Events in recent decades have produced a broader definition of security. (1) The entry of phrases like "environmental security," "resource conflict," and "energy security" into the lexicon of security experts provides examples of this changing dialogue, but these concepts remain on the margins of the discussion for the most part. Where US energy policy is concerned, the debate generally has been limited to arguments that the United States must preserve its access to the oil reserves of the Middle East and Central Asia, and a vague sense that domestic energy supplies would be highly desirable. Cornucopian optimists continue to insist that oil will remain abundant and cheap for the foreseeable future, and indeed more concern is expressed over the unsavory character of governments in major oil-producing states than over the finite nature of the resources themselves.
The vagaries of oil politics (and the ecological problems raised by carbon emissions) are indeed serious problems, and they are not entirely separable from the questions this article means to raise, but the focus here will be on the problem of fossil fuel scarcity at the global level. This article seeks to provide an overview of the situation, including the prospects for an economy based on renewable energy, the security problems likely to result from tightening oil supplies, and a possible basis for making the transition to alternatives widely acknowledged as inevitable in the long run.
The Outlook for Energy
At the time of this writing, the price of oil has hit $70 per barrel and is projected to rise even higher in the near term. While not a record when the figure is adjusted for inflation, this was still commonly taken as a sign that the era of "cheap energy" may be coming to an end.
Other numbers bear this out. Annual worldwide oil consumption is roughly 29 billion barrels a year, and estimated to be rising at two percent annually. (2) While there is widespread disagreement over their actual size, the world's total "proven" reserves of oil come to roughly one trillion barrels. A linear projection has oil supplies running out around 2030 after a long period of rising prices and tightening supplies, likely to begin after production peaks, generally expected to be sometime between 2010 and 2020--maybe just five years away.
The consequences of a shortfall in oil supplies on the scale of such predictions are as obvious as they are terrifying. A prolonged economic contraction and possibly a desperate scramble for resources that might bring major powers to blows are not out of the question, especially when the cost of other problems likely to place more pressure on the energy base (climate change, water shortages, population growth, etc.) are taken into account. (3) In the absolute worst case, modernity might simply grind to a halt, a catastrophe that James Howard Kunstler describes in his recent book on the subject, The Long Emergency.
Of course, linear projections have their limitations, and any number of developments could throw them off--unanticipated changes in the character of economic productivity, or an economic slowdown, for instance. Actual oil reserves are likely larger than the proven figure, which would delay the crunch for some years. Rising energy needs will mean higher prices and shorter supplies, which will stretch out the supply by encouraging conservation. (4) They also will produce increased efforts to supplement oil with more plentiful coal, "heavy oil," and natural gas. The degree to which these alternatives can pick up the slack, however, is a subject of intense disagreement, as all these resources will mean higher energy prices. (5) Moreover, they do not eliminate the problem of the finite amount of these resources, with natural gas reserves particularly unlikely to last all that much longer than oil.
In short, the oil age may end within a generation given the present economic picture, with potentially dire consequences. …