protect and innovate those systems that are most valuable to us, including food production, communications and commerce.

Yes, it would be challenging, and probably not very pleasant, to live through the transition, especially for those of us who live in places where you can’t get much of anywhere without a car. But even a crisis can impel progress, as opposed to regression (more thoughts on this in a later post). So I wouldn’t start stocking up on candles and toilet paper just yet.

Ignoring the problem is not a solution either. Sooner or later, we’ll be forced to pay attention to it, when it starts hitting our pocketbooks, when we can no longer easily jet across the country or get cheap products we’re used to having. The smartest folks are innovating now, before necessity becomes the mother of invention.

But I have faith that we won’t fall all the way back.

There are plenty of websites that report on peak oil with varying degrees of alarm. Here are a few that I recommend: Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas; Global Oil Watch; Washington Post Energy Wire.