Most Americans—and I have to include myself here—tend to think of oil primarily as a source of fuel—gas for the car, heat for the house. Our food creation and delivery system (a more accurate depiction than “agriculture”) is completely dependent on oil and gas. They power the farm machinery and the trucks and planes that bring the food increasingly long distances to market. In the industrialized world, we use roughly 10 calories of energy for every calorie of food we eat. The way I’ve always received it, modern mechanized farming has blessed us with the possibility of feeding a constantly growing world population. But according to what I’m reading now, the tremendous growth in the planet’s population coincides precisely with our exploitation of fossil fuels. In other words, the increased availability of food has encouraged massive population growth, which is exactly what happens in nature.
Most people seem to have adopted the idea that “they” will figure out something with which to replace oil. Depending on your politics, you might support nuclear energy, or you support development of solar and wind. But petroleum is not replaceable by any single substance or energy source. We tend (I have tended) to not think much about the fact that it’s used for much more than just fuel. We use it to make fertilizer, pesticides, plastics, synthetic rubber, clothing fibers, asphalt, and more. It’s everywhere and it’s in everything. We’ve built our civilization upon it. It’s not really the Information Age. It’s the Age of Oil. And now, after years of the West pushing manic economic growth on the rest of the world, every nation needs petroleum to function. China and India with their billions are hooked on the idea of having the same standard of living that the West “enjoys.” If the Peak Oil hypotheses is correct, we’re entering an era of aggressive competition over a dwindling resource, which will mean higher prices and, of course, more wars. The food distribution system and our electrical systems (and, accordingly, our communication systems) will undergo great stress. Getting our apples from Chile will become a thing of the past.
It didn’t have to happen this way. There’s been no shortage of warnings. But they’ve all fallen on deaf ears. When Jimmy Carter tried to present the facts to the public, he was ridiculed. One of Ronald Reagan’s first official acts as president was to order the removal of the solar power units that Carter had had installed on the White House roof. It was a statement—a foolish one. And we’ve lived under that ever since. The people want to continue the party, and the politicians have learned not to say anything that suggests it’s neither possible nor desirable.
When most people read about Peak Oil they tend to get depressed. But that hasn’t been my reaction at all. Part Three will deal with my personal response.