Future Perfect

Article excerpt

Stop worrying and learn to love expensive oil.

PEAK OIL HAS ARRIVED-not just the geological phenomenon but the movement of the same name.

The geological part is straightforward: peak oil is the top of an oil field's bell curve of production, after which demand can rise all it wants, but supply inevitably falls. Throwing more technology at the problem, as the United States has done, just runs the field dry sooner.

Many geologists believe the world hit peak in 2005, and the results are catching up with us-oil prices rose more than fivefold from 1999 to 2007, then more than doubled in the last year. If oil prices increase over the next five years as much as they have in the last five-all else being equal-we will see gas prices of $12.62 per gallon. If the price spike of the past year continues in a straight line, a gallon will be $36 in 2013.

To understand the global movement, look around for a moment. Your computer keyboard, pen, food wrappers, nylon clothes, cold capsules, and a thousand other common items are made of plastic, which is made from oil. The machines that produced these items ran on oil. They were transported from factories, often across the world, in ships and planes that run on oil. Many of the ingredients in your last meal were grown thousands of miles away, sprayed with fossil-fuel fertilizers, harvested with oil-powered tractors, and transported in oil-powered trucks, ships, and planes to the supermarket, where you drove your oil-powered car to buy them.

Our lives would be far less petroleum dependent if we had listened to geologist M. King Hubbert in 1956, when he unveiled his peak-oil theory to a Texas convention of oilmen. He laid out the basic curve of oilfield production and, based on the sum of its fields, predicted the U.S. would hit peak around 1970.

Hubbert was mocked for the rest of his life, but the U.S. did peak around 1970, the Middle East became the world's energy lifeline, and American foreign policy would never be the same.

Except for a brief flurry of handwringing during the oil shocks of the 1970s, the media ignored the subject for five decades-one of the few thoughtful articles on peak oil appeared in 1976, not in Time or Life but in the Wisconsin angler's magazine Fishing Facts. Hubbert, meanwhile, expanded his research to the world and predicted a global peak around 2000. He was a little early-the earlier oil shocks slowed escalating demand-but not by much. It was not until the 1990s, shortly after Hubbert's death, that a few retiring petroleum geologists took up his cause and set the movement rolling across the young Internet.

Several years ago, peak oil was still the realm of a few prophets and their followers and was usually discussed only on fringe Internet sites dedicated to conspiracies and aliens. By early 2007, however, a Google News search yielded hundreds of items, not from the mainstream press but letters to small-town papers, civic-center speeches, and thoughtful essays that stampeded across the far plains of Outer Blogistan. In the past year, with peak oil making headlines and writers like James Howard Kunstler appearing on national talk shows, the movement has gone mainstream.

Peak-oil believers have multiplied like religious revivalists across America and the world, describing on their websites how they became, in the language of conversion, "peak oil aware." Still, the news coverage falls back on old stereotypes-environmentalist, survivalist, homesteader, and homeschooler-often dismissing peak oil, like most useful ideas, as an obsession of the far Left or far Right.

The simpler truth is that peak-oil converts are often young people reviving the personal habits and self-sufficient skills of their grandparents' generation, thinking seriously about their tap water, transportation, income, food, heat, and electricity, and realizing how little would survive the end of fossil fuels. They anticipate that population trends, climate change, and other problems will compound the crisis, creating what Kunstler has called the Long Emergency. …