For some time I have been interested in the notion of peak oil, but recently I have had the opportunity to research quite extensively on the subject. I am currently working on an essay about peak oil and its implications for high consumption lifestyles, but presently I would just like to share some of the best online resources (articles, videos, and websites) that I have discovered in my research. Before doing so, however, let me provide a very short introduction to the subject.
Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization. For one hundred and fifty years it has provided humankind with a cheap, portable, and highly charged source of energy. Almost every aspect of the economy today depends on oil, directly or indirectly, owing mainly to the importance of oil-dependent things like transport, mechanization, plastics, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, etc. to modern life.
Currently the world consumes approximately 89 million barrels of oil per day. That figure once again: 89 million barrels per day. I’m not sure about you, but that figure boggles my mind. Call it our addiction to oil. What would happen to the economy, one might ask, if the supply of oil stopped increasing and began to decline? Is there a chance of oil supply decreasing, and if so, when? These are the central questions of the peak oil debate.
Oil is finite resource, since it is non-renewable. For geological reasons, the extraction of oil from the ground generally follows a bell curve shape, with extraction increasing at first, then reaching a plateau, and then declining. That is, oil isn’t extracted at the same rate until the last drop of oil is consumed. Rather, over time, extracting the oil first gets easier, and then gets harder, and ultimately the extraction process slows down until it stops.
This has been shown to occur in every oil well ever drilled, and the same pattern also applies to nations. For example, oil production in the U.S. began in 1859, peaked around 1970, and has been on a downward trend ever since. Furthermore, a 2005 study by the Royal Swedish Academy (which bestows the Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics) reported that 55 of the world’s 65 largest oil-producing countries had reached maximum oil production or were in decline. As you will see from the resources below, there are many signs that the world is reaching, or has already reached, its peak of oil supply.
Demand for oil, however, is expected to keep growing in the future, mainly due to the rapid industrialization of nations like China, India, and Brazil. The most basic economic principles tell us that as the supply of a commodity decreases and demand increases, the price of that commodity will increase, perhaps exponentially. The issue is not that human beings will ever run out of oil, therefore; the issue is that we may soon run out of cheap oil.
And perhaps this possibility shouldn’t surprise us. Before we can extract oil we have to discover it, and world oil discovery peaked around 1965. Since that time, the trend has been to discover less oil each year, even though consumption of oil has steadily increased. (A useful analogy is a fruit tree: we pick the low hanging fruit first since that is the easiest, but once the easy stuff is gone, as time goes on it gets harder to find and pick the same amount of fruit. We’ve picked the low hanging fruit.)
Given how much money is involved in oil, you can be sure people have been looking for it, using the most sophisticated technology. Today, however, the world consumes approximately 3 barrels of oil for each barrel it discovers. A moment’s thought tells us that we cannot keep consuming more than we find, and thus as oil reserves deplete while demand increases, oil prices inevitably will rise. Since almost everything in modern life is dependent on oil, high oil prices will resonate throughout the entire economy, leading to higher prices across the board. Over the last few years we have seen how fragile and delicate the global economic system is. What would happen to the global economy if the price of oil surged in coming years? Such a surge might be closer than any of us might like to think, a comment I don’t make lightly.
The Executive Director of the Post-Carbon Institute, Asher Miller, claims that peak oil ‘almost certainly’ occurred in 2008 (The Post-Carbon Reader, 2010, xiv). While there is still some debate about the exact date, it is now widely accepted that oil production, if it has not already peaked, will peak sometime in the foreseeable future, and then, after a short plateau, enter terminal decline. If this is indeed so, then we are at one of the greatest turning points in human history. And yet few people are aware of this.
My purpose in raising the issue of peak oil today is to highlight the fact that breaking free from industrial society’s addiction to oil will entail breaking free from high consumption lifestyles that in so many ways depend upon oil. The ‘Transition Initiatives,’ founded by Rob Hopkins, provide the most prominent example of people responding to peak oil at the grassroots level, and in their attempts to re-localize economies and become less oil-dependent those involved are in many ways exemplifying ‘simpler lives’ of reduced consumption. This is a strong indication that, if there is to be a voluntary transition to a world beyond cheap oil, it is very likely to be informed by the post-consumerist ethos of voluntary simplicity.
Moreover, as Ted Trainer has argued, renewable energy, even if it is embraced whole-heartedly and on a global scale, will never be able to sustain the universalization of high consumption consumer lifestyles, especially with the global population growing. If Trainer is correct, and he presents a powerful case, this provides further grounds for thinking that the global consumer class will need to adopt simpler lifestyles of reduced consumption in the foreseeable future. Whether this transition occurs voluntarily or is imposed by force of biophysical limits remains to be seen. It scarcely needs remarking that a voluntary transition would be the desired path.
The peak oil debate quickly gets highly intricate, but exploring the resources below will provide a good grounding of the basic issues. For those who have not been exposed to the peak oil idea before, prepare to have your mind expanded in ways that are both stimulating and confronting. This is a subject that we are all going to be hearing a lot more about over the next decade. It urgently needs more attention. I encourage you to give it its due.
I hope the following resources are helpful. Do your own research, too. Now, more than ever, we must think for ourselves.
Here is a 5-minute video by Richard Heinberg introducing the subject of peak oil:
Here is another short introductory video:
Here are three good introductory written statements of peak oil:
Here is a more detailed but still comprehensible analysis of peak oil (it’s focused on the situation in Australia but for anyone new to the subject this article should prove useful):
Here are some very good video interviews with leaders in the fields:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUmwy0VTnqM (20 minutes of interviews with various experts on the subject)
http://www.postcarbon.org/video/292412-life-after-growth-why-the-economy (part one of three, by Richard Heinberg)
http://www.postcarbon.org/video/293775-life-after-growth-why-the-economy (part two of three)
http://www.postcarbon.org/video/294194-life-after-growth-why-the-economy (part three of three)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeRTCepmkqQ (an interview with Richard Heinberg)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YvW3j2jYzY (a multi-part interview with Matt Simmons)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiJj06n58tU (a multi-part interview with Colin Campbell)
http://www.chrismartenson.com/page/crash-course-one-year-anniversary (see part 4 especially)
Here are 30 video clips related to peak oil:
For a discussion of the relationship between permaculture and peak oil:
Here are two documentaries on peak oil:
http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-end-of-suburbia/ (‘The End of Suburbia’)
For a look at how Cuba survived peak oil:
If you want more video clips, here is an excellent resource:
For the famous 1998 paper, ‘The End of Cheap Oil’:
Here is a list of some quotes on peak oil from important sources (including the International Energy Agency):
Here is a short analysis of the International Energy Agency’s recent acknowledgement of the peak oil problem:
Here is an animation of world oil production and consumption:
Here are some recent facts on peak oil to consider:
Here are a few of the leading peak oil websites (at times technical):
For a discussion of the role oil played in the global financial crisis:
For those who want to look into the subject in much more detail, here is a list of some of the most important documents related to peak oil (at times very technical):
For some of the leading books on peak oil, see footnote 31-33 of the Simplicity Institute paper:
If I had to choose one book to recommend as a rigorous but accessible introduction:
Robert Hirsch, The Impending World Energy Mess (2010)
If you have any good links to add, please post a comment below with a sentence or two outlining the subject. A search online under ‘peak oil’ will also provide thousands of other links providing further information.
 The statistics are from Robert Hirsch et al, The Impending World Energy Mess (2010).
 Ted Trainer, Renewable Energy cannot Sustain a Consumer Society (2007).