Peak Oil.

"When the world is running down, you make the best of what's still around" -- the Police

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident." -- Shopenhauer.

The concept of "peak oil" is simple:

  1. There is a finite amount of oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, etc., in the Earth. The only thing that isn't finite because it is constantly replenished (for Billions of years) is solar energy but that is not as concentrated like the previous sources of energy.
  2. Since there is a finite amount of these energy sources they will eventually run out (be depleted).
  3. Oil is the most important of these energy sources so the peak in oil production is the most important depletion problem.
  4. As economic activity expands, populations increase and modernize, we need more and more oil every year.
  5. Since oil is finite, there will come a point in time when we (globally) will be producing less, not more oil, year after year as oil wells go dry. The point right before that starts happening is the "peak" of oil production, hence the term "peak oil". With a rising demand, even if the Earth was 100% made out of oil this would happen. The only question is when.
  6. We are discovering less and less new oil every year, and there were no major oil discoveries in 2003. Without new discoveries, there won't be new sources of oil in the future.
  7. Substitutes are unavailable or undesirable for a variety of reasons: Coal (too dirty, mining it is an environmental headache, will run out as well), Natural Gas (will also run out), Nuclear (not a fuel, waste & terrorism issues), Ethanol from plants (not enough, low return on energy invested), Wind (intermittent), Solar (intermittent), Hydrogen (not an energy source!), etc. This is not to say that these energy sources won't be used or aren't important, they just cannot maintain the "status quo"
  8. Substitute sources of oil are either too difficult to get at, too difficult to process, cannot scale to meet demand, or do not return enough energy for energy invested: Tar sands, Oil shale, Methane hydrates, etc.
  9. Country after country has had an oil peak, which means a maximum amount of oil was produced and then every year afterwards the amount of oil produced was lower (with some small variations). For instance, the United States, the world's main oil supplier for decades, peaked in the early 1970s.
  10. Many economies (especially the United States) depend on cheap oil. For instance, in the United States, manufacturing has been exported to places like China, communities are built around the automobile, local production of food and goods has ended, etc.
  11. Food production is tightly tied to fossil fuels, we need oil for pumps to pump up ground water, run tractors, make pesticides, and natural gas for fertilizer. Without these "inputs" farming becomes much less efficient, yields less per acre, and is more labor intensive.
So, the question is, when will the oil peak hit, and what will happen. In recent weeks (it's August 4, 2004 as of this writing) OPEC nations, the only nations with any extra oil pumping capacity declared that they were pumping max and there was "no spare capacity". According to many sources, we already passed the peak of conventional oil production in 2000.

One of three things will happen in the United States:

  1. The United States will cling to the old ways of using energy, resist calls to make cars more energy efficient and to increase mass transit, and will initiate/respond to resource wars to guarantee the last oil supplies, competing with emerging industrial giants like China.
  2. A brave political leader will stand up and actually explain to the American people how we must radically change our way of consuming energy, products, services and our way of life in a fashion so that the populace "gets it". A Manhattan Project-style program of energy efficiency, downsizing of the economy and switching to alternative sources is completed.
  3. A miracle technology is developed and rapidly scaled up, like fusion or super cheap solar panels combined with a new super battery.

Note: #2 doesn't seem very likely, and #3 seems really unlikely.

I have found some excellent sources on this subject:

Wolf at the door, an excellent guide for beginners

The Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) website, lots of technical info links to current peak oil articles

James Kunstler: articles and a blog concerning the American way of life and its fundamental incompatabilities with future energy shortages

Life after the oil crash: a pessimistic look at a potential future

The food revolution: vegetarian food is much less resource intensive than meat and thus can support many more people

The Volkswagen Lupo, a conventional diesel car that gets 80 MPG (unavailable in the USA)

Explaining this to people who don't know about it results in 3 possible outcomes:

  1. Acceptance and understanding, followed by anger that our leaders are not addressing this (because it is political suicide!).
  2. Total denial: "it can't be true"
  3. The statement of "there are thousands of years of oil" without any solid info to back this assertion up, or "the market will fix the problem".
The simple truth is that our planet cannot support the current population with the current standard of living indefinitely. Either the population is going to have to go down (it is going up) or the standard of living is going to have to go down (it is going up, especially in China). In addition to the problems of oil production, there will be shortages in water, arable land (desertification), and problems due to global warming because of our population and use of energy.