We all know that the supply of oil is finite so the big question is how much do we have left. Geophysicist M. King Hubbert created a model of known oil reserves in 1956 and proposed that American oil production would peak between 1967 and 1972. US oil production peaked in 1971 and it’s been downhill ever since. Hubbert died in 1989 but other geologists have applied his theory to global production and predict a peak between 2000 and 2010.
This month both American Scientist and Technology Review have book reviews of James Howard Kunstler’s book ‘THE LONG EMERGENCY: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Kunstler’s thesis is that the 20th century defied Malthus because we have been living on cheap oil but when it does run out we will be in big trouble. He argues that all alternative sources of energy like solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels, hydrogen are a pipe dream that won’t even come close to replacing oil. He believes that the depletion of oil will lead to social unrest and upheaval of the likes we’ve never seen before. The 14th century with the black death and all was pretty bad so this is really saying something.
The events of the past few weeks has sent me into a “The World is Going to End” kind of mood so I’m rather susceptible to this message. However, I think that we still have a chance to save ourselves. Conservation measures could prolong the supply of oil for say another century. This would buy us time to bring all alternative energy sources online. We will probably have to depend on nuclear power for much of it. If we’re really lucky, we might get fusion to work in 50 years but that will also bring it’s own set of problems. We will have to use bio-derived fuels for plastic and to power airplanes. However, our current unstainable American standard of living will decline. How far it drops is up to us.