Peak Oil, Part 1

When I first started seeing the term “Peak Oil,” I assumed that it simply referred to the fact that one day we’re going to run out of oil. My usual response has been to worry that as the oil runs out, people will give in to those pushing nuclear power. And I’ve left it that. I’ve never been especially interested in the guts of economic or scientific issues. Anyone who has read about Peak Oil will recognize that my understanding was shallow. Richard Heinberg’s book, The Party’s Over, was a huge revelation to me. It introduced me to what I now see as one of the most, if not the most, important issues of our time. And it’s one that very few people know about.

The Peak Oil hypotheses doesn’t say that we’re running out of oil. What it says is that we’ve sucked up all the oil that was easy to get to, and going after the rest is going to require greater effort, cost, and ingenuity. In the last 150 years we’ve developed a way of life that’s entirely dependent on cheap, easily obtainable oil. And we’ve been profligate with oil, a substance that takes millions of years to create. We’ve been having a party and we’ve never seriously considered that there will be consequences for our profligacy.

The Peak Oil hypotheses first appeared in the 1950s when the American geophysicist Marion King Hubbert noticed that oil production in fields in the US followed a bell curve. First there was a sharp rise, then a peak, after which production dropped off and never recovered. He worked out a formula by which he calculated that the United States would hit “peak oil,” its maximum rate of production, in the early 1970s, after which oil production would decline permanently. He was ridiculed at the time, but, in fact, the United States did hit peak oil in 1971. We’ve been going overseas for most of our oil ever since. There’s been a growing awareness that oil production for the entire globe would hit a peak eventually, after which there would be permanent, irreversible decline. The oil that remains will become harder to extract and of lower quality.

There really isn’t anything controversial in any of this. Even oil company executives understand the concept and accept it now. The only people who scoff at peak oil are some who believe that oil is actually created in the center of the earth and sent to the surface by inner pressure. I was puzzled that there was still any question about where oil comes from, until I found out who’s pushing this idea: the creationists, who insist that the earth isn’t old enough for oil to have originated from dead organic matter under pressure for millions of years. So the only question is when it’s going to happen. There are experts who believe we’ve already reached global peak oil, that it occurred in 2008. A few others give 2005 as the date. They point out that the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is symptomatic of the peak oil condition. The oil companies are having to go to places where it’s more difficult to drill—deep ocean—because the easier-to-get-to oil in shallower waters has already been exploited. On the sunny side, Shell Oil’s public prediction is 2025. One of the most optimistic forecasts comes from the United States government, which says 2030. But the United States government would have to do something drastic if it agreed with any of the earlier predicted dates. Doing something drastic would upset the party-goers, the voters, the majority of whom seem to believe that we should be able to have access to cheap energy for as long as we like. Actually, oil is more than just a source of energy. But more on that next time.


20 Responses to “Peak Oil, Part 1”

  1. Donald Kinney Says:

    I’d say oil is pretty much beyond the limits of availability when we have to start drilling for it a mile below the surface of the ocean. Or when we have to wage war with nations with more. What a slippery slope. The skids are greased.

  2. Karen Says:

    The scary thing to me is that we have done little to prepare people for the consequences of Peak Oil. The Rabid Right, doing the bidding of Big Energy, has managed to convince too many people that Global Climate Change and Peak Oil are not real. “Nothing to see here, folks, move along.” As a result, people continue to drive gas-guzzling cars, crank up the A/C, buy junk made of plastic, eat too much meat, and have food shipped long distances (I even saw supposedly organic canned white beans from China at Trader Joe’s!). This lifestyle is not sustainable, and we really should have been pushing for solar power on all roofs, the expansion of public transportation, and locavore (eat locally produced food) years ago.

    It amazes me that even people who are most affected by the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, fishermen, oyster farmers, etc., are against a moratorium on deep-ocean drilling. It’s mind-boggling to me. That’s taking short-sightedness just too far.

    Recently, I learned of another danger that isn’t widely enough known: Energy companies are using a technique called hydraulic fracturing to get to natural gas, a supposedly “clean” alternative energy. The chemicals used to extract the natural gas are toxic and can contaminate water supplies. People in New York State are right now trying to prevent hydraulic fracturing, fearing that it will pollute their water, including the water supply of New York City. There is an HBO film about this called Gasland and, of course, lots of information on the Internet.

  3. Diane Says:

    I think we’ve hit peak everything. You know what bothers me the most? It’s the plastic. Have you heard about the ocean gyres and seen the poor birds and turtles and the plastic beaches? If you want your food shipped from the farthest reaches and wrapped in the most plastic, go to Trader Joes.

    • markbittner Says:

      It also coincides, I think, with the exhaustion of the Western philosophical model of existence, which is essentially: Everything is particles of matter and they’re all completely separate particles of matter. That’s what we really live by. In that model, the important thing is information, or knowledge, which is what we celebrate today. But it’s a false vision, and it’s dying fast.

  4. Sarah Says:

    Mark, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you’re saying. What are you really trying to say? How are particles of matter and knowledge connected and how do they fit into our Western way of life? I’m confused. Help!

    • markbittner Says:

      Sarah, I’m sorry. It wasn’t right to just drop that in without any explanation. It would take more than a post, really, to explain what I mean. But I’ll take it a little farther here.

      I think most of us live—some consciously, others unconsciously—by the beliefs of what some people call “philosophical materialism,” which says that there is only the material plane. Some call it scientism. They say that science should be our guide, and that any notion of a spiritual plane is childish or unprovable or both and therefore irrelevant. The materialists see the universe as a collection of separate, hard particles. To see things that way takes you away from an understanding of the unity of existence. So we see ourselves as completely separate individuals, which takes us farther and farther from the realm of wisdom. In a materialist system, there is only knowledge or information. Under Western scientific materialism, wisdom has become a nonentity. But wisdom is fundamental. And philosophical materialism is a dead end. It’s a false vision of the world. That’s what I meant. There’s an entire chapter on this in my book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill called “Consciousness Explained.” (The chapter title is intended to be ironic.)

  5. justin Says:

    I know this has nothing to do with your book but I want to ask this question? have you recently visted the flock

    • markbittner Says:

      I see the flock every single day. Judy and I own a house right next door to the place I was living in when the film was made. I don’t feed them, but I do hear and see them. They’re doing outrageously well. There are over 200 of them now.

  6. justin Says:

    That’s great are there any blue crown’s

  7. justin Says:

    Did you figure out what happen to coner.

    • markbittner Says:

      Yes. Connor was killed by that hawk. The hawk did not eat Connor, however. Connor’s body was found by a neighbor, who buried him. (She saw the film and figured out what had happened.) The whole story is in the extras of the “Collector’s Edition” of the DVD.

  8. justin Says:

    that is very sad have any hawks killed or try to kill any parots lately

    • markbittner Says:

      Probably. I don’t know first hand. It’s just nature. I don’t like witnessing it, but I accept it.

  9. justin Says:

    do the parots fly on your sholder do you interact with them.

  10. justin Says:


  11. justin Says:

    so you cant feed them at all and like if a parot got hurt wud you help it

    • markbittner Says:

      I still aid hurt parrots, yes. But this is not the place for this. Everything I want to say is in that article.

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