National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: A Meeting in California

Last weekend, one of the more out of the ordinary meetings in recent memory took place out in Berkeley where some 30 people gathered to begin planning for the world’s transition from the industrial age to whatever is to come.

They were a diverse group, coming from all over North America and representing an array of disciplines. Most had grey hair and among them held many advanced degrees and had written stacks of books and papers.

There was, however, a common thread that held them together. Not a person in the room needed to be convinced that the world is entering upon a great paradigm shift that will sweep away much of industrial civilization, thoughts of economic growth, and the lifestyles that have grown up in the age of ubiquitous fossil fuels.

To the agreement of those present, speakers quickly outlined the problem. In a nutshell, the world is dangerously close to “peak everything” – oil, coal, natural gas, water, minerals, soil, phosphorous, fish, and perhaps the most important of all, the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb more carbon without triggering off life-destroying phenomena. Problem two is the financial collapse from efforts by too many governments to spend their way out of recession. The final phenomenon that will force changes, is that there is no sign that mankind is about to make the efforts required to stop spewing carbon into the already saturated atmosphere. Without at least some moderation, it is likely that the atmosphere eventually will have its revenge by raising global temperatures so much that there will be no higher forms of life left.

Absent from the meeting was any representation from our political leadership who are currently busy:1) denying there is a problem; 2) trying to spend our way out of the recession; or 3) simply overcome by the pace of events and do not want to rock the boat by speaking publically on such matters before the next election.

Without some moderation, it is likely that the atmosphere eventually will have its revenge.

The meeting’s organizer, a seven-year old think-tank called the Post Carbon Institute, has no problem with this, for they know that leaders everywhere will soon enough grasp the message they don’t want to hear. Oil will run short, the financial system will collapse, or the atmosphere will do such terrible things to us, that every last person on earth will understand – our lifestyles are not sustainable and we will soon transition to some other manner of life or die off like so many species before us.

The underlying assumption of all this is that in a few decades mankind is going to be left with dwindling supplies of carbon-based fuels, land that will no longer grow sufficient food for the 7+ billion of us, oceans that will not supply fish, dwindling water supply, and an atmosphere that is becoming increasing hostile to live in.

What sets the Post Carbon Institute’s efforts apart is that, unlike most, they recognize the seriousness and inevitability of the problem and are starting the search for solutions concerning what mankind can do get through a very bad era-to-come with some semblance of humanity and its cultures still intact.

This, of course, may be much more difficult than most realize for discussions are underway about how many people the earth can sustain without fossil fuels and abundant fresh water, and with ravished soil and dead oceans. There are currently about 6.9 billion of us (growing at nearly 80 million a year) of which 50 percent live in cities where not much food is being grown. Some population experts think the earth’s “people carrying capacity” in the conditions we are about to encounter will be on the order of 1 or 2 billion. Some pessimists think we should be talking a few hundred million. If this should prove the case, not many of us are going to have descendents a few centuries from now.

As they already have a pretty good idea as to what is about to happen, the Post Carbon folks are starting to look at what it will take to keep some semblance of humanity functioning — hence the emphasis on transition. Obviously some things than are now taken completely for granted by many such as food, water, shelter, sanitation, medicine, public health will have to change radically.

When cheap artificial fertilizers disappear the amount of food available is going to drop precipitously as our agricultural land has become dependent on them. The end of cheap liquid fuel for transportation will make urban and suburban life increasingly difficult. While some lucky few can migrate closer to what will be left of food supplies, many of the 4 billion or so urban dwellers are going to be caught in that “carrying capacity” problem.

So what can a handful of people sitting around a room in California do about all this? The short answer is to begin assembling enough information so that the rest of us can understand what is happening — when we come to grasp the magnitude of the problem — and then to assemble information on how we might transition to and live in a post-carbon world. Many of the people that assembled in California know something about agriculture, ecology, biodiversity – the skills humanity will need to survive after a 200 year binge on fossil fuels.

The next step will be sensitizing people to the problem. Currently this is a difficult task as fossil fuels, water, and food are still relatively cheap and abundant. While those who have recently lost their jobs and cannot find work may be starting to realize there is a deeper problem, most still hope that the politicians can put things back the way they were. Somewhere in the future, and it may be months, years, or perhaps decades, nearly all of us will realize that life as we have known it is over forever.


Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.


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